Rowling’s New Twitter Header Means The Faerie Queene is a Strike 5 Theme?

As many of us are anxiously looking forward to the release of the fifth Cormoran Strike novel, Troubled Blood, this September, the latest change to J.K. Rowling’s Twitter account may have some clues. The novel’s title has several possible origins, including Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. With her recently changed Twitter header, which includes an image from a beautifully illustrated 1890s edition of The Faerie Queene, Rowling and her crime-writing alter-ego Robert Galbraith may be laying the groundwork for a Spenser-scaffolding installment in the adventures of the ever-fascinating Strike and Robin Ellacott. Some of us truly hope that is the case.

A Picture and a Thousand Words?

The Faerie Queene: A Poem in Six Books.As many of us have long noted, Rowling uses images in wonderful, cryptic ways, and her Twitter images often lead us on delightful hunts for clues to forthcoming texts. Since Strike is next up to bat, her hints are clearly about Troubled Blood. While the upcoming novel does not yet have a cover illustration, the image on the right side of the new Twitter header is an illustration from another book, specifically from the first canto of Book III of The Faerie Queene. This is my personal favorite of the six complete books Spenser wrote of his epic poem, an homage to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and to the writing of Geoffrey Chaucer (Spenser planned twelve books, but only finished half and partial bits of the remaining books).

Each book is dedicated to the adventures of a specific allegorical knight who represents a specific virtue: Book I follows Redcrosse, the knight of Holinesse, who defends the lady Una, wallops a Image result for St. George and the dragon hymandragon, and becomes St. George; Guyon, knight of temperance, is the central figure of Book II, as he smashes up the decadent Bower of Bliss; and Book III revolves around the amazing Britomart, who has been kicking bad guys to curb for centuries, long before her comic book and cinematic descendants Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, the Black Widow, and the like came on the scene. Britomart is the knight of chastity, but in typical Spenser fashion, she is far more complex than a cardboard virtue icon. Britomart is neither a chilly lifetime old maid nor a man-hating tomboy like the goddesses Hestia/Vesta and Diana/Artemis. Her task (along with taking names and being awesome when needed) is to seek out her intended husband, Artegall, knight of Justice (who, in another comic book aside, has an Iron Man on his team, and they defeat an evil giant who promises to make everything balanced. Really. But that’s another post).  She is destined to marry him and become the mother of a heroic race of Britons. Along the way, she and her nurse, Glauce, disguise themselves as a conventional knight and squire, have adventures, and frequently come to the rescue of the poem’s good guy knights.

Canto i of Book III begins with Guyon,  who, having captured/defeated the evil seductress Acrascia, promptly gets his posterior kicked by the disguised Britomart (ritual combat is a standard form of greeting in Spenser’s Faerie Land), but then  he allies with her upon the sage advice of his spiritual sidekick, the Palmer. Almost immediately, they encounter the fabulously beautiful maiden Florimell, riding frantically from a “grisely forester.” Guyon follows after to save her, accompanied by Prince Arthur (later to be king. In Spenser’s world, time is fluid, and characters, like Arthur and Queen Elizabeth herself, pop up all over the place).

Britomart continues on her way, and soon rescues Redcrosse from six knights, trying to beat him into denying his Image result for britomart stained glasstrue love (Una) and swearing fealty to Malcasta, the sexy and domineering lady of nearby Castle Joyous. Britomart goes to the castle with Redcrosse, and although they both stay somewhat on guard, Britomart, ever concerned about concealing her true identity, won’t take off her armor despite the pleas of the wily Malcasta.  Since Malcasta thinks Britomart is a man, she tries to sneak into bed with the noble knight, who is startled and nearly kills Malcasta. In the process, Britomart’s gender is revealed, Malcasta’s goons wound her, and she and Redcrosse flee the scene.

While that is a fairly quick run through the events of the canto, there are some very interesting points that may be worth noting for their Strike connections.

Blood, Blood, Blood!

