In Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet the Mirror of Erised (desire spelled backward, for all you Potterheads) for the first time. This mirror, which shows those who look at it their deepest desire, was our first glimpse into the secretive tendencies of Albus Dumbledore. At the time, Dumbledore told Harry he saw himself holding a pair of socks, which of course we now know was a lie, and while it was a seemingly tiny white lie, it carried the weight of a dark secret Dumbledore didn’t want to be dragged into the light. What was the secret?
No Shortage of Secrets
Over the course of his years at Hogwarts, Dumbledore decidedly kept a lot of information from Harry in the name of sparing him from things a kid his age shouldn’t have to deal with. The biggest secret among these was of course the true meaning behind his connection to Lord Voldemort (ie: the prophecy made by Professor Trelawney in which she predicted the birth of a boy who had the power to vanquish the Dark Lord).
The hunt for the Horcruxes that ensued as a result of this discovery later revealed the existence of the Deathly Hallows. Wrapped up in the discovery of these Hallows was a collection of more secrets Dumbledore had been holding onto — and one particular secret he’d been trying to keep hidden for years…
Until The Deathly Hallows, much of what we knew of Dumbledore came from the decorated accomplishments Harry learned over the years: Dumbledore dueled and defeated the dark wizard, Grindelwald; he received the Order of Merlin, First Class; he discovered the twelve uses of dragon’s blood; he turned down the position of Minister of Magic three times; he founded the Order of the Phoenix; he earned himself a chocolate frog card (his greatest achievement).
But amidst all that, he had a dark secret left behind from his childhood. One that would bring into question the credibility of his reputation.
The Hidden Truth in a Dark Past
It was mentioned early in the series that Dumbledore had a brother named Aberforth who worked at the Hog’s Head in Hogsmead, the village just outside Hogwarts. In The Deathly Hallows, we learned Dumbledore also had a sister named Ariana, and that she had been notoriously kept hidden from the public eye. Members of the wizarding community theorized that this was because Ariana had been a squib (a witch or wizard with no magical abilities) and that the Dumbledore’s were ashamed of this, so they imprisoned her in her own home. But the truth of why she was kept hidden turned out to be much darker than that…
When Ariana was six years old she accidentally performed a bit of magic in front of three muggle boys. They ganged up on her, forced her to do it again, and got carried away when she couldn’t. For those of us who can read between the lines, what actually happened is quite disturbing, and naturally, Ariana became traumatized by the incident. Furious, Dumbledore’s father, Percival, took matters into his own hands and hunted down the three muggle boys, which landed him in Azkaban, leaving Dumbledore’s mother the sole caretaker of her three kids.
The Dumbledore’s moved to Godric’s Hollow, where years later Harry would survive Voldemort’s killing curse and become The Boy Who Lived. Once Dumbledore went off to Hogwarts he began to sow the seeds of greatness with his insatiable appetite for knowledge. Charismatic, intelligent, and hungry for greatness, he found himself in a precarious position several summers later when he was forced to come home to take care of his family only to find a new face in the neighborhood – the nephew of their next-door neighbor, a young boy by the name of Gellert Grindlewald.
Grindelwald had been expelled from Durmstrang for performing twisted, dark magic on students and incurring a near-fatal incident. But that didn’t stop Dumbledore from being attracted to him. Here was a boy he could call his equal. A person with as much intelligence as him and charisma to sway even the biggest naysayers. His attraction went beyond that of intellectual admiration, though. It was intimate. Romantic.
It’s no secret that Dumbledore is gay. J.K. Rowling made that clear long ago. That is not his dark secret. Nor was his secret that he and Grindlewald put their heads together in search of The Deathly Hallows, the three magical instruments that if put together could make them a master of death and aid them in their conquest to overcome the Muggle race. Their vision was to take back what they believed was rightfully theirs and live freely in plain sight, no longer in hiding, no longer afraid of discovery. Whatever needed to be done was simply for the greater good.
And still, this was not Dumbledore’s dark secret…
It did not matter that he had fallen in love with one of the greatest dark wizards of all time, or that he had helped Grindlewald in his efforts to rule the Wizarding and Muggle world. No, because at the end of the day, Dumbledore was young, naive, and hungry for power, a vice he carried all the way into adulthood; a vice that kept him from ever accepting the position as Minister of Magic.
No, Dumbledore’s dark secret was never that he had aided Grindlewald or sought the Deathly Hallows, although he expressed regret for both of these things years later. The secret he swore to keep hidden, out of shame and remorse, was that he had taken part in his sister Ariana’s death.
A Life of Love and Regret
Right before he met Grindlewald, Dumbledore’s sister accidentally lost control of her powers and set off a spell that tragically killed their mother. It was a freak accident that no one could have predicted or prevented. As a result, Dumbledore was forced to come home and take care of his family instead of traveling the world as he so desperately wished.
Aberforth, Dumbledore’s brother, grew resentful of how distant Dumbledore became after he met Grindlewald. Dumbledore was supposed to take care of the family. Plus, Grindlewald was a bad egg, surely anyone could see that. An argument between the brothers and Grindlewald broke out. Ariana, who was standing nearby grew noticeably upset, but neither brother nor Grindlewald noticed. They pulled out their wands, shot spells at each other, and Ariana, who was an innocent bystander, got caught in the crossfire and was killed.
After Dumbledore’s death, news of his past leaked to the press (glaring at you Rita Skeeter), and while Skeeter may have spun his past into a web of convoluted lies and deceit, the truth of the matter was that nobody knew of Ariana’s traumatic past, and nobody, not even Dumbledore, who blamed himself for his sister’s death, knew who’s spell had accidentally killed her. Dumbledore carried that dark secret, and a heart full of remorse, to his grave.
So, all those years later when Harry asked Dumbledore what he saw in the Mirror of Erised, it’s no surprise that Dumbledore saw the same thing Harry did: He saw his mom, smiling happily behind him, his father, finally out of Azkaban, his brother standing tall and proud, and Ariana, alive and well.
In the end, Dumbledore’s story is one of tragedy and sadness. But, his legacy is of heroism and strength. Despite his mistakes, he strived to do what was right, and in the end, led by love. He was a complicated man with a dark past, but he always believed, as should we, that “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”