Dumbledore as a Failed Hero
Heroes are a staple of fantasy literature, and one of the ways to chart those heroes is through the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is a structure derived from the work of Joseph Campbell and lays out the steps almost every hero takes. The early steps include the call to adventure, the initial refusal of that call, and the hero finally crossing the threshold and entering into their adventure. Once the hero has set out on their adventure or entered the Underworld, having exited the ordinary world, they will face a series of tests, culminating in a great battle against their enemy, seizing the sword – or reward – at the end of it. Then, it is time for the hero to conquer their last challenge, that of resurrection. The hero now has to leave the Underworld and return home, but to do that, they have to face one last challenge, which can be a physical obstacle, such as finding the way out, or a mental one, such as resolving some internal struggle keeping them trapped. If they succeed, the hero returns home victorious. If they fail, there are far-reaching consequences that will affect more than just the hero.
Having laid that all out, it’s easy to see how Harry himself follows the hero’s journey, ultimately succeeding. However, there is another character in the series who takes his own far less successful journey: Albus Dumbledore. We don’t have the full details of his hero’s journey, but we do have some pieces of it. We know that he refuses to face Grindelwald repeatedly, the refusal of the call. We know he eventually agrees to face him, entering the war and crossing the threshold. We also know that he defeats Grindelwald in battle and claims his reward, the Elder Wand. Up until this point, he follows the hero’s journey pretty faithfully. However, it’s at the point of resurrection that he stumbles.
One struggle the hero can undergo during their resurrection is the decision to give up their personal desires for a higher cause or a greater good. The problem for Dumbledore is that Grindelwald has twisted up his conception of the greater good. There’s a part of him that wants to leave behind the Deathly Hallows and his connection to Grindelwald and go on to do good in the world, but he’s afraid of his own potential actions. Dumbledore admits this, saying that “I had learned that I was not to be trusted with power” (DH 717). So as a result, Dumbledore never completes his resurrection. He remains paralyzed, unable to let go of the past and afraid of what he might do in the future. As such, he never leaves the Underworld. This does have consequences for everyone else. After all, the series would have been very different if Dumbledore had chosen to become minister instead of headmaster. However, his failure also has a more personal consequence as it is ultimately what kills him.
Yes, Severus Snape technically gave the final blow, but Snape wasn’t the cause of Dumbledore’s downfall. He was dying from the moment he picked up the Resurrection Stone. That’s what killed him. And he never would have picked it up so carelessly if the Hallows didn’t retain power over him and if he still weren’t consumed by his regrets over Ariana and Grindelwald. His inability to let go of the past, to leave the Underworld, leads him to enter it permanently. The worst part of all of this is that it wasn’t quick or easy. Dumbledore had to watch as the past he had always feared caused him to literally start withering away. He had to face a physical sign of his failure as a hero.
There is one small silver lining to all of this. While Dumbledore doomed himself, he still sought to mitigate the consequences for everyone else. He doesn’t want to die and take the knowledge of how to defeat Voldemort with him. So instead, he spends the last months of his life mentoring Harry, trying to make sure that – this time around – the hero won’t fail. And as such, it’s no coincidence that Dumbledore is the one to greet Harry at King’s Cross station. Dumbledore no longer has a path out of the Underworld, but Harry does, and Dumbledore is there to help him find it. With Dumbledore’s help, Harry is able to turn away from the shard of Voldemort’s soul that came with him to King’s Cross, to let go of his pain and choose to return to the world, completing the resurrection Dumbledore could never manage.