After the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Albus Dumbledore’s reputation within fandom seemed to have hit an all-time low. Long gone was the kindly grandfather figure whose cryptic advice and odd behavior added mystery and color to the series. In his place stood, at best, a well-intentioned puppet master or, at worst, an evil manipulator. Granted, many fans began to suspect Dumbledore of dastardly things after Goblet of Fire when Rowling described the “gleam of something that looked like triumph” in Dumbledore’s eyes (GoF, 696). But for many fans, myself included, those moments at the end of Order of the Phoenix truly shook our faith in the great Albus Dumbledore. It seemed as if the sum total of Dumbledore’s decisions regarding Harry had resulted in that heart-wrenching moment near the end of the book when the Boy-Who-Lived wanted nothing more than to die.
It’s no wonder that so many of us distrust Dumbledore’s intentions; there are many unanswered questions about his past behavior. Two of the biggest questions have to do with his actions immediately following that fateful Halloween Night in 1981. Did Dumbledore really make the best choice for Harrry when he left him on the Dursleys’ doorstep? And why didn’t the headmaster get to the bottom of Sirius Black’s supposed treachery? These questions point to an overarching question regarding Dumbledore: Why couldn’t the headmaster, with all of his wisdom and power, have made life a little easier for these two characters who would spend the next decade in prisons of one kind or another?
Rowling has actually given us answers to these questions, though some may find her explanations unsatisfying. Dumbledore admits, near the end of OotP, that leaving Harry with the Dursleys was not an easy or even a good decision: “You had suffered,” he acknowledges to Harry. “I knew you would when I left you on your aunt and uncle’s doorstep. I knew I was condemning you to ten dark and difficult years.” But as he goes on to explain, Dumbledore felt as if he had no other choice. “My priority was to keep you alive,” he tells Harry. First, there was the problem of the Death Eaters still on the loose. Pointing out that these criminals were “almost as terrible” as Voldemort, particularly because they were “still at large, angry, desperate, and violent,” Dumbledore felt he could not risk putting Harry with a Wizarding family who, though they might have loved him, would have made Harry vulnerable to attack by the Death Eaters (OotP, 835).
Then there was the even more serious threat of Voldemort himself. Although Dumbledore wasn’t sure if it would be “ten, twenty, or fifty years” before Voldemort’s return, the headmaster was certain that the monster would reappear. And when he did, Dumbledore predicted that he “would not rest until he killed” Harry. So why couldn’t Dumbledore have protected Harry? After all, he is the only wizard that Voldemort ever feared. As Dumbledore explains, “Voldemort’s knowledge of magic is perhaps more extensive than any wizard alive. I knew that even my most complex and powerful protective spells and charms were unlikely to be invincible if he ever returned to full power.” So Dumbledore turned to the only magic that he felt Voldemort discounted: the “ancient magic” of sacrifice. Because Lily gave Harry “lingering protection [Voldemort] never expected,” Dumbledore placed his “trust” in Lily’s blood, namely Petunia. As his “only remaining relative,” Petunia Dursley, with her hatred for all things magical, represented Harry’s strongest protection from Voldemort (OotP, 835-836).
Still, we might ask, couldn’t Dumbledore have made things a little easier for Harry? Perhaps he could have pressured the Dursleys to treat him more kindly. Perhaps he could have sent a friendly face – Remus Lupin, perhaps – to meet with Harry as he was growing up so that the boy did not feel so isolated. Rowling offers no direct answer to the question of why Dumbledore didn’t try to make Harry’s life in the Dursley household a little more bearable. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Dumbledore had to enter a “pact” with Petunia (OotP, 836). We don’t know what exactly this pact entailed, but it might very well be that Petunia would have refused to take Harry had she known that wizards and witches would be making regular appearances at her house.
