Dumb and Dumbledore

Saturday, 20 October 2007 — 7:35pm | Harry Potter, Literature

In the Land of Stuff Nick Cares About (More or Less), the top story of the hour is J.K. Rowling’s Q&A session at Carnegie Hall, where she declared that one of her central characters is gay. I’m not going to say who until further down, because I think this is the sort of thing that is best discovered after you’ve already read the books; and if you haven’t read the books, you need to reorganize your life’s priorities. I’m somewhat ashamed of myself for not even remotely picking up on this before, even after several years of unwittingly conditioning myself to detect patterns of repressed homosexuality through the novels of Michael Chabon (whom you should also read, and immediately).

There’s a provisional transcription of the Q&A, and I say “provisional”, because at the time of this writing the transcription is riddled with typos up to and including misplaced negations. It’s a valuable document nonetheless, as Rowling discusses some things we all wondered about, like Aberforth Dumbledore and his goats.

As one might expect, the global juggernaut of the Harry Potter fan base has reacted almost schismatically (to the matter of sexual orientation, not the goats), and their responses fall into several camps. Here’s why all of them are wrong.

First, the relevant quotation:

Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?

My truthful answer to you… I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. [ovation.] … Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extend, but he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. Yeah, that’s how I always saw Dumbledore. In fact, 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… [laughter]. I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, “Dumbledore’s gay!” [laughter] If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!

I should clarify, before I continue, that I’m proud of the fans at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere for their overwhelmingly positive reception of the news. Of course, bigots don’t read Harry Potter, but I think we should account for the fact that most of the Potter-readers who might feel discomfort with a gay Dumbledore do not consider themselves bigots.

More often than not, we can expect people to have a certain personal anxiety from having conceived of a character a certain way, admiring that conception, maybe even identifying with it intimately—then one day, waking up to the author’s remarks and thinking, “That’s not at all how I imagined him.” And that personal discomfort—be it driven by unconscious prejudices or not—is independent of their beliefs with respect to the rights, liberties, or affirmative privileges that homosexuals should be entitled to in a fair and equal society. In short, I don’t think it’s inherently homophobic if you’re not particularly thrilled. I think it’s perfectly understandable.

Without further ado, permit me to look smart and use a lot of big words.

Camp “We Told You So”: These people are the least wrong, but not quite as un-wrong as they were that time they told me Snape was a good guy who loved Lily all along, and I didn’t believe them. If you are one of these people, you should pat yourself on the back for coming to the same interpretation as the author before she ever told you that was the case. Don’t get too comfy, though, because your opponents aren’t going down without a fight, as we’ll see further down. Let’s move on.

Camp “This Explains Everything!”: No it doesn’t. I think that considering Dumbledore’s motivations with Rowling’s remarks in mind adds depth to his character, especially given how much of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is driven by an examination of the difficult decisions he had to make, and why he made them the way he did. But here’s the rub: the item that is relevant to our reading of the character isn’t the statement “Dumbledore is gay.” The relevant statement is “Dumbledore loved Grindelwald.”

If we are to take that love as being more along the lines of eros (as opposed to philia, agape and the other one), Dumbledore’s alleged homosexuality is an extrapolation, not a cause. It’s not a bad extrapolation, mind you, because it’s true that he didn’t get involved with any women, and Rowling went out of her way to keep him so in any medium. But to play Voldemort’s advocate for a moment: he didn’t develop a similar attraction to any other men, either. To those of you who are shouting, “But what about Harry Potter?”—oh, I’ll deal with you later, you bet I will.

(I think Rowling errs here in one respect: she muddies the water by passing on her tacit assumption that the fact that Dumbledore loved another young man once—a highly relevant item—necessarily makes him gay, which isn’t nearly as important. This initially seems intuitive until you ask yourself which is the cause, and which is the effect, and tie yourself up in various metaphysical knots. The whole shebang is too complicated for even my understanding, so I’ll just defer to fiction and suggest once again that you read Michael Chabon.)

