The Sword Hidden in a Frozen Pond ‘Dissolution’ and ‘Deathly Hallows:’ Literary Allusion and Reinvention?

I gave a talk to students at the University of Louisville last week in which, almost as an aside, I asserted that the pivotal chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, ‘The Silver Doe,’ was the best and most important chapter in the Hogwarts Saga. The Arthurian, alchemical, and Estecean Christian symbolism make it a one-stop introduction to everything brilliant in the series; that it is the story-turn in the series finale’s meaning-laden ring structure is just an ‘extra.’

My favorite part of the chapter is Ron Weasley’s description of how Dumbledore’s Deluminator enabled him to find Harry and Hermione on the run. The combination of light, heart, Christmas, and name tokens here and their deployment as set-up to Ron’s victory over the two-eyed Locket Horcrux (and his own transformed vision, cf. Matthew 6:21-23) reveals Rowling as a traditional allegorist in the tradition of Spenser, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Coleridge, and the Inklings.

I suspect, though, that others think of Harry’s descent into the pool to get the Sword of Gryffindor, the Locket’s attempt to strangle him, and Ron the Baptist appearing ex machina to raise the Boy Who Lived from a near-certain death by drowning as ‘The Silver Doe’s defining moment. (Did I mention the albedo-photismos qualities of this chapter?) I get that choice. High drama, plenty of action, a real Big Screen life-saving sequence. The Lady in the Lake sword-deliverer story in a snow-scape. This chapter has it all.

That being said, I want to share a passage from a 2003 novel that was a very big hit in the UK, one I think it more than credible that Rowling read at the time of its publication. If you don’t see the parallels with ‘The Silver Doe’ chapter’s sword in the frozen pond scene, I think you’ll need to read it again. It’s nothing like plagiarism or theft but a brilliant re-invention and re-purposing of another writer’s work, even perhaps a hat-tip to a like-minded author. The book is C. J. Sansom’s Dissolution, the connection with Rowling is through P. D. James, and the parallel scene and compare-and-contrast discussion with Deathly Hallows’ pivotal chapter are all to be found after the jump!

I found Dissolution in my effort to compile Rowling’s admitted literary ‘likes’ and influences in December 2020. Nick Jeffery found this in his invaluable survey of Rowling’s twitter accounts.

I had not heard of or read The Moving Toyshop and resolved both to learn more about the author, Edmund Crispin, and this book. In that search, I found out that P. D. James, Queen of Crime Fiction, was a fan. She recommended The Moving Toyshop (1946) as one of her top five “most riveting crime novels” in 2006, writing that “this spirited frolic of a detective story retains its place as one of the most engaging and ingenious mysteries of its age.” I have since that discovery read all five of the recommendations — and found Toyshop the least engaging. De gustibus — and my tastes do not run to Oxbridge vaudeville, it turns out.

The last book I read on this list, oddly enough, was the only one I had on my shelf when I resolved to buy and read the lot, Sansom’s Dissolution. It turns out that P. D. James gave a very big push to this first novel, which launched the uber successful Matthew Shardlake detective series set in Tudor England. Her two thumb’s up recommendation fills the back cover of the hardback edition I own, in which she raves, “With this remarkable debut, C. J. Sansom can lay claim to a place among the most distinguished of modern historical novelists.”

Dissolution  was enough of a hit in 2003 that I think it likely Rowling picked it up and read it. That P. D. James was excited by the new author and wrote an enthusiastic review about a new author makes it all but a sure thing in my mind that Rowling has read the book. Rowling is a big P. D. James fan. As noted on the Literary Likes’ listing, Rowling has repeatedly referenced James as a favorite writer, her Silkworm take on Jacobean Revenge drama hat-tips James’ two Cordelia Gray novels that use the same story template, and most recently, in her interview with the UK’s Poet Laureate, The Presence chose P. D. James as her preferred crime writer, just a touch above Ruth Rendell.

If you haven’t read Dissolution, here is the plot summary that James wrote for her 2006 Five Most Riveting Crime Novels essay at The Wall Street Journal:

The book is set in 1537, when England is torn by the Reformation. The terrifying Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and his power is being enforced by savage new laws and a network of secret informers. A team of commissioners is sent out to investigate the country’s monasteries. At one, a commissioner is found dead, his head severed from his body, his murder accompanied by sinister acts of sacrilege. The hero, Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer, intelligent and incorruptible, is ordered by Thomas Cromwell to uncover the truth. His investigation involves him in treachery and danger, leading him to question everything he believes. 

