A Permanent Scar from J.K. Rowling

This author taught us that hateful speech can be an Unforgivable.  The targets of Unforgivables must defend themselves, if possible, but do not owe the caster forgiveness.  Forgiveness would not remedy the caster’s harm.  The only hope for the caster is to undergo remorse.

On the morning of December 19, 2019, J.K. Rowling broke a long Twitter silence to post support for someone who actively promoted anti-trans harassment in the workplace.

Many fans instantly recoiled.  Within hours, longtime Potter fans posted reactions ranging from the Harry Potter Alliance’s dedication to “a better, safer, more loving world for trans people” to recommendations of works by trans and nonbinary authors to the Potter Puppet Pals‘ succinct “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”

Some fans felt so sickened that they knew they would have to withdraw from Harry Potter fandom.  Some said they had separated the fandom from the author long ago and planned to remain active in HP fan communities and activities, although this tweet outraged and grieved them.  Some mentioned the phrase “death of the author,” drawing on Roland Barthes’ critical theory to argue that the Harry Potter stories now belong completely to the readers; the author had forfeited ownership because she was violating the very ideals of acceptance that formed the core of her bestselling stories.

Reluctantly, I looked at the tweet itself.  Rowling mischaracterized Maya Forstater’s position as “stating that sex is real.”  That is a heck of a way to describe Forstater referring to trans women as “male people” or stating, as “objective reality,” that there are exactly two sexes, which is wrong at the most basic factual level.  Forstater has the right to say what she likes, of course; an employer also has the right not to renew her contract in order to keep her transphobic hostility out of the workplace.

Rowling’s support prioritizes someone’s desire to spew bigotry, without consequences, over the rights of people to be who they are without workplace harassment.

If the author were truly dead, in the Barthesian sense, Rowling’s tweet would not affect a reader’s feelings about the Potter stories.  But for many fans, it does.

Some fans expressed shock at Rowling; others noted, bitterly, that Rowling has always shown signs of anti-trans prejudice.  This highlighted an uncomfortable dynamic:  we’re all more sensitive to some kinds of hostility and oblivious to others, this often has to do with privilege, and discussions about this can get touchy and defensive.  We have to have those discussions anyway.

After Rowling’s transphobic tweet, can you really say “the author is dead” and read, without discomfort, the passage in Prisoner of Azkaban where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him?  “Snape deserved it,” some people argue.  Did he?  He did deserve workplace consequences for bullying a child in ways that had nothing to do with sex and gender.  Did he deserve to be recast into a scenario with transmisogynistic harassment overtones?  Did the children deserve to be taught to channel their outrage into creating such an atmosphere?  Did the reader deserve to be told that this is an appropriate response to abusive teaching?

“Death of the author” would attribute this transmisogynistic harassment entirely to Lupin, the character.  But I can’t shut out information that way.  Rowling’s tweet changes my reading.  It makes me think that it was the author’s prejudices, more than the character, that were responsible for the gratuitous direction that Lupin’s teaching takes.  This is different from, say, the character of Snape ridiculing Neville’s classwork; I read that as the author being intentional and in control, disapproving of the character’s choice.

I wince to think that I might find many such changes in my understanding of the series on my next re-read.

I once left a fandom over irreconcilable differences.  Sixteen years later, it still feels sad.  Leaving a fandom meant losing friends and events that had become part of my life.  All that love and knowledge didn’t go anywhere.  It just sits in me, still.

I don’t want to do that with HP.  I don’t want to be so revolted by the author’s strident prejudice that I have to give up contact with the (very queer) people and events I know only through this fandom.  The author has never been present at those events.  Disinviting her now doesn’t change that.  My connections in the fandom never went through her.  They formed over more than a decade.  Could I disconnect them all, even if I tried?

Could I undo the ten months that my older child spent reading the series, the first novels she ever finished on her own, progressing from finding Sorcerer’s Stone difficult all the way to reading Deathly Hallows to herself?

Could I undo the hours and hours that my kids have spent Sorting themselves and their friends into Houses?  The Sorting panel that my younger child ran at a conference, by herself, when she was only 11?  The wizard rock songs that they grew up singing?

Could I erase my fond memories of getting through labor by imagining that Professor Snape was going to brew me something for the pain?

Could I undo telling my kids that Polyjuice Potion teaches empathy by putting you in someone else’s skin?

My thinking has become entwined with J.K. Rowling’s words, grown around them.  I don’t think I could uproot them all if I tried.  I think in terms of her stories.  When I read of trans teens and young adults who identified with her stories, then were stricken to learn that she advocated a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, the damage she was causing to these readers reminded me of something.

It reminded me of the dead unicorn:  “Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad.”

It is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” very young readers taking in stories of love and acceptance and being formed by them.

What have trans people done to deserve this from Rowling, this completely unprovoked breaking of her social media silence that nobody asked for?

McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone!  Alone, I say!  […]  On what grounds are you attacking him?  He has done nothing, nothing to warrant such –”

Lily says to James of teen Snape, “Leave him ALONE! […] What’s he done to you?”

And James tells her, “It’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean…”

That’s what Rowling is defending when she tweets #IStandWithMaya:  the desire to attack someone who has done nothing, just because they exist.

And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.'”  Yes, it’s Rowling who equates the gravity of hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder.

He knew the dangers that faced Muggle-borns.  He knew the philosophy behind that particular slur.  He called her that name.  Rowling must know, has no excuse not to know, the dangers of anti-trans prejudice.

With sorrow and resignation, I have to recognize that with her words denying the reality of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable.

She herself taught us what must be done after an Unforgivable.

Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.”  Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with Rowling’s fat hatred, with the racial tokenism in her stories and the dismissive racism in the Ilvermorny backstory, with the marginalization of any queerness in her books.  The bitter dialogues between fans about how long it takes some of us to acknowledge these things reminds me of Dumbledore in King’s Cross:  “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was?  I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”

I don’t think I closed my eyes, but I drew my own boundaries, uncomfortably.  After all, one does not have to approve of a creator to study their works.  I know what I think of Thomas Jefferson, but I am not giving up my love for the Declaration of Independence, nor my claim to its contents, even though they were definitely not written with my Asian American cis female self in mind.  I draw the line somewhere different in each case, based on how to preserve my own love in life.  BBC Sherlock produced an astonishingly racist episode called “The Blind Banker,” which I decided to ignore while embracing the rest of the series.  When I learned some things about Marion Zimmer Bradley, though, I couldn’t do that.  The Mists of Avalon was formative for me as a teen, the version of the Arthur legends that is canon for me, and I don’t want to give up my memories of loving that mind-opening book.  But if I reread it now — even though the author is, in this case, actually dead — I would see, in her fiction, disturbing traces of the horrifying things I learned about her as an adult.  I decided that I will keep that book, not throw it out, but I will not open it ever again.  Not if I want to preserve both my ecstatic teen reading experience and my adult knowledge of the author.

I don’t want to give up my love.  It was real, and it formed me.

Lily tells Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore.  You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.”

On the day of Rowling’s tweet, in a mailing list email, the Harry Potter Alliance wrote, “We know that trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary, and that affirming and respecting people’s gender is kind, loving, and literally saves lives.  We know, too, that a story and a community this big and this magical belongs to all of us and always will.  To our trans community: we love you, we see you, and we will continue to uplift your voices and stand with you.

With those words, the HP Alliance parted ways with Rowling.  They chose the many trans and nonbinary members of the HP fandom over the author.

According to the story that Rowling taught us:  when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden.  You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may, if that is right for you.  But your forgiveness is your own business and does not absolve them.  They have damaged or even split their souls, and the only remedy is remorse, their own true and full recognition of the harm they have caused.

The soul of Rowling’s story is love, acceptance, protection.  For me, the author’s anti-trans prejudice has the effect of splitting this story’s soul.  I will look in, periodically, as Dumbledore did with Snape, to see if this author ever shows signs of remorse, as long as I have natural curiosity about it.  If my curiosity fades, that will be okay, but I will not push myself to ignore her or her work as long as I feel interest.  I don’t think it harms my soul to retain, as belonging to myself free and clear, every bit of the love I have ever felt because of this author’s creations or the people I met because of them.  I don’t think it makes the ideals in her stories any less true because she cannot live up to them personally.  It certainly doesn’t make Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts any less rich and compelling, and I will continue to delve into them.  I am as thankful as ever to witness the growth of her oeuvre in real time, the way I always imagined readers felt about serial releases from Charles Dickens.  I am as fascinated as ever that the success of Harry Potter has given the world an international shared text, a common story, which has been especially useful in the past few years as political allegory.

We didn’t ask to be scarred by the words from her prejudiced tweet, but we will have to deal with that wound for as long as Rowling’s work is part of our culture.  According to BuzzFeed News, on the day of the tweet, Rowling’s publicist declined GLAAD’s offer of an off-the-record conversation with members of the trans community.  I doubt this will be the last such offer.  I hope someday she accepts.

ETA:  Many thanks to Lynn Roy for pointing me toward this valuable Twitter thread from ScienceVet about biological sex! 

J.K. Rowling, Giftedness, and the Ghost of Ravenclaw

Notes from a talk delivered at LeakyCon in Boston, MA, USA, on Saturday, October 12, 2019.  A shorter version of this talk was delivered at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA, on Friday, October 18, 2019.  Posted by request.

Good morning.  I’m going to be talking about a few aspects of how the seven-book series deals with the topic of giftedness.  I looked into the education of Hermione, which led to the portrayal of Ravenclaw, and eventually, to aspects of the author herself.  This last part I did cautiously, since I know it’s delicate territory. But what I found added such richness and dimension that I decided to include it, with as much love as I could.

The whole series is about a special school, so there is some equation of magical ability with giftedness.  But we soon find out that there are all kinds among wizards, too. The opening chapter pits Dumbledore’s style of giftedness against Voldemort’s, when McGonagall says Dumbledore is the only one Voldemort was frightened of.  Dumbledore replies, “Voldemort had powers I will never have,” and McGonagall says, “Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.”  Dumbledore deflects that compliment.  Rowling is playing a truly long game of foreshadowing here; we won’t find out why he doesn’t think he deserves it until the end of the seventh book.

Some other gifted people we hear about:  Gellert Grindelwald. Quirrell, of whom Hagrid says, “Brilliant mind. He was fine while he was studyin’ outta books but then he took a year off ter get some first-hand experience. . . . ”  Barty Crouch, Sr., who speaks “over two hundred languages.” According to Sirius, “Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side.”  Snape can Occlude the (self-proclaimed) world’s greatest Legilimens and, as an “imaginative” but “dodgy” teen, surpassed the author of his school textbook as a potioneer. In all of these cases, these people’s extraordinary powers forced them to confront moral issues beyond what most people deal with, and generally speaking, they did not always do well.  Or, as Dumbledore put it, “Being — forgive me — rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.”

Perhaps the purest embodiment of the potential creepiness of genius is Ollivander, who makes Harry shiver when he speaks reverently of Voldemort’s evil powers as “terrible, yes, but great.”  Ollivander is sorry that Voldemort destroyed Harry’s family. But his curiosity about absolute degrees of magical power keeps breaking through and overriding his moral considerations. This is, of course, what you want from someone whose calling is to see the true nature of each customer, without judgment.  But Harry isn’t sure he likes this person.

And in the midst of all these morally ambiguous, gifted adults, we have the education of Hermione Granger, whom Remus Lupin calls, nervously, “the cleverest witch of your age I’ve ever met.”

It all starts with “books and cleverness.”

