Robin Ellacott and Reverse Alchemy: Transformation Through the First Three Strike Texts

Nearly a decade ago, William Sprague published a guest post here on Hogwartsprofessor, arguing for a type of reverse alchemy in the first three Harry Potter books. Given the parallels between the Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter series, and the evidence that Strike’s nigredo is the principal theme of Troubled Blood, shouldn’t we also expect to see reverse alchemy in the first three books?  I’m going to argue that we do; furthermore, that the subject of the process is not the title character, but the series’ co-lead. Robin Ellacott.

In this model, the reverse-rubedo would would be the first volume, The Cuckoo’s Calling. As a reminder from our Headmaster, in the traditional rubedo

a wedding has to be revealed, contraries have to be resolved, and a death to self must lead to greater life. We should expect to see a philosopher’s stone and a philosophical orphan, as well.

Reverse Rubedo in The Cuckoo’s Calling. The wedding reveal happens literally in the first sentence of the series, so at the start of the rubedo phase, not the end.  Robin, whom we meet before Cormoran, enters the book deliriously happy and focused exclusively on her future nuptials, having been, the previous evening, the recipient of “the most perfect proposal, ever, in the history of matrimony.” As she relives the experience, she revisits the sapphire in her engagement ring, which keeps capturing her attention with its sparkles; Robin expects to “watch that stone glitter all the rest of her life.”  We can therefore think of the oft-mentioned sapphire as a kind of philosopher’s stone, albeit the wrong color,* that opens the book as harbinger of her new identity as the future Mrs. Cunliffe.

*Dammit, Matthew, why couldn’t you pick out a ruby?”

The stone may be blue, but  the rubedo colors of red and gold are present elsewhere in the first meeting of Robin and Strike. The Tube commuters are described as “gilded by the radiance of the ring.” There is also Robin’s red-gold hair, and her face is described as first being colored pink by the chilly weather, and then as blushing bright red both after her near-knock down the stairs, and in response to Strike’s unfortunate “Robin red-breast” allusion. As for the philosophical orphan, we see an inversion of that concept as Robin visualizes telling her and Matthew’s future children the story of the proposal at the faux-Eros statue. This is, best I can recall, the only time Robin is shown thinking about potential motherhood until Strike asks her if she is pregnant in Lethal White; it is not until Troubled Blood, after the marriage is over, that we learn she had envisioned having three children with Matthew. Looking back we can see her reflections as foreshadowing not about a child without parents , but the hypothetical children our quarreling couple will never have. 

Robin will spend the next three books moving toward the fairy-tale wedding that she is so eagerly anticipating in the opening scenes of The Cuckoo’s Calling. However, through her work with Strike–the job she initially believes “did not matter in the slightest”–she undergoes a transformation into the polar opposite of the giddy bride-to-be, as her dream wedding becomes a nightmare and leaves her unable to even muster a smile. Robin does not to “die to herself” to become the Flobberworm’s wife; she evolves into her authentic self, which means pursuing her dream of detective work, even at the cost of her marriage. This transformation takes her through a reverse alchemical process, with the (literally) white and snowy adventures of The Silkworm forming the albedo, and the (figuratively) dark and gory Career of Evil as the nigredo. Let’s continue the rubedo journey with her after the jump. 

We see relatively little of dear old Matt in The Cuckoo’s Calling, but what we does see does not bode well. He belittles Robin’s work with Strike from the very beginning, and after squabbling with him over dinner, she finds her precious sapphire marred by a clump of frozen pea caught in the setting.  As the story progresses, Robin gets more and more interested in working with Strike, and less and less interested in the mundane office career that Matthew envisions for her. She comes to realize this fully on the day she and Strike visit Vashti. 

Beside him, Robin too was staring at the window display, but only dimly registering what she was looking at. A job offer had been made to her that morning, by telephone, while Strike was smoking downstairs, just before Temporary Solutions had called. Every time she contemplated the offer, which she would have to accept or decline within the next two days, she felt a jab of some intense emotion to the stomach that she was trying to persuade herself was pleasure, but increasingly suspected was dread….

