Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shall The Pot Contend With The Potter?

I started to write a paragraph or two as an update to the previous posting, but as usual it grew and grew into a separate post.

Jeffrey Weiss (who, I should mention, sent me a nice e-mail defending his case after I mentioned him in the previous post) commanded J. K. Rowling to shut up and recognize that “until those books were published, the characters and settings were yours to command and control.… Now they are ours.” (One of us, one of us! Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.) The meme spread like a radioactive virus, first to Rod Dreher (thanks to Roy Edroso for the link), then to one John Mark Reynolds (via a commenter on Dykes To Watch Out For). Dreher’s post, titled “Dumbledore, the Queen of Hogwarts”, was nothing if not succinct: “I’m with my Dallas Morning News colleague Jeff Weiss: J. K. Rowling really would do well to shut up.” (After all, if St. Paul would not suffer women to speak in church, why should Rod Dreher?) Reynolds was more verbose, rather like your own Promiscuous Reader: to show his evenhandedness despite his distaste for “disordered affections”, he wrote a second article to establish that he’d have objected if Rowling had declared Dumbledore a heterosexual. But he too agreed with Weiss: “Dumbledore no longer belongs only to Rowling. He also belongs to her readers who have been given a series of books in which Rowling was free to say what she wanted to say. … She wrote what she wrote and now it belongs to us.”

To borrow a word from Reynolds: nonsense. Just because the projected series is finished, that doesn’t mean Rowling is not allowed to revisit the Potterverse should she wish to. I imagine that she’s currently enjoying the freedom that comes from the end of her obligation to work on that massive project, but in years to come she might want to write about Harry again. Many authors have returned, for better or worse, to creations they thought they were done with: Ursula LeGuin to Earthsea, Roger Zelazny to Amber, Armistead Maupin to 28 Barbary Lane, Conan Doyle to Sherlock Holmes – hell, Shakespeare to Falstaff. If Reynolds believes that Harry Potter now belongs to him, he might try publishing a continuation of the Potter saga without Rowling’s permission. (Reportedly Rowling is more indulgent of fan fiction than some other writers, but even she draws the line at Potter “slash” erotica.) Harry Potter belongs to her until you pry him from her cold, dead fingers.

Echoing other objectors, Reynolds declares that Rowling “wrote about Christianity openly by Book Seven, but if Dumbledore was gay, she decided to hide it. She hid it so well that there is no evidence of it.” I wouldn’t go that far. In Deathly Hallows, tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter accuses Dumbledore of an “unnatural” relationship with Harry Potter. This is at least compatible with the way bigots have exploited homosexuality in the closeted, especially after they’re dead. Dumbledore’s was probably an open secret among wizards. Potter fans have also pointed to Dumbledore’s own account to Harry of his ambiguous fascination with Gellert Grindelwald.

“At this point it is too late for Rowling to change the text,” Reynolds declares. “She cannot decide to kill Harry now . . . or announce that Harry is actually a vampire, a member of the Tory party, or antidisestablishmentarian. She wrote what she wrote and now it belongs to us.” Again, nonsense. Rowling is not changing the text, though she could if she wanted to. Writers often do. In the days when popular fiction was serialized in newspapers or magazines, authors would often make changes, even of endings, for book publication. Rowling has her own constraints, grown in the construction of her massive project, which would prevent her from (say) declaring that Harry was a vampire all along.

It’s not surprising that People of the Book, a Book whose contents are supposedly set in stone, would want everything they read to be under similarly tight control. But if the Author of the Book wants to add some commentary, let alone some extra installments, those are authorized additions. Who are you, O Man, to reply against your Author? The vexed question is who owns the rights to the franchise.

In Jesus’ day the canon of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t set. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and the Prophets (which included “historical books” like Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were pretty much agreed on, but the third division, the Scriptures (Psalms, Proverbs, Chronicles, and so on), had permeable boundaries. A lot of writings survive that didn’t make it into either the Jewish or the Christian lists. (The Christian “Old Testament” doesn’t quite match the Jewish Bible.) Some of them, like Jubilees, are retellings of stories from the Torah, often told from different perspectives, like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. (Even within the canon, Chronicles retells material from Samuel and Kings.) Or minor figures like Enoch get to be the stars of their own books, often with two or three sequels.

The Christians added a whole new cycle, which didn’t sit well with the original owners of the franchise. What are the gospels, after all, but Jesus fan fiction? (Son of Yahweh. Son of Yahweh Meets Satan. Son of Yahweh Meets Sons of Satan. Son of Yahweh Goes to Heaven.) Christians wrote more stories about Jesus and his family and friends, including the further adventures of Paul and other apostles, full of magic – I mean miracle, excuse me! – and other fun stuff. Then came the lives of the Saints, with gore, sexual threat (the virgin menaced by a slavering infidel is a perennial trope), miraculous escapes and martyrdoms galore. It continues to this day. Two From Galilee, anybody? Or, for the snuff crowd, The Passion of the Christ. (Personally, I prefer Paul Rudnick’s Adam-and-Steve play The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.)

Readers have always felt free to differ even with the official, published, canonical versions of the stories they loved. As a child, writer Jean Kerr (if I remember right) so disliked the unhappy ending of Gone With The Wind that she wrote her own happy one. There was a big fuss when Rowling made Harry's romance with Ginny Weasley canon: "On one message board, posters decided to unite against Spartz, Anelli and Rowling, writing that the new purpose of the forum was to 'express your views and show why the evidence was there for the [Harry/Hermione] ship, even if Ms. Rowling, unfortunately, did not see it,' and to 'let her know the way you feel about her comments, or point out how, why and where she went wrong in her development of the characters, or simply discuss how she will have missed a golden opportunity to tell one of the greatest love stories ever told.'" I pointed out before that conservative Christians aren't alone in their tizzy about the unfairness of Rowling’s revelation; at least one avowed atheist has complained in very similar terms, accusing Rowling of being “freakily obsessive about her characters.” As Rowling’s critics insist, Dumbledore’s gayness is not on that order; it’s a minor detail that is part of the backstory, and strictly speaking it's an addition, not a change – but if it’s so minor, why are they making such a fuss about it?