A few days ago, J.K. Rowling revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay. Or so the world claims.
Does this change anything about how I view the books? No, it doesn’t. As I’ve said before, I dislike the books not for the moral message they send – which, I think, is not a particularly profound or important one, but which isn’t heretical – but for their lack of decent writing or mythopoeia. What Rowling revealed doesn’t change any of this. Wait a second – “You’re a Catholic! You’re against homosexuality!” Both true. But there’s three reasons we can’t say that this revelation makes the books into homosexual propaganda. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
First of all, let’s say that Dumbledore had been clearly gay from the inception of the series. Or that he had been revealed to be gay in, say, the 4th book. Does this mean the book is in favor of homosexuality? We’re not saying that Dumbledore was in a homosexual “relationship”, or even that he considered his “gayness” to be an integral part of his identity. We’re just saying that at some point he confessed to Harry, or McGonagall, or some other character – perhaps his brother – that he was attracted to men not women. What’s wrong with this? The truth is that some men are attracted to other men not women. We don’t gain anything by ignoring this. Saying this shows that the books are homosexual propaganda is like saying that a book in which a character is tempted to have sex with someone else outside of marriage is promoting fornication and/or adultery.
So really, as long as the books aren’t making an argument that Dumbledore should have embraced his homosexuality and that he would have been better off doing so, I don’t have a problem with it. I really wouldn’t have had a problem even if Dumbledore had actually embraced his homosexuality in the books, so long as he wasn’t presented as being right to do so. It’s not like there have never been good books in which characters have committed adultery or something like that. Hell, Dante’s Inferno is full of sinners.
I suppose an argument could be made that, even if having Dumbledore gay isn’t bad for Harry Potter as a piece of literature, it’s bad for it as a piece of children’s literature. To which I say – why is it bad for children’s literature to contain mention of homosexuality when it’s acceptable for it to go on endlessly about teenage relationships, hooking up, ‘snogging’, etc? I’d disqualify it as children’s literature for the latter offense much sooner than I’d disqualify it for the former. And it’s not children’s literature, whatever people say about it. Nor is it adult literature. It’s just bad literature.
Onward and upwards. The second reason this really isn’t a big deal is that, as the facts stand, Rowling didn’t make this clear in the books. There’s no evidence that Dumbledore is gay. None whatsoever. Why does it matter what Rowling says about it after the fact? If C.S. Lewis had said, after publication of the Chronicles of Narnia, that “oh, by the way, Aslan is really a homosexual”, would that mean that he was right, that Aslan actually was gay, and that the Chronicles of Narnia was any less of a Christian allegory? I would say no. It would mean that C.S. Lewis was a deranged lunatic who didn’t understand what he had written, but it wouldn’t change the meaning of the text.
Of course, J.K. Rowling probably wrote down somewhere that Dumbledore was gay, and how is that different from how J.R.R. Tolkien (I love how all of these authors go by their initials) had the entire mythology of Middle-Earth written down in my notes but never published them? Since the Silmarillion was never completed, can we really say that when Frodo yells out “A Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”, what he says is a call to Varda the Star-Queen, rather than just some random string of syllables? After all, the explanation of that phrase isn’t contained in the Lord of the Rings itself.
This brings me to my third point. There’s a fundamental difference between elements of the story – who did what when and where – and elements of character motivation. Authors often leave elements of both types unexplained in their stories. The difference is that the author usually knows the nature of the story elements, even if he leaves them unmentioned. This is true especially when the narration is third-person omniscient. The narrator may leave things unmentioned for whatever reason, but the author is assumed to know what happened, to keep the story coherent so that if/when an explanation is provided it will be coherent, and to have the ability and right to go in later and write a sequel, prequel, whatever explaining those events.
With character motivation, though, we have no reason to believe that the author knows any more than we do about the subject. The author does not know the character’s mind. (Even with first-person narration, the author is just saying that “this person said this” – he’s not guaranteeing that what the person says is what he believes. You could easily have a first-person narration where the speaker was deceptive.) I think Rowling is aware of this at a certain level – observe what she said. She didn’t say Dumbledore was gay, she said “I always saw Dumbledore as gay”. Did Dumbledore ever do anything that conclusively showed he was homosexual? Rowling has said she “thinks” he fell in love with Grindelwald, and that’s why he went along with his plan. But Dumbledore’s actions make just as much sense if you assume that he was just friends with Grindelwald and respected him. She is in no better a position than we are to speculate on what’s going on in Dumbledore’s head.
Basically, it’s often said that fictional characters take on a life of their own independent from the author. This statement has troubling implications, which I may explore at a later date, but at a certain level it’s true. In the stories I’ve written, I always have an idea of why my characters do what they do, but these explanations are always on the level of how they would justify their actions to themselves or to an outside observer. They’re not the actual causes of their actions. This makes perfect sense, when you think about it – I don’t understand my own subconscious any better.