Camp “This Doesn’t Change Anything”: Given how much I harp on about the intentional fallacy, I’m sympathetic to the position that just because J.K. Rowling says Dumbledore is gay, it doesn’t make him so. The hullabaloo reminds me of how a few years ago, Ridley Scott told everyone Rick Deckard was a Replicant, and nobody cared. Regardless of what Ridley Scott thought he was doing, the ending of the 1992 Director’s Cut of Blade Runner ends on an ambiguous note, and its openness to interpretation was what made the film resonate. (I’m not sure if this has changed in the 2007 Final Cut, as I haven’t seen it yet.)

But—and this is a very big but, which I suppose makes me look like an ass—the balance of competing interpretations always tilts in favour of argumentation and evidence. And now that Rowling has drawn our attention to Dumbledore’s sexual orientation by saying, “This is the interpretation I had in mind,” it is up to us as readers to evaluate that particular critical reading and see if it makes sense. We are under no obligation to adhere to Rowling’s intentions if they are not in evidence in the text itself. In fact, it’s the only way in which literary criticism can claim any rigour as a discipline; see Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism for details.

The intention of the author isn’t something that dictates how we should read her book. Intentions are only the author’s moves in a game where she tries to lead us into believing what she wants us to believe, and seeing the patterns she wants us to see; the better the storyteller, the more likely it is the readers will fall into her traps. And J.K. Rowling is an exemplary storyteller.

Camp “No He’s Not!”: You see, the tricky thing about literary interpretation is that it’s not scientific; its claims aren’t falsifiable. This is especially true when we investigate psychoanalytic questions like whether or not a given character’s actions were a manifestation of something repressed, because the individual psyche is resiliently walled off from objective observation. In order to establish that Dumbledore is not gay, there are two possible avenues: 1) demonstrate positive evidence to the contrary, or 2) show us how the interpretations of a gay Dumbledore make spurious arguments that don’t follow from the textual evidence (and be aware that the body of evidence includes established patterns that indicate homosexuality or repression in other works of art). For bonus marks, look for arguments that Dumbledore was homosexual predating Rowling’s revelation today, so there’s no risk of deference to stated authorial intention.

The first option is pretty much shot, which leaves you contrarian folks with the second. It can be done—I just think it would be difficult. An instructive example is atheism. The existence of God isn’t a falsifiable claim, in part because its adherents claim that metaphysics precedes the empirical evidence; thus, it’s impossible to obtain positive evidence demonstrating a Godless universe. So what they do instead is pursue the second option, and demonstrate that the arguments for God’s existence don’t make sense either, because they always end up deferring to some assumption that couldn’t have come from anywhere other than the authority of their chosen holy book. The atheists go a step further than the agnostics because they assign a burden of proof.

Unfortunately, the atheists have it a lot better off than you do, as it’s actually quite easy to infer, from the obvious and directly observed human manufacture of most religions and mythologies, that the burden of proof is squarely on the theists (if we demand any proof at all, and most reasonable theists won’t). There isn’t much of a basis to claim that in Harry Potter, the burden is on people who believe Dumbledore is gay; this would only make sense if we are to fundamentally presume that literary characters are heterosexual until shown otherwise. That’s logically problematic.

On the flipside, I should reiterate for the gay-Dumbledore defenders that “But J.K. Rowling said he is, so nyaah nyaah” isn’t good enough. The burden of proof falls on everybody’s shoulders. It’s valid for people to say, “I personally didn’t read Dumbledore as homosexual, so by golly, I’m not going to”; they’re just going to have a hard time convincing anyone else.

For example, in the same Q&A, Rowling said that Neville Longbottom married Hannah Abbott. There’s nothing to indicate this in the books whatsoever, so as someone reading the book, you really don’t have to believe this if you don’t want to. It would make you an outsider from the general consensus when it comes to actually talking about Harry Potter with other people, but if that’s your cup of tea, nobody’s going to stop you.

Camp “Political Correctness Strikes Again”: This is the argument that she has a gay character for the express sake of having one. Typically, my answer to this would be, “You only notice the allegedly forced political correctness because diversity isn’t normative to you already. It’s your problem.” But in this case, Rowling actually is forcing an element of diversity into the Potterverse, as she does on numerous occasions (for example, by making Dean Thomas and Angelina Johnson black—initially surprising to some readers until they step back and realize how important Rowling finds it to reflect the diaspora of the Great British Public in the wizarding world). In her own words, from the same Q&A:

The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry; and I think it’s one of the reasons that some people don’t like the books, but I think that’s it’s a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth.

