The Dutch Deathly Hallows Interview: Ms. Rowling Discusses Religion and Choice

An interesting interview with Ms. Rowling on the occasion of the premiere of the Dutch translation of Deathly Hallows has been translated from the Dutch and posted at The Leaky Cauldron. The unusually thoughtful exchange includes questions and answers about Ms. Rowling’s religious upbringing, beliefs, thoughts on the religious undertones in the books, and more on choice. I urge you to read the whole thing for context and tone. Thank you, Madame Pince, for the head’s up! Here are a few meaty excerpts with my two cents afterwards:

In the first book of the series Dumbledore destroys the Philosopher’s stone, the mythical stone who gives the owner eternal life. In the final book Harry does something similar with the resurrection stone, a stone that can bring back the dead. He drops it in the forest.

I used the symbolism of the stone to show that Dumbledore accepts his mortality. Once he realises that its mortality that gives life meaning, he is no longer interested in the philosopher’s stone. Harry goes even further. He not only rejects one, but two of his most powerful weapons. Of the three hallows he acquires in book seven; he only keeps the invisibility cloak. This says a lot about him because, like Dumbledore tells Harry: The true magic of the cloak is that it not only protects the owner, but also other people. Harry doesn’t want the Elder wand, he has never been after power. And he throws the resurrection stone away; just like Dumbledore Harry has made his peace with death.

And you?Do you see death as the end of everything?

No. I lead an intensely spiritual life, and even though I don’t have a terribly clear and structured idea about it, I do believe that after you die some part of you stays alive some way or other. I belief in something as the indestructible soul. But for that subject we should reserve about six hours: It’s something I struggle with a lot.

At the end of book seven Harry has a long conversation with Dumbledore. Who actually is dead but looks better and happier he has ever looked, in a beautiful light space which Harry thinks resembles King’s Cross Station.

You can interpret that conversation in two ways. Either Harry is unconscious, everything Dumbledore tells him he already knew deep inside. In that state of unconsciousness his mind travels further. Dumbledore is in that case Harry’s personification of wisdom; he sees Dumbledore in his head so he can come to certain insights.Or Harry has traveled to a place between life and death. From which Dumbledore and he will leave in opposite directions. Harry also sees there what becomes of Voldemort. He doesn’t exactly know what’s that heap that lies there on the floor in anguish, but he doesn’t want to touch it; He feels it’s a fundamentally evil and perverse creature. It’s the only time that Harry the hero of the vulnerable, is in the presence of someone who’s hurt and doesn’t come to their aid.

During their search Ron, Hermione and Harry talk about Dumbledore as if hears [he’s] God. They thought that behind his words and actions there was a grand scheme; they are disillusioned when this doesn’t turn out to be the case.

He’s a complex character. I don’t see him as God. I did want that the reader would question Dumbledore’s part in the whole story. We all believed that he was a kind-hearted father figure. And to a certain extent he is. But at the same time he is someone who treats people as puppets; who caries a dark secret from his past and who never told Harry the full truth. I hope that the reader will love him again in the end. But that they love him like he is, including his faults. Is Dumbledore divine? No. He has certain divine qualities though. He is merciful, and in the end he is just.

But Harry is a sort of Jesus. He must die to rid humanity of evil. You made him into a messiah.

Yes, he does have certain messiah traits. I chose that on purpose. He is that one man in a million.. and I say “a man” because with women it’s different who is able to stand up against the power, and who turns down power’s control. That makes him the wisest of all.

How can he be like that?

He’s the hero. Harry is just good. Dumbledore says it to him ‘˜You are a better man then me.’ As he gets older he will also remain a great man. Because he has learned to be humble.

Were you raised religiously?

I was officially raised in the Church of England, but I was actually more of a freak in my family. We didn’t talk about religion in our home. My father didn’t believe in anything, neither did my sister. My mother would incidentally visit the church, but mostly during Christmas. And I was immensely curious. From when I was 13, 14 I went to church alone. I found it very interesting what was being said there, and I believed in it.When I went to university, I became more critical. I got more annoyed with the smugness of religious people and I went to church less and less. Now I’m at the point where I started: yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church. A protestant church here in Edinburgh. My husband is also raised protestant, but he comes from a very strict Scottish group. One where they couldn’t sing and talk.

That you yourself go to church only makes the harsh criticism of your work by religious fanatics even more bizarre.

The past ten years there have always been fundamentalists who’ve had problems with my books. The fact that they feature magic and witchcraft is already enough, they despise them. I want nothing to do with fundamentalism, of any sort; it scares me. The Christian fundamentalists are especially active in the United States. One time I have been face to face with such a person. I was in a toy store with my children and I was recognized by a girl who got all excited. The next thing that happened was that a man came up to me and said ‘Aren’t you that Potter woman? After which he brought his face close to me and said very aggressively: ‘I pray for you every evening.’ I should have said that he’d better pray for himself, but I was stunned. It was very frightening.

Your books are about the battle between good and evil. Harry is good. But is Voldemort pure Evil? He is also a victim.

He is a victim, indeed. He is a victim, and he has made choices. He was conceived by force and under the influence of a silly infatuation, While Harry was conceived in love; I think the conditions under which you were born form an important fundament of your existence. But Voldemort chose evil. I’ve been trying to point that out in the books; I gave him choices.

That’s what it constantly about: Do things go the way they are destined, or do you make your own choices?

I believe in free will. Of those that, like us, are in a privileged situation at least. For you, for me; people who are living in western society, people who are not repressed, who are free. We can choose. The things go largely like you want them to go. You control your own life. Your own will is extremely powerful. The way I write about professor Trelawney the particularly inadequate divination teacher, say a lot about how I think about destiny. I did a lot of research into astrology for her character. I found it all highly amusing, but I don’t believe in it.

For a while you worked for Amnesty. Has that influenced your ideas about good and evil?