So, while we may despise the choice that Dumbledore had to make when handing Harry off to the Dursleys, it appears that, from Dumbledore’s point of view, he made the best decision possible for ensuring Harry’s safety. Of course, some readers may doubt Dumbledore’s veracity. There are several theories floating about that suggest that Dumbledore is an evil overlord greater than Voldemort or that he is a callous chess master who will say whatever he needs to say in order to hone Harry into a dangerous weapon. But as I will discuss in a moment, I think Dumbledore has another function in the series.
As for Dumbledore’s dealings with Sirius, Rowling also offers an explanation, though perhaps not as directly as she does with the above question. Many readers have wondered why Dumbledore didn’t insist that Sirius, once he had been captured by the Ministry in 1981, take Veritaserum. Certainly, if he had been questioned under the influence of the truth serum, Sirius would have cleared up the whole, messy matter of Pettigrew and the last-minute secret-keeper switch. In a recent update to her web site, Rowling responded to the frequently asked question regarding Veritaserum. Noting that “Sirius might have volunteered to take the potion had he been given the chance,” Rowling goes on to say that Barty Crouch, Sr., did not even offer Black a trial, much less a chance to take Veritaserum. Furthermore, Veritaserum “is not infallible,” as a skilled witch or wizard can keep from telling the truth even under the effects of the potion.
Still, even if Veritaserum wasn’t an option for Dumbledore, couldn’t he have used Legilimency? The problem with this theory is that it assumes that Dumbledore had a reason to suspect Sirius’s innocence. According to McGonagall, Dumbledore still believed, as of the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, that Sirius was the Potter’s secret keeper. Furthermore, Dumbledore had long suspected that there was a traitor close to the Potters (PoA, 205). Then there were Muggle witnesses who claimed to have seen Sirius murder Pettigrew the night of the Potters’ death (208). Given that evidence, Dumbledore, who held no office or position within the Ministry, had neither the impetus nor the power to go above Barty Crouch, Sr.’s head and request permission to question Sirius Black.
Even given these explanations as to why Dumbledore did not do more to help Harry and Sirius after the first fall of Voldemort, I tend to feel uneasy, angry even. How could it be that Albus Dumbledore - the only wizard Voldermort ever feared, the wise headmaster of Hogwarts, the man who defeated Grindelwald – had no other options?
Then I realized that the anger that I felt about Dumbledore’s failure to be more proactive corresponds directly with the anger Harry feels at the end of OotP. Like Harry, I wanted to throw something at the old man, to shake him and demand how he could have let these things happen. Rowling, then, had done her job. She had me as disappointed in the chimera of infallible authority as she had made Harry.
When we, like Harry, blame Dumbledore for failing to act, we’re admitting that we expected him to have the answers. Like Harry, we looked up to him, admired him, believed in him. By showing us Dumbledore’s mistakes, Rowling is not suggesting that we should now despise the once-great headmaster, though we may be tempted to dislike him in the wake of OotP. No, I think we’re meant to see Dumbledore for who he truly is: an old man who, despite all of his experience and wisdom, is not omniscient. Like most every other adult in the series, Dumbledore has made mistakes because he is, after all, just human. Dumbledore’s failures - beginning with his inability to rescue Harry from the Dursleys and Sirius from Azkaban, and ending with his failure to save Harry from the prophecy and Sirius from the Veil – are Rowling’s most powerful symbols of the vulnerability of authority. Teachers, parent figures, and government officials all fail Harry in his time of need. In the end, Harry has to rely on himself.
OotP shows the powerlessness and frailty of other adults besides Dumbledore. Molly Weasley, Harry’s strongest living mother figure, is seen weeping on the floor of the Grimmauld Place drawing room. McGonagall, for all of her sharp-tongued responses to Umbridge, cannot control the bureaucrat. And the Transfiguration professor is, in the end, literally knocked off her feet by the corrupt Ministry figures. Aside from Dumbledore, perhaps no other adults in the series fall quite so far in our estimation as Sirius and James, who are transformed from brave idols to bullying show offs in the depths of Snape’s Pensieve. Each of these characters appears weak – emotionally, physically, or personally - during the course of the novel.
