In the July 2005 Mugglenet/Leaky Cauldron interview, during a discussion about the death of the mentor in the fantasy genre, J. K. Rowling added that “the question is when and how.” An editorial discrepancy raised the question again; in the Scholastic edition, several lines from Dumbledore to Draco remain that don’t appear in the Bloomsbury edition, including, “he cannot kill you if you are already dead.” (591) This discrepancy, along with Rowling’s comments from the interview, imply that the question of Dumbledore’s death was not answered in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and opens up myriad possibilities.
One trail of clues in the text leads to one possibility out of the many that seems more plausible than most. It appears that Slughorn had switched places with Dumbledore for the trip to the cave, and that both Slughorn and Dumbledore avoided death that night, as did Snape by default. The indications I’ve enumerated in the pages that follow are striking in and of themselves, and more so when we realize that “Muggle Magic” makes its first appearance in the series here in this book, seemingly by no coincidence. Slughorn’s staged death in chapter four is underscored by the twins’ stocking Muggle magic tricks in their shop – and the events in the cave, on the tower, and at the funeral, it can be argued, are similarly well-stocked with misdirection, illusions, and gimmicks, all performed with the benefit of the real magic that exists in the “Potterverse.” The tricks and traditions of stage magic go back centuries and across cultures, but a common thread seems to connect them all: technique. In a 1641 booklet by writer John Ady, king’s magician, Hocus Pocus, is described as using “a dark combination of words, to blind the eye of his beholders, to make his trick pass more currently without discovery, because when the eye and the ear of the beholder are both earnestly busied, the trick is not so easily discovered, nor the imposture discerned.” (Edmonds, 42) Harry discovered this first-hand, trying to discern how Slughorn was collecting the Acromantula venom, and perhaps experienced more misdirection in the cave and tower scene.
Further research into the art of stage magic reveals a colorful character from the Golden Age of Magic, a magician by the name of Horace Goldin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Horace Slughorn. Quite similar to Rowling’s descriptions of Slughorn, Goldin was pompous and extremely nimble-fingered, “an unlikely figure for a magician…, round and fleshy, with an oversized nose and thinning hair” who nonetheless “had mastered the dashing, graceful gestures of a swashbuckler.” (Steinmeyer, 284) Horace Goldin developed a silent and fast-paced routine, reminiscent of Slughorn’s two-minute staged death. As a novice, Goldin idolized a more seasoned magician called the Great Albini (how similar to “Albus”). Goldin had a framed portrait of Albini he’d prominently displayed; one evening after a particularly strong performance from Goldin, Albini called on him and taught him the secret of his famous Egg Bag trick, then signed the portrait. (This trick was attributed to a conjurer with another familiar name, Isaac Fawkes, in 1736, according to Edmonds, p. 43). Albini and Goldin later became peers and rivals, a dichotomy that seems to be characteristic of many of the relationships between the more famous magicians of the Golden Age of Magic. It should also be noted that Goldin had a big act called “The Tiger God” that he toured extensively, the star of which was his pet tiger named Lily.
Milbourne Christopher says of Horace Goldin in The Illustrated History of Magic: “I met Horace Goldin in London in the fall of 1936. At sixty-two he was stout, wore his reading glasses on a black ribbon around his neck, and carried a cane. The tiepin in his cravat sparkled with the jewels he had received from Kings and Queens… ‘Confidentially,’ he said, ‘I have the best act in the world. You must see it as my guest.’ I accepted his invitation...I sat in the front row...Albini’s ‘Egg Bag,’ to which Goldin had added various comedy touches, delighted the audience...Before the curtains closed, Goldin caught a bullet fired at him from a rifle, on the china plate he held in front of his chest.” (315-16) Goldin was noted for this trick, and coincidentally (or not), Dumbledore’s hand is over his chest during the entire tower scene.
