Out of the closet and into the fire

Tuesday, 23 October 2007 — 7:44pm | Harry Potter, Literature

By far the most amusing story on the outing of a certain Harry Potter character (and I know it’s by now ubiquitously known, but I have unconverted readers and will maintain a strict policy of not spoiling anything for them, as I swear to you they will read the books eventually) is this succinct article from CBBC Newsround, the children’s edition of the BBC:

Fans at New York’s Carnegie Hall were initially stunned into silence by the announcement, but soon started clapping and cheering.

JK said: “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.”

The news should help to clear up lots of rumours about [the character’s] mysterious past once and for all.

Yes, I’m quite sure it will.

Rowling has made some additional statements, defending the supposed lack of textual evidence or relevance by arguing that the character “did have, as I say, this rather tragic infatuation, but that was a key part of the ending of the story so there it is. Why would I put the key part of my ending of my story in Book 1?” And she’s quite right. Spoilers follow.

I’d go on to argue that the question, “What was Dumbledore’s tragic flaw?” was the most important question that was left unanswered before the seventh book, as it determined a great deal of the other unanswered questions about the plot. The fact that I was wrong about this question is at the heart of why I was wrong about several things in my pre-Hallows speculations, particularly Snape’s allegiance, and how I dealt with my inaccurate guesses in my Potter postmortem.

As I said in the latter piece:

The primary basis for my belief that Snape was first and foremost on a side that wasn’t Dumbledore’s was that on a purely literary level, I thought it necessary for Dumbledore to have some ultimate imperfection that prevented him from deterministically orchestrating Voldemort’s downfall all by himself. It was essential that Harry had some knowledge or intuition that Dumbledore did not to truly call Voldemort’s defeat his own. To me, that meant Dumbledore had to have overlooked something, perhaps in the form of a misplaced trust.

So my reaction to the idea that Dumbledore ordered Snape to kill him amounted to, “That wouldn’t make Dumbledore terribly interesting.”

In The Deathly Hallows, Rowling gets away with it by giving Dumbledore a far more interesting character flaw than simply being too trusting, and one that sheds new light on Dumbledore’s chat with Harry at the end of The Order of the Phoenix: Dumbledore struggles with the balance between impassionate tactical genius and passionate concern for those who are to actually carry out his orders. Unbeknownst to Harry and thereby, the reader, that’s the real developmental path that Dumbledore follows over the course of the first six books.

We can generalize the statement I’ve put in boldface and say that Dumbledore’s struggle is to balance the responsibilities associated with his tactical genius with his passionate concern for, well, anybody. Dumbledore never made errors of ignorance—only errors of judgment. In Harry Potter, love conquers all, but that doesn’t mean it can’t cause a number of complications.


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