“And my soul, Dumbledore?”:  The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship

Note:  Dear good people, do not do what I did.  Do not throw out everything you prepared for writing a 20-minute talk on the day before the talk is scheduled because you’ve just realized that there’s something you really have to write about, so you have to scrap everything and start over.  That was not a pleasant 24 hours.  I do not recommend that experience and hope not to repeat it.

At any rate, here is what I ended up delivering at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College on October 19, 2018.

Welcome to the talk that I titled weeks ago, optimistically, “‘And my soul, Dumbledore?  The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship.”

My name is Lorrie Kim.  I’ve been writing about the Harry Potter series for over ten years, including a book called Snape:  A Definitive Reading that goes through the series from Snape’s point of view.  In July, I read my friend Irvin Khaytman’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, which examines Dumbledore’s character through the series.  I thought I was ready to talk about Snape’s relationship with Dumbledore.

Yesterday, I threw out what I had already prepared and wrote these rough comments, based on words in Deathly Hallows that I first read eleven years and countless rereads ago but did not fully notice until Tuesday, something that had been sitting in plain sight until I was ready to understand its import and start making fresh connections.

And this is the magic that keeps me coming back to Harry Potter analysis.  There’s something new every time.  I hope you can forgive the rawness of these thoughts and accept, in lieu of polish, the excitement that comes of new ideas whenever we gather to discuss this story that still has fresh surprises for us.

This is the passage I read afresh on Tuesday.  We’re back in Grimmauld Place, tears dripping from the ends of our noses as we read the second page of Lily’s letter:

could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald.  I think her mind’s going, personally!  Lots of love, Lily.

In 2016, I wrote about that passage:  “At last, we see what was on the missing second page.  Not much.  She couldn’t believe that a good man like Dumbledore could have been friends with the evil Grindelwald.  And then – oh.  Her love.  That’s what was on the second page.”  I went on to discuss this scene as the moment that Snape, who has just split his soul by killing his mentor, reintegrates it by experiencing remorse for destroying the family life of a one-year-old child– the one time in this series that Rowling shows us a character undergoing this excruciating process that is so painful it could destroy you.

I still stand by my 2016 reading that we were witnessing remorse.

I do not still stand by my words, “Not much.”  Because on Tuesday, it occurred to me that this moment is the first time Snape learns that Dumbledore, whose soul seemed surely more pure than Snape’s ugly, Dark-Marked soul, had once been Grindelwald’s friend.

Every crisis of faith that Harry goes through in Deathly Hallows regarding Dumbledore, Snape went through, too, during the same time, on even less information and assurance than Harry.

Remember Harry’s reaction upon reading Elphias Doge’s eulogy of Dumbledore in the Daily Prophet, which was published a few days after Snape went to Grimmauld Place?

He had never thought to ask Dumbledore about his past. No doubt it would have felt strange, impertinent even, but after all, it had been common knowledge that Dumbledore had taken part in that legendary duel with Grindelwald, and Harry had not thought to ask Dumbledore what that had been like.

And then remember Harry’s “revulsion and fury” when he read Rita Skeeter’s hints that Dumbledore “dabbled in the Dark Arts himself as a youth,” and it had to do with Grindelwald.  Harry’s growing fears about Dumbledore as he camped in the wilderness, no Horcruxes in sight, and then the shock as he read Skeeter’s biography and the incontrovertible proof, in Dumbledore’s own young adult hand, that he had once been Grindelwald’s partner, ardent and fully invested, in plotting fascism.

Snape went through those realizations, too, at the same time.

This was Harry’s agony as he learned of Dumbledore’s past:

“Look what he asked from me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don’t expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I’m doing, trust me even though I don’t trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!”


We get few glimpses into Snape’s thoughts during his final year, but sometimes it’s not difficult to hazard a guess.

Parts of Snape’s situation were different from Harry’s.  He didn’t have any confidants; he had to process this information alone.  He had far less reason than Harry to believe that Dumbledore had loved him.  He didn’t hear Aberforth’s account of the story.

Unlike Harry, who responded to Hermione’s attempt to minimize Dumbledore’s friendship with Grindelwald as “a few months one summer when they were both really young” by retorting, “They were the same age as we are now.  And here we are, risking our lives to fight the Dark Arts,” the news about Dumbledore’s past, his former fascism and the death of Ariana, changed Snape’s perception of Dumbledore in a way that made Snape less alone, not more.

This news put several things about Dumbledore in a different light where Snape was concerned.  His testimony to the Wizengamot that Snape “is now no more a Death Eater than I am.”  His unwavering conviction, in the face of skepticism, that Snape’s change of heart was genuine and not an act.  His gratitude when Snape was able to halt the damage to his hand from the ring Horcrux:  “I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, to have you.”  His insistence on Snape, and only Snape, to counter Dark Magic at Hogwarts:  as long as Dumbledore had Snape, he was not alone as someone who understood how to cast Dark Magic and therefore how to fight it, understood both its appeal and how to resist it.

So the times that Dumbledore had annoyed Snape by idealizing Harry Potter as pure of heart, he was comparing Harry favorably not to Snape but to himself.  We readers knew this, but Snape, always jealous of Dumbledore’s affection for Potters father and son, had not, until he learned of Dumbledore’s past.

Most of all, Snape’s understanding of Dumbledore’s guilt about his past gave new significance to the harshest words that Dumbledore speaks to anybody:  “You disgust me.”  The moment that Dumbledore judges Snape, who sees nothing wrong with begging for Lily’s life in exchange for the lives of her husband and child, is a judgment that comes not from moral superiority but from recognition.  And that resonates with a familiar theme in J.K. Rowling’s writing:  the sentiment, “You cannot despise me more than I despise myself.”  Even her kindest characters speak with venom when feeling defensive and self-loathing.

