In our new monthly column, YA of Yore, Frankie Thomas takes a second look at the books that defined a generation.
My micro-generation—that is, the subset of millennials who were born in the second term of the Reagan administration and graduated face first into the Great Recession, and of which the most famous member is probably Mark Zuckerberg—has very little to brag about, so you can hardly blame us for our possessive attachment to Harry Potter. Harry Potter is to us what the Beatles were to our baby boomer parents. To say that we “grew up along with Harry” is far too corny to convey the actual experience of being the world’s first children ever to read those books. I remember attending a classmate’s twelfth birthday party in 1998, thrusting into her hands a gift-wrapped copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (at the time the only Harry Potter book available in the United States), and informing her with something like personal pride, “This book has been on the New York Times best-seller list for five weeks!” It would probably still be there today if the Times hadn’t, shortly thereafter, created a separate best-seller list for children’s books on the grounds that J. K. Rowling’s success was unfair to the other novelists. It was a classic everybody-gets-a-trophy policy, a fitting legacy for the foundational text of millennial childhood.
The fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was published in the summer of 2003, by which point Harry was fifteen and those of us growing up along with him had discovered sex. The Harry Potter years also happened to coincide with the Wild West era of the internet and the rise of abstinence-only sex education; as a result, for better or for worse, erotic Harry Potter fan fiction played a major and under-discussed role in millennial sexual development. This was especially true if you were queer—or, not to put too fine a point on it, if you were me—and had picked up on the secret gay love story that existed between the lines of Rowling’s text.
I refer, of course, to Sirius and Lupin.
A quick refresher: book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, introduces us to Sirius Black, the titular prisoner, on the lam after twelve years of incarceration for mass murder, and to Professor Remus Lupin, a wry, gentle schoolteacher carrying a terrible secret (he’s a werewolf). At the novel’s climax, the two of them come face to face and, much to Harry’s surprise, fall into each other’s arms. In an awkward info-dump of a monologue (the only structural flaw in what’s widely agreed to be the best book of the series), Lupin reveals that he and Sirius were very close friends in their school days—so close, indeed, that the brilliant young Sirius secretly taught himself to shape-shift into a large dog, just to keep his werewolf friend company during the full moon. It turns out (naturally) that Sirius was framed, and even after their twelve-year separation he and Lupin remain fiercely devoted to each other. By book 5, the two of them are living together in secret. Despite their outlaw status (Sirius is still a fugitive) and poverty (Lupin was fired from teaching after being outed as a werewolf), they begin to take on a quasi-parental role for the orphaned Harry. Then Sirius is killed in battle, Lupin is undone with grief, and so ends Order of the Phoenix and the tragedy of Sirius and Lupin.
I have exaggerated nothing: all this is directly stated in the text. You could be forgiven, though, for having blinked and missed the point in your own reading. Sirius and Lupin are minor characters, and everything we learn about them is filtered through the point of view of Harry, who is, like most kids, too self-involved to notice anything that doesn’t directly affect him. Queer kids, however, were directly affected by the suggestion of a gay love story happening in the background of Harry’s life—and so we noticed it. Oh, did we ever.
The summer of 2003 was the summer of noticing. It was the summer I sat alone for hours in my mother’s parked car, blasting Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” (track 17 on my favorite CD) and luxuriating in body-racking sobs of grief for Sirius Black, sorrow for Remus Lupin, and ecstatic rapture that I’d noticed. We took to the internet, those of us who had noticed, and compared notes. Often these notes took the form of fan fiction, which I read ravenously, hungry not so much for erotica as for the full novelistic experience Rowling had invited us to imagine—a boarding-school romance turned wartime tragedy, Maurice meets Atonement by way of Animorphs. (Seriously, can you imagine?) But for much of that summer we simply studied Rowling’s text, searching, scrutinizing, noticing.
To put it another way: we invented close reading.
I’m not sure whether any of us understood this at the time, since it didn’t feel at all like schoolwork. It was pure pleasure; it was pure joy. One of the definitive works of scholarship to come out of the summer of 2003 was a 7,800-word essay titled “The Case for R/S,” posted on LiveJournal by a British schoolgirl writing under the name elwing_alcyone. “Current mood: jubilant,” the essay begins (opening with one’s “current mood” was LiveJournal house style, the equivalent of the MLA header), and then proceeds to track, cite, and analyze every mention of Sirius and Lupin in the entire series. At one point she counts the lines of text that appear between two phrases: “Lupin’s eyes were fixed on Sirius” and “said Lupin quietly, looking away from Sirius at last.” The number is forty; Lupin stares at Sirius for forty lines’ worth of plot action. “JKR didn’t have to write that in,” she gushes. “I can’t think of any other examples of one character spending so many lines simply looking at another.” Current mood: jubilant, indeed.
