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.

(1) An Introduction to Ring Composition

We have a lot of new readers at HogwartsProfessor — “Welcome!” — many of whom, if they read Evan Willis’s ‘First Notes’ almost certainly wondered why the author assumed his readers would understand what he was talking about with respect to ‘ring writing.’ The answer to that question is that, since the publication in 2010 of Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle, one of the first tasks we undertake here when Rowling writes a new book — or even a longer twitter thread or personal statement — is to identify the chiastic parallelism in it, a structure anthropologist Mary Douglas described in her Thinking in Circles as “ring composition.” Our regular readers expect this analysis and Evans’ comments were a prelude to this fuller treatment.

We are that confident that Rowling is writing in this format because not only is the Hogwarts Saga seven book set a ring and each book in it as well, but the five Cormoran Strike novels we have thus far are all rings, the series is conforming to what we’d expect in a seven book series despite Rowling’s repeated denials the series is one, and, to top it all off, the Strike novels parallel and echo their equivalent number in the Potter books. No one I know is married to specific parallels as ‘musts’ but the avalanche of evidence that Rowling is using a chiastic structure as her go-to story scaffolding makes the assertion a premise of discussion at HogwartsProfessor. Read Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle  or the individual posts written here about the ring structure of Lethal White and of Troubled Blood for much more on all that.

The basics can be mastered in seconds, however. The essential components of a literary ring according to Douglas are a latch, a story turn, and chapters in parallel before and after the turn. There are also, as likely as not, rings-inside-of-rings.

The minimum criterion for a ring composition is for the ending to join up with the beginning….A ring is a framing device. The linking up of starting point and end creates an envelope that contains everything between the opening phrases and the conclusion. The rule for closing the ring endows the work with unity ….There has to be a well-marked point at which the ring turns preparatory to working back to the beginning, and the whole series of stanzas from the beginning to the middle should be in parallel with the other series going from the middle back tot eh start. Each section on the second side of the ring corresponds to a matching section on the first side….It is basically the chiastic structure, ABBA or ABCBA, a form that pervades the Bible and other famous archaic texts (Douglas, Thinking in Circles, 2007, pp.x, chs. 1,7,9).

A nine-part ring composition represented graphically shows why the almost universal story structure is sometimes called ‘turtle back writing.’ Chapters 1 and 9 point to and refer back to one another as the “latch” of beginning and end, chapter 5 echoes the latch ideas of start and finish at the turn creating an axis bisecting the narrative, and chapters 2, 3, and 4 include characters, ideas, dialogue or plot points that are seen again in reverse correspondence events included in chapters 8, 7 and 6, respectively.

Douglas echoes Gerard Manley Hopkins’ note per Jakobson that the importance of parallels “will surprise anyone when first pointed out” when she describes her own experience of discovery. “Learning how they were constructed is like a revelation, with something of the excitement of hidden treasure.” With significant understatement, she writes that “it takes skill to write a polished specimen” of turtle-back latch, turn, and “reverse echo effect” parallels. “It sounds simple,” she notes, ”but, paradoxically, ring composition is extremely difficult for Westerners to recognize.” This kind of structure, as Nabokov taught, requires “an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience” if the serious reader is to “enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece.”

But Douglas believes seeing this “inner weave” is essential:

Friends ask me, what does it matter? Why is it important to know the construction? This leads to another point; in a ring composition the meaning is located in the middle. A reader who reads a ring as if it were a straight linear composition will miss the meaning. Surely that matters! The text is seriously misunderstood, the composition is classed as lacking in syntax, and the author dismissed with disdain. Surely, misinterpretation does matter.

What you need to take away from this introduction to ring writing is that a proper ‘turtle-back’ structure has a latch connecting the story’s start and finish, a story-turn at its center in which we hear echoes of beginning and end (and the story meaning or murderer is hidden!), and parallels between the story parts leading up to the turn with those descending from it. There’s a lot more that’s fun to know and think about — Rowling’s favorite teacher Lucy Shepherd being “hot on structure,” Douglas’ conviction as an anthropologist that this traditional structure is the universal and default organizational principle for human writing until modernity across cultures, millenia, and genres, and Jakobson’s Conundrum, the mystery of why this is so. For now, though — overview, latch, turn, parallels.

(2) Christmas Pig as Ring Composition

The Overview

Evan Willis was ‘spot on’ in his first ring-reading both in noting the story has an obvious latch and turn and that the turtle-back lines need a closer look. Taking a bird’s eye view of the story, in which the nine parts are pictured as of equal length, the parallels are hard to miss.