Undeniably, Snape caused some real harm in his role as a teacher, but he achieved something worthwhile as well:  he continued to be available to Draco with guidance and protection, no matter how harshly Draco rejected his help, how much Snape’s heart sank as he watched Draco join Voldemort, how many crimes Draco committed, either eagerly or under duress.  He remained ready to assist if Draco was ready for a second chance, as Dumbledore had done for him.  With Snape, Draco knew:  there was nothing disgusting Draco could do that Snape had not already done.  Snape was able to maintain that connection, that trust, by signaling:  I know everything you have done, and I am still here.

Knowing that Dumbledore, too, had once seen nothing wrong with letting people die for what he wanted, would have given Snape a different understanding of the harsh words, “You disgust me.”  Dumbledore shared not only Snape’s self-loathing but his unresolved shame.  He knew everything Snape had done, and he remained with Snape to the end of his life.

Snape could recognize, then, some equality between himself and Dumbledore.  We can hear it in the way the two men talk to each other in the Prince’s Tale chapter when nobody else is around:  they are sardonic, angry and familiar and even immature.  We’ve seen Snape that way before, but never Dumbledore — except with Snape.  Dumbledore would not call any man but Snape by insults as intemperate and gratuitous as “a basket that spends so much time dangling on the arm of Lord Voldemort.”  Albus!  Unfair!

In her subtle way, Rowling lets us see that when Dumbledore asks Snape to kill him in Draco’s stead because “That boy’s soul is not yet so damaged,” Snape might have thought, at first, that this was one more instance of Dumbledore valuing someone, anyone, over Snape.  With that history, I think it was a brave thing for Snape to ask – although, granted, it was certain that nobody else would speak up for him – “And my soul, Dumbledore?  Mine?”

As always, whenever Snape craved trust and affection from Dumbledore, Dumbledore’s response was not comforting, not reassuring – but not nothing, either, even if Dumbledore’s responses to Snape generally come with more work and stern reminders to choose what is right over what is easy.

“’You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation,” said Dumbledore.

Let us be clear what Dumbledore is saying, according to the rules of magic laid out in this world.  Killing splits the soul, even when done by request, out of love – the killer has to mean an Unforgivable Curse or it won’t work – and the way to reintegrate a split soul is to feel remorse, the near-fatally painful magic that Dumbledore checks periodically to see if Snape has been able to manage.  Up to this point, Snape never has.  If he accepts Dumbledore’s requests, to kill him and then protect the students of Hogwarts against the Carrows, he commits to feeling remorse and surviving it.

After Dumbledore makes his request, “his blue eyes pierced Snape as they had frequently pierced Harry, as though the soul they discussed was visible to him” – Dumbledore is performing Legilimency, and Snape is not blocking him.  “At last Snape gave another curt nod.”  Snape has had time to think about it.  He has made a choice.  He agrees to cross back over into evil, cast an Unforgivable Curse, and then return.

No one else in either the Order of the Phoenix – that is, the order that believes in second chances – or among the Death Eaters shares Dumbledore’s and Snape’s double status of having embraced evil and then fought against it.  This innocence is why Sirius, in Goblet of Fire, tells Harry, “There’s still the fact that Dumbledore trusts Snape, and I know Dumbledore trusts where a lot of other people wouldn’t, but I just can’t see him letting Snape teach at Hogwarts if he’d ever worked for Voldemort.”  After Snape kills Dumbledore, Tonks says, “But Dumbledore swore he was on our side!  I always thought Dumbledore must know something about Snape that we didn’t….” and McGonagall says, “He always hinted that he had an ironclad reason for trusting Snape.  I mean… with Snape’s history… of course people were bound to wonder… but Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine….  Wouldn’t hear a word against him!”  These people don’t have the experience to recognize, as Dumbledore recognized in Snape, what it looks like to embrace and then renounce evil.

Hermione tells an agonized Harry:  “He changed, Harry, he changed! It’s as simple as that! Maybe he did believe these things when he was seventeen, but the whole of the rest of his life was devoted to fighting the Dark Arts! Dumbledore was the one who stopped Grindelwald, the one who always voted for Muggle protection and Muggle-born rights, who fought You-Know-Who from the start […] and who died trying to bring him down!”

The lesson of the Snape-Dumbledore relationship is learning how this kind of change is possible.  Only someone who has managed this sort of change, someone who has the means to overpower others but chooses not to attack, not to dominate, has the greatness to command the allegiance of the Elder Wand from Dumbledore.  This is the qualification that Dumbledore had in mind when he planned to pass the Elder Wand to Snape, what Grindelwald meant when he told Voldemort that the wand would never be his, and what Draco and Harry, who learned Expelliarmus from Snape, proved to have within them.

Snape kept the half of the letter that said Dumbledore had once been friends with Grindelwald.  It was evidence that the mentor who believed that Snape had it in him to help Harry Potter bring down Voldemort and protect Hogwarts students knew firsthand how much he was asking of Snape, how far he was asking Snape to travel – knew it could be done.  Dumbledore’s former evil, establishing the foundations of a fascist ideology, lying to himself about the nature of Grindelwald, betraying the sister in his care, had damaging consequences…and look what Dumbledore became.  What he did with his second chance.

During Harry’s sixth year, when Dumbledore told Snape that Harry would have to let Voldemort kill him, Snape accused Dumbledore of using him, letting him believe he was protecting Harry for Lily’s sake when Dumbledore intended to sacrifice Harry to Voldemort.  Some readers have wondered if this is an accurate read and Dumbledore did use Snape as a pawn, but I think this turns out to be one of the times that Rowling sets up a supposition that she later disproves, by showing rather than telling.

It is Snape who ends that conversation before Dumbledore can answer his accusation of raising Harry like a pig for slaughter.  He stands up abruptly and responds to Dumbledore’s question, “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” by casting a Patronus.  It’s a complex moment; Snape is not ready to hear more, doesn’t realize that he’s the one who has shut down the conversation, and his dislike of Harry is as wrong-headed as ever.  But the sight of the silver doe is beautiful, too, the sign of a soul that has a wholeness to it, and it brings tears to Dumbledore’s eyes.  After all this time, Dumbledore is right to retain faith in Snape; Snape is still striving to fulfill his pledge to Dumbledore, using his love for Lily as a guide:  “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.”  During this year when Dumbledore is dying of his own incurable folly in grabbing at a Deathly Hallow for his own use, it is a gift to Dumbledore to see that Snape is holding fast.

