Monday, April 21, 2008

Harry Potter and the Unspeakable Themes

Among all the headlines about how she was too British to cry, JK Rowling in a New York court room dropped another small hint about just how her novels have dealt with adult themes. The lycanthropy of her character Remus Lupin, one of Hogwarts’ professors, was an allegory for Aids.

This is not the first time that Rowling has dealt with issues of sexuality and Aids, just as Philip Pullman has also done. Children’s literature has taken on a serious sub-text of sexuality. Lupin’s affliction was in plain sight, unlike the bombshell of Dumbledore’s homosexuality which was so subtle as almost to be non-existent, but which Rowling wanted to publicise nonetheless.

Rowling’s aim, she said, was to explore how people with Aids have been treated. It does make sense when you look at it: Snape’s bitchy remarks about Lupin’s concealed illness and Lupin’s own isolation from others can easily recall the hatred and fear of the 80s. Despite his wolfish disease, Lupin is loved by the heroic characters and welcomed into society.

Philip Pullman approached this much more openly. Some of the most touching scenes in His Dark Materials are those with the pair of gay angels. Their relationship was doomed not by prejudice or violence (as was the prevailing tendency in Aids-era literature) but by self-sacrifice and love. Pullman introduces them without fanfare, befitting a more sophisticated generation of children.

The achievement of Rowling and Pullman in dealing with issues of sexuality and Aids in a non-preachy manner for children is important. No doubt there are gay kids out there taking some small sign of hope and acceptance from it.

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