Ms. Rowling at Harvard: What Will She Say?

This is the Big Week! Joanne Rowling comes to America’s big-name University campus Thursday to deliver the Commencement Address. Not quite the big deal we enjoyed last summer, but something to anticipate, nonetheless. What will she say?

Here are my three guesses:

(1) George Bush is Voldemort; America needs a Democratic Party President;

(2) Believe in Yourself and To thine Own Self be True (Look What Happened to Me!); and

(3) Fight for a Better World — Make the Hard, Difficult Choices to Leave the World a Better, More Loving Place.

I assume they asked her to speak in hopes that she will give them “Dumbledore’s Greatest Hits.” I’d love to think she’d do a Solzhenitsyn at Harvard 1978 or Mother Theresa in Oslo 1979 and slap her young audience hard with a Dementor backhand (it worked for Dudley), but that is raising the bar pretty high. Harvard will probably get just what they asked for — and a media blitz not even POTUS or Oprah could have given Cambridge in June.

What do y’all expect and hope to hear? Anyone think she’ll give us a little backstory, a peek into Harry’s postgraduate life, or some copyright reflections a la Dickens, 1842?


  1. JohnABaptist says

    Rather than speculate about the contents of the speech, I wonder if I am the only one to notice that Harvard’s announcement stresses her popularity, her economic success and her humble roots. It mentions not one word about the value of her works as literature, her potential placement amid the pantheon of great authors, or indeed about any intellectual quality associated with her works, philosophies, avocations or advocacies.

    Since (by my count) the Potter Saga deals, sometimes at length, sometimes briefly, but always in non-trivial fashion with at least 96 of Mortimer Adler’s 102 “Great Ideas”*; there was certainly an opportunity for the Harvardites to profess some intellectual basis for their choice. I find it an interesting comment on our day that they did not.

    Perhaps they or their predecessors slept through Solzhenitsyn’s remarks in ’78.

    * The six I leave out are Space, Same and Other, Matter, Mechanics, Form and Infinity. All of the other concepts from Angel to World seem to me to be dealt with somewhere in the canon. And in fact, if I loosen my criteria only a little bit, I think only Space and Infinity have been totally ignored.

  2. Welcome back, JAB! As always, an edifying and challenging bull’s eye.

  3. Actually, in OP, Snape tells Harry that time and space matter in magic. It’s during the Occlumency lessons, and then at the MoM, one of the rooms has the planets floating around. So there’s space. She doesn’t really do that much with it though, so I suppose it’s not a problem to leave it out.

    It will be interesting to see what Rowling chooses to say. My guess is that it’ll be more along the personal achievement line with some politics sprinkled about. She’d probably like to say something about copyright but since that’s not over, I doubt that she can.


  4. My guess is that JKR will talk about literature and the process of writing.

  5. I’d be disappointed if she enters into the American election. Here in Europe we love to appoint your presidents, but we hate to think of Americans meddling in European national elections. But she is much too intelligent to jump into that stupid trap.

    I’d love it if she talked about Elizabeth Goudge and The Little White Horse, and litterary questions across the borders between premodernism, modernism and postmodernism.

    This is an excellent opportunity for her to push her own litterary agenda to the top of the table. I’m sure she is not going to throw it away on some short sighted politics.

    Odd Sverre Hove
    (Bergen, Norway)

  6. JohnABaptist says

    Good eye Eeyore, I overlooked the Occlumency lessons. Although the mention is brief, the rest of the book expands on the concept of Space as distance and how this affects or does not affect the mysterious bond between Harry and Voldemort. I would say Space was included.

    Hmmmm, anybody find a treatment of the concept of Infinity? I somehow have a feeling its also there and I just missed it.

  7. Infinitude is touched on, albeit indirectly, in the Spinning Room of the Department of Mysteries, Luna’s answer to the chicken/egg phoenix/flame question posed by the Ravenclaw gatekeeper, and in the hero’s journey and alchemical cycle Harry passes through each year and triumphantly in Deathly Hallows. The “circle which has no beginning” is a symbol of the simultaneously Absolute and Infinite nature of the Supreme Reality because it is endless and simultaneously identical and an extension of the unknown center. The cycles, circles, and turning of Ms. Rowling’s stories have this quality. Harry’s completing the seven cycles or circles is the hero’s return to the origin or center, or, more plainly, his mythic apotheosis.

