Christmas Pig 2: Dante, Sacred Art, and the Symbolism of the Tree and Its Angels

I have been writing about Rowling and Dante since the publication of Deathly Hallows. Please read ‘Snape’s Green-Eyed Girl: Dante, Renaissance Florence, and the Death of the Potions Master,’ chapter 4 of The Deathly Hallows Lectures, for the central place The Divine Comedy holds in Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga. Pig, the tale of ‘The Living Boy’ in the ‘Land of the Lost,’ is in several ways a revisiting of ‘The Boy Who Lived’s adventures and a re-imagining of Horcruxes, a soul’s investment of itself in material things. As Evan Willis has demonstrated, however — in a post written in October after only listening to the new book once! — Pig is perhaps most like Potter in its debt to Dante. Join me after the jump for Evan’s nine points of correspondence and my explanation of Rowling as sacred artist!

The Christmas Pig is structured, to a surprising degree of detail, after Dante’s Divine Comedy.

  • After the loss of a beloved (Beatrice/DP), Jack/Dante enters the land of perdition sometime around Christmas/Easter, where he is accompanied and guided by CP/Virgil through the various domains of the land of perdition (described in contrast to the Land of the Living).
  • After a few not-so-bad upper sections, they arrive at the city of Dis(posable), which has a foreboding entry message.
  • Continuing through this land, CP/Virgil is far harsher to its inhabitants than Jack/Dante is.
  • The ruler of this land of perdition is the Loser/Satan, who eats some of the inhabitants.
  • Having gone through the worst of it (the run-in with Satan/Loser in the depths of Hell/the Wastes of the Unlamented), they eventually make it out to an upper land surrounded by water, Purgatory/The City of the Missed. It is a region filled with the sound of carol/hymn singing.
  • Ascending from this city, Jack/Dante ascend to the borders of The Isle of the Beloved/Heaven, where Jack/Dante finally sees DP/Beatrice, only to realize somewhat belatedly that CP/Virgil is no longer with him.
  • Led to move beyond DP/Beatrice to a greater Love than retaining him/her would have meant, he is guided further on by Saint Nicholas/Bernard into a mystery of love represented by a vortex of circular motion.
  • Throughout this journey, Jack/Dante has talked along the way with numerous inhabitants who give him knowledge of the Land of the Living Jack/Dante would not have had otherwise.
  • This further explains the division of the book into nine sections.

Do read the whole post for Evans’ alchemical and ring notes as well as his other first thoughts, all of which are keepers. If the last note, his ninth point of correspondence, about the “nine sections,” escapes you, I think Evan is saying here, as with the Faerie Queen structure of Troubled Blood,  its ‘six books with two chapters,’ so Rowling in her three-squared or nine part Christmas Pig is hat-tipping Dante’s Commedia and its terza rima and thirty three cantos in each of three books organization. I’d add only that the central chapter of Pig by one calculation, the ‘meaning in the middle’ of Rowling’s chiastic ring, is chapter 28, ‘Poem and Pretense,’ in which Poem, who is Jack and CP’s savior and a truth-teller, declares “Great poems tell the truth” and rhymes “art” with “heart” in this couplet (128), a note to which we will return but which here can be read as another pointer to the Florentine epic poet as the heart of her art.

Rowling has been publicly modest about the aims of her work, allowing that it would be nice to think that readers will be more empathetic after reading her imaginative fiction. Dante was anything but modest or secretive in sharing his self-understanding in the letter he wrote to Cangrande about The Divine Comedy: “The purpose of the whole work is to remove those living in this life from the state of wretchedness and to lead them to the state of blessedness.” His aim, point blank, was to create a work of sacred art, a category of writing and experience that largely exists outside our understanding as profane postmoderns, but, given Rowling’s esoteric artistry and clear debts to Dante, deserves serious consideration as what she is writing as well.

Sacred art, in brief, is representational work — painting, statuary, liturgical vessels and instruments, and the folk art of theocentric cultures in which even cutlery and furniture are means to reflection and transcendence of the world — that employ revealed forms and symbols to bring the noetic faculty or heart into contact with the supra-sensible realities each depicts. It is not synonymous with religious art; most of the art today that has a religious subject is naturalist and sentimental rather than noetic and iconographic, which is to say, contemporary artists imitate the creation of God as perceived by human senses rather than the operation of God in creation or, worse, create abstractions of their own internally or infernally generated ideas.

Story as sacred art, in black to white contrast, is edifying literature and drama in which the soul’s journey to spiritual perfection is portrayed for the reader or the audience’s participation within for transformation from wretchedness to blessedness, as Dante said. As with the plastic arts, these stories employ traditional symbols of the revealed traditions in conformity with their understanding of cosmology, soteriology, and spiritual anthropology. The myths and folklore of the world’s various traditions, ancient Greek drama, the epic poetry of Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe, the parables of Christ, the plays of Shakespeare’s later period, and the English high fantasy tradition from Coleridge to the Inklings speak this same symbolic language and relay the psychomachia experience of the human victory over death.

