“Closer Than Brothers”: What Does It Mean? A thumbs-up Crimes of Grindelwald post (FBCOG #1)

Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t yet seen Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, be warned that the following blog post contains spoilers.


When a hostile Ministry official accuses Dumbledore of once being “as close as brothers” with Grindelwald, Dumbledore corrects him:

“We were closer than brothers.”

What did that mean?

Possibly over 99% of the theater audience had the first thought:  GAY.  Yes, that was definitely a central part of the picture, and cannot and should not be diminished.

But for me, there are further implications that continue beyond the genders of the characters in this pairing.  I think they hint at answers to several of Dumbledore’s secrets from the Harry Potter series:

  • Why did Dumbledore always seem to despise himself beyond what seemed reasonable?  After all, it was Grindelwald who started the fight that killed Ariana, not Dumbledore.
  • Why did Dumbledore dread “beyond all things the knowledge that it had been I who brought about her death, not merely through my arrogance and stupidity, but that I actually struck the blow that snuffed out her life”?  After all, it would have been an accident, right?  A spell that was not intended to harm Ariana but hit her in the confusion?
  • When Dumbledore relived his worst memory by drinking the potion in the cave, why was this wizard, “a shade more skillful” than Grindelwald, reduced to begging, “Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead…” instead of working his magic to counter the attack?
  • How does this storyline relate to the “gleam of something like triumph in Dumbledore’s eyes” when he learned that Voldemort had taken Harry’s blood?

Guilt:  Albus didn’t love Ariana enough

When Leta Lestrange asked Albus if he loved Ariana, he answered, “Not as well as I should have done.”  

Albus and Gellert mingled their blood in a ritual that bonded them “closer than brothers.”  From then on, each of them would have contained some of the other’s magic in their blood, and they would be closer to each other than to their own siblings.  The mingled blood, as encapsulated in the blood vial, would have represented a new thing:  magic greater than the sum of its already great parts, a union that would have made these two geniuses, working together, close to invincible.

As Newt asked, and Dumbledore confirmed:  “It’s a blood pact, isn’t it?  You swore not to fight each other.”

During the fight that killed Ariana, we do not see Albus and Gellert attacking each other.  We don’t even see anyone attacking Ariana.  The only confirmed, targeted aggression we see is what Aberforth tells Harry, Ron, and Hermione:  “I had the Cruciatus Curse used on me by my brother’s best friend – and Albus was trying to stop him, and then all three of us were dueling, and the flashing lights and the bangs set her off, she couldn’t stand it – “

If Albus had taken a blood oath not to fight Gellert, and the oath made them “closer than brothers,” and it involved the mingling of their blood and therefore, according to the rules of J.K. Rowling’s universe, some of their magic – then Albus’s magic would have allied itself with Grindelwald against anyone else in the world, including his own siblings.

If Albus had cast magic to try to defend Aberforth from a Cruciatus Curse, it would not have worked against Grindelwald’s intentions.

His magic might even have rebounded and simply lent force to Grindelwald’s attacks against other people.

The blood pact meant that when Gellert tortured Aberforth with an Unforgivable, the formerly near-omnipotent Albus was reduced to helplessness and begging.  All of them knew that through this blood oath with the silver-tongued manipulator that Aberforth had warned him about, Albus had relinquished his power to stand in Gellert’s way, even against his own interests.  Voluntarily.

No wonder Aberforth broke Albus’s nose at the funeral.

No wonder Albus didn’t want to know if Ariana died of a spell that Albus intended as a defense of her, in his first experience of what happens to your formerly effective magic when you try to cast defensive spells against your blood oath partner’s intentions.

This is what Albus meant when he told Leta that he had not loved Ariana enough.  He allied his greatest magical loyalty with Grindelwald instead of with his siblings, and it killed her.

The memory of his helplessness to protect his siblings from torture and death, how utterly gullible and culpable he had been, how clearly Aberforth had seen the risks from the beginning, how much irreversible damage Albus’s family suffered because of a fatal romantic error he made in his youth:  that would explain the depth of self-loathing that we see, in glimpses, from the elderly Albus who mentored Harry Potter.

How this connects to Harry Potter

The moment Dumbledore heard that Voldemort had taken Harry’s blood, he got the “fleeting instant” of a gleam like triumph in his eyes, even if the “next second […], he looked as old and weary as Harry had ever seen him.”

The Dumbledore of King’s Cross explained to Harry, “He took your blood believing it would strengthen him.”  The mingling of the blood – one-sided, in the case of Voldemort and Harry, but mutual and voluntary with Albus and Gellert – was intended to supplement and strengthen a person’s native magic with another person’s complementary magic.  From the effects of the blood oath that Albus had taken, he knew firsthand that attacks against the blood-pact partner cannot be effective, since the bond’s power overrides the power of the hostile intention.  He knew that a Killing Curse from Voldemort toward Harry would be no more effective than his own countercurses had been against Grindelwald torturing Aberforth.  That if Voldemort persisted in attacking Harry, his one-sided blood-pact partner, Voldemort’s own spells might even rebound, since his magic was bound to this person who was now “closer than a brother” and might do anything necessary to protect this partner’s life.

This is why Dumbledore told Snape that it was “essential” that Voldemort be the one to kill Harry.  Anyone else’s murder attempt against Harry could have worked, but a Killing Curse from a blood-pact partner would behave differently.  It wouldn’t spare Harry any pain, but Dumbledore knew how Voldemort had just compromised his own power against Harry.

