Oct. 23, 2007 | You've probably heard the news by now, since it's been splattered everywhere from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly to the Associated Press: Albus Dumbledore, the late, great headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was gay.
If you find it curious that this news would make the headline ticker on CNN, you're not crazy, given that Dumbledore is a 150-something wizard who is not, in fact, real. It is also true that the Harry Potter series, in which Dumbledore is a hero, ended with the publication of its final book more than three months ago. How could there be an October surprise about a character whose tale concluded -– supposedly definitively -– in late July?
We have this revelation thanks to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, currently on a reading tour of the United States. Dumbledore's gayness is one of the pieces of bonus information about her characters that she's been dispensing steadily since the publication of her magical swan song, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Thanks to Rowling's loose lips, the Potter universe continues to make news even after its end. In her desire to control and describe it, she's turning a modern assumption about what authorship means inside out. Whoever said the author was dead sure hadn't meant Joanne Rowling.
Rowling outed Dumbledore at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 19, in response to a fan who asked her if Potter's powerful mentor, who believed so mightily in the power of love, had ever been in love himself. "My truthful answer to you," Rowling said, was that "I always thought of Dumbledore as gay." According to reports, this sentence drew an immediate ovation from the crowd. Rowling continued by explaining that Albus had, as a young man, fallen for the talented wand-wielder Gellert Grindelwald. Rowling's discussion of their bond, an important plot point in her last Harry Potter novel, was incisive and moving; she told the audience that Dumbledore's youthful passion for Grindelwald blinded him, as it does so many of us mere muggles, to Grindelwald's flaws, leaving him shattered when he discovered Grindelwald to be seriously evil. Rowling further revealed that at a recent read-through of the script for the sixth Harry Potter movie, she'd had to nix a line of dialogue about Dumbledore's affection for a young woman. She said she'd passed the screenwriter a note reading "Dumbledore's gay!"
Perhaps Rowling's decision to make Dumbledore's sexuality explicit was born out of her frustration that few readers, screenwriters included, picked up on her hints, which were particularly heavy in the final volume. The clues were subtle enough, or maybe our expectations heteronormative enough, that -- although it was a question I talked about extensively with fellow readers this summer -- the topic did not seem to get a lot of national critical attention in the weeks after the book's release.
But a close reading would reveal that "The Deathly Hallows" was shot through with intimations about the headmaster's sexuality, and not just in reference to his love for Grindelwald, which Rowling describes as a teenage passion that makes the otherwise responsible young wizard forget his family and go uncharacteristically batty. The book kicks off with an obituary by Dumbledore's school chum Elphias Doge, who describes his first meeting with the teenaged Dumbledore as a moment of "mutual attraction" and who later tells Harry that he knew the wizard "as well as anyone." Then there is the lurid language of a scurrilous postmortem biography of Dumbledore, in which writer Rita Skeeter wonders about the close relationship between the headmaster and his young pupil: "It's been called unhealthy, even sinister ... there is no question that Dumbledore took an unnatural interest in Potter." Here Rowling is aping the leering, speculative tone of news stories about gay priests, Cub Scout leaders, and teachers accused of inappropriate relationships with their charges.
When she gets to the Grindelwald relationship, Rowling is clear from the moment Harry spots a photo of young Dumbledore with a "handsome companion." In the shot, the boys are "laughing immoderately with their arms around each other's shoulders." A neighbor describes the relationship between Albus and Gellert: "The boys took to each other at once ... even after they'd spent all day in discussion -- both such brilliant young boys, they got on like a cauldron on fire -- I'd sometimes hear an owl tapping at Gellert's bedroom window, delivering a letter from Albus."
And then there is the publication of an original letter from Dumbledore to Grindelwald, in which the wizard chides his friend for getting kicked out of his foreign school, concluding, "But I do not complain, because if you had not been expelled, we would never have met." When Harry has a chance to chat with the deceased headmaster toward the end of the book, Dumbledore tells him his version of the story: "Then, of course, he came ... Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me ... Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was? I think I did, but I closed my eyes."
There's a very cheerful side to Rowling's decision to directly address Dumbledore's homosexuality. Throughout the series, she has been diligent not only in her narrative exploration of bigotry and intolerance, but also in her commitment to the inclusion of characters of different races, cultures, classes and degrees of physical beauty. It would, in fact, have been a glaring omission had none of the inhabitants of her world been homosexual.
It's great to see the nonchalance and joy with which her news is being received in many sectors. Perhaps getting an ovation at Carnegie Hall wasn't a surprise, but I first heard about the revelation from a 9-year-old friend at a wedding I was attending, who exuberantly announced, "Dumbledore is gay!" without a hint of complaint. When I asked whether the information surprised her, she said, "Well, I always thought he loved [Minerva] McGonagall, but I guess he only loved her like a sister."
But while it's all well and good to see kids giddy at the news of their hero's homosexuality, Rowling's interest in making things perfectly clear (or queer, to borrow queer theorist Alex Doty's pun), not only about Dumbledore but also about the future and livelihood of all of her characters, provokes thorny questions about the role and responsibilities of an author once she has concluded her text.
Since "Deathly Hallows" was published, Rowling has shared with everyone who would listen details about the unwritten fate of her characters: that Harry and Ron are aurors at the Ministry of Magic; that Hermione is "pretty high up" at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; that Luna Lovegood is a naturalist who marries Rolf Scamander; that Ginny Weasley plays Seeker for the Holyhead Harpies before becoming a sports writer at the Daily Prophet.
At Carnegie Hall, Rowling told the crowd that Neville Longbottom, Hogwarts herbology professor, marries former Hufflepuff Hannah Abbott, who becomes the landlady of the wizarding watering hole Leaky Cauldron, and that Hagrid never gets married. Perhaps most disconcerting was Rowling's assertion that what Harry's conflicted aunt Petunia would have said to him at their parting, at which Rowling wrote this tantalizing passage –- "for a moment Harry had the strangest feeling that she wanted to say something to him: She gave him an odd, tremulous look and seemed to teeter on the edge of speech, but then, with a little jerk of her head, she bustled out of the room..." –- was, "I do know what you're up against, and I hope it's OK."
Oh. That's too bad. Because in my imagination, Petunia was going to say something much more exciting than that.
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