The Two-Way Mirror #19: Time Mysteries, Part 1: Dumbledore’s Trip to London

by Daniela

In the spirit of Brandon Ford’s Lost Day theory, I tried to understand two very puzzling situations in which Dumbledore’s timing seemed to be totally off. I will discuss the first situation here, and the second in another editorial. The first situation seemed a complete enigma until sudden comprehension dawned on me (after hours of writing). The discovery is not exactly earth-shattering, but it does feel good to get a sense for once of what Dumbledore may have been up to behind the scenes.

The mystery I was trying to solve began with a statement Dumbledore made to Harry at the end of Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone: “No sooner had I reached London than it became clear to me that the place I should be was the one I had just left. I arrived just in time to pull Quirrell off you-” (Ch. 17 “The Man with Two Faces”). According to Dumbledore, he spent no time in London, because no sooner he arrived, he turned around. My question was: what took Dumbledore so long?

When the trio met McGonagall on their way to Dumbledore’s office she said he had just left for London, called by an “urgent owl from the Ministry of Magic” (Ch. 16 “Through the Trap Door”). We know the kids didn’t immediately go through the trap door when they figured Dumbledore was gone. Harry said, “It’s tonight” (Ch. 16). He was certain because I think he figured out the Ministry message was a “fake.” He already had suspicions something was up because his scar was hurting, and he was wondering what was up: “I think it’s a warning… it means danger’s coming….” (Ch. 16). Surely enough, the first thing Harry sees after this pronouncement is an owl coming to the castle, with a message in its beak, and he wonders from whom, to whom… and he begins to put two and two together. I think we can make an educated guess that the letter was a diversion to get Dumbledore away from the castle in order to open the way for Quirrell (who has used diversionary tactics before).

I remember wondering why Quirrell would wait until night once he got Dumbledore to leave. I suppose he needed the cover of night, with the teachers and students out of the way. Since Quirrell was going to do his business at night, I bet that message said something that required Dumbledore to stay the night in London, and/or to take a slow means of transportation, because McGonagall tells the kids Dumbledore won’t be back until morning.

Let’s reconstruct the timeline. When McGonagall tells the trio that Dumbledore has left “ten minutes ago,” she also tells them to go outside and enjoy the “sunshine” (Ch. 16). We know for sure it’s still day, since the sun is bright outside. If the test-taking began at 9 a.m. (as it does in PoA), considering the students take 8 classes their first year (Herbology, History, Charms, Transfiguration, DADA, Potions, Astronomy and flight lessons – but no flight lessons are mentioned again in the books after the first one though we know there were at least several, and the Astronomy exam is probably administered at midnight like in PoA), and that each exam probably lasts an hour overall (the history exam does), then Dumbledore got his letter at 9 + 6 (= 8-2) + 1 (I assume they get 1 lunch hour) pm. Of course, it could be the exams are spread out over several days; Harry does say that “the days crept by.” In that case, let’s look at other time indicators in the text. The kids get all worked up pretty much immediately after the exams are over, and Dumbledore leaves shortly before they get worked up. McGonagall tells them to go enjoy the sunshine. After some more commotion and an additional break in the text, Rowling tells us the kids have dinner. I think we can approximate that Dumbledore left around 4 pm.

When the trio leaves for the dungeons, they are going out past the curfew (9 pm. in OotP), anywhere from right after 9 pm. (scuffle with Neville, waiting around for students to leave the common room) to 12 am. (approximately: I don’t know when those students leave the common room to go to bed). Now add 1-2 hours for getting through the obstacle course and dealing with Quirrell. What do we get? Dumbledore got to Harry anywhere from 10 pm. (9 + 1) to 2 am. (12 + 2). That means it took Dumbledore at least 6 hours to get to London and back, probably more, up to around 10 hours, and all this time was spent traveling, because no sooner he arrived in London, it became clear to him that he needed to turn back.

