Guest post by C.M.
In this second part of my article, I will be discussing what the I Ching might mean in relation to The Running Grave (Strike book 7).
What I wondered about most upon realising book 7 would reference the I Ching, is the fact that each Strike book’s plot and themes are so different. There was lots of detail about oracles and the occult in Troubled Blood, and, despite the aforementioned contrasts to the I Ching, I suspect Strike wouldn’t see much difference. How could Rowling include it without repetition — and why is she bringing the Book of Changes to the table now?
The answer to the first question might depend on the extent of the role that the I Ching will play in Strike 7. While initially sceptical, I’ve since found a few reasons to believe it will actually be relevant to the novel and not just inserted in an incidental or perfunctory way. That it will play, if not a large role, at least a significant one; perhaps similar to that astrology played in Troubled Blood.
Though this may sound strange to most readers, Rowling’s use of astrology in Troubled Blood was, in actuality, quite basic. From a system that encompasses several planets and asteroids and their placement in different signs and houses, including even interpretations for individual degrees in some sources, her use was restricted to the element everybody knows: the Solar sign of the characters. For the purposes of the mystery, this was artificially complicated with the use of the Schimdt system (by assigning more than one sign to each character) and with the red herring of the villain being Capricorn, which wasn’t the real sign of the culprit.
The I Ching, however, is much more obscure in popular culture: it has no easy entrypoint and doesn’t lend itself well to simplifications. To insert it, she will have to spend considerable time explaining it. It doesn’t make sense to me — and I’m pretty sure neither will it to her editors — to go through this effort if it’s not relevant and unconnected to the main plot.
JK Rowling, on the other hand, seems to know the Book of Changes very well. Even amongst people who use the I Ching, it is somewhat rare to find someone who knows how to perform the complex yarrow stalk method, which she insists is the “proper way to do it,” while coins are for “amateurs.” Of course, this might not mean anything with regard to its presence in the book — but I personally find the depth of her interest very suggestive.
The recently revealed title might give us a clue. As fans have discovered, it likely comes from the poem “When, like a running grave” by Dylan Thomas — a very obscure one indeed, which I won’t even try to untangle here! Nevertheless, when looking into Thomas’s themes6, we find something quite interesting. Here’s how the poet describes his creative process:
“A poem by me needs a host of images. (…) Each image holds within it the seed of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of that central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time… (…) Out of the inevitable conflict of images — inevitable because of the creative, recreative, destructive, and contradictory nature of the motivating centre, the womb of war — I try to make that momentary peace which is a poem.”
As researcher Willard Rudd explains, Thomas “repeatedly stresses that birth is the first symptom of death, that all living things carry within them the seeds of their own destruction, and that the poet’s duty is to recreate or reflect in his verse the eternal flow from womb to tomb that controls man and nature.”
Substitute “the poet’s duty” for the Book of Changes, and you might find the I Ching’s main ideas and purposes restated. This thematic resonance seems confirmation enough of the relevance of the ancient book to the novel’s themes.
And yet there’s still one final reason that has to do with character. Whatever the motive for its presence in the novel, it is likely to render understanding the I Ching absolutely essential to solving the mystery — because nothing else would compel Strike to learn about it.…
I Ching in the Plot of Strike 7
How, then, might the author accomplish this in an original way?
When I heard that book 5 would be connected to astrology, I expected the cliché of a serial killer basing their murders on signs. There was indeed a serial killer, but the idea was flipped on its head: it was instead the police investigator who used astrology to try to solve the case. I suspect that for The Running Grave, we can only speculate in the certainty that we will be surprised — but that is no reason not to try!
We don’t have many examples of the use of the I Ching in literature from which to draw inspiration, which is perhaps also due to its complexity. There is a mention in the series His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, which as far as I know, is not too deep; and Herman Hesse used it in his novel The Glass Bead Game, though the novel’s themes were themselves related to eastern spirituality. The most famous use, of course, is in Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which, though a great example of thematic depth done right (and a great introduction for anyone interested in learning more), it’s not very apt to being a model for the plot of Strike 7. One more likely idea used in other works is from Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver, which used hexagrams as encryption keys — the figures would lend themselves well to being used as a sort of code, such as in Conan Doyle’s The Dancing Man.