She recalled the excitement she had felt mere moments ago when Strike had hinted that there might, after all, have been a killer. Was he serious? Robin noted that he was now staring hard at this massive assemblage of fripperies as though they might be able to tell him something important, and this was surely (for a moment she saw with Matthew’s eyes, and thought in Matthew’s voice) a pose adopted for effect, or show. Matthew kept hinting that Strike was somehow a fake. He seemed to feel that being a private detective was a far-fetched job, like astronaut or lion tamer; that real people did not do such things.

Robin reflected that if she took the human resources job, she might never know (unless she saw it, one day, on the news) how this investigation turned out. To prove, to solve, to catch, to protect: these were things worth doing; important and fascinating. Robin knew that Matthew thought her somehow childish and naive for feeling this way, but she could not help herself.

This outing gives Robin her first real chance to show Strike her potential to contribute something other than administrative assistance. 

Strike felt that he was only now starting to appreciate the full range of his temporary secretary’s talents. Robin had taken over ten thousand pounds’ worth of goods into the changing room with her, of which the sequined coat cost half. She would never have had the nerve to do this under normal circumstances, but something had got into her this morning: recklessness and bravado; she was proving something to herself, to Matthew, and even to Strike.

And prove herself she does, both by getting the details of Lula Landry’s last visit out of the chatty sales team, and by donning the amazing green dress that makes such an impression on Strike, even if he pretends not to notice at the time. Rubedo is often associated with a phoenix– a red bird (think “Robin”) rising from the ashes as a living Philosopher’s Stone. Here, Robin models first a sequin coat that “glittered like a lizard’s skin,” then the Cavalli dress that transforms her into “a serpentine goddess in glittering viridian.” The imagery is the polar opposite of a red bird:  a green reptile. The blushing bride has become a green-clad seductress, and appears surprised herself at how much she enjoys the transformation. 

At the conclusion of the case, Robin is not imbibing the Elixir of Life, but splattered with blood shed by a killer, after she doubles back to witness the end of Strike’s confrontation with John Bristow. She not only staunches the bleeding with her coat, but probably prevents him from committing involuntary manslaughter in the process. Case solved and business saved.

In the epilogue, Strike is insightful enough to understand the significance of the green dress, after he first buys it for her as a thank-you/good-bye gift, then regrets it when she decides not to leave. 

He reflected that if he had known that Robin was going to stay, he would not have bought her the green dress. The gift would not, he was sure, find favor with Matthew, especially once he had seen her in it, and heard that she had previously modeled it for Strike.

The green (the opposite color to red) gift is a reminder of her talents as an investigator, and an emblem quite different from anything Matthew’s high school sweetheart from Masham has worn before. It also is an unforgettable representation of her attractiveness to Strike and symbolizes disunity between the engaged couple, not unity.

Reverse-Albedo in The Silkworm. We hear more about the dress, and the conflict both it and  Robin’s job are creating with Matthew in the early part of The Silkworm, as we transition to the reverse-albedo, or purification stage

In the eight months she had worked for Cormoran Strike, her boss and her fiancé had not met, not even on that infamous night when Matthew had picked her up from the casualty department where she had accompanied Strike, with her coat wrapped tightly around his stabbed arm after a cornered killer had tried to finish him off. When she had emerged, shaken and bloodstained, from the place where they were stitching Strike up, Matthew had declined her offer to introduce him to her injured boss. He had been furious about the whole business, even though Robin had reassured him that she herself had never been any any danger…

But Strike’s worst crime, in Matthew’s eyes, as she well knew, was the clinging designer dress that her boss had bought her after their trip to the hospital, the one he had intended as a gift of gratitude and farewell, and which, after showing it to Matthew with pride and delight, and seeing his reaction, she had never dared wear.

The fact that Robin cannot wear the green dress that suits her so well in front of her fiancé is not a good sign. As we learn in Lethal White, the Flobberworm prefers his Red Bird washed-out in her complexion and dressed in Abnegation grey. 

The Silkworm starts out cold, rainy and foggy, but quickly transitions to snow. As our Headmaster reminded us in his alchemical analysis of the Hunger Games series, “Snow is a perfect token of the white stage because it is both water and white.”  We have not just snow but near-blizzard conditions much of the time in The Silkworm, a reference to the historical record winter weather that struck Great Britain in November-December 2010.  This is the perfect backdrop for a white alchemical phase.

