Wrestling With Blind Spots: Death of the Author From Complications

As I have mentioned before, I generally advocate the Death of the Author position when dealing with literature – the idea that interpretation is a matter for the reader to decide, not the writer. It is why I reject the notion that J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore is gay – not because of homophobia, but because the character as portrayed in the Harry Potter series has no sexuality at all for the first six books. Then has an ambiguous relationship with Grindelwald in the seventh (I personally read that relationship as an intellectual one, not a sexual one). Dumbledore, as I read him, has no more sexuality than Gandalf, gay or otherwise – if Rowling had wanted to make the character homosexual, she should have put it in the bloody book.


All well and good. This is also why I generally baulk at telling people how to interpret Wise Phuul or my short stories – someone else’s interpretation of the published text is as good as mine, since a text exists to be read, not written. The exception is where the interpretation is insane, of course, but then I am human as well as an author.

But today I stumbled across an old Ferretbrain article from 2010, which got me thinking about the subject again.

[Edit: the Ferretbrain web-site is now defunct. The original article can, however, be read here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine]

Amongst other things, the article distinguishes between comprehension (e.g. Hogwarts is the name of the school), speculation (e.g. Ron Weasley did job X after leaving school), and interpretation (e.g. Slytherin is an evil House). It further suggests that speculation can only be seen as a worthwhile activity by authorial intentionalists, and that Death of the Author has no use for it.

This, I think, is mistaken, since I see speculation as existing outside the authorial intentionalist/Death of the Author divide. This is not about deriving deeper meaning from a text, but from the pleasure of interacting with it on its own turf, an extension of the willing suspension of disbelief. We know what we’re reading is fiction, but what if it were real? I myself write speculative material on Tolkien as well as interpretive.

So I don’t agree with the article completely… but it did start some soul-searching on how I go about interpreting texts, and, well, I have found myself wrestling with my own potential blind spots. Oh dear.

Because, at the end of the day, is there a substantive difference between Rowling saying that Dumbledore is gay in an interview, George R.R. Martin providing bonus information on Westerosi heraldry and House Words, or J.R.R. Tolkien revealing that Maedhros is a red-head in The Peoples of Middle-earth (bearing in mind that Maedhros’ hair colour never features in the published Silmarillion)?

It’s all extra-textual stuff – which under Death of the Author ought to be discarded in favour of what is in the actual text. And while I have been harsh on Rowling, I have never called Tolkien up for the Maedhros hair colour thing, or any of the various interpretative essays he wrote about his invented world. Surely what is good for the Rowling goose is also good for the Tolkien gander?

These aren’t rhetorical questions either. I have been pondering ways of differentiating them… hence this essay. Basically, I think the article’s comprehension/speculation/interpretation divide is a useful place to start – and I would say that Rowling’s statement about Dumbledore’s sexuality intrudes on the reader’s freedom to interpret in a way that Tolkien and Martin do not.

Martin giving worldbuilding details on banners or words belongs very much to the factoid/comprehension side of things – it fuels speculation, but not interpretation. Knowing the Bolton House words does not affect the way one reads A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s just there, as an optional bonus for those who enjoy such things. Same with Tolkien’s note about Maedhros’ hair colour, which is of interest to fan artists and anyone trying to construct a theory of Elvish hair genetics, but which is of zero thematic or character interest in The Silmarillion.


Dumbledore’s sexuality, by contrast, does not simply invite speculation. By revealing such an integral part of personality, it invites interpretation – how we read the character’s actions and interactions is affected by the revelation. Someone not aware of Rowling’s interview will be reading a slightly different Dumbledore from someone who is aware, which is simply not the case with the Maedhros hair colour example. Which is poor form, as far as Death of the Author goes.

Well and good, then. But one can choose fuzzier examples. What about Anthony Goldstein, the Jewish wizard at Hogwarts, whom Rowling mentions as being in her original list of students? On one hand, he was in the original list – which makes him a genuine part of the world-building, not a post-hoc attempt to burnish Hogwarts’ diversity credentials. On the other hand, the way Rowling uses him in the Guardian article isn’t quite analogous to the Martin or Tolkien examples – she is using something that isn’t in the published text to shape the way we interpret the text. She is trying to get us to read Hogwarts as full of representation and diversity, when cutting Goldstein from the published book actually creates a different effect.

A better approach to encouraging a diverse interpretation of Hogwarts might have been to let the readers do the interpreting for themselves. The black Hermione debate from several years ago – something I might actually do a Youtube video on at some point – is a brilliant example of an adaptation using ambiguity in the text. In this case, Hermione’s skin colour, which is never specified, and which is utterly irrelevant to her character. Diversity achieved on the stage… without the author necessarily needing to tread on people’s toes. Whether Rowling endorsed the casting, or how she personally imagined the character, is actually irrelevant.