Dante is a sacred artist of this type. As difficult as it may be to understand Rowling as a writer akin to Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus, Spenser, Lewis, and Tolkien, her deployment of traditional symbolism and the success she enjoys almost uniquely in engaging and edifying readers of all ages, beliefs, and circumstances suggests this is the best way of understanding her work. Christmas Pig is the most obviously sacred art piece that Rowling has created to date. It is the marriage of Dantean depths and the Estecean lightness of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, about which more later.

[For an introduction to reading poems, plays, and stories as sacred art, that is, allegorical depictions of the soul’s journey to spiritual perfection that are rich in traditional symbolism, Ray Livingston’s The Traditional Theory of Literature is the only book length text in print.  Kenneth Oldmeadow’s ‘Symbolism and Sacred Art’ in his Traditionalism: Religion in the light of the Perennial Philosophy (102-113), ‘Traditional Art’ in The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr (203-214), and ‘The Christian and Oriental, or True Philosophy of Art’ in The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (123-152) explain in depth the distinctions between sacred and religious, natural, and humanist art. Martin Lings’ The Sacred Art of Shakespeare: To Take Upon Us the Mystery of Things and Jennifer Doane Upton’s two books on The Divine Comedy, Dark Way to Paradise and The Ordeal of Mercy are the best examples I know of reading specific works of literature as sacred art rather than as ‘stories with symbolic meaning’ read through a profane and analytic lens.]

The Traditional Symbolism of The Christmas Pig: The Tree

The extra-liturgical sacred art of story can be explained in five parts: traditional symbolism, the four layers of meaning or the Quadriga, psychomachia or the allegorical soul’s journey to spiritual perfection, hermetic imagery or coloration of this transformation, and chiastic structure to incarnate or reveal the mystic center in the story and the reader’s heart. In this week’s posts, I’m going to restrict this reading of The Christmas Pig to the traditional symbolism in the journey of Jack’s “alivened part” or heart-logos through The Land of the Lost. The symbols in play are the tree, light, heart, and the esoteric or universal meaning of Christmas, Easter, and a fallen or ‘broken’ angel in the Christian tradition.

Of these, the most important perhaps and certainly the most neglected on first readings is the symbol of the tree, though Rowling has used it before in her work. It is the symbol of the world axis, the vertical image of reality with its invisible chthonic roots and multiple states of being living in correspondence visible in its branches. The Christmas tree, almost always a pine tree with a neat near uniformity spiralling outward and downward from the star or angel at the top representing super-lunary reality, is especially powerful in this role, hence its association with Nativity, the descent and appearance in the created world of the Word or Logos of God.

Rowling situates the entire Christmas Pig story around and beneath the Christmas Tree in Jack and Judy’s home. It is Holly’s knocking down of the tree (a mysterious event, frankly, because accomplished gymnasts don’t as a rule lose their balance…) that brings on the inciting incident of DP’s defenestration. Jack and CP are ‘lost’ beneath the tree, the first chapter in The Land of the Lost is titled ‘Beneath the Tree’ though the tree itself is never mentioned in that chapter, and Jack returns to The Land of the Living through the portal of the tree thanks to Santa’s shaking of the tree to ‘find’ Broken Angel.

The tree is the central symbol of Christmas Pig because its primary message in story is that the visible tangible world of everyday existence, the horizontal realm, is not the only or the primary level of being. Jack and CP’s descent from beneath the tree, akin to Broken Angel’s from the tree top and any angelic messenger (the Greek aggelos means ‘messenger’) to our world from above, is a revelation of a hierarchical universe in which greater realities that create and inform the lower with their being and meaning exist above them. Jack and CP’s adventures down below, beneath the tree, is a revelation of life properly lived, that is, seeing created sensible existence as a shadow dependency on the eternal Love above us ‘Up There’ that gives temporal life its substance.

Rowling has deployed this tree iconography in Harry Potter and is doing so again in Cormoran Strike. The Deathly Hallows symbol is interpreted at the four levels of meaning by various characters in the Hogwarts Saga finale but its anagogical or sublime depth is revealed to Harry in the burial of Alaistor Moody’s Mad Eye. Each of the symbol’s three parts, symbols unto themselves, are in play: the eye is the circle (Rowling calls the symbol an “eye” several times), the cross Harry inscribes on the tree is the mirror quality of the symbol’s left and right aspects, and the old, gnarled oak tree in the shadow of which Harry buries the eye is the world axis, the vertical line in the symbol (see Deathly Hallows Lectures 227-230 for much more on that). I’ve already mentioned the importance of oak trees in the Strike series embedded in the names of the Zeus and Hermes figures of those books, Jonny Rokeby and Carl Oakden.

