The Bad Seed:
This is another foray that turned out to not go where I thought it would. Although some of the vibes I picked up at least seem to have actually been there.
But until we were given the official Grindelwald backstory, I can’t see that I’d had any chance of getting any closer than I did.
This is another awkward issue which took a long time in the process of painfully surfacing. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. (Rowling, of course, made nothing of it.)
But, upon the whole, I think we’ve got another serious disconnect regarding Tom and Albus that is finally coming into focus. And now that the questions are finally beginning to surface, the whole underlying set-up between them is looking odder and odder. And there really don’t seem to be any viable answers on offer. I suspect that either Rowling is an even less competent writer than I’ve been giving her (dis)credit for, or something must have been going on in that interview between Albus and Tom at the orphanage that we as the readers were not a party to.
We were clearly shown that young Tom Riddle was a nasty little predator at his orphanage. His theme song seems to be “You can’t prove it was me.” He worked completely alone, by preference, and he clearly didn’t give a damn what anyone there’s opinion of him might be.
A couple of months later there he is at Hogwarts, eliciting sympathy from the staff, and the next thing you hear is that he is charming everyone around him, students and staff alike. Before all that long he is gathering followers, becoming popular and cultivating everybody’s good opinion.
What the bloody hell happened here? Why, and more to the point, how did he know to suddenly change his entire mode of public behavior? And how did he know the exact way that it needed to be changed? This cannot be just from learning that there was magic in the world and that he was a wizard.
How did he even know how to DO it? Even being a fledgeling Legilimens doesn’t explain that. Not adequately. He hadn’t ever done this before. The closest he came to it was when he was trying to impress Albus, and that was hardly the most polished of performances. Indeed, you got the impression that this kid had never tried to charm anyone in his life. He had never before tried to do anything but push people around and have done with it. And he wasn’t a bit pleased to discover that Albus couldn’t be pushed.
Did Tom — however briefly — legitimately try to turn over a new leaf? Did he somehow think that wizards must somehow be different and wanted them to like him? I suppose it is possible, but we sure aren’t given that impression.
But if so, how long did it take before he realized that they really weren’t different at all — but that by then he had found that he liked being able to trick them into doing what he wanted, rather than just forcing them?
And, upon consideration, suddenly not only do the images not match up between the vicious little loner-by-preference of the orphanage and the budding social leader of a few weeks later. But Albus’s behavior at the orphanage is also wildly variant from what we might have expected from him, too.
The kid, however vicious a little brat he might be, was only 11. He didn’t even know that what he could do was magic. He did what he did just because he could. Even though he knew it wasn’t nice. No one could stop him, and imposing his will upon the universe is what every small child tries to do. Most of them have learned to adapt to some other method by Tom’s age, simply because they find they can’t. Tom didn’t have the “advantage” of normal limits. This was a boy who had grown up entirely without limits upon his magic.
He also seemed to want to “get back” at the world in general over something. No one has ever bothered to ask what. The discovery that he was actually a wizard was also clearly a deeply moving experience for him. Even if it didn’t move him into any position which made him likable. And Albus seemed to have despised him for it. What was that all about?
After Albus had spoken with Mrs Cole, he may have expected to meet a typical little bully, perhaps more sly than usual, but I think what he did discover was something that he did not expect, and once Tom told him the sort of things that he could do, Albus stopped smiling. And by the time he left the building he had decided to keep an eye on the boy for other people’s sake (not that he actually bothered to warn anyone of any potential danger, mind you). But we cannot be sure of specifically what it was about Tom that disturbed him so greatly.
Tom can’t have been the first nasty little bully to cross Albus’s path. Indeed given his record, Albus seems to have, if anything, far too great a tolerance for bullies — and for bullying — on his patch. But Albus made no concession for Tom’s ignorance and lack of any kind of previous guidance. He immediately distanced himself and proceeded to lay down the law with a clear message of; “I don’t like you. I don’t like what you are doing. But you’re a wizard and you have the right to attend my school. However; remember this, boy: if you put a foot out of line we’ll toss you out on your ear, wizard or not.” Even finally being handed the Grindelwald backstory doesn’t explain this reaction. Gellert Grindelwald was handsome, dashing, gregarious, and charming. Tom was only handsome. That’s not that much of a similarly. And it is certainly not an echo. They didn’t even look like one another.
