Troubled Blood: Cormoran Strike’s Journey with Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner

Elizabeth Baird-Hardy and Beatrice Groves have been writing about the Spenserian epigraphs adorning each of Troubled Blood’s seven Parts and all of its seventy three chapters, and, for those few, too-happy few Rowling readers well versed in Faerie Queen this has no doubt been a challenging and rewarding effort in literary exegesis. It is an unstated but key premise to everything we write here, I realized this morning, that Rowling writes and speaks to two audiences simultaneously — to those who read her work for entertainment and inspiration and to those who read her work (to include longer twitter threads as well as her novels and series!) for the text beneath the surface of the text, the narrative undergirding the plot narrative revealing the meaning of narratives in our lives. The Faerie Queen posts are, no doubt, examples of the hidden text within what the Russian Formalists called ‘literariness’ and we owe a real debt to Profs Baird-Hardy and Groves for the slow-mining they do per Ruskin to bring this gold to the light of day.

The problem with this work is that I do not think the overlap portion of a Venn diagram of ‘Readers of Troubled Blood,’ ‘Readers of Harry Potter,’ and ‘Readers of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen‘ constitutes even a very small shared sub-set of serious readers. More to the point, perhaps, in an area proportional Venn diagram in which the three sets of readers are represented in size relative to the number of their living members, the Faerie Queen set, alas, is the smallest of the three — and has virtually no overlap, with the important exception of Profs. Baird Hardy and Groves, with the other sets.

No doubt Rowling labors here to foster interest in Spenser’s epic poem among her faithful as well as her Straussian readers of her public and hidden texts, of her surface and hidden meanings, just as she did with Silkworm’s Jacobean Revenge Drama epigraphs and Lethal White’s chapter heading glosses from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. But Faerie Queen is by far the biggest ‘ask’ in this regard, one with rewards proportionate to the time and effort necessary to enter Spenser’s realm, and the prompting I have to think that will be the least likely to be taken, even with the encouraging glosses written by Serious Strikers.

What I wish to offer today for your consideration is a much less obvious parallel text within Troubled Blood, one that many more if by no means most Troubled Blood readers have already read and which all could read with understanding in less than an hour. This work, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ when read in parallel with Troubled Blood, highlights essential artistry and meanings of Rowling’s latest, of Rowling’s oeuvre taken as a whole, and even of the references to Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare in Strike 5. Join me after the jump for a deep dive into the parallels between Mariner and the fifth Strike novel, an Estecean interpretive journey through Troubled Blood!

There are at least seven points of correspondence between Rowling-Galbraith’s Troubled Blood and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I am not making the argument that this was intentional on the author’s part, though it must seem that this is my contention; this is unprovable without the testimony of Rowling and, if denied by her, true or not, the game is lost. I am after bigger game than pinning the literary allusion tail to the writer of the tale, namely, illuminating neglected depths of the Troubled Blood story via associations with Coleridge’s poem’s artistry and meanings. Let’s begin with the relatively obvious shared qualities of Troubled Blood and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (hereafter Blood and Mariner respectively).

l. The Poem and the Book are Both Seven Part Ring Compositions

Coleridge’s Rime is in seven parts and together they work as a ring or turtleback structure. If you draw a circle with Parts 1 and 7 as beginning and end, Part 4 as the point opposite where one and seven ‘latch,’ Parts two and three going up the side of the circle from one to four and five and six ‘down’ from four to seven, you can see the ‘turtle-back by drawing lines between four and one/seven bisecting the circle top to bottom and between two and six and between three and five across that axis. Parts one and seven, the story frame or brackets, begin and end in the town at the beginning and end of the Mariner‘s voyage and his meeting years later with the wedding-guest. The story turn in Part Four, in which the Mariner learns his lesson about the albatross and repents, reveals the point of the story beginning and end; in such structures, “the meaning is in the middle.” Parts two and six feature the accusation and curses of the Mariner‘s crew members, living and dead, and parts three and five both tell the story of the crew’s first and second deaths, not to mention the parallels between the dice-playing Death and Life-in-Death and the Two Voices in the air.