What Albus and Gellert wanted out of the pact

Here, I am speculating, based on the incomplete clues we have so far.

Before 2016, based on Deathly Hallows, I thought Grindelwald wanted to join forces with Dumbledore because it would be good to have a partner who was devoted to him and appeared eager to dedicate his powers to furthering Grindelwald’s cause.  I thought the proposal to bring Ariana along was something Grindelwald said to keep Albus from leaving the campaign.

In 2016, based on the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film, I changed my mind.  What we learned about Obscurials, and Grindelwald’s driving desire to control and exploit an Obscurus, made me think that Ariana had been turned into an Obscurial when she was forced by trauma to suppress her own magic.  This angle made Albus look even more foolish.  How cold and frightening Gellert must have been as a teen if he exploited Albus’s attraction to feign a meeting of minds while secretly keeping Albus close only to gain access to his Obscurial sister.  If this was Gellert’s impetus and he was the one to persuade Albus to swear that they would not fight each other, it would be chilling indeed to think that Gellert contrived the blood pact so he would be able to control Ariana while neutralizing Albus’s ability to stop him.

But now in 2018, based on new information from Crimes of Grindelwald, I have changed my mind again.  As Susan Şipal highlighted in her brilliant video review of the film, Albus told Newt, “An Obscurus grows in the absence of love.”  Whatever Ariana’s struggles, we know she did not lack for love.  Ariana’s father’s misguided and disastrous vigilante vengeance, her mother’s round-the-clock care, and Aberforth’s tenderness all evidenced a degree of love that is different from the conditions required for an Obscurus to grow, assuming Albus was correct.

So perhaps Ariana did not have an Obscurus.  Perhaps Gellert mistakenly thought she did.  Or perhaps his aim in mingling powers with Albus had nothing to do with such a premise.

Perhaps both boys were invested in creating something separate and greater:  the combined power of the two of them acting together, each of them having taken the other’s blood believing it would strengthen them and give each qualities that neither had had before, as Voldemort believed when he reconstituted his body with Harry’s blood.  This heightened sum of their powers, a third entity separate from the two of them, is magically stored in the vial containing their mingled blood.

I believe that their blood pact worked.  I believe the boys were right to think that their magical union would prove ecstatic and give both of them powers they had never had before, and that as long as the two of them worked together, they would be so strong as to be nearly invincible.

I don’t know if Gellert wanted this for himself as much as Albus wanted it, or if Gellert used his manipulative powers to divine that Albus craved the ecstasy of greater magical power above all things and Albus would say yes to anything that would grant it.

I thought at first that Gellert was not invested in the magical power as much as Albus and intended from the start to entrap him.  But after watching Susan Şipal’s video, which I highly recommend (although I will not spoil it here), I see that Gellert stood to risk just as much with the blood oath as Albus did, and may have been just as unable to foresee the consequences.

Do I find it comforting to think that teen Gellert rushed into that brash blood oath just as unwisely as Albus did, rather than plotting it coldly to disempower Albus against him and bind Albus’s magic to him?  I do, yes; it frightens me to think of a teenager being brilliant enough in his evil to be that cold.  It frightens me more to think that anyone, genius or not, could be so compelled by a charismatic liar that they would suppress whatever warning signs they noticed about him, then have to live with the consequences of inviting that person close enough to cause irreversible harm to their family.

In that reading of Albus’s desire for Gellert and subsequent remorse, I am reminded again of one of Rowling’s recurring themes:  that bad romantic choices made in youth, even in partial innocence, at an age when a person cannot understand the full implications of the harm they will cause, can still create lifelong consequences.

Middle-aged Albus looks in the Mirror of Erised and still sees the blood oath.  The magic had worked, after all.  Could anything equal the rush of power that came of mingling magic with a fellow genius, so equal, so attractive, so intense?  It seems to me that the Albus of 1927 has never found anything compelling enough to provide a counterweight to the pull of that ecstasy, and that he knows perfectly well that if he were to betray his conscience and rejoin with Gellert, they would raise that ecstasy again, perhaps even more intensely with the powers they have gained with age.  Can he resist that craving?  Is his only safe choice to keep himself well away from Grindelwald, and try to deploy workarounds and safeguards to help himself resist?

It is a blessing that Dumbledore has Newt Scamander on his side.  It is no wonder that Dumbledore admires the qualities in Newt that make him incorruptible by the likes of Grindelwald.  Their partnership is not the heady, heedless ecstasy of the union between Albus and Gellert.  It is deliberate.  Conscious.  The dynamic between Albus and Newt is priceless when Newt holds up the blood vial, as if to say, Would you care to explain? and Albus looks at him with equal parts of shame, gratitude, and relief at being seen.  As Dumbledore told Leta Lestrange, “Confession is a relief, I’m told.  A great weight lifted.”  In Newt Scamander, Dumbledore has an ally who knows his great flaw and still consents to work with him.

I cannot wait for the rest of this series.

Stay tuned for more posts to come this week about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, including speculation about the identity of Credence Barebone.

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7 thoughts on ““Closer Than Brothers”: What Does It Mean? A thumbs-up Crimes of Grindelwald post (FBCOG #1)

  1. Lorrie, this is beautiful! And so deep. I’m going to have to read it a couple of times to fully appreciate it all. You have such a talent for getting so deep into these characters’ minds and motivations. And I love your use of Dumbledore’s “ecstasy!”

    Like

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