Albus Dumbledore and the Mysterious Forceful Spell – Part 1
by Gregory Hughes
There remain a frustrating number of unanswered questions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, ranging from where Hagrid poops to how a Horcrux is made. With the once-teased official encyclopedia seemingly swept aside by other projects and now the quagmire of Rowling’s disappointing transphobic controversies, it seems less and less likely that these questions will be answered in a timely manner – if ever.
One mystery from the books which has been stuck in my craw is found in this enticing paragraph from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapter 36, “The Only One He Ever Feared:”
Dumbledore flicked his own wand. The force of the spell that emanated from it was such that Harry, though shielded by his stone guard, felt his hair stand on end as it passed, and this time Voldemort was forced to conjure a shining silver shield out of thin air to deflect it. The spell, whatever it was, caused no visible damage to the shield, though a deep, gonglike note reverberated from it, an oddly chilling sound….” (813–14)
What on earth is this mysterious forceful spell, what does it do, and how does it work? With no encyclopedia in sight to answer those questions, we’re forced back into the (good old) days of endless and unconfirmable speculation running wild through the MuggleNet editorials. Sooo… Here’s my crack at Albus Dumbledore and the mysterious forceful spell.
Before we attempt to answer questions about the nature and purpose of the forceful spell, the full context of the scene must be understood, especially the Machiavellian motivations of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Why would Albus cast the forceful spell in the first place? In answer, let us consider three key objectives of Dumbledore at the time of his duel in the Ministry:
- Keep Harry alive.
- Expose Voldemort’s return to the Ministry and the broader wizarding world.
- Defeat Lord Voldemort for good.
Keep Harry Alive
Dumbledore is chiefly concerned with keeping the students – Ginny, Luna, Neville, Ron, Hermione, and especially Harry – alive. We should not fool ourselves, however: Dumbledore very much intends Harry to die, but it is critical that Harry die at the proper moment, willingly, and at the hand of Lord Voldemort himself. Harry’s premature and unwilling death would be an enormous, perhaps insurmountable wrench in Dumbledore’s master plan to defeat the Dark Lord. So for now, Dumbledore’s top priority is keeping Harry alive, and Harry, true to form, has not made this easy for Albus.
The situation is grim, and Harry is truly in mortal peril when Dumbledore arrives in the Atrium of the Ministry: Sirius Black is dead. Tonks and Hermione lie unconscious floors below. Voldemort is facing down Harry Potter, his most deadly lieutenant Bellatrix Lestrange at his side, just as he is about to cast the Killing Curse. Albus acts swiftly with (what we think is) a nonverbal Piertotum Locomotor:
But the headless golden statue of the wizard in the fountain had sprung alive, leaping from its plinth, and landed on the floor with a crash between Harry and Voldemort. The [Killing Curse] merely glanced off its chest as the statue flung out its arms, protecting Harry.
[…] The headless statue thrust Harry backward, away from the fight.
[…] [Harry] wanted to cry out a warning, but his headless guard kept shunting him backward toward the wall, blocking his every attempt to get out from behind it.” (OotP 813–14)
Indeed, the full passage reveals that Bellatrix is neutralized, having been pinned to the floor by the witch statue, while Voldemort – his attention now on Dumbledore, not Harry – is forced to reposition thanks to the charging centaur. And all of this was accomplished with a single nonverbal Piertotum Locomotor. Nice move, Albus.
The Dark Lord Has, In Fact, Returned
In his brilliant series of essays entitled “Dumbledore’s Master Plan,” Steve Connolly astutely observed that Voldemort learning the full contents of the prophecy would not actually afford him any advantage over Harry Potter. Connolly continues to correctly speculate that Dumbledore’s strategy concerning the prophecy is one of distraction: While Voldemort is singularly focused on acquiring the prophecy, he won’t gather too many followers or cause too much trouble.
At the time of the duel, however, the prophecy is destroyed, and Albus knows Voldemort will now be focused on recruiting followers and waging war, making it of paramount importance that he be exposed and that the Ministry be fully mobilized against him immediately. Albus sees this situation in the Atrium as his critical opportunity to get Ministry officials, including Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge himself, to personally witness Voldemort’s return. Dumbledore needs to buy time for those Ministry officials to arrive, and he needs to keep Voldemort totally distracted until they do.
Here, Albus reveals just how much he understands about Voldemort’s psyche:
‘It was foolish to come here tonight, Tom,’ said Dumbledore calmly. ‘The Aurors are on their way -‘
‘By which time I shall be gone, and you dead!’ spat Voldemort. He sent another Killing Curse at Dumbledore but missed, instead hitting the security guard’s desk, which burst into flame.
[…] ‘We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom,’ Dumbledore said calmly, continuing to walk toward Voldemort as though he had not a fear in the world, as though nothing had happened to interrupt his stroll up the hall. ‘Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit -‘
‘There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!’ snarled Voldemort.
‘You are quite wrong,’ said Dumbledore, still closing in upon Voldemort and speaking as lightly as though they were discussing the matter over drinks.
[…] ‘Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness -‘
Another jet of green light flew from behind the silver shield. This time it was the one-armed centaur, galloping in front of Dumbledore, that took the blast and shattered into a hundred pieces.” (OotP 813–14)
This is one of the most powerful examples of Dumbledore’s strategic and tactical brilliance in the entire series.
