Archives for October 2007

Harry Potter and C. S. Lewis: Three Reflections from a Seminar Weekend in North Carolina

What a great weekend in Wake Forest, North Carolina! The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture sponsored a magnificent C. S. Lewis seminar with scholars from around the world discussing Lewis’ books, thoughts, and legacy.

Robert Trexler at Zossima Press and the designated hitter here at Hogwarts Professor convinced me I would get a lot out of it. Once again by disregarding my “better judgment” and heeding Bob’s advice I was well served. It would take longer than a weekend to share what I heard and learned there, but three things come immediately to mind.

(1) I learned from a Lewis scholar what C. S. Lewis might have said about Ms. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall comments;

(2) I heard a mind-blowing lecture by Penn State’s Sanford Schwartz on Lewis’ Space Trilogy (sometimes called The Ransom Novels) and, in discussion with him and others later, realized what Michael Wards’ Narnia thesis may mean in the academic world’s appreciation of Harry Potter and Ms. Rowling’s alchemical artistry; and
[Read more…]

O’Connor, Shelley, and Interpreting Beyond Intentio Auctoris

I am on the road again for a few days, this time to a C. S. Lewis conference in Wake Forest, NC. Before I leave, I rush to post two interesting comments in re the events of the past week and our discussion here for your reflection and comments.

The first is from Dr. Arthur Remillard, adjunct faculty at St. Francis University, on Ms. Rowling’s situation and a famous exchange between Flanerry O’Connor and a person asking her what one of her symbols meant. Ms. O’Connor seemed to resent being asked if her drawing of a horse was a horse…. [Read more…]

Ms. Rowling says Ministry of Magic is the Blair and Bush Governments in Story Form

Keith Olbermann of Countdown television show fame is a big Harry Potter fan. He had the distinction of introducing Ms. Rowling to the crowd at Carnegie Hall and to speaking with her backstage before the event. As you might expect, they talked politics and they are kindred souls of the left. On his show Monday night this week, he shared this bon mot:

OLBERMANN: There was something even more startling [than the Dumbledore revelation], which she had told me, and then hinted at with the audience, the political subtext of the entire Harry Potter series…. Lost in all that [Dumbledore information], what Miss Rowling said backstage, then touched upon again to here young readers. First, she told me the parallels between the Mystery of Magic and its false sense of omniscience and the conduct of the American and British governments were no inferences. She had put them there. She then said on stage the books are, quote, a plea for an end to hatred, to bigotry and a lesson for kids and everybody else to question authority. You should not assume the establishment tells you the truth.

In his conversation with Chris Cillizza, he went on with this political lead: [Read more…]

“Taking Stories More Seriously Than The Author”

“I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” [ovation.]

Ms. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall revelation and what it tells us  about the Headmaster and the limits of auctorial interpretation

I had had a wonderful week the week before Ms. Rowling announced to a Carnegie Hall audience of fans that she always “thought of Dumbledore as gay.” I had visited my oldest daughter at her VMI barracks during Parents Weekend and found her thriving. I had given a talk at Washington & Lee University that was received with enthusiasm and a good friend had traveled from Lynchburg, VA, to share a wonderful dinner prepared by my hosts.

And, as if that weren’t enough to cause my cup to runneth over, Ms. Rowling had acknowledged the Christian content of her work during her Open Book Tour.[i] With confirmation from the author about the “Christian parallels” and “obvious” religious meaning of her books, and seeing my daughter happy in a very difficult school situation, I couldn’t remember a fall week I enjoyed more. That’s saying something coming from a former Cross Country runner who has never had a bad autumn.

I came home after a six hour drive from the Shenandoah to the Lehigh Valley to find my email inbox filled with questions about the “gay” comment Ms. Rowling had made after a reading at Carnegie Hall. The AP newspaper headline was “Dumbledore is Gay,” which I think one NYC paper served up as “Rowling Outs Dumbledore.” Having read (1) the full response Ms. Rowling made to the question Friday night posted at The Leaky Cauldron, (2) Dr. Amy Sturgis’ eyewitness report on the Carnegie Hall event at her website,[ii] and (3) the remarkable outpouring in the comment boxes at Sword of Gryffindor,[iii] I went to bed with a peaceful heart and still very happy about the week. Ms. Rowling’s comment didn’t rock my boat or fill me with angst as a Christian, as someone who enjoys reading and talking about the Harry Potter novels or one who argues the books are as popular as they are because of their spiritual value and timeliness.

Why didn’t learning “Dumbledore is gay” upset me?

The short answer is because this not-very-surprising “revelation” confirms the importance of one of the Five Keys I’ve argued is crucial in understanding the Harry Potter novels. The spiritual “undertones” and Christian content of the books serve a religious function in a secularized culture, which is the argument I make in How Harry Cast His Spell via Eliade’s thesis about modern entertainments.

But this content alone doesn’t explain Pottermania. If it did, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, and Dante’s Comedia would still be on the bestseller lists. As I explain in Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader, it is the combination of her postmodern themes with her Christian artistry that explains the popularity of Ms. Rowling’s stories. As a writer of her times writing for a postmodern audience, the themes, symbols, and meaning drawn from Ms. Rowling’s faith would fall flat except for her using them to answer the questions and concerns that consume our historical period.

