Harry is desolate at the loss of his wand, and frightened. Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands both had cores made from the same source—tail feathers from Albus Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry had been saved by the fact that his wand shared a core with Voldemort’s, because Voldemort’s curse did not work properly with Harry’s wand defending against it. Harry is sure that his wand, not his own magic, had somehow been responsible for his successfully evading Voldemort in the flight from the Dursleys’ house to the Tonkses’. Now that his wand is ruined, Harry feels unprotected.
Harry is filled with anger toward Dumbledore, who failed to tell him what he needed to know to complete his quest, and who left him no clue how to find the sword. By simply trying to figure out the meaning of Dumbledore’s bequest, Harry has now lost his wand and given Voldemort an important clue to whatever it is Voldemort’s looking for.
Hermione brings Harry Rita Skeeter’s book, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, having seen it in Bathilda’s house and picked it up. In his anger at Dumbledore, Harry looks forward with relish to the prospect of reading about his dead friend’s dirty secrets—without even having to ask Dumbledore’s permission.
Harry flips through the book, looking at the pictures, and discovers that the young man who stole the wand from Gregorovitch—the man Voldemort is now searching for—is Gellert Grindelwald. This fact is astounding to Harry and Hermione, because Grindelwald is the Dark wizard whom Dumbledore defeated in a duel decades earlier, yet in the photographs in the book, the teenage Grindelwald and Dumbledore seem to be the best of friends.
Harry and Hermione look for an explanation in the text of the book, and we see the excerpt they read. In it, Rita Skeeter claims that after his graduation from Hogwarts, Dumbledore was called home by news of his mother’s death, and that he went home to ensure his sister’s continued imprisonment. Bathilda Bagshot was at the time the only resident of Godric’s Hollow on speaking terms with Dumbledore’s mother, and that same summer that Dumbledore returned home, Bathilda was visited by her great-nephew, Gellert Grindelwald, a brilliant student of the Dark Arts at the Durmstrang Institute, who had recently been expelled for his illicit experiments. At Godric’s Hollow, Grindelwald and Dumbledore quickly struck up a close friendship.
Skeeter’s book reproduces a letter from Dumbledore to Grindelwald from this period, in which Dumbledore expresses the view that wizards should dominate and control Muggles for the Muggles’ own good—views that would have been anathema to the older Dumbledore, contradicting everything that he stood for. The book goes on to note that Dumbledore and Grindelwald parted ways two months later, not because Dumbledore had a change of heart, but because of Ariana’s sudden death. According to Bathilda, Dumbledore and his brother Aberforth got into a fistfight over her coffin, with Aberforth breaking Dumbledore’s nose and blaming him for Ariana’s death. Grindelwald quickly departed Godric’s Hollow to begin his terrifying career on the Continent, and Dumbledore did not intervene to stop him for a full five years. Rita Skeeter speculates about the role that either man might have played in killing Ariana, and at the meaning of the hitherto unknown bond between the two wizards.
Hermione reminds Harry that this book is by Rita Skeeter, a writer whom Harry knows from personal experience to be a malicious liar and fabricator, but Harry’s faith in Dumbledore is badly shaken. Hermione argues that Dumbledore was young at the time he wrote the letter, and that his whole life contradicts the sentiments expressed in it, but Harry is unconsoled, realizing that he is now as old as Dumbledore was then, and is already risking his life trying to defeat Dark wizards. Finally, Hermione tries to reassure Harry that Dumbledore loved him, but while Harry wishes he could believe her, he doesn’t.
One cold night, when Harry and Hermione are camped in a snow-covered forest with Harry keeping watch, a silver doe, glimmering like moonlight, appears noiselessly before Harry and walks slowly away. Harry follows it, overcome by an instinct that tells him this is not Dark magic or a trap. After leading him into the forest, the doe disappears, and Harry finds that he’s now standing near a frozen pool. On shining a light from his wand at the pool, he sees that the Sword of Gryffindor lies at the bottom, under the ice.
Harry recalls that only true Gryffindors can retrieve the sword, and that Gryffindors are defined by daring, nerve, and chivalry. Accordingly, he strips off his clothes, breaks the ice, and plunges into the cold water. As soon as he is underwater, the Horcrux around his neck begins to choke him, and he blacks out. He wakes up beside the pool, having been pulled out by Ron Weasley, who has retrieved the sword from the pool and cut the Horcrux off of Harry’s neck. Ron tells Harry that he wants to return to the quest—if Harry will have him.
