Lethal White: The Swan Symbolism

Even the relatively casual reader of Robert Galbraith’s fourth Cormoran Strike mystery, Lethal White, is struck by the imagery of the swans in this novel.

The story begins — its first words — at the Cunliffe wedding reception with a photographer trying to get a picture of the newlyweds that includes two swans in the pond behind them. The swans stubbornly refuse to come together, but, as soon as Robin rises to separate herself from Matt (with the intention of looking for Cormoran), they swim side by side. The clueless father of the groom observes, “You’d think the buggers were doing it on purpose” (p 3).

The story ends — its very last words — with “twin swans,” a return to the beginning as evident bracketing:

Head bowed against the rain, [Robin] had no attention left to spare for the magnificent mansion past which she was walking, its rain specked windows facing the great river, its front doors engraved with twin swans. (p 647)

Brad  Bellows told us, in a comment attached to Evan Willis’ post on the hermetic and mythological meaning of Lethal White, that “the paired swans Robin fails to notice in the final line, actually exist, on Swan House, built in 1876 by R.N. Shaw, overlooking the Thames.” Mr Willis in that post had suggested this might be Jonny Rokeby’s home in keeping with his theory that, per Leda and the Swan/Zeus mythology, that Strike’s mysterious paternity, the pairing of his super-groupie mother with the other-worldly rock-star, explains why Rokeby remains off-stage but ever-present. The myth holds that Leda has twins, two sets of twins actually, with two fathers for each set; Castor and Pollux are the off-spring of Leda with the swan who is Zeus and with the king of Sparta, her husband. Robin and Cormoran, great driver and former boxer, are the novel’s stand-in for Castor the horseman and Pollux the pugilist. [See the discussions of this mythology and the Strike mysteries in the Gray/Granger and Willis posts on the subject.]

While the predominant symbolism of the story is white horses, which occur so frequently that Strike remarks on it and Billy Knight laughs about it (pp 394, 496), white swans occur often enough, not only as the story’s framing brackets but in references to individual birds on signs (see Robin’s noting and overlooking the Swan pub sign on pp 56 and 166), that we are obliged to consider their meaning beyond markers of Leda mythology in which the books are set. Swans, as you might expect in a Rowling novel, have an alchemical meaning as well, one that we will explore after the jump.

J. E. Cirlot writes about the swan in his Dictionary of Symbols as a “symbol of great complexity:”

The dedication of the swan to Apollo, as the god of music, arose out of the mythic belief that it would sing sweetly when on the point of death (8). The red swan is a symbol of the sun (2). But almost all meanings are concerned with the white swan, sacred to Venus, which is why Bachelard suggests that in poetry and literature it is an image of naked woman, of chaste nudity and immaculate whiteness.

But Bachelard finds an even deeper significance: hermaphroditism, since in its movement and certainly in its long phallic neck it is masculine yet in its rounded, silky body it is feminine. In sum, then, the swan always points to the complete satisfaction of a desire, the swan-song being a particular allusion to desire which brings about its own death (2).

This ambivalent significance of the swan was also well known to the alchemists, who compared it with ‘philosophical Mercury’ (57), the mystic Centre and the union of opposites, an interpretation entirely in accord with its archetypal implications (56).

Now, in Schneider’s view, the swan, by virtue of its relationship with the harp and the sacrificial serpent, also pertains to the funeral-pyre, because the essential symbols of the mystic journey to the other world (apart from the death-ship) are the swan and the harp. This would afford another explanation of the mysterious song of the dying swan.

The swan also has a bearing upon the peacock, although the situation is reversed. The swan/harp relationship, corresponding to the axis water/fire, denotes melancholy and passion, self-sacrifice, and the way of tragic art and martyrdom. Conversely the peacock/lute relationship, linked with earth/air, is possibly a representation of logical thought (50). As Jacques de Morgan has shown in L’Humanite prehistorique, if it was the horse that pulled the Sun-god’s chariot by day, it was the swan that hauled his bark over the waters by night. The relevance to this myth of the Lohengrin legend is self-evident.

