Liminal Women: Mermaids and Swan Maidens in Galbraith’s Strike Novels

Oxford’s Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, returns to HogwartsProfessor today — her third post here in a week! — to offer thoughts in the run-up to publication of Troubled Blood on the Mermaids and Swan Maidens in the Cormoran Strike novels. Enjoy!

In Lethal White there is moment when Britain’s sea-faring history briefly surfaces. Robin enters the rose garden of St Nicholas Church, Deptford and notes that its gateposts are ‘topped with the strangest finials she had ever seen. A pair of gigantic, crumbling stone skulls sat on top of carved bones.’ Robin thinks to herself that they would look at home ‘garnishing the front of a pirate’s mansion in some fantasy film’ (48). But, there is a persistent local legend that the indebtedness is the other way around: not that these finials recall the Jolly Roger, but that the Jolly Roger recalls them. The church’s website notes:

The famous flag of piracy sent shivers down the spine of unfortunate mariners whenever they came across it. But where did the flag originate? Legend has it that the flag was based on the skulls which still stand on the gate posts of St Nicholas’ church.

For centuries an economic and maritime war existed over the domination of the trade routes between Europe and the Americas, Africa and the Indian sub-continent. This battle of supremacy was mostly contested by Britain, France, Spain and Holland. Much of the conflict was acted out by privateers – ships in private ownership and outside the Royal Navy – whose activities were not fully investigated by the national authorities.

The British privateers did not necessarily want to broadcast their nationality when approaching say, a Spanish galleon returning from the Caribbean, particularly if they intended to loot her. So they invented a new flag, one intended to strike fear into the hearts of their victims and also to disguise their true nationality.

These ships were pirates, and many of them would have set off from Deptford – so hence it is thought that they borrowed the skull and crossed bones image from their local church.

This is, sadly, probably just a local tale, based on the link between the widespread, and ancient, Christian use of skulls as memento mori and the Jolly Roger (Though I do wonder if these memento mori skulls might have been in Rowling’s mind when she put up the Twitter header of Harmen Steenwyck’s ‘Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’ as her Twitter header in Dec 2016, noting (when asked about it): ‘It’s hard to find a header that sums up everything I’m working on at the moment, but this painting comes close! It’s by Harmen Steenwyck’ (Jan 5, 2017)

Rowling would have been writing Lethal White at the time, and perhaps the memento mori skull in Steenwyck’s painting alludes to those church gates in Deptford, and the eye-catching local legend that they inspired the Jolly Roger itself.)

For Troubled Blood Strike will (at least briefly) be relocating to the coast, and given Rowling’s deep interest in folk legends and tales, I expect some Cornish sea-faring legends to appear. The most commonly noted Cornish link throughout the series has been Strike’s drink of choice – Doom Bar – and if this location merits a mention once Strike is back in Cornwall (as it surely might) Rowling may allude to ‘The Doom-Bar’ by Alice E. Gillington. We know from the blurb that Robin will be ‘juggling a messy divorce and unwanted male attention, as well as battling her own feelings about Strike’ in this novel – and I wonder if Gillington’s Victorian poem about a doomed romance may have caught Rowling’s eye. ‘The Doom-Bar’ relates the story of a woman who gives her lover a keepsake as he sails away across the Doom Bar sands. She remains faithfully waiting for him until one year, when the tide is unusually low, she walks out on the Doom Bar and finds her ring nestling inside a scallop shell. This find brings with it the realisation that her sweetheart was faithless, and he tossed her ring out to sea the very day she gave it to him.

The story of faithless sweethearts is, of course, a mainstay of folktales and song and the story does not usually end well for the abandoned lover. The traditional song ‘The Cuckoo,’ for example, ends with the intimation that the speaker is going to die, while the Irish version of this song (‘Bunclody’) has the speaker forced to emigrate. Ophelia sings a putative folksong about a faithless lover – ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day’ (Hamlet, 4.5.47) – shortly before drowning herself. What makes Gillington’s version of this well-worn story so unusual, however, is that although this remains a possible reading of her final verse, it seems probable that quite a different fate awaits the speaker:

Do you hear the seas complainin’, and complainin’, while it’s rainin’?

Did you hear them call in the dimorts, when the surf woke up and sighed?

Maybe it is a token

I shall go no more heart-broken—

And I shall cross the Doom-Bar at the turning of the tide.

