Ink Black Heart: Strike as Zeus to Robin’s Leda and Cupid to Mads’ Psyche

Ink Black Heart has confirmed certain ideas about the Cormoran Strike books and introduced new mysteries about Rowling’s second series. The field of Serious Striker Studies, quite simply, is in a state of flux at the moment even about ideas we think of as sureties; Rowling-Galbraith’s longest work, though published some time ago, is a long way from being fully understood on its own or in the context of the Strike canon. Before advancing what I think are two important points about Strike’s mythological roles in Ink Black Heart, allow me to explain how I see the Strike Studies status quo.

If there had been any doubts remaining about the Parallels Series Idea (PSI), that the Strike novels are being written in parallel with the Harry Potter apposite numbers, Strike 6’s many echoes with the Hogwarts Saga’s sixth entry, Half-Blood Prince, removed them. See the discussion here at HogwartsProfessor, and articles at both The Rowling Library and even MuggleNet for the conclusive evidence on this point. There is more to add on this subject, most important in my view the liquid albedo quality of Ink Black Heart‘s pronounced drinking of alcohol as in Prince, a quality The Times of London noted in their review as “a pub crawl:”

The Ink Black Heart is essentially a pub crawl — with the emphasis on the crawl — through West End watering holes. It starts at the Ritz, continues at Annabel’s (where Strike picks up a celebrity jeweller) and goes on to the Arts Club, the Tottenham on Oxford Street, Bob Bob Ricard (with its “Push for Champagne” buttons) in Upper James Street, the Flask in Hampstead, the Ship and Shovell in Craven Passage and ends in St Stephen’s Tavern opposite the Palace of Westminster.

Strike is no stranger to drinking holes, but The Times was right to note that the imbibing goes to a different level in Heart, which is mysterious outside of alchemical symbolism and parallels with the firewhiskey friendly Half-Blood Prince.

As well-established as PSI now is, it also presents a real head-scratching mystery in addition to the question of ‘Why is she doing this?‘ There are, after all, only seven Harry Potter novels and the author insists there will be at least ten Strike novels. Strike 7 seems on course to be in parallel with Deathly Hallows, the original series’ conclusion, without being a conclusion itself. It seems, even if one assumes that Rowling is lying and the next Strike novel will indeed be the last, almost impossible, short of a three or four thousand page novel, for her to wrap up the Strike-Ellacott relationship and the mystery of Leda Strike’s death in one book.

The working theory for explaining this head scratcher is ‘Strike Extended Play,’ which holds that Strikes 5 and 6 were the series nigredo in ring parallel with Career of Evil and that 7 and 8 will be a combined albedo, and books 9 and 10 the rubedo of the series in parallel with the Deathly Hallows finale. As satisfying and promising as this idea is, it has obvious failings, most notably the albedo qualities of Heart just mentioned and its many parallels with The Silkworm, another marker of a seven book ring-series in process.

Ink Black Heart also confirmed two ideas about the series that are intertwined, namely, the mythological and psychomachian allegory artistry involved. The mating dance of the two birds, a Robin and Cormorant (“also known as a shag“), continues along the mythological lines of ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ with the psychologist wanna be woman in the role of the beautiful soul on a journey to perfection in Spirit and the Peg Legged PI playing the semi-divine offspring of Leda and the Rock Star Swan, the Eros-Sagittarian ‘player’ struggling with commitment. Robin, in brief, travels through Hades in Ink Black Heart per the myth’s transformative journey and realization of femininity beyond sentiment and dependency.

The idea that Rowling is writing an allegory of the soul’s transformation in the Strike series, with her two lead players representing soul and spirit as in Shakespearean and Spenserian psychomachia or anima and animus of Jungian psychology (or both; one model needn’t exclude the other other) has recently been strengthened from a different angle in discussion of a Rowling 2015 interview. In that interview, Rowling-Galbraith pointed out that she has two rather than one character experiencing heroic metamorphosis in her latest work.

These traditional portrayals of the every person’s human and divine aspects, soul and spirit as man and woman in dynamic, cathartic relationship — think Romeo and Juliet, Redcrosse Knight and Una, Cupid and Psyche — are perhaps, with her alchemical symbolism, sequencing, and coloring, Rowling’s greatest literary ‘reach’ and achievement in the Strike series, albeit one largely lost on her her vast reading audience. The deliberate conjunction-melange of archetypal psychology, mythology, and spiritual allegory in these novels is, especially in combination with her hermetic artistry, intertextual playfulness (Aurora Leigh!), and chiastic structures, testimony to the author being one of the most accomplished and challenging writers of the age in addition to the most popular (and least well understood, even by her fans!).

