Rowling’s Cave Allegory: Dumbledore’s Death is Not What It Seems
by Jo Cutler
The Snape is Evil argument is in danger of becoming purely academic. Will we truly find the answer to the riddle of Dumbledore’s strange and unexpected death at the hands of Snape in the finer points of ethical theory? Should we stand on precedents set by earlier books, or the reliability of character traits? Should we rely on our own instincts–our sense of certainty that Snape is no good, or our devotion to the infallibility of Dumbledore?
As usual, it is not that Rowling has failed to give us all the necessary clues. It is that, again as usual, she has kept us distracted with her artful sleight of hand. The genius involved here is really her best yet, but we are not meant to be kept from the truth, we are only meant to work hard to find it. I believe I have found the key to the truth in the chapter entitled The Cave which immediately precedes the chapter in which Snape kills Dumbledore. It is in that chapter that the clues given throughout the book culminate, showing us that Snape is, in his final scene, clearly acting on Dumbledore’s orders.
Clue #1: Platos Cave
The title of the chapter is surely a wink to Plato’s cave allegory (remember Rowling studied classics, which–for those of us who live in the U.S. and aren’t familiar–is centered around Greek and Roman history, culture and philosophy). Plato’s cave illustrates the single most pervasive theme in the Harry Potter series: reality and appearance are not the same thing. Can we trust the betrayal that appears to occur in the next chapter to be a reality?
Clue #2: The Promise, The Command
Once Harry and Dumbledore reach the lake within the cave, we are walked through a scene which meticulously pre-creates the events in the following chapter. Harry is put in precisely the same situation in which Snape will be put atop the lightning struck tower.
Before they embark on their adventure, Dumbledore had required that Harry swear to follow any command he gives. His examples were run and hide, but the only actual order Harry receives is, essentially, hurt and possibly kill me. Dumbledore surmises that the potion must be drunk in order to reach the Horcrux, and that it is probably some sort of poison, which will likely cause pain and/or damage and eventual (perhaps preventable) death.
It may be objected at this point that Dumbledore was confident that he was not asking Harry to kill him. If he was confident, however, that the poison would not kill him, he would have asked Harry to drink it. Dumbledore would have known he, Dumbledore, would be more likely to succeed in getting them safely out of the cave with the Horcrux once Harry was incapacitated. Dumbledore could have rushed him, Harry, much more effectively to immediate medical care. Indeed, Harry had the same thought:
”Why can’t I drink the potion instead?” asked Harry desperately.
“Because I am much older, much cleverer and much less valuable.”
(Rowling 2005, 570, italics added)
Dumbledore expects that the poison may well be unavoidably deadly, and he is drinking it because he considers his own life to be less valuable to the cause than Harry’s. Additionally, we are to realize that he is willing to ask another to take his life 1) to advance the cause and 2) as an alternative to taking Harry’s. These are crucial hints.
Clue #3: The Protest
Harry protests, and one is reminded of the argument between Dumbledore and Snape overheard by Hagrid earlier in the book. Snape protested against doing something Dumbledore had ordered him to do, to which, according to Hagrid ”Dumbledore told him flat out he’d agreed ter do it an’ that was all there was to it” (405-406). Dumbledore is equally firm with Harry: “You swore, did you not, to follow any command I gave you?…Well, then, you have my orders –Your word, Harry” (570).
Clue #4: The Plea, Obedience and Self-Loathing
Harry must obey, because he has promised to obey Dumbledore. Dumbledore pleads with him as he feeds him the poison. ”Please, please, please, no– not that, not that, I’ll do anything” (573). He begs Harry just 22 pages before the horrible ”Severus …please” (595). He obeys Dumbledore against his own will ”hating himself, repulsed by what he was doing” (571), just as Snape obeys Dumbledore by killing him, “revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face” (595). It is himself, the action he is forced to take, that fills Snape’s face with revulsion and rage.
If it had been Dumbledore he hated, if he had been glad to kill Dumbledore and be done with his work at Hogwarts then why, when Harry calls him a coward, would he respond ”as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning house behind them”? One would expect a smooth, sarcastic response, of the sort more typical of Snape, especially in a moment of victory such as this. The explanation is that he is still full of revulsion, rage and pain after obeying Dumbeldore’s last, most difficult, most horrible, order. Not only has he committed a horrible act he did not wish to commit, but he knows he will be hated and hunted for committing it. He will never be at ease to grieve his loss, but is sentenced now to permanent residence with the Death Eaters who will celebrate the death of his friend (perhaps his only friend) and master.
It is from this place of exile that he will continue to carry out Dumbledore’s plan, helping Harry and thwarting Voldemort as invisibly as possible, at war with himself and trusted by none of his true allies. A circumstance worthy of Shakespearean tragedy. Bravo, Rowling, Bravo.