You know the scene I’m talking about, right?  First-year Hermione has just brilliantly gotten Harry through Snape’s logic puzzle that contained deadly poisons and is about to drink down a potion that seals her decision to leave him to a fight that he might not survive.  Hermione tells Harry he’s a great wizard, he mumbles that he’s not as good as she is, and then this 12-year-old girl disavows her gifts: “Me! Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and…”

Did anyone else find that passage painfully self-effacing?  Was anyone else surprised by it?

One of the trickiest things for me about that line was that in this male-centric story, Hermione was the girl sidekick I was identifying with, and hearing her put down her own giftedness  hurt.  I hadn’t seen any evidence to that point that she devalued books and cleverness, when they were clearly such sources of joy for her.  I figured the author was trying to make the point that heroism is attainable for anyone, not just top students. I wondered, though, about putting that message in the mouth of the character who faced hurtful ostracism because books and cleverness were so fundamental to her true self.   

I couldn’t help thinking…  They come to your house when you’re 11 and say, Those things you can do, that no one else can do?  We’ll take you to a special school where everyone else can do them, too. And then Hermione goes there, and… those promises don’t come true.  The children here are just as frustrating as the ones at home. And they laugh at her. I wondered, Where is Hermione’s anger?

I started looking at what this author had provided for Hermione by way of support for this character’s giftedness.  Which felt like a ridiculous way to put it, thinking of the author as responsible for the well-being of a character according to my concerns…but in an incredibly detailed story about the education of children, it is on topic to take note of where the author is directing the reader’s attention.  We’re supposed to notice that Harry needs friends, that Neville comes from an overbearing home, that Ron is self-conscious about money.  What do we do for the girl who arrives at school having memorized the textbooks? The one who Rowling, gifted writer and former Head Girl, acknowledged was based on herself at the same age?

When we look closely, we can catch glimpses of evidence, through moments when Hermione’s life is visible on the periphery of Harry’s story, that the Hogwarts staff recognizes Hermione’s need for an independent study track.

The first hint of this comes in Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry sets Hermione spying on Snape.

“I’m sorry, Harry!” she wailed. “Snape came out and asked me what I was doing, so I said I was waiting for Flitwick, and Snape went to get him, and I’ve only just got away.”

That would have been the last we heard of that, but later, Harry worries that his friends might get expelled for accompanying him through the trapdoor.

“Not if I can help it,” said Hermione grimly. “Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve percent on his exam. They’re not going to throw me out after that.”

It’s a startling moment.  So teachers communicate with her in secret, in a way that they never do with most students.  She’s almost like a peer of theirs in the mature way she keeps quiet about this status; she wasn’t going to say anything about it.  The word “grimly” makes an impact, too. For Hermione, studies are a matter of life or death.

Snape generally ignores Hermione, when he can.  This will be his basic policy toward this student for the whole time he is her teacher, although he pays the price for ignoring her when she exploits that tendency in order to set fire to his robes, steal from his stores, or sneak past him to retrieve Harry’s Invisibility Cloak.  But when we get to the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, we find that he has designed the potions puzzle as a custom-written final exam for her first year.

So he has been paying attention to her, after all.  He’s observed the way her mind works. He foresees that she will be with Harry until the very last stage.  With Hermione in mind, he has brewed the potions, selected bottles, and composed the rhyming verse. This is what it looks like when Snape teaches her, at last.

So Hermione comes upon the puzzle, and wonder of wonders, it relaxes her: “Hermione let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.”  She and Dumbledore share this trait: smiling with genuine happiness when they get to use their brains, even when they’re in mortal danger.  We see Dumbledore do this in the cave when he detects Voldemort’s boat: “‘Oho!’ said Dumbledore happily,” while Harry is staring at corpses.  Hermione “beams” this way, too.

Then she takes a long drink of the potion Snape has brewed for her, shudders, and tells Harry no, it’s not poison – “but it’s like ice.”  It is a chilling message:  she solves the puzzle and the potion tells her that she, with her books and cleverness, is not the protagonist of this story.  She turns around and leaves.  

In her second year, Hermione’s independent study track includes defense against Slytherin’s monster, which is trying to murder Muggle-borns like herself.  She discovers what the monster is and how it travels, she brews Polyjuice Potion and strategizes a covert operation, and when her half-blood and Pureblood friends seem reluctant, she tells them angrily that she is going to continue to fight for Muggle-borns.  She’s attacked for being a minority and this causes her to fall behind on several months of schooling, confirming her worry that Muggle-borns have to work harder for rights that others take for granted.  She needs to make up this time if she’s going to have a chance at survival, as her academic adviser knows. In an almost throwaway line, tucked into a humorous paragraph about choosing classes for third year, we see that “Hermione took nobody’s advice but signed up for everything,” setting the stage for her Time-Turner year.

McGonagall gets Ministry permission to sponsor Hermione’s third-year independent study track, the year she learns how exhausting it is as a minority to take the same time as everyone else to do twice the work.  We even get a grim but funny joke about Hermione missing out on Cheering Charms because she’s sleep-deprived, highlighting the psychological toll it takes. Her independent studies include paralegal work for Buckbeak’s defense and Jane Austen-style sleuthing about Harry’s Firebolt.  In her coursework, though, this is the only year Hermione’s Defense Against the Dark Arts studies suffer because of the teacher Dumbledore has hired for the year.  She’s usually able to work around teachers and keep up on her own, but this year, she fails part of her final exam, which brings me to the topic of Lupin vs. Snape as her teachers.

On two fronts, I have wondered:  where is Hermione’s anger? Where is her anger at the classmates who name-call her but cannot keep up with her, so that she must sit daily through coursework at a pace that is profoundly unsuited to her?  And I’ve wondered, where is her anger at Snape, who ignores her or insults her? Except for that one time he kills Dumbledore, she never seems to hold a grudge against him.

