Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: Albus Dumbledore, the Mentor
In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Albus Dumbledore
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The mentor is not only a popular archetype in a saga, but a necessary tool in the hero’s journey. He tends to have magical abilities, or at least a wider breadth of wisdom than the cast of characters, and as such he is the one to guide the hero to the final destination, battle, etc. The mentor rarely directly intervenes in the hero’s journey, but rather teaches the hero to face his obstacles, to help himself when that’s all there is left. Considering the likes of Merlin and Gandalf, it comes as no surprise that resident bearded wizard Albus Dumbledore takes this title in Harry Potter.
Dumbledore is well-known for his introspective and inspirational quotes, from how to be a bigger person to setting one’s self aside entirely to serve some greater purpose. He’s become a sort of icon for truth, justice, and all things pure and good, but the question is, should he be hailed as this paragon of altruism? As Dumbledore proves in an array of vague advice and his hoarding of necessary information, the answer is a solid “probably not.”
His door is always open to Harry, but his mind isn’t, and as such Dumbledore proves himself more manipulative than the traditional mentor. Personally, I find Rowling’s application of this archetype—perhaps one of the most obvious in the series—more of a deconstruction than a pure example of a literary mentor. Although I don’t know that that deconstruction is intentional, the older I get and the more rereads I do, the more manipulative Dumbledore seems. While this is likely a device to allow Harry, our titular character, to fulfill the action necessary to propel the story, the mechanics of doing so render Dumbledore’s character irresponsible at best.
Now, his moves are measured and tactful, but to use them against Harry as he does is to set the boy up for more emotional damage than Dumbledore appears to consider. Time and again, he leaves Harry in the dark until he feels that Harry has “earned” the right to know the details of his own destiny. He admits, in Order of the Phoenix, that doing so was wrong and selfish, but had Dumbledore been honest with Harry from the start, Harry would have ventured forth perhaps not easily, but more prepared for what was to come.
While Dumbledore knows that Harry is straddled with the responsibility to save the Wizarding world because it’s his destiny to do so, Dumbledore keeps this information to himself until he feels it prudent to share with Harry. This is problematic because it’s Harry’s life, his destiny, his cross to bear—and yet he seldom knows how to bear it, because he doesn’t know what it truly means to do so until it’s time for death to come knocking at his door. Harry hardly knows who he is and what he has to do, all because Dumbledore is always allegedly waiting for the fabled “right time” to tell him.
In his final years, Dumbledore reverts to his youthful fantasies of the “greater good”; while this time he isn’t blindsided by his affection for Grindelwald, he still sets what he believes to be the “right thing” above what Harry deserves. Harry is so often treated as a symbol of hope, an icon for a better world, and as such he’s seldom allowed personhood. This is expected from strangers who know the name but not the true face of Harry Potter, but it was not anticipated that Dumbledore would so manipulate him, and likely why Harry grows so resentful of the man in his darkest times—both frequently in OOTP as well as Deathly Hallows.
Dumbledore has a war to win, but he doesn’t trust in anyone the way he makes them trust in him. As pointed out by Tumblr user theodoornott, Dumbledore’s manipulation is best illustrated in “The Prince’s Tale,” as Dumbledore does not even pretend to care about Snape’s emotional well-being. In fact, he uses it against him, as he uses Snape’s feelings for and grief over Lily as the ultimate leverage to gain Snape’s loyalty to himself and his cause. One notable way in which he does this is to refer to Lily not be her taken marital name, but as Lily Evans, as theodoornott explains: “Dumbledore has a very tough sell here; he wants Snape to help him protect the child of someone Snape loves and someone he hates. So he takes James out of the equation…. And then he takes Snape’s love and gives it a purpose.”
Her analysis is summed up as such: “‘The Prince’s Tale’ is a brilliant example of Dumbledore’s manipulation and how he used it to win a war. This is where we see him really in action—and it’s fascinating. Because this is the power of loyalty—how Dumbledore could get a Death Eater so firmly on his side that he continues to do Dumbledore’s work for him after his own death. That’s powerful.”
Dumbledore values loyalty, seemingly above all else, but never proves his own loyalty to anything but his own cause, and never to anyone but himself. He imparts the importance of loyalty onto Harry, and perhaps that is the greatest lesson Harry learns from him, the thing that stays with Harry and keeps him alive—he proves his loyalty to Dumbledore time after time, and it saves his life more than once (this is especially evident in the climactic scene in Chamber of Secrets). He trusts Dumbledore to be there, and in exchange Harry puts all of his faith in the man.
So, in the end, Dumbledore doesn’t teach Harry to rely on his own strengths, but rather to rely on his loyalty to Dumbledore and the power he holds. When taken at face value, Dumbledore is the classic mentor, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that his own vision of the “greater good” influences him more than his dedication to the hero. Dumbledore plays a part in Harry’s story, but he directs that story to meet his own ends.
I do believe that Dumbledore comes to love Harry as a person, that he realizes that Harry is a person at all, rather than another pawn in Dumbledore’s game to set the Wizarding world right. But he reaches this conclusion too late to save Harry from more emotional damage than he need have endured. Had Dumbledore been honest with Harry before the end of OOTP, it would have saved Harry so much pain, confusion, and reckless behavior. Dumbledore claims that he thought it was all to Harry’s benefit, that it was for the best, but Dumbledore’s abandonment is truly Harry’s undoing in OOTP—the person he thought he could always turn to, the man who had taught him so much and could explain everything, had left him in the lurch.
Harry is left to play an endless series of guessing games, left to bite his nails over what’s happening to him, and all during one of the most trying times of his life, when he’d watched a fellow student die and seen Voldemort’s rebirth, and now, when the world that had once loved him turns its back on him, Dumbledore does the same. The mentor leaves his student in the dark, and Harry couldn’t find his way out; his loyalty to Dumbledore had brought him far, but when Dumbledore’s dedication to him falters, there is little reason for Harry to keep the faith.
In a series like Harry Potter, it’s impossible to know what, really, is the “right thing.” Because the characters are all gray, the series becomes the same—every character is flawed, many of them fatally so, and Dumbledore is no exception. We can love the man for his pointed purple boots, we can be grateful to him for the wisdom he has imparted upon us over the course of seven books, but to think him as admirable as Harry does for most of his life would be a dangerous move. Dumbledore is not just a fanciful man who cracks jokes about Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans—he is a skilled wizard, both in wandwork as well as mind games, and as we are told time and again, he’s the only one Voldemort ever feared. And when we see what he does to gain the love and loyalty of his followers, Voldemort’s fear comes as no surprise.
Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.