Harry Potter and the Mysteries of Cormoran Strike: Part 1

Nov 05, 2020

Posted by: Emma Pocock

Cormoran Strike series/Robert Galbraith, News, Opinion

Dr. Beatrice Groves, Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Oxford, returns for another guest post, this time unpacking the mysteries of Galbraith / Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series, and its narrative’s similarities to the Harry Potter series.

Focusing her research and teaching on early modern literature and drama (Shakespeare in particular), her book, Literary Allusion In Harry Potter, explores J.K. Rowling’s references to famous Western literary canon throughout the Harry Potter series.

Carry on reading for Groves’ exploration of names in each series, structural similarities between the two narratives, and the importance of prophecy in Harry Potter and Troubled Blood:

Harry Potter and the Mysteries of Cormoran Strike: Part 1

-Dr. Beatrice Groves

Harry Potter and the Mysteries of Cormoran Strike 

When it was initially reported that the Strike series would consist of seven novels this was (understandably) pounced on as evidence that Rowling’s two series were going to proceed in parallel. Robert Galbraith / J.K. Rowling has since refuted the idea that Strike, like Harry Potter is going to be a seven-novel series – and it is clear from her most recent interview that she is planning Strike as an open-ended series with at least three more books brewing. But none of this means that Strike wasn’t originally planned as a seven book series as announced, and I expect we’re going to see a conclusive arc of sorts in the seventh book (my guess, for what it’s worth, being that Cormoran will discover who murdered his mother, and he and Robin will get together). For while ostensibly attempting to quash this reading-in-parallel, Galbraith/Rowling has continued to hint at continuities between the two series. Galbraith’s description of the inspiration for Strike, for example – ‘Strike was a very vivid character who came to me, in the best way, he just walked into my head’ – is an arch and knowing echo of the way in which Rowling has spoken for over two decades of Harry as ‘the hero who had walked into my head.’ Likewise, the author’s description of their ‘process’ – in both the planning and the depth of detail – is (confessedly) identical: ‘I plan and research a lot and know far more about the characters than actually ends up ever appearing in the books. I have colour coded spreadsheets, so I can keep a track of where I am going. It is how I have always worked. It was the same for the Harry Potter novels.’

As the Strike series progresses we see these parallels begin to emerge – for example the Easter eggs (so belovedly familiar from Harry Potter) woven into the narrative. Charlotte calls Strike ‘Bluey’ in a casual aside in Silkworm but is only in Career of Evil that it is revealed that his middle name is ‘Blue,’ bestowed by his Blue Öyster Cult obsessed mother (an obsession which will, of course, become central to the plot of the third novel). Cormoran’s love for Catullus, meanwhile, creates a pleasing literary put-down in Silkworm but only becomes plot relevant in Lethal White.

Specific moments throughout Strike also directly recall Harry Potter. The hate-mail in Cuckoo’s Calling, for example – ‘violent outpourings scrawled between gambolling kittens’ (220) – recalls Umbridge’s kitten-centred sadistic kitsch. A box of chocolates, apparently given as a gift, appears in both Half-Blood Prince and Troubled Blood. In both it has been laced with an illicit substance and in both, as a direct consequence of eating these tampered-with chocolates, one of the central characters nearly dies by poisoning. The triumvirate of male friends in Silkworm – with the less talented Owen Quine unable to believe his luck at being accepted by Joe North and Michael Fancourt – replays the idea of Peter Pettigrew hanging on the coat tails of the Marauders. The busts of Prime Ministers lining the walls in the Members’ Lobby in Lethal White remind Robin of rows of ‘severed heads’ (139) – an image likely to have jumped into the mind of a writer who has decorated a house with a row of severed (House-Elf) heads. 

Some of these parallels are little plot replays – like hiding the murder weapon in a case of champagne in Lethal White (oak-matured mead anyone?). Robin, as if she had read Half-Blood Prince in her youth, objects to this as a ‘bit slapdash… What was to stop him opening it up anyway? Or re-gifting it?’ (462). But other parallels touch on Harry Potter’s more major themes. The saving importance of maternal love – so crucial to Harry Potter – is briefly present in Lethal White as Strike remembers that, for all her failings, his mother saved him from the worst effects of his childhood by loving him. He recognises a kinship with Billy (like the kinship Harry recognises with Voldemort as a fellow orphan) acknowledging to himself that his childhood could have broken him, as Billy’s has, had he not been saved by that maternal love of which Billy has known so little. And Strike’s feelings for Robin have a Potter parallel too, given that Strike notices that he loves the smell of her – ‘the perfume that hung around the office when Robin was at her desk’ (Lethal White,144) –  before he can articulate his feelings for her; just as Harry is conscious of being attracted to the flowery smell that hangs around in the Burrow (and recognises it in the Amortentia potion) before he is consciously aware of his true feelings for Ginny. The smell of the Amortentia is also a clue of Hermione’s feelings for Ron – the unnamed third scent that wafts up from it for Hermione has been explained by Rowling as ‘[Ron]’s hair. Every individual has very distinctive-smelling hair, don’t you find?’ – and Robin’s perfume continues to play a startlingly large role in Troubled Blood.

