Friday, August 04, 2006

Please Go On and Grieve Dumbledore's Death

I've been working on a new Harry Potter posting, still in my draft folder, in which I'd begun to tackle the final three Harry confrontations I wanted to reflect on, namely Harry's potential meetings with Neville, Dumbledore, and Snape in book 7. I had planned to take them on in that order, but JK Rowling's recent comments about Dumbledore have compelled me to deal with the topic of Harry and Dumbledore first.

You'll note if you look back at my last posting that I put several question marks after Dumbledore's name and also said "stay tuned." That's because I knew it must have seemed strange for me to discuss the potential "meeting" of Harry and Dumbledore in book 7 when Dumbledore had died at the end of book 6.

And I have always believed that Dumbledore was really dead. It didn't take JK Rowling announcing it at a major public event to bring the reality home. Do I believe that there was more going on than immediately met the eye in that final tower scene? Yes. Do I believe there is still much to be revealed regarding the manner and method of Dumbledore's death and the circumstances surrounding it? You bet. But in part because so much of the Harry Potter stories have centered on the reality of death and loss, and on the proper way to grieve such losses in our lives, I did not think that Rowling was attempting to fool us here with a fake death, especially not of such a major and beloved character. Besides which, Dumbledore's death, difficult as it was (and I cried all the way through it) made both symbolic and narrative (plot) sense.

My feelings that Harry will yet "meet" Dumbledore in some form stem from the fact that Rowling's rich, imaginative setting provides at least two provocative ways in which that could happen. One is through the portrait now in the headmaster's office (you'll remember that Dumbledore's portrait joined the ranks of the other late headmasters and headmistresses at the end of HBP) which, while not fully Dumbledore, at least will be some form of Dumbledore's personality able to communicate, help and perhaps counsel. I don't think it's clear that the portraits can do that fully for anyone but the current headmaster or headmistress, which could lead us to believe that only Minerva McGonagall may have full access to its advice, but Harry's certainly been present plenty of times when the other portraits have spoken and acted.

The second more fascinating idea is that Harry may yet meet Dumbledore through memories in the pensieve, either his own memories or (and this is what I hope) memories Dumbledore has left behind him on purpose, in order that Harry might access them. Can memories be stored for a long time? Or do they die (fade?) with the one who holds them? I'm not sure we know, but I hope we find out.

(Note: we do know that Tom Riddle managed to preserve a rather powerful memory for a very long time, but that he did it through a horcrux, which Dumbledore, though smart enough to figure out, would never have done. We know Dumbledore held a lot of powerful skills in check because he was "too noble" as McGonagall once put it, to do otherwise. What I'm thinking of specifically here is how pensieve memories work. We know that they can be placed in a container and can exist without their owner being in close proximity -- witness Snape leaving some of his memories in the classroom, which Harry found and entered without permission -- but what I don't think we know for certain is whether or not pensieve memories can exist after the person who held the original memory is dead, or whether or not they can be willed to someone.)

Beyond those kinds of potential "meetings," I think there are other ways in which Dumbledore may have left Harry help. First, there's the deep reality of all the loving, protecting, mentoring and teaching Dumbledore has provided Harry for sixteen years. There are the many wise words, and words of advice (including some we and Harry may not have realized were important) that will surely come back to Harry when he most needs them. Harry already feels he's "Dumbledore's man" and I think we'll see him grow into that more and more as book 7 progresses. And finally, there are the potential helpers and protectors Dumbledore has perhaps left Harry, most notably Hagrid, Fawkes...and Severus Snape. Yep, I'm sticking by that! I still think Dumbledore and Snape have managed, between them, to place Snape right where he needs to be to be the most help to Harry. More on this in the Harry meets Snape posting I still plan to do.

I would like to muse for a couple more minutes on what Rowling just recently said about Dumbledore. As I've mentioned before, her interviews and appearances are so rare that it's especially noteworthy when she goes on record. In this case, she was doing a reading for charity at Radio City Music Hall, along with Stephen King and John Irving (now there's an interesting trio!) and fielded questions from the audience. I'll excerpt a bit from Publisher's Weekly round-up of the event:

A few of her answers yielded new information. In reply to a question from surprise guest Salman Rushdie and his nine-year-old son that involved an elaborate theory about how Professor Dumbledore comes back to life in Book 7, Rowling said, "I feel I have to be explicit. Dumbledore is definitely dead. You shouldn't expect Dumbledore to pull a Gandalf." A cry immediately erupted from the crowd, to which she commented, "All of you definitely need to move through the five stages of grief and get past his death." She added that she'd heard about a Web site,, which is devoted to conjecture similar to Rushdie's theory, and said, "I imagine they aren't happy right now."