He starts by calling Voldemort – a wizard who Dumbledore himself has acknowledged is extremely intelligent – foolish. And he uses his given name, Tom, in the presence of Bellatrix Lestrange. Voldemort angrily interrupts and fires a curse that misses. Read that again: Voldemort, the most dangerous wizard on the planet, is so blinded by rage that he actually misses. Dumbledore continues to calmly and softly remind Voldemort of his ignorance, Voldemort angrily interrupts with more curses, and Dumbledore expertly dodges or blocks them.
Though Voldemort doesn’t seem to notice in his anger, time is slipping by, and those Aurors “on their way” are getting closer and closer. So is Cornelius Fudge.
But evidence of Dumbledore’s actions to try and keep Voldemort there long enough to expose him is not merely found in his words. Consider these excerpts from the duel:
Dumbledore had drawn back his wand and waved it as though brandishing a whip. A long thin flame flew from the tip; it wrapped itself around Voldemort, shield and all.
[…] Dumbledore brandished his wand in one, long, fluid movement – […] the water in the pool rose up and covered Voldemort like a cocoon of molten glass – […] [Voldemort was] clearly struggling to throw off the suffocating mass -” (OotP 814–15)
A whip made of fire binds itself around Voldemort; a watery cocoon traps Voldemort on the plinth. Clearly, these are both spells that are more complex and more difficult to throw off than something so garden-variety as Incarcerous, yet the intent of the spells is obviously similar: Keep Voldemort where he is.
One element of the Harry Potter books critical to remember is perspective: We see this duel entirely through Harry’s eyes. And we readers have learned the hard way throughout the books that what Harry sees is not always what is important. One final example of Dumbledore’s brilliantly executed plan to expose Voldemort to the Ministry is easy enough to miss because we readers occupy Harry’s point of view. Let’s look at the “other statues come to life” passage in its entirety:
The other statues sprang to life too. The statue of the witch ran at Bellatrix, who screamed and sent spells streaming uselessly off its chest, before it dived at her, pinning her to the floor. Meanwhile, the goblin and house-elf scuttled toward the fireplaces set along the wall, and the one-armed centaur galloped at Voldemort, who vanished and reappeared beside the pool. The headless statue thrust Harry backward, away from the fight, as Dumbledore advanced on Voldemort and the golden centaur cantered around them both.” (OotP 813)
This scene is absolute chaos – statues springing to life and running every which way, spells flying around, Bellatrix screaming, Voldemort vanishing and reappearing, madness!
We’ve already covered how the wizard, witch, and centaur statues interact with Harry, Bellatrix, and Voldemort, respectively. But the goblin and house-elf who scuttled off toward the fireplaces? They aren’t mentioned again until later:
The Atrium was full of people. The floor was reflecting emerald-green flames that had burst into life in all the fireplaces along one wall, and a stream of witches and wizards was emerging from them. As Dumbledore pulled him back to his feet, Harry saw the tiny gold statues of the house-elf and the goblin leading a stunned-looking Cornelius Fudge forward.” (OotP 816)
We don’t think about the goblin or house-elf statue during the duel because Harry is not thinking of them. But Dumbledore had a plan for them the moment he first arrived on the scene: Hang out at the Floo fireplaces, grab Cornelius Fudge as soon as he arrives, and make sure he gets a front-row seat.
The Dark Lord Defeated
Albus Dumbledore’s ultimate goal is so obvious that it is almost easy to overlook: Albus wants to end, finally and completely, Tom Riddle. But that is far too broad to be useful in our attempt to situate ourselves into Albus Dumbledore’s perspective and determine his motivations for using the forceful spell. What we need is to understand the specific objective Albus has in mind that, when accomplished, would lead him closer to his final goal of ending Voldemort… which, of course, brings us to Horcruxes.
Again, we should be reminded about that pesky thing, perspective. Harry Potter – and by extension, the reader – spends the majority of the sixth book learning about Voldemort’s past and his Horcruxes. But really, Harry is simply catching up to what Albus Dumbledore already knows: Albus has been investigating Voldemort’s past for many years and received “certain proof” in Harry’s second year that the Dark Lord had created multiple Horcruxes (HBP 500). Furthermore, Bob Ogden, Morfin Gaunt, and Hokey the house-elf are all dead by the events of Harry’s sixth year (HBP, chp. 10, 17, and 20, respectively), so Albus almost certainly has their memories at the time of the duel.
We can reasonably conclude that Albus, at the time of the duel in the Ministry, already strongly suspects the identity of several of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, including the ring, locket, cup, and Nagini. And we know he is close to discovering one of them – remember, Albus is just weeks or even days away from locating and destroying the Peverell ring Horcrux in the ruins of the Gaunt’s old shack.
What Albus does not know at the time of his duel is that which drives him through most of the next book: Exactly how many Horcruxes did Voldemort make, and where are they hidden? Clearly, answering those questions is critical to advancing Albus’s goal of ending Voldemort for good.
We readers, and Harry, are taken down a path to answering those questions in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a path that leads right to a portly Potions professor, Horace Slughorn. Regardless of what Horace knows about Voldemort’s past, Albus is certain that the only person who knows everything about Voldemort’s Horcruxes is Voldemort himself.
Surely, with such critical questions about Voldemort’s Horcruxes unanswered, one would think Albus Dumbledore would never let the opportunity of a duel with Voldemort – his first face-to-face encounter with the Dark Lord in years, maybe decades – go to waste.
Next in Part 2: Let’s talk about that “oddly chilling” sound…