In ring composition, the narrative appears to meander away into a digression (the point of departure from the main narrative being marked by a formulaic line or stock scene), although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed, that return marked by the repetition of the very formulaic line or scene that had indicated the point of departure. The material encompassed by such rings could be a single self-contained digression or a more elaborate series of interlocked narratives, each nested within another in the manner of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls.
The back two thirds of this book are in the mode of personal exegesis. While beautifully written, they are not what I bought the book for. I had not come across the term “ring composition” before, and was interested to learn what it meant. Classical storytelling is so infused into modern storytelling that sometimes we use elements of these functions without fully knowing what they are or where they came from. The author goes deep into its Greek origins, and turfs out gems like these almost obliviously:
In a fit of narcissistic preening, the grandfather who had caused so much pain to others gives his infant grandson a name best suited to himself: Odysseus, which is ultimately derived from the word odynê, pain. The hero of the complicated story has a complicated identity. He is the man of pain, one who suffers pain but causes others to suffer it, too.
I didn’t know that. Man of pain. I mean, I’m poorly educated, so maybe everyone knew that but me. In all things, I try to keep learning, and I love that I got to learn this thing.
The writer does a deep dive into ring composition, its storied history and functions, and in this reader/writer it unearthed a wealth of possibilities. Very valuable, and a wonderful read.
Auerbach’s later and somewhat quixotic belief that philology, that painstaking excavation of a given literature’s relationship to the historical moment that produced it, nonetheless held the key to the grandest plan of all: die gemeinsame Verbindung der Kulturen, “the common connectedness of all cultures.”
Quixotic or naive it may have been, but I find it kind of charming and beautiful. In my head, it connected back to Gordon White’s STAR SHIPS (UK) (US): “Mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence.” THREE RINGS is a book that sets off many rings of connection in this reader, all steering back to the start even as Finnegan’s Wake starts where it stops. It was an energising read as much as anything, setting the mind off in new directions from ancient signposts, always knowing it was going to bring you back home in the end.