“I Remain Just as Big a Fool as Anyone Else”

When asked before The Tales of Beedle the Bard were published what I was looking forward to the most, my immediate answer was “Dumbledore’s commentary on ‘The Tale of Three Brothers.” I am delighted to say this part met my very high expectations for it. [Far and away the best online discussion I have read on the subject is at The Hog’s Head Tavern and I urge you to read the exchanges there if you haven’t already.]

Dumbledore in his notes on ‘The Three Brothers’ and the gifts Death gives each is simultaneously deceitful and revealing. To those without any clue about the existence of the Hallows and unworthy of learning about them, the notes must seem the usual historical survey that any literary dilettante might write. This is deceitful, because, as we know, the Hallows do exist and Dumbledore knows they exist, is in possession of one, and is aware of who holds another.

Why would he choose to be deceptive here? Perhaps, as Aberforth would certainly volunteer, it is because deception and secrets are second nature to Albus. I think he has other concerns.

We can speculate about it being prudence and a kindness but we know how he wound up using ‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard,’ so why not assume, at least for a moment, that he was planning just this usage when he wrote the commentary? If we posit that Dumbledore wrote this commentary for two audiences, those who will read it but he does not want to understand it and those who might read it and must be able to see through the deception, we get a multivalent text of at least two meanings. If we assume the book was written with the expectation that it would be found and read closely by the Ministry at his death (because the Headmaster planned on leaving Hermione Granger the book to be translated for Harry), the deception is anything but a failing; it is further testimony to the Headmaster’s foresight and brilliance, something like wisdom.

Because at his death Rufus and company almost certainly tore apart Dumbledore’s office and found the notes amongst his papers. What would they get out of them? Nothing Dumbledore wouldn’t want them to find. Certainly no clue about the Hallows’ existence, Harry’s possession of the Invisibility Cloak, the Death Stick’s being in the White Tomb, or the Resurrection Stone hidden in the Snitch.

But what would Harry and his friends have been able to read and understand in the same commentary? To cut to the quick, those lessons they’d need to learn in order to defeat the Dark Lord, what is most important for us to take away from the books, i.e., the anagogical layer of meaning in the stories.

What the Minister would have missed that the holder of the Invisibility Cloak wouldn’t (and that we shouldn’t because we know all about them, right?) is that Dumbledore suggests to the attentive reader that Death’s gifts are indeed real objects, despite his surface denials, via his discussing them and their archaic history at such length. He suggests that the few wizards who believe they are real are cranks, but, again, the discerning reader is made aware that there wizards who believe the objects exist and pursue them. The minority status of those who believe they exist, who, of course are right, is a classic clue of Straussian ‘hidden writing,’ a pointer to a sub-text written for ‘the Few.’ [Leo Strauus wrote that the best philosophers, after the persecution and death of Socrates, disguised their real meaning for those able to engage texts at this level and looking for this esoteric meaning (see Strauss’ ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’).]

We know for sure, post Deathly Hallows, that the Hallows exist and we can assume that Dumbledore’s reason for writing the Commentaries wasn’t an exercise in idle exegesis no one would read. This suggests that it was part of his plan to defeat the Dark Lord. If we didn’t know this and couldn’t make that assumption, this ‘secret writing’ thesis would seem nonsensical or, at least, a great stretch. As it is, we are obliged to ask ourselves, as discerning readers, what lessons beyond the existence of the Hallows Dumbledore wanted his young friends to learn (and knew the Ministry would miss).

I think the place to start, as in most topics, is the very end.

“Even I, Albus Dumbledore, would find it easiest to refuse the Invisibility Cloak; which only goes to show that, clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else” (Beedle, p. 107)

This is an ironic and, I’d guess, an intentionally ironic echo of Socrates’ accepting the Prophetess’ declaration that he was the wisest man in Athens, a title he accepted only after understanding that he was the only person who knew he was not the wisest person living. Dumbledore knows he is wise (hence the “such as myself” footnotes); in his closing comment he points to the essence of his wisdom in the same line he says he is a fool: the Invisibility Cloak.

