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.