Literary Allusion in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” – Part 2: Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;¹

Rowling begins an article she wrote about her undergraduate classical studies, “What Was the Name of that Nymph Again? Or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled,” with an epigraph from Nietzsche, noting “There is nothing like a pithy quotation to get the ball rolling.” The Cuckoo’s Calling is littered with classical epigraphs, and it also ends with a pithy quotation, the passage quoted above, which is taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.”

Strike dredges this quotation up from memory (perhaps having learned it by heart at school), and it is a poem with a long literary history as well as deep personal roots for Strike. Tennyson brings together earlier Odysseus myths (Ulysses is the Latin name for the Greek hero), in particular Homer’s Odyssey (11.100-137) and Dante’s Inferno (26.90ff). The poem is likewise saturated with Shakespearean language, and it forms an extended homage to Hamlet. Tennyson uses these texts to reimagine the Greek hero as an aging king on Ithaca, filled with a melancholic wanderlust, trying to inspire his comrades to take one final grand adventure with him. The poem explores the tension between a speaker nearing the end of his life and his energetic desire to “drink/ Life to the lees.” The poem’s unusual mood – a kind of vigorous pathos – perfectly complements the Homeric tradition of heroes setting off on voyages at the fall of eventide. It also an evocative choice for an endpoint (the close of a novel) that is also a beginning (the start of a new series).

Odysseus is a hero Rowling has used before. In the Odyssey, he returns home to Ithaca (after ten years fighting at Troy and ten years wandering at sea) and is recognized by his scar. When Harry returns to the wizarding world – after “ten dark and difficult years” (OotP 37) – he is likewise recognized by his scar. Odysseus and Harry are both recognized by their scars because the scar is the mark of a hero, evidence of both human vulnerability and heroic power. It is the mark of an ordeal that has been passed through and survived. Strike’s body, of course, is more seriously marked than either Odysseus’s or Harry’s, but it is noticeable that Odysseus – the ultimate scarred hero – comes to Strike’s mind at the moment when his amputation is being examined.

Tom Burke, who is playing Strike on the BBC series, has reported Rowling as saying of Strikethat he’s never self-pitying… I don’t think she could have said anything more helpful.” Likewise, Rowling has written that “one of the reviews I treasured most (before Robert was unmasked) said that my hero faced his situation ‘with resolve, instead of clichéd self-destruction’.” Odysseus is known throughout the Odyssey by the epithet “much-enduring,” and this is how Rowling thinks of her hero. (Odysseus is so connected to this epithet that, with a dry wit that Galbraith/Rowling might be drawn to, he ironically “reveals” his true identity when in disguise by declaring, “I am much-enduring [sic]” [Odyssey, 18.319]). Strike, like Odysseus, faces his hardships with resolve: He is “much enduring.”

The phrase from “Ulysses” that jogs Strike’s memory – “I am become a name” – comes to his mind as he experiences a new degree of fame. The media feeding frenzy over the Lula Landry case is expressed short-hand by Strike reading a Private Eye feature about it (Private Eye – as well as being another name for a private detective! – is a satirical British magazine acting, primarily, as a witty and jaundiced barometer of what is currently obsessing the media). But just as Strike reads about his new-found fame in Private Eye , someone is, yet again, getting his actual name wrong: “Mr. Cameron Strick?” (Cuckoo’s Calling 549). The phrase “I am become a name” expresses not only fame but also a certain opaque, hollowed-out quality, at its heart.

Given that Ulysses is a protagonist in the world’s two most famous poems – the Iliad and the Odyssey – saying “my name is actually quite well known” has an edge of tautology. “I am become a name,” therefore, points rather to the wider concern of the poem with the danger of inaction. A Ulysses who does nothing heroic, who simply rests on his laurels, has become no more than a name: He no longer truly inhabits what it is to be Ulysses. Tennyson’s hero’s determination not to wither into a name, but to seek once more the adventures in which he made his name, is encapsulated in the most famous, concluding line of the poem: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Likewise, this is the determination of Rowling’s hero. Strike recalls his own past exploits just before quoting “Ulysses”: “a phrase he had read long before he had seen his first dead body, or marvelled at a waterfall in an African mountainside, or watched the face of a killer collapsing as he realised he was caught” (Cuckoo’s Calling 549). Neither veteran’s experience of war and far-flung lands has fitted him for a quiet life back home. The quotation implicitly suggests that in his new job Strike has successfully created what Tennyson’s Ulysses longs to – a new version of his old heroic life.

 

Fame

I am become a name” can be read as a rueful comment about fame. The idea that people who think they know you might in fact just know your name is humorously underlined in Strike’s case since with him they often don’t even know that. Rowling has noted how “Strike gives me a way to talk in an objective, de-personalised way about the oddities that come with fame.” Fame is something that ties together Lula’s and Strike’s stories as well as connecting both with their creator. In Career of Evil, links between Strike’s life and the crimes he investigates come to a head, but these hints begin in The Cuckoo’s Calling. The original murder of Charlie, for example, contains an odd echo of the myth from which Cormoran gets his name. Rowling has previously noted her fondness for Cornish names (such as Trelawney) and Cornish myths. In the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, for example (a medieval tradition Rowling has noted as a source), the Cornish Mantle of Arthur renders the wearer invisible. Cormoran’s name comes from the myth of a Cornish giant who is killed when a young boy called Jack (a diminutive of John) digs a huge pit into which Cormoran falls (just as Charlie dies when he is pushed into a quarry pit by John).

The Lula and Strike stories also knit together through a “bird egg” motif. The cuckoo that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests may not only refer to Lula’s history (see my previous post) but may also contain a hint about Strike’s relationship with his estranged father (a reference to his illegitimacy? A hint that he is not actually Rokeby’s son?). Strike is also the son of Leda, whose mythological namesake gave birth to eggs. Leda is the woman Zeus slept with in the form of a swan, and she famously gave birth to Helen inside an egg. And temptingly, in terms of the importance of this myth for Lethal White, there is currently a swan beating its wings on Rowling’s Twitter header… (a place which, as she has explained, contains hints about what she is currently writing)

 

“Ulysses” and the Author

Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” like In Memoriam (which I think Rowling draws on in Deathly Hallows) was written in response to the untimely death of his friend Arthur Hallam. We have an unusually direct testimony of the biographical meaning of the poem since Tennyson wrote that “the poem was written soon after Arthur Hallam’s death and gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life.”² Tennyson reworks Homer’s Odysseus and Dante’s Ulisse to create his own version of Ulysses, a hero who responds to his own situation. Rowling, likewise, quotes Tennyson’s poem to suggest something about not only Strike’s character and future but also, apparently, her own. Tennyson’s hero speaks to her own desire to return again to the kind of action in which she first made her name.

Ulysses, feeling himself staling in a bureaucratic role and longing to return again to the high seas, is a romantic analogue for an author bored of the trappings of fame, “yearning,” as she has written, “to go back to the beginning,” wanting it to be “just about the writing” again. After ten years of war and ten years of wandering, Ulysses is still anxious to get out there and make his name all over again. Some might have thought that after the same lapse of time Rowling would have hung up her writing-boots, but here we are, at the 20-year anniversary of Philosopher’s Stone, awaiting the imminent release of the fourth novel in her new series. Ulysses, encouraging his old friends on a new venture – “Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” – sounds more than a little like an author encouraging old fans once more to explore her fresh literary creation.


¹Full poem

²Quoted in Tennyson: A Selected Edition, ed. Christopher Ricks, (London: Longman, 2006), p.138.


Dr. Beatrice Groves is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet, in which she discusses Harry Potter and Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, and more!