    Your feeling is spot on.

    Here’s hoping that Ms. Rowling jumps into “literature and life” and the “alchemy of reading” (if not literary alchemy), as some of you have suggested, rather than politics and platitudes. I’m confident she is the only person Harvard could have invited whose books have been read — and read very attentively — by >90% of the graduating class. It’s a bully pulpit, to say the least, and if she were to want a moment to bust her “kid lit” image, this would be it.

    I’m afraid, though, the best we can expect, given the tenor of recent interviews, is a faux heroic “Remember Cedric Diggory” attack on “fundamentalism” and the Ministry of Magic in the US. I will be delighted and very surprised if she decides to wake the sleeping dragons and discuss her artistry and the place of literature in combating the excesses and deficiencies of our age. Her work has at least three layers of meaning — the surface, the moral, and the alchemical — but I’m not seeing that in her public persona, however admirable she has been in her philanthropy and reserve.

  8. I vote for John’s guess (3).
    I think it is her passion and her predominant theme.

  9. Coppinger Bailey says

    Thanks for posting this reminder, John!

    I think it would be great if the theme of the speech is in the quidditch pitch of #3, emphasizing the power of the imagination to envision the world as a better & loving place & inspire us to work for it. Discussing literature & the concept of shared texts as imaginative “touchstones” would also be interesting.

  10. chrystyan says

    And perhaps touch on her 800-word Potter prequel (that she’s not really writing) penned for Waterford’s charity.

  11. Gladius Terrae Novae says

    I sure hope she sticks to stuff like that and steers away from the election. Her problems with most conservative Christians were just about to end before she outed Dumbledore, and now most people have almost forgotten that. So on top of branding her a witch and a gay rights supporter, lets throw in an ultra-liberal (which of course includes supporting abortion, etc.) There’s really no limit to how bad her image could go. I know people who, now that it’s been a while since the issue has been brought up, are lightening up on Harry Potter. I have a feeling that’s generally the way it is these days. Start it up again, especially this election, and a significant portion of America will never read or approve of her books. I’d really hate to see that happen just because she doesn’t know what she’s getting in to. Especially now that Barack is the nominee. And Hill the VP? Yep, not the election for her to step into.

  12. Last year the Latin Salutatory Address part of Harvard’s Commencement was an exploration of ‘Life as a Harvard Jedi Knight‘ — and it’s a WOW! I hope Ms. Rowling’s address is this surprising and interesting.

    To hear Solzhenitsyn’s “A World Split Apart” as recorded live in 1978, go here (I couldn’t find a video). ‘A World Split Apart,’ forgive me, sounds like a talk that the Sorting Hat might have given; it remains the high bar standard. Compare it with last year’s address by Bill Gates. (Other Commencement speakers of the last forty years can be found here).

  13. Red Rocker says

    Try to look at it from her perspective.

    She’s British. She lives in Scotland. She spends time in the US, but she’s a foreigner. What is prominent in her view of the US?

    Well, there is the matter of the SVA copyright trial, which is awaiting a verdict. And there are the people who think HP is devil’s work and have told her so. Politically, the incumbent president – also arguably the most powerful person in the world – is on his way out. His electoral base, although currently diminished, includes those who see her as a devil-woman. The candidates for the job are a former military leader who belongs to the same party as the incumbent, and a younger man who speaks of change and is of a racial group which has long been disenfranchised. He has mobilized the public imagination to a remarkable degree, although there are hold-outs due to party lines, and because prejudice is still alive. Until a day or two ago, the candidates also included a woman, a historic first for this country, but that is no longer so.

    And what does she bring to the situation? She is a successful female author who, although deeply religious, is against many of the tenets of the Moral Majority. She is also passionately against prejudice and discrimination.

    The temptation to thumb her nose at those who vilified her and speak up for someone who exemplifies what she believes in must be considerable.