Pardon me this overlong introduction to a post about a neglected part of the mythological backdrop of Ink Black Heart. I’ve been away for a few weeks and felt the need to make an assessment of where we stand in Strike Studies, the sureties and mysteries of the series as understood currently, and to make something of a defense of all the critical attention serious readers here and elsewhere are giving Rowling’s latest epic. Having made the case, I hope, that there is a lot of work to be done and the novels merit every effort made to grasp their artistry and meaning, here are my thoughts this morning about Rowling’s rewriting of mythology in Ink Black Heart.

 First, I think Robin’s rejection of Strike’s attempted kiss outside the Ritz Hotel at the beginning of the epic is Rowling’s re-invention of the Leda and the Swan story that informs Cormoran’s life, from conception forward. We learned via Carl Oakden, the Hermes figure of Troubled Blood, that Leda Strike conceived her son with Jonny Rokeby in public on the beanbag chairs of a New York City watering hole. I have speculated that Oakden learned this from Rokeby himself and that his mission in the meeting with Strike and Robin at the American Bar was to hold them there until the ailing rock-star arrived (the glances at the door were not for press, but for Jonny’s advent).

Readers are given strong notes about the Leda and the Swan story being in play at the Ritz because the myth is depicted on the walls of the bar where the two partners were seated on Robin’s birthday. Madeline much later in the story accuses Strike of being just like his father, a poor man’s celebrity, in his aversion to publicity and paparazzi; I think Rowling has him assume the role of a demigod receiving his due when he leans in for a kiss with Robin as she gets into the taxi. It’s nothing like sexual congress in public, of course, but it is out in the open, an unexpected advance, and, unlike Strike’s mother, Robin is not a groupie in need of a man-anchor for security and stability. 

She rebuffs Zeus-Swan-Strike, consequently, and with a look of horror and revulsion he has never experienced with a woman before. The myth takes a radically different turn. Zeus doesn’t ravish this maiden in the form of a swan and has to deal with rejection and his wounded feelings, not to mention the fear that this is a marker that his love for Robin is unreciprocated.

As a reader pointed out in September, the opening chapters of Ink Black Heart are largely a repetition with differences to the beginning of Lethal White, namely, Strike and Robin share a semi-intimate moment, she does not follow up with open affection but just the opposite, she struggles with the question of her love for him in an exotic natural landscape, and he winds up with another woman to find solace for what he perceives as Robin’s semi-perfidy. Robin is wounded by this but moves on, ever more aware that the two are the best of friends in addition to being business partners and that she loves him.

Rowling wrote in a funny piece for a University of Exeter newsletter, ‘What Was the Name of that Nymph, Again?,’ that she thought the Theseus of the Maze and Minotaur myth was a “mass murderer and bigamist.” This didn’t mean that she was not going to use elements of that myth in her Fantastic Beasts screenplays, especially the first in the franchise; she just re-wrote it so her served her ends. So, with Leda and the Swan, Strike’s point of conception, is given a strong twist when attempts to play his god-like father’s part with Robin, both at her wedding and outside the Ritz. This woman is not playing the part of Leda.

In Ink Black Heart, this leads to his taking up with Madeline Courson-Miles in a meeting arranged by Venus-Charlotte via her Cupid-agent Valentine Longcaster. I parsed the meaning of her venereal cryptonym here:

[Mads’] name, like Valentine Longcaster, suggests she is another agent of Venus; ‘Madeleine’ derives from Mary Magdelene, the repentant prostitute among Christ’s disciples according to one tradition, and a tempting taste treat, and ‘Courson-Miles’ from the Old French and Latin words for “short” and “soldier” (see Reaney, 121-122), i.e., ‘Cupid,’ agent of Divine Love. Any name with a hint of ‘cor’ in it, too, points to the heart — and Mads is certainly an arrow aimed straight at Cormoran’s vulnerable heart post Ritz-rejection.

This may seem a convoluted stretch, especially just after saying Strike has been playing the part of Zeus the Cygnetean Lothario, but Strike’s relationship with Mads has all the features of Cupid’s relationship with Psyche in their magical woodland hide-away. I summarized the first part of that myth here:

Her parents are obliged to obey the Oracle and march their daughter in a combined wedding and funeral procession to the mountain crag. Venus has told Cupid to throw her from the mountain-top but, having nicked himself with the tip of his own arrow and being smitten by her beauty, the god of Love rescues her instead. He takes her to a private paradise, a fairy-tale palace out of Beauty and the Beast, where he comes to her at night under the cover of darkness to love her, albeit without revealing who or even what he is.