It’s easy to forget how fully we trusted Rowling back then, how total her authority appeared when the series was still in progress and its ending known only to her. In those days, we were Talmudic scholars and she was God. “The Case for R/S” still holds up as a stunning achievement in Potterian exegesis, but what’s striking about it now is its unwavering faith in “JKR” and her control over her material.
Lupin, who was staying in the house with Sirius but who left for long periods to do mysterious work for the Order, helped them repair a grandfather clock …
OotP, p110, UK; p118, US
“Lupin, who was staying in the house with Sirius.” Not “Lupin, who was staying in the house to be closer to the Order,” or “Lupin, who was staying in the house because he had nowhere else to go,” or even just “Lupin, who was staying in the house.” He is staying in the house with Sirius.
JKR didn’t spend three years writing this book to shove in things that didn’t matter.
“Why?” elwing_alcyone writes at the conclusion of her essay. “Why has JKR left it so open-ended? She could have sunk this ship in a sentence. She didn’t, and now, the odds are that she won’t.”
Smash cut to the summer of 2005, when book 6 was released.
Hello, darkness, my old friend …
Those of us who were growing up along with Harry were by then college age—old enough, in other words, to put away childish things—so when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince unexpectedly paired off Lupin with a random woman, we were not only shattered but ashamed to be shattered. It was, after all, just a children’s book. Surely the whole Sirius/Lupin thing had only ever been a game to us; surely we had never believed it. Elwing_alcyone quietly appended an afterword to “The Case for R/S” acknowledging that, clearly, she had misread the entire series. Some of us tried to reassure her that Lupin’s sudden heterosexual romance didn’t contradict the possibility of an earlier romance with Sirius—after all, Lupin could be bisexual!—but no one’s heart was really in it. The straight romance was explicit in the text; the gay one was not and never would be. The author had spoken. The spell was broken.
To this day, I continue to ache over this in an unironic, unfunny way that I can’t quite explain even to myself. I was so sure. We were all so sure. How could Rowling have written those words and failed to notice what we noticed in them? This beautiful, delicate palimpsest that we’d read between the lines and so lovingly restored on our own—how could it be that it had never existed except in our heads? On some level I still don’t believe that we were wrong. If anything, it was Rowling who was wrong.
It doesn’t help that Rowling refuses to let the subject die. In 2007, after the series was officially complete, she announced that Dumbledore, of all characters, was actually gay the whole time; it just never came up in the books. In 2013, as if determined to add insult to injury, she wrote in a blog post that Lupin’s werewolf condition was, as we had always suspected, “a metaphor for … HIV and AIDS,” but also that he “had never fallen in love before” meeting his heterosexual wife in book 6. Come on, JKR, can’t we have anything?
Rowling is, like all her best characters, a gifted and flawed and profoundly silly human being—a fact that has become increasingly apparent in recent years. As a new generation of fans grapples with their complicated love for her imperfect work, I’ve noticed the phrase “death of the author,” coined in 1967 by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, invoked with surprising frequency in online discussions of Harry Potter. I doubt many Harry Potter fans are steeped in critical theory. Nonetheless, if you search the phrase “death of the author” on Tumblr (the social-networking site that has replaced LiveJournal in fandom circles), the site auto-suggests “J. K. Rowling” and “Harry Potter” as related search terms before displaying countless blog posts arguing that Rowling’s authorial intentions are irrelevant to her readers’ interpretation of her writing. It’s almost as if her fans have invented post-structuralism, just as we invented close reading—necessity, in both cases, being the mother thereof.
Nowadays, when I meet women my own age, I can guess within minutes whether they noticed Sirius and Lupin in the summer of 2003. There are certain signals we give off, certain coded questions one can ask. Often, upon identifying each other in the wild, we’re reduced to schoolgirlish squeals, lapsing into an ancient but well-remembered shorthand: “The forty-line stare!” “And the joint Christmas present!” “Together? I think so.” Such encounters are especially common with my fellow writers and academics—which is to say, those of us who have gone on to make a living in close reading.
Close reading is queer culture, always has been, so perhaps we would have gotten good at it regardless of Rowling. Still, I like to think that our fate was sealed in the summer of 2003. Of everything the Harry Potter books have given us, this might be the most precious gift of all, one that can never be taken away: the discovery that a text can contain more than the sum of its words, that a whole other story—a whole other world—may exist in the cracks and spaces between sentences, accessible to any reader paying the right kind of attention. It’s a form of magic. Even now, I’m jubilant.
Frankie Thomas is the author of “The Showrunner,” which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.