Now, considering the message was urgent, why didn’t Dumbledore Apparate? Yes, he can’t Apparate from the Hogwarts grounds, but he could have gone somewhere right outside Hogwarts and Apparated from there. Or better yet, why didn’t he travel by Floo powder? The Ministry has plenty of fireplaces, and he returns to his own office via fireplace at the end of OotP. Why, if the urgent letter was ostensibly from the Ministry, would Dumbledore not Floo right in? Why would he take a slower means of transportation? The means I am thinking of is also good to use in emergencies (Harry uses it in OotP), though it may not carry one instantly to one’s destination: Thestrals.

There is one reason that Hagrid gives us for Dumbledore using Thestrals rather than other means of transportation: he does it if he’s “takin’ a long journey an’ don’ want ter Apparate-” (OotP Ch. 21). Why would Dumbledore not want to Apparate? The books have given us one reason so far: to hide from the Ministry, because the Ministry is watching. Hagrid tells us in OotP that he and Maxime didn’t Apparate because the Ministry keeps tabs on that stuff and they were trying to stay hidden (and Hagrid is not supposed to do magic: I really hope he’ll be allowed to start using it at some point!). We also know that the Ministry keeps an eye on the Floo network, so I can see why Dumbledore wouldn’t want to Floo in either if he doesn’t want to Apparate. Doesn’t it seem strange that Dumbledore felt the need to hide from the Ministry to answer the Ministry’s urgent call? Shouldn’t he have felt free to walk, so to speak, right through their front door and take the Floo Network? I don’t think he lied to McGonagall when he said the letter was from the Ministry of Magic and that he was going right off to London (I may be assuming too much, but it seems implied in this situation that London = MoM).

Now, before I treat you to my hypothesis of what was in the letter that called Dumbledore to the Ministry on the sly, I will give you a bit more time analysis to prove that Dumbledore did indeed go by Thestral to London.

How long does it take a Thestral to get to London? We have a scenario that might give us a clue. The last OWL the students take in OotP is at 2 pm. Notice how similar this situation is with the one in SS/PS. Rowling indicates after the Charms exam that the written OWLs take two hours (we can infer that also applies to the History of Magic exam). That means that close to 4 pm., towards the end of the exam, Harry has his vision (he hears the bell shortly after). Notice again the parallel with the first book, when the commotion starts around 4 pm. with the arrival of the fake owl. Harry has a “fake urgent call from the Ministry” right about 4 pm like Dumbledore did in SS/PS. With all the commotion and planning and the Kreacher chat, and scuffle and action and arguing and waiting, I think we can safely assume it wasn’t before 7 pm that the kids finally took their flight to London. In fact, we know the other students were still having dinner when Harry, Hermione & Hag (that is, Umbridge) left the castle because Harry hears them in the Great Hall, so I think that means it was around 5-7 pm when the forest adventure started, maybe a little later.) So how long did the Thestral trip take?

Although Rowling doesn’t give us precise times, she does describe the lighting outside. The kids pass Hogsmeade just as darkness begins to fall. I don’t know what she means by that, because more time passes before she says that twilight is falling. Perhaps she just means the sun is no longer visible. This would place us at around 8 pm in the early summer. That means the scuffle on the ground lasted until about then. So we have a precedent for how long these scuffles take (besides the ones in the previous books): longer than we may think. After twilight, there is gathering darkness (all of these are Rowling’s words). Then Harry worries they are too late, and soon afterward there is a sudden change of direction and they have landed. The lights are bright orange in London, so I think we can say it is definitely finally night. What time did they arrive? It could be anywhere from 10 pm to after midnight (it’s really dark only after 9:30 I think in the summer).

I don’t know how long the ordeal in the Ministry took. We can probably assume several hours given the precedent at Hogwarts. 4 hours? We have some points of reference to calculate. When Harry is back in Dumbledore’s office he sees “a cool line of pale green along the horizon: Dawn was approaching.” I assume it is around 4-5:00 am (again, this is early summer). That means the kids probably arrived at say 1 am at the Ministry unless that scuffle really went on for ages. Since they left Hogwarts around 8 pm, it probably took them close to 5 hours to get to London, and that sounds about right when compared to how long it took Dumbledore to travel the same distance (3-5 hours). We’d have to go with the maximum I had allowed Dumbledore to travel both ways: 10 hours. I know there is some give and take here, but the numbers do seem to sort of add up the best this way.

