If ever you needed proof that J.K. Rowling is NOT J.R.R. Tolkien…

it comes with this morning’s news that Rowling has “outed” Dumbledore, the venerable headmaster of Hogwarts, as gay.

Great. And here I am about to play that character this afternoon for my daughter’s birthday party.

Well, apart from all the moral issues of introducing such a theme into children’s literature (something that seems more and more acceptable, if Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” is anything to go by), there is a literary critical point that needs to be made.

1. The book series is finished. In that book, there is no indication of Dumbledore’s sexuality. His sexuality does not once enter the arena.

2. Rowling is (was?) the author of the Potter series. We are the readers. Her idea about what she meant when she wrote the novels has no bearing at all on our freedom as readers to make our own interpretations. (That’s called “reader response theory” folks, and, while we generally reject it in the case of Holy Writ, we are completely free to adopt it if it serves our own selfish purposes in relation to the interpretation of other texts).

So who on earth does Rowling think she is? A painter cannot go back to his painting once it is hanging in a museum and say “I just want to add a bit of paint up in that top corner…”.

The novels are finished. Yes. But what about the memory of poor old Richard Harris (R.I.P.) who played Dumbledore in the early films, who was, by all accounts, a red-blooded male?

And what about poor old Michael Gambon who now has to play the “gay” Dumbledore in the final movie with his “lover” Gellert Grindelwald.?

And what about poor old me, who has to go through a whole afternoon as (gulp) a gay man at a children’s party? (I just hope the kids haven’t read the newspaper this morning…)

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4 Responses to If ever you needed proof that J.K. Rowling is NOT J.R.R. Tolkien…

  1. Peregrinus says:

    Ah, but surely Dumbledore is the very exemplar of the faithful Catholic homosexual, who is not defined by his sexual orientation (to the point where it’s not important enough to mention even once in a seven-novel cycle) and who lives entirely chastely?

  2. Schütz says:

    Quite right, Peregrinus, quite right. For more on faithfulness as a Catholic homosexual, I refer all readers to our friend John Heard at http://johnheard.blogspot.com/

    My comments were not directed toward the revered headmaster himself (who appears to be the very paragon of virtue in the novels) but rather to Ms Rowling who felt that such a revelation was necessary as an enhancement of a series of children’s books.

    Furthermore please understand that my comments re the party were in no way intended to be homophobic.
    And, as it turned out, not one of the kids had heard the morning news. (Phew).

  3. Peregrinus says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink. For much of the second half of the film, the protagonist is carrying around a package which, we fear, may contain the severed head of a character who has died earlier in the film. The protagonist himself does not know what is in the package, and when the film ends the question is left unresolved – the package is never opened. I remember an interview with the Coen brothers (who wrote and directed the film) a few years later in which they were asked what was in the package. “We don’t know,” was the reply. “We were afraid to look!”

    Obviously they were playing with the idea that their characters had an existence independent of the creators’ imagination. Rowling is asserting a different idea – that the characters have an existence within her imagination, but which transcends what is said about them in the novel, and therefore what the readers can know or imagine on the basis of the novels alone.

    This kind of thing blurs the line between fact and fiction, but not for the first time. I recall feeling a sense of disquiet a few years back when somebody produced a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, relating the later progress of the marriage between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy with which that book ends. How could anybody other than Austen have the “right” to write such a book? A sequel by Austen would have a truth, I felt, that a sequel by somebody else could not have.

    But that does imply that what the author imagines for her characters has a validity lacking from what the reader (or anyone else) imagines. And, if so, does it have any lesser validity if the author voices what she imagines in an interview or a lecture, rather than writing it in a novel? Does it indeed have any lesser validity if the author never voices it at all, but it still influences her conception of her character, and what she does write about her character?

    There is a sense in which the church, in relation to scripture, claims something akin to the right that Rowling claims. God is of course the ultimate author of scripture, but it is the people of God who are its immediate authors – that is, they produce the reflections and tell the stories (and, indeed, undergo the experiences) that are eventually written down into the texts, and they then “canonize” those texts, acknowledging and recognising them as scriptural. They also engage with the texts, studying them, reflecting upon them, using them in liturgy and prayer, and so developing and contributing to the tradition which, with scripture, expresses God’s revelation.

    Could it be said that the church, as the people of God/the Body of Christ, in developing and expressing her tradition on the matters dealt with in scripture, is at some level doing what Rowling has done here? After all, the church’s collective reflection upon and understanding of scripture has a validity yours and my individual reflections and understandings lack, precisely because the church has the authority of the author.

    (Which is a roundabout way of saying – among other things – that, yes, if Rowling says that Dumbledore is gay, then he’s gay. A discussion on the ethics of “outing” can be deferred until another day.)

  4. Schütz says:

    Interesting reflection, Peregrinus, but I disagree with your conclusion. Dumbledore is not gay just because Rowling says that he is, unless she is, in some sense, the living magisterium of the Potter novels. I dispute that she can make such a claim.

    I read the Pride and Prejudice sequel (believe it or not), and found it fairly true to the style and character of the original. This sort of thing is done all the time (eg. sequel to “Gone with the Wind”). Characters, if they are given sufficient depth by their creator, do take on a life of their own (eg. Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Conan Doyle–the Seven Percent Solution is my favourite). Today there is even a term for this: fan fiction.

    The whole pre-book-seven speculation that Rowling would kill off Harry was in part with the assumption that that would be the only way she could prevent the fan fiction phenomenon from taking over her creation.

    Even with the Potter franchise, there is the way in which each new director of the films brings his own interpretation to the text.

    Interestingly, that is how this business all arose in the first place, with Rowling exercising magisterial authority over the interpretation of her novel for the next film. Fair enough. She owns the texts, so, for it to be reproduced in another form, she gets to say how it is done. But she doesn’t have the right to tell me how I must read her texts.

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