Guest Post: Who is Jonny Rokeby? Pt 3

Who is Jonny Rokeby? Part 3: Puppet or Puppeteer? By ChrisC

In the previous two posts of this five part series (see here and here to catch up), I’ve been examining the character of Jonny Rokeby based on a careful reading of the clues provided by J.K. Rowling from a specific scene in The Silkworm, her second Cormoran Strike novel, in which the rock star appears. Not in person — just a photograph on the wall in which he is pictured with Duke Ellington and other music legends.

So far, I’ve been willing to trust my judgment calls in terms of the subtle hints and clues the author has been willing to give us in a photograph prominently displayed in that scene.  I can see Rokeby as a Doctor Faustus stand-in. When it comes to the figure of Mephistopheles, though, the other key figure in Marlowe’s drama, I feel obliged to be more cautious. 

It has been speculated by John Granger here at and on the ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling’ podcasts at MuggleNet that Rokeby, though he has yet to appear in person in the first three books, is meant to be the Big Bad of the Strike series. The prevalent theory is that Rokeby is responsible for the murder of Leda Strike and possibly for the explosion that took away the leg of his own son in a failed attempt on C.B. Strike’s life in Afghanistan.

Why? Leda knew something that the rock star doesn’t want known and Rokeby assumes she told her oldest boy this secret before her death (or that Strike is clever enough to learn himself when investigating his mum’s mysterious demise). John has even suggested that Rokeby may not really be Corm’s daddy but that he accepted paternity to buy Leda’s non-disclosure.

This could all be true, and if so, then perhaps this essay isn’t strictly necessary.  However, I am working the assumption in this series that Ms. Rowling means for us to see Rokeby as a Faust figure.  This character type can be portrayed as Prof. Moriarty is in the Sherlock Holmes stories; Marlowe’s Faustus is both well learned and a conniver.  However, a problem starts up once the character of Mephistopheles is introduced into the mix.

Please join me after the jump for my attempt to tackle the puzzle of just how Rowling may portray the principal villain: as a puppet or as puppeteer?

The Figure of Mephistopheles

One of the critical debates that have ranged around Christopher Marlowe’s play is just how much the character of Faustus is meant to be seen as a villain or as a victim.

Faustus is also beset with doubts from the beginning, setting a pattern for the play in which he repeatedly approaches repentance only to pull back at the last moment. Why he fails to repent is unclear: -sometimes it seems a matter of pride and continuing ambition, sometimes a conviction that God will not hear his plea. Other times, it seems that Mephistopheles simply bullies him away from repenting.

Bullying Faustus is less difficult than it might seem, because Marlowe, after setting his protagonist up as a grandly tragic figure of sweeping visions and immense ambitions, spends the middle scenes revealing Faustus’s true, petty nature. Once Faustus gains his long-desired powers, he does not know what to do with them. Marlowe suggests that this uncertainty stems, in part, from the fact that desire for knowledge leads inexorably toward God, whom Faustus has renounced. But, more generally, absolute power corrupts Faustus: once he can do everything, he no longer wants to do anything (web).

The idea of Rokeby as a criminal makes sense if Ms. Rowling wants us to see him as a Faust figure.  What happens, however, if Rokeby is revealed to be a pushover, with little to no will of his own?  That is one interpretation of the character of Faustus.  What if the same were true of Strike’s dad?  If this is one possible direction the narrative can take, then it might help to ask if there isn’t another, unseen mastermind waiting in the wings.

So far, the clues Rowling has dropped for readers and viewers does suggest that certain events in Strike’s life have been orchestrated with the intent of either silencing him, or to keep him from learning certain facts about the death of his mother, Leda.  Rokeby could be the one behind it all.  One alternative is that, while he might be responsible for Leda’s death, his attempt to cover his tracks, and keep his name clear, have placed him in the hands of someone much more powerful and ruthless than he ever intended.  In this scenario, Rokeby would be the hapless, Faust-like puppet whose strings are held and pulled by some Mephistophelian puppeteer.  

Not having any idea of who that might be, though, rather undermines that possibility. Rowling plays fair, for the most part, in providing some clues for her readers.

Another alternative, this one a little more likely?

It is Rokeby who is the Mephistopheles master mind who pulled the strings of the fame-coveting and psychopathic Jeff Whittaker. Whittaker, Strike’s step-father though only five years his senior, is a Doctor Faustus figure via his shamelessly and carelessly studying the Dark Arts and giving his soul over to them. Whittaker is the man everyone already thinks did the deed of putting Leda down, though he was found not guilty in court. That Rokeby made him a Mephistophelean offer he couldn’t refuse to silence Rokeby’s one-time lover could be the big reveal of Lethal White or the story finish.

I don’t say this possibility is what will happen.  I merely point it out as a bit of authorial ambiguity introduced into the text, based on the author’s clever handling of a series of interconnected symbols deriving from Renaissance play-craft.  Sticking with her usual thematic concerns would be the best proof that Ms. Rowling intends us Rokeby as Mastermind, rather than just a puppet.

Conclusion: Choice as Counterargument

The best charge against seeing Rokeby as a helpless victim comes from Rowling herself.  At the end of Chamber of Secrets, she sets down a line which has been used throughout the Potter series as both a guiding theme, as well as a kind of mantra:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

To understand the importance Rowling places on the inherent value of choice in her work, please consult John Granger’s How Harry Cast his Spell as well as his The Deathly Hallows Lectures (pp 36-37) for a neat summation of this theme.  The point is that if Rowling intends to hold to this thematic concern in the Strike series, then it makes sense to Rokeby as an active, instead of passive villain.

In the next to final piece of this five part series, I’ll take up the other half of a mythological theme that has been half discussed on this site once before.  Can you say “Helen of Troy”?   

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!




  1. It’s finally occurred to me that there is at least one more possible way of reading both Whittaker and Rokeby in relation to the figure of Mephistopheles. In this take, Marlowe’s tempter has no exact character analog in the “Strike” books. Instead, he should be seen more as an idealized position or goal or power that both W and R aspire to.

    Their reasons for wanting to achieve such a goal, and believing they have reached it, is quite simple. If Rokeby used Whittaker to kill Leda Strike, that would naturally mean that both men know enough, and have enough dirt on each other to send them both to prison, and possibly to a death sentence.

    The irony here is that both men might be led to believe they hold the upper hand. Whittaker thinks he might have enough blackmail on Rokeby to guarantee his own safety. Rokeby, meanwhile, could assume that he holds the upper hand due to his rock star prestige and star status.

    In this scenario, both men imagine themselves to be the puppeteer, and the other is the marionette. In reality, they should perhaps be seen more as a pair of hapless fish flailing around in an ever-tightening net. The more they struggle, the more the net closes in, until there is chance for a clean getaway.

    Rokeby and Whittaker both want to be Mephistopheles, yet all they can manage in reality is to be a pair of Faust analogs. If push came to shove, I would have to side with the idea of Rokeby still being the big bad in the end, even if all he can be is Faustus. The reason why has to do with the rock star’s cultural clout.

    If Whittaker should end up fingering Rokeby, something tells me the Deadbeat will be able to get the press and the law on his side, as they will be much more likely to take the word of a celebrity over that of a lowlife who might live out of a van? I still doubt it will keep the net from closing in on him.

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