The phrase, “’troubled blood” comes from Canto IX of the first book, when Redcrosse, under the sway of the persuasive fiend Desperye (Despair), considers killing himself. Inciting suicide is Despair’s stock in trade, as he cons visitors into hanging or otherwise dispatching themselves. Redcrosse is nearly swayed, but Una, the wise and spiritually grounded lady he serves, talks sense into him. This reference implies that perhaps suicide, or assisted suicide, may be a theme of Troubled Blood. We’ve seen that before, all the way back in Cuckoo’s Calling when Lula Landry was believed to have jumped to her death.Image result for cormoran strike books

Canto i of Book III, however, from which the illustration comes, has its own stockpile of blood references, right from the beginning. When Florimell bolts onto the scene (and right back out, only to appear later), her horse is described as being bloodied.  When Britomart rescues him, Redcrosse is bloodied by his encounter with the six pushy knights who want him to disavow Una and swear fealty to Malcasta. Later, at Castle Joyous, there is a lengthy description of an elaborate tapestry depicting the goddess Venus and her infatuation with Adonis. The ill-fated young hunter, gored by a wild boar, is described as bloodied as the goddess wipes away the gore with her “soft garment.” Very similar imagery is used when Britomart is bloodied at the end of the canto by Malcasta’s henchmen.

In addition to actual blood,  Redcrosse is sometimes described as bearing a “bloody cross” because his emblem is a Image result for redcrosse knightred cross. While that description appears throughout his appearances in various cantos of different books, it is certainly mentioned in this one.

The references to blood also call to mind the use of humors, a motif we know Rowling enjoys, whether in jibes like Ginny Weasley referring to future sister-in-law Fleur Delacour as “Phlegm,” or in the complex structuring of the couples of the Fantastic Beasts films. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile also have had influence over many of the characters and events in the Strike series so far, so we may expect to see that continue. Likewise, Rowling’s fascination with alchemy isn’t going away anytime soon (we hope!), and Spenser’s use of blood, along with the colors white, black and gold, may foreshadow more in that line.Image result for the humors of the body

Cast of Characters

Despite being incomplete (C.S. Lewis always said that he hoped, when he got to heaven, that Spenser would be there with the completed versions of the remaining books), The Faerie Queene  has a dizzying cast of characters, and the ones that appear in this canto alone may connect to the Strike to come.

Robin Ellacott, over the course of the series so far, has gone from a temporary office assistant with an unlikable fianceImage result for florimell faerie queene to a full-fledged investigator separated from her husband and perhaps open, at last, to a relationship with Strike. Her name is just one of the many bird motifs of the series (oh, those swans!). But a robin isn’t just a harbinger of spring, or even a good bird in most stories, as Lewis reminds us in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Robins also have a red breast, a little joke “Galbraith” makes from her first appearance, when Strike and Robin collide, bruising Robin’s bosom. The Redcrosse knight, with his iconic motif, also has a “red breast,” thus making a connection with our intrepid Robin. Robin actually rather looks like Britomart, as well.

The other woman in Strike’s life (well, there are a passle of them, but the one over whom he obsesses), Charlotte, also may have some connecting threads with Canto i of Book III of The Faerie Queene. Guyon has just fled the clutches of a beautiful, treacherous woman, and Britomart and Redcrosse must escape another beautiful, treacherous woman (and there are plenty more of them throughout The Faerie Queene), perhaps hinting that  although Strike is seeminglyImage result for cormoran strike books over Charlotte, we have probably not seen the last of her.

Florimell, although she is actually in this canto less than one of Strike’s frequently changing flings, also includes a couple of references to previous Strike stories. Her name, alluding to flowers and honey, is indicative of her beauty and sweetness, but Galbraith also uses flowers in ways that are both conventional and surprising, from the wedding decorations Strike literally crashes to the flowers that come to Robin with sinister meaning. In addition, Florimell is riding a “milk-white palfrey”— an image we can’t help but connect with Lethal White.

