Notes from a talk delivered at LeakyCon in Boston, MA, USA, on Saturday, October 12, 2019. A shorter version of this talk was delivered at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA, on Friday, October 18, 2019. Posted by request.
Good morning. I’m going to be talking about a few aspects of how the seven-book series deals with the topic of giftedness. I looked into the education of Hermione, which led to the portrayal of Ravenclaw, and eventually, to aspects of the author herself. This last part I did cautiously, since I know it’s delicate territory. But what I found added such richness and dimension that I decided to include it, with as much love as I could.
The whole series is about a special school, so there is some equation of magical ability with giftedness. But we soon find out that there are all kinds among wizards, too. The opening chapter pits Dumbledore’s style of giftedness against Voldemort’s, when McGonagall says Dumbledore is the only one Voldemort was frightened of. Dumbledore replies, “Voldemort had powers I will never have,” and McGonagall says, “Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.” Dumbledore deflects that compliment. Rowling is playing a truly long game of foreshadowing here; we won’t find out why he doesn’t think he deserves it until the end of the seventh book.
Some other gifted people we hear about: Gellert Grindelwald. Quirrell, of whom Hagrid says, “Brilliant mind. He was fine while he was studyin’ outta books but then he took a year off ter get some first-hand experience. . . . ” Barty Crouch, Sr., who speaks “over two hundred languages.” According to Sirius, “Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side.” Snape can Occlude the (self-proclaimed) world’s greatest Legilimens and, as an “imaginative” but “dodgy” teen, surpassed the author of his school textbook as a potioneer. In all of these cases, these people’s extraordinary powers forced them to confront moral issues beyond what most people deal with, and generally speaking, they did not always do well. Or, as Dumbledore put it, “Being — forgive me — rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.”
Perhaps the purest embodiment of the potential creepiness of genius is Ollivander, who makes Harry shiver when he speaks reverently of Voldemort’s evil powers as “terrible, yes, but great.” Ollivander is sorry that Voldemort destroyed Harry’s family. But his curiosity about absolute degrees of magical power keeps breaking through and overriding his moral considerations. This is, of course, what you want from someone whose calling is to see the true nature of each customer, without judgment. But Harry isn’t sure he likes this person.
And in the midst of all these morally ambiguous, gifted adults, we have the education of Hermione Granger, whom Remus Lupin calls, nervously, “the cleverest witch of your age I’ve ever met.”
It all starts with “books and cleverness.”
You know the scene I’m talking about, right? First-year Hermione has just brilliantly gotten Harry through Snape’s logic puzzle that contained deadly poisons and is about to drink down a potion that seals her decision to leave him to a fight that he might not survive. Hermione tells Harry he’s a great wizard, he mumbles that he’s not as good as she is, and then this 12-year-old girl disavows her gifts: “Me! Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and…”
Did anyone else find that passage painfully self-effacing? Was anyone else surprised by it?
One of the trickiest things for me about that line was that in this male-centric story, Hermione was the girl sidekick I was identifying with, and hearing her put down her own giftedness hurt. I hadn’t seen any evidence to that point that she devalued books and cleverness, when they were clearly such sources of joy for her. I figured the author was trying to make the point that heroism is attainable for anyone, not just top students. I wondered, though, about putting that message in the mouth of the character who faced hurtful ostracism because books and cleverness were so fundamental to her true self.
I couldn’t help thinking… They come to your house when you’re 11 and say, Those things you can do, that no one else can do? We’ll take you to a special school where everyone else can do them, too. And then Hermione goes there, and… those promises don’t come true. The children here are just as frustrating as the ones at home. And they laugh at her. I wondered, Where is Hermione’s anger?
I started looking at what this author had provided for Hermione by way of support for this character’s giftedness. Which felt like a ridiculous way to put it, thinking of the author as responsible for the well-being of a character according to my concerns…but in an incredibly detailed story about the education of children, it is on topic to take note of where the author is directing the reader’s attention. We’re supposed to notice that Harry needs friends, that Neville comes from an overbearing home, that Ron is self-conscious about money. What do we do for the girl who arrives at school having memorized the textbooks? The one who Rowling, gifted writer and former Head Girl, acknowledged was based on herself at the same age?
When we look closely, we can catch glimpses of evidence, through moments when Hermione’s life is visible on the periphery of Harry’s story, that the Hogwarts staff recognizes Hermione’s need for an independent study track.
The first hint of this comes in Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry sets Hermione spying on Snape.