We see later that Dumbledore did not have an agenda to sacrifice Harry; his aim was to safeguard Harry’s soul, and once the Dumbledore of King’s Cross could affirm to him, “Your soul is whole, and completely your own,” Harry recognized that Dumbledore was at peace:  “Harry had never seen the man so utterly, so palpably content.”  This Dumbledore acknowledges that Harry has the choice to go back and finish Voldemort or to move on, but he does not seek to influence Harry’s choice; whatever happens with Voldemort, Dumbledore’s work is done.

Similarly, with Snape, we see that Dumbledore’s aim is to help Snape retain the wholeness of his soul and turn his guilt toward good by charging him with undergoing remorse and delivering a final message to Harry.  Along with that delivery, Snape was able to return the memories of Lily’s love that rightfully belonged to Harry and acknowledge, at last, how he had destroyed Harry’s family, in a move similar to Slughorn fighting past his shame to give Harry secrets that helped him end Voldemort.

We see, in the Prince’s Tale, that Snape was brusque with the portrait of Dumbledore when he took the sword to the Forest of Dean after Christmas; at the midpoint of the year, when Harry’s faith in Dumbledore was at its lowest, Snape’s was low, as well.  By the end of his life, had Snape reconciled some of his feelings toward Dumbledore, as Harry did in the King’s Cross chapter?

When I reread his last moments, I think the answer is yes.

Voldemort tells him that he has violated Dumbledore’s tomb and stolen the Elder Wand.  In reaction, “Snape’s face was like a death mask. It was marble white and so still that when he spoke, it was a shock to see that anyone lived behind the blank eyes.”

With the words “death mask” and “marble white,” Rowling is calling back to the image of Dumbledore in his white marble tomb.  The blankness of Snape’s face shows that he is Occluding Voldemort as hard as he has ever Occluded in his life, hiding his reaction to the news of this desecration.  Together, I think these things show that Snape is grieving for his friend.  As we learned from Harry, grief can Occlude:  “Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love. . . .”

When Harry runs to Snape’s office to view his memories and the stone gargoyle asks for the password, we learn that he and Snape have been holding the same grief.

“Dumbledore!” said Harry without thinking, because it was he whom he yearned to see, and to his surprise the gargoyle slid aside.

During his year as headmaster, the unguessable word that guarded Snape’s space was a name that kept him as safe as any Fidelius Charm.  I know not everyone is at peace with the Dumbledore-Snape relationship.  For some, Snape might not have been good enough to be known as Dumbledore’s man.  For others, Dumbledore might have been too cold, too secretive, to deserve the role of safeguarding Snape’s true thoughts.  But I’m accepting it as the final word on what Snape thought of the man who entrusted him with his death.

I know I still have so many questions.  Maybe you do, too.  We can puzzle out a few of them together.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 7 [end]

Seventh and final blog post spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.

The final chapter of Irvin’s book addresses the similarity between Dumbledore’s storyline and Snape’s.

In the chapter of Deathly Hallows called “The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore,” Harry and Hermione lay out the terms of the debate.  Harry is in despair after seeing Rita Skeeter’s proof that Dumbledore once supported Grindelwald’s cause.  Hermione says “they were both really young,” and Harry points out that he and Hermione, “risking our lives to fight the Dark Arts,” are the same age that Dumbledore was then.  Harry shouts about this so loudly that he scares several blackbirds.  Hermione replies to him with this truth:

“He changed, Harry, he changed!  It’s as simple as that!  Maybe he did believe these things when he was seventeen, but the whole of the rest of his life was devoted to fighting the Dark Arts!  Dumbledore was the one who stopped Grindelwald, the one who always voted for Muggle protection and Muggle-born rights, who fought You-Know-Who from the start, and who died trying to bring him down!”

Unlike Snape, Dumbledore lived to old age, fighting this fight.  By the time we meet him, decades of powerful good magic had changed him.  If Snape had lived to the same age, who knows if he would have grown to be more like Dumbledore.  Snape did believe in Death Eater philosophy when he was seventeen and he did die trying to bring Voldemort down.  Snape is an extremely unpopular character in many parts of Harry Potter fandom; fans will commonly point out that he spent many years as a classroom bully and no time demonstrating in public fashion that he championed Muggle-born rights.  If we look at the analogous period of Dumbledore’s life, the nebulous years between Ariana’s death and the moment he defeated Grindelwald after long avoidance, we see a story similar to Snape’s.  Dumbledore once believed in something indisputably evil, rationalized it, contributed to the death of a loved one, and spent the rest of his life in regret and atonement.  He and Snape were both very young at the time; the point is that when one’s youthful mistakes lead to death or irreversible harm, especially to a loved one, that splits the soul in a way that does not make exceptions for youth.  You suffer guilt even if you were not quite an adult choosing to cause harm in full, mature consciousness; the dead person is just as dead.  Snape and Dumbledore work together to prevent Draco and Harry from bringing the same fate onto themselves, even unintentionally.

Many fans who have anti-Snape sentiment argue strongly against considering the circumstances that shaped Snape, afraid that understanding them may lead to excusing him for his crimes and abusive behavior.  I argue that understanding the circumstances that shaped him is essential to seeing how he became a young Death Eater and applying that knowledge to intervening in other young people’s lives before they, too, can make similar choices that lead to irreparable harm.  I am not saying that Snape wasn’t as bad as people think; I am saying that Dumbledore, who had become a great and good wizard by the time Harry knew him, was once just as harmful.  Irvin takes us up to this point with his book, looking at the Dumbledore we knew through Deathly Hallows.  Now that we are getting new material about Dumbledore, a bit from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a great deal, most of it still to come, from the Fantastic Beasts film series, I predict that we will see, in much greater detail, that the problematic Dumbledore of youth and middle age was more similar to Snape than we previously believed.

