Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Rowling, religion, and Harry Potter

Get Religion’s David Pulliam calls our attention to this article in which J.K. Rowling confesses her faith (no surprise to me). Of course, people will probably pay more attention to this story.

Discussions - 21 Comments

Both stories are certainly interesting. But I suspect that you aren't pleased that her books are now open participants in further mainstreaming (or whatever term you wish to use) of homosexuality?

Above and beyond the gay stuff, though, I would guess that you're less than thrilled that Rowling the Christian also told her readers that her book series is a "'prolonged argument for tolerance' and urged her fans to 'question authority.'"

The books are surely not a prolonged argument for the toleration of genuine evil, are they? Indeed, those who refused to believe in the presence of evil tend to come to a bad end.

Since when does admonishing people to "question authority" qualify one as a left-winger?

It is such a good series that it can be read with pleasure by people who see different things in it. Is there really a right way to read a book? Might it not be the case that the series acts as sorting hat? That when we read a book we participate in its judgements and argue with the author over her own descriptions? If Rowling was trully a great author could she write a series called Draco Malfoy or Severus Snape such that one felt them to be the heroes? Are we all predisposed to praise Gryffindor and if so what about Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slitherin?

I haven't a clue what Rowling means by a prolonged argument for tolerance, unless it is a sort of underlying question within the book concerning the extent to which other people are capable of harboring deep seated feelings and thoughts that we would wish to think could not be genuine. How different the whole story might have been had Severus Snape won out over James for Lily's heart?

In other words: To read a book is to wear a sorting hat.

"Since when does admonishing people to 'question authority' qualify one as a left-winger?"

I never claimed that Rowling is a left-winger, but it certainly seems that while she may be a Christian (and she sounds like an asset to that faith) she has also uttered approvingly a couple of phrases that I think could safely be categorized as red flags for the Christian right (a group she's quick to distance herself from). And surely the remaining portion of the Christian right that hasn't rejected her books thus far - for a variety of far-fetched reasons - are not thrilled that she's included a gay character into the books.

And when she said that she considers the book series "a prolonged argument for tolerance" I really, really doubt that she means tolerance/"toleration of genuine evil."

I don't know, John. I think I prefer books in which you know that Boromir is ridden with corruption and a lust for power and glory, Samwise is a true and trusted friend who will follow you into Hell, and Aragorn is the wise and just king who is afraid of his own human weaknesses and pursues virtue.

As do I Tony...but I always immagined myself as Bilbo Baggins. Which means not altogether different from Golum. But in the Hobbit The ring of power(gyges?) is like Harry's invisibility cloak...not fully revealed as a thing of evil but rather a means for grand adventure and cunning escape. The question is which deathly Hallows is best? Hermione says the cloak, Ron says the Wand and Harry says the stone...but in the end Harry keeps the cloak, hides the wand and doesn't bother to go looking for the stone he misplaced. Which of the three Perevell brothers was wisest?

Getting back to Hogwarts and the idea of the sorting hat...why are the students grouped into Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Griffindor if one path is clearly preferable to the others and the Slytherin's are clearly evil? Or perhaps neither group is inherently evil or good but the Slytherin's ballance Griffindor and Ravenclaw is ballanced by Hufflepuff. If Harry is the Griffindor hero, what then is the convincing/competing Ravenclaw Hufflepuff or Slytherin ideal? This is part of the reason why Severus Snape is one of the most interesting characters in the book...and at the end Harry tells his son that he was partially named after Severus who was a Slytherin and "probably the bravest man I ever knew." Also we have Phineas Nigellus who says: "And let it be noted that Slytherin house played its part! Let our contributions not be forgotten!" but all this is rather unconvincing. If J.K. Rowling was trully a master she would write at least 3 more Harry Potter length sagas set in the world of Hogwarts or the wizarding world at large each in turn establishing a different perspective on Wizarding greatness. Come on Rowling give us a convincing Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin hero.

she has also uttered approvingly a couple of phrases that I think could safely be categorized as red flags for the Christian right

You are a sad individual if this sort of thing is what gives you emotional nourishment.

You are a sad individual if this sort of thing is what gives you emotional nourishment.

Isn't "emotional nourishment" kind of a touchy-feely, pansy liberal expression for you to be using, John?

J.K. Rowling is a mediocre writer at best, and won't be remembered 100 years from now. She is to Tolkien (or CS Lewis) what a McDonald's hamburger is to filet mignon.