Slow Reveal

One of the most important elements throughout The Faerie Queene is one shared by the works of Rowling, whether she is writing Harry Potter’s adventures as J.K. Rowling, or letting Robert Gabraith chronicle the crime-solving Image result for florimell faerie queene of Cormoran Strike.  Those of us who re-read the Hogwarts adventures know the thrill of realizing that an important plot element was actually first mentioned long before it became a critical piece of the puzzle. Like the locket that seems an inconsequential item in the list of oddities being cleaned out of the Blacks’ house and is later revealed to be the missing Horcrux snagged by Regulus Black, or the mention of Sirius Black as the loaner of the  motorbike on which Hagrid rides to deliver Harry, 12 years and 2 books before Harry’s godfather busts out of Azkaban, there are countless elements, large and small, that are woven throughout the seven-book series.

Spenser’s use of the slow reveal is also remarkable, with characters dashing in and out, only to appear cantos or even whole books later, or seemingly meaningless references to characters, places, or events actually foreshadowing later elements. We can only imagine how complex and beautifully interwoven the entire epic poem would have been had Spenser been able to complete and edit it all together (I hope Lewis is enjoying it).

Does the illustration of Florimell, who really does a lot of running, but doesn’t show up much more in this canto, serve as a reminder to us that what is to come in Troubled Blood may be the fruition of a teaser from early in the series? Or will this book, perhaps, contain teasers for later installments?

These thoughts and questions are sure to face additional challenges in the coming months, as we should be getting a cover eventually, and we should have some answers in September, or at least some different questions. We can only hope that, unlike Spenser, Rowling gets to complete her series, and that despite their trials, Strike and Robin will triumph as surely as the knights of Faerieland.


Image result for florimell faerie queene


  1. Susan in Omaha says

    John, can you recommend a companion book to help understand The Faerie Queene?
    Britomart sounds a lot like Brienne of Tarth!

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Hi Susan – Two of the best short introductions to FQ are Elizabeth Heale’s The Faerie Queene A Reader’s Guide and Colin Burrow’s Writers and their Work: Edmund Spenser.

  3. Joanne Gray says

    Thank you so much for posting this very insightful post, Elizabeth.
    It does seem that there are possible character/story links within Spencer’s ‘Fairy Queen’ and the Strike series:

    Charlotte Ross (née Campbell) and Spencer’s characters “evil seductress Acrascia” and the “sexy and domineering lady Malcasta”

    Robin and Spencer’s strong woman knight, Britomast.
    (Also, the fact that Britomast is seeking her intended (and destined) husband Artegall, Knight of Justice lines up very nicely with the Strike two main characters with Robin as a Britomast and Cormoran strongly linked to justice, both as a former SIB soldier and as a current PI.

    To name a few but it is a bit disturbing (i.e., troubling) that the very place that the title of the fifth book’s title is mentioned in the Fairy Queen’s first book should feature the main male knight, Redcrosse, on the verge of taking his own life. After all suicide appears rather prominently through the series (albeit usually as the wrong solution to an actual murder) but still—after all the epigraphs in the fourth book coming from Ibsen’s ‘Rosmersholm’ which features troubled families, troubled bloodlines, and suicides (including those of the play’s two leads), it’s very disconcerting.

    It has been mentioned that Charlotte will likely make another, unwelcome, appearance and anyone who has read ‘Cuckoo’s Calling’ will remember Charlotte’s own threats of suicide (she seemed to have a tendency to want to throw herself off a building). This could hint that maybe Charlotte will decide if she can’t reclaim a live Cormoran that she will settle for making sure to take him with her to the hereafter so at least Robin can’t have him either.

    The good news is in the ‘Fairy Queen’ version Knight Redcrosse is saved from that dark fate by the intervention of his female companion. Robin to the rescue?? Only 170 days till we find out!

  4. Bonni Crawford says

    Thank you Elizabeth, for this fascinating discussion! Though I do hope we don’t have to witness a suicidal Strike in Book 5. Things would have to be really bad for that, which does kind of tie in with John and Joanne’s predictions that Strike 5 will be a dark and difficult book. As John suggested, the agency may be taken to court over the illegal auditory surveillance…Robin being hauled over the coals in court and Strike feeling that it’s all his fault and he’s messed up her career along with his own may induce suicidal thoughts, probably exacerbated by whatever Charlotte (and indeed Matt) has in store for him.