Buy Irvin’s book!  It’ll help you think new thoughts about Dumbledore and ground you in the next several years as you encounter new information about the wizard who defined the 20th century in Potterverse!

The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman, $14.99.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 6

Further reflections spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.

In the Half-Blood Prince chapter, Irvin starts with the moment that Dumbledore is injured by the ring Horcrux and then branches out into complex speculation about what Dumbledore might have been thinking during his final year, as he prepared Harry to fight Voldemort without him.  My conclusions are different from Irvin’s on several points, but I agree with him that, in many ways, it is Dumbledore rather than Snape who most closely resembles Machiavelli’s prince.

As I followed along with Irvin’s many forays into Dumbledore’s possible thinking, I realized his considerations about Hallows and Horcruxes have led me to a new view of Dumbledore’s goals during his final year.

Like the Knights of the Round Table with the Holy Grail, the Hallows quest is about worthiness.  When the ring Horcrux blew up and killed Dumbledore’s hand, it was the clearest possible message that Dumbledore was not worthy; his lifelong quest to unite the Hallows was over.  He only survived long enough to secure an extra year of life because he and Snape, together, fought to keep him alive in order to protect others — a motivation that has greater magical power than simply a desire to survive for one’s own sake.

I believe Dumbledore’s catastrophic failure to possess the third Hallow humbled him and refocused him to realize that the work of his remaining life would be in guiding Harry, the one with the power to vanquish Voldemort.  Although Dumbledore wanted Voldemort defeated, he knew he could leave that ultimate confrontation to Harry — or rather, that he should, and that it was not up to him, ultimately, to control the success or failure of a fight that belonged to Harry.  Dumbledore’s part was in keeping Harry’s soul whole and strong, because it was the wholeness of Harry’s soul that gave him the advantage over Voldemort.  Killing another person splits the soul; Dumbledore had to set up Harry to avoid killing.  Disarmament through Expelliarmus and other defensive moves are more powerful than attack, as we saw from Draco winning the Elder Wand from Dumbledore; Dumbledore had to train Harry to face Voldemort without attacking.  Dumbledore had definitive proof that anyone who tried to seize the Deathly Hallows for personal gain would be too distracted by their greed or obsession to possess them safely.  He could not guarantee that Harry would be able to resist, for example, the desire to use the Stone to see his dead parents; he could only try to stress to Harry that it was more important to continue with the quest to rehumanize Voldemort through destroying Horcruxes than to encourage an iffy and misleading fantasy about Hallows.

The Arthurian allusions in HP, especially in the final volume, are among the most imaginative and confident of JKR’s manipulations of folklore.  The concept of Hallows recalls the quest for the Holy Grail and how it eluded all but the worthy.  I hadn’t thought much, until Irvin’s book, about how the Dumbledore of HBP and DH acknowledged that Hallows were his life quest, that he had made a valiant attempt and united two of the three, and that his time was over.  The Hallows were not meant to be Harry’s quest.  Harry’s quest, to destroy Horcruxes, meant this:  a powerful serial killer had scarred Harry for life from toddlerhood, and Harry had to fight to remain himself, not to let this criminal become a true part of him, not to become this criminal — as would happen if he killed Voldemort but retained part of Voldemort’s soul, still alive, in his scar.  In other words, Voldemort had more-than-human stature in Harry’s life and imagination; Harry could secure the wholeness of his soul by cutting Voldemort down to size.  Making him mortal again.  He was just a human, and a severely damaged human, at that.  He was not immortal, and not meant to be.  Let him die.  Let Harry survive, whole.  Let him track down every point at which Voldemort fractured himself, understand them, bring those things to their mortal end, and know Voldemort for a human who can choose to be accountable for his crimes, like the rest of us are.  Never mind uniting the Hallows.  The important thing for Harry is the right to live and die a mortal life, with love.

I don’t think Dumbledore was sacrificing Harry for Dumbledore’s own ultimate goal of defeating Voldemort from beyond the grave.  I don’t think he had such a goal.  I think he knew that if he stuck with his plan of safeguarding Harry’s soul, guiding him toward keeping his soul whole, that it was everyone’s best chance for Harry to put away Voldemort for good — which would leave not only Harry’s soul intact, but return Voldemort to being a mortal with a soul, an achievement that would be awesome in the truest sense of the word.  I think this because in the “King’s Cross” chapter, Dumbledore acknowledges, without agenda, that Harry has a choice.  He can return to fight Voldemort and possibly end his reign of terror.  Or he can choose to go on.  Dumbledore guesses, based on the best information and knowledge of Harry’s nature, that Harry will choose to return… but there is no pressure from Dumbledore to influence Harry’s decision.

This is why I think Dumbledore’s ultimate goal was not to defeat Voldemort but to do whatever he could, within his mortal power, to help his students and former students keep their souls intact.  We see foreshadowing of this intention in his scene with 11-year-old Tom Riddle in the orphanage, spelling the stolen trinkets in Tom’s wardrobe to rattle, like soul fragments in their Horcrux containers, to emphasize that stolen or separated things should be reunited with their owners.  Dumbledore enabled Snape to do that with the repeated chances to fight for Harry, tough customer though Snape was; Snape returned memories of Lily to Harry before he died.  Dumbledore enabled Harry to do that by training him to focus on rehumanizing Voldemort rather than chasing supermagical objects; Harry reconsolidated Voldemort into a single soul by ensuring that no outside fragments of Voldemort’s soul remained.  Dumbledore enabled Voldemort to do that by following the one drop of hope, Voldemort’s identification with Harry and the possibility of empathy and therefore remorse.  Dumbledore enabled Draco to do that, more successfully than he expected, by working with Snape to put in safeguards against Draco becoming an attacker and a killer.  But he didn’t stick around beyond his own mortality to ensure that Voldemort would be defeated.  He made one choice when the curse on the Resurrection Stone destroyed his hand:  he chose to go back, to spend whatever time he had left in helping to prepare Harry.  He made the other choice when he was facing Draco and Snape in the tower:  he chose to go on, and he did not haunt anyone.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 5

Further reflections spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.