The Ministry of Magic also serves as a symbol of the failure of authority. The actions of Fudge, Umbridge, and Percy Weasley teach Harry that he cannot rely on the government – the official authority of the community – to do what is right. Indeed, these authority figures, in my opinion, take the worst beating of all the characters in OotP. For all of Dumbledore’s failures, for all of Voldemort’s great crimes, it is Umbridge – the voice of the government – who becomes the most frightening villain of the book. Her cruel punishments and abuse of power suggest to Harry that he cannot equate civil authority with moral authority. Percy Weasley, much to the dismay of his family, fails to understand this lesson.
The initial result of this failure of authority is that Harry is isolated, either emotionally or physically, throughout much of the book. Some of this isolation is self-imposed, as when he refuses to talk with his friends in the aftermath of Arthur’s near death. Some of this isolation originates from Dumbledore, such as when he leaves Harry to stew over the summer at the Dursleys, or when the headmaster fails look Harry in the eye. By the end of the book, when Voldemort uses Legilimency to convince Harry that Sirius is danger, Harry does not have a single adult presence at Hogwarts that he can trust. Snape, of course, should have been the exception to this isolation, but the Potions master’s past interactions with Harry had already taught the boy not to rely on his bitter professor. No, Harry was alone.
Or was he?
OotP isn’t only a book about knocking Dumbledore and the rest of the adults off their pedestals. It is also a book that praises the power of friendship. While those with authority in Harry’s life fail him at ever turn, Harry’s friends remain at his side, even when he attempts to push them away. They even follow him into what at least one of them (Hermione) suspects is a trap.
Given the thematic overthrow of adult authority and the elevation of teenage friendship, it is tempting to argue that Rowling is simply appealing to her primary audience: young adults. However, I think Rowling’s message is deeper than a marketing ploy. The relationships that are most damaging in OotP are hierarchical in nature. Most often, this hierarchy is upheld by age: adults versus adolescents. However, there are counterexamples. The Order’s struggle against the Ministry, for example, has little to do with age. It has to do with power. And interestingly enough, there are hints that Hermione Granger, champion of house-elf freedom, is also abusing her authority. Her attempt to transform S.P.E.W. into a house-elf liberation front relies on deception, as she hides her knitted clothing in hopes that elves will accidentally free themselves. Hermione is much more successful when she helps to create another organization: Dumbledore’s Army. There, students come together, rejecting Umbridge’s hierarchical methods of teaching and instead embracing Harry’s more interactive, level instruction. Hermione should have realized from experience that groups based on common goals tend to be much more successful than organizations that, intentionally or not, reinforce hierarchy. By forcing clothes on the house-elves (in essence, forcing her values onto them), Hermione is, despite her good intentions, attempting to replace one hierarchy (master-elf relationship) with another. Once again, Rowling hints that authority, even in the best of hands, is vulnerable.
So while most of the positive relationships in OotP revolve around Harry’s friendship with other teenagers, Rowling is not calling for teenage rebellion (though Fred and George are fantastic role models for such behavior) so much as she is showing the importance of relationships built on commonality and equality. Individuals cannot count on authority figures – whether benevolent characters such as Dumbledore or power-hungry fools like Fudge – to do what is best for them. They are much more likely to be successful when they come together as relative equals with common goals.
However, when it comes down to the basic struggle of the series, Harry can’t even count on his friends. They may help him reach that final showdown with Voldemort, but if the prophecy is to be believed, the battle will take place on a lonely battlefield. When facing the ultimate evil, Harry will be quite alone. He will have learned important lessons from the best role models, like Dumbledore, even if they have failed him in times of need. He will feel the emotional support of his equals, his friends, even if they cannot do the job for him. But he will have to be the one to vanquish Voldemort.
A very real and frightening fact of life – for Harry and for us – is that there are some struggles that we have to face solely on our own. Dumbledore, as we learn at the end of OotP, was never meant to be the one with all of the answers. Indeed, when it comes to the one question that matters most – Will Harry be able to defeat Voldemort? – there’s only one person who can provide the answer. And that is, of course, Harry Potter himself.