The heart of this essay is a consideration of one simple question: Why couldn't Draco kill Dumbledore? Or maybe better, Why didn't he even attempt to?
The most chilling part of the dialogue between Draco and Dumbledore comes right at its climax, after the "ways and means" have been discussed, and just prior to the break-in of the Death Eaters:
'But I got this far, didn't I?' he [Draco] said slowly. 'They thought I'd die in the attempt, but I'm here ... and you're in my power ... I'm the one with the wand ... you're at my mercy ...'
'No, Draco,' said Dumbledore quietly. 'It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now.'
What did Dumbledore mean?
The Radical Mercy of Dumbledore
Based on what we know of Dumbledore's tremendous power, a weakened, wandless, dying Albus Dumbledore is still more magically powerful than an armed, 16 year old Draco Malfoy. Had it come right down to it, I think Dumbledore, even without a wand, could have conjured up enough magic to prevent Draco's even attempting an AK curse (obviously, Dumbledore can't block an AK curse once it's thrown, despite some recent fanciful theories). But it doesn't seem Dumbledore even wants to prevent him by use of force, and I hardly think this is the meaning behind Dumbledore's statement. A wizard like Dumbledore most certainly doesn't need to inform a young boy that he's much more powerful.
It is Dumbledore's mercy that matters, because both he and Draco know that the Dark Lord has put Draco into this position because of his anger with Lucius for his Diary-crux and Prophecy blunders. Dumbledore is plain with Malfoy: Voldemort sent Draco on this task expecting Draco to die in the attempt.
And this is where Dumbledore's mercy becomes so very profound and important. Dumbledore, staring at his would-be killer, offers freedom from Voldemort's wrath and tyranny - not only for Draco, but for the whole family. Consider the depth of this mercy: it was Lucius who was behind the re-opening of the Chamber of Secrets, putting the Hogwarts students in danger. This is exceedingly significant. Dumbledore's patience very rarely exceeds its limits, but Harry managed to cross that line when he implied that Dumbledore would leave his students in danger:
'I ... they're up to something!' said Harry and his hands curled into fists as he said it. 'Professor Trelawney was just in the Room of Requirement, trying to hide her sherry bottles, and she heard Malfoy whooping, celebrating! He's trying to mend something dangerous in there and if you ask me he's fixed it at last and you're about to just walk out of school without -'
'Enough,' said Dumbledore. He said it quite calmly, and yet Harry fell silent at once; he knew that he had finally crossed some invisible line. 'Do you think that I have once left the school unprotected during my absences this year? I have not. Tonight, when I leave, there will again be additional protection in place. Please do not suggest that I do not take the safety of my students seriously, Harry.'
'I didn't -' mumbled Harry, a little abashed, but Dumbledore cut across him.
'I do not wish to discuss the matter any further.' (HBP-25)
As Felicity has well demonstrated, it may be that the idea of Dumbledore's students in grave danger is Dumbledore's greatest fear, his boggart. But now, on the tower, Dumbledore stands ready to forgive and protect Draco, who put students in grave danger by his reckless attempts on Dumbledore's life, and his father Lucius, whose Diary-crux scheme threatened the lives of all the non-purebloods in the school. Mercy is at its greatest when one is willing to overlook the greatest personal injury, the offense that most "hits home," and offer forgiveness to the offender. This is the case with Dumbledore's offer to Draco.
Dumbledore and Slytherin
As a brief, but important aside, it would be well here to take up a complaint against Dumbledore. I've heard it frequently argued, in light of Dumbledore's sneaky House Cup switcheroo at the end of year feast in Philosopher's Stone, that Dumbledore is captive to some of the very same prejudices that he fights so adamantly against. In his case, it is claimed, he is prejudiced against Slytherins. After all, do we ever see Dumbledore give special or kind treatment to a Slytherin?
Well, yes, we do - Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy being notable examples, as well as his friendship with Horace Slughorn. Karkaroff, though not a "Slytherin," also fits the category quite well. But the argument is faulty at its root - we don't see Dumbledore give special treatment to anyone else of any house, because the books are about Harry, not about the other students or even ultimately about Dumbledore himself.
In any case, what we see on the Astronomy Tower should put to rest the idea that Dumbledore is captive to prejudice against Slytherins. If that were the case, we would have expected him to be far more suspicious of young Tom Riddle, Jr. than he already was. We wouldn't see him extending forgiveness to Severus Snape in the closing months of VoldWar I (and Snape certainly wouldn't have landed a teaching job at Hogwarts). And we wouldn't see him offering forgiveness to young Draco, who intended to murder him and put his students, whom he cares about above all, in mortal peril.
Why is Draco "not a killer"?
As the conversation between Dumbledore and Draco progress, Dumbledore repeatedly affirms to Draco that he is "not a killer":
- "Draco, Draco, you are not a killer."
