I've been peckish about your last book, since I read the last few words of your epilogue, "Nineteen Years After."
And that was before I found out, from you, that Dumbledore is/was gay. Others suspected it: they more astute than I could ever be. My gaydar is not good at all. It turns out that Grindelwald was more than just a pal.
That was a neat trick, JK. You turned Dumbledore into a hero for zillions of kids. You waited until the book sales smashed one superlative after another, and the Brinks trucks lined the drive of your post-welfare mansion.
Then, after the kids (and priests like me) were lined up in your palm, eating out of your hand, you squeezed the bird, Slytherin-like. You seemed to really mean the "Christian parallels" and "obvious religious meaning," and we (myself included) were very happy.
But then Dumbledore the hero, the wise man, the quasi-Christ-figure, you outed. Gay, despite no real narrative logic that demanded him to be so.
The gayness of Dumbledore is only a useless appendix (though, doubtless, quite a profitable one: now that the family market has been exhausted, this latest revelation opens up the new über-rich childless childish gold-vein of the self-involved, who practice their simultaneous (not mutual) communion before the Mirror of Erised).
Ex post facto, and clearly tangential to the story line, you announced this hero as a homosexual. The syllogism is neat, I have to admit. To bring out of the closet what had been squirreled away inside, the argument goes something like this in the daylight:
Especially if I'm a kid, and especially if Dumbledore's been fashioned, over the last decade, like a golem into the only father-image left in the West: theoretically good-intentioned, calm and detached except for exceptional moments, absent at other exceptional moments, frustrating, goofy, manipulative, proficient at visiting infirmaries and at making incomplete revelations.
Now that's a Dad -- the product of bourgeois post-childhood psychotherapy.
Well, JK, enough of Dumbledore. I suppose you and your associates at Scholastic saw an opportunity to ram home a score for the home team under the rubric of tolerance. Is that what you think evil is? Is that the sum and range of Voldemort's deviltry -- just a cheap, sniveling, nitwit bigotry? That Voldemort is evil because he murders people on one hand, and on the other and sinister hand, because he is intolerant?
I realize now that there was something I clearly missed in my earlier missive to you. Then, I was concerned mainly about the quality of the hero. I asked you then to make of Harry a real hero that could no longer remain mundane, that could not rest in the familiar world. In the revolution wrought by a hero in his land, his translation to the higher worlds impels the narrative toward tragedy.
I mean romantic tragedy, not the effluvial ironic tragedy of modernistic scapegoats like Willy Loman. The real death of Harry would have wrought redemption for your storied world.
As it turned out, there was no death. No, I'm serious, neither he nor Mr. Voldemort really died while Harry was clutching that stupid resurrection stone (did you mean a Christian resonance here? ... the very fact of its Gospel echo makes its hollowness all the more awkward). That particular "deathly hallow" was one of the dumbest and cheapest deus ex machina maneuvers of all time: "I'm technically dead, Voldy, so I did that self-sacrifice thing so your Deathly Stick is bootless ... but, mind you, I'm not really dead as I'm up here in the White Light chatting with Dumbledore who's telling me everything while we're watching you gross us out with your naked self ... and since I've got this neato magic rock with me, I'm going to use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card and play dead until I can really fight you at the end by making you curse me and then bounce the curse back on you."
That's quite a complicated programme, JK, and you have millions of pre-pubescents and adolescents and adults (refugees from the modern important literature of free association and inverted commas) arguing over the ins and outs of your metaphysics like a mystical soap opera.
That is the best thing that can be said of your piece. You tied up all the important loose strings (leaving enough untied to make space for further "non-plot-advancing" additions to the canon). You had them all marked out in your spiral-ringed college-ruled notebooks: character vectors, slope lines for plots and formulae for their intersections, chronology marching along the x-axis.
It was a neat geometry, Ms. Rowling, and that's what soap operas do.
I am afraid that this method of storytelling -- this iron maiden of your geometrical notebooks -- is the culprit behind Harry stripped of heroism, Voldemort disrobed as a pulp novel nutcase, Dumbledore denatured and disoriented by the white light, and the whole story denuded as merely a graphic novel with no pictures.
You dropped the ball, JK. You tried to have it both ways, the cutting and eating of the cake. You wanted to marry Harry off to someone (it might as well have been Ron's sister) and land him into domesticity with three kids, nodding cursorily to Draco at the Hogwarts Express. You desperately -- and, might I add, naively -- scrabbled to punch down the hero back into his mundane loaf pan. And in tethering Harry back to the pre-lapsarian world, you demoted him from hero to Mr. K. in The Castle.
