From the opening moments of the seven-book series, Harry Potter without Albus Dumbledore would be like a wizard with no wand – unthinkable. The lanky, bespectacled teacher guides Harry to his destiny and, at the same time, expands the boundaries of the traditional magical mentor in important directions, say scholars and fans alike.
"His character voices the fundamental lessons of the series," says Philip Nel, director of the Program in Children's Literature at Kansas State University in Manhattan. In the end, "Harry doesn't triumph through mere skill or even courage," he says, "but because he knows what love is – something his enemy, Lord Voldemort, does not."
The Hogwarts headmaster is the moral North Star of the series, says Elisabeth Gruner, associate professor of English and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Richmond, Va., – with a modern focus on action.
"His emphasis on personal choice and on love – on making ourselves better rather than accepting an impersonal fate," she adds, is "the central, moral imperative of the series."
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Dumbledore's death in the sixth installment, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which arrives in theaters tomorrow, follows an important script, says Tim Morris, professor and associate chair for graduate English studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. "The Dumbledore type is older, infinitely wiser, and much more knowledgeable than the protagonist. But at some point, the Dumbledore type has to die or fade away, so that the protagonist can solve things on his or her own."
Harry's call to honor his mentor's memory by living up to the standards he set has served as a rallying point for thousands of fans, says Andrew Slack, cofounder and executive director of the Harry Potter Alliance. The international 501C3 organization is devoted to helping what Mr. Slack calls social-justice issues around the globe, everything from literacy to refugees in Darfur, for whom it has raised about $15,000.
The group has launched a "What would Dumbledore do?" campaign around the release of the sixth film, challenging followers to attend the movie wearing name tags stating a lesson they've learned from the Hogwarts headmaster. Slack says he hopes to galvanize the passion for a fictional character and turn it into real-world impact. "Social activism can be fun," he says, "and tapping into something people love, even if it's a so-called children's book, can help inspire them to do something important in their lives."
The story of a young wizard coming of age has faced strong criticism over the years from conservative religious groups charging the books promote occultism. With the 2007 announcement from author J.K. Rowling that she has always seen Dumbledore "as being gay," some parent groups have charged that the author has retroactively injected adult sexual politics into a children's tale. But despite these criticisms, many educators say the Hogwarts headmaster promotes important values.
"Dumbledore offers a sort of patient determination and optimism," says James Krasner, professor of English and British Victorian literature at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, adding that he always thinks the best of people without getting jaded. Ms. Rowling expands the traditional "otherworldly" teacher role, he says, updating and grounding it in the realities of Harry's world.
"He shows more political savvy," Professor Krasner says. "He's not a hermit but engages in ministry politics, albeit as a sort of magical libertarian."
Beyond that, says Emily Strand, campus minister for liturgies at the University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic institution in Ohio, Dumbledore's message actually can be seen as deeply Christian – beginning with the name, which she points out is a provincial English word for bumblebee. This humble creature is responsible for the entire garden growing properly, she says, adding that Christians saw the bee's graceful flight patterns as a personification of the spirit. Perhaps more telling, she says, the bumblebee retains an element of higher mystery, for years flummoxing scientists, who contended that this tiny creature was aerodynamically unfit to fly.
"And yet, it does," she says with a laugh. Activists and critics can dwell on the issues that concern them, but ultimately the books drive home an important message for our time. From Book 1 through to the final discussion between Harry and Dumbledore in Book 7, she says, Rowling reiterates that love is stronger than evil.
"Ultimately," Ms. Strand says, "this is the one weapon that Harry has that the evil Lord Voldemort does not, the power to love."