  • Clasp: The story’s beginning and end parts, one and nine respectively, take place ‘Up There’ in the Land of the Living, Jack’s ‘Home’ as Part Nine is titled. The last chapter, the only one in Part Nine, is ‘Found,’ an obvious complement and completion to the ‘Lost’ chapter in Part One, in which Jack reacts to DP’s defenestration.
  • Center: The story turn is the nadir-nigredo of Part Five, ‘The Wastes of the Unlamented,’ which points to beginning and end while marking the beginning of the end, the story’s second half. It reveals the solution to the mystery of Holly’s bizarro behavior in Part One when Jack meets Bully Boss in the Bad Habit gang and to the story ending in Parts Eight and Nine with the appearance of the Loser, Jack’s failed attempt to save Broken Angel, his bonding with CP, and the sacrificial love and finding of Blue Bunny.
  • Chiasmus: The three parallels or ‘turtle-back’ lines crossing the story axis bisecting the ring top to bottom connect Jack and CP’s adventures in the six identifiable places in the Land of the Lost (the Wastes are the barren area in which all the others are placed with the crater holding the Loser’s Lair acting as its center).
  1. ‘Mislaid’ and ‘The Loser’s Lair,’ Parts Two and Eight, are the periphery and origin of the Land of the Lost story circle, in which Jack spends the briefest times and from which his only aim is to escape.
  2. ‘Disposable’ and ‘The Island of the Beloved’ are the least and most desirable places respectively for lost Things to be allocated and Jack’s exit from the first and entry to the last are in vehicles into which Jack and CP are squeezed or wrapped up tight together.
  3. ‘Bother-It’s-Gone’ and ‘The City of the Missed’ are both cities for privileged Things that are ruled by pathological seekers of political and personal advantage, Addie the Address Book and Mayor Grater in parallel with Ambition and King Power.

The Christmas Pig as ring composition, then, looks something like this:

A closer look at each part reveals the details of Rowling’s ring artistry and the “meaning in the middle” evident in the end.

The Latch

The Christmas Pig is 58 chapters long, 15 of which are the first and last parts of the story. Parts One and Nine act as the brackets or inclusio of Pig and, as such, everything between them, the seven Parts spent in the Land of the Lost, are shadows of  the ‘real world’ to which all lost Things refer to as ‘Up There.’ Jack is ‘Pajama Boy, with the power of sleep and dreams’ in his underworld incarnation and the Land of the Lost is an allegory both of our dreaming and waking states and of the traditional cosmology’s division of Creation into realms of Greater and Lesser Being, the latter being ontological shades of the former. Hence, the ‘inciting incident’ of the drama being Jack’s using the symbol for “loser” to belittle Holly and all of the Land of the Lost being defined by the status of Lost Things and their relationship with The Loser.

The surface and moral layers of the story are about the agonies of divorce and the difficulties experienced by blended families, especially around the holidays. Jack’s parents and Holly’s mum and dad divorce in Part One and their respective agonies around this change and their being forced together by the marriage of Judy and Brendon are the Problem to which Jack’s adventure in interior discovery is the solution. Jack’s toy pig, DP, is the exteriorization of his mother’s love and his profound need for a talisman or physical token of this, a “transitional object,” because of his understandable emotional insecurities.

Chapter 11, ‘Lost,’ is where we see the ‘real’ Jack, an unhinged little boy separated from his security blanket, the sensible representation of Mum, who acts out his feelings of abandonment by attacking everyone and everything around him. By chapter 58, ‘Found,’ Jack has been transformed — and, yes, the Wastes are the story alchemical nigredo, the City of the Missed and its canal-dunking and psychomachia drama in the Palace of Power are the ablutionary albedo, the Island of the Beloved the alchemical wedding, and The Loser’s Lair the rubedo — by his experiences on the Night of Miracles and Lost Causes into a boy-incarnation of maternal, sacrificial, Christ-like love. His relationship with the toy pig consequent to CP’s being revealed as a ‘replacement’ or ‘ransom’ Christ figure and Jack’s choice to play this part in loving response has changed from psychological dependence and need to spiritual fellowship and empathic understanding, which is to say, from projection and vulnerability to the surety of real love.

The Story Turn

Jack’s transformation, expressed in the story through his change of heart about the Christmas Pig replacement toy Holly gives him as a peace-offering and apology, takes its critical turn in the center of Part Five, ‘The Wastes of the Unlamented.’ He begins their relationship in Part One by beating the new Pig against a chest of drawers and trying to pull its head off. In each Part thereafter, Jack makes a significant jump in trust and affection with his toy-guide: in “Mislaid,’ he apologizes for trying to pull off his head, in ‘Disposable,’ he learns about the Christmas Pig’s “alivening,” and in ‘Bother-It’s-Gone’ he grabs the Pig’s trotter when thinking of his mother just as Crusher is about to destroy them, inspiring the Pig and creating the Finding Hole that saves them (see ‘The Finding of Crusher’ in this series’ Blue Bunny post for much more on that moment).

