Longtime HogPro stalwart Beth Priest posted this essay on epinions today, and it makes a nice complement to Ms. Palmer’s guest essay — at least in being about Dumbledore and approaching the character from an entirely different angle and purpose.
Ten Lessons I’ve Learned from Albus Dumbledore
Jul 10 ’07
The Bottom Line “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”
Well, I’ve reached my 300th review on Epinions! Each time I reach another 100 reviews, I mark the milestone by creating a literary list. For my 100th review, I did our family’s top 10 list of authors writing books for children five and under. When I reached 200, I decided to focus on 10 poems that are wonderful to read to and share with young children.
For number 300, I’ve decided to do something a bit different, though still connected to literature. My reaching 300 reviews happens to coincide with the forthcoming publication of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in her amazing series. So I thought that I would offer up a different kind of list. In the spirit of celebrating my love and appreciation for Rowling’s stories and characters, I offer you 10 Lessons I’ve Learned (or in many cases Re-Learned) from Albus Dumbledore.
A brief aside and a spoiler warning
I love the Harry Potter books. Although no one can yet fully assess the place of the Harry Potter books in history, I think it is clear that the stories are well on their way to deserved classic status. By classic, I mean beloved books that people want to read and then read again; I also mean books rich in echoes of other great stories.
The Harry Potter stories have fed and nourished well a real story-hunger in our times. My enjoyment of these books has also led me to some of the best literary discussion groups (online or otherwise) that I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of, and for that I’ll always be grateful. I am looking forward with great anticipation to the final book, where I fully believe Rowling will keep our respect by giving us a deeply satisfying and fitting end to the series, one true to the vision she’s been working toward all along.
I chose to do a list around lessons learned from Albus Dumbledore because…well, he’s Albus Dumbledore. Or, to be precise: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, champion of Harry, Hagrid, house-elves and so many others, and the only wizard that Voldemort (oh go on! say the name!) ever feared.
If you’ve even read only one Harry Potter book, you know how crucial a character Dumbledore is. But be warned. I pull my “lessons learned” from all six of the books so-far published. If you haven’t read all six, and you plan to, you may wish to stop reading now.
Ten Lessons I’ve Learned from Dumbledore
Dumbledore lives out contentment in so many ways: he doesn’t crave power; doesn’t crave fame; he holds lightly to earthly possessions. “By all means continue destroying my possessions,” said Dumbledore serenely. “I daresay I have too many.” (OotP 37)
Only a truly content man, after all, could look into a mirror that reveals one’s deepest desires of the heart…and see himself holding socks. To own enough good, warm socks might be one of Dumbledore’s few real wishes. And he’s right about that one too, isn’t he? “One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. (PS 12) I almost made that another lesson learned, but I’m going to leave it as subsidiary to the bigger lesson of contentment!
Our choices help shape who we are. And who we are shapes our choices.
This is such a big theme of the Harry Potter stories that one might almost (almost!) say it’s the central theme. And certainly it’s Dumbledore who unpacks it for Harry, and by extension us, in the deepest way. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (CS 18) Dumbledore tells a 12 year old Harry that truth not long after Harry battles Tom Riddle and the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. Harry had been despairing over his mysterious connection with Voldemort, and over the fact that the Sorting Hat saw him as a potential Slytherin. Dumbledore, while helping Harry to realize he is indeed a true Gryffindor, encourages him to understand how deeply his choices shape him.
Inevitably, we will all find ourselves faced with choices between what is right and what is easy.
Why do our choices matter so much? Because the world is fraught with dangers. Our world as well as Harry’s fictional world. There is good and there is evil in the world, and the line between them doesn’t always run neatly and smoothly, or even fully outside of our own skins. Making choices for the good and right, even in small, everyday ways, helps keep our hearts in shape for the difficult moments that will come when our resolve is truly tested. “Remember Cedric. Remember, 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. Remember Cedric Diggory.” (GF 37)
There are many things worse than death. Forgetting how to live life is one of them.
Dumbledore knows this; Tom Riddle doesn’t. It’s a huge and fundamental difference between these two powerful wizards, and it shapes who they are and how they use their powers. Tom lives in fear, grasping at an earthly immortality that isn’t his for the taking and wouldn’t be much of a prize even if he could finally grasp it, because it costs him his soul and his very humanity. Dumbledore wants Harry to know, from the very beginning, that as wonderful as life is, death need not be a fearful thing. In fact, it can be a continuing on of the adventure of a life lived fully. “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”(PS 17)
Respect others’ stories. Their stories are not your’s fully to tell, even if you have a very good reason.
