Three of the most intensely debated questions surrounding Half-Blood Prince and Book 7 are “Is Harry a Horcrux?”, “Will Harry Die?”, and “Is Dumbledore Dead?” This essay (and it certainly must be essay-length) will examine the third question.
The question is more intriguing than I imagined it to be. After expressing absolute certainty that Dumbledore was dead, the reading of a few theories forced me to at least reconsider. I will present four different views on the death of Dumbledore. Two views argue that Dumbledore is dead, two that he is not. I’ll leave counterarguments to you in the comment thread.
Dumbledore is Dead
This view needs two variations, though they amount to the same thing. Really, the variations depend entirely on your view of Snape (indeed, it has become impossible to think of the one apart from the other at this point in the series).
Let’s first look at some general support for Dumbledore’s being dead.
- J.K. Rowling has called death the “most important theme” of the series. She’s not interested in trifling with the subject, and has been very clear that a dead person cannot come back to life in the Wizarding World. This is not enough to prove him dead, but we must consider this: Would Rowling put us through the death, funeral, and grieving of one of the most beloved characters of the series only to say, “Woops! Just kidding! Not dead!”? It’s hard to fathom, though possible, I suppose.
- Dumbledore’s views on death seem to mean he is ready and willing to accept it when the time comes. His death is foreshadowed over and over during the trip to the cave, and in particular when he explains that Harry is more valuable than he is.
- Fawkes’s lament is almost unexplainable if Dumbledore is not really dead. I’ve yet to read a satisfactory explanation for why Fawkes would be singing his lament song.
- The portrait in the Headmaster’s Office doesn’t make a lot of sense if Dumbledore is alive.
With these in mind, let’s explore the options.
Option #1: Dumbledore is dead, because Evil Snape killed him. This is by far the clearest, face-value reading of the text. Dumbledore trusted Snape; Harry and many others did not. According to this view, it was a mistake for Dumbledore to trust Snape as he did, and on the astronomy tower, Snape revealed his true loyalties, murdering the Headmaster. And after all, Harry was right about Malfoy; why not about Snape also?
In favor of this view, we have a large amount of evidence from Half-Blood Prince. In the first place, you have the Unbreakable Vow and the rest of the dialogue at Spinner’s End. Rowling basically begins her novel with Snape’s point by point refutation of most of the “Snape is Good” arguments. Snape’s past as a Death Eater, as well as his year teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, do not work in favor of a Good Snape reading. Nor his ostensible attempts to help Draco throughout the year.
Jeremy has given us an excellent and plausible version of this argument: Snape was torn between the good and bad sides, and ultimately chose the wrong one on the Astronomy Tower. This view takes into account the canonical evidence we have for Snape’s goodness and badness, and ultimately results in a vote for “bad.” Essential to the argument is the fact that one must actually “mean it” when attempting to perform an unforgiveable curse. Had Snape just been pretending or killing Albus on his orders, it would be hard to imagine a “good” Snape conjuring up an actual hatred for Albus and an enjoyment in killing him.
This view also takes into account Harry’s idea that Dumbledore didn’t want Snape to have the DADA job, because it would entice him back toward the Dark Side. Perhaps he was right, after all.
Option #2: Dumbledore is dead, and Good Snape killed him. In this version, Dumbledore is still quite dead, but when Snape killed him, it was on Dumbledore’s orders. There are a few important aspects of this theory.
“Stoppered Death” – Cathy Leisner’s “Stoppered Death” theory has been given much attention, and perhaps rightly so (see the relevant sections in this essay by Granger). It has been noted that Snape’s first potions lesson was referenced at least six times in Half-Blood Prince, including the bezoar incident. “Stoppered Death” theory argues that Dumbledore suffered an injury that would have led to his death when he destroyed the ring horcrux, if not for Dumbledore’s “prodigious skill and Snape’s timely action” (HBP-23). Snape’s “timely action,” it is argued, was to put a “stopper” in Dumbledore’s inevitable death. In that case, when Snape pulled the trigger on Dumbledore on the tower, Dumbledore was pretty much dead already – his death had just been delayed a bit.