“I’m sorry, Harry!” she wailed. “Snape came out and asked me what I was doing, so I said I was waiting for Flitwick, and Snape went to get him, and I’ve only just got away.”
That would have been the last we heard of that, but later, Harry worries that his friends might get expelled for accompanying him through the trapdoor.
“Not if I can help it,” said Hermione grimly. “Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve percent on his exam. They’re not going to throw me out after that.”
It’s a startling moment. So teachers communicate with her in secret, in a way that they never do with most students. She’s almost like a peer of theirs in the mature way she keeps quiet about this status; she wasn’t going to say anything about it. The word “grimly” makes an impact, too. For Hermione, studies are a matter of life or death.
Snape generally ignores Hermione, when he can. This will be his basic policy toward this student for the whole time he is her teacher, although he pays the price for ignoring her when she exploits that tendency in order to set fire to his robes, steal from his stores, or sneak past him to retrieve Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. But when we get to the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, we find that he has designed the potions puzzle as a custom-written final exam for her first year.
So he has been paying attention to her, after all. He’s observed the way her mind works. He foresees that she will be with Harry until the very last stage. With Hermione in mind, he has brewed the potions, selected bottles, and composed the rhyming verse. This is what it looks like when Snape teaches her, at last.
So Hermione comes upon the puzzle, and wonder of wonders, it relaxes her: “Hermione let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.” She and Dumbledore share this trait: smiling with genuine happiness when they get to use their brains, even when they’re in mortal danger. We see Dumbledore do this in the cave when he detects Voldemort’s boat: “‘Oho!’ said Dumbledore happily,” while Harry is staring at corpses. Hermione “beams” this way, too.
Then she takes a long drink of the potion Snape has brewed for her, shudders, and tells Harry no, it’s not poison – “but it’s like ice.” It is a chilling message: she solves the puzzle and the potion tells her that she, with her books and cleverness, is not the protagonist of this story. She turns around and leaves.
In her second year, Hermione’s independent study track includes defense against Slytherin’s monster, which is trying to murder Muggle-borns like herself. She discovers what the monster is and how it travels, she brews Polyjuice Potion and strategizes a covert operation, and when her half-blood and Pureblood friends seem reluctant, she tells them angrily that she is going to continue to fight for Muggle-borns. She’s attacked for being a minority and this causes her to fall behind on several months of schooling, confirming her worry that Muggle-borns have to work harder for rights that others take for granted. She needs to make up this time if she’s going to have a chance at survival, as her academic adviser knows. In an almost throwaway line, tucked into a humorous paragraph about choosing classes for third year, we see that “Hermione took nobody’s advice but signed up for everything,” setting the stage for her Time-Turner year.
McGonagall gets Ministry permission to sponsor Hermione’s third-year independent study track, the year she learns how exhausting it is as a minority to take the same time as everyone else to do twice the work. We even get a grim but funny joke about Hermione missing out on Cheering Charms because she’s sleep-deprived, highlighting the psychological toll it takes. Her independent studies include paralegal work for Buckbeak’s defense and Jane Austen-style sleuthing about Harry’s Firebolt. In her coursework, though, this is the only year Hermione’s Defense Against the Dark Arts studies suffer because of the teacher Dumbledore has hired for the year. She’s usually able to work around teachers and keep up on her own, but this year, she fails part of her final exam, which brings me to the topic of Lupin vs. Snape as her teachers.
On two fronts, I have wondered: where is Hermione’s anger? Where is her anger at the classmates who name-call her but cannot keep up with her, so that she must sit daily through coursework at a pace that is profoundly unsuited to her? And I’ve wondered, where is her anger at Snape, who ignores her or insults her? Except for that one time he kills Dumbledore, she never seems to hold a grudge against him.
In book 3, while Harry and Ron aren’t talking to Hermione, she lets loose once. They can’t guess what ails Lupin and she shoves by them and says, “Tuh.” I’ve heard people say Ron and Harry are not particularly observant, but I don’t think that’s it here; nobody else guesses, either. It’s that Hermione is gifted and remarkably restrained about not expressing frustration with her peers.
And when Snape serves as Lupin’s substitute teacher, and heaps insults on Lupin for teaching the third-years things that he’d expect first-years to know, and calls Hermione an insufferable know-it-all for interrupting his insults with attempts to provide helpful information: Hermione turns red and cries, but she doesn’t get angry. She even reprimands Ron for calling Snape a bad name.
