Troubled Blood: Robin’s Two Perfumes The Meaning of Philosychos and Narciso

Robin Ellacott-Cunliffe’s perfume of choice until the dissolution of her marriage was Philosychos by Diptyque. Strike and Matthew both liked it, perhaps their only point of agreement beyond loving Robin herself. As much as perfumes play an outsized role in Troubled Blood, the name of the perfume is worth a moment’s reflection because its meaning is suggestive of Robin’s role in the allegorical drama that the Cormoran Strike mysteries are. 

The various perfumes mentioned in Troubled Blood have been catalogued at the always helpful StrikeFans website. The anonymous compilier notes on that page without further elucidation that “Perfumes appear to be an important and recurring theme in Troubled Blood, emphasizing identity and how we want to be seen versus how other people see us.”

What is left unnoted, beyond the connection to be made between the perfumes mentioned and the identity of the person who wears it, is the importance of the perfume names. Strike, it must be recalled, balks at buying Robin a perfume for Christmas, not only because his flu bug prevents him from being able to smell anything (or think clearly), but also because the names of scents recommended to him mean “In Your Arms” and “Ravishing Musk.” Strike tells Robin in the last chapter trip to Liberty’s perfume counter that these names sounded to him like “Shaggable You,” which idea makes Robin laugh out loud.

The names of Robin’s baseline perfume, Philosychos, and the one she and Strike choose at story’s end, Narciso, both point less to the bedroom than to Robin’s allegorical, psychological, and mythological role in the series. More after the jump!

‘Philosychos’ in Greek means “friend of the fig tree,” a fitting name for a scent described this way at a website that reviews perfumes:

Philosykos opens with one second of sparkling ozone followed by this inviting coconut and fig.  It’s green and feels earthy and rooty like vines that are meeting the ground and attaching themselves to the earth below.  There’s a creaminess that helps to create what feels like a lush carpet of wood and green and mildly ripening fruit.  For some reason I was expecting this to be sweet, but it’s far from that.  Instead, the perfume is subdued and pulsates within the heart of the jungle with a comforting earthiness.  After around 15 minutes the fragrance warms with a sugared spiced cedar and a light soapiness adding more comfort and security to an already comforting perfume.

Diptyque says the perfume is “an ode to the entire [fig] tree: the green, pungent freshness of the leaves, the wood warmed in the sun, the milky flavor of the fruit.”

One could make something of the symbolic meaning of figs here — Christ curses a fig tree and there is the theory that it was a fig rather than an apple tree that grew in the Garden of Eden and whose fruit was forbidden to Adam and Eve — but I won’t. I think Rowling uses this perfume because, the Greek word for ‘fig tree’ not being a commonplace even among classicists, she expects her readers to skip over the literal meaning of the perfume and jump to the obvious association.

The last syllables of this name, sychos, are assonant with the Greek word for ‘soul,’ psyche, at least as it is most often used in English, in the word ‘psychology.’ ‘Philosychos’ in this reading means ‘loving the soul’ or just ‘loving soul’ rather than ‘friend of the fig tree.’ It would be difficult to find a more fitting name than this for Robin, amateur psychologist and representative of the soul in the embedded mythology of Psyche and Cupid in Cormoran Strike.

And ‘Narciso,’ the perfume the Detective Duo choose as Robin’s fragrance in the story finale? Hard to miss the pointer there to the myth of Narcissus in that, though it is really the name of the perfume company’s owner. There is also, for Rowling Readers at least, the echo of ‘Narcissa Malfoy,’ Draco’s mother, in the name.

Unless we’re meant to think of the Narcissa in the finale of Deathly Hallows, a mother who risks her life to save Harry Potter in the Forbidden Forest, I don’t think those associations connect with the perfume chosen by Strike and Robin at the end of Troubled Blood in mutual agreement, as “best mates.” It’s possible that this is another pointer to the myth of Cupid and Psyche, specifically, to the skill Psyche must learn to complete Venus’ last trial.

Just as a reminder, after Cupid has fled Psyche when she has exposed him in the dark with oil lamp and knife (an incident echoed in Troubled Blood’s office scene after Strike hits Robin at the American Bar), Psyche passes three impossible trials set for her by Cupid’s mother, Venus. The Loving Soul completes each trial by obeying the providential advice of supernatural agents — ants, a river-bed reed, and an eagle — and she is transformed in the process. Jungian psychologists use her metamorphosis here as a rich metaphor forThe Psychic Development of the Feminine.’