The Order of the Phoenix chapter of Irvin Khaytman’s Dumbledore book is the one that opened my eyes the most.  Even though the clues had always been there, and there had even been explicit pointers to the clues, I had never thought to put everything together to realize that Dumbledore spent the rest of his life hunting Horcruxes, from the end of Goblet of Fire until the day he died.

Foreshadowing, from the second chapter of Goblet of Fire:  “Harry had no idea where Dumbledore went during the summer holidays.  He amused himself for a moment, picturing Dumbledore, with his long silver beard, full-length wizard’s robes, and pointed hat, stretched out on a beach somewhere, rubbing suntan lotion onto his crooked nose.”

Clue, as Irvin points out, from the moment in OotP when Dumbledore claims responsibility for Dumbledore’s Army and leaves the school:  “‘Oh no,’ said Dumbledore, with a grim smile, ‘I am not leaving to go into hiding.'”

Clue, from the “Silver and Opals” chapter of Half-Blood Prince:  “Where was Dumbledore, and what was he doing?  Harry caught sight of the headmaster only twice over the next few weeks.  He rarely appeared at meals anymore, and Harry was sure Hermione was right in thinking that he was leaving the school for days at a time.”

In his OotP chapter, Irvin goes over the timeline of what Dumbledore figured out about the Horcruxes and when, what questions he had, and how he sought answers.  He is right.  This was fully occupying Dumbledore’s mind behind the scenes of OotP — and OotP has the most complex simultaneous, interwoven scenes of any of the books.

There are many points in this chapter where Irvin’s reading and mine diverge.  For example, he believes that the prophecy means that Harry and Voldemort will have to kill each other, so Dumbledore is training Harry to be a “Voldemort slayer”; I believe Dumbledore interpreted the prophecy to mean only that Voldemort would have to kill Harry, not the other way around, but he chose not to enlighten Harry about that specific interpretation when Harry said, at the end of the “Horcruxes” chapter of HBP, “That one of us is going to end up killing the other.”  Irvin believes that Snape was taunting Harry in his customary self-indulgent, immature manner during the Occlumency lessons, whereas I think Snape was too tense to do so, conducting the lessons in a mindset of grim, businesslike fear, mindful that Voldemort was eavesdropping on his performance through Harry’s scar.

However, any differences in reading are minor compared to the great gift that this chapter gave me:  the clear recognition of Dumbledore’s steady Horcrux hunt for the last two years of his life.  Irvin’s book paid for itself with that point alone.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 4

Further reflections spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.

In the Goblet of Fire chapter of Irvin Khaytman’s Dumbledore book, he writes that there is a rift between Dumbledore and Snape, following the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, so severe that they are not even speaking to each other for most of this year.  While I don’t agree that the lack of communication is caused exactly by the kind of rift Khaytman describes, I am completely convinced by Khaytman’s demonstration that problems arose because Dumbledore and Snape were not communicating.

In my reading, Snape is jumpy primarily because his Dark Mark is coming back and he has to reckon with the past, with the change in loyalties that have been mostly theoretical until now, and with the likelihood that the return of Voldemort is a death sentence for him, one way or another.  He has to think about this while under the mocking and skeptical magical gaze of Mad-Eye Moody (or so he believes), who knows every bad thing Snape ever did, believes Snape does not have it in him to reform, and taunts him about it.  Furthermore, Snape is resentful about being demoted from his role as unofficial part-time Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher because unlike Lupin when he was ill, or Quirrell and Lockhart, who were useless, Moody is fully qualified to teach DADA, much better than Snape is.  I think Dumbledore is giving Snape space and keeping an eye on him while the Dark Mark intensifies, checking in on him during the Yule Ball, but not relying on him during this uncertain time, especially when he has his old war buddy Moody in whom to confide.  The status-conscious Snape is touchy about this decreased access to the one person who matters most at Hogwarts — and this is something I did not realize until I read Khaytman’s book.

I had never before found a fully satisfying reading for Snape’s twisted gatekeeping tactics when Harry is trying to get to Dumbledore’s office to tell him that Barty Crouch, Sr. is in the forest (GoF 558).  He sees Harry’s panic and takes pleasure in obstructing him from reaching Dumbledore — why?  “Because he’s a miserable git” is not enough of an answer for me; Snape is a miserable git all of the time, but he only blocks Harry’s access in this manner once.  Now that I look at the scene while thinking about Khaytman’s discussion of Snape’s reduced access to Dumbledore, it finally occurs to me that Snape is acting out his frustration at being excluded by wielding petty power and excluding Harry, in turn.  It would be in character for him.

We see a callback to this kind of jealousy and insecurity in the Spinner’s End chapter of Half-Blood Prince when Snape knows just how to drop delicate taunts about Bellatrix’s decreased access to Voldemort.  I don’t think there’s a direct line between the two incidents, and I’m sure Snape had many other opportunities to become an expert on the nature of jealousy, but remembering his (feigned) smugness and Bellatrix’s insecurity affirms my reading of a similar dynamic between Fake Moody and Snape during the year that Dumbledore confided in Snape the least.

On my next re-read of GoF, I look forward to spotting the instances when JKR shows us, without telling us directly, that Snape and Dumbledore are speaking far less than they usually do.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 3

Further reflections spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.

The Prisoner of Azkaban chapter, especially the section called “The Matter of Buckbeak” (pp 40-46), led me to a host of new thoughts that had never occurred to me in years of reading HP.  Irvin devotes that section to an in-depth consideration of Dumbledore’s possible thinking behind the Time-Turner finale he authorized for Hermione and Harry.  He considers whether Dumbledore has a Time-Turner of his own (Irvin says no), or already planned to send Hermione and Harry back in time to save Buckbeak (Irvin says no), or that he “actually sees the time-traveling Harry and Hermione flying on Buckbeak” (possible, says Irvin, although it’s not what he believes happened).