What is important to keep in mind here is that we can see a causal connection between Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald and his subsequent actions. This wouldn’t be the case if, say, George Lucas held a press conference tomorrow and told everyone Obi-Wan Kenobi was gay. In that case, we could accuse Lucas of slapping a beloved character with a superfluous trait, because in the context of the story, Obi-Wan makes so much more sense as an asexual ascetic (and possibly even a heterosexual one, if you detect the undercurrent of jealousy that Anakin harbours for him in Revenge of the Sith). Rowling isn’t simply content to make Dumbledore gay for the sake of having somebody be gay: she writes him in a fashion that makes him understandable in light of having loved and lost.

Camp “Shameless Publicity Stunt”: Honestly, do you think she needs the money?

Camp “But Now the Puritans Will Hate Us Even More”: The puritanical elements of society hate the books already. Let them bugger off to Plymouth Rock. I agree that it’s a legitimate concern that parents who read offhand in some sensational headline that Dumbledore is gay might attempt to guard their children from reading the book. And I think it’s entirely appropriate to laugh at them, because those children must have some mighty critical reading skills to pick up on the homosexuality at all, which they wouldn’t have developed in the first place without being familiar with sexual repression in literature—in which case their parents weren’t very good Lord Protectors.

Even so, placating ignorant parents so their kids will have unfettered access to good books is, while well intentioned, not something we should be doing. We should be taking an assertive and confrontational stance against these parents and the libraries that accede to their demands for censorship, as we did with Huckleberry Finn, as we did with Bridge to Terabithia, and as we’ve already done several times over with Harry Potter.

Camp “They Should Have Cast Ian McKellen”: As Gandalf would say, throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity. Actors. Characters. Jesus Christ.

Camp “But What About Harry?”: Does this pervert their student-teacher relationship? No it doesn’t. Straight people can be pedophiles too, you know. Asking this question, however, does put us on the right track for another line of analysis: Dumbledore’s actions in The Order of the Phoenix, and much of Harry’s development in that book, are a direct result of Dumbledore deliberately passing off their relationship as wholly impersonal. He tells Harry that he did it to protect himself from Voldemort, but keep in mind that this is the same guy who said he looked in the Mirror of Erised and saw a pair of socks. It’s not until The Deathly Hallows that we see a definite tension between competing representations of Dumbledore as a character, with Elphias Doge on one side of the fence and Rita Skeeter on the other—and Rita Skeeter is just frothing at the mouth to paint Harry’s relationship wtih Dumbledore as something unsavoury.

We do eventually discover that Dumbledore’s reportedly salacious past had to do with his parents and sister, but the relevant point here is that Rowling is also making an argument about journalistic ethics. Rita Skeeter’s commitment to ad hominem sensationalism immediately resonates with the ethical debate about “outing” public figures such as politicians. The idea of a homosexual Dumbledore lends force to what is already an implicit social commentary.

From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter Two (“In Memoriam”):

‘Oh yes,’ says Skeeter, nodding briskly, ‘I devote an entire chapter to the whole Potter-Dumbledore relationship. It’s been called unhealthy, even sinister. Again, your readers will have to buy my book for the whole story, but there is no question that Dumbledore took an unnatural interest in Potter from the word go. Whether that was really in the boy’s best interests—well, we’ll see. It’s certainly an open secret that Potter has had a most troubled adolescence.’

You can’t tell me that you read that passage and didn’t immediately think it was a not-too-subtle accusation or allegory of pedophilia. I think it has even more impact in light of a gay Dumbledore, given that so much of the hysteria over homosexuality is allegedly about protecting the children (reasonable enough, given the deplorable actions of people in positions of power like numerous members of the clergy, but not a sound logical basis for painting all homosexuals with the same brush—as the Skeeter-types tend to do, intentionally or not).