The last Venereal trial set for Psyche, though, the killer capstone, is that she must take a box to the Underworld and return with a beauty-refresher gift from Persephone for Venus, who claims her own has been depleted in having to care for the wounded Cupid. She tells Psyche, in brief, to go to hell. This out-of-this-world demand is clearly impossible, Psyche despairs accordingly, and she climbs a tower to commit suicide. The ‘Far-Seeing Tower’ comes to life, however, and intervenes with instructions for going to hell and coming back.

The speaking tower warns her to maintain silence as she passes by several ominous figures: a lame man driving a mule loaded with sticks, a dead man swimming in the river that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead, and old women weaving. These, the tower warns, will seek to divert her by pleading for her help: she must ignore them.

Erich Neumann in his Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine describes this discipline as a “prohibition against pity” which “signifies Psyche’s struggle against the feminine nature.” 

Here again we may possibly have traditional motifs, but they take on a special significance for Psyche. As the tower teaches Psyche, “pity is not lawful.” If, as we shall proceed to show, all Psyche’s acts present a rite of initiation, this prohibition implies the insistence on “ego stability” characteristic of every initiation. Among men this stability is manifested as endurance of pain, hunger, thirst, and so forth; but in the feminine sphere it characteristically takes the form of resistance to pity. This firmness of the strong-willed ego, concentrated on its goal, is expressed in countless other myths and fairy tales, with their injunctions not to turn around, not to answer, and the like. While ego stability is a very masculine virtue, it is more; for it is the presupposition of consciousness and of all conscious activity.

The feminine is threatened in its ego stability by the danger of distraction through “relatedness,” through Eros. This is the difficult task that confronts every feminine psyche on its way to individuation: it must suspend the claim of what is close at hand for the sake of a distant abstract goal. Thus the tower is perfectly right in saying that these dangers are “snares” set by Aphrodite. The Great Mother, as we recall, also has her life-giving and life-preserving aspect, but in the conflict between Aphrodite and Psyche she reveals only the negative side. This means that here she represents only nature and the species in opposition to the requirements of the individual, and from this standpoint the merciful attitude of the Good Mother can be forbidden to the individual. (112-113)

Psyche’s last trial involves her having to confront death, a “marriage” to which she was condemned as a sacrifice at the story’s start, a meeting she can only survive by transcending her feminine qualities of nurturing and pity. She must become, if only temporarily, a narcissist to pass through Hades and return to the world of the Sun and to Cupid. The myth, in Jungian lights, is about her transcending the accidental self, here her feminine and sexual relation to Eros or Cupid, for “ego-stability” leading to “individuation,” ascent to the greater, immortal Self.

Robin as resident psychologist and loving soul is the Psyche-cipher of the Strike mysteries. She differs from the relatively passive Human Beauty of the myth in her active and determined “struggle against the feminine nature,” her “What. I. Do!” She not only wrestles with her desires for domesticity and maternity in her thinking but stands up to Strike-Cupid in their Valentine’s Day Street Fight and demands his respect or at least more considerate behavior. But she is still struggling with her difficulty to be the narcissist rather than the Great Mother when circumstances and her heroine’s journey of psychological individuation demand that.

I’m guessing that her simultaneously choosing and receiving the Narciso gift with and from Strike at the end of Troubled Blood is either (a) acknowledgment that she has passed through the trials of Venus, here her worries about Charlotte Campbell and Strike-Cupid’s attachment to her, or (b) a gift that will prepare her for that hardness of soul and selfish behavior that will be necessary for her to endure trials to come in Strike6. I think how you interpret her clandestine trip to St Peter’s Rest Home to speak with Mucky Ricci determines whether you believe the Narciso perfume is a trophy for a battle that has been won or a token of what she has yet to do.

After the Light-and-Knife confrontation in the office, during which Strike and Robin share their mutual feelings for one another and Strike swears in future to share his emotional condition with Robin, almost immediately she causes a break with him that he thinks is akin to what made him fire her in Career of Evil. Robin-Psyche disguises herself and without Strike-Cupid’s aid or permission goes to Nicolo Ricci’s rest home.

This trip can reasonably be interpreted as Rowling-Galbraith’s symbolic version of a trip to the Underworld; St Peter’s is a Christian token of judgment ‘at the Pearly Gates’ of heaven in the after-life, all the residents of the facility are awaiting their trip across the River Styx, and she meets the story equivalent of Lucifer there in the name-resonant and demonic Luca Ricci. By her wits and quick thinking, she escapes capture by this devil and returns to Strike with a prize, the sample of Luca’s handwriting, that trumps anything Nicolo might have told her.

