Albus Dumbledore: Power, Privilege, And Flawed Heroes

This post was contributed by Amani Herron.

If you’ve been listening to #WizardTeam make its way through The Chamber of Secrets (and if not, get your life together) you’ve heard Robyn and Bayana wonder just what is going on at Hogwarts. Most of that ire has (rightly so) been directed towards questioning the existence of the bumbling, duplicitous, and completely ineffectual Gilderoy Lockhart. I, however, have found myself benching someone else again and again, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

Don’t get me wrong, I loathe Professor Lockhart, but there are countless wizarding frauds in the Harry Potter world. The Headmaster is the one responsible for inflicting this vain, blunderer onto Hogwarts (and the readers) and Dumbledore needs to be held accountable by his colleagues and the fandom. Re-reading Chamber of Secrets and realizing I actually agreed with Lucius Malfoy about Albus’s handling of his students being attacked gave me serious pause. The heir of Slytherin was not the only one putting Hogwarts students in jeopardy, and the deeper we dig the more it’s clear Dumbledore too often puts his own agenda before being a good Headmaster or even human being.

This Is A School!!

Hiring Lockhart is far from the only puzzling move Dumbledore makes as Headmaster throughout the series. It’s been almost 20 years since Harry Potter was released and there’s still no good explanation for why a violent and abusive caretaker like Argus Filch is allowed to be around children. While it’s understandable that as a Squib, he might want to retain some connection with the magical world, there are other ways to keep him around without allowing him to torture teens (or inviting him to weddings). It’s even more alarming when you consider how bitter he remains about being a Squib and cleaning up after magical youth though he’s been at the castle for 19 years by the time of Chamber of Secrets. This is especially vexing given the use of Hogwarts house elves (in and of itself a problem) who are doing most of the same work anyway. But when it comes to Dumbledore, hiring decisions come down to furthering his own agenda, amusement, or simple cronyism.

He hires Professor Trelawney to the Divination post for no other reason than to “protect” her after she accidentally prophesizes about Voldemort and the “Chosen One,” who turns out to be Harry. Hiring people to protect them can’t be your answer to everything Dumbles, we have procedures for this! There are Secret Keepers and Fidelius charms! Was your plan to hide Draco “more completely than you can possibly imagine” just an offer to teach at Hogwarts as well? Dumbledore certainly never addressed Trelawney’s alcoholism or justified feelings of having her responsibilities taken away when the Headmaster hired Firenze. The Governors’ Board should probably have something to say about that, assuming they weren’t being kept in the dark like the families of students being attacked in Hogwarts in 1992.

Furthermore, as much as we love our jovial half-giant, you have to question keeping Hagrid over substitute Professor Grubbly-Plank as Professor of Care of Magical Creatures after she so ably filled-in for him. Everyone, aside from the Trio, admits she was the better teacher (and their reasons were more personal than professional), but competency doesn’t trump nepotism when it comes to Albus. That informal policy also explains why Professor Binns still teaches History of Magic, despite being so ineffectual that even Hermione struggles to pay attention. If Dumbledore only wanted to hire his friends, he could at least have brought in Nicolas Flamel who I’d imagine would have been a good deal more interesting and likely has first hand knowledge having lived nearly as long as the ghost teacher. Instead, Hogwarts students suffer through seven years without any appreciation for history or context for their relations with other magical species, and a perspective that ignores their privilege and understanding.

Snape, Snape, Severus Snape

The most egregious oversight in the Headmaster’s tenure remains allowing Severus Snape to stay on staff for 18 years, torturing the Hogwarts student body. Robyn and Bayana have already gone into detail about why Snape’s sympathetic backstory doesn’t excuse him for mistreating students, but it bears repeating just how much damage was done.

But I forgot – another old man’s mistake – that some wounds run too deep for the healing. I thought Professor Snape could overcome his feelings about your father – I was wrong.

— Dumbledore (Order of the Phoenix)

Dumbledore’s apology wouldn’t have come off so empty had he not allowed five years of the Potions Master’s persecution of Harry. Maybe Albus never noticed because Snape was horrible to everyone who wasn’t a Slytherin, but that doesn’t make things better boo-boo! If you’ve ever wondered why there were so few new Aurors besides Tonks, it could be that three-fourths of the school went into their OWLs and NEWTs with an intense hatred and fear of Potions. More Aurors might have helped a bit against Voldie and the reforming Death Eaters!

Still, as terrible as Snape was, Dumbledore did him no favors in his marionette show. By the end of Deathly Hallows, we have a fuller scope of just how complex a game of chess the Hogwarts Headmaster was playing, but that also explores the lengths he was willing to go to accomplish his goals. While the Dark Lord used fear and hatred to manipulate his followers, Dumbledore preyed on their love. He goaded Snape into a lifetime of service by putting conditions on the protection of the Potters, and then used guilt to force him into being Harry’s guardian. No matter how noble the ends may be, Albus’s manipulation is far more insidious. He even ignored Snape’s feelings of betrayal when he realized Harry was just another tool for his ultimate victory.

By any standards this is an abusive relationship, and that pattern holds for everyone in Dumbledore’s life. He doesn’t trust anyone in the Order of the Phoenix fully, not even his lieutenant and Deputy Headmistress Minerva McGonagall. He withholds vital information from those he presumes to love, and cultivates relationships only so far as they are useful to him. Sirius Black served in the Order, and the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot allowed him to be sent to Azkaban without a trial for a crime he did not commit. The life-long hurdles he set out for Harry, from a decade of abuse at the hands of the Dursleys, to seven years of mortal peril that turned an orphan into the leader of an army of child soldiers are already legendary. While Harry ultimately decides to put his faith in Dumbledore and ignore the parallels between his mentor and the Dark Wizard, Gellert Grindewald (Movie Rant #394), I’m not sure I’m as charitable.

The Greater Good

I’m not naïve, Dumbledore was playing a long and dangerous game against the most powerful Dark Wizard who ever lived; drastic measures needed to be taken. However, that doesn’t mean we must accept all of his methods unquestioningly for the sake of the greater good. Dumbledore admits to Harry in Deathly Hallows that he realized he couldn’t be trusted with power. His immense talent and aspiration were matched with an ego and perspective too far gone to fit within the reins of human morality, and it’s why he turned down the Minister of Magic post. This would have been fine if he had not accepted the Headmaster position of Hogwarts. Hell, even Voldemort realized there is scarcely a more powerful position within the magical community than the education and protection of future generations of Witches and Wizards. With great power must come… well, you know, and Dumbledore failed in the charge again and again.

A few months ago, Bayana compared Dumbledore to Scandal’s Papa Pope. A more apt comparison may be George Washington. While Albus is a seminal figure in launching a new age, and ultimately laid the groundwork for a more perfect union, it was also built on the backs of lies, slavery, and death. You cannot wholly embrace one without acknowledging the other; your faves are absolutely problematic. Potterheads need look no further than J.K. Rowling’s writings on magic in North America to see even those with the best intentions still fall victim to human failings of perspective.