Slughorn’s connection to the theme of stage magic strongly supports the argument that the scene at the cave and atop the Astronomy Tower was riddled with the tricks of the trade; even more so, the textual indications that Slughorn stood in for Dumbledore are powerful images in themselves. Still, without a careful reading of the series, it’s more challenging to tease out from the text answers to some of our questions about why this would have occurred. First, what does Dumbledore gain from faking his death? The simplest answer might be that he remains alive – but Dumbledore’s been possessed of a mission to destroy Voldemort throughout the entire series, and in light of that, to assume that the events on the tower are as they appear, and that Dumbledore in essence allowed Snape to kill him, seems contradictory. By faking his death, he’s afforded himself the freedom to continue his mission undetected and Snape to retain his cover as a double agent. Furthermore, if indeed Slughorn is impersonating Dumbledore on the tower, then Draco isn’t failing the task we understand to be to kill Dumbledore, but rather he’s failing to kill Slughorn, and thus the terms of the Unbreakable Vow are evaded. A second question might wonder what evidence is there that demonstrates Slughorn would be willing to take such an action; careful attention to the scene in Hagrid’s hut reveals that Slughorn was uncertain until that night that Harry was indeed the Chosen One and that there was any purpose to be served with handing over the proper memory. Once he’s made the connection that Harry is willing and perhaps able to attempt to defeat Voldemort, Slughorn commits to the mission himself, evident in his parting with the memory of his own free will.
Other questions also arise: Where is Dumbledore during the events of the cave and tower scenes; how do we understand the Avada Kedavra curse we saw on the tower; what can we take at face value and what is misdirection? These are questions I intend to briefly address following the primary focus, a discussion of the details that lead to the conclusion that Slughorn did indeed stand in for Dumbledore that night, in a loose progression of the events as they occurred. Subheadings will be provided to help stay on track, and all quotes of the Potter series are Scholastic first editions.
The “Five Minutes”
It seems highly likely that Slughorn stood in for Dumbledore for the cave visit with Harry and the confrontation on the tower. The switch would have taken place during the five minutes in which Harry goes to give the Felix to Ron and Hermione, and in reverse at the base of the tower after being lowered safely to the ground. Although Slughorn questionably has a store of Polyjuice Potion in his classroom when the school year begins, and it would seem the obvious choice for a means for a switch, I think what’s more likely, since Switching Spells have been brought up in the series and not used (as far as we know), that two skilled old Wizards like Dumbledore and Slughorn might have other means for switching places at their disposal.
Before they head off to the cave, Dumbledore directs Harry to go get his Invisibility Cloak (page 551), although he should have expected Harry to already have it, as he’d told him to keep it on him at all times, even at Hogwarts. (79) Then he tells Harry to meet him in the Great Hall in five minutes. It’s been suggested that Dumbledore took this opportunity to put up his portrait; perhaps by simply resigning from his post as Headmaster, his portrait would go up automatically. It’s also enough time to arrange for Slughorn to meet Harry in the Great Hall. Dumbledore’s opening scene with Harry is framed by two impostor checks. First, he admonishes Harry for assuming that he is indeed himself (his favorite jam is raspberry); then we see a person who can appear to be someone other than himself (the Slughorn “chair”). Then directly after Dumbledore leaves the Burrow, Arthur insists on impostor-checking with Molly. Despite this, Harry never does verify Dumbledore’s identity.
Slughorn would probably be instructed to Apparate to the correct location; but it may be that Slughorn is uncomfortable with Apparating because of his size: We see him taking the train to Hogwarts, plus we learn from Ron that Charlie Weasley had trouble passing his test, and in the same breath Ron mentions Charlie’s size. Although Ron’s point was that he wouldn’t tease Charlie because he didn’t want to risk a fight with him, Rowling’s instructed the reader that Apparating is difficult for the heavy-set. Earlier in the book, Dumbledore does not count to three, and he asks Harry to grip his arm. The Apparition to the cave follows a different pattern. Dumbledore counts to three, and does not ask that Harry grip his arm. There is also the matter of the countdown; other times in the series, Dumbledore counts to three for shared use of a Portkey. It is unusual for him to use a countdown for Apparition.
At the onset of the cave scene, Dumbledore performs a “perfect breaststroke” with “the sudden agility of a much younger man.” (557) This passage is wonderfully suggestive and a good set-up for the distinctive descriptors that follow, with the implication that Dumbledore is indeed a disguised Slughorn.
On page 570, “Harry hesitated, looking into the blue eyes that had turned green in the reflected light of the basin.” Slughorn’s eyes are described in his introduction in chapter four when “His pale gooseberry eyes had found Dumbledore’s injured hand.” (67) Gooseberry, as an eye-color, would be light green; however, there is room for speculation here on this point. “Gooseberry eyed” can refer to the recognizably poor quality of someone’s eyesight. We are never given any other indication in the text that Slughorn has poor eyesight. The spider comparisons might be notable here, as Aragog’s eyesight was also poor – but it seems that we can’t rule out the distinct possibility that Rowling is letting the reader know that Slughorn is green-eyed, but that she’s burying this information.
