“Your brother seeks to destroy you”: More about that blood oath (FBCoG #2)

This post builds upon my previous blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  Crimes of Grindelwald. Header image shows the prop used in the film to represent Credence Barebone’s adoption certificate.


Who or what is Credence Barebone?

Grindelwald has an answer.  Whether it is completely true or not, he has a story that he is telling to his followers and to Credence.

He tells his followers that Credence is “the key to our victory,” “the only entity alive who can kill Dumbledore.”  He claims that he knows “the strange and glorious truth” of who Credence is.

According to Dumbledore, “An Obscurus grows in the absence of love as a dark twin, an only friend. If Credence has a real brother or sister out there who can take its place, he might yet be saved.”

Assuming that this new information is true, it raises the question:  When an Obscurus is replaced by “a real brother or sister,” what happens to it?

We have seen in at least one instance that it’s possible for an Obscurus to be contained outside its host, and that it may still be dangerous.  Newt warned Jacob away from getting too close to the one in his suitcase.  

But usually, an Obscurus dies when separate from its host.  If it is forced apart from the Obscurial because of a brother or sister, it seems likely that the Obscurus would experience this as a fatal form of sibling rivalry and attack the rival.

Dumbledore and Grindelwald performed a blood ceremony that made them “closer than brothers.”  If Grindelwald had an Obscurus, as Susan Şipal has speculated, then gaining Dumbledore as someone even closer than a brother would have forced the Obscurus out.

But if Dumbledore and Grindelwald shared blood, becoming closer than brothers, perhaps that means that any Obscurus tied to Grindelwald is now tied to Dumbledore as well.  If an Obscurus is developed out of suppression and lovelessness, a bond of love like the one Dumbledore entered into with Grindelwald would be a vow to take on and heal the partner’s pain.

In the final scene of the movie, Grindelwald tells Credence, “You have suffered the most heinous of betrayals, most purposely bestowed upon you by your own blood. Your own flesh and blood. And just as he has celebrated your torment, your brother seeks to destroy you.”

Grindelwald does not say who this “own flesh and blood” is who betrayed Credence.  The wording does not require the person who betrayed Credence to be the same person as the brother who “seeks to destroy” Credence, which is a kind of omission wordplay that J.K. Rowling has used before.  

Speculation:  If Dumbledore mingled his blood and magic with Grindelwald’s, and the Obscurus within Credence was once Grindelwald’s, that might make Dumbledore as well as Grindelwald into Credence’s “own blood.”  If the Obscurus was threatened by Dumbledore’s union with Grindelwald, it might have attacked Dumbledore dangerously enough for a phoenix to come to help.  

We know that phoenixes can intercept a would-be murder attempt, sacrificing themselves, because Fawkes does that for Dumbledore at the end of Order of the Phoenix:  “Fawkes swooped down in front of Dumbledore, opened his beak wide, and swallowed the jet of green light whole. He burst into flame and fell to the floor, small, wrinkled, and flightless.”  Phoenixes also have other miraculous powers, such as the ability to heal fatal wounds or carry heavy loads.

Is it possible that Credence contains an Obscurus that is a brother to Dumbledore because it was once Grindelwald’s “dark twin”?  That this “dark twin” attacked Dumbledore, attracting a phoenix, and that the phoenix somehow became the Obscurus’s new host and took on a human form?  This is speculation upon speculation, but fun enough to be worth taking further.  What if the “entity” known as Credence is a combination of Grindelwald’s Obscurus and a human form of a Dumbledore phoenix, and this is part of what draws Credence into a friendship with Nagini, another hybrid human/magical beast?

This theory would explain how Dumbledore could be considered Credence’s brother even though Percival and Kendra Dumbledore both died before Credence’s birth (which is given as November 9, 1904 on his adoption certificate, even though infant Credence is shown making a sea voyage in 1901).

Grindelwald told Credence that his brother “celebrated his torment.”  If Dumbledore was happy to separate Grindelwald from a parasitic Obscurus that would eventually kill Grindelwald, that might feel to the Obscurus like a celebration of torment.  

As for “your brother seeks to destroy you,” if Grindelwald once hosted this Obscurus, this “dark twin,” he would certainly count as Credence’s brother.  We know he wants the Obscurus to kill Dumbledore and does not care about Credence, the Obscurial; this could count as seeking to destroy him.  Dumbledore’s desire to save Credence by finding a real brother or sister to replace the Obscurus could also be the meaning behind “seeks to destroy you,” if Grindelwald is talking to the Obscurus more than to the Obscurial.

