Dumbledore a Christ Figure in Half-Blood Prince?

I argued that point back in 2005, believe it or not, and I suppose it’s worth re-visiting during the great kerfuffle about the Warner Brother’s film. Here is the relevant portion of a very long essay, even by HogPro standards, (see the original, if you must confirm I haven’t changed anything):

[The 2005 post began with a discussion of Ms. Rowling’s comment to Lev Grossman that “Obviously Dumbledore was not Jesus.” I explained that, in context of her discussion of the differences between the Narniad and her Hogwarts Adventures, the “obviously” means that Dumbledore isn’t a story cipher like Aslan is for the Christ. The rest is a point by point exegesis of how Dumbledore is indeed a Christ figure in Half-Blood Prince.]

Having said that Dumbledore will not be an obvious Christ figure in rising from the dead, the storyline in Half-Blood Prince and what we know of Dumbledore makes Ms. Rowling’s mention of the Headmaster as a Christ symbol meaningful. In quite a few ways, she seems to be offering him to us as a shadow or image of the God-Man.

* Formula requirements: The Cave

Ms. Rowling’s formula ending for her books are an underground confrontation with evil in which Harry dies a figurative death and is saved by love in the presence of a traditional symbol of Christ. Though it can be argued that Snape and Buckbeak satisfy this formula requirement, the scene in which Dumbledore saves Harry from the Inferi dragging him into the Cavern lake is most like Rowling’s formulaic usage.

They are underground, to begin with, on an island in a Stgyian lake that is reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno in more ways than being populated by monstrous Inferi. Harry’s death seems much more likely here, too, than it does later in the story at the Hogwarts School gates.

as he backed away still farther, he felt arms enclose him from behind, thin, fleshless arms, cold as death, and his feet left the ground as they lifted him and began to carry him, slowly and surely, back to the water, and he knew there would be no release, that he would be drowned, and become one more pale guardian of a fragment of Voldemort’s shattered soul. (chapter 26, Scholastic, p. 576)

Harry is saved here by love in the presence of a symbol of Christ because Dumbledore drives away the Inferi with a ring of fire. He had told Harry earlier that fire was the answer to the challenge of the Inferi and in this explanation he uses the alchemical language of love in the sense of love’s being “the resolution of contraries.”

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “I am sure that once we take the Horcrux, we shall find [the Inferi] less peaceable. However, like many creatures that dwell in cold and darkness, they fear light and warmth, which we shall therefore call to our aid should the need arise. Fire, Harry,” Dumbledore added with a smile, in response to Harry’s bewildered expression. (26, p. 566) [Echo of Devil’s Snare hurdle in HP1]

The fire, then, is love but where is the Symbol of Christ? Well, it’s Dumbledore.

He has finished drinking the potion in the basin (about which more in a second) and has expired. Harry revives him with a Renervate charm (formerly the humorously contradictory Ennervate charm; see Amos Diggory with Winky at the Quidditch World Cup) and is forced to touch the Lake water to give him the water he requests, a touch that wakes the Inferi.

Dumbledore, however, rises from his seeming death and becomes something of a beacon in the darkness.

Dumbledore was on his feet again, pale as any of the surrounding Inferi, but taller than any too, the fire dancing in his eyes; his wand was raised like a torch and from its tip emanated the flames, like a vast lasso, encircling them all with warmth. (26, p. 576)

To Christians, this resurrected figure in the infernal depths that is a shining light in the darkness recalls the image of Christ the Logos that is the light that came into the world “which the darkness comprehendeth not,” the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth harrowing hell in his resurrected body, even the resplendent light of Mt. Tabor at Christ’s transfiguration (Albus is Latin for both “white” and “resplendent”). That he saves Harry’s life with love here when we thought him dead makes for a powerful, seering image of the God-Man.

* Drinking bitter cup

Beyond satisfying mechanical formula requirements of the author, Dumbledore’s action in the cave before he saves Harry would make the thoughtful reader scratch his head, I think, and wonder about the Christian symbolism. The Headmaster drinks 12 chalices of a phosphorescent emerald green fluid in the Horcrux basin, does so sacrificially, and suffers terribly before expiring and rising to save Harry from the Inferi.

Let me translate this for you if the parallels aren’t obvious.

The drinking of the 12 cups is a pointer to the prayer of Christ in the garden at Gethsemane, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). Dumbledore does this sacrificially we know because he says to Harry who offers to drink it for him,

“Why can’t I drink the potion instead?” asked Harry desperately.

“Because I am much older, much cleverer, and much less valuable,” said Dumbledore. (26, p. 570)

What is this emerald potion? Rowling does not reveal any details in her story line but the clues she does share with us — its color, there being 12 cups, and Dumbledore’s reaction while drinking it — again point to a Christian symbolism.

