Literary Allusion in Cormoran Strike: Curious Case of Yeats’ Leda & the Swan

Ever since Rowling was outed as the author of Cuckoo’s Calling we have been discussing the mythological framework on which the Strike mysteries are written.We were talking about Cormoran’s mother Leda and her relations with rockstar Jonny Rokeby as a reflection of the myth of Leda and the Swan, an avian incarnation of Zeus, even before Joanne Gray broke the code of Strike and Ellacott being story stand-ins for Castor and Pollux.

Beatrice Groves, in a MuggleNet essay on literary allusion in The Silkworm, made a reference to Yeats’ poem, ‘Leda and the Swan’ as a gloss on Rowling’s swan twitter header. Does the Silkworm Expend Her Yellow Labors for Thee?

Rowling put up a rather aggressive-looking swan as a Twitter header during the period she was working on this novel, and a fanciful viewer could relate this image to Yeats’s famous sonnet on Leda:

The great wings beating still/ Above the staggering girl” (“Leda and the Swan”)

That was in February 2018. I didn’t even look up the Yeats poem then, I’m embarrassed to say now.

In March 2018 I was asked by Josh Richards, a brilliant novelist and literary critic out of St Andrews University, to read his The One and Only Sarah Jones. I was delighted to be among the first to read it (I hope you will one day have that opportunity, especially if you love Henry James).

Prof Richards included some notes as epilogue to the book in which he mentioned Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan.’ Incredulous that I had not found this in any of my readings about the Leda myth, I pulled down my copy of The Complete Yeats (thank you, Friends of the OKC Library booksale!) and took a look. Here’s an online source for you.

Leda and the Swan (W. B. Yeats1865 – 1939)

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

If you’re like me, your ears perked up at that “shudder in the loins” line. Strike says that about Rokeby: “As far as Jonny Rokeby was concerned, I was just a shudder in the loins.” I was sure I’d heard Robert Glenister say that in his audio book rendition of one of the first three Strike mysteries.

Here’s the thing: when Strike bemoans that he was nothing to Rokeby but a “shudder in the loins,” he is of course quoting Yeats’ poem.

I thought, having forgotten Prof Groves’ citation on MuggleNet, that I’d made a major discovery or at least a significant confirmation of the Leda, Zeus, Castor, and Pollux theorizing here at HogwartsProfessor. I wrote to the merry band of HogwartsProfessor faculty and assorted Pundits to see if I wasn’t covering something already well known. The response was positive and enthusiastic, if I was reminded about the previous citation. One correspondent wrote:

Superb, John!
I love it when scholarship works like this – I suspected that she knows this poem, but you’ve found the evidence. I had forgotten Strike’s line … so I’m confident you’ve got something completely new here – and what a great ‘lock in’!
I’m confident Strike knows this is a quote too – finally she’s got a literary-quoting hero: not just Catullus and Tennyson either it seems!

While I did my victory dance and looked for details to post on the subject, my Serious Striker sons burst my bubble.

I was searching for the “shudder in the loins” line in the actual print-copy Strike novels and couldn’t find the exact citation. Confident it was a Strike line — I knew I’d heard it somewhere — I asked my two sons, who have listened to the Robert Glenister readings of each book several times and both of whom have remarkable recall of all things Rowling/Galbraith.

They insisted the line was not in any of the books. Probably why my gracious correspondent said she “had forgotten” it, right? I’d made it up? I did a long, slow crawl through the then three books trying to find the line, to include searches of the online texts via Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ option, and found nothing.

So I finally searched the BBC1 scripts. The good news was that “shudder in the loins” definitely is in the television scripts, Episode 3 of the Cuckoo’s Calling adaptation (September, 2017). Exact location in script:

00:26:46.523 –> 00:26:49.843
“As far as Jonny Rokeby was concerned, I was just a shudder in the loins.”

Strike says that to Robin after learning about Ageyman’s son in the Sappers. It’s not in the equivalent scene in the text of Cuckoo, but at least I wasn’t making things up. I wrote my Friends list to see if any of them remembered reading it in the novels. The best response?

Sorry John – I didn’t know the line was in Galbraith, just assumed you’d found it, and I’d missed it. It’s still interesting, given that it is her production company (do we know how involved she is in the script?), but disappointingly does look like its the script writer’s thought (which could just come from the Leda name) and might not make it any clearer that there is a Rokeby/Zeus tie-in.

I think Amazon’s ‘look inside’ still searches the pages that it will not show you? If this is the case then I’m afraid your search is pretty clear evidence that it is the script-writer’s innovation (though maybe we’ll see it later in the novels….?!).

There are plenty of shuddering loins in Lethal White, but, alas, no quoting of Yeats to describe them.

The good news is that I haven’t lost my mind; I’ve only confirmed how powerful visual media are (I’d only seen the BBC1 show once and hadn’t even been that attentive). The bad news? Well, as my correspondent points out, we have to assume this allusion is a screenwriter’s conceit rather than a bon mot from The Presence Herself. We just don’t know how much input or supervision Rowling has with respect to the adaptations.

I post it now because I have a backlog of more than 200 post drafts I’m working through and this is certainly one of the more interesting.

What do y’all think? Is the BBC1 writer of this Strike adaptation, Ben Richards, the source for the “shuddering loins” allusion to Leda and the Swan or was it J. K. Rowling, one of five ‘Executive Producers’ for this show (Richards is one of the five, as well)? Is it Strike canon or deuterocanonical teevee hash?
Let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!


  1. I wish I could take credit for seeing Cormoran and Robin as the Pollux and Castor (Gemini) of the Strike series–but I was stuck on Cormoran and Shanker (as Pollux and Castor respectively). I need to go back and see who really deserves the credit for the original insight that it’s probably Cormoran/Pollux and Robin/Caster instead.

    I do believe that the scripts for the TV adaptations of her Strike novels are very much given a final close look by JKR before they are good to go. But I also think she works very closely with the screenwriter and gives him an overview of what has to be left in while paring down to fit network run time and that she keeps a keen eye on making sure that anything vital to the future story line is not lost in making the adaptation to TV. I think she has it down to an art at this point after doing the same procedure for all seven of the Harry Potter books.

    If I had to bet, I’d say that she is the one behind the Yeats line that’s in the third episode of BBC’s Cuckoo’s Calling–when Cormoran tells John Bristow–while they’re talking about real fathers–that to Jonny he was nothing more than “just a shudder in the loins.”

    The fact that you found that line listed in a different scene in the BBC TV script–and especially the fact that the scene was changed, by quite a bit, before filming going from Strike saying the line to Robin to then saying the line to John Bristow–and the one thing that didn’t change was the line–gives real weight to the belief that JKR wanted that line to stay in the show because it holds an importance to the overall story. I don’t have proof for this but it really seems to me that JKR was thinking of Yeats as well–an excellent catch indeed!

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