This symbol in a way is a ‘symbol of symbolism’ because it is the representation of the essence of traditional understanding, not a dreary otherworldliness, but a world-view that grasps that the visible world is not self-generating or explicable apart from a greater reality. Our existence is informed or ‘alivened’ by a level of being beyond our own, a vertical perspective that the tree and especially the Christmas tree represents. It is an icon, decorated with lights in most cases, of the Word’s self-revelation, the Light of the World become man, a visible, tangible, sacrificial condescension to demonstrate the Love from above that informs Creation and providing the means to join oneself to Him and escape the Loser. The traditional worldview has three essential signatures, namely, an ontologically vertical orientation, correspondences that reflect the lower realms’ dependence on the higher, and the human noetic capacity to perceive the referents of these greater realities in their symbolic representatives on this plane. The tree is the symbol of the hierarchy of being, the ground of this worldview, hence its central place and function in Christmas Pig.

The Land of the Lost, consequently, is an allegorical representation of this world properly understood. It is the Loser’s domain just as our own is ruled by the delusions of Satan the deceiver; the Loss Adjusters are his willing servants who insist on the Law being kept rather than justice served whose correspondents are the Peter-institutions and lackeys of this-world. In this Land of the Lost, however, every axiological measure is about the love-from-above; as the ticket dispensing tin opener explained to the haughty earrings in Mislaid, “Diamonds or plastic, it’s all the same down here. We’ll soon know how much you’re worth Up There” (61).

The Loss Adjusters at Allocation in Mislaid have a list of Lost Objects from which they read a judgment of that worth “Up There” that decides any thing’s assignment to areas roughly corresponding to hell, purgatory, and heaven. This judgment is conditional, however, on any Thing’s continuing to be lost; when found “Up There” and appreciated, light appears from a “finding hole” in the ceiling of the world ‘down here’ that draws the lost object back into the greater reality of The Land of the Living. We’ll return to the symbolism of light in the fourth post on Christmas Pig this week.

Before closing today’s post on Dante, Sacred Art, and the symbolism of the tree as World Axis, I want to note the importance of the Christmas tree angel decorations in the story, a note that includes a bit of fan fiction,

Holly Macauley is named for a plant that is as synonymous with Christmas as the decorated fir tree. Its symbolism is tied to that of oaks and the World Axis, our means to life transcending the ephemerality of time and space existence:

The Holly tree is one of the most beloved, respected trees in Celtic mythology and is the evergreen twin of the Oak. It is said that whilst the Oak was the controller of the light half of the year, the Holly tree controlled the dark, winter months. For centuries this magical tree has been represented by a Holly wreath which was worn as a crown by Celtic chieftains for good luck. Traditionally, it was used to protect newborn babies from harm by bathing them in the water from the leaves.  Before holly was hung in houses to accompany Christmas trees, it was considered to be a sacred plant by the Druids. The Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, thought to have magical powers. Today, Christians have adopted the holly tree as a symbol for Christmas. The sharp leaves are said to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ, while the berries represent his blood. The evergreen quality of the tree is metaphoric for eternal life. 

Holly in the Christmas Pig is the catalyst to Jack’s great adventure in the nether realm of the Land of the Lost. Her knocking down the Christmas tree and the consequent destruction of Toilet Roll Angel leads to the trip to a store during which she and Jack act out their hostility in the back seat (“Baby!” “Loser!”) and DP is lost. As I noted above, the first fall of the Christmas tree is mysterious. Holly claims “I was only trying to put my decoration on the tree!” We’re told that the grandparents and Jack see her “holding an ornament she’d made at school” “which she’d been attempting to hang near the top. Apparently, she’d lost her balance, seized the tree, and pulled it right over” (26-27). An “overturned chair” next to “the Christmas tree lying on the floor” supports this deduction.

This doesn’t make much sense, however, and Holly’s “half-sorry, half-defiant” posture in the wake of the accident suggests we don’t have the whole story. Holly, for one thing, doesn’t say she’d “lost her balance,” which would would be the natural thing to say. She is an accomplished gymnast; the idea of her “losing her balance” is unlikely at best. As important, we see Toby the dog “ferreting through the decorations in search of all the chocolate ones he shouldn’t eat” (26). Isn’t he supposed to be devouring Toilet Roll Angel?