The potion is described as “an emerald liquid emitting that phosphorescent glow” (26, p. 567). The color green throughout the Potter books, with the exception of the eyes of Harry and his mother Lily, is the color of evil, most notably it is one of the Slytherin House colors, the snakes in the book, and of wizards of ignoble hearts (e.g., Fudge’s green bowler). When we see a glowing emerald liquid in the basin, Rowling has given us a color cue that this cannot be good and is almost certainly something horrible, coming from the Dark Lord himself.

Dumbledore assumes it will cause the drinker to be unable to drink it on his own. “It might paralyze me, cause me to forget what I am here for, create so much pain I am distracted, or render me incapable in some other way” (26, p. 569). Nonetheless, he makes Harry promise him he will be sure Dumbledore drinks the whole basin, which comes to twelve full crystal chalices.

We do not know what happens to Dumbledore as he drinks the twelve chalices, but his suffering and screams are terrifying and pathetic. I expect we will learn in Deathly Hallows either that this is a staged melodrama (about which more in a minute) or that it is a liquid boggart of sorts, the drinking of which causes the drinker’s worst nightmare to come up in their minds or a vision of a probable future. Dumbledore’s greatest fear seems to be the capture of Hogwarts by Death Eaters and the torture of his students while he watches, helpless.

He drinks four goblets almost without assistance but accepts Harry’s help to finish the fourth and with the fifth and sixth, as he begs Harry to stop, saying he “doesn’t want” to drink anymore and that, if they stop, he’ll “never, never again” do the wrong he knows he did (26, p.572). Harry has pledged to force Dumbledore to finish the basin no matter what he says, so they continue.

At the seventh goblet, Dumbledore turns from asking the drinking to stop. Instead, he begs “invisible torturers” “Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead!” (26, p. 572). The torturers seem to take seriously his offer of himself as a sacrifice for others or as the truly guilty party because through goblets eight and nine he begs for mercy for whatever these invisible tormentors are doing to him, culminating in his cries after ten, eleven, and twelve that he wants to die (10), “KILL ME!”(11), and, at 12, “Dumbledore gulped at the goblet, drained every last drop, and then with a great rattling gasp, rolled over onto his face.”

The green tells us the fluid is evil. The number twelve, the number of a completion of a full cycle, hence of totality, means that Dumbledore will be drinking the whole of evil into himself, sacrificially. His cries are the cries of the guilty, the penitent, those who suffer for others, and of those, at last, at the basin’s dregs, of those who despair and beg for death. Dumbledore assumes this suffering and the punishment of others by drinking, which, if he begs to be freed from them, he never resists or flags from drinking.

This may not be obvious or transparent symbolism but it is not especially opaque, either. Dumbledore, the Christ of the wizarding world, drinks the cup he must drink to defeat the Dark Lord and “takes unto himself the sins of the world” and dies, albeit here only a figurative death (albeit with death rattle!). And Dumbledore’s vain cry for water? Jan Voetenberg of the Netherlands reminds me this is an echo of Christ’s “I thirst” from the Cross as he expires (John, 19:28).

Rowling makes a nod to obvious Christian symbolism — the blood sacrifice for atonement — in the entrance to the Cave, which requires blood on the wall to reveal the Cave. The Headmaster is appalled by this requirement, but not because it is onerous or especially unpleasant (he insists that he give the blood rather than Harry because Harry’s blood is “more valuable”). He is disgusted because the requirement (and I would suggest Rowling is saying, “the symbolism, too”) is “so crude” (26, p. 539). The cave drama is more subtle but as effective a Calvary synonym if not more so for not being a cookie cut-out in fiction.

* Not thinking as the world thinks

If this scene were the only one in which the Hogwarts Headmaster behaves in a Christ-like manner, I could understand the inevitable protestations of skeptical readers (those, sadly, that more often than not have a good deal of baggage and are resistant to anything with Christian meaning even within a Christian literary tradition) that this is a “forced reading” born of “Christian bias” and “wishful thinking” or “projection.” I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the word “Procrustean” the last three years.

But Rowling has not made a demonic figure fill the role of Christ at Gethsemane and Calvary on the underground lake island. Dumbledore is not a perfect man but he is something of a saint. Most notably, he doesn’t think the way the world thinks (cf., Matthew 16:23).

Dumbledore, for example, not only “gets along” with everyone, he makes a point of understanding and appreciating everyone. The merpeople in the Hogwarts lake sing a mournful dirge at his funeral and we are reminded that, alone among wizards, Dumbledore had learned Mermish and was on good relations with these magical creatures. The centaurs, too, pay Dumbledore tribute at the funeral with a ceremonial shower of arrows, remarkable because the centaurs had exiled Firenze in Phoenix for agreeing to work with the Headmaster and “share their secrets.”

It is remarkable but believable because of the difference between Dumbledore and, say, Dolores Umbridge, the acting Headmistress in Phoenix, whom the centaurs capture and torment. Unlike Umbridge, who hates magical creatures and mixed blood wizards as a rule, Dumbledore is on good terms with house-elves, centaurs, and goblins. He is even able to parley with the giants through Hagrid and Madame Maxime because of his good reputation among the giants. He sees the crisis in the wizarding world with Lord Voldemort largely as crows coming home to roost for the prejudices of the Wizarding world against magical creatures.