The mention of the Invisibility Cloak here — and Dumbledore’s barely disguised understanding in the reference that it is the Hallow-most-to-be-desired by the wise man — is significant because of what the person wearing the Invisibility Cloak is, symbolically: the all-seeing eye/I that cannot be seen. Dumbledore as ego and persona, denies this greater Eye/I, the noetic faculty of soul common to all men (John 1:9) and is being truthful as he says “I remain just as big a fool as anyone else.”

But who is speaking here?

No, I’m not going to say “Joanne Rowling;” put aside author/character distinctions for a moment. What specific faculty of Dumbledore’s soul is speaking? The one capable of self-awareness, or, more precisely, self-reflection. As ego and accident of time and space like all men, the Headmaster, in rejecting the Invisibility Cloak, is just as big a fool as all other men, who, as egos and individual personalities consumed by self and the pursuit of advantage, cannot see the value of the Invisibility Cloak.

But the man speaking is not that ego; he is that faculty of soul that recognizes its reflection in the Invisibility Cloak. As fallen person and persona, Dumbledore knows he is a fool. To the extent that he is a person who identifies his true and greater self with that aspect of himself which is eternal and uncreated (John 1:1), however, Dumbledore is the wisest of men, even a likeness of God.

In Dumbledore’s last words in Beedle, Rowling echos the exchange at King’s Cross she has said is “the key” to the last book and to the series. “Is this real? Or has this just been happening inside my head?” “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” As explained in The Deathly Hallows Lectures (Chapter 5, ‘The Seeing Eye’), in that exchange Dumbledore is telling Harry he is the logos-faculty, the Primary Imagination, the active intellect, the nous, this uncreated part of us that is the unity of existence and reality’s creative principle.

Professor Dumbledore in his notes to ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’ writes separate messages for ‘the many’ and ‘for those with ears to hear.’ Rowling writes on three levels. She has the Dumbledore message for the Ministry and anyone else who picks up the book after his death. They’ll get a few grins and giggles and maybe a few pointed moral lessons. Then there are the two layers of meaning for those who have read Deathly Hallows, all of whom know the Hallows exist and that Dumbledore knows this, too.

The Many receive his history and description of the Hallows as ironic because they know he is trying to make them believe what he knows is not true; the message to them is just about Dumbledore’s personality and is a moral message about humility, sacrifice, prudence, and character, if they move beyond the surface at all.

The Few (to include Harry and company) also see Dumbledore’s prudent deceit, yes, but, in his long discussion of the non-existent Hallows and his mentioning wizards who believe the Hallows exist and pursue, we also get an important sign, via Dumbledore’s demonstration of his own extensive researches into the subject, that this is anything but a foolish business. He invites the Few who understand the Hallows exist to think closely on two points.

First, the Elder Wand. Dumbledore, owner of the Elder Wand, instead of boasting about it, tells his readers that it is non-existent (while giving enough historical detail to suggest he has pursued it with some zeal) and obviously anything but “unbeatable,” as all of its possessors claimed it was. We can assume that he does this for a variety of prudential or charitable reasons (i.e., to prevent attacks on himself and to keep the temptation to find it from others) but he has another point, I think, for the Elect among his readers.

Travis Prinzi discussed this on the Hog’s Head thread I mentioned above. Dumbledore is pointing, however obliquely, at the issue of “worthiness” or “fitness” to wield a Hallow, the Arthurian echo of a knight’s true worth, purity of soul, and righteousness being revealed in his ability or inability to see or find the Holy Grail.

The Headmaster tells those with ears to hear that anyone foolish enough to boast about the power of the wand or to think himself “unbeatable,” is unworthy of it and about to be defeated by the next fool imagining himself equal to the temptations of power. Assuming the book is written as a secret instruction manual for Harry (or whoever discovers the Wand in his White Tomb and wants to use it worthily), the Death Stick needs to be approached in the same way Harry looked into the Mirror of Erised as an 11 year old fighting the Dark Lord.