This can be read as the equivalent of Psyche’s narcissistic behavior on the road to and from Hades. By acting independently and contrary to what she knows are Strike’s wishes, she succeeds in identifying who wrote Margot Bamborough threatening notes in 1974. This is not typical Robin behavior, which, up to this point and even afterwards, has been and continues to be deferential to Strike to the point of being obsequious. The Valentine’s Day Battle with her Cupid and their Light-and-Knife confessions and promises after he all but knocks her unconscious have led to her ego-stability, individuation, and ability to do the hard thing, here to defy rather than obey him in self-confident “narcissistic” fashion.

That reading means the Narciso perfume at Liberty is a prize for Robin’s capacity to change and the important achievement of her ‘psychic development of the feminine’ in Troubled Blood. She still wants a loving relationship with her boss and best friend, she wants a family and children, and she is uncomfortable with the truth of her cousin’s observation that she is “traveling in a different direction than the rest of us.” Despite this, she fights for her vocation and integrity as a person apart from being a woman per se while at the same time insisting that her identity as a woman be acknowledged and respected. No more “fucking flowers,” Strike.

Except for Charlotte’s last text to Cormoran, in which she says she has “never envied anyone the way she does that girl Robin,” I think that is the better reading of Narciso. If you think that Charlotte has not yet begun to fight and that she is likely to do her best to drag Robin down to hell (recall that Charlotte tells Strike on her pre-suicide Holy Saturday call that she is “in hell”), well, Robin will need all the Narciso she can muster in Strike6. The Loving Soul or Philo(p)sychos will need to be hard as steel to weather the trials of Charlotte-Venus in the hellish story to come, a parallel no doubt with the Half-Blood Prince trip to Inferi Island and the floating dead in the Underworld Lake.

Your thoughts?

Addendum: I wrote on some thoughts on Psyche’s ‘Pandora Moment’ in the myth’s finale and what it may mean in light of Narciso for the twists we’re likely to see in Strike6 and Strike7 in the comment thread below.


  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Fascinating post John! I really enjoyed this. I was somewhat startled by what an outsized role perfume played in Troubled Blood – it is clear Rowling was intending us to pay attention to them, and the symbolism behind the names therefore seems worth exploring!

    The surprising etymology of ‘Philosychos’ reminded me of the English word in which the Gk for ‘figs’ surprisingly turns up: ‘sycophant’ meaning ‘fig-shower.’ As the OED notes it is not known why – though I was pleased to discover that the first English explanation (that it originally meant an informer against the unlawful exportation of figs – not generally accepted now) comes from North’s Plutarch. The OED prefers the idea that it ‘referred originally to the gesture of ‘making a fig’ or had an obscene implication’ – which fits nicely with ‘Shaggable You’ !

    I really like your idea about Psyche struggle with the prohibition against pity, and – as you say – this fits brilliantly with one of the Strike3/Strike5 chiastic parallels: the two moments Robin disobeys Strike. And I agree with you that this moment is ‘redeemed’ – a disaster in 3 and entirely successful in 5. Strike5 does of course have another of these moments – once again successful – as Robin pursues the attempt to get an interview with Creed without Strike’s knowledge.

    But the first parallel is the main one and, of course, the motivation of Robin’s behaviour in Strike3 – behaviour that might blow the case, but that might safe a child from further abuse – is entirely pity. And pity for a child – it is a textbook example of what you talk about above as ‘snares’ for women in terms of relatedness. Psyche/Robin would have to work very hard not to follow her pity in this instance, and indeed she fails.

    I think the reader can be on both Robin and Strike’s side in this argument – although in a sense the novel decides on Robin’s side by making her intervention only serve the good: the murderer is not scared off, and the intervention works to safe the child (and even creates a positive relationship for her mother which the reader would never have expected). But in your terms it works perfectly as an event in which Psyche/Robin ‘falls’ for a snare set by Love, and hence runs the risk of losing Cupid/Strike – something that does not happen in Troubled Blood in which this is not a pity-snare (but a work related one) and Robin can encounter it in safety.

    And, on a less serious note, I – I suspect along with a number of others – treated myself to some Narciso. I wonder if Nick could tell us if there was indeed a bump in sales for this perfume late 2020?!

    And finally, while we are thinking about Psyche, anyone who does not know it may enjoy Keats’s gorgeous tribute to her: Ode to Psyche.

  2. Joanne Gray says

    Wonderful strands of information to illuminate the deeper meanings of Robin’s perfumes for her own self image and their connection to the two men in her past love relationship (Matthew) and in her present and future love relationship (Cormoran).

