Surprise letter!

Today, we’re going to talk about something that we already talk about suspiciously frequently; the Harry Potter book series.

Specifically, I want to discuss just one of Rowling’s mirror structures; the compare and contrast between two of our latter book families, the Dumbledores and the Gaunts.

But first, that aforementioned mirror structure. Mirroring (which is what I’m calling it, but is probably not the technical name) is easily one of Rowling’s favorite structural writing techniques, and there are far more examples in the HP books than I’m possibly going to mention here, but allow me to list a few:

  • The Magical Objects / Horcruxes Mirror: Stone, Book, Cup, Locket, Snake, Diadem / Hat, Voldemort / Harry.
  • The Generational Mirror: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny, Malfoy / James, Sirius, Lupin, Wormtail, Lily, Snape. (Accordingly, one entire generation survives and one entire generation dies)
  • The Orphan Sadness Mirror: Harry / Teddy. (Mentioned more because I like the name than any great significance to the books)

But the mirror I want to talk about for the remainder of this letter is theDumbledores / Gaunts Mirror.

We learn the ugly story of the Gaunts in Half-Blood Prince, and then never discuss them ever again. The sad story of the Dumbledores (including all the murkiness and questions surrounding them) take up a fair bit of Deathly Hallows, but are barely even alluded to in the proceeding books. They are both families of three people (more on this in a bit) of two men and one woman, characterized by their propensity for creating brilliant and terrible wizards, and their eventual ruination. There is also a certain affinity for alliteration in both, with the Gaunts made up of Merope, Marvolo, and Morfin, while the Dumbledores are Ariana, Albus, and Aberforth. [1]

It would be easy to start with the assumption that the Dumbledores are the bright mirror of the dark Gaunts, or vice versa, but I think it is a touch more complicated than that. Similarly, I want to make it clear that I don’t think there are precise equivocations between the family members (Ie, Ariana = Merope, that sort of thing), but rather is somewhat more fluid in its mirroring. Besides their unfortunate shared status as failed families, by the time the HP books start, both have a certain dubious claim to greatness, given the Gaunts’ ancestry, and the Dumbledores’ power, specifically Albus’s power. Neither has any familial future to speak of (unless Aberforth takes up with someone after the books are over; but this seems decidedly unlikely).

I want to return to my point of each family being three-personed, but imperfectly so. Kendra Dumbledore must get some mention, after all; it’s ultimately her absence that makes for the dramatic event of the end of the Dumbledores and their ultimate failure to continue existing as a family (as opposed to two brothers, one of whom severely dislike the other). On the Gaunt side, Morfin and Merope must have a mother, theoretically, although the only reason we know this is because of a basic grasp of the basic biological realities of humans; to the best of my memory, there isn’t so much as a breath of mention of her in the books.

Furthermore, there is the subsequent generation to each family: Voldemort, Merope’s son, and Harry, Albus’s adoptee. Voldemort is, in his own view, abandoned by the act of his mother’s death, and he’s the one who puts the final nail in the Gaunt family coffin, by seeing to it that Morfin dies in Azkaban. While the Harry – Albus Dumbledore adoptive relationship is imperfect at best, it is emphasized in the later books, when Harry is making an effort to live up to his mentor and taking up the mantle of advocating Dumbledore’s work and philosophies in an increasingly ambivalent Wizarding World. This pseudo-adoption is further complicated by the reveal in Deathly Hallows that Dumbledore meant to sacrifice Harry all along– but there’s a bit of the Savior genre of the books for you, with Dumbledore playing the part of God, Voldemort as Satan, and Harry as Jesus, and that gets into something quite a bit different than the mirroring structure.

To go back to Gaunts and Dumbledores; both families are destroyed by a romantic outsider, Riddle Sr. to the Gaunts, and Grindelwald to the Dumbledores, though both instances aren’t so much an act of destruction as they are a good kick at already weak and crumbling foundations. These outsiders aren’t agents of destruction so much as instigators whose presence inspires the actual agents (our unfortunate romantics, Merope and Albus) to act.

While it is tempting to pinpoint one nasty moment as the destruction of each family (Merope eloping with Riddle Sr, or the attack on Bob Ogden, bespectacled ministry employee; or, the attack on Ariana by the muggle boys, or Ariana’s death), I don’t know that it’s quite so clean.

