By Michael Gerson
Friday, October 26, 2007
There is something inherently odd about considering the sex lives of fictional characters in children's books. Just how hearty were the Hardy boys? And we will not even speculate about Heidi's reclusive grandfather.
But J.K. Rowling has forced such considerations upon us with her announcement that Albus Dumbledore, the beloved headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is gay. The news, delivered by the author after a Carnegie Hall reading, was received with gasps in the audience and around the world. The popularity of the Harry Potter books is unprecedented; the final installment, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," sold 11 million copies in 24 hours. For many fans, the characters of the series have more real blood in their veins than all the wax figures of politics and entertainment.
The Dumbledore revelation was taken by many Christian conservatives as additional confirmation that Rowling is a corrupter of youth. What could be more subversive than the combination of witchcraft and homosexual rights?
Having undertaken the monumental task of reading "The Deathly Hallows" aloud to my boys each night -- the book runs 759 pages -- I am certain this critical reaction is badly mistaken.
Ruling out magic in children's literature would, of course, completely depopulate Narnia and Middle Earth, leaving just silent forest. The use of magic in fairy tales recurs for a reason; it reveals another reality -- what C.S. Lewis called the "deep magic" -- just beneath the surface of our days. Magic is usually the way that children are introduced to the idea of transcendence.
As to Dumbledore, it would have been disturbing if Rowling had used her final book to argue for some baldly political agenda -- if the Hogwarts headmaster and professor Snape had married, for example, in a touching civil ceremony. Whatever your view of homosexual rights, this would have been an abuse of parental trust, the exploitation of an unfair advantage. But this is not what happened. Dumbledore's sexual identity was an assumption Rowling brought to her writing, not explicit in the text itself. And the implicit reference is to a tragic, youthful infatuation with an evil character whom Dumbledore is later called upon to defeat in a duel. "I think a child will see a friendship," says Rowling, "and I think a sensitive adult may well understand that it was an infatuation."
That said, tolerance is one of the main themes of the Harry Potter books. In a marvelous social comparison, lycanthropy is treated as a kind of chronic disease, with werewolves subject to discrimination as if they had AIDS. The political ideology of Lord Voldemort is Nazi-like -- racist and totalitarian. "Pure-bloods" -- those with untainted magical lineage -- oppress those of mixed parentage, called "half-bloods," who are brought before show trials and carted off to Azkaban prison. As the series progresses, the body count of this ideology builds. Like much great children's literature, the series takes evil, hatred and death quite seriously.
But the really subversive element of the Harry Potter books is the answer they offer to death. Voldemort believes that death must be mastered and "eaten" -- resisted through Dark Arts that always involve exploitation and violence. Harry Potter, in contrast, is protected from death as an infant by the voluntary, courageous sacrifice of his mother's life. And Harry is called upon to repeat that sacrifice. The portion of "The Deathly Hallows" in which young Harry realizes that he is "marked for slaughter" and accepts the necessity of his own death for the sake of love is moving -- and that love becomes a kind of magic that is stronger than death itself. For every reader, this is an affirmation of friendship, loyalty and courage. For my children, it is also the symbol of a greater sacrifice.
These, of course, are central themes of religion, particularly Christian religion. And the question naturally arises: How can a book series about tolerance also be a book series about religion? This represents a misunderstanding of both tolerance and faith. For many, tolerance does not result from the absence of moral convictions but from a positive religious teaching about human dignity. Many believe -- not in spite of their faith but because of it -- that half-bloods, werewolves and others should be treated with kindness and fairness. Above all, believers are called to love, even at the highest cost.
Near the end of the series, the Hogwarts headmaster explains to Harry, "The true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying." That is wisdom, whatever Dumbledore's youthful inclinations.