Friday, November 2, 2007

The Metaphysics of Albus Dumbledore

I’ve long been a fan of the Harry Potter books, and I’ve long been puzzled by the metaphysics of fictional characters. These two things came to a head for me recently when J.K. Rowling, the author of the books, mentioned that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, invaluable mentor to Harry, and perhaps the most powerful wizard alive (up until the end of the sixth book), is gay. Which raises the question: What does it mean for a fictional character to be gay? (Not a thing about Dumbledore’s sexuality is mentioned in the books, and it’s not like Dumbledore had a life “behind the scenes,” did he?) For that matter, what does it mean for a fictional character to be anything—tall, male, human, kind? What are fictional characters anyway? And who determines what properties a fictional character really has?

Perhaps the natural answer to that last question is that the author determines what the character is like. But it’s not as easy as that: what if the author changes his or her mind, or hasn’t decided on some important feature like the height of the character? Besides, some may disagree that the author has this power. Consider, for example, Andrew Rothstein’s response to Rowling’s announcement from a recent article in the New York Times.

But it is possible that Ms. Rowling may be mistaken about her own character. She may have invented Hogwarts and all the wizards within it, she may have created the most influential fantasy books since J. R. R. Tolkien, and she may have woven her spell over thousands of pages and seven novels, but there seems to be no compelling reason within the books for her after-the-fact assertion. Of course it would not be inconsistent for Dumbledore to be gay, but the books’ accounts certainly don’t make it necessary. The question is distracting, which is why it never really emerges in the books themselves. Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay, but there is no reason why anyone else should.

So is Dumbledore gay? Perhaps there is literally no answer to that question. For my part, I’m with Rothstein. Sexuality doesn’t really figure into the Harry Potter books at all, even if romance and marriage do. The issue is distracting, and when in a few years I read the books with my kids, I probably won’t bring it up.
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