The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore

The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore

Since the beginning of time (and by time, I mean Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, of course), I’ve always thought of Dumbledore as not only wise beyond his many, many… many… years but also as someone who was in a sense “ethically and morally superior.”  He was the wizard who could do no wrong; he was a role model, in particular to Harry, and as Headmaster of Hogwarts I had assumed a certain level of credibility attached to his name, at least to some degree.  And most of this we can credit to J.K. Rowling, for I am absolutely sure she had written the books to portray the famous school Headmaster this way.  But as we continued to read on through the books, and as the final pieces of the story fell into their rightful place, I found myself feeling a bit unsure of exactly where Dumbledore stood in my lineup of favorites.  I mean, who was Dumbledore, really?  This character I thought I had truly “known” and grown up with alongside the book releases seemed all of a sudden self-righteous and foreign and for lack of a better word, cruel.

I think the initial shock resulting from the dialogue that occurs in Deathly Hallows during Harry’s review of Snape’s “final memory” just completely shook my entire perception of Dumbledore and everything I thought I’d known him to be.  The revealing moment happens so abruptly, and to experience such a radical change so quickly just really threw me for a loop.  How could Dumbledore say those things?  How could he so passionlessly and so easily speak about Harry having to die?  And to have Snape of all people call him out on that?  Dumbledore was supposed to be honest and true; he was supposed to be Harry’s protector.  And to find that he had been “raising him like a pig for slaughter” was something I’m sure many of us just couldn’t see coming.

To me, this alone was enough to shatter my perfectly put together image of Dumbledore.  I find his manipulation of Harry throughout the story no worse than Snape’s awful treatment of the Boy Who Lived inside the classroom—they are both equally damaging, and it’s almost upsetting to realize just how deeply this runs in Harry.  We see Harry in books prior to Deathly Hallows blindly following Dumbledore, sparingly asking questions which for the most part remain unanswered or encrypted in theologies and philosophical statements that can be interpreted in an unlimited number of ways.  Snape receives a lot of backlash for the way he treats Harry—both in the opinions of the trio and from many of us as readers.  And I’m not saying this isn’t well-deserved, but Harry seems to remain unangered by this discovery, and I’m not sure that’s justified. Harry was old enough to go looking for Horcruxes. He was old enough to endanger his life and the life of others while heeding Dumbledore’s “wise words.”  So why wasn’t he old enough to know his fate?  Was Dumbledore so certain, so sure, that Harry wouldn’t continue to choose what was right had he known the truth even after all he had been through?  Was that Dumbledore’s place, to play with fate that way?

Dumbledore once said, “Dark times lie ahead of us, and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”  But has he justly lived by these words?  Did Dumbledore truly choose what was right over what was easy?  After finishing the books, I’m not so sure.   Manipulation, selfishness… are these the characteristics of a Gryffindor?  Did Snape exemplify Gryffindor traits beyond others in the end?  That’s a question for another day.  But what I can say is that Albus Dumbledore has made some seemingly questionable choices in his life, and I’m not sure that we can give a formidable argument supporting the idea that he was justified in choosing what was “right” all along.

I’m not trying to say that Snape was right or that Dumbledore was right. I’m not sure that anyone was right.  I’m not sure that anyone could have just chosen “right” over “easy.” I just don’t think it was that simple.  But looking back on some of the choices Dumbledore made, some of the things that had happened in his personal life that have alluded to some decisions where it seems that “right” was never thought of; I’m not sure what I think of him anymore.  Take Albus’s brother Aberforth and his role in the story, for example.  Aberforth advises Harry in Deathly Hallows,What makes you think you can trust him? What makes you think you can believe anything my brother told you? In all the time you knew him, did he ever mention my name? Did he ever mention hers?