And so I am pretty sure Dumbledore took the Thestral to London. Hagrid tells us Dumbledore takes the Thestrals when he doesn’t want to Apparate, and I think it is obvious in this case that he didn’t want to either Apparate or use Floo Powder, since the trip took him so long. Considering he is responding to an urgent call from the Ministry, and that his destination is the Ministry, the only explanation for his taking a Thestral given information in the books is that he is hiding from the Ministry. Why? Doesn’t it seem absurd?

To answer that, we’ll need to figure out the following:

  1. Who wrote the letter?
  2. Who seemed to have written the letter?
  3. What was the topic of the letter?

1. For the first question, I think it is logical to say, given the suspicious timing of this “letter from the Ministry,” and Harry’s premonitions before and after seeing the owl and hearing of Dumbledore’s departure, that Voldemort wrote it. Quirrell wrote it, but Voldemort composed it because he’s got the brains.

2. Who seemed to have written the letter? This part is difficult. What would fool Dumbledore? Was the sender supposedly someone writing, so to speak, in secret, calling himself an “anonymous Ministry source”? Was the sender ostensibly someone Dumbledore trusted and who could plausibly know the information in the letter? A friend suggested the sender might have been Lucius, but I think we can infer from the graveyard scene in GoF as well as from Trelawney’s second prediction that Voldemort was not in contact with Lucius or even any other Death Eater before Peter Pettigrew (Quirrell being the only exception and a new convert). The mystery of the supposed sender is hard to solve, but perhaps the content of the letter was so powerful that despite the suspicious sender it made Dumbledore feel the need to go and check things out in person.

3. What information could Voldemort know about the Ministry that would send Dumbledore galloping away to London using a less than instantaneous but untraceable means of transportation? I have one shrewd idea: Voldemort wrote something to Dumbledore to the effect that there was evidence he was about to break into the Department of Mysteries to steal the prophecy.

It could be that the shock of this news, coupled with the earlier news that Voldemort had broken into Gringotts to steal the stone, made Dumbledore run to defend a very precious chess piece (the prophecy) leaving his precious pawn (Harry) unprotected. This letter was definitely a brilliant chess move on Voldemort’s part. I don’t know how many people in the wizarding world know about the prophecy, but I have a feeling it is not common knowledge. Voldemort, on the other hand, has known for some time, ever since right before the end of the last war. Since the prophecy is a top-secret DoM mystery, Dumbledore’s secret means of transportation to London to answer the Ministry call becomes more understandable. He doesn’t want anyone to know what he’s checking on.

Why did it take Dumbledore until London to realize this was a diversionary tactic on Voldemort’s part? That’s a good 5 hours to think things over. It doesn’t make our Headmaster look too quick. But then, the prophecy is a very important chess piece. It’s easy to comment from a safe distance on what Dumbledore should have done… I do think that Voldemort fooled him and that when Dumbledore says in CoS, as Mr. Weasley berates Ginny for trusting Riddle’s diary, that greater wizards have been hoodwinked by Voldemort, he is thinking of himself… Maybe he also needed to see something for himself in the DoM in order for things to become “clear.”

One thing is certain. Dumbledore wanted to hide from the Ministry that he went there, and whatever he went after was connected to the Ministry, and it was something Voldemort knew about and something that could really get Dumbledore’s heart pumping. Something involving the prophecy seems about the best guess given the information in the books so far. Perhaps Dumbledore was going to stay the night so that he could guard the prophecy… Why guard it just one night? I don’t know… But the nightly guard duty over the prophecy that takes place throughout OotP may have its root in this mysterious letter “from the Ministry” in which Voldemort betrayed his eventual future plans of stealing the prophecy record from the DoM.