Rather than drowning herself in her heartbreak (although, as I say, this possibility remains present), it appears that the painful knowledge of her lover’s faithlessness galvanises the speaker out of her love-lorn passivity into a stirring sense of action. Rather than wait at home for someone who is not worthy of her, she will now become an adventurer in her own right. In the Cornish setting of Troubled Blood we can hope that Robin, like the woman of in the Doom Bar poem, is going to finally shake herself free of her lingering entanglement with Matthew and pursue her own desires.

The more famous Doom Bar story, however, is to do with its creation by a mermaid. I am hoping for a sight of the Doom Bar mermaid, or one of the many other Cornish mermaid myths. This possibility drew my attention in particular because I have just completed an essay about a related myth, that of snake women (which is forthcoming in Lana Whited’s essay collection Beyond the Ivory Tower: More Essays on the Works of J.K. Rowling – which features many other friends of this website!). Mermaids, like snake women, are liminal females, and they share in the trope of slippery, seductive and untrustworthy femininity. What makes me think that Rowling might well be drawn to the Doom Bar Mermaid story is that, just as in the snake woman tales which particularly interest her, it overturns the traditional (misogynistic) reading of these liminal women as fatal seductresses.

In the most famous mermaid myth – Han Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1837) – the mermaid is not the fatal seductress of more adult tales. But Andersen’s version has nonetheless been traditionally been read as reinforcing some fairly alarming gender stereotypes: suggesting that the mermaid needs to be robbed of her voice and mutilate her body in order to win male attention. (Hence the repeated vandalising of her Copenhagen statue by feminist activists.) The Little Mermaid ends Andersen’s story by being transformed into an ethereal spirit (‘Daughters of the Air’ was the story’s working title) and hence she has passed through every element in the story: a child of the water, a woman on land and ending as a spirit of the air. Modern criticism has focussed in particular on these transformations – Susan White interpreting Andersen’s tale as a story of the difficulties attendant on girls, as they become women, achieving agency in patriarchal power structures; Maria Tatar stressing the way in which the story reflects Andersen’s ‘constant engagement with mutability and changes in identity.’ 

(It is interesting to note that although, in the famous Disney version, the Little Mermaid does not become an airy spirit, the writers have nonetheless registered this potentiality by giving her the name of Ariel: Shakespeare’s ‘air-drinking’ spirit whose has ‘the air at freedom’ [The Tempest, 4.1.265]).

The Little Mermaid’s inhabiting of the elements of water, earth and air also may have been inspired by the wider folktale seam that Andersen was mining here. There are many tales of semi-human women who desire, or are desired by, men – and then tend to belong to a foreign element: either water (mermaids, selkies, snake women) or the air (swan maidens). Rowling has used a number of these liminal women in the Wizarding World – mermaids, Veela and snake women – but not swan maidens (so far). There is, however, a reference to them hiding within Lethal White.

Rowling is queen of cratylic naming [see the author’s Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, please! JG]– as she recently reminded us with the creativity of The Ickabog. Lethal White is a veritable goldmine of cratylic names – and despite the excellent (and near-exhaustive) exploration of these at Hogwarts Professor – there are still one or two more to catch. Cathy Groves, for example, has pointed out to me that Robin’s undercover name ‘Venetia Hall’ (Robin’s first fully impersonated alias) has shades of ‘Virginia Hall’ – the pioneering World War II spy. Virginia Hall was the first female agent resident in France, the only civilian woman to be awarded a Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 and was known as ‘the limping lady (she had an artificial foot she called ‘Cuthbert). Louise Freeman’s exploration of how plot-revealing is the name of Kinvara’s dog ‘Rattenbury’ (whose name she constantly shouts) indicates how much information Rowling is happy to flirt with divulging via her names.

A name that particularly jumped out at me in Lethal White was the name of the barge on which Raphael abducts Robin: Odile. This is not only a great cratylic name but also another example of Lethal White’s swan motif, supporting the idea that the myth behind Leda’s name may be a guiding one of the series: cf., the several HogwartsProfessor poss on this subject — ‘Lethal White: The Swan Symbolism,’ ‘The Curious Case of Yeats’ Leda the Swan,’ and ‘Leda, Zeus, and the Mythological Backdrop of Cormoran Strike.’ 

Odile is the black swan maiden of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake (1875-6) – the antagonist and shadow twin of the white swan maiden, Odette. (I was familiar with this name from an early age as my close friend Odette was rather taken with the idea her name had a shadow opposite!) Swan Lake is a retelling of the popular folk tale motif of the swan maiden, which also has a male counterpart – the swan knight (most famously used in Wagner’s Lohengrin [1850]).

