Essay: The Wise Old Man Archetype
JK Rowling makes extensive use of doppelgangers in the Harry Potter books and Albus Dumbledore is one of Ron Weasley’s. They have many things in common and often play similar roles in Harry’s life. From the start Ron guides Harry into the wizarding world; he offers folk-wisdom, which is usually the role of an older member of the community: the Wise Old Man. In the first book, when Harry is on the Hogwarts Express, Dumbledore is invoked when Harry finds his Famous Wizard Card in a Chocolate Frog package.
In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, there’s a passage that is perfect to apply to the Harry Potter series. Campbell writes about:
...the Wise Old Man of the myths and fairy tales whose words assist the hero through the trials and terrors of the weird adventures. He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror...applies healing balm to the almost-fatal wounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into...the world... [Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1979) pp. 9-10.]
Ron and Dumbledore fit this description even down to the sword: the Sword of Gryffindor. In the second book, Fawkes the phoenix, Dumbledore’s avatar, appears in Dumbledore’s place in the Chamber of Secrets, bringing the Sorting Hat with the Sword of Gryffindor, which Harry uses to kill the “dragon-terror”, the basilisk. Fawkes also uses a “healing balm”, his phoenix tears, to heal Harry when he’s pierced by a basilisk fang.
Ron appears to Harry in the seventh book after being home for a while; he pulls Campbell’s “magic shining sword” from the pond in the forest, saves Harry’s life by cutting the chain strangling him (the “healing balm” in this case), and with the Sword he “kills” the “dragon-terror” (the locket horcrux).
In this scene Ron takes on the role of a holy man: he’s John the Baptist to Harry’s Christ figure, pulling Harry from the water to begin a new life, which is what baptism signifies. This makes Ron a particular type of Wise Old Man: the Godfather. Dumbledore is also this type of Wise Old Man, but even more so; he’s a God-figure, or Godfather of Godfathers.
Campbell also writes, “The helpful crone and fairy godmother is a familiar feature of European fairy lore,” but JK Rowling has gone the “fairy godfather” route, and Ron and Dumbledore aren’t the only ones embodying this subset of the Wise Old Man archetype.
Another Wise Old Man Harry encounters in the first, fourth and seventh books is Mr. Ollivander, the wandmaker, who tells Harry that his wand has a feather from the same phoenix that gave a feather to Voldemort’s wand. That phoenix is Fawkes, Dumbledore’s avatar. Like Ron, Ollivander tells Harry lore of the new world he’s entered, but rather than pointing him to a sword, he gives him another weapon: his wand. The next time Ollivander appears is in Goblet of Fire, for the “weighing of the wands”. He tests the Triwizard Champions’ wands and when he does, we learn something revealing about each owner.
Fleur Delacour’s grandmother, a veela, contributed a hair to her wand, which Ollivander calls “unstable”, though he uses it to conjure flowers. (Fleur is French for “flower”.)
With Viktor Krum’s thick, inflexible dragon-heartstring wand Ollivander conjures birds. Viktor’s beaky nose makes him resemble a bird and his flying prowess also makes him birdlike. Viktor’s wand-core is another connection to flight, since some dragons can fly. Dragons are also a type of snake, so this links Viktor to Slytherin, the table in the Great Hall where Viktor and the other Durmstrang students sit while they’re at Hogwarts.
Cedric Diggory has a unicorn hair for a core, a symbol of purity and virtue. With his wand Ollivander conjures silvery smoke rings, which Cedric will resemble before the end of the book, when he emerges from Voldemort’s wand as a smoky shadow.
Harry’s wand-test is one of many links to his role as a Christ-figure. The first miracle Jesus performed was turning water into wine, and Ollivander tests Harry’s wand by conjuring a fountain of wine. Ollivander is circumspect about revealing too much information so he doesn’t tell anyone that Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands have anything in common.
In the seventh book Ollivander imparts more lore to Harry about wands choosing wizards, this time in regard to a wand that’s been “won” or taken by force, which makes Harry suspect that he is the master of the Elder Wand. (And, fortunately, he’s not wrong.)
There’s a pair in the younger generation who, like Ron, belie their age and also represent the Wise Old Man archetype: Fred and George Weasley, who sprout white beards—like old men—after trying to “age themselves up” to enter the Triwizard Tournament.
They have the highly appropriate birthday of April Fool’s Day, and they echo Dumbledore’s high spirits and puckishness. Like Ollivander, they are purveyors of magical goods to all comers, regardless of who will use them, and how. Like Dumbledore, who doesn’t refuse a magical education to the children of Slytherins or students Sorted into Slytherin on principle, and like Ollivander, who doesn’t just sell wands to people he thinks are virtuous, they don’t regard magical knowledge or power to be good or evil. The products in their shop, like a Hogwarts education or an Ollivander wand, are morally neutral and how they are used (or abused) is another story. Also like Dumbledore, Ron and Ollivander, the twins reveal important lore and wisdom to Harry, especially when they give him the Marauder’s Map.
Ollivander makes real wands while Fred and George create trick wands; and like Dumbledore, they’re fond of sweets (though theirs are borderline dangerous). When Dumbledore departs the castle during Order of the Phoenix, it’s appropriate that the twins take over the guerilla war; they are Dumbledore’s kindred spirits and lieutenants in the fight against Umbridge.
Sirius Black is almost like a father to Harry and becomes very important to him, so much so that Voldemort uses the image of Sirius in danger to get Harry to go the Ministry in Order of the Phoenix. As Harry’s godfather—he’s literally the Godfather version of the Wise Old Man—he’s supposed to take James’s place in Harry’s life, but he’s not an archetypal Father. In the fourth and fifth books, Sirius continues the Wise Old Man tradition of giving Harry lore and wisdom from “his” world.
