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Harry Potter: Was Dumbledore A Good Mentor Or A Borderline Villain?

There are almost too many characters in the "Harry Potter" franchise, but even people who can't tell Slytherin from Gryffindor are familiar with Albus Dumbledore. Made famous in the original books by Joanne Kathleen Rowling and portrayed on screen by Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, and in younger form by Jude Law, Dumbledore is — to put it lightly — an enigma. At first, he appears to fit perfectly into the slot of "wise old wizard," serving as an ever-present mentor to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), but appearances can deceiving. 

If you really stop and think about what Dumbledore does throughout the "Harry Potter" books and movies, you might find more than a few causes for concern. Dumbledore, who serves as the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is tasked with molding young, impressionable magical minds. On closer inspection, is he really the right person for the job — and the right person to advise Harry as he works towards his eventual goal of defeating the legendary Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)? Or is Dumbledore kind of an arrogant jerk who always thinks he knows best, and as a result, becomes an antagonist — specifically, by withholding information from the series' heroes as they try and do what's right? The answer is as complex as Dumbledore himself.

Who exactly is Albus Dumbledore? He actually has a seriously troubled past

You may think you know Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore pretty well after reading the "Harry Potter" books and watching the movies, but it's important to remember that he's got a somewhat checkered past, a lot of which is explored after the character, well... (is a spoiler alert still needed?) dies in "Half-Blood Prince." In "Deathly Hallows," Harry learns that Dumbledore was, in his younger years, very close to the evil Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, a plotline (regrettably) explored more in the "Fantastic Beasts" franchise. Sticking to the original canon, though, Dumbledore's past reveals a troubled and conflicted man ... especially when it comes to his sister Ariana.

Ariana Dumbledore's backstory is more fully explained in the book than in the film, but here's the gist. After being attacked by Muggle boys as a young girl, Ariana struggles to keep her magic under control, but it releases in strange bursts, one of which accidentally kills Albus' mother Kendra. Dumbledore and his brother Aberforth, despite frequently being at odds, struggle to take care of Ariana together... until she dies in a duel between Aberforth, Dumbledore, and Grindelwald. As Dumbledore later tells Harry, none of them are ever sure which rebounding curse accidentally killed Ariana, and he lives with the guilt for the rest of his life. 

This all paints a picture of a man dealing with some pretty serious demons. So, what does this mean for everything Dumbledore does in the series?

Dumbledore is pretty lax about the safety of his own students

Let's be really blunt here: Dumbledore does a pretty bad job at keeping the students of Hogwarts safe from dark wizarding forces, at least during the six years he serves as headmaster while Harry is in school. In Harry's first year, Dumbledore decides to stash the super-powerful Sorcerer's Stone, which can create gold and grant eternal life, in Hogwarts' basement — and it's protected by a bunch of puzzles easy enough for first-year students to crack, apparently. In his second, when the Chamber of Secrets is opened, Dumbledore just sort of floats around the school trying to figure out what's going on, and one would think that one of the world's most powerful wizard would be able to figure out — as Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) does — that there's a basilisk hanging out in Hogwarts' plumbing. 

The year after that, dementors, the joy-stealing monsters that guard the wizard prison Azkaban, spend their time flying around Hogwarts and just generally causing a terrible time, and though Dumbledore protests against them, he sure doesn't do a whole lot to stop them from zooming around and making everybody depressed. The Triwizard Tournament might be his worst offense, though — as if the tasks themselves aren't dangerous enough, a Death Eater has infiltrated his school for the entire year preceding the final task, and then a student literally dies.

All of this is to say that Dumbledore may not be the best person to oversee a bunch of children (namely, a bunch of children with magic wands that can cause terrible harm with the right spell). Beyond that, he doesn't do a great job taking care of Harry either.

Albus Dumbledore also isn't great at giving people relevant information

The general student body aside, Dumbledore isn't even good at protecting poor Harry, the one kid he seemingly wants to help (the rest of those not-so-special, non-"Chosen Ones" can, apparently, go screw themselves). Throughout all of the various dangerous events that happen at Hogwarts, Dumbledore only gives Harry part of the information at hand and then ends each concerningly frightening school year with an information dump that tells Harry everything he probably should have already been told. Perhaps the worst example of this, though, is that Dumbledore knows all along that Harry is the "Chosen One" who must destroy the Horcrux within him by sacrificing himself, and only then will he be able to destroy Voldemort. He does not tell Harry this until they're both dead.

It sure seems like if Dumbledore had — at any point — clued Harry in on anything regarding his future, things could have gone differently. Dumbledore claims in "Order of the Phoenix" that he was afraid to even look Harry in the eye, fearing that Voldemort could use Legilimency to attack Dumbledore through the young boy. So why didn't Dumbledore just ... tell Harry that, and warn him that any strange connections or visions are just Voldemort's attempts at manipulation? That whole thing could have saved Sirius Black's (Gary Oldman's) life, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Still, Dumbledore is a kind, if flawed person...

It certainly could be argued that the reason Dumbledore constantly withheld information from Harry was because he had to — Harry's journey had to happen exactly the way it does, even though multiple people died in the process. This exact point is argued in Wizarding World, the official online "Harry Potter" encyclopedia, which acknowledges that though many awful things could have been avoided, Harry had to be driven to a point where he was willing and able to sacrifice himself for his loved ones and present himself to Voldemort, ready to die.

"In choosing not to tell Harry about just how significant he is in the battle against Voldemort, Dumbledore makes a wider decision, one that helps Harry become the man he needs to be in order to overcome the difficult choices he has to make to save the wizarding world," the website reads. "And while it's easy to see how Dumbledore's omission of the truth incurred additional trauma upon the Boy Who Lived, it's also clear that Harry had to experience the things he did in order to fully [realize] what was at stake."

Dumbledore certainly shows uncharacteristic doubt and remorse over not giving Harry the full story. When he and Harry meet in a sort of pre-afterlife in Deathly Hallows, he asks his protégé, "Can you forgive me for not trusting you? ... I only feared that you would fail as I had failed." The wizard did the best he could, but maybe his efforts were just completely misguided.

Maybe Dumbledore shouldn't be in charge of a bunch of young kids

None of this is to say that Dumbledore is willfully evil, like Voldemort or even Grindelwald — but he can definitely be a bit on the arrogant side. Dumbledore always thinks he knows what's best in any given situation, and it's clear that he doesn't make a habit of confiding in anyone or asking for their advice. As a result, he seems to believe that people best operate alone, and in the end, connection and love are the two things that give Harry the strength and drive he needs — not just to sacrifice himself to Voldemort willingly, but to come back and defeat him to save the wizarding world. Left without parents as a baby, Harry has no loving family or friends until he arrives at Hogwarts ... and ironically, Dumbledore is a part of that family, despite the fact that he keeps Harry at arm's length most of the time.

"Harry Potter" characters are complicated. Look at Alan Rickman's Severus Snape (although whether or not it was a good idea on Dumbledore's part to let Snape teach Harry, the son of Snape's nemesis and long-lost love, is another column entirely). Dumbledore is just one of many flawed yet fascinating characters, but the bottom line is that not only is he often a shoddy mentor to Harry, he might be the worst possible headmaster to oversee a school full of kids who can make stuff explode by holding a stick. The only reason Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) is so obviously worse is because she actively tortures the students. It's a low bar to clear.