Albus Dumbledore is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling once called him the epitome of goodness,1 but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows refuted that notion. Rita Skeeter’s breathless tell-all about Dumbledore’s shady past shocked wizarding Britain and gave us a new and disturbing look at the venerable old wizard. Yet in the end it is not Dumbledore’s youthful flirtation with pure-blood supremacy that lingers to tarnish his image, nor even his resentment of his sister, Ariana. He repented those terrible mistakes a hundred years ago and learned from them at great personal cost. Rather, it is Dumbledore’s actions in the latter years of his life that impugn his character.
Dumbledore was a good man in many ways. He was firmly dedicated to the Light and he was capable of great patience and gentleness, but he was also aloof and often demonstrated a callous disregard for his fellows. Rowling herself acknowledged this and called Dumbledore “isolated” and “detached.” 2 We see this clearly in his treatment of Sirius in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was cruel to keep Sirius locked up in a house that he hated; however Dumbledore was only concerned with keeping Sirius safe and believed that confining him to number twelve, Grimmauld Place was the best way to do so. Sirius’s feelings were unimportant.
Of course, keeping Sirius safe was only one of myriad problems facing Dumbledore. His over-arching concern was the defeat of Lord Voldemort and looking back on his actions throughout the series, it is clear that all of his efforts were aimed at vanquishing the Dark wizard once and for all. This was a worthy goal and Dumbledore was more than willing to give his own life in its pursuit. Nevertheless, while the struggle to defeat Voldemort brought out the best in the old wizard, it also brought out the worst. Rowling called Dumbledore “Machiavellian” 3 and indeed, in his desire to vanquish his enemy, Dumbledore used others without compunction, even to the point of plotting a child’s death.
This was always for the greater good and never selfish, but while many might argue that Dumbledore was merely a pragmatic general making the necessary sacrifices demanded by war, this is not true. Dumbledore can be forgiven for making mistakes as he did with Sirius. He can also be excused for asking great sacrifices of his followers and even for grooming Harry to die. That was the only way to destroy Voldemort and a general must put victory first.
However, Dumbledore crossed the line from being a stoic leader to a calculating manipulator because he never gave his followers all of the information they needed to make a free choice. He gave them only enough to maneuver them into doing what he wanted them to do. This was especially true of his two most valuable assets: Harry Potter and Severus Snape.
Child of Prophecy
In Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore’s brother, Aberforth, talked of Albus’s faults while trying to dissuade Harry from following Dumbledore’s orders. “Secrets and lies, that’s how we grew up, and Albus … he was a natural.” 4 Indeed he was and his greatest secret centered on Harry Potter.
It is fairly clear that Dumbledore’s plan for Harry to sacrifice himself to defeat Voldemort was conceived long before Harry arrived at Hogwarts. While we are not told this explicitly, we can deduce it. Some may argue that Dumbledore didn’t realize that Harry was a Horcrux until Harry handed him Tom Riddle’s diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But while this may indeed have been Dumbledore’s first indication that Voldemort had intentionally created Horcruxes, it doesn’t adequately explain his knowledge of Harry as a Horcrux. Only moments after hearing the story of the diary, Dumbledore had a crucial exchange with Harry:
“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry, because Lord Voldemort […] can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar.” […]
“Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?”
“It certainly seems so.” 5
Even Dumbledore would have been hard pressed to put two and two together that quickly. It is much more likely that Dumbledore had realized that Harry was a Horcrux before this conversation, and Deathly Hallows gives us a clue as to when this might have been. During “The Prince’s Tale” Dumbledore told Snape:
… on the night Lord Voldemort tried to kill him, when Lily cast her own life between them as a shield, the Killing Curse rebounded upon Lord Voldemort, and a fragment of Voldemort’s soul was blasted apart from the whole, and latched itself onto the only living soul left in that collapsing building.6
Dumbledore closed his eyes as he recounted this information as though he was reliving a memory. And he painted the scene with the detail and confidence of one who is certain of his facts. There was no guesswork here. He knew what had happened that night at Godric’s Hollow and he demonstrated this same certainty in the aftermath of James and Lily’s deaths. Dumbledore knew that Voldemort had not died in the attempt to kill Harry and he also knew that Lily had given her life for her son.7 This is how he knew that Harry’s safest home would be with his mother’s blood.