The scene I want to discuss is the discovery of the murder weapon. The monastery in which the mystery takes place is on England’s south coast and is bordered by an extensive marsh that separates it from the sea. A stream flows through the monastery and its reredorter (toilets) has been built over it so that this waste might be carried out naturally into the marsh and sea outside the walls. The stream has been put to one other use; it was dammed just before the walls to create a fish pond which supplied carp for the monastery’s table (put aside your thoughts about the human waste pouring into this pond every day — Tudor life!). Shardlake suspects the sword with which Thomas Cromwell‘s commissioner had been murdered or a stolen reliquary might be hidden in the pond, and, sure enough, he detects  “a patch of yellow at the bottom.”

I reached the pond and looked in. It was covered with a thin skin of ice, but the sun was almost overhead now and I made out the dim shapes of large carp flickering through the reedy water.

As I straightened up, something else caught my eye, a faint yellowish glint at the bottom. Puzzled, I leaned forward again. At first I could not locate what I had seen among the reeds and wondered whether it had been a trick of the light, but then I saw it again. I knelt down, my hands smarting at the touch of the snow, and peered in. There was something, a patch of yellow at the bottom. The casket was gold, and many expensive swords have gilt handles. It was worth investigating. I shivered. I did not fancy confronting those icy depths now, but I would come back later with Mark. I rose, brushed the snow from my clothes, then gathered my coat around me and headed for the gate (142-143).

This passage is in the twelfth chapter of a novel thirty-three chapters long (thirty-two and an epilogue). Shardlake returns with Mark Poers, his servant-friend, in chapter nineteen, the one I think is the story turn. He orders Mark, as Shardlake thought he would when first seeing the “yellowish glint at the bottom,” to enter the icy waters and retrieve the object on the pond bed.

We trudged on, traversing the graveyard and then the orchard, now almost a foot deep in snow. Watery sunlight was reflected from the stream and the ice-covered circle of the fish pond.

I pushed my way through the frozen rushes. The ice was thicker now, a light covering of snow round the edges. But by bending down and squinting hard I could still discern something gleaming faintly near the middle of the pond.

‘Mark, see that pile of loose stones, under where the wall is patched. Fetch a big one and break the ice.’

He sighed, but at a stern look from me went off and fetched a great lump of limestone. I stood back as he raised the boulder above his head and flung it into the centre of the pond. There was a tremendous crash, satisfying somehow, though I flinched as a spout of water and shards of ice flew into the air. I left the water to settle, then carefully approached the edge, got down on hands and knees again and peered in. Disturbed fish milled about frantically.

‘Now – yes, just there, do you see it? A gleam of yellow?’

‘I think so,’ Mark agreed. ‘Yes, there’s something. Shall I try fishing for it? If I take your staff and you hold my other arm, by stretching I might reach it.’

I shook my head. ‘No. I want you to go in for it.’

His face fell. ‘The water is near frozen.’

‘Singleton’s killer may have thrown his bloody clothes in there too. Go on, it can’t be more than two or three feet deep. You’ll live.’

For a moment I thought he would refuse, but he set his lips and bent to remove his coat, his overshoes and finally his boots. Those expensive leather shoes would be no better for a soaking. He stood a moment shivering on the bank, his solid bare legs and feet nearly as white as the snow. Then he took a deep breath and waded in, shouting aloud at the shock of the cold water.

I had expected it to reach his thighs, but he had taken no more than a couple of steps before, with a cry, he sank to his chest. Great bubbles of stinking gas belched up around him, smelling so vile I took an involuntary step back. He stood there gasping as the foul air dissipated.

‘There’s a foot of mud – ugh -‘ he gasped.

‘Yes,” I said. ‘Of course. The silt from the stream will fall to the bottom. Can you see anything? Can you reach?’

He gave me a withering look, then with a groan he bent down, his arm disappearing under the water. He scrabbled about. ‘Yes – something – it’s sharp -‘ his arm reappeared. He was holding a great sword, its handle gilded with gold. My heart leaped as he threw it on the bank.

‘Well done!’ I breathed. ‘Now – again – is there anything more?’

He bent again, his whole shoulder disappearing under the surface and sending slow ripples towards the icy rim.

‘Jesu, it’s cold. Wait – yes – there is something – it’s soft – cloth I think.’

‘The killer’s clothes!’ I breathed (237-238).

