Saturday, June 29, 2013

Harry Potter in Hindsight: Dumbledore the Flawed Mentor

This post is for Matt Anderson, who wanted me to explore the relationship between Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.

On the surface, Dumbledore appears as the typical wise mentor and Harry as the typical hero orphan with a huge destiny. We've seen this dynamic in other works: The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and even The Odyssey. Yet in these cases the mentor works in the shadows and only exists to guide the hero.

Dumbledore does not have such a role. He takes a more active role in shaping Harry's life. I will argue that Dumbledore's tragic history influences his present decisions and ultimately defined his relationship with Harry in life.  

Dumbledore's Fatal Flaw

All heroes have flaws. Less often, mentors often wield them, because we see mentors as shining knights who can do no wrong. The flawed mentor proves more interesting because he or she has a personal journey in addition to the hero's, and the flaws often shape the hero's journey as well. Dumbledore had already taken his journey, and his wisdom helps Harry succeed in defeating Voldemort.

Dumbledore's flaw is blinding love. Not the selfless, affectionate love that Harry shares for his friends and adopted family, but a deceiving obsession that allowed others to influence Dumbledore. That capacity allowed him to settle down and take care of his sister Arianna after graduating from Hogwarts, but it also blinded him to Gellert Grindewald's ambitions to taking over Europe and enslaving Muggles. Arianna ended up paying the mortal price, while Dumbledore had to imprison his supernatural boyfriend, and Abeforth never trusted his older brother again.

Voldemort serves as Dumbledore's antithesis regarding the fatal flaw of love. Voldemort, conceived thanks to a love potion, cannot understand caring for another person despite having loyal followers. That lack of empathy also allows him to commit great evil acts, from killing his father's family to starting a reign of terror in Britain. Unlike our headmaster, whose love for Arianna and Abeforth pulled him back from the abyss, Voldemort has no restraining bolt. The Death Eaters that love him -- Bellatrix Lestrange-- tend to linger on the psychotic side. Thus when Voldemort takes the plunge in Book Seven, no one can save him, not even Harry at his most merciful. 

Raising a Hero

When you read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone initially, you think that the Dursleys are horrible people, and you are correct. Most readers are correct in that assumption. The Dursleys spoil their son Dudley rotten, don't speak to their Potter relatives who are in hiding from the most evil wizard of all times, and treat Harry like dirt. They make an effort to keep him miserable and don't appreciate that he saved Dudley's life in Book Five.

"Why does Harry have to stay with such horrible people?" we asked; J.K. Rowling explained why a year before Dumbledore did in Book Five, but we also assumed that she was following a tradition that fictional orphans had to have detestable relatives.

It wasn't until I reread the first book with my younger brother that I understood the Dursleys' perspective. My younger brother hates it when his daily routine is different, and I explained that the Dursleys were the same. For them, magic would disrupt their routine. As someone who likes routine, I suddenly realized what had happened in the first few chapters, and how manipulative Dumbledore was.

Dumbledore had forced his hand on a normal Muggle family to protect a child wizard for destiny's purposes. He used guilt and love to convince Aunt Petunia into taking in her orphaned nephew, first by informing her that her sister was dead-- and if you read the extra material on Pottermore you realize that Petunia hadn't spoken to her sister in years-- and that if she didn't take in her weird nephew that she'd be sentencing him to death in the event that Voldemort returned. She didn't have to take in Harry but she did, knowing the risks and her guilty conscience. And when Vernon tried to go back on the agreement, Dumbledore once again appealed to her guilt and manipulated her into letting Harry stay. 

Harry learned two things from staying with the Dursleys: blind love exists and adults can be enemies. He knows that his aunt and uncle are capable of compassion, but they direct it towards his cousin Dudley. Vernon and Petunia won't answer his questions and oppress any sign of magic that erupts from him. Muggle schoolteachers refuse to believe that Harry can excel, only blaming him for strange accidents. Thus Harry has learned to disregard authority rather than take it at face value, and he sees the dark side to unconditional love.

Harry's disregard for authority clashes with his respect for Dumbledore. In the first book, when Harry breaks school rules, he breaks them to prove himself and defend his pride. This happens when he rides a broomstick to challenge Malfoy, for example. Such minor misdemeanors foreshadow his and Ron's spectacular flying car entrance to Hogwarts in Book Two, where Dumbledore has to threaten them with expulsion if they break any more rules. Harry and Ron have to break the rules to uncover the Chamber of Secrets, and similar forays end up more rewarding than one may think. Dumbledore has to encourage similar disregard so that Harry can succeed, reaping the fruit of his actions.

 Dumbledore's flaw, while a fatal flaw, allows Harry to have a normal Hogwarts life for five years. Already an orphan with miserable relatives and volatile popularity, Harry has plenty on his plate. At school he dislikes being famous or feared, depending on the book, and at home the Dursleys make him as miserable as humanly possible. If Harry had had to worry about Voldemort returning and their eventual conflict, then the knowledge would have cast a darker shadow on him. As it were, Harry was able to enjoy Quidditch, excel in his Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, and bond with friends like Ron, Hermione and Hagrid. Dumbledore's love thus proved beneficial in providing Harry with a life at Hogwarts that he couldn't have enjoyed with his aunt and uncle. 