In book 3, while Harry and Ron aren’t talking to Hermione, she lets loose once.  They can’t guess what ails Lupin and she shoves by them and says, “Tuh.” I’ve heard people say Ron and Harry are not particularly observant, but I don’t think that’s it here; nobody else guesses, either.  It’s that Hermione is gifted and remarkably restrained about not expressing frustration with her peers.

And when Snape serves as Lupin’s substitute teacher, and heaps insults on Lupin for teaching the third-years things that he’d expect first-years to know, and calls Hermione an insufferable know-it-all for interrupting his insults with attempts to provide helpful information:  Hermione turns red and cries, but she doesn’t get angry. She even reprimands Ron for calling Snape a bad name.

Perhaps this is because Hermione agrees with Snape.  She’s too nice to say so, and far too community-minded, but she’s on the same page he is — 394, to be exact.  For once, instead of Hermione having to endure learning at the pace of her classmates, a teacher is expecting them to learn at Hermione’s pace.  Of course she’s the only one to do the assignment, and she gets out of it exactly what he intended.  Snape seems like just the kind of gifted person who should not be teaching introductory classes because he was practically born knowing how to do things and thinks most people are somehow faking it for obstinate, mysterious reasons when they have to take actual time to learn new material.  But his teaching style turns out to be so well-suited to this child that it even outweighs his charming personality. I think she might have found it refreshing that someone else thinks a first-year should know this material.

When I looked at Hermione studying under Lupin, I found, to my surprise, that he was a worse teacher for her than Snape.  Unlike Snape, Lupin understands the process of learning and gears his instruction to the general class level, making him a better teacher for the majority.  It would have been one thing if he simply neglected to make provisions for Hermione’s needs as a gifted student, but he does something more damaging: he actively suppresses her learning.  He teaches that exemplary class on boggarts through active practice, the opposite of “books and cleverness” or Umbridge’s policy of reading the theory only, and several students get practical experience in banishing boggarts, but the text draws our attention to the fact that two do not.  Lupin gives Harry and Hermione points for answering questions correctly even though they have not tackled the boggart.  

We get an explanation later about Harry:  Lupin knew Harry would have been bothered by this pointed exclusion, and explained that he was afraid Harry’s boggart would be too frightening for the others to see.  But we never get an explanation for why Hermione doesn’t get a turn, although the author includes Hermione saying aloud that she wishes she had. If we look at the scene, Lupin intercepts the boggart when it approaches Harry, it turns into the moon, then instead of calling on Harry or Hermione, Lupin calls Neville for a second turn.  Did Lupin take instruction time away from the gifted girl, assuming she could afford to lose it, in favor of a student who has special needs of a different sort? If you have gifted students in your life, you know that this is something that does happen: sometimes gifted students don’t even receive the same basic attention given to most of the class, or are expected to give up their own class time to help tutor their peers, and this results in gaps in their own learning.  Hermione outright fails the boggart portion of her final exam that year.

Or did Lupin step in because he was threatened by Hermione’s insight?  Later, in the Shrieking Shack, he asks, “Did you realize that the boggart changed into the moon when it saw me?”  Did he flinch in class at the thought of being seen by this perceptive child, so that he suppressed part of her education due to his own fear?  This is also something that happens to gifted students in real life. It’s counterintuitive, but the only thing we see Hermione learning in Defense Against the Dark Arts that year is not from the kind teacher but from Snape.

Hermione has three independent projects in her fourth year:  S.P.E.W., the Yule Ball, and the fight against tabloid journalists.  For gifted students, especially, the issue of attractiveness can be a loaded one, as Snape can attest.  Once Hermione reigns as the belle of the Yule Ball, at the midpoint of this seven-year timeline, she becomes impervious to taunts about her looks.

Fifth year is when Hermione’s independent studies most notably place friendship and bravery before books and cleverness.  She asserts, to the shock of Harry and Ron, that resistance and activism are “much more important than homework.” She sets up a guerrilla training camp, recruits an instructor, and demonstrates that censorship doesn’t work but underground journalism does.  Amazing. We get continued evidence that the actual teachers see her almost as a peer when McGonagall talks to Harry about Umbridge’s welcoming speech, on the memorable occasion that she offers him a biscuit. He says something almost insightful and she eyes him “for a moment” and says, “Well, I’m glad you listen to Hermione Granger at any rate.”  Hermione must have discussed the speech privately with McGonagall already.

Sixth year is the year of Snape, and therefore Hermione gets no independent studies or any special notice at all.  We learn that he only accepted “Outstanding” students into his N.E.W.T. Potions class, a piece of information that’s a bit of a relief — if this grumpy prodigy has to be in a classroom at all, he should probably only ever teach students who, like him, don’t need to learn the basics.  Hermione, though, has a miserable, rotten year in which she is trounced by both Harry and some “Half-Blood Prince” person in Potions, gets no House points for mastering nonverbal magic, is wrong about everything to do with Draco, and watches Ron date her roommate. She gets, at most, partial credit for coming close to identifying the Half-Blood Prince.

Seventh year, though, Dumbledore assigns her an independent study in Ancient Runes, and her senior project gets published.

Rowling addresses the issue of Hermione’s giftedness directly when Hermione invents the communication Galleons for the DA.  The others greet the coins with “a blank silence” and Hermione is “rather disconcerted,” feeling a classic sort of confusion familiar to many people who don’t know if they’re coming across as clever, obvious, or simply crazy.

“‘Well — I thought it was a good idea,’ she said uncertainly, ‘but…well, if you don’t want to use them…’”

To Hermione’s relief, Terry Boot, a Ravenclaw, demands to know why she isn’t in Ravenclaw, with her brains.  So the Galleons must have struck the others as a good idea, then. Thank goodness. She explains that the Sorting Hat almost put her there, “but it decided on Gryffindor in the end.”