In Part Five, the change in his feelings from hatred in the bedroom, to dislike at Allocation, to something like fear because of Pig’s treatment of Lunchie, to his out-reach in the shadow of Crusher’s heel, moves at last to love. Jack, Christmas Pig, the Blue Bunny, Broken Angel, and Compass have encountered the Bad Habit Gang out on the Wastes of the Unlamented, a meeting which interrupts their travel to The City of the Missed. Jack is stunned to learn from Bully Boss, Holly’s bad habit, that his step-sister does not hate him so much as she envies him — and that Holly has sworn off her bullying habit forever (Holly’s behavior in the final chapter suggests the Loser did indeed capture and eat Bully Boss; cf., Jack’s comment to Santa, pp 238-239). That revelation is just beginning to have its effect on Jack when The Loser arrives and the Bad Habits and Our Gang of Losers run away in panic. Jack tries and fails to save Broken Angel but he and the Christmas Pig escape the Loser’s grasp. Jack has hit rock-bottom at this point.

Jack was so cold, tired, and scared, he wanted DP so badly, and he felt so guilty about the angel, he couldn’t keep back the tears any longer. He broke down. He tried not to make any noise, but he hadn’t fooled the Christmas Pig, who put his trotters around Jack and pulled him close.

“We’ll freeze unless we hug,” said the pig gruffly. “We’ll stay here – maybe get a few hours’ sleep – and then, when it’s light, we’ll try and find a way to the City of the Missed.”

“But how will we find our way without Compass?” asked Jack.

“I don’t know yet,” admitted the Christmas Pig. “But we’ll think of something.”

So Jack curled up beside the Christmas Pig, who cuddled him, and slowly Jack began to warm up. He was still scared and miserable, but at least he was warmer.

“Thanks, Christmas Pig,” he said, after a while.

“You’re welcome,” said the Christmas Pig, sounding surprised.

After a short silence, Jack said, “It’s a stupid name.” (161)

In their subsequent conversation, Jack gives the Christmas Pig a new name, ‘CP,’ one obviously assonant with ‘DP,’ and finally admits that CP and DP are brothers: “I didn’t think so at first, but you’re quite similar, really” (162). The direct connection with the final chapter is that the Christmas Pig at the close of this chapter, as he does on his Hope-bourne flight to The Island of the Beloved again in Jack’s embrace (218), weeps because of the love he feels for and from the Living Boy (163, 271). The last chapters of Part Five are the living example of sacrificial love and a Mum ‘Up There’ in the finding of the Blue Bunny, Jack’s role-model for his decision to save the Christmas Pig in Part Seven.

The Turtle-Back Lines

The nine part chiastic structure of Christmas Pig represented as a line is A-B-C-D-E-D’-C’-B’-A’ with E acting as the pivot that aligns with the A-A’ latch. The “reverse echo effect” of ring composition is the set of parallels between the story points before and after the story turn E, which is to say, B-B’, C-C’, and D-D,’ or Parts Two and Eight (B), Three and Seven (C), and Four and Six (D). Let’s take a closer look at these parallel sections than what we did above in the overview.

  • (B) Parts Two and Eight — Mislaid and The Loser’s Lair: 

In both the second and eighth part of Christmas Pig, Jack makes a descent from an over-world into an under-world. In ‘Mislaid,’ he is falling from beneath the Christmas Tree in a column of light that lowers him to the floor of a “gigantic building, like a warehouse, with immensely high brick walls, and many holes peppering the wooden ceiling” (59). He and Christmas Pig have entered the Land of the Lost in search of DP. All the lost Things in Mislaid are wanted by an owner Up There; Things without owners that care are considered ‘Surplus’ and dumped on to the Wastes of the Unlamented.

Jack enters the Losers Lair by sliding down the side of a crater’s loose “rocks and stones” toward a hole at the crater’s center, out of which pours a “thick black smoke” that “reeked of burning plastic, fabric, and foam” (249). He “found himself tumbling into the hole” and, after a few seconds fall, he lands on a “hot, springy, soft mound” of “stuffing and shreds of fabric the Loser had discarded from the Things he’d eaten” (250). “There were no finding holes here at all,” only the fire into which Jack almost fell. Every Thing present is Surplus the Loser has captured on the Wastes.

The parallels are the dangerous journey undertaken despite being warned of the great risk involved, the fall from the safe place above (Up There and Santa’s sleigh), all done to rescue a beloved toy pig, first DP, then CP. Both times he falls into a contained space defined by walls impossible to breech crowded with innumerable Things, all of whom dread meeting the Loser and being eaten by him (“what humans call ‘death'”).

The inversion-reflection parallel or opposite qualities of the two descents are the light columns and the pillar of smoke, the Things that are wanted to some degree Up There versus Surplus, and Jack’s entering one world with a guide and the other without, having insisted that Compass remain on the Wastes to lead Things there to safety. And, in a complete reversal of his first descent, Jack inspires hope in all the Surplus trapped in the Lair which creates a “wide and golden” hole in the wooden sky through which “the sparkling, circling light descended in a spiral and whooshed up inside of it hundreds and hundreds of astonished, delighted Things” (259). The love of the Living Boy who entered the Land of the Lost saves them all.