The question is how could Dumbledore have known these things? Harry was the only surviving witness to what had occurred that night, so the most plausible explanation is that Dumbledore used Legilimency on the baby to discover what had transpired – a completely reasonable course of action. From Harry’s memories, he would have discovered the means to protect the child and also the terrible truth that a bit of Voldemort’s soul had lodged itself in Harry, forming that unique scar and preventing Voldemort from dying. There is really no other way that Dumbledore could have discovered this information except from Harry himself.
And so it is nearly certain that from the night James and Lily were killed, Dumbledore planned for Harry to die – and not only to die, but ideally to sacrifice his life willingly as Lily had done in order to afford the Light side the greatest chance of destroying the self-proclaimed Dark Lord. Consequently, Dumbledore had to not only keep Harry safe, but to cultivate in him the willingness to lay down his life when the moment was right.
To begin with, Dumbledore left Harry with the Dursleys. As with Sirius, it was the child’s life, not his happiness that mattered. Dumbledore berated the Dursleys during Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for mistreating Harry, yet he himself left the boy to their care and admits to Harry in Order of the Phoenix that he knew he was condemning the child to “ten dark and difficult years.” 8 He was no less culpable than the Dursleys and he knew it. He had little choice, of course. While there might have been other ways to keep Harry safe, leaving the child in the Muggle world prevented him from becoming spoiled by fame and ensured that he would be utterly ignorant of Voldemort and the wizarding world – a formless piece of clay without pretensions or preconceptions, ready to be molded by Dumbledore when he arrived at Hogwarts.
Dumbledore wasted no time in doing just that. As early as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone it was apparent that Dumbledore was preparing Harry to face Voldemort. Even Harry understood this in his own innocent way. “I think he sort of wanted to give me a chance. […] It’s almost like he thought I had the right to face Voldemort if I could …” 9
The prophecy alone does not explain the risk Dumbledore took in allowing an eleven-year-old child to face an adult wizard possessed by Voldemort. If Dumbledore had believed the prophecy and therefore that Harry would need to kill Voldemort or die by his hand then surely setting up such an unequal confrontation between the two adversaries would have promoted the latter outcome – a reckless and unnecessary risk. Dumbledore didn’t believe in the literal interpretation of prophecies though10 and keeping Harry alive was not his primary concern. He was honing a weapon and if Harry should die, it would be no great tragedy as that fate awaited him anyway.
Looking back on the books now, it is chilling to see how Dumbledore maneuvered Harry from the very beginning. He played the role of wise, kindly mentor for the boy who was desperate for an approving adult whom he could trust. He played the role so well in fact that neither Harry nor his best friends would ascribe any but the most altruistic motives to the old man.
In Deathly Hallows Aberforth Dumbledore warned Harry that his brother was not entirely scrupulous: “people had a habit of getting hurt while he was carrying out his grand plans.” 11 Hermione protested that “Professor Dumbledore cared about Harry, very much,” but Aberforth wasn’t impressed. “Funny thing, how many of the people my brother cared about very much ended up in a worse state than if he’d left ’em well alone.” 12 “How can you be sure, Potter, that my brother wasn’t more interested in the greater good than in you?” 13
Harry refused to entertain that thought, but too soon Aberforth was proven right. After viewing Snape’s memories in “The Prince’s Tale” Harry finally realized that he had been used.
Dumbledore’s betrayal was almost nothing. Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes. Dumbledore had passed the job of destroying them to him […] How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter […]
And Dumbledore had known that Harry would not duck out […] because he had taken trouble to get to know him, hadn’t he?14
This last is perhaps Harry’s most poignant insight. Dumbledore had drawn him in, gained his confidence, praised him for laying his life on the line time and again, and cultivated his determination to finish Voldemort at any cost to himself – until Dumbledore knew that Harry wouldn’t balk when faced with the sacrifice required of him. However, this begs the question of why Dumbledore didn’t tell Harry of his fate.
Dumbledore made one miscalculation in formulating his plan; he came to care for Harry – so much so that his compassion for the boy threatened to derail his scheme.
