Thursday, August 9, 2007

Albus Dumbledore--not who we thought he was

Until the end of Order of the Phoenix, and until we learn of his family history, I thought it was fairly easy to see Dumbledore as a Christ figure/God figure, or at least something similar, even if he was meant instead to be a metaphorical one.

In the few comments I've read since Deathly Hallows, I think some people are stuggling with the less than perfect, somewhat manipulative image that we now have of our beloved Headmaster of Hogwarts, the one who was so mourned after his death in Half-Blood Prince that people refused to believe he was really dead until J.K. Rowling said that he definitely was, and he was not going to do a

I don't have the same problem with Dumbledore that many seem to have though. And I've been trying to figure out why I don't. Ordinarily, I don't like people who manipulate or use others for their own purpose, and that does seem to be what Dumbledore did with Harry and with Severus. Dumbledore told Harry that he had a "grand plan" when he told him about the prophecy in Order of the Phoenix, though he didn't tell Harry just what that grand plan was. Of course, Harry being the least curious bloke we've ever read didn't ask Dumbledore to spell out the details of that plan. One would think that since the plan seemed to involve Harry pretty heavily that it would have been a reasonable question for him to ask, but no, he didn't.

So in Order of the Phoenix, we see a side of Dumbledore that shows Harry and the reader that this is a very flawed and human man. He admits he has made mistakes, and rather large ones, and he has regrets, and for the first time, Harry realizes that Dumbledore seems old and tired. We just don't know what those regrets are. Then in Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore seems to be back to his former self--all-knowing, wise, mannerly, humorous. Even with his withered black hand, that is mentioned frequently througout so we don't forget it's there, Dumbledore seems stronger again, stronger than after the battle with Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic. But then he drinks that nasty green potion in the Cave, and nearly dies then. We see him barely able to return to Hogsmeade without Harry's help, and only revived because his beloved school so obviously needs him. Certainly nothing in any of those actions to tarnish our hero. We don't know what he relived when he drank the poison, but most of us went down the path that it had something to do with wanting to protect the students, etc--a view that put his suffering on a very altruistic plane, rather than any particular personal failing of Dumbledore's. Instead he is reliving his part in the deaths of his family, a horrible thing for anyone to have to live with.

I actually really liked what we learned about Dumbledore in Deathly Hallows. Let me explain--it's not his actions I liked, but that Rowling has created a very real person, rather than the perfect hero. Here we have a man, brilliant and talented, but a very flawed man, who learned early in life what it meant to make the easy choices rather than the right choices, a man who lost his family because he made poor choices, and who lived the rest of his life with the regret that he couldn't go back and make any of it better. Because of the two months he spent with Grindelwald, planning their take-over of the wizarding world, Albus learned what his greatest weakness was--the desire for power.

When he defeated Grindelwald and ended up with the Elder Wand, Albus didn't ever use it to attain the kind of power that he had so desired in his youth. McGonagall alludes to that in the very first book, when she says that Dumbledore is too noble to use the kind of magic that Voldemort used. In reality, it's not because he is noble, rather, it's because he understood that he would have been lured by that kind of power.

At one point Dumbledore had the Elder Wand and the Invisibility Cloak (after James's death), and could have kept both--all he needed was the Resurrection Ring to complete the Deathly Hallows. He gave the cloak to Harry, who had rightfully inherited it from his father, and only told him "Use it well". Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of the first book, Philosopher's Stone, that there are very few wizards who could look in the Mirror of Erised to get the Stone from it; it was because Harry only wanted to keep it from Voldemort, not because he had any desire to use it. It's then that we first see that Harry is "pure of heart", something which Dumbledore repeats, throughout. But it's not until the end of Deathly Hallows that we realize that Dumbledore would have seen something quite different at that point.

When Dumbledore and Harry talk at King's Cross, Dumbledore admits that he was tempted by power all his life. It was a failing that he never conquered. When he found the Ring Horcrux in the Gaunt house ruins, Dumbledore, unlike Marvolo or Tom Riddle, realized that it was the Resurrection Stone, the one Hallow he had long sought. He destroyed the Horcrux, but having that third one of the Deathly Hallows in his hand was a temptation that led to his blackened and withered hand that we saw all through his last year.

