Guest Post by Beatrice Groves Part 2: The Beast Within: Shakespearean Clues in Strike

As promised, here is part two of Bea Groves’s brilliant look at the clues hidden in the very walls of the watering holes visited by our favorite Denmark Street detective! Enjoy, and please join the conversation in the comments!

In yesterday’s post I discussed @zsenyasq’s find of a Leda mural at the Rivoli Bar in the Ritz, and noted that if Strike does comment on this image, it will not be the first time he has been paying attention to symbolic images in drinking establishments.

Strike visits The Tottenham early in the opening novel of the series and ‘examined the painted panels on the ceiling; bacchanalian revels that became, as he looked, a feast of fairies: Midsummer Night’s Dream, a man with a donkey’s head’ (Cuckoo’s Calling, 49-50). The painted roundel is indeed a little difficult to decipher and it seems highly likely that we see in this description of Strike’s dawning comprehension, Rowling’s own realisation of their Shakespearean source as she looked at these scenes – either as she scouted London in preparation for writing Cuckoo’s Calling, or perhaps earlier, drinking in this pub when she was herself a temp in Denmark St.

This is a satisfying little moment because it works like a miniature mystery. The detective, holding the Shakespearean ‘clue’ (already knowing the events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is able to correctly interpret the events of the scene which have certainly passed many less-observant drinkers by. The writer, like her detective, pays attention to her surroundings and you can already feel, fifty pages into the first novel, that now Rowling is finally dealing with a real-world location, she is enjoying looking around her for inspiration.History, literature and myth are written into and onto London’s built environment – from Knights of St John crosses to bible verses, Shakespearean scenes to near-endless symbolic animals and Rowling is making use of them all. (In particular, of course, swans  and white horses). Robin, Strike, and the narrative often draw attention to the way in which these symbolicimages reflect their lives or their cases: ‘incurably observant, [Strike] noted the sculpture of the doe and fawn on one pillar and the stag on the other. Humans often assumed symmetry and equality where none existed. The same, yet profoundly different…’ (Cuckoo’s Calling, 257) And although no such explicit link is made with those Midsummer Night Dream roundels, Strike’s attention is drawn to them in part because they do speak to one of the themes of Strike.

Those difficult-to-spot Shakespearean roundels on the ceiling of The Tottenham are mentioned once more in Career of Evil – ‘there were theatrical scenes painted up there: Bottom cavorted with Titania amid a group of fairies’ (141) – and there is a deep mythic link to the Leda mural here. For Titania’s love for an ass recalls the bestial appetites of Pasiphaë, the queen who slept with a bull and Bottom – with his ass’s head – is a comic version of the result of Pasiphaë’s unnatural lust: The Minotaur. Bottom is preparing a theatrical celebration for Theseus’s wedding and in his ‘translation’ recalls Theseus’s most famous exploit – defeating the Minotaur.

Shakespeare (like Rowling) often gives his characters names that work on many levels and for all its apparent unsubtle comedy, Bottom’s name does, in fact, hold a complex cratylic significance. For, like the other mechanicals (such as Snug the Joiner, Flute the bellows-mender etc), Bottom’s name carries a reference to his profession. Bottom is a weaver and hence his name is not simply a rude joke – it is also a reference to the spool on which thread is wound: a ‘bottom.’ But this piece of nominative determinism is also a subtle clue to Bottom’s link with the beast Theseus finds in the centre of the Labyrinth. Bottom’s fate of being turned into a ‘half-breed’ is referenced in his name – for, famously, the way that Theseus escaped from the Labyrinth at Knossos was by using Ariadne’s spool of thread. (A story Rowling has already referenced in Harry Potter in the name of Ariana.

