Essay: Slash Rules
Almost from the time the Harry Potter books were published, readers have discussed sexual themes in the books and written “slash” fanfiction featuring same-sex relationships, whether two or more male characters or two or more female characters. One reason these writers often cite for representing Harry specifically as queer in slash stories is the queer-friendly subtext in the books.
Technically JK Rowling has written Harry as someone who likes girls, so much so that, in Half-Blood Prince, he’s glad that Ron, his best friend, doesn’t know about the fantasies he’s having about Ron’s sister. But while Rowling didn’t write a literally queer Harry, she used queer metaphors in reference to him and many other characters. Due to this pervasive sympathy for the Metaphorical Queer, finding a queer-friendly subtext isn’t difficult.
Unlike ethnic minorities, born into families in which everyone has the same background, sexual minorities are similar to Muggle-born wizards because they have an attribute that they don’t share with their closest relatives. Before Harry goes to Hogwarts, he’s literally closeted (in the cupboard under the stairs), until his true “orientation” is revealed by the Hogwarts letters, making it impossible to continue to hide who he is, least of all from himself. Vernon wants to squash him down and deny him his power, but the letters are his “coming out”. Like a Squib—a non-magical person in a wizarding family—and like many queer youth, Harry is encouraged to be what he is not.
We can see how strongly JK Rowling objects to this type of magical repression outside of the seven Harry Potter books by looking at her script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In contrast to the accidental magic Harry performs before getting his Hogwarts letter, when he doesn’t do anything that could be called even metaphorically monstrous, the trope called “Have You Tried Not Being a Monster?” fits the Obscurial in Fantastic Beasts very well.
In the film, a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to an anti-gay religious zealot leads a group wishing to eradicate magical people from New York. A child in her care is worried that she’ll learn that he’s magical, like the characters in Diana Wynne Jones’s Witch Week. (See Hail the Conquering Liminal Being or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 8: Have You Tried Not being Liminal?) Unlike Jones’s witches, in Fantastic Beasts, extreme magical repression leads to the child being a dangerous force of destruction: an Obscurial.
This side-effect of magical repression was not in the seven Harry Potter books, nor is the Obscurial in the ‘schoolbook’ bearing the same name as the film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But there is a scene in the film in which Newt Scamander explains Obscurials. Newt says:
There used to be more of them, but they still exist. It was before wizards went underground, when we were still being hunted by Muggles. Young wizards and witches sometimes tried to suppress their magic to avoid persecution. So, instead of learning to harness or to control their powers, they developed what was called an Obscurus.
Most wizards don’t grow up needing to suppress their magic. They’re either in families where at least one other person, like a parent, is magical, or in Muggle families where their relatives don’t know about magic, let alone suppressing it. Squibs are born into wizarding families but are not magical, and again, because they are outside the norm, this is not well-regarded.
Neville Longbottom’s family is afraid that he may be a Squib and his great-uncle nearly kills him to prove otherwise. He wants to help Neville access his power, not cut him off from it (like Vernon with Harry, or like the boy in Fantastic Beasts), but we still get the impression that it’s better not to be a Squib.
Like Harry, the Squib Argus Filch finds refuge at Hogwarts. We know nothing of his early life, whether he was crushed by not getting a Hogwarts letter. We don’t know how he came to work at Hogwarts, which he does without magic. The Kwik-Spell course Harry finds in Filch’s office is reminiscent of ex-gay programs (“reparative therapy”), designed to ‘de-gay’ someone, which has been roundly debunked by the AMA and medical organizations in other countries.
In this case the impetus for change comes not from without but from within; Filch seems to be a self-hating Squib, constantly surrounded by kids who can do magic while he cannot. Doing magic would technically be “normal” for him, coming from a wizarding family, but he’ll never be “normal”, so he’s terminally unhappy (and seems to believe solidly in “misery loves company”).
JK Rowling could have “Outed” Sirius Black if she wanted to thrill her fans. It may or may not be comforting for them to know that he’s Metaphorically Queer, the ideological Other in his family because he doesn’t believe in blood purity. Like many queer teens, he leaves home and chooses a new family: the Potters. But, also like other queer teens, it’s not a true choice for him to simply be who he is. In Deathly Hallows it’s implied that Regulus isn’t unlike Sirius, despite being a Death Eater who was Sorted into Slytherin. Unlike Sirius, Regulus remains closeted and works to steal a Horcrux, dying before he can destroy it.
Percy Weasley is also Metaphorically Queer. Like Sirius, he leaves the family home when his views are diametrically opposed to his parents’. There’s a great deal of religious symbolism in the fifth book; the differences between Percy and his parents take on overtones of a religious argument, with Percy playing the role of the convert and his parents adhering to the “old” religion.