It’s actually more the other way around. I had assumptions about that and which was why I went to work for Amnesty. I was a research assistant and I worked mainly for Africa. Till I was so foolish to give up my job to go travel after a boyfriend. Voldemort is of course a sort of Hitler. If you read books about megalomania types like Hitler and Stalin, it’s interesting to find how superstitious these people are, with all their power. It’s part of their paranoia, the desire to make themselves bigger then who they really are; they love talking about destiny and fate. I wanted Voldemort to also have those paranoid traits. But the fact that the prophecy from book five becomes true in the end is because Voldemort and Harry chose to let it come true. Not because it is destined to. The Macbeth idea: the witches tell Macbeth what will happen and he then continues to make it happen.

My two cents:

(1) Here we have verbal confirmation of what Terry Mattingly and others have long suspected, i.e., that Ms. Rowling is “spiritual, not religious,’ Christian but very uncomfortable with Church people. I would note only that this does not mean her books do not have profound Christian symbolism and meaning; it only points to the importance of the postmodern quality and concerns of the novels. As she has said previously, Deathly Hallows is about the choice to believe. She leaves it to the serious reader to conclude that this choice is essential to the tasks of defeating interior and exterior evils.

(2) Her comments about the meaning of her writing are of mixed value. I’m thinking more and more that George MacDonald was right in saying that an author shouldn’t discuss the meaning of their own writing because (a) s/he cannot know its meaning entirely or exclusively and (b) it is demeaning to the author, the work, and serious readers for the horse described by a writer to be labeled by that writer “This Is A HORSE.”

More to the point, as discussed in the first Dante post below, inspired literary works have four layers of meaning. When Ms. Rowling touches on the literal or allegorical meanings of Harry Potter in interviews, Fandom and too many serious readers (not to mention faux scholars like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) shut the gates on alternative interpretations at these levels and all discussion of the moral and anagogical (symbolist) meaning. The author has spoken, they insist; close the gates on further interpretation.

The absurdity and danger of this “author’s view only” is evident in her comments about names. Question: “Why did you choose the name Harry Potter?” Answer: “There was a boy on the street where I grew up with that name and I’ve always liked it.” This is the equivalent of Question: “How tall are you?” Answer: “I was 4’8″ in the eighth grade,” or, better, “Six O’Clock.” The question was “Why did you choose?” not “Where did you first hear?” The answer to the first question, if answered at all, requires a discussion of why this name rather than all the other names she liked or heard on the street growing up was chose, which is to say, a reason or explanation, not a time or source. As it is, the discussion of what Harry’s name means, an important discussion in a book filled with meaningful cryptonyms, has been all but shut down because the author has spoken on the subject. However vacuous her answer, it is the limit of meaning for many readers.

Similarly, we can expect a chill and a surge simultaneously in the understanding of the books’ religious meaning when Ms. Rowling gives a thumbs down on understanding Dumbledore as God and a thumbs up to Harry as Jesus or messiah. Both chill and surge are unfortunate because readers are being taken away from the text as we have it and re-directed to private musings given as random responses to questions. “Dumbledore-is-gay” gives us an excellent illustration of the value of such musings; extra-textual, peripheral information the author chose deliberately to leave out of the book because it was unimportant and distracting from what she had to say about the character in question becomes the focus and the take-away conclusion of millions of readers.

I would note here that only one Hog Pro All-Pro has commented on the Dante post(s) below. It illustrates my point above that the meaning of this interview in Holland and about Ms. Rowling’s choice of footwear and hair color interest even readers here more than understanding Lily’s Green Eyes and the meaning of Snape’s “Look at me…” I don’t doubt, because Ms. Rowling says in today’s interview that she is glad that they didn’t make Harry’s eyes green in the movies, that readers will respond to this Dante post with the thought that the color of Lily’s and Harry’s eyes really isn’t that important. The author has told us she’s okay with blue eyes. Forget Dante’s Griffin and Beatrice’s eyes being Dante’s means of transcending spheres in Paradise.

C. S. Lewis’ debate with E. M. W. Tillyard about the importance of understanding poets biographically and heeding their opinions in understanding their works is relevant here (The Personal Heresy, 1939). As Don King of Montreat College notes, Lewis wrote there:

“I must make of [the poet] not a spectacle but a pair of spectacles . . . I must enjoy [emphasis Lewis] him and not contemplate him.” In his An Experiment in Criticism (1961) Lewis makes a similar point: “[Literature is valuable] not only nor chiefly in order to see what [the authors] are like but [because] . . . we see what they see [and] occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, [and] use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal.”

I enjoy reading what Ms. Rowling has to say as much as the next reader of her books. I am very attentive to what she thinks of her books. I hope, though, that I am at least as attentive to any other thoughtful reader of these books, especially anyone skilled in illuminating the meanings of books, and much more attentive to the books themselves, lest I restrict and diminish their meaning by falling into the cult of personality or the Personal Heresy.

As always, I covet your comment and correction.


  1. John, I agree with you about the value or lack thereof of the author’s pronouncements.

    I wonder to what extent JKR feels the same. I say this because early in the same interview there is this exchange:

    Do you hate interviews?
    “No not at all. The reason I rarely give them, is because I actually have not that much to say.

  2. I find JKR’s comments about Dumbledore very validating of the view I’ve developed over time of Dumbledore as a general who must make sacrifices to win the war, a ruthless puppet-master, and a gifted but flawed man who loves neither wisely nor well. In other words, a complex and fascinating character. I have never seen him as god-like, and have even said repeatedly that he is not God: not all compassionate nor omniscient. And certainly not omnipotent.

    And BTW, I do not think his gayness was extra-textual. Sub-textual perhaps: the clues were there but no one connected them for us.

    I especially like the part where JKR tells the interviewer that she hopes the reader will love Dumbledore at the end, knowing all his flaws. That is exactly the journey Harry has taken in the books: from awe and love for the greatest wizard of the age who is his mentor, to doubt and anger and dismay, to forgiveness and back to love again.

    So I’m good with what she says about Dumbledore.

    But even if I disagreed – as I’m sure I would if she spoke about Snape, whose fascination for fandom makes her uneasy – I would not question her right to speak about how she sees her characters.

