Trouble in Faerie Land (Part 1): Spenserian Clues in the Epigraphs of “Troubled Blood”
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for J.K. Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike novel, Troubled Blood.
Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590/96) is a work that I have long thought lived somewhere in the hinterlands of Rowling’s imagination when she created Harry Potter. Spenser’s poem, like Harry Potter, is a (sort of) seven-part epic set in a magical world. It is also one of the greatest works of English poetry (as well as one of my favorites), so it was a delight when, in March 2020, Rowling changed her Twitter header to an image taken from The Faerie Queene. I wrote up the idea that this might mean Spenser’s epic would be turning up as the epigraphs to Troubled Blood in March, and Rowling confirmed that I was thinking along the right lines by liking a tweet linking to this blog.
But Rowling also gave another clue to her love of Spenser via Twitter this year. On April 21, 2020, she posted a video of color-coded bookshelves: “Rearranging books is a very soothing lockdown activity.”
Rearranging books is a very soothing lockdown activity 🌈 pic.twitter.com/6bDjeCJIPa
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) April 21, 2020
Along with the books, however, this video clearly showed her bespoke bookshelves and the quotation (written in gold lettering) that she has commissioned to run across the top of them: “It is the mynd, that maketh good or ill, That maketh wretch or happie.” This is a quotation from Book Six of The Faerie Queene:
It is the mynd, that maketh good or ill,
That maketh wretch or happie, rich or poore:
For some, that hath abundance at his will,
Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store;
And other, that hath litle, askes no more,
But in that litle is both rich and wise.
For wisedome is most riches; fooles therefore
They are, which fortunes doe by vowes deuize,
Sith each vnto himselfe his life may fortunize.” (6.9.30)
This tissue of proverbs is spoken by the old shepherd Meliboe, and Rowling’s fondness for the opening one puts her in good company as it appears that it also caught Shakespeare’s eye. Hamlet alludes to Meliboe’s sententious eloquence when its protagonist says that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, 2.2.249-50).
The Twitterati’s response to Rowling’s bookcase tweet focused on whether color-coding was a charming way to look at your books afresh or a mark of the beast. Given the previous Spenser Twitter header, however, I wondered whether the color-coding was actually an attention-grabbing distraction from the real clue here. Rowling has previous experience in the clue-dropping-in-tweets department. Her post about tea and popcorn back in 2017 contained a mostly missed clue in the Catullus hiding underneath. This was not only a nod to the importance of Catullus in the next Strike novel (Lethal White), it actually replicated what happened in that novel when Strike catches a glimpse of a corner of Catullus on a side table. I have even wondered, since Strike mentions Catullus’s famous sparrow poems in Lethal White, whether the Sparrow mug that is so visible in the tweet is part of the clue.
To consider so might be to consider too curiously, but I was not wrong about that bookshelf Spenser quotation. That precise passage from The Faerie Queene turned up as the epigraph to Chapter 23, and – as a little in-joke – in Anna and Kim’s home, “the books had been arranged by color” (Troubled Blood 911). In Troubled Blood, as in Lethal White, Rowling has achieved something unique by taking all her epigraphs from one text. I believed that Lethal White was the most epigraphically indebted work yet written, and it has now been surpassed as Troubled Blood takes one opening epigraph, seven “part” epigraphs, 73 chapter epigraphs, and its title all from one work (82 quotations in all). This means that deep connections are forged with The Faerie Queene in this text, not only with the specific passages cited but with wider Spenserian themes. Rowling has identified “change, loss and absence” as well as “ideals and stereotypes of femininity” as central to Troubled Blood. Both are central and intertwined themes within The Faerie Queene. This is a poem that ends half-way, for the poem was never completed – another form of loss – with the goddess Mutability claiming that, under her rule, change is the central truth of the universe. Change and loss are feminized in a different way throughout the poem in the trope of female abduction. Within The Faerie Queene, many women (such as Florimell, Amoret, Priscilla, Serena, and Pastorella) are kidnapped by men. The loss of these women parallels the suffering of Creed’s victims within Troubled Blood and in particular the three women whose fates Strike and Robin solve: Margot Bamborough, Louise Tucker, and Kara Wolfson.
