The life and lies of Albus Dumbledore
Since the beginning of time (and by time, I mean Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, of course), I’ve always thought of Dumbledore as not only wise beyond his many, many… many… years, but also as someone who was in a sense “ethically and morally superior.” He was the wizard who could do no wrong; he was a role model, in particular to Harry, and as Headmaster of Hogwarts I had assumed a certain level of credibility attached to his name, at least to some degree. And most of this we can credit to J.K. Rowling, for I am absolutely sure she had written the books to portray the famous school Headmaster this way. But as we continued to read on through the books, and as the final pieces of the story fell into their rightful place, I found myself feeling a bit unsure of exactly where Dumbledore stood in my lineup of favorites. I mean, who was Dumbledore, really? This character I thought I had truly “known” and grown up with alongside the book releases seemed all of a sudden self-righteous and foreign and for lack of a better word, cruel.
I think the initial shock resulting from the dialogue that occurs in Deathly Hallows during Harry’s review of Snape’s “final memory” just completely shook my entire perception of Dumbledore and everything I thought I’d known him to be. The revealing moment happens so abruptly, and to experience such a radical change so quickly just really threw me for a loop. How could Dumbledore say those things? How could he so passionlessly and so easily speak about Harry having to die? And to have Snape of all people call him out on that? Dumbledore was supposed to be honest and true; he was supposed to be Harry’s protector. And to find that he had been “raising him like a pig for slaughter” was something I’m sure many of us just couldn’t see coming.
To me, this alone was enough to shatter my perfectly put together image of Dumbledore. I find his manipulation of Harry throughout the story no worse than Snape’s awful treatment of the Boy Who Lived inside the classroom—they are both equally damaging, and it’s almost upsetting to realize just how deeply this runs in Harry. We see Harry in books prior to Deathly Hallows blindly following Dumbledore, sparingly asking questions which for the most part remain unanswered or encrypted in theologies and philosophical statements that can be interpreted in an unlimited number of ways. Snape receives a lot of backlash for the way he treats Harry—both in the opinions of the trio and from many of us as readers. And I’m not saying this isn’t well-deserved, but Harry seems to remain unangered by this discovery, and I’m not sure that’s justified. Harry was old enough to go looking for Horcruxes. He was old enough to endanger his life and the life of others while heeding Dumbledore’s “wise words.” So why wasn’t he old enough to know his fate? Was Dumbledore so certain, so sure, that Harry wouldn’t continue to choose what was right had he known the truth even after all he had been through? Was that Dumbledore’s place, to play with fate that way?
Dumbledore once said,
Dark times lie ahead of us, and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
But has he justly lived by these words? Did Dumbledore truly choose what was right over what was easy? After finishing the books, I’m not so sure. Manipulation, selfishness… are these the characteristics of a Gryffindor? Did Snape exemplify Gryffindor traits beyond others in the end? That’s a question for another day. But what I can say is that Albus Dumbledore has made some seemingly questionable choices in his life, and I’m not sure that we can give a formidable argument supporting the idea that he was justified in choosing what was “right” all along.
I’m not trying to say that Snape was right or that Dumbledore was right. I’m not sure that anyone was right. I’m not sure that anyone could have just chosen “right” over “easy.” I just don’t think it was that simple. But looking back on some of the choices Dumbledore made, some of the things that had happened in his personal life that have alluded to some decisions where it seems that “right” was never thought of; I’m not sure what I think of him anymore. Take Albus’s brother Aberforth and his role in the story, for example. Aberforth advises Harry in Deathly Hallows,
What makes you think you can trust him? What makes you think you can believe anything my brother told you? In all the time you knew him, did he ever mention my name? Did he ever mention hers?
For me this was just another unsettling “fun fact” about Dumbledore; I’d always imagined him as someone who was at peace with most, his family included. He was first and foremost an academic and did not fall to dueling to settle disputes as his brother did, but his fight with Grindelwald took the life of his sister. Why was “right” not to prioritize his family’s well-being instead of choosing to be selfish? Dumbledore explains his feelings to Harry by saying,
I resented it, Harry. I was gifted, I was brilliant. I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory. Do not misunderstand me. I loved them… but I was selfish… So that, when my mother died, and I was left the responsibility of a damaged sister and a wayward brother, I returned to my village in anger and bitterness. Trapped and wasted, I thought!
Again, another blow to my long built-up idolization of the “greatest wizard of all time.” Dumbledore had experienced true pain, just as Harry had, and in light of what he thought was “right” manipulated Harry’s scars and willingness to justify his family’s wrongful death and hid his own. For this reason I am untrusting of the wizard who once stood for impartiality and kindness in my eyes. Was this truly his choice, his place, his decision to make? In Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore reveals another distrustful choice made and explains to Harry as follows:
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.
The topic of Dumbledore and his intentions throughout the book is obviously a largely controversial one among others and can be supported in a number of different ways. For me, it’s been less about whether Dumbledore did truly care for Harry all along and more about his character going through such a transformation this late in the series that has prompted me to question my opinion of him all along. I dove into Deathly Hallows certain that I knew these characters and came out with more questions than I could ever imagine having. Personally, as someone who grew up alongside the series, I was invested immensely in these characters and who I thought they were, and to see such uncharacteristic behavior from Dumbledore was nothing short of shocking. Has Dumbledore always been true to his word and chosen “right” over easy? Is he still the judicious, principled wizard I always thought he was? Maybe things just aren’t that simple… or are they?