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24 September 2005 @ 04:08 pm
On Heroes and Mentors: Why Dumbledore Had to Die  

 

 

We all knew it was coming.  Sooner or later, Dumbledore had to die.  Although many thought that it would come in the seventh book instead of the sixth, mainly because it seemed impossible to think of Hogwarts without Dumbledore, I think that most people knew that Dumbledore couldn’t live to the end of the series.  But how did we know?  I think that for many it was a deeply imbedded foreboding or a sense of “the old guy always has to die”.  What I want to do is examine why, from a literary standpoint, Dumbledore’s death was necessary. 

 

If Harry is the Hero of the series, then Dumbledore is archetypicalMentor.  Indeed, mentors along the lines of Dumbledore have become so common in fantasy literature that they are quite a cliché.  Mentors are generally of extreme age, eccentric, powerful, at times seem all-knowing and at times almost feeble-minded, and they nearly always die (although they frequently come back to life).  In other words, Dumbledore fits the typical criteria almost perfectly.  This is understandable because Mentors are one of the least variable characters in fantasy literature.  They are often strikingly similar even in very different stories.  Although Dumbledore is less visible than some Mentors (at least Pre-HBP), when he does appear, he clearly plays this role in Harry’s life.  He guides Harry, offers sage, mysterious advice and generally does everything that one thinks of a Mentor doing.  So, we have established that Dumbledore is clearly the Mentor of the story, but how does this relate to his death?  Why do Mentors have to die or at least effectively be taken out of the story?  In some ways, the answer is obvious, but there is much to examine here.

 

Mentors are necessary things in the beginnings of stories.  It would be far too unbelievable for the generally young, naïve, and unknowledgeable Hero to be able to do everything right away.  Someone has to get he or she from Point A to Point B and this is where the Mentor comes in.  The Mentor serves to introduce the Hero to a new, scary world, he gives the Hero many of the tools necessary to carry out the Final Task, and, if necessary, he will step in to save the day.  This is particularly true in the beginning of the story.  You will notice that while Harry was able to get through the fight with Voldemort in PS/SS on his own, that Dumbledore has to come and save him in the end.  By CoS, Dumbledore’s help is more indirect, coming in the form of his belongings, and his help becomes more and more indirect up until OotP which I will address in a moment. 

 

It is easy to see that at some point the Mentor will begin to become an encumbrance to the Hero’s story.  The question always becomes: “Well, if Mentor X is so powerful, then why doesn’t he do such and such and fix everything”. As the Hero grows and begins to find his place, the very power and knowledge of the Mentor that were so useful in the opening of the story will become a hindrance.  It is imperative that the Hero perform the Final Task on his own steam.  However, if the Mentor is left in the story, then the reader will begin to lose faith in him if he doesn’t help the Hero to some great degree.  He does hold incredible power, after all.  The kind of help that a Hero receives from a Sidekick is acceptable, the kind that he receives from a Mentor certainly is not, except in the form of the knowledge that the Mentor imparts to the Hero before leaving.

 

To give a literary example that most people are familiar with; consider Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.  Gandalf is an essential character at the beginning of the trilogy.  He is the one who sets Frodo on his task, who tells him what he needs to do and who imparts important lessons about the nature of the world, life, and people that Frodo will need later.  However, one can imagine how he would become a story hog if he were to go with Frodo all the way to Mount Doom.  He is too powerful, too all-knowing.  Everywhere he goes, the action seems to revolve around him, he threatens to become the Hero.  Gandalf has to be taken out of the story in such a way that there is no question of his being able to Frodo.  Gandalf must die.  (Although, he later makes a come back, of course).

 

We see a sort of miniature version of this process in the first two Harry Potter books.  Dumbledore has to be taken out of the school in both instances just when Harry needs him.  If he were there then he could take care of things himself, or at least help to such a degree that Harry’s position as Hero would become muddled. 

