The Remorse of Gellert Grindelwald

The 3-Way Duel between Albus Dumbledore, Aberforth Dumbledore, and Gellert Grindelwald that left Ariana dead
Credit: the fatal duel by *LoonyL

Well, I didn’t have nearly as dramatic a DH1 experience as Last Muggle did. No exploding cameras, no evacuated theaters, nothing! Actually, it was pretty uneventful.

We got into the theater with plenty of time to spare. We found great seats. And we saw pretty much the entire movie. Okay, I missed a couple of minutes during the camping sequence, right after the splinching scene, but thanks to the complete and utter normalcy of my viewing experience, I’ve had a couple of days to contemplate the film at my leisure.

I’ve been planning to look at several scenes in some detail, but I decided to devote this particular post to the one that really really bothered me in this otherwise EPIC WIN film… the scene in which Voldemort seeks information about the Elder Wand from Gellert Grindelwald.

As anybody who has read the series knows (and if you haven’t read the series, be warned that there are spoilers ahead): Gellert Grindelwald is the former “Most Dangerous Dark Wizard of All Time.” He was defeated by Albus Dumbledore in 1945 (as Harry learns from a Chocolate Frog card on his first trip on the Hogwarts Express).

Of course, the Dumbledore-Grindelwald story becomes much more complex when we reach DH. These two great Wizards were not merely adversaries. In youth, they were close friends (for a couple of months) before a three-way duel with Aberforth killed Dumbledore’s sister.

Dumbledore, we learn extra-canonically from JKR, was actually infatuated with Grindelwald during that time and was briefly seduced toward Dark Magic through that infatuation. The two young men sought the Deathly Hallows (the subject of The Tale of the Three Brothers), with Gellert having a particular fascination for the Elder Wand… which he stole from the wand maker Gregorovitch and which Dumbledore won from him in the legendary duel of 1945.

Because of the Grindelwald revelations in DH, Harry is put in the position of having to come to terms with Dumbledore’s past. He must recognize, as Sirius told him 3 years earlier, that the world is not divided up into “good people and Death Eaters.” Good people can have dark pasts. And apparently, even people who have committed dark horrors can find even a moment of light.

In the book, Voldemort visits Gellert Grindelwald (now an old, skeletal man) at Nurmengard prison:

Grindelwald: So you have come. I thought you would… one day. But your journey was pointless. I never had it.

Voldemort: You lie.

“Kill me, then!” demanded the old man. “You will not win, you cannot win! That wand will never, ever be yours – ”

And Voldemort’s fury broke: A burst of green light filled the prison room and the frail old body was lifted from its hard bed and then fell back lifeless, and Voldemort returned to the window, his wrath barely controllable.

So Book!Grindelwald taunts Voldemort, rather than betray Dumbledore and the Wand. Or as Harry tells his deceased former mentor:

“Grindelwald tried to stop Voldemort going after the wand. He lied, you know, pretended he had never had it.”

Dumbledore nodded, looking down at his lap, tears still glittering on the crooked nose.

“They say he showed remorse in later years, alone in his cell at Nurmengard. I hope that it is true. I would like to think he did feel the horror and shame of what he had done. Perhaps that lie to Voldemort was his attempt to make amends… to prevent Voldemort from taking the Hallow…”

“… or maybe from breaking into your tomb?” suggested Harry, and Dumbledore dabbed at his eyes.

You know, I was looking forward to watching the one decent, courageous moment in Grindelwald’s life be realized on the screen.

So what did the filmmakers do? They had Grindelwald give up Dumbledore as owner of the Elder Wand, and even reveal the Wand’s location in Dumbledore’s tomb. And then they had Psycho Killer Voldemort leave him in peace!

Logistically, yes, we do need to know why Voldemort goes to Dumbledore’s tomb. We do need to know why he finds the Wand there. But having Grindelwald reveal Dumbledore’s ownership of the Wand is not the only way to accomplish that. In fact, here’s a scenario that would accomplish the same thing without violating Grindelwald’s character arc:

Grindelwald: Kill me, then! You will not win, you cannot win! That wand will never, ever be yours.

Voldemort: Dumbledore! He took the Wand, didn’t he, when he locked you up in here! You’re protecting him!… Avada Kedavra!

