Werewolf Bites and Incredulous Subtext

Reviewing Rowling’s portrayal of the lycanthrope in relation to the AIDs epidemic.

7th December 2020
J Sunderland

Sitting here writing this, a few days since the thirty-second anniversary of World Aids Day (December the 1st), half-a-month since the nineteenth anniversary of the film ‘Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone’, thirteen years since the last Harry Potter book came out and less than a month since Rowling’s children’s book the ‘Ickabog’ was released (10th November 2020, a children’s book based on creatures from the Harry Potter universe), and I initially find myself hesitant to approach a topic that has long boiled and bubbled under the surface of the Harry Potter series, bleeding out into discussions in the Queer community briefly, and once even being thrust into the limelight by J.K. Rowling herself in an infamous yet forgotten interview in 2016 (not that, being forgotten, is unsurprising. Rowling has become a notorious character in recent years). This discussion is about Rowling’s use of ‘magical creatures’ to express homophobic, antisemitic and transphobic subtext in pieces of work that has been a part of millions of childhoods since the late 1990’s. A piece written to stand against hatred and bigotry of racism, of Lord Voldemort, Death Eaters and ‘Purebloods vs Mudbloods’, infallibly falls into a category of caricatures and subtext designed to deride people who face bigotry both inside her ‘magical world’ and outside in the ‘real world’.

There is an impossibly long list of hidden (or not so) bigotry within these works, and a book could be written about all the issues that are prevalent, that many overlooked or did not realise. Children who grew up not questioning why goblins were described as having long fingers and feet, long pointed noses and pointed ears (Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone) and speaking a language called ‘Gobbledegook’. These Goblins also hoard all of the gold the wizarding world uses and are largely in charge of their finances, it cannot be plausibly denied that these creatures share a huge similarity to both modern and antique caricatures of Jewish people. Let us not forget that throughout history Jewish people have been portrayed synonymous with witchcraft, featuring prominently in both the Canterbury Tales and more recently Roald Dahl’s The Witches as individuals with exaggerated features that steal and eat children. These monstrous caricatures is not a new concept but Rowling degraded and pulverised these stereotypes to ‘sub-human’ levels. I could also talk about the obvious transphobia in the depiction of Rita Skeeter (Harry Potter being written at least twenty years before her recent public declarations of transphobic sentiments). But no, this is instead a dip into the complex relationship between Rowling’s own werewolves, the AIDs epidemic and why this is important to examine in our current cultural circumstances.


A large man, embroiled in hedonism, climbs through the window of a small cottage in the early 1970’s. His hair is grey, long and matted, and his facial hair whisker-like in appearance. The full moon, currently obscured by clouds and not yet at its peak, reflects off of his large canines and yellowed talon-like nails. The window which this man has climbed through belongs to the bedroom of a four-year-old boy, and the large man has every intent on savaging, biting, mauling, the boy who is sleeping in his bed. This large man leers at the boy as he imagines consuming the flesh of this child, something he would later become infamous for. He is only successful this night, however, at infecting the young child with a saliva-embused bite, being chased off after being discovered by the little boy’s father as he attempted to ravage the boy, leaving scars slicing his face and changing the boy’s life forever.

This, is how a young boy, called Remus Lupin (Wolfy McWolf, oh so clever, Joanne), is described as becoming infected with Lycanthropy in the world of Harry Potter. Rowling never explicitly described the scene of Lupin’s ‘turning’, as it happened almost two decades prior to the setting of the series and the adventures of Harry Potter, but is the amalgamation of everything that is told to us about the event. We are told that Greyback, the intruder and ‘sire’ of Lupin is a ‘big, rangy man with matted grey hair and whiskers’, with ‘long yellowish nails’ and ‘pointy teeth’ (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (HBP), The Lightening-Struck Tower). We are also told that Greyback turned the young Lupin in revenge for the insults his father said towards lycanthropes, and that he did it whilst Lupin slept in his bed at night (HBP, A Very Frosty Christmas; see also ‘Pottermore’). We are also informed in the same chapter that Greyback has a predilection for biting young children. Later, following the adventures of Harry (Potter), Hemione (Granger) and Ron (Weasley) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (DH), Fenrir repeatedly makes overt sexual comments towards Granger after they capture the trio in the woods:
“Reckon she'll let me have a bit of the girl when she's finished with her? I'd say I'll get a bite or two, wouldn't you, ginger?”

