Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Outing Albus Dumbledore

I have sat on this essay by a friend for over a week now, to see if anything brilliant to add occurs to me...

Not much, actually. I will only note that when the essay criticises Rowling for inserting an alien political/social agenda, he is right that it does damage to the story. Dumbledore would not be much influenced by Muggle society. One might create a world in which homosexuality is looked on in much the same way as modern Britain, or alternatively, is viewed much differently, but one would then have to create background reasons for either. Heterosexual relations are viewed with more consistency through history, and do not require much explanation unless there is something unusual to report. Once you've put the unusual into your subcreated world, you have to justify it. As Tolkien noted, you can have a green sun, but you must then offer some internally consistent reason why this is so.

The writer is Dr. James Ernest, once of Manchester, NH and now of Grand Rapids.

Outing Albus

J. K. Rowling now announces that Dumbledore is gay. The account of the "outing" at says:

In a surprising new Potter twist, author J. K. Rowling outed Dumbledore at New York's Carnegie Hall in front of 2,000 Potter fans during a question and answer session Friday night.

After reading an excerpt from the seventh installment of her series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," one young fan asked if Dumbledore had ever loved anyone.

"Dumbledore is gay, actually," replied Rowling.

The predictable reactions have been forthcoming. Advocates of gayness are pleased. Opponents of gayness are displeased.

Having myself been instructed by at least two excellent high school teachers who I believe were homosexual, I have no difficulty imaging an outstanding homosexual headmaster. The best schoolteacher or principal may be the one who pours heart and soul into teaching and more generally into mentoring, advocating for, and when necessary protecting, students; one whose whole life, as far as the student can tell, is devoted to the high calling of education, whose sexuality is either creatively sublimated or expressed in a private realm that never impinges upon the teacher-student relationship. Such a teacher or principal may be either heterosexual or homosexual. One can acknowledge that fact without signing on to a progay or antigay agenda.

But what does this have to do with Dumbledore? The question is: does an author own the privilege of offering authoritative interpretations of her own fictional work to the extent of adding new information that is not necessarily implied in the work itself? Reactions to the outing seems to assume that she does. Any alumnus of a decent lit 101 course knows, however, that a well-constructed fictional world takes on a life of its own. Its characters may develop depths of soul that the author cannot plumb. A sufficiently attentive reader may begin to discern them, but the author has no a priori claim on being her own work's best reader. After all, a work of fiction is never the solo creation of its immediate author. Elements of the world in which the author was formed, including themes, motifs, archetypes, and mythic patterns from countless sources, become ingredients of the author's fictive world, and she herself will not necessarily understand or even be aware of them all. Even if the author is a competent literary critic (which may not be true in this case), other critics of her work may achieve insights that elude her.

The news account of the Rowling pronouncement quotes her offering the following anecdote:

Recently I was in a script read-through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script, saying, "I knew a girl once, whose hair--" . . . I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter -- "Dumbledore's gay!"

Rowling's note might have said, "Nowhere in the books does Dumbledore express any romantic feelings toward a woman." That note would have been enough to avert the script error, and it would not have claimed knowledge unavailable in the books. Her gay pronouncement does claim such knowledge. It is a possible interpretation of Dumbledore's behavior and therefore not quite so jarringly gratuitous as if Rowling had announced that Snape denies global warming or Minerva McGonagall supports Fred Thompson for president of the USA. It does have some of the same feel, though: the feel of an attempt to load an alien political agenda onto the back of a successful story. Rowling's intervention has averted one violation of the narrative's integrity by perpetrating another.

In Albus Dumbledore, Rowling has created a hero whose singular powers of perception and action necessarily make him a loner and whose willingness to lay down his life to defeat the powers of evil and save his friends classifies him as a messiah. Many of Rowling's readers are familiar, even if Rowling is not, with other stories in which messiahship requires celibacy. In such cases, speculation as to whether the messiah is homosexual or heterosexual may indicate a failure to understand the character and the story. Certainly most devotees of the Christian story say so regarding attempts to make Jesus either gay or the lover of Mary Magdalene. J. K. Rowling, for all her inventive genius, is not necessarily incapable of misconstruing her own story.

One young Harry Potter fan's reaction to the news of the outing was that it ruins the stories for him. It shouldn't. The stories stand on their own, untouchable, for better or for worse, by the author's subsequent obiter dicta, even including revelations of what she was thinking when she was writing this or that scene.

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