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01 August 2006 @ 12:24 pm
Defending Dumbledore, Part I: Loyalty and Manipulation  
Perhaps I came at the question of Dumbledore's goodness or badness from a rather naive point of view: there appears to be a really large amount of debate as to whether Dumbledore is good, evil, or manipulative. I've spent more time reading some of the work. I've been troubled by some of it; Dumbledore does seem a little "shady" at times, I've always thought that. But evil? Or even manipulative? Let's see if we can take a look at Albus Dumbledore's actions and see if we really do find a good, wise old wizard who occasionally makes a monumental mistake, rather than an evil old man who intentionally manipulates children.



Dumbledore under Scrutiny

It's come to the point where we can possibly find as much conflicting evidence about Dumbledore's character as we can about Snape's - though we might want to say the Dumbledore side is weighted towards "good," and the Snape weighted towards "bad." Of course, everything we come at, whether we're thinking about Dumbledore or Snape or any other character, must be considered with the Harry filter in mind. We see things through Harry's eyes and experience.

But we dare not turn that into a mandate to always conclude that if Harry believes it, it's probably wrong. He was correct about Malfoy in Half-Blood Prince, was he not? It's just possible that Harry believes Dumbledore is a great wizard and hero, and that he is also right about that belief.

It's the Harry filter that most Evil!Dumbledore or Manipulative!Dumbledore are blaming for his good reputation. Dumbledore is Harry's hero, and he respects him; therefore we all love Dumbledore, and are blind to his faults.

Codswallop, in my opinion. We can find just as much anger and disdain at Dumbledore through the Harry filter as we can awe and respect, and I might even argue that J.K. Rowling intended to (mis)lead us to significant doubts about Dumbledore through the Harry filter with the end of Half-Blood Prince. After all, it turned out Harry was correct all along - Dumbledore was foolish to trust Snape, right? Right? You see how confusing this all gets.

So we can't argue that Harry's awe and respect for Dumbledore is fooling everyone into thinking he's good when, in some form or another, he's bad. I mean, Harry hated the guy straight through Order of the Phoenix.

I think Evil!Dumbledore theories (i.e., Dumbledore is really on Voldemort's side) can be just thrown out the window. There can't be a well-constructed one out there. J.K. Rowling might be willing to call Dumbledore the "epitome of goodness" if he can be a bit manipulative at times, though with good motives; she wouldn't have deliberately lied about a really sinister character.

But various versions of Manipulative!Dumbledore exist, and they're based on some good canon evidence. Let's look first at Philosopher's Stone, shall we? From an essay complaining that Dumbledore is a "callous and manipulative old coot," we get this statement:

I've had major reservations about the old coot ever since his little House Cup switcheroo in the first book...


That was quite the little trick, wasn't it? A former Gryffindor who happens to be the present Headmaster just happens to deem it proper to award just enough points to his old house to let them win. Yes, that sounds a bit suspect. And then you've got the whole problem of his manipulating all the events of Book 1 so that inexperienced, 11-year-old Harry has to have a showdown with Voldemort/Quirrell. And then the poor, innocent lad thinks well of Dumbledore for staging such a meeting:

I think he sort of wanted to give me a chance. I think he knows more or less everything that goes on here...It's almost like he thought I had the right to face Voldemort, if I could...." (PS/SS-17).


But we adults know better. Dumbledore loves to scheme, manipulate, and put children's lives in danger to accomplish his own purposes. Poor, impressionable Harry just doesn't realize this.

Now let's revisit these two items. The first one is really stretching, and the writer of the quoted essay has no need to be quite so suspicious. Who has one the House Cup the many years prior? Oh, right - Slytherin. And who was the Headmaster during those years? Could you speak up, please? Yes, thank you - Albus Dumbledore. So perhaps the old man wasn't being a "manipulative coot" after all. Maybe descending into the depths of the castle to fight Voldemort and save the world really is worth enough points to win the cup. It's not like that happens every year at Hogwarts. (At least until Harry shows up, anyway.)

That leaves us with the second example - Dumbledore sending a kid who'd known nothing about magic until just 9 months ago to face the most terrible Dark Wizard in a long time. But let's get something straight - stories like this are about the underdog. And J.K. Rowling's being a postmodern writer increases that theme exponentially. It just might be possible that with Albus Dumbledore, she has written a character that actually believes children are more capable than adults give them credit for. Wasn't it he who said, "Old age is foolish when it underestimates youth"? (HBP-26)

Having demonstrated two alternate - and probably better - readings of Dumbledore than the "Manipulative Old Coot" crowd might suggest, there's a much better way of going about this than swatting down each alleged manipulation. By carefully observing a key "Dumbledore" theme - loyalty - we can easily demonstrate that a Manipulative!Dumbledore reading is entirely inconsistent with Albus' character and the plotline itself.