For a man with such a much-touted reputation for believing in 2nd chances he sure didn’t seem to be offering all that much of one to Tom Riddle. (Nor, later, to Severus Snape.) Tom was lucky to get any chance from Albus at all. And if he could have done it without losing face, I think that Albus might even have reneged on the whole deal. The only concession he made was not to warn the rest of the staff against Riddle in case the boy did try to clean up his act. And by now we can be pretty sure that that particular decision was just Albus’s typical refusal to take any real responsibility for anyone else’s welfare, if he could avoid it.
Albus had already made arrangements to insure that Tom came to Hogwarts before he actually spoke to the boy. He had also given his word to Mrs Cole that he would be taking Tom, “whatever” she had to say about him; that Tom definitely had a place in his school. Albus doesn’t usually go back on his stated word. Not unless he is forced to. He has a finely-developed sense of the sort of 3rd-grade morality which pervades this series. And he hadn’t yet seen the boy when he gave her that assurance.
I don’t get the impression that Tom’s refusal to allow Albus to accompany him to Diagon Alley came as any kind of a disappointment. Nor was it any kind of a surprise. He handed over funds with an air of washing his hands of the matter.
But why? What went on under our noses here that we simply didn’t see? Either Tom tried something on Albus that Albus took extreme offense at, or something in that list of abilities that he told Albus to impress him, did. Highly UNfavorably, too. And it probably wasn’t just that young Tom was a Parselmouth. Albus doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about that.
But either this is the very shoddiest excuse for plotting by a lazy writer on the order of; “I need A to do X, and B to do Y, so they will, because I say so” and never mind establishing any kind of background which would explain the motivations, or the sudden shifts in behavior — or else something that came up in that interview really jerked Albus’s chain. And even knowing about Gellert doesn’t really help us figure out what it was.
Either Albus went into that interview forewarned in some manner, and Tom’s statements inadvertently identified him as a major potential threat (Albus having met a similar monster at some point before, and so recognized the caliber of threat Tom represented?), or some other exchange took place off our radar, because we just never got the proper context to interpret it.
We watched Tom use Legilimency on Harry all the way back in PS/SS. We did not have the proper context to interpret that until Book 5, but it is definitely there. It wasn’t until book 6 that we had the proper information and context to interpret our observations and know that the Diary revenant was a soul fragment, establishing the Diary as a Horcrux. It would not have been at all astonishing if Rowling turned out to have snuck something of importance into the orphanage interview that we missed — not having the proper context to know what to look for at the time. But if this is the case, I still don’t know what it was.
Because even now, downwind of DHs we still haven’t a clue. We cannot even postulate that Albus looked at Tom and saw a young Gellert Grindelwald. Tom’s manner was nothing like Gellert’s.
A few years later, Albus might have been forgiven for coming to that conclusion, once Tom had learned to lay on the charm. But not in that first interview in the orphanage. Gellert Grindelwald was a nasty piece of work with a supremacist agenda, but he wasn’t a raving sociopath. Or not one of the extreme variety that Tom was. And he wasn’t a loner.
So the whole issue is still, to all intents and purposes, a mystery to me.
Backing up to an earlier essay: by HBP I was beginning to wonder more and more whether Albus was a Parselmouth himself. It would resolve a few minor questions, such as how could Albus know what was being said between Tom and Morfin in that recovered memory. Or among the Gaunts in the Ogden memory, too. Because both of those conversations were conducted in Parseltongue
Of course, Albus turning out to be a Parselmouth himself would up-end my contention that all known British Parselmouths have been connected to the Slytherin bloodline, but I’d have been willing to trade that for some rationality concerning the elements that are actually seen to be in play in the series.
