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When we first meet young Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I believe J.K. Rowling is wording descriptions of events with it in mind for us to see similarities between Tom Riddle and Harry. They’re both orphans, both gifted wizards, they can speak Parseltongue. But now that we know the end of the story, and now that we know more about Dumbledore himself, courtesy of announcements made by J.K, I have lately been thinking more about similarities between Tom Riddle and Gellert Grindelwald.
We know, by J.K.’s own admission, that Dumbledore was, at least at first, attracted to Grindelwald sexually. Not that I necessarily believe anything physical ever happened between them, but I think sexual attraction is always a component of our human relationships. Take, for example, a happily-married business man who hires a beautiful woman as his secretary. Nothing need ever happen between them for us to admit that sexual attraction was a component of why the business man likes having the pretty girl around.
The genius wizard Dumbledore, having won countless awards, meets an equal in Grindelwald. As Rita Skeeter says in The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore:
Educated at Durmstrang, a school famous even then for its unfortunate tolerance of the dark arts, Grindelwald showed himself quite as precociously brilliant as Dumbledore.DH pg 356/290
Much later in the book, Aberforth says the same thing:
“At last, my brother had an equal to talk to, someone just as bright as he was.”DH pg 566/456
That, in and of itself, could have proven “attractive” to Dumbledore, as it might to anyone. On top of that, they were similar in age, Bathilda Bagshot is quoted by Rita Skeeter as saying:
“He seemed a charming boy to me,” babbles Bathilda, “whatever he later became. Naturally, I introduced him to poor Albus, who was missing the company of lads his own age. The boys took to each other at once.”DH pg 356/291
And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Gellert was a good-looking young man. Harry himself notes this:
He rifled through the pages, looking for photographs. He came across the one he sought almost at once, the young Dumbledore and his handsome companion, roaring with laughter at some long forgotten joke. Harry dropped his eyes to the caption. Albus Dumbledore, shortly after his mother’s death, with his friend Gellert Grindelwald.DH pg 352/288
In his own letter to Gellert, Albus seems to already be questioning Gellert’s plans for dominance of the muggles. Instead of trying to talk him out of the plan, which Dumbledore must have known would end their friendship, Dumbledore instead tries to find reason with the plan, and at the same time, tries to minimize Gellert’s violent tendencies:
Your point about wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and, yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be basis for our counter-arguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must only use the force that is necessary and no more. (This was your mistake at Durmstrang!)DH pg 357/291
In this letter, which infuriates Harry because all he can see is Dumbledore plotting with Grindelwald, Dumbledore is actually trying to change Grindelwald from the impulsive wizard that was expelled from Durmstrang into seeing a bigger picture for the good of all, and not to use any more force than they must. We know that it’s common for people in relationships to try and change people, to mold people they like into what they need in a relationship. Dumbledore liked his relationship with his “best friend” and tried to change Grindelwald into someone who wouldn’t do so many bad things.
As anyone who has tried this will know, you can’t change people, and Dumbledore obviously didn’t change Grindelwald, who eventually went so bad that Rita Skeeter says of him, “in a list of Most Dangerous Dark Wizards of All Time, he would miss out on the top spot only because You-Know-Who arrived, a generation later, to steal his crown.”
Dumbledore left Grindelwald behind and turned his energies to the betterment of wizard-kind and muggles alike, so you’d think he’d learn from his mistakes.
But did he?
“A generation later,” as Rita put it, but actually from our perspective, in the previous book, Half-Blood Prince, we see Dumbledore meeting the young Tom Riddle, and our very first impression of him is his good looks:
“A boy was sitting on top of the grey blankets, his legs stretched out in front of him, holding a book. There was no trace of the Gaunts in Tom Riddle’s face. Merope had her dying wish: he was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired and pale.”HBP pg 269/252
Dumbledore must have known, or suspected before this meeting, that Tom was already using his powers for bad reasons. Unlike Harry, who before he knew he was a wizard, used his powers only defensively, like when he jumped up on the roof of the school to avoid the kids who were picking on him, the orphanage’s Matron tells Dumbledore:
“He scares the other children.” “You mean he’s a bully?” asked Dumbledore. “I think he must be,” said Mrs. Cole, frowning slightly, “but it’s very hard to catch him at it. There have been incidents… nasty things…”HBP pg 267/250
Even at this first meeting, it is clear Dumbeldore knew of Tom’s negative inclinations, and believed he could control them. In his orphanage bedroom, Dumbledore tells Tom:
“At Hogwarts,” Dumbledore went on, “we teach you not only to use magic, but to control it … Hogwarts can expel students, and the Ministry of Magic will punish law breakers still more severely. All new wizards must accept that, in entering our world, they abide by our laws.”HBP pg 273/256
Is Dumbledore making the same mistake with Tom Riddle that he made with Gellert Grindelwald, for the same reasons? Like Grindelwald, Tom is a talented wizard. Like Grindelwald, Tom is a “bad boy”. And, like Grindelwald, Tom is a handsome boy.
And like Grindelwald, Tom Riddle grows up to be the most feared wizard of his time.
Does Dumbledore’s attraction to Tom’s looks and power make Dumbledore relive the past? Was Dumbledore longing for something he cherished but lost so long ago with Gellert?
More importantly, is Dumbledore responsible for the terribleness that Tom became, because he ignored his mistakes of the past and was willing to think that Tom could be changed for the better?
What would the world have been like if Dumbledore had not met Grindelwald as a boy? Would he have been able to not wait so long before their final confrontation? And what would the world have been like had not Dumbledore sponsored Tom Riddle at Hogwarts? Could Voldemort have become as powerful as he did had he not gained influence as model student and head boy at Hogwarts?