Rowling paints a picture of this Part Eight Toyland version of the Harrowing of Hell in the ‘Mislaid’ chapter (16) of the second part, also called ‘Mislaid.’ Jack and the Christmas Pig have just arrived at the North Wall where toys gather before Allocation and it is Pig’s plan to exchange tickets with two toys to get to the front of the line for sorting. He spots a “brown and lumpy” “two-headed monster” “weeping into his hands” and “a plastic princess in a pink dress and tiara” who “was comforting him” (65). Pig tells Jack to “ask those two to swap tickets” and suggests he “tell the princess she’s very pretty” “and you’d like to protect her from the Loser and you’re willing to swap tickets to keep her safe a bit longer” (66).

Jack balks at this so the Pig “tugged Jack’s ticket out of his hand and strode toward the princess” to make his pitch. Jack hears only the beginning of Pig’s story because a “jack-in-the-box burst open unexpectedly  which caused a lot of toys nearby to scream with fright.” The Pig returns with the desired green tickets and explains that “The princess said she didn’t need protecting and was quite looking forward to an adventure” “but the monster made her swap with us. He wanted to kiss you , but I said you’re too shy” (66-67).

This is a funny scene, seemingly a throw-away bit of comedy, but which mirrors the characters and actions in the Loser’s Lair drama of Part Eight. The humor is in Christmas Pig being exposed as something of a chauvinist pig; he assumes the princess as a female character will crave protection rather than the male monster, when, contrary to gender stereotype, the woman is the hero and the guy is the damsel in distress. That the monster wants to kiss Jack for his supposed rescue is just gravy.

The mirroring is in the characters here and those in the Losers Lair cage, “one of the very highest cages on the wall” (252). There is the Christmas Pig, of course, and Pajama Boy climbs up the wall and reaches his cage by walking “across the tops of the cages, jumping from one to the next” (254). Broken Angel is “slumped in the corner of the cage, her one remaining hand over her shattered face” (252). CP begs Jack to give up his quest: “There’s no hope for us, but you can still escape!” — when the Loser spots the Living Boy. “Jack, the Christmas Pig, and Broken Angel were caught, transfixed, in [the Loser’s blazing eyes’] powerful beams” (255).

The ring artistry here suggests that theplastic princess in a pink dress and tiara” is a place-holder or stand-in for Broken Angel. Jack refuses to “rescue” her in Mislaid, he tries and fails to save Broken Angel in the Wastes, the story center, and then, pathetic as she seems in the Lair cage, it is she who saves Christmas Pig and Jack from the Loser. Her liminal existence between two worlds and her Surplus status in the Land of the Lost make her the means of their deliverance. As Jack explains to his Mum in the last chapter:

Jack showed Mum the chewed-up angel with her bent wing.

“She was caught in the branches at the back of the tree, see? But when Santa put my new bike there, he wobbled the tree on purpose and knocked her free! So she she wasn’t lost anymore and she pulled me and the Christmas Pig with her, back into the Land of the Living!” (266)

All of that is pre-figured in the “plastic princess” who is not at all what she seems. We make the same mistake Chauvinist, I mean, Christmas Pig made in Mislaid in assuming she was only a cliched “damsel in distress” when Broken Angel, as explained in a previous post, is rightly the symbolic ornament that, positioned at the apex of the Tree of Life, represents the nexus of God and Creation, an angel being a “messenger” of the Divine (see the end of the second Christmas Pig post for much more on the Angel symbolism and her being a balance of feminine and masculine virtues).

The Broken Angel comforts the Blue Bunny on the Wastes as his only friend much as the plastic princess helps the two-headed monster in Mislaid — and it is the Blue Bunny’s example of sacrificial love for Jack at the gates of the City of the Missed that are revealed to be exactly what has moved CP throughout the story and what Jack chooses to do as well to save his friend and every Thing in the Loser’s Lair. Remember, Jack returns to the Land of the Living not by ascending with the recycled Surplus by by descending through the branches of the Christmas tree in his home; the Broken Angel and his sacrificial love has lifted him up from the nether-world’s nadir to the top of the Tree of Life.

And the two-headed monster? I think he is a token representing both Jack and the Loser. Jack has been, forgive me, a pathetic, self-pitying, snarky little monster to his family after Holly’s throwing DP out the window and to Christmas Pig in Mislaid. He’s not a lost cause, obviously; he has elected to enter the Land of the Lost to save DP, after all, but it is, at the beginning at least, only to get what he wants. He makes no effort to save the Blue Bunny, and, though, he objects to the way Pig treats Lunchie, he goes along to get along. He is, in brief, a two-headed monster and the story is of his soul’s journey to perfection in the spirit, his transformative identification with maternal, sacrificial, unconditional love rather than ego.

