Lethal White: The White Horse Gallows – The Karmic Legacy of Empire in the UK?

Since the publication Tuesday of Lethal White, the conversation I’ve been leading here has largely been about literary artistry, specifically the structure of Strike4, most notably, its resonances with Cuckoo’s Calling as the series story turn and its correspondences with Goblet of Fire. As fascinating and fruitful as that conversation has been and continues to be, it has largely been in studied neglect of the elephant in the room, an elephant-sized white horse.

If this were a proper academic study, what I write today would be the third in a series of posts about Galbraith’s white horses in Lethal White. Instead of what I offer below, the opening salvo of that series would be a list of all the mentions and references to white horses in Strike4, a list long enough that characters inside the text comment on their ubiquity twice. Next would be a close reading of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and a list of the multiple white horse allusions made in that play, something Galbraith, in choosing to make every single epigraph a reference to this one play, clearly hopes we will do. Then and only then, the sober academic would write what he thinks is the meaning of the white horse metaphor in Lethal White.

I will write the first two posts of that sober series eventually, I hope. My correspondent and friend of fifteen years, Odd Sverre Hove, has already obliged me by sharing (1) an annotated list of Rosmersholm white horse appearances, a play he is able to read in the original language and in the English translation Rowling uses, as well as (2) a brief survey of the critical literature in Norwegian and German on the play. The hard work already done by Odd, all I have to do — besides reading Rosmersholm myself! –is the requisite grunt work of re-reading Lethal White with my white horse detector glasses on and share a compare-and-contrast paper on the two white horse lists.

I want to jump those steps, however, to jump-start the conversation about what Rowling is after in her predominent white horse symbolism and signalling. She has, after all, been anything but subtle in text and in public about the centrality of this image. We see it in text as the name of Inns, as the Uffington White Horse, as a carving made on gallows and a bathroom prison door by an unhinged man, in the Strike-Ellacott banter about the color of horses and equestrian terminology (and the white/pale horse of Revelation) and in the pseudo-Stubbs painting of a Lethal White Syndrome foal. I suspect the white swans that bracket and haunt Lethal White are related to this image as well because of their connection with British royalty and Greek mythology (completely passing over ‘Leda and the Swan‘).

The white horses of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, if I have understood Odd Sverre Hove’s detailing all the white horse mentions in that play, are images of the ghosts which haunt the characters’ present, a historical legacy of one family which is resolved in the present under the continuing influence and presence of the past. These ghosts, that of the lead character’s wife specifically, to risk spoiling the play for those not familiar with it, cause the double suicide at the finish.

Rowling’s white horses in Letal White have to be read, if only because of the consistent epigraphs from the one work, in the same haunting fashion. I think, though, that Rowling is less concerned or just less focused on one family than on British culture as a whole (as I’m guessing Ibsen is also really about his 19th Century Lutheran culture in eclipse but I know nothing about that other than Odd’s insights from which to make an opinion!).

Evan Willis has suggested that the gallows made under the shadow of and with the impression of the Uffington White Horse carved into them are Rowling’s judgment on the death penalty, a critique in parallel with the Dementor’s Kiss delivered at the end of Goblet of Fire. I’d take this a step further in line with my thoughts about the P. D. James influence on Rowling’s work, i.e., that, like James, Rowling is presenting the historical present of the UK as a pathetic and decadent descendant of its heroic, deeply flawed, and even criminal past. The importance of the Stubbs painting in White hightlights the Jamesian echo (see the James’ manor house mystery, Cover Her Face, with its Stubbs painting).

Lethal White seems a not especially subtle assault, in other words, on the poisonous legacy of British colonialism and imperialism. Which may come as a surprise to you. Galbraith, frankly, seems a much more conservative author than the Rowling public persona; his Strike novels would be dismissed as horribly heteronormative and politically traditional, I think, except for JKR, Inc’s successful branding as profoundly leftist and borderline libertine. The satirical treatment of Marxists and feminists in Lethal White and the dismissive depiction of the sexually unfaithful are anything but kind to the CORE of the Harry Potter Alliance. But with respect to the depth or core meaning of Lethal White,  Strike4 will have to be filed under ‘Postcolonial Critique,’ another novel about the evils of empire.