He also adopts those the world would not. Remus Lupin, boy werewolf, is admitted to Hogwarts and later even given a job as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher despite wizard prejudice against his affliction. Hagrid, too, is trusted and respected by Dumbledore despite his being half-giant. Muggle-born wizards and witches, Half-Bloods, and Pure Blood families are all treated by the Headmaster without distinction or prejudice except in the light of their respective virtues and vices born of their choices rather than their blood lines. Snape, if not a half-vampire, then as certainly no Little Lord Fauntleroy, is also an Albus adoptee. In being “no respector of persons,” Dumbledore thinks as God thinks, not as men think.

* Unable to think anything but “the best of people”

His enemies are encouraged to think of this discernment and his absence of prejudice as a failing. Severus Snape says to Bellatrix LeStrange during her visit to his apartment in Spinner’s End, “And you overlook Dumbledore’s greatest weakness: He has to believe the best of people” (2, Scholastic p. 31). Even Harry thinks this is a failing. On the cavern’s island he thinks, “Was this more of Dumbledore’s insane determination to see good in everyone?”(26, p. 569).

But Dumbledore is not possessed by an “insane determination.” He does not imagine good where there is evil or cower from sharing with the self-important and self-blinded their failings (cf. his conversation with Lucius Malfoy at the end of Chamber, with Cornelius Fudge at the close of Goblet, and his talk with the Dursleys in the third chapter of Prince). He has the ability to see the good in everyone, however, and only those who are an absence of good (e.g., the Dementors) or who embrace evil openly (e.g., Lord Voldemort and his minions) are his enemies.

Thomas Aquinas once wrote that “concupiscence darkens the intellect” which has been translated into popular idiom as “sin makes you stupid.” Rowling’s point is the inverse of Aquinas’, if I understand her character Dumbledore, in that she is saying the very wise are those who are the most loving or, at least, those who are least diminished by hate and prejudice.

* Refusing world’s crown

But Dumbledore differs with the majority of men not only in embracing those despised by most and by laboring to be untouched by prejudice or hate. He goes to some lengths to “live in the world but not be of the world”(cf., John 17) and “to render to Caesar only what is Caesar’s due” (cf., Matthew 22:21), especially with respect to the Ministry of Magic.

In previous books we learned that Dumbledore was consulted frequently by the leaders of the magical government and that one Minister, at least, thought Dumbledore was plotting to get his job. No less a personage than Lord Voldemort himself reveals to us in Half-Blood Prince that the young Dumbledore, even while only just beginning his time as Hogwarts Headmaster, had been offered this job many times and turned it down.

“I see [the attraction of teaching] still,” said Voldemort. “I merely wondered why you — who are so often asked for advice by the Ministry, and who have twice, I think, been offered the post of Minister -”

“Three times at the last count, actually,” said Dumbledore. “But the Ministry never attracted me as a career.” (chapter 20, Scholastic pp 442-443)

This otherworldliness and dedication to the formation of young souls creates the back drop for recognizing in Dumbledore’s actions in the Cave a shadow of the work of the God-Man who refused an earthly crown.

Dumbledore’s life work, too, besides “passing on ancient skills, helping hone young minds” (chapter 20, p. 442), is opposition to evil and the invisible spiritual warfare necessary to defeat the Evil One (contrasted with the negligent bumbling of Minister of Magic Fudge and the political “get tough” showmanship of Rufus Scrimgeour). Without Dumbledore, there would have been no resistance to the Dark Lord; the Headmaster is the only one in the stories besides Harry not tempted by personal advantage or the dark side of magic.

* Phoenix Association

So Dumbledore has the character traits, too, that we’d expect in a Christ figure. Another pointer would be his association with Fawkes the Phoenix.

Fawkes is what some Harry Haters have mistakenly called his “familiar.” As he is only a loyal friend, too noble to be thought of as a “pet,” and never takes part in Dumbledore’s spellwork (if he proves a great help in battle as he showed in the climactic struggles of Chamber and Phoenix), calling the Phoenix a familiar is another instance of prejudice driving reasoning and faux research.

The Phoenix, commonly called the “Resurrection bird” because of his ability to rise from his own ashes, for obvious reasons has been a traditional symbol of Christ in European literature and art for centuries. His help in battling the Basilisk in Chamber and healing Harry of his wounds in the Chamber of Secrets with Phoenix tears and his swallowing the “death curse” in the battle with Lord Voldemort at the end of Phoenix reveal Ms. Rowling’s conscious use of this Christian topos.

Fawkes has a special relationship with Dumbledore that extends beyond that of, say, Harry and his pet owl, Hedwig. Fawkes, for example, will fly to the aid of someone expressing loyalty to Dumbledore (as he does in Chamber). Phoenix song, as Rowling describes it in her small Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them can “increase the courage of the pure in heart and to strike fear into the hearts of the impure” (p. 32), which we see in the wand-to-wand battle between Harry and Voldemort in Goblet.