While Spenser is not, perhaps, a natural feminist, The Faerie Queene grapples with the fact that Elizabeth I (who is at once his patron and his queen) is a woman who, by wielding absolute power and being unmarried, did not fit neatly within early modern feminine roles. Elizabeth is invited to read herself “in mirrours more than one” (3.proem.5) in the poem, and the most important of these mirrors is Britomart – the warrior maiden who beats every man she encounters in martial combat. Britomart is a crucial figure in Troubled Blood’s epigraphs, and the identification of Robin with Britomart (along with that of Strike as Artegall, the man whom Britomart loves) is central to the game these epigraphs play.
Elizabeth Baird Hardy has brilliantly pointed out that the connection to The Faerie Queene is structural as well as thematic. Rowling’s seven-part novel, in which the final part is a short conclusion of only two chapters, feels intentionally reminiscent of Spenser’s poem – which would generally be described as a seven-part poem with the final part being the two short “Mutabilitie Cantos.” Today’s blog will follow on the thematic connections between the two works and the way in which Troubled Blood’s epigraphs drop clues, while my next blog will look at how the epigraphs engage (as did those of Lethal White) in shipping Strike and Robin.
The clear and direct associations the epigraphs create between central characters and Spenser’s knights Britomart and Artegall encourage the reader to make wider character identifications. Some of these are wittily satisfying, such as the casting of Shanker as Talus (a connection made in the epigraph to Chapter 27). Artegall is the knight of Justice, and Talus is his violent sidekick, whose name recalls “talion,” meaning retributive justice (from Latin talio). Shanker is close to Strike as Talus is to Artegall, and Shanker’s violent eye-for-an-eye code has precisely the same problems as Talus’s inflexibly brutal attitude to meting out justice. Other names provide clues. Cynthia’s name, for example, is taken from one of the early modern names given to Spenser’s queen and muse. Spenser addresses Elizabeth as Cynthia in the Proem to Book 3, explicitly noting this as a well-known cryptonym for her (from Walter Raleigh’s Ocean to Cynthia, which only survives as a fragment). While Cynthia’s moon goddess name might at first make us question her (might she be changeable?), in the context of The Faerie Queene, this is a startlingly affirmative name. Only once Cynthia is no longer under suspicion at the end of the novel is the true strength of her name allowed to shine, and Anna emphasizes that she has been “the most wonderful mother” (918).
Troubled Blood begins with an over-arching epigraph from the moment in The Faerie Queene when Britomart and Scudamour search for his lost beloved, Amoret:
There they her sought, and euery where inquired,
Where they might tydings get of her estate;
Yet found they none. But by what haplesse fate,
Or hard misfortune she was thence conuayd,
And stolne away from her beloued mate,
Were long to tell.” (Faerie Queene, Book 4, Canto 6, stanza 47)
This opening identifies the importance to Troubled Blood of a lost woman and the heroes who faithfully search for her. But its identification of Robin with Britomart and of Margot with Amoret work on deeper levels too. Margot’s identification with Amoret is made twice more when the passage about her imprisonment – Book 3, Canto 12 – is used in chapter epigraphs. It is noticeable that there is only a one-letter difference in their names, suggesting that Rowling might have been thinking of the Amoret analogue before she named Margot. The epigraph about Amoret, which stands before the whole novel, describes Britomart setting off at the conclusion of this canto, not to pursue her own lover – who has met her, plighted himself to her, and gone off again on his own adventures all in the space of a few stanzas – but to find the missing woman. She promises Scudamour, “I vow, you dead or liuing not to leaue,/ Till I her find, and wrake on him that her did reaue” (4.6.38). The analogue with Amoret created here gives us a hint that two of the possible outcomes for the search for Margot are red herrings. Amoret has not left of her own accord (and neither has Margot), and she has not been taken by the enchanter Busirane (the Creed figure in The Faerie Queene). Like Amoret, Margot has been abducted by someone else.
Earlier in the poem, however, Amoret has been kidnapped by Busirane, and her lover’s helplessness in the face of this creates a parallel between him and Margot’s husband. The reader first meets Scudamour bemoaning his powerlessness in the face of the appalling fate of his beloved:
My Lady and my loue is cruelly pend
In dolefull darkenesse from the vew of day,
Whilest deadly torments do her chast brest rend,
And the sharpe steele doth riue her hart in tway,
All for she Scudamore will not denay.
