What Would Dumbledore Do? Nothing Showy.

Here is a little something I wrote today for the Harry Potter Alliance website, which activist group became the subject of a Harry Hater’s editorial the day after I became a member (H/T Perelandra). Go figure. Thanks in advance for letting me know what you think!

When I first read the ‘About Us’ page of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), I remember wondering “Would Albus Dumbledore belong to this group?” I had serious doubts that he would. Then last month I was asked by a good friend at The Leaky Cauldron to share my thoughts here about ‘What Would Dumbledore Do?’ I like to think of myself as a Dumbledore Man, so I guess this must be the place for me to share with others why I am skeptical about our beloved Headmaster taking part in the topical battles that the HPA is fighting. Dumbledore, as an Alchemist, Transfiguration teacher, and Fabian, is an unlikely political activist.

That cannot be a popular opinion here, where it seems to be a given that the guiding spirit of HPA is Dumbledore, that the Alliance is in some sense the “real world” Dumbledore’s Army, so let me explain. My skepticism isn’t based on doubts that the causes are not worthy of his attention; surely he would be as scandalized by genocide in Darfur and the prevalence of prejudice in the world as anyone, perhaps more than most. My questioning his participation in the Alliance and its important causes is based on the Dumbledore of the Harry Potter texts we have.

Though the ‘Greatest Wizard of the Age’ was a champion of the oppressed, the founder and leader of the Order of the Phoenix in both Volde Wars I and II, and the vanquisher of Grindelwald in 1945, it is a distortion of the man’s heroic character to portray him in any way as a social or political crusader. Albus Dumbledore, from Philosopher’s Stone to his death in Half-Blood Prince and thereafter, was a man focused on individual and interior transformation rather than exterior and societal improvements.

Three quick points in support of this perspective on Dumbledore:

(1) The man is an alchemist, which we learn in Philosopher’s Stone when Harry reads his Chocolate Frog card. The aim of alchemy (and literature that uses the symbols and colors of the sacred science as its scaffolding, as Ms. Rowling has admitted she does in the Hogwarts Adventures) is interior illumination. Changing lead to gold is the exterior work that visibly represents the interior or spiritual transformation of the adept’s heart from ‘hard darkness’ (lead) to ‘solid light’ (gold).

From our first seeing him in Stone, where he is “the only thing in the Hall that shone as brightly as the ghosts” (chapter 7) to his first post mortem conversation with Harry in Deathly Hallows where he “radiate(s)… like light, like fire” (chapter 35), Dumbledore is “enlightened” in the original and strictly spiritual sense of that word. Ms. Rowling knows her alchemy; Dumbledore, the master alchemist of her books about Harry’s transformation and illumination, is a character whose life turns on the interior, contemplative life rather than the active life of a reformer or revolutionary.

(2) We see this most clearly in his refusal to take the position of Minister of Magic, which office is offered to him repeatedly. He understands, after the tragic death of his sister, that power is corrosive to the soul and that he is not equal to the temptations of leading the Ministry. Having internal priorities about the purification of his own soul, he chooses a vocation in which he can lead others along this path, first as a teacher of Transfiguration and then as the Headmaster of Hogwarts, essentially a school of personal transformation (the alchemical work, like a Hogwarts education, is a seven stage process).

(3) But I think the way Albus addresses evil, personally and socially, reflects most strongly his aversion to righteousness driven politics a la S.P.E.W. and perhaps even to HPA, at least with that part of the Alliance that denounce and demean those with whom they disagree. On the personal level, even when in the presence of evil, Dumbledore acts respectfully and insists on “manners.” When Harry invites the Dark Lord to consider “feeling some remorse” in their battle to the death, i.e., offering him a way out, he is clearly the pupil of a teacher that never failed in his hope that the person, however fallen and dangerous, could be saved by the power of love and good example, as light conquers darkness.

