Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gay wizards, hobbits and angels: a celebration

Gay wizards, hobbits and angels: a celebration
Philip Hensher
October 23, 2007

Headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay all along, says Rowling

Jane Austen amused herself by telling favoured correspondents about the ultimate fate of her characters, and other things she hadn't managed to put in her novels (Mary Bennett had to settle for a curate in the end). JK Rowling, perhaps rather demob-happy after finishing her Harry Potter series, dropped a bombshell on an American audience last week. Albus Dumbledore, her kindly headmaster, was gay all along.

This had the air of a terrific public tease, but it looked, as jaws hit the floor, as if she was entirely serious. He had, she continued airily, never quite got over a youthful passion for a dark wizard called Grindelwald.

Quite how this will play with Rowling's readership in middle America remains to be seen. There was never going to be much mileage in their previous favoured objection - to books that celebrated magic and the occult without ever mentioning Christianity. The idea that, all along, they were talking about a boarding school presided over by a gay man might prove much more alarming. This is not some obscure Danish book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, but one where millions of children feel thoroughly at home.

And yet it shouldn't be as surprising as all that. Rowling has been conspicuously liberal in other ways - Hogwarts, for instance, is a pointedly multi-cultural place, with Harry's Asian girlfriend Cho and other students called Patel. The villains of the piece have a decidedly rightwing slant, obsessed with racial purity and with keeping out "mudbloods", or wizards of muggle (non-wizard) parentage.

Other children's writers have started to include gay characters, much more explicitly than Rowling did. There are a pair of angels in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials who are clearly as gay a couple as angels are ever going to be. But is it even a new tendency, or is it just making clear what was always there in a subliminal way? Bilbo Baggins, with his domestic fussiness, his favourite nephew Frodo and constant bitching about his cousin Lobelia seems a strong candidate.

Rowling makes a good point. There have always been gay teachers and headmasters of great distinction and eminence, such as the founder of Stowe, JF Roxburghe. She has chosen a good moment to mention this detail, when the books have all been read and enjoyed. Reactionaries can easily argue against gay teachers in the abstract. But the kids won't listen. They know that Dumbledore, at least, is all right.

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