    I also disagree with using George McDonald’s thesis to ask JKR to refrain from commenting. My understanding of McDonald is that he’s stating that an author can not know all the possible meanings which readers will bring to the work because he does not know their experiences. It does not mean that the author’s interpretation is not one of those meanings and should not be given some weight. I’ve only read a little bit of McDonald, but I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) that he would agree that each reader has the freedom to interpet the text by his own lights. I would add that it’s a freedom that can only be claimed, not granted nor imposed.

  3. Reyhan, I love your stuff but you’re out of line here. I don’t ask Ms. Rowling to refrain from commenting (read the last paragraph of the post again, please) and I don’t question her “right to speak about how she sees her characters.” I read what Ms. Rowling says about her books, I post them here for other serious readers to reflect on, and I suggest this is not an authoritative or definitive statement of meaning just because it comes from the author. Your making me into a straw man saying Ms. Rowling should “shut up” is right on the edge of rude. I don’t enjoy being corrected but I welcome it when I am in the wrong; here, though, you’re mis-representing what I say and correcting me with my own point from George MacDonald (see the intentio auctoris posts below).

    Note, too, that “extra” means “outside” when used in “extra-textual” as in “the fact is nowhere in the text given.” Hints of this that one can connect only because of Ms. Rowling’s comment do not make it part of the text; if anyone else had connected these dots, I doubt very much you would have said it was definite and “sub-textual,” i.e., something a clever exegete would have realized in time. Dumbledore’s Christian faith or at least his familiarity with Christian scripture is sub-textual, in contrast, but imagine the reception anyone other than Ms. Rowling would get for saying it is definite and essential for understanding his character.

  4. thanks for the link. That’s a really good interview- not focusing on ultimately unimportant things and giving us some good insights. I agree over basically letting the work speak for itself at this point.

    as far as the Dante posts– I read it when it was very first up, but I haven’t read The Divine Comedy and need to let it sink in and re-read before I will have any worthwhile comments. Sorry, John!

    on a different note, I’ve frequented message boards for about 6 years and hope no one will mind a reminder that no message board/blog has the full context of what is written. having had my fair share of internet ‘tiffs’, I can say that most often they are simple misunderstandings that, without tone of voice, etc., loom a lot larger on the person addressed’s horizon than the poster intends or that other folks see. having been on both the giving and receiving end of these disagreements, I always end up wishing I’d given the benefit of the doubt and simply addressed my comments to specific points made rather than the tone I perceive. just a thought to remember. 😀


  5. I deplore straw man arguments, because they are intellectually dishonest. Alas that I made one, as a re-reading of your last paragraph tells me I did. I can not take issue with your stated intention to be at least as attentive to JKR as to any other thoughtful reader, but to be much more attentive to the text. And we do agree as to the ultimate authority.

    I’m less inclined to agree with your views about the post-publication information given on Dumbledore. I agree in so far as I don’t think his gayness is central. But I wouldn’t call it peripheral either. It’s more background – helps explain some things which otherwise don’t have a lot of substance, but isn’t essential to our understanding or enjoyment. Is it important? That is a matter of opinion, I think. I just read a quote by someone (Oprah?): “Don’t tell me what you do for a living. Tell me what you ache for.”

    It gives incredibly more resonance to the story to know what Dumbledore aches for. And can’t have.

    After some reflection, I think that the most important reason why I posted my original comment was in reaction to your observation that the post-publication details distract the reader from what is really important about the books. And that
    the author’s interpretations shut the gates on further interpretations, even for the thoughtful reader. Assuming I’ve represented your view correctly, my point would be that distraction comes with the territory and intellectual gates can’t be shut. It’s all grist to the mill and what comes out the other end is very individual. If the text is good and strong and has integrity, then what comes out should approximate the author’s intent.

    I hope that even if this makes no sense, it doesn’t give offense.

  6. I’m probably just unusually prickly today because I spent the weekend unwrapping hermetic artistry and Dante’s influence on Ms. Rowling and response has been minimal. My being right or wrong on those points (and the possibility that I am wrong is great, even greater than usual) is more important in understanding these books than Dumbledore’s sexuality (what he aches for and cannot have?!; we’ve left the map for fan-fiction…), which is nowhere in the seven books. But the extra-textual “aching” and “deprivation” shaping the Headmaster behind the scenes and otherwise coming to terms with Ms. Rowling’s interview is what we’re after on these boards today.

    I would clarify again that I don’t say that post-publication interview comments must distract the reader from meaning, only that they have done this and will continue to do this in a Personality/celebrity culture. It’s understandable, natural, and regrettable. I concur with Lewis and MacDonald (and, I think, Prof. Reynolds and Prof. Como) that, post-publication, revelations of “what the author thinks” or “what the author meant for us to understand” are no more valuable and, perhaps, in being mistaken as definitive, much less valuable, than any other intelligent reader’s understanding.

    I’m not offended, reyhan, just self-important, defensive, and disappointed. I expect I’ll get over the disappointment; I ask your prayers or good wishes for the other failings.

  7. I would be vexed too, if I spoke of Beatrice’s green eyes and the significance of Albus Rose and the world paid more attention to Daniel Radcliffe’s green contacts (or lack thereof). For a comparison albeit at a slightly lower level, sample the discussion at SoG on Bronte’s orange cat.

    Makes me think of Allan Bloom in the Green Room.

    But in defense of those who are silent on Dante: it’s not that we don’t want to respond, it’s because we feel, in the words of a commenter, like B graders in an A grade sandbox.

  8. That’s exactly it, reyhan. I’ve not read Dante and knew when I saw the post that I would need to spend some time with it–and I plan to after Thanksgiving. It’s been a horrendously busy couple of weeks for me, helping our daughter move to a new apartment and trying to add sound to a “movie” that Terry and I are putting together of a September Disneyland trip with two other couples. As that was something we hoped to have done a month ago, I’ve been limiting my computer time to very short reads. (I’m nearing the half-way mark on adding all the music, and now have great respect for movie editors who do that all day long.)

    So John, don’t despair, except for today, I haven’t been reading anything else either, but I do plan to get there as soon as possible.


