What Did Dumbledore Know of Horcruxes?
Abstract: Hello, dear readers! Let me apologize profusely for my prolonged absence. But I am now back in New York, back to having access to the US paperbacks (which is what page numbers I will reference from now on), and back to writing for you! This essay is the promised follow-up to “Dumbledore’s Decoy,” so I recommend reading that one first (or at the very least reading that when you’re done here, because I don’t plan on rehashing much of what I’ve already said in that one). Without further ado, grab your butterbeers (or iced butterbeers, since it’s summer), and let’s talk Potter!
By the time Harry is let in on the Horcrux hunt in Half-Blood Prince (and we are let in on it along with him), Dumbledore seems to have everything together. He knows what the Horcruxes are, and how many there are; he’s collected all the necessary memories, and it’s just a matter of telling Harry about it and then destroying them. At first, we do not question this; after all, Dumbledore is presented as almost omniscient throughout the series, so why wouldn’t he have all the necessary information already?
But then, someone has to ask the very pertinent question: if Dumbledore has known all along about the Horcruxes, why did he only start hunting them at the tail end of Order of the Phoenix? (As I wrote in “Dumbledore’s Decoy,” I believe the hunt began when Umbridge kicked him out of Hogwarts.) He had years and years before that during which he could have hunted Horcruxes unmolested!
I believe the answer is the most straightforward one: Dumbledore did not know everything about everything, until very recently. So let us explore what Dumbledore knew, and when, and what he did about it.
Sorcerer’s Stone and Earlier
At this time, I believe Dumbledore did not even know whether Voldemort had created Horcruxes or not. Sure, it seems obvious in retrospect that he had. But that’s not the case. Consider this very telling line from Voldemort’s monologue in Goblet of Fire: “it appeared that one or more of my experiments had worked … for I had not been killed” (GOF 653). That means that Voldemort had made several “experiments” in his quest for immortality. How was Dumbledore to know what dark Magic Voldemort had performed? All Dumbledore knows is that Voldemort spent about twenty years exploring ways to become immortal, and Merlin knows which one he actually chose.
But let’s say Dumbledore guesses that Voldemort might have made a Horcrux. Dumbledore would not know that Voldemort made more than one, because doing so is completely unprecedented. He tells Harry, “[Voldemort] was referring to his Horcruxes, Horcruxes in the plural, Harry, which I do not believe any other wizard has ever had.” (HBP 501-502) Just think of how horrified Slughorn is at Tom Riddle’s suggestion of multiple Horcruxes in the memory (HBP498). If Dumbledore was contemplating different methods of immortality, I don’t think he would consider multiple Horcruxes.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, he suspects that Voldemort made one Horcrux. The only ones he reasonably could have found, with the information available to him, is the locket or the ring. If Dumbledore suspected that the cup or the diary was the Horcrux, he would be at a complete dead end, since he can’t exactly go snooping through the possessions of all the former Death Eaters.
So Dumbledore might suspect that there’s one Horcrux out there. Having been collecting memories about Voldemort already, there are several possible candidates, but Dumbledore has no way of knowing which one is the Horcrux, or where it will be found. Dumbledore is not even sure whether Voldemort even has a Horcrux or if he used some other Dark Magic. And since Voldemort is temporarily out of the picture, it isn’t a terribly pressing issue either. For now, Dumbledore can focus on rebuilding the world after the first Vold War, and protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone.
End of Chamber of Secrets
The first breakthrough comes at the end of Chamber of Secrets, when Harry comes into Dumbledore’s office, triumphantly wielding a sword and a destroyed diary, and with strange tales of meeting a teenage Voldemort. Dumbledore explains his thought process to Harry during their Horcruxes 101 lesson.
“I was almost sure of it. The diary had been a Horcrux. But this raised as many questions as it answered. “What intrigued and alarmed me most was that that diary had been intended as a weapon as much as a safeguard.” […] “The careless way in which Voldemort regarded this Horcrux seemed most ominous to me. It suggested that he must have made — or been planning to make — more Horcruxes, so that the loss of his first would not be so detrimental.” (HBP 500-501)
Dumbledore gets confirmation that Voldemort did indeed make a Horcrux, but alarm bells go off in his head. If Voldemort treated his Horcrux as expendable, that means that Voldemort must have made more than one. This is a mind-blowing idea, but it appears to make sense. So now Dumbledore starts thinking, just how bad is the situation? Did Voldemort make two Horcruxes (unprecedented!), or did he go even further than that and make three?
While this is all quite scary to contemplate, Dumbledore is not particularly frantic just yet. Voldemort is still somewhere in Albania, alone and almost powerless. The Sorcerer’s Stone is destroyed, one Horcrux is down, and things are looking rosy for the moment. I’m sure Dumbledore starts poring over his memories of Tom Riddle, doing his research, trying to identify what could possibly be a Horcrux.