Troubled Blood, too, is a ring of seven parts. In parts one, four, and seven Robin and Strike meet with Anna Phipps and Kim Sullivan to talk about and with the Phipps family and the disappearance of Margot Bamborough. The story axis turns, too, on the illness and death of Joan Nancarrow. Parts Two and Six are the introduction to the mystery of the missing person case and Dennis Creed’s part in it and the resolution of this mystery and meeting with Creed, respectively. Parts Three and Five’s many parallel are discussed at length in Take-Away point #4 in my post on Blood’s fifth chapter set. As important as that turtle-back structure is for the novel as a whole, Blood takes Rowling’s ring artistry to a new high in that each of the book’s seven parts is also a ring within itself.

2. Each Describes the Transformative Journey of a Western Man

The Ancient Mariner is transformed in his circumnavigation of the globe, a return trip powered by occult forces, from a careless sailor who kills an albatross for sport into a pilgrim and prophet whose testimony to those he is inspired to share his tale is life-changing. He comes to know the unity of all things as creations of God’s Love in his nigredo agonies at sea and is a new man indeed after his confession to the Holy Man at the end of his journey. He is not from Cornwall, at least the poem does not specify that he is (Martin Gardner thinks the reference to “kirk” means he is from Scotland); he is, of course, a ‘Western Man’ in the sense we use the term Global West today in being Christian and of the anglo-sphere.

I have written about Strike’s psychological transformative journey at ‘Troubled Blood: Strike’s Transformation.’

3. “Water Everywhere” — a Watery Nigredo and Mythological ‘Water’ Creatures in Sea and Sky

The alchemical nigredo or ‘black stage’ is typically one of heat or ‘burning up;’ the subject is reduced to its prime matter or essence after all the surface dross and accidents have been incinerated. The consequent ‘white stage, the albedo, in contrast, is ablutionary and purifying; it is usually depicted in story via images of white nobility and perfection (pearls, swans, the moon) and of water, lots of water. The search in Troubled Blood is for a pearl — ‘Margot’ is an anglican form of ‘Margaret,’ the name derived from the Greek word for ‘pearl’ — and the story is told in a literal flood of water images, meteorological certainly in the storms of the night Margot disappeared to the downpours that cut off Cornwall from England, but astrological as well.

It is not the series albedo, however, but its nigredo despite these second stage markers because the water images are less about the purification of the subject than his psychological dissolution. Water and the ‘liquid spirits’ almost every character drinks to good effect in the long novel serves as the alchemical ‘universal solvent’ that unbinds Strike and company from both their inhibitions but their restrictive and protective personae and misconceptions as well. The Mariner, of course, is similarly transformed, which is to say, broken down and reintegrated, solve et coagula, while at sea, that is, entirely surrounded by water.

Whether Rowling intentionally lifted this use from the hermetic reading of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is unprovable, as mentioned above, but there are certainly suggestive pointers. Most obviously, Strike reads in Talbot’s True Book and then thinks to himself “Water everywhere” in the book’s dead center chapter, thirty-seven (pp 439, 440). If the words were not arresting enough themselves or in being repeated, Rowling italicizes them for special emphasis. The most quoted (and misquoted) lines of Ancient Mariner besides its brilliant finish, of course, are his description of the nigredo time aboard the ship becalmed:

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

I’d note as well that, in addition to the astrological water sign animals that are the subject of Strike’s unwilling reflection throughout Blood, the beginning and end of Strike’s journey are made in meditations on sea creatures, the seal of chapter two and the sea gull of chapter seventy-two. You could add, too, that it is in the presence of animals — pet dogs and birds — that he is struck by “coincidences” (e.g., the dogs in the park after the interview with the Bayliss sisters). The Mariner link is that the tortured sailor is relieved of the literal and metaphorical “albatross about his neck” only when he comes to some appreciation for the watery monsters all around the ship, hence the moral of the poem:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
⁠To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well who loveth well
⁠Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best who loveth best
⁠All things, both great and small:
For the dear God who loveth us,
⁠He made and loveth all.

4. The Estecean Gloss on the Text and Rowling’s Embedded Texts

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner goes through significant changes in its history of publication during Coleridge’s lifetime. Perhaps the greatest single change after its first appearance in the world changing Lyrical Ballads (1798) was the Sage of High Gate’s addition of a gloss in the margins for Sibylline Leaves (1817). As if the archaic language and Medieval or Gothic imagery were not enough to jar the reader constantly into self-consciousness of reading a story and poem, STC provides a running commentary of what is happening alongside almost every stanza to make “suspension of disbelief,” a Coleridge-ism, more than a little difficult. The poet, in other words, was much les interested in the reader’s having an enjoyable entertainment as he was in each person’s edification and awareness that the tale, as with the Wedding Guest’s experience of the Mariner, is about his or her transformation in parallel.

