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31 August 2006 @ 10:30 pm
Dumbledore's Mercy: Why Draco Couldn't Pull the Trigger  
The scene that unfolds upon the Astronomy Tower is one of the most intense and tremendously written passages of the Harry Potter novels thus far. One of the most fascinating aspects in my mind is the dialogue between Draco and Dumbledore.

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.
 
 
 
mary_j_59mary_j_59 on September 1st, 2006 02:51 am (UTC)
Excellent essay, Travis! I espceially appreciated your analysis of what, exactly, Dumbledore may have meant when he said repeatedly, "You are no killer, Draco." And I loved your conclusion.
Glitter Me Timbers: hp- dracociel_vert on September 1st, 2006 03:28 am (UTC)
Wow. What an excellent essay, incredibly well thought out and put together. I just love reading essays that encourage my hope that Draco can be redeemed; I would think it a horrible mistake on JKR's part if he were not. Well done!
kikimachikikimachi on September 1st, 2006 05:06 am (UTC)
This is a fantastic essay and I love it. It's details and methodical without suffocating prose. I really appreciate the point that much of the larger significance of the events of HBP is lost on Harry (and on the rest of the Order, really) partially because they are grief-struck, but partially because they're still on the path of self-discovery and destruction of prejudices. question: how do you explain "Killing is not as easy as THE INNOCENT believe." ? has Dumbledore killed?
tetsubinatutetsubinatu on September 1st, 2006 09:44 am (UTC)
Grindelwald?
kikimachikikimachi on September 1st, 2006 02:48 pm (UTC)
true, I hadn't thought of that.
(Anonymous) on September 1st, 2006 08:28 pm (UTC)
Of course, we don't know that Dumbledore killed
Grindelwald. We only know that he defeated him.

Of course, not all killing is murder. JKR says specifically that murder splits the soul. Not manslaughter; not neglegent homicide; not killing in self-defense or defense of another; murder. Check any law dictionary and you will see that there is a great deal of difference.
travisprinzi on September 1st, 2006 10:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Of course, we don't know that Dumbledore killed
And Dumbledore does indeed approve of Harry's desire to "finish him [Voldemort] off."
Luna: Add to memorieslunadeath02 on September 1st, 2006 05:25 am (UTC)
most excellent essay!!
imhilien: Hogwarts IIimhilien on September 1st, 2006 07:16 am (UTC)
A great essay, thank you...
Kitsumerok on September 1st, 2006 08:08 am (UTC)
Great! Logical and intriguing essay.

Sacrificial love conquered death, foiled Voldemort's plans
This made me think about Lily's sacrifice. Draco-Harry and Dumbldore-Lily.. Nice parallelism!:)
(Anonymous) on September 1st, 2006 08:26 pm (UTC)
How can people say. . . . .
Sacrificial love conquered death

. . .that HP is unChristian or antiChristian? "Sacrificial love countering death" is the central axiom of Christian theology.
travisprinzi on September 1st, 2006 10:31 pm (UTC)
Re: How can people say. . . . .
Agreed. There is certainly no antithesis between the HP novels and Christian teaching.
mireneletrompe on September 2nd, 2006 07:48 pm (UTC)
Re: How can people say. . . . .
Not to mention Dumbledore's "love thy enemy" messages regarding Draco as well as Peter.
Vashtivashti on June 10th, 2007 06:37 am (UTC)
Re: How can people say. . . . .
oh this is so very late ...

Yep. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."

Ultimately, Dumbledore doesn't give his life to save Harry - nobody would be surprised by that. He gives his life to save Draco, and not even to save Draco's life, but his soul. And, if you believe that kind of thing, possibly to save Snape as well.

I reckon this is one of the stronger reasons why Draco is going to be redeemed in book 7 - because otherwise it makes a mockery of Dumbledore's sacrifice. "The power the Dark Lord knows not", indeed!
rs: gravity winsreia_s on September 1st, 2006 01:16 pm (UTC)
Wow, great essay!

