This was originally meant to be part three of my ‘My Fave Is Problematic’ articles on Harry Potter, centered on moral implications. Implications of different narratives, and whether or not they seem to endorse some problematic or downright bad thing, are something discussed relatively often here at The Fandomentals, after all, and I haven’t much touched the topic in the articles yet.
However, when I finished the first draft of that piece, I realized one thing: all of the biggest issues I had were tied to Dumbledore in one way or another. And so, here we are.
It’s strange. Often, the question of what it means to endorse, or even apologise for, problematic behaviour is complicated. Does the author have to clearly spell out that what a character does is Wrong to avoid endorsing it? Obviously not. But at the same time, you can endorse or apologise for messed up things even without stating that the perpetrator of said deeds is the Greatest Hero in Existence, and we need to watch out for these subtler things as well.
But the funny thing is, Rowling does basically declare her most problematic characters Heroes. I’ll write a bit about Snape later, but for now, I want to know: is Dumbledore the author’s Personal Favourite White Boy?
She avoids the trap of excessive apology with Dumbledore very neatly when it comes to his involvement with Grindewald. Harry even lampshades it when he tell Hermione not to excuse him because he was young, since they are the same age at the moment and aren’t planning to take over the world to the detriment of Muggles. Yet many fans had a lot of issues with Dumbledore long before book seven came around.
Exhibit 1: Behaviour towards Harry
Taking it chronologically, the first problem is Dumbledore leaving Harry with the Dursleys, with the excuse that his mother’s protection works on the house. Which…yeah, no.
For one, we clearly see in book 5 that it only works on the house itself, not the surrounding town. Harry went to school, and frequently left the house for other purposes as well. It would have been ridiculously easy to get to him and kill him, had someone wanted to. People kept recognising him in the streets. Someone could have followed him to Privet Drive, or just killed him in that street if he was so inclined. It was the shadiest protection ever.
For another, there was the abuse of the Dursleys. Even if we assume they never truly physically hurt him very much, the psychological scars of their treatment would have been enormous. Spending ten years – from one to eleven years of age – exclusively with people who detest you and torment you is not just a bad phase you go through and shake off. It completely shapes who you are as a person. Leaving a child in your care to that is inexcusable, unless it was the only way to save Harry’s life, which it wasn’t.
Dumbledore’s next interaction with our hero is following Harry’s attempt to go after Quirrell. By doing so, he actually endangers the Philosopher’s Stone. By his inability to trust the adults, he risks the whole business because through him, Riddle can get at the Stone, something it seems he couldn’t have done otherwise. And yet Dumbledore never tells him so. Instead of pointing out that his recklessness endangered everything – gently, of course, because the boy was trying to help after all – Dumbledore praises him as the hero. Instead of teaching him to temper his impulsiveness, Dumbledore teaches him it’s a good thing. That rather sets the tone for the rest of the books. The same character failing leads to Sirius’ death in book 5, because Dumbledore never bothered to check this.
The biggest problem in book 2 is that Dumbledore seems a little dim-witted, but at the end of book 3, he actually sends Harry and Hermione back into the past – a past that contains a dangerous murderer and a transformed werewolf – even though he could have just as easily borrowed the time-turner and done the job himself. More easily, in fact, given that he is a much more powerful wizard. And look, I get it’s a story and needs to be about Harry, but that’s easily solved. Just don’t have them act on Dumbledore’s direct orders.
Book 4 chiefly raises the question of whether more really could not have been done to try and prevent Harry from competing int he Triwizard Tournament. Dumbledore knew it was an attempt to kill him, yet all he did about it was smile and say ‘hopefully it won’t come that far’. Not even a bit of advice. If it had not been for bloody Crouch Jr., Harry might have ended up fried by a dragon in the first task. Actually, come to think of it, that might have still happened, even with Crouch’s advice. I suppose Dumbledore would have been very sad.
His treatment of Harry in book 5 shows once again that Dumbledore knows nothing about how trauma works, but he admitted it was a mistake, so I’m leaving that be. The book is obviously not endorsing it.
In book 6, Dumbledore shows that great tendency from book 3 again and takes an under-age student of his school with him to an extremely dangerous cave. Harry did not learn anything important for the later Horcrux hunt there, it was not an experience he needed to have. Dumbledore could have gone alone, or with a member of the Order. They could have flown across the lake to get to the island (something that would have been a smart move anyway, I think). There was no reason Harry needed to be there. Even speaking purely pragmatically, he could have died, and then what would you have done, Albus?