The sub-plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflects darkly on Theseus’s present marriage, as it recalls this previous love-affair in which he abandoned Ariadne after having promised her marriage. A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s comic Minotaur is found in a wood – Shakespeare’s version of the labyrinth – in which the four young lovers lose themselves in the thickets of erotic desire. While Titania’s lust for an ass recalls the sexual union that gave birth to the Minotaur it entirely changes its meaning. The original myth imagines female lust as abhorrent: leading to deformed, dangerous offspring who have to be hidden away in the heart of the maze.  Shakespeare has overturned the meaning imputed to female sexuality in the Minotaur myth: Titania is not Pasiphaë unnaturally desiring a beast, but a victim of her husband who has forced her into this humiliating desire as a punishment for her refusal to submit to his will. Shakespeare’s rewriting of the myth overturns its meaning: instead of suggesting that female desire is unruly and unnatural, it implies that such myths have been used by men traduce to women.

Bottom’s name, as discussed above, is a clue. And an astonishingly literal one. For a ‘clew’ is the ball of thread wound round a ‘bottom,’ and it is Theseus’s very ball of thread – his ‘clew’ – which, by teaching him the trick to unravelling the Labyrinth, gave its name to that which helps us through more figurative mazes and perplexities: a clue.

I suspect that the Midsummer Night’s Dream murals, and the Leda and the Swan mural at the Ritz, are both clues too. It is noticeable, for example, that both of the myths depicted involve women sleeping with beasts. Leda’s offspring are fully human, but they are born from swan eggs – a memory of their conception. Pasiphaë is less lucky. Bottom, of course, is not really a beast, but his ass’s head reflects what Puck sees as an asinine nature, as well as suggesting another, less edifying, aspect of his cratylic name (‘ass’ and ‘arse’ were near homonyms in Elizabethan English, as they are in modern American).

Rowling’s interest in myths that reach across the human/animal dichotomy – in particular therianthropy (in which human beings metamorphose into beasts) – has been clear from the beginning. Subsequent to from the Animagi and werewolves of Harry Potter she has looked at ideas of ‘monstering’ in a more metaphorical sense (although still illustrated with literal beasts in both Fantastic Beasts and The Ickabog). In the more realist Strike stories therianthropy is glanced at through traditional myths: the barge called Odile  points to Swan maidens, for example, while there is a the merest whisper of selkies in Strike’s thoughts turning inexplicably to Robin as he watches a seal:

Something gleamed in the water – sleek silver and a pair of soot-black eyes: a seal was turning lazily just below Strike. He watched its revolutions in the water, wondering whether it could see him and, for reason he couldn’t have explained, his thoughts slid towards his partner in the detective agency.   (Troubled Blood, Chap 2)

The Minotaur – in his comedic form of Bottom translated into an ass – and Leda (whose children hatch from swan eggs) are, like therianthropy, a mythic answer to what transgressions of the border between the human and the animal realm might look like, or what traditional storytelling’s interest in such transgressions might mean.

Both Shakespeare’s most magical play (with its comic ‘minotaur’) and human/beast transformation in general, seem to have been on Rowling’s mind as she has been writing both her current series. Rowling has spoken about how she works on Strike and Beasts simultaneously, wittily acknowledging how they occupy similar mental spaces – different rooms, but probably within the same house:

I envision the different fictional worlds as different rooms to which I have access.  At worst, when entering one of the rooms, I have to spend a bit of time re-orientating myself, finding my bearings again, checking what I’ve put in which drawers.

However, they’re discrete places in my head, and the moment I re-enter one of the worlds, the characters are as fully real to me as when I left them. Cormoran Strike has never reached for a magic wand, and Newt Scamander doesn’t limp or drink Doom Bar.

I love the image of checking up what she’s left in the drawers – and it expresses the way in which there may, indeed, be cross-fertilization between the series. The literal beasts of Newt’s world transfigured into something much more alarming in Strike’s. The myth behind Leda’s name is a nod to the ‘beast within’ idea – an idea avowedly central to Fantastic Beasts, but coming to ever greater prominence in the series Rowling is writing alongside it.

 

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