Perhaps, then, the best we can do is go back to the breadcrumbs left by Rowling on Twitter. A lot could be written about the image she used as her header, for instance, which intrigued me as being highly unusual.
Instead of the Tai Chi symbol at the centre, we have in this image the Wuxing pentagram, a system of five phases (or elements) used especially in Chinese medicine, and which, though related, does not have a smooth correspondence to the eight trigrams. The two trigram arrangements are of very different origins and uses, and the sequence of hexagrams, attributed to philosopher and poet Shao Yong, is not a standard one. Most baffling is the outer ring and the thirteen sets of grayscale circles: they are not associated with any known I Ching symbolism, as far as I’m aware.
However, after some digging and with the help of online forums, the original source of this image has been located in a blog post from 2006, found via the Wayback Machine7. It turns out it was part of an attempt to construct a calendar based on annual daylight. Now the 365 circles in the outermost ring and the thirteen sets of 4 x 7 circles make sense!
While I’m inclined to think the image was chosen purely for aesthetic reasons, the reference to a calendar is intriguing because one of the emojis JK Rowling used in her tweets was a Chinese lantern. These are famously used in the Lantern Festival marking the end of the Chinese New Year period (and are often filled with riddles). If Chinese festivals are involved, the title also brings to mind the Qingming festival, or tomb-sweeping day, in which people celebrate the dead by visiting the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites, pray to their ancestors and make ritual offerings.
If, furthermore, the plot of The Running Grave is related to Chinese culture in general, two traditions are also interesting in light of the recent title reveal.
One is the practice of second burial, “uncovering the remains of the dead after several years of burial and reburying them for a second time in situ or at an alternative site,” an ancient practice which is still common in Hong Kong8. A more recent one is the transport of remains of Chinese expats to their homeland9. Both of them could be seen as some sort of literal explanation for the enigmatic title, even though it seems difficult to tie these traditions to the backdrop of Norfolk (a location Rowling has indicated will be relevant to Strike 7, again through the use of her Twitter headers).
Even so, it is certainly interesting to have the mention of “grave” in the title of a book that potentially has a connection to Chinese culture, which itself has such a profound relationship to the past and ancestors. It seems to support the idea that a look into the past might be expected — something that leads us to two other possible connections between the I Ching and Strike.
The first relates to the character who we already know was into the esoteric: Leda. We know some of the book will take place in Norfolk, a place mentioned in the books in association with the “quasi-mystical” commune that was Strike’s worst experience in his childhood, and which Rowling says we are “right to dread” learning more about. The teasing of the commune makes it difficult to believe it won’t ever come up in the books, and this upcoming book, which will undoubtedly feature Norfolk, feels a likely option. It’s easy to speculate that the I Ching will somehow come up in relation to the commune, whether through Strike’s recollections of his time there, brought about by a visit to Norfolk, or with actual involvement in the case, if the commune itself is directly related to the main plot of the novel.
Of course, if the I Ching is connected to the main case, then Leda might serve the same narrative purpose she did with the tarot in Troubled Blood: as a way to explain its principles to us, through Strike’s memories. That might end up being the case, but if so, I doubt she will be the only one to serve this purpose, because there is one much better candidate. In fact, if I had to place one bet about this book, I would say that whatever the I Ching’s role in it is, it will be Prudence Donleavy who explains this system to our favourite detectives.
We know that Prudence will feature in the book and we learned in The Ink Black Heart that she is a Jungian psychologist. As the citations above demonstrate, Jung had a deep relationship with the I Ching. He studied the book for over thirty years, applied it to his clinical practice, and wrote the foreword to the most famous translation to western languages by Richard Willhelm. That certainly does not feel like a coincidence.