However, this is all soon driven from his mind. Dumbledore spends the next year trying to protect Hogwarts and Harry from Sirius Black and dementors. The year after that, Dumbledore is tearing his hair out trying to figure out what’s going on – who put Harry’s name in the Goblet and why, whether Voldemort is rising again, and the myriad other mysteries going on. Horcruxes are on the backburner.
End of Goblet of Fire
The next game-changer is the end of Goblet of Fire, and boy is it a big one. Harry is once again relating his adventures in Dumbledore’s office, after returning a student’s corpse to Hogwarts and nearly being killed by a Polyjuiced Death Eater. Harry reports that Lord Voldemort has risen again, and that Voldemort gave a very insightful monologue to his Death Eaters. Dumbledore later tells Harry his thought process at the moment.
“[Voldemort] made a most illuminating and alarming statement to his Death Eaters. ‘I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality.’ That was what you told me he said. ‘Futher than anybody.’ And I thought I knew what that meant, though the Death Eaters did not. He was referring to his Horcruxes, Horcruxes in the plural, Harry, which I do not believe any other wizard has ever had. Yet it fitted: Lord Voldemort has seemed to grow less human with the passing years, and the transformation he has undergone seemed to me to be only explicable if his soul was mutilated beyond the realms of what we might call ‘usual evil’ …” (HBP 501-502)
So now Dumbledore’s theory is confirmed: that Voldemort did indeed make multiple Horcruxes. And now Dumbledore has to do research! What are the other Horcruxes? Dumbledore already has a pretty good idea of what might be a Horcrux – Slytherin’s locket, the Peverell ring, and Hufflepuff’s Cup. With the diary, that’s already four.
But Dumbledore has one huge unanswered question here: how many Horcruxes are there total? Would Voldemort have dared to make four Horcruxes? Or did he make even more than that? This is the most important piece of information that Dumbledore needs. After all, wouldn’t it really suck if Dumbledore destroyed ten Horcruxes and attempted to kill Voldemort, only to find out that Voldemort had made an even dozen? Or conversely, what if Dumbledore wasted time hunting for a sixth and seventh Horcrux, if Voldemort only made five, and innocent people died in the meantime? Dumbledore needed to know exactly how many Horcruxes there were! And in the meantime, he could start researching what and where the Horcruxes might be.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. How to find out how many Horcruxes Voldemort made? Short of asking Voldy himself, there seems to be no possible way. Unless… what if, when Tom Riddle was learning about Horcruxes, he decided on a certain number? Eventually, this line of thinking would lead Dumbledore straight to Slughorn.
I think Dumbledore got that tampered-with memory from Slughorn that very summer in 1995. And upon seeing that Slughorn had made it useless by excluding the only information Dumbledore needed – the planned number of Horcruxes – Dumbledore attempted to lure Slughorn to a job at Hogwarts.
Didn’t it ever strike you as odd that Dumbledore was completely unable to find a DADA professor in 1995? Sure, the applicant pool is rather thin after a four-decade curse. But we’ve seen that Dumbledore has no objection to hiring substandard professors when he needs them there (see: Hagrid, Trelawney, etc.). And keeping Umbridge out of Hogwarts would seem like a pretty big priority, so why wouldn’t Dumbledore just ask Kingsley or someone to fill in for a year?
Because Dumbledore was keeping a position open for Slughorn, that’s why. He wanted Slughorn to come back to Hogwarts, where Dumbledore could work on extracting that much-needed memory from him. And then Snape would be put in the DADA position, because Snape is still needed at Hogwarts as well. I think Dumbledore was so desperate to get Slughorn, that he did not even make a back-up plan, which is how Umbridge got foisted onto them.
As all this is going on, Dumbledore also realizes that he needs to buy time, and sets another plan in motion: that of keeping Voldemort occupied by sending him on a wild goose chase after a prophecy, while Dumbledore keeps tackling the Horcrux problem.
No wonder Dumbledore seems stressed out in Order of the Phoenix – he’s fighting three battles at once! He has the Order pitted against Voldemort and the Death Eaters to keep everyone busy with the prophecy, he is battling Umbridge and Fudge at Hogwarts, and he is attempting to research the Horcruxes.
Middle of Order of the Phoenix (December 1995)
Fast-forward half a year, and Dumbledore is still waiting for answers, though I’m sure he’s perused a lot of memories since. And he also begins to have some niggling suspicions. First off, Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, seems to be strangely obedient to Voldemort, even though he’s a parselmouth. Second, Harry’s scar seems to have a bizarre connection to Voldemort. Hmm…
Then, suddenly one night, Harry is in Dumbledore’s office again, saying he had ventured into Voldemort’s mind, while Voldemort was in Nagini’s mind. Dumbledore taps one of his instruments, which emits a smokey snake. Dumbledore asks, “But in essence divided?” and the snake splits in two, which confirms whatever Dumbledore is thinking.(OOTP 470)
This tiny passage caused more speculation than almost any other in the first six books. Finally, after Deathly Hallows was released, Jo told us what it meant in an interview.
