Rowling Outs Dumbledore

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. 🙂

6 thoughts on “Rowling Outs Dumbledore

  1. Very well said. I think it adds depth to the Dumbledore character and I like the way she did it.

    CJ: Thanks for the compliment; I just saw some of the criticism and thought it was way over the mark, and hopefully it made an interesting article. 😉

    Rowling does everything so carefully; it adds depth, and is intertwined with the story, but subtly enough that you don’t notice it unless you’re looking. Very well done.

  2. I enjoyed your posting and your comments insightful. I speculated too about Dumbledore’s sexuality. In the last book some of her analogies seemed subtle. After reading the book, I wondered about Professor Mcgonagall’s (Spelling) because of one of the references made that made me think that she and Professor Sprout had a relationship.

    CJ: Thanks, Tara. Glad you liked it! I think a lot of people had some feeling about Dumbledore’s sexuality, if only because it’s not focused on; usually that’s for a reason, and here Rowling uses it to make Dumbledore a more tragic figure, and it almost becomes a plea for tolerance. It’s very cleverly (and subtly) done.

    I wondered about that with McGonagall and Sprout as well; she rarely talks about any of the professors’ private lives. But all of the adults have something sad about them; even Snape’s infatuation with Lily makes his character more tragic. It’s like the adult world has taken away their innocence.

  3. I can’t disagree more. I think your evidence of hints that Dumbledore was gay in the book are a huge stretch. Plus the Potter books aren’t Rowlings anymore. When she put down her pen she relinquished control of the characters. Now the series belongs to the readers. If she really wanted to make Dumbledore gay she would have written it into the story but she didn’t. Taking a true stand on an issue is tough and I understand that making Dumbledore gay in the Potter series may have effected book sales, but if she’s going to take a stand then take a stand. All she’s doing by making the statement now is lowering her credibility as a writer and insulting the gay community.

    CJ: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I see where you’re coming from but I still don’t think that’s what Rowling was trying to do. IMO, the books are and always will be JK Rowlings’; they have become a part of the culture, but they’re still her property, her creation. She’s not required to follow the wishes of her fans, only to tell the story she wants to tell. That’s true for Shakespeare, JRR Tolkien, George Lucas, anyone, and certainly for Rowling too.

    And I think she drops some pretty strong hints. Not just his lack of relationship with women, but several lines in Deathly Hallows in particular. Page 573: “And then, of course, he came… Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me.”

    And page 293: “Neither Dumbledore nor Grindelwald ever seems to have referred to this brief boyhood friendship in later life. However, there can be no doubt that Dumbledore delayed, for some five years of turmoil, fatalities, and disappearances, his attack upon Gellert Grindelwald.” That’s what I mean about Dumbledore feeling responsible.

    That indicates a friendship, but suggests more, particularly to adult readers; that’s what I mean about Rowling being subtle. Harry Potter has never been about using themes to overwhelm the story, so IMO there was no reason for her to make a stronger point of it in her work. It just forms a part of the backdrop of the story, the fabric of the HP world. To me that’s stronger and more effective than confronting us with a character’s sexuality; it would just draw attention she didn’t want. But again I can see why people might feel that way, so I’ll just have to agree to disagree. And thanks again for your thoughts.

  4. I’m astonished that most people did not conclude as I did long ago the Dumbledor was gay. And the fact that so many people care a fig about what a fictional character, who is never depicted in a sexual encounter, sexual preference may or may not be is IMO mind boggling.

    CJ: I agree, TT. Rowling didn’t make it too obvious but she dropped hints, and I thought most adult readers would be able to read between the lines. And this reaction just amazes me too; I don’t care what people do in their private lives, let alone in the private life of a fictional character! But I guess it’s just testament to the popularity of Harry Potter; it’s a part of the culture, for better or worse. 😉

  5. We can, of course, put another slant on Rowling’s declaration. That, with no more Harry Potter books in the immediate pipeline, she’s kept an arsenal of controversies regarding her characters back, to be let out cleverly, one at a time, to keep mass media interest in her.

    CJ: Oh I like that – very devious. 😉 I think Rowling definitely wants to keep Harry Potter in the spotlight; with the ending revealed but another two films still to be made, there’s reason to want to keep it in the public consciousness. I’m not sure she’s said anything other than what she’s felt all along, though; I still think it’s consistent with the world she’s created.

    What Rowling’s really done is to take a beloved character and make people think about him in a different way; she hasn’t “confronted” people as much as asked the question, and I think that’s a good way of doing it… even if she is getting some publicity as well. Mark Harris wrote an interesting article on it which probably says it better than I can. Thanks for the comment, Anthony; much appreciated. 🙂

  6. I agree that subtle remarks were dropped about his friendship with Grindelwald. Who would write notes to their pal at midnight? A lover, that’s understandable.

    I actually thought that McGonagall & Sprout had a relationship.

    I have no problem with Dumbledore being gay – his sexual orientation will not change how we (at least those that are not bigots) feel about that character. Actually, this may make people more tolerant of gays (I hope) & that would be a good thing.

    What irks me is this. If Rowling wanted to throw only subtle hints in the book, she shouldn’t go around extrapolating the unsaid, speling things in black & white. She has now made her pronouncements part of the story – if that’s what she wanted to do, she should have made it more obvious in the book. But, she didn’t.

    That really bothers me. Now, she has ruined the subtlety of the book.

    CJ: Hi Priya, thanks for stopping by. I see what you mean about Rowling’s statement making the themes more visible in the story… now that’s it’s been confirmed, it’s almost impossible to read the books without picking up on the clues. But for adult readers, does it really make a difference? If people already thought he was gay and saw that in the books, does confirming it change anything they didn’t already believe?

    My view on including themes is that it’s fine as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the story, and I don’t think Rowling has done that. It makes his sexuality more obvious, yes, and that does change the story – but does that make the message less subtle? Or less poignant? My view is that it’s the message that matters, not the way it’s delivered, and her plea for tolerance is still subtle, even if Dumbledore’s sexuality is more obvious.

    But I do see what you mean. It’s a difficult balance, isn’t it? How do you balance subtlety with drawing attention to an important part of your work? In my view she has done it, but I know for some people she’s gone too far… but that’s actually why I respect what she did – she knew she’d get flack for it, but did it anyway. Someone like JK Rowling doesn’t need to do that, but it was obviously important to her. It’ll just be interesting to see what she does next! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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