No, Dumbledore screws Harry over without even having to touch that whole ‘raising him as a pig for slaughter.’ Which brings me to…
Exhibit 2: Behaviour towards Severus Snape
My point here is not to judge Snape’s character. Like I said, it deserves a separate article, with lots of speculation about what we know and what we assume. I won’t even touch the way Dumbledore roped him into spying, since that’s a very grey moral issue.
No, I just want to concentrate on two things: one, that Dumbledore allows Snape to continue teaching in spite of the way he treats Harry, Neville and Hermione, and other Gryffindors too to a lesser extent.
I don’t want to hear any honeypots about Snape having to play the part of a spy. For the first four years, Voldemort wasn’t even back. And since Snape was a double-agent, saying that he was forced to treat the Gryffindors and Muggle-Born decently by Dumbledore was the easiest thing in the world. Of course he could have hardly been openly friendly towards them, but there was no need for the vitriolic hate he presented. They were eleven year old children. His bullying of Neville was so bad that the boy feared him most in the world. The boy both of whose parents have been tortured into insanity, so he must have a number of nightmares of his own. And yet Dumbledore does nothing.
He might not have known, of course, but well, that is a failure of a different kind. This is his responsibility, and he should have either found a way to force Snape to behave better, or should have fired him. I do realise the war concerns that made him want to keep Snape there, but it’s not like the man wanted to leave. He swore to protect Harry’s life, too. Dumbledore didn’t have to worry about sucking up to him. To be honest, as it is, it rather makes me wonder Voldemort wasn’t more suspicious. How come Dumbledore trusts the man who so obviously behaves like a Death Eater? What does he know that I don’t? So, once again, it wasn’t even especially smart strategically speaking.
And then, of course, in book 7, we learn that Dumbledore tasked Snape with killing him without telling a single Order member about it. Whatever you think about Snape, this was shitty and markedly limited his usefulness in the last year of war. He could have passed on so much information so much more easily if he had a contact. But no. Better leave the man completely alone and hope he won’t crack, because, as we’ve established, what even is trauma?
Oh, and speaking of trauma, let’s also task the man whose main motivation for fighting in the war is protecting Harry with telling him he has to die. Won’t that be nice?
Exhibit 3: Treatment of his students
There are any number of things that could be mentioned about the plot of book 1 and about endangering the school with Fluffy, but they are mostly speculative as to the real intentions and background mechanism at play, so I will leave it be, only pointing out that all of Dumbledore’s actions there are highly suspicious. What I have to mention, though, is the very end. Where Dumbledore awards Gryffindor all those points, or rather, the way he awards them.
I get he wanted to give them, chiefly because Harry lost most of those points for trying to help Hagrid with the dragon, something that was just and noble. But the way it was done was pure sadism, and the take-away is that one should revel in the humiliation of a group one’s enemies belong to. Literally, it’s only Draco and Pansy (and Crabbe and Goyle, I suppose, but they simply follow Draco’s orders) who had done anything to Harry by the end of book one, yet we’re meant to cheer because all of that house – at least a hundred people – was publicly humiliated. Nice.
I will accept that Dumbledore knew neither the solution to the Chamber mystery nor that Umbridge liked to torture her students, but in book 6, we’re out of excuses. Dumbledore is aware that Draco is tasked with killing him, and with the Katie Bell incident at the latest he knows that the boy isn’t afraid to endanger other students as he tries to do so, and yet Draco stays happily at school. If Ron had died, do you think Dumbledore would have changed his approach? How many dead students would it take? I understand the situation was not easy and that if he somehow contained Draco, he risked the lives of his parents. But…there are lives of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy on one hand, whom are both adults and far from being innocent, and on the other hand there are the lives of children he is responsible for. What are you even doing, Dumbledore?
Exhibit 4: Treatment of his allies
First, let’s look at the whole Sirius business. We discover that Sirius was never put on trial. Albus Dumbledore is the head of Wizengamot. Are you telling me he could not have arranged for a trial to take place? Are you seriously telling me that Albus bloody Dumbledore did not have enough clout to make that happen? Ha.