In the hypothetical scenario where young Dumbledore and Grindelwald, having bonded, have encased Grindelwald’s Obscurus within a phoenix or other magical protection, there might have been a disagreement.  Dumbledore might have wanted the Obscurus destroyed or contained; Grindelwald might have wanted to keep it as a weapon, horrifying Dumbledore.  This disagreement could have led to Dumbledore sending the Obscurus away to hide it from Grindelwald.

I went into Crimes of Grindelwald thinking that perhaps Credence will eventually turn into Fawkes after playing a major role in the 1945 duel and sacrificing himself.  After seeing the movie, I believe less in that theory, since the Dumbledore phoenix connection was brought up explicitly at the beginning of the second of five films.  But this theory is too pretty for me to let go of yet:  Credence as Fawkes, dying and being reborn, perhaps reaching a state of greater purity with each rebirth until he can assume his eventual phoenix shape in a form of alchemical transformation, as hinted by the name Aurelius, “golden.”  

If Credence is, or will become, Fawkes, that would explain two things to me:

What will this series do with the fact that unlike Harry and Draco, who avoided splitting their souls by committing murder although each came very close, Credence has actually caused deaths, including the death of his innocent foster sister?  The guilt of having caused death, no matter how unintentionally, is one of the major themes of Potterverse.  If Credence, as Fawkes, sacrifices himself to protect others and is then reborn into a different identity, a higher form of existence, that could address his culpability for those deaths.

If Credence really is a Dumbledore sibling, why was there no mention of him in Deathly Hallows?  How could something that important be omitted completely?  Unless…it wasn’t.  Perhaps he was in the series all along, giving tail feathers for wand cores, fighting the basilisk, living in Dumbledore’s office, gnawing on cuttlebone, appearing to people who showed great loyalty to Dumbledore, healing wounds and singing phoenix song.

Next blog post to come:  Credence in search of his story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“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.

“And my soul, Dumbledore?”:  The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship

Note:  Dear good people, do not do what I did.  Do not throw out everything you prepared for writing a 20-minute talk on the day before the talk is scheduled because you’ve just realized that there’s something you really have to write about, so you have to scrap everything and start over.  That was not a pleasant 24 hours.  I do not recommend that experience and hope not to repeat it.

At any rate, here is what I ended up delivering at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College on October 19, 2018.


Welcome to the talk that I titled weeks ago, optimistically, “‘And my soul, Dumbledore?  The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship.”

My name is Lorrie Kim.  I’ve been writing about the Harry Potter series for over ten years, including a book called Snape:  A Definitive Reading that goes through the series from Snape’s point of view.  In July, I read my friend Irvin Khaytman’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, which examines Dumbledore’s character through the series.  I thought I was ready to talk about Snape’s relationship with Dumbledore.

Yesterday, I threw out what I had already prepared and wrote these rough comments, based on words in Deathly Hallows that I first read eleven years and countless rereads ago but did not fully notice until Tuesday, something that had been sitting in plain sight until I was ready to understand its import and start making fresh connections.

And this is the magic that keeps me coming back to Harry Potter analysis.  There’s something new every time.  I hope you can forgive the rawness of these thoughts and accept, in lieu of polish, the excitement that comes of new ideas whenever we gather to discuss this story that still has fresh surprises for us.

This is the passage I read afresh on Tuesday.  We’re back in Grimmauld Place, tears dripping from the ends of our noses as we read the second page of Lily’s letter:

could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald.  I think her mind’s going, personally!  Lots of love, Lily.

In 2016, I wrote about that passage:  “At last, we see what was on the missing second page.  Not much.  She couldn’t believe that a good man like Dumbledore could have been friends with the evil Grindelwald.  And then – oh.  Her love.  That’s what was on the second page.”  I went on to discuss this scene as the moment that Snape, who has just split his soul by killing his mentor, reintegrates it by experiencing remorse for destroying the family life of a one-year-old child– the one time in this series that Rowling shows us a character undergoing this excruciating process that is so painful it could destroy you.

I still stand by my 2016 reading that we were witnessing remorse.