Why is this so important when the Dumbledore backstory is largely missing from the movie? Well, for starters, Dumbledore’s backstory probably won’t be missing from DH2, where we can learn more from his brother Aberforth and the King’s Cross sequence.

But even more significantly, Grindelwald’s refusal to help Voldemort plays into the entire redemption theme of the series… and into the whole question of remorse.

The “R” word is huge in DH. Dumbledore experienced remorse after the death of his sister. Snape experienced remorse after the death of Lily. And seemingly, even Grindelwald – a man who went much further down the dark path than either of these two men – was sufficiently remorseful to protect Dumbledore and the Wand.

Obviously, what Harry learns about Dumbledore and Snape is most significant to his understanding of the transformative power of remorse. Yet he also learns along the way that even Grindelwald – the former “Most Dangerous Dark Wizard of All Time” – was able to turn back at least just a little… and in the face of death. Gellert Grindelwald, in his last moments, performed one small act that showed his remorse.

I personally would not underestimate the significance of Grindelwald’s act for the DH plot. Given that Harry had discussed it with Dumbledore only an hour or so earlier, it is highly likely that the remorse Harry saw in the old man served as one inspiration for the moment of mercy he offered to Voldemort – giving the Dark Lord himself one last chance at remorse.

By having Grindelwald show the opposite of remorse, though, the filmmakers violate the character’s story arc in a rather profound way and undermine a key theme of the series.

So tell me… if it was so easy for me to figure out how to get Voldemort to Dumbledore’s tomb without violating Grindelwald’s character, why was it seemingly so hard for David Yates and Steve Kloves?

Here’s Your Deathly Hallows on IMAX

Click to see Severus Snape walking through the AWESOME gate

“These are dark times, there’s no denying”

I saw it this morning, in the IMAX theater at Tyson’s Corner. And, in a word, it was AWESOME!!! (like the WB promo shown above)

It’s hardly a secret that Deathly Hallows is my favorite Harry Potter book. It’s also not a secret that I found the Half-Blood Prince movie… disappointing.

In HPB, the filmmakers wasted precious time burning the Burrow, when they could have been giving us another Pensieve memory of Tom Riddle’s family background or some additional face time with the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions book.

I feared that, given the complexity of the DH narrative, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves would trash the story, chop it up, render it incomprehensible in an attempt to simplify it for movie-only viewers. I wondered if, in the end, moviegoers would understand who Dumbledore was, who Snape was, and how the twin themes of redemption and remorse that play out in these men’s lives ultimately help Harry confront Voldemort with the things the Dark Lord doesn’t understand.

Well, we won’t know the answer to that question until we reach the end of DH2. But DH1 gives me good reason to hope that the filmmakers will capture much of the richness of this narrative… and offer up a successful resolution to the Harry Potter saga.

For me, the DH movies carry the biggest stakes because they also carry the most profound part of Harry Potter’s story. I already knew going in to DH1 that the split would occur at Dumbledore’s tomb. And I knew just from watching the trailers that DH1 would include both Malfoy Manor sequences, the 7 Potters, Bill and Fleur’s wedding, the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, the splinching scene, Ron’s confrontation with Harry, at least some of the visit to Godric’s Hollow, the destruction of the locket horcrux, the visit to Xenophilius Lovegood, and Voldemort’s retrieval of the wand.

Here are some other elements that I was hoping to see in DH1:

  • Dudley’s attempt to reconcile with Harry
  • Kreacher’s Tale (including a flashback to the Cave and Regulus’ heroism)
  • Some of Dumbledore’s backstory (and Harry’s struggle to come to grips with it)
  • Hermione’s conversations with the portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black (including a flashback of Snape catching Neville, Ginny, and Luna trying to steal the Sword of Gryffindor)
  • Harry’s dialogue with Ron after Ron confronts his fears and destroys the locket horcrux
  • Grindelwald’s refusal to betray Dumbledore’s possession of the Elder Wand to Voldemort
  • The Tale of the Three Brothers

Okay, so one of those wishes came true. But we missed Dudley, most of Kreacher’s Tale, nearly all of Dumbledore’s backstory, Phineas’ portrait, and (alas) Harry’s awesome “I thought you knew.”