Rowling also depicts this ideological Metaphorical Queerness in other “families”: house elves and Centaurs. After Harry frees Dobby, he starts wearing clothes, accepting wages for his work, and is beyond the pale to other elves. However, he was already pretty far from them ideologically before his emancipation. Firenze the Centaur cannot return to his herd after taking a teaching job at Hogwarts, a sharp departure from Centaurs’ strict separation from humans.
Liminal Beings by their nature, Centaurs are similar to half-alien Heroes (except that they’re half human and half horse). They also “see” across barriers, like Crones, and understand the meanings of omens. This is probably why, in many myths, a Hero’s teacher or mentor is often a Centaur; the best fit as a teacher for a Liminal Being is also a Liminal Being.
Whether a family is Muggle, wizarding, dark wizarding, or magical creatures, someone considered “abnormal” for their family may be forcibly indoctrinated. If this fails, that person may be ostracized. Except for Percy, Rowling depicts this negatively. The Blacks, Dursleys, house elves, Centaurs and Neville’s Uncle Algie do not invite our sympathy for abusing power and trying to change Sirius, Harry, Dobby, Firenze and Neville (who isn’t a Squib—his family was just terrified that he might be). However, there are refuges for the Other.
Harry’s refuge is Hogwarts. If he’d gone to Stonewall High that might have been another refuge, given the name and the fact that Dudley was at a different school. The riot that occurred in 1973 at the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village, in Manhattan, is widely considered to be the watershed moment in the history of queer rights. That JK Rowling gives this name to the school Harry is supposed to attend is striking, especially considering other “closeted” imagery associated with him, plus Vernon’s open hostility toward literal queerness, such as when he says that he’s glad Dudley’s marks at school aren’t better, since he doesn’t want a son who is “some swotty little nancy boy”.
Rowling doesn’t have Harry go to Stonewall or meet anyone who does, so it seems extraneous to mention its name unless she wants readers to link it to queer rights. Other Muggle schools mentioned are Smeltings (Dudley’s school) and Eton, the only non-fictional school. Most Brits would refer to the nearest state school as “the local comprehensive”, but Rowling calls it Stonewall High, going out of her way to give it this meaningful and evocative name.
Dobby and Firenze find refuge at Hogwarts, and, of course, Sirius with the Potters. He isn’t relegated to living on the street, an all-too-frequent fate for queer teens. Tom Riddle also finds refuge at Hogwarts, though his Metaphorically Queer experience is different from Harry’s. He lives in an orphanage, an ad hoc family. We don’t know if he began hurting other children after being rejected socially or if he was rejected after exercising his power over others. We do know he embraced his difference and felt that it made him superior to Muggles.
JK Rowling only makes queerness literal for one Liminal Being: Albus Dumbledore. That he’s Metaphorically and literally queer is presented subtly. He’s not Muggle-born, or forced to live with vehemently anti-magic Muggle relatives or in a Muggle orphanage; he isn’t a Squib or a suspected Squib; he isn’t a half-giant, a vampire or a werewolf. He’s closest to Sirius, Firenze and Dobby, ideological Metaphorical Queers. The most brilliant wizard of the age has no peer. After he leaves school, he’s expected to put aside ambition to care for his family.
Then he meets Gellert Grindelwald.
Rowling’s description of Albus’s excitement on meeting Gellert (and the less-subtle jealousy in Elphias Doge’s memories of Dumbledore) tells us that he definitely found a kindred spirit and can imply that he fell in love. Rowling hasn’t said that there was more than friendship between Dumbledore and Doge but there is suggestive subtext from Doge of his feelings for Albus, including Aberforth saying of Doge, “he thought the sun shone out of my brother’s every orifice.”
It’s easy to draw a parallel from Albus’s experience to queer youth who feel unique until meeting another queer person and realizing that they are not alone. Albus and Gellert’s kindred feelings are not necessarily sexual, so it’s unnecessary for Grindelwald to be literally or Metaphorically Queer. The reveal of Albus’s orientation and his attraction to Gellert fleshes out the backstory and lends perspective to his decision to stop the man he loved. This also sheds new light on his awarding Neville points for standing up to his friends.
Other characters not being literally queer isn’t a shock. But given Rowling’s pattern of games being metaphors for war and her repeatedly morphing mock-wars into real wars (Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 10: All’s Fair in War and Quidditch), it’s also not surprising that fanfiction authors extended her queer metaphors to the literal with characters who aren’t Dumbledore. Harry’s closeted life, Stonewall High, similarities between sexual minorities and Muggle-raised wizards, werewolves, and Animagi, among other things, lend themselves to the creation of these types of transformative fanworks.
