Joanne Rowling’s new book, Tales of Beedle the Bard (BTB), argues via satire that homosexuals should be allowed to marry and that those who deny them this right are politically dangerous, even evil.
I have very little time this morning so this will be a hurried explanation of the satirical allegory implicit to Dumbledore’s commentary on the tale, ‘Fountain of Fair Fortune’ and of the upside and downside of this argument in story, with a rushed review of how Harry Haters, Harry Hallowers, LeakyMug Fandom, and HogPro AllPros will almost certainly react to this news. Forgive me the haste and typos, please.
(For the best discussion of the five Beedle Tales, as mentioned yesterday, go to The Hog’s Head where there are threads dedicated to each story!)
First, the satire:
In his commentary on ‘Fountain,’ Dumbledore relates that:
more than one parent has demanded the removal of this particular tale from the Hogwarts library, including, by coincidence, a descendant of Brutus Malfoy and one-time member of the Hogwarts Board of Governors, Mr. Lucius Malfoy. Mr. Malfoy submitted his demand for a ban on the story in writing:
“Any work of fiction or non-fiction that depicts interbreeding between wizards and Muggles should be banned from the bookshelves of Hogwarts. I do not wish my son to be influenced into sullying the purity of his blood-line by reading stories that promote wizard-Muggle marriage.”
My refusal to remove the book from the library was backed by a majority of the Board of Governors. I wrote back to Mr. Malfoy, explaining my decision:
“So-called pure-blood families maintain their alleged purity by disowning, banishing, or lying about Muggles or Muggle-borns on their family trees. They then attempt to foist their hypocrisy upon the rest of us by asking us to ban works dealing with the truths they deny. There is not a witch or wizard in existence whose blood has not mingled with Muggles, and I should therefore consider it both illogical and immoral to remove works with the subject from our students’ store of knowledge.”
This exchange marked the beginning of Mr. Malfoy’s long campaign to have me removed from my post as headmaster of Hogwarts, and of mine to have him removed from his position as Lord Voldemort’s Favorite Death Eater.
This story doers not scream, “Gay Marriage!”, of course. It is not on the surface or even moral layers of meaning but at the allegorical in which that message is given. The surface level gives us important back story for the events of Chamber of Secrets, in which book, Lucius Malfoy hides Riddle’s diary, an obviously evil book, inside one of Ginny Weasley’s seemingly benign textbooks and this book-with-an-agenda hidden in a book possesses Ginny’s soul, turns her against the beliefs of her parents, and results (temporarily) in Dumbledore’s dismissal as Headmaster. We are left to speculate about how Dumbledore began work on supplanting Malfoy with another in the Dark Lord’s inner circle; I’d assume he means his grooming Severus Snape as a Death Eater double agent, capable of becoming Voldemort’s most trusted servant because of his access to valuable information from the Order of the Phoenix.
Beneath this surface meaning, we have the moral one. Dumbledore is not bullied by Malfoy and his prejudices against Muggles. He stands his ground on principle with the backing of a select group (the Hogwarts Board) in the face of what is obviously a vociferous group against wizard-Muggle “interbreeding” and marriage. The group may even constitute a majority of wizards or among powerful wizards. Dumbledore stands his ground for truth, virtue, and plain dealing in the fostering of both these qualities in the hearts and minds of young wizards.
If you allow that there are meanings beneath the surface and moral layers, per Aquinas, Dante, Ruskin, Lewis, and Rowling (see the discussion on the four layers of meaning and Rowling’s depiction of same in the interpretation of the Hallows symbol in my The Deathly Hallows Lectures), the first layer to be unwound beneath the relatively obvious is the allegorical. The evident point-to-point allegory in the Malfoy story is not gay marriage but book banning. Rowling, through Dumbledore, seems to be bashing Harry Haters like Laura Malory (sp?) in Georgia who worked so hard (and unsuccessfully) through the courts to have the Harry Potter novels removed from public schools.