Let's note three interesting things.

1- She was really explicit. By confirming the obvious, she cut off fruitless speculation in certain directions but opened up, I think, avenues for speculation in even more intriguing directions.

Because I do empathize with those readers who have been going round and round trying to read the "clues" of Dumbledore's death scene to figure out why it doesn't seem to "play straight." They've picked up on something very important about JK Rowling's writing style, that she will subtly lead you in one direction while appearing to lead you in another. I don't think the gut instinct to probe the surface of that heart-wrenching scene is crazy. And with JKR's insistence that Dumbledore is truly dead, readers should now be free to probe in different directions. If it's not the reality of Dumbledore's death that should be called into question, what else should be? How about the manner of his death? Snape's role in it? The words surrounding it? The reason for it? All of those things, it seems to me, are far more interesting roads to pursue.

2- Rowling suggested, perhaps somewhat gently and jokingly (I haven't heard the comment on audio, so am guessing as to tone) that her readers need to grieve Dumbledore's death. I don't think this is an accident, or a mean way for her to say "get over it already." I think she's serious here. She's never made a secret that the HP stories are about death and how we grieve death. She's never shied away from its reality, in real life or in the stories. She's never promised she won't kill off Harry, our hero. She's never pulled any punches and suggested that magic can fix everything, make everyone happy, or bring characters back to life. It doesn't work that way in Rowling's fictional universe.

These stories she's written have helped many people, young and old, face the realities of grief and loss, in part because we've lived through such deep losses with characters we've come to love and care about. The fact that so many of her readers are in steadfast denial about Dumbledore's death may trouble her, I think. Although her stories are not primarily didactic, they do teach, and some of the things she's been trying to teach is that death is not the worst thing that can happen to someone, and that we can grieve fully and go on living and loving even in the wake of terrible heart-wrenching loss. Her reminder to grieve the death of Dumbledore may be a reminder to go back to the stories themselves and read them again to see what she's been saying all along.

3 - "You shouldn't expect Dumbledore to pull a Gandalf." My heart leapt here. I love the fact that she can reference Tolkien so casually and expect people to know exactly what she means. I know some of this is due in part to the LOTR films, but I also know plenty of people who might not have known Tolkien's books otherwise and discovered them through the movies. JKR is not Tolkien -- that's one of the things she seems to be saying -- but she knows people are comparing them, and she knows she walks in his giant footsteps. Dumbledore won't pull a Gandalf, but the two of them are literary brothers and she's had to shape his character and her plot in the shadow of Tolkien. Though she's not an Inkling (perhaps a post-Inkling?) she's plowing much of the same ground as she writes stories that echo the Great Story, as so many of us were originally helped to see by John Granger's fine work on HP.

I love that at the beginning of the 21st century our narrative starved culture is embracing Rowling, and re-embracing Tolkien and Lewis with such ardor. It gives me hope!!

And of course, now I want to know...will Wormtail pull a Gollum?


Erin said...

I heard about that reading, but only that King and Irving had begged Rowling not to kill off Harry, not her remarks about Dumbledore. I've always regarded Dumbledore as a very Gandalf-like character, so such a comparison certainly makes semse, but as much as I hate to see Dumbledore go I think I would feel cheated if he was neatly resurrected in the seventh book. I definitely want to see him there in some form, though...

Beth said...

I think Publisher's Weekly has one of the best round-ups of the whole reading/JKR's comments. And I think Leaky Cauldron has a transcript of a conversation/ interview with the three of them: Irving, King and Rowling. One of my favorite parts of that is when Irving and King admit they knew they'd pretty much be the "warm-up" for Rowling, and that it was very much "her crowd" -- and Rowling said something to the effect that she felt as though she'd just been told that her "warm-ups" were the Stones and the Beatles. :-) Very nice professional camraderie between them. She was also apparently delighted when Stephen King confessed he found the Death Eaters frightening, and crowed "I scared Stephen King!" Hee...

I really do believe we'll see Dumbledore again, but not in any resurrected or returned-from-the-brink-of-death form a la Gandalf. I'm glad that Rowling put that theory to rest once and for all. It must be getting harder and harder for her to know what to say and how to say it as the finishing of book 7 looms closer!