My bit of fan-fiction is that Holly hadn’t just been “attempting to hang [her ornament] near the top of the tree” but had removed Toilet Roll Angel from the top and attempted to replace the humble angel beloved by Jack and Judy Jones with her own home-made piece. She had told Jack previously that she despised his nursery school artistry:

“Angels don’t have beards!” said Holly scornfully, when she saw Jack’s creation at the top of the tree. Mum and Brendan were in the kitchen when Holy said this. “Why would anyone put an old toilet roll on a Christmas tree? My mum wouldn’t put up stuff I’d made when I was a baby. She’d know I’d be embarrassed” (23).

This was her second attack on the visible tokens of Jack’s exteriorized mother’s love. She had “called him a stupid baby when she saw [Jack] cuddling DP. Jack felt ashamed, and after that, he hid DP whenever Holly was coming to stay” (22). Seeing Toilet Roll Angel was a constant reminder to Holly both that she did not enjoy the unconditional love and connection that Jack did with his mother and that he seemed to have taken her place as the apple of his father’s eye. As Bully Boss explains in the Wastes of the Unlamented, in the story’s central chapter, that is, the center of the fifth part,  Holly believes her father has “been stolen by her new step brother.” “He deserves punishing… that’s why I threw his stupid toy pig out of the car window” (154).

I’m guessing it’s also why she tried to replace Toilet Roll Angel at the tree top, a symbolic trading of places that represents her wanting to supplant the usurping step-brother’s place in her father’s affections. Holly had to knock the tree over herself when she saw that the dog had eaten the ornament she’d dropped to the floor while putting her own in its place. Not wanting her insecurities and grief bared more than they already were or to blamed for the destruction of Toilet Roll Angel, she created a crime scene that covered her tracks.

I’ll understand if you pass on that explanation of “what really happened,” if you’ll grant me the importance of the tree and the angel ornaments at its top. The symbolism of the tree we’ve covered; whence the angel at the tree’s apex?

The dog’s name is a pointer to the importance of the angel. This monster is named for Tobias, who “with the help of the angel Raphael, is able to drive away a demon who has plagued Sarah, who subsequently becomes his wife” (cf. the apocryphal Book of Tobit). Toby the dog eats two angels from the tree, both Jack’s nursey school creation and the store-bought replacement. He seems to have been possessed by the demon and in need of an angelic exorcist…

The two angels, though they may seem extras on the crowded stage of Christmas Pig, are essential figures. Toilet Roll Angel is joined with DP both in being the object of Holly’s attacks and in having gained eternal life, invulnerable to attack from the Loser on the Island of the Beloved, because, as he explained to Jack, “Mum loved me so much” (225). It is Toilet Roll Angel, too, that directs Jack to Santa as his means to return to the Wastes and save CP.

Broken Angel is at least as important. She is prefigured in the heroic Princess in Mislaid, the story of Jack reaching out to save her from the Loser is told at the center of Part Five, and she is the means by which Jack and CP are able to escape the Loser’s Lair and return to the Land of the Living. Judy tells her son at the base of the tree after his urgent “Broken Angel saved us — we’ve got to keep her!” that she is a fitting symbol of their blended family. “Well,” said Mum with a little laugh, as she took the angel from him, “she does look as though she belongs to this family, all right. I think she might have been a bit grand for us before Toby-the-dog got her” (267).

The angel symbolism is simultaneously feminist and in keeping with the sacred art of Rowling’s use of the tree. The feminism is as obvious as that of the Mislaid Princess rebuking the chauvinism of Christmas Pig’s offer to rescue her and her friend the bawling two-headed monster she was comforting (“The princess said she didn’t need protecting and was quite looking forward to an adventure” 66-67). She is at once maternal — to a monster, no less — and majestic, brave and beautiful. Similarly, though the Broken Angel is more than pathetic when we meet her broken form on the Wastes, an emotional mess because she is now ugly, she is providing essential consolation there to the Blue Bunny, who describes her to Jack as his “best friend” (165), “somebody who understands how I feel” (149). Jack tries to rescue her from the Loser and fails (159) but she saved Jack and Christmas Pig from the Loser in the end. She is tied to the paschal symbolism of the Blue Bunny, about which more anon later in the week. In a nutshell, however, she is both feminine and masculine and in the end heroic.

The sacred art iconography of the Broken Angel is, first, that, as with Toilet Roll Angel, her rightful place is at the apex of the tree (this must be a UK custom; in the US, we use a star). Just as the angel is the point of correspondence literally and figuratively between the transcendent and temporal realms — angel as mentioned means “messenger” in Greek and the angels of Abrahamic scriptures act as God’s servants and voice in His creation — so the tree’s peak, the point at which the earth meets the sky, the sensible meeting the intelligible but invisible greater reality, is graced with a symbolic representation of pure intellect.

