Troubled Blood: The Well Beneath the Archer and Rowling’s Childhood Home

The finale of Troubled Blood turns on the discovery of the bodies of Louise Tucker and Margot Bamborough. As Robin explains to Strike after his interview with Dennis Creed, the girl’s body is almost certainly to be found in the well of the Archer Hotel, now covered by a conservatory in a private residence.

“Brian showed us the map, Strike! Dennis Creed was a regular visitor to the Archer Hotel in Islington in the early seventies, when he was delivering their dry cleaning. There was a well on the property, in the back garden. Boarded up, and now covered over with a conservatory.”…

“OK—right—so he’s got to empty the van before work. He knows his way around the Archer garden, and he knows there’s a back gate. He’s got tools in the back of the van, he could prize those boards up easily. Cormoran, I’m sure she’s in the old Archer well.” (ch 69, p 864)

And, sure enough, the police do find Louise Tucker’s body in the well under the floor boards of a conservatory built on the old Archer Hotel property. What made Rowling-Galbraith think of putting Creed’s last undiscovered victim at the bottom of a well beneath a house where people live?

It’s a good bet that she did so at least in part because she grew up in a house that had an “ancient well” under the living room carpet.

Church Cottage and the surrounding area provided just the sort of life Anne and Pete Rowling had been hoping for when they removed away from London as a young couple and sought out the West Country. Pete had wanted to find an old house and restore it and modify it, keeping the charm of its antiquity but adding some of the comforts of modern living. Church Cottage served as the first school building for St. Luke’s Church in 1848. It had flagstone floors and an ancient covered well underneath the living room. — J. K. Rowling: A Biography, Connie Ann Kirk, p 24

Until moving to Tutshill the Rowlings had lived in modern homes which needed little improvement. Church Cottage, with its flagstone floors, gave Pete the opportunity he was seeking, a chance to blend old features with new ideas. One friend recalls the first time they saw a gas fire with ‘pretend’ flames in the Rowling home. Another visitor was most impressed when Pete rolled back the carpet in the living room to reveal an ancient covered well.  — J. K. Rowling: A Biography — The Genius Behind Harry Potter, Sean Smith, p 34
Three thoughts on this subject after the jump!

(1) ‘Through the Trapdoor,’ Philosopher’s Stone

My first thought after stumbling over this odd biographical nugget, that Rowling’s childhood home had a well under its living room, was about its being an obvious model for Louise Tucker’s first grave in a well over which a conservatory had been built. It was only a little while later that it occurred to me that, if this Church Cottage “ancient Well” was such a big deal to her, why did Rowling wait fourteen books to include a secret well in one of her stories? The answer is, “She didn’t.” Her first published novel and her shortest features a trapdoor in the floor of a room, an entry to a dark and dangerous space with “no sign of a bottom.”

Hermione spotted the trapdoor on their first meeting with Fluffy in ‘The Midnight Duel,’ chapter 9, and the trio much later, chapter 16, begin running the great gauntlet of their first year, the enchantments set to protect the Philosopher’s Stone from Voldemort, after putting Fluffy to sleep and jumping into the unknown beneath the trapdoor. I confess to wanting to believe that the young Jo Rowling told story after story to her younger kid sister about what lay beneath the trapdoor in the living room, adventures that could be had be an imaginary Alice or the two of them to find a secreted treasure.

(2) The Alchemical Well — the Alembic of the Great Work and Symbol of the Nigredo

Why, though, did Rowling wait until the fifth book of the Cormoran Strike series to use the well under the carpet for the disposal of the body? Why wasn’t, say, Owen Quine or Kelsey Platt tossed into a well? I checked Lindy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery in case there was an entry for ‘Well’ that suggested a hermetic meaning for this image that fit with Troubled Blood‘s depiction of Strike and Robin’s transformation.

Well — name for the alchemical vessel in which the various dissolutions and purifications of the matter of the Stone by the *mercurial waters take place; the mercurial water itself. It is synonymous with the alchemical *bath. In an anonymous poem collected in Ashmole’s Theatrum chemicum Britannicum, the leprous *dragon (the unclean matter at the beginning of the opus) lies putrefying ‘in the bottome of his Well’ until by bathing and cleansing ‘he altered cleane/Into  pure substance’ (TCB, 354) (see ablution). In a pseudo-Lullian manuscript ‘Opera chemica’ (c. 1470-5), the alchemical twins are shown burning in a well, symbolizing the putrefaction of the matter of the Stone at the *nigredo (van Lennep, Alchimie, 83). Johann Mylius’s Philosophia reformata (emblem 16) depicts the *philosopher’s stone in its gold and silver splendour, rising out of the alchemical well where it has been redissolved in its own mercurial *blood and augmented in power at the *multiplicatio (fig. 48). See alembic. Paradoxically, the well can signify not only the container for the mercurial waters of life and death, but also the mercurial waters which are its own contents. Abraham Eleazar wrote of ‘Python’ (Mercurius) in Uraltes Chymisches Werck: ‘it is the primum ens metallorum (the first essence of the metals), that is, the well of the ancients, the flower which is covered and guarded by the griffins and poisonous dragons’ (JA, 246). [Abraham, 14]

I think Rowling deploys this most flexible of images — alembic, mercurial waters, nigredo, albedo, and rubedo! — in this book where she does because of Troubled Blood being the nigredo proper of the series, in which Strike and Robin are broken down to their prima materia or core identities — solve — and begin their re-integration into whole persons more capable of love — coagula. As Abraham notes, “The name given the alchemical vessel during the nigredo is the *grave” (164) and the Strike5 well is most obviously a grave.