- "You have been trying, with increasing desperation, to kill me all year. Forgive me, Draco, but they have been feeble attempts ... so feeble, to be honest, that I wonder whether your heart has been really in it..."
- "I don't think you will kill me, Draco. Killing is not nearly as easy as the innocent believe..."
- "But as for being about to kill me, Draco, you have had several long minutes now. We are quite alone. I am more defenseless than you can have dreamed of finding me, and still you have not acted ..."
- "'My options!' said Malfoy loudly. 'I'm standing here with a wand - I'm about to kill you -''My dear boy, let us have no more pretence about that. If you were going to kill me, you would have done it when you first Disarmed me, you would not have stopped for this pleasant chat about ways and means.'"
- "...come over to the right side, Draco ... you are not a killer ..."
But is Dumbledore saying that Draco is innately not a killer, as if he doesn't even have within him the capacity to do so?
We can probably agree with Dumbledore that Draco's heart really isn't in this. He can talk a big talk in front of fellow Slytherins about his "job," but his crying sessions with Moaning Myrtle and the constant faltering in his conversation with Dumbledore demonstrate plainly enough that, as Dumbledore said, killing someone is not as easy as one might think.
And yet two things suggest, though we know Draco was not going to pull the trigger on the Astronomy Tower that night, that he was very capable of doing it; the potential was there.
In the first place, the emphasis on "choice" thus far in the series would suggest that the choice truly was before Draco to attempt to kill Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore's adamant assertion to Fudge that "it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be" (GF-36) would suggest that Dumbledore most certainly was not saying that Draco did not even have within himself the capacity to kill, for the choice was very much before him, as choices lie before everyone, regardless of "what someone is born."
In the second place, though Draco's heart was not in it, he nevertheless executed two plans that had every possibility in the world of succeeding on someone. It is by sheer luck that Draco was "not a killer" by the time he stood face to face with Dumbledore.
With that in mind, it's best to think of Dumbledore's statement, "You are not a killer," in this way: "Draco, you are not a killer; you have not killed anyone yet, and you don't have to. The choice is before you. Choose the right side." And instead of magically warding Draco off (which would have ensured his death by Voldemort) or allowing Harry to interfere (which would have had the same result), Dumbledore attempted to save Draco, both from the soul-scarring act of murder and the wrath of the Dark Lord.
I suggest, then, that ultimately, at the moment of choice, Draco was unable to pull the trigger on Dumbledore, because standing before him at wandpoint was a man offering mercy that he simply could not comprehend and could not overcome. It was Dumbledore's mercy that caused him to falter, and even at one point to "bizzarely draw courage and comfort from his praise" (HBP-27)!
It might be argued that Draco was afraid of Dumbledore, and that is why he wouldn't cast the curse. Dumbledore even suggested that Draco was afraid to act until he had some support. But two caveats must be added: (1) Draco was ultimately more afraid of Voldemort than he was Dumbledore, for when Dumbledore offered sanctuary for him and his family, Draco spluttered on about Voldemort's threats to kill them all and would not accept his help, and (2) when the Death Eaters arrived, Draco still didn't pull the trigger.
It wasn't fear of Dumbledore that stopped Draco from killing him; rather, it was Dumbledore's love for Draco. Draco, raised in the severely prejudiced and self-serving Malfoy family had never stood face to face with self-sacrificial love before. When Dumbledore offered Draco help and protection, he was offering redemption from evil for the entire Malfoy family - a family that had been a bit of a bane for Dumbledore for decades.
Draco's Redemption: J.K. Rowling's Favorite Narnian Character
But the book does not end with Draco's redemption, despite Dumbledore's mercy. Draco runs away, task completed with the help of Snape, and is finding his way back to the Dark Lord. But what Dumbledore has done is to protect Draco's innocence as far as murder is concerned; his soul remains intact. He's made the path toward redemption for Draco an easier one. Will Draco be redeemed? Let's take a quick detour before the conclusion and revisit something I worked on just after HBP was released.
Some time ago, I came upon an intriguing answer to a question posed in this Barnes and Noble interview in 1999. When asked about her favorite characters in children’s literature, part of her answer is the following:
I really like Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis (third in the Narnia series). He is a very unlikeable character who turns good. He is one of C. S. Lewis’s funniest characters, and I like him a lot.
This is not at all surprising, though I think it is an important key to some of her complex characters! In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis does indeed paint a very unlikeable Eustace in the first several chapters. The book begins with my all-time favorite opening line:
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
We learn all about this whiney, spoiled brat, who through greed is transformed into a dragon, only to be painfully set right by the claws of Aslan. As Rowling mentions, “He is a very unlikeable character who turns good.”
This is a bit of a template for some of Rowling’s plot twists. Think about Severus Snape in Philosopher’s Stone. Harry, convinced that it was Snape who tried to kill him on the Quidditch field, is shocked to find Quirrell - not Snape - attempting to steal the stone. Quirrell responds to the surprised Potter:
Yes, Severus does seem the type, doesn’t he? So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat.