Do you see the flaw in my brilliant plan now? […] I cared about you too much. I cared more for your happiness than your knowing the truth, more for your peace of mind than my plan, more for your life than the lives that might be lost if the plan failed.15
Order of the Phoenix was an epiphany of sorts for Dumbledore. After admitting to having strayed from his design, he recommitted himself to it, telling Harry of the prophecy. Throughout Harry’s sixth year he continued to lead the boy to believe that he had to kill Voldemort and encouraged Harry in his desire to do so.16 Ultimately, he gave Harry the task of destroying the Horcruxes. Yet through all of this, he kept the fact that Harry was a Horcrux secret.
Dumbledore told Snape that it would be too great a burden for Harry to know that he must die,17 but this is the same sort of excuse Dumbledore used to justify not telling Harry of the prophecy even when it was clear that Voldemort was seeking it. He seemed to recognize the folly in that reasoning after the debacle at the Department of Mysteries. Likewise, Dumbledore should have realized that by the time Harry was learning to hunt Horcruxes and to kill Voldemort, he was old enough for the whole truth. Dumbledore owed him the truth.
Unfortunately, Aberforth was right about his brother. Keeping secrets came as naturally as breathing to Dumbledore, and once again this very nearly proved disastrous. It was only by the sheerest luck that Snape managed to pass on the crucial information to Harry – not something a wise general should rely upon when the fate of the war hangs in the balance. Perhaps though, Dumbledore clung to this secret because of his own sensibilities more than Harry’s. He did, after all, love the boy and perhaps that is why in the end he couldn’t bring himself to tell Harry the worst, but left that daunting task to the least likely of people.
Machiavelli and the Half-Blood Prince
As heartbreaking as Dumbledore’s calculated plan for Harry’s death was, his treatment of Snape was in some ways even worse. A case can be made that all of Dumbledore’s actions towards Harry were at least nominally necessary for the defeat of Voldemort, but the same cannot be said of his ill use of Snape. Before Deathly Hallows, it would have been inconceivable that Severus Snape might wrest the moral high ground from Albus Dumbledore, and yet he did precisely this in “The Prince’s Tale.” That chapter of Deathly Hallows provided us with a rapid-fire insight into the relationship between these two men and it was shocking.
Our first glimpse was of Snape going to Dumbledore in desperation to confess that he had told Voldemort of the prophecy and that the evil wizard was going after Lily Potter’s son. And yet when he begged Dumbledore to protect Lily, the old wizard rebuffed him, telling him to ask Voldemort to spare her. Snape persisted, conceding that James and Harry should be saved as well, but still Dumbledore appeared unmoved, asking, “And what will you give me in return, Severus?”
This was Dumbledore at his manipulative best, using Snape’s desperate fear for Lily to bend the young man to his service. It goes without saying that Dumbledore would have protected the Potters regardless of Snape’s plea. They were members of his own Order of the Phoenix. What good man in Dumbledore’s position would have needed asking, let alone recompense? But to have one of Voldemort’s brightest and most capable Death Eaters come begging him for help presented an exquisite opportunity that Dumbledore was not about to pass up and which he wasted no time in exploiting.
The distraught Snape was taken aback by Dumbledore’s question. “In—in return?” However, it only took a moment for him to make the choice that Dumbledore had cornered him into making and his simple, “Anything,” sounded very much like chains being bound about a prisoner.18
Dumbledore manipulated Snape with equal proficiency on the night that the Potters died. Snape was grief stricken at the news of Lily’s death, but Dumbledore offered him no comfort. Instead he used Snape’s grief to maneuver him into agreeing to protect Harry. Standing over the young man who had yet to see his twenty-second birthday he twisted the knife with skillful calculation.
“Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?”
“DON’T!” bellowed Snape. “Gone … dead …”
“Is this remorse, Severus?”
“I wish … I wish I were dead….”
“And what use would that be to anyone?” said Dumbledore coldly. “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.”
“What—what do you mean?”
“You know how and why she died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lily’s son.” 19
Some might argue that Dumbledore did all of this for Snape in order to save the young man from selling his soul to Voldemort, but Dumbledore’s subsequent actions dashed the hope that this was his sole motivation. While he certainly trusted Snape implicitly, he could also be gratuitously cruel to the man.
