1. Did the horn on the wall of Xenophilius Lovegood’s house come from a Crumple-Horned Snorkack or an Erumpent?
On the surface, the answer to this question seems obvious. Xenophilius claims that the horn belongs to a Crumple-Horned Snorkack, a creature few people besides himself are qualified to identify. Hermione recognizes the grooved markings around the base from descriptions she’s read about Erumpent horns, and she warns Xenophilius that the horn may explode at the slightest touch. In fact, the horn is later hit by a spell and does explode, destroying half of the building.
Apart from the fact that Hermione correctly predicted this explosive outcome, we are much more likely to believe her than Xenophilius because of the difference in their characters. Hermione is one of the smartest characters in the book, and it is a hallmark of her character to read widely and remember accurately everything she reads. She has a mind like a steel trap and is not easily confused or swayed, which makes her a great asset to the team.
Xenophilius, in contrast, seems to be little more than a fool. He appears to have no idea how ridiculous he appears to other people in his dress and manners. He resembles his daughter, Luna, in being a dreamer and in his interest in unusual magical items, animals, and plants, but he seems to lack Luna’s penetrating mind, as we see when she recognizes the disguised Harry and Xenophilius remains oblivious. Finally, Xenophilius is a seeker of the Deathly Hallows, a quest which Harry and Dumbledore come to see as foolishly misguided. When Hermione tries to pin him down about what being “master of death” means, he is airily vague, displaying quite the opposite of Hermione’s sharp and discriminating intelligence.
But there is a reason to entertain some doubt about Hermione’s conclusion. When Xenophilius says that Hermione has a limited and stubbornly narrow point of view, we may resist this accusation, feeling Hermione to be superior to him, but he has a point. Xenophilius is a believer in things you can’t see, and Hermione is a skeptic and doubter, but Xenophilius is proved right about the existence of the Deathly Hallows. What’s more, the brilliant Luna doesn’t doubt her father for a second when Hermione tells her about the horn—even though it has already exploded. Luna doesn’t argue with Hermione about the markings or properties of the horn, she simply maintains her faith in her father’s opinion, against all appearances. This sort of behavior—loyalty in the face of negative appearances—is precisely what Harry is failing to exhibit toward Dumbledore, and Luna’s faith acts as a foil, making us see what Harry needs to do in a clearer light.
2. Throughout the book, Dumbledore’s character is questioned by a number of characters, including Harry himself. What is Dumbledore’s assessment of his own character, and how accurate do you think that assessment is?
Dumbledore does not waste too much time lamenting or running down his own character, being much more preoccupied with helping Harry and the rest of the wizarding world rid themselves of the scourge of Voldemort. However, he does accuse himself of two major failings: he says that he can’t be trusted with power, and that he is not nearly as selfless as Harry—in fact, that he is immensely more selfish. Dumbledore has some justification for this self-assessment, yet in an objective consideration of his life, we may arrive at a less harsh estimation of his overall character.
Dumbledore’s statement that he cannot be trusted with power reflects an opinion that he arrives at early in his adulthood, after he realizes his great error in scheming to take over the world with Gellert Grindelwald. Horrified at what he has almost done, he turns down the post of Minister of Magic several times in his career, preferring to stay at Hogwarts and lead the retiring life of a teacher and headmaster. His statement that he is more selfish than Harry is based on the fact that the year before, when he recovered the Resurrection Stone, he used it to try to speak with his dead sister and mother and atone for his mistakes, thus invoking the Stone’s curse and bringing about his own death. Surely we may agree with him that these are both serious and costly lapses of judgment.
Yet while we may agree with this honest and insightful self-assessment, other considerations may temper this view. Dumbledore makes mistakes, it’s true, but he does make up for them. He does not truly abjure power, because his career is anything but retiring. He wields great influence at the Ministry of Magic and with the Order of the Phoenix, and is widely seen as the most powerful wizard alive. He doesn’t truly keep a low profile or let things take their course, he simply exercises his power responsibly.
Moreover, in his biggest mistakes, Dumbledore proves to be not that unlike Harry, though his circumstances are very different. Harry, like Dumbledore, shares the intense desire to resurrect the dead and speak with them, and he might well have been tempted to do so if he had gotten the Stone earlier than he did. Even if not, Harry did not have the crippling burden of guilt toward the dead that Dumbledore carried for so many years. And while it’s hard to picture Harry plotting to take over the world, Harry did not have Dumbledore’s experiences of seeing his sister harmed and father imprisoned. Dumbledore’s famous penchant for granting second chances is based on the idea that you can atone for your mistakes. By that yardstick, Dumbledore measures pretty well.
1. How does Harry change over the course of the novel? Is The Deathly Hallows a true coming-of-age story?
2. In what way do Ron and Hermione act as foils for Harry, drawing out his qualities and characteristics more clearly?
3. What does it mean, in this novel, to “master death”? Who in the novel shares this desire?
4. In what ways do the dead speak to the living in this book?