The Loser, too, I think, is a two-headed monster or some kind of mirror image to Jack in the way Lord Voldemort is to Harry Potter in psychological allegory. The Loser craves life but becomes the vehicle of death, sucking the “alivened part” or logos inner essence out of surplus Things and creates his monstrously robotic and inhuman exterior self with their fragments. He is frightening, certainly, but Jack is almost moved to pity for him: “[The Loser’s] voice was the most terrible Jack had ever heard. It was like the scream of brakes, high and pained, and it made Jack think that the Loser must be suffering almost as much as the Things waiting for their death” (252).

Jack has learned from DP that “loss is a part of life” and from CP that he can love more than one Thing, that love is an interior and infinite capacity rather than something restricted to or only inspired by specific, exterior objects or persons — both lessons the Loser per se cannot grasp and is the cause of his unending suffering, akin to living in the fear of death and, its corollary, in blind pursuit of power and things as markers of being more alive, even immortal.

Rowling signals all this in Mislaid in Jack’s encounter with the plastic princess and her two-headed monster friend, in the Blue Bunny diversion that allows Jack to escape detection by the Loss Adjusters at Allocation, and, yes, by the “jack-in-the-box.” The Christmas Pig as psychomachia drama is the allegory of Jack’s escape from the box of his own thinking with respect to his new family and his beloved toys. It’s no accident that Rowling foreshadows just this epiphany that Jack has in the Loser’s Lair with the toy with the Johannine name and the world-transcending symbolism just when the Pig is talking with the princess and the monster.

  • (C) Parts Three and Seven — Disposable and The Island of the Beloved:

Parts Two and Eight, Mislaid and The Loser’s Lair, take place in those parts of the Land of the Lost that are somehow not really in the Land of the Lost. The Pig tells Jack that Mislaid is not really part of “the Loser’s domain” (64). The Loser’s Lair, in its hole found at the center of a crater, a place even Compass has never entered, is, like Mislaid, no place a Thing in the Land of the Living — Jack and CP excepted — would enter willingly.

Disposable and The Island of the Beloved, the parallel places of Parts Three and Seven on our ring, are similarly related. The first is the least desirable place to which a Thing can be Allocated (distinguishing Things from Surplus doomed to the Wastes) and the Island the most desirable place, in fact, so desirable that few if any Things know it exists; Beloved Things skip Mislaid and Allocation’s three doors and go straight to the beach party. The places are something like inverse parallels or reverse echoes. Disposable Things are closest to the Wastes and Beloved Things need never worry about the Loser; their owners’ love makes them invulnerable to his predation, a love DP says makes them “immortal” (226).

I think the turtle-back line connecting Parts Three and Seven is the discussion of “alivening” in each: Christmas Pig’s explanation in chapter 23, ‘The Plan’ and DP’s in chapter 51, ‘The Truth.’ CP first:

“And [‘Alivening’] happens when human feelings rub off on Things?”

“It’s not really rubbing off,” said the Christmas Pig. “The feelings come inside us. Alivening is what changes us from fabric and beans and fluff, or metal and wood and plastic, into… something more. It can take a Thing years to be fully Alivened — but sometimes it comes all at once. That’s the way it happened to me, today, in the toy shop. Holy and your grandpa were discussing which pig to take home to you, and when they chose me, I was Alivened. That’s when I began to mean something. The Alivening is when we truly understand what we were made to do” (96).

DP explains to Jack on the Island of the Beloved what it was that Christmas Pig understood at his Alivening in the toyshop:

“He can’t have [wanted to make me happy],” said Jack in a very small voice. “I threw him at the wardrobe. I stamped on him. I — I tried to pull his head off.”

“He understood why you did those things,” said DP gently. “He was a Replacement, and Replacements, once Alivened, understand all about their owner from the very start. All that I know about you, he knows, and he’s always loved you, just as much as I have…

“CP’s a modest pig. He knew your heart from the beginning and he believed he could never be to you what I am. So he decided to sacrifice himself, because your happiness was more important to him than his own”(228).

Jack is more than a little distressed by this revelation but comes to a remarkable realization, something he thinks the equivalent of a Thing’s Alivening:

All along Jack thought that if only he found DP, he’d be happy again, but he didn’t feel happy at all. Now, when it was too late, he realized he’d come to love CP, not instead of DP, but quite separately, for his brave and good self. In that moment, Jack truly understood what it felt like to be Alivened, because he understood what he was meant to do.

“DP… I’ve got to rescue CP” (230).