Perhaps this is because Hermione agrees with Snape. She’s too nice to say so, and far too community-minded, but she’s on the same page he is — 394, to be exact. For once, instead of Hermione having to endure learning at the pace of her classmates, a teacher is expecting them to learn at Hermione’s pace. Of course she’s the only one to do the assignment, and she gets out of it exactly what he intended. Snape seems like just the kind of gifted person who should not be teaching introductory classes because he was practically born knowing how to do things and thinks most people are somehow faking it for obstinate, mysterious reasons when they have to take actual time to learn new material. But his teaching style turns out to be so well-suited to this child that it even outweighs his charming personality. I think she might have found it refreshing that someone else thinks a first-year should know this material.
When I looked at Hermione studying under Lupin, I found, to my surprise, that he was a worse teacher for her than Snape. Unlike Snape, Lupin understands the process of learning and gears his instruction to the general class level, making him a better teacher for the majority. It would have been one thing if he simply neglected to make provisions for Hermione’s needs as a gifted student, but he does something more damaging: he actively suppresses her learning. He teaches that exemplary class on boggarts through active practice, the opposite of “books and cleverness” or Umbridge’s policy of reading the theory only, and several students get practical experience in banishing boggarts, but the text draws our attention to the fact that two do not. Lupin gives Harry and Hermione points for answering questions correctly even though they have not tackled the boggart.
We get an explanation later about Harry: Lupin knew Harry would have been bothered by this pointed exclusion, and explained that he was afraid Harry’s boggart would be too frightening for the others to see. But we never get an explanation for why Hermione doesn’t get a turn, although the author includes Hermione saying aloud that she wishes she had. If we look at the scene, Lupin intercepts the boggart when it approaches Harry, it turns into the moon, then instead of calling on Harry or Hermione, Lupin calls Neville for a second turn. Did Lupin take instruction time away from the gifted girl, assuming she could afford to lose it, in favor of a student who has special needs of a different sort? If you have gifted students in your life, you know that this is something that does happen: sometimes gifted students don’t even receive the same basic attention given to most of the class, or are expected to give up their own class time to help tutor their peers, and this results in gaps in their own learning. Hermione outright fails the boggart portion of her final exam that year.
Or did Lupin step in because he was threatened by Hermione’s insight? Later, in the Shrieking Shack, he asks, “Did you realize that the boggart changed into the moon when it saw me?” Did he flinch in class at the thought of being seen by this perceptive child, so that he suppressed part of her education due to his own fear? This is also something that happens to gifted students in real life. It’s counterintuitive, but the only thing we see Hermione learning in Defense Against the Dark Arts that year is not from the kind teacher but from Snape.
Hermione has three independent projects in her fourth year: S.P.E.W., the Yule Ball, and the fight against tabloid journalists. For gifted students, especially, the issue of attractiveness can be a loaded one, as Snape can attest. Once Hermione reigns as the belle of the Yule Ball, at the midpoint of this seven-year timeline, she becomes impervious to taunts about her looks.
Fifth year is when Hermione’s independent studies most notably place friendship and bravery before books and cleverness. She asserts, to the shock of Harry and Ron, that resistance and activism are “much more important than homework.” She sets up a guerrilla training camp, recruits an instructor, and demonstrates that censorship doesn’t work but underground journalism does. Amazing. We get continued evidence that the actual teachers see her almost as a peer when McGonagall talks to Harry about Umbridge’s welcoming speech, on the memorable occasion that she offers him a biscuit. He says something almost insightful and she eyes him “for a moment” and says, “Well, I’m glad you listen to Hermione Granger at any rate.” Hermione must have discussed the speech privately with McGonagall already.
Sixth year is the year of Snape, and therefore Hermione gets no independent studies or any special notice at all. We learn that he only accepted “Outstanding” students into his N.E.W.T. Potions class, a piece of information that’s a bit of a relief — if this grumpy prodigy has to be in a classroom at all, he should probably only ever teach students who, like him, don’t need to learn the basics. Hermione, though, has a miserable, rotten year in which she is trounced by both Harry and some “Half-Blood Prince” person in Potions, gets no House points for mastering nonverbal magic, is wrong about everything to do with Draco, and watches Ron date her roommate. She gets, at most, partial credit for coming close to identifying the Half-Blood Prince.
Seventh year, though, Dumbledore assigns her an independent study in Ancient Runes, and her senior project gets published.