“That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.” (GF 30)
Time and time again, we see Dumbledore withhold information that might or might not be crucial for Harry to know. He confesses that he is not all-wise, that in fact he’s made some mistakes in this area. Though we don’t know for certain all of the reasons the headmaster has for withholding certain pieces of information, at least one reason (in some cases) has to do with the sensitive and private nature of the stories he is privileged to know. I am thinking especially of the full story of Severus Snape’s repentance (whether you believe it is real or feigned, Dumbledore believes it is real, and he trusts Snape) and the story of Neville Longbottom’s parents, who were tortured into insanity by death eaters in the first war against Voldemort.
Dumbledore respects their stories and he knows they are not really his to fully share. He trusts that they will share their own stories when the time is ripe.
Keep your priorities straight.
In Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore’s detractors in the Ministry of Magic try to discredit him and his assertions about Voldemort by stripping Dumbledore of various honors, chairmanships and titles. In one of my favorite lines in the series, Bill Weasley grins and says: “But Dumbledore says he doesn’t care what they do as long as they don’t take him off the Chocolate Frog cards…(OotP 5).
Whose respect and love would you rather have: that of the strong, the “clever” and the powerfully placed? Or the children? I’m with Dumbledore on this one all the way!
And speaking of the little ones…
Look after the little ones, even (or especially) in a crisis.
At the end of Goblet of Fire, right after Voldemort returns, Dumbledore has to do some fast thinking. They’re on the edge of the second war, and it is clear that the Ministry does not believe Dumbledore and Harry. In the middle of issuing important and potentially life-changing instructions, Dumbledore pauses and turns to Madame Pomfrey, the healer at Hogwarts. “Poppy…would you be very kind and go down to Professor Moody’s office, where I think you will find a house-elf called Winky in considerable distress? Do what you can for her… (GoF 36)
Even in the midst of crisis and war, Dumbledore thinks of others — and not the others who might seem “important” to the war effort or in the grand scheme of things in the overall story. Whether it’s a first-year student needing a boost of confidence, a hippogriff needing liberation, or a grieving house-elf, Dumbledore keeps them all in mind and practices kindness and charity.
And he believes that kindness should be extended to everyone. Even people who disagree with you, or make you uncomfortable. Even your enemies…
Courtesy counts, so mind your manners.
Professor Snape, Harry. How many times have we heard Dumbledore say that? And he doesn’t just teach Harry respect and courtesy for others through his words, but through his actions. Think of him commenting graciously on the Dursley’s flowerbeds. (OK, yes, he can also be stern when the need arises…hence the howler in Aunt Petunia’s kitchen. But still!) Think even more of the scene on the Astronomy Tower in Half-Blood Prince. With every ounce of his strength oozing out of him, as he slips inch by inch down that wall, Dumbledore stays courteous, almost regal, even to the death eaters who threaten him. He’s not being sarcastic; not just playacting. Courtesy is a deep part of who he is. Their scorn doesn’t faze him. He continues to treat them as he would hope to be treated.
And let’s not forget…
Mercy matters. To the one giving it, as well as to the one receiving it.
“No, Draco,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It is my mercy, and not your’s, that matters now.” (HBP 27)
It really matters. Dumbledore can say this and mean it, even when facing possible death. Much earlier he lauds Harry for his beginning steps into a deeper understanding of mercy, not at all faulting him for saving Wormtail’s neck even through Wormtail deserved to die. (Shades of Gandalf, Frodo and Gollum, anyone?)
Harry is growing in mercy. As he continues to grow in mercy and forgiveness, he will continue to become more and more of “Dumbledore’s man through and through.”
Don’t underestimate the power of Love. It leaves deep marks on us all.
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever…It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.” (PS 17)
And that’s probably all that needs to be said about that.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my stroll through the pages of Harry Potter, with Dumbledore as our guide. And I hope that these few ruminations will not only serve to make you smile or to whet your appetite for the seventh book, but will also provide a springboard for fruitful reflection and discussion as you read and share these marvelous books with young people.
Accio book seven!
Quotes are taken from Scholastic (U.S.) editions of the Harry Potter books. I’ve referenced books by initials, followed by chapter number where you can find the specific quote.