Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas Ring Structure in Harry Potter

       Over at the Hogs Head, there have been some excellent posts on Christmas in the Harry Potter series; from recent ideas on the different types of gifts (from the 'groaners' to the 'glorious') to the not so recent- but very wonderful- thoughts on the mythic space of Christmas. In a similar spirit, I'd like to look closely at some of the Christmas scenes in the Potter series, this time with a particular focus on the story's ring structure.
        For any that might be new to ring composition in literature, it's pretty much what it sounds like: the story comes around "full circle" and the ending echoes the beginning. However, it's also certainly more complex than it at first sounds- especially when Rowling is involved. For an exploration of the rings within rings, parallels and chiasmus structure in the Potter series, check out what John Granger has to say on the matter. For now, a simple explanation of ring structure in the Potter series essentially is that the Sorcerer's Stone (the beginning) and the Deathly Hallows (the end) meet and echo one another. Chamber of Secrets and Half Blood Prince, do the same. As does Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix. Goblet of Fire, as the fourth and very middle of the series, has elements that echoes all 6 other books and many more elements that parallel the first and last novel. You can think of the series in terms of a circle:

         7    1
      6    4    2      
         5    3

So, looking through the ring cycle lens, let's take a look at how the Christmas chapters in the Harry Potter series connect, what they mean, and how they bring the story together as a whole.

Christmas in Sorcerer's Stone and Deathly Hallows

    Christmas in the Sorcerer's Stone takes place during one of the most memorable chapters in the whole book: The Mirror of Erised. You'll remember it's Christmas morning when Harry mysteriously receives his father's invisibility cloak. He spends a "happy afternoon" (204) with Ron and his family and enjoys an intimate and magical dinner with some of the Hogwarts staff and the Weasleys. Later that night, Harry puts on his invisibility cloak: "he had to try it, now....his father's cloak- he felt that this time-" (205). After a failed attempt to sneak a peek into the books in the library's restricted section, Harry stumbles onto the Mirror of Erised, where he not only sees his parents for the first time, but some of his more distant family as well. Christmas in SS is all about Harry feeling free and at home. Hogwarts becomes more comfortable than ever: he is not threatened by Malfoy (who is gone for the holidays), there's no homework to worry about, and the invisibility cloak even temporarily liberates him from the school's rules. Harry's run-in with the Mirror is a bit eerie, but the overall atmosphere is light and joyful. 
  In Deathly Hallows, Harry spends his Christmas with Hermione and ventures into Grodic's Hollow, the home to Harry's and Dumbledore's past and the final resting place of Harry's parents. Where Harry saw his parents in the first novel as "smiling at him and waving" (208), here Harry visits his parents by standing over their grave, feeling a "grief that had actually weighed on his heart and lungs" (328). He imagines not their smiling faces but their " moldering remains...bones now surely, or dust" (329). As he does in front of the Mirror, Harry becomes so entranced with the thought of his parents in front of him that he almost "forgets to live" (SS, 214) and becomes "close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with [his parents]" (329). 
      Christmas during the Deathly Hallows does not have any of the simple enjoyments of Harry's first christmas at Hogwarts. But it echoes Harry's connection to his home and family. Harry visits what was once his family home; he visits his parents grave; he even comes across the graves of his ancestors, the Peverrel brothers, who passed down the Invisibility cloak to him (a further connection with the Christmas in SS). In both Christmases Harry feels at home, even if it's in a different way. The graveyard scene amplifies the eerie feeling of the Mirror and Harry's homecoming is ultimately a more somber and gothic affair. Nonetheless, there are undeniable connections between the two scenes. 

Christmas in Chamber of Secrets and Half Blood Prince

     The major connection between these two novels is Harry's obsession with what he thinks Draco is up to. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry, Hermione, and Ron enjoy another magical, intimate Christmas feast. But instead of retiring to the Gryffindor common room, they add the finishing touches to their polyjuice potion and transform into Crabbe and Goyle (and half-cat in Hermione's case) in order to investigate Malfoy. The trio are so convinced that Malfoy is the Heir of Slytherin that even Hermione agrees to break the rules to brew a dangerously advanced potion. Harry and Ron eventually find out that Malfoy is not heir of Slytherin, even though he does wish to "help them" (223). Prejudices between families also plays an important part in this scene. Harry not only finds out the password to the Slytherin dormitories is "Pure Blood", but witnesses Draco's prejudices against "mudbloods" like Hermione and watches as Draco relishes in the muggle loving Weasley family troubles.
On a smaller note, Ron's brother Percy also makes an unexpected appearance in this chapter, acting pretty pleasantly enough, though certainly secretive.

    In Half Blood Prince, the issue of blood and prejudices (if the title of the novel didn't make it obvious enough) is an important issue. Come Christmas time, Harry spends the holiday at the Burrow instead of Hogwarts but he is once again obsessed with figuring what Draco is up to. The chapter opens up with Harry telling Ron the overheard conversation between Snape and Draco: "'Snape was offering to help him!" said Harry. 'He said he'd promised Malfoy's mother to protect him, that he'd made an unbreakable oath or something-' " (325). Later on he takes the issue up with Lupin and Arthur, and even though it's hard to deny the fact that Draco's up to something, they insist that Harry might have "inherited an old prejudice" against Snape from his father. Like the prejudices handed down to Draco from his father Lucius (and the prejudices that the Slytherin house promotes), Harry struggles with his own types of judgements and prejudices. Interestingly, Percy makes another unexpected appearance and is secretive of any real reason he is there. 
   Thus, father-son prejudices and the identity of unknown person (who is the Heir of Slytherin? Who is the Half Blood Prince?) are at the heart of both of these Christmas chapters. 

