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Christmas Pig 6: The Ring Composition

Evan Willis in his ‘For the Straightforward Past Was Lost: A Few Starting Notes on The Christmas Pig‘ wrote about the story’s ring structure:

While a more detailed analysis will need to be done with greater precision, I think we have all the signs of a well-crafted ring narrative. On first read, here are the parallels that stood out to me. We have parts 1+9 centered on the real world, echoed in the middle in part 5 where Jack finds out from Bullyboss what pain had led to Holly’s throwing DP out the car window. Other echoes across the center include Recycling in parts 1 and 8, the Earrings in Mislaid and the City of the Missed, the centrality of the problem of power and politics in parts 4 and 6 on opposite sides of the center. Again, there is much more to do here.

Evan’s first thoughts, as I described in Part 2 of my series of posts on The Christmas Pig, remain an important touchstone for anyone trying to understand Rowling’s artistry and meaning in this story. In this sixth Perennialist reading I pick up the challenge he implicitly made to do a closer examination of The Christmas Pig’s nine part structure.

The post will have three sections: (1) an introduction to traditional ‘turtle-back’ ring composition story structure, (2) a look at Christmas Pig as a nine piece ring with the latch of beginning and end, the story-turn and key ‘meaning in the middle’ of Part Five, The Wastes of the Unlamented, and the correspondences between Parts 2 and 8, 3 and 7, and 4 and 6, and (3) a Perennialist explanation of why this structure simultaneously parallels and advances the subliminal work of transforming the reader.

Join me after the jump for a look ‘under the hood’ at the mechanisms that give Christmas Pig much of the  moral and message it has as something of a spiritual journey and bizarro compass. [Read more…]

Austen and Rowling: On the Virtue of Penetration in Life and Reading

In 2010 I wrote in response to Prof Baird’-Hardy’s third brilliant post on Jane Eyre that:

AustenDickens and Austen frequently discuss (through preferred characters) the virtue of “penetration,” i.e., seeing the ‘inside bigger than the outside’ of others, their virtues or vices which constitute character or the lack of it, rather than focusing on the surface. Georgian and Victorian writers, to include Bronte, understood that they were “instructing while delighting,” and instructive most especially in the virtue of “penetration.” Readers were exercising their powers of inner heart reflection and recognition as they entered into and experienced the lives of what were principally minor gentry and aristocrats. This is “manners and morals” fiction at its best.

Katy asks six years later:

Hi! This is so fascinating. I know I am years too late, but a hail Mary pass just in case: John, do you have a source for Austen and/or Dickens discussing the virtues of “penetration”? Where do they mention seeing “the inside bigger than the outside”? Thanks so much!

Austen EmmaI do not have a source “for Austen and/or Dickens discussing the virtues of ‘penetration,” alas. It is something that I have noticed in almost every book by these authors, however; they use the word and illustrate it as a virtue to cultivate and admire (and as a quality whose absence marks the stupid, dull, or wicked).

Take for example, Austen’s Emma, the book J. K. Rowling claims to have read twenty times in succession before writing Philosopher’s Stone, one assumes to get a grip on the narrative voice she adopts in Stone (third person limited omniscient) to set up the “biggest twist in English literature” at which she said “all authors aim” to best. Emma is loaded with examples of and references to the virtue of penetration.

I’d go so far as to claim, in fact, that the principal virtue in Austen’s Emma is this quality of ‘penetration,’ a mental vision that sees beneath the surface of individuals and their actions to see her character. I found on a recent re-reading seven instances of some form of the word in the book with several other passages in which the quality is described with other terms (cf., especially Emma’s discussion with Mr. Knightley about her feelings for Frank Churchill before Knightley’s proposal in which she chides herself for not seeing through him: “yet it may not be the more excusable in one who sets up as I do for Understanding;” Vol. 3, ch. 13). [Read more…]

Eighth Day Inkling Festival: ‘What the Inklings Mean to Me’ Reflections

f192990758The Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas, has a mission “to renew culture through faith and learning.” (Yes, they’re an off-spring of the venerable institution Eighth Day Books in the same town.) They are holding an ‘Inklings Festival’ this year, 17-19 July, with the theme ‘Ethics in Elfland: Virtue and Vice in Narnia and Middle-Earth.’ To create some buzz about the event in the blogosphere, the Institute leader, Erin Doom, asked 30 friends to contribute a brief essay on the theme, ‘What the Inklings Mean to Me’ and he is posting these reflections at the Eighth Day website in a 30 day countdown to the festival. Check it out.

f38810022Having spoken at an Eighth Day Symposium ‘On Imagination and the Soul’ in 2011 concerning both Harry Potter and Twilight, I was happy to comply with Erin’s request. I’m ‘Day 22’ in his countdown for what it’s worth — and you can read my essay below if you like. Your comments and corrections are coveted as always.

‘What the Inklings Mean to Me’

May I confess that this assignment has the feel of an in-class writing task about “What I Did Over Summer Vacation”? Forgive me, please, in advance, if the resulting essay, however brief, is no more engaging than those annual exercises were.

