“Troubled Blood” in Cornwall
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
Private Detective Cormoran Strike is visiting his family in Cornwall when he is approached by a woman asking for help finding her mother, Margot Bamborough – who went missing in mysterious circumstances in 1974.
Troubled Blood marks the first time the reader has been taken to Cornwall in Rowling’s writing, but it is a part of the country to which her imagination has long been drawn. Cormoran Strike is named after a Cornish giant, and his surname comes from Cornwall too. Rowling has said that she found the name Strike “in a slim book about Cornwall.” My best guess is that the slim volume is Cornish Short Stories, which contains a murder mystery entitled “Corporal Strike.” Strike’s military title, the story’s genre, and the protagonist’s one-legged father, at least, all form tempting connections.1
Given that Strike was born in Cornwall in 1974 it seems likely that Troubled Blood is going to take us further into his backstory, and Strike’s Cornish origins have been referenced in every novel so far. His penchant for Doom Bar is regularly noted – “the Cornish beer tasted of home” (Cuckoo’s Calling 46) – while in Silkworm, Cornwall becomes a more insistent presence. A Cornish novelist is mentioned, Hell’s Mouth cliffs at Gwithian are crucial to the plot, and Strike feels the pull of his home county – it is “calling to him, whispering to him” (Silkworm 57).
Mystical Cornish Mysteries
A number of Cormoran’s extraordinary array of nicknames relate, like his given name, to his Cornish origin. “Diddy” derives from “didicoy” (Silkworm 337), a Cornish word for gypsy, due to his itinerant childhood. “Oggy,” as Strikefans has noted, “has to do with the sporting Cornwall chant ‘Oggy! Oggy! Oggy!’ ‘Oggy’ is a nickname for a Cornish pasty that somehow ended up being chanted at Cornish rugby matches, political rallies and beyond.” The Oxford English Dictionary is unaware of this modern usage, but it comes up trumps on “Oggy” as a Cornish (and navy) slang for pasty:
Probably an alteration of Cornish hoggan pastry, pie (18th cent.), further etymology uncertain; perhaps a specific use (via a sense ‘lump of dough’) of an otherwise unattested cognate of Breton hogenn pile, heap, or perhaps cognate with Welsh chwiogen muffin, simnel-cake (15th cent.).
Given that at least four of Cormoran’s names – both “Cormoran” and “Strike” as well as these two nicknames – reflect his Cornish roots, I wonder if there might also be a Cornish slant to “Mystic Bob” (the nickname commenting on Strike’s “sixth sense,” which saved Richard Anstis’s life).
We know that Troubled Blood will link Cornwall with the occult (and fortune telling) because the blurb tells us that this “fiendishly complex case,” which starts in Cornwall, features “leads that include tarot cards.” Rowling has already underlined the importance tarot will play in Troubled Blood by changing her Twitter header to three tarot cards on Strike’s birthday last year. These cards are from the Thoth tarot deck – the deck designed by the occultist Aleister Crowley, who is also likely to be appearing in Troubled Blood (as I discuss on Hogwarts Professor).
The connection between tarot and fortune telling is particularly interesting given the putative link between the fifth Strike (Troubled Blood) and the fifth Harry Potter (Order of the Phoenix). The fifth Harry Potter centers on a prophecy made about the hero’s birth; and the importance of prophecy (or at least tarot) and the year of the hero’s birth in Troubled Blood form a tempting correspondence. But particularly interesting is that the person who makes this prophecy in Phoenix is both the only person in Harry Potter who has any interest in tarot and the only person in Harry Potter with a Cornish name.
Rowling has written about Professor Trelawney:
I love Cornish surnames, and had never used one until the third book in the series, so that is how Professor Trelawney got her family name. I did not want to call her anything comical, or which suggested chicanery, but something impressive and attractive. ‘Trelawney’ is a very old name, suggestive of Sybill’s over-reliance on her ancestry when seeking to impress. There is a beautiful old Cornish song featuring the name (‘The Song of the Western Men’).