On pages 41-42, about Dumbledore stalling for time with Macnair (“You need to sign too”) while Harry and Hermione free Buckbeak, Irvin writes:

“Is Dumbledore already scheming to send Harry and Hermione back in time to rescue Buckbeak?  No.  I think that Dumbledore really did want to comfort Hagrid.  But also, Dumbledore probably thought that if there were a way to save Buckbeak, it would help for him to be onsite.  […]  Does Dumbledore know what is going on?  Not necessarily.  He does not need to.  He knows that there is a certain trio of students who care very much about Hagrid and who have an Invisibility Cloak.  He knows that if there were an attempted rescue of Buckbeak, it would have to happen in the short interval between Macnair seeing Buckbeak tied up and all the paperwork being filled out.  Therefore, it’s just good sense to delay things a bit and give any would-be rescuers an additional bit of time.  So Dumbledore stalls for time, just in case.  And what do you know, he was right to do so!”

Irvin’s meticulous logic, “If there were an attempted rescue of Buckbeak, it would have to happen in the short interval between Macnair seeing Buckbeak tied up and all the paperwork being filled out,” prompted me to devote close attention to this scene for the first time.  I come to the slightly different conclusion that Dumbledore did approach Buckbeak’s execution with the Time-Turner plan already in mind, but otherwise, I agree with and accept Irvin’s points about how Dumbledore thought through Buckbeak’s escape.

On their first experience of that evening, Hagrid tells Harry and Hermione that Dumbledore tried to get the Committee to stop the execution but the Committee members refused, probably under threat from Lucius Malfoy, so Dumbledore had written that morning to say that he would attend the execution to be with Hagrid.  Now that Irvin has drawn my attention to this passage, it sounds to me like Dumbledore exhausted legal avenues and concluded that he would go outside the law to ensure that the right thing would be done — a path that we see him take at other times, too.

Before telling Harry and Hermione to use the Time-Turner, Dumbledore says, “I have no power to make other men see the truth, or to overrule the Minister of Magic…”

Given Dumbledore’s problem-solving nature, I think it most likely that when Dumbledore realized he couldn’t stop the execution legally, he came up with the Time-Turner strategy and focused on when it could be deployed so that everyone Dumbledore cared about would be beyond suspicion.  When he stalls for time with Macnair, I think Dumbledore does so knowing that this is the moment he is marking and prolonging for future Harry and Hermione to make the rescue.

The precisely timed care for others in selecting this moment is what leads me to this conclusion.  Dumbledore makes sure Hagrid is above suspicion, the children are invisible, and the officials see Buckbeak.  Once that happens, there is a brief window before the officials will lay hands on Buckbeak to kill him.  Once the moment passes and Macnair is furious that Buckbeak is gone, Dumbledore says, “How extraordinary,” with “a note of amusement in his voice” — Rowling’s indication that Dumbledore hoped this would happen and is delighted but not surprised to see the plan worked.

It’s Hermione who understands the finer points of Dumbledore’s plan about the timing.  They creep toward Buckbeak in the pumpkin patch.  Harry asks, “Now?” but Hermione points out that they have to wait until the Committee members see Buckbeak, or else Hagrid will be under suspicion.  Harry says that gives them “about sixty seconds” and then asks Hermione if they should just go grab Scabbers/Pettigrew.  Hermione shuts down that line of thinking and gets Harry to focus on Macnair spotting Buckbeak.  After that, Harry realizes:  “It was now or never.”

We see Hermione apply the same split-second thinking in Deathly Hallows during the escape from the Lovegood home.  In the chapter called “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” she asks, “Do you trust me, Harry?”  This is an almost ridiculous question since Hermione is probably the most trustworthy person in Harry’s life, but the high stakes of this plan justify explicit confirmation.  She tells the boys to hold on to her, puts Ron under the Invisibility Cloak, waits until Xenophilius Lovegood approaches them on the second floor away from the Death Eaters on the first floor, Obliviates him, blasts a hole in the floor so the Death Eaters see Harry and Hermione but not Ron, then Disapparates the three of them away.

At the beginning of the following chapter, “The Deathly Hallows,” Hermione painstakingly spells out her reasoning for the boys.  She doesn’t have to explain that she Obliviated Xenophilius for his own protection, but she explains that she wanted the Death Eaters to know he hadn’t been lying about Harry being there, that Ron had to be hidden to protect his family and preserve the lie that Ron was at home with spattergroit, and that it was okay for Hermione to be seen because her parents were safe.  The boys are in awe and acknowledge her a genius.

The principles of that genius plan are all the same as Dumbledore’s with Buckbeak.  Some people or creatures must be seen in order to protect others from suspicion, and others must be kept invisible.  Timing is important.  The stakes are life or death.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, Dumbledore knows that Hermione has been working with the Time-Turner all year and has also devoted sleepless nights to Buckbeak’s legal defense.  If there’s any third-year student who can thread this needle without explicit instruction, it’s Hermione.  The Time-Turner rescue plan is daring and brilliant, and I never connected it to the escape from the Lovegood home until I read Irvin Khaytman’s analysis of Dumbledore’s thinking.  And until now, I never realized that when Dumbledore says that more than one innocent life may be saved, it was Sirius, not Buckbeak, who was the extra, unintended rescue; Sirius whose rescue fit neatly into Dumbledore’s intricate plan to save Buckbeak, not the other way around.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 2

Further reflections spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.

In his Chamber of Secrets chapter, Irvin goes over what it means for Dumbledore that he first realizes during this volume that Voldemort’s Dark Magic included making a Horcrux, and in fact, perhaps more than one Horcrux, “which I do not believe any other wizard has ever had” (as he recounts in HBP).

Even though I’ve known since 2006 that the diary from CoS was Dumbledore’s first evidence that Voldemort made a Horcrux at all, let alone multiple Horcruxes, I never thought about what that meant from Dumbledore’s perspective until now.  It took Irvin’s book to make me think about it.  I had a series of “ah-ha” moments.

Of course.  It must have been huge.  It was the last great secret mission of Dumbledore’s life.

