Harry Potter the Truth-Seeker

Fiction lets us fantasize about being brave.  We can watch an action movie pretending that we are the hero bravely risking our life with confidence in our cause and abilities.  Subconsciously we see little chance our hero will die.  Similarly, stories can let us identify with a hero who determined to seek the truth, even if it hurts. 

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry hears doubts about his mentor Dumbledore: 

The accusations he had heard from Muriel at the wedding seemed to have nested in his brain like diseased things, infecting his memories of the wizard he had idolized.  Could Dumbledore have let such things happen?  Had he been like Dudley, content to watch neglect and abuse as long as it did not affect him?  …

Harry thought of … mysterious objects left without explanation in Dumbledore’s will, and resentment swelled in the darkness.  Why hadn’t Dumbledore told him?  Why hadn’t he explained?  Had Dumbledore actually cared about Harry at all?  Or had Harry been nothing more than a tool to be polished and honed, but not trusted, never confided in?  (p.177)

Harry is not brave enough to admit to his friend how much this upsets him, but he does feel brave enough to seek the truth, however disappointing:


He told Hermione everything that Muriel had told him.  When he had finished, Hermione said," Of course, I can see why that’s upset you, Harry -"

"I’m not upset," he lied, "I’d just like to know whether or not it’s true or -"

"Harry, do you really think you’ll get the truth from a malicious old woman like Muriel, or from Rita Skeeter?  How can you believe them? You know Dumbledore!"

"I thought I did," he muttered.

"But you know how much truth there was in everything Rita wrote about you!  Doge is right, how can you let these people tarnish your memories of Dumbledore?"

He looked away, trying not to betray the resentment he felt.  There it was again: Choose what to believe.  He wanted the truth.  Why was everyone so determined that he should not get it?  (p.185)

Is it really a spoiler to say that Harry’s faith in Dumbledore was mostly vindicated?  Surely six books of consistent Dumbledore heroism let readers feel safe in identifying with Harry’s brave truth-seeking on this point.

Consider the people you most admire that you know personally, such as your parents, spouse, or work mentor.  Now imagine the worst sort of things someone might plausibly accuse those people of.  Are you confident you really want to know if such accusations are true?   If yes, why don’t you look them in the eye and ask them point blank, just to lay the issue to rest?  Or offer to bet them on it?  I didn’t think so. 

(I read the novel on the plane to Sydney Saturday, where I’m staying for two weeks.)

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  • Gwern Branwen

    But nevertheless, Skeeter’s accusations largely proved true. I mean, Dumbledore did support the fascist notions of Grindelwald, did refrain from fighting Grindelwald (which it is implied directly led to the deaths of many innocent people), most likely did kill his sister, did participate in the wrongful imprisonment of said sister, etc.

    Some of Skeeter’s inferences like the sister being a Squib were wrong, but they were clearly presented as such; the presentation was mean-spirited, but that’s just it. By the end, Dumbledore is significantly diminished as a figure; his imperfections are precisely the reason he has to die – he is too immoral to possess anything but the most crude and destructive of the Deathly Hallows, and I think it’s fair to say that his sins are precisely why he cannot defeat Voldemort, and why he’s little better than Grindelwald (both die because of their defiance of Voldemort, both end their lives fairly morally).

    It makes him more human and complex, sure, but it’s still a sad lowering of him. And actually, I think the truth-seeking turns out to have been a bad idea since it prompts them to go to Godric’s Hollow where Nagini nearly kills them. At least, I can’t think of anything good that came from it.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Can anyone name fictional works in which are we led to sympathize with a character seeking out a truth (explicitly, heroically seeking out a truth) that may destroy her/him?

    I remember a line from Divergence Eve, after the main character has just found out, after a long search for answers, that she has been infected by alien DNA and may be slowly turning into a monster. And as she’s crying, the one who finally gave her the answer, approaches her and says:

    “The truth doesn’t always save a person.”

    It stuck in my mind, and goes through it every now and then. This, itself, is a truth that most people would rather not think about – that discovering the truth, no matter how noble it may be, may not fix everything.

    But believing a lie can always make it worse.

    (PS: Divergence Eve is probably not worth the time, aside from that one line.)

  • Jeff Borack

    This is a running theme in Ayn Rand novels.

  • http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2007/08/would_a_truthse.html EconLog

    Would a Truth-Seeker Ask?

    Robin lays down a challenge:Consider the people you most admire that you know personally, such as your parents, spouse, or…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Gwern, yes Skeeter is mostly right, but Harry’s main concern are not those claims but instead the further doubts those claims suggest to him. Those further doubts are not realized.

    Eliezer, a great question – anyone?

  • Julie

    Pretty much the worst thing I could think of for my teachers would be if they’re active pedafiles. I’m never going to ask them. Not because I wouldn’t actually want to know if the accusation will be true, but the act of asking has a nasty list of reprecussions that simply aren’t worth it.

  • Nick Tarleton

    “but the act of asking has a nasty list of reprecussions that simply aren’t worth it.”

    Yes, this is a very good reason not to ask even if you do want to know.

  • Sebastian Hagen

    If yes, why don’t you look them in the eye and ask them point blank, just to lay the issue to rest?
    In addition to the likely offense caused by even asking the question, the results probably won’t be very useful. If Person X is willing to do some despicable deed Y, they’ll also likely be willing to lie about it afterwards. Them answering “No, I didn’t do Y.” isn’t particularly strong empirical evidence for them not having done it.

    Or offer to bet them on it?
    This seems more likely to work, but is still problematic. Most importantly, you already need some way to determine the truth about the matter to settle the bet – and if you set the bet, you will need to apply this procedure, in any event.

  • Sebastian Hagen

    I can recall two instances of protagonists explicitly seeking out truths which may ultimately destroy them, both of them Star Trek episodes.

    In the ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ episode Whispers, an engineer notices that a lot of his acquaintances are behaving towards him in an unusual manner.
    His investigations ultimately result in him discovering that he is a subverted copy of the person he thought he was, created for the purpose of assassinating a group of diplomats. Morever, the original person is still alive and in hiding. The protagonist (i.e. copy) is killed in time for the end of the episode.

    In the ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ episode Latent Image, a (thoroughly human) AI discovers that some of his memories have been deleted without him knowing about it. He ultimately discovers that he originally became mentally unstable as a result of acquiring the deleted memories, and the deletion (including that of the information that anything important had been deleted) took place to restore his mind to a functional state.
    The memories in question are ultimately restored, and the AI learns to cope with them.

    Neither of those episodes is particularly worth watching.

  • Gwern Branwen

    “Can anyone name fictional works in which are we led to sympathize with a character seeking out a truth (explicitly, heroically seeking out a truth) that may destroy her/him?”

    Isn’t this one really obvious? I must be missing something here, but ”Oedipus Rex” seems like the perfect example of such a fictional work.