The second point is how one becomes worthy of wielding the Death Stick. That, as discussed above, lies in identifying one’s true self with ‘conscience,’ the noetic faculty of soul, with ‘spirit,’ which is to say, with valuing the Invisibility Cloak above the Wand of Destiny and all other tokens of individual, ego-focused advantage and power. It all turns on whether your ‘I’ is ‘ego’ or ‘the Eye of the Heart.’

Dumbledore’s commentary on ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’ is the best part of Beedle, certainly, in its multivalent artistry and its capsulized summary of Dumbledore’s teachings on what a person really is, properly understood, and what people should want (rather than the things that are worst for them). With ‘The Silver Doe,’ ‘The Epilogue,’ and ‘King’s Cross,’ I think it belongs on the short list of her single best efforts.

I am grateful, as always, for your comment and correction on this interpretation of Dumbledore’s hidden message in his commentary on ‘The Tale of Three Brothers.’


  1. I saw his commentary on the “Three Brothers” as being – literally – a confession to anyone who knew of his history with the Hallows. On the one hand, he denies and ridicules the idea of Hallows existing, and at the same time knows far too much about them to believe they are not real.

    As he says, the idea of the three invincible weapons that make the possessor ‘the master of death’, is in direct contradiction to the whole point of the tale itself. The point of the story is that – whether or not they exist – Hallows, like Horcruxes, are to be left alone. In the commentary in the stories preceding ‘the three brothers,’ Dumbledore quotes himself, saying “Human beings have a knack for desiring the things that are the worst for them.”

    I thought his goal of denying the existence of the Hallows was a well-meaning attempt to keep others from the very temptation to power that he himself fell prey to, and, at the last, admits that he would find it easiest to give up the cloak of invisibility (which, of course, is true, since he gave it up to Harry). He never gave up the Deathstick like Harry did, and when confronted with the discovery of the resurrection stone he could not resist the temptation to use it, causing his own death.

    All in all, a brilliant work worthy of the Potterverse and up there with the best of the series. I get chills every time I read the “Fountain of Fair Fortune,” and “The Hairy Heart” is just spectacular.

  2. Red Rocker says

    The commentary on Three Brothers as a secret message to Harry and his friends? Absolutely. Not to mention an instance of Dumbledore being very clever and doubly enjoying his cleverness, because he finally has an audience which will appreciate just how doggone clever he is.

    I’m not being sarcastic; I love Dumbledore, I just don’t see him as at all humble. I can just imagine his glee as he leaves his secret message in plain view, a la Dupin’s Purloined Letter.

    I’m not quite convinced about this Arthurian “fitness” ideal. As I wrote elsewhere, the whole point of the Hallows is that a pure man will not use the first two, because they are traps designed by Death to snare the unwary. So it’s not so much that only a good man can wield them, as that a good man will not wield them. And Harry, as far as I can remember, only uses the Elder wand to fix his own trusty holly-phoenix feather wand. He doesn’t zap anyone with it. And he only uses the Resurrection stone once he’s committed himself to dying. So in a way, he tricks death by reversing how people have traditionally used the first two Hallows.

    In fact, you could construe all of DH as the story of how Harry, like the third brother, tricks death. I don’t think I’m the first to come up with that analogy, however.

  3. I’m guessing that you’re remembering Alan Jacobs’ piece in Christianity Today on ‘Deathly Hallows.’ The trick is in understanding the symbolism of the Cloak and Harry’s eye-dentification with it, which Jacobs misses pretty much wholecloth (and leads to his confident dismissal, “Harry Potter is not a Christ figure”).

    The real hoot of that piece, though, beside the patronizing “greatest penny dreadful” summary point, is that in it Prof. Jacobs, the leading voice is the “there is no ‘hidden key’ to Shakespeare, Harry Potter, anybody!” school, offers his secret reading of ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers.’ Allegorical and anagogical readings are only valid (or to be taken seriously) when they come from the credentialed guys in the Tower?

    I should do a post about Jacobs’ thesis that ‘Hidden Key’ searches are inevitably poor scholarship and just laziness; Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia and, forgive me, my dilletante’s exploration of Potter-dom I think argue to the contrary. What does Jacob say to Ms. Rowling’s comments about her faith and 1998 statement about alchemy setting the “magical parameters” of her work?