There has been speculation about Prudence being the main connection to the I Ching in the book; perhaps using it to help Strike in the process of change that he started in The Ink Black Heart. I personally don’t see this happening in such a straightforward way. Firstly, although it is not unprecedented10, it isn’t to my knowledge standard practice to use the oracle in Jungian psychology methods. It’s also hard enough to imagine Strike accepting Pru’s help without an ancient oracle also being involved — again, he’ll only delve in if it’s absolutely necessary to a case.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that once Strike is forced to learn about the I Ching, it won’t be useful for his personal development, much as the Tarot may have planted some ideas for Robin in Troubled Blood.
And that leads us closer to the reason JK Rowling might have chosen to write about the Book of Changes in the first place.
The Book of Changes and the Themes of Strike 7
What the I Ching might mean for the plot of The Running Grave might be difficult to guess, but I find the implications for its themes to be much less of a shot in the dark.
As mentioned, the I Ching doesn’t favour shallowness and that, in my opinion, is also true for the themes of a novel that intends to use it — and to good effect — as a narrative device. To include the book in any meaningful way will likely mean a good deal of thematic depth. This aligns with what I perceive as a recent deepening of the series’ themes, especially in The Ink Black Heart, which explores ideas that feel not only broader in scope but also deeper in treatment than those of earlier novels.
In it, we see discussions of philosophical nature rarely seen before — for instance, what is most important to decide a man’s fate?; Strike’s take on Dunne’s “every man’s death diminishes me”; and his final showdown with Charlotte, the result of which is defined not through his feelings, but through a realisation of a profound nature regarding his values versus hers. More importantly, in Troubled Blood we are promised, through Tolstoy, an easy solution for Strike’s dilemma regarding having both a professional and a romantic relationship with Robin — only to have that superficial solution denied to him and to us in The Ink Black Heart.
Especially in light of the I Ching, I would expect to see this trend continuing, particularly in the series’ forté, which is psychological characterisation.
It was certainly laid out pretty clearly in The Ink Black Heart that, in the next book, Strike is due to confront some of his traumas, beliefs, and blindspots and, as a result, make changes in both his character and behaviour.
The prospect of the Norfolk commune corroborates that, as does Prudence as a psychologist and the I Ching.
As I’ve said in part one of this article, using the I Ching involves two main requirements. Firstly, we must understand that to be attuned to the order of things, we must change. Secondly, we must then identify the necessary changes from a careful study of the situation and self-reflection. Both these things, as every fan would agree, would benefit both Strike and Robin — but especially Strike.
If the Tarot can be evocative, ominous or inspiring in its images, the I Ching’s words can often present judgements that are quite plain and blunt, even harsh (e.g., “to a man who is incorrigible … He is deaf to warnings. This obstinacy leads to misfortune”). Its advice can certainly be focused on external circumstances or action (e.g., “you associate with the wrong people,” “do not act”). Shippers should pay attention if Hexagrams 31, 32, 53 or 54 pop up, as they are the ones that most concern romantic relationships! But they can, more often than not, be more internally oriented, giving advice about the correct personal attitude in the face of different situations — many of which would be very apt for the detectives’ situation at the end of The Ink Black Heart.
One hexagram might point to the need to do some hard work in a situation that has deteriorated because of past neglect (18, “Work on what has been spoiled”). Others advise against indulgence in lower pleasures or wrong companies (58, The Lake, and 27, Providing Nourishment). Or they might teach us the value of adversity and of a temporary obstruction to self-development (39, Obstruction).
For the I Ching, if the processes have a logic of alternation between progress and decline, the topic of moral conscience demands, nonetheless, a continuous progress.
I suspect the digging Strike will have to do in his psyche will indeed be deep and judicious, so that he can find the roots of, and correct, the obvious flaws in what is otherwise a strong moral character. And if we do get to see a dramatic culmination of this process, I would expect it to relate in a pivotal way to both the I Ching and to Rowling’s work as a whole.
The Ultimate Test
There’s a line that might be my favourite in the Book of Changes, as it seems to encapsulate the whole philosophy of the book. It comes from Hexagram 2, the Receptive — which also represents the ideal disposition of man towards the wisdom and luminous force of the Creative.