For me this was just another unsettling “fun fact” about Dumbledore; I’d always imagined him as someone who was at peace with most, his family included.  He was first and foremost an academic and did not fall to dueling to settle disputes as his brother did, but his fight with Grindelwald took the life of his sister. Why was “right” not to prioritize his family’s well-being instead of choosing to be selfish?  Dumbledore explains his feelings to Harry by saying, “I resented it, Harry. I was gifted, I was brilliant. I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory. Do not misunderstand me. I loved them… but I was selfish… So that, when my mother died, and I was left the responsibility of a damaged sister and a wayward brother, I returned to my village in anger and bitterness. Trapped and wasted, I thought!”

Again, another blow to my long built-up idolization of the “greatest wizard of all time.”  Dumbledore had experienced true pain, just as Harry had, and in light of what he thought was “right” manipulated Harry’s scars and willingness to justify his family’s wrongful death and hid his own.  For this reason I am untrusting of the wizard who once stood for impartiality and kindness in my eyes.  Was this truly his choice, his place, his decision to make?  In Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore reveals another distrustful choice made and explains to Harry as follows: “’Harry, I owe you an explanation,’ said Dumbledore. ‘An explanation of an old man’s mistakes. For I see now that what I have done, and not done, with regard to you, bears all the hallmarks of the failings of age. Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young…and I seem to have forgotten lately.’”

The topic of Dumbledore and his intentions throughout the book is obviously a largely controversial one among others and can be supported in a number of different ways.  For me, it’s been less about whether Dumbledore did truly care for Harry all along and more about his character going through such a transformation this late in the series that has prompted me to question my opinion of him all along. I dove into Deathly Hallows certain that I knew these characters and came out with more questions than I could ever imagine having. Personally, as someone who grew up alongside the series, I was invested immensely in these characters and who I thought they were, and to see such uncharacteristic behavior from Dumbledore was nothing short of shocking.  Has Dumbledore always been true to his word and chosen “right” over easy?  Is he still the judicious, principled wizard I always thought he was?  Maybe things just aren’t that simple… or are they?

  • Lila Chris

    I must say I totall agree and my world of holy Dumbledore crashed into pieces when I first read Deathly Hallows aswell. With a little distance now however, I find it kind of nice to know that nobody is perfect and everyone has their story somehow… because we really never knew that much about Dumbledore before DH! There’s another quote from Dumbledore where he says to Snape that he sometimes thinks that they sort too soon! See, Snape changed, he saw his own flaws and then went on to be brave. Dumbledore might just have the same Gryffindor/Slytherin mix inside of him than Harry and Snape!

  • Georgia

    I think it made Dumbledore more real. Everyone makes mistakes. He had to make a difficult choice, he was just a man but he had to try to make a decision that would have turned most people mad. I don’t think he was raising Harry as Snape suggests ‘like a pig for slaughter’ either. Harry was always going to be a Horcrux and his fate was sealed, Dumbledore just tried to make sure that he had the most positive, untainted time at Hogwarts he could have. The only problem I have with Dumbledore is that he sent him to the Dursleys for 11 years! Surely he could have found a better way to protect Harry than that?!

  • Chris boufreau

    Yeah I really think the dumbledores character just shows that humans make mistakes and can sometime make what looks like bad choices for what they believe is the greater good. I have to hand it to JK Rowling for making such deal character building and totally blowing my mind about dumbledore. I actually learned something from this as well. I used to put curtain people in my life on pedestals, with expectations of them. I think her message here was not only that no one is perfect but to not put people on pedestals and create expectations for them. Expectation like him always being every trait from a Gryffindor or having a good family relationship. Point is people learn. And some of them until the day they die.

  • Susannah Cosham

    I agree with what you said — DH totally changed the way I viewed Dumbledore, and for good reason. I think it took him out of the role of elderly role model who can do no wrong and teaches the protagonist everything he needs to know about his quest. It showed the character of Dumbledore isn’t perfect. He’s flawed, he may be great and clever, but he’s made mistakes, some of them fatal. DH doesn’t ruin Dumbledore for me — it simply makes him much more human, much more real.