I do not still stand by my words, “Not much.”  Because on Tuesday, it occurred to me that this moment is the first time Snape learns that Dumbledore, whose soul seemed surely more pure than Snape’s ugly, Dark-Marked soul, had once been Grindelwald’s friend.

Every crisis of faith that Harry goes through in Deathly Hallows regarding Dumbledore, Snape went through, too, during the same time, on even less information and assurance than Harry.

Remember Harry’s reaction upon reading Elphias Doge’s eulogy of Dumbledore in the Daily Prophet, which was published a few days after Snape went to Grimmauld Place?

He had never thought to ask Dumbledore about his past. No doubt it would have felt strange, impertinent even, but after all, it had been common knowledge that Dumbledore had taken part in that legendary duel with Grindelwald, and Harry had not thought to ask Dumbledore what that had been like.

And then remember Harry’s “revulsion and fury” when he read Rita Skeeter’s hints that Dumbledore “dabbled in the Dark Arts himself as a youth,” and it had to do with Grindelwald.  Harry’s growing fears about Dumbledore as he camped in the wilderness, no Horcruxes in sight, and then the shock as he read Skeeter’s biography and the incontrovertible proof, in Dumbledore’s own young adult hand, that he had once been Grindelwald’s partner, ardent and fully invested, in plotting fascism.

Snape went through those realizations, too, at the same time.

This was Harry’s agony as he learned of Dumbledore’s past:

“Look what he asked from me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don’t expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I’m doing, trust me even though I don’t trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!”

Well.

We get few glimpses into Snape’s thoughts during his final year, but sometimes it’s not difficult to hazard a guess.

Parts of Snape’s situation were different from Harry’s.  He didn’t have any confidants; he had to process this information alone.  He had far less reason than Harry to believe that Dumbledore had loved him.  He didn’t hear Aberforth’s account of the story.

Unlike Harry, who responded to Hermione’s attempt to minimize Dumbledore’s friendship with Grindelwald as “a few months one summer when they were both really young” by retorting, “They were the same age as we are now.  And here we are, risking our lives to fight the Dark Arts,” the news about Dumbledore’s past, his former fascism and the death of Ariana, changed Snape’s perception of Dumbledore in a way that made Snape less alone, not more.

This news put several things about Dumbledore in a different light where Snape was concerned.  His testimony to the Wizengamot that Snape “is now no more a Death Eater than I am.”  His unwavering conviction, in the face of skepticism, that Snape’s change of heart was genuine and not an act.  His gratitude when Snape was able to halt the damage to his hand from the ring Horcrux:  “I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, to have you.”  His insistence on Snape, and only Snape, to counter Dark Magic at Hogwarts:  as long as Dumbledore had Snape, he was not alone as someone who understood how to cast Dark Magic and therefore how to fight it, understood both its appeal and how to resist it.

So the times that Dumbledore had annoyed Snape by idealizing Harry Potter as pure of heart, he was comparing Harry favorably not to Snape but to himself.  We readers knew this, but Snape, always jealous of Dumbledore’s affection for Potters father and son, had not, until he learned of Dumbledore’s past.

Most of all, Snape’s understanding of Dumbledore’s guilt about his past gave new significance to the harshest words that Dumbledore speaks to anybody:  “You disgust me.”  The moment that Dumbledore judges Snape, who sees nothing wrong with begging for Lily’s life in exchange for the lives of her husband and child, is a judgment that comes not from moral superiority but from recognition.  And that resonates with a familiar theme in J.K. Rowling’s writing:  the sentiment, “You cannot despise me more than I despise myself.”  Even her kindest characters speak with venom when feeling defensive and self-loathing.

Undeniably, Snape caused some real harm in his role as a teacher, but he achieved something worthwhile as well:  he continued to be available to Draco with guidance and protection, no matter how harshly Draco rejected his help, how much Snape’s heart sank as he watched Draco join Voldemort, how many crimes Draco committed, either eagerly or under duress.  He remained ready to assist if Draco was ready for a second chance, as Dumbledore had done for him.  With Snape, Draco knew:  there was nothing disgusting Draco could do that Snape had not already done.  Snape was able to maintain that connection, that trust, by signaling:  I know everything you have done, and I am still here.