 

Just prior to the Mentor’s death, several things about the way that he acts and the way that he is portrayed will change.  Dumbledore showed basically all of these signs in OotP and HBP.  Certainly, by about one-third of the way through HBP, I was sure that I was reading the story of Dumbledore’s death.  These signs are as follows:

 

  1. The Humanization of the Mentor:  As the Hero grows, it becomes almost necessary that he begin to see the Mentor in a different light.  As the Hero becomes more independent and mature, he must come to understand that Mentor is human and that the Mentor has flaws.  This is sometimes accompanied by anger at the Mentor and it happens in a big way in OotP, but begins as early as PoA.  In the end, the Hero must come to terms with the Mentor’s humanity because he needs to understand that the Mentor cannot help him with the Final Task.  The Hero may lose the child-like respect once held for the Mentor, but it will usually be replaced by something stronger.
  2. Knowing Death is Coming:  Often the Mentor will seem to know that his time is limited.  He will make ominous comments.  I think that Dumbledore definitely knew he was going to die.  This leads to number 3. . .
  3. Mentor Overdrive:  The Mentor will often go into what I like to call “Mentor overdrive”.  That is, there will be a dramatic increase in the amount of information that is being given to the Hero and the Mentor will take a renewed interest in the Hero in general.  There is a sense that the Mentor must teach the Hero everything that he can before he dies.  This actually takes up the greater part of HBP:  Dumbledore has to show Harry all the information that he has collected about Riddle and how to defeat him over the years.
  4. Larger Role in the Action:  I mentioned that as the story goes on, that the Hero needs less and less help from the Mentor, this often means that the Mentor’s role in the action of the story is diminished.  However, prior to the Mentor’s death, he will often have a larger role in the actual action of the story.  You can see this very clearly in the Harry Potter series.  OotP is basically Dumbledore’s story being told through Harry’s eyes (and Harry being frustrated because he doesn’t know enough).  In HBP, Dumbledore takes a significant role in the action alongside Harry.
  5. Last Heroic Action:  The Mentor will usually die by taking some supremely heroic and self-sacrificing action, often one that he knows will lead to his death.  This happens rather indirectly in HBP since Dumbledore’s real heroic action is drinking the water to obtain the Horcrux, but it does set in motion a chain of events that will lead to his death. 

 

I have spoken about how the Mentor must die because he can’t help the Hero, but the Mentor’s death often severs the duel purpose as being the one thing that can give the Hero the strength of will to do what he needs to do.  The Mentor’s death can do this better than the death of any other character, even one who is very close to the Hero.  You’ll notice that Sirius’ death didn’t really give Harry the strength of will to defeat Voldemort, but Dumbledore’s death very much did.  I believe that part of the reason for this is that the Mentor has dedicated his whole life in a way that no one else in the story has to the cause that the Hero is fighting for.

 

Now, this gets us to a place that I think is very appropriate for the end of this essay and that is this:  in a very real way, the Mentor is a Hero – but of different age.  For many years, the Mentor has been the protector and the hope of whatever group the story is centered around.  He has fought evil more ceaselessly than any other.  But there comes a point when he can no longer do this.  It is at this point that his task and his fight must be passed along to the Hero.  This is what happened in Harry Potter, this is why Dumbledore had to die.  For many years, Dumbledore had been the protector of the wizarding world.  We’ve heard Dumbledore’s name used almost as a safeguard against Voldemort many times.  You’ve all heard it: “Hogwarts is safe . . . we have Dumbledore”, or “Dumbledore will take care of everything”.  Indeed, for me, the most powerful chapter title of the whole series Chapter 36 of OotP, “The Only One He Ever Feared”.  Dumbledore was the one that Voldemort feared, the one who took on the role of the Hero for so long.  But we all knew that he couldn’t quite do it, Dumbledore couldn’t be the one to finally defeat Voldemort:  this task was for Harry.  Dumbledore, himself, has to come to terms with this fact throughout the series, but particularly in OotP, when he realizes that he can not protect Harry from his destiny.  Harry must be the one to carry on Dumbledore’s work. 

 

After all, this is Harry’s story.

 

Sorry if any part of this essay was like stating the obvious.  I appreciate any feedback!