    On the other hand, she probably doesn’t want to get involved in local politics in a big sort of way. At least, she doesn’t want that to overshadow her message. And probably the candidate she would have preferred is no longer in the running.

    So I think she’ll resist that temptation. If the Commencement had been just a week ago, she might have made a stand for the first female president of the US. But not now.

    Believe in yourself and to thine own self be true? (Look what happened to me)

    Well, that’s not very realistic, is it? At least not the second part. Many of those graduates will become successful leaders in industry and politics, it’s true, but they’re not going to become JK Rowling. No one’s going to become JK Rowling. Plus, it just doesn’t seem in character. I don’t see her as that self-involved. But maybe the believe in yourself part.

    Fight for a better world? I think so, possibly in combination with bits of a new order is nigh and believe in yourself. Something along the lines of: you stand at a time of new hope and new beginnings, and as the brightest and bestest of your generation, you can help make the world a truly better place, a place of tolerance and equality and good will towards people of all racial backgrounds, sexes, and sexual orientations.

  14. Red Rocker wrote: The temptation to thumb her nose at those who vilified her and speak up for someone who exemplifies what she believes in must be considerable.

    The ring of truth and a very sober summary: Thank you, Rocker! I look forward to reading the address or seeing it on YouTube to see if she celebrates and calls for a Hogwarts Rainbow Coalition to unseat Voldemort POTUS (Diversity and Tolerance as Panaceas), indulges in a little pay-back towards the “fundamentalists of my own religion” (expect the audience to be waiting for allusion to the magic controversy or Gay Dumbledore with a standing ovation), or just talks about the power of story to change lives.

    My last prediction: The Daily Prophet will highlight the paybacks and Gay Dumbledore references but only mention in passing the thrust and substance of her remarks. Wait for it.

  15. Red Rocker says

    I just read the transcript.

    Mainly #3, with a touch of #2:

    “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.”

    “If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

    And oh yeah, there was a gay wizard joke.

  16. Red Rocker says

    And I was wrong about her not being that self-involved.

  17. Travis Prinzi says

    Yeah, I’d say mostly #3, with a dose of #2, and a very, very veiled #1.

    I do wonder how Rowling thinks herself an advocate of gay tolerance when she makes “gay wizard” the punch-line.

    But overall, I thought it was a very good speech. Some standard stuff, some very interesting insights into her creative process, I think.

  18. Red Rocker says

    I think that having made the most revered and respected character in her outragelusly popular saga gay, she has struck such a major blow for the acceptance of gays into the literary mainstream, that she can make gay jokes, much as a gay person can, because her acceptance is not in question. She has, in effect, become an honororary gay person, with the rights due to gay people, including the right of self-parody.

    BTW, I like the reverse twist she gave to #2. Not so much “believe in yourself and succeed like me”, but rather “believe in yourself if and when you fail like me (because it will make you stronger).”

  19. Hey, guys! Continue this conversation on to the new thread, okay?

  20. Coppinger Bailey wrote:

    I think it would be great if the theme of the speech is in the quidditch pitch of #3, emphasizing the power of the imagination to envision the world as a better & loving place & inspire us to work for it.

    And that was the answer! Great job, CB!

  21. Red Rocker says

    Yes, it certainly was! Good call, CB!

    About the other matter, now brought back from the sister thread:

    It sounds, Travis, as if you’re arguing that Dumbledore wasn’t gay enough. Or rather, that JKR’s acknowledgement of his gayness wasn’t strong enough. The “love that dare not speak its name” kind of thing.

    I have two reactions to that.

    First, having a character of Dumbledore’s stature identified as gay, even in an extra-textual fashion, is big. It’s not very different from Tolkien announcing that Frodo or Gandalf or Legolas were gay. There’s a law, called cognitive dissonance, which explains how attitudes change. If A likes B, and B likes C, then A must like C. If A does not like C, then A will either come to like C, or will come to dislike B. The readership’s strong liking for Dumbledore in conjunction with his gayness, will either lead people to reject Dumbledore, or to be more accepting of gayness. It’s inevitable.

