Ring Composition

Joanne Rowling Murray, hereafter referred to by her nom de plume ‘J. K. Rowling,’ her maiden surname ‘Rowling,’ or as ‘Rowling-Galbraith,’ a combination of her two writing names, is the world’s best-selling author and a celebrity philanthropist and political activist as well. Her work, consequently, has received more critical attention from professional reviewers in the popular press, academic specialists in Children’s Literature as well as English Letters and Feminism (etc.), and fan analysis and speculation than any living writer in known human history. Nonetheless, though her work is well-known and has been subject to more discussion than that of other writers, there is little critical consensus about the value of it, which is to say, the quality of her artistry, the height and depth of her meaning, and the aim or end of her writing.

We write about other authors here at HogwartsProfessor but Rowling’s novels, screenplays, and script, not to mention her polemical tweeting and essays, interviews, and even her charity work, are this weblog’s undeniable focus. In this Pillar Post, I hope to collect links to what has been written here about Rowling’s formal artistry, the signature structural scaffolding of her stories, what anthropologist Mary Douglas called ‘ring composition,’ a specific type of parallelism or chiasmus Rowling has consistently deployed in each of her non-collaborative pieces and series. To understand its importance, though, and why serious students of Rowling’s artistry need to ‘get’ ring composition and learn how to see it, requires an introduction to its place within the writer’s allegorical and archetypal aims.

In brief, my contention after reading Rowling attentively for more than two decades is that her work is best understood as a combination of psychomachia, literary alchemy, and parallelism aimed at the reader’s experience of their spiritual center or heart and some psychological or soul transformation in that experience. That suggests she is a “religious writer” of some kind which requires some clarification.

Rowling is not a Christian in any orthodox sense of that word; her disdain for church authority, doctrine, and tradition is impossible to overlook in this regard and her several comments in interviews about her living in a condition of doubt and faith amount to a confession of being “spiritual, not religious.” [See the ‘Peter and John’ discussions for much more on this aspect of Rowling’s core beliefs.] If she has a religion, it is story, in which she weaves profound Christian content both implicitly and explicitly, despite her decidedly nominalist beliefs and practice even of ‘big tent’ Anglican faith in Christ. Her stories are all about the soul, about which she has specific beliefs that are evident in her story and she covertly advances these beliefs as a literary alchemist to transform her reading audience.

Psychomachia and Literary Alchemy have their own Pillar Posts (or will soon: see here and here for those), but to grasp the role of parallelism in Rowling’s artistry and meaning, one needs at least a preliminary understanding of those ideas which the author’s structural efforts complement, support, and advance.

In brief, psychomachia is the allegorical depiction of the soul in various characters on its journey to perfection in spirit (the confusion of ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ is perhaps the defining blind-spot of our secular age and its psychism or denial of a spiritual realm and faculty beyond mind but that is subject of another essay). In Harry Potter, Rowling used her three main characters, Ron, Hermione, and Harry as figures of the soul’s three faculties, crudely, ‘body, mind, and spirit,’ with Harry as the spiritual heart being cleansed and transformed by repeated choices of self-sacrifice and love contra the solipsistic narcissism of his interior shadow, the Dark Lord. In the Cormoran Strike mysteries, Rowling has adopted the Spenserian-Shakespearean device of a couple for this allegorical drama with each acting as ‘spirit’ to the ‘soul’ of the other a la Romeo and Juliet, Una and Redcrosse, Anthony and Cleopatra, Britomart and Artegall, etc., albeit with Strike playing the more pronouncedly spiritual aspect of the pair and Robin the soul (see the posts on Leda and the Swan and Psyche and Cupid for more on that relationship). The Christmas Pig is a Dante-esque adventure in the nether-realms in which, beyond the Boy and his Toy acting as maternal love reflections to the other (a mother’s love is Rowling’s consistent symbolism for the selfless and sacrificial love of Christ), the soul’s faculties are all depicted in relationship in King Power’s thumbs-up-or-down vote in his Palace deciding the fate of Jack and CP.

Literary alchemy is the use of metallurgical alchemy’s sequences, colors, and symbolism to depict in story the transformation of soul, its illumination or enlightenment, in correspondence with lead or hard darkness becoming gold or solid light. From Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare to Dickens, Nabokov, and the Inklings, this occult stream of English letters acts as a specific type of psychomachia, in which the lead character travels through the alchemical stages of ‘black, white, and red:’ the dissolution of the nigredo, the ablutionary purification of the albedo, and the revelation and crisis of the rubedo. Though in large part this is subliminal artistry, once seen it is hard to deny or overlook, not to mention Rowling’s several pointers to it in several interviews through the years.