    I don’t know if anyone’s analysed the picture on the left of Rowling’s twitter header yet? It’s a part of a picture from, who describe themselves as producing “Art for Modern Alchemists who read peer review”. Specifically, it’s the top part of an image showing the structure of haemoglobin, the oxygen-transporting metalloprotein in our red blood cells (and the red blood cells of most other animals). You can see the full picture here:

    Well, anything to do with proteins in the blood bring to mind the so-called DNA test that proved Rokeby’s paternity. But the thing is, red blood cells don’t contain DNA! If Strike and Rokeby have had a DNA test using blood samples, the DNA would have been extracted from their white blood cells, not the red, haemoglobin-containing ones.
    The only paternity test that uses red blood cells, so far as I know, is basic blood-type testing. That doesn’t involve haemoglobin though, but molecules called antigens in the surface membranes of red blood cells. Louise Freeman has written an excellent article on here about paternity tests – see

    Just to recap:

    In the ABO blood typing system, humans can possess the A antigen (A blood type), the B antigen (B blood type), both the A and B antigen (AB blood type), or neither of these antigens (O blood type). The genes that code for these antigens are inherited genes, so a mother who has Type B blood and a father who has Type O blood could not have a child who has type AB blood. The true father of the child must have the gene for the A antigen. Using RBC antigen systems for paternity blood testing wasn’t a very powerful test because any two blokes with A-type blood could have been the father. These tests could ruled out who the father wasn’t and indicate biological possibility of fatherhood.

    DNA paternity tests using DNA from white blood cells were developed in the 1970s. Those were about 95% accurate (from a legal standpoint, they could exclude about 95% of “falsely accused ‘fathers'” – awful language from a feminist perspective). The current tests are 99.9% accurate. But none of these DNA tests involve red blood cells, let alone haemoglobin!

    Louise suggested, in her excellent article, that Strike, impatient with scientific detail, maybe thinks it is a DNA test when it wasn’t. After all, he was only 5 years old or younger. Or possibly the blood-type test was done then in combination with a prototypebhuman leukocyte antigen (HLA) white blood cell DNA test. Rokeby’s wealth and status would have been sufficient to allow access to a newly-developed type of test, late in the 1970s, before it was made available to the broader public. If it was a prototype, it might have been as little as 80% accurate.

    But why is Rowling putting up a picture of the chemical structure of haemoglobin?! All I can think of is, maybe Jonny Rokeby becomes ill with some sort of blood or bone cancer and needs a blood transfusion. His legitimate kids are tested but none of them is a match (a bit of a stretch, but maybe he’s got a rare blood type – AB negative or something). So Corm’s blood is tested and – again this is a stretch – it turns out he’s got a hitherto unidentified, innocuous but most definitely inherited, structural disorder/variant of his haemoglobin (see If Leda’s haemoglobin genetics are recorded somewhere, then this could indicate that Rokeby is not Strike’s father. It’s a bit far-fetched though. A more plausible version of this would be if Rokeby needed a bone marrow transplant (this could still be for a cancer affecting the blood, as bone marrow is where blood cells are produced). Then the HLA needs to be matched as closely as possible. Given today’s more accurate methods of HLA genetic analysis, this could be the test that ends up showing that Strike is not, in fact, Rokeby’s son. But now I’m back to, why has she put up an image of the structure of haemoglobin?!

    What do you think?

  5. Joanne Gray says

    I’m so glad that you posted your thoughts and detailed information on JKR’s other Twitter header print which depicts hemoglobin. I was surprised as well as to why JKR chose an image about that particular aspect of blood–since it seemed more generic rather than specifically pointing to genetic aspects that would reveal solutions to the series genetic questions around the main character and his family. Only 164 days until we have an answer.

  6. Bonni Crawford says

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