I like but I'm not sure I entirely agree with John Lewis' formulation that "to read a book is to wear a sorting hat." I do rather think, however, that an author--particularly an author of fiction--has about as much claim to understanding her own work as anyone reading it may have. Deliberate, careful and purposeful writing happens. But I'm not sure it happens as often in the realm of fiction as people are pleased to pretend that it does. Haven't you ever seen a movie or read a novel where the producers or authors believe it to be making one kind of argument when, in fact, it actually makes the opposite argument because of direction of the plot or because of some kind of logographic necessity in the writing? It is noteworthy that Rowling believes her books provide an argument for "toleration" as she understands it. But that she thinks her books do this no more proves it than any other assertion she may wish to make about any other issue in the world as it relates to her writing. I think the question of Dumbledore's sexuality and her notions regarding the tolerance of it have no more role to play in the actual text of her stories than any other extraneous element she or anyone else may wish to bring to it. It isn't in there. It isn't necessarily "hidden" either. Her stories are amusing and, I think, worthy in their way. I know I have enjoyed them at least as much as my kids have. But they are not on a par with better things. Though Bede is excessive in his derision of her, his point is well taken. She isn't that good and probably not capable of the kind of esoteric argument she imagines is there.

Still, I'll give Craig S. the argument he's hoping for. I do wish she hadn't said what she said. First, if she really believed her books did what she says they do, she would not have had to say it. So her statement made her look far more pedestrian than I think she is. Second, it did annoy me very much to have to turn off the radio and television every time I heard the words "Harry Potter" mentioned over the weekend. Her legions of fans include a great number of children of very young ages (like mine)--too young to begin to even understand what she was saying, let alone evaluate it. It was self-indulgent and pathetic for her to engage that way--after everyone has already forked over their $20 for the last book--and she would have been much wiser and kinder to leave it alone. Finally, if her books really do make the argument she says they make I wonder why she didn't say so before the publication of her last volume? Oh . . . on second thought, I don't.

No, Kevin. I'm secure in my conservative masculinity.

In the end, I’m an insufficiently subtle reader of Rowling to know what difference Dumbledore’s sexual preferences made in the plot. It doesn’t really add anything (so far as I can tell) to the account of the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship: two gifted young men can have an intimate and rivalrous relationship that culminates in serious conflict without there being any sexual attraction at all. And an older man can teach and mentor a young man without homosexual overtones as well. If Rowling can only imagine these sorts of relationships (or thinks that her readers can only understand these sorts of relationships) on an hypothesis of homosexuality, she cheapens herself somewhat and/or shows a certain contempt for her readers. She is of course entitled to give her characters any back-story she wishes, but this particular back-story is far from necessary to drive her plot. It’s sad if she thinks that it is.

Again, to be clear: I’m perfectly willing to accept that Dumbledore’s homosexuality is a possible explanation for his relationship with Grindelwald (and perhaps his relationship with Harry), but it’s not a necessary explanation for either. The plot can move in exactly the same way without supplying Dumbledore with that motive.

"You are a sad individual if this sort of thing is what gives you emotional nourishment."

Thank you for your kind words, John. Emotional nourishment? No, I don't think so. What I do know is that tolerance is, fairly or not, a word typically connected with liberal or progressive values, and is spoken of with some disdain by many on the right, Christian and non. There's even a "friend of Dorothy" adult film star working in the Realm of Coulter & Co. who, as part of his bashing of his fellow fellows who are 'that way', lashed out at a "Taliban of Tolerance" (!!). This is why I thought that, while right-wing fans of Harry Potter might be pleased about Rowling's declaration of her Christianity, they might simultaneously be disappointed or worse by the fact that she's written a gay character into her books and describes the series as a "prolonged argument for tolerance." It is very much a red flag term on the right.

Julie, I have to say that you are one of the very last people that I would expect to employ such pomo-speak about literature! For example:

"I do rather think, however, that an author--particularly an author of fiction--has about as much claim to understanding her own work as anyone reading it may have." and

"It is noteworthy that Rowling believes her books provide an argument for 'toleration' as she understands it. But that she thinks her books do this no more proves it than any other assertion she may wish to make about any other issue in the world as it relates to her writing."

The death of the author and the freedom of the reader and all that, no? Are your Biblical hermeneutics equally...err...gray? But then I can see how selective use of such theories (esp. when "words mean things" and other Limbaugh/Bill Bennett-y mantras aren't working to one's advantage on the cultural battlefield, perhaps?) might, surprisingly, meld nicely with certain Straussian ideas about truth and texts. Yet another reason to limit one's dosages of postmodernism!

(Thanks to Joe K and Ben Kunkel for helping me to get this comment posted despite a technical glitch; respect & credit where it's due!)

Rowling, you may be surprised to learn Mr. Scanlon, is not God. Neither is she a philosopher or a statesman. She writes (decent) fiction. I stand by what I said.

What I do know is that tolerance is, fairly or not, a word typically connected with liberal or progressive values,

The people who have broken with the progressive cause, even in a limited way, have had much to say about the way in which they were then treated by their "tolerant" progressive friends. Roger Simon and David Horowitz come to mind, and there are others. Reading "Radical Son" might disabuse you of some misconceptions, if you are openminded enough.

As I'm sure you are smart enought to be aware, tolerance is not what the right objects to. It is the hijacking of that term to require that left wing viewpoints be protected, by people who themselves display no tolerance whatsoever for those different from them.