Psyche’s sisters are allowed to visit after she pleas with her lover, though Cupid tells Psyche they will be her ruin. Sure enough, the sisters convince her that her mystery lover is the serpent-monster foretold by the Oracle; Psyche must arm herself with a lamp and a knife to discover what sort of beast he is and murder him before he kills her.

His identity is revealed when she shines her lamp on him and she realizes her lover is a god rather than a demon. Cupid is wounded not only by her broken promise but by burning lamp oil she accidentally drips on him. He flees to Venus’ sanctuary and the trials of Psyche begin.

Strike’s first meeting with Madeline happens on New Year’s at Annabel’s while he is watching a young woman whose mother thinks she is being groomed by her ex-lover. Her name and Valentine’s are both markers with respect to the Cupid aspect of the myth. They eventually hook-up and become a couple, albeit clandestinely. Beyond the names, what are the parallels with the myth?

First and foremost, Strike-Cupid is in it for the sex and little-else; she is a projection-vehicle for his feelings for Robin, whom Madeline resembles (though it is noted her breasts are smaller…). He is using her, in brief, and shameless about it.

This shows itself most notably by his wanting as few people as possible to know about it. Wrapped in concerns about his work as a private detective, he avoids being seen in public with his girlfriend, a secretiveness which sends Mads around the twist, a la Psyche.

Mads, though, again like Psyche, doesn’t work herself up to confront the secretive man she loves on her own. Just as the woman in the myth is goaded by her jealous sisters to insist that he reveal himself (or be revealed as the monster they claim he is and be killed), so Charlotte — and other lovers Strike has had who are friends of Mads? — pours poison in Madeline’s ears about Strike’s real love, Robin, and that he will never commit to Madeline (points to the natively mendacious Campbell-Ross for her honesty on this point).

So moved, Madeline confronts Strike, under a street lamp rather than with an oil lamp, and wounds him horribly with a kick that fells him when he is already in agonizing pain and barely able to stand. Strike breaks with her forever, duh, and winds up in the hospital. Robin, the true Psyche, concurrently with Strike’s break with his false-Psyche or Ellacott Sex-Toy, is, as explained elsewhere, running the gauntlet of temptations to survive Charlotte-Venus’ tasks in hell. She has to harden herself into the pitiless sort of woman who can have physical engagements with men and shrug it off, a quality she thinks Strike admires in a partner, whence the otherwise mysterious (and unethical) tongue-in-mouth interrogation of Pez Pierce.

At book’s end, Strike-Cupid has been rejected by Mads-Psyche and the true soul, he thinks, in her accepting DI Murphy’s invitation for a night out, a date. He is in hospital, a la Venus’ bower in the myth post lamp and knife confrontations — Upcott’s machete taking the part of Psyche’s threat with blade — and he is wounded to the heart, aware at last of his great love for Robin and idiocy with respect to Madeline Courson-Miles as substitute plaything.

This is a feminist’s re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, of course, in which the demigod as played by Cormoran comes off as a buffoonish, entitled user and abuser of women (think of Theseus as “mass murderer and bigamist”). And it works wonderfully, I think, especially with the implicit promise of a Big Twist remaking of Psyche’s apotheosis at series’ end.

I look forward to reading your thoughts about Robin as a Leda who fights off the swan and Madeline Courson-Miles as the false-Psyche that brings Cormoran to the ground. We’re a long, long way from understanding the fullness of Ink Black Heart in all its dimensions, not to mention its context within the series, but I remain excited by the journey of re-reading and of discovery to be shared here with other Serious Strikers.



  1. John, I really like the idea of Robin as a fighting Leda, not an easy mark when the one she loves acts in a way that she knows he’ll regret. They were not on equal footing when Strike made his move; Robin made eye contact to thank him, not to encourage behavior neither of them was ready for.

    And ever since you posted about the poisoned skeleton remark in SW and asked if there was a parallel in IBH, I’ve been wondering about Madeline. She’s always described as thin (as is Charlotte) and twice with a “rictus smile.” This smile seems to have a hermetic element, especially since she attacked Strike, kicking him with one of her stilettos. But it can also be the result of tetanus or even poisoning, which made me wonder if Charlotte did more than poison her mind (could Charlotte be a jealous sister to Madeline’s fake Psyche?) I was reading about how the director of the horror movie ‘Smile’ had the actors practice making creepy grins at each other, and it just makes me wonder… Are Madeline’s rictus smiles a hint? Why describe her this way twice?

  2. Ed Shardlow says

    Regarding the abundance of liquid refreshment in IBH as a parallel to HBP, HBP is very much a Potions book on many levels and surely alcohol is the basis of all manner of potions in Strike”s world.

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