Dumbledore's Man Through and Through

Unquestionably, Dumbledore values loyalty to himself. This strikes us as being a tad arrogant, perhaps. But there's magic - good magic - involved here. The first key "loyalty to Dumbledore" text comes in Chamber of Secrets, when Harry's strong words in favor of Dumbledore call Fawkes to the rescue, resulting in the demise of Diarymort. Dumbledore had clued him in to this when he was taken from the school with the famous line that he would never truly be gone as long as there was someone loyal to thim there. So in our first example, loyalty to Dumbledore results in the triumph of good over evil.

Then we have Half-Blood Prince, in which Harry is established as "Dumbledore's man through and through." There are three distinct references to this: (1) Harry's first meeting with Scrimgeour, (2) Harry's conversation with Dumbledore, and (3) Harry's last meeting with Scrimgeour. The three are significant.

The first one establishes the fact: Harry is loyal to Dumbledore. It's also tied to Dumbledore's political values, which are very significant to understanding his character; Dumbledore is clearly an advocate for the oppressed, a sort of postmodern who is deconstructing the metanarrative of the supremacy of wizards. He is concerned for injustice, but as I've argued before, he is a slow, gradual change kind of politician, not a revolutionary. This is an important link between Harry and Dumbledore - Harry has learned that the statue in the ministry "told a lie," and, as the great uniter of the magical brethren and the four Hogwarts houses, he must follow Dumbledore's lead in this.

The second reference is with Dumbledore himself, and please note: it takes Dumbledore by surprise. Look, if Dumbledore is the master manipulator, I can't imagine him responding this way:

"He accused me of being 'Dumbledore's man through and through.'"

"How very rude of him."

"I told him I was."

Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Behind Harry, Fawkes the phoenix let out a low, soft, musical cry. To Harry's intense embarrassment, he suddenly realized that Dumbledore's bright blue eyes looked rather watery, and stared hastily at his own knees. When Dumbledore spoke, however, his voice was quite steady.

"I am touched, Harry." (HBP-17)


This is not the response of either an intentionally manipulative old coot or a previously manipulative man who is now having regrets. In case you think the Albus is just an incredible, on-the-spot actor, please note the musical response of Fawkes, which is significant - whenever loyalty to Dumbledore is shown, Fawkes responds. The phoenix symbol is not an evil one, and that is an essential point. Fawkes, as a character in the plot and, more importantly, as a symbol in the narrative, is always linked to the defeat of Voldemort and the downfall of all that is evil. This symbolism is so crucial it deserves its own essay, but suffice it to say that Rowling did not create a vital connection between a manipulative, deceitful man and the series' most important symbol of goodness and virtue (download the essay at the bottom of this post for an introductory look at the meaning of the phoenix symbol).

The third reference is the clincher in the argument. Let's step back and look at where the final chapter of Half-Blood Prince fits into the story as a whole. For six books now, the great alchemist Albus Dumbledore has been watching over Harry's life - the wise, old wizard guiding his student, the hero of the story. At the end of Book 6, the wise old man dies, and the hero emerges, finally ready to take on this "heroic task" on his own. This is classic storytelling. As the hero emerges after his six years of preparation for his task, he is identified by this one key self-understanding: "Dumbledore's man through and through."

Now you have to step back and consider this question: As the hero emerges after 6 years under the tutelage of the wise old man, is it realistic to think, from a storytelling point of view, that he has emerged identifying himself "through and through" with a manipulative, lying, scheming man? Take the bird's eye view; think as the author would: you're writing the story, teaching your hero to be a hero, growing up his character to a certain point, and you choose to identify him with nothing but deception and manipulation? Doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (This is particularly detrimental to the theory that Albus is the one who let the prophecy leak to Voldemort, manipulating those events and, in effect, killing James and Lily.)

The point in all of this is rather simple: Rowling has not given us a hero who is loyal to a deceitful, manipulative mentor. The focus on loyalty to Dumbledore, reinforced by the phoenix symbolism, is simply nonsensical if Dumbledore is a "manipulative old coot." Nobody wants a hero modeled after such a person.

In Part II, we'll look at a more nuanced, and perhaps more sympathetic view of Dumbledore - but one that is ultimately as problematic: the view that Dumbledore, though a well-intentioned and honorable man, made the blunder of a lifetime by manipulating the initial Trelawney prophecy in order to bring Voldemort down.
 
 
 
travisprinzi on August 2nd, 2006 02:10 am (UTC)
Good points, all. Here was the response I planned to make to that comment:

When the wand chose Tom Riddle, Tom Riddle still had "choices" to make about what he would become. Sure, he was a young sociopath, but as any other student under the tutelage of Dumbledore, the choices were laid before him.

When, however, the two phoenix tails met in battle, who came out the victor? Certainly Harry did not overpower LV with his own cunning and power as a wizard. The phoenix song erupted, and it was LV's wand, not Harry's, that was forced to regurgitate previous spells.