Voldemort gambled a useful chess piece in letting Dumbledore know he was after the prophecy. It was valuable to him to keep that plan hidden, but more valuable to keep Dumbledore away from Hogwarts so that he could get the stone. Maybe he also figured Dumbledore might guess in the end that he wanted to go after the prophecy eventually, so he didn’t feel it was such a big sacrifice to let him know point-blank that he wanted it and knew where it was. So Voldemort “sacrificed” so to speak the secrecy of his plan by giving Dumbledore direct knowledge of it. But he miscalculated, because he didn’t get the stone and Dumbledore was now aware of one of his planned moves. However, Voldemort did have something to gain by gambling that piece. It is likely Dumbledore revealed to Voldemort just how precious the prophecy is ( that it contains additional crucial information) when he ran off to London to protect it. Voldemort gambled the secrecy of his plan, but he learned in return that it was a plan worth pursuing.

Let me point out again the parallels between the details of Dumbledore’s and Harry’s trips to London:

  1. The students finish taking exams at 4 pm (the last one is History of Magic both times; first exams in one case, first OWL exams in the other; we don’t see exams in Books 2 & 4: canceled, for everyone or Harry; it is in Books 1, 5, and also 3 that the climax wheels are set in motion on the afternoon of the day of exams, but in Book 3 the last exam is Divination).
  2. Right around 4 pm a message is transmitted. (This applies to Book 3 also, but the Book 3 message was legit, from Hagrid about Buckbeak’s execution: incidentally, in the first book, when Harry saw the urgent owl for Dumbledore he thought for a second of Hagrid writing to him).
  3. The message is suspicious and/or fake.
  4. The message is sent “from the Ministry” calling the recipient “to the Ministry.”
  5. The message is “urgent” or feels urgent.
  6. The message opens the way or provides the means for Voldemort to steal something (stone, prophecy record: note that both the stone and the prophecy record were destroyed, after the ordeal in one case, and towards the end of it in the other).
  7. The recipient of the message travels by Thestral to London (MoM).
  8. The recipient should have stayed at Hogwarts (but then maybe certain fated and necessary events would not have happened).

Considering all these undeniable parallels, perhaps it is safe to infer, for the sake of beauty and irony, that Voldemort’s true object of quest in the OotP scenario, the prophecy, was his pretended object of quest in the SS/PS scenario.

One possible problem with my conclusion is that Dumbledore says at the end of OotP: “Voldemort, of course, had been obsessed with the possibility of hearing the prophecy ever since he regained his body” (OotP Ch. 37). Does that mean that the first time Dumbledore learned of Voldemort’s interest in the prophecy was around a year ago, or simply that it was after Voldemort regained his body that he became obsessed with hearing the prophecy? If Dumbledore has only recently learned about Voldemort’s desire, it would contradict the fact that he found out about it as early as 5 years ago from Voldemort himself. But I think what solves this problem is a question of priorities. Voldemort’s first priority 5 years ago was to get a body, and Dumbledore should have realized that before he went defending the prophecy; the prophecy was Voldemort’s second priority. However, once he got a body, Voldemort’s second priority became his first, and his desire became an obsession.

This is my explanation for why Dumbledore arrived so late to pull Quirrell off Harry… I told you it wasn’t earth-shattering… but I had to figure it out. Surely if you had noticed that Dumbledore’s round-trip took hours instead of seconds you would have wanted an answer to the mystery. I was hoping for a more dramatic solution, to tell you the truth, but the final result is still pretty nifty – and even satisfying – because it feels like the truth. It’s quite something to gain more insight into how carefully structured Rowling’s books are. And you make more unexpected observations along the way. The “end of exams” / “message” / “climax” structure seems pretty tight for SS/PS, PoA, and OotP. Why did Rowling place Divination between two History of Magic exams (= wars)? Why did Dumbledore receive Voldemort’s first message, and Harry the second? (Ron and Hermione received Hagrid’s). Any symbolism? The thrill! I’ll stop there.

Stay tuned for the second mystery of Dumbledore’s timing.

I would like to give big thanks to Muggleharte for generously reading successive drafts of this editorial (that began as something entirely different), giving me excellent suggestions, and indicating to me editorials on another site that, although they haven’t much to do with this article, deeply inspired me. Muggleharte is responsible for my “Dumbledore first, Harry second” observation in the conclusion. In addition, I would like to thank Karima for also reading successive drafts of this constantly changing editorial, and kindly sharing with me numerous interesting ideas on related HP topics. Karima also brought up the possibility of Lucius being the sender of the letter from the Ministry.