Alan Rickman is gone. To say that this will not affect my reading of this book (and the two movies following) would be a gross lie that I won’t attempt. Here’s to you, Professor. It’s impossible not to miss your sonorous voice already.
We are going to begin with a foreword of sorts before diving in to this, the final book. It’s chapters 1 and 2 of The Deathly Hallows—The Dark Lord Ascending and In Memoriam.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
This book came out in 2007, and I haven’t read it since.
Not because I hated it or was too heartbroken over it, but because endings are things that I like to reserve for the right occasion. I have this problem with other series as well—I’ll reread the first book or so, but run away before the end. I like to preserve the impact, to neglect its memorization. For some reason, this felt even more important to me where Potter was concerned. So I have not touched this book since I first read it. Should make for an interesting reread.
The last Potter release day party in my hometown was a big shebang; I’ve written elsewhere on this site that various businesses participated by flipping our town into a Diagon Alley of sorts. I was costumed to give “tours” of Azkaban Prison, which was outfitted in the basement of a church. My friends and I had a glorious time, and it helped keep our minds off the wait—plus we were all theatre and speech team kids, and having an act to pull off simply felt right. We didn’t close shop until about a quarter to midnight. For the first time, I had neglected to preorder my copy, and it turned out to be a smart choice; I didn’t have to wait in the long lines at various town bookstores to retrieve the book.
Rowling opens with an epigraph, quoting two texts: The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus and More Fruits of Solitude by William Penn. They work in concert together, mostly as distillation of theme. The first gives us the line “Bless the children, give them triumph now,” an apt quote for what it to come. Penn’s text ruminates on the immortality of friendship and love, how they transcend death. It’s practically a summation of everything Rowling has been trying to tell us from the start.
So they are as good a place as any to begin.
Chapter 1—The Dark Lord Ascending
Snape and Yaxley meet at the end of a lane, both heading to Voldemort to give news. They head up the path to Malfoy Manor and go into the drawing room where all the Death Eaters and Voldemort are situated at a long table—above them is an unconscious body slowly turning, whom no one pays any mind except for Draco. Voldemort gives Snape and Yaxley their assigned seats, beckoning Snape to sit beside him. Snape informs him that the Order of the Phoenix is going to move Harry Potter from the Dursley home next Saturday at night. Yaxley heard differently from the Auror Dawlish, and tells Voldemort that Harry will be moved later, the night before his 17th birthday. Snape insists that this intel is a false trail. Voldemort believes Snape—he knows that the Order (correctly) suspects that his ranks have invaded the Ministry, and that they would never trust the Auror Office with important information of that nature. Snape tells Voldemort that Harry will be kept at a home of one of the Order’s number, and that the place will be protected by both the Order and the Ministry; he doubts they will be able to take Harry there unless the Ministry has fallen to them by that point, allowing them to weaken those protections on the house.
Voldemort asks Yaxley how they are doing on that front, and Yaxley tells him that he has placed the Imperius curse of Pius Thicknesse, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Voldemort isn’t too impressed, stressing the importance of getting close to Scrimgeour so they can kill him. Knowing that this will take more time, Voldemort decides that they will have to try and reach Harry while he is in transit. Snape informs them that Harry will not travel in any way regulated by the Ministry. Voldemort insists that he will see to Potter personally this time, owing the boy’s continued existence to his own errors. He knows that Harry will only be killed by his own hand. There is a despairing sound below them, and Voldemort chides Wormtail for not keeping their prisoner silent.
Voldemort then tells his followers that he will need on of their wands to do the job, but no one volunteers. Voldemort asks for Lucius Malfoy’s wand. Lucius makes motion to perhaps receive Voldemort’s wand for the time being, which grabs Voldemort’s attention. He points out that Lucius and his family do not seem happy to have him in their home, something which Lucius fervently denies. As Voldemort calls Lucius on the lie, Nagini slithers up to wrap around the Dark Lord’s shoulders. Lucius and Narcissa insist that they are pleased, but Bellatrix makes a far more moving show of it. Voldemort asks if it can really be a higher pleasure than knowing that her niece recently married a werewolf (talking of Tonks and Lupin). Bellatrix expresses her disgust while the other Death Eaters laugh. Voldemort asks Draco how he feels about it, but Draco has no idea what to say. Voldemort suggests that they “prune” their family tree, a plan that Bellatrix is instantly on board with.