Dumbledore clearly enjoyed Snape’s impotent fury when Sirius escaped in Prisoner of Azkaban. He was quite delighted at Harry and Hermione having pulled off his clever plan for them to go back in time to save Sirius and Buckbeak. That’s certainly understandable, but knowing how Snape felt about Lily’s death, couldn’t Dumbledore have shown a bit more sensitivity for the man’s distress over her supposed betrayer’s escape? Snape’s pain at that moment had to be almost unbearable. And yet all Dumbledore could do was smirk about his “severe disappointment.” 20
The Elder Wand presented another troublesome issue. Dumbledore admitted that he intended Snape to have the wand.21 Why then didn’t he bother to tell Snape? At King’s Cross, he told Harry that he knew Voldemort would go after the Elder Wand, “I have been sure that he would try, ever since your wand beat Voldemort’s in the graveyard of Little Hangleton.” 22 So in asking Snape to kill him, Dumbledore was effectively painting a target on Snape’s back at which Voldemort was bound to eventually take aim. If this stratagem fit into one of Dumbledore’s convoluted plans, he took that knowledge to his grave. However, regardless of what he hoped to accomplish, he should have at least warned Snape that his life was being put in even greater peril than usual. It’s clear that he didn’t, because Snape was caught completely off guard at the Shrieking Shack in Deathly Hallows; he wasn’t expecting Voldemort to murder him. It would seem that this was yet another secret that Dumbledore failed to reveal – with tragic results.
It is unlikely that Dumbledore was being intentionally cruel in these situations. A more probable – and charitable – explanation is that these are further examples of how detached he truly was. For all his insight into human nature, he was often oblivious to the emotional needs of those around him. Perhaps the most poignant example of this comes in “The Prince’s Tale.”
When Snape finally learned the truth of Dumbledore’s plan for Harry’s death, he was horrified. “You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?” 23
Dumbledore’s response was chillingly nonchalant. “Don’t be shocked, Severus. How many men and women have you watched die?” 24
Not only did Dumbledore refuse to acknowledge the horror of what he had planned for Harry, he insinuated that Snape had no right to feel affronted. Surely the former Death Eater was too inured to Voldemort’s horrors to feel any remorse over the loss of an innocent life.
Snape’s reply, “Lately, only those whom I could not save,” 25 was heartbreaking and it was at this moment that Snape finally understood that Dumbledore had betrayed him. It is perhaps ironic that the ever-suspicious Slytherin spy could not see the lies that had been in front of him for so many years, but for all that Snape led a life of professional deceit he was scrupulously honest and honorable in his dealings with Dumbledore and was stunned to discover that the old man had not returned the favor.
“You have used me. […] I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me that you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter—” 26
Dumbledore could have easily placated Snape’s outrage at this point. He might have said that he didn’t want to grieve Snape by telling him the truth; that yes, Harry’s impending fate was tragic, but unavoidable and that Lily would have understood the need for such a sacrifice. He could have said something to imply that he felt remorse for having deceived his loyal spy. Sadly, he didn’t even try. Instead, he once again challenged Snape’s right to feel hurt and outraged. “Have you come to care for the boy, after all?” 27
Snape’s response, however, was uncontestable. When the silver doe burst from his wand, it declared plainly where his loyalty lay. What had been merely a means to an end for Dumbledore was a lifelong vow to Snape. Regardless of his feelings for Harry, he had pledged his life to the boy for Lily’s sake and remained faithful to that vow.
Dumbledore was moved to tears by this symbol of Snape’s constancy, though it’s difficult to say why. Perhaps he never truly believed that Snape loved Lily. Perhaps he thought of it as only an obsessive infatuation. After all, he himself had been betrayed by a young man whom he thought loved him and that betrayal cost an innocent life just as Snape’s youthful betrayal of the Potters did. It’s possible that Dumbledore thought that Snape’s love for Lily was as transient as Grindelwald’s love for him and this may explain his callous disregard for Snape over the years. It would also explain his tears at the realization that Snape’s love was real and unwavering.
“After all this time?”
The Chess Master
Of all the lies that Dumbledore told, perhaps the most pernicious came at the end of Philosopher’s Stone. In the hospital wing when Harry began to question Dumbledore, the old wizard assured him, “I shall not, of course, lie.” 29 Yet Dumbledore did precisely that. Only moments later he told Harry that the reason Snape protected him all year was because of a life debt owed to James Potter.
