Until rereading the series with a more adult perspective, it never occurred to me just how horrible many of the characters in Harry Potter actually are. The books are filled with numerous instances of abuse—from the way Snape treats all his students and his unhealthy relationship and obsession with Lily to James Potter committing a sex crime. A lot of the abuse is obvious, like Neville’s uncle holding him upside down out a window and letting go in order to prove that Neville had magic and his grandmother constantly belittling him for not living up to the family name. Some of it is less obvious, such as Dudley’s treatment at the hands of his parents.
It doesn’t really come as a surprise that our main character, Harry Potter himself, is also the victim of child abuse at the hands of his aunt and uncle. I don’t really need to go into detail explaining how he is abused—it should be obvious from the first two chapters of the first book alone—but what is significantly less obvious is how Dumbledore is complicit in Harry’s abuse and in the abuse of other people.
I’ve written before about Dumbledore and how he runs Hogwarts, and to summarize, I don’t think he’s done a stellar job. If Hogwarts is the best magic school in the world, I’d hate to see what kind of bullshit happens at all the other schools. Briefly in those posts, I did touch on some of Dumbledore’s more questionable decisions, such as leaving a baby on a doorstep in the middle of the night and hiring child abusers, but I didn’t really go into detail about the way his actions affect the other characters at large. I’ve said it before, but I’ll mention it again: Dumbledore is someone who has been shoved up on a pedestal, and that unfortunately means that whatever flaws he has tend to get brushed over. This is very dangerous, because Dumbledore’s flaws have far-reaching consequences and the small anecdotes of wisdom he gives to justify his actions can be easily rebuked.
I don’t like Dumbledore’s character, in part due to how the other characters and many readers perceive him, but a lot of my dislike comes straight from his own actions, or more importantly, lack of action. Dumbledore knowingly and purposely leaves characters in bad situations—he has the power and the means to help students who are abused and people who are unfairly treated, and he doesn’t do anything.
We can see this in numerous instances in the books, from not properly handling sexual abuse that happens at his own school to Sirius Black’s imprisonment and leaving Harry to live with the Dursleys, among many other injustices. When it comes to Sirius Black’s treatment at the hands of the Ministry, how Dumbledore handles the situation is very telling. Back when the Potters were hiding from Voldemort, Dumbledore cast the Fidelius Charm on their house in order to protect them. The Fidelius Charm renders a person’s home near impossible to find with the exception of only one person, the Secret Keeper. The Potters used Peter Pettigrew as their Secret Keeper, and when Peter betrayed them, Sirius took the fall for both their murders and the murders of a bunch of Muggles that Peter also killed. Following this, Sirius Black was sentenced to life in Azkaban without a trial and doesn’t escape until twelve years have passed. It’s only after Harry learns the truth about Sirius’s incarceration that Dumbledore also sits down with Sirius to talk to him. Dumbledore, believing Sirius’s story, helps Sirius escape once again.
Like many people, when I first read the third book, I didn’t think anything about Dumbledore’s actions other than that he was kind and understanding, since he believed Sirius and did the right thing by him. But going back through, what Dumbledore tells us doesn’t add up. I have a very hard time believing that Dumbledore was unaware that Peter was the Secret Keeper, not Sirius, considering that he’s the person who cast the Fidelius Charm in the first place. Furthermore, while Dumbledore doesn’t have the ability to control the Ministry’s decisions, he still holds a lot of sway and could have either gone to see Sirius himself at any point or demanded a trial for him (which Sirius would have deserved even if he were guilty). Instead, after Sirius is arrested, Dumbledore gave the Ministry evidence that Sirius had been the Potters’ Secret Keeper all along.
I don’t particularly like Sirius’s character all that much, but in this instance I have to question Dumbledore’s motives and actions or even how Dumbledore had evidence that Sirius was the Secret Keeper at all. Even if Dumbledore did truly believe in Sirius’s guilt at one point, it probably wouldn’t have taken him that much effort to find out the truth—in the third book, he’s able to do that just by talking to Sirius. The Potters were people that Dumbledore cared about, who helped fight in the Order with Sirius alongside him, and Dumbledore also has stakes in making sure Harry Potter stays alive. Looking more closely into my friends’ murders is probably something I would have done had I been in his situation. Instead, Dumbledore does the opposite and actively goes against the Potters’ wishes in the event of their deaths. They appointed Sirius as Harry’s godfather and legal guardian, and if Sirius had had a trial, it’s entirely possible that Harry could have grown up with him instead. But even before Sirius is arrested, Dumbledore has Harry brought to the Dursleys.