Hagrid is Liminal due to his half-giant heritage, and he is chagrined to be “outed” by Rita Skeeter’s exposé in Goblet of Fire, which goes on about his “bloodthirsty” mother. Ron points out that Hagrid’s being part-giant wasn’t exactly hard to figure out, and Hagrid’s hostile response to Madame Maxime denying her half-giant heritage is similar to an Out person who can’t believe that someone they think is obviously queer is trying to “pass” for non-queer.
Snape is another Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being, but until Harry sees the memories Snape gives him as he dies we don’t know how similar he is to Harry. Earlier Harry saw a memory of James bullying Snape, and Harry identified with Snape, not with his father. In the memories Snape gives to Harry in Deathly Hallows, he sees bits of Snape’s childhood with Lily and Petunia, including the moment when Snape gives Lily the gift of herself: he tells her that she’s a witch. Like Dumbledore meeting Grindelwald, it’s a moment when he’s able to tell Muggle-born Lily that she’s not alone—he’s also magical.
Besides having a witch mother and Muggle father, plus being a male incarnation of the Crone, a female archetype (see There was an Old Woman or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 6: A Murder of Crones), Snape also embodies the Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being as a spy. He’s “closeted”, undercover as a member of the Order. If his cover is blown his life is forfeit. He doesn’t dare reveal his true “orientation”, a mission as dangerous as being a sexual minority in a country with the death penalty for this. The memories Snape gives Harry show the complete person he could never show to the world.
Harry is a Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being who is not literally queer but attracted specifically to Ginny Weasley. Ginny is Metaphorically Queer herself, as the only Weasley girl born for many generations. She is treated differently by her family due to her gender, sneaking into the broom-shed on the sly while she’s growing up, taking out others’ brooms to learn to fly and play Quidditch (which positions her as a female version of Harry when she takes his place in Quidditch matches). Harry and Ginny together comprise a complete entity, like the parts of a yin yang, and one of the things they have in common is growing up in a setting where they’re both Metaphorically Queer.
There are many candidates for the character best embodying the archetype of the Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being in Deathly Hallows. Remus Lupin and Harry share many similarities. Remus was bitten and turned into a werewolf as a child. In the sixth book we meet the one who bit him, Fenrir Greyback, who specifically targets children, as Harry was attacked by Voldemort as a baby. Greyback and Voldemort are symbolically the same. In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf who tempts the Maiden-Hero from her path is equal to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 13: Deus ex Machina). In the Norse tale of the end of the world, Thor fights the wolf called Fenris. Wolves and serpents fill the same roles in the Norse and Eden mythic landscapes: they’re tempters, destroyers and power-abusers. Harry and Remus collide with and become entangled with this type of villainous Liminal Being as children and are determined not to be like the enemy who changes them.
Like Harry, at Hogwarts the lives of Remus’s friends revolve around his problems. They learn to be Animagi to be with him during the full moon. In the sixth and seventh books, Remus is undercover with other werewolves. Finally crossing the threshold into this world, he confronts this part of himself before his death. This is similar to Harry no longer shrinking from his connection to Voldemort. They realize that it’s better to understand the enemy, no matter how disturbing it is, rather than fleeing the enemy and the part of them like that enemy.
Bill Weasley is Liminal but not Metaphorically Queer until he’s attacked by Greyback in the sixth book. When Harry meets Bill in Goblet of Fire, he thinks he’s “cool”, an Indiana Jones-type guy, breaking curses on ancient tombs (crossing thresholds). He brings treasure back from these forbidden locations for Gringotts, like Harry getting the Philosopher’s Stone from the Mirror of Erised. Like Dumbledore, Bill was academically talented, getting twelve O.W.L.s, and he was Head Boy, like Tom Riddle. Unlike Harry and Remus, Bill doesn’t have a childhood encounter with a wolf or serpent equivalent, but once he’s attacked by Greyback he joins their ranks, having survived this archetypal rite-of-passage. He was already a Liminal Being who crossed thresholds and linked worlds, but now Bill is a Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being because he’s a bit dangerous, though less so than Remus and differently than Harry, who engages in treasure-hunting of a sort, like Bill, when he’s tracking down Horcuxes.
However, Harry isn’t acquiring treasure for his own benefit or for an employer. He’s trying to break a curse on the world itself: Voldemort. In Deathly Hallows, it’s appropriate that he embarks for Gringotts from Shell Cottage, the home of Bill Weasley, the treasure-seeker and curse-breaker embodying the exact same archetypes as Harry (a Youth and Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being). Remus also comes to Shell Cottage before the “bank job”, putting these three characters, with the same archetypes, in the same place at the same time.