I'll be waiting for the life debts essay ;)
focusf1focusf1 on September 1st, 2006 02:15 pm (UTC)
Great analysis of a good point.

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.

This point in particular struck a nerve. I find it entirely possible to now understand Draco's position. His father messed up, his mother is powerless, (don't get me started on his lunatic aunt), Draco is left to redeem the Malfoy name to Voldemort. And Draco looks at his options: Voldemort has his family under threat of death and Dumbledore offers him a chance to move to the side of light. Now when your whole life you have been brought up to believe in the Dark Arts etc it just isn't that easy to take the risk of changing sides too - which may be the reason for Draco's hesitance on the tower. By the time he had weighed up his options, it was too late, the DEs had arrived and the fear of Voldemort crept back in. Dumbledore nearly had him though and who knows - Dumbledore did show him mercy and he may reap the redemption he so needs from this.

Hence we get : if the time should come when you have to make
a choice between what is right and what is easy,remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.
turangaleelaturangaleela on September 1st, 2006 05:51 pm (UTC)
Snape's Soul
I loved the essay. It's great to see someone really focus on canon and analyze what's there and you do a wonderful job.

I'm curious as to how you view Snape in his role as Dumbledore's personally chosen killer. You've come closer than anyone ever has before to convincing me that Snape was acting on D's orders. However, I still have a problem.

Is Snape's soul so battered that Dumbledore thinks that one more murder won't change anything? Or does Dumbledore believe that he can effectively prevent the effects of murder on Snape's soul because he has effectively forgiven Snape in advance? You've done a lot of analysis of killing in Rowling's world and I'd really like to know what your thoughts are.
travisprinzi on September 1st, 2006 10:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Snape's Soul
No, Dumbledore certainly doesn't believe Snape's soul is "so battered that one more murder won't change anything." I subscribe to Cathy Liesner's "Stoppered Death" theory which Felicity has adequately explained. In short, Dumbledore "died" as a result of the curse on the ring horcrux, but his death was "stoppered" for one year by Snape. Either Snape alone, or some combination of Snape and the green potion (I prefer the latter option) unstoppered Dumbledore's death. So when Snape "unstoppered" his death, it wasn't Snape that killed him...it was the curse and the potion that finally finished their processes of killing Dumbledore.
felicitys_mindfelicitys_mind on September 2nd, 2006 04:32 am (UTC)
Very nice, Travis.

I love the Eustace connection (we'll see!) since they both do have horrible parents and since Draco did seem to catching on.

Another thing that stood out for me about the Tower scene was Draco's eagerness in wanting Dumbledore to know that he hadn't let Fenrir into the school. I thought that demonstrated how deeply Dumbledore had gotten to Draco since he was concerned with maintaining Dumbledore's approval; he wasn't (or was less) concerned with what the DE's listening would think.

Oh, can't wait for book 7.
ilanabelladonna on September 2nd, 2006 05:23 pm (UTC)
"Draco... had never stood face to face with self-sacrificial love before."

Not quite true. Snape does reveal to Draco that he has made an Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa, ensuring that Snape would die if he did not help Draco complete his task. Although I do believe that Snape entered into the pact after consulting with Dumbledore about what may happen, I don't think that Snape would possibly sacrifice himself for Draco unless he cared for him very deeply.

However, Draco isn't able to handle this kind of sacrifice in his name. He says something along the lines of, "Well, then you'll have to break it, won't you?" I think he's afraid that someone may care about him enough to die in his place.
waterbirdwaterbird on September 3rd, 2006 09:16 pm (UTC)
Brilliant essay. Thank you for getting me thinking about HBP all over again and renewing my excitement - and impatience - for book 7. Draco became one of my favourite characters after the last book, and I really am hoping for his redemption. *off now to continue my way through the Chronicles of Narnia*
Melamelabelo on September 6th, 2006 08:01 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to say that this is a brilliant essay, and it helped me so much in writing my own theory! Thank you so much!
Anerinanerin on October 24th, 2006 07:32 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for your essay! I think I've just begun to understand all that thing about "love"