“The superior man,” says the I Ching, “lets himself be guided; he does not go ahead blindly, but learns from the situation what is demanded of him and then follows this intimation from fate.”
As I reflected upon Rowling’s possible use of the I Ching, I realised that some of its themes aren’t new to her work. All three of the main characters in both her series of books (Harry, Strike and Robin) have one thing in common: the ability to read and adapt to the moment, to improvise, to adjust. All of them, likewise, make their biggest mistakes when they fail to see the full picture of a situation: Harry at the end of Order of the Phoenix, Robin at the end of Career of Evil and, of course, Strike at the end of The Ink Black Heart.
We see the theme of making the appropriate choice in the face of a difficult situation repeated time and again in Harry’s journey — starting with the moment that gives him his scar, but particularly in the last couple of books, as two pivotal chapters of the Potter series exemplify: the one in which the whole thesis that is the series’ backbone is laid out (“Horcruxes,” from The Half-Blood Prince) and the one in which the protagonist makes the pivotal choice that defines his character (“The Final Hiding Place,” Deathly Hallows) — the choice in “The Forest Again,” of course, goes without saying.
A very interesting example is also the way Felix Felicis works in Half-Blood Prince: the very concept of luck delineated there is not based on a fortuitous change in circumstance; it is rather the enlightened wisdom of knowing exactly how to adjust oneself to the circumstances already given. To know what to do and when to do it, and go through with it.
That is the ultimate test for the heroes of Rowling’s stories; can they accurately assess the situation (in both reasoning and morals) and make the right, timely choice that proves their value?
Both Strike and Robin have risen to the occasion many times with brave choices, but as we know, their remarkable track record still has one obvious blindspot — their hesitation, so far, in changing the nature of their relationship. Although this telling moment might not come in the upcoming book, I would be surprised if it doesn’t come at all.
Still, I’m inclined to think we might see important steps in that regard in The Running Grave. If I’m right, The Book of Changes signifies more than just an interesting backdrop.
Seventh Brings Return
Rowling’s use of oracles is a peculiar one. Her prophecies are self-fulling; her predictions, the subject of jokes — until they aren’t. Divination is frowned upon by the more rational of her characters, like Strike and Hermione (who, nonetheless, is an applied student of Arithmancy, heavily based on runes). The author seems particularly fond of the Tarot, which, though also at first is discredited, ends up being quite prophetic in both Harry Potter and Strike.
Likewise, astrology is used extensively in Strike, though more as a red herring; meanwhile, its use by the Centaurs is one of the most reliable forms of divination in the Potter series, and their race amongst the most skillful in its use. (Interestingly, some of their methods like the burning of “herbs and fumes” strongly resemble Chinese oracles that predate and perhaps originated the I Ching, like oracle bones). Even so, when centaur Firenze taught the discipline, his priority rather seemed “to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaurs’ knowledge, was foolproof.”
It is difficult to gather what JKR’s real opinion or interest is; perhaps it is less in the oracles and more in the use people make of them. As Robin says:
“Jung says it was man’s first attempt at psychology, did you know that?… Folklore and superstition haven’t gone away. They’ll never go away. People need them,” she said, taking a sip of coffee. “I think a purely scientific world would be a cold place” (Troubled Blood, Chapter 35).
Ultimately I believe that whether they work within her worlds is beside the point — after all, to quote the author herself, again:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
For the purposes of understanding its place in her novels, what matters is what she’s doing with it — which is, without exception, always intentional.
The point I keep coming back to in trying to anticipate what the I Ching might mean for book 7, is the repetition of a theme (oracles and what comes with them) that we have apparently already seen in Troubled Blood. Again, it begs at least two questions: why reintroduce it and why now?
As for the first question, I’ve found only one satisfying answer. For the introduction of a new oracle to be meaningful, to develop character, to serve a narrative purpose, the result of Strike’s encounter with it will have to be somewhat different than that which we saw in Troubled Blood.