This song that stirs the pure of heart (cf., Matthew 5:8 and Dumbledore on Harry, Prince, chapter 23, Scholastic p. 509) ties Fawkes and Dumbledore to Christ beyond the mechanical tie with the “Resurrection bird” of legend. The song Fawkes sings at Dumbledore’s death and the effect it has on those who hear it is a song of love from their own grieving hearts. In Prince, chapter 29, “The Phoenix Lament,” after Harry explains in the Hospital Wing how Dumbledore died, those gathered hear Fawkes:

Somewhere out in the darkness, a phoenix was singing in a way Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt as he had felt about phoenix song before, that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song that echoed across the grounds and through the castle windows.

How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to hear the sound of their mourning, but it felt like a long time later that the hospital door opened again. (29, Scholastic pp 614-615)

Ms. Rowling has revealed in interviews that Dumbledore’s Patronus, too, is a Phoenix, and it appears from the white flames and smoke that consume his remains become the White Tomb memorial to him on Hogwarts grounds.

Bright, white flames had erupted around Dumbledore’s body and the table upon which it lay: Higher and higher they rose, obscuring the body. White smoke spiraled into the air and made strange shapes: Harry thought, for one heart-stopping moment, that he saw a phoenix fly joyfully into the blue, but next second the fire had vanished. In its place was a white marble tomb, encasing Dumbledore’s body and the table on which he had rested. (30, Scholastic, p. 645)

Ms. Rowling, by repetition and reinforcement, drives home that we are to connect the Headmaster with the Resurrection bird, a traditional symbol of Christ, even if he won’t be “doing a Gandolf” in Deathly Hallows.

* Sacrificial death on tower — mercy to Malfoy, Snape, and the world

Every Harry Potter book has a crucible scene and confrontation with the bad guy. In Stone it is Harry and Quirreldemort before the Mirror of Erised, in Chamber the fight with the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner features the nightmare revelations and mercy in the Shrieking Shack, Goblet Voldemort’s Rebirthing Party, and Phoenix the battle at the Ministry of Magic. Half-Blood Prince’s crucible is Dumbledore’s finale on the Astronomy Tower after he and Harry come back from the Cave.

The Tower is a crucible in a traditional alchemical sense as well as being the crucible of this book’s action. Lyndy Abraham, in A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, defines the “tower” as a “synonym for the athanor or philosophical furnace” (p. 202). Ms. Rowling underlines this meaning by having Professor Trelawney insist, before Harry leaves for the Cave, that calamity awaits the Headmaster:

“If Dumbledore chooses to ignore the warnings the cards show ” — her bony hands closed suddenly around Harry’s wrist. “Again and again, no matter how I lay them out –” And she pulled a card dramatically from underneath her shawls. “-the lightning struck tower,” she whispered. “Calamity. Disaster. Coming nearer all the time –“ (25, Scholastic, p. 543)

The chapter of Dumbledore’s murder on the Astronomy Tower is titled, “The Lightning Struck Tower.” Beyond the tarot card’s supposed meaning, there are few Harry Potter fans that didn’t feel they were blasted by a lightning bolt along with the Headmaster — I did and I had said Dumbledore had to die for three years – so we all might be excused for missing the connection with his death there and Christ’s. Here’s a quick review:

1. Dumbledore arrives at the Tower near death and on a mission of mercy. He and Harry are in Hogsmeade when they see the Dark Mark over the Astronomy Tower. They forget Dumbledore’s condition and rush to the rescue — and right into a trap.

2. There Dumbledore is disarmed and held at wand-point by Draco Malfoy, a student who must kill him or be killed with his whole family by Lord Voldemort. Dumbledore, as his life ebbs away, respects the boy’s free will and mercifully guides him away from the Unforgivable Curse and a splintered soul.

3. They are joined as the boy lowers his wand by four Death Eaters who insist the boy kill Dumbledore in keeping with the Dark Lord’s command. Snape appears, learns the boy will not kill the Headmaster, he hears Dumbledore say, “Severus –. Please –” and he blasts the Headmaster over the battlements with the killing Avadra Kedavra curse.

4. Snape and boy escape.

The connection with Christ’s death is the love and otherworldly mercy Dumbledore shows in his death.

Like the Son of God and Creative Word at his scourging, again on the Via Dolorosa, and finally on the cross at Calvary, Dumbledore is more powerful than his tormentors and executioners. Wandless and wounded, Dumbledore is more than capable of unspoken spell work and transfiguration, not to mention disarming and subduing a boy “in way over his head.” But he speaks kindly to the boy and slowly brings him to realize, of his own free will, that he cannot murder the seemingly helpless old man. The boy at end understands, as Dumbledore tells him, that “It is my mercy, and not your mercy that matters now” (27, Scholastic p. 592).

But the boy is not allowed by his Death Eater companions to submit to his mercy and accept his offer of forgiveness and sanctuary. They are shouting at him to kill Dumbledore or get out of the way when Snape arrives to send the Headmaster off the Tower.