Rowling is a writer consumed by the experience of narratives. Rather than providing a gloss to her books per se — though the parallels between the Strike and Potter numbers serve as such, I think — she embeds narratives and texts within her books that the characters are struggling to understand in correspondence with the reader’s effort to grasp the book-in-hand and the characters’ efforts with their books and hidden narratives.

For those who read Rowling and Galbraith for entertainment and inspiration this matters very little. For Rowling’s audience of what we call “Serious Readers,” these embedded texts and their content is almost the heart of the story. My favorite Troubled Blood example? The illustrated pages from Talbot’s ‘True Book,’ i.e., the real book inside the story book, which pages when understood and read fully, to include the embedded tarot readings Talbot included via card symbols, reveal the murderer and her motivation, even the location of Margot’s body, the “holy place.”

5. The Albatross, Joan Nancarrow, and Charlotte Campbell

The most famous event of Rime, perhaps, in a poem full of memorable, even graphic images may be the Mariner’s freedom from the albatross hung round his neck, a freedom won, as noted above, due to his epiphany:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

The equivalent for Strike takes place at story’s end when he changes his phone number so Charlotte can no longer contact him (906-908). He does this, though, because of a transformative event at sea, on Easter Sunday, when Joan Nancarrow’s family and dearest friends commit her earthly remains to the sea. This casting off from Strike of a heavy burden in which he most profoundly feels his attachment to his Aunt and Uncle is immediately followed by a text message from the albatross of Strike’s life, that is, his attachment to Charlotte Campbell, a message which is the note for her attempted suicide, and his save-via-cell-phone when back on dry land (664-670).

He saves her life, yes, but the detachment from her he wins and claims thereby is really his rebirth, his rising from his life-in-death, most fitting for the Cornwall Mariner come back to port after a journey in which his beloved dead-fellow traveler, like the Mariner’s, have at last gone to their rest. The Christian symbolism of victory over death in death here, especially with the explicit Paschal marker, are as transparent as Coleridge’s albatross slain by a cross-bow.


The most haunting image of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner comes in the poem’s third part, in which a ghost ship pulls alongside the becalmed vessel the Mariner and his ship-mates are in. It’s only occupants are “a DEATH and LIFE-IN-DEATH.”

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres!

Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
"The game is done!  I've won!  I've won!"
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

The Sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea.
Off shot the spectre-bark.
The original version, frankly, in Lyrical Ballads is better (differences highlighted):
Are these her naked ribs, which fleck’d
 The sun that did behind them peer?
And are these two all, all the crew,
 That woman and her fleshless Pheere?

His bones were black with many a crack,
 All black and bare, I ween;
Jet-black and bare, save where with rust
Of mouldy damps and charnel crust
 They’re patch’d with purple and green.

Her lips are red, her looks are free,
 Her locks are yellow as gold:
Her skin is as white as leprosy,
And she is far liker Death than he;
 Her flesh makes the still air cold.

The naked Hulk alongside came
 And the Twain were playing dice;
“The Game is done! I’ve won, I’ve won!”
 Quoth she, and whistled thrice.

A gust of wind sterte up behind
 And whistled thro’ his bones;
Thro’ the holes of his eyes and the hole of his mouth
 Half-whistles and half-groans.
With never a whisper in the Sea
 Off darts the Spectre-ship;

While clombe above the Eastern bar
The horned Moon, with one bright Star
Almost atween the tips.

Rowling-Galbraith embeds this image of “a DEATH,” old English for “skeleton,” and of the harlot “LIFE-IN-DEATH” in the last two pages of Talbot’s True Book that are shared with the reader (Strike first discusses the last image in Part Three but we do not see it until Part Six). As a big fan of Rime of Ancient Mariner, two of whose children memorized the poem, believe it or not, without any encouragement from dad, this connection is, well, striking.