  9. Well, that should read–“limiting my on-line computer time”–which would be much more enlightening than listening to clips of music over and over trying to find just the right 10 or 20 seconds to fit the photos.

    Pat (who definitely needs more tea and a substantial snack of sorts)

  10. John, please don’t be upset at the lack of comment on your Dante post — it’s so packed that it’s hard to know where to begin. Give us all some time to think beyond “Wow!”

    As to the question of whether an author’s statements about his or her work should trump all other interpretations, Dorothy Sayers was on your side. Here is her comment on the value of an intelligent reader’s reaction to her own work (from The Mind of the Maker, chapter 5): “In Murder Must Advertise I undertook (not very successfully) to present a contrast of two ‘cardboard’ worlds, equally fictitious — the world of advertising and the world of the post-war ‘Bright Young People’. . . . I mentioned this intention to a reader, who instantly replied: ‘Yes, and Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never appears in either world except in disguise.’ It was perfectly true, and I had never noticed it.”

  11. John, I love Dante and your post. The most I know of it stems from my knowledge of Pre-Raphaelite painter Rossetti. He loved to paint his beloved Ms. Siddele as Beatrice. He was infatuated with Dante’s relationship to Beatrice, and her eyes. I wonder if Rowling has read up on or is a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites? I have a big hunch she is. I am ashamed I have a copy of the Divine Comedy and have not really read it through. Wish I could respond, but I do not have enough knowledge. I am however very intrigued. This is the best interview yet from Rowling, at least about the Christian meaning. I happen to be very positive about all of her latest revelations. Happy Thanksgiving!

  12. I think we, as readers, should keep the doors of interpretation open in spite of interpretations of the author. Though personally I value Jo’s interpretation over all others, I am glad to be reminded that we should not limit ourselves by her interpretation.

    I read and enjoyed the Dante post, but I too have not actually read Dante. I am thrilled to be surrounded by such intellectual giants, even though my literary repertoire is (severely) lacking.

  13. I don’t think that JKR’s comments about Harry’s eyes need to be taken as a “go back, you are going the wrong way” sign as regards the possible Dantean influence. Not unless you imagine her plotting the whole thing out at once, in every detail.

    I can easily imagine a progression something like this: Harry appears in the author’s head. She gives him her husband’s black hair and green eyes. Once Harry exists, of course, he needs a family, so his father gets his hair and his mother gets his eyes (literary creation can easily be such a genetically-backward thing). Then somewhere along the way Snape needs a motivation, and finds Lily… and Lily’s green eyes come together in the author’s mind with those of Beatrice, and lo, Snape is sent off down the same path of redemption that was trod by Dante the pioneer. Because the whole pattern of being led toward divine love by the memory of a beloved green-eyed woman is really too great a coincidence to have just happened. While Snape’s journey is not stated overtly as a divine one, his conception of love clearly does become more selfless– more real. I think we may hope that when he looked into Harry’s eyes at the end, he saw not only Lily, but the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

  14. JohnABaptist says

    Actually the comments in the interview may very well strengthen the Dante influence regarding green eyes. Harry’s eyes were described as “bright green” in the first volume published in 1997. Ms. Rowling did not meet her current husband until three years later in 2000 according to this article.

    “How They Met:
    Murray and Rowling were introduced by a mutual friend in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2000.

    Dr. Neil Murray has been described as an adult version of Harry Potter. He has short, dark hair and wears round spectacles. ”

    So Harry is not patterned after her husband, if anything, she married a husband patterned after Harry.

    So it would appear that she does have a thing for green eyes. However she is also realist enough to know that anyone seeking classical references in her work will likely do it from the text of her books, not the posters and clips from her movies. If green-eyed Harry was enthroned in her prose, she clearly saw no reason to torture a young actor to also put them on film. The fact that she brought up the option of contacts at all suggests that she thought of, and probably discussed, that option and then specifically chose to let movie Harry be blue-eyed and comfortable.

  15. This is the kind of thing that ought to teach us not to take interviews as Canon-quasi-gospel. So not only did JK write a political swipe at a president who at the time of writing was still a state governor, she fashioned her central character after a husband she hadn’t met yet. Another fine job of sleuthing, JAB!

  16. John just want to join in and say that your Dante post was a real treat and if I can add something worth saying I will – but please don’t hold your breath!

  17. In this post-modern–should I say “dumbed down” culture, I don’t see how JKR could speak substantively on what moved her hand to write the Harry Potter series. She’s said the idea for Harry’s story “came to her all it once,” while riding on a train, and contains a mixture of all the books that she has read. How on earth could she get in a conversation about Dante, or even the Bible without casting pearls before swine? In my case, I need John’s scholarship desperately so am continuing the encouragement on this thread. (I’ve also been taking time to read people’s thoughts about the Golden Compass…argh!)

  18. One thing I find myself wondering is exactly where the boundary is generally put between “religious” and “spiritual.” How exactly is JK to be described as “spiritual, not religious,” when she actually does attend church? I.e., participates in communal practices intended to “tie back” the practitioners to the Deity?

  19. A few years ago I was in a discussion group and and the book we were discussing was Lord of the Rings. We were working our way through the entire book and we’d have these fascinating discussions about the philosophy of the stories. One of the members of the discussion group, however, was a big Tolkien fan and he’d bring in letters or other ways in which we’d learn Tolkien’s view on his own book to dispute whatever point we would be making. I found it immensely annoying – it just totally shut down the discussion. Now we have the Author Himself Telling Us All What He Really Meant. What then was the point of discussing it – the Oracle Has Spoken. What was the point of even reading the story – why shouldn’t he just tell us what he really meant and be done with it?

    This is why I think J.K. Rowling made a terrible mistake during her American tour. While I think it would be helpful to hear about her views of the process of writing, or writing as an art form, or to discuss – at length even – what books have influenced her and why, she just gave us too much definitive information on this tour and effectively has nearly shut the discussion down.