Knowing that Dumbledore, too, had once seen nothing wrong with letting people die for what he wanted, would have given Snape a different understanding of the harsh words, “You disgust me.”  Dumbledore shared not only Snape’s self-loathing but his unresolved shame.  He knew everything Snape had done, and he remained with Snape to the end of his life.

Snape could recognize, then, some equality between himself and Dumbledore.  We can hear it in the way the two men talk to each other in the Prince’s Tale chapter when nobody else is around:  they are sardonic, angry and familiar and even immature.  We’ve seen Snape that way before, but never Dumbledore — except with Snape.  Dumbledore would not call any man but Snape by insults as intemperate and gratuitous as “a basket that spends so much time dangling on the arm of Lord Voldemort.”  Albus!  Unfair!

In her subtle way, Rowling lets us see that when Dumbledore asks Snape to kill him in Draco’s stead because “That boy’s soul is not yet so damaged,” Snape might have thought, at first, that this was one more instance of Dumbledore valuing someone, anyone, over Snape.  With that history, I think it was a brave thing for Snape to ask – although, granted, it was certain that nobody else would speak up for him – “And my soul, Dumbledore?  Mine?”

As always, whenever Snape craved trust and affection from Dumbledore, Dumbledore’s response was not comforting, not reassuring – but not nothing, either, even if Dumbledore’s responses to Snape generally come with more work and stern reminders to choose what is right over what is easy.

“’You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation,” said Dumbledore.

Let us be clear what Dumbledore is saying, according to the rules of magic laid out in this world.  Killing splits the soul, even when done by request, out of love – the killer has to mean an Unforgivable Curse or it won’t work – and the way to reintegrate a split soul is to feel remorse, the near-fatally painful magic that Dumbledore checks periodically to see if Snape has been able to manage.  Up to this point, Snape never has.  If he accepts Dumbledore’s requests, to kill him and then protect the students of Hogwarts against the Carrows, he commits to feeling remorse and surviving it.

After Dumbledore makes his request, “his blue eyes pierced Snape as they had frequently pierced Harry, as though the soul they discussed was visible to him” – Dumbledore is performing Legilimency, and Snape is not blocking him.  “At last Snape gave another curt nod.”  Snape has had time to think about it.  He has made a choice.  He agrees to cross back over into evil, cast an Unforgivable Curse, and then return.

No one else in either the Order of the Phoenix – that is, the order that believes in second chances – or among the Death Eaters shares Dumbledore’s and Snape’s double status of having embraced evil and then fought against it.  This innocence is why Sirius, in Goblet of Fire, tells Harry, “There’s still the fact that Dumbledore trusts Snape, and I know Dumbledore trusts where a lot of other people wouldn’t, but I just can’t see him letting Snape teach at Hogwarts if he’d ever worked for Voldemort.”  After Snape kills Dumbledore, Tonks says, “But Dumbledore swore he was on our side!  I always thought Dumbledore must know something about Snape that we didn’t….” and McGonagall says, “He always hinted that he had an ironclad reason for trusting Snape.  I mean… with Snape’s history… of course people were bound to wonder… but Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine….  Wouldn’t hear a word against him!”  These people don’t have the experience to recognize, as Dumbledore recognized in Snape, what it looks like to embrace and then renounce evil.

Hermione tells an agonized Harry:  “He changed, Harry, he changed! It’s as simple as that! Maybe he did believe these things when he was seventeen, but the whole of the rest of his life was devoted to fighting the Dark Arts! Dumbledore was the one who stopped Grindelwald, the one who always voted for Muggle protection and Muggle-born rights, who fought You-Know-Who from the start […] and who died trying to bring him down!”

The lesson of the Snape-Dumbledore relationship is learning how this kind of change is possible.  Only someone who has managed this sort of change, someone who has the means to overpower others but chooses not to attack, not to dominate, has the greatness to command the allegiance of the Elder Wand from Dumbledore.  This is the qualification that Dumbledore had in mind when he planned to pass the Elder Wand to Snape, what Grindelwald meant when he told Voldemort that the wand would never be his, and what Draco and Harry, who learned Expelliarmus from Snape, proved to have within them.