Curiously, Dumbledore in his death throes had been telling Harry in Hogsmead and on the Tower when they arrived that he must get Snape. Harry is on his way to get him when Dumbledore body-binds him under the Invisibility Cloak lest he attack Malfoy or excite Malfoy with the hatred necessary to perform the Avadra Kedavra curse. Or just to insure that he stays and watches.

As readers we assume that Dumbledore is asking for Snape because of the former Potions Professor’s skills with dark magic potions and wounds. This may well be the case, if he seems to have died two or three times that night already. Whether he was calling for medical aid or not, we do know that Dumbledore had another reason to call for Snape.

We first meet Snape in Half-Blood Prince in an industrial ghost town called Spinner’s End where he lives in an apartment with Peter Pettigrew. He entertains Narcissa Malfoy, desperate for Snape’s help in saving her son from Lord Voldemort’s suicide mission, and sister Belatrix LeStrange. Narcissa extracts from Snape the Unbreakable Vow that he will watch over her son, protect him from harm, and carry out the deed assigned to him by Lord Voldemort if he should fail. Snape takes the Vow, a vow that will cost him his life if he fails to keep it, either knowing the boy’s mission or not knowing it.

Snape and Dumbledore learn during the year that Narcissa’s son, Draco, the boy on the Tower, is trying to kill Dumbledore in obedience to the Dark Lord. Dumbledore knows about the Unbreakable Vow (either from Snape himself or from Harry who overhears Snape talking to Draco about it).

Dumbledore is calling to Snape even before he gets to the Tower and sees that he has been trapped (and the boy caught in a position where he might be psychologically rent). Taking the story as Harry sees it, the Headmaster is taking care as he dies to be sure that Snape needn’t die from failing to fulfill the conditions of the Unbreakable Vow. Dumbledore sacrifices himself for Draco Malfoy and also for Snape. By dying as he does, he saves both Draco and Snape.

And whether his death was something he and Snape had planned — and which Snape carried out in obedience — or if it is even not Dumbledore on the Tower or at the Lake, though fascinating questions to explore with other readers, does not change the narrative-line horror and tragedy of his murder at the hands of a friend. It may lessen, even extract the sting of what seems an inhuman betrayal of a mentor but the murder remains painful and almost an attack on goodness itself.

Jan Voetenberg in the Netherlands says of Dumbledore’s first comments to Draco after being disarmed and threatened with death:

I would like to add that the sentence: “Well then, you must get on and do it, my dear boy” reminded me of a verse which is in only one of the Gospels. At the last supper, suddenly Jesus says to Judas: “What you want to do, do it quickly”. (John 13: 27). (Private Correspondence, 8/19/05)

Note, too, Dumbledore’s offer of sanctuary and forgiveness to Draco before the other Death Eaters appear:

“I can help you, Draco! [Lord Voldemort] cannot kill you if you are already dead. Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine” (chapter 27, Scholastic pp 591-592).

The parallels with Christ? Dumbledore is murdered by those who are not his equal even on a “dying day.” He is taunted and tormented by his would-be executioners. He forgives them and shows them his mercy and forgiveness, not to mention that he is not afraid of death. He offers himself (again) as a sacrifice to save the lives, spiritual (Draco) and physical (Snape) lives, of those before him. He tells Draco if he will die to himself (and be born again?) he will be saved. If the basin drink in the Cave was the Horcrux or just the symbolic equivalent of all sin, he also by dying destroys the evil he has taken unto himself.

Coupled with his draining the bitter cup in the Cave and all we know of him, Dumbledore’s death on the Astronomy Tower, the alchemical crucible, may not be obviously a pointer to his being a Christ figure. Short of his resurrection in the footprints of Aslan and Gandalf, though, it is not particularly obscure, either. Dumbledore’s sacrificial death – after taking on the sins of the world and showing his mercy and forgiveness to those who would kill him for no reason other than that he is good – is a death in the image of the God-Man and His death on Calvary.

* “You are with me”/ “I am with You”: echoes of the Last Supper

I did not think of this much, I confess, as I hurried through the story for the first time. What struck me then and again a week later are two comments by Dumbledore that act as bookends to his work in Half-Blood Prince. The first is a throw-away aside he offers in explanation of why Harry will be safe from attack the night he picks Harry up from Privet Drive.

“You are with me,” said Dumbledore simply (chapter 4, Scholastic, p. 58). Harry echoes this confidence before departing for the Cave when he reassures Hermione by saying, “I’ll be fine, I’ll be with Dumbledore” (chapter 25, Scholastic 552).

Dumbledore says something eerily similar to “You are with me” to Harry near the book’s end as they escape from the Cave and the Inferi. To enter the Cave Dumbledore had to wound himself and offer his blood on the wall of the Cave. Harry does this blood sacrifice for them as they exit. Harry is in charge now of the dying Headmaster and whelmed by the responsibility. He says:

“It’s going to be all right, sir,” Harry said over and over again, more worried by Dumbledore’s silence than he had been by his weakened voice. “We’re nearly there! I can Apparate us both back! Don’t worry!”

