Note: This essay contains spoilers which you may not wish to read, does not contain references because I’m lazy, and is a first draft in case you feel like giving feedback. Thank you and I hope you enjoy.
Albus Dumbledore and Granny Weatherwax are two of the fantasy world’s most famous fictional creations, and in many ways can be considered expressions of the same archetype. They are both magically powerful but often prefer solutions that don’t involve magic. They are both often seen in mentor roles to those much younger. They are both great champions of good over evil. Their personalities however, are greatly different. Weatherwax is seen as possessing many of the character traits of an evil witch while Rowling has referred to Dumbledore as the epitome of goodness. How do their personalities change the archetype? Perhaps there is a clue to the answer in an area where they are quite similar – their status as life-long singles with one great young romance in their past. But first, let us examine the characters in more depth.
The first mention of Granny Weatherwax is in Equal Rites, where the smith mentions “old Granny” is with his wife as she gives birth. She is described simply as a “tall white-haired woman” and when the wizard and smith successfully talk over her attempt to explain the situation, she enjoys herself when she gets to finally explain their mistake over the child’s gender to the smith with a sneer. While Weatherwax’s personality would evolve and change, we can see the central core of her – she is someone who lives her life helping others, but is forceful, even aggressive, in asserting herself and enjoys doing so. The scene continues with the smith pleading with Weatherwax to take over the situation, which she does. It is noted through this scene that witches can often show a vindictive side, and Granny gets angry as she is unable to destroy the staff gifted to the child Esk.
Our first sighting of Albus Dumbledore is a good deal more involved, with a physical description denoting his age, vitality (thin, sparkling blue eyes), dress sense, and once broken nose. His status as an outsider, at least in Privet Drive, is also immediately commented on – “didn’t seem to realize that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.” Where Weatherwax sneered, Dumbledore chuckles, and is described as calm and gentle. His courage and ability is also remarked upon by Professor McGonagall, which causes Dumbledore to self-deprecate. Note how even this early, it is clear there are powers Dumbledore could use but doesn’t. However, his demeanour turns a great deal more serious and firm when it comes to his main business – the death of Harry Potter’s parents and his determination to place Harry with his Aunt.
So far their actions fit what is commonly held up as their essential natures, and points to many of their similarities and differences. Their similarities are age, authority, and an association with children. Their difference is temperament, as pointed out.
The events leading to the first sighting of each character are remarkably similar. Both are born into magically talented families – Dumbledore’s family is as magical as any in Harry Potter, while Weatherwax had witches for a sister and a grandmother, a distant cousin who was a notable wizard, and a family name with a magical history according to the Count de Magpyr in Carpe Jugulum. Although the events causing this are different, both end up with strained relationships with their sibling and caring for a family relative (Weatherwax’s mother, Dumbledore’s sister). And both have a romance of sorts.
Dumbledore’s is with the wizard Gellert Grindlewald, where they bond over the idea of a new world order of wizards making the world a better place. That ends when Dumbledore’s plans to put the relationship over his family results in a magical duel that ends in his sister’s death. Dumbledore distances himself from Grindlewald, is estranged from brother Aberforth, and as best we know, ends his interest in romantic relationships. The trauma and shame over his behaviour and their consequences means he doesn’t trust himself with love or power.
Less is known of Weatherwax’s estrangement and end of romance, but the snippets we see are powerful. She tells of how her sister, Lily, was known for enchanting boys into falling in love with her, and was cast out as a result, leaving Weatherwax as sole carer for her mother. This action seems pivotal to her formation of self as later in Witches Abroad, she will rage at Lily that her actions forced her to be the good one and that she was going to do her best to make Lily pay. And while her relationship with Mustrum Ridcully seems to have simply fallen apart over the distance, we do see one day where Weatherwax leaves him behind to visit a circle of power. The inference, backed up at other points in Lords and Ladies, is that Weatherwax chose power over love.
In many ways, we see similar adolescent psychologies for both characters. They shared a lust for power and all it brings. Dumbledore’s traumatic incident can be seen as the major point of departure between the two. Yet there is clearly a divergence before this point. Dumbledore describes himself as “selfish” in his situation in Deathly Hallows. We can infer from Weatherwax’s description of herself as the good one that she was not selfish. She must have been resentful too from her words, and we know from her encounter with the Elven Queen that she had temptations, if not ones attached to romantic interest for extra strength. But Weatherwax did not waver.
Their careers after adolescence are more divergent but possess strong similarities. Most notably, both stay single, pursue careers of service while eschewing formal authority, and grow very powerful while having self-imposed limitations in what they will do. We have examined reasons for their relationship status. When it comes to career and formal authority, in many ways there doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative for Weatherwax in terms of witch hierarchy and expectations, although there is a path laid down by her sister Lily which would have offered a different possibility. But witches look after people, and they aren’t kings or kingmakers. Dumbledore, by contrast, could have been any number of things including Minister for Magic, which he turns down repeatedly due to his own trauma with power seeking.
