J.K. Rowling’s decision to reveal that Albus Dumbledore , the beloved and deceased headmaster of Hogwarts, is gay reminded me of something George Orwell wrote in his great essay “Boys’ Weeklies”. That essay dealt with the once popular genre of the public school story, a form of children’s literature that focused on the adventures of rich boys attending private boarding schools. The Harry Potter novels, as I once noted in the National Post, are the modern, fantasy-inflected, co-ed version of the public school story.
In his essay Orwell, writing from experience as a survivor of Eton, slyly observed that in these stories, “Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools.” Which is another way of saying that having a gay headmaster is surely the sort of realistic touch that all true fantasy needs.
(Orwell’s essay, a pioneering effort by an intellectual to look at popular culture squarely in the eye, remains a sprightly read. It’s informed by Orwell’s shrewd, instinctive understanding of the English class system and the way fantasies about how the rich live influence the whole of society. If you want to understand the genealogy of Harry Potter, Orwell is a sure guide.)