You go right on thinking yourself tolerant, and I'll go on thinking the opposite.

As for the Potter books, I've never read them and think the whole issue is greatly overblown. It certainly sounds as if Rowling made this latest announcement simply in pursuit of publicity. Never having had a high opinion of her, I can't say I'm disappointed in her, any more than I'm disappointed that you think what she said is a chance to gloat like a spiteful child.

You can count me as another right-winger not thrilled with Rowling's revelation of Dumbledore's sexual preference. But while I'm not thrilled with it, it's not enough for me to change my mind about the books or Rowling as an author. I'm still a huge fan. I just concur with those who think it is an unnecessary detail that only adds controversy where none need have existed.

As for the "prolonged argument for tolerance" I think conservatives are foolish if they always assume that "tolerance" is simply short-hand for affirmative action or quotas or reverse discrimination against the majority. In fact, I think the Potter books were tolerant in the same sense that most sensible conservatives advocate. Clearly one of the primary conflicts of the series was the pure bloods v. half-bloods/"mud-bloods". It was clear that Rowling was advocating equal treatment of all, regardless of blood status, or one can extend further and say race or birth or perhaps even sexuality. Again, I think most sensible conservatives would agree with this sentiment. What conservatives disagree with is treating past discrimination with new reversed discrimination. No where in the books did Rowling have a character argue for special treatment of half-bloods or mud-bloods. They simply wanted to be treated with dignity. Even when Hermione takes up the cause of the house elves, she doesn't advocate giving them the magical equivalent of 40 acres and a mule. She simply wants them to be free like everyone else.

Even if the term "tolerance" makes many of us conservatives twitchy, we must not always assume that it's a liberal code word for something nefarious.

Let me say that I wish Rowling had actually made a homosexual Dumbledore plausible and integral to the novels...but she didn't. Julie and Joe Knippenburg are absolutely correct. Now that the books are printed there is nothing that can be said about them that is not explicitly textual. If Rowling wants to make something of Dumbledore's sexuality she will have to come out with an authors prefered edition...on some sort of 5th aniversary reprint...barring this Joe is 100% correct in saying: "She is of course entitled to give her characters any back-story she wishes, but this particular back-story is far from necessary to drive her plot." This whole mess is somewhat Rita Skitterish... If Rowling wants to go down this road she should publish Rita Skitter's: "The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore"...maybe she is planning on doing so or maybe she is trying to show people that her opponents are like Rita Skitter, always looking to exploit popular prejudices to dethrone heroes...or maybe she is trying to say something about the ideological grounds of heroic which case I am interested and reiterate my demand for a heroic Hufflepuff Ravenclaw or Slytherin...questioning if such a thing is possible...and also questioning how the sorting hat would deal with 100 kids after Harry Potter...99 of whom would want to be Griffindor...and the true slytherins most intently.

Another thought crossed my mind...I think the real reason was that she disagreed with the movie script adding elements to her novels..."Rowling said she had read through a script for the movie adaptation of the sixth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and corrected a passage in which Dumbledore was reminiscing about past loves by crossing it out and scrawling "Dumbledore is gay" over it." It would be a lot easier if you didn't want the movie to stray from the simply out Dumbledore as gay. While JK Rowling has plenty of money and isn't really worried one way or another...the movie studios are less likely to speculate homosexually than they are heterosexually...since they want a PG or at worst PG-13 rating. So after Rowling went ahead and outted Dumbledore as gay in order to direct the movie script to be more textually accurate...curiosity overcame her...she was probably thinking let's have fun with the Rita Skitters of the world...but Dumbledore doesn't have to be gay, and even if she published Rita Skitters expose on would not have to take everything Rita Skitter said as the final world.

I have not read the books, but I do not have children either (as of yet - God willing). I have found myself enjoying the movies less and less as each one comes out. When I do have children, I will not be reaching for Rowling, as there is too much else worthy out there that does not come with a the possible taint of whatever agenda she has. Too bad she did not stick with writing fiction...

Rowling writes solid fiction as do many american authors...among contemporaries....David Drake, Raymond Feist, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan. People will pick up and read these 800 page books from cover to cover 5 to 12 books deep in a series building upon a fictionally intertwined world...meanwhile the parents of college students will fork over beaucoup their sons can pretend to read Jayne Eyre as they order up the cliff-notes on Ebay. Mock Rowling all you want...but she isn't a billionare because people picked up the cliff note version...and she didn't issue an SAT version...

In any case I agree with Christopher the movies are not that great...but I think I would enjoy them more if I hadn't read the books. Of course the problem with movies is that they rewrite your memories of the watch it and you think: man I did not really see it that way...I was thinking of something else...with a movie there is no real sorting hat...what is...just kind of is, you don't supply your own associations.(basically David Hume's epistemology wonderfully explains the difference between books and movies?)

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