 
 
Current Mood: nerdy
 
 
 
That's Classifiederinlin on September 24th, 2005 08:23 pm (UTC)
Great essay. I've heard the theory before, but never layed out so nicely. Good job!
I laugh therefore I am.: hp-hbp alone by crazycannotmonica on September 24th, 2005 09:14 pm (UTC)
Or, as I said to my husband, when he argued that Dumbledore was too pivotal a character to die, "The hero MUST stand alone"-it is world mythology canon.

Of course the basis for this is that long ago, when the king/leader of a tribe became too elderly to protect the group, he was "replaced" by someone younger. There were many ways this was accomplished, depending on the culture, ceremonial suicide or murder, fight to the death etc. But it is that idea that is at the heart of "the hero stands alone" part of myth and fantasy stories.

Nice essay on the subject as it pertains to HP!

jennjenn724jennjenn724 on September 26th, 2005 12:06 am (UTC)
It's always interesting to think of where these standards come from, isn't it?
Reckless Endangerment to Youth: firefly//River Fixing Faith//midnightzstlotuseyes on September 24th, 2005 10:35 pm (UTC)
would be at all possible to hire you as my college report writer? XD or at least my debate partner...?

joking joking. I never really thought to look at dumbledore like that. I mean yes I kne whe guided Harry, but for some reason I just didn't see him as a mentor (mayhap this is because when I think of mentors I think of people who strong in the beginning grow weaker as the story progresses and the hero grows in strength).
jennjenn724jennjenn724 on September 26th, 2005 12:08 am (UTC)
Thanks for stroking my ego, lol. But I'm far to busy obsessing over HP to even get all my own school work done.
She's away with the pixies: booksawaywithpixie on September 24th, 2005 11:33 pm (UTC)
It is always good to restate these points. I was surprised at the number of people in fandom who were not aware of Mythologist Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces" and his monomyth theories that underly most fiction, including JKR, Tolkien and George Lucas. If you read all about it, you can see just how closely JKR is sticking to his formula.
jennjenn724jennjenn724 on September 26th, 2005 12:11 am (UTC)
It's actually been quite a while since I read this one, but I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this type of thing.
noe: slytherin-by-dracopottamus_noesumeragi_ on September 25th, 2005 11:03 am (UTC)
Even if part of this was obvious and known, still you described it very precisely and nicely. I've enjoyed it.
L_J_Bl_j_b on September 25th, 2005 11:31 am (UTC)
Very well written :)
Dumbledore died when I'd thought he would - using a similar set of thought processes and narrative mechanics that you've laid out here. I'm bookmarking this for when I need to illustrate my point :D
Erin: Woohoo!Snaperose_in_shadow on September 25th, 2005 06:10 pm (UTC)
Excellent essay. This lays out my rather muddled thoughts of Dumbledore's role perfectly :-). *adds to memories*
Roonil Wazlib: sir/professorbaseballchica03 on September 25th, 2005 08:35 pm (UTC)
Thank you, you said this better than I ever could. :) I'm always surprised when people say that they didn't realize that Dumbly had to die.
kamion: DUMBLEDEADkamion on September 25th, 2005 10:07 pm (UTC)
perfect according the book. and nicely worked out.

I know however one story where the Mentor does not die/disappear and where the Hero still has the power to defeat evil.
nl the Belgariad by Edding.

The only thing there is that the Mentor shows clearly and unmistakingly NOT having the power to defeat evil.
jennjenn724jennjenn724 on September 26th, 2005 12:19 am (UTC)
Well, of course nothing is absolutely universal. But the Mentor is taken out of the story enough to where if an author DOESNT do this than it goes against the standard.

And there are other methods that are sometimes used to take the Mentor out of the action, such as the Mentor being too physically weak or feeble to extremely helpful.

I also think that whether or not the Mentor is taken out of the story, in large part depends how important a role the Mentor has in the world. Reclusive types of Mentors are less likely to die.

I think that given DD's role in the world and the fact that HP depends less on physical strength than some stories AND given the fact that DD showed all the signs, that he was bound to die.