J.K. Rowling's allegory fail: Werewolves are not a useful metaphor for HIV/AIDS

Rowling is right that HIV and AIDS still carry stigma but offers no meaningful interpretation through Remus Lupin

Published September 12, 2016 9:43PM (EDT)

J.K. Rowling   (AP/Dan Hallman)
J.K. Rowling (AP/Dan Hallman)

J.K. Rowling recently published three "Harry Potter" e-books, and in one of them, “Short Stories of Heroism From Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies,” she revealed werewolf Remus Lupin’s affliction was intended as a metaphor for HIV and AIDS. While Rowling stated over the weekend on Twitter that this is not a "retcon," as she had spoken of it in interviews 17 years ago, now that it's published in a spinoff book, the metaphor is officially part of "Harry Potter" canon.

“All kinds of superstitions seem to surround blood-borne conditions, probably due to taboos surrounding blood itself,” Rowling wrote in "Short Stories of Heroism." “The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle one, and the character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes.”

Here Rowling lumps HIV and AIDS in with other blood-borne illnesses, which ignores their uniquely devastating history. And Lupin’s story is by no stretch a thorough or helpful examination of the illness. Nor is its translation as an allegory easily understood, beyond the serious stigma that Rowling mentioned.

Successful allegory or extended metaphor can powerfully translate experience and accessibly depict complicated ideas. It can help us empathize and see beyond ourselves without feeling pedantic; it can excite further meaning out of a text.

Making a monster who can maintain some control of his monstrosity does little to address stigma and in fact does much to create and protect it. That Lupin is a danger to others could not more clearly support an attitude of justifiable fear toward him, one that is an abject disservice to those actually struggling with a disease that does not make them feral with rage. In this way Rowling’s metaphor attacks itself in the ironic fashion of her character, who is a danger to those close to him during his transformed periods.

This metaphor is obvious enough in the telling so as to be apparent to some on a first read. But the allegory’s availability is not actually the news here to me; it’s that Rowling did not draw from the experience of the very specific stigma she mentions in order to raise some cogent awareness.

Instead, the intended metaphor very simply renders stigma itself on the page in Lupin’s isolation and shame. The metaphor does not fully or cleanly transpose; allegory is not created because there is no accessible narrative intent, no symbols through which to see it. Because it fails to clearly articulate how the ubiquitously evil werewolves operate or the implications of the circumstances of transmission, and lacks clarity about the meaning of werewolf transformation and the advanced stages of an illness, it is essentially inoperative. And when only stigma is left on the page, there is only stigma to see.

Other popular writers have made revisions to their texts and issued statements of critical narrative interest. Lincoln Michel discusses George Lucas’s fondness for revis(it)ing “Star Wars” over at Electric Literature, where he also considers Rowling’s tendency to amend her texts. Why these revisions are necessary and what purpose they even serve is worth examining, too, as it seems many of the admissions operate on the level of confirmed fan theory and seem at times to only cheaply refocus the public eye on the brand. But when the revisions and Twitter decrees get messy enough to verge on offensive, it is time to stop.

I think this situation gives rise to several important discussions and questions to which I have no certain answers, which of course do not apply only to Rowling — who created more a Universe than she did a few books or characters.

Do we try too hard to be important in all directions? And when we do, so stretched thin, don’t we do a disservice to the very experience we purport to uphold and validate?

Why isn’t a good story enough?

By Peter Kispert

Peter Kispert's work has appeared in OUT Magazine and Salon. He recently served as the editor-in-chief of Indiana Review, where he founded a book prize partnership with Indiana University Press. He lives in New York City.

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Books Harry Potter Hiv/aids J.k. Rowling Lupin