The Broken Angel, as with Jack’s bearded toilet roll, is an image of man, which is to say, a broken or fallen intellect living in the world of the fallen angel, Satan. The angel ornaments are comic representations of the reality, one in childish fancy, the other in gaudy Disney-fication, who nonetheless act powerfully as vehicles of otherworldly, unconditional love. Jack, as we’ll discuss tomorrow, feels pain in his chest and a longing for his biological father when Holly defames Toilet Roll Angel. These are pointers to the reality of God the Father’s love and care we know most intimately as mother’s love and which we as broken images of God and His messengers called to grow in His likeness are meant to embody and share. The long-suffering and wounded angel is an apt symbol of the broken family living in Jack’s home and their hope of coming together in love, a transformation uniquely possible on the Night of Miracles and Lost Causes.

Tomorrow, the Quadriga of Christmas Pig and Jack’s exteriorized heart, the story’s psychomachia. Until then, let me know what you think of the Dante connection, Rowling as sacred artist, and the symbolism of the tree and its angels. I look forward to reading your comments and corrections below! Happy St Nicholas Day, everyone!


  1. Mr. Granger,

    First off, thanks for presenting us with a neat toy chest to unpack! There is one major element that stands out the most in the article above. It’s an interesting idea raised by the use of either Stars or Angels on the tree.

    It’s the kind of observation that just sort of jumps out as maybe signaling some kind of importance. For the record, I have no clue as to how many households prefer Angels to Stars. Nor am I aware of any religious significance being placed on such choices. Then again, perhaps that’s just because it escaped everyone’s notice? Who can say, really? From an iconological perspective, however, what each choice amounts to (whether intentional, or otherwise) is in placing an emphasis on one or either of the two facts that played a part in the events behind the upcoming Holiday festivities.

    In this sense, the role of an Angel ornament is mostly self-explanatory. There is a sense in which the same goes for the choice of a Star decoration. What’s interesting about the latter, however, is that it might just carry with it a connotation of Planetary Symbolism. Here’s what I mean. In the first episode of her play cycle, “The Man Born to Be King”, (which amounts to a Nativity play for radio, in other words) Dorothy Sayers brings up the nature of the Star of Bethlehem itself. She has one of her characters ask, point blank, “What do you make of it”? The answer she gives to her own question is fascinating. She calls it “a most happy conjunction of fortunate planets of ever blessed augury for Jerusalem (53)”.

    It’s not only amazing for the theory that Sayers is proposing for the origin and nature of the Star. In addition to this, she might also be providing clues for her readers to follow. She labels it a combination of “fortunate planets”. Does any of that sound familiar? Are there any “fortunate” planets in the Solar System? If so, what are they? Anyone who’s paid attention to Michael Ward over the years will know that there are precisely two planets in the night sky which qualify as both Fortuna Major and Minor. These are astronomical bodies now currently designated as Jupiter and Venus, respectively. This then, could be an idea that Sayers is trying to suggest to knowledgeable readers. It may also explain an overlooked reason as to why Lewis was such a fan of her radio play.

    What does all this have to do with Rowling’s choice of an Angel over the Star(s)? In the strictest sense, the reason for her choice was already spelled out in the article above. It was considered a feminist choice, and that seems like a good enough reason for why she would focus on a Holiday icon as a symbol for her other theme, the abuse of women. There appears to be no other rationale behind her decision.

    There is at least one other way in which all this talk of Angels and Stars does help to link up “The Christmas Pig” with one of the key works of Inkling fiction. Christiana Hale can help elucidate this connecting thread through her book-length study, “Deeper Heaven: A Reader’s Guide to C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy”. The point is I wonder how much of the trajectory of Rowling’s tale might be meant to parody and build off of the directional scaffolding of Lewis’s interplanetary cycle? An article from lays it out better than I can:

    “In making this case, Deeper Heaven builds on the pioneering work of Michael Ward, who argued in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis that each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia books intentionally evokes the mood or sensibility associated with one of the seven heavenly spheres of old. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a story about the restoration of kingship and the defeat of evil, ideas associated with Jupiter, or Jove; Prince Caspian is fierce and militant, evoking the warlike essence of Mars; and so on. Naturally there’s a great deal of conceptual overlap here, so much so that Deeper Heaven is likely to be appreciated most by readers not only already familiar with both the Space Trilogy and the Chronicles, but also Ward’s larger argument.

    “That being said, Hale doesn’t follow Ward’s approach of laying out a single overarching interpretation, instead preferring to proceed by way of a collection of interrelated observations about aspects of the trilogy. These individual discussions include an exploration of recurrent word usages (a particular high point of the volume is Hale’s analysis of the etymology of words like “tingling” and “consider” that figure prominently in the trilogy—she makes a compelling argument that these choices were deliberate, thematically-minded moves by Lewis), the trilogy’s treatment of gender relations, the metaphysical status of Merlin in the trilogy, and so forth.