The snowstorm gives Robin her best chance yet to impress her boss, but in a far less feminine way than her play-acting at Vashti’s.  When her expert driving skills save her and Strike from an icy pile-up on the highway, Strike, the woman-driver bigot, can’t believe his eyes. Even as Robin is inwardly fretting about her inadequacies compared to the hypothetical female ex-cop or ex-soldier she fears Strike wants to hire, Strike compares her favorably to the best drivers he ever saw in the army. This time, Robin is showing off her masculine side, as is appropriate for an albedo when a female character is supposed to embrace and  integrate her animus, or male essence. Only in Robin’s case, her issue is not self-acceptance of this masculine aspect; she is perfectly comfortable with her love of cars and driving. What she needs is for the men in her life–both Strike and Matthew–to recognize and appreciate that side of her. Of course Strike alone will meet that that challenge, and acknowledge his comfort in being driven by Robin in the ancient farm vehicle she acquires in Career of Evil. Matthew, in contrast, hates the Land Rover, but insists on taking the wheel, even though he is easily the worse driver of the pair.

The same snowstorm also highlights Robin’s ongoing movement away from the image of Matthew’s ideal wife. Early in The Silkworm, we see her changing nature, as she ceases to be the first to back down in an argument. The rows get more intense, resulting in Robin abandoning the (pre-) marital bed, sleeping on the couch, and defying Matthew’s expectation that she will quickly and contritely return.

In what can be seen as a de-purification process, Robin’s moral compass also sways, and she loses some of her “innate honesty” as she starts to lie to Matthew  for the first time in their relationship.  She conceals aspects of her job, such as trips to the pub with Strike. But, she is perhaps at her lowest point when she risks missing Mrs. Cunliffe’s funeral by choosing to drive Strike to his interview with Daniel Chard. Both Strike and Matthew had urged her to take a day off and go earlier—and how often do those two agree? So eager is Robin to embark on the snowy mission with Strike that she brushes off her fiancé’s plea for her to catch an earlier train, even misleading him about the availability of train seats. I actually sympathized with Mr. Cunliffe in this instance–and longtime readers know how hard it is for me to have any compassion at all for the Flobberworm. But, Robin was quite right in her panicked self-recriminations on the drive home:

His mother’s funeral…who misses a funeral? She should have been there already, at Matt’s father’s house, helping with arrangements, taking some of the strain. Her weekend bag ought already to have been sitting in her old bedroom at home, her funeral clothes pressed and hanging in her old wardrobe, everything ready for the short walk to the church the following morning. They were burying Mrs. Cunliffe, her future mother-in-law, but she had chosen to drive off into the snow with Strike.

For perhaps the only time in the series, Matthew has every right to be upset at her choice. The cost of her displaying her animus and moving towards her authentic self is the breakdown of her persona as Matthew’s perfect wife.

Strike understands the incompatibility of Robin’s job and marriage to Matthew better than she does herself, as shown when he lays out the problem for her during the Burger King chat on the drive back from Devon.

“You’ve got a lot of aptitude for the job,” said Strike, “but you’re getting married to someone who hates you doing it.”…

“In case you hadn’t noticed, I turned down a day off to be here now, driving you all the way to Devon—”

“Because he’s away,” said Strike. “Because he won’t know.”

The feeling of having been winded intensified. How could Strike know that she had lied to Matthew, if not in fact, then by omission?

“Even if that—whether that’s true or not,” she said unsteadily, “it’s up to me what I do with my— it’s not up to Matthew what career I have.”

Though doubtful she can reconcile the two identities, Strike agrees to let her try. Robin finishes the book with another display of her advanced driving skills, this time in Nick’s dad’s taxi. Though this effort is not as successful as her highway maneuver, it does capture the killer, as well as give us a visual image of the transition from reverse albedo to nigredo. Note how the black London cab smashes into the winter-white holiday scene.

Diamond-bright lights were twinkling from the bare trees around the square. Snow poured down upon the gathering crowd, the taxi protruding from the broken window…

Robin’s reward for her efforts is a decidedly un-feminine gift of a surveillance course and an offer of partnership.

Strike: “Most women would’ve expected flowers.”

Robin: “I’m not most women.”