“Great complexity,” indeed! As usual, Cirlot is as helpful as he is maddening; I include his parenthetic number references which do not refer to pages in the Dictionary, to notes in the back of the book, or to his extensive bibliography. But he does make three pointers that may be helpful in understanding the use of swans in the fourth and likely central novel of the Cormoran Strike series.

The swan seems, as Galbraith deploys the symbol, to be a sign of the love between Robin and Cormoran, hence the swans on the lake coming together after Robin leaves Matt and the stone swans on the house at story’s end when it seems the two will be coming together soon, and for more than take-out curry with Nick and Ilsa. But the love here is essentially Robin’s love and the swan symbol’s feminine characteristic, “sacred to Venus” and representing a “naked woman” is fitting with how Robin is laid bare, if you will, by the events of Lethal White.

And yet the swan is also “hermaphroditic” in the phallic shape of its neck and yonnic body and, in this, a sign of “the mystic center and the union of opposites.” Lethal White is all about pairs; Strike refers to this repeatedly in his private ruminations — and the story is about his coming-to-conscious realization of his love for Robin as much as it is hers. Though not demonstrative, this doesn’t hurt the argument that the fourth novel is the center and turning point of the series in which the opposites finally unite, which we see in their hug at the wedding reception, Cormoran’s one arm around her shoulder at the roadside verge, and again on the barge after he rescues her from Raphael/Raphaela, the wicked hermaphrodite or Janus figure.

And, as a tease, Cirlot concludes his ‘Swan’ entry in his Dictionary with a reference to Lohendrin, famous because of the Wagner opera but linked to the remarkably involved Knight of the Swan legends. That possibility I will put aside, “self-evident” as its meaning may have been to the lexicographer, for someone else to explore or to return to in Strike5 if we meet a heroic character “who must not be named.”

I will put that discussion off to return to the alchemical meaning to which Cirlot refers. I send the reader unfamiliar to the importance of Literary Alchemy in Rowling’s writing to the pillar post on the subject; its significance to the serious reader of Rowling’s work can hardly be overstated. Little surprise, then, that Lyndy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery has a significant entry for the swan:

A symbol of the white stage known as the albedo, and of the white elixir or stone which can transmute base metal to silver. Ruland wrote: ‘When the Stone … has arrived at the perfect White Stage … or Swan, then all the philosophers say that this is a time of joy’ (Lexicon, 379).

The swan is one of a series of hermetic birds which represent the different phases and colours of the matter in the alembic during the opus (fig. 43). The crow or raven of the black nigredo is followed by the many colours of the peacock or peacock’s tail, which is then transformed into the swan or dove of the albedo and finally into the phoenix of the red rubedo.

In Jonson’s The Alchemist, Face informs Mammon that he has put the matter through the ‘several colours’, ‘the crow,/The peacock’s taile, the plumed swan’ (2.2.26-7). The swan is sometimes depicted as swimming in a silver sea and spouting the silver arcanum or elixir. It can also signify the magical mercurial arcanum with which the king (the male principle) is fed when he unites with the queen (the female principle) to become one body in the chemical wedding (sixth key, Valentine, in Hermetic Museum, 1:336). 

[See also Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy and Mysticism for swans pictured as symbols of the albedo: pp 115, 201 (Blake’s Jerusalem), and 301; curious that Abraham makes no mention of evidence for Cirlot’s assertion of swan as “philosophical mercury” and “mystic center.”]

I confess to being distracted by the reference to “the crow or raven” as symbol of the nigredo stage of the alchemical work because of its probable meaning with respect to the Fantastic Beasts film franchise and the prevalence of these birds in the story line of Crimes of Grindelwald, a subject to which we will be obliged to return. Lethal White as albedo is enough fat to chew for this post.

Three things to recall about the albedo or “white stage” of the alchemical work:

(1) It is the central piece of the work between the ‘dissolution’ stage of the nigredo in which the subject is broken down to its essence and the ‘revelation’ of the rubedo during which the subject’s transformation is revealed; the real transformative action of alchemy, however, happens in the ‘purification’ or ablutionary purgatory of the albedo.