Greyback, ultimately, is a sybaritic cannibal, a child predator who indulges in the idea of infecting as many children as he can with the curse that he carries himself. He may be an anomaly- Rowling’s Pottermore explains that most werewolves do not intend to bite others, but it occurs due to their ‘wolves taking over’ during a full moon; they are not fully to blame for their actions, but he is also one of only two named werewolf characters in the series excluding Lupin’s orphaned son, who is never fully introduced but simply mentioned in passing in the epilogue of DH, and the partially-infected Bill Weasley, who did not get bitten but simply scratched, contracting not ‘full blown’ lycanthropy, but werewolf-esq symptoms. This small number of named werewolves, Lupin and Greyback, have led to concentrated stereotypes that Greyback is, the norm, for werewolves (we are repeatedly told that Lupin is shunned in werewolf society (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (OTP) and Pottermore), entrenching the idea that Greyback is the architype of werewolves in Rowling’s magical world.
But why is this important? Apart from considerations that the timeline of the book features Harry starting his magical education in 1991, at which point AIDs was the second-leading cause of death for men between 25 and 44, and the year the red ribbon becomes the international symptom of AIDs awareness, it may not be explicitly clear to some readers that lycanthropy is a metaphor for HIV and AIDs. In fact, some may claim that it is a reach to say that it is an explicit demonisation and malicious interpretation of those suffering during the AIDs epidemic, well intentioned or not, and it is for those that I write this article.


In September 2016, the esteemed J.K. Rowling released three new ebooks on her wizarding fansite, Pottermore. This site, to those unaware, is dedicated to the lore surrounding her creation and a space for those who all share a love of her magical world to learn new things, communicate and share their enthusiasm for this creation. Although I do not inherently find ‘Pottermore’ distasteful, it has become apparent since it launched in 2012 that it more of a site for fan-service towards Rowling than for the fans; she was allowed to expand on this world that she has created without limitation – whilst this is usually a good thing, she used this to throw in ‘lore’ post-publication, that she would not have originally done otherwise, simply because it is popular. See Albus Dumbledore and his being gay post-movies, to show how progressive she is, only for her to change her mind when new movies are made starring this character, she posthumously virtue signals without discrimination. I digress. In these three ebooks, she declares:

‘Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy (being a werewolf) was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS. All kinds of superstitions seem to surround blood-borne conditions, probably due to taboos surrounding blood itself. 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.

Remus’s Patronus is never revealed in the Potter books, even though it is he who teaches Harry the difficult and unusual art of producing one. It is, in fact, a wolf – an ordinary wolf, not a werewolf. Wolves are family-orientated and non-aggressive, but Remus dislikes the form of his Patronus, which is a constant reminder of his affliction. Everything wolfish disgusts him, and he often produces a non-corporeal Patronus deliberately, especially when others are watching.”

This, specifically the last section, to any empathetic reader, should raise alarm bells. Rowling has aligned Lupin as the ‘good’ werewolf. He is not one of them, other, who embraces their condition and finds acceptance within themselves regardless of their lycanthropy. No, he is a good werewolf because of his self-loathing, because of his hatred towards his affliction. Lupin is a kind person, if you asked any reader of the Harry Potter books, they would likely list him as one of their favourite characters in the series, due to his politeness, kindness and love towards Harry and his friends, he is admittedly one of the characters I like the most in the series. But outside of this we see a troubling pattern, his politeness is a thinly veiled cover for his meekness, his submission to those who know better. He follows the instructions of doctors, he isolates himself away from everyone unless told not to, living a lonely existence, and ultimately refuses to be in contact with anyone else unless he is on Wolfsbane, the magical potion that gives him control over the wolf during his monthly transformations. A potion, that is literally a poison- aconite, aka wolfsbane, is one of the most toxic plants in the northern hemisphere. There is a sick parody in forcing someone to drink poison once a month to control their urges, made entirely out of something that can kill you in under six hours. And Lupins’ lovableness, his kindness and meekness, it is a sidenote to his condition- something that makes him ‘danger to everyone around him’ (Pottermore), something undoubtably imbedded in his subconscious due to being raised by an anti-werewolf father (again, Pottermore).

So, hold this consideration of Lupin in mind when you then bring into the repugnant Greyback, the only other named werewolf in the series. A villain that is arguably the worst in the series, overshadowing the Dark Lord Voldemort due to his predilection for little children and hedonism. Every scene with Greyback is loaded with violence and grotesque imagery, from his rancid breath to his taste for human flesh. If Rowling is true about her intentions that she declared in 2016, that lycanthropy is a metaphor for HIV and AIDs, then she has loaded the gun and shot down any inclination that it was meant to be a sympathetic, educational, metaphor. As mentioned before, Greyback being the architype werewolf through her own design means that this metaphor shows sufferers of HIV to be sexual deviants, pedophiles, rapists that will do anything to pass on their symptoms.

Perhaps, however, I am being too harsh. Greyback may invariably be being used as a symbol of why discrimination is bad. Greyback, having been ridiculed and pushed and discriminated against so much boiled to a point where his loathing for humanity, the other that wizards refuse to allow him to be, is so furious that he will do everything to destroy it, because it has got to a point where it can only ever be ‘us vs them’. Perhaps Rowling truly intended it as a warning. If this was the case, however, it was a flawed warning that tripped over before it could truly gain legs. Werewolves, from the start, are described as dark and as other. That they lack humanity and everyone apart from the good, submissive Lupin, follow Voldemort because it allows them freedom to rape, savage and transmit their condition to anyone who opposes the villain of the series. Rowling gives freedom to hate werewolves and fear them, even Lupin’s own best friends Sirius Black and James Potter believe him a traitor and refuse to trust him when the Potter’s went into hiding during the first wizarding war, solely because of his lycanthropy (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA)) Depicted as characters prone to violence unless self-poisoning, as amoralistic monsters is regressive in sensibility and a poorly thought-out moment of virtue signalling gone wrong.