“The Song of the Western Men” was written by Robert Stephen Hawker in the early 19th century, but it is believed to be rooted in an earlier folk song. It has become an unofficial anthem of Cornwall and is regularly sung at Cornish rugby union matches. (Given Rowling’s love of rugby, it is possible that both Trelawney’s surname and Cormoran’s “Oggy” nickname derive initially from songs she heard sung at rugby games.)
Rowling wrote about the Cornish origins of Trelawney’s name in 2015, but Troubled Blood is the first indication that she may have given Trelawney a Cornish name because she teaches Divination. Certainly, it looks as though Troubled Blood will take in some of the famously mystical sites of Cornwall – perhaps (given Rowling’s interest in Arthurian legends) Tintagel or Dozmary Pool (said to be where Sir Bedivere returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake).
Or perhaps we will visit one of the county’s stone circles, such as the Merry Maidens at St. Buryan, the Tregeseal Dancing Stones, or the Nine Maidens of Boskednan. One such mystical spot is the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which was a major contributor to the Harry Potter and the History of Magic exhibition (which I wrote about for the Leaky Cauldron ). For the exhibition, it loaned many objects to do with divination: a crystal ball on a stand decorated with griffins, a palmistry hand, a Paignton witch’s black moon crystal ball, and a pink fortune-telling teacup (“I’m rather attached to the pink,” as Trelawney notes [PoA 104]). There was also a witch’s scrying mirror, which bears an oblique relation to Harry’s experience with the Mirror of Erised (for its owner warned that if you see someone standing behind you in the mirror, you must not turn around). The Thoth tarot deck (the deck Rowling displayed on her Twitter header) can also be found in this museum – I wonder if Strike and Robin might pay them a visit to learn about the tarot cards that haunt their Cornish mystery.
Cornish Folktales: Jack the Giant Killer and Mermaids
The Cornish references in Strike have resonant links with a number of Cornish folktales (connecting with the interest in traditional stories so evident in Harry Potter. In The Silkworm, Christian Fisher notes that Cormoran’s unusual Christian name is that of the St. Michael’s Mount giant who was killed by Jack “of beanstalk fame” (29). In fact, the tidal island of St. Michael’s Mount comes up twice in Silkworm as Daniel Chard also has a painting of it by the Cornish artist Alfred Wallis. Maybe this simply points towards the (different) rocky Cornish location which will later prove crucial to the plot, but I suspect it marks out St. Michael’s Mount as a location we will visit in Troubled Blood. (Incidentally, St. Michael’s Mount also appears in “The Song of the Western Men,” which compares it as a stronghold to the Tower of London – to the latter’s disadvantage: “Though London Tower were Michael’s hold”).
Christian Fisher’s comment linking Jack the Giant Killer with the more famous folktale Jack (“of beanstalk fame”) is broadly correct, for although (in their first written form) they stem from different 18th-century fairy tales, both ultimately derive from a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, which can “be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.” (The exploits of Jack the Giant Killer do not involve any beanstalks or golden geese, but one of the giants he destroys does sing a song that is almost identical to the verse known to every English schoolchild from Jack and the Beanstalk: “Fa, fe, fi, fo, fum,/ I smell the blood of an Englishman;/ Let him be alive, or let him be dead,/ I’ll grind his bones to make me bread.”)2
Jack the Giant-Killer; being the History of all His Wonderful Exploits Against the Giants (1820) tells of how:
In the reign of King Arthur, there lived near the Land’s-end of England, a worthy farmer, who had an only son, named Jack… In those days there lived on St. Michael’s Mount of Cornwall, which rises out of the sea, at some distance from the main land, a huge giant. He was eighteen feet high, and three yards round; and his fierce and savage looks were the terror of all his neighbours. (4)
Jack swims to the mount, digs a pit covered with sticks, and taunts the giant so that when the giant runs to catch him, it falls into the pit. It is only when Jack is rewarded by the Justices of Cornwall that we hear the giant’s name, for they present him with a sword and a belt, which have this verse written on them in letters of gold: “This is the valiant Cornish man,/ Who slew the giant Cormoran” (5). In what is presumably an attempt to knit together the two most famous Cornish tales, Jack’s exploits end, somewhat incongruously for a trickster figure, with him being made “a knight of the round table” (18).
