Fantasy: December 2007 Archives

A week ago, I posted about J.K. Rowling's views on destiny, taking my starting point from this interview that she gave a few weeks ago. I ended with the thought that Rowling's own interpretation of what was going on wasn't the best interpretation of her actual text. That raises questions, however, about how an author might not interpret her own work correctly. She created it, after all. Does authorial intent have no bearing on these kinds of questions? [As with the previous post and the interview, there may be spoilers in this post, so don't read it if you don't know how the series concludes and want to find out in chronological order as the author intended it.]

So what does authorial intent contribute to the story when the text itself can be interpreted in several ways? Can an author determine that a character is, for example, gay even if the text itself doesn't make that clear? Can an author declare the character's motivations even if the text itself doesn't make them clear? This arises in the interview when it comes to the motivations and moral character of Albus Dumbledore in his various machinations in the war against Lord Voldemort.

I say the author can declare the intent of the character, even if the text doesn't, but I know some people make the text fundamental rather than the author. But even if that's right, it doesn't follow that everything an author says in interviews after the fact are canon. There's a debate over whether Dumbledore is a bit too manipulative. Apparently Rowling herself thinks so, judging by this interview, while many fans don't (or at least think he's less so than she seems to think; I'm one of those fans, by the way).

She can tell us what a character did and what the character's motivations were. She doesn't, however, have the power to determine whether those actions and motivations count as manipulation or whether they are immoral. Whether the word 'manipulation' applies is a matter of linguistic fact, and authors of a fantasy world can't determine by themselves what the word 'manipulation' means in English.

By the same token, whether what Dumbledore does is wrong is a matter of moral truth. Whatever determines morality (and views on that abound), it's certainly not authors of fantasy novels by themselves. I can't just write a novel where killing innocents for fun is morally ok. That can't be part of the stipulation within the novel. I can write a novel in a world where people think that, but I can't as an author make their beliefs true. I can write a novel whose characters speak a language slightly differently from English, where the word 'manipulation' means something different from what it means in English, but that doesn't change what we who speak English mean by the word when we apply it to those characters.

So there's room for debate over whether a character really is manipulative even if the author takes a side on the issue, and the same goes for whether what the character did (whether you call it manipulative or not) was morally wrong.

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