The important thing to note is the connection of this hermetic coloration with the allegorical psychomachia of her dramas; alchemy is a parallel depiction of the soul’s journey to purification and perfection in spirit, not an add-on unrelated to her core artistry and meaning. So with her use of parallelism or ring composition. In summary, Rowling’s re-invention of chiastic story-telling is the use of story structure to create an experience of the story center or Heart, the defining and creative middle point or origin in a circle, the equivalent of the cosmic Logos within each person that is the object of transformation in her psychomachia and alchemical alembic. Though all but invisible to readers unaware of it, Rowling’s remarkably involved and intricate use of parallelism is perhaps the primary vehicle of her transformative artistry.

Which brings us at last to the details of Rowling’s ring artistry and the links to longer discussions of the subject on this weblog.

According to Mary Douglas in her Thinking in Circles, a literary ring has seven distinctive features, a number I have reduced to four: a story circle latch of beginning and end, a ‘middle’ or story-turn that reflect the beginning and the ending, parallels in chiastic sequence between story characters, events, and dialogue between the story going to the middle point and returning to the latch from it, the so-called ‘turtle-back’ lines, and rings within the story ring. Represented in a diagram it looks like a turtle’s back (see above); Rowling’s preference is for seven part rings and, if the Potter series is any indication, she may be writing as often as not in an asterisk rather than a traditional ring.

In 2010 I gave a talk to the Group That Shall Not Be Named in New York City at the Samsung Center which revealed this structural artistry inside the Potter novels individually and as a series. I published those lecture notes with attendant graphs and charts as Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle: The Magical Structure and Transcendent Meaning of the Hogwarts Saga. Just as that work built on the insights of Joyce Odell and Brett Kendall, so in the intervening years other Potter Pundits, Rowling Readers, and Serious Strikers have documented the parallelism within Rowling’s work, within her series, even between her series. What follows is a survey of my work and theirs that appears on this site. Enjoy!

Rings and Harry Potter:

I spoke on three Alohamora podcasts about Ring Composition at MuggleNet.com, which shows inspired them to create another podcast there entirely devoted to the subject, Full Circle, on which show I elected not to participate (the hosts had placed a ban on referring to Rowling by name). Nonetheless, the three podcasts mentioned are a fun and accessible introduction to the ring scaffolding of the individual Potter novels and the series as a whole; they are available for listening or downloading here, here, and here.

The question frequently asked at presentations about Rowling’s use of rings is “Has the author ever said this is what she is doing?” She has come close to it, especially in interviews she did after the release of the second Deathly Hallows film: Rowling Publicly Confirms Ring Composition? Pretty Much.

Soon after writing up and publishing my lecture notes on Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle, I shared my thoughts on how this specific type of parallelism works: How does ‘Ring Composition’ Work, Anyway? My thoughts have changed significantly in light of how this structure works with Rowling’s psychomachia and literary alchemy but these first thoughts point in that direction.

Beatrice Groves, Research Fellow at Oxford University and author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, wrote about the ring axis in the Harry Potter series: ‘Stone, Goblet, Hallows:’ The Series Axis in Philosopher’s Stone, Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows.

William Sprague revealed the alchemical parallelism of the Potter series in The Connection of Ring Composition and Literary Alchemy in the Layout of the Seven Book Harry Potter Series.

Ring of Casual Vacancy:

Casual Vacancy was the first novel published by Rowling post Potter. I suspect, however, based on the number and quality of echoes with her personal history evident in its characters that it was drafted before the Hogwarts Saga (Rowling has said she was working on another novel when inspired with the Potter idea but gave it up; it ‘fits’ with her Robert Galbraith pseudonym, one she took on supposedly to see if she could be published without her fame being a factor, that she would publish a book no one would have published if she were not well known as her first book after achieving Jet Set celebrity). Vacancy  remains the least popular and discussed book among Rowling titles.

The only piece I know of to discuss its structure, a seven part ring expanding on the first Part’s seven day-chapters, is this preliminary look I did soon after its publication: Casual Vacancy 7: The Seven Part Ring Composition. Those observations, though, again, are only preliminary to a much needed closer look at this stand-alone novel’s structure.