We can see why Hermione ended up in Gryffindor, but any attempt to understand why someone did or did not get Sorted into Ravenclaw is impeded by the fact that Rowling, the queen of world-building, is uncharacteristically muddled when it comes to this Hogwarts House.

As many of us have noted, Ravenclaw is the most nebulously depicted of the Houses.  Are we blue and bronze, or blue and silver? Are we eagles or ravens? Are there any Ravenclaws in the Order of the Phoenix?  It’s almost as if, when it comes to Ravenclaws, there’s an attitude of, “Who cares?” When it’s time for Harry to hunt Horcruxes, he can rattle off items with precision except for the vague descriptor, “something of Gryffindor’s or Ravenclaw’s.”  The other House artifacts are valuable and treated as such: the ring and locket are treasured, the glowing cup is in a vault, the sword is celebrated, but the tiara is a piece of crap. It’s described as battered and tarnished, shoved amongst mountains of garbage atop the bust of an ugly old warlock in a wig.  

After the books were finished, when Rowling started identifying the Houses of more characters, do you remember the reader outcry against all the villains being Slytherin, and how, at some point, Rowling started to assign questionable or villainous characters to Ravenclaw, instead?  Lockhart, she said, was Ravenclaw; so were Trelawney, Ollivander, and Quirrell. I wonder if she originally meant Quirrell to be a Slytherin; after the Welcoming Feast, Harry dreams that Quirrell tells him to go to Slytherin and the other people in that nightmare — Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort — are all Slytherins.

To me, Ollivander is the quintessential Ravenclaw.  He is intrigued by the possibilities of channeling Voldemort’s power through exceptional wands, but he also tells Harry he is sorry to say that he sold the wand that scarred him.  So it’s not that he’s completely amoral; it’s that he can simultaneously be moral and amoral, which is, I think, more chilling. We can’t be certain whether he’s going to have a conscience or immerse himself in value-free pursuit of pure knowledge.  Maybe this is why the world finds Ravenclaws creepy! The thing is, there’s nothing about being able to appreciate pure knowledge that precludes our having consciences and strong morals. 

But looking at Quirrell, Ollivander, and Lockhart, it’s clear that Rowling’s Ravenclaws come pre-installed with intellectual curiosity, but morals or conscience are optional.  Quirrell says he did once have “ridiculous ideas about good and evil,” but when he met Voldemort, he changed his mind to believe, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. . . .”  

Ollivander says that “the idea of the Dark Lord in possession of the Deathstick is, I must admit . . . formidable,” reminding Harry that he had always been unsure of how much he liked Ollivander:  “Even now, having been tortured and imprisoned by Voldemort, the idea of the Dark wizard in possession of this wand seemed to enthrall him as much as it repulsed him.”

Lacking conscience but still brilliant is how Rowling portrays Voldemort.  Dumbledore tells Harry, “Never forget, though, that while his soul may be damaged beyond repair, his brain and his magical powers remain intact.”  No wonder I get the sense that Rowling mistrusts Ravenclaws.

In a fandom where many readers are especially invested in the concept of the “death of the author,” which holds that stories must be understood without regard to the intentions or life circumstances of the author, it can be fraught to admit to looking to the author’s life and psyche to shed light on how the text came to be the way it is.  I tend to be quiet about doing so, mindful of how important “death of the author” is for some fans who want to retain a connection to the Harry Potter stories while feeling disagreement with the author. But for this topic, I decided to go there and see where it takes me, because in my view, Rowling demonstrates quite vividly that it is illuminating and rewarding to consider the author when engaging deeply with a piece of fiction.  I’m going to talk about a few instances that convinced me.

Most iconically, Rowling packaged the Harry Potter stories with information about herself and her intentions:  it’s part of the story that she was a single mother, humbled to be struggling and dependent on assistance instead of making a splash as a writer, the way she and others always expected of her.  We know her grief over her mother’s death informed all of the series, and that she longed to see and speak to her mother again, as Harry longs for his lost family. She wanted us to know these things, and I know I welcomed the way they enriched my understanding of the books, of her characters who rail against the burden of caregiving and then are ashamed of their ungraciousness.  I am not sorry that this background informs my reading.

Here is some other information about the author that has only deepened my understanding in a way that I welcome.  We know, partly because Rowling’s own father betrayed her by selling information to a tabloid, that she survived domestic violence in her first marriage; we heard her say, in a subsequent interview, that she was replicating family patterns she had learned as a child.  This information made me understand the Fidelius Charm as a magical version of what we Muggles call a “safe house.” We know that Rowling’s mother blossomed in her job working for a chemistry teacher Rowling disliked, who was one of the inspirations for the character of Snape.  This information helped me understand the complex dynamic of someone, in adulthood, revisiting their view of a teacher who had been cruel to them as a child but had been a friend to their mother.  

This background enriched my reading enough that I found it worthwhile to keep looking.  I had wondered why Rowling chose to write James and Lily marrying and becoming parents so young; I stopped wondering when I learned that Rowling’s parents had been that age when she was born.  When I first read in Deathly Hallows that Snape had seen Lily’s joyous ability to fly, I wasn’t sure if Rowling meant that her character actually, literally, flew — until I learned that her mother’s maiden name was Anne Volant, the French word for “flying.”  In a series that is so deliberate about the magic of names, and especially the names of mothers, learning the full name of the author’s mother enriched my understanding in a way that I would never want to give back.

The biggest gut punch came when I learned that Rowling’s father is named Peter James Rowling.  I resisted thinking about that for a while; it was too much. But I could not in any way make myself believe that this author, in particular, gave two major characters the same names as a family member by accident or coincidence.  I had wondered why James Potter was so difficult to find in the stories.  We get unflattering memories of him as a student, and we hear of his goodness as a young man, but when we see him as a father, he’s barely there:  when Voldemort kills him, unlike the complex view we get of Lily’s death, “James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut.” We get a much more vivid portrait of Peter Pettigrew, making me wonder if Rowling wrote different aspects of her view of her own father into these two characters, one despicable, one heroic but elusive.