(2) The white work is represented in story by tokens of water and liquids (the subject is repeatedly washed in the alchemist’s alembic), by silver, the first product of the elixir of the white stone preceeding the Philosopher’s Stone consequent to the rubedo, and by all things white or pure, especially the moon (Luna!), the dove, snow, a virgin, a white rose, a white lily, marble, salt, etc. (see Abraham, op cit, pp 4-5). The albedo is also known as the ‘albification’ or ‘calcination’ stage.

(3) Its spiritual meaning, as Abraham describes it, is “The body has been whitened and spiritualized (i.e., the fixed is volatized) and the soul has been prepared to receive illumination from the spirit” (p 5).

Are these qualities, besides the swan brackets and asides, evident in Lethal White? I think so, though without the rubedo to come we cannot be sure. And the Potter alchemical sequence suggests we have a way to go before we get to the true series ‘red stage.’

For ‘centrality,’ we do have all the parallels with the story’s beginning in Cuckoo’s Calling that suggest Lethal White is the turn of the ring composition as well as the story echoes with Goblet of Fire, the Hogwarts Saga center and pivot. Robin certainly goes through the crisis of transformation in this fourth book, as she comes to terms at last with her essence, her vocation as a detective, and purifies herself at last from the old relationships and identity she clung to only out of weakness and confusion consequent to having been raped. This epic change in self-understanding is represented in her love for Strike and their working together in their complementary recovery programs; his stretching exercises and diet for the lost leg, her CBT for the panic attacks.

For the ‘white’ symbolism we have the swans, the ubiquitous white horses, the water of the pond in the prologue, the Thames in the finale, the barge of Robin’s climactic confrontation with Raphael, the rain falling against the windows of Cheyne Walk Brasserie’s windows in the epilogue, and Robin’s epic, cathartic tears on the roadside verge. Not to mention the importance of ‘Blanc d Blancs’ in the story line. Check that off. “I like you pale,” Matt notes.

And the spiritual meaning? Have Robin and Strike’s “soul” been “prepared to receive illumination from the spirit”? I don’t think so. Not yet.

My reasoning, though, is more structural than textual. I think we have all but demonstrated that the Strike books run in parallel with their corresponding numbers in the Harry Potter septet. If that pattern continues, then the next three novels should be all-out nigredo, albedo, and rubedo as were Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly HallowsGoblet, in this regard, though it had albedo elements in it for surefeatured all three stages in its Triwizard Tournament tasks’ sequence rather than just one.

Strike5, from this view, will be a nightmare of dissolution and separation, a proper breakdown nigredo, and Strike6 will be the albedo novel of the series.

Perhaps, though, Rowling/Galbraith, in not featuring three events in parallel with the Triwizard Tournament, is breaking with the specific alchemical patterning of this seven book set. It is one more thing that Strike5 will confirm or deny, in addition to Career of Evil and Order of the Phoenix echoing.

What we can say for sure, I think, is that, more than any previous Strike novels, Lethal White shows the characteristics of the alchemical albedo. Only the snow, canal, heroin, and transformation in Strike — the drowning in alcohol, the purgatory swim in the pool and shower after learning of Charlotte’s engagement, the alabaster woman with whom he sleeps — that we saw in Cuckoo’s Calling comes close.

I covet, as always, your comments and correction. Click on the ‘Comments’ line up by the post’s headline and let me know what you think.


  1. Joanne Gray says

    Wonderful post and a great deal to think about–I will definitely have to go back and explore the “Knight of the Swan” legends, Lohendrin and Wagner’s opera.

    When I read about the Alchemy peacock phase–I immediately thought of Matthew who always wanted everything to orbit around what he wanted–which also applies very much to Charlotte. Both ex-lovers who wanted all eyes on their own strutting display.

    Your post also really got me thinking about the Castor/Pollux/Leda/Two Fathers aspect of the myth and series. If Castor is Robin (expert horseman/driver) and Pollux is Cormoran (ex boxer) then the love the two mythical Gemini had for one another—to give their lives to save the other and share their hereafters together—does indeed seem to match them both. However, I still think that Shanker is a shadow Castor, since he is closest in age (twin) and shares Leda as a mother fraternally with Cormoran. I also think there is a good chance that he is the one who will fulfill Castor’s part in the myth of sacrificing his life to save his bother in the final confrontation with Leda’s killer.

