Dumbledore’s Downfalls and the Shadow of Merlin
It’s no secret that the character of Albus Dumbledore is inspired by the famous Arthurian sorcerer Merlin. Both are wise wizards with long beards and flowing cloaks who guide young men on their quests. While there are clear parallels in their age, style, sagacity, mentorship, mystery, and even sense of humor, if we look to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which was a major influence for J.K. Rowling, it is their similar failings and misfortunes that I find particularly striking and distinct from other Merlin-inspired figures, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf.
Some readers found Rowling’s announcement of Dumbledore’s homosexuality hard to understand in the context of the Harry Potter books. Where did it fit into the story? How were we to realize that his relationship with Grindelwald was not strictly platonic? I would argue that one indication is the fact that Dumbledore’s literary forebear also experienced a tragic romance and betrayal.
Although the details differ among various medieval and modern sources, it is a commonplace in Arthurian legend and later adaptations that Merlin falls in love with an enchantress named Nimue or Vivien who steals his magic and traps him underground (within a hollow tree or under a stone, depending on the version), effectively ending his life. Just as Dumbledore and Grindelwald bond over their desire for the Deathly Hallows and a new magical order – only to eventually come to blows, destroy Dumbledore’s already-fractured family, and make him fear his own ambition – mutual interest in magic paired with romantic attraction spells out disaster for Merlin and Nimue as well.
Another shared aspect of Dumbledore’s and Merlin’s undoings is their foreknowledge of their own ends. Merlin is a prophet, and in The Once and Future King, he foresees that he will fall prey to Nimue/Vivien and accepts his fate, allowing himself to be hoodwinked, nonetheless. Realizing that Arthur must learn to carry on without him, Merlin places extreme emphasis on teaching Arthur to think for himself and giving him the information and skills he needs to rule Britain wisely.
Dumbledore is no Seer, but in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he knows that Voldemort has assigned Draco Malfoy to kill him and decides to orchestrate his own death with Snape’s assistance, all the while knowing that his time is already limited by the spreading curse he sustained from putting on the Gaunt ring/Resurrection Stone Horcrux. Having kept his distance from Harry the year before, Dumbledore spends his final year ensuring that Harry knows about Horcruxes and placing clues to help him defeat Voldemort once and for all. Dumbledore and Merlin, knowing that they will not be able to guide Harry and Arthur to the end of their adventures, are determined to leave their protégés with the necessary lessons to manage on their own.
Rowling gave Dumbledore many of Merlin’s qualities, including some of the darker notes of his story. Misplaced affection and awareness of their own mortality are just as significant for these characters as their roles as powerful wizards and wise mentors. They may not get happy endings, but they leave behind unforgettable legacies for their students.