I won’t type out Harry and Ron’s trip into the Forest of Dean pool; see Deathly Hallows, pages 367-371, for that. I think the story of their finding of the Sword of Gryffindor — and being proven worthy of it both in their willing entry into the icy water to get it and Ron’s use of it on the Locket Horcrux — is one familiar to readers here. Note these seven significant parallels with the Dissolution equivalent:

  • The pond, the ice, the breaking of the ice, the undressing, the freezing cold entry in obedience, the surfacing, the sword, the getting dressed, all of that; but also —
  • The story hero finds the object but is unable to retrieve it;
  • The side-kick enters the water, though thinking anyone doing so is “mental,” and retrieves the object;
  • The object is a sword the pair have been seeking as a solution to the mystery they are investigating ‘against the clock;’
  • The pair are under orders from an all-powerful spiritual figure who turns out to have feet of clay (to say the least — Sansom’s Dumbledore figure is Thomas Cromwell); 
  • The sword’s surprise use in the story, revealed only at the end, is decapitation, in both cases by a character that comes as a great shock to the reader; and
  • The novel largely turns on the question of faith and doubt with respect to religious authority — and what the pair find in the pond winds up as the pointer to the author’s take on this subject.

The Tudor era murder mystery is set in the time of the shameful founding of the Anglican Church and its concurrent dissolution — hence the title — of Roman Catholic monasteries throughout the realm. This was done in the name of ‘Reform’ and in practice was a great profit-taking for the King and his minions. The Dissolutions story is told through the eyes of an outsider, Shardlake is a hunchback barrister who works on assignment for Cromwell, the King’s Vicar General, who is zealous for the Reform movement and who hates all popery. The Catholic Church and all its failings, consequently are shared in high relief, no holds barred. By the story’s end, though, the Reformers have been revealed to be no better and perhaps even much worse in their hypocrisy and love of power with its complementary neglect of the power of Love.

‘Churchianity,’ in other words, both papist and protestant, is under assault in Dissolution and readers are clearly meant to side with those who resist both these institutional authorities. I think P. D. James, a faithful Anglican to the end, probably was thrilled by Dissolution as a loyal adherent to the English Church because, as familiar as King Henry VIII’s and Cromwell’s crimes are (and as tightly wound as they are with the founding of this sect), the cause of reform gets a fair hearing in the book; the Catholic Church and its monastic holdings as portrayed in Dissolution were a mess, and, however heavy handed and self-serving the reformers, at least they don’t seem in Sansom’s historical fiction like nut-job maniacs for forcing change.

I think Rowling probably noted Dissolution‘s theme of anti-Peter, pro John as existing in parallel with her world-view and fiction, in which the individual believer rather than the established edifice is the embodiment of hope, love, and justice. See the author’s ‘Historical Note’ at the end of Dissolution (389-390) in which he all but spells out his disdain for both sides of English church history (he has a PhD in history, by the way). Sansom’s Harry-equivalent figures attempt escape from Henry’s kingdom, preferring an almost certain death to living in a world where the only choice for believers is between the Bedlam of Reform and the ossified Tower of Petrine tradition and corruption.

That being said, I am obliged to note the obvious before any of you rush to correct my over-reach here.

  • There is no evidence or testimony that Rowling read Dissolution before she wrote Deathly Hallows.
  • The parallels between the Sword in the Frozen Pond in Dissolution and in Deathly Hallows could be entirely coincidental. Everyone knows the Lady in the Lake with Sword story.
  • The thematic correspondences about individual faith and doubt with respect to religious belief and spiritual reality are touchstones of the postmodern age and thoughtful writers in it. See Eco’s Name of the Rose for a point of origin for the projection of postmodern spiritual angst onto Medieval figures.

There is no need, in other words, to make this perhaps only coincidental connection between C. J. Sansom’s Dissolution and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I think, nonetheless, that the parallels in the two Sword in the Frozen Pond scenes highlight the central aims of fostering a transformed vision in readers with respect to the noumenal in both authors’ work. And that link is certainly there and a very important one, regardless of whether Rowling read the Sword in Frozen Pond scene in Dissolution and re-invented it for her finale’s central scene or came up with it entirely on her own.

Your comments and corrections are, as always, coveted.


  1. Thanks for this John – I enjoyed the connection, which the ice & decapitation do take beyond the shared Arthurian parallel.
    Perhaps the sidekick aspect is something which they both get from the importance of Sir Bedivere at the scene in which the sword is returned to the Lady of the Lake?
    I think that you could add to your case that Rowling is likely to have been mulling over a turn to crime fiction at around this time, so might well have been a voracious reader of all the lauded new examples of the genre!

