Daniel 2-7, Harry Potter and Narnia

It’s a Sunday as I write this, and I’m speaking on Daniel 2 and 7 later this morning at a friend’s church in Lidcombe.

Daniel 2-7 is chiastic in structure; that is to say, if you have a story where the first incident is labelled A, the second incident is labelled B, the third incident is labelled C, and so on, then the overall story (if it’s chiastic) follows the pattern A B C D E (and so on, depending how long your story is) and then you get to a point and go backwards until you get to E D C B A.

Sound complicated? Well, no more complicated than knitting a yarn. It’s simpler when you see (or hear) an example. So here we go:

A. We had a meeting and we planned an expedition to climb Mt Everest.
B. We organized Bear Grylls to help us carry our gear.
C. We climbed Mt Everest and had lots of adventures on the way.

D. We stood on the summit and looked around!

C. We climbed back down Mt Everest and had lots of adventures on the way.
B. We thanked Bear Grylls for his help and paid him well.

A. We had a meeting and said “What a terrific expedition! What will we do next?”

You see it? A, B, C, (D) C, B, A. When you tell it like a story, it is simple and satisfying with a suitable climax right in the middle (standing on the top of Mt Everest and looking around), and each element in the build-up resolved in the later half of the account.

Now honestly, I’m not an expert, and wouldn’t have noticed that in Daniel, chapter 2 corresponds to chapter 7, chapter 3 corresponds to chapter 6 and chapter 4 corresponds to chapter 5 unless I’d read what an expert said. But once you do read it like that, it’s terrific, and you realize that the centrepiece of the story is that God’s kingdom overthrows arrogant and proud human empires like Nebuchadnezzar’s (chapter 4) and his grandson Belshazzar (chapter 5). Of course, the true climax of Daniel is yet to come, later on in Daniel, with the resurrection of the dead and the establishing of God’s eternal kingdom in Christ, but that’s another story for another day.

Oh, and as a postscript, a friend agreed with me that this all sounded very clever, but were there actually any stories today that corresponded to this chiastic ‘ring’ structure? I think he was meaning to suggest that this was a theory that was possibly true, but simply too smarty-pants for its own good.

I was a bit stumped until this article in Christianity Today came to my aid. It says of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter:

Ring compositon: The whole series, as well as each book therein, conforms to the touchstones of traditional story scaffolding. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Thinking in Circles, calls it “ring composition”. She describes it as “a construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing the conclusion back to the beginning”. Bible readers might call it chiasmus.

Rowling repeatedly hits the three marks of ring writing. The Potter series and each novel have beginnings and ends that meet up. They have “centers” that both return to the question raised in the beginning and answer that question in the end. And, each book and each chapter has its mirrored image or “reverse echo” in the book or chapter on the opposite side of the story divide. “Parallelisms” define these stories.

So there you are, the most famous book of this age is chiastic, and contains chiasms within every chiasm right down to the chapter level. I admit that I haven’t checked this for myself, but it’s a fun little exercise for a rainy weekend. And if you get to the end of that and are keen for more chiasms, check Narnia:

I think Rowling picked up this chapter structure from her close reading of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Williams’s seven novels, which have a similar if not identical structure.

Then back to Daniel, and the gospel of Mark!

One thought on “Daniel 2-7, Harry Potter and Narnia

  1. Good article, but on Daniel I differ with those experts a little. The pattern of God’s covenants is five-fold:

    Transcendence – “Who’s the boss?”
    Hierarchy – “Who has He put in charge?”
    Ethics – “What are the rules?”
    Sanctions – “What are the rewards?”
    Succession – “What’s next?”

    As this plays out in history, the “Ethics” gets split into three, which gives us a seven-fold pattern that corresponds to the Creation week and the Feasts.

    Sabbath – Unlike Adam, Daniel resists the offer of kingdom food without priestly obedience, and qualifies as God’s Man

    Passover – Daniel shelters the wise men by
    interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s night vision

    ETHICS (Laws)

    Firstfruits – Daniel’s mighty men are
    offered on a false Altar (LAW OF MAN)

    Pentecost – The king of kings is humbled as a beast and regains his kingdom as a man (LAW OF GOD)

    Trumpets – Daniel warns Belshazzar that the kingdom is about to fall. He has drunk from the Lord’s prophetic cup and been found “wanting” (LAW OF GOD’S MAN)

    Atonement – Daniel survives the lions’ den, and is “resurrected” from the sealed “tomb”

    Booths – Daniel is given a vision of the end of the Restoration Covenant era, the final Old Covenant Succession

    If you look carefully, each chapter follows the same structure. Chapter 1 begins with the beginning of the captivity and ends with a mention of Daniel’s “Succession” at the start of the Persian empire.

    And if you step out, the entire book of Daniel also follows the same pattern. The Bible is a fractal.

    You can see the pattern above in Jesus’ ministry up to AD70. The Revelation, a Covenant lawsuit against Herodian worship, follows the same pattern, and ends with a vision of the “world to come,” the gospel era, the kingdom won by the faithful apostolic witnesses (20-22).

    So the chiasms in the Bible are not just a “there and back again,” they are Covenant quests. Depending upon the Man’s obedience, he will return with either plagues or plunder. Moses plagued Egypt and plundered it. The Ark conquered Dagon and the plunder looked like plagues! The faithful Man’s reward is the future, an inheritance.

    Jesus’ ministry is the same, and His faithfulness entitled Him to inherit the nations (Succession) which He is doing. He bound the strong man and is plundering his house.

    The reason these experts got it partly wrong is because they need to be a little more cross-eyed when reading the Bible, i.e. looking at two things at once. An understanding of the Covenant pattern is crucial.

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