Strike: “Yeah, I’ve noticed that,”

Too bad he forgets this by Troubled Blood, the nimby.  But for now, it is Strike, not Robin, who recognizes and accepts Robin’s aminus. Matthew, as usual, is not happy about the situation, but Robin finishes the book grinning. That won’t last long….

Reverse-Nigredo in Career of Evil. The nigredo or black phase is where the protagonist is putrefied, or broken down into core elements. The protagonist typically spends a lot of this phase miserable, as, one by one, important aspects of their lives are lost or destroyed (think about poor Harry in Order of the Phoenix). Career of Evil is certainly one of the darkest books in recent memory, as the narrative unfolds not only through the eyes of our heroes, but through those of a nameless killer stalking Robin, intent on chopping her and the job she loves into little pieces– and not only in a figurative sense.

The mystery begins  with the Darth Vader-esque killer, fully concealed in a black cycling suit and mirrored helmet, delivering the leg that will spark the near-destruction of the Strike Detective Agency. Later, those same “black-clad,” arms reach out in the dark to grab Robin from behind; she is lucky to escape with a stab wound. Her successful self-defense, which should have been celebrated as testimony to her skill, is followed by banishment from the office and her relegation to an anonymous newspaper “black silhouette” —  her identity reduced from investigator to victim.

Robin experiences multiple relationship break-downs in this book. Early on,  the rows between her and Matthew continue to escalate, culminating in “the explosive argument that had rendered all the squabbling that had gone before trivial, mere warning tremors of the seismic disaster that would lay waste to everything.” Matthew is forced to confess his long-ago, but long-term, infidelity with Sarah, and Robin takes off her ring. But, atypically for a nigredo segment, the breakdown of her engagement has a distinctively positive side for Robin, as it also initiates the breakdown of the emotional barriers between her and Strike. An alcohol-fueled chat in the Tottenham leads her to tell him not just about the ruptured engagement caused by Matthew’s infidelity and jealousy,  but about the darkest time of her life: the rape in her university residence hall. This confession, she fears, will be the end of her detective career:

The drunken Robin read in Strike’s silence the thing she had most feared: a shift in the way he saw her, from equal to victim.

But instead, the opposite happens. Strike is not surprised that her evidence put her attacker away. Learning about her past elevates his opinion of her as potential detective partner.

Eight days previously some bastard had handed her a woman’s severed leg and she had not breathed a word of her past, not asked for special dispensation to take time off, nor deviated in any respect from the total professionalism she brought to work every morning.

The next morning, Robin regrets her candor as much as the cheap wine, appearing more worried about her job and more pained from the stirred-up memories of the rape than she is by the loss of her fiancé.

Why, why, had she told Strike what had happened to her? He had been worried about her before she revealed her history: now what? He would decide she was too fragile to work, Robin was sure of it, and from there it would be a swift, short step to the sidelines, because she was unable to take on all the responsibilities he needed a workmate to shoulder.

But, again, the opposite happens. Strike calls her to tell her about the body the police have found, and assures her she still has a job, acting dumbfounded that it would even be in question. At the police station, he makes his professional regard for her clear, as he insists she be shown the pictures of the corpse.

They’re—not nice,” said Wardle, with uncharacteristic understatement.

“The leg was sent to Robin,” Strike reminded him. “There’s as much chance that she’s seen this woman previously as I have. She’s my partner. We work the same jobs.”

Robin glanced sideways at Strike. He had never before described her as his partner to somebody else, or not within Robin’s hearing. He was not looking at her. Robin switched her attention back to Wardle. Apprehensive though she was, after hearing Strike put her on equal professional footing with himself she knew that, whatever she was about to see, she would not let herself, or him, down.

The ruptured betrothal, therefore, corresponds to the strengthening of her status as Strike’s partner. This is followed, the next day, with another opportunity for Robin to showcase her driving talents, as the Dynamic Duo take their first road trip in the Ellacott Land Rover. In Barrow-in-Furness, Robin shows off her detective skills again, as her invention and impersonation of Venetia Hall secures just the information they need. When Strike quips, “Psychology’s loss is private detection’s gain,” he could as easily have substituted, “Matthew’s loss–”  except that he is insightful enough to know that the engagement may not be off permanently. What we see, therefore, is not pure nigredo. The break-up with Matthew heralds an upturn in Robin’s professional opportunities and makes it obvious which is more important to her.