OK, so thus far we have been seeing Rowling using extra-textual information to influence interpretation of the published text, whereas Martin and Tolkien use extra-textual information to fuel speculation and immersion. Totally different, right? So is Tolkien then off the hook?

Well, no. Because if revealing Maedhros’ hair colour is different from revealing Dumbledore’s sexuality, we have still yet to establish how Tolkien’s essays and letters are different from Rowlings interviews – those essays and letters often do stray into interpretation. Raving hypocrite that I am, I even went so far as to use such interpretative tools for my Denethor analysis and my look at Sauron’s motivations. The ideas that Denethor is an excessively political leader, or that Sauronian evil differs from Morgothian evil, are straight-out authorial intentionalism.

Perhaps. I am not going to argue that the subsequent publication of Tolkien’s Letters or the History of Middle-earth series turns such information into part of the text – we are not dealing with story here (draft or otherwise), but rather explicit authorial commentary on the text. It is no different from Rowling’s interviews… except in one important sense. Whereas Rowling seems to want to claim credit for stuff that is not actually in the books (i.e. the wise old mentor figure being an example of queer representation in fantasy), when Tolkien comments on his writings, there is generally at least some textual foundation to his commentary.

Recall that my objection to Dumbledore’s sexuality is that Rowling’s comments (which posit a sexual Dumbledore) contradict the basically asexual nature of the book figure. I am willing to look the other way for Tolkien, in that his Denethor and Sauron comments chime with the published story. They do not set interpretation off on a fresh direction, or put a new spin on the material, only help clarify what is already there. On those occasions when Tolkien’s extra-textual commentary does not gel with the content of his actual fiction – Laws and Customs of the Eldar, for example – I cheerfully call him up on it.

Laws and Customs is not useless, of course, since it shows how far Tolkien’s stories were straying from his Catholic intent, but I do not think one should use the essay to interpret The Silmarillion or the other First Age stories. Celegorm and Maeglin simply do not fit. Similarly, I reject Tolkien’s very late Unfinished Tales Galadriel essay, on the basis that it contradicts The Lord of the Rings. It helps that the Rings version is more fun and less whitewashed, so there are aesthetic considerations too – I’m the reader, I can do that, because, well… Death of the Author!

Which brings me full circle. Maybe my literary blind spots aren’t as bad as I feared. Maybe I only use authorial intent in a cautious, supplementary manner, rather than as a stand-in for the text itself. In which case, hooray?

I do have to acknowledge, however, that the sin of Rowling, who wants to stamp a particular interpretation on her work, is one that affects us all – authors are human, and it is very human to want one’s work to be the one that exists in a Platonic state in our brains, rather than the one that exists in the imperfect and messy form on the page. But it’s the page version the reader deals with, even if we try to mean what we say, which, in light of the fun of unconscious and unintended themes and ideas, is probably for the best.

4 thoughts on “Wrestling With Blind Spots: Death of the Author From Complications

  1. With Tolkien, a lot of the things he wrote, even in the letters, often has a worldbuilding quality of its own, which makes it different from looking at mere authorial intention and such. I would say it is as much part of his creation as the stuff he published while he was alive. I understand death of the author to mean look at the creation, no the creator. Reading his experience as an orphan at 11 into his work contradicts death of the author, not reading the history of Middle Earth, or letters that contain the same kind of material.


    • And on top of that, so much of Tolkien’s universe was assembled by his son and published posthumously. If we apply strict Death-of-the-Author, we’d either accept all the History of Middle-Earth (because it’s published somehow) or reject everything outside Hobbit and LOTR (because it wasn’t published before Tolkien’s death.) As a fan of Tolkien’s universe, I would rather not be in the latter situation.

      I think Middle-Earth is fairly unique in this regard because the author never published so much of it or even defined a final version of a lot. With the Harry Potter books (or with Narnia, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Sherlock Holmes), we have a finished text which is comprehensive in itself, surrounded by a lot of short statements and maybe some worldbuilding pieces. Okay, Sayers left unfinished and unpublished some chapters of one new Wimsey story… but that’s still nothing to compare with Tolkien’s papers. And yes, we do get a complete story in Lord of the Rings, and to be absolutely consistent we could try to start a fandom just on that. But to get a complete story of Middle-Earth, we’re forced to go to the unpublished volumes.


  2. Pingback: A Tolkien Reading Order | A Phuulish Fellow

  3. Pingback: Plato On Fiction | A Phuulish Fellow

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