Harry is to Wart as Dumbledore is to Merlyn:
The Magical Parallelism of their Respective Relationships
by Harold Long
J.K. Rowling's characters Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series of books and films present a modern archetype of T.H. White's characters Wart and Merlyn in Sword in the Stone. The characters are analogous, but more importantly, their respective relationships portray an allegory of the quintessential student-teacher association. Both Harry and Wart are young orphans destined to become great men; while unaware of their impending fates, they are raised relatively humbly. Merlyn and Dumbledore, on the other hand, are accomplished men in the twilight of their lives. The elders are cognizant of the youths' futures and determine to prepare and protect their pupils until the commencement of their predetermined roles - culminating in the fruition of their tutelage. "T.H. White's enduring association between an underestimated boy, who will grow to become the greatest and most famous king ever known, and an aging and distracted magician who grows fond of him, has become emblematic today. And beyond the typical long white beard and robe, Merlyn serves as a model for Dumbledore, as noted by many scholars: they both supervise a young boy's education in an atypical manner, because they know that this child will change the future" (Bowyer)
The first literary work to exhibit in detail the youth of King Arthur is Sword in the Stone. In Sword, White portrays Arthur as an orphaned boy, luckily happening upon Merlyn, a most capable tutor (for himself and his adopted brother, Kay) (33). Only at the very end of Sword is it revealed that Merlyn actually delivered Wart to his adoptive father. "I was not allowed to tell you before, or since, but your father was, or will be, King Uther Pendragon, and it was I myself, disguised as a beggar, who first carried you to Sir Ector's castle, in your golden swaddling bands" (212). Thus Merlyn began his relationship with Wart at the very beginning of the latter's life and it may be presumed that Merlyn was watching him even before taking on the interactive role of tutor
Harry Potter only learns of his wizardry lineage when he receives his invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at the age of eleven. It is revealed to him slowly that he is "The Boy Who Lived", a title referencing his survival following the attack by Voldemort in his infancy. Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, considered the most powerful wizard (other than Voldemort) of the time, personifies Merlyn in his protective nurturing of Harry throughout his formative years. "...His figure is adapted into a new "greatest wizard of the age," Albus Dumbledore, the school's headmaster, who is very much to Harry and the wizards' world what Merlin is to Arthur and his kingdom" (Marsal).
Merlyn lives backwards through time which allows for his knowledge of the future. He has magical abilities, exemplified in the scene of his first meeting with Wart as a boy, whereupon Wart discovers that Merlyn can inconceivably acquire any object, out of thin air no less, at his verbal behest (White 28). Merlyn primarily uses his magic in an educational application to the sculpture of Wart's character through adventures in which Wart takes the form of different animals. The discipline illustrated by Merlyn in his strict use of magic appeals to his penultimate goal - notably fostering an informed and well-rounded king of England. Merlyn thus exemplifies the very lesson he is attempting to instill in Wart - Might FOR Right - be it physical brawn or intellectual prowess.
Likewise, Dumbledore, although not directly a principal educator of Harry in the definitive sense, aims to mold Harry through experiences, not conventional classroom lecturing. His understanding of the growing threat of Lord Voldemort, which must eventually be met unequivocally by Harry, appropriates a certain unappreciated and veiled urgency to effectively construct not only an extensive skill set, but, more importantly, a moralistic ideology in Harry. "Albus Dumbledore is wiser, more powerful, and more influential than any mortal could possibly be. Dumbledore, however, is humanized by his comic sensibility and the rather fey eccentricity he sometimes exhibits. It is Dumbledore's role to protect Harry Potter when he can, and to guide and shape him for his heroic destiny. In Dumbledore's words we hear Harry Potter's life lessons about courage, compassion and integrity" (Smith 78-79).
The lesson is easily clearer for Harry to not only realize but also adopt. He is at least somewhat aware of his position in the world, undoubtedly more so than Wart, who is completely ignorant. Merlyn has frequent difficulty implanting his lessons in Wart's mind. Wart only finally begins to grasp the horror of war during his episode as a goose. Dumbledore unfortunately has no need to introduce Harry to the evil of the mindset of the motif "might is right" because of Voldemort's constant presence. Merlyn builds the foundation of the concept in a negative manner during Wart's initial episode as an animal in the waters of the moat of Sir Ector's castle. Old Jack, the king of the moat, parallels Voldemort. They are both at the top of their respective evil empires and both vehemently epitomize the ideal of "might is right." This is because Voldemort's and Old Jack's wicked reigns stem from their fundamental lack of love and companionship - which are, rightfully, the cornerstones of Wart's and Harry's strength.