The body of the woman at the bottom of the well, murdered by a psychopath and dumped as rubbish, rises from the depths at story’s end because of the sacrificial, consuming love of her father. I think we have a picture in that of the alchemical work, in general, and, specifically, of Robin’s dissolution and resurrection of sorts post divorce in Strike5, a transformation made possible by and in tandem with Strike’s confession of love for her in chapter 58’s office scene.

(3) Water in the Ground Under the Stars Above

Before I found the biographical notes about the Church Cottage “ancient well” beneath the floor-boards or explored the alchemical symbolism, I had already written notes, believe it or not, about the well beneath the Archer Hotel being the symbolic key to Troubled Blood. Why? It ties together the anagogical strands of the story very neatly.

The primary symbolism for all things otherworldly in Strike5 is water. The heavens are open in 2014 and raining down cleansing solvents on all the characters who “respect it” and “cannot keep well enough away,” as the good nurse says about the high tide and dangerous surf in St Mawes. Rain, floods, tears, and ‘spirits’ are ubiquitous in the story, the mercurial waters in the novel-alembic. A well in the ground, then, especially one covered and shut off from the heavens, is an image of embodied-spirit, water in the vessel of earth; a human body in the well, a woman brutally used and discarded without remorse by a satanic man possessed, only compounds the image.

Despite the conservatory cover, however, the well is subject to the salutary influences of the super-lunerary realms. It is covered by The Archer, a glyph as Robin explains for Sagittarius and remains subject however obscured or ‘conserved’ to that constellation’s otherworldly sway. As is Cormoran Strike. “Sagittarius, Leo rising, the sun in the first house” are the defining characteristics of Strike’s natal horoscope and astrological character; appropriately enough, then, it is under his influence, his acting as The Archer and Centaur who never misses the mark, that she is liberated from her earthly prison to experience at last her father’s love.

That little Louise Tucker has been hidden in the well at The Archer Hotel for decades and is the end of her father’s search is something of a snap-shot both of the human condition and Cormoran Strike’s odyssey. Strike’s “stupid name,” we are obliged to remember, derives from the great sea bird, the cormorant, corvus marinus or ‘sea raven.‘ The cormorant, like a well, is a symbol of the alchemical vessel or alembic according to Abraham (6) and this modern day Cornish giant, named for the great fishing-bird, is undergoing the Fisher-king’s psychological trial of and alchemical re-invention via coming to terms with his neglected anima or feminine aspect.

More on that in the days to come! For now, please enjoy reflecting on what Rowling-Galbraith has made in her Shed artistry of the Lake inspiration “stuff” derived from her childhood memory and imaginative experience of an “ancient well” beneath the living room carpet and flag stones. There are no mentions of cormorants thus far in the series, but I suspect the seagull Strike watches off the Cornish coast after Aunt Joan’s funeral (four mentions in chapter 48, most importantly the final paragraph) may be read as his spying his ‘true self’ in the hermetic mirror.

 

Comments

  1. Beatrice Groves says

    A really great find John!
    And perhaps there is a memory of childhood shudders at this well, too, in disappearing down the water-pipe in Chamber? (It is a moment that feels v. close to going down the trapdoor in Stone, and so provides a watery aspect of that downward journey…).
    There is also another ‘woman-down-a-well’ scenario in a detective novel we can assume Rowling has read (as she is a PD James fan) in *Unsuitable Job for a Woman*. I’m glad to say that one ends better for the victim than it does in Troubled Blood.

  2. For whatever it may be worth, all this talk of women down wells brings to mind another story with a similar image at its heart. It’s called “The Screaming Woman”, by Ray Bradbury.

    I have no proof that Rowling has read anything by the Old Martian, however it is striking (no pun intended) just how much that simple short yarns features a lot of elements that Rowling would put to use several years down the road.

  3. Here is a link to ‘The Screaming Woman,’ a story that the Master wrote for the ‘Suspense radio program in 1948. That radio program can be listened to here, with Margaret O’Brien doing the chilling tale justice.

  4. Strike has Scorpio rising, not Leo.

  5. Yes, indeed! Strike tells Robin that his natal chart features Scorpio as his rising sign in chapter 21. Robin recalls Talbot’s notes about Satchwell’s natal chart and its correspondences with Crowley’s in chapter 47, a chart featuring Leo as the rising sign.

    Apologies for the confusion consequent to my error — especially if the mistake was the only take-away you made from this post!

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