Snape kept the half of the letter that said Dumbledore had once been friends with Grindelwald.  It was evidence that the mentor who believed that Snape had it in him to help Harry Potter bring down Voldemort and protect Hogwarts students knew firsthand how much he was asking of Snape, how far he was asking Snape to travel – knew it could be done.  Dumbledore’s former evil, establishing the foundations of a fascist ideology, lying to himself about the nature of Grindelwald, betraying the sister in his care, had damaging consequences…and look what Dumbledore became.  What he did with his second chance.

During Harry’s sixth year, when Dumbledore told Snape that Harry would have to let Voldemort kill him, Snape accused Dumbledore of using him, letting him believe he was protecting Harry for Lily’s sake when Dumbledore intended to sacrifice Harry to Voldemort.  Some readers have wondered if this is an accurate read and Dumbledore did use Snape as a pawn, but I think this turns out to be one of the times that Rowling sets up a supposition that she later disproves, by showing rather than telling.

It is Snape who ends that conversation before Dumbledore can answer his accusation of raising Harry like a pig for slaughter.  He stands up abruptly and responds to Dumbledore’s question, “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” by casting a Patronus.  It’s a complex moment; Snape is not ready to hear more, doesn’t realize that he’s the one who has shut down the conversation, and his dislike of Harry is as wrong-headed as ever.  But the sight of the silver doe is beautiful, too, the sign of a soul that has a wholeness to it, and it brings tears to Dumbledore’s eyes.  After all this time, Dumbledore is right to retain faith in Snape; Snape is still striving to fulfill his pledge to Dumbledore, using his love for Lily as a guide:  “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.”  During this year when Dumbledore is dying of his own incurable folly in grabbing at a Deathly Hallow for his own use, it is a gift to Dumbledore to see that Snape is holding fast.

We see later that Dumbledore did not have an agenda to sacrifice Harry; his aim was to safeguard Harry’s soul, and once the Dumbledore of King’s Cross could affirm to him, “Your soul is whole, and completely your own,” Harry recognized that Dumbledore was at peace:  “Harry had never seen the man so utterly, so palpably content.”  This Dumbledore acknowledges that Harry has the choice to go back and finish Voldemort or to move on, but he does not seek to influence Harry’s choice; whatever happens with Voldemort, Dumbledore’s work is done.

Similarly, with Snape, we see that Dumbledore’s aim is to help Snape retain the wholeness of his soul and turn his guilt toward good by charging him with undergoing remorse and delivering a final message to Harry.  Along with that delivery, Snape was able to return the memories of Lily’s love that rightfully belonged to Harry and acknowledge, at last, how he had destroyed Harry’s family, in a move similar to Slughorn fighting past his shame to give Harry secrets that helped him end Voldemort.

We see, in the Prince’s Tale, that Snape was brusque with the portrait of Dumbledore when he took the sword to the Forest of Dean after Christmas; at the midpoint of the year, when Harry’s faith in Dumbledore was at its lowest, Snape’s was low, as well.  By the end of his life, had Snape reconciled some of his feelings toward Dumbledore, as Harry did in the King’s Cross chapter?

When I reread his last moments, I think the answer is yes.

Voldemort tells him that he has violated Dumbledore’s tomb and stolen the Elder Wand.  In reaction, “Snape’s face was like a death mask. It was marble white and so still that when he spoke, it was a shock to see that anyone lived behind the blank eyes.”

With the words “death mask” and “marble white,” Rowling is calling back to the image of Dumbledore in his white marble tomb.  The blankness of Snape’s face shows that he is Occluding Voldemort as hard as he has ever Occluded in his life, hiding his reaction to the news of this desecration.  Together, I think these things show that Snape is grieving for his friend.  As we learned from Harry, grief can Occlude:  “Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love. . . .”

When Harry runs to Snape’s office to view his memories and the stone gargoyle asks for the password, we learn that he and Snape have been holding the same grief.

“Dumbledore!” said Harry without thinking, because it was he whom he yearned to see, and to his surprise the gargoyle slid aside.

During his year as headmaster, the unguessable word that guarded Snape’s space was a name that kept him as safe as any Fidelius Charm.  I know not everyone is at peace with the Dumbledore-Snape relationship.  For some, Snape might not have been good enough to be known as Dumbledore’s man.  For others, Dumbledore might have been too cold, too secretive, to deserve the role of safeguarding Snape’s true thoughts.  But I’m accepting it as the final word on what Snape thought of the man who entrusted him with his death.

I know I still have so many questions.  Maybe you do, too.  We can puzzle out a few of them together.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 7 [end]

Seventh and final blog post spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.