Once Harry has grown older, however, Dumbledore's concern for his happiness causes a communication gap. First, he keeps Harry confined to the Dursleys over the summer with no news and no warning of changes in the Ministry. Harry, traumatized by Lord Voldemort's return and Cedric Diggory's death, would have preferred avoiding the confinement. Second, when our beloved headmaster discovers the mind link that Harry shares with Voldemort, he attempts to distance himself from Harry so that the Dark Lord won't use the boy's mind against him. This went horribly wrong, with Snape as Harry's Occlumency teacher and Harry not learning how to block his mind from the Dark Lord's visions. Sirius Black ended up dead because of these mistakes, and Harry suffers intense guilt and distrust for Professor Snape. Dumbledore has to put aside his compassion to see that Harry needs to grow up and face his destiny. 

The Flaw and the Hero

Telling Harry about the prophecy cements our favorite hero as a budding adult. Seeing that Harry can handle the Dark Lord returning once a year, at least until book three broke the pattern, Dumbledore feels he should have explained to Harry why Voldemort wanted the Potters dead, why Harry was so important first as a baby and then as a child, and his worries about Voldemort invading Harry's mind. Once he explains the prophecy however, Harry proves that he will do anything to defeat the Dark Lord, even give up his Hogwarts life. He spends half his last year at Hogwarts preparing for the battle and decides that the world is more important than his education.

Dumbledore treats Harry like an adult to prepare him for the final fight. I am referring to the sixth book as the last time Harry and Dumbledore meet face to face and not the seventh book where Harry seems to encounter his ghost. We learn later that Dumbledore has only a year left, asked Snape to kill him, and has a guess about how Harry can eliminate the last Horcrux. He works with borrowed time and a Dark Lord whose power is growing stronger. Here is what the reader sees in Book Six, however: Harry and Dumbledore meet to discuss Voldemort's past, what influenced him as a child, and how he had discovered temporary immortality, and their final encounter occurs when they enter the cave with the locket. These facts allow Harry to form a battle plan to destroy the Horcruxes and means by which to track them down, although the facts end up being incomplete. There is no comfort, no explanation for the year's near-murderous happenings; Harry only finds out the latter by eavesdropping on Malfoy, whom Dumbledore treats like a student. Instead, Harry gets comfort from knowing he can choose his path, and he chooses to defeat Voldemort with the knowledge he has gained.

Dumbledore's final manipulation severs his potentially fatal and platonic love for Harry. I am referring to Harry letting Voldemort kill him. Most of us readers anticipated Harry sacrificing himself; he has established himself as that kind of hero. What we did not anticipate was Dumbledore preparing Harry for "slaughter" as Snape puts it, playing on Harry's need to save others and capacity for selfless love. Harry by accepting this fate also submits to a higher authority-- Snape's and Dumbledore's -- showing respect for their plan. We thus realized that Dumbledore was manipulative, that Snape would have to tell Harry about this fact at a certain time -- when Voldemort fears for Nagini-- and during Hogwarts's darkest hour. He gambles on the fact that Voldemort taking Harry's blood will enable our hero to survive the Killing Curse, a gamble that could have cost Harry's allies the war. Yet his gamble pays off, and Harry wins the war. Dumbledore thus overcame his flaw of blind love so that Harry could make such a sacrifice.


Dumbledore's relationship with Harry is not complicated on the surface. He tries to help an orphan with sudden fame and encounters with psychotic wizards, offering wisdom about life, death, and the choices that we make. Harry learns from the headmaster, and the teachings pay off in the final battle and life subsequently thereafter. Harry does not fear death, and he knows how important choices decide his fate.

Beneath every teaching, however, is the fear of both characters' fatal flaws: blind love and disrespect for authority respectively. Sometimes the flaws cause huge consequences, whether they involve characters dying or severe breaches of trust. But when two characters work to overcome those flaws for the greater good, as Dumbledore and Harry did, then their hard work ends up building potential for a better world. With Harry earning his happy ending and Dumbledore inner peace, they have built ample potential. 

1 comment:

Matt Anderson said...

Blind Love, perhaps. I can't deny that . . . in fact, I think it builds into my own thesis. I figured that Dumbledore's greatest flaw was his self-inflicted martyrdom (that the 'blind love' provokes in him). Dumbledore's actions postpone the inevitable duel between Voldemort and Harry, despite the fact that there was a prophecy fating their confrontation. Then Dumbledore himself hunts down the Horcruxes, essentially doing Harry's job for him. He does this to protect Harry, even though the prophecy says that only Harry can kill Voldemort.
I don't believe this is that bad a thing. The prophecy states that once they face each other, either Harry or Voldemort will die. Had they faced each other in an earlier book, I think Voldemort would have won. Dumbledore's actions postpone that conflict and buy Harry time to grow as a person. However, I also believe that his interference and manipulation made him an obstacle in Voldemort's path and so he had to die. In essence, by interfering with the prophecy, he killed himself.
So, dying by Voldemort's hand is the ultimate conclusion in Dumbledore's story arch. He raises the child. He tries to protect the child from his destiny. In the end he is killed by trying to walk the Hero's path.
From this we learn that, while we can guide our students - in the end we can only show them the path - we cannot walk it for them.
That is how I see Dumbledore's relationship with Harry.