Guest Post: Who is Jonny Rokeby? Pt 1

Who is Jonny Rokeby? Marlowe’s Faustus and the Cormoran Strike Mysteries

A HogwartsProfessor Guest Post by ChrisC, Part 1 of 5

In a previous HogwartsProfessor guest post, I pointed out how Rowling left little textual clues as to the nature of detective Cormoran Strike’s supposed biological father, rock star Jonny Rokeby, lead singer of The Deadbeats.  What I didn’t consider was that in addition to a hidden symbolism behind the trio of Duke Ellington, Robert Plant, and William Blake, there was in fact a fourth level of significance to the scene where Strike ponders a photo of his dear old dad in a booth of the Albion Restaurant (The Silkworm, p 213/303)

The name of this unseen fourth symbol is Christopher Marlowe, and what I now realize is the exact literary echo Rowling leaves behind in the scene between Strike and the picture of his dad.  I’d like to suggest that once we dig up this hidden fourth symbol, and explore its thematic importance, we will have a final clue to exact nature of Jonny Rokeby, as well as a major clue as to how may be portrayed when he makes his onstage debut within the series.

Join me after the jump, won’t you, as we unpack the hidden message of “The Fourth Man.”

A Symbol within a Symbol

One of the hidden keys to Strike’s father can be found in chapter 26, pg. 213 (or 303 if you’re using the paperback book edition).  The symbol is an old photo of Jazz Legend Duke Ellington.  The photo itself won’t mean much, until you read in The Alchemist in Literature: From Dante to the Present that the jazz legend composed the score for a 1950 production of the play starring Orson Welles.

This further revelation also won’t amount to much unless you understand that Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is an alchemical drama about the potential tragedy of the fallen human soul.  What Rowling has done, in effect, is to hide one symbol within or underneath another.  On the surface, all the casual viewer is able to see is the image of an old, long-gone piano player.  Even that won’t mean a thing if you can’t believe in, or respect, older forms of music.

However, if you go a bit further, the thematic depth of this double symbol can reveal itself to anyone who wants to pay attention.  Perhaps the symbol should be thought of as three-tiered, considering both of its aspects are joined at the hip to the figure of Jon Rokeby.

Rokeby as Faustus

Doctor Faustus tells the tale of the titular student of Wittenberg University.  He is a man who knows a great deal about the world, without being able to see the value in any of it.  Because of his inability to believe in the value of life, and hence, his own soul, he decides to sell it to the other party.  It doesn’t go at all well for him, I’m afraid. 

For the purposes of this essay, the question is ‘What does this have to do with Jonny Rokeby?’ And ‘Is it possible that Strike’s father is a reinvention of Marlowe’s character, Doctor Faustus?’ 

Based on her positioning of Rokeby in The Silkworm picture between the symbolic quartet of Blake, Plant, Ellington, and, through association with Sir Duke, Christopher Marlowe, the answer to the latter is “Yes, it is possible.”  Running with this thesis invites the natural follow-up questions: ‘What does this mean for the series? What does Rowling have in store for this particular character?’

There are at least a few possible answers here, and they come from hints in Marlowe’s original A Text.  At one point, Faustus describes his character in the following words:

FAUSTUS. My heart’s so harden’d, I cannot repent:

     Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven,

     But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears,

     “Faustus, thou art damn’d!” then swords, and knives,

     Poison, guns, halters, and envenomed steel

     Are laid before me to despatch myself;

     And long ere this I should have slain myself,

     Had not sweet pleasure conquer’d deep despair.

     Have not I made blind Homer sing to me

     Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?

     And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes

     With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,

     Made music with my Mephistophilis?

     Why should I die, then, or basely despair?

     I am resolv’d; Faustus shall ne’er repent (web).

Furthermore, in the opening chorus, Marlowe draws a specific comparison of Faustus with the mythical figure of Icarus.

CHORUS: …Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,

     His waxen wings did mount above his reach,

     And, melting, heavens conspir’d his overthrow (ibid).

If we are going to apply these passage to Rokeby, then a handful of ideas suggest what to expect from this character.

  • He’s a sellout. If Rokeby is anything like Faust, then expect a man who doesn’t hold much of anything in life, other than himself, as being of any worth, except perhaps to the extent it can keep him amused, or else provide whatever base pleasures he does a value to.
  • There is also the possibility, consequent to the first, for him to be somewhat ineffectual in his decision making.
  • Another consequence would be for Rokeby to be “hard-hearted.” We can look forward to a man who treats people, especially women, as objects rather than subjects.  What remains to be seen is how far this goes in terms of a cruel streak.

These are my initial takeaways from the idea of Jon Rokeby as a “Faust” analogue.  In the next essay, I’ll go into further details this particular reading suggests for Strike’s wayward paterfamilias.

Please let me know below what you think of the idea that Jonny Rokeby is modeled on the idea of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus via the Duke Ellington picture in The Silkworm!

[For those wanting to know more about Doctor Faustus, here are a few links. The wikipedia introduction. A Thug Notes breakdown of the play can be found here.  An audio production, featuring Richard Burton, and produced by Inklings member Nevill Coghill can be found here.  Those wishing to know more about Coghill should look up the appendix in Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep, pages 233 – 234.  Coghill’s book-length study Shakespeare’s Professional Skills, has also been reissued by Cambridge University Press, and is still available as this writing. ]

One Stop Round Up Post with Links to Five Parts in the Series and John’s Three Take-Aways

  • John Granger’s summary of the best parts of ‘Who is Jonny Rokeby?’

Part 1: The Doctor Faustus Connection with Jonny Rokeby and the Strike Mysteries

  • That photograph of Rokeby and Duke Ellington we’re shown in The Silkworm is no small thing!

Part 2: The Icarus Theme in Faustus and Strike

  • Faust and Rokeby are Icarus figures, which is to say, Narcissists

Part 3: Is Rokeby the Devil’s Puppet or Whittaker’s Satanic Puppeteer?

  • Who is Mephistopheles in the Strike parallel to Faustus?

Part 4: Helen of Troy, Leda’s Suicide, Charlotte as Euripides’ ‘False Helen’

  • Rowling’s Mythological Artistry continued

Part 5: Charlotte Campbell and Jonny Rokeby as the Diabolical Couple of Lethal White

  • False Helen and the Devil conspire to destroy Strike for revenge and an end to vulnerability

Thank you again, ChrisC, for a fun series!





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