Solving the Riddle of the Sphinx: The Three Voices of Albus Dumbledore

by Monkshood

“What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”

It is a man. He crawls on all fours as a small child, he walks on two feet as a young man and then he uses a staff in his old age.– Apollodorus, House of Oedipus III.5.7

In the ancient story of Oedipus, there is a sphinx that guards the city of Thebes. Those who wish to enter or exit the city must solve her riddle or face the penalty of death. The sphinx’s riddle for Oedipus, quoted above, seems unsolvable at first, but as in the case of most riddles, the answer is quite simple. After some thought, Oedipus manages to solve the riddle which results in the death of the sphinx. Free to enter the city of Thebes, Oedipus continues along in his quest to avoid the fate of an oracle’s prophecy about his family.

This scenario from the story of Oedipus may seem familiar to fans of the Harry Potter books for two obvious reasons. In Goblet of Fire, Harry must solve a riddle asked by a dangerous sphinx in the Triwizard Tournament, and then in Order of the Phoenix he learns that he is part of a prophecy given years ago by Sybll Trelawney. The similarities do not end here, however, and the purpose of this essay is to explain a third way in which the story of Oedipus appears in the series.

My theory is that we witness the famous riddle of the sphinx through the words of Albus Dumbledore after he drinks the vile potion from the basin in the cave. With one tortured voice, Dumbledore speaks from the point of view of a child, a young adult, and an old man. This scene not only illustrates the riddle that Oedipus solves, it also becomes a new one for the reader: who has entered the cave and drank the potion from the basin? The answer is based on the one that Oedipus tells the sphinx: it is a child (Kreacher), a young adult (Regulus Black) and an old man (Albus Dumbledore). Together they speak through one voice and that is the voice of Dumbledore when he suffers the effects of the potion which guards the locket Horcrux.

One of the many puzzles in Half-Blood Prince is the way in which Dumbledore reacts to the potion that Harry feeds to him. Some wondered if he was reliving his own memories or those that belonged to someone else. The key to solving this riddle is to recognize that Dumbledore is speaking for three individuals, or rather the three different stages of human development. Once these three stages are separated, the internal logic of this scene becomes apparent: Dumbledore is “that which has one voice” and yet speaks for all three.

My method for identifying these three stages was to type up only Dumbledore’s words while he was under the spell of the potion so that I could analyze them as one single passage. Harry’s actions and words serve as natural breaks between the three stages, and so they were easy to identify. These three stages follow the order of the sphinx’s riddle, from child to old man, as well as the chronological order of those who drank the potion.

The Child

““I don’t want. . .Don’t make me. . .” 

“. . . don’t like. . . want to stop . . .” moaned Dumbledore. 

“No. . .” he groaned . . . 

“I don’t want to. . . I don’t want to . . . Let me go . . .” 

“Make it stop, make it stop,” moaned Dumbledore. 

“No, no, no, no, I can’t, I can’t, don’t make me, I don’t want to. . .” 

– HBP , U.S. hardback, chapter 26 (p. 571-572)

Dumbledore’s first set words after drinking some of the potion from the basin represent the perspective of a child, the first part of the sphinx’s riddle. When Dumbledore speaks this way he communicates a child-like resistance to a hostile presence: “I don’t want. . . Don’t make me. . .” From this passage emerges a child who is focused on himself and the horrible power that another has over him. He is too weak to resist what is being done to him, and so he begs out loud, “Make it stop” as a child would to his parent for relief. This is a child who has learned that even though he can say “no” to another, he lacks the ability to stop bad things from being done to him.

Kreacher the Child

Since his introduction in OotP , Kreacher has displayed child-like qualities in the way he responds to those around him. He mutters insults under his breath with the mistaken belief that no one can hear him, he engages in small acts of rebellion against a greater authority, and he is prone to emotional fits as a response to his helplessness as an enslaved house-elf. In HBP, Kreacher throws an impressive tantrum which is fitting for an angry child who knows that he cannot refuse an authoritative command:

It looked for a moment as though Kreacher was going to choke. He grabbed his throat, his mouth still working furiously, his eyes bulging. After a few seconds of frantic gulping, he threw himself face forward onto the carpet (Aunt Petunia whimpered) and beat the floor with his hands and feet, giving himself over to a violent, but entirely silent, tantrum. 
– HBP, U.S. hardback, chapter 3 (p. 52-53)

Despite his age and his magical powers, Kreacher’’s emotional state and mannerisms invoke the image of a child, and this comparison continues in HBP:

It was several minutes before Kreacher hiccuped himself into silence. Then he pushed himself into a sitting position again, rubbing his knuckles into his eyes like a small child. 
– U.S. hardback, chapter 10 (p. 199).

In light of the new knowledge that Kreacher actually drank the potion in the basin, the similarity between Dumbledore’’s first set of words after drinking the potion and Kreacher’’s tantrum is rather striking:

(Dumbledore), “I don’t want to . . . I don’t want to. . . . Let me go . . . .” (HBP, p. 572)“Kreacher won’t, Kreacher won’t, Kreacher won’t!” (HBP, p. 51)

Following the structure of the sphinx’’s riddle, it was Kreacher the “child” who first drank the potion in the basin and so it is his words that Dumbledore first speaks in front of Harry on that night in the cave.

The Young Adult

“It’s all my fault, all my fault,” he sobbed. “Please make it stop, I know I did wrong, oh please make it stop and I’ll never, never again. . .” 

“Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead. . .” 