Ms. Rowling’s answer to a question from a 19 year old woman at Carnegie Hall about Dumbledore and his love-life is, frankly, just what I would have expected her to say. The media presentation and reaction of some Christians, unfortunately, was also predictable from previous experience; remember “Pope Condemns Harry Potter” in 2005 and the fallout then? I do.[iv]

Let’s look at what she said and at what one scholar, Christian and thoughtful reader present at the event made of the answer Ms. Rowling gave. Context is important in these things and I think it won’t be a waste of time to explore the event’s contexts, the specific question asked and the meaning of the word “gay” to Ms. Rowling, the reporters present, and Americans on both sides of our “Culture War.”

From The Leaky Cauldron’s rushed transcript of event’s Q&A portion at Carnegie Hall posted the very next day:

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 [sic] 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 [sic], 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 [sic] 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!

Dr. Amy Sturgis, a scholar and Christian who has taught at Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, by some happy providence, was in Carnegie Hall the night Ms. Rowling revealed this. (Full disclosure: Dr. Sturgis is a friend of mine and we correspond frequently about Harry Potter and other subjects.) She had won one of the Open Book Tour Sweepstakes set of tickets to the event and attended with Dr. Kathryn McDaniels of Marietta College (whose “The Elfin Mystique: Fantasy and Feminism in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series” in Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis I admire very much and discussed at length in Unlocking Harry Potter).

Unlike what you may have read in the papers, Ms. Rowling was not speaking to an audience of 1600 children as she was in LA and New Orleans. Many other adults were also there, having won one of the 1,000 prize ticket pairs. Dr. Sturgis posted her report of the event on her Tolkien and fantasy website, Redecorating Middle-Earth in Early Lovecraft.[v] How does she remember the “Dumbledore is gay” exchange?

Question: The next question was asked by a teenager who prefaced her question with thanks to Rowling for inspiring her to have ambitions, and to care, and to be herself against overwhelming odds. She did not go into details, but it was clear she had faced a difficult personal struggle, and the books had been a source of strength for her. It was a very poignant and serious comment, and both the questioner and Rowling seemed very moved. Then she asked if Dumbledore ever had the chance to fall in love.

Answer: Rowling replied by saying that the young lady who asked the question deserved an honest answer. Rowling always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. It excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent, but he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix with Voldemort, he was drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. That’s how she saw Dumbledore. Recently she read the script for the sixth film, and the writers had Dumbledore saying to Harry, “I knew a girl once, whose hair….” She had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, saying “Dumbledore’s gay!” When the audience laughed and applauded, she said, “The fanfiction, eh?” She also joked that she would have mentioned this earlier if she’d known the audience would react so positively. (emphasis mine)

Dr. Sturgis wrote a further note about her experience at Carnegie Hall and the fallout from the news reports of it at my weblog, Hogwarts Professor.com:[vi]

To be honest, I’m quite appalled by the reporting of and reaction to the news.

Just to clarify, for those who did not read my report: Ms. Rowling didn’t come on stage with the purpose of making this announcement. She said she was willing to answer any question, and many of the questions dealt with the characters’ lives that we did not see described in full in the text, including the love lives of three different characters: she was asked specifically about Neville’s, Hagrid’s, and Dumbledore’s loves (or lack thereof). She explained about Dumbledore’s love of Grindelwald, and compared it to the tragic love of Bellatrix to Voldemort, only in response to one person’s question about whether or not Dumbledore had ever been in love. The individual who asked the question prefaced her query with a very poignant comment, and Ms. Rowling responded, as I understood it, very honestly, with what I thought was tremendous generosity.

I think she was completely serious, but this point, like many others she was asked about, did not require inclusion in the books (although there are allusions to it, for those who look – I found it to be quite fitting and unsurprising, as well). That was the entire point of the Q&A: people didn’t ask about things she had already spelled out completely in her fiction. They were asking her to fill in the gaps, as it were. It was very clear throughout her answers that she knew her characters – their back stories, their future lives, their symbolic meanings – in great detail. To be honest, I also thought her comments about Molly Weasley, and perhaps even Draco Malfoy, were at least as provocative and thought-provoking as the one about Dumbledore.

From what I can see, her point was taken out of context, and furthermore, stripped of its larger meanings (how Dumbledore could be blinded to Grindelwald’s evil plans by his love – something that is a recurring theme about Dumbledore; how Dumbeldore’s love paralleled Bellatrix’s; how powerful Dumbledore’s ultimate faith in love must have been, considering his own early, bitter experience), by the way the press has reported it. As [elmTree01] said, “she didn’t preach, one way or the other… she just wrote the character.”

So, the first context of this answer, absent from the AP report and The Leaky Cauldron transcript, is the emotionally charged atmosphere created by a young woman asking a question of an author she says inspired her “to have ambitions, and to care, and to be herself against overwhelming odds” after a difficult struggle. Dr. Sturgis reports the questioner’s preface was “somber” and “poignant” and that she and Ms. Rowling (and the audience, too, of course) were “very moved.”

Ms. Rowling’s first sentence in response, that this young lady “deserved an honest answer,” suggests Dr. Sturgis is right in her description; Ms. Rowling seems to have been jarred from her script of ‘things to say’ and ‘things not to say.’ We know from her story about her writing the Hollywood writer a note rather than speaking aloud, that revealing Dumbledore’s sexual orientation was not on her ‘to do’ list, at Carnegie Hall or elsewhere. Bloggers who have suggested this was a publicity stunt on a promotional tour are, I guess, obliged to believe Ms. Rowling has Machiavellian and expert handlers who plan her every move (including the embarrassing ones?[vii]). From what Dr. Sturgis describes, this answer was spontaneous, heart-felt, and a surprise even to Ms. Rowling.