OH.  Hallows versus Horcruxes, the false dichotomy that Dumbledore set up for Harry in DH, was not Harry’s struggle at all.  It was only Dumbledore’s.  Harry wouldn’t have been tempted by the Hallows; he never saw himself as a child of destiny.  Dumbledore knew himself to be one.  It was Dumbledore who, presented with the only artifact that was both a Hallow AND a Horcrux, responded to it as a Hallow and…

OH.  Jeez.  I never thought until now about why JKR made that one Hallow also a Horcrux, and none of the other Hallows or Horcruxes held that dual role.  It was a test.  How do you see this object?  You were supposed to see it as a Voldemort Horcrux, treat it with caution, strengthen yourself and destroy it.  Dumbledore saw it as a Hallow and grabbed for it, his greed overriding a lifetime of wisdom.  *loud rude buzzer sound*  NOPE.  NOT WORTHY.  Slow death for YOU, Mr. Dumbledore, sir!  Unworthy, unworthy.

He didn’t want the Stone to keep it from others to use for harm.  He wanted it for himself, to relieve his guilts and to aggrandize his magical power.  WRONG, Mr. Dumbledore.  *Horcrux curse explodes*

He was given a bit of extra life, long enough to last out the year, because he was working to impart knowledge to Harry and keep others from harm, not trying to stay alive for his own selfish reasons to outsmart Death.  Thanks to the skill of Snape, who has been staying alive for unselfish reasons since Lily and James died.

OH.  Wow.  Before Dumbledore destroyed the Horcrux with the sword of Gryffindor, did that bit of Voldemort’s soul try to talk to him?  What might it have said?  How might Dumbledore have overcome it?

*possibly spoilers/speculation about Crimes of Grindelwald movie below*


I think Voldemort, who’s about to be born shortly after the end of the first Fantastic Beasts film, tried to further whatever Dark Magic Grindelwald mastered.

Grindelwald wants to harness the power of an Obscurus, but nobody has successfully separated an Obscurus from its Obscurial and kept it alive, and as we see from Grindelwald’s showdown with Credence in the subway tunnel, it’s really difficult to control a power when it’s inconveniently attached to a living being with their own will.  (Like Dumbledore reporting surprise that Voldemort chose Nagini to hold part of his soul.  Not optimal.)  We also see from that showdown that there’s some sort of super-strength in an Obscurial, since it seemed like the Aurors destroyed Credence, yet he somehow survived.  We also know that JKR is presenting Obscuri as a sort of allegory for the power of splitting the atom.

We know that Horcruxes are formed by casting a spell when someone splits their soul by killing another person.

I don’t know if Grindelwald eventually gave up on Obscuri and tried to make a Horcrux, but I suspect that Voldemort studied Grindelwald’s problems with Obscuri and decided that Voldemort, greatest of all wizards in his own opinion, would not outsource this all-important operation but sacrifice part of himself, generate power by splitting a part of himself off his core rather than trying to harness the power of an Obscurus.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch1

Just two weeks remaining until the Harry Potter Conference at Chestnut Hill College, Friday, October 19, 2018!  Come see Irvin Khaytman talk about his new book, The Life and Lies of Percival Albus Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, which I wrote about when it was published in July.  He and I will also be doing book signings on that day.

Irvin’s talk will be titled Dumbledore’s Decoys.  My talk, which is partially inspired by Irvin’s work, will be “And my soul, Dumbledore?”  The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship.  In anticipation of this annual celebration, I’ll be posting an informal seven-part blog post, one for each chapter, about new perspectives on Dumbledore that I gained after reading Irvin’s book.

On page 1 of the Introduction, I see that Irvin’s fundamental reading diverges from mine:  he accepted Snape’s assessment that Dumbledore raised Harry “like a pig for slaughter,” and embarked upon the book in order to resolve the questions that this raised for him.

Then, it turned out Dumbledore was using Harry, “raising him like a pig for slaughter.” (DH 687)  I reread the series half a dozen times after Deathly Hallows came out, and I could never reconcile the two….  Do I view Dumbledore as a saint-like father figure or as cold-hearted and calculating?

To make sense of it all, I embarked upon a mission to unravel just what Dumbledore was up to in the last year of his life:  what his plans were and where they went awry.

My reading of that “pig for slaughter” assessment is that it’s not what ends up being true; it’s what Snape thinks in his initial response to Dumbledore’s 11th-hour revelations, and it informs Harry’s initial assumption, as well.  I think we’re meant to see, through the revelations in the “King’s Cross” chapter of Deathly Hallows, that it was not accurate, that a more generous reading of Dumbledore turns out to be correct, and that Dumbledore had been trying to position Harry to face attack from Voldemort with his soul intact and his choices his own — things that Dumbledore considered more important than whether Voldemort was defeated or whether Harry survived.  We see this from the King’s Cross moment when spirit-Dumbledore makes it clear that it’s Harry’s choice whether to go back and fight or board the train and move on.  The entirety of King’s Cross takes place with Harry’s soul as whole and wholly his own, and that, I believe, was what Dumbledore was aiming for.

Something similar happens with McGonagall thinking Snape was running away during the Snape-shaped hole scene when she yells at him, “Coward!”  It’s never overtly refuted in so many words; we are shown, rather than told, that far from being a coward, Snape had been practicing defense only, protecting both himself and his colleagues during their duel, and then had fled in order to deliver the message to Harry.  But there isn’t a sentence in the book that spells out, “Snape was not being a coward and McGonagall came to realize that later.”  (We do find out, in Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, that McGonagall put Snape’s portrait into the headmistress’s office.)  Similarly, we don’t get a sentence spelling out, “Not a pig for slaughter,” but that conclusion is there, I believe.

I think that was Dumbledore’s aim for everyone.  He engaged Snape to kill him in Draco’s stead to keep Draco’s soul intact, and then got the unforeseen but deeply happy surprise that Draco had it in him to keep his soul intact on his own initiative.  He asked Snape if Snape would be able to keep his own soul intact after killing Dumbledore, and did not proceed until Snape confirmed it.  He had to keep Harry from splitting his own soul by killing, or becoming more like Voldemort by killing.  He wanted Grindelwald in Nurmengard to know remorse and die with an intact soul.  Most difficult of all, he did his best to help Harry ensure that even Voldemort got to die with an intact soul and a choice.