Rings and Cormoran Strike:

Robert Galbraith is as earnest about his ring writing as was J. K. Rowling. Each of the individual novels in the series thus far is a ring, the series through Troubled Blood, its fifth entry, is conforming to the seven book ring structure evident in the Hogwarts Saga, and in Strike 5, Galbraith even made each of the first six of the novel’s Parts rings themselves. The author’s structural artistry is reaching new heights.

The Ring Structure of Career of Evil

The Ring Structure of Lethal White

Parallels Between Cuckoos Calling  and Lethal White: The First Look and Twenty-Five More Echoes

The Ring Artistry of Troubled Blood:

Parallels Between Troubled Blood and Career of Evil

Parallels Between Troubled Blood and Other Strike Novels, Especially Cuckoo’s Calling

The rings of of the first six Parts of Strike5 and the embedded astrological clock:

Louise Freeman has explored posts here about the parallelism in the Cormoran Strike books that present cogent challenges to the idea that the series as written is what was originally conceived and planned in some detail. In the 5-6 Flip Idea she presents compelling evidence that the fifth Strike novel, Troubled Blood, was originally meant to be the sixth book and in a series of posts she presents parallels between Strike novels that suggest the series was originally planned as a five book Pentagram rather than a seven novel ring.

Other Rowling Rings:

The Ring Composition of The Christmas Pig details the chiastic structure of the seven part book, perhaps Rowling’s most challenging and accessible stand alone work.

Rowling’s five part Fantastic Beasts film franchise is still a work in progress, but I discussed in a ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling’ MuggleNet podcast the remnants of a ring structure in the first movie’s final cut and the cut scenes that suggest Rowling’s shooting script had a different and more vivid chiastic structure. My 2017 talk at the UCO Liberal Arts Symposium, ‘What Fantastic Beasts Teaches Us About Harry Potter: The Subversive Traditional Artistry of J. K. Rowling’ explored this subject at much greater depth. I discussed the structure of the second film, Crimes of Grindelwald, in ‘Crimes of Grindelwald: The Story Ring.’

Rowling’s seven part ring artistry in The Ickabog political fairy tale was communicated by the author by the method of the book’s first publication. It was released over a period of seven weeks during the summer of 2020 for families in Covid lockdown to enjoy; the chapter divisions of those seven weeks act as the ring-component latch, turn, and parallels, a structure first discussed in this post during the release in progress.

On 22 December 2018, Rowling tweeted a long thread in King James English about her departure from the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn. It has a chiastic structure, as explained in Rowling as Labour’s Tweeting Prophet.

Parallel Series Idea

Rowling’s use of parallelism is not limited to ring composition or conventional literary allusion. She is also writing the Cormoran Strike novels in parallel with their corresponding numbers in the Harry Potter series. For more on that, see the ‘Parallel Series Idea’ Pillar Post.

Rings by Other Authors:

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is a ring composition turning on the Meadow in Katniss Everdeen’s District 12 home. See The Larger Ring of The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Meadow for those details.

Mike Klimo has revealed the chiastic structure of the George Lucas Star Wars film series at his StarWarsRingTheory.com. See George Lucas’ Star Wars — a Ring Composition for his exegesis. Emily Strand discusses the structure of ‘A Force Awakens’ along these same lines.

Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days is a brilliantly detailed chiastic structure with every mode of transportation after the trio’s arrival in Japan echoing those that led them to Japan. See 21 December or 12/21: ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ Day for that exposition.

Beauty and the Beast, too, is a traditional ring. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? See Alchemy, Ring Writing, Doppelgangers, and Arabian Nights: The Artistry and Meaning of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.’ Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped is another near perfect ring and Michael Murray believes Treasure Island is as well: ‘Treasure Island’ as Ring Composition

C. S. Lewis’ use of parallelism may have been Rowling’s inspiration for her own ring writing; Philosopher’s Stone is a 13 chapter ring just as the first book in Lewis’ Narniad was. Lewis’ comments about the “meaning in the middle” are worth a Rowling Reader’s reflections: Rings in the Dock: C. S. Lewis and the ‘Meaning in the Middle.’

Rowling has claimed that Vladimir Nabokov is the writer she “really loves” and consistently names him as one of her three favorite writers. The “mirrors” of Lolita, then may have been an important influence on her structural choices: Harry Potter and Lolita: Rowling’s Rings and Vladimir Nabokov’s Story Mirrors


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