No doubt there is some of that there, but it’s a weak analogy and allegory. Like the Christian Harry Haters, Lucius is arguing for a book ban. But, beyond his efforts, too, proving unsuccessful, the similarities end there. Malfoy is not arguing from devotional or revealed principle and tradition; that would be impossible in a sub-creation like Rowling’s without formal religious structures or scriptures.
And Malfoy is talking about marriage and the relationships of wizards and Muggles.
Wizard-Muggles relations in Harry’s world are an allegory about racism, for the most part. Interpreted as both an argument against anti-semitism and contra discrimination against the racial ‘other,’ the war between Death Eaters and Dumbledore’s Armies is offered as something very much like the war against the Jew-baiting Nazis and cross burning Klansmen. Both of these latter groups opposed exogamy and miscegenation (inter-racial marriages) and it is to these groups and their position that Malfoy’s stance contra wizard-Muggle “interbreeding” and marriage are most closely correspondent.
Is Ms. Rowling saying the Laura Malorys of the world and their attempts to ban books make them Nazis and Klansmen? That’s a stretch. Not only is that a failed analogy and risibly uncharitable in its hyperbole (for a very charitable woman, however acerbic), it is also out of all measure and balance with the effect of Harry Hating protests, all of which have come to nothing in the public square.
Using Malfoy’s position as a Harry Hating straw man would also be to kick that dead horse twice; Dumbledore has already beaten up the bowdlerizing, sentimental church ladies who want to remove the Gothic horror and witchcraft from Harry Potter specifically and children’s stories in general. His comments about Beatrix Bloxam’s misgivings about Beedle were more than sufficient as payback or slapdown to Harry Haters.
Ms. Rowling’s allegories are of two types: theological and political. The theological ones are stories like the Everyman drama at the end of Chamber of Secrets and the Passion Gospel of Harry’s walk into the Forbidden Forest in Deathly Hallows. The political and social allegories are her satirical depictions of education at Hogwarts, of the judicial and penal systems, government, and of media in her novels; Travis Prinzi, author of Harry Potter and Imagination, is your best guide to Rowling as Fabian Socialist, libertarian, and apprenticeship-authentic educator. The satire can be as obvious as Aunt Marge being a cartoon of Margaret Thatcher and Cornelius Fudge for Neville Chamberlain or as obscure as references to standardized testing as a focus for education and the demeaning reality of school classrooms for teachers and students.
Most people miss both the theological and political allegories, obviously. Despite Ms. Rowling’s evident disdain for the press in her Daily Prophet and Rita Skeeter, for example, Fleet Street loves her. Despite the overwhelmingly traditional Christian imagery and anagogical meaning of her books, Rowling’s fiercest critics still are those Harry Haters living in Christian culture war ghettos. Though harder for the casual reader to get, however, I don’t think that there is any denying that these allegories are there.
But gay marriage?
The allegory in Dumbledore’s comments about ‘Fortune’ is about Proposition 8 because (1) Malfoy is talking about marriage, (2) Ms. Rowling has “always thought of Dumbledore as gay,” and (3) this is the point of conflict in the political-social sphere at the moment. Proponents of gay marriage rights in California argue from historical analogy that being against gay marriage is “just like” the large majorities of American voters who for decades opposed inter-racial marriage. Dumbledore makes it clear that Beedle’s Muggle-loving moral in ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’ was decidedly out of step with his contemporaries in a time when Muggles were enthusiastically persecuting witches and wizards.
It is a heroic author and tale-teller, then, who stands against the tide of prejudices in his or her times. For Ms. Rowling, to whom moral courage is the most important virtue, that means taking her place alongside the minority in California in favor of gay marriage and with the courts also in this camp (corresponding to the Hogwarts Board of Governors). Opponents of gay marriage rights, I presume to include the President-elect, are offered as Malfoy resonances, i.e., the politically dangerous and morally evil Death Eaters.
There is an upside, a downside and a predictable result to this argument via satire.