For a discussion of the logos aspect of this, of realizing one’s vocation, literally the ‘calling’ of the interior Word, in contrast with our ego identity, see the fourth part of this series, ‘The Magic In Things.’ Here, in this ring composition exegesis, I think it suffices that Part Seven answers the mystery of Alivening that is raised in Part Three, namely, what is the Christmas Pig’s understanding of what he “was made to do” and what does it have to do with Jack’s mission to rescue DP? I believe it is the Logos of Christmas, of Holly’s remorse, of the love willing to condescend into a sub-creation as an incarnation of Love for a beloved created, mortal thing.

As the central turtle-back line across the story axis, this suggests the heart of the story is in a right understanding of Alivening.

  • (D) Parts Four and Six — Bother-It’s-Gone and The City of the Missed:

The last parallel Parts take place in the two delightful places a lost Thing can be Allocated in Mislaid, Bother-It’s-Gone’ and ‘City of the Missed.’ The latter is a much higher rent district than Bother, but both are worlds above the western movie back-lot for Tombstone Pictures that Disposable is and the living death that Surplus endures out on the Wastes of the Unlamented. These two places bracket the central part of Christmas Pig, the story turn of Jack, Pig, Blue Bunny, and Broken Angel’s adventures on the Wastes and their meeting with Bully Boss and the Loser, and they are the two most similar Parts in the ring.

Both Bother and Missed feature a mirror image cast of characters: Addie the Address Book is a delusional female Thing who wants nothing more than greater status, something she achieves by denying the existence of the City of the Missed and by her claim to be ‘in’ with the Mayor, a cheese grater consumed by the elimination of any threat to his own political control of Bother. Their reflective pair in the City of the Missed are lost Ambition, a scheming female figure all but married to the King, the aptly named Power.

Ambition and Addie both despise Poem and her friend Pretense, the one as a truth teller, the other as a living lie that exposes their own pathetic, adolescent self-importance. The Mayor and the King are all out servants of the Loser whose laser focus is gaining individual power and something like immortality by their service to this morality tale’s Dark Lord. (The parable of ‘The Finding of Crusher’ in Part Four and the Psychomachia in the Palace of Power vote of Soul Faculties to decide the fate of Pajama Boy and CP in Part Six are explained at length here and here, respectively.)

Hope and Happiness, though borderline mythological compared to other lost Things, play the roles of ex machina saviors in parallel with Poem and Pretense. Each pair saves Jack and CP from imminent capture and transportation to the Loser’s Lair from Capture Teams and Loss Adjusters under the command of the Mayor and King. Poem delivers our heroes to Compass, a trusty guide for crossing the Wastes to their longed-for destination and Hope just flat out delivers Jack to DP on the Island of the Beloved.

(3) The Perennialist Answer to Jakobson’s Conundrum, the Mystery of Ring Composition

Anthropologist Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition asserted with cogent argument and evidence that this chiastic circle story structure is a nigh on universal scaffolding for poets, prophets, and prose writers across the full human spectrum of millenia, cultures, and genres. She explained with characteristic clarity the signature qualities of a ring, namely, a story latch of beginning and end, a turn referencing both beginning and end which is the locus of meaning (“the meaning is in the middle”), chiastic parallels in reverse order going to and returning from this turn, and rings inside of rings. She then attempted to solve a mystery of ring writing she called “Jakobson’s conundrum,” and, frankly, she failed in that effort. 

According to Douglas, Roman Jakobson, Russian formalist critic and philologist, “has launched a challenge by describing thinking in parallelisms as a faculty inherent in the relation among language, grammar, and the brain. If this is so, it would explain why the literary form based on it is so widespread. We should expect it to rise up anywhere, at any time, and it does with many variants” (6). This idea, however, is problematic because, according to Douglas, if we are “hard-wired” for parallelism and its most significant variant, turtle-back writing, it should be easy to recognize and prevalent in contemporary writing of all kinds.

Why is ring composition practiced all over the world? What is it for? So many people! So many epochs! They could not have all learned it from one another. Its robustness over thousands of years supports the theory that something in the brain preserves it, and yet we know that it can fade out so completely that new readers miss it altogether (12).

The great philologist [Jakobson] considered that parallelism is a faculty inherent in the relation of among language, grammar, and the brain. Once the ring structure has been explained as a series of parallelisms, the puzzle takes a new turn. Why is it so difficult to recognize? It hardly seems plausible that the scholars balk at the circular system just because they are used to linear reading and writing. Roman Jakobson’s theory that precisely this kind of analogic arrangement is deep wired into the human capacity for language becomes a paradox. Surely we should all be capable of appreciating a structure of parallelisms at first sight? (125)

She attempted to “answer Jakobson’s conundrum by reference to social and cultural causes” (148), namely, “simple prejudice,” that is a “concealed ‘Orientalist’ contempt” for “archaic literature,” a combination of “social Darwinism with its emphasis on moral and intellectual evolution” with “our colonial tradition” that prevents modern readers from “looking for literary sophistication” in the “so-called primitive peoples over whom we ruled” (125), and the passage of all societies through “traditionalist and opportunistic phases” (146). “After a major revolution or after a prolonged war, the survivors long for new forms of expression and signal their own vitality by rejecting the old.” Douglas thinks these “opportunistic” periods rejecting traditional forms with the other “social and cultural” factors are likely the reason that “cause ring composition to lose repute in the first place” and “hide it from our vision” (148).