    My second reaction was this. Gay characters have not yet been integrated into mainstream entertainment. A gay friend of mine challenged me a while ago to name five movies which featured a gay love story. I could only come up with Brokeback. Given that, it is unrealistic to expect a gay character to appear, fully sexually actualized, in a mainstream novel. There is no way JKR could have written about Dumbledore’s actual elationship with Grindelwald without it hijacking the storyline even more strongly than how Travis and I have hijacked the sister thread to this.

  22. korg20000bc says

    Red Rocker,
    I’m interested in your comment about parody. You say she can make gay jokes because she’s an honourary gay person? I’m wondering how this really works. If I’m not gay and I parody a gay person or tell a gay joke without the acceptance of the gay community I’m doing something wrong? What if I’m hetro and I find gay parody or gay jokes offensive? What am I to do then?

    I think Rowling is not above playing the media for causes she believes in or retro-actively empowering her characters with popular causes. She’s allowed to do it, of course. I also get the impression that she’s not media savvy enough to avoid being used by groups either.

    “If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice..” I’d like to know who she means by the voiceless and then whom we mean by that.

  23. Travis Prinzi says

    RedRocker, and that whole way of doing things is very Dumbledorian of Rowling. No revolutionary overthrow of the way things are; rather, a subtle, extra-textual move to slowly introduce the idea into mainstream lit. Very Dumbledore. Very Fabian.

  24. revgeorge says

    Red Rocker wrote: “The readership’s strong liking for Dumbledore in conjunction with his gayness, will either lead people to reject Dumbledore, or to be more accepting of gayness. It’s inevitable.”

    Not surprisingly I disagree. I think this is a false dichotomy. Although it may be true in that this is the way our modern society looks at this issue. According to current, especially pc, belief, one either accepts & loves everything about Dumbledore, including his extra-textual gayness, or else one must hate Dumbledore & possibly even wish him harm. Those are the only two options presented by the tolerance is everything crowd. Of course, the story might be different if Jo had said Dumbledore was a two pack a day smoker or a denier of global warming or an evangelical Christian. Those are currently things that cannot be tolerated.

    But again I think the way you present the issue, as either we must reject Dumbledore because of his extra textual gayness or become more accepting of gayness, is a false dichotomy. I think it’s possible to still like & admire & even love Dumbledore while yet acknowledging his faults & disagreeing with them. I think this is what Harry finally does, too. He comes to terms with his love for Dumbledore & his anger & dislike at the way Dumbledore was manipulative & dishonest with him, but without tolerating or exalting the way Dumbledore behaved.

    There’s a lot more I could say but it would probably involve more theology than John might want on his blog site.

    But suffice it to say that we tolerate the faults of others without necessarily accepting or agreeing with their faults or their faulty behaviour & we don’t necessarily have to love them any the less. It’s all in South Park, people! 🙂

  25. Red Rocker says


    You bring up a good point. Who is allowed to make fun of whom without giving offense? I guess it all depends on history and context.

    This is the joke:

    “This liberating discovery (not remembering anything about her own Commencement speech) enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.”

    What is she saying here? I understand it as her saying: “I am seen as pro-gay because I created a gay wizard. But listening to me is not going to make you gay.” There are two levels to the joke. One is the reference to the biggest source of public controversy over her works, Dumbledore’s gayness. And the other is to the fear – which she clearly believes is irrational – that exposure to fictional gay people, or even to someone who writes about them, will make the reader/listener gay.

    To me, what she’s making fun of is the firestorm of debate she’s already stirred up, and the associated irrational fear. So it’s not a joke about gay people at all. She’s poking fun at homophobia.

    When I wrote that she was exempt from criticism by gay people because of what she’d done with Dumbledore, I was thinking more of her joke being inadvertantly misunderstood by gay people. And I believed that she’d be given the benefit of the doubt in that case because of the context and history.

    But I agree that there are many possibilities for giving offense, particularly with such a red-button topic as this. I just don’t think gay people would take offense at it.