    “Perhaps the most striking and important of these observations is Hale’s comparison of the trilogy to Dante’s Divine Comedy. As a medievalist, Lewis himself was thoroughly steeped in the iconography and language of the great epic, and his trilogy is shot through with parallels. To name but a few: Ransom is a wayfarer, midway upon the journey of his life, that finds himself swept up in a vast metaphysical voyage; the powers and principalities of various domains deliver lengthy orations explaining the logic of the universe; Perelandra culminates in a scene that clearly evokes the Earthly Paradise described at the end of Purgatorio; and so on.

    “But there are crucial differences, too. Lewis’s trilogy proceeds from the “outside in” (going from the distant Mars to the nearer Venus, and then to Earth itself) rather than the upward ascent of Dante’s pilgrim from Hell to Heaven. And while Hale doesn’t come right out and say so, it seems to me that Lewis actually inverts the whole structure of the Comedy: Ransom begins his odyssey on the unfallen Mars (Paradiso), progresses to a Venus caught up in tension between divine and malign forces (Purgatorio), and finally descends into the bowels of human corruption (Inferno). In any case, it’s a fascinating comparison that’s reminiscent of Planet Narnia in the best of ways”.

    This is all just the train of thought the article above has set off in my mind. Before taking leave, just to let others know that Sayer’s Bethlehem Conjunction thesis doesn’t stand in isolation, here’s one final item that explains something of the logic to such an idea in better detail. If nothing else, it does mean that the discarded model of the Cosmos that Lewis talked about (and which Sayers may have hinted at) played its own remarkable role in the grand scheme of things:

  2. I am really enjoying these CP posts – thank you John! (And yes, I think it is more common in the UK to have an angel at the top of the tree, although stars are common too). And I love your reading of the real reason the tree has fallen over!

    Holly is an interesting character, and her name – the beloved Christmas wood of Harry’s wand – points to the fact that Rowling wants us to try and sympathise with her (despite her heinous defenestrating crime!). But I couldn’t work out why Jack called her ‘Loser’ – making the L sign on his forehead that he was to find on the Loss Adjustors hats, evidence of their thraldom to the Loser – and then this became the name of the Satanic bad guy of the Other World. I was expecting him to be misunderstood, Ickabog-like – but no. So why are they so closely linked? It seemed to pull in the opposite direction from ‘Holly’ and be frankly a bit harsh on the poor girl! And there seemed to be no arc explaining the link, other than the destructive pain to which loss can tend.

  3. This is a surface story answer and I’m guessing you’re looking for something more substantial, but Jack calls her a Loser because he knows that is the sure way to hurt her, right?

    “Even getting second place wasn’t good enough. She couldn’t afford to lose if she was to get to the Olympics” (13).

    “[Jack] wanted to punish her for spoiling Christmas and he knew exactly how to do it. There was nothing Holly hated in the world more than losing” (30).

    What happens in this story (or what Rowling wants to happen and tells us is the point) is that Poem works and lives with Pretense, i.e., art is the best friend of adolescent and adult ego and identity issues, because it brings us into contact with what Optimism calls our “deep down” goodness and love. Holly suffers remorse from her bullying Jack and is reborn; Jack the spoiled brat who comes unhinged at the loss of a toy apologizes to the Thing he attacked, forgives Holly, and identifies in the end, not with what he wants to have, but the person he is and wants to be — the self-less sacrificial love demonstrated by CP.

    I’d say the whole ‘Loser’ theme is that none of us but especially the young want to be thought of by others as “losers.” And there is a way to defeat this fear; Hope and Happiness [Light] cast the defining votes in the City of the Missed Palace psychomachia allegorical dramatization of the struggle in every person about the direction of their heart (Power, Ambition, Vanity [Beauty], with three of the Principles vs Optimism, Memory, three of the Principles, Hope and Happiness).

    Or have I totally misunderstood your question? Not “why does Jack call Holly a loser?” but “how is the Loser who rules over the Land of the Lost linked to Holly, a young woman struggling with blended family pains?” The Loser isn’t redeemed Ickabog-like but he is an exteriorized portrayal of the human quality that has become a mechanical monster, prisoner of externals, who lives on trashy material things, and who longs for love, draining the “alivened bit” or love in vampire fashion from every person and situation they are in. I felt an embarrassed sympathy for him insomuch as I too know this pain and act like this monster in my fallen existence.