Tchaikovsky’s ballet tells the story of Prince Siegfried who meets and falls in love with Odette, who has been transformed into a swan by the sorcerer Von Rothbart. Odile appears in the third act, dressed in black and convinces the Prince that she is Odette, tricking him into making his crucial love vow to her instead of his beloved Odette. The sight of ‘a dark barge, Odile’ (Lethal White, 616) signals that Robin, like Siegfried, has stumbled into a trap. She is not about to meet her husband but someone who has been impersonating him.

This use of the name Odile is a recent example of Rowling’s long-running interest in ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ style doppelgängers. Harry Potter has the false and true Moody, but also the shadow-twin pairing of Harry and Voldemort at its heart; and from Rowling’s recent Faerie Queene Twitter header it looks as though Spenser’s explorations of this trope – Duessa and Una, the false and true Florimell – may likewise turn up in Troubled Blood. Something that is particularly interesting about the ‘Odile/Odette’ pairing is that while, within the story, they are two different people, within the ballet they are usually performed by the same prima ballerina. As such, Odile is a perfect encapsulation of both forms of the doppelgänger idea – she is at once a magically disguised imposter, and her own shadow self.

Within Lethal White the name ‘Odile’ is a sign that Robin is not about to meet her husband (as she thinks), and that the person she is going to meet (Raphael) is not whom he has seemed to be. But I think the symbolism also goes a little deeper. The final two words of Lethal White are ‘twin swans’ (647) – a phrase that suggests a happier union awaits Robin than the marriage symbolised by the uncooperative swans of the novel’s Prologue. Lethal White opens with a pair of swans who do not come together to make the perfect heart with their necks for which the wedding photographer longs.

(I was lucky enough to see these rather more cooperative swans, during their courtship dance this spring)

The symbolism of these separated swans is not lost on the bride who, each time she sees the emblem of her local White Swan pub (a single stone swan) feels it is commenting on the state of her marriage: ‘high above the street, on the corner of the building, was a single carved swan, which reminded Robin, every time she passed it, of her calamitous wedding day’ (Lethal White, 56). As the novel progresses this lone swan becomes specifically for Robin an image of Matthew: ‘her eyes flickered towards the single carved swan as she passed their local pub, but she forced her thoughts back onto the day ahead and not the man she had left behind’ (166). When she finally she leaves Matthew, it is the swan which prompts her only sign of regret: ‘as the car approached the lonely stone swan high on the corner pub, she began to cry in earnest’ (490). Given this strong association of Matthew with a lone swan, it works perfectly that when Robin thinks she is meeting Matthew, but is in fact meeting her would-be murderer, it should be on the barge Odile. Raphael, attracted by and attractive to Robin, yet dangerous to her, is indeed the shadow twin of Matthew, the man he is impersonating.

The swan symbolism at the beginning and end of Lethal White shows Robin freeing herself from the ‘fairytale wedding’ she had become trapped within. And, as the blurb tells us, we’re going to be seeing more of this side of Robin in Troubled Blood.

Robin’s true romance – unlike her Little-mermaid-like marriage – will not involve her cutting off things that matter to her. Rowling is building Robin and Strike’s romance, instead, on the idea of the closeness that can result when people work together. (There is an amusing review of the televised Lethal White which makes much of this).

The importance of a shared love of a shared profession in Robin and Strike’s burgeoning relationship, however, reminds me of the end of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Rowling is fond of Hardy (she took the names of both Dumbledore and Hagrid from his Mayor of Casterbridge) and I think Far from the Madding Crowd has influenced Potter too [again, see the author’s Literary Allusion in Harry Potter!] (Hardy is likewise a trailblazer for Rowling’s onomastic determinism: the protagonists of Far from the Madding Crowd  – Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak – could hardly have more cratylic names). Rowling’s building of a relationship based on shared work links with the idealistic working relationship between Rebecca West and Rosmer in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (the play she uses for Lethal White’s epigraphs in general, and as a frame for Robin and Strike’s relationship in particular). But it has particularly strong resonance for the way in which Hardy concludes Far from the Madding Crowd with a description of Bathsheba and Gabriel finding love for each other through working together on her farm:

Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship—camaraderie—usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

(Far from the Madding Crowd, Chap 56)

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