Troubled Blood: Mythic Cornwall

Structure is a big deal in Strike Studies, right? Much of what I wrote in my Part-By-Part reading of Troubled Blood was explanation of Rowling-Galbraith’s borderline OCD ring artistry in Strike5, but there are other structural elements that order and organize the novel’s progression start to finish.

The most obvious one, I think, is gift-giving at holidays and birthdays. Robin’s birthday is a marker in Parts one and seven, Christmas is the turn in the front half of the book, Valentine’s Day the novel’s pivot point in Part four, and Easter and its observance in Cornwall is the parallel with Christmas in the ‘back half’ of the book. Each marks the status quo in Strike’s struggle to change, to become more giving and understanding of others, rather than just the Agent of Vengeance and Justice. That’s worthy of a long post and I will add it to the list of more than fifty Troubled Blood post ideas I drew up this weekend (I kid you not).

The structural idea I want to explore today is that of Cornwall and how Cormoran’s trips there serve a “mythic function.” His four trips to Cornwall and his thoughts about and contact with same in the closing chapters, as with the gift-giving holidays and birthdays, are markers of Strike’s spiritual transformation, his experience of the nigredo, and his journey, if you will, to a transcendent realm. More after the jump!

Beatrice Groves has written about the mythic qualities of and legendary locations in Cornwall, but, for all its associations with the Western Paradise and Avalon, Cornwall is more the United Kingdom’s impoverished Appalachia than a heaven-on-earth. In fact, West Wales and Cornwall are the two poorest regions in all of Northern Europe. One of the reasons Dave Polworth hates London is that the big city is the richest area in Northern Europe.

Other than Polworth’s carping about Cornish Independence and a note about the shabbiness of the Nancarrow home, however, there is no hint that the Cornwall of Troubled Blood is anything but a world-apart and a world-above life in London or on planet Earth. The most realistic depiction of life there in any tawdry sense is in the opening chapters in which Joan and Lucy nag Cormoran, Polworth shows his provincial chauvinism in its several dimensions, and Strike lashes out at his nephew Luke and then with his sister.

When he returns after Christmas, it is a different place, not only because Lucy and family are absent. It is surrounded by water, for one thing, and he cannot escape to London as he might. More important, Joan has changed from a hag to a wise woman crone. Strike has his first, best, and last real conversations with her on this trip. She shares her wishes for her funeral with him, urges him to reconcile with Rokeby to get the answers he needs about his life, and they at last recognize each other, albeit indirectly, as mother and son, a relationship Strike all but denies in Part One’s confrontation with Lucy in the garden.

His third trip is the most important, a significance highlighted by its taking place in Part Four, the novel heart. It occurs after the Valentine’s Day Dinner Party from Hell and Strike’s subsequent apology to Robin, the turning point of Troubled Blood, of Strike’s transformation, and perhaps the entire series (yes, that’s another post). Max Priestwood — note the cratylic name for ‘Cross’ — shares with Robin the story of his “mutilated heart” and then Strike opens his heart to her by phone, an exercise in contrition and of conscience that changes everything. Strike then sets out on a heroic journey with Lucy to get to Joan’s death bed high on a hill above the water in Cornwall.

This trip raises Cornwall to its mythic height. I hope Nick Jeffery will check to see if there really was flooding in Cornwall after Valentine’s Day in 2014 (or in Clerkenwell, London, on 11 October 1974), but, meterologically true or not, the journey they make, aided and made possible by one the Hermes figures in the book, the gamin Dave Polworth, God of Travelers, they are a family in isolation on this visit, during which Joan departs for the next world. Rowling-Galbraith has Strike note repeatedly the other-worldly quality of time and alocal space he feels on this trip. He receives the dying Mother’s benediction and buries her.

He returns to Cornwall at Easter, not for church observances — there will be a post, I promise, on the absence of the word ‘Christian’ in Strike5 and the meaning of the many times Christ’s name is used as an expletive and ‘Church-goer’ for believer — but to cast Joan’s ashes upon the waters. During that boat trip and after coming ashore, Strike is called by Charlotte, he saves her life long-distance, and is done with that part of his life forever. He has been reduced to his prima materia in his experience of Joan’s departure from the visible plane of existence; he is now the essential stuff of his core identity as Western Man, and, though Charlotte may reappear in later stories, she can have no part of this Strike’s heart.

Strike does not return to Cornwall in Troubled Blood but he thinks of his Aunt Joan’s blessing on him at her death at the very end of the Phipp Family and Oonaugh Denouement and touches base with Hermetic Dave in the book finale as he goes to meet Robin on her birthday. The last sentence of the book is his recall of the Anna Karenina characters to whom Polworth introduced him at the end of the opening chapter and we are left to reflect how Strike’s understanding of the novel’s seeming instruction about ‘How to Deal with Women’ is both profoundly Cornish in its mythic state and obviously different than his misogynist friend’s interpretation. 

Rowling is read much more often than not at the ‘moral level’ of reading. Serious Readers and academics alike neglect the sublime, mythic, and spiritual artistry and defamiliarizing aim of her work in favor of topical subjects like feminism, Brexit, and, yes, transgender folk. This is akin, I think, to readers of Shakespeare who invent and focus on the scraps of postmodern meaning in the Bard’s plays while overlooking the Medieval allegory, alchemical transformation, and failed or successful apotheosis in each comedy, history, and tragedy.

Cornwall is today a brutally impoverished place. Nick Jeffery told me this morning that a traditional Cornish toast was “Fish, Tin, and Copper!” the three paths to wealth in old Cornwall, all gone today. Rowling the moralist and topical writer might have been expected to touch on or allude to this in the Strike novel whose structure is in large part about the four trips the hero makes to his home country, his ‘local.’ She does not.

Instead, we get an other-worldly reserve or haven, almost a heaven, to which Strike journeys often at great risk and against all worldly advice and consideration to learn what he must from the Wise Woman on the Mountain by the Sea. This mythic journey and his transformation in that place outside time and conventional space are an important part of the mystic element in Troubled Blood, in which Team Realist Cormoran is transformed from man of “mutilated heart” and “accidental” ignoble birth to the noble Western Man of his birth and heritage.


  1. Nick Jeffery says

    I think this post from the Falmouth local paper brings to life the travel disruption during the storms of 2014:

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you for this John – I really enjoyed it. And I like the way Dave Polworth’s watery heroics in Troubled Blood echo his diving for the essential clue (also buried beneath the waves in Cornwall) in Silkworm.

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