The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore

“Don’t be a fool,” snarled the face. “Better save your own life and join me… or you’ll meet the same end as your parents…. “They died begging me for mercy….”

“LIAR!” Harry shouted suddenly.

Quirrell was walking backward at him, so that Voldemort could still see him. The evil face was now smiling.

“How touching…” it hissed. “I always value bravery…. Yes, boy, your parents were brave…. I killed your father first, and he put up a courageous fight… but your mother needn’t have died… she was trying to protect you…. Now give me the Stone, unless you want her to have died in vain.”

“NEVER!”

We expect the lie from Voldemort, just as we expect defiance from Harry. Voldemort lies in claiming…

  • That Harry’s parents died begging for mercy
  • That he values bravery
  • That Harry’s father put up a courageous fight

In actuality, Harry’s father rushed at Voldemort without a wand in his hand, Voldemort cast the curse, and…

James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut….”

That’s it.

In context, fear has failed to motivate Harry to give Voldemort what he wants, so Voldemort reverts to flattery, reciting the key Gryffindor quality of bravery. And no doubt, James Potter bravely rushed at the Dark Lord. But put up a courageous fight? There was no fight.

Voldemort’s lie about Harry’s father, however, is ultimately less destructive than Albus Dumbledore’s. Once the Stone has been saved, Dumbledore promises Harry to answer whatever questions he can… without, of course, lying. But when Harry asks if it’s true that Snape hates him because he hated his father, Dumbledore replies:

“Well, they did rather detest each other. Not unlike yourself and Mr. Malfoy. And then, your father did something Snape could never forgive.”

“What?”

“He saved his life.”

That’s not exactly true. James Potter got cold feet on a Marauders prank that would have gotten Severus killed, and James intervened to stop it.

But Severus never believed that James’ primary intention was to save his life. He believed that James’ intent was merely to save himself and the other Marauders from getting expelled.
(And when we see what James did to Severus shortly afterward in the SWM, who can blame Severus for denying James any benevolent intent?)

But the question of James’ intent is not at the core of Dumbledore’s lie. It’s in his claim that Snape, in essence, was angry over owing James a life debt – a life debt that Severus never believed he owed. In framing Snape’s hatred in those terms, Dumbledore glosses over the true source of Snape’s fury: severe, public humiliation and abuse in SWM (what I would call a form of gang rape, frankly). And then, the worst of all possible humiliations: James winning Lily’s hand.

Yes, I know why Dumbledore might feel compelled to lie on this matter. Snape swore him to secrecy, admonishing Dumbledore never to reveal his [Snape’s] motives for protecting Harry – and putting Dumbledore in a bit of a bind. So it’s possible that Dumbledore invents an alternate scenario to explain Snape’s protection (i.e., attempting to retire the life debt) while at the same time honoring his word to Severus.

But the lie doesn’t help. It doesn’t really explain anything about Severus’ antipathy toward James to Harry. It merely helps to escalate the tension between Harry and Snape. And a couple of years later, Harry uses the lie when he throws his father’s life-saving “courage” right back in Snape’s face.

So my question is: How conscious is Dumbledore that he’s telling a lie? Has he, like Harry, created some ideal “James” in his head? Or is he deliberately misleading Harry in order to protect Severus’ secret? Or what?

I await your comments.

10 responses to “The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore

  1. I actually think Albus MIGHT believe that Snape did owe James that debt. At the end of book 5 he remarks on ‘wounds too deep to heal’ – I kind of got the feeling that Albus hadn’t known about the SWM incident until then. I’ve discussed with others that perhaps Snape had to show Albus the memory to explain ending the Occlumency lessons.

    Not sure exactly WHEN that would have been tho’ since Albus has supposedly been away from the school until that point – but since the Headmasters Office remained locked to Umbridge, perhaps he and Snape had been able to arrange meetings in there while he was in hiding?

    Albus most certainly lies about whether this might be why Snape protects Harry. But he also MIGHT just think James really did try to save Snape and therefore Snape owed the debt. I’ve always felt the rescue was the reason James was made Head Boy – until we realized SWM came after. IF Albus didn’t know that, then he might have believed James’ act – thinking it a real change

    • I suspect that Dumbledore really does think that Snape owes James the life debt. But I think he crosses over into lying when he gives that as Snape’s reason for protecting Harry. Perhaps Albus doesn’t know that Snape doesn’t believe he owes a life debt?

