This blog post contains mild spoilers for Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists.
The substantial chapter on Horace Slughorn illuminates one of J.K. Rowling’s beautifully subtle points that she never states outright. Dumbledore and Slughorn never overtly discuss the greatest of the fears that drove Slughorn underground for over a year. The narration gives several clues about this reason during the recruitment visit that Dumbledore and Harry pay to Slughorn, but on the surface, the spoken words between Dumbledore and Slughorn acknowledge only a general fear to be safe from Death Eaters and Slughorn’s enjoyment of celebrity students such as Harry.
In Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists, however, Rowling gives this straightforward insight into Slughorn’s concerns:
He thought it most likely that his old student simply wanted to recruit him to his army, which was still small compared to what it had been at the height of his previous power; in his darkest moments, however, Slughorn wondered whether Voldemort did want to kill him, to prevent him ever betraying the source of the latter’s continuing invulnerability.
During my re-read of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the writing of Snape: A Definitive Reading, I finally saw the delicate unspoken conversation that Rowling wove into the subtext of the recruitment scene (journal entry reproduced below). I was wrong about some of the details: Voldemort did not feel compelled to kill Slughorn, apparently. Slughorn didn’t go on the run as soon as he heard of Voldemort’s return; he held out until a Death Eater came looking for him. But yes, Rowling did intend that visit’s real conversation between Dumbledore and Slughorn to take place without words, as confirmed in Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists.
January 22, 2016
OHHHHH! That’s why Slughorn went into hiding! That’s who he was escaping!
I cannot believe it took me this long to figure it out! It was all right there!
Dumbledore is playing Slughorn’s game when, in the “Horace Slughorn” chapter of HBP (when he and Harry recruit Slughorn to come out of retirement), Slughorn asks what the Death Eaters would want with him and Dumbledore says they want his talents for coercion, torture, and murder.
He’s not afraid of the Death Eaters at all. He’s only afraid of Voldemort. He’s been on the run for over a year because he started running as soon as he heard Voldemort was back.
He is the only person who has CERTAIN knowledge that Voldemort has thought about making several Horcruxes. Voldemort doesn’t know how many people Slughorn might have told, but in case he has been too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone (as he has), that still leaves one living person who knows about this. Voldemort must kill him to eradicate that vulnerability in his plan for immortality.
Dumbledore says, with words, that the Death Eaters want Slughorn. But he ostentatiously shows his dead hand with the giant ring and that reminds Slughorn of the REAL issue. When they first arrive at the house, Slughorn thinks Dumbledore is trying to lure him back with the promise of a famous pupil, as he did with Lockhart (and that’s the way the HBP movie played it). But that isn’t it at all. Nothing so crude. Dumbledore is reminding him that if Voldemort wants to kill you, the safest place is to be right next to the kid who is supposed to be the only one who can end Voldemort, protected by the only one Voldemort ever feared.
Then Dumbledore goes to take a poop and look at knitting patterns.
“I reckon the staff are safer than most people while Dumbledore’s headmaster; he’s supposed to be the only one Voldemort ever feared, isn’t he?” Harry went on.
Slughorn gazed into space for a moment or two: He seemed to be thinking over Harry’s words.
“Well, yes, it is true that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has never sought a fight with Dumbledore,” he muttered grudgingly. “And I suppose one could argue that as I have not joined the Death Eaters, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named can hardly count me a friend . . . in which case, I might well be safer a little closer to Albus. . . . I cannot pretend that Amelia Bones’s death did not shake me. . . . If she, with all her Ministry contacts and protection . . .”
It’s really quite merciful, what Dumbledore arranged for Slughorn. He offered him safe haven and an income, he got Slughorn out of hiding, put him back in spheres of influence, and then got Harry to get him drunk and relieve him of some of the crushing guilt that has tormented him for decades. In the end, Slughorn got to fight for Hogwarts, against Voldemort, and outlive the bastard. He got to make it up to Lily’s kid and be a hero and still be himself. Thank you, Dumbledore.