The black dancing skeleton is from the Death card in the Thoth tarot deck. Talbot believed he was summoning Margot Bamborough and what came was either Margot’s spirit in the form of the Lust Thoth Tarot Deck Card and/or of  LIFE-IN-DEATH or just LIFE-IN-DEATH herself.

Talbot was sectioned consequent to the experience, though he manages to write down his memories and understanding of it, which, if read closely reveal Margot’s murderer (the only suspect interviewed “seven times” and “whose name has seven letters”).

I understand, though, that those not as familiar with Rime may shrug off the choice of images from the Thoth tarot deck that just happen to look like Coleridge’s DEATH and LIFE-IN-Death as just a coincidence. Given the importance of that word in Troubled Blood, I am happy to leave it at that.

7. St John’s Cross and the Logos Metaphysics of STC

Readers of my Deathly Hallows Lectures know that the principal symbolism of the Hogwarts Saga finale is eyes; the seventh book is awash in disembodied and otherwise distinct eyes, from the single eye in the mirror fragment and the two in the Locket Horcrux to the triangular eye of the Deathly Hallows symbol, Snape’s Dante-Entering-Paradise moment at his death looking into Lily’s eyes, and the iconic moment of Harry burying Moody’s eye in the forest. I explain in Lectures how these eyes, along with the four points of entry Rowling recommends, especially the final notes of Harry’s conversation with Dumbledore at King’s Cross, “the key to the series,” are best understood in light of the esoteric heart of English high fantasy, Coleridge’s logos philosophy. I am not going to go into that at length here, though it is an essential thread running through all of Rowling’s work.

I do need to say that Coleridge’s single aim as poet and philosopher was to rouse his audience from the sleep of modern conceptual errors to a traditional awareness of the unity of all things in the creative Logos. See Mary Anne Perkins’ magisterial Coleridge’s Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle for the book length treatment of that. The moral and experience of Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the transformed vision of the albatross killer, whose understanding of the world shifts from a pragmatic or utilitarian view to an awareness of the sacred unity of all things, even superficially slimy and foul sea creatures, in the love, which is to say, the creative principle or Logos of God.

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
⁠To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well who loveth well
⁠Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best who loveth best
⁠All things, both great and small:
For the dear God who loveth us,
⁠He made and loveth all.

Does Rowling share this defamiliarizing aim, to shake her readers out of their ‘woke’ empiricist LIFE-IN-DEATH to an understanding of the spiritual dimension around and within us? It is the argument of my PhD thesis in progress that it is. Troubled Blood is a remarkable confirmation of the potustoronnost or otherworldly qualities of her work, of which two points will have to suffice here with respect to Ancient Mariner.

  • The St. John’s Crosses and References: The setting of the disappearance is Clerkenwell but specifically the streets, church, and area named for St John the Theologian. One of the True Book pages is topped with a quotation from St John’s Gospel. The prologue to St John’s Gospel, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…,’ is the touchstone of Coleridge’s philosophy and theology, not to mention esoteric Christianity in general. I will be posting aboutv the cross symbolism of Troubled Blood so I will leave it at that here.
  • The Occult Realities revealed in Troubled Blood: We are told that Talbot’s investigation was crazy because his thyroid was not working and he went off the deep end of astrology, tarot cards, and spirit invocation. As noted, though, every ‘reading’ he does with cards and his astrological approach and the demon or spirit he invoked, the ghost of Margot Bamborough, all labored to give him the answer to the question “What happened to Anna’s mother?” It was only his prejudice that the killer was the Essex Butcher, Dennis Creed, that blinded him to what the supernatural or psychic realm all about us was telling him. Read Rime of the Ancient Mariner with its backdrop of otherworldly spirits, angels, and monsters and see if you don’t ‘see’ Troubled Blood differently, the sub-text to the Team Rational whodunnit you just read.

Rowling’s intention, as I noted at the start, cannot be known short of her testimony, and, yes, I’d trust her texts more than what she says about them. The intentio operis, the scheme of the work itself, its structure, style, and symbolism, whatever the intentio auctoris, seems to force the reader to experience a magical or supernaturally infused environment, a radical alternative to the conventional materialist view, the teaching we all received in our schooling, our media immersion, and which makes even Christian belief empiricist or conceptual. In this, I think Troubled Blood shares Coleridge’s aim of reawakening the noetic, imaginative faculty he believed was continuous with the Logos fabric of reality.

Let me know what you think!

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