“I am not worried, Harry,” said Dumbledore, his voice a little stronger despite the freezing water. “I am with you.” (26, Scholastic p. 578)

Dumbledore’s “I am with you” gave me goose bumps — and I was not alone in this. In my Barnes and Noble classroom there was a section in which Prince readers were asked what their favorite lines in the series were. There were many different responses — some gag lines (“Give her hell, Peeves!” is frequently mentioned), of course, and some were very serious (Dumbledore’s lines about choice, Cedric Diggory, and death being an adventure to the well-organized mind). More than half the respondents, though, mentioned “I am with you” as their first or second choice.

Why? I suppose it could be a several reasons. In one sense it is the passing of the torch from the Fisher King to the new and worthy champion. In another sense it is the satisfaction of mentor reposing in the care of his beloved disciple.

I think, too, the echo it invokes of “You are with me” makes “I am with you” resonate with our relationship to God in Christ, or if that is too “religious” a meaning for readers, a pointer to love’s victory over death being an eraser of the “I” and “Thou.” The Phoenix song “was inside him, not without” (chapter 30, p. 615) as the Kingdom of Heaven is within us (Luke 17:20) and this is a distinction of relationship. Christ’s prayers to God the Father in his sermon at the Last Supper (John, chapters 14-17) point to this communion and the safety therein:

While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name; those that thou gavest me I have kept. Neither pray I for these alone but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they may all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may also be one in us. (John 17:12, 20-21)

The “I am with you” also echoes the closing words of the Gospel of St. Matthew, the so-called Great Commission, in which Christ assures those who believe in Him, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Dumbledore’s telling Harry that he feels safe has the odd effect of calming Harry and the reader, not because we think Harry is totally prepared for the responsibilities he has that night or that he will have at Dumbledore’s death, but that he may be ready as long as Dumbledore is with him.

Harry touches on this safe point later when re-buffing the Minister of Magic again at Dumbledore’s funeral. Scrimgeour tells Harry that he is admirable for his loyalty to Dumbledore’s memory “but Dumbledore is gone.”

“He will only be gone from the school when none here are loyal to him,” said Harry, smiling in spite of himself. (chapter 30, p. 649)

Harry does not expect Scrimgeour to understand the reference to Dumbledore’s promise in Chamber. We, I think, miss out on the reference to Christ’s promise and its link to Harry’s faith and confidence in Dumbledore’s continued presence if we do not take Dumbledore seriously as an image of Christ. We also will have trouble explaining the resonance of these stories with the human heart, the hearts of those of us living in nominally “Christian” cultures and of those around the world to whom Jesus of Nazareth is a stranger.


The question presented is, “Is Albus Dumbledore, affable Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the greatest wizard who ever lived, a literary symbol of Christ?” My answer is, not obviously or mechanically, but certainly, yes, he is.

I say this because of his character as he has been presented in the book and because of the nature of his death in the most recent Harry Potter adventure, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It is not a “crude” or “obvious” representation, which Ms. Rowling seems to have taken special care to distance herself from, but his sacrifice, his mercy, his suffering, and his unqualified love taken all together point to him as a symbol or “literary grace conduit” of Christ.

I am not saying in this assertion, which I have argued at unfortunate length, to make the case that Rowling is an Inkling wanna-be, a case I have argued elsewhere. Ms. Rowling is not writing Inkling Christian fantasy a la Focus-on-the-Family radio serial dramas, in which good and evil come in the paint-by-numbers colors assigned to them and we have resolution in a thirty minute program (with eight minutes of commercials for Christian pain relievers, cures for debt, and diets). Far from it.

Ms. Rowling is creating a masterful alchemical drama, satire, manners-and-morals fiction with components of detective stories, epic journeys, Arthurian romance, and Christian fantasy. Her readers are not looking for the “edifying entertainment” peddled by an industry “Christian youth” and “Family” marketplace that Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and Williams could hardly have imagined (if Narnia and Middle Earth are now the show pieces and touchstones of this industry). She is not writing to the audience that is looking for pious distraction or “literary faith-buttressing.”

What she is doing, however, is drawing from the depths, height, and width of the English literary tradition, a Christian tradition beyond commercial conventions, to write stories that affect her readers profoundly. She may not make the spiritually lame walk but her readers with good hearts are encouraged, even heartened by their engagement with her stories and their identification with the heroes they find there. Experiencing vicariously in the imagination Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s struggles, changes, and their transcendence of prejudice, magical mores, personal failings, even their fear of death, through their love, sacrifice, and moral courage, readers of Harry Potter are different and better people after their time spent at Hogwarts.

Is Albus Dumbledore a literary icon of Christ? He is not if you think this means he is a stock figure from the Christian back-lot. He is not an allegorical or obvious Jesus.

