How does ‘Ring Composition’ Work, Anyway?

by John on November 29, 2010

The big buzz among serious readers of Harry Potter at the end of 2010 is the revelation of Ms. Rowling’s use of traditional Ring artistry in putting together each of her books and the seven book series as well. The only thing in print on the subject so far are my Ring Composition lecture notes and, as hurried a production as that was, it succeeds in establishing the fact of Ms. Rowling’s circular wizardry — all the more apt given the assonance of her name with the word ‘rolling.’ After the fact, though, at least one reader was left wondering how such an arcane architecture for the world’s best selling books explains their popularity.

I downloaded and read your lecture notes about the ring structure of the seven books. They are convincing. This is clearly an intentional and foundational structure for the books.

My question is, “How does this particular structure increase the impact of the books for readers? How can it affect their experience of the books, especially since it is so subliminal for most people?”

What I mean is…

We connect characteristics and emotions with symbols. And we can identify with  alchemical imagery through our own experiences of struggle and transformation.

But how does something as subtle as a ring structure influence a reader’s experience of a book?

Love to hear what you think.

Great question; the latest variant on the big question I try to answer in everything I write, namely, “what is it about this story that makes me, the serious reader, love it?” Ring Composition, according to no less an authority than anthropologist Mary Douglas, is the nigh on universal macro-structure and story scaffolding for aural/oral cultures through several millenia, and, as you note, it is definitely the “intentional and foundational structure” Ms. Rowling has chosen for her books. We are obliged to assume, consequently, because of the longevity and pervasiveness of the form and the unprecedented sales numbers of the Hogwarts Saga books, that we are somehow hard-wired for this kind of circular story with its internal ask-and-answer resolutions across an axis of the tale’s beginning-middle-and-end.

This is a difficult idea to grasp or to accept, I think, because we have an essentially materialist or dualist conception of the human person as such and with our relation to reality. If we revert from the conventional and  empiricist conception of ourselves as organic chemistry body-bags with various ‘systems’ or from our “ghost in the machine” embodied-soul ideas we learned in Sunday School classes (if we were lucky) to a traditional picture of ourselves primarily as ‘heart’ or nous, we have a much better chance of getting how Ring Composition works.

The traditional idea of ‘heart’ is that, as C. S. Lewis explained in his essay ‘The Seeing Eye,’ there is within us a faculty and mystery that is “continuous with” the fabric of reality. Christians call this the logos, the “light that cometh into the world in every man” (John 1:9) and understand it as the atrophied or fallen extension within the human person of “the Light of the World,” the Logos, without Which creative principle “(is) not anything made that (is) made” (John 1:3).

Jesus of Nazareth referred to this faculty as the “heart” and philosophers and theologians before and since have called it different names; the Greek Fathers called it nous and the noetic and neptic (“watchful”) faculty, to Aquinas it was intellectus, not be confused with the modern word ‘intellect’ which refers to the rational, cerebral mind in opposition to the cardiac intelligence, Coleridge tagged it the Primary Imagination, and Lewis, echoing Coleridge I believe through his friend Barfield, used the simple “conscience.” All are speaking about a human means of directly perceiving the essence of things visible and invisible, a supra-personal knowing faculty with this capability because it is an aspect in itself of the ontological foundation of everything existent.

This is “logos epistemology” and it is a large part of Coleridge’s response as a natural theologian to the empiricism of the dawning Industrial era in Georgian England. As such, it is close to the heart, if you will, of imaginative fiction as we have this English literary tradition, the aim of which is both to communicate in story the existence of this faculty in contrast to mundane and materialist ideas of our discursive, rational minds and at the same time to stir the reader’s heart, even foster its transformation by alchemical experience.

We know anything, according to this view, because the single eye of our heart (cf., Matthew 6:22; “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”) recognizes its logos reflection in the inner essence of other people and things. We are simultaneously, as Coleridge would put it, alter et idem, “other and the same,” with everything and everyone existent in the elision of knowing subject and known object within the conscious Word or Logos. Lewis’ ‘Great War’ with Owen Barfield was about the relation of subject and object, and Lewis accepted at last that Barfield was right in his understanding that the whole universe was, “in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos.”

From this understanding of man and the world springs the “bright, single eye” of the Ancient Mariner and of Dumbledore in Harry’s Deathly Hallows mirror. From it, too, comes the prevalence of mirrors in imaginative fiction, from MacDonald’s Lilith and Carroll’s Looking Glass to Galadriel’s magic pool and, well, Harry’s Mirror of Erised that knows the heart and, again, the eye in the Deathly Hallows mirror fragment. A mirror is the only natural thing in which knowing subject and known object elide, so, as Titus Burckhardt put it in his Mirror of the Intellect, the mirror is the symbol of symbolism because it reflects the means and agency of all transparencies and translucencies.

Literary alchemy works its magic on readers, as well, largely because, disbelief suspended, the reader’s heart, recognizing its reflection in a story character (Harry, Bella, Anne of Green Gables, et alii), identifies with that character’s transformation and experiences their katharsis as reading subject and story object elide. The heart is illumined, that is, “turned to gold” by this alchemical work, gold understood as the alchemists did, as solid light, the only fully existent metal. The ‘action’ of alchemy is the resolution of contraries, the dissolution of alter et idem in the Word.