I do believe he worked so hard to protect you this year because he felt that would make him and your father quits. Then he could go back to hating your father’s memory in peace. 30
Dumbledore knew that Snape had been protecting Harry for Lily’s sake and certainly not for James, so this was a bald-faced lie. Worse, it was a poisonous one and completely unnecessary. While Dumbledore couldn’t tell Harry the truth about Snape and Lily, he could have easily come up with a general explanation for Snape’s actions: “Professor Snape is a teacher at this school and would do all in his power to protect every child at Hogwarts regardless of his personal feelings.” Or perhaps, “I suspected Quirrell and asked Professor Snape to keep an eye on him and to protect you.”
Both of these reasons possess some shred of truth and more importantly, either would have given Harry a more honest understanding of Snape’s motivations. Yes, he hated James and Harry, but when it mattered he was capable of putting those feelings aside and acting with integrity. That kernel of truth could have gone a long way towards softening Harry’s opinion of Snape.
Instead, Dumbledore told Harry a lie guaranteed to make the boy think the worst of his Potions Master, believing that Snape only saved him for the sake of his own vindictive hatred when in fact Snape was acting out of love. What a cruel disservice to both Harry and Snape. It would also seem to be pointless. This only served to spur on the animosity between Snape and Harry and it gained Dumbledore nothing – nothing, that is, beyond control.
Dumbledore recognized that his greatest weakness was a thirst for power,31 but while he guarded against this weakness in many aspects of his life such as refusing to stand for Minister for Magic, he succumbed to it in his ultimate chess game with Voldemort. Perhaps that is the reason then for this seemingly senseless lie. Had Harry and Snape found any common ground, it might have diluted Dumbledore’s influence over Harry and Dumbledore could not risk that, not when Harry was still so young and impressionable and might detour from the path Dumbledore had planned for him. He couldn’t afford to chance losing control over his most important chess piece.
Dumbledore’s longing for power was always benevolent. Even while plotting with Grindelwald to gain dominion over Muggles, he convinced himself that he was doing it for the Muggles’ own good. We can see this same paternalistic behavior throughout the books. Dumbledore believed that he knew what was best for everyone, whether it be using Snape’s guilt and grief to turn him to the Light side or lying to Harry to protect him from knowledge of his fate.
But he had no right to such condescension, no right to manipulate the lives of others, no matter how noble his purpose. Worst of all, Dumbledore used love as his tool. He knew, you see, that nothing binds the soul more surely than love and so he used Snape’s love for Lily and Harry’s abiding love for virtually everyone to persuade them to do his bidding.
Harry and Snape never stood a chance against the master gamesman. He manipulated them both effortlessly and so completely that even when his machinations were revealed they still obeyed. That’s because he used their own natures to ensnare them. He deceived them in the particulars, but he led them where they were willing to go. He laid out an enticing road – the only one in sight – and beckoned them to follow him down it. They couldn’t see the end. He kept that hidden until they had gone far enough that he knew they wouldn’t turn back. Then he stepped aside and pointed the way to the cliff he expected them to jump off.
One might call this a ruthless faith in both Snape and Harry’s better natures. It is horrifying and compelling at the same time. Because Dumbledore was right; there was no other path to take. Still, one can’t help wondering if he couldn’t have spared a little more honesty and respect for the two people of whom he asked the ultimate sacrifice.
1. Solomon, “J.K. Rowling Interview.”
2. Anelli & Spartz. “TLC/MN interview: Part One.”
3. Adler, Shawn. “Rowling Meets With L.A. Students.”
4. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 562.
5. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 245.
6. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 686.
7. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 736.
9. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 219.
10. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 510–12.
11. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 561.
12. Ibid., 563.
13. Ibid., 568.
14. Ibid., 692–93.
15. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 739.
16. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 510–12.
17. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 685.
18. Ibid., 678.
19. Ibid., 678–79.
20. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 307.
21. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 721.
23. Ibid., 687.
29. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 216.
30. Ibid., 217.
31. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 718.Bibliography
Adler, Shawn. “ ‘Harry Potter’ Author J.K. Rowling Meets With L.A. Students, Plots Her Next Move.” MTV.com, 15 October 2007. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1571977/20071015/index.jhtml.
Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz. “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part One,” The Leaky Cauldron, 16 July 2005. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/0705-tlc_mugglenet-anelli-1.htm.
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———. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A Levine Books, 2007.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A Levine Books, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
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Solomon, Evan. “J.K. Rowling Interview,” CBCNewsWorld: Hot Type, 13 July 2000. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/0700-hottype-solomon.htm.