There is a strong parallel here to what Dumbledore told Harry about Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel at the end of Philosopher’s Stone. He told Harry, during his first great lesson about death, that the Flamels had enough elixir to set their affairs in order before dying. That’s a brilliant set-up to the “stoppered death” theory, in which Dumbledore used the potion long enough to discover what he needed to about Voldemort and pass the information along to Harry, i.e., set his affairs in order.
The Unbreakable Vow is the next important part of this theory. We know, of course, about the vow Snape made with Narcissa. We also know about an argument between Snape and Dumbledore, in which Snape felt Dumbledore was asking too much of him. According to this theory, Dumbledore was explaining to Snape that he was going to have to eventually kill him, in order to maintain his cover. In fact, the move of Snape to DADA teacher fits this whole theory perfectly. Think about it: the DADA position is cursed, so that no one would be able to stay in that position more than one year. Dumbledore is on death’s doorstep, “stoppered” by Snape, and he now knows about the Draco plot and the unbreakable vow. It is therefore inevitable that the attempt on Dumbledore’s life would occur in that year, and Snape would have to fulfill his vow. So Dumbledore moves him to DADA teacher, since he would only make it a year anyway. In short, Dumbledore uses Voldemort’s own curse against him to protect his spy.
There are two variations about what happened on the Astronomy Tower, then. The face value reading is simply this: Snape killed Dumbledore with the Killing Curse, just as it appeared. But I think Jeremy’s point that you’ve got to “mean” it should be taken into account, and the odd way that the AK curse acted (detailed below) must also be answered.
So another reading might go this way: Snape shows up on the tower. The weakened Dumbledore says, “Severus…please,” and with Legilimency is telling Snape, “It’s time. You have to maintain your cover. You have to kill me.” Snape, however, entirely loyal to Dumbledore, is unable to really “mean” an AK curse against him. So he casts Avada Kedavra, which produces a green light but has barely any power to it, and non-verbally casts Expelliarmus, knocking Dumbledore off the tower. The weakened Dumbledore dies as a result of the fall, not the Killing Curse.
I’m sure there are other variations. The death of Dumbledore seems so certain, however, that I’ll spend the remainder of this present work presenting the alternative theories. Let’s move on to faked deaths, polyjuice potions, and all sorts of fun speculation.
Dumbledore is not Dead
Shortly after the release of Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledoreisnotdead.com was launched. Dave Haber pointed to many of the irregularities surrounding Dumbledore’s death. These have spawned a variety of “what really happened that night” theories that cannot simply be pushed aside. First, let’s look at Haber’s evidence; then we’ll explore two potentially worthy theories. [I will only be including evidence that I think convincing. Fawkes not attempting to save Dumbledore, for example, is quite inconclusive, in my opinion]. There are two pieces of evidence in particular that are worth our time; the others are helpful to the theory, but this is the bare minimum that we need to establish doubt about Dumbledore’s death.
UK vs. US versions – This one is interesting: The US version contains a fascinating line that does not appear in the UK version. As Dumbledore is trying to spare Draco by convincing him to come to the “right side,” and the Order can hide him, the US version contains this cryptic line: “He cannot kill you if you are already dead.” Dumbledore then explains to a US audience that Voldemort probably expected Draco to die in the attempt anyway. Apparently, Dumbledore had “fake death” on the brain that night on the tower; this at least reveals that he has the capacity to fake a death quite convincingly.