This experience of subject-object elision in the heart is also the reason circles and rings are so important in imaginative fantasy post Coleridge. In brief, the center of the circle is, as Lord Diggory says to the King entering Aslan’s Country in The Last Battle, “the inside is bigger than the outside,” a conceit to be found in every Harry Potter novel as well (think of Hermione’s bag, the Room of Requirement, King’s Cross Station in Harry’s head, and the Weasley’s Hilton-esque tent, just to take images from Deathly Hallows). Coleridge asked a friend once, ‘[I ask that you] conceive an inside or depth, by compulsory abstraction, without, because prior to, an outside” (cited in Cutsinger, Form of the Transformed Vision: Coleridge and the Knowledge of God, page 104). This exercise is invaluable for understanding, besides Lewis’ Narniad and Rowling’s Potter, the world and self because it forces us to imagine there is a depth to things beyond surfaces, an unknowable center, that is, again Coleridge, the  That by which everything is filled rather than the with what.

The circle is only knowable because of its center, the point from which all points on the circle are equidistant. The center, though, unless revealed by a cross of intersecting circle diameters, is unknown in itself and is only known through the circle (cf. John 14:6). It is metaphysically the origin and cause of the circle, hence Coleridge’s “without” or greater than because logically if atemporally “prior to,” being cause. Just as the organic pump heart is the ‘center’ of the human body, so the ‘inner heart,’ the ‘eye of the soul,’ is the person’s spiritual center. That Ms. Rowling “gets’ this is evident in the Ring structure of each book and the series, in the Ravenclaw Door’s metaphysical questions that are about the circle center, and the “key” exchange between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross; Harry in his last “real or in my head?” question describes the world as a dualist and the Headmaster kicks back an answer that states, echoing Lewis and Barfield, the only reality is “mental,” or as Albus puts it, “in your head.”

Hearing or reading a story, then, that is told in the shape or form of a circle, a Ring Composition whose beginning and end elide in the center and whose parts, in Rowling’s case, all of her individual chapters, on either side of this axis are, to use Douglas’ phrase mirroring “twin series of analogies,” is a therapy, perhaps even the beginning of a cure for our spiritual heart disease. Again, Eliade: in a secular culture, entertainments serve a mythic or religious function. Call it “heart massage.”

When “disbelief,” that is, our skeptical, individual mind is “suspended” in “an act of poetic faith” as Coleridge said it must be to enter story, the heart is the operative faculty within us as we read. It recognizes as only it can, being the most subtle and discerning  per uncreated aspect within us, the story-turn at its center, the resolution of contraries at the finish, and the mirrored chapters that are reflected across the story axis. No, as you point out, this is not picked up by the conscious, discursive intelligence, but, yes, it is experienced in the heart where we know most profoundly, with our whole person, really.

Hence, in large part, Potter-mania. Forgive me, but the Hogwarts Adventures are Coleridge on steroids, a delivery system for the imaginative experience of the Center or Absolute beneath, behind, and within everything, as well as in our hearts.

I urge you to purchase if you haven’t already, in addition to my Ring Composition lecture notes that you have, Deathly Hallows Lectures and to read chapter 5 on the eye symbolism and logos epistemology of the series finale. That is, forgive me again, the heart of literary alchemy and the power of Ring Composition. Coleridge is right, the materialists are wrong, and the love we feel for specific stories rather than others is a large part of that proof.

And you can buy Lectures today at Amazon and my Ring Composition lecture notes at LuLu.com. They make great gifts, too, of course, for the serious reader and Potter Pal on your gift list.

Your comments and corrections are, as always, coveted.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel November 29, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Great article John, but I do have a correction for you

Where you say “as Martin Lings put it in his Mirror of the intellect”

I think your confusing Martin Lings Symbol and Archetype
with Titus Burckhardts Mirror of the Intellect

Keep these kind of articles coming, they are fascinating

John November 29, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Ouch! That will teach me to type posts without checking my book shelf… It is Titus Burckhardt, of course. that I should have written here rather than Martin Lings.

Thank you for the kind correction!

Grateful John

Kevin July 4, 2011 at 9:35 am

“[I]t is a large part of Coleridge’s response as a natural theologian to the empiricism of the dawning Industrial era in Edwardian England.”

Another “ouch”: Coleridge did not live, and the Industrial Revolution did not occur, during the Edwardian period.

John July 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Gaffes Are Us. Thank you for this catch.

Any thoughts about the post?

Sharon Slade Jackson July 5, 2011 at 7:09 am

I’m presently trying to work out if The Host is a Ring Composition also. Hints: The first and last chapters share the same title, “Remembered” and both deal with the same subject (the last memories of the Hosts before Wanderer was inserted). The first sentence of the last chapter is “The beginning would feel like the end.”

The idea that The Host might be a ring has been running through my head since I wrote my comment on chiastic structures on your post about your upcoming Leaky Con talk on Ring Composition in the Harry Potter books.

I am also considering the possibility that Twilight is a Ring Composition since we already know of the significance of its central, circle-filled chapter. More thoughts to come on both of these, I promise.

Umar December 26, 2012 at 4:34 am

Hi John,

I wanted to share with you and your readers the following article about a new book that talks about the ring composition in the Qur’an.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/editors-blog/2012/0928/Reading-the-Quran-in-a-new-way

Peace.

Natalia January 5, 2014 at 9:34 am

Incredible theory, the ring composition! As soon as I can, I’d love to buy your book. I had the tendency to analyse the Harry Potter saga’s stucture of events, and I was so amazed by the connections of several events on her books – but in my ignorance I never imagine there was a solid theory :)

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