amortentia love potion scene Harry Potter

Strike, as we’d expect for a series written for adults, and dealing with violent themes, often replays familiar tropes from Harry Potter in a darker key. This is particularly the case with the links between Troubled Blood and Deathly Hallows which frequently probe ideas of guilt and the sense in which it is often misconstrued – or is unknowable – by others. We see, for example, a murderer playing the same trick in both novels of making an innocent person (Morfin and Hokey; Gwilherm Athorn) believe they are guilty. Tom Riddle does this through magically implanting a false memory, Janice does it by suggestion. In a more ethically complex connection both Deathly Hallows and Troubled Blood tell the story of a father imprisoned for something of which he may not be morally guilty. In Deathly Hallows it is clear that Dumbledore’s father is innocent of Muggle-hatred, although he is guilty of violence against Muggles. In Troubled Blood the guilt or innocence of the similarly imprisoned father of the Bayliss girls is unknowable by the reader – but Robin’s strong desire to believe him guilty alerts the reader to a general truth: that uncertainty is uncomfortable. Robin’s desire for certainty in a case which is so personal for her is reminiscent of Harry’s discomfort at one of the rare moral loose ends in Deathly Hallows: the question of whether or not Gryffindor stole his sword from the goblins. Harry has a deep aversion to believing Griphook’s version of the sword’s history – he, like Robin, wants a ‘clean’ understanding of right and wrong (and, indeed, I think Rowling may be drawing on a very old literary example of a moral paradox here.) 

One of the Harry Potter parallels in Troubled Blood, however, is particularly startling. It is at once a knowing wink by the author, and a revelation of the alchemical source of one of Harry Potter’s best-known objects: the golden Snitch. On page 632, on a page from the book of Talbot’s occult ramblings (he is the investigating officer who had an astrology-inspired break-down while investigating the case), we see a clear image of the Snitch, reimagined as a Death-Eaterish object, with a snake twisting round it. 

Rowling here not only creates a double-take for readers who have grown up with the Snitch, it is also a sign of the alchemical traditions she has also worked with. 

Paired parallels: Silkworm & Chamber, Lethal White & Goblet; Troubled Blood & Phoenix

There is also a deeper, structural, parallelism which sees each book in Strike pair up with its numerical counterpart in Potter. The first time this happened clearly was in Silkworm where the dominant ‘book-within-the-book’ theme strongly recalled Chamber of Secrets (likewise the second one in the series). Rowling is deeply interested in the power of books, and within Harry Potter this is generally expressed through books being dangerous (an idea replayed in Hermione’s weaponised bookcase in Cursed Child). In Chamber Harry mocks the idea that Riddle’s diary might be dangerous, and Ron cautions him ‘You’d be surprised… Some of the books that Ministry’s confiscated – Dad’s told me – there was one that burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives. And some old witch in Bath had a book you could never stop reading! You just had to wander round with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed’ (172). Riddle’s diary is the apogee of such books and Rowling has spoken of how she came to the idea through watching her sister keep a diary: ‘my sister used to commit her innermost thoughts to her diary. Her great fear was that someone would read it. That’s how the idea came to me of a diary that is itself against you. You would be confiding everything to pages that aren’t inanimate.’  Through this book Riddle not only comes very close to murdering Ginny, but he also attempts to manipulate her into being the author of her own annihilation. It is Ginny’s own writing that gives her (would-be) murderer his opening: ‘so Ginny poured out her soul to me, and her soul happened to be exactly what I wanted. I grew stronger and stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets’ (228).

Owen Quine, just like Ginny, writes his own destruction. The book that gives their murderers power over them is the one they have written themselves. The Silkworm is, as Rowling has described it, as ‘novel about novels with another novel inside it.’  The second Strike novel takes this ‘mise-en-abyme’ quality much further than The Chamber of Secrets, but it is noticeable how closely the central plot of the later novel mirrors the earlier: in both a murderer encourages their victim to write, and this act of writing unwittingly seals the victim’s fate. 