    I’m glad you brought up the possible future trial from Charlotte (Venus/Voldemort) echoing a parallel trip to HP book 6 and the scene on Inferi Island with its Underworld Lake of the dead (Inferi). I wondered about how this might transpire in Strike 6 especially since this would put Robin in Harry’s position and the only one I see as having a Dumbledore type role with Robin; i.e., a mentor training her in the ways of the detective–is Cormoran. The question then becomes will Cormoran be paralleling Dumbledore in Strike 6?

    I don’t see JK Rowling bumping him off (à la Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) but I also don’t believe that Robin is the only one going on this journey of self discovery–so I see Strike also visiting the underworld via the HP Half Blood Prince route. In the other Strike books the HP echoes have shared Harry’s story between Cormoran and Robin, but since the sixth HP book is very heavy with the mentor relationship between Dumbledore and Harry–I don’t know who else is Robin’s mentor but Strike.

    I do believe that Rokeby will be playing more the Snape rather than any Dumbledore parallel–since their is no real relationship (let alone one of a mentor) between Rokeby and Strike.

    I really wish that when JK Rowling gave us the most recent (small) morsel when she changed her Twitter header–that she had also included a clear hint of which project she was referring to. Since it was a lion and referred to animals it would seem to be referencing Fantastic Beasts. However, since it also referenced a graveyard, in London, it could also be seen as referencing Strike 6. I confess, I hope I’m right about it being a sign she’s working on Strike 6, but even if it is a clue about book 6, the current level of info (4 things with a possible 5th) isn’t enough to construct any real story direction: (1) Younger demographic than book 5, (2) Very different from than other 5 books, (3) Takes place in 2015, (4) Confirmed scene Strike in crowded bar, and only maybe–possible (5) Highgate Cemetery famous lion gravesite. Still hoping we will see the book 5 BBC show next year as well as book 6 (by Sept. 2022).

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Interestingly, Charlotte Campbell’s signature scent, Shalimar, is described as ” grounded by a sweet vanilla base.” Robin’s second-choice, unnamed perfume, smelled like vanilla and made Strike think of cake. It presumably wasn’t Shalimar; Strike would have recognized that immediately. But I think it means something that he choose the other perfume for Robin.

  4. Wayne Stauffer says

    This kind of analysis is why I keep coming back to this site! New facets to admire.

  5. Thanks, Wayne!

    And, y’know what? The end of the Psyche and Cupid myth is even heavier on the Narciso link.

    In a nutshell, after all her labors and her literal trip to hell and back, Psyche has a narcissist moment that is unreal. She decides once above ground that she needs a little of whatever Persephone has put in the custom made Beauty Box for Venus and opens it up. She is knocked out and only Cupid’s enlightenment and emergency elevation of his beloved to Mt Olympus saves her (a favorite scene in the many pieces of art inspired by this myth is Love’s flight to heaven with Psyche in his arms).

    Jungian analysts read this Pandora Moment as another example of her healthy narcissism or fidelity to the development of the feminine which has a corresponding positive effect on Cupid, who finally breaks with mom and does the right thing (not only the rescue but in cutting a deal with Zeus, Big Daddy, to make Psyche immortal). Yes, I know the Damsel in Distress topos is anathema to feminists today — and, yes, I think the Jungians are more insightful than litmus strip feminist readers on this point.

    How might this play out in Strike6 and Strike7?

    Hard to tell, of course, because Rowling is re-imagining the Psyche and Cupid myth with much bolder strokes than, say, CSL did in ‘Til We Have Faces’ (which is saying something).

    The obvious point would be that Strike is somehow taken out of action by Venus/Charlotte, Robin survives a trip to her own psychological hell that she escapes only by not doing what she does, i.e., being pitilessly narcissistic rather than a nurturing woman of empathy, only to reach out to Strike at last with a self-destructive attempt at being as attractive as Charlotte. Strike/Cupid then rescues Robin/Psyche by playing suppliant to Zeus/Rokeby, taking up his Strike5 offer of a favor to get Robin the help she needs that the NHS can’t or won’t provide her quickly enough.

    I suspect the biggest twist will be in the Rescue Moment; how Rowling can make Robin in the end only another woman tied to the railroad tracks in need of a valiant make savior and keep her feminist union card escapes me. I think a reversal of the myth is at least as likely, that is, that Psyche saves Strike by going to Zeus/Rokeby and getting him the help he needs that Strike would never be able to accept from that source (preferring instead help from Charlotte?).

    Anyway, all that to say we’re nowhere near done with the Necessity of Narcissism take-away from the Psyche-Cupid myth and Robin’s odyssey to become fully human, a woman who realizes both her vocation and her sexual identity, something that will require her overcoming or restraining the Mama Reflex while simultaneously avoiding the Dark Triad.

    The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s going to be great.

Speak Your Mind