    • SPN

      Exactly. At least we know that even the greatest wizard in the world has his imperfections too.

  • Phylis Sullivan

    There always seems to be many layers to JK Rowlings characters. Can you imagine what went through Dumbledore’s mind when he realized what had happened to Harry the night that Voldermort tried to kill him. The decision he had to make. I always wondered how much he actually knew at the time. I don’t remember which book for sure we found out that Dumbledore had removed the books with how to make Horcruxes from Hogwarts library. It must have been after he became Headmaster. The thought crossed my mind when Abelforth asks Harry if Dumbledore had ever mentioned his name…Why should he have? If they had been friends, yes maybe but they were Professor and Student. Granted they were eventually working together to bring about the defeat of Voldermort but did Harry need to know that at the time. I always liked Harry’s line from the movie…”I trusted the man I knew.” Learning about Dumbledore’s history shows us how his life choices led to the man he was. It shows that even the greatest wizard of our time was flawed, just as we all are.

  • Nicole L Rivera

    I think Dumbledore, as he says in one of the books, was trying to protect Harry, not lie to him. I also think, being human, Dumbledore was wise but never perfect–nor did he ever claim perfection. He made mistakes and when he realized them, he owned up to them and chose to change–a very noble thing to do.
    That being said, Dumbledore knew that no matter what Harry chose to do Voldemort was coming after him. He gave Harry enough of what he needed so that by the time he discovered the truth that he would have to give himself up, Harry would be emotionally and spiritually prepared. Harry would be ready to face death as an old friend and not go unwillingly.
    I also believe that Dumbledore knew, or perhaps guessed, that when Harry sacrificially gave himself up, it would not be Harry’s end. And Harry’s sacrifice would lend protection to his friends. (As we see Voldemort’s spells have little power over them). If Harry had known that he would not really die, then where would the sacrifice had been?
    Again, I think this goes back to what Dumbledore said about death not being something to fear but the next great adventure. He worked to protect Harry and even prepare Harry for this next great adventure. Harry, I believe, understood the love behind Dumbledore’s actions which is why he decided to trust Dumbledore even when he didn’t understand those actions. And, in trusting Dumbledore, Harry defeated the greatest Dark Wizard of all time and gained a true life. A life without Voldemort inside of him.
    It hurts my heart to hear so many readers think poorly of Dumbledore. Harry didn’t, he understood, so why shouldn’t we?

    • missmac

      Thank you so much for that beautifully worded comment, you have settled my heart. I was at sea thinking anyone could think this way about Dumbledore but too steeped in emotion to properly word a response. This is perfect and the complete truth, the way I’m sure Jo intended it to be understood.

      • Nicole L Rivera

        Missmac, I think that is one of the nicest comments I’ve ever received. I’m glad it settled your heart. :)

  • Heidi

    Dumbledore knew that if Harry were to be “killed” by Voldemort, he would then have the choice to live or die because only the part of Voldemort’s soul was killed. However, had he told Snape that Harry would live (though he had endured the killing curse) then Harry would have gone into his death knowing that he would not die– which then would mean he was not sacrificing himself for the lives of everyone in the Battle of Hogwarts, which is the reason why they were all protected from spells when the following battles ensued. Dumbledore, being very wise and really talented at predicting outcomes and people’s actions, probably thought this through. He knew when Harry found out that he would have to die, he would be doing so out of love and to protect those he loved, like his mother did for him, and so by not telling Snape, Snape could not tell Harry (or show him via his memories), and Harry could not only end up living but also protect those he thought he was dying for in the process.

  • e.