Of course Dumbledore wanted Harry to save the world from Voldemort, but that wasn’t his main intent regarding Harry, or he wouldn’t have left the choice up to Harry in King’s Cross.  I don’t believe he was using Harry or Snape, or imposing his schemes on them.  I think he was keeping them alive and pointed in the right direction so they could follow their own wills.

On page 4 of the Introduction, Irvin makes a point that lays out the premise for this book and keeps the aim clear.

Dumbledore does not have all the information here.  This is a very important point:  what Dumbledore knows and when he knows it is as important to figure out as what he was planning and how it went wrong.  Many fans operate under the assumption, created by Harry in Sorcerer’s Stone, that Dumbledore is magically omniscient.  He is nothing of the sort — he just has a lot of knowledge and an incredibly impressive analytical mind.

From page 9 of Irvin’s Sorcerer’s Stone chapter:  “Dumbledore hides the Stone in the Mirror of Erised, convinced that neither Quirrell nor Harry will get it out.”

At first, I disagreed with Irvin’s read on this.

I’ve changed my mind now.  I think he’s right.  I wouldn’t have thought of it without his book.

I’d thought that, as he did in many other situations, Dumbledore had fixed things so that the Stone would be safe whether or not Harry was able to get it out of the Mirror:  either it would remain in the Mirror or it would go to Harry and Quirrell/Voldemort would be unable to touch Harry.  This would be like the failsafe choice between Voldemort dying of his rebounding final Avada Kedavra or dying of remorse, or Draco’s soul remaining intact because he would not attack Dumbledore or because Snape would kill Dumbledore.

But after reading Irvin’s arguments, I agree that Dumbledore had no reason to think that tiny little 11-year-old Harry had it in him to wish that he could take the Stone in order to protect it from Quirrell.  Dumbledore learned a lot about Harry, and was properly impressed and humbled, after that happened.

I also think that Dumbledore would not have assumed that an 11-year-old (or anyone, for that matter) could resist the lure of wanting the Sorcerer’s Stone for themselves, their own purposes, rather than for the selfless reason of hiding it from misuse.  This foreshadows the mistake he makes in Deathly Hallows, overly complicating the clues because he didn’t really believe Harry could resist the Hallows quest.  Of course, it turns out that Harry is not interested in uniting the Hallows, but Dumbledore never outgrew that longing himself.  It would fit with the rest of the series, with Dumbledore’s character, and with human nature for him to fear that others would share his weakness.

So, just as Draco casting Expelliarmus and then lowering his wand surpassed Dumbledore’s expectations and interfered with Dumbledore’s plan of succession for the Elder Wand, I agree with Irvin that Harry’s pure desire to hold the Stone in order to prevent misuse surpassed Dumbledore’s expectations and interfered with Dumbledore’s scheme to keep the Stone in the Mirror.

On pages 12-13 of the Sorcerer’s Stone chapter, Irvin mentions Clare Moseley’s theory, which I cite in the Snape book, that the Devil’s Snare protection for the Stone was meant for Neville.  He disagrees, thoughtfully.

It’s a good theory but does not really gel with how meticulous Dumbledore is about these things.

Neville’s proficiency at Herbology is not as overt in Sorcerer’s Stone; the first time it’s mentioned is Neville getting a “good Herbology mark making up for his abysmal Potions one,” [SS307] in the closing pages of the book.  Hermione’s aptitude for fires seems to be more indicative of facing off against Devil’s Snare.

An excellent catch, noticing that Neville is not mentioned as good at Herbology until after the Leaving Feast is over!  This nearly persuades me.  After consideration, though, I think the late mention of this detail is intended to reinforce the reader’s understanding of Neville’s role in the events.  Neville has been hovering just outside the three-person friendship for the whole book:  awkward, easily dismissed, but persistent.  It’s a surprise move from Dumbledore, and the author, to choose Neville’s House points to be the final component that tips the balance toward Gryffindor winning the House Cup, highlighting his less showy virtue of courage in standing up to friends.  Mentioning his skill at Herbology before the trapdoor chapter would have been foreshadowing, but mentioning it later, almost as an afterthought, is an effective way of underscoring to the reader that Neville has strengths we didn’t see from Harry’s perspective.  This sets up Neville’s role throughout the series, a lower-status outsider or secondary character who is nonetheless crucial to the story at all times, and seen as crucial by the adults at Hogwarts who are aware of his family history.

Later in the series, as we learn more about Peter Pettigrew’s resentment going unnoticed or Remus Lupin’s guilty conscience about not objecting to the bullying of the other Marauders, Neville being recognized for speaking up becomes more significant.  I’d like to think that when the Hogwarts teachers got together to discuss the protections, they included observations about Frank and Alice Longbottom’s child.

The Devil’s Snare protection gives us the priceless interaction between Hermione and Ron:  “ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT?”  It reminds us that Hermione was raised as a Muggle, and it sets up Hermione to throw the line back at Ron later.  But I don’t feel convinced that it was a protection meant for Hermione in particular.  She is good with bluebell flames, but Professor Sprout might not have had occasion to notice.  Hermione struggles to recall what works with Devil’s Snare, but Harry has to suggest that she use fire and Ron has to remind her that she knows how; she doesn’t seem to have any particular aptitude or instinct about working with plants, just a general tendency to pay attention in class.  Meanwhile, the other teachers’ protections — the flying brooms, the chess, the logic puzzle — are so specifically targeted to the kids’ strengths that it seems unlikely to me that Hermione would have been assigned two challenges to Ron’s and Harry’s one apiece.

All in all, I’m still sticking with the conclusion that the Hogwarts staff considered Neville to be part of this particular drama, and that Professor Sprout designed a challenge meant to showcase Neville’s strengths.  But like many other details in this masterfully written children’s book, these things are only suggested, neither confirmed nor denied by the text, and there is nothing to contradict the reading that the Devil’s Snare challenge was meant for Hermione.