We find out that Dumbledore leaves Harry with the Dursleys in order to keep Harry alive. Harry survived the killing curse due to Lily’s sacrifice, and because Lily’s blood also flows through Petunia, the additional protective charms Dumbledore puts on Harry become all the stronger so long as he and Petunia share a home. These protections wear off when Harry comes of age, but until then, neither Voldemort nor any Death Eater can attack him there. The problem here is that Privet Drive is not a good home, and the protective wards Harry gets by living there almost entirely don’t matter. Dumbledore says to Harry:
“You arrived at Hogwarts, neither as happy nor as well nourished as I would have liked, perhaps, yet alive and healthy. You were not a pampered little prince, but as normal a boy as I could have hoped under the circumstances. Thus far, my plan was working well.”
—Order of the Phoenix, pg. 837
Dumbledore also tells him:
“You had suffered. I knew you would when I left you on your aunt and uncle’s doorstep. I knew I was condemning you to ten dark and difficult years.”
—Order of the Phoenix, pg. 835
To me, what this means is that Dumbledore knew the Dursleys would be abusive to Harry from the day he dropped him off—and how could he not? McGonagall even warned him before he dumped the baby on the doorstep in the middle of the night with only a letter explaining the situation. Not only that, what it also means to me is that Dumbledore actually believes that growing up in that situation and not being pampered is better than not being abused somehow. Dumbledore argues that Harry grew up “normal” under those circumstances. But here’s the thing: Harry’s not “normal”. The way he was raised not only woefully kept him unprepared for the world awaiting him, it also skewed his perceptions and how he interacts with other people. When Harry first visits the Burrow, he’s shocked that Ron’s family actually likes him. A twelve-year-old boy should never have to be surprised that adults can be caring and loving, and the fact that this happens goes to show just how deeply living with the Dursleys affected him. Harry spends his childhood forced to live in a spider-infested stairwell and watch his cousin get presents upon presents while he gets nothing; he’s physically abused by his Aunt Marge and has dogs set loose on him, and all the while, Petunia and Vernon teach him that his mother and father were no good, lazy people who probably deserved to die.
By the time Harry arrives at Hogwarts, he has no self-confidence and displays a near complete lack of trust in the adults around him. When he and his friends see a problem, very rarely does Harry think to go inform a teacher. Instead, he almost always decides to do things himself. Furthermore, the fame he receives from defeating Voldemort, something he didn’t even know about until he was surrounded by wizards praising him, is near overwhelming. Dumbledore might think Harry turned out normal, but that type of situation doesn’t often leave children well balanced. Harry’s lucky that he didn’t leave the Dursleys with uncontrollable anger management issues, abusive behavior himself, and an inability to separate commodities from genuine love.
As for the protective wards, they only work while Harry’s at Privet Drive. If they were so important, I question why Dumbledore ever wanted him to leave Petunia’s house at all. Instead, we see Harry spending most of his time either at Hogwarts, the Burrow, or Grimmauld Place. The wards don’t really come into play until the last book when Harry turns seventeen and they stop working. Unfortunately, keeping the wards up until then was a bad decision. The Death Eaters knew exactly where Harry was at the time, and in the process of getting him to safety, George Weasley’s ear is cut off and Alastor Moody is killed.
It’s hard to say what exactly Dumbledore’s motives are: does he truly not care for other people, or does he believe that the ends justify the means and that therefore the mistreatment of others is necessary? I’m not sure that I believe that Dumbledore is a completely horrible person who actively chooses to participate and take joy in the suffering of others—but he certainly also doesn’t do much to stop that suffering either, nor does he spend a lot of time coming up with alternative solutions to some of the problems the characters go through. Dumbledore is complicit in these injustices because he either has the means to stop them and does nothing, or he’s the one who puts the characters through them without thinking about the consequences. Even if I thought that growing up away from the wizarding world and fame was in Harry’s best interest, that doesn’t mean giving him to the Dursleys was the right choice. The world is populated with Muggles who would have been happy to adopt a child, and Dumbledore is strong enough a wizard that he could have given Harry protective wards without Lily’s blood magic. Maybe those wards wouldn’t have been as strong, but at least Harry could have had a family who loved him.
My take from all this is that Dumbledore, whether he realizes it or not, uses people and doesn’t often think about putting the wellbeing of others first. Yes, there are a lot of selfless acts Dumbledore performs over the books, but letting an innocent man rot in jail for twelve years is not one of them. Neither is leaving a child in an abusive situation. There is no excuse for it.