    As I wrote about in my essay “Iceberg Ahoy” in the book “The Plot Thickens,” the skill of a writer is to tell us just enough information (i.e., Hemmingway’s iceberg analogy) to keep the story going, but not to much – allude to more that is under the surface. This was Rowling’s brilliance in her writing – she gave us enough to sweep us into the story and carrying on discussion that should have lasted into the next century – but not too much to squash the reader’s own journey into the imagination. Her tour of America nearly undid all her skill. It was as though she’s had a “minder” who finally was given the “heave-ho” after the books were completed.

    As some may know, I’ve become a Bob Dylan fan and have been spending the last few years trying to play catchup on his lifetime vocation of music. It’s take me three years to get to where I am now, which may mean I might understand the new arthouse film that is about to come out, “I’m Not Here.” But one of the frustrating (wonderful?) things about Dylan is that he very rarely talks about what his songs mean. Early on he might and sometimes something will slip out (but is he telling the truth or fooling around, one never knows). But he really doesn’t tell us what his songs mean. He wrote an entire “first volume” autobiography and still didn’t really tell us what his songs mean – he spent virtually the entire book explaining how he wrote them, not what they mean.

    This of course is frustrating – but also an important key to his success and the explosion of his myth. He follows the iceberg theory as well – gives us just enough information but not enough to explain it all to us. We have to work on his songs, we can’t be passive. We can have “aha” moments but until one can sit down with another Dylan fan and argue over the points, one is never going to be sure if one is up the tree or out on a limb or swinging carefree on the mark. But the point always is to make the case from the song themselves and Dylan provides very little to explain it and if he does he isn’t always to be believed.

    There are times when I re-read the Dumbledore interview and if Jo Rowling were Bob Dylan you could make the case she was pulling everyone’s leg bigtime, except no one has a sense of humor about such things they are so politicized (with reason) right now. But there is a sense that you could almost imagine the Weasley Twin side of her chuckling.

    But if not and she’s serious about all the “revelations” and “opinions” she’s given (and there’s no reason really to seriously doubt her) then she’s spoiled the fun, she’s told us the answer (yes, even after we begged her to) when the better way is to turn the question back to the audience and ask, “What do you think?” and turn the questions back to the audience and have a conversation about it, rather than embarking in that almost celebrity mindedness that everything she says is holy writ. If that is true, then the story is truly “her” story and she owns it like a piece of property to control as she wishes and her audience either gets it or we don’t. But she knows all. Well, that’s a lot of things, but it doesn’t further her story to live beyond herself, to live larger than herself. It might be wise for her to go back to the way it was, when she said little, and if there is something she must say to put it in a book and be done with it. Make the case and tell the story and we’ll judge if she pulls it up. It’s like cheating to tell us all about Luna and her adventures (what was all that stuff about her and Dean and nothing coming from it – what a fascinating and unlikely match that might have been, you could almost see that Dean was entertained by Luna and he offered her stability and sense, but no Jo says she went off to the woods and met someone we’ve never heard of, poor Dean – all that time and it was all for nothing).

    And Neville and Hannah – where’s the support for that? Was there any hint in the text about them at all? No, so it becomes almost like gossip, not storytelling. J.K. Rowling toured America gossiping about her characters. I bet a few of them, not the least being Dumbledore, would have liked for her to put a sock in it.

    Now we see she is narrow-minded toward somthing she calls “American fundamentalists.” But she does not define her terms – is she talking about Calvinist Baptists or Evangelical Arminians or what? Isn’t it a stereotype of religious Americans and somehow the British are so much more enlightened? If I were to walk into a Baptist meeting I’d be anything but a fundie – I’m sure they’d find me a progressively liberal. But if I were to attend one my own home denomination, Episcopalian, meeting I’m sure they’d be quick to call me a fundie because I’m not unitarian and I call Jesus by His first name. Jo Rowlings sweeping generalities tells us she doesn’t know America very well and her bias toward her own nation shows. She’s the enlightened one and we’re a bunch of right wing nuts. Maybe she’s trying to be funny.

    It was way more fun to discuss her books before she started to explain them to us. I know the temptation must have been great – who knows, perhaps the temptation is great for Dylan sometimes. But his music is strengthened by his silence and perhaps this would be a good time for Jo to get thoughtful and reflect that maybe Harry doesn’t belong to her anymore, that he let her into his life for a spell and now he’s moved on and she’s now like the rest of us, trying to figure out what it all means.


    PS I promise to read the Dante essay, John. I actually have a print of Rossetti’s painting of Beatrice hanging in my livingroom. Based on Rossetti’s wife, she looks strikingly like Lily.

  20. ZoeRose, all I can say is “Huzzah!”

    Dumbledore would probably be too much of a gentleman to actually say that… but he must have been so fond of socks for a REASON. And sock-fondness is canon.

    I too wish that JKR would adopt some of the tactics of Mr. Dylan. At least his recent tactics. On the one hand, he’s maintained his usual hermetic silence about the meaning of his own work, while on the other hand, on his XM show, on which he plays none of his own work (though he did sing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” a capella once), he gets almost chatty and discursive talking about all the OTHER songs and musicians and traditions he finds interesting, quirky, admirably and worthy of remembering. Ms. Rowling, take note.

    And let’s get together sometime to talk about the confluence of Ovid and “Heilsgeschichte” in “Ain’t Talkin’.”

  21. ZoeRose I read your comment with interest and would like to point out two things.

    Re Dumbledore: the transcript quote is

    “… I always thought of Dumbledore as gay…”

    ( )

    The statement “..I always thought of…” says to me that tha is the way JKR saw the character. I don’t think it makes it a fact.

    and I suspect that you are correct about JKR’s British centric views. JKR was brought up in a very small community not far from me and went to a provincial university 60 miles futher South West and to most of us Brits all ‘fundamentalists’ are by definition scary as this equates to people who are completely ‘literal minded’ and therefore dangerous. Also to us Brits, for decades now, on the whole being gay is of very little interest. Stephen Fry for instance is almost a Great British Institution -and to my mind there is a lot of Dumbledore in him.