Travis Prinzi, in his brilliant examination of this subject in Harry Potter and Imagination, explains that this is as true if not more true in Dumbledore’s work on social issues (as much as he addresses them as Headmaster and leader of the Order of the Phoenix). In brief, Dumbledore is a Fabian, not a firebrand. Prinzi, after demonstrating that Rowling wants us to be thinking of the Fabians because so many of the Order of the Phoenix crew are named for Fabian Society members, shares what a Fabian is and how Dumbledore acts like one at Hogwarts:

Simply put, the Fabian Society believes in slow, eventual change, not revolution. This was one of their early defining characteristics, in fact. They are a socialist society, but different from Marx in his belief that equity would come about by a lower-class revolution. Rather, they believed in gradual change over time. In fact, a parody of their philosophy goes something like this: “What do we want?” “Gradual change!” “When do we want it?” “In due course!”…

Take the house elves as an illustration. Dumbledore’s treatment of the house elves represents a sensitive stance toward their psychological slavery and a transitional period towards a time of greater freedom for their kind. Dumbledore doesn’t lead a revolution like Hermione wants to do; he makes the change happen slowly.

As Prinzi explains in Harry Potter and Imagination better than anyone else, I think, Ms. Rowling’s comment at Harvard, quoting Plutarch, “what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality,” is the heart of the political meaning of her work, and, I would add, in understanding Dumbledore. You remember on first meeting him that his favorite candy is “sherbet lemons” (‘translated as “lemon drops” in the Scholastic Stone). What is a “sherbet lemon”?

It is a hard candy not unlike a lemon drop but at its center the confectioner hides “effervescent sherbet powder” that fizzes spectacularly on contact with saliva. [The American equivalent was ‘Zots.’] The Headmaster likes a sweet that has an outside whose surprise and value as a candy-experience is on its deep inside, well beneath the surface. To reinforce that this is meaningful in understanding Dumbledore, we learn later that “Sherbet Lemon” is the password to the Headmaster’s office. To get to where Albus lives, literally and figuratively, you’d best ‘get’ what this candy with the surprise inside means.

There is something curious, even ironic, about the popular misunderstanding of Dumbledore as a political activist who fights the evils he perceives head on. The irony is in the title of this web page, ‘What Would Dumbledore Do?’ or just WWDD?

The heading is meant to be a joke made at the expense of Evangelical Christians who, in the 90’s sported WWJD? jewelry and tee-shirts to ask themselves and others ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ or just to say ‘Walk With Jesus Daily.’ [See this 2005 essay for why people think of Dumbledore as a Christ figure, especially in Half-Blood Prince.] As these Christians hold Jesus up for an example for righteous living, so the HPA seems to be urging us to act as they imagine Dumbledore would. The irony isn’t in the pedestrian blasphemy, of course (imagine if they made fun of Mohammed, Moses, Krishna or Buddha this way…), but in the the parallel misunderstanding of who Jesus of Nazareth was and is and what sort of person Dumby was.

Jesus’ disciples also thought He, as the Messiah, had come to deliver them from the Romans and the politico-social inequalities of their world. The “kingdom of heaven” Jesus came to usher into the world was not a “kingdom” like a country a ruler or government controls. This kingdom or basileia, He said, was “within you,” literally a “ruling” or “dominion” in our hearts. He describes this elsewhere as “light,” as in “the Light of the world” that He as Incarnate Logos is, which light John says comes “into the world in every man” (John 1:9). The revolution the Christ came into the world to lead was and is within human hearts. If this interior victory is won, then the exterior and visible battle can be fought. As the Muslims say, “it is the inner jihad that every warrior must fight.” Until the ego and delusions of self are transcended, political activism is just projection and adolescent folly.

As I argue on my website, HogwartsProfessor.com and in my two books, The Deathly Hallows Lectures and Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, Ms. Rowling is not politically passive or neutral. Far from it. Her positions on social issues like Gay Marriage are not hard to figure out; the satire and story figures that are transparencies of current events are a large part of the allegorical meaning of her work. But these positions on “issues of the day” are not what she says are the “key” that unlocks her artistry and meaning.

