Minerva McGonagall and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Now that Dumbledore: The Life and Lies of Hogwarts’s Renowned Headmaster is out in the world for fans to read, I have the great good fortune of hearing from readers about their theories! I recently received an email from reader Adam James proffering a fascinating new theory about the events in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: namely, why Dumbledore does such a song and dance about giving Gryffindor a boatload of points at the end of the year to help them win the House Cup. So I decided to do a “from the mailbag” editorial response. This is the message Adam sent in, slightly edited for brevity.
I think Dumbledore at some point had to have shared or partially shared his plan with [McGonagall] to let Harry face Voldemort/Quirrell (or maybe she found out on her own or suspected more likely because Dumbledore is secretive). […]
So [McGonagall], upon finding this out or realizing the plan on her own, would have naturally looked for any reason or method to keep Harry out of harm’s way. That’s her MO throughout the series anyways (thinking of her outrage when Harry is allowed to compete in the Triwizard Cup). She got her chance when Harry, Hermione, Neville, and Malfoy are caught out of bed with the Norbert situation. She takes 50 points each, which is extremely excessive compared to other point transactions we see in this book and others. I think she’s trying to essentially scare the trio off from trying to fulfill Dumbledore’s plan.[…] Also, when she drops her books upon hearing that the trio knows about the Stone, it’s not because of shock; it’s because her worst fear is confirmed. Dumbledore’s plan is actually in motion. […] At the end of the year, Dumbledore is not only happy his plan succeeded, and Harry got to face Voldemort, but is [also] arrogant and smug enough to completely eliminate any part of [McGonagall]’s interference, which is why he sees no issue in showing blatant favoritism and awarding all those points.
I spent many pages in Life and Lies talking about Dumbledore’s relationships with the three “abandoned boys” of Hogwarts but very little discussing his relationship with his protégé Minerva McGonagall – it’s high time we changed that!
1. Did Minerva Know About the Plan?
The first question we must answer is whether or not McGonagall was, in fact, privy to Dumbledore’s plan to have Harry face off against Quirrellmort. We certainly know that she has some knowledge of the Sorcerer’s Stone since she is one of the professors who helped create the protections surrounding the Stone. Her obstacle, the giant chess set, is very clearly crafted to play to Ron’s strengths. Therefore, Dumbledore at least suggested what her obstacle should be.
With that said, I believe Dumbledore would not voluntarily divulge his plan to McGonagall. As I discuss throughout Life and Lies, Dumbledore keeps his cards very close to the vest. He does not reveal anything about his plans to anyone beyond what they absolutely need to know. And in this case, McGonagall does not need to know.
Throughout the series, we are given no indication that Dumbledore confides any of his Voldy-fighting plans in McGonagall despite how close they are in other regards. She is only a peripheral member of the Order of the Phoenix and seems to have no more information about prophecies/Horcruxes/Hallows than any other wizard on the street. Most tellingly, Dumbledore dismisses Minerva in “The Parting of the Ways” before revealing Sirius (GoF 711), showing that Minerva’s “security clearance” in that moment is no higher than Madam Pomfrey’s and lower than Mrs. Weasley’s.
Adam’s other suggestion is that McGonagall somehow found out about Dumbledore’s plan on her own or suspected it… I don’t believe so, but I don’t have any compelling evidence to disprove it. Suffice to say, though, she didn’t find out directly from Albus. And as far as we know, no one ever found out about Dumbledore’s plans when he didn’t want them to.
2. Would Minerva Act Against Dumbledore?
The next question – and the more interesting one, in my view – is what McGonagall would do if she knew about the plan. So let us assume, for the purposes of this exercise, that she somehow finds out that Dumbledore wants to send 11-year-olds to fight the Dark Lord. I will agree that she would not be a big fan of such a plan.
However, I do not believe that McGonagall would actively try to undermine the plan, as Adam suggests. Another aspect of the headmaster that I delve into in Life and Lies is how Albus likes to surround himself with people who are unfailingly loyal. Many of his supporters do not even question his judgment: Witness Lupin saying in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “It comes down to whether or not you trust Dumbledore’s judgment. I do; therefore, I trust Severus” (HBP 332).
Minerva is not quite so deferential. She is perhaps the closest thing Albus has to a friend, if not an equal, so we see her openly questioning Dumbledore’s decisions. In fact, we see that in the very first chapter of the series:
You don’t mean – you can’t mean the people who live here?’ cried Professor McGonagall, jumping to her feet and pointing at number four. ‘Dumbledore – you can’t. […] Harry Potter come and live here!'” (SS 13)
We see it again at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when she tries to chivvy Harry to the hospital wing: “Dumbledore, he ought to – look at him – he’s been through enough tonight -” (GoF 680). In fact, we see McGonagall question Dumbledore on several occasions. What we never see, however, is her disobeying Albus.
When Dumbledore decrees that Harry is to stay with the Dursleys, McGonagall acquiesces. When Dumbledore gives her completely bizarre orders at the end of Goblet of Fire, she carries them out without question. When Dumbledore instructs her to stay behind and protect students from Umbridge’s regime, she does. And so on, and so forth.