    This scenario seems even more likely because “Shanker had been away on one of his regular, drug-related business trips” (Career of Evil, ch. 18, pg 155 US pb) when Leda’s murder took place and he was the one in charge of watching over her while Cormoran was at Oxford.

    I completely agree that Jonny Rokeby does fulfill the equivalent of the modern day god connection (rock god)—and no matter the final answer to the book’s “who’s your daddy” question, Jonny will always be a part of Strike’s life story. However, there are a couple of niggling little unexplained points that cast doubt on Jonny being Cormoran’s actual biological father.

    Once again, it can be traced back to the Leda and the Swan myth that includes the “two fathers”. Seeing Cormoran and Robin as the Pollux and Castor aspects of the Leda myth has actually allowed me to step back and look at the myth with fresh eyes. If it is possible that this core aspect of the myth can move in such an unexpected way, then might there be other places that can move as well?

    JKR has mentioned that there is a back-story to Cormoran going to Oxford and taking the Classics degree program that will come into the series later. Classics is generally a path chosen by those in the British upper classes—but most people believe Cormoran took this path because of his upper class girlfriend, Charlotte. Possible, but there are still some other aspects of going to the premier University in the UK. How did he get in to Oxford in the first place? Granted he is bright but his past education was sporadic, which is putting it mildly and they look for proof of a long-standing history of academic high achievement. Also there is the cost.

    Most believe, no doubt, that he could afford Oxford because of his rich daddy Jonny. But there is the problem that Cormoran hasn’t taken money from Jonny, as far as we know, except as a business loan. There was no mention of a loan for his schooling. That’s not to say there wasn’t one, just that it has never been mentioned (unless I missed it).

    I’m thinking that Cormoran found out there was an Oxford scholarship available to him and he was smart enough to take it—but that the benefactor was not disclosed. I believe that there was also a stipulation attached to the scholarship that his area of study must be the Classics.

    I think the reason we have yet to see old Jonny come on the pages of the previous four books may be because the Leda “Two Fathers” part of the mythical Gemini brothers will turn out, in this case, to refer to only one member of that mythical duo—Pollux/Cormoran.

    Jonny will finally make that long awaited entrance when Cormoran’s real biological father comes into focus.

    Cuckoo’s Calling and the aristocratic Bristow family brought the theme of searching for the real biological father into the series. John Bristow, the killer, said that he didn’t like the talk of real father in regards to his biological father since he considered his real father the one who actually raised him. Lula Landry, the victim, was also searching for her real biological father. Right now, according to John Bristow, Jonny Rokeby isn’t Cormoran’s real father since he had no real hand in raising him.

    There are also the date misalignments of Jonny’s marriages/divorces and Cormoran’s birth not lining up but in Jonny’s favor, as the real dad, there’s the DNA test but…science results can’t lie—right?

  2. Wonderful thoughts, Joanne, as always.

    Please note, however, on the Classics point that Strike was not a Classics major.

    “That’s Catullus again. A famous one.”
    “Did you do Latin at university?”
    “Then how –?”
    “Long story,” said Strike.
    In fact, the story of his ability to read Latin wasn’t long, merely (to most people) inexplicable. He didn’t feel like telling it in the middle of the night, nor did he want to explain that Charlotte had studied Catullus at Oxford. (Ch 52, pp 452-453)

    How does that change your theory?

  3. Joanne Gray says

    Hi John,

    Thank you for this information–you are correct. As I read your comment I realize that I remembered this bit about the Latin and the University–but I had not remembered it correctly. Darn!

    I’ll have to go back to the drawing board on this aspect of my theory, although, it is still a fact that he learned Latin for some reason and I don’t think it was for the same reason I did–because the nuns at the Catholic high school I attended required it as an area of study.

    I really, really hope that we will get some clarification on at least some of these personal Cormoran mysteries with book 5.