After making these connections, I couldn’t help wondering if considering the author might also help me gain insight into the portrayal of Ravenclaw House and why it’s so much more nebulous and ambivalent than the other three.  With HP, Cursed Child, and Fantastic Beasts, this author has given us Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff points of view. She hasn’t written a Ravenclaw story. What if it’s Ravenclaw, not Slytherin, that is her shadow House, the House of aspects about herself that frighten her, or that she wants to repress?

We meet the ghosts of Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff houses on Harry’s first night at Hogwarts.  Seven years and literally a million words later, on page 613 of Deathly Hallows, Harry asks Nearly Headless Nick this astonishing question: 

“Who’s the ghost of Ravenclaw Tower?”

I know some people like to rib Harry for times he’s unobservant, but in this case, I’m going to attribute this lacuna to the author, rather than the character.  

Nick points out a “young woman with long hair,” a ghost Harry had “passed several times in the corridor, but to whom he had never spoken,” who raises her eyebrows and drifts away through solid wall when she sees Harry looking at her.  According to Rowling, she had written this ghost into the series twice before, but never identified her, once in Harry’s first year as “the ghost of a tall witch,” once in Harry’s sixth year as “the ghost of a long-haired woman,” with no indication that they were meant to be the Gray Lady, or indeed, even the same ghost both times.  Page 613 of the final book is a supremely odd moment to be introducing a brand-new character, the last one until the Epilogue: Voldemort has begun his attack on Hogwarts, students are streaming out to safety, fighters are taking their stations. Is this really the time to be making introductions and wheedling information out of someone who is elusive, even for a ghost?

But Harry needs to find the Ravenclaw diadem, which Flitwick describes as “long since lost” — “Nobody has seen it in living memory!”

The Gray Lady confesses, with profound shame, that she stole the diadem from her mother because “I sought to make myself cleverer, more important than my mother.  I ran away with it.” I’m not sure Rowling intended this comparison, but we have found, at last, another force so powerful that it survives beyond death, just as love does:  guilt. She’s been so ashamed about something she did centuries ago that she can’t rest in peace. She confesses to Harry that she told Voldemort where to find the diadem: “He was . . . flattering. He seemed to . . . to understand . . . to sympathize. . . .”  Even as a ghost, she craved relief from this guilt.

Could it be that the author identifies with the Gray Lady, hating that she had once thought herself, with her intellectual promise, cleverer and more important than her mother?  At the end of book 7, is the author, like book 1 Hermione, disavowing “books and cleverness” in favor of greater things? I almost think that’s a stretch, but I find it hard to dismiss entirely, especially when we learn that Helena Ravenclaw was attacked by a possessive would-be lover.  The consideration that makes it most difficult for me to dismiss is the intense sense of shame and ambivalence around this part of the story, long past the point in the plot when we expect a whole new development to interrupt the momentum of a thunderous finale.  When Harry hears the Gray Lady’s story, he thinks, “— here at last was a secret he and Voldemort knew, that Dumbledore had never discovered.” The battered, tarnished old diadem is shoved into the cathedral-sized city of unwanted garbage, the collective guilt of centuries; and the Gray Lady stammers and whispers her shame to Harry in bitter and defensive tones, her urge to confess struggling against her cold desire to keep her shame secret; and the author who had regrets about her late mother and had once survived domestic violence showed, I think, enormous ambivalence and reluctance in being unable to finish her cathartic epic without blurting out, at the very last moment, that she had written a faint trace of a long-ago past version of herself into the books, although she had only been able to bring herself to write this ghost twice, nameless and voiceless and nearly invisible.  As if the author, herself, had felt too ashamed to show this part of herself to Dumbledore, but had only been able to confess it to Voldemort and then shoved it into the Room of Requirement like something dark or broken.

Rowling’s saga was almost over.  She was running out of Horcruxes.  Harry, Dumbledore, and Ron had already had the opportunity to destroy a Horcrux and confront something in themselves; another two were reserved for Hermione and Neville. 

Who killed Ravenclaw’s Horcrux?

Maybe if she hurried and dragged a part of herself out of its obscure hiding place, the part she could barely think about and couldn’t even always articulate in fantasy, there was still time for Harry to help her destroy a Horcrux and face something of her own.

Here’s how that Horcrux dies:

“A bloodlike substance, dark and tarry, seemed to be leaking from the diadem. Suddenly Harry felt the thing vibrate violently, then break apart in his hands, and as it did so, he thought he heard the faintest, most distant scream of pain, echoing not from the grounds or the castle, but from the thing that had just fragmented in his fingers.”

I hope this brought Rowling some peace.

Dumbledore takes up the story from here, talking to Harry from the afterlife about the damage he caused by seeking to set his clever self above being a caregiver for his loved ones.

“You cannot despise me more than I despise myself.”

“But I don’t despise you —”

“Then you should…  I resented it, Harry…  I was gifted, I was brilliant.  I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine.  I wanted glory. I loved my parents, I loved my brother and sister, but I was selfish… Trapped and wasted, I thought!  And then, of course, he came…. Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me. Master of death, which we took to mean ‘invincible.’”

After the death of Ariana, Dumbledore refused the post of Minister of Magic:  “I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation.  I was safer at Hogwarts. I think I was a good teacher…”

That’s such an understatement, it’s almost funny.  Of course, Dumbledore was the greatest of teachers.  But it wasn’t the magic he most longed to cast. He didn’t have the internal ability to limit his desire for power, so he had to establish teaching as a form of self-protection, a way to keep himself occupied away from power.  He explained something similar to Harry in his sixth year:

“’You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!’ said Dumbledore loudly. ‘The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s!’”