Indeed, Severus does seem the type, "a very unlikeable character" indeed. And of course we know that Snape was evil and that he, as far as Dumbledore was concerned, turned good. She has taken us on quite a roller coaster ride concerning Snape, and I’m still convinced (probably more now than ever) that we’ll see Dumbledore was right about him.
But perhaps Rowling’s love for Eustace gives us even more insight into Draco Malfoy and his future redemption than Snape. As annoying Eustace was transformed from evil dragon to penitent boy, could there be a coming transformation for Draco as well?
Draco’s been downright awful to Harry and almost an embodiment of everything bad about Slytherin, but follow me here:
- The name “Draco” literally means “dragon,” so we’ve got a connection with Eustace there.
- Irritating and snobbish he may be, but when it came time to do the evil deed, he couldn’t “pull the trigger,” so to speak.
- We saw above that his confrontation with Dumbledore must indeed have been traumatic, as Dumbledore offered to protect both him and his mother from Voldemort’s wrath and Draco was unable to kill an already dying and wandless wizard. Dumbledore’s offer of refuge is exceedingly important to the Draco redemption theory. Dumbledore is to Draco as Aslan is to Eustace.
- There are obvious connections between Snape and Narcissa, as well as Snape and Draco. If Snape indeed is good, and Narcissa and Draco need to seek refuge, Snape may just find a way to point them to the Order of the Phoenix, where they will find protection (redemption/forgiveness). It may also be that Draco is now indebted to Snape, since he helped him carry out the task and so (perhaps) saved him from the wrath of Voldemort. (I'm planning an essay on life debts in the near future). Hence, a bond exists between them, and Draco's redemption will be in Snape's hands.
Eustace was the way he was (irritating and snobbish) because of his parents’ example. Rowling has frequently said that the attractiveness of orphan heroes (like Harry) is that they never have to find out by experience that their parents are sometimes wrong. Draco may be in the process of finding out that his daddy was wrong to follow Voldemort, and that Salazar Slytherin’s prejudice was wrong as well. Certainly the offer of protection from a Muggle-lover and “mudblood”-lover like Dumbledore had to mess him up pretty good. Children are very quick to follow their parents example, sometimes with even more zeal than their parents at first. But what happens when we find out that our parents were flat-out wrong? This may be the fate that lies ahead for Draco.
[I'll add the caveat that, since writing out this information on Eustace a year ago, I've learned to not prefer to go outside canon for guesses on what's to come; so consider this preceding "Narnian" section with that in mind.]
Dumbledore's Final Lesson: "The Power the Dark Lord Knows Not," Illustrated
The central element of Half-Blood Prince is Dumbledore's series of lessons with Harry. The wise old man is preparing the hero to go it alone. In the climax of these lessons, the revelation about horcruxes, a discussion ensues concerning the prophecy, and the ever-patient Dumbledore gets agitated in his attempts to convince Harry of two things: (1) Not to set too much store by the prophecy; it is choice that matters, and (2) Harry is "protected, in short, by [his] ability to love;" indeed, love is "the power the Dark Lord knows not" (HBP-23).
By the end of this lesson, Harry gets lesson #1; in fact, he realizes it "makes all the difference in the world." But lesson #2 is not as clear. In fact, as far as Harry's ability to love is concerned, a sarcastic "Big deal" is about all the response he can muster. How in the world is "love" the power that will vanquish the Dark Lord?
While this is Dumbledore's last formal lesson with Harry, it's clear the teaching does not end there. No, there is a sense in which Dumbledore is teaching Harry straight through the entire trip to the cave. But on the Astronomy Tower, Harry silently witnesses Dumbledore's final lesson: Love is indeed powerful. Powerful enough to stop death; powerful enough to make one willing to die for his own enemies.
Dumbledore's love for Draco must have astounded Harry; how could he offer Draco, and even worse, Lucius, protection? Had the old man really gone mad?
But then, Draco didn't pull the trigger, did he?
And why did Dumbledore do nothing to defend himself? Had he done so, Draco's mission would have failed, and Voldemort's wrath would have been expended on Draco and his family. Instead, Dumbledore submitted to his death at the hands of Snape (which I believe was Dumbledore's plan all along), saved Draco from the Dark Lord's anger, and left him in the hands of his most trusted ally: Severus himself. Indeed, as Dumbledore submitted to his death on the Tower (it was un-"stoppered" by Snape), his sacrificial love thwarted Voldemort's own plan: to kill Dumbledore (ultimately Snape's job), and to kill Draco Malfoy as revenge for Lucius's failures.
A good amount of this doesn't register with Harry yet, but when it does, he'll realize the significance of Dumbledore's death: Sacrificial love conquered death, foiled Voldemort's plans, and opened up the possibility of redemption for Draco.