“Dumbledore suspected that the snake’s essence was divided – that it contained part of Voldemort’s soul, and that was why it was so very adept at doing his bidding. This also explained why Harry, the last and unintended Horcrux, could see so clearly though the snake’s eyes, just as he regularly sees through Voldemort’s. Dumbledore is thinking aloud here, edging towards the truth with the help of the Pensieve.”
So there, in one fell swoop, Dumbledore confirms his suspicions about two Horcruxes: Nagini, and the unintentional Horcrux in Harry’s scar. Upon realizing the exact nature of Harry’s connection to Voldemort, and that Voldemort is now aware of the connection, Dumbledore wastes no time in setting up Harry’s Occlumency lessons.
Dumbledore cannot do anything about Nagini-the-Horcrux just yet, and certainly nothing about Harry. And he still does not know how many Horcruxes he is looking for. However, it would be sensible of Voldemort to have at least one traditional Horcrux, designed only to keep the soul bit safe, and neither the diary nor Nagini qualify, because they are both intended for offensive use. So Dumbledore is fairly confident that the Peverell ring is one, since he has Morfin’s memory and he likely saw Tom Riddle wearing it.
This is why, when Umbridge tries to kick Dumbledore out of Hogwarts four months later, Dumbledore seizes the chance and goes hunting for the Ringcrux.
Beginning of Half-Blood Prince
By the time Dumbledore finds the Ringcrux and destroys it in July 1996, the situation has changed quite drastically. The prophecy decoy has been eliminated, and Voldemort now has a plot in action to have Draco kill Dumbledore. Dumbledore has to protect Draco and protect others from Draco, but Dumbledore is also going to die within a year. He has three important things to do before he kicks the bucket.
First, he has to eliminate as many Horcruxes as possible. Therefore, he devotes a considerable portion of his time to searching for the one that seems most likely to have been turned into a Horcrux: Slytherin’s locket. Dumbledore knows Voldemort has a connection with this locket, and the locket is therefore the likeliest candidate.
Second, he has to get to Slughorn and figure out, once and for all, how many Horcruxes there actually are. There are four confirmed ones at this time: the DiaryCrux (destroyed), the Ringcrux (destroyed), Nagini (must be the last one destroyed, so as not to arouse Voldemort’s suspicions), and the unintentional Scarcrux. Who knows how many are still remaining? And Dumbledore also has to form a contingency plan for eliminating the Scarcrux, which will most likely have to happen after Dumbledore’s death. Dumbledore therefore gives Snape explicit instructions to guide Harry to sacrificing himself.
Third, he has to prepare Harry to continue the Horcrux hunt after Dumbledore is dead. This is accomplished by showing Harry the memories that Dumbledore himself has been perusing, equipping Harry with intimate knowledge of Voldemort that will prove invaluable in finally defeating Voldy.
Dumbledore kills two birds with one stone by making Harry get the memory from Slughorn. For starters, this provides Harry with experience wheedling information about Voldemort from reluctant people, which comes in handy with the Grey Lady. But the question of how many Horcruxes there are is the reason Dumbledore stresses the importance of this memory so much. Harry succeeds eventually, and Dumbledore finally has the answer to the question that’s plagued him for a year and a half: Voldemort wanted to make six Horcruxes.
From here on out, it’s fairly straightforward for Dumbledore. The diary and ring are gone. Nagini makes three. Harry’s scar was the unwitting seventh Horcrux. Slytherin’s locket and Hufflepuff’s cup make five. The only unknown is the sixth Horcrux, but some psychoanalysis of Voldemort reveals that it’s likely a relic of Ravenclaw’s. All that’s left to do is to hunt down as many of them as possible while still alive, and to show Harry the ropes.
We are so used to the idea of an omniscient Dumbledore, because that was so deeply ingrained in us in the first few books. But as the series progresses, Dumbledore is no longer quite so many steps ahead of everyone else. I really enjoyed writing this essay because the timeline of Horcrux-hunting and memory-retrieval has always been a bit murky for me, and it was good to attempt to figure out what was going on and when. The key takeaway here is that Dumbledore did not know exactly how many Horcruxes he was hunting until well into Half-Blood Prince, which makes all the stuff preceding that largely shots in the dark.
Dumbledore is one of the characters who absolutely fascinates me. I don’t dislike him, yet I have a hard time forgiving him for some of the things he did. As soon as I sort out my very complicated feelings toward him, I will have another essay for you about our favorite Headmaster. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you guys think about my theories!