Only when the professional relationship falters can the romantic relationship be restored. The arrival of the severed toe, on the eve of Linda’s visit, renews his fears for her safety–fears the Flobberworm does not share– and offers Strike the perfect opportunity to send Robin home. Once he utters the dreaded words “You’re only making lists and phone calls,” Robin concludes she will once again be demoted to the position of secretary. It is anger over this sidelining, as much as Matt’s tears amid royal wedding sentimentality, that persuades Robin to replace her ring.

She remembered the day after the proposal, the day she had been sent by the temping agency to Strike. It seemed much, much longer ago than it was. She felt like a different person… at least, she had felt like a different person, until Strike told her to stay at home and copy down phone numbers, evading the question of when she would return to work as his partner.

Once Robin forgives Matthew, the Flobberworm is able to fake enough enthusiasm for her job to help her rehearse her case for returning to work, despite the danger. Although the effort is successful, the resumption of the engagement reduces Robin in Strike’s eyes:

This was the Robin who had taken advanced driving courses, who had concussed herself in the pursuit of a killer, who had calmly wrapped her coat like a tourniquet around his bleeding arm after he was stabbed and taken him to hospital. The Robin who had improvised so successfully in interrogating suspects that she had winkled out information that the police had not managed to get, who had invented and successfully embodied Venetia Hall, who had persuaded a terrified young man who wanted his leg amputated to confide in her, who had given Strike a hundred other examples of initiative, resourcefulness and courage that might have turned her into a plainclothes police officer by now, had she not once walked into a dark stairwell where a bastard in a mask stood waiting.

And that woman was going to marry Matthew! Matthew, who had been banking on her working in human resources, with a nice salary to complement his own, who sulked and bitched about her long, unpredictable hours and her lousy paycheck… couldn’t she see what a stupid bloody thing she was doing? Why the fuck had she put that ring back on? Hadn’t she tasted freedom on that drive up to Barrow, which Strike looked back on with a fondness that discomposed him?

She’s making a fucking huge mistake, that’s all. 

Strike vows, therefore, to undo the gains Robin made in the aftermath of calling off the wedding.

That was all. It wasn’t personal. Whether she was engaged, married or single, nothing could or ever would come of the weakness he was forced to acknowledge that he had developed. He would reestablish the professional distance that had somehow ebbed away with her drunken confessions and the camaraderie of their trip up north.

Rather than capitalize on the talents of his partner, as he had on the Land Rover adventure, Strike tries to covertly shunt her aside by intentionally sending her to survey those suspects he thinks least relevant to the case: first Laing, then Stephanie. These prove to be rather disastrous choices, as they both miss an obvious clue that should have solved the case in her encounter with Laing. And, of course, it is after her meeting with Stephanie that Robin is attacked and stabbed, which, between her injury and Carver’s warning them off the case, sidelines them both.

“Robin, there’s no ‘we’ just now. There’s me, sitting on my arse with no work, and there’s you, staying at bloody home until that killer’s caught.”

There’s no “we” just now. It had happened all over again. A man had come at her out of the darkness and had ripped from her not only her sense of safety, but her status. She had been a partner in a detective agency…

Or had she? There had never been a new contract. There had never been a pay rise. They had been so busy, so broke, that it had never occurred to her to ask for either. She had simply been delighted to think that that was how Strike saw her. Now even that was gone, perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever. There’s no “we” anymore.

Note that Robin appears to jump the gun here, convincing herself that the reduction in status that Strike says is “just [for] now” is something more permanent: “anymore.”  This leads to the rash decision that nearly ends her career. Frustrated with both the men in her life, Robin conspires with Shanker to warn Alyssa of Brockbank’s pedophilia, which prompts her abrupt and unexpected dismissal. As in the Tottenham, her grieving process makes it clear that her job is more important to her than her impending marriage.

As the days went by without any contact from Strike, she felt unspoken pressure from her fiancé to pretend that the prospect of their wedding on Saturday not only made up for her recent sacking, but consumed all her thoughts. Having to fake excitement while he was present made Robin relieved to be alone during the day while Matthew worked. Every evening, before he returned, she deleted the search history on her laptop, so that he would not see that she was constantly looking for news about the Shacklewell Ripper online and—just as often—Googling Strike.