Dumbledore was remembering his weakness for power when he deflected McGonagall’s praise for being too “noble” to assume the same powers as Voldemort.  Of course, Quirrell was wrong when he said, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”  Harry said as much when Voldemort boasted during the final battle that he had “performed magic that Dumbledore himself never dreamed of.”

“Oh, he dreamed of it,” said Harry, “but he knew more than you, knew enough not to do what you’ve done.”

“You mean he was weak!” screamed Voldemort.  “Too weak to dare, too weak to take what might have been his, what will be mine!”

“No, he was cleverer than you,” said Harry, “a better wizard, a better man.”

Having once permitted his giftedness unchecked rein, having once put no limits and no protections on his ambition for invincible power and then having grieved endlessly for Ariana’s death, as well as the fascism he encouraged in Grindelwald, Dumbledore limited his destructive power by turning his genius to teaching, to spreading love and protection and gifts to others.

I hope Rowling is at peace with the Ravenclaw aspect of herself.  She did, after all, come to reign over the world with her giftedness, but I don’t think she used it to set herself above others.  I think she found ways to build her genius into the warmth of her children’s stories and her work with Lumos and other foundations, spreading love and protection and gifts to others.

Eulogy: J.K. Rowling’s love letter to Europe on NoBrexit Day

The Guardian printed a letter by J.K. Rowling, among others, from A Love Letter to Europe:  An outpouring of love and sadness from our writers, thinkers and artists, published October 31, 2019, the date that Boris Johnson had designated, unsuccessfully, for Brexit.

Rowling’s letter gives us a few more glimpses of the author we know from her writing.  For example, we get another detail confirming her father’s resemblance to the Vernon Dursley school of British manhood, suspicious of all “foreigners” on a micro and macro level.  When he visited her in France during her exchange studies, it was her job to attempt to explain to the French waiters that “bien cuit in his case meant there must be no pink at all in the middle of the steak.”  Oh, dear.

This excerpt brings to mind the clarity and painfully sweet quality of Sirius and Remus in HP, recounting memories of the Marauders from their mid-thirties perspectives:

We all have shining memories of our youth, made poignant because they’re freighted with knowledge of what happened later to companions, and what lay ahead for ourselves. Back then we were allowed to roam freely across Europe in a way that shaped and enriched us, while benefiting from the longest uninterrupted spell of peace this continent has ever known.

Her phrase, “the longest uninterrupted spell of peace this continent has ever known,” is a grief-stricken eulogy for the Pax Europaea, that time after World War II that creates the stage for the Harry Potter stories, a peace that is disintegrating as we watch in distress.  If her wording sounds familiar to HP readers, it may be due to the echoes of Harry’s thoughts when he first saw Dumbledore’s corpse:  “there was still no preparation for seeing him here, spread-eagled, broken: the greatest wizard Harry had ever, or would ever, meet.”

The grief for the end of Britain’s membership in a unified Europe does feel a bit like the death of Dumbledore, the wizard who came to hard-won maturity after a battle in 1945 and influenced the rest of the 20th century with his polyglot, peace-enforcing, always diplomatic worldview.  The end of the age of Dumbledore feels like Ollivander’s description of the Elder Wand’s prominence:  “Yes, it is perfectly possible to trace the wand’s course through history. There are gaps, of course, and long ones, where it vanishes from view, temporarily lost or hidden; but always it resurfaces.”

Goodbye to a flawed, kind, powerful time of goodness.  All right, then.  There’s work to be done and we don’t know yet how this story turns out.

Rough notes on Discussing HP in 2019

At MISTI-Con 2019, Irvin Khaytman (author of The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore) and I conducted a conversation on “Discussing HP in 2019,” during a time when fandom is grappling with a number of contentious issues.  Our actual discussion went differently, and I don’t have notes for Irvin’s half of it, but here are some of the rough notes I prepared ahead of the panel.


 

I have feelings about J.K. Rowling, about Cursed Child and the Pottermore Presents extras and Fantastic Beasts.  They’re probably different from your feelings.  I don’t know how, and won’t know unless I ask and I listen with as much fairness as I can, but they are.  I also know that if I listen to other people explain their feelings, I’ll probably want to talk about mine, and they might not be as evolved as I think they are.  Feelings about stories can be potent and based on deeply personal reactions.  In that sense, there’s something sacred to be honored within everyone’s feelings, and that makes this kind of conversation tricky.  I’m going to talk about a few strategies I’ve used to try to reduce discomfort and increase understanding.

One fan’s trash is another fan’s treasure

This is something I learned from the BBC Sherlock fandom.  I learned not to call something “garbage” when I hated it, because I found out too many times that I had hurt people who loved that thing or that character – sometimes for reasons I could never have imagined.  I learned to ask why people love what they love.

Know who is hearing you

Last month, I saw people discussing anti-trans things J.K. Rowling has said, worried that this means they should avoid downloading Wizards Unite or boycott the Wizarding World theme parks or stop writing fanfic in her universes, even though they wanted to.

If boycotting feels right to you, go for it.  But sometimes we don’t want to give up something, even when there are serious issues, because something about it gives us energy and joy and community.  In those cases, I think it’s absolutely worth it to hang on.  A few dollars more or less from me might make a difference to Warner Brothers.  But those few dollars will make a difference if I use them to support books by trans authors, or queer creators, or people of color.  If you buy a book, that author will feel the $1.65 royalty they get from you.  If you can afford it, give someone a dollar a month on Patreon so they can be supported in getting the content out there that you know we deserve.  Borrow books from the library and then recommend them on social media, or circulate recommendations whenever the topic comes up.  This is something you can do, it’s empowering, and it reaches people who can actually hear you.