    Text-phone addled Holly with her Bully Boss habit, the mean step-sister who has only disdain for Toilet Roll Angel and Dur Pig, is the Loser, I’m afraid. The cure for burying a piece of your soul in surface reality is remorse, though, and Holly takes the hard road of repentance and transformation to reclaim her “deep down” goodness. This, I think, is the anagogical aspect of the moral of the story…

  4. Thanks John – neither was precisely my question – more ‘“Why is the Loser who rules over the Land of the Lost so closely linked to Holly, a young woman struggling with blended family pains?” – such a strong link is made by giving them the same name, and it didn’t seem to me a strength that was warranted, given that it seems to make Holly’s loss only destructive (when we’ve already seen her repenting) and ignores what is destructive about Jack’s loss. Could be read as taken just from his perspective? – but it still seemed to me that having given the reader such a strong ‘the Loser is Holly!’ prod, we needed to be taken back from this reading in some way which didn’t happen.

  5. Prof. Groves,
    There’s a bit of awkwardness involved here, in my reply to your comment above. The reason why is because while I’m pretty sure I owe you thanks for helping me gain a clearer insight into Rowling’s use of Angels over Stars, there may also be an element to it that will sooner or later possibly demand some kind of apology for bringing up a subject that might still be controversial to this day.

    Your reply about the custom of using Angels rather Stars in the UK brought the question of why that should be back up in my mind. Then it occurred to me that such choices might be grounded in not one, but two national histories. Specifically, I’m starting to wonder if maybe the favoring of either Stars or Angels might be a leftover, or survival born out of the religious controversies, or schisms that rocked the Christian Faith in Europe from roughly the 16th to 18th centuries, with the onset of the Reformation? It was a time when a lot of doctrinal battle lines were being drawn. Or in the case of Europe as a whole, the entire map was sort of re-drawn on fundamental levels. One of the impacts was that, for a time, the celebration of Christmas was banned outright. It was a decision which also had its effect felt in the arts.

    It’s one of the reasons why depictions of the Christ Child became more nebulous and indefinite as the Reformation took hold. Even Metaphysical Poets with an ostensibly iconological religious outlook, such as Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, or Milton took to writing Nativity poems where the Main Subject was treated in an increasingly indirect manner. A lot of that was down to necessity. The law of the land had long since forbade the use of medieval iconography, and such open displays were viewed with suspicion. So much so, that one of the unspoken reasons for hiding the Child even further in the Manger was to simply avoid the same fate as Nearly Headless Nick, if you take my meaning. Only Catholics like Robert Southwell were willing to be so open and cavalier. And look what he got for his troubles.

    This may explain something of the way in which certain ornaments have been used ever since the big post-Reformation thaw. For the longest time, even Holiday decorations were verboten. Once these laws had relaxed or been repealed over time, it would have been natural enough for at least some of the traditional Season iconography to make something of a comeback. However, it also makes sense that the Reformation would have left its mark on a great deal of the English imagination. When Christmas began its slow return as a valid celebration, its colors started out as a lot more muted than it was, say, during the Middle Ages. There may have been wreaths and holly, yet the Christmas Tree itself was a long time in coming. It was mainly thanks to Charles Dickens, along with Victoria and Albert, that the use of such a grand ornament is now a staple of the festival. In fact, it wasn’t really until the introduction of the Tree that the Christmas ornament as we now know it gained popular acceptance.

    Before then, all the popular images we hang on Trees now would have been out of place, even during the age of Chaucer. Back then, the only place for such imagery was on the walls, ceilings, and doors of Churches. This would have included the presence of Stars and Angels, especially where representations of the Nativity were concerned. The landscape had changed by the time both icons were allowed to make a reappearance. This is where the conjecture comes into play. Most people still know what the display of an Angel or Star mean in a Nativity setup, even if they aren’t Christians. What is less well-known now might be the level of multi-valence in the popular devotional use of a Star as both icon and symbol.

    An Angel is a very specific thing, with a limited amount of meaning. A Star, however, can mean several things at once. It can refer to the one seen at Bethlehem. However, it can also do a bit more, and go on from there. Based on how they were used in traditional, pre-Reformation sacramental practices, the use of Stars could be either plain and simple. Or else they could also signal both the Nativity itself, as well as the cosmological model of the universe in which the Event was held to have taken place. We still have the Christmas Birth, yet the idea of the universe that was in vogue even at that time has long been consigned to the dustbin of history, even as we sort of bring it out for another airing every time Dec. 25th rolls around. And good luck trying to explain that irony to an average group of modern carolers.

    Here’s the main point, however. The Catholic Church of both Chaucer and Aquinas would have known that Star symbols could be used as pointers to the Discarded Image, and they were often used as such, even in Christmas celebrations. However, this is also one of the doctrines that the Reformation helped speed on towards its demise in the public conception. The mindset in which the modern ornament had its start was one in which the idea of the Primum Mobile existed solely in the sacramental churches, and their rituals and practices, and this was not, and really hasn’t been a majority mindset in the UK since. As a result, Stars might tend to be more to looked on as just that, and nothing else. While an Angel still maintains it’s traditional familiarity. Across the pond, however, places like America seem to have become a neutral enough ground (one hopes) for the free expression of holiday preferences. As a result, we seem to have kept more of an emphasis on the Seven Heavens, rather than the Heavenly Host.