In Deathly Hallows, in one of the memories that Snape gave Harry, we find out part of the "thrilling tale" that Dumbledore never was able to tell Harry:

It was nighttime, and Dumbledore sagged sideways in the thronelike chair behind the desk, apparently semiconscious. His right hand dangled over the side, blackened and burned. Snape was muttering incantations, pointing his wand at the wrist of the hand, while with his left hand he tipped a goblet full of thick golden potion down Dumbledore's throat. After a moment or two, Dumbledore's eyelids fluttered and opened.

"Why," said Snape, without preamble, "why did you put on that ring? It carries a curse, surely you realized that. Why even touch it?"

Marvolo Gaunt's ring lay on the desk before Dumbledore. It was cracked; the sword of Gryffindor lay beside it.

Dumbledore grimaced.

"I. . . was a fool. Sorely tempted. . ."

"Tempted by what?"

Dumbledore did not answer.

"It is a miracle you managed to return here!" Snape sounded furious. "That ring carried a curse of extraordinary power, to contain it is all we can hope for; I have trapped the curse in one hand for the time being--" (DH, US version, p. 680-1)

It's at that point that we learn the sudden change in Dumbledore's strategy, which up to that point was to let Harry get on with the business of resisting Voldemort in whatever way he could, with Dumbledore giving him bits and pieces of information as he felt Harry needed them. Snape tells Dumbledore that he likely only has about a year before the spell spreads and kills him, that if Dumbledore had called him earlier, he might have been able to buy him more time.

He looked down at the broken ring and the sword. "Did you think that breaking the ring would break the curse?"

"Something like that. . . I was delirious, no doubt. . ." said Dumbledore. (DH, US p. 681)

Even then, Dumbledore doesn't explain to Severus Snape, the only man he seemed to confide in at all, what really had led him to put on the ring. It's when he is talking to Harry at King's Cross that we see the full and complete picture of who Dumbledore was and why he acted as he did:

After another short pause Harry said, "You tried to use the Resurrection Stone."

Dumbledore nodded.

"When I discovered it, after all those years, buried in the abandoned home of the Gaunts--the Hallow I had craved most of all, though in my youth I had wanted it for very different reasons--I lost my head, Harry. I quite forgot that it was now a Horcrux, that the ring was sure to carry a curse. I picked it up, and I put it on, and for a second I imagined that I was about to see Ariana, and my mother and my father, and to tell them how very, very sorry I was. . .

"I was such a fool, Harry. After all those years I had learned nothing. I was unworthy to unite the Deathly Hallows, I had proved it time and again, and here was final proof."

"Why?" said Harry. "It was natural! You wanted to see them again. What's wrong with that?"

"Maybe a man in a million could unite the Hallows, Harry. I was fit only to possess the meanest of them, the least extraordinary. I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it.

"But the Cloak, I took out of vain curiosity, and so it could never have worked for me as it works for you, its true owner. The stone I would have used in an attempt to drag back those who are at peace, rather than to enable my self-sacrifice, as you did. You are the worthy possessor of the Hallows." (DH, US p. 719-20)

So once again, we have the reason that Dumbledore told Harry on several occasions that Harry was the better man, that his blood was more valuable, that it was Harry who had to defeat Voldemort, and not Dumbledore who was a much more powerful and talented wizard.

What we learn about Dumbledore is that he wasn't perfect and he was tempted by power until the end of his life. Everything that he did, every decision he made, was colored by that knowledge of his own flaws, his own very real guilt. Because he himself couldn't be trusted with power (hence, the reason he never agreed to be the Minister for Magic), he couldn't be sure that anyone else wouldn't fall into the same trap. He didn't confide fully in Harry or in Snape, knowing that each had his own flaws with which to cope. Snape had been lured by the Dark Arts, so how could Dumbledore trust him with a teaching position that might tempt him to return to his Death Eater life, when Dumbledore knew that he himself couldn't be trusted with the thing that tempted him most? Harry had a blind spot where Snape and Draco were concerned, always letting his anger and hatred get in the way of what he knew he should be doing.