She cites postmodern “culture of uncertainty” and “radical indeterminancy” as a foundation for rejection of traditional formal writing: “If a culture is indeed heavily against boundaries, rules, and closures, as such, the ring shape would seem too formal, artificial, mechanical It will not be popular when the preference is for natural spontaneity” (144, 146). “Too much change and too much challenge to belief, these could be the times in which a polished ring composition would not be the right medium for what is uppermost in people’s minds” (145-146).

Her premise here, one has to note, is that ring writing is a thing of the past and that, with its demise, the ability to recognize it has atrophied to the point of having been extinguished. “Once [the ring] has been discarded as a means of literary construction, that is to say when there are no contemporary ring compositions being produced, it is understandable that it should be overlooked by the readers. When it goes out of fashion, it comes to an unlamented, unrecorded end” (126). Hence its having “died out in so many places” (138). The most modern example Douglas shared in Writing in Circles, though she looked at several Agatha Christie novels with disappointing results, is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, published in 1759. Jaskobson’s conundrum or paradox, however, is not the mystery Douglas assumed if authors are still writing in rings and have been without the break the anthropologist believed began in the mid eighteenth century.

Latter-Day Saint scholars argue that The Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by Joseph Smith, Jr., and not written by him; the heart of their argument is the sophisticated chiastic structure of many of the books inside this revelation, which formalism, though biblical scholars were discussing this traditional form in Smith’s lifetime, was a technique unique to ancient times, the Biblical and Classical eras especially (John Welsh’s books are the best resources on this subject). As with Douglas, though, this argument hangs on the premise that 19th century writers were not chiastic masters — and, if Coleridge wrote his Ancient Mariner as a ring, Stevenson did the same in Kidnapped, and Verne did as well in Around the World in Eighty Days, the premise is false and the deduction is invalid. So, too, with Douglas and her “conundrum;” would that she had read any of Charles Williams’ novels, Lewis’ Narniad, Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or Nabokov’s Lolita.

Having kicked one block out from Douglas’ argument, the absence of contemporary ring writers, the other remains: why is it so hard for readers today to see parallelism in general and rings specifically in ancient and modern works? I think I have established that Rowling’s individual Harry Potter novels and the seven book series are a ring cycle with rings within the larger ring, that this is true of her Strike novels and that series in progress, too, and, above, that Christmas Pig is a ring composition as well. I think it safe to say, that, though this idea has gained enough currency that at least one Potter fan site has devoted a podcast to exploring it, very few of Rowling’s millions of readers are aware of the near OCD quality of her structural artistry. Most serious readers and even those who read her work to pick up pointers for their own writing just do not see it.

I think the Perennialist writers’ premises about the chasm separating traditional and modern people is a credible explanation for the great difficulty we have even in close reading of works to ‘get’ the ring structure, something that traditional audiences of epic poetry and scripture were able to pick up while listening to a given story or epistle. In a nutshell, Jakobson’s error is in his saying that the human brain is hard-wired for chiastic structure or parallelism when it is the heart or noetic faculty, our spiritual capacity that is sensitive to this artistry.

The three short-cuts to grasping the radical nature of the Perennialist view can be found in a working definition of tradition, identifying what Perennialists understand as the ground of reality and the human means of knowing it, and in highlighting their insistence that there is a human faculty of perception, a spiritual capacity, above reason and to which reason is by nature only a handmaiden. Each of these three points is the world turned upside-down from the views of modern and postmodern people as such and constitute the substance of the Perennialist argument that the defining distinction of human existence, the choice each conscious human person must knowingly make either to transcend or to travel with the errors of this historical period, is between tradition and modernity.

In summary, Perennialism is traditional, not modernist, intellectual, not rational, and ‘from above, dowards and from within, outwards’ rather than the reverse. Of these three points, the most relevant I think for understanding why ring composition was ubiquitous and easily grasped in pre-modern, which is to say “theocentric” cultures is the distinction between ‘intellectual’ and ‘rational.’

The term ‘intellect’ requires careful definition lest it be confused with prevalent usage today. Intellect now is used as a synonym for ‘reason,’ assumed to reside in the brain, and intelligence or greater understanding are characteristics of anyone of intellectual accomplishment. ‘Intellectual’ is interchangeable with ‘thinker’ and as often as not ‘academic.’ Martin Lings notes the irony that “since much of the activity” of such thinkers today “is concerned with questioning the existence of the transcendent, many of the so-called ‘intellectuals’ are at the opposite pole from true intellectuality” (Lings 1987, 2). Guenon, Coomaraswamy, and Schuon and the Perennialists thereafter use the word “intellect” for the human spiritual capacity after the Latin intellectus, the word de Moerbecke used in his word-for-word translations of Aristotle for Aquinas in place of the Greek nous.

