Let’s get something straight here: Harry Potter, and the wizarding world he lives in, isn’t real. Nor are any of the characters that inhabit it. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Since J.K. Rowling “outed” the much-beloved Albus Dumbledore, debate over his sexuality has engulfed conversation, from online chat boards to dining hall chitchat. Whether or not Dumbledore’s sexuality should “matter” to the reader isn’t really a question, since clearly it does matter. But it shouldn’t even be an issue, and not for the reason we open-minded, gay-friendly college kids think. Rowling should’ve never said it in the first place because as far as the series is concerned, Dumbledore isn’t gay.
Back in May, in an interview with L.A. Weekly, Ray Bradbury shocked readers with the revelation that his most famous work, Fahrenheit 451, was not about government censorship, as is most commonly taught and accepted, or a response to Senator McCarthy’s investigations. Instead, he explained, it was about the way television replaces an interest in literature.
So have teachers across the country scrapped their prepared lectures? Have literary critics retracted their many essays and commentaries, retreating in shame and embarrassment? It would be absurd if they did.
If fifty years after the book’s publication, audiences are still getting the interpretation so blatantly wrong then perhaps Bradbury just didn’t do a good enough job writing the book. Once a work is published, the responsibility of its interpretation falls to the audience and the creator gives up that right. An author has sole interpretive duties only as long as the words remain unread. Once the work enters the public conscious, readers are going to bring their own ideas and paradigms to the work. This is not only inevitable, but is at the heart of what makes reading so enjoyable in the first place.
In interviews since the publication of the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling has been giving fans new facts about the pasts and futures of her characters. Many are harmless: Knowing that Arthur Weasley was originally supposed to die in the fifth book gives us enlightening insight into Rowling’s writing process, but it doesn’t change anything about the nature of the story. Others – like the future professions and marital statuses of Hogwarts students – run beyond the time frame of the books, so it could be argued Rowling can continue indulging in new details of a world she created.
The problem with the most recent revelation about Dumbledore then is that it adds a new, important dimension to a character in a finished novel; this detail has no significance in the world beyond the confines of the novel. And like it or not, sexuality is a big deal. Yes, it’s just one facet of a personality, but it’s an undeniably important one. After all, there’s a reason readers are reacting like a close family member just came out and less than 24 hours after the information was released, YouTube was already swarming with gay-Dumbledore montages.
Dumbledore was never an explicitly sexual character – even the secrets revealed about his past in the seventh book never touched on sexuality or romance of any kind. By announcing that Dumbledore was gay and therefore a sexual being – and the extra that he was in love with his best friend – Rowling added an extra, complex layer that she somehow never found prudent to fit in somewhere over the span of seven books and thousands of pages.
Even if Rowling goes on to write a supplementary encyclopedia, thereby officially extending the Harry Potter canon, further extrapolation on important character themes would be inappropriate. If it’s not part of the novels, then it’s just not part of the Harry Potter world.
The author reserves no right to mold the reader’s perceptions, interpretations or imaginations at will once a book is finished. No matter how much extraneous detail exists in an author’s imagination, it is only relevant if it made it into the final product. A fictional world is just that – fictional – and it exists only within the physical confines of the novel and in the minds of the readers.