One news report said the audience was silent on first hearing “Dumbledore is gay,” one said there were audible gasps, and every report notes there was then a prolonged “ovation.” The working assumption among the reporters and the readers who read their articles seems to have been that the Carnegie Hall audience was delighted, even ecstatic, to learn that Albus Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of the age and the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, was gay.

I don’t doubt that many people there were happy to learn Ms. Rowling’s gang of heroes included a gay man. At the Prophecy 2007 conference in Toronto, one of my more interesting discussions was with a leader of the group that sponsors these conventions. She expressed her disappointment that Ms. Rowling had not delivered on several of the LGBT story-lines that were “evident” in the books (Lupin is most often mentioned by serious readers as the “obviously homosexual” character in the Potter storyline[viii]). This woman, I think, is representative of much of Harry Potter fandom and, as this group made up a large part of the Sweepstakes winners at the event, it would have been remarkable if this “honest answer” had not been greeted with great applause.

But I don’t think this was what caused the ovation.

Dr. Sturgis said the young woman speaking to Ms. Rowling and Ms. Rowling herself were “very moved” by their exchange. Ms. Rowling in response said something she hadn’t planned on saying, something unexpected and shocking to the people there (you don’t gasp if you’re not surprised and shocked, right?). The applause had two other likely causes, then, in addition to the satisfaction of those who wanted to hear Dumbledore (or any character) was gay.

The first is just the crowd dynamics of an event like this. Believe me, the Open Book Tour Sweepstakes was something like the contest in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Every Harry Potter fan who won two tickets to the Carnegie Hall reading and question and answer session had to have felt like they were touched by an angel. I know I would have! And, like attending a championship series baseball game, folks in the audience had to have been hoping for a dramatic and heroic event to take place Friday night that would justify their excitement and expenditure to be there. The Carnegie Hall crowd was primed for a happening or revelation from Ms. Rowling they could tell their friends about, that would make the newspapers or change their understanding of Harry Potter in a flash.

The second reason for the ovation is that the crowd thought Ms. Rowling delivered on their expectation of a “wow” via this Dumbledore comment. The poignancy of her exchange, the evident personal connection between author and reader, and Ms. Rowling’s preamble that this woman “deserved an honest answer,” cued the crowd that the moment they’d hoped for was at hand. The revelation itself I think was secondary or tertiary to their relief that Ms. Rowling had said or done something more newsworthy and memorable than her public reading of ‘The Silver Doe,’ the chapter I have claimed is probably the best single chapter in the series.

Ms. Rowling’s comment that she would have revealed Dumbledore’s orientation long ago if she’d known she would have received such a “positive reaction” suggests she misunderstood the ovation as a ‘hurrah for homosexuality’ or tolerance or for the closeted Dumbledore. Her misunderstanding and seeming delight with the audience response subsequently confirmed in reporters’ and their readers’ minds that Ms. Rowling, too, was advocating same sex relationships as a lifestyle and preference.

If Ms. Rowling has a “gay agenda,” however, I’d be very surprised. I doubt she has a homophobic cell in her body, but I doubt advancing the causes of LGBT people everywhere is one of her priorities.

I worked for four years at Whole Foods Market in Houston, Texas. My friends there liked to tease me that I was the “token breeder,” the married, white, male, heteronormative Christian with seven children and a stay-at-home wife that Whole Foods kept on staff just to say they had one. Most of the team members and leadership at this store, one of the biggest and most profitable in their national chain, were “bi” or gay.

In this environment, a little different than my years in the Marine Corps, one learned quickly that “homosexual” orientation meant different things to different people. After years of friendly conversations with LGBT co-workers there, it was clear that “homosexuality” had several meanings to them, all of which, unfortunately and with inevitable confusion, were described most often by the one word “gay.”

The three broad distinctions were “SSA,” “homosexual,” and “gay.” SSA or “same sex attraction” meant the person was attracted to people of the same sex and either acted on this attraction covertly, chose not to act on it from conscious decision or from fear or was bisexual. “Homosexual” meant the person was convinced their sexual orientation was toward the same sex, wasn’t regrettable or changeable and was only one aspect, not the most important, of their lives. They had same sex relationships, often lasting many years, but didn’t think of themselves as primarily, exclusively and/or politically defined by their sexuality.

Others, those I thought of as “gay,” were those to whom their same-sex orientation was the single most important part of their lives and was always the subject or periphery of their conversation. Most of the LGBT team members I knew at Whole Foods were “SSA” or “homosexual” in the way I’ve defined here and relatively few were “gay.”

As with ‘straight’ people, the LGBT people I worked with were embarrassed by and uncomfortable around men and women who trumpet their sexual preference everywhere and anywhere as a raison d’etre. Apparently, this distinction is a commonplace in the writing of Fr. Neuhaus of First Things. I hope he explains it better than I have; my apologies in advance if I’ve offended anyone with these broad-brush statements.