      Interesting point, btw, about when Albus knew about SWM. It’s certainly a fun debate to have about whether or not Snape had to show the memory to explain himself. Personally, I suspect that Dumbledore knew about SWM, but just did not know how to deal with other people’s trauma. I mean, after nearly 100 years, he still doesn’t know how to deal with his own! And then Harry backs him into a corner with this question that he’s bound by his word not to answer! But I do find it very frustrating that his answer to Harry’s question only helps the antagonism between Snape and Harry build.

  2. How conscious is Dumbledore that he’s telling a lie?

    Option a: Dumbledore is not referring to the werewolf incident. Telling the truth veiled in a lie is quite common in HP…

    The thing Snape couldn’t forgive is the death of Lily.
    James is blamed for it (by Snape), for choosing Sirius as the Secret Keeper.
    Lily’s death and its subsequent use by DD to secure Snape’s protection of Harry is also the reason Snape is alive at that point (and not killed in some suicide DE mission or other or… that non-FF thing we are not allowed to discuss on CoS :P ).

    Option b: DD knew about both incidents, and failed to make a big deal out of SWM precisely because he believed the ‘James saved Snape’s life’ story to be true. Either that, or Snape Obliviated a whole lot of students after SWM – Lily included – and got away with it, so DD never found out about it in the first place. (Come on! Schoolyard stories travel fast!)

    Option c: For all his teary-eyedness, DD simply didn’t care enough to bother with truth(s) and came up with the first thing he thought would work – it was all for The Greater Good.

    It’s your choice, really. Personally, I’m all for “option d” – it’s a leftover from the original story arc plan that was supposed to showcase James the Mighty a bit more… a plot hole, if you will. ;)

    • Whoa… those are some very, uh, Dagsian options. :lol:

      I think there’s a lot more that Snape couldn’t forgive than the death of Lily, but you’re right that he blamed James for making Sirius Secret Keeper. The idea that Snape Obliviated a bunch of students :rotfl:. And I know that a lot of people believe “option c.” Personally, I tend to think the best, not the worst, of Albus – but he doesn’t always make it easy!

      I love your “option d.” Is that a Dagsian plotline or something that JKR really intended to write but changed her mind about?

      • I love your “option d.” Is that a Dagsian plotline or something that JKR really intended to write but changed her mind about?

        It’s common sense. ;)

        Jo would not expect us to believe in the grandness of a character’s nature simply based on his best mate’s reminiscences… otherwise she’d be equaling the lot of us with Umbridge. :?

  3. First of all, I want to give you a big “thank you” for pointing out that having one’s privates forcibly displayed in public is a BIG DEAL, regardless of sex.

    Onto Dumbledore. In looking over the chapter, I noticed something interesting. Although he earlier chides Harry for not using Professor Snape’s title, in the section you quoted, he makes the exact same slip Harry always makes: James “did something Snape could never forgive.” Even Draco is “Mr. Malfoy” in the same paragraph, and Dumbledore doesn’t know him nearly as well. Slip-up on JKR’s part, or does it mean anything?

    As to Dumbledore’s lie, I don’t believe it’s entirely a plot hole, since JKR had clues to Snape’s love for Lily planted very early on. Possibly James may have featured more in early drafts (one draft claims that, originally, the Stone was found in the Potters’ vault!) but I think Snape was always meant to love Lily and promise to protect Harry for that reason.

    I don’t think we many reasons to believe Dumbledore is doing anything but deliberately lying when he states that James is the reason Snape protected Harry. I know he says to Harry only moments before that he will not lie, but the Pensieve memory proves that he knows exactly why Snape protects Harry (and of course knows that he knows). And though there may be an alternative in the fact that he says he knows why Snape worked so hard “this year” to save Harry, we see no real evidence of the debt being at all important to Snape later in the series to confirm this view, nor is DD shown to gain any new information in ’91 on Snape’s motive– which would have fitted perfectly into TPT if it had occurred. And although DD is often a “voice of reason” character, I have trouble taking a lot of what DD says in this scene at face value because Dumbledore, whether outright lying or dancing around the truth, is definitely not being direct with Harry here with regard to Snape…not only is he not honest with Harry as to why Snape protects him, he also diminishes the Snape-Marauders rivalry to something akin to the Harry-Draco one, and by that point, only childish taunts and puerile ruses had been thrown around between the latter two.