Rowling addresses the issue of Hermione’s giftedness directly when Hermione invents the communication Galleons for the DA. The others greet the coins with “a blank silence” and Hermione is “rather disconcerted,” feeling a classic sort of confusion familiar to many people who don’t know if they’re coming across as clever, obvious, or simply crazy.
“‘Well — I thought it was a good idea,’ she said uncertainly, ‘but…well, if you don’t want to use them…’”
To Hermione’s relief, Terry Boot, a Ravenclaw, demands to know why she isn’t in Ravenclaw, with her brains. So the Galleons must have struck the others as a good idea, then. Thank goodness. She explains that the Sorting Hat almost put her there, “but it decided on Gryffindor in the end.”
We can see why Hermione ended up in Gryffindor, but any attempt to understand why someone did or did not get Sorted into Ravenclaw is impeded by the fact that Rowling, the queen of world-building, is uncharacteristically muddled when it comes to this Hogwarts House.
As many of us have noted, Ravenclaw is the most nebulously depicted of the Houses. Are we blue and bronze, or blue and silver? Are we eagles or ravens? Are there any Ravenclaws in the Order of the Phoenix? It’s almost as if, when it comes to Ravenclaws, there’s an attitude of, “Who cares?” When it’s time for Harry to hunt Horcruxes, he can rattle off items with precision except for the vague descriptor, “something of Gryffindor’s or Ravenclaw’s.” The other House artifacts are valuable and treated as such: the ring and locket are treasured, the glowing cup is in a vault, the sword is celebrated, but the tiara is a piece of crap. It’s described as battered and tarnished, shoved amongst mountains of garbage atop the bust of an ugly old warlock in a wig.
After the books were finished, when Rowling started identifying the Houses of more characters, do you remember the reader outcry against all the villains being Slytherin, and how, at some point, Rowling started to assign questionable or villainous characters to Ravenclaw, instead? Lockhart, she said, was Ravenclaw; so were Trelawney, Ollivander, and Quirrell. I wonder if she originally meant Quirrell to be a Slytherin; after the Welcoming Feast, Harry dreams that Quirrell tells him to go to Slytherin and the other people in that nightmare — Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort — are all Slytherins.
To me, Ollivander is the quintessential Ravenclaw. He is intrigued by the possibilities of channeling Voldemort’s power through exceptional wands, but he also tells Harry he is sorry to say that he sold the wand that scarred him. So it’s not that he’s completely amoral; it’s that he can simultaneously be moral and amoral, which is, I think, more chilling. We can’t be certain whether he’s going to have a conscience or immerse himself in value-free pursuit of pure knowledge. Maybe this is why the world finds Ravenclaws creepy! The thing is, there’s nothing about being able to appreciate pure knowledge that precludes our having consciences and strong morals.
But looking at Quirrell, Ollivander, and Lockhart, it’s clear that Rowling’s Ravenclaws come pre-installed with intellectual curiosity, but morals or conscience are optional. Quirrell says he did once have “ridiculous ideas about good and evil,” but when he met Voldemort, he changed his mind to believe, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. . . .”
Ollivander says that “the idea of the Dark Lord in possession of the Deathstick is, I must admit . . . formidable,” reminding Harry that he had always been unsure of how much he liked Ollivander: “Even now, having been tortured and imprisoned by Voldemort, the idea of the Dark wizard in possession of this wand seemed to enthrall him as much as it repulsed him.”
Lacking conscience but still brilliant is how Rowling portrays Voldemort. Dumbledore tells Harry, “Never forget, though, that while his soul may be damaged beyond repair, his brain and his magical powers remain intact.” No wonder I get the sense that Rowling mistrusts Ravenclaws.
In a fandom where many readers are especially invested in the concept of the “death of the author,” which holds that stories must be understood without regard to the intentions or life circumstances of the author, it can be fraught to admit to looking to the author’s life and psyche to shed light on how the text came to be the way it is. I tend to be quiet about doing so, mindful of how important “death of the author” is for some fans who want to retain a connection to the Harry Potter stories while feeling disagreement with the author. But for this topic, I decided to go there and see where it takes me, because in my view, Rowling demonstrates quite vividly that it is illuminating and rewarding to consider the author when engaging deeply with a piece of fiction. I’m going to talk about a few instances that convinced me.
Most iconically, Rowling packaged the Harry Potter stories with information about herself and her intentions: it’s part of the story that she was a single mother, humbled to be struggling and dependent on assistance instead of making a splash as a writer, the way she and others always expected of her. We know her grief over her mother’s death informed all of the series, and that she longed to see and speak to her mother again, as Harry longs for his lost family. She wanted us to know these things, and I know I welcomed the way they enriched my understanding of the books, of her characters who rail against the burden of caregiving and then are ashamed of their ungraciousness. I am not sorry that this background informs my reading.