I answer this question as ‘The Hogwarts Professor’ and the ‘Dean of Harry Potter Scholars.’ Though I am older than the average member of Rowling’s Raiders, the global fandom empires, I am guessing that I am not unusual in coming to an appreciation of the Inklings, specifically, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, through my search for answers to the question, “Why do we love Harry’s seven adventures the way we do?” That search for me began with Ms. Rowling’s primary source material, the part of her reading material she calls her “compost heap” from which everything she imagines grows.

f39067750While Austen is her favorite writer and Emma the book she read 20 times in a row before writing Philosopher’s Stone, though Nabokov and E. Nesbit and Collette inform her thinking, Ms. Rowling’s obvious points of reference for writing a seven book series with Medieval flourishes, High Fantasy symbolism, and heroic battles against Evil in the World were the Narniad and The Lord of the Rings. Her public relationship with ‘Jack’ and ‘Tollers’ has waxed hot and cold – first flattered by the linkage in readers’ minds then alarmed and defensive (see this review of the history for more on that) – but the debts remain obvious and profound.

My take-aways from the Inkling study I have done as a Potter Pundit have been these three points:

Place of the Lion(1)    Charles Williams, as Lewis put it in Coleridgean language, the “esemplastic” figure of the mythopoeic crowd who met in Jack’s rooms and at the Bird and Baby. Though not as accessible or as popular as his friends became, his genius for renovating Medieval story telling elements – literary alchemy, ring composition, and dynamic allegory – to critique Modern mindsets and errors (and provide solutions in the imaginative cathartic experience the reader has) are the stuff, structure and substance of his friends’ Chronicles and Middle Earth triumphs. It is no accident that their reading Williams’ Place of the Lion re-set both Lewis and Tolkien’s ideas of what was possible in story-telling in our times.

t3755430(2)    We love Lewis’ Narniad and Tolkiien’s Rings for the same reason we love Harry Potter, what I call the ‘Eliade Thesis.’ Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane that in a secular culture entertainments, fiction especially, serve a mythic or religious function. The Granger Corollary to this thesis is that those stories that serve up the most mythic or transcendent content with sufficient subtlety that the reader is able to suspend disbelief in poetic faith (Coleridge again) will serve this “religious function” or spiritual oxygen best in our God-denying Age. The Christian content of Rowling’s septology is as deep as her literary mentors’ work  if she is never the apologist or evangelist in hiding that Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien are.

f39067686(3)    Coleridge, Coleridge, Coleridge… The Bard of Ottery St Mary is the genius beneath the Inklings and what Rowling lifts from their imaginative toolboxes. His “inside bigger than the outside” conceit and its delivery of the radical contra Empiricist and materialist logos epistemology is the heart of everything Lewis wrote, what Coleridge scholar Barfield taught him about “the world being mental,”  and a much bigger part of Tolkien’s magic than is usually acknowledged (his Newman-inspired priory education being his Coleridge fount).

What do the Inklings mean to me? They’ve helped me understand the artistry and meaning of Harry Potter, from the alchemy and soul triptych to the chiastic structures and resurrection symbolism. And in that, they pointed to a better understanding of the mechanics and the point of writing within the Eliade Thesis, stories written for the cardiac rather than the cranial intelligence, the logos within rather than the discursive occluding logismoi.

Which has helped clarify Patristic anthropology, psychology, epistemology, and soteriology for me.  I am a better person, a more real person, for reflecting on and entering into the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams.

Can a reader ask for more?

Good Friday Mailbag: A Trip to King’s Cross with Harry

In observance of Catholic and Reformed Christian ‘Good Friday,’ I thought a trip to King’s Cross was in order. I know I speak for the HogwartsProfessor staff in wishing those believers observing the Christian holidays in their various denominations an edifying experience of the Lord’s sacrifice and a joyous celebration of His Resurrection.

This question comes from a student at Augustana College who attended a retreat at Stronghold Castle where I spoke last weekend on the subject of Ring Composition in Harry Potter:

Hi, I have a couple of questions for John Granger that I did not get to ask him at the retreat.

My first question it that if the idea of rings is so prevalent in so many books, than why isn’t it taught at schools? I just think that it is weird that this idea could be in so many different books but not be taught.

The other thing is, we were having a discussion on Voldemort either being the embodiment of pure evil in the series or is Voldemort Harry’s shadow that he has to overcome in himself? [Read more…]

The 2010 Lev Grossman ‘Mockingjay’ Interview that Wasn’t

Way back in 2010, when HogwartsProfessor was lighting up the online universe with posts before and after the publication of Mockingjay, the Hunger Games finale (you can review those 30+ posts at the HogPro Mockingjay post round-up), Lev Grossman at TIME and Nerd sent me five questions. It was something of a reprise of our Harry Potter and Twilight conversations there.

By the time I responded, though, Mr. Grossman was neck deep in finishing his blockbuster fantasy The Magician King and the time for Mockingjay reflections as ‘news’ had passed. I suspect, consequently, our exchange will never see the light of day (the light of your computer screen?) unless I put it up here — so here goes, after the jump. Enjoy! [Read more…]