The upside is that readers again have the opportunity to reconsider their comfortable positions about Ms. Rowling’s purpose in writing the Harry Potter novels. For some, this might be the first time they have experienced Ms. Rowling as a satirist writing on levels beyond entertainment and training in the stock responses. I have to hope that these readers and others will read my new book, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures as well as The Deathly Hallows Lectures, to gain an appreciation of Ms. Rowling as a Cruikshankian satirist and Coleridgean artist in symbol and fantasy.
The downside is that this revelation, much like the Carnegie Hall comments about Dumbledore’s sexuality, will at least for a spell probably become the tail wagging the dog of Potter criticism. Because Dumbledore suggests this dispute with Malfoy is about prejudice against people with homosexual orientation, popular discussion may be hijacked from the four ‘lines of sight’ Ms. Rowling has stated explicitly are the most profitable for understanding Deathly Hallows and the series as a whole. The implicit message here, because the satire touches on such an explosive political-social issue, will obscure the larger meaning at the fourth layer and her greater artistry for some time.
Watch for Harry Haters to rejoice because this gay marriage position, as with Dumbledore’s sexuality, confirms their belief that Ms. Rowling has an anti-Christian agenda and her books are unsuitable for children. It won’t matter that this Beedle revelation is extra-canonical , which is to say “not anywhere in the seven books.” Rowling is dangerous and evil as they always knew.
Watch for LeakyMug Fandom to rejoice, too, as they did as well when Dumbledore was outed at Carnegie Hall. Sharing Ms. Rowling’s relatively liberal political views, the Memerson crowd, ironically, will celebrate this as confirmation of their pigeonholing Ms. Rowling as believing everything they believe.( I say “ironically” because they make odd bedfellows with the Harry Haters.)
The Harry Hallowers who believe that Ms. Rowling only writes theological allegories and that the books are evangelical tracts disguised as children’s adventure stories will find a way to duck this. “It isn’t canon!” will be one defense to maintain the wish-fulfilling delusion that Ms. Rowling is strictly a devotional Christian apologist rather than a Christian author. “It’s about the Harry Haters, not gay marriage!” will be another.
Looking at Ms. Rowling as a writer rather than a propagandist for either side in the culture war requires knowledge of the four levels of meaning on which writers operate as well as the traditional ends of means of better writers. Beyond the surface and moral meanings of her books, Ms. Rowling delivers allegorical and anagogical substance that is both profoundly Christian and politically liberal. If you think Margaret Thatcher saved the UK from Fabian socialism and the abyss, you won’t like the political commentary written between the lines of her books. If you believe Christians are bigots and morons, you won’t care for the brilliant alchemical and Dantesque artistry of Rowling’s gothic Public School fantasy.
The Harry Potter novels are books that could only have been written by a Christian and one with liberal political beliefs. They include elements that should make the Harry Haters, Hallowers, and the Unchurched all decidedly uncomfortable, albeit in different ways, for different reasons. Agree or disagree with any of her messages and meaning, though, and you are obliged to reconsider your beliefs, examine them in light of her story arguments and your experience of that story, and choose once again for or against.
This is postmodern gothic literature doing its job. If you’re not squirming, the author missed her target. Ms. Rowling as a subversive symbolist, a la George MacDonald and Eric Blair, is here to rattle your cage and beliefs, not make you feel at home in your Faith Club. I expect her subtle championing of gay marriage rights will make her harder to pigeonhole for more thoughtful readers, which, in sum, is a good thing.
I welcome your comments and corrections, as always. If you want to share your thoughts on gay marriage, Proposition 8, and political arguments from historical analogy, though, please go to sites devoted to that sort of thing, e.g., the Corner, daily Kos, Mark Shea’s Catholic and Enjoying It, or Rod Dreher’s blog at Belief.net. This site is not a culture war forum but is a place reserved for discussion of Potter as literature and cultural phenomenon.
I look forward to reading your reflections.