Here is some other information about the author that has only deepened my understanding in a way that I welcome. We know, partly because Rowling’s own father betrayed her by selling information to a tabloid, that she survived domestic violence in her first marriage; we heard her say, in a subsequent interview, that she was replicating family patterns she had learned as a child. This information made me understand the Fidelius Charm as a magical version of what we Muggles call a “safe house.” We know that Rowling’s mother blossomed in her job working for a chemistry teacher Rowling disliked, who was one of the inspirations for the character of Snape. This information helped me understand the complex dynamic of someone, in adulthood, revisiting their view of a teacher who had been cruel to them as a child but had been a friend to their mother.
This background enriched my reading enough that I found it worthwhile to keep looking. I had wondered why Rowling chose to write James and Lily marrying and becoming parents so young; I stopped wondering when I learned that Rowling’s parents had been that age when she was born. When I first read in Deathly Hallows that Snape had seen Lily’s joyous ability to fly, I wasn’t sure if Rowling meant that her character actually, literally, flew — until I learned that her mother’s maiden name was Anne Volant, the French word for “flying.” In a series that is so deliberate about the magic of names, and especially the names of mothers, learning the full name of the author’s mother enriched my understanding in a way that I would never want to give back.
The biggest gut punch came when I learned that Rowling’s father is named Peter James Rowling. I resisted thinking about that for a while; it was too much. But I could not in any way make myself believe that this author, in particular, gave two major characters the same names as a family member by accident or coincidence. I had wondered why James Potter was so difficult to find in the stories. We get unflattering memories of him as a student, and we hear of his goodness as a young man, but when we see him as a father, he’s barely there: when Voldemort kills him, unlike the complex view we get of Lily’s death, “James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut.” We get a much more vivid portrait of Peter Pettigrew, making me wonder if Rowling wrote different aspects of her view of her own father into these two characters, one despicable, one heroic but elusive.
After making these connections, I couldn’t help wondering if considering the author might also help me gain insight into the portrayal of Ravenclaw House and why it’s so much more nebulous and ambivalent than the other three. With HP, Cursed Child, and Fantastic Beasts, this author has given us Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff points of view. She hasn’t written a Ravenclaw story. What if it’s Ravenclaw, not Slytherin, that is her shadow House, the House of aspects about herself that frighten her, or that she wants to repress?
We meet the ghosts of Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff houses on Harry’s first night at Hogwarts. Seven years and literally a million words later, on page 613 of Deathly Hallows, Harry asks Nearly Headless Nick this astonishing question:
“Who’s the ghost of Ravenclaw Tower?”
I know some people like to rib Harry for times he’s unobservant, but in this case, I’m going to attribute this lacuna to the author, rather than the character.
Nick points out a “young woman with long hair,” a ghost Harry had “passed several times in the corridor, but to whom he had never spoken,” who raises her eyebrows and drifts away through solid wall when she sees Harry looking at her. According to Rowling, she had written this ghost into the series twice before, but never identified her, once in Harry’s first year as “the ghost of a tall witch,” once in Harry’s sixth year as “the ghost of a long-haired woman,” with no indication that they were meant to be the Gray Lady, or indeed, even the same ghost both times. Page 613 of the final book is a supremely odd moment to be introducing a brand-new character, the last one until the Epilogue: Voldemort has begun his attack on Hogwarts, students are streaming out to safety, fighters are taking their stations. Is this really the time to be making introductions and wheedling information out of someone who is elusive, even for a ghost?
But Harry needs to find the Ravenclaw diadem, which Flitwick describes as “long since lost” — “Nobody has seen it in living memory!”
The Gray Lady confesses, with profound shame, that she stole the diadem from her mother because “I sought to make myself cleverer, more important than my mother. I ran away with it.” I’m not sure Rowling intended this comparison, but we have found, at last, another force so powerful that it survives beyond death, just as love does: guilt. She’s been so ashamed about something she did centuries ago that she can’t rest in peace. She confesses to Harry that she told Voldemort where to find the diadem: “He was . . . flattering. He seemed to . . . to understand . . . to sympathize. . . .” Even as a ghost, she craved relief from this guilt.