    It’s an odd setup, which is probably matched by the sheer insanity of the history that lies in back of it all. At the very least, though, this might help grant a better understanding of Rowling’s choice of an Angel, rather than the Star that is more expected here in the U.S. It makes better sense in a country with a strong iconoclastic bent to its traditions. From this perspective, at least an Angel has some sense of merit. Whereas the anything goes ethos of America seems to have created enough of a space that allows for the faintest hint of an old, cosmological representation of the Yule Tree, even if it mostly exists as an anthropological curiosity. Here is where the apology has to kick in. Dredging up history like that always gives the impression of stepping on toes I don’t even know are there. Nor am I certain how this must come off in terms of the history of conflict at the heart of it all, and how it’s effected the use of either icon in real life or art.

    As for Rowling’s place in all this, it seems a mistake to claim she’s unaware of the history of religious conflict in which her own work sometime either hints at, or else just winds up getting drawn into, for better or worse. Like Southwell, she holds a sacramentalist viewpoint, yet they do not share the same sects, with Rowling almost seeming to want to defect into Quakerism, on occasion. I’m less certain that this accounts for her choice of the Angel as her Treetop representative, although it would be interesting to know if her character’s final, battered, yet still standing appearance carries any historical connotations to the conflicts I’ve (perhaps less than wisely) hinted at. It also might make sense to her on a cultural level, as the Angel seems to have to the same iconological status in the UK that the Star does in the US. In other words, it all amounts to a whole, cultural zone of perception thing that she seems very self-aware about. This does not, however, preclude her from using all the familiar pre-Reformation tropes and imagery in work, and putting them to good use.

    It does sort of highlight one final irony at work in “The Christmas Pig”. I brought up the hiding practices the Metaphysical Poets had to resort to when trying to discuss Christmas. The fact that all the serious conversation happens in their poetry is sort of telling in itself. The funny thing is that Rowling is under no such obligation, and yet it’s almost as if she’d written a Metaphysical prose poem in a way that outdoes any of the older Poets themselves. There is no real mention of the Incarnation at any point in the story, and yet it lingers over everything. Not only that, the final punchline is that I’m sure if you gave this book to the likes of Donne, Herbert, Southwell, or Milton, they’d each be able to take one look at it all and go, in essence, “I see what you did there”. In other words, TCP shares a literary practice that contains a surprising echo to that of the Metaphysical Nativity authors.

  6. Louise Freeman says

    I think for the vast majority of Christmas tree decorators. stars and angels are just matters of personal preference. My protestant household, both growing up and as an adult, always has an angel. My office tree has a popsicle stick star, made for me by a former client. And my Harry Potter tree has a Hogwarts castle.

    As for Holly, her repentance reminded me a lot of Harry’s in HBP, when he used the sectumsempra curse… genuine horror and shame that, in the heat of the moment, she had done something so dreadful. And it was horrible: Jack, age 7, called her a hurtful name; Holly, age 13, retaliated by deliberately destroying his most prized possession, and one that had been a source of comfort and continuity over a year of emotional upheaval. There really is no comparison. Harry, was, at least, defending himself against an evenly matched enemy, who Harry suspected (rightly, for once!) was an agent of Voldemort and who was trying to use an Unforgiveable curse himself.

    It also reminded me of Strike’s horror and guilt when he smashed Robin in the face.

    It would be interesting to know how much of Holly’s decision to try to replace DP was her own idea, and how much was prompted by a talking-to from the step-grandparents.

  7. Brian Basore says

    Isn’t history why Hogmanay replaced Happy Christmas in Scotland until the 1950s? Father Christmas became the First Footman, and moved his day to December 31st.

  8. Prof. Basore,

    History really is full of fascinating surprises like that, isn’t it? There’s probably an entire book-length study to be made about the “Masking of Christmas” that has had to be done over the years, for various reasons. Though I wouldn’t know where to begin in all that.

    As for the subject of Angel decorations, in and of themselves, the best vantage point I’m familiar with right now remains T.S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”. The best online resource for that poem comes from here:

    It’s good enough as a starting point, though I think it might sell Eliot a bit short. I tend to see the poet’s Ariel cycle as his often too overlooked White Stage period, a necessary pallet cleanser before the Red Stage of Four Quartets. As such, Eliot’s outlook ought to be seen in terms of a genuine progression, rather than as a standstill of lingering despair. I’m afraid all that has to be chalked up to the way “The Wasteland” has sort of become the albatross around the poet’s neck. Still, some good points are made, and I do wonder if this might be another source Rowling has drawn on for her use of Angelic symbolism.

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