On the following page, “Dumbledore panted and then spoke in a voice that Harry did not recognize, for he had never heard Dumbledore frightened like this...Harry stared into the whitened face he knew so well, at the crooked nose and half-moon spectacles...” (571) This passage seems to hint that this person is not Dumbledore; in addition to the voice that Harry doesn’t recognize, Dumbledore’s face is less-recognizable, as it’s objectified with the use of “the” instead of the possessive “Dumbledore’s” or “his.” Interestingly, the body of Dumbledore at the base of the tower is similarly objectified with the use of “the” instead of the personal pronouns “his” and “him.”
Slughorn’s tendency is to grow pale and sweat at the brow when he’s frightened or tense. For example, “Slughorn turned paler than ever; his shiny forehead gleamed with sweat.” (490) After drinking the potion, Dumbledore’s face appeared “paler and damper than ever.” (580) It could be attributed to the effects of the potion, but the language is identical to description of Slughorn and could indicate that there’s more to it. Soon thereafter we see Slughorn again in the Headmaster’s office, “who looked the most shaken, pale and sweating.” (627) It is suspicious that Slughorn would appear the most shaken, if he hadn’t been anywhere near the danger of the evening’s events.
Speech Patterns and Lines
Often Dumbledore’s dialogue sounded as if it wasn’t Dumbledore saying it or had speech patterns or phrases that were idiosyncratic to Slughorn or could have been said by Slughorn. For instance, we know that Slughorn’s rating system is value, and we have the following two lines that sound odd from Dumbledore: “I am much older, much cleverer, and much less valuable,” and, “Your blood is worth much more than mine.” (570, 559)
In the boat, Dumbledore says, “I do not think you will count, Harry. You are underage and unqualified. Voldemort would never have suspected a sixteen year old to reach this place: I think it unlikely that your powers will register compared to mine...Voldemort’s mistake, Harry, Voldemort’s mistake...Age is foolish and forgetful when it underestimates youth.” (564-5) Dumbledore has told Harry that he performed a grown wizard’s task in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and in Half-Blood Prince, he’s reminded Harry that he’s exceptional and extraordinary; this seems as if he’s contradicting his previous sentiments and then backpedaling. Also, Dumbledore has learned not to underestimate youth; either Slughorn or Dumbledore could be saying this with regret that he underestimated Riddle. Likewise, both professors could reasonably say, “I taught Tom Riddle. I know his style.” (563) It’s particularly resonant with Slughorn’s line in the Headmaster’s office later: “Snape! I taught him! I thought I knew him!” (627)
On page 563, Dumbledore says, “Oho!” This is a Slughorn catchphrase. We’ve heard Filch say this before, and Fudge and Vernon in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but never previously in the series has Dumbledore said it. Several other phrases stand out as if coming from Slughorn:
“That potion...was no health drink.” (580)
“…my dear boy…” (585, 591)
“Oh, weaker resistance, slower reflexes...Old age in short...if you are lucky.” (594) Compare with Slughorn’s line in his first meeting with Harry: “Can’t move like I used to. Well, that’s to be expected. Old age. Fatigue...The fact remains that I’m an old man, Albus. A tired old man who’s earned the right to a quiet life and a few creature comforts.” (67)
Repeated words and phrases are a trademark of Slughorn’s speech pattern; several show up in the cave and tower scene:
“Voldemort’s mistake, Harry, Voldemort’s mistake…” (564)
“You did very well, very well, Harry…” (577)
“Draco, Draco, you are not a killer.” (585)
“A clever plan, a very clever plan…” (587)
“Yes, very neat...very neat…” (589)
“No, no, these are manners.” (593)
When Dumbledore toasts in the cave, it stands out in contrast to his pattern in Half-Blood Prince, during which he doesn’t toast. For example, on page 265, Mrs. Cole poured them each a “generous measure” and “she drained her glass in one gulp.” Dumbledore doesn’t speak or raise his glass to toast. There is an instance of Dumbledore toasting in the series, in Goblet of Fire. Dumbledore asks the students to “stand, and raise [their] glasses” to Cedric Diggory. (721) Otherwise, the closest thing to a toast from Dumbledore in this book was at the Dursleys’ in chapter three: “‘Madame Rosmerta’s finest oak-matured mead,’ said Dumbledore, raising his glass to Harry, who caught hold of his own and sipped.” (48) Dumbledore again doesn’t speak.
Conversely, in the cave Dumbledore raises the goblet of potion and says, “Your good health, Harry.” (570) Compare this to Slughorn’s suggestion before Aragog’s burial: “We’ll drink the poor beast’s -- well -- not health -- but we’ll send it off in style, anyway, once it’s buried.” (481) Slughorn, in contrast to Dumbledore, toasts habitually; the only time he doesn’t toast stands out against his pattern. It is in chapter four when he grudgingly offers drinks to Dumbledore and Harry, resisting Dumbledore’s temptation. Otherwise, we have several instances establishing his pattern, for example: on page 485, “To Aragog;” on page 487, “After an hour or so...Hagrid and Slughorn began making extravagant toasts: to Hogwarts, to Dumbledore, to elf-made wine and to -- ‘Harry Potter,’ bellowed Hagrid.” Then Slughorn pockets unicorn tail hair with cries of, “To friendship! To generosity! To ten Galleons a hair!” When he offers Ron a drink for his birthday, he toasts saying, “Well, a very happy birthday, Ralph...and may you have many more.” (397)
Dumbledore forgets that Harry is behind him, dripping wet and freezing: “Harry, so sorry, I forgot.” He points his wand at Harry, and “Harry’s clothes were as warm and dry as if they had been hanging in front of a blazing fire.” (558) Slughorn warmed himself in front of a fire in his first scene. (69) Would Dumbledore forget Harry? Or is “Dumbledore’s” traveling cloak actually a new-and-improved Weasleys Wizarding Wheezes Shield Cloak?
Several scenes make a point of directing the reader to both of Slughorn’s hands, and Dumbledore’s hands figure prominently into Half-Blood Prince as well. In chapter four, it’s demonstrated that Slughorn uses his wand with his left hand: “They stood back to back, the tall thin wizard and the short round one, and waved their wands in one identical sweeping motion.” (65) It has just been established that Dumbledore’s right hand is his wand-hand; if they were both using their right hands, then their motions wouldn’t appear identical but reversed. (The image also perhaps serves as a metaphor to illuminate Dumbledore and Slughorn as equals, or at least as Wizards with comparable power: they can “back each other up” and do “identical” spellwork.) Although Slughorn plainly is using his left hand for his wand, Rowling pays close attention to both his hands, suggestive of stage magicians directing their audience to watch their hands. On page 319, Slughorn is shown with a “glass of mead in one hand and an enormous mince pie in the other;” then later, on page 369 in the memory scene, he’s sitting with his feet on a velvet pouffe, glass of wine in one hand, candied pineapple in the other. Most suggestive of stage magic is when Slughorn is surreptitiously taking the venom from Aragog’s body, on page 490: Slughorn “put his hand in his pocket and pulled out his wand. He put his other hand inside his cloak and took out a small, empty bottle.” As noted in the introduction, Harry is watching him, and aside from the faintest clink of the vials in Slughorn’s pocket, he’s unable to detect Slughorn getting the venom.
By comparison, we have several mentions of both of Dumbledore’s hands. Two are particularly important, as one is the moment he shows both the destroyed Horcrux and Harry to Slughorn in the same glance. On page 67, Dumbledore holds out his right hand, saying, “You’re quite right,” then extends his left, bearing the ring, and says, “On the other hand...” Because we know the ring is on the left hand, and Harry must be sitting next to it to be able to see it in detail, Slughorn’s attention will be drawn to both the ring and Harry at the same time. The second demonstrates exactly how badly Dumbledore’s right hand is afflicted: “Dumbledore was having difficulty pulling out the stopper of the crystal bottle. His injured hand seemed stiff and painful.” (199) He’s holding the bottle in his left hand, trying to open it with his right. Interestingly, instead of opening it with his left hand, “Dumbledore pointed his wand at the bottle and the cork flew out.” This suggests that his right hand is virtually useless and that he’d rely on his wand before relying on his left hand.