The final chapter of Irvin’s book addresses the similarity between Dumbledore’s storyline and Snape’s.

In the chapter of Deathly Hallows called “The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore,” Harry and Hermione lay out the terms of the debate.  Harry is in despair after seeing Rita Skeeter’s proof that Dumbledore once supported Grindelwald’s cause.  Hermione says “they were both really young,” and Harry points out that he and Hermione, “risking our lives to fight the Dark Arts,” are the same age that Dumbledore was then.  Harry shouts about this so loudly that he scares several blackbirds.  Hermione replies to him with this truth:

“He changed, Harry, he changed!  It’s as simple as that!  Maybe he did believe these things when he was seventeen, but the whole of the rest of his life was devoted to fighting the Dark Arts!  Dumbledore was the one who stopped Grindelwald, the one who always voted for Muggle protection and Muggle-born rights, who fought You-Know-Who from the start, and who died trying to bring him down!”

Unlike Snape, Dumbledore lived to old age, fighting this fight.  By the time we meet him, decades of powerful good magic had changed him.  If Snape had lived to the same age, who knows if he would have grown to be more like Dumbledore.  Snape did believe in Death Eater philosophy when he was seventeen and he did die trying to bring Voldemort down.  Snape is an extremely unpopular character in many parts of Harry Potter fandom; fans will commonly point out that he spent many years as a classroom bully and no time demonstrating in public fashion that he championed Muggle-born rights.  If we look at the analogous period of Dumbledore’s life, the nebulous years between Ariana’s death and the moment he defeated Grindelwald after long avoidance, we see a story similar to Snape’s.  Dumbledore once believed in something indisputably evil, rationalized it, contributed to the death of a loved one, and spent the rest of his life in regret and atonement.  He and Snape were both very young at the time; the point is that when one’s youthful mistakes lead to death or irreversible harm, especially to a loved one, that splits the soul in a way that does not make exceptions for youth.  You suffer guilt even if you were not quite an adult choosing to cause harm in full, mature consciousness; the dead person is just as dead.  Snape and Dumbledore work together to prevent Draco and Harry from bringing the same fate onto themselves, even unintentionally.

Many fans who have anti-Snape sentiment argue strongly against considering the circumstances that shaped Snape, afraid that understanding them may lead to excusing him for his crimes and abusive behavior.  I argue that understanding the circumstances that shaped him is essential to seeing how he became a young Death Eater and applying that knowledge to intervening in other young people’s lives before they, too, can make similar choices that lead to irreparable harm.  I am not saying that Snape wasn’t as bad as people think; I am saying that Dumbledore, who had become a great and good wizard by the time Harry knew him, was once just as harmful.  Irvin takes us up to this point with his book, looking at the Dumbledore we knew through Deathly Hallows.  Now that we are getting new material about Dumbledore, a bit from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a great deal, most of it still to come, from the Fantastic Beasts film series, I predict that we will see, in much greater detail, that the problematic Dumbledore of youth and middle age was more similar to Snape than we previously believed.

Buy Irvin’s book!  It’ll help you think new thoughts about Dumbledore and ground you in the next several years as you encounter new information about the wizard who defined the 20th century in Potterverse!

The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman, $14.99.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 6

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.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 5

Further reflections spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.


The Order of the Phoenix chapter of Irvin Khaytman’s Dumbledore book is the one that opened my eyes the most.  Even though the clues had always been there, and there had even been explicit pointers to the clues, I had never thought to put everything together to realize that Dumbledore spent the rest of his life hunting Horcruxes, from the end of Goblet of Fire until the day he died.

Foreshadowing, from the second chapter of Goblet of Fire:  “Harry had no idea where Dumbledore went during the summer holidays.  He amused himself for a moment, picturing Dumbledore, with his long silver beard, full-length wizard’s robes, and pointed hat, stretched out on a beach somewhere, rubbing suntan lotion onto his crooked nose.”

Clue, as Irvin points out, from the moment in OotP when Dumbledore claims responsibility for Dumbledore’s Army and leaves the school:  “‘Oh no,’ said Dumbledore, with a grim smile, ‘I am not leaving to go into hiding.'”