These are distinctions – not rigid categories, of course – but they are useful in understanding this tempest about Ms. Rowling saying she “always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” The word “gay,” because it is used to describe the entire spectrum of sexual life from “SSA and abstinent” to “NAMBLA and sexually hyperactive,” has triggered a response not unlike what the word “Sorcerer” did in the first U.S. Harry Potter title when Arthur Levine of Scholastic, Inc., changed it from “Philosopher’s Stone” to “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“Gay” to Americans consumed or just concerned about LGBT issues in the public square, means the “gay agenda” in general and, specifically, advocacy of the position that love between people of the same sex is natural, blessed, and equivalent to ‘straight’ love, a position contrary to Christian scripture and American moral conventions. Saying that she “always thought of Dumbledore as gay,” consequently pushed the buttons of many of her readers whose inclusive understanding of “gay” causes them to think Ms. Rowling is making substantial contributions to Gay Marriage advocacy PACs.

I guess this sort of thing is inevitable in an election year, but her comments, understood in context of the exchange with her questioner, of the event, and the Culture War, don’t support that interpretation. Certainly the Skeeter-esque story headlines and write-ups make an ugly sort of sense. Ms. Rowling has been their hero/martyr media darling, in the never-ending battle to expose the theologically lunatic fringe’s secret plot to return America to the Puritan era of Harry Potter-free libraries.

Could the fourth estate have been embarrassed by Ms. Rowling’s comments in LA that her books were Christian in content and meaning? Embarrassed or not, they certainly lunged at the first opportunity to alienate Ms. Rowling’s Christian fans and reclaim her as an icon of “liberal humanism” at war with the Church. Harry Haters, as well-served by this nonsense in rallying their congregations as are media mavens and academic atheists, played their part in painting Ms. Rowling, via Dumbledore, as “the gateway to sexual perversion,” as she was formerly “the gateway to the occult.”

But as readers at HogwartsProfessor[ix] and Sword of Gryffindor[x] pointed out during the media-generated tempest, Dumbledore is hardly the poster child for same sex love. On the spectrum of meanings given the word “gay,” he obviously is at the “SSA and abstinent” end. Albus fell in love with a brilliant young man, a love that was unrequited and which ended in the tragic death of his younger sister. If his sexual preference is evident in the books, it is only between-the-lines and perhaps initiated his understanding of and compassion for those different and excluded. Whatever SSA he feels, he has not shared these feelings with others that we know of. And, if it had been even the subject of speculation among witches and wizards, it would have been in Rita Skeeter’s expose, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore.

This is part of Ms. Rowling’s Headmaster backstory and, is consistent with the back-stories of Harry Potter characters we know (”all heroes must be ‘other’ with respect to the metanarrative”) and illuminating regarding Dumbledore’s agony over Grindelwald and the death of his sister. That he loved another person of the same sex once, without acting on this SSA, hardly makes him a bathhouse pedophile, martyr to political and social exclusion or gay-agenda shining light we’ll see on a float in next year’s Mardi Gras orgy/parade. (Or whatever mental picture the word “gay” brings to mind for those immersed in either side of the Culture War).

Ms. Rowling confirmed this was the case in a 2008 interview in Scotland.[xi]

From one controversy to the next, it seemed inevitable that the topic of Dumbledore’s sexuality would crop up. How did Rowling deal with the fallout? “It was funny, mostly!” she exclaims. “I had always seen Dumbledore as gay, but in a sense that’s not a big deal. The book wasn’t about Dumbledore being gay. It was just that from the outset obviously I knew that he had this big, hidden secret and that he flirted with the idea of exactly what Voldemort goes on to do, he flirted with the idea of racial domination, that he was going to subjugate Muggles. So that was Dumbledore’s big secret.

“So why did he flirt with that?” she asks. “He’s an innately good man, what would make him do that? I didn’t even think it through that way, it just seemed to come to me, I thought, ‘I know why he did it. He fell in love.’ And whether they physically consummated this infatuation or not is not the issue. The issue is love. It’s not about sex. So that’s what I knew about Dumbledore. And it’s relevant only in so much as he fell in love and was made an utter fool of by love. He lost his moral compass completely when he fell in love and I think subsequently became very mistrusting of his own judgment in those matters.

There were people who thought, well why haven’t we seen Dumbledore’s angst about being gay?” Rowling is clearly amused by this, and rightly so. “Where was that going to come in? And then the other thing was – and I had letters saying this – that, as a gay man, he would never be safe to teach in a school.”

An air of incredulity descends on the room, as if Rowling herself still cannot believe this statement. She continues: “He’s a very old single man. You have to ask: why is it so interesting? People have to examine their own attitudes. It’s a shade in a character. Is it the most important thing about him? No. It’s Dumbledore, for God’s sake. There are 20 things that are relevant to the story before his sexuality.” Bottom line, then: he isn’t a gay character; he’s a character that just happens to be gay. Rowling concurs wholeheartedly.

Again, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Ms. Rowling supported gay marriage, abortion rights, and the aggressively ethical treatment of animals. If she were a Greenpeace, NOW, and PETA hardliner and bankroller, or a Bush Republican wanting to cut down every tree before the Parousia, however, it wouldn’t make a difference to me. The questions I have been after in everything I’ve written about her books for publication in books or online have been “Why are these books so popular?” and “Whence Potter-mania?” Ms. Rowling’s private beliefs, even her specific religious beliefs — except as they bleed into and show themselves substantively in her novels — can’t help answer those questions. As her readers don’t and cannot know what she believes, her unstated or unimplied beliefs can’t be what is driving the countercultural popularity of these books about the purity of soul and the power of love over death.