He is a symbol of Christ, though, in that Ms. Rowling uses the Dumbledore character especially in the last chapters of Half-Blood Prince to “baptize the imagination,” “smuggle the Gospel,” and train her readers “in the stock responses.” Dumbledore in his love, mercy, sacrificial death, and the promise that his followers feel they have in his continued presence after his death serves the symbolic function of opening us to the idea of a savior who is our best means of grace from the spiritual realm. Ms. Rowling’s success as a novelist, I believe, testifies both to her ability to bring this in under the increasingly sensitive radar of our times (forget watchful dragons!) and to the degree that her opaque or relatively subtle symbolism delivers the goods.

How does this key, traditional symbolism, jibe with the other keys in our Five Keys for the Serious Reader? If the stories are read as a postmodern fairy tale or epic with Dumbledore actually being narrative-misdirection-Snape on a Polyjuice bender, does that diminish the symbolism or its power? Hardly. But, if the action of Prince is staged for Scar-o-Scope viewing, the story is meant to have its transcendent effect on Harry, Voldemort, and we readers, too.

And, yes, before someone asks, Harry can certainly be a Christ symbol, too. As I’ll explain in another post, I think his decisions to choose his destiny makes him simultaneously the Christian Everyman and Christ in the Garden character of our times. Stay tuned.

I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Back in 2009, after seeing the Gambon Dumbledore in the Warner Brothers Cave, does the movie experience point to Dumbledore as ‘The Light of the World’? Please share your comments and corrections to my thoughts of several years ago.


  1. John, thanks for reposting part of this very insightful post about Half-Blood Prince. There are some things that we learned after Deathly Hallows that were not part of the story (it was Dumbledore and not a stand-in in the Cave, etc.) But having just re-read the book before seeing the movie, I was reminded of the parts of the book that I especially liked.

    I saw the movie last night at midnight. Like Janet said in her review, I look forward to seeing it again. There were so many things that were right with the movie. Even the ones that weren’t were not so far off base as in some of the previous films. My complaint last night, and now after being reminded of the clear messages in HBP, is that the movies come up to the edge of including the clearly Christian moments, but they always back away. I don’t know if it’s intentional – that they don’t want to include the Christian themes, or if they just don’t understand how important it all is to the overall story.

    The scene in the Cave is good, but seems, as Janet said, rushed. So it’s not as clear that Dumbledore is suffering a past wrong and offering himself in unseen victims’ places. And the colors aren’t quite right, and I am not sure he drank 12 of anything (not the crystal goblet but a shell). When I see it again, possbily tomorrow, I’ll try to count.

    On the tower, it’s clear that he is trying to save Draco and does save Harry by hiding him. The plea to Snape is there, and done in a way that seems less ambiguous than in the book. Or perhaps that’s because I know the intent of both Snape and Dumbledore.

    But the offer to Draco to come to the right side and be saved is missing. Sad, that one.

    The ending is different, in the tribute to Dumbledore. It was very moving, but I’d like to know the intent of the writer/director in what was done. (I’m trying hard not to include huge spoilers.) I was glad to see Fawkes, though, done differently.

    Sigh. Those favorite lines that you spoke of? Not included at all. Considering that a lot of people cited those as their favorite lines, I think that was a movie change they will regret. And it would have been so easy to include.

    As for Gambon as Dumbledore, I was quite pleased with him this time around. Perhaps all along, it was the director who steared him on the wrong path back in GOF. Now, Dumbledore as “The Light of the World”? Not sure. I’ll have to see it again. But it is clear that Dumbledore does everything to save the world, to point Harry on the proper path, to keep Draco from damaging his own soul. There is no malice in Dumbledore, nothing that casts him as evil. I particularly like the brief conversations Dumbledore had with Slughorn, played brilliantly by Jim Broadbent. Again, it’s an example of Dumbledore reaching out to someone to save him from his own foolish and potentially dangerous mistakes.

    Sorry this isn’t more helpful, but there is always, it seems, going to be the difference between the books and the movies. And I’m not sure how we reconcile that. Maybe if people came away from the movie with the same feeling they have after reading the book, there would be less complaining about the changes that are made. It’s just that there always seems to be the moment when the film seems ready to take flight, but someone pulls back on the throttle at the last minute and we remain on the tarmac.


  2. Arabella Figg says

    John, I wrote up The Phoenix Lament chapter at the Hog’s Head, in which I touch on the chapter’s alchemy (including Fleur) and, of course, the phoenix. Everything I know I learned from you, so hopefully, I didn’t butcher anything. Without divulging too much, I hoped to induce a robust discussion on the phoenix symbolism, which you covered so beautifully in Obviously, Dumbledore Is Not Jesus and elsewhere. In the comments I have referred people to the Obviously post.

    What occurred to me as I wrote up the chapter (with the next as reference) was that Dumbledore appears to be buried, with his Patronus phoenix rising, three days after Dumbledore dies and Fawkes leaves. Library Lily wrote in response to this observation: “you’re the first person I’ve ever heard mention the phoenix Harry saw “fly joyfully into the blue” as a third-day thing. Absolutely fascinating.”