The differences are those between teaching and general medicine – although we see Weatherwax act as a teacher on multiple occasions – and that Dumbledore performed most of his legendary deeds in the wars against Grindlewald and Voldemort prior to the Harry Potter books, while Weatherwax’s deeds occur in the main Discworld series, sandwiched in between her role as supporting mentor to Esk and Tiffany Aching.
However, we do see events in the books that mirror each other and show their different philosophies at work. One example is their attitude towards mercy to villains; Dumbledore and Pettigrew, Weatherwax and the De Magpyrs. Both are in favour of it, but there is a distinct air of utilitarianism in their logic. While Dumbledore praises Potter’s nobility in sparing Pettigrew in Prisoner of Azkaban, he dwells more on the debt that Pettigrew now owes Potter and the idea that Potter will one day be grateful for it. For Dumbledore, grace and kindness aren’t just good in their own right, but useful weapons. By contrast, Weatherwax’s main given motivation in sparing the De Magpyrs from total extinction in Carpe Jugulum is so the townspeople continue to have a walking, talking example of why not to trust monsters – “don’t trust the cannibal because he’s using a knife and fork”. The only mention of mercy is that it was a sharp axe that killed the Count, although we can see from her rejection of more exotic punishments that is more merciful than some.
Another parallel is their encounters with younger, highly talented peers with a leaning to the dark side – Dumbledore with Tom Riddle, Weatherwax with Lucy “Diamanda” Tockley. Dumbledore describes Riddle as showing “obvious instincts for cruelty, secrecy and domination” in their first meeting, shown in Half-Blood Prince. However, while he admonishes the boy, forces him to give back items he has stolen, and resolves to keep watch on him, he doesn’t seek to punish the Riddle for what he’s done or actively impede him until he misbehaves again. Nor does he seek illicit justice when he suspects that Riddle was the real force behind the first opening of the Chamber of Secrets. Even in this case he mostly lets the child find their own way, and indeed could be argued as too passive and patient in the face of evil. There is perhaps an element of Dumbledore’s lack of self-trust making him unwilling to take on the burden of defeating Voldemort, and definitely an element of Voldemort being careful to avoid direct conflict with Dumbledore where he can.
This avoidance is not true of Tockley or Weatherwax in Lords and Ladies. When Weatherwax becomes aware of Tockley’s activities, she goes to see her, and Tockley immediately challenges the older witch. After that conflict, Weatherwax surprises Tockley up at the gate to the Elven world, and then rescues her from the elves (claiming doing so gave her a human shield). While Weatherwax does not actively seek to control Tockley until after that rescue, she seeks to confront her and force the issue.
We can see a pattern of behaviour here in which, while they often take similar actions, they do so in very different ways while citing different reasons. Weatherwax runs towards challenges, is often cantankerous and sets out selfish reasons for her actions, and while reluctant to take choices for others, isn’t reluctant to force others to take choices. Dumbledore has a tendency to wait and hope, has beautiful manners and while capable of claiming selfishness does so less often and less callously. He generally seems intent on letting others make their choices, but with a frequent tendency to withhold information that will shape how they are taken.
In a lot of ways, both are reactions to their adolescent traumas. In Dumbledore’s case, he changed. Dumbledore was ambitious, impatient, and gave into temptation, which is Grindlewald writ small – he grows into a man who mostly avoids temptation, shows great patience, and turns down power. We do not see what Weatherwax was before her sister left home, but she has followed her path of being the ‘good one’, and while she pursued power, she pursued it as being through her own self rather than wielding influence over others like her sister. They are remarkably similar expressions of the elderly magic mentor archetype, that is so common in British and British-inspired literature thanks to Merlin and Gandalf.
But their similarity makes their differences more stark. What does those differences say about each series and their approach to love and power?
To a certain extent, we can see statements about gender from both. For much of her career, Weatherwax lives in a world where magic is gendered – albeit with notable challenges bookending it. Her path includes a great deal of what is often seen traditionally as women’s work – midwifery, looking after the sick, and other acts of care – with magic used fleetingly and as must be. The choice between love and power reads easily as a portrayal of how women are often forced to choose between such things in our reality. Yet by association with Granny, her acts of heroism, and her championing of patient care, ‘women’s work’ is often lionised in her books. Her decision to put power over love is not one that is criticised. However, while a champion both of women doing what many women have done and of women being heroes, Granny can be seen as having traditionally masculine traits. In appearance she is tall and often described as handsome, and in personality she is competitive, egotistical, and given to conflict. This can be taken to mean many things; the most comfortable I am with attaching a meaning is simply to say it’s there.