I understand some of those decisions. Really, I do. Flashbacks would have dragged out the film (no matter how gratifying I find those strands of plot to be). And Dumbledore’s backstory can be covered more fully in DH2 at the Hogs Head and in King’s Cross.

But why not include the Dudley scene or Phineas’ portrait or Harry’s dialogue with Ron? And why, WHY, WHY violate the character of Gellert Grindelwald? (more on that in another post).

Regardless, the movie overall does about as fine a job with DH1 as I could have hoped. Here are some of the highlights:

  • An absolutely wrenching scene (told, not shown, in the book) in which Hermione obliviates her parents
  • Nearly the entire opening sequence at Malfoy Manor – with stunning performances by Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, and – really – the whole Death Eater cast
  • A truly creepy Bathilda Bagshot sequence
  • A beautiful Silver Doe/Retrieval of the Sword sequence – almost exactly as I had pictured it
  • The Tale of the Three Brothers – an EPIC WIN animation – including a narrative containing, I think, every word in the story

And of course, it sure didn’t hurt to be viewing all of this on an IMAX screen. I’ll be back later with a bit more analysis. But for now, I’ll just say that, overall, this film is TEH AWESOME!!! (And I wasn’t saying that after the last one).

Play the ‘Expecto Patronum’ Search Term Game!

Well, it’s time to play a reader-participation game!

In the poll below, I’ve provided a list of authentic search terms that have been used to reach this blog. I personally find each of them somewhat funny or outre.

So, here’s how to play the game:

Vote to select your favorite search term(s) from the list… and then write something about your choice(s) in the comments section.

Here are some possibilities to get you started:

  • Explain why you like the term(s)
  • What might the searcher have been thinking of?
  • What sort of scenario in the HP universe might apply to the term(s) you’ve selected? (try to keep this family friendly, please)
  • …Or whatever else you want to write!

Have fun! And keep the snark lock on!

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.

Bernie Bott’s and Chocolate Frogs

Well, just one more chapter, and we’ll be at Hogwarts! In the meantime, we’re still in the process of getting there.

Harry finds the platform thanks to Molly, gets his trunk onto the train thanks to Fred and George, and spends the time on the journey eating Chocolate Frogs and Bernie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans with Ron. It’s one big Weasley Fest, from King’s Cross to Harry’s new life at Hogwarts.

So what do we learn about Ron? As the fifth boy in the Weasley family, he goes to Hogwarts with “Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand, and Percy’s old rat.” He doesn’t have enough money for the candy cart. He’s gloomy about his own prospects at Hogwarts, but reassuring when Harry thinks he himself will be a failure. And he’s from an old Wizarding family.

The conversation between Harry and Ron seems largely like something to pass the time. But in the larger context of the story, it introduces several pertinent points. Quidditch, of course, will become very important to Harry. But more important to the story are Ron’s knowledge of Chocolate Frog collectable cards, his pet rat Scabbers, and the break-in at Gringotts.

The very first Chocolate Frog card Harry collects is the one for Albus Dumbledore:

Currently Headmaster of Hogwarts

Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicholas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling.

The info about Grindelwald will become important in DH, but the information about Nicholas Flamel is crucial for the story at-hand.

Nicholas Flamel is the only real-world character in the series. In real-life, he was suspected of having created Alchemy’s Philosopher’s Stone (in the Harry Potter series, this suspicion is fact). Why is this important? Well, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the actual title of the book. Scholastic didn’t think a title with “Philosopher” in it would sell in the U.S. market, so the title was changed. But elsewhere in the world – including the U.K. – publishing houses have gone with JKR’s original title.

In Alchemy, of course, there’s no such thing as a Sorcerer’s Stone. But creating the Philosopher’s Stone (i.e. turning lead into gold) is the ultimate goal of Alchemy. The reference to Nicholas Flamel is also pertinent to the Gringotts break-in that Harry and Ron discuss on the train. The Philospher’s Stone was the object of the break-in, and will later be the object of attempted theft at Hogwarts.

And let’s not forget that Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog card introduces Harry to moving portraits. By the end of the day, he will be living in a House that you can’t enter without giving a password to a portrait!