Clue, from the “Silver and Opals” chapter of Half-Blood Prince:  “Where was Dumbledore, and what was he doing?  Harry caught sight of the headmaster only twice over the next few weeks.  He rarely appeared at meals anymore, and Harry was sure Hermione was right in thinking that he was leaving the school for days at a time.”

In his OotP chapter, Irvin goes over the timeline of what Dumbledore figured out about the Horcruxes and when, what questions he had, and how he sought answers.  He is right.  This was fully occupying Dumbledore’s mind behind the scenes of OotP — and OotP has the most complex simultaneous, interwoven scenes of any of the books.

There are many points in this chapter where Irvin’s reading and mine diverge.  For example, he believes that the prophecy means that Harry and Voldemort will have to kill each other, so Dumbledore is training Harry to be a “Voldemort slayer”; I believe Dumbledore interpreted the prophecy to mean only that Voldemort would have to kill Harry, not the other way around, but he chose not to enlighten Harry about that specific interpretation when Harry said, at the end of the “Horcruxes” chapter of HBP, “That one of us is going to end up killing the other.”  Irvin believes that Snape was taunting Harry in his customary self-indulgent, immature manner during the Occlumency lessons, whereas I think Snape was too tense to do so, conducting the lessons in a mindset of grim, businesslike fear, mindful that Voldemort was eavesdropping on his performance through Harry’s scar.

However, any differences in reading are minor compared to the great gift that this chapter gave me:  the clear recognition of Dumbledore’s steady Horcrux hunt for the last two years of his life.  Irvin’s book paid for itself with that point alone.

Khaytman on Dumbledore, Ch 4

Further reflections spurred by reading The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman.


In the Goblet of Fire chapter of Irvin Khaytman’s Dumbledore book, he writes that there is a rift between Dumbledore and Snape, following the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, so severe that they are not even speaking to each other for most of this year.  While I don’t agree that the lack of communication is caused exactly by the kind of rift Khaytman describes, I am completely convinced by Khaytman’s demonstration that problems arose because Dumbledore and Snape were not communicating.

In my reading, Snape is jumpy primarily because his Dark Mark is coming back and he has to reckon with the past, with the change in loyalties that have been mostly theoretical until now, and with the likelihood that the return of Voldemort is a death sentence for him, one way or another.  He has to think about this while under the mocking and skeptical magical gaze of Mad-Eye Moody (or so he believes), who knows every bad thing Snape ever did, believes Snape does not have it in him to reform, and taunts him about it.  Furthermore, Snape is resentful about being demoted from his role as unofficial part-time Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher because unlike Lupin when he was ill, or Quirrell and Lockhart, who were useless, Moody is fully qualified to teach DADA, much better than Snape is.  I think Dumbledore is giving Snape space and keeping an eye on him while the Dark Mark intensifies, checking in on him during the Yule Ball, but not relying on him during this uncertain time, especially when he has his old war buddy Moody in whom to confide.  The status-conscious Snape is touchy about this decreased access to the one person who matters most at Hogwarts — and this is something I did not realize until I read Khaytman’s book.

I had never before found a fully satisfying reading for Snape’s twisted gatekeeping tactics when Harry is trying to get to Dumbledore’s office to tell him that Barty Crouch, Sr. is in the forest (GoF 558).  He sees Harry’s panic and takes pleasure in obstructing him from reaching Dumbledore — why?  “Because he’s a miserable git” is not enough of an answer for me; Snape is a miserable git all of the time, but he only blocks Harry’s access in this manner once.  Now that I look at the scene while thinking about Khaytman’s discussion of Snape’s reduced access to Dumbledore, it finally occurs to me that Snape is acting out his frustration at being excluded by wielding petty power and excluding Harry, in turn.  It would be in character for him.

We see a callback to this kind of jealousy and insecurity in the Spinner’s End chapter of Half-Blood Prince when Snape knows just how to drop delicate taunts about Bellatrix’s decreased access to Voldemort.  I don’t think there’s a direct line between the two incidents, and I’m sure Snape had many other opportunities to become an expert on the nature of jealousy, but remembering his (feigned) smugness and Bellatrix’s insecurity affirms my reading of a similar dynamic between Fake Moody and Snape during the year that Dumbledore confided in Snape the least.

On my next re-read of GoF, I look forward to spotting the instances when JKR shows us, without telling us directly, that Snape and Dumbledore are speaking far less than they usually do.