Guest Post: Keep Your Eye on the Ball! Circular Imagery in New ‘Force Awakens’ Echoes the Rings in Harry Potter?

Kylo 2Keep Your Eye on the Ball
by Emily Strand

J.K. Rowling has insisted many times that there will not be an eighth Harry Potter book because, after Deathly Hallows, Harry’s story is essentially complete. She will fill in the details for us on Pottermore and explore tangential characters in other works for stage and screen, but of Harry’s life we will hear no more of consequence. Unlike Rowling, to my knowledge, George Lucas has never alluded to such an ending point in his Star Wars saga. Even Lucas’ own supposed retirement is merely the passing of the franchise’s heavy mantle of story creation to others to continue. Like Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding from a single point, so the Star Wars narrative seems to expand in all directions from a single, vague bit of context: “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

f39171174And while the Star Wars narrative’s infinitely expanding character differentiates it from Rowling’s universe, their audiences (which include many of the same fans) are attracted to both these epic tales due in part to the careful and related internal organization of each. In both Star Wars and Harry Potter, the repetition of significant elements in intentional ways serves to make the most of each narrative’s best qualities, while pointing to important themes and ideas which will come to bear significantly on the plot, characters and outcomes of the story. Simply put, both Star Wars and Harry Potter are ring cycles.

Before we suppose ring composition was something the Potter books simply borrowed wholesale from Star Wars, we need to be reminded of the ancient tradition of ring composition Lucas and Rowling both drew upon to create their sagas (for a fine, 2000-year old example, read the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles back-to-back). Brave souls like Mike Klimo and John Granger have meticulously laid out the precise ways in which Star Wars (episodes 1-6) and the Harry Potter books, respectively, form organized, symbolic, concentric circles within themselves and as a whole until the ring is complete.

But what does a complete ring look like in a story which, in Star Wars’ case, goes on and on?

SW3The short answer is: it will be difficult to say until this new cycle of tales is complete, if we dare use the word “complete” with reference to Star Wars. Let not the franchise’s expanding state render us silent on its circular nature, however, especially in light of The Force Awakens. Because when we take a look at the ways in which The Force Awakens “circles back” to its immediate story-line predecessor, A New Hope, we find something unexpected. Certain (circular) elements of The Force Awakens may appear as simple throw-backs meant to bring the story and its audience “full circle,” as it were. Rather, these same elements prove ironic, reversing the audience’s expectations to introduce a new story with new heroes, even from the ruins of the old.

From Plato to Dante to Black Elk, John Granger has made clear the centrality (ahem) of circular imagery in Western literature in describing the numinous, calling the notion an “esoteric touchstone of Western thought.” (Ring Composition, 24) It is this round imagery for God which inspires the ancient tradition of composing great works of literature around a circular, ringed scaffold: the sub-creation (as Tolkien would have it) of the created order reflects its Creator in turn.

SW2Into this long, profound tradition of circular significance rolls a little orange and white droid, no bigger than a Golden Retriever: BB-8. When I first saw BB-8 in promotional materials for The Force Awakens, my first reaction was a dismissive eye-roll: “ok, here’s the R2D2 of the story.” Seeing the film confirmed, in many ways, my initial assessment. That BB-8 is meant to recall and remind audiences of R2D2 is clear from his (her?) scale, design and role in the story. If Droids had relations, BB-8 would be R2’s lil bro. Their functions in the plots of each film also demonstrate the intentional parallels between them. Both droids possess the information which is central to the story: information which requires the interpretation of a seemingly defunct figure from the past (for R2, the long-exiled Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for BB-8, R2D2 himself who has long been dormant on “low power”). Both droids are abandoned to desolate deserts (Tatooine, Jakku) by their masters (Leia, Poe Dameron), where each is captured by scrap scavengers and rescued in some way by each story’s hero (Luke, Rey). Both droids escape their desert exiles on the (round, yet flat) Millennium Falcon.

SW1These similarities are striking, but if we dismiss BB-8 as mere audience-pleasing throw-back on par with “having a bad feeling about this,” we miss an important thematic development which takes Star Wars into the next era. Like BB-8’s design, the significantly circular design of R2D2 points the viewer of A New Hope to that sense of completeness found only in the divine: a smooth contrast to an otherwise sharp-edged universe of TIE-fighters, Star Destroyers and lightsabers. (R2’s original partner in conspiracy, Princess Leia, echoes his round design with her own round hair buns.) And yet, R2’s circular design is incomplete: his dome is only half a circle, and the rest of him looks more like a trash can. BB-8 steps up the circular imagery: that he is working, on-set, puppeteered droid (instead of mere CGI) is a source of wonder on and off screen. “Move, Ball,” Han Solo snaps impatiently at BB-8 on the Millennium Falcon; Han’s lack of warmth for the adorable droid echoes his perpetual role as the skeptic who is, nevertheless, cyclically confronted by numinous reality and forced (Forced?) to acknowledge it.

SW4What the two droids, by comparison, reveal about the heroes of the story and their points of divergence is perhaps most interesting. While R2D2 in A New Hope is sold to Luke Skywalker, he immediately escapes to find Obi-Wan, whereas, in The Force Awakens, after Rey rescues BB-8 from the scavenger, the little droid will not leave her side, even when requested. Luke sets out to rescue R2D2, but his motivation for doing so is to avoid trouble from his uncle, and, we can assume, his fascination with the pretty-girl-hologram R2D2 contains. Rey, in her rescue of BB-8, acts merely out of compassionate instinct. Luke looks at his uncle’s new droids and sees the realization of his own self-centered dreams of adventure far away from Tatooine. Rey, who literally lives in the wreckage of Luke Skywalker’s greatest adventure, looks at BB-8 and with great empathy, sees something – she knows not what – more valuable than even her own food security and survival. Luke had to learn this kind of compassion in the original trilogy; Rey seems hard-wired for it in The Force Awakens. Each hero’s relationship to his or her little round droid draws out this distinction between them.

f38703334Medievalist Rhonda Dubec said something that truly delighted me in a recent episode of the podcast Mugglenet Academia. She said Dumbledore wears half-moon glasses, while Harry wears full-circle glasses, because Harry completes the hero’s journey: a journey Dumbledore, because of his weaker, more self-absorbed nature, could not complete. It delighted me because it was such a simple observation, and yet I’d never spotted it in many years of Potter appreciation. Fans of ring cycles such as Harry Potter and Star Wars should look not merely for meaning in these sagas’ circular structure (which, for Star Wars, is still unrolling), but in each story’s circular symbolism.

In a story that has historically relied so heavily on circles both for its story scaffold and its aesthetic imagery, the character of little round BB-8 and his relationship to Rey could very well point us to what it means – and what it will take – to be a hero in this post-Lucas Star Wars universe. Rey is learning, just as Harry learned on the Quidditch pitch, that sometimes fulfilling your own heroic potential is a matter of keeping your eye on the ball.


  1. “What does a complete ring look like in a story that goes on and on?” Like a spiral, with each character playing her part, completing her personal ring, and the story moves on to the next generation. It never truly ends as long as humans and stories are around. Great analysis, Emily.

  2. I thought this an intriguing read. Not sure how/if it might fit into the ring composition…

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