The same, by the way, goes for Hagrid, who was never cleared until the Chamber happened to be opened. If it hadn’t been for Lucius Malfoy, he would still be considered guilty for killing a student. These matters are treated as if they were out of anyone’s hands, controlled by the evil Ministry, but in book 1 we hear about Fudge sending Dumbledore owls all the time because he does not know what to do. Maybe mentioning “do a trial for Sirius Black and Hagrid” in one of the replies could have done the trick?
Remus didn’t exactly get that job at Hogwarts soon either, and once again it’s treated as if his poverty was an effect of prejudice ‘of those terrible people,’ and as if nothing could have been done about it. Like, perhaps, getting Remus one of the many jobs of incompetent teachers that was more permanent than Defence, since he was good? But more about the staffing situation at Hogwarts later.
There is also the plan to let Riddle know when the Order would be moving Harry a the beginning of book 7. It makes no sense – why should Snape still be bringing in information when he is now ‘revealed’ as a loyal Death Eater? Riddle would hardly expect it, he needs him for something else now – and it risked the lives of 14 people. Once again, I relize it was a narrative device, but it was a narrative device that made Dumbledore look way too willing to sacrifice his people.
Exhibit 5: Running of Hogwarts
Let’s be plain: Hogwarts is chock full of terrible teachers.
And look, I’m willing to give Dumbledore a break for the Defence ones. It must be hard to get a new qualified teacher every year for forty years in a row. But Umbridge is painted as being terrible for – among other things – wanting to fire Hagrid and Trelawney, which…come on. We all know they are dreadful teachers. Hagrid, besides, lacks any kind of formal qualification – I mean, the man did not finish Hogwarts. I know it was because of the false accusation, but well, then let him finish school in adulthood after he’s been proven innocent. Don’t give him a teaching job at a secondary school without having finished secondary school. Seriously, this should be school management 101.
Trelawney teaches her students nonsense and takes pleasure is terrifying them, and Hagrid seriously endangers them. He should have been fired after that incident with the hippogriff. You do not let a bunch of thirteen years old deal with an extremely dangerous animal without close supervision. You just do not. That the books paint it as great that Dumbledore saves Hagrid from losing his job – while Buckbeak, who was the least to blame of all concerned, is to be executed – is frankly disturbing. It gives the impression that student safety and quality education is of no importance, and Dumbledore is praised as the greatest headmaster ever even though, out of his seven core subjects, teachers for three are terrible, and out of the five electives, we know that two have terrible teachers and we don’t know anything about the remaining three. The best magical education in the world, sure. I don’t really want to know what Beauxbatons looks like, then.
Plus, the teachers aren’t fired by Dumbledore whatever they do. Moody tortures Draco as punishment? Fine. Hagrid endangers student lives? Fine. Lockhart removes Harry’s bones? Fine! Snape could bully all the Gryffindors into next week and nothing would have happened. How is this meant to be admirable?
Really, revealing Dumbledore’s connection to Grindewald was the wrong way to go about revealing his moral failings. Harry should have instead used the time in that tent to realize all of these numerous issues.
But no, in spite of all of this, Harry names his son after this man. That feels like a pretty good validation to me. In the epilogue, in the seal of that story, Harry names his son after a man who, to summarize, didn’t much care about the lives of his students or allies, about the quality of the school he ran, and didn’t even take proper care of his most important war assets. I wasn’t a Dumbledore hater before I wrote this article, but now I’m slowly beginning to change my mind.
I do realize that at least half of these issues probably come from Rowling not thinking through the implications of what she was writing, but well…it’s written like it’s written, Dumbledore is a character who does all this, it’s never called out as wrong, and gets validation at the very end of the story. To be clear, I do not want to devalue the good things Dumbledore did. There were many. But there were also many bad things, and the story never pointing it out means it implicitly gives them a seal of approval by that naming. No one is going to think that by naming his son Albus, Harry meant to imply that wanting to rule Muggles for the greater good was a fine idea. It is less obvious, though, that Harry did not mean to say that giving your old friend – such a nice chap after all! – a job he really wants is more important than children having proper education, or giving the work opportunity to someone who worked hard to become qualified for it. These things influence the children reading the books, too. And I just really, really wish Harry had called his son Cedric Colin. Or, you know, Dobby.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros.