With his long white beard and robes, Albus Dumbledore nearly matches the cartoon image many Christians have of God the Father. When Harry Potter first meets him, Harry knows Dumbledore only as a great wizard and the distant headmaster of Hogwarts School. In their first real interaction before the Mirror of Erised,1 Harry finds someone who is not interested in punishing him for wandering the school at night, but in teaching him graciously. Dumbledore sits down on the floor next to Harry to begin the first of many lessons about the effects of powerful magic on people. Dumbledore’s concern for Harry becomes a healing part of his growing up at Hogwarts. For instance, the first thing Harry sees after his confrontation with Quirrell/Voldemort is Dumbledore’s face.2 Dumbledore must have cared enough to keep a bedside vigil until Harry awoke. As Harry grows up, Dumbledore’s wisdom gets the two of them through some difficult revelations together. Dumbledore has to coach the fourteen-year-old Harry to reveal all the grim details of Voldemort’s return in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. A year later, they survive a battle of wills in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to come to greater understanding.3 Harry learns some of his most powerful lessons from Dumbledore – good and evil are chosen and events have meanings that depend on interpretation. When Ron Weasley laments that Dumbledore’s gift of the Deluminator meant that he anticipated Ron’s departure, it is from Dumbledore’s graciousness and wisdom that Harry clarifies for Ron: “No. He must’ve known you’d always want to come back.” 4
It is understandable that Harry and the reader would put Dumbledore up on a pedestal. But even great wizards like Dumbledore are bound to fall off. Harry first realizes Dumbledore is not the perfect savior he wanted him to be during their exchange at the end of the Order of the Phoenix.5 It begins with a scene familiar to many parents and fifteen-year-olds. Harry screams “You don’t understand how I feel!” only to be answered by his parent who not only understands, but names the feelings Harry cannot name for himself.6 Dumbledore allows Harry to be justifiably angry and destructive in response to the death of Sirius Black. Attempting to alleviate Harry’s guilt, Dumbledore explains his own series of faulty decisions. He expected Sirius to stay hidden,7 hoping it would keep him alive.8 He admits having been wrong about Snape’s ability to overcome his hatred of James in trying to teach Harry about Occlumency.9 He regrets both leaving Harry with the Dursleys10 and not telling Harry about the prophecy.11 He even apologizes for keeping his distance from Harry during the year. He feared his love for Harry would make Harry vulnerable to possession by Voldemort.12
Dumbledore reveals how thoroughly he loves Harry. Harry is brave, and Dumbledore is proud as any father would be.13 More than that, Dumbledore succumbs to a parent’s weakness; he cares more about Harry’s happiness and wellbeing than the wizarding world he is trying to protect.14 As a teacher and headmaster, Dumbledore has always been able to be a little removed from his students. However, as guardian of a boy he looks after so closely, he does not just give up objectivity; Harry’s happiness becomes his chief concern. The “greater good” is nameless and faceless, but Harry is a real boy who needs his protection and yet has more heart and soul than Dumbledore ever imagined.15
In naming his faults, he shows Harry that he, Dumbledore, is quite fallible. Like most teenagers, Harry doesn’t want to see his father’s weaknesses.16 Harry wants Dumbledore to be strong so he can rebel against him while still being protected. Dumbledore expresses the kind of regrets every loving parent knows well. Parents make decisions for their children’s wellbeing only to discover those decisions do not turn out as well as they had hoped and planned. Indeed, they sometimes go badly awry. At the same time, these admissions acknowledge that Harry is old enough to know the crushing truth about his connection with Voldemort. Difficult as they are, Dumbledore’s revelations serve to restore the relationship of trust between them. Harry and Dumbledore are united as never before against the real foe, Voldemort.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince begins with Dumbledore bearing the sign of his total fallibility as a human father, his blackened cursed hand.17 We suspect he is just getting too old. But in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we discover that the fallibility runs far deeper than age. He unexpectedly found the Resurrection Stone he had so craved as a misguided young wizard, plotting with Gellert Grindelwald. Desperately wanting to make up for his selfishness, he brought upon himself a fatal curse.18 As Dumbledore carries around a dead hand, he is quite aware that it is human failings that betray us in the end. His lessons for Harry become more vital as he tries to teach Harry that Voldemort possesses the same vulnerability.
Dumbledore’s fall from the pedestal is complete when Harry visits Severus Snape’s memories in Deathly Hallows. The memories bring us face to face with what always had to be true about the greatest wizard of his time. Dumbledore is a man of power, for good and bad. Previously, we saw his best side. His admission of caring for Harry when he should have been more detached is endearing to Harry and the reader, but it is also revealing. The brilliant wizard Dumbledore is also a very shrewd tactician. What Harry sees of Dumbledore from Severus Snape’s memories reveals a man who had laid a plan for defeating Voldemort using every weapon he possessed, even Harry’s life.19 Our beloved Dumbledore was never a kindly old man after all but an expert strategist, a skill known for its coldness not warmth. Harry and the reader are appalled at how baldly manipulative he is. Even Snape protests.20 Yet Dumbledore is equally cold blooded in planning his own death.21 The coldly tactical plan he laid is what he means by admitting that caring too much about Harry as a person, as a son, was a weakness. Dumbledore understands that this is war and that there truly is a “greater good.” This time, that greater good has specific people’s lives attached to it; Harry’s most of all. Dumbledore knows what Snape does not, that Harry as the last, best hope must be free of Voldemort in order to truly meet and defeat him. Dumbledore gambles that he has guessed rightly how to get Harry to that moment. It is all the information Harry needs to proceed willingly to the forest and Voldemort.22
In the “King’s Cross” chapter in Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore, who has fallen so far from his pedestal, finally gets a chance to be perceived by Harry and the reader as he is, rather than how we want him to be. Dumbledore is still a brilliant wizard, but we learn the meaning behind his plotting.23 We also see Dumbledore the man as we have never seen him before. When Harry asks him to explain the Deathly Hallows, for the first time, Harry sees him worried and “fleetingly like a small boy caught in wrongdoing.” 24 For the first time, Dumbledore is not the one teaching and prompting Harry. Instead, Dumbledore begs Harry’s forgiveness and confesses to Harry his selfishness and his vain desire for glory and power. Dumbledore’s assessment of himself is so scathing that Harry attempts to defend him against himself.25
The exchange between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross is a bona fide adult father-and-son talk. When Dumbledore weeps over his own failings, Harry reaches out for the first time to comfort him.26 Early in Deathly Hallows, Harry regrets not having asked Dumbledore more about himself before he died, but at King’s Cross, Harry finds that he knows more than he wants to know about his mentor and his past sins.27 This is the kind of experience children often have with their own parents. With luck, children move from a sense of anger and betrayal at their parents’ fallibility to understanding and forgiveness. Finally, Dumbledore explains why Harry is the true master of the Hallows where Dumbledore himself failed.28 In the end, for all his scheming, Dumbledore was tripped up by the flaw in the plan.29 Many parents likewise dream that their children will succeed where they have failed. They hope the lessons they learned will permit their children to move forward. Dumbledore disarms us all again, not with his skill but with his humility and humanity. It is his last great lesson for Harry Potter.
In his last scene with Dumbledore’s portrait,30 Harry truly arrives at adulthood. Harry knows what to do with the Deathly Hallows. He has learned to be wary of the power of the Elder Wand. As he discusses the Hallows with Dumbledore, he no longer wants to be told what to do; he just wants confirmation of his own judgment. Father and son have survived perils from without and from within. Harry’s love and respect for his greatest mentor are still intact.
When Harry reveals in the epilogue that he has named his second son Albus Severus after two headmasters of Hogwarts, the reader’s attention is on Severus Snape’s name.31 But it is also fitting that Albus Dumbledore should be part of Harry’s “family” line. Dumbledore is the man from whom Harry has learned most about being a wizard and a human being. Throughout their six years together, Albus Dumbledore spends a great deal of his time teaching Harry about life in the way most parents do. He supports Harry’s own sense of compassion for people and self-giving. He praises Harry’s good decisions and corrects him about his faulty ones. Always, he lifts up for Harry the power of love and the consequences of life without it. As he prepares Harry for Voldemort, Dumbledore demonstrates the most important lesson – to defeat his enemy, Harry must understand him. Even Dumbledore’s confession of his failings serves as a life-lesson in truth and humility. Dumbledore is a great wizard and the most important influence on Harry not because he is perfect, but because he is powerful and fallible, brilliant and loving, and above all human.
1. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 212–14.
2. Ibid., 295.
3. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 694–98; Order of the Phoenix, 825.
4. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 391.
5. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 822–44.
6. Ibid., 823–25.
7. Ibid., 825–26.
8. Ibid., 834.
9. Ibid., 833.
10. Ibid., 835.
11. Ibid., 838.
12. Ibid., 828.
13. Ibid., 838.
14. Ibid., 838–39.
15. Ibid., “I never dreamed I would have such a person on my hands,” 839.
16. Ibid., 834.
17. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 48.
18. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 680–81, 719–20.
19. Ibid., 684–688.
20. Ibid., 687.
21. Ibid., 681–83.
22. Ibid., 691–94.
23. Ibid., 708–10.
24. Ibid., 712–13.
25. Ibid., 713, 717–18.
26. Ibid., 717.
27. Ibid., 719.
28. Ibid., 720.
29. Ibid., 721.
30. Ibid., 748–49.
31. Ibid., 758.Bibliography
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A Levine Books, 2007.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.