“Please, please, please, no . . . not that, not that, I’ll do anything. . .” 

– HBP, U.S. hardback, chapter 26 (572-573).

This is the second stage of the sphinx’’s riddle, when we meet the young man who walks on two feet, and his words reflect a shift in tone as they now address the challenges of adulthood. This voice now acknowledges the presence of others (the social Other) and it is done in a way which implies a sense of responsibility for what is happening to “them.” It is not clear if the young adult did something wrong (“I’’ll never, never again”) or if he just assumes guilt in order to bargain relief for them (“hurt me instead”). In contrast to the child who begs someone else to “make it stop”, the young adult hopes that he has the power to bring an end to this nightmare (“I’’ll do anything”).

Regulus Black the Young Adult

The story of how Regulus Black met his end in the cave is both tragic and heroic. When Dumbledore begs, “Please make it stop, I know I did wrong,” we are hearing the desperate words of a young man who has finally recognized the gravity of his decision to join the Death Eaters. Determined to right his wrongs, Regulus orders Kreacher to take him to the cave so that he can remove Voldemort’s Horcrux, and this time it is Regulus who drinks the potion while Kreacher helplessly watches him, just as Harry watched Dumbledore suffer. One of the important lessons of adulthood is to understand how your choices and actions have an effect on others, by intent or accident. Over the course of the Harry Potter series we have met three young men who quickly learn after joining the Death Eaters that there is a heavy price to pay for their membership. Families and loved ones are not immune to Voldemort’’s cruelty, and it is when they are threatened and harmed that these young Death Eaters begin to realize the errors of their ways Dumbledore’’s second set of pleas reflects the regret that Regulus feels as well as his desperation to spare others the consequences of his own mistakes.

The Old Man

“I want to die! I want to die! Make it stop, make it stop, I want to die!” 


-HBP, U.S. hardback, chapter 26 (p. 573)

Dumbledore’’s final pleas in the cave belong to the old man in the sphinx’’s riddle who becomes three-legged with the aid of his staff. These are the words of a man who has lived long enough to no longer fear death and who would rather die than have this pain continue. In contrast to the young man who vaguely promises to do anything for relief, this third voice specifies death as the way to end his suffering. Young adults might bravely say that they do not fear death, but only those who have really experienced life can understand what this sentiment really means.

Another clue to the age of this third voice is his use of the child’s phrase “make it stop,” which Dumbledore sobs out to Harry right after drinking the potion for the first time. In the cycle of life, the final stage of development is often closer to childhood than young adulthood. As he approaches the end of his life span, an old man starts to return to the state of dependence that he experienced as an infant and child. Yet an important difference between the child in the cave and the old man is that the latter is able to recognize the approach of his death, and he does not fear it. A child is unable to grasp this concept while the young adult has a slight understanding of what it means to be mortal. When the old man speaks in the cave, the focus is inward like a child’s (no mention of others or them), but it is a selfless point of view rather than the understandably self-centered view of a child.

Albus Dumbledore the Old Man

The third and final part of this version of the sphinx’’s riddle may seem inconsistent with Dumbledore’s character, as he was a man who rarely raised his voice or dramatically displayed his emotions. Still, I think that the point of this perspective is consistent with Dumbledore’s understanding that death is to be accepted, if not embraced, rather than feared. Death and dying are central to these two sentences, just as they are to Dumbledore’s thoughts once he fatally injures himself with the ring at the Gaunt home. Throughout HBP, one detects a sense of urgency to Dumbledore’s actions as he puts his final plans to rest. He knows that he will die soon and he is determined to have some control over the circumstances. His final words in the cave (“Kill me!”) are a painful mirror to his last ones on the tower (““Severus. . .please. . .””) (HBP, p. 575, 595).

The Sphinx and the Phoenix

When Dumbledore begins to drink the potion from the basin in the cave, two important symbols rise from the pages. One is the sphinx and her riddle of “that which has one voice” and yet manifests in three forms. The other is a red and gold phoenix, a bird that is immortal, and yet it continuously moves through the stages of life. Though these are two very different creatures in myth, they are both connected to Dumbledore, a man whose wisdom and counsel allowed both the reader and Harry great insight into the meaning of life and death. The famous riddle of the sphinx is about the stages of life, the ones we see Fawkes live through before bursting into flames and experiencing rebirth. As horrific as it is to see Dumbledore suffer the effects of the potion, it makes sense that the man who shared such a close bond with a phoenix is the one who enacts the riddle of the sphinx right before our eyes. After all, it is Dumbledore who informs Harry of the responsibility that the old man carries:

““Harry, I owe you an explanation,” said Dumbledore. “”An explanation of an old man’s mistakes. For I see now that what I have done, and not done, with regard to you, bears all the hallmarks of the failings of age. Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young . . . and I seem to have forgotten, lately . . .””
– OotP, U.S. edition paperback, chapter 37 (p. 826)

Considering what we have learned about Dumbledore’’s past and the trials that his family experienced, it is understandable why we must see “the old man” suffer the pain of the sphinx’s riddle, since only he can remember the stages of youth and adulthood. The sphinx and the phoenix are the union of two opposites in this tale of the cave and the potion that Dumbledore drinks. The sphinx’s riddle is a dark display of the stages of life, and it is in stark contrast to the reassuring sight of Fawkes, as his current form never speaks to the pain of life’s experiences. A sphinx, however, as portrayed in the tale of Oedipus, is a dangerous creature which serves to remind us of the dangerous riddles of life and the toll we experience in trying to solve them.