Yet in the cave, Dumbledore uses his hands differently than he has in the rest of the book, and he even uses his left-hand as his wand-hand. Furthermore, the sensitivity he appears to have in the injured hand seems contradictory to how we’ve seen it previously. For example, on pages 557-8 we see him using both hands equally: Still holding his wand aloft with what must be his left hand, he “approached the wall of the cave and caressed it with his blackened fingertips...touching as much of the rough rock as he could...running his fingers backward and forward...finally he stopped, his hand pressed flat against the wall.” Soon thereafter, Dumbledore takes the knife from his robes with his left hand, and he then cuts his right arm with his left hand. He heals the cut using his left hand as his wand-hand. (558-9) It’s especially significant that the knife is a potions knife (as established on page 190).
Careful scrutiny reveals complex hand-usage from Dumbledore in a passage that follows, with confusion that seems to be a deliberate play by Rowling. Harry and Dumbledore are walking around the edge of the lake, on what must be the right side, because “for a moment [Harry] toppled on the edge of the dark water, and Dumbledore’s uninjured hand closed tightly around his upper arm, pulling him back.” (562-3) If they were walking on the left side, Dumbledore couldn’t reach him with the left hand. Soon thereafter, Dumbledore “was running his hand, not over the rocky wall, but through the thin air, as though expecting to find and grip something invisible...his hand had closed in midair upon something Harry could not see...keeping his hand clenched in midair, Dumbledore raised his wand with the other and tapped his fist with the point.” Here he seems to be using his left hand to sense magic and his right for his wand again, but since Rowling mentions that he’s not running his hand over the wall at his right, it could be his right hand grasping the chain. Then on page 567, Dumbledore “pushed back the sleeve of his robe over his blackened hand, and stretched out the tips of his burned fingers toward the surface of the potion.” A lot of “complicated movements” and “murmuring soundlessly” from Dumbledore follow, perhaps suggesting misdirection. (568) Overall, surprising sensitivity and dexterity from a hand that was virtually useless only a few chapters before.
The Goblet and the Gasp
Several small but telling details indicate some misdirection is at play here in the cave. Aside from the curious movements and mutterings Dumbledore makes, why does Dumbledore’s own goblet keep emptying every time Harry fills it with the Aguamenti spell, Harry’s own water? Perhaps Dumbledore (Slughorn?) needs Harry to turn his back for some reason, and uses the water as an excuse. One possibility is that we can connect this moment to Ron’s poisoning – the language used to describe his reaction to the bezoar and Dumbledore’s reaction to the potion is strikingly similar. After Ron has been given the bezoar, he “gave a great shudder, a rattling gasp, and his body became limp and still.” (398) Note the parallel language between this and Dumbledore on the last goblet of potion: he “drained every last drop, and then, with a great, rattling gasp, rolled over onto his face.” (573)
“I am with you,” the Chosen One
Dumbledore’s lines “You are with me,” compared with “I am with you,” most easily can be read as an intimate moment, a metaphorical passing of the torch. (38, 578) However, there may be an inversion here; the second line gains an ironic twist, if it’s indeed Slughorn, feeling safe with Harry, whom he now knows is indeed the “Chosen One.” It’s clear from the scene in Hagrid’s hut that Slughorn didn’t know until that night that Harry was the Chosen One. We have at the onset Slughorn’s reluctance to give the memory to Dumbledore, plus his willingness to give it to Harry once he learns that Harry’s the Chosen One and needs the information for his own personal survival. Without Harry being a prized jewel for his collection, Slughorn’s reasons for returning to Hogwarts change. Perhaps his intent is to be on-hand to protect Harry from Dumbledore, who wants the memory to destroy Voldemort and may appear to Slughorn to be using Harry as bait.
Furthermore, a careful reading of the hut scene reveals that the Felix didn’t influence Harry’s behavior or Slughorn’s choice to offer him the memory. In the Scholastic edition, Harry says, “I don’t reckon I’ll need all of it, not twenty-four hours worth...Two or three hours should do it.” (476) Actually, the bottle has “enough for twelve hours’ luck,” according to Slughorn. (188) (Bloomsbury corrects Harry’s error; however, it’s not clear whether Rowling intended Harry to err or to remember the amount correctly.) Harry then “raised the little bottle and took a carefully measured gulp.” (477) Going by the Scholastic edition, if he’s carefully measuring enough for what he believes is two to three hours, he’s really only drinking enough for a maximum of ninety minutes. When he sets off for the hut, it’s dusk, and when he returns to the castle, it’s after midnight, giving us a time frame of approximately four to five hours. (479, 492) Even if the Bloomsbury edition is correct, three hours’ worth of Felix wouldn’t have seen Harry through to the conversation with Slughorn, as immediately thereafter, Harry returns to the castle, just past midnight. This would imply that when Harry on page 490 “knew he was safe: Felix was telling him that Slughorn would remember nothing of this in the morning,” that he was wrong; Slughorn could quite possibly remember everything that transpired between them that evening, and likely would, since Rowling has included this passage at all. Knowing the reason why Harry needed the memory and remembering that he gave it to him would influence Slughorn’s future choices, to “be brave” like Lily as Harry suggests. This is a very important character moment, not only in regards to Harry, whom we see coldly calculating of his own accord, but it establishes Slughorn’s character growth and commitment to eradicating Voldemort. Even without Slughorn evolving to heroic proportions, his commitment to making a brave choice of free will is critical and evident in this scene. If there’s any doubt, the scene in the Headmaster’s office after the “death” should dispel it, for we see Slughorn’s commitment to the safety of the students and unquestioned commitment to Hogwarts, despite Dumbledore’s apparent absence.
If Dumbledore was actually Slughorn, where was Dumbledore? It seems likely that he’s been faced with a dilemma: To take Harry to the cave as planned, or stay behind and defend Hogwarts now that he’s learned Malfoy is poised to strike. If he can “appear to” stop off in Hogsmeade for a drink, he may also be able to appear to leave Hogwarts with Harry on the night in question, while in reality remaining behind to lend an undetectable hand to the events that unfolded. Perhaps he was functioning as an assistant in the events of the tower; perhaps another unseen assistant was at work – it seems highly likely that there was someone acting in some capacity that we couldn’t see, as in stage magic.
Dumbledore also seems privy to knowledge he shouldn’t have. For example, how does he know “the mead was to be my Christmas present?” (589) This seems to further suggest he was Slughorn, who says on March 1 that he “meant to give [the mead] to Dumbledore for Christmas...ah, well…he can’t miss what he never had!” (397) Perhaps even more information can be gleaned from the students of the Slug Club, conversations about Dumbledore’s Army included: as far as we know, Dumbledore never knew that the coins were the “secret method of communication” that they used the previous year. (589)
Snape’s look of “hatred and revulsion” when he says “Avada Kedavra” has launched interesting conversations among readers that it wasn’t a real “AK” curse at all; since it behaves differently than AK curses we’ve seen previously in the series, perhaps Snape didn’t “mean it” in the context Bellatrix refers to in the Ministry battle, or others have suggested it was a non-verbal spell along the same lines as Ron’s “eat slugs, Malfoy,” which was green and non-verbal. Either suggestion seems plausible, yet it should be noted that the AK could have been real, and the recipient could have survived. If Slughorn is indeed a fictional parallel, at least in part, to the stage magician Horace Goldin, then even if this moment is an inversion of Harry’s “revulsion” when feeding Dumbledore the potion, even if the AK was real, he could have had some means of blocking the AK, as we never saw Dumbledore’s hand leave his chest in the events of the tower. Like the stage magicians trick, where a blank was used when Goldin “caught” a bullet with a dinner plate over his chest, the whole moment was stage magic and a real AK was never fired at all. (A fun play on words: “Slug” is slang for “bullet.”) We may recall a similar scenario from Order of the Phoenix, in the battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort in the Ministry; Dumbledore uses the statues to shield him from the spells. The victim’s flight pattern (whereas no flight pattern was ever indicated in the text with a previous AK) could be explained by an unseen assistant’s Levicorpus spell, or perhaps the same spell we saw Dumbledore cast non-verbally to break Harry’s fall in the Quidditch match in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The murky area around the moment Harry is unfrozen could be attributed to the spell being lifted by an alive caster. The fact that Snape doesn’t drop dead on the spot because of the Unbreakable Vow is simply resolved because Draco isn’t failing to kill Dumbledore, he’s failing to kill Slughorn.
Dragon’s Blood and the Body
If there is a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I, we had better see it fired by the final curtain of the play. Similarly, we know Slughorn had a little vial of dragon’s blood from chapter four, and although it was a bit dusty, he was sure he could find a use for it. We can guess that a Potionsmaster like Slughorn wouldn’t be able to use contaminated dragon’s blood for any potion, but it could come in handy again for set-dressing. Once he had safely made it to the foot of the Tower, the blood from that vial would have been put on the “body” for effect; furthermore, since we’ve had a precedent set with Crouch Sr.’s body being Transfigured into a bone to disguise it, it seems highly likely that we’d see this again, with a twist, and that an object was Transfigured to appear to be Dumbledore’s body. Also, there was no wand near the body, as there should have been, had Harry and Hagrid been the first to discover it; the inference is that Dumbledore perhaps still needs his wand. It isn’t snapped at the funeral, as Hagrid and Slughorn’s song about Odo suggests. This same “body” could be what we see at the funeral, under wraps and never seen, disappearing with a bang and cloud of smoke, strikingly similar to stage magic as “old as Egypt.” (Edmonds, 126) The suggestion of the shape of a phoenix in the cloud is perhaps Dumbledore’s Patronus.