  4. I just read Jacobs’ piece. It’s not that bad, except for the left-handed compliment, calling HP the best of the penny-dreadfuls. Which goes to prove my point (on the post about your article in Touchstone) that when academia praises Potter, they will do it in just such a sneering way: a hundred cliches move us!

    And yes, he did miss the Christ analogy. Not so much missed it, actually, as argued against it. Because Harry wasn’t special enough, and because he didn’t die alone. Not to be profane or anything, Mr. Jacobs, but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

  5. I just read the Jacob’s piece, too. Agree with Red Rocker’s comments. And yours too, John. He almost but not quite gets it. I can buy that Harry is not a Christ figure in most of the novels but to say that at the end of his walk in the Forest he is not standing in for Christ there? Rubbish. In fact, if you want to push the totally alone bit, our Lord died with family & friends at the foot of the cross. Harry dies alone, except for maybe Hagrid being there; otherwise he is totally surrounded by his enemies.

    And no hidden keys? Give me a break! Has this guy ever read Revelation? He raises a valid concern, of course, in that if one tries hard enough, you could read all sorts of meanings into things that don’t necessarily mean what you think they mean. But the corrective to this is not to reject any deeper or hidden meanings. The unus sensus literalis approach brings up its own problems.

    Ah well, like you all said, academia is a bore sometimes.

  6. The Harry Potter series “penny-dreadful”, “the kind of cheap, short novel….”?
    Is Professor Jacobs reading the same Harry Potter series we are? Or did he mistake one of those “paperback novels” at the drug store for Harry Potter?

    True, JKR’s style is not the pure poetic/prose we find in the Classics, but penny-dreadful? Has Prof. Jacobs looked at any news clips of JKR’s bank account lately?

    “The particular target of their disapproval was the boy’s adventure story—the kind of cheap short novel, full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism, that had come to be known as the “penny dreadful.”

    The Harry Potter series totals over 4,100 pages!!! How does that figure fit Jacobs description of JKR’s work? Not even close in my view.

    revgeorge, I agree that Prof. Jacobs missed it on the Christ figure point as well. While I personally hesitate to point to anyone as a “Christ figure”, but I look to Harry’s walk in the Forest as being “Christ-like”, yes Harry is standing in for Christ in the Forest, in the element of self-sacrifice and love to “save” his friends and the Wizarding World.

    The only thing I can think of when Jacobs states that Christ was abandoned in His agony, was at the moment of His arrest by the temple guards at the Garden of Gethsemane when the Apostles scattered to the four winds. Our Lord was not alone or abandoned along the Via Dolorosa or at the Cross.

    John, I would like to see you present a post on “Hidden Keys” to contrast Jacobs lack of insight in this area.

  7. IstariErangua says

    I think everyone has made some really valid points on the Hallows and how they should be used and what Dumbledore is implying when he leaves his notes. I especially agree that the biggest trick of the Hallows is that they shouldn’t be used, ultimately, until you’ve really reached the end of the rope as Harry did, when he believed completely that he had nothing left to lose. I feel a sense of similarity with Harry’s walk in the forest under the cloak and the way the third brother used it to hide from Death. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but just like the third brother, he met Death on his own terms, not hiding anymore, and choosing his own time to approach, no fighting, no tricks, but not meeting Death as an equal, quite, because he believed that the only purpose was to be mastered by Death, in this case, Voldemort, which wouldn’t make him an equal, and which Dumbledore would probably prove him as superior to Voldemort, and a master of Death also. I don’t think I’m explaining this well, but I get the impression that in the Tale of the Three Brothers, rather than just taking people as their time comes, Death is something of a malevolent trickster, who lures more people to meet him for his own inscrutable reasons. And the third brother, and to an extent Harry, because of their openness when the right time came, and their directness in approaching Death, out-tricked the trickster by not playing a trick or trying to escape. I feel like I’m babbling now, so I’ll stop.

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