In the four sight lines Ms. Rowling has told us to look down for that meaning since Deathly Hallows was published (the epigraphs, Harry’s walk into the forest, ‘King’s Cross,’ and the headstone inscriptions), all of them point to the inner jihad rather than the exterior crusade as her core meaning. This is nowhere more true than in the passage Ms. Rowling said was “key” to the meaning of her books and that she “waited seventeen years to write:” Harry’s final words with Dumbledore at the place he thinks of as ‘King’s Cross’ in Deathly Hallows.

Harry, as the scene fades in what I imagine the movie will show as a cloud of dry ice, asks his illumined mentor, “Is this real? Or has this been happening in my head?” Dumbledore laughs and says, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I explain this in The Deathly Hallows Lectures in terms of Harry being a story symbol for the human spirit or ‘eye of the heart’ (hence the many eyeballs in Hallows) and in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf I trace the history of this symbolism from Coleridge through Nesbit, Goudge, and the Inklings. The short course to unwrapping this conversation is just that “the inside is bigger than the outside.”

Which is something of a cliche in the Wizarding World, right? The Tent, the Weasley’s car, the Room of Requirement, the House of Black, Hermione’s beaded bag, not to mention all the characters whose fronts conceal their back — we learn that the surface rarely reflects the greater reality hidden within (“sherbet lemons,” remember?). The beneath, behind, and within anything is where the greater part to be understood is hiding. In English literature, especially after Coleridge and the Romantics begin the battle with Hume and the Empiricists — yes, those are great names for rock bands — this “inside” is a story cipher for conscience, which as C. S. Lewis explains in his essay ‘The Seeing Eye’ is “continuous with” the unity of existence, the logos-fabric of reality. The “universe is mental,” as Barfield taught a la Coleridge, and our experience of reality is only as deep as our communion with conscience or, in Penn’s phrase, our “inner light.”

This is the “key” to the books because the series is about Harry’s illumination, i.e., his acceptance of this light or love as the greater reality. When he sacrifices his life of ego, persona, and exterior concerns in love for his friends, he loses the soul fragment of the Dark Lord and chooses the light. ‘King’s Cross,’ where Harry knows all and creates objects by thought, is the greater reality within us that is the cause and greater substance of everything.

So what?

Getting to that non-local place, that is, to paraphrase Virginia Wolff, a where with no there, is Dumbledore’s goal for himself qua alchemist and Fabian and for his students, Harry most importantly. Not only is that greater reality and self-transcendence the only real ‘place’ to be, it is also the only substantive ‘position’ from which to fight evil effectively. Contrast the effectiveness and charity of Hermione’s efforts for the house-elves with Dumbledore’s. Need I say more?

So, ‘What Would Dumbledore Do?’ Not much, I think, at least not about Proposition 8, genocide in Darfur, the train-wreck economy, or starving children anywhere and everywhere, as heartless as that sounds. Dumbledore would confront only those evils, I think, that he could work against covertly as he does via the secret Order or progressively as he does with the Hogwarts house-elves. His focus, if the books are any indication, is always on the inner person, that is, the heart, and its purification and illumination. Only through that change can the exterior evils truly be confronted and defeated.

As this interior work is much harder and more important than shouting “hurrah for our side,” it is rare that people follow the path of Dumbledore or Christ. As Chesterton once said (about the failure of men to follow Gandhi’s example, I believe), “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Obeying conscience and sacrificing self rather than attacking the supposed, perceived failings of others is the long, hard, if the only sure road to real change.

Dumbledore, like Ms. Rowling and Plutarch, holds that “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” That is what he does in the books and that is what leads to Harry’s transformation and the Dark Lord’s demise. I think it safe to say that what Dumbledore would “do” would be that action or activity, whatever it may be, that would insure that his “treasure” would be in his “heart” (cf., Ariana’s gravestone inscription: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also). As alchemist and Fabian and Transfiguration Master, I doubt very much it would be political activism or partisan campaigning a la S.P.E.W.

I am sure people of goodwill disagree. I ask for your comments and correction.


  1. From a friend at Harry Potter Alliance: ‘Take Over Twitter!” I know nothing about twittering, though it was all the buzz at this year’s Book Expo, but for those of you who do get it, here is the challenge:

    The movie is almost here, I saw it Friday and it rocks! We’re entering the final stretch for WWDD. We’ve been mentioned in several papers and Time magazine. We’re hoping to get our message to Oprah and to Ellen, but in the meantime we’ve started our “Take over Twitter” challenge.