Harry tells Ron that as the retriever of the sword, Ron must be the one to use it to destroy the locket Horcrux. Harry has a sudden flash of insight that the way to open the locket must be to tell it to open in Parseltongue, the language of snakes, which Harry knows how to speak. Harry warns Ron to stab the locket quickly, before it can try to kill him, then he opens the locket.
The locket speaks to Ron, playing on his deepest fears, telling him that he’s the least loved of his mother’s children, that he will always be overshadowed by Harry, and that Hermione prefers Harry over him. Two bubbles rise up from the locket, looking like the heads of Harry and Hermione, and they taunt Ron, telling him how they laughed at his stupidity, cowardice, and most of all his presumption in thinking he could attract Hermione while Harry was in the picture. The two heads meet and kiss each other.
Ron brings the sword down and destroys the locket. Harry, having seen Ron’s fears manifested plainly, assures Ron that there’s nothing between Harry and Hermione. Ron apologizes for leaving, and they embrace.
Ron and Harry return to the tent, where Hermione flies into a rage and attacks Ron. When Ron finally gets an opportunity to speak, he tells how he had wanted to come back as soon as he Disapparated, but he was seized by a gang of Snatchers, thugs who kidnap Muggle-borns and blood traitors to claim a reward from the Ministry. Ron only barely managed to escape, and by the time he did, Harry and Hermione had moved to a new hiding place.
Hermione demands to know how Ron found them, and Ron explains that a few days before, he suddenly heard Hermione’s voice coming out of the Deluminator, saying Ron’s name and something about a wand. Harry remembers—this was the first time they had spoken Ron’s name since he had left, and Hermione had been recalling how Ron’s wand never worked again after it had been smashed in the flying car years before. A ball of light had come out of the Deluminator, and Ron had followed it, and then the ball of light went inside Ron, and Ron knew where to Disapparate to in order to find them. The silver doe appeared to him, just as it did to Harry, leading him to the pool in time to save Harry.
Hermione finally accepts Ron’s story and his reappearance in their group. Ron gives Harry a spare wand that he stole from the Snatchers during their escape, and they go to bed.
Chapter Eighteen presents Harry with his chance to finally see the dirt on Dumbledore. The excerpt from the book contains the worst Rita Skeeter has dug up on Dumbledore, seeming to prove that Dumbledore wanted to dominate Muggles and aided and encouraged the notorious and murderous Dark wizard, Grindelwald. The only possibilities seem to be that Skeeter is lying or distorting the truth, or that she is telling the truth about Dumbledore and Dumbledore changed his mind later in life. It is, however, difficult to deny that Dumbledore once had these views because of the letter reproduced in Dumbledore’s own handwriting.
Hermione does not have nearly as much of a problem accepting that Dumbledore changed his mind as Harry does. As Hermione intuits, Harry is most bothered by the fact that Dumbledore never told him enough, seeing this as proof that Dumbledore did not love him. This is the low point in the plot concerning the conflict between Harry and Dumbledore—a plot that has nothing to do with Voldemort. Harry began doubting Dumbledore’s love in Chapter Two, and now he feels certain it did not exist.
Chapter Nineteen presents a turning point, not in regard to Dumbledore specifically, but in regard to Harry’s ability to trust. The recovery of the sword does not come about because of any problem-solving by Harry or Hermione, but as an act of grace. The appearance of the mysterious silver doe shows that someone is helping Harry, though we won’t know who for a long time. Harry’s choice to follow the doe represents an act of faith and trust, something that had become increasingly difficult for him as he struggled with his mistrust of Dumbledore. Harry may not be ready to accept that the dead love him, but he is at least ready to put his faith in the unknown.
Ron’s reappearance also comes as an act of grace—an unexpected act of heroism and help at a time when Harry needs help most. In this chapter, too, the conflict that drives the story is not really between Harry and Voldemort but instead the internal conflict between Ron and his own fears. Ron’s final willingness to confront his fears of always being second fiddle to Harry, and of Hermione and even Ron’s mother loving Harry more than Ron, represent a significant step toward maturity. Ron’s problem has in the end turned out to be not very different from Harry’s: Ron has had difficulty accepting that he is already loved.