(An aside about biographical ethics: is it just me, or did we just have this debate last week?)

Concluding remarks. Dumbledore is gay if you read him as gay. Dumbledore is not necessarily gay if you do not read him as gay. Clearly, J.K. Rowling is encouraging us all to read him one way over the other; and I think it’s an interpretation that makes the books better, as it makes several connections more coherent.

The only real objective in reaching an hermeneutic consensus is so readers have a common foundation for constructing further interpretive connections. This is why fans of any major serial narrative that exists in several media insist on establishing a consensual “canon” for discussion and debate, one that often includes the author’s remarks as the most authoritative source next to the text itself, as is the case at Harry Potter resources such as the Harry Potter Lexicon (here’s their canon policy). But even in establishing a canon, the strategy of deferring to the author has its limitations. It didn’t work so well for Star Wars, where George Lucas initially conceived of Owen Lars as Obi-Wan’s brother before changing his mind twenty years later: in developing the Prequels, he was beholden to nothing but the material in the existing films, and even that he was willing to change.

Not that it matters much, because the primary purpose of defining a canon is to guide speculation about future official works.

This reminds me of what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his preface to later editions of The Lord of the Rings, in response to accusations that the Ring represented the atom bomb, or that Middle-Earth represented World War II Europe:

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, [The Lord of the Rings] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical… I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’: but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purported domination of the author.

Which didn’t stop every serious Tolkien scholar from pointing out the obvious connections between Mordor and Nazi Germany anyway and saying, come on, J.R.R., you’re pulling our leg. In Chapter IV of J.R.R Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey makes a persuasive case that Tolkien allegorized all the time, and that his real opposition was to literature (and critical interpretations) in which there is nothing over and above the allegorical correspondences. Tolkien firmly believed in the unity of a story as a legitimate imaginative exercise in and of itself—the cornerstone of his other great legacy, his influential transformation of Beowulf criticism. (The irony is that, as Shippey points out, Tolkien made his point about Beowulf using allegory.)

The lesson here is twofold: take everything the author says with a grain of salt, and interpret the book however in the blazes you want. It’s true that often, the soundest interpretation may be one that the author wanted you to reach. It’s hard to say if that’s a reflection on the author or the reader.

As for homosexuality proper—I’m going to borrow some language here from my very limited background in artificial intelligence: this is ultimately a problem of “default reasoning”. The real problem, if we are to consider it a problem (and some people will tell you it’s a very big one), is that when we read someone, be it a fictional character or someone we meet in the real world, we initially “bind” them to the assumption that they have the Most Statistically Probable Sexual Orientation. This usually means we assume they are heterosexual, but not always (in the case of commonly stereotyped indicators like pink attire for men, men’s hairstyles for women, and enrolments in the Department of English).

In other words: if Rowling’s remarks were at all shocking to you, you should think about who it was that assumed Dumbledore was heterosexual in the first place. The ideal (and admittedly unattainable) solution is not to prejudge anyone as anything, ever.

Unless they like Dan Brown. Always suspect a person who likes Dan Brown.

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8 rejoinders to “Dumb and Dumbledore”

  1. Ana

    Having spent the day reading and responding to less than reasoned arguments on this subject, I am truly in awe of your analysis.
    Your essay led me back down the path to saneness. I feel like I’ve spent the day in the too hot sun and have at last reached the coolness of the veranda and am now sipping an ice cold, alcoholic drink decorated with a little, paper umbrella. Thank you.

    Saturday, 20 October 2007 at 8:10pm

  2. Thank you. This was great. I’m going to link it to my journal.

    Please, I beg you, submit this to the essay section (Scribbulus) of The-Leaky-Cauldron.org so you can end the 2000+ comments of ignorance concerning Dumbledore’s out-of-closet news. It’s pissing everyone off, and I think this could shut them up.

    Sunday, 21 October 2007 at 8:21am

  3. Awesome analysis. Reminds me of the reaction of a customer when he noticed that I was reading something in the paper a previous customer was buying. He said “well, isn’t it obvious?” And I answered, “Perhaps, but J.K. Rowling actually said it this time.” He proceeded to go out of his way to purchase the paper.
    What I found entertaining is that this below the fold article was interesting enough that it caused people to buy the paper! 🙂

    Really, awesome analysis. I should remember to read your blog more often than once in a blue moon.