    So this is it. Can the Harry Potter fandom takeover Twitter? It’s a challenge we’ve put forward that has a deeper meaning as people remember what Dumbledore stands for and are redirected to the WWDD page to get more invovled. But the main question right now is whether or not we can pull this off.

    The Dumbledore Twitter Challenge

    Starting Tuesday July 14 at 9:45 am (nine and three quarters) and going until Wednesday July 15 at 9:45 pm (nine and three quarters) we’re going for a thirty six hour stretch of getting #dumbledore tweeted as much as possible by Harry Potter fans across the world. We’re hoping the climax will be around the live Pottercast and Wizard Rock shows , etc shows on Tuesday evening all the way to people entering Half-Blood Prince. What’s that you say? It can’t be done. Nay to nay sayers! It can be done if we all work together! But that’s a big “if.”

    The phrase to Twitter is: About to see Harry Potter – in honor of #dumbledore we’re taking over Twitter http://whatwoulddumbledoredo.org

    Right after you walk out of the film:

    Just saw Harry Potter – in honor of #dumbledore we’re taking over Twitter http:// whatwoulddumbledoredo.org

    Beyond that, every time you tweet ANY THING, include #Dumbledore – and when you do it, no matter what you’re tweeting about, try and remember that the value of love that Dumbledore taught is what we need in our lives and this world right now. And try to mention the words “Harry Potter” in there too (it will help increase our chances of taking over Twitter for one day!).

    In the Half-Blood Prince book Harry say that Dumbledore will live on as long as there are those that are conscious of this. As a fandom we have the power for Dumbledore’s belief in the power of love to live on in our world.

    And on that note, make sure to wear name tags on what lesson Dumbledore taught you that you can print out here and wear and hand them out at the show.

    The Weapon We Have Is Love,

    [name deleted]

  2. Lily Luna says

    Very interesting article, John. I look forward to meeting you in person at Azkatraz this weekend. 🙂

  3. Superb article!

    It seems to me that loud political activism (usually accompanied by mudslinging and moral grandstanding) is increasing the polarization of society rather than healing it. It’s like a vampiric feeding frenzy. I do not think it is love to “denounce and demean” those who disagree with us. It certainly does not help work a change of heart.

    Thanks for an excellent defense of Dumbledore’s principles of action. It gave me a lot to think about as I ask “What would Jesus do?” in my own life.

  4. Arabella Figg says

    Very good article, John. I couldn’t agree more.

    I found it curious that in Amanda’s comment at HPA, she basically agreed with you and said (as I understood it) that such political actions are more what *Harry* would do. So, shouldn’t the site should be called WWHD?

    Given Harry’s actions in most of the books, there’s a warning for you!

    In Catholic theologian Gary Willis’ fine book What Jesus Meant, he points out that if we try literally to do what Jesus did, it would not only be impossible but absurd. After listing several scandalous things Jesus did, he says Jesus’ acts “were acts meant to show that he is *not* just like us, that he has higher rights and powers, that he has an authority as arbitrary as God’s in the Book of Job. He is a divine mystery walking among men. The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves–yet that is the very thing he forbids…Christians cannot really be “Christlike.” As Chesterton said, ‘A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it.’ The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian.”

    DD is a strong Christ symbol, as explained in your great essay, and he focused on the inner work that would bring outer change. He deplored WizWorld evils, but did nothing overtly to stop them, inviting and relying on inner transformation as a springboard, a la Christ. DD knew, as Jesus did, that people change because they want to and will seek the spiritual power to do so, not because they feel they have to.

    But DD also used a Hallow for his own gain, and asked a devoted servant to murder him, putting a boy’s soul above the servant’s. He allowed that same servant to abuse and bully a child. Should we do things like that? Should we fight for euthanasia rights? Use occultic objects to satisfy our needs and desires? Ignore abuse?

