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.