  22. ZoeRose, though I largely agree with what you’re saying about Rowling’s comments, I’d like to come to the defence of J.R.R. Tolkien (hopefully this isn’t considered too much off-topic). His letters were written to individuals who asked him for information, and he was accommodating enough to give them – more or less – what they wanted. He couldn’t know at the time that part of his correspondence would be published one day, and used by Tolkien-fundamentalists to stifle discussion. In the few interviews he gave during his lifetime, he usually didn’t interpret his own stories.

    Also, many of the answers he gave in his letters contained information from the vast amounts of unpublished writings stacked in his study. He had no idea if any of them would ever be published, but to his mind they belonged to his fictional universe no less than the published texts – which were only the tip of the iceberg. Please don’t blame him for passing on such information to his correspondents, or for writing about his own work to individuals, often friends or relatives, in personal letters not meant for the public at large.

    If you have to, blame the fans who think Tolkien should always have the last word and promptly close their minds to other possibilities. And I’d add, that it is not wrong per se to know what authors think of their own works. To know their interpretation can be useful for various reasons. And they do have just as much right to speak their mind. The problem only arises when they, and their more rabid fans, insist that in case of disagreement they’re right by definition, and dissenting readers are automatically wrong.

    You mention the example of Bob Dylan, and how his silence about his songs is one of the keys to his success. That may be so – I don’t know much about Bob Dylan – but this doesn’t establish a law. The existence of Tolkien’s letters has in no way impeded the popularity of his works. And Rowling’s recent talkativeness probably won’t diminish her popularity with the general public, however much you (and I, for that matter) may disagree with many of her comments.

    Generally speaking, and I’m no longer addressing ZoeRose here, I was a bit surprised how eager people were to embrace Rowlings statements when she spoke of the religious inspiration of the HP series, and how quick they were to condemn them when she announced that she’d always considered Dumbledore to be gay. If you dismiss authorial statements altogether, this won’t do. You need the middle position: I’ll look at what the author says, check it against the texts, and then I’ll come to a conclusion.

    Finally, like others have done before, I’d like to thank John for the Dante essay. I enjoyed it very much, and the only minor criticism (concerning a biographical detail) I had, was already addressed by someone else. If I’m allowed to do so here, and for what it’s worth, I’d like to point out another probable Dante influence in the HP series: the lake with the inferi in HBP. This reminded me of the Fifth Circle of the Inferno.

  23. Rossetti’s painting of his dead wife Lizzie Siddall is an infernal parody of the Annunciation, with a red dove bringing her a poppy. (She OD’d on laudnum.) It’s titled “Beata Beatrix” and hangs in horrid glory in The Art Institute of Chicago.

    He buried a set of unpublished poems with her but a few years later had her coffin exhumed to retrieve them for publication. (Anybody remember the Ken Russell film DANTE’S INFERNO?)

  24. I suppose I’m more a consumer, and others are doing the thinking and speculating for me, but it really doesn’t bother me that JKR is “revealing” (if you decide to accept her authority) things about her characters, etc. If you spent a decade or more plotting out a storyline and left out a ton of what you were thinking about putting in, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to share your creativity in that way? Before the last book, the stuff she revealed was discussed differently, it seems. The canon is closed. No more revelations, or our HP “theology” might be challenged. (Seeing the parallel?)

    I actually like it when she talks about this stuff. It may shut down one discussion, if the people discussing decide to accept her after-publishing words as canon, but you can just as easily hang on to your ideas and speculations and reject her assertions if you decide to. It’s still a free country (at least where I live).

  25. Thanks for the comments, friends – I appreciate it more than I can say that I could post that reflection and get such great comments! And I admit I’d love to read Tolkien’s letters – but again, I might maintain that a work must be able to stand on its own and the author also stands in the shadows and in no longer the oracle – but that may be the fruits over my own rebellion regarding the creative writing workshops that go gaga over authors. A book is a book except when it’s a ego-driven self indulgence. Authors are terrible about figuring out when that happens until it’s almost too late or – like Dylan – they crash.

    But I seriously doubt that happened to Tolkien, it was indeed how the letters were used to interpret the text and I still find that troubling. If an author has more to say, write more story. A story takes on a life of its own and can suddenly surprise the author. Jo Rowling is into her “plan” and no one can say it doesn’t work. But at some point, if her work is great (and I think it is) she has to step aside and give it away. Perhaps what we saw was a public process of her doing that.

    You all have given me more stuff to think about! Thank you! I do quarrel however on calling Rossetti’s masterpiece and “infernal parody.” I saw the original at the Tate in London (I didn’t realize it’s in Chicago now – are you sure that’s the original?) and it was extraordinary. Here it is:

    Rossetti was a troubled man, one of the great PreRaphaelites. Again, there is much in the Potter series that lends itself to PreRaphaelite paintings. But the one of “Beatrice” based on the likeness of Rossetti’s late wife (who died I believe from an opium – a toxic potion if there ever was one – overdose) is very Lily-like. And notice the two figures in the background – one is Dante and one is Rossetti himself. We know of another Rossetti/Dante-like character who also lurked in the background and probably knew much of the turmoil those men knew in their art.

    From the PreRaphelites to the Beats we see similar themes of the suffering hero who meets a tragic end, a gothic view of sin – certainly not themes of sweetness and light but the peril of the mortal soul. I must read John’s post on Dante before the weekend.


  26. I had a thing for DGR after seeing the Ken Russell film with Oliver Reed. I can still remember the last stanza of The Woodspurge:

    From perfect grief there need not be
    Wisdom or even memory:
    One thing then learnt remains to me,–
    The woodspurge has a cup of three.

  27. JohnABaptist says

    In evaluating the comments of any author about their works, I like to keep in mind that all written works are the confluence of three creative streams:

    The author’s conscious intent–that which they plotted, schemed, crafted, polished and thrust into existence–of this they can speak with great authority.

    The author’s subconscious contributions–that of which they thought not, yet which nonetheless flowed into their work–of this, the author is perhaps, of all readers, the least likely to be aware (any psychology mavens present please correct me if I am wrong).