Once the “Girl Friday” ad appears in the The Sun, Robin’s priorities, and her incompatibility with Matthew become even clearer:

Robin had not thought that she could feel any worse, but now she discovered that she had been mistaken. She really was sacked, after everything that she had done for him. She had been a disposable “Girl Friday,” an “assistant”—never a partner, never an equal—and now he was already looking for somebody with a background in the police or the military: somebody disciplined, someone who would take orders…

Her burning eyes met Matthew’s and she saw, before he rearranged his expression, how delighted he was that Strike had put himself so dramatically in the wrong. Matthew, she could tell, had looked forward to showing her the newspaper. Her anguish was nothing compared to his ecstasy at her separation from Strike. She turned away, heading for the kitchen, resolving that she would not shout at Matthew. If they rowed it would feel like a triumph for Strike. She refused to allow her ex-boss to sully her relationship with the man whom she had to—the man whom she wanted to marry in three days’ time.

Now, the professional partnership is fully broken, just as the engagement had been earlier. But, unlike her earlier resultant expanded opportunities at the agency, the apparent reinvigoration of the romance is fake. Robin is clearly sticking to the plans to become Mrs. Flobberworm because it is the safe option, just as she had stayed with him for security after the rape. Her “I love you’s” to him have become purely mechanical, even if it will take until her first anniversary to realize that.

Strike’s anger with Robin burns out in less than five days. His apology might well have derailed the wedding, but for Matthew’s interception and deletion. Thus, the third book ends as an alchemical cycle should: with a wedding, but one which inverts the traditional alchemical symbols and pairing. This is no figurative “quarreling couple” coming together in a reconciliation of opposites; it is a literal quarreling couple going through with a marriage because it is expected, not because it is the right choice for either.

There are Yorkshire roses everywhere: in Robin’s hair, on the pews, and in stands at the back of the church. But these are not the roses of an alchemical wedding.  According to the Alchemy Guild:

In alchemy, the rose is primarily a symbol of the operation of Conjunction, the Mystical Marriage of opposites. It represents the regeneration of separated essences and their resurrection on a new level. In the Practice of Psychotherapy, Carl Jung discussed the archetypal underpinnings of love between people in terms of the rose: “The wholeness which is a combination of ‘I and you’ is part of a transcendent unity whose nature can only be grasped in symbols like the rose or the coniunctio (Conjunction).”

In alchemy the red rose is regarded as a masculine, active, expansive principle of solar spirit (Sulfur), where the white rose represents the feminine, receptive, contractive principle of lunar soul (Salt). The combination of white and red roses (spirit and soul) symbolizes the birth of the Philosopher’s Child (Mercury). During the operation of Conjunction, the relationship of the masculine red rose to the feminine white rose is the same relationship depicted in alchemical images of the Red King and the White Queen or the Red Sun and White Moon.

The roses in the Masham church are all white, representing Robin’s feminine nature. There are no corresponding red roses for the groom, diminishing his presence and power. Thus, we see the opposite of wholeness or conjunction. Matthew is the one who should be saying, “There is no ‘we’ anymore.

If there is any “red” presence at the wedding, it is Strike, with his still-bleeding wounds and suit flecked with red wine stains. As the Doom Bar Detective sneaks into the church, he disrupts the ceremony in mid-vow, knocking over a stand of Yorkshire roses and swearing loudly. Robin’s first smile of the day is not for her flobber-husband, but for the “the battered and bloodied man who had just sent her flowers crashing to the floor.”

So, Robin says “I do,” while meeting Strike’s eyes, not Matthew’s. It should be clear that this inversion of the alchemical union can only give us a couple who will live unhappily ever after.  Matthew and Robin may be wed, but their union is clearly broken beyond repair. It is Robin’s professional relationship with Strike that is headed for healing and purification in Lethal White, (and note the “white.”). Ending Career of Evil with wedding vows that signal the detective partners,’ rather that the bride-and-groom’s “regeneration of separated essences,” turns the third book into a reverse-nigredo volume.  The reversed alchemical pathway through the first three Strike volumes ends with a mock-alchemical wedding. 

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