Guest Post: Who is Jonny Rokeby? Pt 4

Who is Jonny Rokeby? Part 4: Helen of Troy By ChrisC

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Illium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss –

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus.

This is not the first time an echo from ancient Greek mythology has been discussed on this site.  A while back, Joanna Gray and John Granger collaborated on an essay about the mythological allusions in the relation of Cormoran Strike to his mother Leda.  Helen of Troy came up in the course of that feature, however its main focus was on Strike as a combination Aeneas/latter half of the ancient family team of Castor and Pollux. Mythological Leda Strike: Cormoran, Zeus, Castor, and Pollux,

However, if Jonny Rokeby is meant to be seen as a post-modern Doctor Faustus, then it is time to bring Pollux’s sister Helen into the spotlight.  To understand the reasons why, and how come even that isn’t quite what it seems, meet me after the jump on the wrong side of the street.

Helen and her Phantom: A Case of Symbolic Mistaken Identity

Near the end of Faustus, Christopher Marlowe brings the appearance of Helen of Troy on-stage.  It is the arrival of this demon with the appearance of Helen that cements the protagonist’s damnation.  In his book-length study, The Faust Myth, David Hawkes elaborates the connection between Homer and Marlowe in a way that touches on one Rowling’s main themes:

As Sara Munson Deats has remarked, the plethora of female images in Doctor Faustus is matched only by the virtually complete absence of real women characters.  There are, of course many female “phantoms,” such as the “hot whore,” the “courtesans innumerable,” Alexander’s paramour and Helen herself but, as Deats remarks, these “represent male fantasies of the female rather than either gender principles or actual women.”  As in the Historia, Faustus’s encounter with Helen marks the point at which he finally succumbs to the deceptive power of signification.  He mistakes the devil’s representation of Helen for the real woman, and his properly spiritual aspirations are idolatrously focused on this image.  Marlowe describes the psychological effect of idolatry with great precision; Faustus alienates his soul at the moment he deifies the image.  He immediately lapses into fetishistic sexuality, replacing spiritual telos with carnal pleasure:

He lips suck forth my soul. See where it flies!

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

Here I will dwell, for heaven be in these lips,

And all is dross that is not Helena. (5.1.92, 95 – 96)

The word “dross” is drawn from alchemy; here it indicates that Faustus has abused his art to attain a carnal, earthly end, and this mistake entails the idolatrous misrecognition of an actual referent in an empty diabolical image (70).

I would argue that together both Deats and Hawkes have given a vital clue as to how Rowling means us to see Rokeby as a character.  However, that still leaves us with the question of who she plans to play the false Helen to Jonny’s delusional Faust.  It turns out she’s also clued us in right from the start about that particular character as well.

In the Cuckoo’s Calling, there is a moment when Strike is thinking back to the first time he laid eyes on Charlotte Campbell:

I had been the most glorious moment of Strike’s nineteen years: he had…carried off Helen of Troy right under Menelaus’s nose, and in his shock and delight he had not questioned the miracle, but simply accepted it (219).

In other words, Rowling flat out points us the perfect candidate for a false “Face” that can still cause all kinds of trouble. 

Conclusion: The Real Helen?

I mentioned the idea of Charlotte as a false Helen.  This is actually a concept dating back to the original myth itself.  In a version by Euripides, the real Helen is safely taken from the conflict by the god Hermes, and deposited in safety to Egypt in order to wait out the war.

[Read about the Euripides play, Helen, here; Castor and Pollux, half-brothers of Helen, sons of Leda and Zeus, arrive ex machina at the finish to keep the Egyptian king, who has been tricked by Helen and Menelaos, from killing his sister. She had realized who Menelaos in disguise was and not told her brother, Helen’s suitor. If you don’t think Euripides is a likely source for Rowling material, recall that this playwright’s Orestes has a scar on his forehead and spends his life figuring out how to avenge the death of his father… and that the daughter of Helen and Menelaos is named Hermione.]

This alternative universe riff on the accepted story of the Trojan War is related to Cormoran Strike because, according to Norman Austin, in his Helen of Troy and Her Shameless Phantom, the announcement of the Egyptian king to Helen that her mother, Leda, has committed suicide is more than plot filler:

The only “real” catastrophe in the (Euripides) play, then, is Leda’s suicide.  This suicide is almost a requisite for the…heroine is she is to achieve tragic stature.  But since Helen is being revived from the dead, the tragic suicide is conveniently displaced onto her mother, who never figured prominently in the Helen story and was thus easily expendable (153, n21).

If, then, Charlotte is meant to be seen as a false image of Helen, is there anyone in the books meant to be seen as the genuine article?  There seem to be two basic candidates.  Strike’s sister Lucy would seem to be the most likely candidate, as her being Helen, daughter of Leda, would correspond to Strike’s Pollux, boxer son of Leda.  However, while nothing can be established, I also don’t think we should cross Robin off that potential list either.

In the final essay of this series, I’ll try and see if all these symbols and clues amount to some idea of what to expect from future plot points in the series.

Till then, how does the idea of Charlotte as a false Helen sound?  Which candidate would you nominate for the real one, Lucy or Robin?  Let me know in the comments box and I’ll see you here tomorrow for the series conclusion.

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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