    I think the mistake was at the start… feeling he was some kind of a Role Model, Saint, Truth-Holder, etc. Differently from you, I started to read the books when I was 22, first in my language and then in english, now I’m 32. I think this is why I never seen Dumbledore as you did. He is my 2nd fave character, the first being Snape (I’m too old to think that you have to hate one of them if you love the other), from the start they were to me the true gigantic characters in the series, the most deep and complex, the ones who made me keep reading a “kids’ series”. Third would be Hermione, fourth Lupin and fifth Harry (with McGonagall, Luna and Neville close to him). I think reading the books as an adult changed everything for me, because it gave me another perspective, different both from the kids’ one and the teens’ one, not only because I wasn’t fooled about Snape in the slightest (for many reasons, too long to explain), but in general…
    - partly because I never really related to the students, more to the teachers… so I never took harry’s POV – kind of – for granted or as the Truth; also, I knew more about mean teachers / bullying lonely childs who have been previously abused than a 12 yo usually knows (and my brother is a psychologist, so we talked about some things);
    - partly because I had the chance to get easily the parallelisms / subtext JKR later confirmed, meaning in particular:
    first, the parallelisms between the nazist period and the war against the Dark Lord … the pure blood /mudblood thing, Caramell as Chamberlain, Voldemort as hitler, Dumbledore as Churchill, Snape as the embodiment of the double agent who pretended to be (or to still be) fascist/nazist (is Snape somehow inspired by Eddie Chapman, who was so trusted by the Germans that they even gave him the Iron Cross, when he was actually faking loyalty and passing informations to the MI5?? or by Owens, known as an agent as ‘Snow’?), these people and people like Perlasca did a bloody work without getting any praise and without them, we wouldn’t be here today… the war would be lost..
    second, the religious subtext (the struggle with faith, the path of redemption, its meaning and how it has to go through regret; Dumbledore as God, asking people to trust Snape without giving any real proof about it; Ron as St. Thomas, asking constantly for evidence, Hermione as Doubt, because she didn’t believe the appearance as Ron and Harry did and she was willing to believe Dumbledore; others as general believers, trusting Dumbledore without proof, but ready to call their trust back after Snape killed him and appeared to be ‘guilty’, as people didn’t trust Jesus after he died, thinking he was a ‘fake’, not the son of God, the christian quotes in the DH, etc. etc.),
    - partly because it was asier to me to get the greek and latin references and make something out of them.
    In short, I never saw Dumbledore as a faultless man. I saw him as a clever man, often wise, clearly an effortless leader, a man able to offer second chances because he was living his second chance as well, a gay man (I was old enough to wonder about his relationship with G. given the way they were portrayed in the books), an iron man and most of all, the best strategy man…without him and his strategies (or if he were less than the best), the war would be lost. To win a war, you need somebody who looks higher than the rest, who is able to lead the events, whose strategy is more clever than the enemy’s one and which leads to victory. Then, you need heroes willing to fight that war. But heroes alone, cannot win. Neither can a man with a strategy and no soldiers. I am sure Dumbledore did fight for the right-Light side and this was his inner motivation and actually he sacrificed himself, not only the others, for the bigger picture. Still, figthing for the Light he did use every method, even the unfair ones, even the worst ones. Was he right? Ethically he wasn’t and he partly regretted to have to act like that. The other part of him thought it was the only way. Probably he was right in the historical perspective..Lincoln corrupted and lied to make slaves free men as we know about the differences between Chamberlain and Churchill, as we know that against Hitler were used methods of all kinds. Still, of course this doesn’t make me (or us) confortable with Dumbledore being hightly manipulative, using emotional blackmail, using people, lying and hiding the truth. And still, it’s like somehow we know it had to be done… I guess I in the end I feel a bit like “I’m glad somebody else had to do that” and a bit like “are we sure there was no other method?”.. obviously, the thing is there’s not black and white, it’s not that easy… we have not to be deluded if the books didn’t follow such stereotypes because in the end, it’s a sign of respect. If I wanted stereotyped characters and cheap moral lessons, I’d read something else. There’s a moral lesson of course, it’s in the quotes, in the story, in the numbers 3,9, 4 (9 3/4, turn to 394, etc.) and 7 and it’s about the power or love, the chance of redention, the struggles with faith, the importance of friendship.. but it’s not a cheap one.