I’ve just been looking at the news at the SMH website and this story caught my eye. Apparently JK Rowling has been on an “Open Book Tour” of the United States (first I’ve heard of it; does she come to Aus for these as well?) and during one of her appearances at Carnegie Hall, she was asked by a fan if Dumbledore finds “true love”. According to SMH, Rowling’s response was “Dumbledore is gay”.
So the criticism began; right-wing groups criticising Rowling for making homosexuality seem “normal” to young readers; some gay groups criticising her for not making Dumbledore’s sexuality more obvious. Even John Cloud writing in Time seemed a bit perplexed: “Shouldn’t I be happy to learn he’s gay? Yes, except: Why couldn’t he tell us himself?“
Now I’m perplexed. Some religious people being upset I can understand; I can see how they might find the HP series uncomfortable with its magic and sorcery, and this just adds to it. But I don’t understand this idea that Dumbledore’s sexuality should have been more obvious. The reason I like the books is that Rowling uses them as an allegory for many issues – war, racism, bigotry, hatred, tolerance – but doesn’t hit us over the head with them. She’s more subtle than that; she makes her characters human and works it into the story. Much as I love Narnia, Rowling is not Lewis with Aslan/Christ; her plot doesn’t just stop to interject a belief. Instead she works it up over time, and I think that way has reached many more people.
It’s not really anything new anyway. Dumbledore’s sexuality is one of the worst kept secrets in the HP mythos. Dumbledore has always been something of a mystery and he rarely seems to have any important relationships with women, except with his mother and sister. And his relationship with Grindelwald seemed like more than a friendship, given the impact it had on Dumbledore’s life. To say that there’s never been any indication of this in the books is just wrong.
I think the way Rowling chose to use it is clever as well. She used it to show Dumbledore’s weakness. “Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was… he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him.” John Cloud took it to mean that because Dumbledore (allegedly) never had another affair, that he saw his homosexuality as shameful and inappropriate. “As far as we know, Dumbledore had not a single fully realized romance in 115 years of life. That’s pathetic, and a little creepy. It’s also a throwback to an era of pop culture when the only gay characters were those who committed suicide or were murdered (as Dumbledore was).” I disagree. I think Rowling meant it to show the trappings of power. Dumbledore was blinded to Grindelwald’s evil by love, and was attracted to power himself. He felt responsible (that feeling is palpable in Deathly Hallows) and didn’t trust himself to feel for another person; that makes his story more tragic.
I think it’s a very courageous thing Rowling has done. She knew she’d get flack, but she’s confirmed rumours that most fans expected were true anyway. And it also highlights the themes in her books and makes it a lot harder to dismiss them as juvenile fiction; as the series moved forward, the themes became darker, and this just adds another layer. This isn’t C-3PO and R2-D2 or Tolkien’s undercurrent of homoeroticism in The Lord of the Rings; Dumbledore is a full, rich character, and I think that’s a step forward for gay characters and literature.
It’s funny, though, that such a big deal is being made over one character. But that just shows how much Harry Potter has become part of the culture and how beloved the characters are. Now I just wonder what she’ll write next? Could she even write it with her own name? Perhaps she might need a pseudonym; otherwise how can anything stand on it’s own? It’ll be interesting to see. 🙂