    I do agree with you that she’s using her status to defend causes that she believes in. Not so much for tolerance for gay people, in this case, but for the “voiceless”. In this vein, she talks about the people who write to Amnesty International, about people who were victims of torture, people who were executed by their governments, also “real monsters” and the “powerless”. I read that as referring to victims of tyrannical regimes.

    About your statement that she is not above retro-actively empowering her characters with popular causes:

    First of all, I don’t think Dumbledore’s sexual orientation was a retro-active decision, and I don’t think his sexual orientation was in the service of a popular cause. But I don’t think that’s what you meant. I suspect what you meant is that she outed him for reasons other than the needs of telling her story, for political reasons, or popular appeal reasons.

    I agree that might have been part of it. People have mixed motives, often. But I think the stronger reason was because she wanted to speak the truth about one of her main characters. She couldn’t do so prior to publication because it would have hijacked the story, as I noted before. She was free (freer?) to do so after. And I remember reading her mentioning something about the sense of freedom when she made that announcement.

  26. Red Rocker says

    Actuallly, I was wrong. It’s not cognitive dissonance, it’s Balance Theory, originated by a man named Heider. Here’s the link to a brief description, if you like:

    And I believe that it would work with cigarettes and evangelicals as well, which is why we no longer see people smoking as much in movies and not at all in children’s shows.

    But you are also correct. I don’t think it’s as dichotomous as I made it out to be. I am not an expert on balance theory, but I believe that what would happen is that if someone was opposed to gay people but liked Dumbledore, and found out that Dumbledore was gay, they would think a bit less highly of Dumbledore and be a bit more accepting of gays.

    There are two more things about balance theory which are interesting.

    First, there are not two but three outcomes: one likes gays a bit more, one likes Dumbledore a bit less, or one denies that Dumbledore really is gay. Which is a position many people took at the time of the initial revelation. And that is cognitive dissonance at work: since I can’t both like Dumbledore and believe him to be gay, I will resolve the imbalance by disputing the evidence of his gayness.

    The second interesting thing about balance theory is that the result will be the outcome requiring the least effort.

  27. revgeorge says

    Red Rocker said, “…one denies that Dumbledore really is gay. Which is a position many people took at the time of the initial revelation. And that is cognitive dissonance at work: since I can’t both like Dumbledore and believe him to be gay, I will resolve the imbalance by disputing the evidence of his gayness.”

    I’m sure that’s why some people reacted the way they did. No doubt about it. But that’s not the only reason people had problems with the Dumbledore revelation. I think most of our discussion on The Hogshead indicated that there were a lot of us who took issues with it on textual & interpretative grounds.

  28. revgeorge says

    “The second interesting thing about balance theory is that the result will be the outcome requiring the least effort.”

    Which is not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes doing the hard things & expending effort is the thing that must be done.

  29. Sayf Bowlin says

    It appears that this discussion is tapering out, but I thought I’d throw my two cents in anyway:

    cent 1 – Amen! St. augustine made the famous distinction so well explained above that we can (and must) both love the sinner but hate the sin

    cent 2 – In a society that gets its philosophy from propoganda and lines in movies (as well as confusing the distinction in cent 1), it is inevitable that there are going to be a number of people who are going to accept the homosexual orientation more just because of Dumbledore without giving it any thought whatsoever

  30. Red Rocker says

    Sayf Bowlin,

    It’s not society. And it’s not just this particular issue. That’s just how the human brain works with everything where there is some contradiction in our feelings. As much as we’d like to, we can’t dictate our feelings.

  31. revgeorge says

    Which is why we shouldn’t be governed by our feelings. We can’t control our feelings, yes, but we can control how we respond to our feelings. Our feelings generally want to take us down the path of least resistance. Feelings don’t necessarily want to deal with the hard choices. This is where our reason is supposed to come in & govern & temper our feelings. Unfortunately, all too often, especially in regard to sin, our reason spends all its time making excuses & justifications for doing what our feelings want to do.

    Sayf is right in that we don’t do much reasoning any more, at least not in America, we do emoting. And so we’re especially vulnerable to sound bites that sound good & feel good but don’t necessarily deal with the more complex & even harsh realities of life.

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