Avada Kedavra and the Slow Fall– When Harry hears “Expelliarmus!” and is frozen moments prior, he is confused, because expelliarmus is not a freezing charm. This could be JKR’s “subtext” clue to be looking for spells and curses that don’t act right during this scene. Any way you look at it, the AK curse behaved very strangely on the Astronomy tower. In every other example (except Harry, of course), a green jet of light hits the victim, felling him immediately. Not so with Dumbledore. Read the description for yourself:
A jet of green light shot from the end of Snape’s wand and hit Dumbledore squarely in the chest. Harry’s scream of horror never left him; silently he was forced to watch as Dumbledore was blasted into the air. For a split second, he seemed to hang suspended beneath the shining skull, and then he slowly fell backward, like a great rag doll, over the battlements and out of sight. (596)
Weird, huh? The “slow fall” is particularly interesting. Why would an AK curse cause a “slow fall”? Why would it even lift the victim into the air and cause him to hang suspended? Very odd indeed. We do, of course, have an interesting precedent for what might have happened: When Harry fell off his broom in PoA, Dumbledore rushed to the field and slowed his fall down. Was there someone on the ground slowing his fall? Was a still-alive Dumbledore slowing his own fall? Did Snape cast another spell non-verbally that merely dumped Dumbledore slowly over the battlements and set him down peacefully on the ground? Let’s explore some theories.
Option #1 – Dumbledore is not dead, because he planned, with Good Snape, to fake his own death. Why would he do this? To be able to hunt down Voldemort’s horcruxes in secret, of course (not that Dumbledore will do the actual work; that’s Harry’s job. But you’ve got to admit he’d be invaluable behind the scenes). In this theory, Snape and Dumbledore had planned this all along, at least after the Unbreakable Vow was made. This would even better help us to understand Dumbledore’s implicit trust in Snape, and it would explain the odd way the curse acted and the slow fall. Snape didn’t kill Dumbledore with an AK curse; he cast a weak AK curse that wouldn’t have killed a mosquito (because he didn’t mean it), and nonverbally cast another to levitate him and set him down on the ground (or perhaps someone else in on the scheme – Hagrid? – was at the bottom of the tower, slowing the fall).
What about the body, then? Consider for a moment the Draught of Living Death, a potion mentioned in Snape’s first potions lesson way back when (and we’ve already seen the importance of various elements of that lesson). The Draught of Living Death, which puts one in an incredibly deep sleep, would do the trick for a faked death. We’ve seen almost everything else from the first potions lesson used, and it’s rare that JKR throws details like that out without following up on them (consider, for example, the use of the potions mentioned in Slughorn’s first potions class – all were used in the plot except veritaserum, which got plenty of use in previous books).
Let’s revisit the US textual difference now. How exactly was Dumbledore going to pull off his offer to convince the world that Draco was “already dead,” so he could hide him? Could it be that Dumbledore was carrying in his cloak a bottle of the Draught of Living Death, ready for the moment when he would have to fake his own? According to this theory, that would make a lot of sense.
If Albus was carrying this draught on him, then during or at the end of the slow fall, he drank the potion, and everyone who came near him would have thought him dead. Hagrid, of course, collected the body, and the next time we see the body, who has it? Hagrid. You can probably imagine the scene when Dumbledore wakes up in Hagrid’s care and explains that the death was a setup and that Hagrid would have to play along to help defeat Voldemort (if, of course, Hagrid wasn’t already in on it; and he might have been. He is the only other person in the series, along with Snape, that Dumbledore explicitly claims to trust with his own life). Hagrid, of course, cares for the body until the funeral, and then we get that weird fire and phoenix thing happening at the funeral’s end (all evidence destroyed!).
For an in-depth version of this particular theory, see Joyce’s (Red Hen) Loyaulte Me Lie. I think this theory has its weaknesses, but it does answer some objections that might have sprung to your mind reading this, and it also attempts to tie in the whole prophecy mess (though that’s where I most strongly disagree with Joyce, who thinks Dumbledore manipulated and brought about Voldemort’s reaction to the prophecy in the first place; but the essay is still worth the read).
Option #2 – Dumbledore is not dead, because Slughorn stood in for Dumbledore on the night in question and faked the death scene. I recall reading the cave scene and finding one particular word that Dumbledore says to be out of place: “Oho!” That’s a Slughorn word, I thought. Didn’t sound quite right. Quirky mistake on Rowling’s part, I thought.