The Gaunts, it appears, begin badly and end worst. Their prejudice, concerning their own pure-bloodedness, and their obsession with the acclaim and power of long dead ancestors, have not precisely lead them down a happy path. They are inbred to a truly alarming degree; they are ostracized, lawless, and live in abject poverty; they are held in contempt even by the same people that they hold in contempt, which is everyone; and there is a certain discomforting return to the animalistic in their behavior, something we later see performed in a very different way by Voldemort. The beginning of the end for the Gaunts is when Morfin decides to attack Riddle Sr., because Morfin has poor self-control. The ministry, apparently, has some objections to this behavior, Morfin and Marvolo have some objections to the ministry, and before you know it, they’re bundled off to Azkaban, and Merope is brewing up love potions.

The Dumbledores, on the other hand, start out as (by all appearances), a wealthy, happy, healthy family. The Dumbledore line is questionably pure-bred, though we don’t dwell on it, and Kendra Dumbledore is questionably muggle-born, though this isn’t treated as so significant that Rowling bothered to clarify any of it, which displays an enormous difference in attitudes and values compared to the Gaunts. Everything is looking up for the Dumbledore family, until an attack of another kind– rather than wizard hurting muggles, this time it’s muggles hurting a witch, specifically, baby Ariana. Just like the Gaunt men, Patriarch Dumbledore is taken away to Azkaban, which is ultimately the end of him.

May I take a moment to say– what the fuck happened? What in the ever-loving hell did these muggle kids do to Ariana that was so horrifically devastating? It’s more or less implied that Ariana seems to have lost at least some of her grip on sanity after the attack, which we’ve seen once before in the books– namely, in the insanity of Frank and Alice Longbottom after their torture at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange et al. We only get second-hand accounts, at best, of the attack; Rita’s source, in the beginning of the book, is Bathilda Bagshot, who was too out of her wits to even know to whom she was speaking, and Rita herself is not precisely known for her commitment to objective honesty. From beyond the grave, Albus comments on, not so much the attack, but the effects of the attack. The closest anyone ever comes to talking about it is Aberforth, who is, at the very least, the most plainspoken out of all of the characters mentioned here. He presumably (?) heard about it from his parents (?), (unless Ariana was in a state to discuss the event later in her life, and was willing to do so, which I’m leaning against), and those parents clearly didn’t witness it first-hand, either.

However devastating this act was, and even though it did eventually do in both Dumbledore parents (the father by being sent to prison, and the mother when she was killed by Ariana’s subsequent magic-trauma-tantrum), and even though it doesn’t exactly seem like Ariana was ever going to live a normal, happy life, I would argue that it was something the Dumbledores as a family could have recovered from. The siblings, down to the three-person family, still had each other, and they still loved one another, right?

And then, along came Grindelwald. But not just Grindelwald.

The question as to who inherits magical power– who should, and compared to who does– appears to be one of the greatest driving anxieties of the Wizarding World; Heaven help the squibs. This anxiety is present throughout, usually in the prejudice against muggle-borns and the desperately clung-to privilege of the pure-bred families, but it’s especially noteworthy in the respective cases of Merope Gaunt and Ariana Dumbledore. Neither young woman is non-magical, though both are presumed to be. Merope is simply too terrorized by her father to do magic in any real way, while Ariana is too traumatized by the muggle boys who hurt her for doing magic. This anxiety is a natural conclusion of the foremost prejudice of our Wizarding World, the magical-racist belief that wizards are better than muggles.

Unlike the Gaunts, the Dumbledores don’t seem to hold this belief in their hearts as part of the family culture, and it’s certainly not their predominant concern. But when the authoritative influence of the parents is gone, this prejudice does come to infect the Dumbledore family, if only for a brief and disastrous summer, in the form of Gellert Grindewald, who is himself a sort of generational mirror to Voldemort.

And this is, perhaps, the heart of the matter, and the heart of what does in both the Gaunts and the Dumbledores. The Gaunts were doomed from the start, perhaps, by their own prejudice, and the Dumbledores were done in by their adoption of it, if only by one member of that family, and if only for a brief time; it’s a hell of a pointed lesson on Rowling’s part.

In this, Rowling neatly ties the individualistic tragedies of Gaunts and Dumbledores into the greater themes of the story. This muggle prejudice– this racism– is the rot pervasive throughout the Wizarding World, a rot that ultimately cumulates in the rise of Voldemort, who proceeds to bring this world to its knees.

And on that parting thought, I will leave you.

Artichoke, I hope you’re busy working on your Birdman letter,

Love and kisses,


O&A on Tumblr! O&A on WordPress!

[1] I have synaesthesia, as you know because I talk about it annoyingly often, and both A and M are red; A is a bright, clear red, while M is a bit of a muddier, darker red. Just wanted to mention that. And yes, I know that the name ‘Albus’ means white, but the neurological color-symbol disorder in my brain doesn’t care.


About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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