What does help explain Pottermania world-wide is the postmodern quality of Ms. Rowling’s works. Like all movies and stories of our times, they advocate skepticism about the Grand Myth or “metanarrative” defining “good/evil” and “those who belong/those who don’t” (the “others”). All the good guys in Ms. Rowling’s books are “other;” Harry grew up among Muggles, Hermione was Muggle-born, Ron was poor, Sirius was a blood traitor and Azkaban prisoner, Lupin was a werewolf, Neville was considered an inferior klutz, Luna was a freak, Hagrid was a Half-giant, Snape had a broken heart, etc.

In our Historical Period, minority perspective is considered as important or more important than majority opinion because it sees more of the whole from the periphery than what those in the center can understand. Ms. Rowling, in step with the beliefs of our Age, celebrates a rainbow coalition of the disaffected against those claiming special privilege and power as their birthright.

We love these stories in large part because they reflect and resonate with the “Rights and Justice” questions and concerns of our times. The special resonance of these novels with women, despite their being largely a “boy’s story,” speaks to this postmodern quality.

We now know that Dumbledore loved Grindelwald and regretted the consequences of this unrequited love his entire life. The Headmaster’s SSA as a young man and his remorse set him apart as much as his talents did and completes Ms. Rowling’s Hall of Heroes, in which Dumbledore had been the “odd man out” for not being a “freak” in the eyes of our world. I suspect one more cause of the Carnegie Hall ovation was the relief and delight of that audience that this great man was also “one of us” in being different, “imperfect,” as the metanarrative defines perfection, and in having a secret.

The first literary key I discuss at every talk I give about Deathly Hallows, though, is not postmodernism or Christian symbolism; it’s “narrative misdirection.” The big twist of the last book, due to Ms. Rowling’s plotting and Harry’s restricted vision, was about Dumbledore’s identity. He wasn’t the “god” Harry and others had imagined him to be and his Machiavellian character and failings with regard to the use of power made Harry a better man than his mentor. This was a stunning revelation, as R. H. Trexler has written[xii] and as Ms. Rowling has confirmed in interviews like the one above, it is these failings Ms. Rowling has offered in her story for our reflection and discussion, not his adolescent SSA.

That the reporters at the New York event overlooked other revelations and equally large ovations[xiii] noted by Dr. Sturgis that were more meaningful to focus on this comment and score culture war points is no surprise. That some Christians have become both worked up and downcast by also is no surprise (aren’t we all Daily Prophet subscribers and believers at times?). Because of this media flare of little substance, I hope more serious readers will understand that the popularity of Ms. Rowling’s novels is due to their postmodern themes and Christian artistry.

The headline “Dumbledore is Gay” obscured for most the fact that 1,000 sweepstakes winners from all over America flew to New York with a friend, at considerable expense, to hear an author read a book chapter portion  and answer a few questions.

The big story reporters missed was what drew readers to the event–the amazing ability of these books to so thoroughly engage hearts and minds. The one-liner that became ”the story” is merely important as a pointer to the magical power Ms. Rowling has instilled in her Harry Potter novels. The Dumbledore story will fade. The larger story will not.

My conclusions about the “Dumbledore is gay” media circus and Fandom tempest are:

(1) The meaning of Ms. Rowling’s words are best understood in context: her “connection” with the questioner and crowd dynamics that night.

(2) The media’s unexamined interpretation–Ms. Rowling’s endorses same sex love and an anti-faith agenda — was straight from Rita Skeeter’s notebook and part of their endless campaign to convince the public that Ms. Rowling is the enemy of their enemy, namely, the traditional Christian Church and all believers.

(3) The anguished and disappointed response of many Christian readers to these reports was also according to Culture War formula and in keeping with a hyperextended understanding of the word “gay.”

(4) “Dumbledore is gay” no more makes the books an invitation to same sex orientation or contrary to orthodox Christian belief[xiv] than “Sorcerer’s Stone” made them a “gateway to the occult;” and

(5) If you want to understand the ten qualities of postmodern storytelling and how Ms. Rowling weaves her engaging stories using all ten, read the Postmodernism chapters of Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. (I’d blush about this shameless plug, except it’s the only thing I know in print or online covering this subject.)

 “Taking Stories More Seriously than the Author”

There is a more interesting issue, though. Ms. Rowling said in Carnegie Hall that she “always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” But she didn’t put this information in any of the books.

So, is the Headmaster gay?

Soon after the revelation, Prof. John Mark Reynolds at Biola University wrote an article for Scriptorium Daily called “Taking Stories More Seriously Than The Author.”[xv] Not only an important contribution to the discussion of Ms. Rowling’s comment at Carnegie Hall, the article also challenged us to consider how we read a book and understand its meaning. Prof. Reynold’s startling, sure-to-be-misunderstood, sound-bite assertion that “Dumbledore is not gay” will likely be what most readers remember.

Prof. Reynolds, head of Biola/Torrey’s Great Books program, however, is saying much more. Knowing how to read a book at depth, he spends his days in colloquia with some of the brightest young people in the country, discussing how to read and engage texts while reading the best books of the Western Canon. He argues here that there are limits on the control an author has on a text and its meaning — and that limit is reached when the book is published.

I urge you to read the whole article online but here is a brief excerpt:

Is authorial intent the only thing that matters in reading a book?

Authorial intent is important, but not the only important thing.

If the author has hidden her intention so well that only her opining after the fact reveals it to us, then she has missed her chance.

