My blog posts have been very absent recently (in my defence I am in the final stages of preparing to submit my thesis). However, I took the time to read and enjoy this article, ‘Remus Lupin and the stigmatised illness: why lycanthropy is not a good metaphor for HIV/AIDS’, about Remus Lupin and his ‘furry little problem’.
The idea of using lycanthropy as a metaphor for disability, and the problems that this incurs, is discussed by Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver in Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture (2012). One of the particular difficulties which they identify is that the werewolf is understood a priori as a monster. Thus, anything that is identified with werewolfism, such as reading lycanthropy as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS, appears to be always, already monstrous in itself. If Lupin is read as someone living with HIV/AIDS, he starts in a position of monstrosity from which he must redeem himself. As the article suggests, given that Lupin is the exception to the rule of lycanthropy – the ‘good’ werewolf, the novels are in danger of suggesting that it is the victim of societal stigma who must strive to make themselves ‘non-monstrous’. This puts the onus of the individual rather than society and strays into the realm of victim-blaming. Clearly, it should be human society that moves away from the tendency to stigmatise difference.
I would suggest that in order to prevent the problematic elements of reading lycanthropy as HIV/AIDS, and perhaps lending this metaphor further weight, the werewolf should have been redeemed – by this I mean changing the definition of the werewolf. The description of the werewolf in Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (2001) states that ‘at the full moon, the otherwise sane and normal wizard or Muggle afflicted transforms into a murderous beast’ (p. 42). This stereotype of the werewolf as losing all sense of self when transformed has become part of popular culture since the twentieth century, particularly in horror films. According to this description, the werewolf IS dangerous, despite the sympathetic presentation of Lupin. Even allowing for the Wolfsbane potion, which itself only a recent addition to Harry Potter werewolf lore, having a werewolf living in close quarters with humans would seem unwise.
Instead, I think that presenting the werewolf as less dangerous would have enabled a more powerful exploration of the effects of societal stigma. The monstrous werewolf of popular culture could be presented as a misconception, which had come about because of the terrifying nature of transforming from one state to another, rather than the inherent danger of the transformed human. The perception of the werewolf as evil could then be deconstructed showing that the werewolf, whether transformed or not, is not dangerous. In this way, being a werewolf would then no longer be monstrous. The texts could suggest that the werewolf has been appropriated as a monster, in order to make a statement about the role of the ‘other’ within society. A character such as Fenrir Greyback, the most extreme presentation of lycanthropy within in the Harry Potter novels, would then be the product of stigmatisation. He takes on the role of the stereotypical werewolf because that is the role that is forced on him by society. In this way the danger of misinformation that has surrounded HIV/AIDS and the risk it poses could be more effectively framed. (I admit even these changes wouldn’t render it a perfect metaphor).
Considering the issue of Remus Lupin and lycanthropy, it is with a heaviness of heart that I state that, though I love the Harry Potter novels and they are a constant companion, Rowling’s writing sometimes falls down on close inspection. The use of lycanthropy as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS appears to be well-intended but is, ultimately, problematic. (In the same way, the lack of democracy in the Ministry of Magic always concerns me). Thus, as the above image shows, Rowling use of names, and research into historical magic, is thrilling and delightful. But the interpretation of the character of Lupin is, perhaps, done more effectively my the readers themselves. Unfortunately Pottermore, whilst a powerful tool for the fandom, has the tendency to curtail the subtle and thoughtful world-building done by the fans of the series. The navigation of the rights of the author and the reader to the text is exemplified in the Harry Potter series. The fandom, often in the form of fanfiction, has constructed powerful narratives regarding the world of Harry Potter, including back stories for many lesser characters, and alternative timelines. These often allow the voices of minority groups to be heard against the predominantly normative space that the novels create. Each clarification by Rowling minimises these voices and denies the role of reader in constructing and re-constructing the textual world. Instead, she offers the definitive reading of characters and situations without acknowledging that the best literature has a multiplicity of interpretations.
(NB: On a personal, and rather light-weight note, the other reason I put in the above image is because my partner’s surname is Howells. As I come to the end of dedicated three years of my life to werewolves, it seems apt that I should stumble across this image).
Rowling, J. K., Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001)