In Les Miserables Victor Hugo told a number of miraculous stories, but none greater than that of its main protagonist, the former convict Jean Valjean. For those who don’t know the story, Valjean was a convict who worked on a chain gang for 19 years in early 19th century France for stealing food and then later attempting to escape multiple times. Upon his release he was granted a yellow passport which freed him, but also marked him as a former convict–thereby ruining his chances of finding good work or a place to stay.
In one of the finest scenes I’ve ever read, the convict comes to the home of a Catholic priest who welcomes him in, gives him a warm meal, and provides him with a place to stay. In exchange for that, Valjean steals the priest’s silver cutlery in the night and escapes–only to be caught by French guards shortly after daybreak. He’s drug back to the guards after telling him that the priest gave him the silverware. When they get to the priest’s home he shocks the guards by confirming Valjean’s story, saying that he did give him the silverware–and now he’s giving him the candlesticks too. The musical captures this scene marvelously:
In Les Mis, the protagonist Valjean is restored to life through an act of mercy shown to him by a saint. He then goes on to become the moral center of the book, the thrumming center around which much of the remaining plot turns. Through him a young girl is saved from a life of servitude and destitution and another man, himself in some ways a Pelagian not that different from the antagonist Javert, is also drug to freedom through the Parisian sewers–an image with a significance that need not be explained.
In Harry Potter, Dumbledore fills the same role that Valjean does in Les Mis. He’s the moral heart of the series. Every book save the sixth ends with some sort of monologue given by Dumbledore that sums up a key moral idea or principle. And the sixth, though an exception to the rule in one sense, is actually the culmination of all his advice. The scene in the cave with the potion and the locket is a sort of passion scene as the aging, dying wizard relives the horrors of his youth.
And yet what is so interesting about Dumbledore when compared to Valjean is that there is no single person who shows mercy to Dumbledore and models a righteous life for him. Valjean has the priest. But Dumbledore doesn’t have anyone. His brother fights him in his fury about his neglect of their sister and then hits him at her funeral. But their relationship remains estranged for the rest of Dumbledore’s life. His sister is dead. His parents are too. And his only true peer, the future dark wizard Grindelwald, could be of no help to him in abandoning the vanity and ambition that propelled him into such darkness in the first place. So what saves Dumbledore?
Dumbledore stated it baldly, coldly. He was looking now over the top of Harry’s head, into the distance.
“I was gifted, I was brilliant. I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine. I wanted glory.”
“Do not misunderstand me,” he said, and pain crossed the face so that he looked ancient again. “I loved them, I loved my parents, I loved my brother and my sister, but I was selfish, Harry, more selfish than you, who are a remarkably selfless person, could possibly imagine.” ….
“And then… you know what happened. Reality returned in the form of my rough, unlettered, and infinitely more admirable brother. I did not want to hear the truths he shouted at me. I did not want to hear that I could not set forth and seek Hallows with a fragile and unstable sister in tow.”
“The argument became a fight. Grindelwald lost control. That which I had always sensed in him, though I pretended not to, now sprang into terrible being. And Ariana… after all my mother’s care and caution… lay dead upon the floor.”
Dumbledore gave a little gasp and began to cry in earnest. Harry reached out and was glad to find that he could touch him: He gripped his arm tightly and Dumbledore gradually regained control.
“Well, Grindelwald fled, as anyone but I could have predicted. He vanished, with his plans for seizing power, and his schemes for Muggle torture, and his dreams of the Deathly Hallows, dreams in which I had encouraged him and helped him. He ran, while I was left to bury my sister, and learn to live with my guilt and my terrible grief, the price of my shame.”
In Les Mis, a man is restored to life by the love of a man. In Harry Potter, a man is restored to life by the love of… the law?
That’s imprecise. Actually, Dumbledore is restored by love, which is what he preaches to Harry throughout the books. And yet what is love in Dumbledore’s mind? What gives it its shape? Why was the line that he used to justify his behavior with Grindelwald–it is all for “the greater good”–set aside by the older Dumbledore as failing the test of love?
For Dumbledore this love is not a sentiment. It is not simply something one feels toward another person as some sort of vague desire or even relational attachment. It’s a willing. It’s an earnest desire to see the other prosper, to see that their needs are cared for. And it’s a willing strong enough to compel one to sacrifice oneself for the other. For Dumbledore to love is to act in the interest of the other, even at the expense of your own safety and freedom, even your life itself. This is what Harry’s mother does for him as a child. It is what Dumbledore does for Malfoy on the tower. It is what Harry does for his friends in the final book. Perhaps most remarkable of all, it is what Severus Snape does for Lilly every day after her death. This love, then, is a burden. It is a calling placed on a person directing them to give themselves up for the sake of the beloved.
In this sense, of course, Dumbledore’s love looks like Valjean’s. But while Valjean saw love modeled for him by the priest, Dumbledore comes to understand love as he lives with the weight of his guilt and shame for his past actions and how they destroyed his family. In one sense he carries that weight with him for the rest of his life. He never does get his family back. All of them are dead save his brother Aberforth and his estrangement from him continues till Dumbledore’s death. Yet in repenting of that life and accepting the burden of love that he had consistently refused to carry as a young man Dumbledore is freed. And through that freeing he is able to create a new family of orphans around Hogwarts. Harry will be the most obvious beneficiary of that, but Hogwarts becomes a refuge to orphans of all sorts. Neville Longbottom will make the school a more permanent home by becoming a professor there. And even those students who, unlike Dumbledore, Harry, and Neville, do have families will find in Hogwarts a place of rest and consolation.
“Help will always be given to Hogwarts to those who deserve it,” Dumbledore says. And what sort of person deserves it? The one who lives in love.