And then, there’s Ron’s rat Scabbers. Ron doesn’t know it yet (in fact he won’t know it for nearly three more years), but Scabbers isn’t really a rat at all. He is actually the animagus form of Peter Pettigrew – a Hogwarts friend of James Potter’s who betrayed Harry’s parents to Voldemort and who will later help Voldemort regain a body.

As always, JKR is very economical, laying the groundwork for later elements early on when readers least expect it. I mean, seriously, did anyone really read the Chocolate Frog card the first time they read this chapter? But I’ll bet most re-readers took a close look at it the second time through! The card itself has a role to play, beyond the flat facts stated on its face.

Now, if only one of the boys can just collect Agrippa!

Next installment: Snakes on a Train

Picture of Lily

Hiding out at Number 12 Grimmauld Place, Harry finds in Sirius’ room part of a letter his mother wrote shortly after his first birthday. The final sentences of the first sheet read:

[p. 180-181] Bathilda drops in most days, she’s a fascinating old thing with the most amazing stories about Dumbledore, I’m not sure he’d be pleased if he knew! I don’t know how much to believe, actually, because it seems incredible that Dumbledore…

The second sheet is missing, but Harry finds it in Severus Snape’s memories. After killing Dumbledore, Snape hastened to Grimmauld Place to find what he could of Lily’s before the Order of the Phoenix hexed him out of bounds. Tears dripping from his nose, he reads the rest of the sentence:

[p. 689] …could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!
Lots of love,

Snape pockets the second page of the letter with Lily’s signature, then takes the photo of Harry’s family enclosed in the letter, rips it in two, and keeps only the picture of Lily.

The scene is simultaneously touching and maddening – reaffirming Snape’s love for Lily and his disdain for her loved ones at the same time. On the one hand, the man who prides himself on being strong enough to shut down emotions can weep his losses. On the other, ripping the photo and tossing the half showing Harry zooming around on his toy broomstick is a callous act… as is pocketing Lily’s part of the photo and her signature on the letter. Snape is depriving Lily’s son of what rightfully belongs to him. It is Snape at his most distraught, and his most selfish, since the terrible events of 1981.

But what’s going on here emotionally? Dumbledore is dead. Snape saw to that. Lily’s son, the boy Snape has protected all these years at great personal peril, has just called him a coward. Aside from some future help from the Headmaster’s portrait, Snape is now on his own. And as we see, he is grieved – so grieved that the memory appears out of order in the Pensieve. The two people who cared about him most are gone, and he’s left to infiltrate the darkness to carry on the battle alone.

And what is in the letter he is reading? Remarks about Dumbledore, the man Snape never wanted to kill – remarks connecting Dumbledore to the Dark Arts and the subservience of Muggles to Wizards, via the Headmaster’s connection to the great Dark Wizard Gellert Grindelwald. And no, Bathilda Bagshot’s mind is not going… at least not yet.

Ironically, the consequences of Snape’s own youthful attraction to the Dark Arts and Muggle subservience have brought him to this place. Alone. Unloved. Hated. But did Snape ever know Dumbledore’s past any better than Harry did? Did he know that Dumbledore was not inherently more virtuous than he himself? Did he know of Dumbledore’s youthful desire for the Deathly Hallows and for power? Did he know that Dumbledore had been inflamed by the ideas of the most dangerous Dark Wizard of all time, before Voldemort? All of that is doubtful, given that Dumbledore never even told Snape in what way he was tempted by the cursed ring.

So why is Snape weeping? For Lily only? Maybe a little for Dumbledore… and for what he never knew about the Headmaster? For the path he himself must take over the next year (or however long it takes to bring Voldemort down)? Whatever the case, it is refreshing to know that there were times when even Severus Snape wept.

In a more fairy tale rendering, the two halves of the letter and the two halves of the photo might have acted like half lockets to draw their possessors together. But even had he wanted to, Snape could never have openly embraced the boy. That would have compromised the mission he accepted after Lily’s death.

As Ministry of Magic so aptly puts it: “Sometimes consequences define your life with hardship.” Snape all these years later is still reaping consequences manifold.

Picture of Lily

Picture of Lily