As Lings explained, this noetic capacity is far removed from reasoning based on sense perception and abstractions from same.

Every human soul is imbued with what might be called the sense of the Absolute or of the Transcendent, the sense of a Supreme Power that is both Origin and End of the created universe which It infinitely transcends. This sense belongs to the faculty of the Intellect, which is man’s means of perceiving what lies above and beyond the plane of his world; and though the full power of the Intellect was lost at the Fall, what remains of its light is none the less sufficiently strong to be undeniable… This residue of heart-knowledge – for the Intellect is enthroned in the Heart (this word is written here with a capital to indicate that it means, not the bodily heart, but the centre of the soul, that is, the point through which passes the vertical axis in virtue of which man is Mediator between Heaven and earth) – is man’s highest faculty, and may still be termed intellect if only in a relative sense. Its survival does not however prevent the refusal to see it – a refusal which can become second nature. ‘Hardness of heart’ was originally the name of the chronic blindness in question (Lings 1987, 1-2).

It is this “blindness” or ‘noetic heart disease’ which is the principal characteristic of modern thinkers according to the Perennialists. In moderns, reason supplants intellect from its rightful place as king or regent power and this usurpation, because of the consequent eclipse of the intellect in the human person, is in their view an interior regicide.

The relevance of this distinction is in Ling’s point that the intellectus or nous is “the centre of the soul, that is, the point through which passes the vertical axis in virtue of which man is Mediator between Heaven and earth.” The point, if you will, of ring writing, as with literary alchemy, the zodiac, and traditional symbolism of the circle and the cross, is the revelation of the metaphysical origin that defines existence, the logos ‘inside bigger than the outside.’ Turtle-back stories, with their meaning in the middle and all story points existing in parallel reverse echoes around this turn and gathered in the latch, stimulate the logos imagination of the reader, this cardiac intelligence, that is, as Lewis put it, “continuous with the fabric of reality” to recognize itself and experience the greater Logos in this reflection.

Christmas Pig as in Harry Potter, has a circular structure; just as Harry began every year at Privet Drive and returned to King’s Cross at its end (Prince excepted) and arrived at the story climax at an alocal, magical ‘place’ in which the mystery was resolved and questions answered in confrontation with the Dark Lord or his servants, so in Pig we enter and exit the Land of the Lost from the base and apex of the Christmas Tree in the Land of the Living, the symbolic Tree of Life, and Jack descends into the Loser’s Lair at the story climax, a cavern reached through a hole in the center of a crater. Jack demonstrates how he has been transformed, all that he has learned and become on his soul’s journey to perfection, in his Christ-like act of sacrificial love and the liberating light of hope he inspires in the Surplus imprisoned in the story’s Heart of Darkness.

The reader’s heart, its imaginative capacity for understanding story, senses not only this allegorical meaning as a reflection of itself, its beginning and end, but also the structural circle and our arrival with Jack at the centre-point, the final resolution of the nine parts working in parallel. This is the power of ring-writing, and, to take this argument to its natural if extraordinary conclusion, one of the most important reasons for her success. The shape of her story, her “rolling” structure, if you will — her last name being as important in understanding her work as is her first — has the same meaning as the surface narrative and its embedded allegorical and anagogical layers; the circle-cross and its center is the point of her work, the revelation and exercise of the centre of the human person in his or her heart.

Rowling is as popular a writer as she is because, per Eliade in his Sacred and the Profane, she delivers what readers long for in fiction more profoundly and consistently than any other author today, a “mythic or religious” experience. Her allegories of the soul’s journey to perfection — in the Hogwarts Saga’s soul triptych, the soul-spirit Shakespearean icon in Robin Ellacott and Cormoran Strike, and the child and its “transitional object” of maternal love in Christmas Pig — written as they are as tapestries whose “inner weave” or structure takes us to the same end or telos as the allegory are cathartic, transformative experiences that call out our inner essence or logos-heart.

Douglas and Jakobson, profound scholars as each was, as moderns and rationalists despite their close study of traditional texts, could not get this. Rowling, student of myth, the occult arts of alchemy and astrology, and story structure, the last because of her favorite teacher, Lucy Shepherd, not to mention her esoteric Christian faith, does get it — and uses the ring composition story form to deliver her psycho-spiritual allegories of human perfection. The Christmas Pig, I offer for your consideration, is the latest and most accessible instance of Rowling’s uniquely moving combination of allegorical artistry, story scaffolding, and hermetic symbolism.

Your comments and correction, of course, are coveted, as always.


  1. Ed Shardlow says

    Just Keep Rowling, Rowling, Rowling…

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