You made his heroism ironic because his death was ironic. Jesus' was real.
I know why Harry couldn't rise to the occasion. It is because his sub-creator (that would be you, JK) could not rise to the challenge of evil. I don't expect much, if any, of today's literature to treat goodness with much respect: but I continue to think that evil ought to be dealt with in concrete and vivid detail. God knows we've seen enough of evil to write expertly about it.
You never adequately explained why Voldemort was so wicked. You explained his madness, perhaps, with all that stuff about being lonely and weird, cursed by a mean father, burdened with a wretched mother, damned to a boarding school like Dotheboys. You built up a case for a psychopath: you cobbled together an explanation that would have suited a school shooter like the ones at Columbine or VT.
I wouldn't be so strident here if you had left the villain as a crazed Gadarene -- evil yes but also stupid. It is possible for the protagonist, after beating such a knave, to return back like Odysseus after planting his oar to some sort of normalcy (with even that normalcy renewed and restored).
But villains who are not crazy, who want power and state, language and meaning, time and space -- these villains are much more than demons. When you so darkly moved your Harry from the precincts of fairy tale to necromancy ... when you settled the cloud of 1984 and Goebbels on the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts itself, you incarnated Voldemort and shifted him from the dastardly to the satanic.
And when you do this, the hero who conquers can never go home (unless you capitalize the "h"). Returning him home is like Frodo pretending he can stay in the Shire. Or, it is like suggesting that the Theotokos and Joseph had kids after the Crisis, like any other family.
Voldemort was more than sorcerer or demon: he orchestrated revolution to usurp the order and he commanded destruction of the good: this is not the work of a bulleyed boy who was misunderstood, but of someone who was more likely to have been pampered and permitted the full exercise of his prurient demands. School shooters may be produced by bullies at school, but mass-murdering despots are produced by rather cushy church-less upbringings. They are too intelligent, too focused and aware of what they want, too well brought up.
Voldemort, as your character, is a slander to all the orphans and nerds and marginalized bullied kids. Isolation and nerdification do not a devil make. God-denying does.
Lessee, how to really make a Voldemort, instead of your way JK? Deny the Trinity. Lie about the good. Sever the sign from its meaning. Objectify the people around you. Construct your own world and populate it with yourself. Sanctify your auto-eroticisms. Revile the Cross. Time-travel to alternative universes to run away from the Cross.
That, by the way, is exactly what real monsters like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible, and Robespierre did: revolution toward an alternative, non-Created, universe. It was their way of reading Hegel, after all.
That is what I missed in my last letter. For a Hero, you've got to deal with Evil. And to deal with Evil, you've got to know that there are worse things than death, slavery or even intolerance ... and you've got to believe in God.
And that is what you missed, JK. You tried to take the Cross out of the Christian myth, and update it for the neo-mythic post-ironic age. It doesn't work, mainly because the age is still ironic and always will be (sorry Northrop). You made of the devil a silly tawdry villain, who busies himself with tying up maidens on the railroad track, caring nothing about perdition.
For a while, while I was captivated by your tale (until that disastrous ending and farcical Carnegie announcement), I fancied that in you we might have another Tolkien or Lewis, to help our souls stave off the Camazotz tide of IT. Certainly not them, but a shadow at least, more at the level of L'Engle. Surely, I thought, you can pull off something like that (maybe you did, time will tell).
But you never really pulled off a good story. A decent tale, yes, but neither tragedy nor comedy wherein reality is explored, God is perceived, evil is fought. There was in your tale neither Christ nor Antichrist. A lot of goodness to be sure, but even more badness that remains unrecognizable, free-floating, and unsecured to a reference of meaning.
A good Christian story like The Lord of the Rings will have saints and orcs, the genesis and future of light, along with the ringlore of evil. It will not be permitted in Sunday School, as good stories often cannot be. But it will be enshrined in Christian imagination.
You took fragments of the Christian story, but you fashioned them into another shape. Because of this (and not because of Dumbledore's irrational gayness) it will not fit into a Christian imagination. Not for long.
Accordingly, you might be a Protestant author, but you're not a Christian one.
October 22, 2007 in Art
Fr. Jonathan Tobias is an Orthodox priest and edits the Second Terrace blog.
Read the entire article on the Second Terrace website (new window will open).