Dumbledore is also a champion of a stereotypically women-dominated profession in teaching. His personality – kind, caring, polite, soothing – is one that can be seen as more stereotypically female than male. In terms of appearance, he dresses more colourfully than most men. This can of course be seen as part of his sexuality as an interest in fashion, particularly flamboyent fashion, is a common stereotype about homosexual men. Perhaps other parts of his personality can be seen as more effeminate than feminine, although I see no need for this to be so. Whatever the reason, Dumbledore does not fit solely into conventionally masculine models, and stands out in comparison to his fellow wizards.
As such, both Dumbledore and Weatherwax’s approach to power and love can be seen as rebellions against the societal expectations of their gender, as written by the other gender. There is probably some truth to this, at least on an unconscious level. However, I think there is more than can be said about them.
Perhaps at this point it would help to place both characters within the general milieu of their series. In Weatherwax’s case, the Discworld series sprawled over 40 books, many of them featuring different characters. While Discworld is generally marked by a light-hearted tone, there were several dark themes running through the series like a river that sometimes goes underground and sometimes goes over. Two of the major ones were the absence of natural justice (Death’s speech at the end of The Hogfather in particular) and the ease with which humanity puts up with banal evils (Lord Vetinari’s speech at the end of Guards!Guards! is a good example). In response to these, Pratchett developed a range of protagonists and major characters who would rebel against these conditions without seeking to impose more of their own justice than necessary and in doing so creating more banal evils. They were usually marked by a deep understanding of evil and its attractions, filling character archetypes often associated with evil, and a rigid sense of duty and morality. In other words, characters like Granny Weatherwax, who is described as having one foot in the dark and drawing most of her power from denying it. She can be seen as a manifestation of the type of hero that Pratchett believed humanity needed to rescue it from itself and it only seems logical that many of her greatest fights came against mythical tempters who offer humanity an easy way out at the cost of evil – an evil Fairy Godmother, the Fae, and Vampires.
While the Harry Potter series shares many characteristics and concerns, with Dumbledore explicitly talking of a “choice between what is right and what is easy” in Goblet of Fire, it is perhaps less concerned with humanity and the universe as wider conceits. Everything is boiled down to the small world of the wizards and while there are those who fight, those who subjugate, and those who live with what is presented to them, it feels more of a backdrop to the series’ major themes than one of them. The series’ greatest theme might be said to be a meeting point between love, death, and loss. Rowling is less concerned with what it takes to overcome humanity’s nature and more concerned with what it is to go through it. While Dumbledore has been a hero, his heroism is of less interest to Rowling than his experiences and philosophy. He does not need power in the same way that Weatherwax does; what he needs is to have lost and to have learned about love.
Ultimately their choices and preoccupations are products of the world view each author has inserted into their series, but even here similarities are present. Dumbledore tries to have a romance that interferes with his obligations and is burned as a result; Weatherwax realises her is incompatible and does not pursue it. In both cases, the author acknowledging that in difficult situations, one cannot have everything and must be wise about picking what is done, particularly when one is shaping other’s worlds as well as your own. The divergence is that Rowling uses Dumbledore to teach a painful lesson about overstepping; but for Pratchett, Weatherwax instinctively never does, and is freer to oppose those who do. Dumbledore has the compassion of one who has failed himself, and Weatherwax the anger of those who’ve been failed by others.
And as such, Dumbledore speaks of a series about the power of love and of the acceptance of loss, while Weatherwax speaks of the power of identity and of the acceptance of boundaries. Both series speak of fighting monsters but where Harry Potter speaks of the cost of doing so and healing in order to be able to do so again, Discworld speaks of what it takes to do so to begin with. And so Dumbledore rejects love and power as part of the cost of having fought with monsters, Weatherwax rejects love in order to have the power to do so.
10 thoughts on “Love and Power: A Look at Albus Dumbledore and Granny Weatherwax”
This is amazing, I have been too intimidated by the length (and where to start) to try Discworld but love the Dumbledore insights, specifically the one at the end where HP takes on multiple fights and recoveries as the war plays out!
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Thank you 😀
If you are interested in Discworld btw, it’s easy to break the series down into sub-series, which mostly run for 6-7 books and you can pick a sub-series you like the sound of and go from there. Makes it a little less daunting for some.
Athena, I use this guide chart a lot!
(let’s see if this works
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What a great essay!
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Thank you 😀
Sorry I came so late to this post, but absolutely love the comparative analysis. And you know, Rowling did mention in an interview (unless she’s revised it?), that Dumbledore was gay. I remember a lot of fans did not like that theory, but a lot of other fans immediately got to writing fanfics about it, haha!
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Oh yes – I thought I’d referenced that in the essay tbh! I remember hearing (not that I was a huge fan but had read at that point) and was like “yeah, makes sense”.
And thank you 😀