Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dumbledore's Theme Song

"Ah, music...A magic far beyond all we do here!" (PS p. 95)

Music and Dumbledore. The two just seem to go together, don't they? We know from his chocolate frog card that he "enjoys chamber music" as well as tenpin bowling. But the music vibes deeper than that. Music, for Dumbledore, touches his very soul.

Dumbledore, like his namesake the bumblebee, seems to always be humming about the castle. And then there's his pet, Fawkes, the phoenix. Fawkes not only represents Dumbledore's Patronus, but his anima, a projection of his soul, which restores Harry, not once, not twice, but three times with the power of music.

It is with "eerie, spine-tingling, unearthly" music that Fawkes appears in the Chamber of Secrets and drops the Sorting Hat to Harry, thus giving him the sword of Gryffindor and his means to defeat the Basilisk.

Then, in Goblet of Fire: unearthly and beautiful sound filled the air. ... It was coming from every thread of the light-spun web vibrating around Harry and Voldemort. It was a sound Harry recognized, though he had heard it only once before in his life: phoenix song. It was the sound of hope to Harry. . . the most beautiful and welcome thing he had ever heard in his life. . . . He felt as though the song were inside him instead of just around him. ... It was the sound he connected with Dumbledore, and it was almost as though a friend were speaking in his ear. . . .

Don't break the connection.

When Harry passes along to Dumbledore how he'd answered Scrimgeour's accusation of his being Dumbledore's man through and through with a proud affirmative:
Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Behind Harry, Fawkes the phoenix let out a low, soft, musical cry. To Harry’s intense embarrassment, he suddenly realized that Dumbledore's bright blue eyes looked rather watery, and stared hastily at his own knees. (Bloomsbury, 334-35)

At Dumbledore's death in HBP:
And Harry felt, as he had felt about phoenix song before, that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song that echoed across the grounds and through the castle windows.

How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning...

Why would JKR make these connections between Dumbledore and Fawkes and music? Maybe she's playing on a character theme here, on the essence of Dumbledore.

Most writers are familiar with story themes--the central idea, or meaning, of a story. But you can have themes centered on a character as well. Knowing your character's theme helps you as a writer to convey consistently the essence of that character. And if your essence is Bellatrix, according to Hermione when tasting her Polyjuice, that is quite disgusting.

A character theme is not necessarily a main personality trait, though it can be.  Character themes can also focus on a core belief (such as Draco's privileged disdain for mudbloods), a physical feature if it has a profound impact on that character (such as Mad-Eye's mad eye), or something more esoteric (like in Harry's association with the alchemical Philosopher's Stone and Dumbledore's affinity with music and the resurrecting Fawkes).

For an example of how a character theme can play out in the story, let's look at Ron.  Ron is Harry's loyal friend, and the reader sees this in the many words and images JKR writes for Ron -- his constant support and companionship, his defense of Harry when the rest of the school considered him to be the Heir of Slytherin, his welcoming Harry into his home and family, and his willingness to risk his life to save his best friend's.  Even though Ron's loyalty is put to the test once or twice, it is precisely because loyalty is what Ron is all about that he's tested in this manner.

Other character themes which JKR plays with:

  • Hermione -- the Brain (Is that why Ron was attacked by a brain in the DoM? :-) The reader is given numerous references to Hermione's intelligence and love of books.
  • Neville -- yes, Neville is forgetful, but I think his deeper theme would be something like "untapped potential."
  • Uncle Vernon -- Have you ever noticed how often angry words and a purple face are used to describe Harry's "loving" uncle? I think his theme would be raging intolerance.
  • Aunt Petunia -- rigid clean freak--numerous refs to her cleaning, or her spotless home, and think of her reaction to Marge's visit with her dog
  • Hagrid -- monster-loving, almost like muggle-loving, but way more dangerous
  • Snape -- vitriol--as in repressed anger, resentment, and self-blame eating him out from the inside

And finally, again, Dumbledore -- Dumbledore's theme is not simply music, but Phoenix song, music that restores the soul, that resurrects life. It's Dumbledore's theme song which plays deeply into the heart of the Harry Potter saga and which carries Harry through in his final confrontation with Voldemort.

JKR applied her Polyjuice potion to brew out the essence of her main characters, as well as the secondaries.  She knew intimately what they were all about and wove these tidbits into her story to portray them three dimensionally on two-dimensional paper. If you know the heart of your character, then you can breathe life into their being. JKR used these themes through consistent references describing that character's manner of being, words, and actions.

As a writer, have you thought of the essence of your characters?  If you had to describe the look and taste of their Polyjuice potion, would it be disgusting like Bellatrix's,  "the khaki color of a booger" like Goyle's, or a "clear, bright gold" like Harry's?

What other character themes can you see within the Potterverse?  Or, what is one of your own creation?

** Picture credit for Fawkes.


  1. Oops! Word dyslexia. Posted this w/ too many distractions. Corrected wrong use of word ephemeral!

  2. I never really thought about a character's theme, but it's definitely a way to help create that 3 dimensional character we all want!

  3. Hi Laura, I think it's one more tool we can use, and probably more appropriate for some characters rather than others. I want to go into a bit more detail on images & word choices associated with specific characters, but think that's a post for another day.

    Thanks for visiting!