*Disclaimer: The following is based on how the characters are depicted in the Harry Potter book series, not in the movies.
One of the many reasons for the success of the Harry Potter series is that, although the books are classified children’s literature, they were accessible and relatable to people of various age groups. These books centered a protagonist and a variety of main and auxiliary characters who were children, but it didn’t talk down to child readers, or try to shield them about many uncomfortable truths about the ways in which adults, especially adults in positions of power, operated. The series had more than a little bit of mystery as well, and a lot of that mystery shrouded three adult characters whose pasts, secrets, and lies had a far-reaching ripple effect on everyone around them, and the magical community as a whole. Albus Dumbledore was one of those people.
We are first introduced to the man who would later become Harry’s mentor in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Dumbledore delivers an infant and newly orphaned Harry to his only living relatives, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, in the hopes that they would raise him as a brother to their son, Dudley. It’s the sacrifice of Harry’s mother, Lily, Petunia’s acceptance of Harry into her home, and Dumbledore’s vast and almost unequaled understanding of magic which protect Harry from unseen magical threats until he comes to Hogwarts. Dumbledore was a constant source of wisdom and guidance for Harry, but because of how dangerous much of what he knew could be in the wrong hands, Dumbledore had no one to confide his most intimate thoughts and feelings to. Throughout the series, Dumbledore is forced to magically deposit burdensome thoughts into a Pensieve, so that he can adequately store and review them without being overwhelmed by them.
Wrapped in enigma from the very beginning of the series, readers are drawn to the kind, sage, nurturing persona of Dumbledore, who doesn’t just show great concern for Harry, but for all of the Hogwarts students and staff. We have so many questions about Albus Dumbledore, the man, and while very small hints are dropped that he is more complex, powerful, and shrewd that even what meets the eye, we don’t get any real answers, until after Dumbledore’s death, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In this book, Harry, already armed with the knowledge of Lord Voldemort’s past bequeathed him by Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, learns about the youth of his mentor. We learn that, despite his advanced age at the time of his death, Dumbledore had been young once, and though he hadn’t made many mistakes in his lifetime, the few he had made had been severe.
The first big mistake of Dumbledore’s life was his close friendship with Gellert Grindelwald, a purist wizard with an ideology not unlike the Death Eaters, who felt that Muggles needed to be eliminated in order for wizards to have safety and freedom. Because of his younger sister, Ariana, who’d been traumatized from an attack by young Muggle boys, and the fact that their father, Percival was incarcerated in Azkaban for his vigilantism, young Albus was taken with Grindelwald’s big plans and extreme ideas. But when this lead to the tragic, accidental death of his beloved sister, Dumbledore learned a lasting lesson on the dangers of intellect and power without temperance and humility. While Dumbledore had been an astonishingly brilliant student during his academic career at Hogwarts, he made the mistake (as many intelligent children do) of seeing great intelligence as inherently logical and rational.
Dumbledore and Grindelwald were very close friends, two brilliant teen boys who had never met another person that age as smart as they were, until they met each other. The book makes it clear that the two were very close and though, at the age I read this last book, I assumed the passion of the relationship wasn’t strictly platonic, J.K. Rowling confirmed that their relationship was of a romantic nature. Now, I am not sure if Rowling only said this to earn cool points after the fact with the LGBTQIA community, who was thoroughly erased in the Harry Potter series itself, but I do know that if Dumbledore was in love with Gellert Grindelwald, if Grindelwald was in fact the love of his life, it would explain why he was perpetually single, and perhaps imply that the lifetime of guilt he felt wasn’t only over his sister’s death, but of having to make the harrowing decision to duel and imprison the man that he loved.
But Dumbledore learned from these mistakes. He learned that he couldn’t be trusted with power, he learned that intelligence doesn’t always reside in the same home as kindness, and he learned that ambitions to power can be a very dangerous personality trait. This is only reinforced when, many years later, Dumbledore meets Tom Riddle, an orphan boy who quickly reveals an unhealthy fixation with immortality and affinity for harming others. Without his prior experiences with Grindelwald’s zealotry, Dumbledore may not have immediately realized just how dangerous Tom was, but because he never underestimated Tom, Dumbledore was able to pull at his loose ends, dig into his past, and help Harry defeat his ultimate enemy.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it is ultimately revealed that Dumbledore understood very early on that, because a piece of Voldemort’s already very shattered soul now resides within Harry, Harry would only need to live long enough to destroy Voldemort’s other horcruxes, and then face death himself so that the his adversary could be vanquished for good. This idea of sacrificing one person for the greater good might have seemed incredibly cruel and cold-hearted to some readers, many of whom claim that Dumbledore “groomed” Harry into accepting this role of sacrificial lamb, but we never doubt prior to this how much he cares for Harry. Throughout his life, Dumbledore rejects a power which tempts him for the greater good of those around him. Dumbledore even plans the events of his own death with Professor Snape so that he can both help Harry, and save the soul of Draco Malfoy from irreparable damage. As with Grindelwald, Dumbledore knew better than to let his love for one person override the lives and safety of countless others, and by the time he was finally ready to face Lord Voldemort, Harry knew it too.
In so many ways, Professor Dumbledore personified all the things that a worthy mentor should be: intelligent, wise, considerate, resourceful, and above all, kind. While Hagrid had been the first adult to show Harry kindness in his young life, Dumbledore was the very first person Harry had ever met in a position of authority over him, a position of power, who had ever treated him kindly, and this is a vital aspect of Dumbledore’s character which simply cannot be understated. The man was kind and patient with both Harry and the equally displaced orphan boy whom Lord Voldemort used to be. He was kind to a half-giant boy whom was openly feared and discriminated by classmates. He was kind and forgiving to a remorseful and grieving Severus Snape following Lily Potter’s murder, bringing him onto a path of redemption which he would have failed to find otherwise. He was kind with Ministry of Magic officials who sought to replace him and dismiss his staff, he was kind to house elves and centaurs, and he was even kind to the boy who he knew had been sent back to school solely to assassinate him. Perhaps even more important than this was the comfort that Hogwarts students and readers alike felt in knowing that, no matter what was presented to him, Dumbledore would never dismiss or gaslight his students’ suspicions and fears. He never invalidated his considerably younger charges.
The portrayal of a critical, adult supporting character consistently humbling himself and using his position and influence solely to help and protect those entrusted to his care is simply not seen enough in works of fiction or, sadly, in real life. But part of the magic of the Harry Potter series is in getting to appreciate an almost magical amount of empathy displayed by characters of all ages, stations, and even species. Though certainly not a perfect man, Dumbledore was one of the few people in the series who knew what his flaws were and, rather than embrace them, worked to overcome them, never thinking himself too old or wise to take the counsel of others. In so doing, Dumbledore inspired those around him to do better, be better, and work towards a better tomorrow.