Rowling’s Outline of Order of the Phoenix: What Does It Really Tell Us?

Whenever I give a talk to a larger group about the ring composition structure of Rowling’s various works, inevitably someone asks about the piece of notebook paper Rowling has made public, a one-sheet snapshot of her chapter by chapter breakdown of what happens when in the various plot threads in Order of the Phoenix. If you haven’t seen it, it looks like this:

That’s pretty hard to read, right? Fortunately the mavens at The Harry Potter Lexicon have created a transcription that is crystal clear legible on a page devoted to this outlineThey include the helpful information that the picture of this piece of paper was posted at Rowling’s original website with the explanatory note, ““Part of the umpteenth revision of the plan of ‘Order of the Phoenix’… Some of the Chapter Names changed and there are a few ideas that didn’t make the final draft.”

C. S. Plocher of The FriendlyEditor.com and WriteLikeRowling.com has taken this transcription-to-legibility process one step further. Check out her fascinating ‘How Rowling Revised Order of the Phoenix post in which she not only shares her transcription of the page Rowling had put up but her color coded guide to what of this plan survived, what changed, and what never made it to Phoenix.

Wild! That is some invaluable grunt work and follow-through for which every serious reader of Harry Potter should be grateful. I certainly am.

But what does it tell us about Rowling as a ring writer? Three things (at least).

(1) It’s obviously true that she works from a plan. This is not the work of a ‘pantser’ that lets her characters tell their story as she writes.

(2) There are no chapter correspondences noted on the page, i.e., it is not a confirmation of Rowling as ring writer. The chapters included on this one sheet, 16 to 29, include the story center (19), and the parallel chapters fore and aft (16-17 with 22-23, 18 and 21, and 19 to 20; see Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cyclepp 79-82, 142-143), so, if this was Rowling’s principal concern as a writer, you’d expect there to be some lines or notes making these connections.

(3) That being said, I think the chiastic phrase “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is appropriate here. There are no notes about the alchemical structure of the work here, of the Christian content, or of literary allusion and her intratextuality, that is, references to correspondences with Philosopher’s Stone and with Prisoner of Azkaban. But all those things are embedded and make up the less-visible structure and scaffolding both of the book itself and the series of which it is a part.

My conclusion? It’s a fun chart and Rowling historians in future years, especially if they gain access to more of her drafts and outlines, will no doubt make a lot of it, even more than C. S. Plocher has. But the plot outline and sequencing, a kind of check-list preliminary for the story to make sure everything proceeds without a major glitch (as happened in the writing of Goblet) tells us very little about the writer’s formalist and iconological artistry which are under-the-hood, beneath the story-line.

That is Rowling’s greater achievement and to suggest that her tweeking and editing this graph paper is what makes her great is, I think, no little error, however important editing and time-line organization certainly are.

Your thoughts?

Comments

  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for this John – and I love the work Plocher has done on it! Just an addendum that though this single sheet was all we had for many years, Rowling has now published the complete Phoenix plan (an additional six pages) which show that the one above is a rewrite/prewrite (?) of 2 of them (i.e. a third of the plan as she has now given it to us). The 6 continuous plans are in black, rather than blue, ink and there are some differences with the plan as we have it, as well as 4 new pages of plan to pore over…. (They are on p.241 of Harry Potter: a History of Magic – the complete catalogue to the exhibition.)

  2. Thanks, Bea! The pages are on pp 128-129 of Harry Potter: A Journey through the History of Magic but the pictures are only good for two of the seven pages photographed.

    Here’s hoping the Lexicon or Plocher will do the reading through a magic microscope to create transcripts for these…

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