But Remus and Bill are not just Youths with Maidens, like Harry is with Ginny (see Female Archetypes in Harry Potter, Part II or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 3:Iron Maiden). They are Metaphorically Queer Liminal Beings, doppelgangers to Harry as individuals. Remus is attacked by a monster who changes him, as Voldemort changes Harry, and Bill is a treasure-hunter who breaks curses, as Harry hunts Horcruxes and breaks the curses on them.
Dumbledore is dead at the end of the sixth book but is a significant presence in the seventh. The bequests from him evoke his presence three times: when the Trio hears the Tale of the Three Brothers; when the Deluminator brings Ron back to Hermione and Harry, immediately followed by Ron morphing from an ordinary Wise Old Man into the Godfather variant of the Wise Old Man (see The Wise Old Man Archetype or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 2: This Old Man) by pulling Harry from the water, saving him; and finally, Harry, like Dumbledore, chooses the moment and manner of his demise, as a Master of Death should, using the Resurrection Stone in the Snitch Dumbledore left Harry in his will before Harry goes into the forest wearing Death’s own Invisibility Cloak.
Dumbledore is in Harry’s so-called afterlife and they have a conversation that may or may not be in Harry’s mind. This emphasizes that, by the end, Harry and Dumbledore have become interchangeable. Dumbledore was the only one Voldemort ever feared. Harry now succeeds the old Hero, and as Master of the Elder Wand he is positioned to defeat the enemy.
Harry’s actions echo what the Liminal Beings Remus, Bill and Dumbledore have done, but the character best embodying the Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being in Deathly Hallows, into whose shoes Harry steps, is not an ally, but his enemy. Harry’s mission is ultimately to return home, and the nature of the Metaphorical Queer archetype is to choose a new home and family, usually after being homeless. Thus, the destination is paradoxically home and not-home.
Some fans were impatient with the camping in the seventh book, but this is the reason: the seventh book is ruled by the Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being, who is best embodied by the homeless Voldemort, and as a result, Harry is homeless in most of the book. From there until the end Harry is homeless, only taking temporary refuge at Shell Cottage. He is inarguably a guest there. Bill does not offer to make it his new home.
Voldemort has always been homeless. The orphanage wasn’t his home, nor was the Gaunt cottage, or the Riddle house in Little Hangleton. Nor is Malfoy Manor when he uses it for Death Eater meetings. The only home he has ever truly known is Hogwarts, a refuge Dumbledore refuses to him when he doesn’t hire him to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. Harry follows in Voldemort’s footsteps during the entire seventh book, because he’s homeless and he’s tracking down Horcruxes previously hidden by Voldemort.
Harry is confident that he’ll find the Ravenclaw Horcrux at Hogwarts. Through his scar, he sees Voldemort in Grindelwald’s prison cell, learning that Dumbledore won the Elder Wand from Grindelwald, over which Harry has become Master moments before, having disarmed Draco. Again, power Harry doesn’t pursue is given to him without his asking. His goal when he takes the wands from Draco is to keep them from being used against him and his friends, as he wanted to keep Voldemort from using the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry again wins by disarming, becoming master of Draco’s wand and the Elder Wand.
A Liminal Being is by definition an amalgam, a composite of diverse elements. When someone rejects part of himself (such as Voldemort rejecting his Muggle side) that person is incomplete. It’s like rejecting part of life, such as childhood or death. Rowling gives us two Liminal, Metaphorically Queer, potentially complete people, Voldemort and Harry, but only Harry chooses completion. Voldemort murders the Riddles, rejecting his Muggle heritage as he rejects death and rejects anything linked to childhood. He chooses incompletion.
Harry returning to Hogwarts is a completion. He crosses the threshold into the wizarding world when he’s eleven, then he leaves Hogwarts, wandering in a literal and metaphorical wilderness in Deathly Hallows, ruled by the archetype that is the equal of the ‘Stranger’ aspect of George RR Martin’s seven-faced god: the Liminal Being—one who is neither here nor there, neither mortal nor immortal, ordinary and extraordinary.
In Deathly Hallows, Harry isn’t just homeless, he’s a fugitive, an enemy of the state, like the witches in Witch Week. He is in a limbo until returning “home” to Hogwarts. Aberforth tells him to run, embrace permanent incompletion, like Voldemort. Harry rejects this, returning to Hogwarts, his emotional home. This paradoxically makes the already-whole, Liminal, Metaphorically Queer Harry, the Boy Who Lived and the Master of Death, even more complete.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 9: We're Here, We're Metaphorically Queer, Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.