    Wishing you and everyone on the site Happy Holidays!! Joanne

  4. It is probably too far fetched, but in my reaction to Joanne Gray somewhere else I dared to mention the wild idea that came to me while rereading The Books. As Leda and swans obviously point to the myth, we have two things in that respect. In both myth and The Books there are two fathers, one real and the other not so real, and there are twins. So far we have the names of two fathers, the illusive mr Strike (just as unreal as Zeus at this point) as former husband of Leda (and by the way: how did Cormoran get his surname as they were divorced, or were they?), and Rokeby with all the questions he brings to the paternity question. If Galbraith really points to this myth, a real father must yet be revealed/found and Cormoran must have a twin. What if the twin is Charlotte? There is a very strange and mutual fascination and attraction between them, their birthdays are only two days apart (now why would Galbraith mention that specifically?) and both are apparently born in the same year as they meet in their first year in Oxford. They seem to “know or understand” eachother at some deep level, from the very first moment, and having grown up with several twinpairs I know they do. They cannot move away from eachother, not finally, whatever they do after the split. The two dates of birth could have been tampered with. I don’t have any idea of how this should work out, but affairs between unknowing brothers and sisters are also a classical theme. It must be fascinating to have a mind and imagination as Galbraith!

  5. Sorry for my earlier question: I did not know that under UK law a divorced woman can keep her married name. But I still wonder why she would keep it and why her own name and that of brother Ted is never mentioned? Very carefully never mentioned?

  6. You didn’t mention the one piece of swan symbolism that actually twigged me to the recurrence of the swan theme. Of course, I caught the heavy handed swan symbolism from the beginning of the book, but took it simply as a metaphor that Matthew and Robin are not a match. I didn’t take the logical next step to think that the second swan represents Strike, which would’ve been obvious if I knew of the whole Leda-Zeus-Castor-Pullox thing that you have pointed out. Anyways, my point is that the name of the barge on which Raphael confronts Robin is “Odile.” Odile is the black swan from the opera Swan Lake. The black swan character is effectively the evil twin of the main character. In the context of this story that makes him the evil parallel to Strike. The similarities in their upbringing are even pointed out in the epilogue. It’s also interesting to note in context of the idea of “pairs” that Strike keeps coming back to within the novel. We are led to believe the the important pairing was Kinvera and Raphael but really the last pair noted in the book is Raphael and Strike.

    One unrelated point about Raphael, the name “Raphael” means God, which I thought was very funny when he is ultimately revealed to be a narcissist on the barge.

  7. Thank you for your comment!

    Just as an FYI, though, Prof Groves did discuss the allusion to Odile at some length in her post on liminal women in Cormoran Strike: https://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/liminal-women-mermaids-and-swan-maidens-in-strike/.

    And the ‘el’ in Raphael does mean ‘God’ but the name as a whole means “God has healed,” cf., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raphael_(given_name). I expect the Lethal White murderer is given this name because of the questions about redemption he raises and because the abuse he suffered as a child at the White Horse of Uffington and the subsequent rift with his father was never healed.

    See my much longer discussion of Raphael’s name at ‘Lethal White: The Cratylic Names.’

    Thanks again for joining the conversation!

  8. Tony Harrold says

    Fascinating discussion that I’ve not come across before but has added much to my enjoyment of the Strike books.
    I only wanted to comment on Joanne Gray’s thoughts on Strike’s time at Oxford. Between 1962 and 1998 there were no tuition fees for any full time U.K. students attending Oxford or indeed any other British University. Means tested maintenance grants were also available for the significant proportion of students that qualified. Costs were met by central government through a variety of mechanisms.
    Strike’s financial circumstances would have had little or no bearing on his attendance at Oxford. Estranged from his father he might also have qualified for a full maintenance grant for living expenses.
    Sadly the situation has changed for students in England and Wales who now need to meet fees of £9000 a year but these are at least capped and essentially the same for all regardless of course or institution. Oxford fees for U.K. students are no greater than those at other Higher Education providers.
    I can’t see that there’s going to be any benefactors or bursary in the storyline.
    (Details are covered in Wikipedia quite accurately. I remain grateful for the six years government funding of my Science and Medical degrees and would strongly support a return to a more equitable system).

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