    The Silver Doe is perhaps my favourite chapter in the whole series likewise. I always enjoy writing Harry Potter posts at Christmas but I particular enjoyed writing three Christmas posts about the Boxing Day appearance of the silver doe this year – so, nice to find we’re thinking on the same wavelength!

  2. I neglected to mention that the P. D. James- J. K. Rowling connection, especially with respect to Cordelia Gray and the Jacobean Revenge Dramas came to my attention via Beatrice Groves’ work and our consequent correspondence. What I knew about Early Modern Drama and the Queen of Crime before her introductions to that literature could have been written on my left pinkie fingernail with a broad-tipped Sharpie.

    And, yes, if there is a one stop source for Hermione Granger’s name, one not referencing the Hg aspect, it is ‘Cordelia Gray.’

    Readers interested in reading Prof Groves’ ‘Silver Doe at Christmas’ can find that post here. Highly recommended.

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Just to pull in another of our favorites, when I saw the murderer’s clothes retrieved along with the sword, I immediately thought of Dave Polworth diving in the chilly sea to retrieve Liz Tassel’s burka and coveralls, along with the typewriter she used for the fake Bombyx Mori. Not exactly the same, but we have frigid water, a killer’s cloths (and the weapon… the pen is mightier than the sword, or in this case, the typewriter is), a notorious place to dive (“Hell’s Mouth”) and we can consider Polworth a loyal sidekick (not as much as Robin, maybe, but I don’t think she scubas).

    And of course, the dive itself happened offscreen, so not a pivotal scene in the book, let alone the series. Maybe this is the closest we could come to a hat-tip in a realistic, contemporary series.

  4. Well, that’s fun, but “killer’s clothes” is not actually what Mark Poer finds in the fish pond in addition to the sword.

    The hint of what he actually finds is in the sentence, “Great bubbles of stinking gas belched up around him, smelling so vile I took an involuntary step back.” Not clothes…

  5. Louise Freeman says

    Sorry, I was confused by the last line you quoted: “The killer’s clothes!” What is there in Reformation era sewage that feels like cloth? or do I want to know?

  6. ‘Dissolution’ is a book worth reading, so I won’t spoil the Frozen Pond scene more than I have already! I’ll just say Mark and Shardlake are much less happy with what they found beneath the sword in the pond than they were in finding the murder weapon.

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Expanding a bit on “the sidekick aspect”, John Mason Neale’s ‘sidekick’ carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas’, has enjoyed great popularity (despite the grumblings of various carol editors), following (Wikipedia informs me) his prose version in Deeds of Faith: Stories for Children from Church History (1849) but specifying “on the Feast of Stephen”. A striking feature of both is a use of the ‘vestigia’ theme, with the Page treading “In his master’s steps”. Charles Williams uses this theme ‘in reverse’, if complexly, in ‘Percivale at Carbonek’ where Galahad treads in the footsteps of Bors – the older, but in some senses ‘lower’, going first. This leaves me wanting to comb ‘The Silver Doe’ for possible St. Stephen and ‘vestigia’ references or resonances… The Liturgical-Seasonal and ‘hunt’ aspects also leave me wanting to have a look at ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (is the lady a sort of ‘sidekick’? – and what of Locket and girdle?) – do we know if JKR read Tolkien’s edition, or translation? And, I come to this post having just caught up with the 1913 revised Breviary lesson for St. Maurus, and now checked its source in Book II, chapter 7 of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great (in translation) with its fascinating interplay and “friendly contention” of Abbot St. Benedict and Brother Maurus in a water rescue.

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    By the way, what is the tantalizing ‘Estecean’? My quick searching and lexicographical efforts with the classic NED and a couple Latin and Greek dictionaries have found nothing (and, though I have not (re)read every post which an onsite search calls up, the ones I have read so far do not ring any Patristic bells, either).

  9. Coleridge’s initial were ‘STC’ and he used the word ‘Estecean’ to describe his own work and Logos-based thoughts. ‘Johannine’ is a near equivalent, I think, with respect to theology, philosophy, and literature.

  10. It’s funny you should say that. I recently just reread the books, and The Silver Doe stood out to me as a miniature masterpiece in its own right, and I also reflected that it may be the single greatest chapter in the series. Besides the numinous symbolism, it’s also just extremely cathartic as Harry’s quest seems all but failed up to that moment, and Ron’s return and reconciliation is very emotionally satisfying. It’s marvellously written. I get the impression reading it that Rowling understood while writing the chapter that it had extraordinary significance.

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