    Was I on target with this? I covet your insights.

  3. Red Rocker says

    Hey John,

    Been gone for a while, but thought I’d drop by.

    Had the same thought about Dumbledore- well, it was one third of a thought anyway, brought about by the same things you picked up on: getting Harry to force him to drink the green potion of awfulness, getting Snape to kill him – both fairly strongly self-flagellating and self-sacrificial acts.

    Of course I didn’t think of it until after I saw the movie, which really makes the enforced potion drinking very graphic, and shows how strongly he has to exhort Snape to kill him. You on the other hand got it from reading the book.

    I interpret the “I am with you differently”, seeing it as an allusion to:

    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

    Which I see as Dumbledore having a private chuckle at Harry, because he knows what is to come, and the role Harry will play in it.

  4. C.H. Snorkack says

    I am new to this blog but not to JKR’s books or to John’s. I have read them all with relish and find the threads here to be fascinating. Thank you, John and others for your insights into these stories.

    I would just like to offer a few, perhaps superficial connections between the night of Dumbledore’s death and events associated with the end of Christ’s mortal life.

    In the course of Dumbledore’s evening he goes from visiting a subterranean lake to landing on the Astronomy Tower, the highest point on Hogwart’s Castle, where he dies. In this Dumbledore follows the course of Christ who went from the lower parts of the earth, through his death on the cross, to a place far above all. Paul describes Christ’s dramatic change of elevation in his letter to the Ephesians:

    “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.
    (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?
    He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)”
    Eph 4: 8-10

    Tolkein also employs this theme as Gandalf rises from the caverns of Khazad-Dum to the peak of Zirac-Zigil where he dies.

    Having learned in “Hallows” that Dumbledore’s “Bitter Cup” agony was caused by the recollection of his own regrettable mis-deeds, we may see a warning to each of us that if we do not let Christ intercede we may have to drink from our own cup as alluded to in Revelations:

    “The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:” Rev. 14:10

    Another observation is that Harry is to Dumbledore like the angel who attends Christ in Gethsemane, comforting him, helping him through the agony. Luke is the only gospel writer who mentions the presence of the angel at Gethsemane.

    “Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
    And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.”
    Luke 22:42-43

    Without Harry’s help Dumbledore could not have finished emptying the basin. Christ may not have been as dependent on his angelic visitor for completion of His suffering, but we suppose that the angel was a help to him.

    There is an interesting detail in Ron, Hermione, and Ginny being left at the castle as Peter, James, and John were left at the gate of Gethsemane.

    “Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.
    And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
    Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.”
    Matt 26:36-38

    In Matthew’s record Peter, James and John were charged only to watch, wait and to stay awake. They may have also been expected to guard the gate and watch for the enemies of the Savior who Jesus knew would be coming. In a sort of parallel charge Ron, Hermione and Ginny were instructed to watch Draco and Snape and to alert the castle if any Death Eaters show up. They were even given Harry’s Felix Felicis potion to assist them in their dangerous watch.

    Immediately following the Cup episode Dumbledore is attacked by an evil army of Inferi which, even in his weakened state, he is still able to defeat. This evil army reminds us of the Jewish elders and rulers who, together with a veritable army of temple guards and Roman soldiers, confront Jesus immediately following the completion of His suffering in the garden. Even in his weakened state Christ could have defeated or escaped from this army.

    Finally, upon returning to his home, Hogwarts, Dumbledore is killed by one of his best friends, Severus Snape. He knew his death was coming and he knew who would do it. He was prepared for it. His death came about as a result of his trying to save his friends by disarming Horcruxes. Christ, upon returning to his city, Jerusalem, also was killed, although under a very different motivation, by his friends, at least those who should have been his friends as he referred to them through the Old Testament prophet Zecharias.

    “And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”
    Zech 13:6

    Thanks again, John, for stimulating so much constructive thought with your books. I, like you, believe that this is more than just a popular indoor sport.

  5. Thank you, CHS!

  6. @Snorkack The Gandalf (a more consistent Christ imagery) connection of battling from the depths of earth to a high tower was apparent to me as well. Where Gandalf fell below the Bridge of Khazad Dum was a lake also making the similarity striking. When reading of the furis in the lake, I could not help but picture Tolkien’s Dead Marshes filled with undead, victims of Sauron’s first War as (or did I imagine this?) Voldemort’s lake was filled with his murders from his first Wizarding War.

  7. I know this is an old post, but it’s the most recent one I could find with the “Mirror of Erised”. I don’t know if you guys noticed this, but I’ve read through PS/SS I don’t know how many times since it came out when I was like…young… and just now noticed that “The Mirror of Erised” is like a fake palindrome, or a code/clue. Backwards it reads “The Mirror of Desire.”

    Better yet, if you read the inscription on the mirror backwards, and unscrambled, it reads (i love this):

    “I show not your face but your heart’s desire.”

    How’s that for a “speak friend and enter” ?

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