    But I don’t blame Dumbledore for this. I think he felt that, like with the Prophecy, little Harry didn’t need to know at 11, after a nearly fatal fight with Quirrell, that his beloved dad was a bully or his hated teacher loved his mum. And I’d agree with him– although Harry is a resilient child, he didn’t need to know these startling truths right at that minute. All in all, it was a lie that brought about better results than the truth would have: Harry’s image of his father would not have been shattered before he’d barely had enough time to indulge in it, and DD’s promise to Snape would remain unbroken.

    • Sorry to take so long in getting back to this. It’s been a really crazy week… non-stop grading. And I’m still not finished!

      First of all, I want to give you a big “thank you” for pointing out that having one’s privates forcibly displayed in public is a BIG DEAL, regardless of sex.

      I have been waiting so long to say it. On CoS, it would be considered un-family-friendly, not to mention character bashing. But yes, I consider the trauma inflicted on Snape during SWM to be the magical equivalent of what men in prison do to assert dominance over other men.

      And although DD is often a “voice of reason” character, I have trouble taking a lot of what DD says in this scene at face value because Dumbledore, whether outright lying or dancing around the truth, is definitely not being direct with Harry here with regard to Snape…not only is he not honest with Harry as to why Snape protects him, he also diminishes the Snape-Marauders rivalry to something akin to the Harry-Draco one, and by that point, only childish taunts and puerile ruses had been thrown around between the latter two.

      I’ve always thought, though, that to some extent, he’s hinting that there’s a dark side to Harry’s father that Harry doesn’t need to know about just yet. There’s much more similarity between the youths of Draco / James and Harry / Snape than there is between Snape / Draco or James / Harry. Harry and Snape are the literal and emotional orphans being bullied and refusing to lay down without a fight. Draco and James are the bullies. Of course, the irony is that Draco and Snape are both Slytherins, so Harry would naturally associate Snape more with Draco.

      I think you’re probably right that the truth would not have brought great results. But do you think the lie would have brought about better results than silence would have? I think the lie was actually rather catastrophic. It builds up a false image of Harry’s dad that he can then shove into Snape’s face. And I think personally that it increases the antagonism between them.

  4. Your bringing up the Prince’s Tale reminds me of the memory where Albus appears to be surprised by Snape’s showing his patronus (as a response to Albus’ suggestion that Snape cares for Harry).

    I tend to see it as proof that Albus believed that by THAT time Snape was protecting Harry for Harry’s sake – anyways, it tends to suggest that by that time Albus thought Snape would have been over his love for Lily. And I suppose it implies (don’t like this) that if he was then his promise to protect Harry for her would be over (and therefore he would need a new reason?)

    Anyways – I think it possible that Albus didn’t really understand how enduring Snape’s love for Lily was. Perhaps, this had been true for years and so Albus thought Snape needed more reasons to protect Harry. Or perhaps it might also be because in that one memory of first year – we see Snape complaining about how Harry is like James. IF Snape never spoke about James for the years before Harry arrived – then Albus could possibly place more emphasis on James than Snape did?

    Altho’ I like Iggy’s suggestion as well – he lied anyways to protect Harry’s feelings. But why he would then say he wouldn’t lie beforehand? After all, why should Harry expect a lie in the first place?

    • Yeah, telling Harry beforehand that he would not lie, and then going ahead and doing it, is something I don’t quite get. You know if Albus had just stopped “not unlike yourself and Mr. Malfoy,” I think he would have been fine. He didn’t really have to go on and say that James saved Snape’s life and Snape worked hard to pay back the life debt – which is just not true, given that Snape does not consider himself in James’ debt.

  5. Pingback: Philosopher Stone Faves (and what should Dumbledore have told Harry?) « Expecto Patronum

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