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Can Rowling say that Dumbledore is gay?

October 24, 2007

Christians have had a range of responses to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, from “It’s evil witchcraft!” to “It’s Christian allegory”.  Now that she has outed the wizard Dumbledore as gay, there are various kinds of backlash.  One of the more interesting kinds is that Rowling has no right to decide if Dumbledore is gay:

Nonsense. There is no evidence of it in the books and the books (at this point) are all that matter. I have always thought the books deeply Christian not because Rowling told me so (which she recently confirmed), but because the text is full of Christian images and ideas… No offense to an excellent author, but Dumbledore no longer belongs only to Rowling.

I’ve seen this reaction in a lot of places, and I’d ignore it except it always annoys me when literary critics second-guess the author.  It’s presumptuous to second-guess another person’s motives in everyday life and more so in literature. Don’t you hate it when someone says to you; “You only did that because you (are a woman, a man, white, rich, poor, atheist, Christian, hate critics, whatever.)?”  What the hell do they know?

What they apparently don’t know is that it is standard practice for most fiction authors to create complete profiles of their characters before they even begin writing the story.  Here’s author and writing instructor Richard Peck in Fiction Is Folks:

Please note that I rarely describe John Xavier McCarthy as a physical entity.  Color of eyes and hair, height, and so forth are not important.  What matters is the inner man, the mind, the soul, and his vanishing values…

Needless to say, when you outline a personal history… none of these notes goes into a manuscript… The notes exist for your use only.  Now, once this homework is complete, you can begin Chapter One with your typewriter going at full clack… Please permit Peck to urge you to outline blueprints, such as this, of people… until you create one individual who is so shiny, so sad, so irresistible and fascinating that you fall in love.  And you want the world to hug him and hold on.

Who’ll be pleased if you sweat out this homework?  You will.

Perhaps a chapter such as this one should have been entitled “How to avoid writer’s block”, which is staring at the empty page in your typewriter.  my guess is that people who have this problem don’t yet know their hero’s character. 

Character building is outlining.

So start with that blank sheet of paper and, instead of heading it Chapter One, outline Character A.  Answer these questions about him:

  1. What’s his name?

  2. Where was he born and raised?
  3. What is his religion an ethnicity?
  4. Briefly (in order not to bog yourself down with cosmetics) what does he look like?  Fat, thin, tall, short, muscular, flabby, gray, bald?
  5. What does he believe in?
  6. Where has he failed or triumphed?
  7. Is he married, single, gay, divorced, or shy?
  8. Most important of all, what kind of work does he do?  And then, is he happy or discontented with it?
  9. What are his hobbies?  Sports?  TV?
  10. Is he neat or is he a slob?  To establish this on paper, describe his dress, his closet, a drawer of his desk and the trunk of his car…
    (List goes on for ten more items)

Writing is work and preparation.  But if you take the time to outline a character thoroughly your writing will suddenly become far easier and much more fun.  Your well-defined hero will act, talk, and think so rapidly that your typewriting fingers won’t be able to keep pace. 

Remember, when the question is ‘what am I going to write about?’ the answer is who?  Build your character. (Excerpted from pages 20, 21, and 22, emphasis mine)

I have seen this approach in a number of books on fiction writing and odds are, you’ll encounter it if you ever take a course in writing fiction.  The author won’t include all those details in the story, but they enable his or her imagination as to what the character will do.

The short answer is that J.K. Rowling very likely decided that Dumbledore was gay before Harry ever got on the train to Hogwarts.  She may have had her characters’ biographies only in her head but it’s just as likely that somewhere is a sheaf of written character sketches (which would be worth a fortune on auction at Christie’s if she hasn’t burned them).

It’s part of his character, sure, but at least in the early volumes, she was writing books for kids, about a school for kids.  At that stage of the narrative, there’s no relevance to Dumbledore’s gayness or straightness.  And as Harry grows up, his world (like our own) might begin to encompass more mature themes like his mentor’s sexuality. 

Or it may never occur to him to wonder, but the author knows anyway.  Does the critic know?  Certainly not.  But here’s the kicker to all this; it hardly matters.  With the exception of a few private moments that are none of our business anyway, a gay person is just like anyone else.  He/She may be kind, cantankerous, cautious, creative, conservative – whatever – in a given situation.  They don’t go around all day thinking; “Hmm, since I’m gay, how will I be different from everyone else in the room?”