Voldemort then directs Snape’s attention to the figure spinning above the table, asking if he recognizes it. She is identified as Charity Burbage, the teacher of Muggle Studies at Hogwarts. Now awake, Burbage asks for Snape’s aid. Voldemort talks of her subject matter at Hogwarts and a recent editorial for the Daily Prophet where Burbage encouraged Muggle acceptance among wizards, and suggested that the death of “pureblood” lineage was a good thing. Voldemort kills her and leaves her body to Nagini for dinner.
We open on Snape and Yaxley, and Yaxley is all “I’ve got big news for the Dark Lord” and Snape’s like “Me too,” but won’t say another word. It’s such a clever move from the previous book to this one—some fans thought Snape was evil, but plenty didn’t. So it becomes all about that double-agent status, and with that comes so many questions and a much sharper eye toward what Snape does, how he comports himself. When he gives Voldemort his news, old Voldy stares Snape down for a good long while, which seems a pretty clear indication that he’s using Legilimency to assuage his super villain paranoia. We have to figure this is a common occurrence for everyone, which means that Snape is always on.
Which means that Snape is never truly himself.
A lot of what gets revealed about Snape in this book turns on that idea; I posit to you that when we talk about Severus Snape, when we consider any depth of emotion we might feel toward this man who was a horrible teacher, but an excellent double-agent, it should revolve around his stolen personhood. Snape’s love for Lily is what springboards him down the unfortunate path his life takes, but what hurts when I think of Snape has nothing to do with Lily. It’s about his lack of identity. It’s about having to be so wrapped up in this double life that hiding himself with Occlumency is no chore at all. Snape is always hiding. Snape is in stasis. Snape is not allowed to grow and develop as a human being because playing these parts are all he is allowed from the moment he agrees to work for Dumbledore. And I don’t think that asking that of him was wrong, but I still feel sorrow on his behalf.
I expect I’ll talk a lot more about that as we continue with this book, so for now I’ll move on to how Pius Thicknesse might win the award for most on-the-nose name Rowling has come up with yet? Maybe? It certainly makes me laugh the most.
So much of this chapter is about listening to how Voldemort phrases his abuse, and how incredibly effective it is. Suggesting that there “no point” in Lucius having a wand at all, so why shouldn’t he borrow it. Lulling Bellatrix into this false sense of appreciativeness, then pulling the rug out from under her by mentioning Tonks. Teasing the Malfoy family about their loyalty, trying to lure them into saying the wrong thing. Lucius’ vacantness indicates a healthy dose of PTSD following his time in Azkaban, and it’s left to Narcissa to keep her family together and safe. She does this by disengaging entirely—a survival tactic well known to victims of abuse—and then encouraging Draco to do the same with the subtlest of motions and hints.
From Draco’s end, we see that he looks first to his father, the way he has been accustomed all his life, then has the realization that his father’s guidance is not available to him any longer. It’s that terrifying moment in every child’s life when they realize that their parents are human, that they can be wrong, tarnished, damaged. Draco surely hoped that when his father returned, his family would return to normal; it is necessary for Draco to learn this lesson, to realize that war hurts all people, not merely the ones he deems of no value. It’s also essential for him to discover that having Voldemort’s favor is a thing easily lost; his family’s pureblood status will not keep any of them safe, even someone as devoted as Bellatrix.
We find out that Lucius’ wand is elm (inherited from his father), a wood that denotes a person with presence and dignity. It’s a very sound wand wood, producing the fewest errors, and is capable of highly advanced magic in the right hands, often desired by pureblood wizards for this reason.
The woman spinning over the table is Charity Burbage, the Muggles Studies teacher at Hogwarts, and Voldemort tells everyone at the table that she recently published a piece in the newspaper about how wizards and Muggles should intermingle and so on…. Wow. Can we take a moment for how f*cking brave this woman is? To publish a piece like that in times like this, to say the very thing that Voldemort never wants to hear right as he’s rising to power again? To ask her fellows in the magical community to be brave in the face of what’s coming? And it’s practically the only thing that we learn about this woman, aside from Hermione briefly taking her class in third year. It’s a horrifically affecting; this is all we will ever know about Charity Burbage, but she was clearly a great voice in the wizarding world, and here she is, reduced to a casualty.
And here again, Snape gives no reaction to her murder. While we know that Snape wasn’t particularly close to his colleagues, and that he had his period of buying into Voldemort’s pureblood propaganda, it’s hard to believe that he would be completely unaffected by her pleas for help. I’m forced to wonder what he truly does feel in that moment—and whether or not he had the ability to ever reflect on those feelings at all.
