It’s Complicated: Albus Dumbledore
We're celebrating Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with a week of Harry Potter content. Get your tickets here!
“Dumbledore is the epitome of goodness.” -- J.K. Rowling
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Professor Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets
There are few characters as confounding in the Harry Potter universe as Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. The beloved headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a rather complicated fellow with a complicated history. Some of the choices and decisions he made in the fight against evil were questionable, to say the least, especially in regard to the key people in his life. Why did he make Harry live with the Dursleys when he knew they were mistreating him? Why did he toy with Snape’s emotions the way he did? Manipulate both of them so thoroughly? Was it all just for the greater good? These questions, amongst many others, have puzzled Harry Potter fans for close to two decades. I don’t know if we’ll ever receive satisfactory answers and, frankly, I don’t know if we really need to since everything turned out more or less how Dumbledore intended in the end. However, maybe we can better understand Dumbledore’s great and powerful Oz-like intentions by examining some of the most important relationships in his life.
Flirting with the Dark Side: Professor Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald
The person Albus Dumbledore developed into can largely be attributed to his (one-sided?) romantic relationship with the dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald. As a young man, Albus fell in love with Gellert after he moved to Godric’s Hollow to learn more about the Deathly Hallows. Often thought of as the “Voldemort before Voldemort,” Grindelwald was a cruel and brilliant wizard who was expelled from Durmstrang for doing twisted experiments on other students. He was feared throughout the UK. Together with Dumbledore, Grindelwald wanted to find the Deathly Hallows and wield their powers to become the greatest wizards in the world -- and, you know, control Muggles since they considered witches and wizards to be vastly superior to their non-magical brethren.
Grindelwald wrapped Dumbledore around his little finger and played on his affections to get him to do what he wanted. After a lifetime of interacting with people whom he thought were intellectually inferior to him, having Grindelwald in Dumbledore’s life was like a dream come true for the future headmaster. It was fun to play God with Grindelwald. However, all the fun and games stopped once Dumbledore realized how dark Grindelwald actually was. While Grindelwald, Albus and Albus’ brother Aberforth were dueling, their troubled sister, Ariana, was accidentally killed. Dumbledore was never the same after that -- he saw what kind of a person he had become because of his lust for power and didn’t like the picture. This event, coupled with the many family tragedies he faced earlier in life, turned Dumbledore into a very cautious, guarded and, ultimately, good person. But he never forgave himself or forgot about what happened with his sister -- and what could have happened if he and Grindelwald had ever found the Deathly Hallows together. Nothing scared Dumbledore more than himself.
Meeting the Dark Side: Professor Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort
Dumbledore met Tom Riddle, later Lord Voldemort, when Riddle was a young boy living at an orphanage. Dumbledore was immediately struck by Riddle’s magical skills as well as his already dark and formidable demeanor. It’s very likely that Tom Riddle reminded Dumbledore of Grindelwald, which would explain why Voldemort and Dumbledore seem to have such a strong connection with one another. It’s also possible that he sees a bit of himself in Riddle/Voldemort, or, at least, what he could have become if he had given into his desires. Dumbledore and Voldemort were revered in their separate communities in very similar ways and those who were loyal to either of them were loyal to a fault. This might also explain why Dumbledore often stayed out of the picture, sometimes to Harry’s detriment, when it came time for Harry to fight Voldemort -- it’s possible Dumbledore was afraid that he would succumb to his dark side if he allowed the Dark Lord to get inside his head. I’m sure it gave Dumbledore great pleasure to know that he was the only wizard that Voldemort feared.
Turning Tables: Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape
Snape and Dumbledore had one of the closest and most gut-wrenching relationships in the Harry Potter universe. However, there’s no question that Dumbledore manipulated Snape to get him to do his bidding for the good guys. As a child, Snape fell in love with Harry Potter’s mother, Lily, but a relationship between them just never panned out. Snape became a Death Eater to impress her (silly boy), but wound up inadvertently leading Voldemort to kill Lily when he told the Dark Lord about the prophecy he overheard Professor Trelawney speak. Snape had already tried to save Lily with Dumbledore’s help by becoming a double agent for The Order of the Phoenix, but she still died. Dumbledore convinced Snape to be Harry Potter’s protector for the rest of his life -- because that’s what Lily would have wanted -- and was forced to walk the lonely fine line between the good and dark sides of wizardry for the rest of his days. Dumbledore, just as Grindelwald did with him, played Snape’s affections and heartbreak like a piano to make him the secret MVP in the battle against Lord Voldemort. However, one must question how far Dumbledore went with manipulating Snape -- was it right for Dumbledore to ask Snape to kill him at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? After all the good Snape had done for Dumbledore, Harry and the Order, was it really better to have Snape ruin his own soul by murdering Dumbledore? Just to spare Draco Malfoy’s? These are questions to which we’ll never know the answers.
Spare the Rod: Professor Dumbledore and Harry Potter
“You’ve kept him alive so he can die at the right moment? ...Everything was supposed to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter.” – Professor Snape, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
There’s no doubt that Harry Potter’s life was tragic before and during his studies at Hogwarts. Almost everyone he loved died, including Dumbledore, and he was left mainly on his own. There’s also no doubt that Dumbledore put Harry through hell to win the war against evil. Dumbledore knew, thanks to Trelawney’s prophecy, that Harry had to die in order to win, but he never shared this information with Harry. Instead, he kept everything a secret, distanced himself from Harry as much as possible and often communicated with and “protected” him via third parties like Snape and Hagrid. Whether or not this was for Harry’s own good -- to build up his self-confidence and character by learning to live with and accept vast amounts of pain -- is anybody’s guess. My guess is that Dumbledore purposefully kept a distance both to strengthen Harry and to help himself -- Dumbledore was never one to get too close to a friend, especially one he knew had to die as part of his grand master plan against evil. It would hurt less to see Harry die if he didn’t grow too close to the boy. Or maybe that’s just the way it had to be.
Though it was a hard, painful and wretched journey, Harry did triumph -- and live -- in the end. Dumbledore’s methods might not have always been the easiest, but he clearly knew what he was doing and bet his chips on all the right people, including Harry. A hero’s journey is never easy, not even for the greatest wizard in the wizarding world. Sometimes our choices are difficult, awful and even dark, but it takes a strong and noble person to make those decisions and I’m not sure anyone else besides Dumbledore would have been capable of making them. It takes a lot of guts -- and goodness -- to walk that path.