We learn at story’s end that the off-stage inciting incident behind the drama, the reason Jasper Chiswell is being blackmailed by Jimmy Knight and Geraint Winn, is that Chiswell had sold gallows to an African government and not given the Knight family its fair share (Knight’s father built them on the Chiswell estate). The last set of gallows sold had been hijacked during delivery and wound up being used to execute young men and children overseas. Sadly for Chiswell, the gibbet had the “distinguishing feature” of an Uffington White Horse token which was carved into each of the Knight productions by Billy Knight, Jimmy’s mentally ill younger brother. The Chiswell clan does all it can to conceal this family side-business both before and after Jasper Chiswell’s death.

They insist throughout that what was done, the creation of a death machine and its export for profit, is “all in the past” and, besides, “it wasn’t illegal at the time.” This is the defense offered by the surviving aristocrats who hold their estates and positions of privilege consequent to services rendered and business done when the British had an essentially feudalist empire on which the sun never set. They can continue to enjoy the wealth, prestige, and advantages of the colonial past without guilt or punishment because the crimes committed are historical and cannot be judged outside the context of the times in which they were committed.

I offer for your consideration and correction, though, that Galbraith thinks this is a great injustice and that the legacy of this past is not just social inequality but more importantly a karma of sorts that haunts everyone in the UK in a manner akin to Ibsen’s white horses. The patricidal event of the novel, Raphael murdering Jasper, is an image of the relations of British youth with its imperialist past and a pointer to the echo of Great Britain’s present day involvement in wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and historic colonial battles there.

The violence continues today, in metaphorical terms, from the historical export of gallows for profit, a cipher in story for the too real exploitation of colonial subjects with tools with which they can kill each other in exchange for lucre sent to the home country. The UK’s participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, from this view, are a continuation and legacy of previous wars in those regions (hence the Chiswells, pere et fils, serving in the same regiments in the same regions and both meeting violent deaths; note that both were hussars, light horsemen or calvary, and the Knights are named for the feudal vassals who serve as soldiers on horseback).

Raphael’s murder of his father in this light and the destruction of his brother’s sword in a last minute struggle with his father is a note about the mental illness of the bastard children of imperialism, the power-holders of today, and their refusal if not their inability to come to terms with the past, which leads to their narcissitic even sociopathic behaviors. They are not equal to the heroic, sacrifical aspect of this past and cannot come to terms with its criminality and continuing injustice, either. The result is the bathos of Brexit, its supporters and decriers, in which the Civil War about Britain’s identity embedded in Lethal White is played out for all to see.

The Ibsenian white horses of Lethal White, then, are the ghosts that Billy likens to dragons, a primeval, pre-historic monster of England’s colonial crimes existing almost invisibly alongside the surface reality of life in Britain today. In Nabokovian terms, this is posturonost, a spiritual otherworldly reality just out of sight that bends events in its direction, a la the ghosts of Lolita and Pale Fire (see Alexandrov’s Nabokov’s Otherworld).

As I said above, I’ve been leading the discussions here about Lethal White in a purely structural direction thus far and I certainly will not abandon that focus on artistry entirely. HogwartsProfessor, though, is a site for conversation about both the artistry and the meaning of written work. I offer these first hurried thoughts about Rowling’s White Horses theme today in order to begin our back-and-forths about the central symbolism of Lethal White.

Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts and questions below about what Rowling means for us to take away from all the white horses in Strike4 and from her repeated references to Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, another work laden with them.

[The paintings in this post are all by George Stubbs.]


  1. Brian Basore says

    I keep coming back to feeling that a white horse is the reversal of Hogwart’s thestral, gentle but feared as an emblem of death. The Author of the Strike novels makes white horses emblems of death though horses are not commonly regarded as such.

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Excellent post, John, thanks. I’m really enjoying all the Lethal White posts, esp. this and the Goblet echoes (and the death penalty critique noted here is certainly another convincing one).

  3. After giving it some thought, I’ve narrowed down my thinking about the current state of the Strike Mysteries to just about four questions. Taken all together, these are my thoughts about certain thematic elements in Ms. Rowling’s Denmark novels that have not been unpacked yet, or given much thought.

    I noticed that at the end of “LW” Ms. Rowling makes a point of having Serge Gainsbourg’s “Black Trombone” playing over the final events in the novel’s epilogue. I have just two thoughts about this, one of them being very open ended. On the one hand, I’ll admit it’s nice to see the author giving Noir her series a bit of the musical sound most often associated with it. However, my real concern is whether or not there is any kind of thematic significance in her placing the song where it is near the end?

