J.K. Rowling, Albus Dumbledore, and the Perils of Hero Worship

The defining author of our generation has become her own worst enemy.

Dumbledore
Warner Bros

In his youth, Albus Dumbledore was a neo-Nazi.

Somehow, that’s a fact that’s been glossed over in the post-Deathly Hallows discourse surrounding the character. In the ten years since that novel’s release, Dumbledore has already been canonized as a mentor figure for the ages, placed alongside Gandalf and Merlin in the ranks of all-time greats. He’s even reached that peak achievement of fictional inspiration, with countless high school seniors quoting him in their yearbooks every year.

And yet, the defining twist of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the blockbuster conclusion to the most successful children’s book series of all time, is that fresh out of Hogwarts, wise and heroic Professor Albus Dumbledore was seduced by the Wizarding World’s version of Adolf Hitler. It’s a twist that makes Deathly Hallows a refreshingly original parable about the true nature of heroism, a subversive and effective examination of the archetypes that the series has, up until this point, been content to regurgitate. Until his death in Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore is simply the wise and all-knowing figure that guides our main character through his journey; once he is gone, the question of whether he was ever fit to guide at all is what drives our protagonist forward.

All of Harry Potter’s heroes disappoint him this way. The godfather he never knew he had turned out to be a reckless, immature daredevil who refuses to be the stable entity that Harry needs. His favorite teacher abandons his wife and unborn child in a spasm of self-hatred, only returning to them after being shamed into it by Harry himself. Even Harry’s father himself is revealed to be a bullying pest who tormented an unloved boy until he became a monster. And Dumbledore is the crowning disappointment, the man with all the answers who played with fire and manipulated Harry at every step of the way.

All of these disappointments are baked into the text of the Harry Potter novels. It is by design that Harry only follows Dumbledore’s path towards Voldemort after learning exactly why he would be well within his rights to ignore the plans laid out by the man he now knows flirted dangerously close to becoming a full-blown fascist. The J.K. Rowling who wrote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows knows that meeting your heroes can only lead to destruction and despair. Which is why it makes it all the more frustrating that the J.K. Rowling of today seems to have forgotten that lesson.

The Albus Dumbledore we meet in Rowling’s bewilderingly incoherent Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is much closer to his days of neo-Nazi sympathy than the Dumbledore we knew in the halcyon days of the Potter franchise. Now played by Jude Law, Dumbledore is back to casually manipulating another former Hogwarts student, this time Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander. Why Dumbledore decides that a nervous magical zookeeper is the best chess piece to use in his cold war against neo-fascist Johnny Depp wax sculpture Gellert Grindelwald is never entirely clear. What is clear is that Dumbledore is not able to move against Grindelwald himself, because of a barely-explained “blood pact” between the two that they will never fight.

Because this is the second of five Fantastic Beasts stories, Rowling leaves the entire relationship between these two wizards entirely unexplained, presumably assuming that her loyal audience will be able to piece it together based on the extraneous expanded-universe material. In a year full of films that feel like they were based on in-depth Wikipedia articles (Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War come to mind), Crimes of Grindelwald is without a doubt the most mind-numbingly encyclopedic. At one point during the climax, a character pulls out a family tree in a desperate attempt to explain exactly what is going on, and the scene still fails to make any sense whatsoever.

But this Hollywood-2018 chronic inability to produce a movie that coheres on its own terms has dire consequences when it comes to Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Without explaining exactly what occurred between of the two of them, the film resorts to simply depicting a heroic character hopelessly mooning over a neo-Nazi, with an endlessly uncomfortable scene of semi-romantic longing in front of the Mirror of Erised (Remember the Mirror of Erised?! Remember?!?!). On top of just plain not making sense, the entire situation grows suddenly and upsettingly problematic, and it starts to become clear: J.K. Rowling is Albus Dumbledore.

The co-opting of Harry Potter by the so-called online “resistance” has made it difficult to praise the more progressive parts of the original novels, but they exist. Alongside the muddled house-elf slavery allegories and confused racism metaphors, the Harry Potter series has a few very real and intelligent things to say. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is about the complicity of an incompetent neoliberal government in the rise of fascism; Half-Blood Prince has a handful of smart things to say about the manipulation of media sources by that same government. And the central disappointment of Albus Dumbledore is one of the most brilliant things a fantasy novel for children has ever done, undercutting the authority of a generation that has failed us in favor of the fiery anger of the generation that now has to fix it.

The J.K. Rowling who wrote the two Fantastic Beasts movies possesses none of that comparative subtlety. After ten years of frantically claiming that no, really, Albus Dumbledore was gay, she fails to put her money where her mouth is in any significant way. Only someone familiar with the contents of J.K. Rowling’s interview material would be able to say that the Dumbledore we meet in Fantastic Beasts had any kind of sexual relationship with Grindelwald. It reeks of queerbaiting, the cravenly cynical Hollywood practice of openly claiming a character is representative of the LGBTQ+ community without actually doing any of the risky work required to portray that character honestly.

Rowling’s other political blunders are myriad. Crimes of Grindelwald introduces the franchise’s first major black character and then saddles her with a thankless subplot and an openly offensive backstory. It reveals that the giant carnivorous snake of the Potter films was actually a cursed woman played by Claudia Kim, simultaneously playing into uncomfortable stereotypes about Asian women and turning the biggest hero moment of Deathly Hallows into a disturbing act of brutal murder. Rowling’s Pottermore website has come under fire from Native Americans for equating real-life tribal rituals with exotic and fictional magic. She has quietly but repeatedly favorited Twitter posts describing trans women as “men in dresses,” and her detective novel The Silkworm features a scene in which the protagonist threatens a trans woman with implied prison rape. Perhaps worst of all, Rowling has aggressively defended Fantastic Beasts’ casting of alleged domestic abuser Johnny Depp, despite the existence of video evidence of Depp’s violence towards ex-wife Amber Heard.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is a bad, unnecessary movie. It exists for no reason other than to pointlessly fill in the gaps between points on a Harry Potter universe timeline, and outside of a relatively engaging performance from Eddie Redmayne, director David Yates fails to wring anything worthwhile out of Rowling’s incomprehensible screenplay. But writing a bad movie isn’t a crime (of Grindelwald). Plenty of accomplished authors have stumbled on their way to the big screen. Few, however, have so quickly and entirely exhausted their resources of goodwill by doubling down on confused and manipulative political rhetoric in the waning days of their fame.

Comparing Rowling to Dumbledore isn’t to say that her various offenses are equivalent to her fictional character’s sympathy for a neo-Nazi dictatorship. But there is an unmistakable link between Rowling’s bold willingness to undermine her heroes’ moral authority and her current inability to admit her own weaknesses. Harry Potter manages to move on from his disappointment with Albus Dumbledore, largely because even in death, Dumbledore is wise enough to accept his faults and hold himself accountable for his youthful trespasses. But the Rowling that refuses to question her faith in Johnny Depp, the Rowling that snaps back at fans who ask her when Dumbledore’s homosexuality will be explicitly acknowledged? That’s an author who resembles the fallen hero of Deathly Hallows’ first half far more than she does the repentant spirit who meets Harry at King’s Cross.

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Writer and student based in New York. Ask me about my Blu-Ray copy of The Book of Henry.