Rowling chose to hide her “opinion” of Dumbledore’s sexuality until the story arc was done, Dumbledore dead, and his life written. Now her opinions no longer matter, just her text. If she could point to anything in that text that suggests something greater than friendship, mentoring, or a professional relationship, then that would matter. She has not and cannot. She carefully hid the “fact” and now it is too late to introduce it.

Lest one think that I say this only because homosexuality bothers me, then let me compare it to another situation. Suppose that Rowling now claimed that Dumbledore and Mcgonigal [sic?] had a passionate relationship. Since there is no reason in the text to know this is true, or to find it relevant to the story arc as we have it, Rowling’s opinions of the headmaster’s heterosexual affairs matter very little in terms of understanding the books as they are. There is as much evidence of this (after all) as of Dumbledore’s homosexuality.

If I utterly hide a fact (as an author), then I cannot suddenly introduce it by opining outside of my book about my book.

Author’s revelations about her intent might be interesting to the scholar in studying the directions Rowling did not go with her novel. They might inspire learned papers on why she hid Dumbledore’s love life (homophobia?), but they no longer can impact the text. The text is fixed and if she did not reveal it there, then it is not anywhere. Of course, the reader, like Rowling, is free to invent her own private meanings and expand the stories in new ways, but Rowling cannot force us to do so.

This is not different than the way I treat any book.

He goes on to discuss Plato and Tolkien in this regard and makes a respectable case that “what we have is what we have” and Ms. Rowling needs to move on to her next book.

I hear someone asking, “So we don’t need to learn more about Dumbledore to understand Harry Potter and Pottermania?” I’d go further than that and say learning more than what we have in text prevents us from understanding the books.

We don’t need the backstory, for example, of Dumbledore’s encounter with the Bible and his understanding of the passages he chose for the Godric’s Hollow headstones, as interesting as that might be. (It’s revealed as the only Muggle text ever read by a wizard; even Muggle-born witches and wizards are strangely illiterate. There is more textual evidence that Dumbledore is a Christian of some kind than that he is straight, gay, or asexual in the novels — but would we be served to learn now about his catechism, dark nights of the soul, and confessions? I don’t see how it would add anything to the story, and, like the revelation in Carnegie Hall, it would certainly distract from the meaning and diminish the story’s artistry and effect on readers.

Massimo Introvigne, in one of the first Christian endorsements of Harry Potter as edifying reading (“Harry Potter: A Christian Hero?” ) discussed intentio auctoris in November, 1999:[xvi]

I don’t know whether Rowling considers herself religious (I have read that she is divorced and a former Labour activist, but nothing about religion). This does not really matter. As the old textbooks of rhetoric stated, the “intentio auctoris”, the intention of the author, may in the end be different from the “intentio operis”, the objective intention or direction of the work. Giacomo Cardinal Biffi wrote a fascinating book about finding Christian values in “Pinocchio”, whose author was a non religious secular humanist. Rowling writes in a recognizable British tradition including such Christian storytellers as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the influence is apparent, no matter what Rowling’s personal position.

So what is Ms. Rowling’s stated intention for Harry Potter? The BBC report of the Carnegie Hall event,[xvii] after quoting two gay activists’ reactions to the “news” about Dumbledore (one thrilled and one disappointed it was not an important part of the story line) reported a la the Daily Prophet that “she regarded her novels as a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance’ and urged her fans to ‘question authority.’”

Ms. Rowling’s “question authority” advice to her readers was about not trusting the press to tell the truth. If we take the Rita Skeeter version of Ms. Rowling’s remarks as accurate, we’re left with the author telling us that the books are “a prolonged argument for tolerance”

The old rhetoric books were right, at least in this case, if this is what she thinks the books are about. “The objective direction or intention” of Harry Potter, their intentio operis, is actually and evidently quite far from a story driving home the centrality of John Locke’s Doctrine of Tolerance, or even the importance of politically correct “non-judgmentalism” to a full human life and peaceful community.

Ms. Rowling wept after writing “Into the Forest Again,” Chapter 34 of Deathly Hallows, because she had at last made her point about tolerance? The life-sacrifices made by Lily, Dobby and Harry are best understood in light of the culture war with the racist, sexist, colonial establishment and the evils of prejudice? These novels have postmodern themes that are essential to understanding their popularity; they are not, however, the answers to the human questions she raises and explores, questions greater than the political correctness concerns of our times.

Prof. Reynold’s point about the limits of auctorial control, then, is important. What has been made of Ms. Rowling’s revelation by the media and by what Ms. Rowling bemoans as “the lunatic fringe of my own religion” has much less to do with its importance in understanding the author’s intention or work than it does with longtime cultural trench lines.

I would love to sit down with Ms. Rowling and ask her a host of questions about the influences of her work (has she read Frances Yates? Titus Burckhardt? Charles Williams?). What about the choices she made in creating this magical sub-universe (were the “underground adventures” in each book more foreshadowing of Deathly Hallows than monomyth formula?). I hope, though, I’d avoid asking her what her stories meant. George MacDonald said,[xviii] when asked why he wouldn’t explain his fairy tales, that the question presupposed he knew all of what they meant and that he was such a poor artist his admirers and readers couldn’t understand his work.

“But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!”

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there! One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is a layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time things that came from thoughts beyond his own.

“But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?”

