Dumbledore’s Death

In my last blogpost, I discussed how writers can use death scenes to show us who the character truly is and what matters to them most. I analyzed Dobby’s death, but another truly great one is Dumbledore’s.

Dumbledore dies at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book, The Half-Blood Prince, at the hands of Severus Snape. Harry saw him performing the curse, and it seems clear that he is a cold-blooded killer and a traitor, and that Dumbledore was wrong to have put so much trust in Snape. Only at the end of the seventh book is it revealed that Dumbledore had been slowly dying from the effects of touching a cursed ring and knew that he had only weeks to live, and he intended to use not only these few weeks, but even his death himself, to work against Voldemort. He had planned everything in minute detail, and he had ordered Snape to kill him.

Dumbledore uses his own death as part of his genious plan to defeat Voldemort. He cares just enough about himself to ensure a relatively painless death, and shows no fear of or regret about it. At no point does it occur to him to avoid death. He does everything he can to save Draco’s soul--who is actively planning to kill him--, and yet is very harsh with Snape when he voices his reluctance to play the murderer and kill his own mentor (the argument Hagrid overheard between Snape and Dumbledore, where Snape accuses him of taking a lot for granted). On the tower, facing the Death Eaters, his last fear is that his death might not come about exactly as he had planned, and when he begs Severus, it is one of the very few scenes that show him vulnerable and scared, and one of exactly two scenes that show him at the mercy of and dependent upon another. The other scene is after his death, as he makes his confessions to Harry and asks his forgiveness, revealing that he did not only play out his death like a master chess player to defeat external evil, but also to atone for his own old sins. Sins he does not try to forget or excuse. This lies at the heart of his nobility.

So his death shows Dumbledore to be… quite complex, actually. A genious tactician, a saviour to his enemies and ruthless towards himself and to his ally (I debated whether or not to call Snape his friend), cold and calculating as he plots, but ultimately human in his last breath, seeking reassurance and redemption.

Rowling didn‘t manage to show all of this at his death scene at the end of book six, and needed another scene at the end of the last book, where he and Harry meet in the twilight between death and life. Another interesting facet is that Dumbledore, unlike Dobby, doesn‘t undergo any fundamental change throughout the entire seven books. Dumbledore as we meet him at the beginning of The Philosopher’s Stone would have made the same choices as he eventually does at the end of the series. The change that enables--and requires--him to sacrifice his own life takes place entirely in his backstory, decades before Harry is even born. JK Rowling gets away with this because she weaves this backstory about his sister’s death into the seventh book in ways that directly influence Harry’s actions and are important to his emotional growth.

He is already slowly dying of the ring’s curse when he decides to have Snape kill him, so that’s not the moment of his sacrifice. It’s when he chooses to pick up the Resurrection Stone, because he must have known what the consequences would be. He throws caution to the wind and his life away the second he finds a chance to bring back his sister, to correct his greatest mistake. In this instant, he even forgets his world-shaping plots to defeat Voldemort. As I said earlier, it’s the character’s actions that show us what matters to them most.

While Dobby is faced with external foes and chooses to act courageously, Dumbledore has to confront the terrible consequences of his own immaturity and arrogance and chooses to act with a nobility he has to gain through guilt and the loss of his family. This is a task that takes him an entire lifetime.

Next up: How a character’s death can affect the surviving protagonists.