But besides the more famous stories of Arthur and Jack the Giant Killer, there is another less well-known Cornish tale that has been hidden in plain sight in the Strike novels. I expect Troubled Blood will see Strike reaching for a pint of Doom Bar in The Victory (his “real local” [Silkworm 374]), and maybe we’ll hear something about the origins of its name too. This famous Cornish beer is named after a sandbank, which (as its name suggests) is steeped in folklore. The story, as related by Enys Tregarthen in her North Cornwall Fairies and Legends (1906), tells how Tristram Bird, a native of Padstow, buys a gun and boasts to the “fair young maids” of the town that he wants to go and shoot something worthy of his fine new purchase.3 Going down the seashore, he is struck by the sight of the most beautiful woman gazing at her reflection in a pool. He declares his love, and when she tells him that, despite his wealth and his looks, she does not return it, he grows angry: “You have bewitched me, sweet, and no other man shall have you. If I can’t have you living, I’ll have you dead” (60). He shoots her and – upon doing so – realizes that she is not a woman at all but a mermaid. With her dying breath, she curses Tristram by creating the Doom Bar – a sandbank that will be a “bar of doom” (65) to Padstow, wrecking ships and isolating the town. And it is said that whenever a ship is wrecked on the Doom Bar, the mermaid’s wail can be heard.
One reason for thinking that this story may make its way into Troubled Blood is due to the brutality and entitlement of its protagonist, who believes that a woman he loves must (perforce) love him, and if she does not, he is justified in murdering her. It is a story of perverted desire and violent misogyny, which resonates with what we might expect from Troubled Blood given its presumed pairing with Career of Evil (for the evidence that Strike, like Harry Potter, is written in ring composition, see this article on Hogwarts Professor).
There are a number of other famous Cornish mermaid myths, such as the Lamorna mermaid who lures fishermen to their doom, the vengeful mermaid of Seaton who responded to an insult by drowning the town in sand, and (most famously) the Mermaid of Zennor. This significant tradition of Cornish mermaids is likely to have caught Rowling’s eye, for she not only included Merpeople in Harry Potter but has also displayed her pride in her familial and heraldic connection with mermaids. And while the stories of Zennor and Lamorna tell of mermaids as malefic seductresses, I expect Rowling to be drawn to the story of the Doom Bar mermaid for overturning this traditional, male-centric reading. The Doom Bar mermaid is both the victim (and avenger) of misogynistic violence in a way that fits with what we can expect in Troubled Blood in which Robin, as she was in Career of Evil, is attempting to avoid “unwanted male attention” while she tracks down “a psychopathic serial killer.”
In Silkworm, it is mentioned that Strike’s friends Nick and Isla are “the only place where the two halves of his early life intersected: London and Cornwall, happily married” (107). It looks like Troubled Blood is going to mirror this marriage and finally bring together these parts of Strike’s history. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll look at what we know about Troubled Blood’s London locations: Hampton Court Palace and St. John’s Gate, Clerkenwell.
1On the original Robert Galbraith homepage, in the “About” section uploaded in Sept 2018, Rowling wrote that Strike’s “surname came from a real (but deceased) man mentioned in a slim book about Cornwall,” but in 2014, she described him as an author of a book about Cornwall. Given this inconsistency (and the fact I’ve failed to find any books about Cornwall written by a “Strike”), this evocative murder mystery might be the correct guess. It is by H. Spring and can be found in Cornish Short Stories, ed. Denys Val Baker (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976).
2Jack the Giant-Killer; being the History of all His Wonderful Exploits Against the Giants (Glasgow: J. Lumsden & Son, 1820), 24.
3Enys Tregarthen, North Cornwall Fairies and Legends (London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1906), 53.
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.