Yet thou vile man, vile Scudamore art sound,
Ne canst her ayde, ne canst her foe dismay.” (Faerie Queene, 3.1.10-11)
Scudamour’s helplessness after Amoret’s abduction and torture is akin to Margot’s husband when he castigates himself for being unable to protect her: “I couldn’t protect her – couldn’t – do anything – if somebody tried – to hurt – because I’m a useless – bleeder… useless… bloody… bleeder…” (429). Amoret has been taken by the evil black magician Busirane who, like Creed, not only imprisons and tortures her women but is also mixed up in the occult. The enchanter Busirane is named after Busiris, a cruel Egyptian king who paid pirates to kidnap the women who rejected him. (Busiris was also identified with the pharaoh of Exodus, who – just like Busirane – imprisoned the righteous.)
The epigraph to Chapter 8 – “Full dreadfull things out of that balefull booke/ He red” (Faerie Queene, 3.12.36) – creates a further connection between Busirane and Creed. The epigraph describes Busirane’s book of black magic, and it precedes the chapter in which Strike reads about Creed in The Demon of Paradise Park. The passage which the epigraph quotes, however, is not a moment when Busirane’s magic is ascendant. Rather it describes Busirane’s downfall as Britomart forces him to free Amoret by undoing all his charms. Busirane dispels his own enchantments through rereading them, perhaps by the typical black magic trope of reading them backwards: “his charmes back to reuerse… those same bloody lynes reherse” (Faerie Queene 3.12.36). The passage recalls the moment in Homer’s Odyssey when Ulysses forces Circe to free her victims by striking them with a reversed magic rod. But in The Faerie Queene, the traditional gender roles of this moment are likewise reversed as Spenser upends traditional expectations about which sex has gained illicit power through black magic and which gets to rescue the girl.
Troubled Blood sets the reader up to expect a male murderer, but the Spenserian epigraphs give us a hint about that too. The epigraph to Chapter 21 (the chapter in which Strike and Robin dissect their interview with Janice and Irene) draws attention to the fact that someone has been lying in that interview. It is taken from a passage in Book 5 in which Artegall proves that false and true words cannot be weighed together (Faerie Queene, 5.2.45). In this chapter, Strike and Robin try to weigh what they have learned from Janice and Irene and sift the truth from the lies. The reader is alerted to the fact that all may not be as it seemed – “I think we were told a couple of lies” (231) – but we are misdirected towards Irene as the source of these lies when she is described as “a liar, a gossip and a compulsive attention-seeker” (232).
The epigraph to this crucial interview in Chapter 20 has likewise connected gossip with lying, suggesting parallels between Irene and Spenser’s personification of Detraction:
And if that any ill she heard of any,
She would it eeke, and make much worse by telling,
And take great ioy to publish it to many,
That euery matter worse was for her melling” (Faerie Queene, 5.12.35; Troubled Blood, chap. 20).
In context, this quotation fits particularly well with Strike meeting Irene and Janice as Artegall here encounters two older women: Envy and Detraction. And there is a subtle hint about which of these two women is, in fact, the liar. Irene muses, “What was he called? Apton? Applethorpe?” (217), and her first guess is fairly close to the true name of the Athorns (who will prove central to the mystery). When Strike discovers that their name is Athorn – nothing like Applethorpe – we should be suspicious of the fact that Janice had immediately nudged Strike towards the wrong name, telling him that “I visited the Applethorpes” (217). Spenser takes gossip and slander very seriously; indeed, the enemy of Book 6 is the Blatant Beast, a monster of ill-speaking (who is introduced at the end of Book 5 as Envy and Detraction’s pet beast). Detraction, indeed, is described in much more deadly terms than the passage chosen for Chapter 2’s epigraph might suggest. She is a compulsive liar whose lies are intended to mislead: “faynes to weaue false tales and leasings bad,/ To throw amongst the good, which others had disprad” (5.12.36). There is a continual emphasis on the toxicity of these lies, as she destroys from within, as they “inly fret” over injuries that are “inward hid” (5.12.32). Detraction is “foming with poyson,” and she “closely kils,/ Or cruelly does wound, whom so she wils” (5.12.36). This toxic context to the epigraph of Chapter 20 suggests that one of these two women is not just spreading lies about people but poisoning them too.
Once again in this epigraph, we get the parallel – drawn throughout the novel – of Artegall with Strike, and alongside the embedded connection between Britomart and Robin, this connection is good news for the Strike/Robin shippers out there. In my next blog, I’ll look further at these connections as well as more Spenserian clues and misdirections.
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Solve et Coagula: Part 1 – Rowling’s Alchemical Tattoo” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.