I think, then, we should not overlook the time in the series when the Book of Changes is introduced into the Strike series: after the first six novels. Beyond the cosmology, there is a reason why the hexagrams, the figures which represent all phenomena, have six lines:
“The movement is cyclic, and the course completes itself. Therefore it is not necessary to hasten anything artificially. Everything comes of itself at the appointed time. This is the meaning of heaven and earth. All movements are accomplished in six stages, and the seventh brings return. Thus the winter solstice, with which the decline of the year begins, comes in the seventh month after the summer solstice; so too sunrise comes in the seventh double hour after sunset” (Hexagram 24).
The seventh stage brings a dramatic change; it marks a new beginning.
From all the possible themes Rowling could be extracting from the I Ching, the reference to Dylan Thomas in the title seems to point to this one as exceptionally relevant: the cyclic movements of life where the good has its roots in the bad and vice-versa.
We end The Ink Black Heart in a pretty grim place, but just as the Yi teaches us that the night is inevitably followed by the day, we know that in Strike’s realisation that is awakened by the tragedy of his situation lay the seeds to him finding his way again. This is so well articulated in Hexagram 5, Waiting:
“It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are, without any sort of self-deception or illusion, that a light will develop out of events, by which the path to success may be recognized.”
The End of the Path
One of those things Jung might call “synchronicities” is a surprising connection between Rowling’s view of the writing process and the I Ching.
The taoist Master Wu Jyh Cherng brings an interesting reflection on the origins of the term “Ching”11. The Chinese ideogram for it is made up of two parts. The first means “silk yarn”; the second, “path” — a path made by a silk yarn. The silk, of course, is made from the silkworm’s cocoon. What is the path of the silk yarn? What do we get to when we reach the end? We find nothing but emptiness, a hollow void, and, inside it, the insect’s cadaver.
For man, too, reaching the end of the path means reaching nothingness. That’s the fundamental question of the I Ching: What does this nothingness mean?
In a theatre, it is only because the stage is empty that the set design can be placed, that the show can be performed. Life’s dramas are impermanent: the scenarios change, the stories play out, only the emptiness remains; only it is absolute.
Most people, because of the way they understand life, feel threatened by the impermanence and emptiness; they try to fill it with something — that is certainly the pattern Strike has been following until now. But the I Ching advises against this futile pursuit (Hexagram 27, Corners of the Mouth / Providing Nourishment):
“He who seeks nourishment that does not nourish reels from desire to gratification and in gratification craves desire. Mad pursuit of pleasure for the satisfaction of the senses never brings one to the goal.”
If the cadaver is the impermanence, The Book of Changes instead teaches us that emptiness is pure, lucid conscience.
It is certainly interesting that the silkworm is precisely the metaphor that JKR uses in her second Strike novel to represent the writing process.
Like Dylan Thomas — who writes about the meaning of death by the walking corpse “Cadaver” — she seems especially interested in the ever-changing tides in the lives of men. Understanding that might be a good frame of reference for her works — especially as we follow the story of Strike and Robin. In life, and in anything trying to represent it accurately — be it hexagrams, poetry or literature — an ending is followed by new beginnings and new challenges. No resolution is final.
Circumstances alone don’t lead us to fulfilment if they are not matched with an adequate inner attitude. It is up to us to find meaning and, through the light of understanding, find our rightful place in the situations thrown at us. But it is possible — it was by finding this level of clarity that Confucious famously said at the end of his life:
“I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing what was right.”
Strike’s path may be long and winding, but the presence of the I Ching in the next book tells us that the journey toward that goal is also something his creator seems interested in — and that we will likely see within its pages at least a turning point, perhaps even a pivotal moment.
“Then,” Hexagram 5 continues, “he will be able to cross the great water – that is to say, he will be capable of making the necessary decision and of surmounting the danger.”
To reach this goal, Strike will need to finally see what is required of him and rise to the situation, at the appropriate time.
Isn’t it lucky, then, that this is the whole point of the Book of Changes?
6 Rudd, Willard. Images of creation and destruction in the early poetry of Dylan Thomas. Master’s Thesis, University of Richmond. 1971.
11 Cheng, Wu Jyh. I Ching: A alquimia dos números. Mauad, 2001.