    And finally, though secular analysts will disagree, there are sometimes contributions from an unseen hand directing the work to a greater purpose of which the author may, or may not be aware; a purpose even that sometimes the author may swear is not there at all, or is the exact opposite of the author’s intentions. (To pick an absurd example, look at the fictional success of “Springtime For Hitler” from “The Producers”; the fictional author was, as I recall, horrified that people loved the play for “the wrong reasons”.)

    Given that any author can only speak authoritatively of the first of these three influences, there is all manner of room left for discussion of whether a concept may have been introduced by the later two sources, regardless of what the author may say.

    Let the discussions continue.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  28. Is it possible that there’s more than one version of “Beata Beatrix”? But I did see it in Chicago and found it downright creepy.

    Laudum is tinture of opium. Rosetti himself had multiple additions.

    That DANTE’S INFERNO has been available on DVD. Who can forget the skeleton automaton?

  29. Perelandra, the Beatrix painting by Rossetti is at the Tate in London. You can read about it here:

    You can call it a lot of things, but I don’t think creepy is one of them – is this the painting that you saw? The lighting on Beatrix at her moment of death (when she looks as though there is glory on her face) reminds me of the lighting in the stage production of Les Miserables when – at the moment of death – the lights did not dim but grew brighter. The colors in the painting are vivid but appropriate. I supposed its possible the painting was traveling through Chicago, but it’s home is at the Tate Britain I think, now that the Tate is divided into two galleries, the other being that extraordinary Tate Modern on the South Bank.

    I think the painting is Lily-esque and the figures in the background are Dante and Rossetti himself. Snape certainly had an idealized love for Lily, but one that he was willing to stay true to and honor to his own moment of death.


  30. Actually it is Dante and Virgil the background of the Beata Beatrix. More later on that since I have a lot of Rossetti stuff in my library. My thesis paper on him was entitled: Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Women, Late Paintings and Poetry.

  31. Yes, it’s the same painting and it must’ve been on loan to Chicago. Anyway, I shuddered when I saw it.

  32. JohnABaptist says

    To All Who Are Confused by The Profusion of Beata Beatrix Paintings:

    Everyone is right!

    It hangs in the Tate, and in the Chicago Art Institute, and in five other places. The one in London is the original oil portrait began several years before Rossetti’s wife’s suicide. It was put aside, and not finished until after her death.

    It became so popular that Rossetti was commissioned to create a total of six replica’s. The one is Chicago was created for a William Graham. Of the replicas (all created by Rossetti’s hand, and so all authentic Rossetti creations) three were oil paintings, two were done in colored chalk and one in water color.

    You may find more information here.

  33. The reason I think it is Virgil and Dante, is because another of Rossetti’s paintings called Paolo and Francesca da Remini of 1855. In the center of the painting (a triptic) is Dante and Virgil holding hands and looking to the right side of the painting. It is said that this scene represents the couple floating through hell, because of their love affair and they were both married. In fact, this one appeared just before he painted the Beata Beatrix. He was a translater of Dante’s poems once and even changed his name from Gabriel Dante to Dante Gabriel, even though his family called him Gabriel. He considered himself a poet first and was obsessed with Dante and his love for Beatrice. Poetry accompanied many of his paintings. Subjects for paintings were: Dante, Shakepeare, Arthur, and medieval themes. The fact that Elizabeth and Beatrice died very young, were something they had in common. Women were always very important in his life, and his love for Lizzy was intense. I believe he shared those things in common with Dante. The women in his paintings became larger and more mannerist in style, that they are almost manly looking. It is also thought that Botticelli was a great influence on him.
    It is also been speculated that Beatrix’s head is thrown back in an ecstacy pose, as in spiritual. Her hands are open and ready to recieve the deep sleep of the poppy, brought to her by the red dove. The sundial is set to nine, suposedly when she died, but could also be a La Vita Nuova tip. Also in the back is a city, a viaduct, a bridge, thought to be Florence. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, but birds in general are thought to be the soul. There is a golden light in the back ground representing Christ as the light of the world. He said” he who believeth in me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12

    Can’t wait to learn more about Dante’s works, and therefore figure out Rossetti in the process.

    Thanks Zoe for the pictures and links.

  34. Oh, about the Dante’s Inferno video, it is excellent. But, my professor who was really into theater said that it was an “Art Ffiiillllm” of the 60’s. The sound is horrible, and it’s in black and white (not good for artists viewing it or for his colorful paintings) but the acting pretty good. The story is great because you get to see the way in which the artsit and Lizzy lived and worked. I wish for a remake, but am scared they would ruin all the facts and just focus on the audience drawing aspects of his life.

  35. Here is the part of La Vita Nuova that states what I think Rossetti understood by Dante:

    Whenever, alas! I remember
    that I may never again

    see that lady for whom I so grieve,

    so much grief is gathered in my heart

    by the grieving mind,

    that I say: ‘My spirit, why do you not go,

    since the torments you suffer

    in this world, which grows so hateful to you,

    bring such great thoughts of dread?’

    Then I call on Death,

    as to a sweet and gentle refuge:

    and I say: ‘Come to me’ with such love,

    that I am envious of all who die.

    And there is heard in my sighs

    a sound of pity,

    which calls on Death endlessly:

    to him all my desires turned,

    when my lady

    was taken by his cruelty:

    since the joy of her beauty,

    withdrawing itself from our sight,

    became a spiritual loveliness

    that through the Heavens sent

    the light of love, that greets the angels,

    and their high intellects makes

    subtly marvel, she is so gentle.

  36. “Now I’m at the point where I started: yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church. A protestant church here in Edinburgh. My husband is also raised protestant, but he comes from a very strict Scottish group. One where they couldn’t sing and talk”.