I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one. [You used this line above elsewhere without crediting McDonald. Hope you can catch that and fix it. Any key to a work of imagination would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there not to hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain, is to say, “Roses! Boil them, or we won’t have them!”[Ditto, only it made no sense as used so I suggested cutting it] My tales may not be roses but I will not boil them.

So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

In other words, asking Ms. Rowling what she meant in her stories is insulting. If what she meant is not discernible to a serious reader, I am demonstrating, not implying, that she’s a poor writer.

Worse, by restricting the work’s meaning to merely the author’s intention and understanding of it, one assumes there are no muses. That she, as author, is a god, fully conscious of her influences, prejudices, and meanings for every reader, and of every valence and meaning of her story’s symbols. That would diminish her accomplishment or suggest she’s something more than human. Two of the series’ meanings are 1) that we respect people for who they are, and 2) that we struggle to come to terms with the limits of individual understanding.

Prof. Reynolds is right. Let’s work with the text we have.

Why Ms. Rowling Won’t Shut Up – And Why That is a Good Thing

Having said that, I’d add only that there might be one “upside” to more information from the author about her Harry Potter stories and their composition.

I imagined back in July, during the last and ‘transition’ week of the two-year Interlibrum, that Deathly Hallows would be followed by a month or two of frenetic interpretation and internet chatter about the last book and then a long dry spell before the next movie appeared. This desert of Potter news, broken only by HPEF conventions and end of year awards news items, was something I actually looked forward to: some ‘down time’ to write and take stock of the series as a whole.

The ‘time-off’ I expected hasn’t happened.

Things have cooled down since the madness of the nearly simultaneous movie opening and finale publication in July 2007, of course, but it has been a rare week in which there hasn’t been an event of some kind, often of some significance, in the Potter-mania story. There was the Open Book Tour with its revelations about Ms. Rowling’s Christian intentions and thoughts on Dumbledore’s sexuality. And the hullaballoo about the Harry Potter Lexicon seeking publication as a text with a three day trial and media-fest in New York. And The Tales of Beedle the Bard. And an interview with Fandom’s biggest site, The Leaky Cauldron, the week that The Order of the Phoenix DVD was released.

Because my website and email inbox receive the most traffic when a Potter-mania event is in the headlines, I suppose I should welcome this continued media attention on Ms. Rowling, her books, and attendant phenomena. HogwartsProfessor.com had it greatest number of visitors in the weeks before and after the release of Deathly Hallows, a peak only approached during the post Carnegie Hall blitz about Dumbledore. These visitors aren’t here to read about Dante and Beatrice’s green eyed reflection of the Griffin at Paradise’s gates, but readers are readers, right?

Various internet mavens have written, though — and I have thought the same myself — that if Ms. Rowling would just shut up, that would be more than okay.

So many of her readers seem to be in withdrawal from 2007’s canon-shot overload that every new scrap she tells us about who wound up with whom (et cetera) overshadows the meaning of the books and those things she chose to include in the story itself. It is inevitable that learning what was left out, because in the news cycle this information is a ‘revelation’ of some kind, seems more important than the contents and artistry of the actual novels. Ms. Rowling’s continued stream of information and interpretation distracts from the fun and joy to be found by serious readers in the Postlibrum in re-reading and digesting the seven book set.

It also adds to the illusion that she is the sole source of understanding of the books, a Delphic Oracle to which Fandom must remain something like a thrall. This is not a healthy relationship author-to-reader (or anyone-to-anybody, for that matter).

I have come to the conclusion that this continuing “feed” of “new data,” however, is both inevitable and, at least potentially, a good thing. That represents something of a change in my posture to the ever rolling revelations so I will explain what brought me to this conclusion.

I think it was reading about the Theme Park that made the inevitability of Ms. Rowling remaining in the news for several years (at least until the release of the Deathly Hallows movie) come home to me. There are millions and millions of dollars in this franchise and thousands of people (!) whose lives are now in some way dependent on the continued notoriety of Harry Potter and celebrity of Ms. Rowling. If this was not enough to guarantee her continued working of the Fandom and MSM pumps, there is something more. Ms. Rowling’s ability to act as a lightning rod and fund raiser for her favorite charities must diminish in direct proportion with her celebrity.

Continued news stories and “revelations” are inevitable because Ms. Rowling has responsibilities to investors, to working people and their families, and to the children and causes she serves through her charity work. Her responsibility is to maintain a visible profile and to continue to keep Harry Potter in the news. It wouldn’t be humility or satiety to say “I’ve got enough money” and walk away from the Potter Pecuniary Production unit to begin work on a new set of books or a stand-alone novel. That would be an uncharitable and selfish act — and no small failing – were it possible for her (and, after her testimony at the RDR trial, I don’t think it is). Like it or not, she is the engine that now drives an industry, capitalist and charitable, and a lot of people count on her to keep the pistons moving.

Don’t look for it to stop soon. Re-read the review of her The Wizard and the Hopping Pot[xix] if you want to read a postmodern tale of noblesse oblige. If she has become something like a queen with obligations to her subjects, Ms. Rowling will play the part.

But is this a good thing?

On one count, at least, no, it isn’t. As I wrote above, Ms. Rowling’s continued shadow over the shoulder of all her readers distracts them from what we are getting from her books. Her presence and input has a dissipating or adulterating effect, I think, however counter-intuitive that may seem. Just as a crutch or wheel chair can become an obstacle to healthy walking if over-used, an author’s input is probably only valuable and necessary until the point of publication. At some point, the painter has to put the palette down and the composer has to stop adding movements or even notes.