However, Albus would hardly be saying that Tom was the last descendant of Salazar Slytherin if he and Aberforth are connected to that bloodline themselves. Even when both of them are childless and over 100. But being able to understand the language when it is spoken by a human Parselmouth (even if not when it is expressed by a snake) could be something else. For one thing a human Parselmouths rendition of Parseltongue is at least audible, whereas a snake’s is not. Ergo: It can’t be significantly harder to understand than Merrow. And we know that Albus understood that, for we saw him conversing with the chieftaness of the mer-people in GoF.
Plus, of course, if you can hear it, a charm may be able to translate it. Dumbledore would have certainly felt he had good and sufficient reason to have devised a charm to be able to understand what was being said in the Ogden memory — which had been in his possession for a long time.
And the Albus Dumbledore that we finally ended up with would have been twisty enough to have made a point of calling Harry’s attention to the fact that Harry could understand the conversations, without adding that he could understand them too — without explaining how.
Because there really was no point in his having played those records for Harry unless he already knew what was int them. Or unless he wanted Harry to translate them for him. But he never asked Harry to do that.
In an interview Rowling did (at least temporarily) confirm that Albus was able to understand Parseltongue. Of course since she also had Ron Weasley able to imitate it well enough to get a door to open, I am not sure how willing I am to believe her — for I certainly didn’t believe that. And given that she later contradicted herself by claiming she didn’t think it was a language that one could learn, I guess one’s own interpretation is optional.
But I’m prepared to discard the theory that all British Parselmouths descend from old Sal at need. I suppose the gift could crop up in other bloodlines as well. Or the connection may be there but no one has ever managed to trace it. I never really got all that much of an impression that Albus was an “aristocratic” pureblood, although he did have the requisite self-confidence for it, or even that he was necessarily a pureblood at all, although that whopping string of primary and secondary names suggested as much. The old English form of his family name suggests that the family may be very old indeed. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a wizarding family.
With the adjusted time lines that we got in DHs and afterwards, Albus himself might be younger than Marvolo Gaunt. If Merope was indeed 18 when we first met her, and that was the summer of ’25, as it seems, then she would have been born in ’07. Morfin didn’t seem that much older. That might put Marvolo’s possible birth year as late as the 1880s or thereabouts. Which would put him into the same age bracket as the Dumbledore siblings. The most recent information on Rowling’s official site as of 2007 claims that Albus was born in 1881. Marvelo could have been born just about any time before that just as easily, however.
But one now does have to ask oneself just who taught Albus to understand Parseltongue, and having Albus Dumbledore land at Hogwarts around the same time as Marvolo Gaunt could help to draw a line between those two points. Marvolo was also very quick to spout about his (possibly bogus) connection to the Peverills. We also know that Albus was already fascinated by the legend of the Hallows before he finished school, and he was particularly fascinated by the tales of the Resurrection Stone. Not that Marvolo seems to have known that the real thing was sitting right there in his father’s seal ring, or that Marvolo necessarily had possession of the ring when he was Hogwarts age (Marvolo’s own father probably was still alive then). But the sigil carved in that stone was known to have been the mark of the group of loons who had been questing after the Hallows for centuries, and I certainly wouldn’t have put it past young Albus to have asked questions about it if he saw it.
It would also make it a little easier to explain how he knew exactly where to go to find the damned Ring when he decided that it was time to take it out of action.
But the sort of jokey dismissive statements that Albus directs at Marvolo Gaunt echoes those which he earlier turned upon his brother Aberforth. And you do have to admit that the level of squalor of the Gaunt hovel is most closely mirrored in canon by that of the Hog’s Head than just about anywhere else. Nor does someone who gets his name in the papers for casting inappropriate charms on goats sound like he has a lot of common sense (no apparent taste for grandeur there, at least). Chatting to snakes and luring them close enough to catch and torture them isn’t particularly socially “appropriate” behavior either.
Did Albus manage to get that Azkaban interview with Morfin on the grounds of being “family”? Or perhaps by claiming to be an old family friend on the basis of having been at school with Morfin’s father?
But, like I say, I don’t know just what to make of any of it.