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.