I think, though, that Ms. Rowling has a better case for publishing her Potter-Silmarillion, the ironically named Scottish Book,[xx] than most authors, a better case than the Tolkien Estate had, I’d say, because he’d already included his helpful appendices at The Lord of the Rings’ finish.

Why? Because of her use of narrative misdirection via Harry’s limited perspective.

A painting analogy may help here.

Imagine yourself in the Art Institute of Chicago. You’ve been locked in at night, the place is pitch dark, and you have a small flashlight. There is a special Raphael exhibit, though, and you decide to visit it to pass the time before daybreak (and your inevitable arrest).

You find yourself before Raphael’s last great painting, The Transfiguration,[xxi] on loan from the Vatican Museums. It’s huge. As best as you can tell in the dark by running your flashlight beam along the edge, the thing must be 12 feet by 9 feet — and it’s incredibly detailed. You sit down on the bench the Art Institute has put in front of the painting at the perfect distance and you are still there several hours later studying it as best you can (really glad you brought all those batteries with you on the field trip).

You’re arrested, of course, when the guards turn the lights on, both by the police and by your realization on seeing the painting — all at once, in the light — that you could never have understood the painting with your narrow flash light beam. You have to see the city in the background, the healing being botched by the Apostles, and the figures in the Transfiguration event itself taken all together to “get” what Raphael was after in his political, social, and theological masterpiece. Your night with the flashlight wasn’t wasted time; it was invaluable for gaining an appreciation of the detail and nuance of each part of the painting. But without seeing it all together, you miss what Raphael wanted you to have.

We read Harry Potter’s epic adventure and alchemical transfiguration from misshapen lead to transcendent Dumbledore-man gold in the flashlight-like perspective of a mini-cam just above Harry’s head. This is done intentionally; the narratological perspective is a large part of what drives the mystery in each book along and of Ms. Rowling’s epistemological meaning (”you don’t know what you think you know”). But it means that we never see the whole canvas or even a significant part of the canvas on which this story is painted. Reading Harry Potter is a little like searching the skies with a spotlight for airplanes. Even if you happen to catch a plane in the pencil beam of your light, you know what you’ve missed by having to focus on that one object and because of the darkness is much, much greater than what you’ve seen.

Wouldn’t it be a treat to turn the lights on or search the skies when the sun is up and learn what we’ve had to miss because of our intentionally restricted vision? Ms. Rowling has been working from the whole canvas this whole time and it’s evident that, even after all the revelations of Deathly Hallows, we still haven’t seen much of the painting from her view.

As I was revising Unlocking Harry Potter after Deathly Hallows, the first step was to cut out the speculation I used to illustrate literature points. What’s bizarre is that quite a few of the character and plot questions I tried to answer with conjecture are still possible, especially the events in Hogwarts Castle the night of Dumbledore’s death. Deathly Hallows was over-loaded as it was and re-visiting those events “with the lights on” would have diminished the pacing towards and the impact of the finale’s climax.

Revealing the back-story now, however, could heighten rather than diminish our appreciation of Ms. Rowling’s writing, especially of what she chose to leave in, leave out, and how she chose to tell the tale. Seeing the whole sweep of the story from the perspective of eternity or the end-of-time would illumine her decisions as story-teller, and, in this, throw no small light on her intentions and meaning.

I look forward to reading the Potter-Silmarillion, consequently, as an important event in “Potter studies” and I am resigned to the persistent, distracting drip of revelations from Ms. Rowling’s faucet until she writes that book (and after). It would be uncharitable for her to fix the drip and diminish her celebrity — and, if it leads to our gaining at long last the “author’s eye-view” on her sub-creation, even this attention place-holding drip must be considered a good thing.

[i] http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1572107/20071017/index.jhtml

[ii] http://eldritchhobbit.livejournal.com/175955.html

[iii] http://thehogshead.org/2007/10/19/rowling-dumbledore-was-gay/

[iv] http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=26

[v] http://eldritchhobbit.livejournal.com/175955.html

[vi] http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=197#comment-17260

[vii] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-487806/The-moment-JK-Rowling-revealed-little-intended.html

[viii] http://thehogshead.org/2007/10/19/rowling-dumbledore-was-gay/#comment-243272

[ix] http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=197#comment-17226

[x] http://thehogshead.org/2007/10/19/rowling-dumbledore-was-gay/#comment-243547

[xi] http://www.adeelamini.com/JKR/ESTE012C_adeelaminicom_JKR.pdf

[xii] http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=197#comment-17268

[xiii] http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=198#comment-17310

[xiv] http://thehogshead.org/2007/10/19/rowling-dumbledore-was-gay/#comment-243473

[xv] http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/2007/10/23/dumbledore-is-not-gay-taking-stories-more-seriously-than-the-author/

[xvi] http://www.cesnur.org/recens/potter_mi_eng.htm

[xvii] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/7053982.stm

[xviii] http://home.earthlink.net/~johnrpenner/Articles/fantasticImagination.html

[xix] http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=amb_link_6057542_1?ie=UTF8&docId=1000180871&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=1CBRC59BNEN9M2FQJ2HT&pf_rd_t=1401&pf_rd_p=341699901&pf_rd_i=1000179911#review1

[xx] http://pottercast.the-leaky-cauldron.org/jkrowling

[xxi] http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/PINs/PINs_Sala08_05_035.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfiguration_%28Raphael%29