Sally Fallo (AKA Gumshoe) of Leaky Cauldron has constructed an interesting theory that the person who went to the cave with Harry that night was not Dumbledore, but Slughorn using Polyjuice Potion. (My link to this essay seems to be broken, and I can’t find the original one I used; 10 points to the house of the person who can locate it for me. Update: Found it! 10 points to me, I guess). Before you roll your eyes and think that I’ve let this blog be taken over by the crazy theories, consider the possible inspiration for Horace Slughorn: a magician named “Horace Goldin.” Since I have the essay before me, but not the original link, I’ll quote a length the relevant sections.
First, note the name similarities that suggest a bit more than coincidence:
Quite similar to Rowlingâ€™s descriptions of Slughorn, Goldin was pompous and extremely nimble-fingered, â€œan unlikely figure for a magicianâ€¦, round and fleshy, with an oversized nose and thinning hairâ€ who nonetheless â€œhad mastered the dashing, graceful gestures of a swashbuckler.â€ (Steinmeyer, 284) Horace Goldin developed a silent and fast-paced routine, reminiscent of Slughornâ€™s two-minute staged death. As a novice, Goldin idolized a more seasoned magician called the Great Albini (how similar to â€œAlbusâ€). Goldin had a framed portrait of Albini heâ€™d prominently displayed; one evening after a particularly strong performance from Goldin, Albini called on him and taught him the secret of his famous Egg Bag trick, then signed the portrait. (This trick was attributed to a conjurer with another familiar name, Isaac Fawkes, in 1736, according to Edmonds, p. 43)….It should also be noted that Goldin had a big act called â€œThe Tiger Godâ€ that he toured extensively, the star of which was his pet tiger named Lily.
Given the name parallels, there seems to be a fairly decent chance that this is the inspiration for Slughorn’s character. (And if Slughorn had a portrait of Dumbledore, that might explain the one in the Headmaster’s office after he “dies”!) What is significant about Goldin is one of his acts, described by an observer:
Milbourne Christopher says of Horace Goldin in The Illustrated History of Magic: “I met Horace Goldin in London in the fall of 1936. At sixty-two he was stout, wore his reading glasses on a black ribbon around his neck, and carried a cane. The tiepin in his cravat sparkled with the jewels he had received from Kings and Queensâ€¦ ‘Confidentially,’ he said, ‘I have the best act in the world. You must see it as my guest.’ I accepted his invitation…I sat in the front row…Albini’s ‘Egg Bag,’ to which Goldin had added various comedy touches, delighted the audience…Before the curtains closed, Goldin caught a bullet fired at him from a rifle, on the china plate he held in front of his chest.” (315-16) Goldin was noted for this trick, and coincidentally (or not), Dumbledoreâ€™s hand is over his chest during the entire tower scene.
Sally’s essay is much more elaborate than this and provides more evidence, some circumstantial, some solid, and some that is a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, the connections above seem enough to put the theory in the “plausible” list. And think of the genius of the theory as it relates to the potions discussion above. If it was Slughorn who took Harry to the cave and faked the death on the tower, it’s quite possible that we had a night full of potions used by the Potions Master. Many have speculated that Dumbledore used a bit of Felix Felicis that night, which would have explained why he had such an easy time figuring out the cave’s traps and perhaps his youthful energy upon jumping into the water. Obviously, Polyjuice Potion would have to be used. And finally, the Draught of Living Death after the fall over the battlements. Could turn out to be a really brilliant twist.
“Conclusion” is perhaps too strong a word. JKR has left us with enough mystery to have smart readers constructing radically different, yet equally viable theories. Personally, I’m torn. The evidence is inconclusive; none of the theories are so much stronger than another that it’s the clear winner. There may be other great theories out there.
Dumbledore has been my favorite character of the series. Sure, I’d love to see more of him…but I’m not sure I want Dumbledore to be the kind of person who would fake his death and deceive the wizarding world like that. At the same time, Rowling has surprised us with great storytelling, and she might just be able to pull off something like that.
I’m sure I’ve missed points of each argument, and I’m sure you’ll see objections to each. I’ll take them up and expand the theories in the comments.