Definitely vote with your wallet and get your objections out there.  But I believe in a dual track of action that also focuses on ways to direct our energy that can build community and nourish us.  It combats burnout.

Recognize that the story hasn’t changed; it’s the reader

I was appalled when I reread the Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson in Prisoner of Azkaban and recognized that Lupin coaching a class of third-years to mock Snape by imagining him in an old lady dress is a move that has anti-trans bullying in it.  It was uncomfortable because I remember laughing.  I remember loving a lot of passages that make me uncomfortable now.  I have to recognize that my perspective changes with age or greater awareness.  But I also try to recall that I actively made peace with some disturbing aspects of Harry Potter when I was younger – it was just so long ago that I don’t always remember it.  The anti-fat hatred, especially bad in the beginning of Chamber of Secrets:  many readers at the time went through a whole process of confronting it in this author and making decisions about whether to continue in the fandom or not.  Sometimes, when we’re confronted by the newness of Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts, we remember the seven-book series as a monolith of goodness.  That’s not how we experienced them at the time.  There were serious shortcomings in them that we hashed out as a community through years of hiatus and re-readings.

This author specializes in the joy of re-reading

The first time I read the script for Cursed Child, I wasn’t sure what to think.  Every subsequent time I’ve read it, I’ve seen something new, and the more seriously I took it as literature, the more I got out of it.  It took me years to figure out a lot of things about the original series.  So Voldemort was present at Hogwarts for all of Harry’s first year?  What was Dumbledore’s plan for Snape and the Elder Wand?  Why, exactly, was Slughorn on the run from the Death Eaters?  What did Snape think Lupin was trying to do to Harry during book three?

Nobody has to reread Cursed Child, but if you’re at all curious, I encourage it.  There are things you can only get from re-readings.  I have never fully understood a story from this author on the first reading.  That’s what makes her a good writer in the first place and why her stories stay with people.  Cursed Child may have been written by Jack Thorne, but the layers in the story and the hints indicated by the wordplay reward re-reading in a way that feels familiar.

The soul of the story

Studies have shown that reading Harry Potter increases people’s empathy toward other groups, even groups that aren’t mentioned within Potterverse, such as gay people or refugees.

Many readers feel distress when Rowling fails to live up to the standards she taught in her own books:  for example, in her treatment of Native American cultures and religions in the Ilvermorny backstory.  I’ve seen what feels almost like self-blame on the part of fans who recoil from that kind of prejudice, but still feel a profound love for books that will always be a part of them.

Two years ago, I was part of a panel at Readercon called “The soul of the story,” moderated by Cecilia Tan.

The soul of the Harry Potter universe is love in its many manifestations, such as infant thriving, physical growth, grief, and empathy.  The flawed human author can convey the soul of the story without being any more able to live up to it than the rest of us. This explains why examinations of race and sexual identity thrive in HP fandom despite the author’s clumsy handling of such issues:  fans are responding to the soul of the story, not the text, and acknowledging the difference.

Rowling’s writing has always reflected her demographic:  white British Christian cishet educated woman, married with children.  I get the sense, sometimes, that some people worry that in order to be principled people, when they recognize an author’s biases, they must give up something they once loved and still do.  To this, I say:  if your interest naturally moves on, that is one thing.  But if you actively feel love, honor that and treasure it, and never be ashamed that you responded to the soul of the story and recognized that this is a different thing from the particulars of the story and the author’s limitations.

It can feel personal when Rowling fails to reach her own standards.  Especially if you read Harry Potter in your formative years and it influenced your sense of empathy and justice, you associate with these books a feeling of learning, of virtue, of how to be a loving person.  It can feel like Rowling personally lets us down when she falls short.  Dumbledore talks about something like that, when he says that being rather more clever than most people, the effects of his mistakes are “correspondingly huger.”  It helps me sometimes to keep in mind that it’s an artist’s gift to be able to convey a soulful truth that may be beyond their personal ability to achieve.

Death of the author doesn’t apply when the author is alive and still writing

I have heard the argument that once released, a story belongs only to the readers and not at all to the person who wrote it and continues to write it.  I’ve heard people argue that everyone in the world has the right to make more stories in the Harry Potter universe except the person who created it, who should be stopped.  I don’t understand those arguments or how people imagine they can be enforced.  Short of censorship and totalitarian control, we cannot stop a writer from continuing her work.  It’s on us to handle the weight of the authority of her words in ways we can actually control.  Irvin has his approach; I have mine, of viewing this influential author’s output as an ongoing work in progress and part of a larger cultural phenomenon that includes fan works.

What would you do if you were her beta?

Sometimes my friends or I are frustrated or angered by something a powerful author has written.  In those instances, one of my ways of restoring a feeling of my own power is to ask myself and others:  How would you mark up her writing and talk to her if she were your beloved friend and you were her beta?  Someone whose friendship you very much intend to keep?  It’s one thing to rant and rail, but if you know there will never be an answer, yet you still have feelings, at some point, I feel like you have to turn the rant into something more self-nourishing.

The point of thinking what constructive advice you would give as her beta is not, of course, that you will send her your thoughts and she will thank you and make all the changes you suggest.  The point is to turn the frustration into productive critical thinking that will absolutely benefit you in your own work, whether it’s your writing or your confidence in giving feedback to others.

Why I find HP worthwhile

A question during the hiatus before Deathly Hallows was whether HP would go on to be a classic, or whether it would be a soon-forgotten fad.  I find it exciting to track how these stories are transitioning right now into second-generation readership.  I find Potterverse incredibly useful for teaching how to read clues and layers, something I think is continuing with Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts series.

It still astonishes me that a woman became a billionaire by writing books for children.  That kind of wealth usually happens through exploitation and oppression, not from telling stories.  For something to become a bestseller, it has to speak to something emotional within people.  For something to become an international bestseller, across cultures, it’s an important phenomenon that tells us something important about being human at this moment.