Department of Slow-Moving Targets: Gay Wizards

scary bowieThanks Bill Benzon for pointing out this article by Edward Rothstein grouching about gay wizards. I should begin by admitting that I’m not qualified, or at least that I shouldn’t be allowed, to comment on the Harry Potter novels. I read the first two, saw none of the movies, and stopped reading when I remembered George Orwell’s essay “Boys’ Weeklies,” where he writes about public school stories. A quote:

[The stories] run in cycles of rather different types, but in general they are the clean-fun, knock-about type of story, with interest centring round horseplay, practical jokes, ragging masters, fights, canings, football, cricket, and food. A constantly recurring story is one in which a boy is accused of some misdeed committed by another and is too much of a sportsman to reveal the truth. The ‘good’ boys are ‘good’ in the clean-living Englishman tradition—they keep in hard training, wash behind their ears, never hit below the belt, etc. etc.—and by way of contrast there is a series of ‘bad’ boys, Racke, Crooke, Loder and others, whose badness consists in betting, smoking cigarettes and frequenting public-houses. All these boys are constantly on the verge of expulsion, but as it would mean a change of personnel if any boy were actually expelled, no one is ever caught out in any really serious offense. Stealing, for instance, barely enters as a motif. Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools. (Critical Essays, Secker and Warburg, 1951; p. 66)

Much of the rest of the Orwell essay also strikes me as germane to Rowling, particularly the portions on snob appeal, the “incitement to wealth-fantasy,” and on the types of boys: “the athletic, high-spirited boy…a slightly rowdier version…a more aristocratic version…quieter, more studious version…a stolid, ‘bulldog’ version…[a] reckless, dare-devil type of boy…the definitely ‘clever’, studious boy…[the] eccentric boy who is not good at games but possesses some special talent…[and the] scholarship-boy” (72). Whether or not this actually does describe Rowling’s books–if it does, I accept your compliments, if it (likely) doesn’t, well, “My wit is short, ye may wel understonde”–Orwell’s essay snapped my already fraying interest.

But here I go, joining Rothstein in commenting on Harry Potter, especially in regards to that last bit of Orwell, “Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools.”
This is just Rothstein’s problem: Rowling let sex in by outing Dumbledore. He finds “the question…distracting,” since, after all, there’s no evidence, he says, in the books themselves for Dumbledore’s sexual interest or in fact for any sexual interest at all, unless it is renunciation. And for Rothstein this is just how it should be:

As for his later celibacy, it has the echo of a larger renunciation and a greater devotion. That is, after all, what the fantasy genre is all about. The master wizard is not a sexual being; he has shelved personal cares and embraced a higher mission. And if he indulges in sex, it marks his downfall, as it did, so legend tells us, with Merlin, the tradition’s first wizard, who is seduced by one of the Lady of the Lake’s minions. Tolkien’s wizards — both good and evil — are so focused on their cosmic tasks that sexuality seems a petty matter. Gandalf eventually transcends the physical realm altogether.Ms. Rowling quite consciously makes Dumbledore a flawed, more human wizard than these models, but now goes too far. There is something alien about the idea of a mature Dumbledore being called gay or, for that matter, being in love at all. He may have his earthly difficulties and desires, but in most ways he remains the genre wizard, superior to the world around him.

Now, as I pointed out earlier (while clinging to the shoulders of giants), sexual renunciation is a form of sexual activity, so I can grant Mr. Rothstein a compliment for recognizing that even Dumbledore’s sexual refusal is a sex life. At the same time, I have to balance the compliment by observing that Rothstein doesn’t care one wit whit about the het-sex attractions in the series (are there any between any of the teachers?), which alone suggests that despite the stoic noises he makes, it isn’t sexuality per se that bothers him.

The easy trick for a medievalist is of course to open the sexual wizard trapdoor. There’s Eliavrés, in Caradoc, who “pursued [Ysave] everywhere, and enchanted and bewitched her and tricked her so well by his magic, ruses, and incantations that she dishonoured her lord” (Three Arthurian Romance, trans. Ross G. Arthur, Everyman, 1996, p. 6), and who tricks Ysave’s husband into sleeping with a greyhound, sow, and mare on successive nights. There’s the tricksy, raping magic dwarf in Ortnit, who sounds in some ways like the demonic lover in Gowther. There’s sexual wizards aplenty in Perceforest, including the master wizard Darnant and his lineage, who rape to woo; there’s Zephir, who like so many wizards, is a go-between; there’s Lydoire, whose obsession with bears even while having sex leads her to bear a furry child. If we expand the range of activities we think of as sexual, there’s also the divinely Celtic trickster Merlin, who is described, among other places, in Philippe Walter’s “Merlin, le loup et saint Blaise,” Mediaevistik 11 (1998): 97-111, and who is, after all, so queer. We might also recall his strange alliance with our hero in the Roman de Silence.

As much as I’d like to hear about other sexual wizards–and feel free to list them in comments! (is Grendel’s mother a sexual wizard?)–surely there’s something more interesting we can do with Rothstein’s desire for sexless wizardry? It’s symptomatic, of course, of a lot of obvious things, and we could take our discussion in that direction. Or we could take our discussion in no direction at all, but, for now, if you please, I’d like to hear what you have to say.

And if you want a laugh, check out Michael Chertoff’s Anglo-Saxon prose here.