Dumbledore expects this obedience. When he thinks McGonagall disobeyed him and left her assigned duty to guard Crouch, Jr., he says, “Minerva, I’m surprised at you” (GoF 702).
In fact, McGonagall even obeys Dumbledore posthumously. When Harry arrives at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, all he has to do is say the magic words: “I’m acting on Dumbledore’s orders” (DH 595). That’s all McGonagall needs to hear to immediately move her beloved school into open warfare.
‘You’re acting on Dumbledore’s orders?’ she repeated with a look of dawning wonder. Then she drew herself up to her fullest height.
‘We shall secure the school against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named while you search for this – this object.'” (DH 595)
So to return to the original question, based on this pattern of behavior, I do not believe McGonagall would act in opposition to Dumbledore’s plans. She may fix Albus with her beadiest stare and debate it with him into the ground, but she would not act to undermine those plans.
3. Why the Point Docking?
Adam points out that, during the Norbert episode, McGonagall “takes 50 points each, which is extremely excessive compared to other point transactions we see.” He is right – such a point deduction is excessive, even by the incoherent standards of House points. We never see even half such a huge deduction anywhere in the series – the distant runner-up is Snape in Half-Blood Prince, docking Harry 70 points for his haphazard arrival at Hogwarts. So I agree that McGonagall is evidently trying to make a point here, but what is that point?
I believe that McGonagall is trying to scare Harry, Hermione, and Neville off from nighttime wanderings here, completely independent of Dumbledore’s anti-Voldy machinations. She lectures them, saying, “Nothing gives you the right to walk around school at night, especially these days, it’s very dangerous” (SS 243). While that last bit is some well-meaning hyperbole, McGonagall probably anticipates a day coming when it will be dangerous for Harry Potter to wander the school at night. If he is up to such shenanigans as a first year, it could very well become a habit, and McGonagall needs to head that off now.
We should not diminish the significance of this move. We know that McGonagall is a fierce partisan when it comes to the House Cup (to say nothing of the Quidditch Cup). If she is single-handedly torpedoing Gryffindor’s chances for the Cup, it’s because that’s how strongly she wants to impress upon the children that Harry Potter should not roam the school at night.
There is one other consideration for Minerva: The boy she catches wandering the school as a first year at 1:00 in the morning is none other than James Potter’s son. In that moment, Minerva is probably getting some traumatic flashbacks to the Marauders’ time at Hogwarts. If Harry is going to be like his father, she needs to nip that in the bud now. Otherwise, she’ll never have a moment’s peace in the next six years. Perhaps Snape was not the only teacher in Harry’s first year worried that Harry would be just like his father.
4. Dumbledore’s Reversal
The last point of Adam’s to address is the theory that Dumbledore awarded Gryffindor 170 points “to completely eliminate any part of [McGonagall]’s interference, which is why he sees no issue in showing blatant favoritism and awarding all those points.”
This theory is mostly separable from the other parts of Adam’s message since Dumbledore may have wanted to reverse McGonagall’s point deduction even if that deduction were not motivated by McGonagall working against his plan. So was that really Dumbledore’s motivation?
I will err toward no for several reasons, but we should not discount the fact that it may have been a factor among many when Dumbledore decided to award points.
First, the infraction behind the point docking was not part of Dumbledore’s plan for Harry but a wholly independent caper taken on behalf of Norbert. If the rest of Adam’s theory is believed and McGonagall docked those points to stymie Dumbledore’s plan, that provides a clearer reason why this specific deduction needed to be reversed. But if one does not believe the theory, as I have laid out, then there’s a much less compelling need to reverse that particular deduction as opposed to any other.
Second, the points Dumbledore awards are higher than the points McGonagall took away: +170 versus -150. If either Dumbledore or Jo was trying to make a point here, I’m inclined to believe that the amount would have matched exactly.
Third, while the -150 point deduction is egregious compared to the rest of the books, the award of +170 points is not. McGonagall herself awards Harry and friends +250 at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And Dumbledore awards Harry and Ron +400 at the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In short, it’s totally normal for Harry and co. to earn all the points for going on an adventure, and this isn’t an anomaly.
Lastly, Dumbledore does not need any excuse to “show blatant favoritism” toward the Gryffindors. He does this all throughout the series, and I documented it throughout Life and Lies. In fact, the theatricality of Dumbledore’s point grants in Sorcerer’s Stone – and the fact that it just put Gryffindor over the top for the House Cup – indicates to me that this favoritism is his primary motivation; reversing past injustices is merely an afterthought. I think Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic was right on the money when The Headmaster openly declares, “Now, you all know I don’t pick favorites. But, Harry – he’s my favorite” (Puffs 29).
Thanks to Adam for writing in with such a cool theory and for his permission to share it with my readers. It gave me a lot to think about (clearly!) and could definitely be the foundation of a different reading of McGonagall from the one I have. Readers, I’m curious whether any of you believe McGonagall to have been rebelling against Dumbledore’s schemes in Sorcerer’s Stone. If you come up with any cool theories you’d like me to explore, particularly Dumbledorean ones, please don’t hesitate to send me an owl!