Wart and Harry differ in two distinct ways in their respective childhoods. The first is that upon deliverance to the wizard world, Harry discovers he is vastly intrinsically wealthy. "[...] it presents as its hero a boy born with the wizard equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth" (Manlove 185). Wart certainly does not want for anything, but he is only the adopted brother of Kay and son of Sir Ector, and never seems to forget that distinction as far as his position in life. Adversely, Wart loves Kay and Sir Ector, who return his love. Harry finds great camaraderie at Hogwarts, but has not even the semblance of familial love when he returns home; he is an unwelcome and inconveniently obligatory guest at the Dursley's house. "[...] the school itself, suggesting that its happy nature is not so much inherent as founded on the continually active good will of those who run it, particularly its headmaster Albus Dumbledore" (Manlove 189).
The similarities between Harry and Wart are best displayed at the conclusion of their childhoods. Harry learns that he must die in order to kill Voldemort, symbolically relating the inner struggle of good versus evil - within Harry is a piece of Voldemort himself. Harry decides to fulfill his destiny by surrendering himself in the Forbidden Forest to Voldemort. This seems to be the end of his childhood and all the lessons which had been dutifully taught encouraged his action of self-sacrifice, of might for right. As he prepares to reveal himself, the quasi-ghosts of his most loved friends and family, precariously excluding Dumbledore, surround him in support. "He opened his eyes and looked around. They were neither ghost nor truly flesh, he could see that [...] Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved toward him, and on each face, there was the same loving smile [...]'You've been so brave' [said Lily...]'You are nearly there,' said James. 'Very close. We are... so proud of you.' [...] 'You'll stay with me?' [said Harry...] 'We are part of you,' said Sirius. 'Invisible to anyone else'" (Rowling 698-700). With their support Harry faces Voldemort and allows himself to be killed. Harry awakens in something of a dream where he meets Dumbledore, with whom he discusses recent and long past events, the final repercussion of which culminates in Harry's death. Harry asks at the end of the dream about the reality of his mental state, to which Dumbledore replies, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" (Rowling 723).
This scene is reminiscent of Wart's accidental ascension to the throne. "All round the churchyard there were hundreds of old friends. They rose over the church wall all together, like the Punch and Judy ghosts of remembered days, and there were badgers [...] and the thousand other animals he had met. They loomed round the church wall, the lovers and helpers of the Wart, and they all spoke solemnly in turn. [...] all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow" (White 208). Wart was only able to muster the strength, albeit strength of heart and will, inherently and definitively courage, needed to pull the sword from the stone with the help of those who loved him. The appearance of the animals in the church may have only happened in Wart's head, but that does not detract from the reality of the event, nor the significance of its impact. Merlyn is absent from the scene, as Dumbledore is when Harry seeks to meet his fate.
The underlying reasons for which Harry goes like a lamb to the slaughter in the Forbidden Forest and Wart seeks to obtain the sword from the stone coalesce into one global (for Harry) and confined (for Wart) act: self-sacrifice. Harry's sacrifice, that of his own life, is admittedly more daunting. However, Wart's act should not go unnoticed - his sacrifice was that of pride. He embraces his position in life as squire to his previously equal and recently knighted foster brother Kay. He does not seek to become the king of England nor does he realize the extent of the ramifications of removing the sword from the stone; he humbly seeks to fulfill his duty by acquiring a sword for his master.
Yes, Dumbledore and Merlyn both represent the "absent minded professor" motif, but they also exhibit unreserved dedication to their mentees, Harry and Wart, by protecting, nurturing, and sculpting their characters. Harry and Wart are independently laudable "marvelous youth;" it is the love and compassion of their respective tutors that consummates their transformations into the worthy men destiny requires them to become.
- Bowyer, Jerry. "Harry Potter and the fire-breathing fundamentalists." Renew America. 2 Aug 2007. 29 Nov 2011 http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/bowyer/070802
- Manlove, Colin. From Alice to Harry Potter: Children's Fantasy in England. Christchurch: Cybereditions, 2003.
- Marsal, Florence. "Is Dumbledore another disguise? Where to find Merlin in Harry Potter." The Once and Future Classroom: Resources for Teaching the Middle Ages in Grades K-12. Spring 2009. TEAMS: The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages. 29 Nov 2011 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/dumbledore.php
- Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Arthur A Levine Books, 2007.
- Smith, Karen Manners. "Harry Potter's Schooldays: J.K. Rowling and the British Boarding School Novel." Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. Westport: Praeger, 2003. 69-87.
- White, T.H. "The Sword in the Stone." The Once and Future King. New York: Ace Books, 1939. 1-213.