    Sunday, 21 October 2007 at 7:45pm

  4. Alas

    Great job, and probably the most reasonable (serious) thing i’ve read on this issue.
    “Dumbledore is gay if you read him as gay. Dumbledore is not necessarily gay if you do not read him as gay. Clearly, J.K. Rowling is encouraging us all to read him one way over the other; and I think it’s an interpretation that makes the books better, as it makes several connections more coherent.”
    100% agree

    Monday, 22 October 2007 at 1:31pm

  5. Daniel Kaszor

    Well put. Although I thought that book seven was filled with far too many MacGuffins and bouts of Deus Ex Machina to be a truly great piece of work, I did feel that Rowling’s insight and interpretation did give the work more depth than it had previous.

    Also:

    ” … Owen Lars as Obi-Wan’s brother … ”

    I believe you mean “Owen Lars as Anikin’s brother.”

    Monday, 29 October 2007 at 3:08pm

  6. Nope. I meant exactly what I wrote. From Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, ed. Laurent Bouzereau (1997):

    “It was decided during story meetings [for Return of the Jedi] that Uncle Owen was in fact Ben’s brother. Owen always resented Ben for imposing Luke on them, and now Ben is taking the blame for what is happening and is feeling guilty.” (269)

    “In the second draft… Ben reveals to Luke that he has a twin sister and that they were separated; Luke was sent to stay with Ben’s brother, Owen, on Tatooine, while his sister and mother were sent to the protection of friends in a distant system. The mother died shortly thereafter, and Luke’s sister was adopted by Ben’s friends, the governor of Alderaan and his wife.” (270)

    My entire point here is that in the case of George Lucas and Star Wars, authorial intention (including information that was excised from early drafts) turned out to be no restriction at all on the later developments in the “canon” of the films; as we all know, Owen Lars does end up being Anakin’s half-brother in Attack of the Clones, surprising everybody who thought what George Lucas had in mind until circa 1997 was cold, hard fact.

    In general, if it isn’t evident in the text, it’s not binding. (And even if it is evident, it isn’t necessarily binding, just more likely to be left intact.)

    Monday, 29 October 2007 at 3:28pm

  7. Daniel Kaszor

    Oh, no I agree completely. If it isn’t in the text it’s just a mode of reading the text (even if, as in the case with Rowling, it genuinely enhances the text). It’s a tool used (and abused) often in serial story telling.

    As for my comments, I didn’t know about the annotated screen play and in fact had never read the “text” of Star Wars having Obi Wan as Lars’s brother. I always thought that the original trilogy implied that Owen was Anikin’s full brother, and that the fact that he ended up as Anikin’s step (not half) brother was because Lucas wanted to change the canon (or more specifically had written himself into a corner because Lars didn’t show up in Episode I and the ages would be all wrong for the final shot of Episode III) but had to work against what was already in the text. The prequel trilogy is full of stuff like that.

    Monday, 29 October 2007 at 4:24pm

  8. Daniel Kaszor

    Forgive my misspelling of Anakin. It’s been a while.

    I also want to point out that when an author goes against their earlier authorial intention in a sequel, the results are usually obvious and often don’t enhance the story telling.

    (Harry Potter Spoilers follow)

    One of the things that I found that I liked about the Harry Potter series was that Rowling’s serialized story telling rarely used devices that were obviously intended one way (as you say “evident”) and then subsequently using them another. And when she did it, it ended up being fairly seem-less (there are exceptions of course, the invisibility cloak as Deathly Hallow comes to mind for example).

    Lucas on the other hand sniped in lots of stuff fairly half-hazzardly into his prequels, often contradicting the “evident” intended readings (C3-P0 created by Anakin comes to mind for example). It’s fully within his right as author to do this of course, but it draws attention to the artifice of storytelling.

    These are coming out as half-formed thoughts. I need to do my homework.

    Monday, 29 October 2007 at 5:17pm

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