Could it be that the author identifies with the Gray Lady, hating that she had once thought herself, with her intellectual promise, cleverer and more important than her mother? At the end of book 7, is the author, like book 1 Hermione, disavowing “books and cleverness” in favor of greater things? I almost think that’s a stretch, but I find it hard to dismiss entirely, especially when we learn that Helena Ravenclaw was attacked by a possessive would-be lover. The consideration that makes it most difficult for me to dismiss is the intense sense of shame and ambivalence around this part of the story, long past the point in the plot when we expect a whole new development to interrupt the momentum of a thunderous finale. When Harry hears the Gray Lady’s story, he thinks, “— here at last was a secret he and Voldemort knew, that Dumbledore had never discovered.” The battered, tarnished old diadem is shoved into the cathedral-sized city of unwanted garbage, the collective guilt of centuries; and the Gray Lady stammers and whispers her shame to Harry in bitter and defensive tones, her urge to confess struggling against her cold desire to keep her shame secret; and the author who had regrets about her late mother and had once survived domestic violence showed, I think, enormous ambivalence and reluctance in being unable to finish her cathartic epic without blurting out, at the very last moment, that she had written a faint trace of a long-ago past version of herself into the books, although she had only been able to bring herself to write this ghost twice, nameless and voiceless and nearly invisible. As if the author, herself, had felt too ashamed to show this part of herself to Dumbledore, but had only been able to confess it to Voldemort and then shoved it into the Room of Requirement like something dark or broken.
Rowling’s saga was almost over. She was running out of Horcruxes. Harry, Dumbledore, and Ron had already had the opportunity to destroy a Horcrux and confront something in themselves; another two were reserved for Hermione and Neville.
Who killed Ravenclaw’s Horcrux?
Maybe if she hurried and dragged a part of herself out of its obscure hiding place, the part she could barely think about and couldn’t even always articulate in fantasy, there was still time for Harry to help her destroy a Horcrux and face something of her own.
Here’s how that Horcrux dies:
“A bloodlike substance, dark and tarry, seemed to be leaking from the diadem. Suddenly Harry felt the thing vibrate violently, then break apart in his hands, and as it did so, he thought he heard the faintest, most distant scream of pain, echoing not from the grounds or the castle, but from the thing that had just fragmented in his fingers.”
I hope this brought Rowling some peace.
Dumbledore takes up the story from here, talking to Harry from the afterlife about the damage he caused by seeking to set his clever self above being a caregiver for his loved ones.
“You cannot despise me more than I despise myself.”
“But I don’t despise you —”
“Then you should… I resented it, Harry… I was gifted, I was brilliant. I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory. I loved my parents, I loved my brother and sister, but I was selfish… Trapped and wasted, I thought! And then, of course, he came…. Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me. Master of death, which we took to mean ‘invincible.’”
After the death of Ariana, Dumbledore refused the post of Minister of Magic: “I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation. I was safer at Hogwarts. I think I was a good teacher…”
That’s such an understatement, it’s almost funny. Of course, Dumbledore was the greatest of teachers. But it wasn’t the magic he most longed to cast. He didn’t have the internal ability to limit his desire for power, so he had to establish teaching as a form of self-protection, a way to keep himself occupied away from power. He explained something similar to Harry in his sixth year:
“’You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!’ said Dumbledore loudly. ‘The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s!’”
Dumbledore was remembering his weakness for power when he deflected McGonagall’s praise for being too “noble” to assume the same powers as Voldemort. Of course, Quirrell was wrong when he said, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” Harry said as much when Voldemort boasted during the final battle that he had “performed magic that Dumbledore himself never dreamed of.”
“Oh, he dreamed of it,” said Harry, “but he knew more than you, knew enough not to do what you’ve done.”
“You mean he was weak!” screamed Voldemort. “Too weak to dare, too weak to take what might have been his, what will be mine!”
“No, he was cleverer than you,” said Harry, “a better wizard, a better man.”
Having once permitted his giftedness unchecked rein, having once put no limits and no protections on his ambition for invincible power and then having grieved endlessly for Ariana’s death, as well as the fascism he encouraged in Grindelwald, Dumbledore limited his destructive power by turning his genius to teaching, to spreading love and protection and gifts to others.
I hope Rowling is at peace with the Ravenclaw aspect of herself. She did, after all, come to reign over the world with her giftedness, but I don’t think she used it to set herself above others. I think she found ways to build her genius into the warmth of her children’s stories and her work with Lumos and other foundations, spreading love and protection and gifts to others.