Rowling jokingly raised the idea of connections between Strike and Potter when she wrote of Lethal White ‘it progresses. Turns out the fourth in every one of my series has to be the longest’ (Twitter, 30 Jan 2018). This light-hearted tweet nonetheless draws attention to the connection between Goblet of Fire and Lethal White which proved to be extensive. John Granger has written a convincing post covering some compelling links between the two novels: in particular the synchronicity between the worldwide sporting event being hosted in Britain (the Olympics/ the Quidditch World Cup), the ‘bugging’ theme and the final showdown, in which Strike’s rescue of Robin has some verbal, as well as strong situational, parallels with Dumbledore’s rescue of Harry at the end of Goblet of Fire. Evan Harris noted that he was even able to guess the murderer, for ‘assuming parallelism to Goblet of Fire proved predictively powerful.’

Raphael has other links with Barty Crouch Jnr – in addition to the striking parallels of his prison stretch and parricide. One being the way he uses flattery to blind the hero. Raphael’s admiration of Robin retards her insight, as does Barty Crouch Jnr’s kindness to Harry – in particular when he compliments him by telling him he’d make a great Auror. Raphael likewise strokes Robin’s ego, not only through his physical admiration of her, but through his praise of her detecting skills – and Robin’s desire to be a detective is a straight parallel to Harry’s desire to be an Auror. Raphael’s impersonation of Matthew (via text) likewise parallels Crouch Jnr’s impersonation of Moody – with technology replacing the magical role of Polyjuice potion in the Muggle world.

Troubled Blood, the fifth novel in the Strike series,has continued to prove the series are being written in parallel, by being connected with Order of the Phoenix, likewise the fifth in the series,in ways that are both playful and thought-provoking. In both novels the emphasis on prophecy (which I have written about here) and the importance they place on the hero’s birth, tie in with each being the ‘nigredo’ – the longest and darkest novels in their respective series (see John Granger’s blog for a particularly insightful discussion of this.) There are also a number of plot parallels between Troubled Blood and Phoenix – from the significant (the death of a loved parent-substitute) to the sulky (emo-Strike to match emo-Harry). One reader (Storyswept) picked up the parallel between Harry’s vicarious saving of Arthur Weasley’s life in Phoenix and Strike’s similarly at-one-remove saving of Charlotte in Troubled Blood. This is an especially gratifying link because this long-distance life-saving depends on a connection that should have been closed (the scar, the phone number) and which is then closed at the end of the novel. 

A link I particularly like is one that follows the usual path of what is jokey in Harry Potter becoming serious in Strike. Phoenix, like Troubled Blood, has an undertow of carefully calibrated poisonings. In pursuit of their Skiving Snackboxes Fred and George gather various poisons – Doxy venom, Wartcap powder and Venomous Tentacula seeds – and, just like Janice with her similar cupboard of poisons, test them out in different doses trying to learn about their precise effects. The Skiving Snackboxes are not only comic, they are also given an innocent gloss by their alliteratively retro names: Fever Fudge, Puking Pastilles, Nosebleed Nougat, Ton-tongue toffees and Fainting Fancies. (And, underlining the comedy, this sickly confectionary from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes is, like other chocolates in Harry Potter, inspired by Monty Python’s Whizzo chocolate assortment.) The main sufferers from Fred and George’s practice runs are the twins themselves, but there is a dark edge to their dabbling. Their highly unethical trials on the wider public include the near-asphyxiation of Dudley and cutting swathes through naïve eleven year olds: ‘one by one, as though hit over the head with an invisible mallet, the first-years were slumping unconscious in their seats’ (Phoenix, p.228). Janice, likewise, trials poison dosages on those around her – knocking the Athorns unconscious, as Fred and George do the first years. There is another telling parallel, as Margot’s decision (and advice to others) not to eat anything Janice has prepared is reminiscent of the general caution felt by the Gryffindors when offered food after the Canary Creams incident (Harry makes a mental note not to accept so much as a crisp from Fred and George in the future).

While Rowling calls Strike and the Wizarding World as ‘discrete places in my head,’ they are not entirely distinct places in her creativity – and tomorrow’s blog will look at another aspect of Rowling’s writing which binds them: how her love of cratylic (clue-filled) naming – which is such a pleasure in Harry Potter -continues in Strike.

Stay posted, and come back tomorrow for Part 2!

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.