    If we look to Dumbledore as our guide in action, we’re going to have problems; if we look to him as a political activist (a la SPEW), we’ll come up empty. If, instead, we look to him as human inspiration for internal growth, doing his best, despite his flaws, to strive for and achieve transformation, we have a fine example.

    A secular WWDD is as flawed as WWJD.

  5. My impression is that HPA was created and run by well-intentioned, idealistic teens and college-aged kids. As such, we would not be surprised to find that their efforts will tend to be 1) emotion-driven, and 2) leaning somewhat to the left. This would be in line with their hero, who may actually be neither Dumbledore nor Harry, but JKR herself. (If the visitors to Mugglenet are representative, then JKR is a saint at the level of Chrysostom and Aquinas.)

    This would put their efforts in line with the same causes that their non-Potter-fandom friends would also tend to be involved with.

    Often the concept of “idealist” is contrasted with “pragmatist”. Which of those two best describes Dumbledore? For the first six books, I think we would generally have chosen the former. But when we learn a bit about his Machiavellian side in the final book, it seems to be overwhelmingly pragmatic, even to the point that he is still willing to sacrifice the life of Harry, who he has admitted to loving “too much”.

    I would be curious to see how the article is received at HPA – my guess is that so few readers there have read the books at the anagogical level that this will be a view entirely new and strange to many of them, and there will be a lot of negative reaction. Given my general frustration with what I usually see on youth-oriented web sites, I’m probably better off, as a 50-year-old fogey, to observe the reactions remotely from what others report here.

  6. The reception at HPA has been positive if muted. My blog post is already off the front page of the site, having been displaced by tweets and OMG comments about the film released last night.

  7. Arabella Figg says

    Cigar95, I agree with you about the probable age and inclinations of the HPA group. i commend them for their youthful passion to make a difference in a positive way (contrasted to the ’60s).

    Was Dumbledore idealist or pragmatist? I believe he was a pragmatic idealist and idealistic pragmatist. He pragmatically set up the game board, but was idealistic in his hope that Harry would play it correctly and improbably win the game . He threw the dice and held his breath.

    What is fogeydom, except youthful enthusiasms aged into (hopefully) wisdom and experience? The enthusiasts of today are the seasoned and less angsty fogeys of tomorrow. Ain’t it relaxing.

  8. A Newsweek story on the Harry Potter Alliance — 100,000 members!

  9. revgeorge says

    John, since all the good comments have already been taken, 🙂 I’ll chime in by simply saying, yes, you nailed it.

  10. A year and a half late – but anyway…

    This is very insightful and thought-provoking.

    I wouldn’t push the Fabian Society analogy too hard, however – speaking as an ex-Fabian who was brought-up on GB Shaw and his pals.

    Yes, the Fabians got by gradualism the semblence of what they thought-they-wanted in the UK – but would they be pleased with how it has worked-out? Our approaching totalitarian, corrupt, dishonest Brezhnev-era, surveillance-society, interlinked bureaucracy?

    I doubt it – at least not the best of them. In retrospect we should recognize that (as Hilaire Belloc perceived at the time) Fabianism was blinded by a misguided secular faith in the power of narrowly ‘rational’ thinking.

    I am struck by a mismatch – at present- between JKRs deep wisdom as exemplified by her books, and her off-the-peg mainstream political correctness which often comes out in the overtly political remarks (and her personal friendship with the dishonest and power-clinging ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown – a political more in the Umbridge mould than Dumbledorean).

    Unlike JRRT or CSLewis; JKRs real-life opinions are (at present) neither continuous with nor consistent with her deepest convictions expressed in the work – too often she apparently mistakes the word for the deed, the rhetoric for the reality, the intention for the attainment.

    In her amusing and hard-nosed expose of Herminone’s superior and ‘do-gooding’ attitude to the House Elves, JKR shows that she recognizes that action needs to be based on knowledge rather than prejudice – Hermione makes the adolescent assumption that everybody else needs what she wants; and does not hesitate to give it to them – whether they really do want/ need it or not!

    I am hopeful that JKR’s late works will be the fruit of an integration between private and public selves, and will therefore bring something new and rich to her already magnificant achievement.

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