Christmas in Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix

        In both Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix Christmas begins with a lot of tension. In each of the chapters prior to these, Harry experiences something shocking and traumatic. In Prisoner of Azkaban, this happens when Harry overhears the conversation about Sirius and his parents in The Three Broomsticks: "' Black betrayed them?' " breathed Madam Rosmerta.
"He did indeed...he seems to have planned this for the moment of the Potters death'" (206).

After hearing this, Harry spends the time leading up to Christmas in a fog. He hardly notices the holidays approaching and only snaps out of it by visiting Hagrid and agreeing to help him win Buckbeak's trial. Harry's Christmas at Hogwarts once again involves a wonderful feast with the Hogwarts staff (this time with Trelawney eating among them) and a priceless gift given by someone unknown (this time, a firebolt from Sirius). But the tension does not lessen: Hermione and Ron keep arguing over Scabbers and Crookshanks, and Harry and Hermione begin to fight over the Firebolt's confiscation. Christmas in Prisoner of Azkaban is a tense, stifling affair.

       In Order of the Phoenix the tension at Christmas time is ten times worse. Harry has just visited Voldemort/ Nagini in a dream and witnessed the snake attack on Arthur Weasley. Arthur is rushed to St. Mungos and is luckily saved. But Harry not only believes that he is at fault for the attack, but that he also might be being possessed by Voldemort. Like he was when he heard of Sirius's 'betrayal' in PoA Harry closes himself off from his friends and isn't revived until 1) He actually speaks to his friends and 2) He is moved by someone else's suffering instead of his own. In Prisoner of Azkaban, hearing Hagrid's suffering for his beloved Buckbeark not only distracts Harry, but gives him something to pour all his anger and anxiety into. His visit to St. Mungos in Order of the Pheonix, does the same. There, Harry sees Neville and, for the first time, his mentally abused parents. He is moved by Neville's suffering: he "could not remember feeling sorrier for anyone" (513) and "did not think he'd ever found anything less funny in his life" (515).
Throughout these Christmas chapters, there is a threat of attack (from Sirius or from Nagini/Harry), and there is frustration with what the adults think is the best for Harry (McGonagall's taking of the Firebolt and Dumbledore's infuriatingly vague orders to "Stay where you are" (495). Ultimately, however, these chapters are about tension, suffering, and pity. 

Christmas in The Goblet of Fire

       As part of the novel that binds the series together as a whole, the Christmas chapter in Goblet in Fire is all about bringing everyone together. By its nature, the Triwizard Tournament brings together foreign witches and wizards. We certainly see a lot of that in this chapter: Fleur Delacour and Victor Krum develop romantic relationships with Hogwarts students, and, despite growing up in different parts of the country, Hagrid and Madame Maxim share a bond by belonging to the same race (though Maxime denies it). 

   But for all the coming together of foreign peoples, there is even more merging between the students already at Hogwarts. Contrary to any other Christmas at Hogwarts, almost all of the students stay at school for this holiday to attend the Yule Ball. As a result, students of different houses, genders, and years to come together. Harry even unexpectedly spends his Christmas morning not just with his fellow roommates, but with Dobby, someone from an entirely different race. Students like Ginny and Neville, along with Ron, Harry, and the Pavarti sisters, come together as different genders, different school years, and different houses. Most of all, Cedric, despite competing against Harry in the Triwizard cup and belonging to a different house, offers Harry a tip with the second task of the Tournament: "Take a bath, and -er- take the egg with you....use the prefect's bathroom" (431). Finally, instead of breaking them apart, Ron and Hermione's arguments throughout the night do more to bring to light their feelings towards each other, rather than the other way around. Christmas in the fourth and binding novel, then, ultimately works to bring everyone together.

[ EDIT: This is now cross-posted over at the Hog's Head here. I feel very honored to be included with such encouraging and insightful Potter pundits :) ]


  1. Great analysis, Kelly! I do love me some Harry Potter Ring Composition - Rowling did such a masterful job.Particularly sweet are the parallels between the Draco plot-lines in CoS and HBP.

  2. This post is fantastic, and so is your blog. I hear you're re-posting it at the Pub, or I'd have included it in my Common Room aggregation today, but I've been meaning to throw a couple of your others in this week anyway and will do that.

    Again, superb analysis!

  3. Thank you, Katherine and thank you, Jenna! Yes, I'm very excited to be sharing this over at Hog's Head and that you all are taking the time to read it! :)

  4. I have NEVER heard of ring structure before (what kind of an English major am I?). Thank you for this fascinating explanation.

  5. Thanks for reading, Christie! I actually never heard of ring composition OR literary alchemy until I started studying the Potter series about a year ago, and I don't know how I ever got a degree in English without doing so!

  6. Ring structure blows my mind, I mean, the amount of planning that must go into it to make everything mirror like that! This post is wonderful, it's made me feel Christmassy again! xx

    1. Thanks! "Mind blown" is exactly how I describe it too. I'm glad you enjoyed this! :)

  7. This is really brilliant. I remember reading some of Granger's books on Harry Potter a few years ago and becoming obsessed with the alchemical structure and intricate parallelism of the stories. Once you understand the architecture of the books, it's not hard to imagine that you could construct your own story world. Some day...

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, Mr. Granger did the same for me: ring composition and alchemy everywhere!! thanks for reading :)


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