    I agree with Helen on this one and I’m scartching my head wondering how
    some are saying that JKR is mainly “spiritual” but not “religious”. The statement above from her answer to the question, “were you raised religiously”, would contradict that thought I would think. What I find so interesting is that JKR comes from a very nominally religious church backround and to have lived and been raised in a home with little to no mention of a God or church life other than the “Christmas” (one day a year is enough church for me) type experience, is a rare occurence for such a one to search and look deeper within the Faith and the Church itself at such a young age that she was at the time. True, she did become more critical of the Faith and of the “self-righteous” smugness of too many within the church, that has caused many to leave the Faith. Yes, those factors and the anti-religious attitude of university life can pull a person away from believing. So something stayed with JKR through those years and past the loss of her mother, looking for the answer perhaps for some comfort and meaning in her death and right along side we see her beloved main character, “Harry” facing the same trials and struggles. Where does she stand now? “Now I’m at the point where I started: yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church”. JKR states that she is back to the point where she started. I don’t think she would be regular “church” attender if she has problems with “church” people John, I think she is critical of a form of “self-righteous fundamentalism” that plagues parts of the church. She appears to champion “humility” over power, as we see played out in the roles of , Cornelius Fudge, Professor Umbridge representing the Ministry and the same struggle for power on the “dark” side represented by the likes of Grindelwald, Malfoy and Voldemort himself, but with Harry being the ultimate winner in the “defeat evil, but without the thirst for power” club.

    John, let me give a big “thank you, thank you” for the ” Pointers to Dante in Harry Potter” essay. I like many others on the HogPro Fan Club have not read Dante since I was in school. That brought such a renewed vision
    to the build up between Harry and Snape in chapter 32, you made my day sir!


  37. When I wrote that Ms. Rowling is “‘spiritual not religious,’ Christian but very uncomfortable with Church people” I wasn’t denying that she is a church goer. My point was that she is not Church-centered as Sayers or Goudge were. Her discomfort with the “lunatic fringe” of Christianity means that she will never play the part of the SNL “Church lady.” I apologize if the implication of “spiritual not religious” is, unfortunately but understandably, that the person described is disdainful of all organized religion and liturgical order. This is not the case with Ms. Rowling and I regret implying this was the case. Thank you, David, for pointing out my mistake in this.

    I think a much more interesting point (if equally non-controversial and obvious) to be made after reading this article was Ms. Rowling’s arc of belief is almost as fantastic as her stories. She is exceptional both in her departing from her family’s no-church habit as a young woman and in her returning to her adolescent faith and church habit as an adult after her university education. In each of these decisions for a life of formal worship, she was fighting the tide of family, peers, and culture.

    Doing the right rather the easy thing? I think so.

  38. I find Ms Rowling’s arc of belief fairly understandable. She departed from the nominal ways of her family and turned to genuine belief at pretty much the same age that Jews celebrate bar mitzvahs and many liturgical, infant-baptism traditions have the rite of confirmation. While both these rituals, AFAIK, are post-Biblical, I think they are very astutely timed to dovetail with the time in an adolescent’s life when they first are able to examine their family’s teachings and either reject them or claim them to themselves as their own, not just something inherited. In her case, effectvely she rejected her family’s “Religion doesn’t matter that much” teaching. It is, I admit, more impressive that she has returned to practicing faith after the Nineveh experience that University must have been, but then, God has guided his people through wildernesses and Babylons before.

  39. Thank you for the clearification on the “spiritual not religious” point in the interview.
    Yes, when I hear the term he/she is a “spiritual” person in todays culture, my thoughts immediately go to someone who has a private prayer time (or ritual) by themselves, without need of a group or congregation to worship with. I don’t for a minute think that even if JKR is attending a church service with her husband that she still does not “question” or in some cases I’m sure, research what is said from the pulpit to see for herself if what was stated is really historical and accurate. In the case
    of the foundation of her (and our) Faith, I hope she thouroughly investigated the historical accuracy of I Corinthians 15 regarding her quote directly in “Deathly Hallows”, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”, which speaks volumes into the last chapter of each one of the Harry Potter books, that like C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and J K Rowling,
    Lewis writes in “God in the Dock”, myth became Fact! “It happens at a particular date, at a particular place, followed by definable HISTORICAL consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris dying, nobody knows when or where, to a HISTORICAL Person”…..That Person is the one that JK Rowling points to in “Deathly Hallows” the Godric’s Hollow chapter who
    historically is pointed to on James and Lilly’s tombstone. He (Christ) is the one defeats the last enemy, death. All is well!


  40. Arabella Figg says

    I have to chime in with some others that I often feel like an intellectual beech leaf amongst the giant maple leaves here. My education was minimal, certainly not in classical matters. Maybe I could say in West Side Story parlance, “Hey! I’m depraved on account ‘a I’m deprived.” John, you and others here are educating me in previously unexplored areas. And sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming.

    I appreciate all the work you do and your enthusiasm in sharing it. I’ve had a very difficult month and have been able to visit here very little, which has been disappointing, because you’ve peppered us with so many interesting threads I have yet to tackle, such as the quizzes.

    I only had time to barely skim the Dante thread, intending to read it later when I could absorb it. I’ve never read Dante, so it feels rather intimidating, but I will read the thread. What I’ve done in my limited time is take the “easy” threads in which I can participate to “keep my hand in,” so to speak. It’s not that I cared about their subject matter more.

    Please keep the good stuff coming. I appreciate it.

    Even the kitties are mad at me for not giving them enough attention…

    P.S. In terms of Dylan and authors keeping the mystery, I reflect upon acid-dropper John Lennon’s song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and his ridiculous claim that it was inspired by his little boy so-titled drawing. Suuuure. No other explanation possible for the “plasticene porters with looking-glass ties” and “the girl with kaleidescope eyes.” Hahahahaha…

  41. Arabella Figg says

    It’s also occurred to me that Rowling could not discuss most facets of her books for 17 years, not even with family. Perhaps the relief from that strain has made her rather giddy and garrulous.

    I don’t mind the “what happened to who” stuff she’s been sharing. It doesn’t matter that Neville and Hannah had a backstory in the books. How many marry their high school sweethearts? All WizWorld people would have opportunity to connect through the years.

    For another example of sharing more than we wanted to know, Paul McCartney recently revealed that a favorite love song of many, “Got To Get You Into My Life,” was about pot. Gee, thanks, Paul, TMI.

    Kitties never give out TMI; they never give enough I….

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