Rowling’s purposes, that “the hero must go it alone,” are best served by Dumbledore’s death (or even “death”), but Dumbledore likely wouldn’t feel it necessary or beneficial to the goal of Voldemort’s eventual downfall to remove himself from the picture, if he could avoid it. And it seems that a year of forewarning should be enough time to develop a contingency plan for the Unbreakable Vow, if he does in fact know about it. Right off the bat, it seems highly implausible to accept the death on the face of it as a deliberate move on Dumbledore’s part to save Snape and Draco. There is no indication from Dumbledore’s character that he would choose to sacrifice himself and the greater good to allow two people to live, their souls untorn. Furthermore, his speech from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which he realizes his mistake of caring for Harry more than all the “nameless and faceless people and creatures” in the “vague future” disallows him taking the same action again, as he considers it an error. (839) Clearly, if he could avoid dying, he would, in order to ensure the victory against Voldemort he’s been planning for so long. And it seems that even without foreknowledge of the Unbreakable Vow that Snape made with Narcissa Malfoy, Dumbledore would realize he’s only got Snape at his side for one more year, because of the curse on the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, ample time in which he can devise a means for getting inside information on Voldemort without the benefit of his double agent.
What would Dumbledore gain by faking his death? One possibility is that Dumbledore wanted Voldemort to learn of Dumbledore’s death and need to verify this; through questioning of (or Legilimency on) either Harry or Snape, he’d likely discover the Horcrux hunt, and feeling that the Horcruxes were threatened, would come looking for the unknown Horcrux, unwittingly leading Dumbledore straight to it. We can surmise this in part by the Vanishing Cabinets. When he couldn’t secure a position at Hogwarts, Voldemort worked at Borgin and Burkes, which provided him free access to Hogwarts via the Cabinets; later he wanted to get into Hogwarts again – Dumbledore must suspect Voldemort’s motive for this and perhaps assumes there’s a Horcrux there that he’s got to find before Voldemort can get in to retrieve it. Thus he’s doubly motivated to protect the castle against Voldemort. This plan is a gamble with time – Dumbledore giving Harry the information he needs to track down the known Horcruxes, while Voldemort is being flushed out to identify and locate the unknown one for Dumbledore to try to snap up. It’s risky because if Voldemort knows they’re onto the Horcruxes, they’ve got to be one step ahead of him all the way, which is only possible if nobody realizes that Dumbledore is alive and poised to get that Horcrux himself.
It would appear that some prior discussion between Slughorn and Dumbledore must have occurred, in which Slughorn offered to help in any way he could, and Dumbledore told him to be at the ready. Very possibly, this included a wink and a nod from Dumbledore regarding a faked death, but because he had no way of knowing when Malfoy would act, he couldn’t predetermine how to proceed with this plan. Slughorn would likely be more willing to go along with it if his personal safety was assured, possibly with the added benefit of a good “slug” of Felix before departing for the cave. It does not appear, however, that Dumbledore intended for Slughorn to impersonate him for a faked death, otherwise, Slughorn mightn’t have so readily accepted the challenge. More than likely, Dumbledore hadn’t planned for Slughorn to face-off with Malfoy; rather, Slughorn’s instructions would probably have been to take Harry to the cave, go through the enumerated steps, follow the instructions to get past the enchantments and return Harry to Hogwarts safely – with the added precaution to ask for Snape only if anything goes wrong (as Dumbledore sought out Snape when he was cursed by the ring protections). No doubt, Slughorn would be the logical choice as an accomplice, since it’s been established in the text that he knows Voldemort well, knows of Voldemort’s Horcruxes (as so few must be) and even the number of Horcruxes he has. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between Dumbledore’s fluency in the Dark Arts and Slughorn’s, whose interest was most likely “all academic,” as he allows that Wizards of a “certain caliber have always been drawn to that aspect of magic.” (499, 498) He may then possess some knowledge and means of how to destroy a Horcrux. Succinctly, Dumbledore knows Slughorn’s strengths and weaknesses, trusts him (having known his “old friend” over fifty years), trusts his knowledge and capabilities, and knows he would probably do anything for Harry, Lily’s son.
