I don’t often talk about my Harry Potter fandom. Though I’d been reading the books since 2001, it wasn’t until last summer that I sat down with J.K. Rowling’s seven novel series and truly realized their depth and creativity. I could go on for pages listing the heptalogy’s qualities, but I don’t have the time and I imagine whoever is reading this doesn’t have the patience. So for today I’m just going to focus on one of the books’ strongest suits: characterization. Particularly, I’m interested in how Rowling fleshes out Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and how the depth she gives to the character later on in the series significantly impacts Harry’s own decisions in the final book.
For all of his eccentricities and endearing witticisms, Dumbledore wasn’t even close to being one of my favourite characters for a long while. I discovered The Lord of the Rings not too long after reading the first HP novel, and anything I might have found appealing about Rowling’s old wizard was supplanted by my discovery of Gandalf the Grey (later the White). Both characters had the same, grandfatherly charm, but Gandalf was, when called upon, a warrior, whereas Dumbledore was more often than not a passive, expository figure, popping in near the end of each novel to provide Harry with context and congratulations. On a more shallow level, there was also the fact that, being old, grey and wise, Dumbledore seemed a knockoff of his Middle-earth parallel, and therefore inferior (ignoring the influence that King Arthur’s trusty mage, Merlyn, must have had on Tolkien). But there’s a lot more to the wizard than the archetypal foundation he’s built on suggests.
While the youthful Dumbledore is the magical prodigy we’ve long known him to be, he is also portrayed as proud and elitist, neglectful of his brother Aberforth and especially of his traumatized sister Ariana. After meeting future dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, he briefly entertains notions of magical superiority (i.e. the enslavement of non-magical humans by witches and wizards), revealing a bigoted side that, while long overcome by his elder years, is nevertheless a mark on the man’s reputation. The young Dumbledore’s involvement with power and fanaticism ends suddenly and violently in a three way magic duel between he, Aberforth and Grindelwald that leaves Ariana dead, possibly from his own spell.
These revelations radically shift Dumbledore from his archetypal (and perhaps stereotypical) role of the sagely mentor to a deeply flawed man whose adult life has been dedicated almost entirely to atonement. He remains a helpful guide, of course, but he’s also very much a living warning to Harry. In light of his past, Dumbledore’s narrative comes to resemble that of a potential Voldemort forced to face the consequences of his actions and ideals, avoiding a lesser fate but also paying a serious price in the process (the life of his sister, namely). Thus, his mentorship of Harry isn’t a typical teacher-student relationship, but an active attempt to impart important lessons of death and power on the boy without subjecting him to any of the costs Dumbledore himself suffered. And to the headmaster’s credit, he succeeds.
The magician’s depth of character isn’t constrained to his past, though, with many of his actions in the later books blurring the line between young, flawed Dumbledore and older and supposedly wiser self. Even as a grown man, with the charge of his own school and with no small number of awards and commendations for his good work, the old wizard still hasn’t been able to entirely purge himself of his bad habits. His persistent desire to play things close to the chest, specifically choosing not to reveal the telepathic link between Harry and Voldemort to the former, indirectly leads to the final confrontation in Order of the Phoenix and, consequently, the death of Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. Furthermore, his lifelong desire for power over death and the Deathly Hallows that might achieve said power results in his mortal wounding by way of a curse-laden Horcrux.
It’s disheartening to discover flaws in those we admire. Ask any fan of H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re to continue having any measure of respect and appreciation for that person, you have to compartmentalize—separating their prowess with prose from their virulent anti-Semitism, say. If said person has also been an important teacher or guide, then that parsing process becomes even more difficult.
When Harry learns of Dumbledore’s past, it’s not just a matter of re-evaluating his opinion of the old wizard: he’s also forced to question nearly everything the man has taught him, igniting doubts about whether he truly had Harry’s best interests in mind or if he was simply using him as a pawn for the greater good. Indeed, looking into the memories of Severus Snape, it seems that actually was Dumbledore’s goal—raising Harry “like a pig for slaughter,” as Snape says.
It’s significant that Harry learns all this in the final book, when he, Ron and Hermione have to set out on their own and without the safety net that Hogwarts had previously provided. The seeds of distrust planted by Dumbledore’s shady past require Harry to follow his own lead and take his first steps as an actual adult.
By being a secretive and at times misleading old codger, Dumbledore forces him to acquire knowledge on his own and without the threat of bias or omission that might come with learning it from secondary source. It’s a lesson in critical thinking, one that, when put into practice, helps to flesh out Harry as a character by the time he faces Voldemort in the depths of the Forbidden Forest.
In the final volume, Dumbledore emerges as a stronger character not in spite of his flaws but because of them. Rowling removes her elderly magician from the safe but tired embrace of fantasy tropes and transforms him into a tragic figure no one could have expected him to be from his first introduction in Philosopher’s Stone. I’ve never spoken with J.K. Rowling, and I certainly don’t have telepathy, so I don’t know if she’d worked out this grand plan for the character from the very beginning or if it was something that emerged in response to the old headmaster’s passive nature throughout the earlier books. But even if it’s the latter, I have to applaud her capacity to grow as a writer.
Now I kind of wish she’d write Albus Dumbledore and the Follies of His Youth, though I know his sordid story works better as a contrast to Harry’s own—that and she basically told the whole thing, sans dialogue, in Deathly Hallows. But a boy can dream, I suppose.