One thing I’ve noticed about anti-gay Christians is they are loathe to imagine that God made someone gay.  They want it to be a choice made by the person, almost as if the author created a male character and then was suddenly surprised when that character passionately kissed another man.  Heaven forbid!  True, authors often find their stories going in unexpected directions but most of the time, those directions make sense… in light of the characters involved.

Categories: Reviews
  1. Mrs SEB
    October 24, 2007 at 23:20 | #1

    You said it all.

  2. james old guy
    October 25, 2007 at 06:34 | #2

    I just tune the far right and far left out, they both have walked the yellow brick road a few many times.

  3. October 25, 2007 at 10:52 | #3

    Well put DOF, and was what I was thinkin on the subject. Thanks for the info about Richard Peck. That should clear up any confusion on the issue.

  4. October 25, 2007 at 12:04 | #4

    I’ll take the opposite end. Post-modernist literary theory would argue that, although Rowling wrote Dumbledore as homosexual, he is also a Christian, an atheist, a wiccan, and a warlock. Regardless of her preference, the impact is on the reader and the reader creates the characters in their own mind, crafts their backstories and makes assumptions on their motivation. If you want to see this in action, watch the movies and the dissapointment or glee people have with the way characters are fleshed out on the screen.

  5. October 25, 2007 at 12:28 | #5

    Another wise thought by a wise man.  And a damn good reason to keep reading you Dof.  You can flesh out a subject interesting.

  6. October 25, 2007 at 12:56 | #6

    the impact is on the reader and the reader creates the characters in their own mind

    So does the work of the artist belong to the artist, or to those that see, hear, read, etc this work? While Dumbledore is certainly a homosexual, a Christian, an Atheist, A Wiccan, and a Warlock, he is a creation of the artist. What would make one presume that a spectator understands the creation of the artist better than the artist him/herself?

  7. October 25, 2007 at 13:33 | #7

    Actually the reality that has ultimate ontological primacy is that Dumbledore is fictional.  Certainly the reader’s reality is primary for that reader, but the starting point for the character is the writer’s reality.  And will be each time a new reader opens the book.

    I am amazed when someone claims to understand the inner motives of a writer they’ve never met, better than that writer supposedly understands themselves.

  8. Ted
    October 25, 2007 at 15:39 | #8

    So does the work of the artist belong to the artist, or to those that see, hear, read, etc this work? While Dumbledore is certainly a homosexual, a Christian, an Atheist, A Wiccan, and a Warlock, he is a creation of the artist.

    Why do we get upset when a work of art is destroyed? Often you hear this thing about how “art belongs to all of us so we need to protect it; fund it”. Frankly, from my existential point of view, people are welcome to beat the crap out of The Pieta, with ballpeen hammers. Apparently, it don’t belong to me unless someone is weeping the blues.

    What would make one presume that a spectator understands the creation of the artist better than the artist him/herself?

    Because we internalize. Particularly with art.

  9. October 25, 2007 at 15:53 | #9

    (Makes mental note not to visit Art Institute with Ted… ;-) )

  10. Ted
    October 25, 2007 at 16:14 | #10

    Makes mental note not to visit Art Institute with Ted…

    How about the creationism nauseaum?

    Oh, I’m a softie on this kind of art crap, that’s why I don’t fall for the “art belongs to the artist” notion. If you (the artist) don’t care to share it (art) with us, but want it all to yourself, then keep it in your garage. But in some sense this is similar to the celebrities bemoaning their celebrity. I paid the cash—if I want to internalize the meaning of “Suite Madame Blue”, let it be.

    It would have been better in my mind if Rowling hadn’t outed Dumbledore for her personal reasons. The appropriate place to make the statement was between the pages of the last book with some hot and heavy, well oiled action.

    That would have placed her right up there with Salman Rushdie.

  11. October 25, 2007 at 16:42 | #11

    The appropriate place to make the statement was between the pages of the last book with some hot and heavy, well oiled action. That would have placed her right up there with Salman Rushdie.

    :coolsmile:  :lol:

    I paid the cash—if I want to internalize the meaning of “Suite Madame Blue”, let it be.

    Webs and I were just talking about that a few minutes ago, sort of an ex-blog-parte’ conversation.  As far as I am concerned there are levels of meaning and the one that matters most to the reader/viewer/listener is the internalized one.  If I want to hear Bach’s “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” as an Irish jig (try playing it 2x speed sometime) that’s my business.

    Here’s one gay guy who wishes Dumbledore had stayed in the closet.  I think he’s a bit too worked up over the wizard’s taciturnity.

  12. October 26, 2007 at 15:29 | #12

    Update: you can always count on TheOnion to put things in perspective

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