Slughorn would take a risk, then, when it came to Harry – out of remorse, or a need to alleviate his own guilt, or a desire to set some things right – and we saw evidence of that determination in the hut scene. Harry had some appeal to Slughorn that we’ve yet to discover: Slughorn didn’t realize he was indeed “the Chosen One” until the scene in Hagrid’s hut, and collecting “the Boy Who Lived” wouldn’t be so desirable to Slughorn if he felt partially responsible for that boy’s mother’s murder, especially considering his exceptional fondness for her. Slughorn would feel he inadvertently had a hand in Lily’s death, because he never made the connection until the meeting with Dumbledore (in which he provided the botched memory) that he could have prevented Tom Riddle from making Horcruxes. Dumbledore’s failed attempt to secure a teacher the summer before, plus the fact Dumbledore has the botched memory in his possession by the time they meet at Budleigh Babberton, leads to the conclusion he met with Slughorn the summer prior to Order of the Phoenix, got the memory and tried to get him to come back to Hogwarts. (Interestingly, Dumbledore doesn’t try to fill the open position with anyone else but Slughorn, and Hogwarts is stuck with Umbridge as a result.) Most importantly, Slughorn has since had a year to think about the ramifications of that conversation with Riddle and still wouldn’t part with the memory – not until he understood that Harry was the “Chosen One” after all and there was a fighting chance at destroying Voldemort. There must be more to his interest in Harry than as the “Chosen One” or the crown jewel of his collection – Dumbledore’s supposition seems to be short-sighted or perhaps a partial truth.
In the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, a “slug-horn” blows a battle cry at the culmination of an ill-fated quest; on the surface this is reminiscent of Harry’s realization that he needs to stride into the “arena” with his head held high, regardless of his certainty that he won’t survive. In the poem, Roland is on a quest to the Dark Tower, and everyone else on the quest dies by the time he reaches it; knowing that he’s facing certain defeat, “And yet, Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, And blew, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came!” Perhaps rather than Harry, this is more suggestive of Dumbledore, who seems to be backed into a corner with few options to remain alive and destroy Voldemort, calling upon his Slughorn despite the odds.
Without the scene in Hagrid’s hut, the reader would be left with an impression of Slughorn as a flat character; but that scene between him and Harry provides us with a moment of recognition and growth, allowing Slughorn’s function in the series to be more than a mouthpiece for the memory (and someone to serve as Head of Slytherin House in the final book). With this scene and her nudge in the direction of Lily’s history, we’re prepared to understand him as three-dimensional and purposeful to the story. And his introduction into a story that sets the precedent for stage magic, especially as a character with a historical counterpart in the magician, Horace Goldin, leads one to wonder how much misdirection and gimmick Rowling has performed. Goldin’s autobiography is named, It’s Fun to be Fooled, and readers of the Potter series have been enjoying it for years.
This scenario as discussed in the pages above allows satisfaction of a number of criteria for not only Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but the series in its entirety: for the richness of Slughorn’s character that almost certainly is there; for Dumbledore to remain, in the eyes of the reader, one step ahead of the game and all the players; for Snape’s actions, whether he was duped or a participant in a ruse, to likely lead to the downfall of Voldemort; for Harry to believe he’s alone and summon the courage to move forward without Dumbledore; for the Wizarding World to gather their stray offshoots into one force, all around the organizing factor of Dumbledore “death;” and for Dumbledore to be ready to discover the unknown Horcrux, as it seems almost certain that he’s laid a trap for Voldemort and is waiting for it to snap.
Browning, Robert. “Childe Roland to the DarkTower Came.”
Christopher, Milbourne. The Illustrated History of Magic. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company. 1973.
Edmonds, I. G. Magic Makers: Magic and the Men Who Made It. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1976.
Mugglenet/Leaky Cauldron. “HBP Publication Day.” July 16, 2005. Interview with J.K. Rowling, part 3. 17 Jan. 2005. /extras/aa-jointerview3.html.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic. 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic. 2003.
Steinmeyer, Jim. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear. New York: Carroll and Graf. 2003.