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Who owns Dumbledore – JK Rowling or the Harry Potter fans?

A recent exchange highlights the complicated nature of ownership when it comes to the Harry Potter universe. Luke MacGregor/ Reuters

Who owns Dumbledore – JK Rowling or the Harry Potter fans?

What would Dumbledore do? It’s a question that’s galled many die-hard fans of JK Rowling’s phenomenally successfully Harry Potter books since the author last week signed an open letter opposing a cultural boycott of Israel, and instead advocated for cultural dialogue between the two countries.

Their responses have played out in a flurry of Twitterverse exchanges, with many fans arguing that the lesson of the Harry Potter story was, as Helen Lewis summarises in The Guardian:

That talking wasn’t enough to end conflicts. Look at the Wizarding War […] If Harry had tried to coax Lord Voldemort to a UN summit in Geneva rather than destroying his Horcruxes, everyone would have ended up dead. Not just Tonks, Remus Lupin and one of the Weasley twins.

One Potter fan in particular gained media attention with a Facebook letter to the author which presented the argument in the following way:

I am writing to you in response to your public support for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and opposition to the BDS movement in the Guardian’s Culture for Coexistence. As a Palestinian, I have to say that I was completely disappointed when I read about this, because your books have been the very source of all the hope I have for peace and justice in my homeland someday.

Rowling, in her response to the fan, also drew on Dumbledore and the Harry Potter series to make her point, stating that:

I’ve received a lot of messages over the past few days that use my fictional characters to make points about the Israeli cultural boycott. This isn’t a complaint: those characters belong to the readers as well as to me, and each has their own life in the heads of those who have read them. Sometimes the inner lives of characters as imagined by readers are not what I imagined for them, but the joy of books is that we all make our own mental cast.

What began as a debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has since developed into a discussion about whether Rowling had the right to use Dumbledore’s characterisation to support her argument. It’s a discussion that raises interesting questions about the relationship between authors and fans of their work.

According to French theorist Roland Barthes, the author has been dead for many decades, but Barthes was writing before social media gave us unprecedented access to authors’ thoughts and feelings. The author has, in a manner of speaking, been revived. But does this change the audience’s relationship with authorial intent?

Debate on Twitter centred on the appropriateness of Rowling using Dumbledore to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fans cited his character’s sympathy with pure-blood supremacy in his youth. Others opined Dumbledore is too powerful to stand in for either side in the political debate. Others claim the conflict is too dense to be reflected in an example from Harry Potter.

While the latter point may be valid, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the way Harry Potter books explore grand themes such as racism and discrimination.

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As fans have noted, the wizarding world becomes obsessed with purging “muggle-borns” during the reign of Voldemort, despite the fact that many talented witches and wizards come from non-magical backgrounds (Hermione Granger, Harry’s best friend and the brightest witch of her age, is a prime example of this).

The desire to attack people who are different is the central concern of the story, and as Rowling herself noted in her Twitter exchange:

It was true in the Potter books and it is true in life that talking will not change wilfully closed minds.

Rowling’s use of a fictional magician to articulate her political beliefs was considered by some to be “misguided” – particularly because, in some cases, fans considered her approach to be a misinterpretation of the spirit of the books. To which Rowling responded:

I can only say that a full discussion of morality within the series is impossible without examining Dumbledore’s actions, because he is the moral heart of the books. He did not consider all weapons equal and he was prepared, always, to go to the hilltop.

What we must remember when discussing the interpretive potential of Dumbledore and the Harry Potter franchise as a whole is that the books are more than just books. Hogwarts is not an object that people can examine objectively – every fan of the Harry Potters series has interpreted it in their own way, and often the way that it is interpreted can say more about the interpreter than it does about the story.

JK Rowling in 2011. EPA/Andy Rain

There are generally two ways that people tend to approach interpreting the Harry Potter universe: through the canon, which is all of Rowling’s writings and commentary, and extra-textual spaces such as Pottermore.com; or through “fanon”, which is how fans have developed the series through their discussions, fan-produced art and stories, and their “head canons” (or their personal interpretations of characters and events).

Fans have begun to approach Rowling’s extra-textual interpretations of the texts by examining them, deciding whether they fit into their overall interpretation of the work, and either incorporating or discarding them. Readers may embrace the ridiculously-named Fleamont Potter (Harry’s grandfather) but take issue with Rowling’s assertion that Remus Lupin never fell in love before he met Nymphadora Tonks (because many fans interpret him as bisexual, with a potential love interest in Sirius Black).

It is heartening to see Rowling acknowledge the fraught relationship between reader interpretation and authorial intent. In the response Rowling posted on Twitter, titled “Why Dumbledore went to the hilltop”, she wrote:

Sometimes the inner lives of characters as imagined by readers are not what I imagined for them, but the joy of books is that we all make our own mental cast […] All books dealing with morality can be picked apart for those lines and themes that best suit the arguer’s perspective.

There is a question of ownership at work here which will not be resolved through a social media exchange, but it is clear that while the author may have been revived the fans are not taking her words as gospel. At this point, Dumbledore is under the joint custody of JK Rowling and her legion of fans.

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