Dukes and Dumbledore: Truth and Canonicity in Stories

2019-06-01 · by Sharang Biswas
tagged Blog / Columns

When JK Rowling unceremoniously announced that beloved wizard-headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay, the hundreds of fans packing Carnegie Hall apparently all fell silent—before bursting into applause [1]. Most fans, myself included, rejoiced. The Potterverse was gay! It was only later that I realised that my reaction was a little peculiar. Nowhere in the text does Homo-dore actually come up. If you squint really hard, you might notice a rainbow spark or two in the seventh book’s biographical entries about Dumbledore, but the series is actually entirely devoid of any overt mentions of queerness (a bit odd in a world where you can literally transform your genitals via magic potions, but there you have it).

Why had a few stray words that Rowling had let slip in response to a fan question so changed my outlook of an entire world—a fictional world, a world constructed in the imagination, but a world nonetheless. Dumbledore never really talks about his sex life in the books; I could have just decided for myself that he was gay and basked in my own version of the Potterverse, but no, hearing the author declare unequivocally that Dumbledore was gay—that made all the difference.

Which is weird.

“We prefer the imagined integrity of a metaphysical object to the stable version that we observe,” writes Espen Aarseth, referring specifically to our idealized notion of a “transcendental text” [2]. And apparently, authors have tremendous power over these psychic ur-texts, even though we as readers and film-goers construct much of the story in our own heads. The idea of “canon” in stories—that there’s one “true” version of a fiction, the fiction that “really happened,” and that it is controlled by the author—is potent.

Partly because we revere canon as the inviolable writ of an omniscient Author, we feel betrayed when the story deviates too much from what we expect or when beloved characters do things contrary to what our perspectives dictate. Game of Thrones fans, for instance, were so upset at HBO’s handling of the show’s 8th season that they started a petition to remake the season [3]. Again though, notice that the fans required another authored version of the story for it to be considered “real.”

The thing is, as Aarseth puts it, “textual integrity…is a cultural construct.” He continues to say “so is our notion of what constitutes a text itself—not only our conception of its function, but also what it appears to be made of and what conditions have to be met for us to acknowledge its existence.” [2] We create stories in our heads. Yes, they’re based on breadcrumbs authors may leave for us, but the experience of a story is a personal one. Evan Torner and David Jara go so far as to support “an understanding of fiction as a form of make believe and role-play.” [4]

This is somewhat true for all kinds of stories, even those we consider to be nonfiction. We love being told about the past, for example. Only if events are written down by someone are they crowned History, capital ‘H’ jaunty and gleaming. But the lines between history and mere story are blurry. Rebecca Slitt, partner and editor at Choice of Games, happens to have been a professor of history in a previous career. When I asked her how her academic training had informed her work with interactive fiction, she mentioned that what really helped her was the understanding that “historical narratives are always constructed by the person writing them and by the society in which that person lived.” Diving into her scholarly publications shows that her research echoes this sentiment. In her article, The Two Deaths of William Longsword: Wace, William of Malmesbury, and the Norman Past, Slitt writes about two specific chroniclers who not only dissent from the mainstream biographies of the second duke of Normandy but also deliberately shroud their assertions in historical doubt in order to protect themselves from backlash; to Slitt, “the question of historical accuracy versus invention is a thorny one.” [5]

I wouldn’t be writing this, of course, if games didn’t come into the picture. Games are funny when it comes to canon because we don’t simply consume the narrative in a game: we shape it (or at the very least, we feel like we shaped it). I’ve mentioned in a previous essay, Rituals, Cheating, and the Dream of Possibility, that my (and many folks’) tendency to give primacy to one version of events in a game, even though I’m aware of the directions into which the narrative might branch [6].  EA’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic famously boasted multiple endings [7] and while the series considers one of them to be “canon” with regards to sequels, I can’t help but think of “my” ending as the real one. More modern games go a step further and implement technology to import players’ choices and make them canon: your choices within Dragon Age: Origins[8] complex, branched plot carry forward into its sequels. Even on the IF front, titles such as Choice of Games’ Superlatives: Shattered Worlds [9] allow you to import data from its prequels.

In certain types of LARP, the idea of canon is flung even further out the window, what with each of the dozens of participants seeing only a small portion of the whole story tapestry, and that too is filtered through a backstory that only they know about (having imagined it themselves). In the first sequel to 2016’s New World Magischola, for example, in order to account for the various convoluted plotlines that players had created, designers Maury Brown and Ben Morrow were forced to introduce into the canon the idea that various alternate realities and timelines had come apart and tangled in on themselves [10].

In this new age of interactive media, the idea of canonicity might need to be rethought. Perhaps in the future, we’ll make multiple synchronous sequels to popular games, to account for various possible canons. Perhaps multiple endings in movies and TV will be a common occurrence, rendering our concept of visual fiction inseparable from interactivity. Perhaps mainstream academics will study how the various endings and alternate canons comment on and inform each other. Or perhaps, more simply, the fact that we each have our own version of a story—our own version of the truth, if you will—will allow us to examine our current truths with more a nuanced outlook.

The Truth Shall Make Ye Fred.

-Terry Pratchett, The Truth


Works Cited

[1]D. Smith, “Dumbledore was gay, JK tells amazed fans,” The Guardian, 2 October 2007. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/21/film.books.

[2] E. J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” in The New Media Reader, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 762-780.

[3] L. Bradley, “Thousands of Angry Game of Thrones Fans Call on HBO to Remake Season 8,” Vanity Fair, 15 May 201. [Online]. Available: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/05/game-of-thrones-season-8-remake-petition-hbo.

[4] D. Jara and E. Torner, “Literary Studies ad Roleplaying Games,” in Role Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach, New York, Routledge, 2018, pp. 265-282.

[5]R. Slitt, “The Two Deaths of William Longsword: Wace, William of Malmesbury, and the Norman Past,” in Anglo-Norman Studies XXXIV: Proceedings of the Battle Conference , Woodbridge, 2011.

[6] S. Biswas, “Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility,” Sub-Q, February 2019. https://sub-q.com/rituals-cheating-and-the-dream-of-possibility/

[7] C. Avellone, D. Karpyshyn and J. Ohlen, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Electronic Arts, 2003.

[8] B. Knowles, M. Laidlaw and J. Ohlen, Dragon Age: Origins, Electronic Arts, 2009.

[9] A. Ripley, Superlatives: Shattered Worlds, Choice of Games, 2019.

[10]M. Brown and B. Morrow, New World Magischola: Yuletide Escapade, Newbury Township, OH, 2016.


Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.

Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.

You can find him on Twitter @SharangBiswas, his website https://sharangbiswas.myportfolio.com/ , or on his Itch IO page https://astrolingus.itch.io/

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