Viktor Krum is another Godfather version of the Wise Old Man and shares many similarities with Sirius and Dumbledore. They’re all infamous; before Harry meets Viktor he sees scowling posters of him at the Quidditch World Cup; he sees images of Sirius, the wanted criminal, on the Muggle news, and sees Dumbledore’s Famous Wizard Card before meeting him. Their reputations precede them.
Sirius grew up in a Dark Arts-obsessed family. Viktor’s school teaches Dark Arts, though he isn’t swayed by this, as Sirius isn’t swayed by his family. Viktor is incensed that Mr. Lovegood (another Wise Old Man) wears “Grindelwald’s Mark” at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, since it was a symbol for dark wizards to rally around at Durmstrang. Luna’s father, like Quirrell, is a failed Wise Old Man; he shares the lore of the Deathly Hallows with Harry, but betrays him in an attempt to protect Luna.
Sirius and Viktor thumbed their noses at the Dark Arts-friendly environments in which they spent their formative years and Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald after they shared a common philosophy and goal for wizardkind. Yet Viktor is still used by a Dark Wizard to bring Harry to a confrontation when Barty Crouch, Jr., still disguised as Mad-Eye Moody, puts Imperius on Viktor in the maze, during the last task of the Tournament, in order to make Viktor put Cruciatus on Cedric in turn, with the intention of helping Harry win the Tournament.
Sirius’s and Viktor’s allegiances don’t prevent their being used by the enemy, and in Sirius’s case, it leads directly to his being used to get Harry to the Ministry in Order of the Phoenix.
The character who best embodies the archetype of the Wise Old Man in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is Albus Dumbledore. In each book Harry steps into the shoes of or in some way trades places with the character best embodying the ruling archetype for the book, and this starts with Dumbledore.
After getting past six of the seven obstacles to the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is in the chamber with Quirrell, Voldemort and the Mirror of Erised, the Stone’s last defense. Harry here is Dumbledore’s surrogate, Dumbledore being the only one Voldemort ever feared. Quirrell, who is Voldemort’s surrogate, acting on his behalf, learns that he has a reason to fear Harry: when he puts his hands on him, he experiences a burning that eventually kills him. Dumbledore trusts Harry to protect the Stone in his place; this might seem like a lot to lay on an eleven-year-old, but he knows that Harry’s presence in the castle is the next best thing to being there himself.
This is mirrored at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by Harry again being Dumbledore’s surrogate. He is now Master of the Elder Wand, which Dumbledore won from Grindelwald; Dumbledore’s defeat of Grindelwald—but not the bit about becoming master of his wand—is one of the pieces of information Harry reads on Dumbledore’s Famous Wizard Card near the beginning of the first book, and this card is acquired through a sweet: the Chocolate Frog. The card also happens to mention a game Dumbledore enjoys: tenpins, a type of bowling. Thus, this card combines games, sweets and fairy tales, (since Harry might have previously considered alchemy and the Philosopher’s Stone to be as plausible as a fairy tale).
Quirrell, the flip side to Dumbledore, is a grotesquely warped Wise Old Man, even though he’s not presented as elderly. He tries to acquire the Philosopher’s Stone from Dumbledore, who doesn’t wish to use it himself. Quirrell wants it for Voldemort. As Harry’s professor, he should be imparting wisdom and magical lore to Harry, but he’s been corrupted by Voldemort so he fails Harry, Dumbledore and, eventually, Voldemort too.
It isn’t revealed in the first book, but Harry is a Horcrux, a vessel containing a fragment of Voldemort’s soul; he’s one of the anchors keeping Voldemort “alive”, though just barely. Quirrell also serves as a living vessel for the piece of Voldemort’s soul that remained after the Killing Curse rebounded on him and destroyed his body on the night he killed Harry’s parents. Joseph Campbell describes this type of “indestructibility”:
...this folk idea of the spiritual “double”–an external soul not afflicted by the losses and injuries of the present body, but existing safely in some place removed. [Campbell, p. 71.]
It’s unclear whether Quirrell, on his own, or Voldemort himself through Quirrell says: “There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” JK Rowling puts this statement in the mouth of a villain (whether Quirrell or Voldemort, take your pick), and seems to consider love to be of utmost importance. Love plays a large part in any discussion of power; it’s the most important power in Rowling’s books, and it’s a uniting power, rather than a divisive power.
Quirrell seems both afraid of the power he wields as host to Voldemort and to glory in it; Harry, not knowing that some of his power comes from the piece of Voldemort in him, doesn’t react the way that young Tom Riddle does when Riddle starts to feel his power over other children. Harry enjoys the snake escaping the zoo but doesn’t mean to harm anyone and he isn’t tempted by the promise of “greatness” through Slytherin when he’s being Sorted. Potential power isn’t the temptation for Harry that it is for Tom Riddle, Quirrell, or even Dumbledore, in both his youth and his old age.
This makes Harry that epitome of someone Quirrell and/or Voldemort labels “too weak” to seek power, but Harry’s strength lies in resisting the temptation of power; he triumphs, to use game-theory terminology, through Seeking an equilibrium, sharing power.
The Ministry asked Dumbledore to be the Minister for Magic many times, and Cornelius Fudge seeks his counsel regularly. But carefully not seeking and even avoiding power is something Dumbledore, the Wise Old Man, has learned to do over many years, and it’s clear that he’s not “weak” because he doesn’t reach for this power. He fears he may be weak if he succumbs to the temptation of power, so he does everything he can to avoid putting himself in such a position, which takes enormous strength. Harry, on the other hand, already understands this instinctively as an eleven-year-old, and this inner core of strength serves him well when he steps into his headmaster’s shoes to protect the Philosopher’s Stone and succeeds in thwarting Voldemort’s plans for the second time in his life.Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 2: This Old Man. Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.