Chapter 2—In Memoriam
Harry is bleeding and opens his bedroom door only to step on a cold cup of tea that was sitting on the floor in front of it. He assumes it’s a booby trap left by Dudley, throwing the cup in a bin before running his finger under the tap in the bathroom. He reflects on his inability to heal wounds magically, and thinks he should probably fix that gap considering his plans. Harry returns to his room and continues his task of truly clearing out his Hogwarts trunk for the first time since he’s started school. As he sorted through the debris at the bottom, he stabbed his hand. Going back to the trunk he finds plenty of oddities, but cut came from a fragment of the enchanted mirror that Sirius gave him two years ago. The shard is all that remains, the rest of the thing ground to sand. Setting the piece aside, he continues clearing out the bottom of the trunk. Then he begins to sort everything; his school supplies and Quidditch gear will be left behind, but he opts to bring his Invisibility Cloak, potions kits, a few books, his photo album, and a stack of letters. He also brings along the locket with the R.A.B. note inside and the Marauder’s Map.
Once finished, Harry goes back through the stack of newspapers on his desk and finds one with an obituary for Dumbledore written by Order-member Elphias Doge. It talks of how they met of their first day of school, that they were both outsiders at the start because Doge had only recently gotten over dragon pox, and Albus’ father Percival had recently been imprisoned for life after attacking three Muggles. Though some students assumed that Albus held the same convictions as his father, Doge insists that he was quite outspoken on the subject of Muggle rights. His father’s misdeeds were soon forgotten when Albus Dumbledore proved to be one of the most talented students that Hogwarts had ever seen, and one who was only to happy to offer guidance to friends and classmates. Three years later, Albus’ brother Aberforth started at school, and the two brothers were quite different. Doge insists that it’s a mistake to believe that they did not get along, however, just that being constantly outshone by Albus must have been difficult.
Though Doge and Albus had planned to take a tradition tour of the world following school, Dumbledore’s mother died right before their trip, leaving Albus to care for his younger brother and sister with very little money. Doge took the trip alone, writing back to Albus with word of his many adventures. But toward the end of his year abroad, he heard of another tragedy—Dumbledore’s sister Ariana died. Doge explains that this additional loss had a profound affects on Albus and Aberforth, and that Albus blamed himself. (Doge insists, however, that the man was blameless in her death.) The brothers became estranged and Albus took on the suffering of someone much older. Doge mentions Dumbledore’s many accomplishments, including his triumph in the legendary duel against Grindelwald, a turning point in wizard history.
Harry came back to this obituary because it filled him with a sense of humiliation; since reading it he has been forced to concede that he barely knew Dumbledore at all. He is distressed for never asking Dumbledore about his past, for getting to know him better as a person. In fact, he notes that the one time he did ask Dumbledore a personal question, he received an answer he was fairly certain to be false; that Dumbledore saw himself holding a pair of thick socks when he looked into the Mirror of Erised. He tears out the obit and places it in a book he’s bringing along. Then he picks up today’s paper and notes a new article about Rita Skeeter’s upcoming book: The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. In the interview, Skeeter talks of how Dumbledore is a biographer’s dream. When asked about the comments from Elphias Doge, stating that the book is mostly gossip with little fact, Skeeter is hardly concerned. She insists that plenty of people were happy to come forward and tell all about Dumbledore—who was not as universally liked as many believe. She insists that she has a particular source who was never willing to come forward before, and knew Albus during his turbulent early years.
Skeeter insists that in her research she discovered a great deal of darkness in Dumbledore’s past; testing the water with the Dark Arts, intolerance, a family he worked hard to keep a secret. She claims that she was particularly interested in Dumbledore’s mother and sister, who no one ever seemed to look into, and that he might not be solely responsible for every one of his accomplishments. She also suggests that the great duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald may not have truly taken place at all, that Grindelwald surrendered and came quietly. She then reveals that there’s a whole chapter devoted to Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry. (Rita also insists that she and Harry have a “close bond.”) Harry is so angry that he balls up the newspaper and throws it away, then takes to stalking around his room, picking things up and putting them back down again.
When he picks up the mirrors fragment, he sees a flash of blue.
Harry doesn’t see anything when he picks it up again, and can find no place in the room where that color would be reflected. He figures he imagined it because he was thinking of Dumbledore.
Harry correctly surmises that the cup of tea was left by Dudley, but misunderstands its purpose; we will soon find out that Dudley is doing this as a gesture of comfort toward his cousin. Oof.
