Five Times Irvin Khaytman’s Dumbledore Book Changed My Mind, and One Time It Didn’t

Dumbledore:  The Life and Lies of Hogwarts’s Renowned Headmaster:  An Unofficial Exploration by Irvin Khaytman.  Hardcover, $16.99.

I thought I knew the Harry Potter series pretty well.  Then I read Irvin Khaytman’s book, Dumbledore:  The Life and Lies of Hogwarts’s Renowned Headmaster, an Unofficial Exploration, and realized that my Snape-centric view of the series had occluded my notice of some things about Dumbledore that were in plain sight.  For example, until I read this writing by Irvin, also known to MuggleNet readers as hpboy13, I didn’t realize that the hunt for Horcruxes was the overriding final mission of Dumbledore’s life.  

Brilliantly, Irvin establishes fandom as the home base for his scholarship.  This is a serious analysis, but the writing is not within the academic tradition.  Rather, Irvin cites other writers from the robust and highly informed tradition of online fandom theorizing as the authorities that have most shaped his thinking.  Fan analysis and speculation have been the lifeblood of this series’ longstanding success, but thinkpieces written on ephemeral online platforms, especially by younger writers, often don’t get the respect they deserve.  It feels good to see Irvin’s work presented in this substantial hardcover format. 

Many of Irvin’s arguments gave me new insights or persuaded me to change my mind.  Many of them didn’t, and helped me understand my stance better.

Five Times Irvin’s Book Changed My Mind

1.  Dumbledore didn’t intend Harry to get the Stone out of the Mirror of Erised.

Right off the bat, in the book’s first chapter, Irvin presented me with an idea I’d never considered and persuaded me.  I had always assumed that Dumbledore was setting up a failsafe situation in which the Stone remained in the mirror or else Harry got the Stone and Quirrell wouldn’t be able to touch him.  After reading Irvin’s argument, I believe now that Dumbledore didn’t foresee that Harry might be pure-hearted enough to get the Stone, just as he was surprised, years later, to learn that Draco could prove worthy of the Elder Wand by disarming him and then lowering his wand.

2.  The ring Horcrux was a test, and Dumbledore proved unworthy.

I hadn’t thought much about how the Resurrection Stone was the only object that was both a Horcrux and a Hallow.  But once Irvin helped me see the Horcruxes from Dumbledore’s point of view, I realized that this object defined the Horcruxes vs. Hallows duality as Dumbledore’s struggle, not Harry’s.  Harry wasn’t tempted by the Hallows except, briefly, as a possible boost to his defenses against Voldemort; he didn’t like to think of himself as a child of destiny.  But Dumbledore, like a knight of the Round Table who was almost but not quite worthy of the Holy Grail, momentarily saw the ring only as a Hallow, even though he had sought it out specifically because it was a Horcrux, and paid for this mistake with his life.  The explosion signaled definitively that his quest was over, although Dumbledore was granted an extra year of life because he was using the time unselfishly to protect Harry and others from harm.

I wonder if the soul fragment in the ring Horcrux tried to speak to Dumbledore before he managed to destroy it.  I wonder what it said.

3.  It was Sirius, not Buckbeak, who was the bonus, unintended rescue in Prisoner of Azkaban.

All the times I read the third book, when Dumbledore said more than one innocent life could be saved, I always thought how charming it was that Dumbledore was thinking of Buckbeak, too.  Irvin showed, step by step, that Dumbledore’s plan for the evening actually centered around Buckbeak, and it was only at the last moment that Dumbledore realized that Sirius could be rescued, as well.

4.  The status-conscious Snape was touchy about his decreased access to Dumbledore during Goblet of Fire.

At one point in Goblet of Fire, Harry urgently needs to speak to Dumbledore about Barty Crouch Sr. in the forest, but Snape takes malicious pleasure in impeding him, like a spiteful gargoyle.  I never understood why Snape was so immature in this encounter until I read Irvin’s argument that Snape and Dumbledore are not on good terms during most of this year.  Although I disagree with some of Irvin’s reading, this was the perspective I needed to recognize that Snape’s pettiness came from jealousy and shame over his loss of status.

5.  It is worth stating outright that Dumbledore, rather than Snape, more closely resembles the “prince” of Machiavelli’s treatise.

In my book Snape:  A Definitive Reading, I wrote about the link between Machiavelli’s The Prince and Snape, who called himself the Half-Blood Prince, without noting that Dumbledore is the half-blood whose strategies follow Machiavelli’s precepts even more closely.  Irvin quite rightly corrected me, in this book.  Even Rowling used the word “Machiavellian” to refer to Dumbledore rather than Snape, a fact I remembered but didn’t include.  Considering the way Dumbledore delegates tasks to Snape, such as Occlumency lessons or the delivery of the final message to Harry, I agree that Snape’s position was often closer to that of being the prince’s deputy.  I look forward to correcting my oversight in future editions of my book.

And One Time It Didn’t

One of the most memorable moments in Deathly Hallows comes when Snape asks, aghast, whether Dumbledore has been raising Harry “like a pig for slaughter.”  

Irvin’s reading is that the answer is yes.  My reading differs.  

I believe that we, like Snape and like Harry, are meant to believe that at first and to feel betrayed, and then to see that Dumbledore had a different goal, kinder but more elusive and abstract.  In my reading, 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.  I conclude this based on the King’s Cross moment when spirit-Dumbledore makes it clear that it’s Harry’s choice whether to return and fight or board the train and move on.  The entirety of the King’s Cross chapter takes place with Harry’s soul as “whole, and completely your own,” as Dumbledore says (DH ch35), and I believe that was Dumbledore’s greatest aim.  Harry notes that Dumbledore radiates happiness to see him, even though he has not yet defeated Voldemort or decided to return to battle:  “Harry had never seen the man so utterly, so palpably content” (DH ch35).

I believe Dumbledore’s aim for everyone was to protect their souls.  He engaged Snape to kill him in Draco’s stead to keep Draco’s soul from damage, 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 soul unharmed after killing Dumbledore, and did not proceed until Snape confirmed it.  He had to keep Harry from damaging 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 undivided soul and a choice.

Of course Dumbledore wanted Harry to save the world from Voldemort, but I don’t think that was 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 be whole.

Thank you to Irvin Khaytman for writing a book that inspires me to keep revisiting my thoughts on this tremendous story.

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