Wednesday, October 24, 2007

J. K. Rowling is Wrong about Dumbledore: Why the creator of Harry Potter doesn't know what she is talking about

J. K. Rowling is wrong. Albus Dumbledore is not gay.

How, you ask, can someone say that? Hasn't Rowling herself, the author of the Harry Potter books--albeit in a fit of political correctness, and to a New York City crowd--pronounced the venerable wizard, Headmaster of the Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft, ... well, a switch-hitter? They are her characters, after all. Can't she do with them as she pleases? If Rowling says Dumbledore is gay, then gay he is: right?


Rowling made the remarks to a crowd of fans at Carnegie Hall, who were there to hear more about their favorite children's literary character. And in addition to the revelation about Dumbledore's heretofore unknown monoclinousness, Rowling apparently threw in a few politically correct moralisms.

It is a long established principle in literary criticism that once the author has released his work upon the world, the story is as much the reader's as the author's. In their 1954 book, The Verbal Icon, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley authored an essay entitled "The Intentional Fallacy," in which they pointed out the problem with the idea that a work of art should be judged on the basis of the author's intent. In the same volume, they penned another article, called "The Affective Fallacy", which took on the opposite error--that a work is to be judged by one's subjective reaction to it.

A work of literature is not what the author intended nor what the reader sees in it. It is what it is. Neither the reader nor the author has any privileged status in judging the meaning or assessing the characters. The only basis on which to interpret a piece of literature is on the basis of what it says.

Does it say anywhere in the Harry Potter books that Dumbledore holds the dictates of biology in low esteem? I have posed this question to a Harry Potter expert. A person who has read all of the books--several times. A person so steeped in Potter lore that he can tell you which spell is for what, and what original Latin expression it comes from. A person who, when his mother looked out of her kitchen window some two or three Halloweens ago, was beheld prancing around the back yard in a dark robe casting spells on every thing within notice (much, we are fairly certain, to the horror of the Baptist pastor who lived next door).

He is my 12 year old son. The youngest of my young 'uns. I caught him idle one day (not an uncommon occurrence), munching on an ice cream sandwich. I asked him, "Tell me," I said, "is Dumbledore gay?" "No," he said, between bites. "That's stoopid."

There you go.

Now the thing is, his opinion on this topic is every bit as authoritative as Rowling's. In fact, it might be even more so. It is a common notion that a reader can often see more in a story than the author intended. J. R. R. Tolkien said as much about his books, and William Golding once remarked about the fact that readers of The Lord of the Flies had been able to glean things from the book that he, the author, never knew were there. If it is possible for a reader to see more in a story than the author intended, then it must a fortiori be possible for a reader to see less.

Rowling also advised her audience during the Carnegie Hall appearance that they should "question authority". Well, now we are questioning hers. If Rowling had intended for Dumbledore to be gay (and it wasn't an afterthought, as I think more likely), then she left the intention inside her head (where it should have remained) and it never made it into the story.

From now on Rowling ought to keep her thoughts about Harry Potter to herself. She obviously doesn't know what she is talking about.

Note: As I go to press with this little piece, I catch on my feed reader an article with the title I had intended to use, and which made many of the same observations I make here: "Dumbledore is not Gay: Taking Stories More Seriously than the Author." I'm hoping it is because great minds think alike.


Nancy C. Brown said...

Amen. Thank you for this reminder about who owns the book once it's published. Good job!

Anonymous said...

I agree. If she really wanted to make Dumbledore gay she would have written it into the story but she didn't. Taking a true stand on an issue is tough and I understand that making Dumbledore gay in the Potter series may have effected book sales, but if she's going to take a stand then take a stand. Making the statement that Dumbledore is gay without even writing the smallest hint doesn't cut it. All she's doing by making the statement now is lowering her credibility as a writer and insulting the gay community.

Anonymous said...

I understand that when reading the books Dumbledore's sexual orientation may be ignored since it does not come up. I too wish she had kept her mouth shut. However, it is clear that she did intend him to be gay based on this statement: "Rowling told the audience that while working on the planned sixth Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," she spotted a reference in the script to a girl who once was of interest to Dumbledore. A note was duly passed to director David Yates, revealing the truth about her character." So the films may start showing more of this part of his nature now that it is known. I just don't think the author's intent can be ignored completely, nor can we ignore the fact that kids the world over who will think of him differently than they did before whenever they read the book. This also challenges a comment I heard you make on the Michale Medved show that you thought that Rowlings might be a Christian. At least based on your and my understanding of what that means, I doubt it very much.

Martin Cothran said...


My point was that it is irrelevant whether the author intended it or not. If it is not actually in the story, the author's intent simply doesn't matter. The fact that she may have sent a note to someone during the production of the 6th movie does not mean that it was in the story. Just because something is in the mind of the author, does not mean it is in the story.

Also, I was never on the Michael Medved Show (although I am available upon request). And in regard to Rowling being a Christian (a point on which I have never, to my knowledge, speculated), I have no idea whether she is or not. I have heard her say she is, but that is not a sufficient condition, of course, for actually being one.

I do agree with you however on the extra-textual cultural point about what kids might think of the stories from here on out and how they may be treated in future movies. I think the effect of this is going to be highly mischievous--particularly since Hollywood doesn't need much excuse for pushing the gay rights agenda.

Anonymous said...

The most salient fact is that Rowling waited until she had pocketed over a billion dollars to out Dumbledore, thus making her "cause" lobbying secondary to her materialism.

Margaret in Minnesota said...

You make some excellent observations in this post. Ms. Rowling is a clever gal, ain't she? Even if she doesn't know what she's talking about. ;)

PS. I love your books and was delighted to see you had a blog.

Anonymous said...

And - let us not forget that the Vatican's Chief Exorcist says the Harry Potter Novels are an introduction into the occult.