And so, moving forward from Rowling’s own poor attempt at being progressive, it is clear to see that she admits that there is an attempt at metaphorical HIV in her stories. This conditioning of making werewolves this grand metaphor in her works is intrinsically parallel to contemporaneous debates regarding homosexuality, especially during the AIDs epidemic. Public figures, both left and right, decided that it was a gay disease and only acknowledged that it was something that could be transferred to anyone, regardless of sexuality, after a significant amount of homosexual men had died from it, and even then it was blamed on homosexuals-

For me the most interesting response was from the homosexuals. They betrayed no sign of shame or repentance for the wreckage they wrought. There were no appeals for counselling services to help them return to the straight life. Instead they persisted in the aggressive impertinence that this has become their trademark.”

(B.A. Santamaria, The Australian; Aids, Philosophy and Beyond, Joseph Wayne Smith)

Does this, at all, sound familiar? Would it not immediately draw your attention to the parallels between the homosexuals Santamaria mentions and the werewolves in Rowling’s writings? The majority of werewolves (homosexuals), the ‘dark’ ones, refuse to repent their existence and refuse to ‘convert’, see: consume poison/wolfsbane, but there are a few, the ‘good’ werewolves, or in the case of Rowling’s universe, presumably only Lupin as we meet no other ‘good’ werewolves, who beg forgiveness, who try to assimilate and reverse their curse and are entirely shameful for their existence.

Following on from this, linking lycanthropy and homosexuals, as Rowling does- although we can admit that HIV is not a solely homosexual ‘condition’, it is undoubtably initially first associated with the LGBT+ community, the weariness of using werewolves for this explicit metaphor should have been examined before publication, as she should have with using creatures with antisemitic features to hoard gold, as the history between werewolves and sexual predators is fairly renown. Historically, lycanthropes were used in association with madness that displays itself in the form of the “victim believing he is a wolf, with lupine teeth, refusing to eat anything but raw, bloody meat, emitting bestial howls and indulging in unrestrained sexual attacks on any victim he can overpower” (Robert Eisler, Man Into Wolf). Does this not again bring a specific character, created by Rowling, to mind? In fact in perusing Eisler’s Man Into Wolf: An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy, a text I would highly recommend reading, when looking to grapple with the concept of lycanthropy and sexual hedonism and its portrayal in media, it becomes abundantly clear that in spite of being written in the 1950’s, that often werewolves and lycanthropes in media are often metaphors for homosexual men. As despite this not being explicit in the text, the insinuations and subtext that can be inferred often skates around negative stereotypes of gay men and closely linking them with lycanthropes. This revelation only brings doubt even moreso onto Rowling’s ‘choice’ to use werewolves as a metaphor for HIV; why would anyone do this when there is a long and established history of using werewolves as sexual predators and negative propaganda characters?


Here we meet the crux of the issue, the relevancy to current cultural issues and why this issue is being brought up again, after being very, very, briefly touched upon when Rowling made her enlightened revelations back in 2016. There are indeed many reasons why I chose to speak of this now. The main and undoubtably the most prominent is the importance of cross-examining Rowling’s work in light of her recent publication (the Ickabog, 10th November 2020) and her most recent transphobic revelations. But she’s not transphobic! I hear you cry. This is cancel-culture gone wrong! And to that I do not even grace your “argument” with consideration; her words and anti-transfeminine semantics are clear to even the most closed minded of bigot. Examine her description of Rita Skeeter alongside her twitter tirades and boorish blogposts and give me a receipt that shows her being accepting of transgender individuals. I am not denying that people can change, especially in the space of twenty years, whether for better or worse, but when an author is still living and can be held accountable for their views. Especially an author that shaped many queer children’s lives and has written books that have proven to make children potentially more LGBT+ friendly (Vezzali, The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice). Especially authors that are still promoted and touted internationally, even in the form of her crime-fiction writer pseudonym Robert Galbraith, coincidentally sharing a name with one of the principle founders of homosexual conversion therapy. Can we really call that a coincidence? And is still publishing books aimed at children. (Her latest book, the Ickabog, includes a sixty-page TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) manifesto in the middle, talking about biological sex and lived experience and having ‘girl Ickabog parts’ making that a ‘real girl Ickabog’. This book was not removed from shelves or ridiculed by booksellers, but instead major retailers such as Waterstones sent out repeated emails promoting this book. I, myself, received at least five emails about it in the space of one week. Rowling cannot be monetarily held accountable, she is far wealthier than I’d ever dream of being. But she can and should be held accountable for past and present transgressions and purposeful malintent towards groups, that already receive, and especially at the time of publishing her books, negative media and face discrimination every day, but can held accountable through examination of her current and previous works, and forcing light upon these topics which seep into the cracks of society and cause irreparable damage along the way.

© James Sunderland