    Going by the best translation of the lyrics I can manage, the song reminds me of two figures from the novel. The phrase, “it’s the autumn/Of my life/Nobody/Surprises me anymore/I give up/It’s over”, puts me in mind of Jasper Chiswell. The lyrics paint the idea of an old man looking back over a life filled with disappointments. It also sounds like a vague reminder of T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. The latter poem is about a gentleman unable to make any meaningful connections either in love or else just among more mundane social relationships.

    It could be that the song is meant to act as another Nabokovian Revenant from the Otherworld. It could be that we’re reading one final salvo at the dying nobility of the British Empire. This time, perhaps, it is Chiswell sending a message from beyond. If it is, then I’m guessing the message would tie in well with some lines from another Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men”.

    “Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom
    Remember us – if at all – not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.”

    That said, there are other lyrics in Gainsbourg’s song that go as follows: Native/Of the night/God forgive/The cutie/Humming/In my bed. There are also these lines. “She gives herself/…/Raving/Poisoning me//Invading me. I was going to say these lyrics put me in mind of Raphael and Kinvara. However, on giving it some thought, it could just as well apply to both Charlotte and Strike. Perhaps the meaning of the song as applied to the end is one that is meant to be multi-valent. In other words, it’s meant as a summation of all the book’s themes into one neat musical package.

    Just a thought.

    The English translation of Gainsbourg’s lyrics can be found here, by the way:

  4. It’s gratifying to see mention made of “Nabokov’s Otherworld”. It’s a book worth tracking down for close study. The only thing I can add to that is to mention a book that, for better or worse, is able to establish a philosophical link between Nabokov and C.S. Lewis.

    Dana Dragunoiu has written a study called “Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism”. It’s similar in argument to Andrea Pitzer’s “Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov” in that it seeks to demonstrate that there is a level of political and social commentary underneath the mandarin pose VN always put on for the public.

    The interesting part is Dragunoiu goes farther than Pitzer in tracing his social thinking back to their roots in Nabokov’s metaphysics. She outlines this in the fourth chapter of her study. There she highlights Nabokov’s fondness for the use of metafictional narrative strategies in pretty much all of his works (192). What differentiates Nabokov’s use of the narrative method is that it has nothing to do with either postmodernism, or Marxism. Instead, VN uses these ironic techniques to forward a specific system of metaphysics.

    According to Dragunoiu:

    “As (Alexandrov) has noted, Nabokov’s use of “the metaliterary is camouflage for, and a model of, the metaphysical”. In the case (of Nabokov’s late career novel, sic) “Ada”, these metaliterary touches contribute, in a radically new way, to Nabokov’s long-standing campaign against materialist philosophy. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius,” “Ada” is a thought experiment born of a desire to generate a universe of the kind postulated by the most uncompromising of idealist philosophers, the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne (1685-1753) (191)”.

    If the exploring an explicating the Otherworld was Nabokov’s main theme, then Dragunoiu makes it plain that it is the Christian Otherworld of Berkeley. Prof. Dragunoiu presents this revelation, yet leaves it there. The ironic thing is, if we follow the logic as established by both Dragunoiu and Alexandrov, Nabokov comes off as an Idealist form of an essentially Russian Orthodox form of Christian thinking.

    This irony is sort of doubled when we take into account how Berkeley serves as a connector from Nabokov to the Inklings. In “Planet Narnia”, one of the interesting side notes that Michael Ward accomplishes is to out CSL as a closet Berkeleyan. Ward writes:

    “Indeed, Lewis admits in “Surprised by Joy that he cannot now understand how he ever regarded idealism as ‘something quite distinct from Theism.’ Rather, ‘idealism turned out, when you took it seriously, to be disguised Theism.’ He considered Berkeley’s account of idealism ‘unanswerable’ and, when asked what school of philosophy God might support, he replied, ‘God is a Berkeleyan idealist.’ It was for this reason that, as a Christian apologist, Lewis attached such importance to his defense of idealism (35)”.

    Nabokov’s own relation to Idealism is interesting. It appears to be related to the influence of his father, and the work of Pyotr Struve, a Russian liberal philosopher whose book “Problems of Idealism” is saturated with Berkeley’s thought. This book had a huge impact on Nabokov’s dad. It was also seen as a major affront and challenge to the fundamental tenets of Marxism. So much so that Lenin devoted a surprising amount of effort to tracts and books refuting Struve’s work.

    It’s all fascinating stuff, and I think it helps establish the possibility that Berkeley might be as big an influence in Rowling’s thought as it was for Lewis and Nabokov. Just a thought (so to speak).

  5. Haven’t seen the white horse observation yet that I’m looking for, but I’m waiting to comment on it in case you’ve already written on it.

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