What Dumbledore never understood about either of them was that they were very different than he was; Snape's remorse about Lily's death would never have let him return to his Death Eater ways, no matter how much he hated James's memory, and Harry never wanted the power or fame that Dumbledore had sought as a youth. We see Harry trusting his friends, sharing the information he has learned or has figured out on his own, something that Dumbledore was never able to do.

We all have flaws, things in our past or in our personalities that prevent us from being the wonderful beings God intends us to be. Dumbledore showed his remorse and tried to atone for his failings by teaching and guiding young people, by being an exemplary role model for them as Headmaster of Hogwarts. He gave people second chances because he, himself, had been in need of a second chance. He insisted on showing respect for others, no matter what their birth status or whether they were non-human creatures.

Whether he was right or wrong to pursue his "grand plan", we can't really say. Dumbledore did what all of us must do; he recognized his weakness, he felt remorse for his failings, and he tried to atone for his sins and live his life in a way that helped others. That his understanding of what was best for others might not be the same as anyone else's is what we all have to face.

We can't know how best to guide others so that they make the right decisions, without at times, seeming manipulative and controlling. If we have information that will influence another in a direction they take or in their actions, some might see that as being manipulative. The alternative is that we stand back and hope they can figure it out for themselves. Hands off, all round. In Dumbledore's case, he had more information than anyone else about how Voldemort might be defeated. It seems to me that it would have been wrong if he had just stood back and let Harry wander through his years at Hogwarts, hoping that he'd stumble on the secrets by himself.

When we see a child about to do something that we know is dangerous, we don't hesitate to stop them. Is that manipulative? When we see a child who is talented, and we encourage him to pursue that talent, is that being manipulative? Perhaps, but maybe it's just using the wisdom that we've gained through our own experiences and just by living. What Dumbledore did with Harry isn't so very much different than the parent or the teacher who has some knowledge about a child's talent or his limitations and tries to guide him in a direction that will afford him the greatest chance of success.

The stakes for Harry figuring out how to defeat Dumbledore were a bit higher than whether or not our musically talented child continues with those violin lessons, much higher, and in Dumbledore's view, the outcome wasn't something that he could just leave to chance. He had lived all his life with the regret that he hadn't done the proper things for his family and it had ended in a disaster which he could not ever rectify; and here he was, faced with knowledge that no one else had about why Voldemort had chosen Harry and how Voldemort might be defeated once and for all. Should he have told Harry what the grand plan was? Maybe, but what eleven, twelve or thirteen year old--or even a sixteen year old, for that matter-- would have been able to handle that overwhelming information and responsibility?

Instead of Dumbledore as an allegory for God or Christ, we have Dumbledore as a flawed human being, one who lived his life, with regrets and triumphs, just as we all do; a person who, because of his regrets sometimes failed to trust that others, who were not as gifted intellectually as he, would fall victim to the same temptations that had haunted him most of his life--the desire for power. Rather than being disappointed in who Dumbledore turned out to be, I found it encouraging. Here is a hero who is not so different than any of us--one who has made choices, one choice which was devastating, but which set his feet and heart on a life-long path of redemption, as he tried to live the rest of his life as he now knew he should have done. The past could not be undone, as Dumbledore learned when he was once again tempted to try to use the Resurrection Stone, but except for that one last stumble, his choices for the future showed that he had learned from his mistakes, had taken responsibility for them, as he spent his life teaching students, being an example of mercy to all, and in the end, tried to help Severus and Harry accomplish what he, the greatest wizard of all, could not do--defeat the evil that terrorized the world in the form of Lord Voldemort. So even though Albus turned out not to be the perfect person many of us built him up to be, I think what Rowling gave us in Albus Dumbledore was much better.


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