Wow, Harry unpacking the trunk is too real. It’s like your suitcase, or your closet, you always just clean out the top layer of whatever’s there and then one day you do serious cleaning and get to the bottom and are like “I have polka dot galoshes??!!? How did I forget that.” It makes the finding of the mirror fragment seem innocuous enough, but by this point we’re veterans, and we know that nothing like this ever happens in Potter by accident. The way he sorts through all of his possessions also feels disturbingly final. And then there are the newspapers to consider….
With this chapter Rowling gives us the first steps toward deconstructing “the Dumbledore myth” we’ve been trained to buy for the first six books. And she handles this expertly between Doge’s obituary and Skeeter’s interview. Because what happens to Dumbledore here is what happens to practically anyone of fame with a notable past; they are either revered or demonized. Everyone wants an angle, leaving no room for short brush strokes when depicting a person’s life. With the internet, we’re even more accustomed to this phenomenon now; it starts with the tributes, the touching memories and articles in memorium, and then the backlash begins—did you know this beloved person was actually a horrible monster? Or they at least did a few monstrous things? It makes grieving a strange thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to maintain a balanced view of our worldly heroes… they are still only human, after all.
Doge’s article is the good side of this; he talks of Albus as one of the kindest, most generous people in the world, and forgives him every trespass. The fact that other people got ignored when Albus Dumbledore was in the room is a testament to his genius, never his ego. The fact that he and his younger brother eventually became estranged was down to unforeseeable circumstances, not a fault in Albus’ character. He could not be held responsible for the terrible things that befell his family, even if he did feel that responsibility. (Did Doge truly know how Ariana died? I can’t help but think that he didn’t if he dismisses Albus’ blame in the event so easily.) We can be sure of Doge’s bias when he makes the statement that Dumbledore was “never proud or vain”—traits that Albus has freely admitted in some fashion or another to Harry just last book. Of course he was proud and vain. He was a genius and he knew it, and he’d acquired enough experience to be right about plenty of things.
I mean, you’ve got to have at least a tiny bit of vanity to rock a purple suit.
We are allowed to be suspicious of Skeeter even if she does tell a few truths because we know she values the gossip, values the muck, that she has no reservations about hacking someone’s life to pieces and lying outright when it suits her. (Her bit about the “closeness” of her relationship with Harry is meant to remind us of that.) But we also know that some of what she will reveal has to be honest, or we wouldn’t be hearing about it at all. Truthfully, the thing I find the most circumspect is that she completed a 900-page book in a month—I’m not certain that the feat is conceivable with research and interviews thrown in.
These are the first real mentions we get of Dumbledore’s family, and what we find is something of a shock, even if we hadn’t anticipated an idyllic childhood for the man. He loses both his mother and sister quite early, is estranged from his younger brother, and we find out that his father was a Muggle-hating murderer who died in Azkaban. Suddenly, Albus’ insistence that Harry learn about Tom Riddle’s past, about where he came from, has an extra importance placed on it. For all that Harry has always been concerned about the similarities between himself and Voldemort, we find that Albus likely had those same thoughts. And perhaps that is why he gave Tom as many chances as he did—Dumbeldore managed to buck the influence of his own father (and Grindelwald, as we’ll find out later), so he might have believed that Tom could do the same.
Harry’s frustration at not asking Dumbledore about his life when he had the time is a difficulty that many young people come up against; when you’re young, you don’t often think to ask after the experiences had by your elders. When it comes to parents or parental figures (Albus was certainly a father figure to Harry in more ways than one), this is even more true. Your parents, guiding figures—to a child’s mind, these people have always been exactly as they appear. It takes time for a young person to think on the lives that these people had before they existed. And it’s worse where Dumbledore is concerned because he has an added sheen of authority as headmaster, as “the greatest wizard of an age.” Add to that the fact that Harry’s life is frequently in danger, and he has an extra excuse for not asking those questions. But it’s still going to sting, and you can’t help but feel bad for him as he recognizes the loss.
What Harry doesn’t realize is that this is all the beginning of a journey for him. Bringing Albus Dumbledore off the mantle is part of the road toward becoming the agent of his own fate. It makes you wonder if Dumbledore knew how essential this step in the process would be… I’m inclined to think he knew very well.
And with that, good evening to you all. I plan to go home and make myself a potion (preferably with brandy in it), and toast to Alan Rickman. Until next week, please accept my internet hugs to all who need some.
Emmet Asher-Perrin is probably going to go home and watch GalaxyQuest because she can’t possibly cry anymore this week… You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.