Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

Albus Dumbledore had gotten to his feet. He was beaming at the students, his arms opened wide, as if nothing could have pleased him more than to see them all there.

“Welcome!” he said, “Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”

You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to write that!

“Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” is perhaps my favorite line in all seven books (and people say Snape gets all the good lines!). An entire essay is devoted to these words at The Hogwarts Professor. An essay is devoted to them at The Leaky Cauldron. Multiple threads are devoted to them on the Chamber of Secrets Forums. But of course, nobody is closer to knowing today what he meant by those words than they did in 1997 when the book was published.

And I do not intend to try my hand at interpreting them! I just wish to celebrate the strangeness that is Albus Dumbledore (okay, and maybe analyze him a little too)… as did students at the Welcoming Feast of 1991:

He sat back down. Everybody clapped and cheered. Harry didn’t know whether to laugh or not.

“Is he – a bit mad?” he asked Percy uncertainly.

“Mad?” said Percy airily. “He’s a genius! Best wizard in the world! But he is a bit mad, yes. Potatoes, Harry?”

We have met Dumbledore only briefly before, when he laid Harry at the Dursley’s doorstep. We met his accomplishments in passing when Harry opened the card in the Chocolate Frog. But now, we meet Albus Dumbledore in his element – at Hogwarts, where he serves as Headmaster of this venerable institution.

And we immediately learn that he’s perhaps a bit more eccentric than just lemon drop would indicate! Later during the Feast, that point is reinforced by his mode of conducting the school song. Dumbledore instructs the students to pick any melody they wish, and then he conducts a presumed cacaphony of melodies on the single set of words.

Nobody reading this scene for the first time is going to see any significance in the wand he’s using to conduct the school song. But the wand does have significance. It is presumably the wand that Dumbledore mastered in 1945 when he defeated Gellert Grindelwald. It is the Elder Wand, the Death Stick, the first of the Deathly Hallows.

At this point in Dumbledore’s story, we know next to nothing of his past – and we will know next to nothing of it until the final book. But there was a time in Dumbledore’s life when he sought the Hallows with Gellert Grindelwald, in order to create Wizard dominance over Muggles “for the greater good.” He has spent his life training up wizards as a sort of penance for his short, but catastrophic, trip into the Dark Arts.

In the small piece of fiction that I recently wrote for the Elder Wand contest (I won’t belabor you with the link yet again!), I imagined what might have been going through Dumbledore’s mind as he conducted the school song with this extremely powerful and often murderous wand:

The Elder Wand! If only Gellert could see it – really see his “Deathstick” – conduct a room of schoolchildren in song! The incongruous image alone was sufficient for Albus to continue the practice, no matter how disapproving the fixed stares of Minerva and Severus. Using the Wand for such mundane, even eccentric, pursuits helped diminish its power, especially over him, and render the dormant cancer benign.

And it had been a cancer, the consuming desire for power and Hallows, that had gripped him during Gellert’s summer in Godric’s Hollow. His friend’s rise, his pursuit of the Wand, his murderous reign – all of it had started there, with Albus at his side.

Before writing the story, I hadn’t really given much thought to the school song (and even less to the wand Dumbledore uses to conduct it). I just thought that the scene was very funny. But in the “King’s Cross” chapter of DH, Dumbledore tells Harry that he was allowed to “tame” the Elder Wand. In fleshing out the scenario for the story, it occurred to me that one of the ways in which Dumbledore “tamed” the wand was by putting it to such incongruous uses as this. It is a far cry from a “Death Stick” to a conductor’s baton.

I have no doubt that in many ways, Albus Dumbledore was a highly eccentric man. But much of the eccentricity seems cultivated, a front to hide his more strategic, calculating inner self. At the same time, I consider him an essentially benevolent and deeply good man… despite being a ruthless wartime general.

8 responses to “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

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  2. He was referring to the Marauders, of course! Four words, four Marauders…what could be clearer?

    I found some of the eccentricity too studied, the first time through. I like blaming it on the character. *grin*

    • But of course! Why didn’t I think of that? ;)

      I just remember loving the eccentricity. I’m one of those people who loved Albus from the moment he offered Minerva a lemon drop. :) And the passwords to his office are classic. “I enjoy Acid Pops” is one of my favorite Albus bits.

      Then, of course, when we get his backstory, it becomes clearer that a lot of the eccentricity is a front to hide his guilt and shame. And not just over Ariana but over what his friendship helped Grindelwald to “accomplish.”

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  5. I just read this chapter in the Spanish translation, and I discovered some important new details. The Spanish renders “blubber” not as the type of fat, but the type of sobbing, like a blubbering crybaby. “Oddment” is rendered as a trinket or trifle, a cheap toy. And finally, “tweak” is rendered as the noun “pinch”, as in either a pinch of salt or a pinch on the nose.
    If these meanings are what Rowling originally meant by “nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak”, then it would throw a wrench (or perhaps a spanner?) in the works of everyone’s interpretations thus far. When I read it, I had to come see if anyone had found it, and share it. If you like it, pass it on!

    • That is really interesting about the Spanish translation – especially about “blubber.” I would imagine that the translators sought JKR’s input on what meaning of the word to use. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing that!

  6. “Nitwit:” Ravenclaw is the house of witches and wizards of greater intelligence. As a rule, Rowena’s children will think of those not selected for membership in their select group as “nitwits” or dummies.

    “Blubber:” Blubber, in contrast, is a word used on playgrounds in the English speaking world for “fat.” It is disparaging because children use it to be unkind to their peers who are heavier than the average kid and probably less athletic. Gryffindor, the jock or frat house, sees the “other” as less physically bold or courageous, for which condition, an eleven year-old would probably find “blubber” a handy signifier.

    “Oddment:” This is a word from the world of sewing and fabrics. An oddment, if memory serves, is the remainder from the bolt of cloth, a remainder not large enough to be usable in making anything significant. Slytherins are lovers of “pure-blood” and, in this, “wholeness” or “integrity.” The “other” to a Slytherin is any witch or wizard born with insufficient purity, an insufficiency that makes them an oddment of less, even no value.

    “Tweek:” Hufflepuff is the Hogwarts House for magical folk who were not smart, bold, or pure enough for the three Houses described above. From Malfoy’s comments in Madame Malkin’s in *Stone,” they seem to be the dustbin house, where the nobodies wind up. Cedric’s success in *Goblet* also suggests that glory is something of a stranger to Hufflepuff champions.

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