Why Can Dumbledore Understand Parseltongue?

Twenty years after Harry, Ron, and Hermione Apparated into our hearts, the Harry Potter series isn't done giving up its secrets. Today, one Redditor thinks they may have solved one of the series' oldest mysteries: Why can Dumbledore understand Parseltongue? We've got a lot of ground to cover on this, but it's all worth it in the end, I promise.

Parselmouths are very rare, and are generally only found among Salazar Slytherin's descendants. Although Harry is very distantly related to Slytherin, his ability to speak Parseltongue comes from his connection to Voldemort.

Albus Dumbledore is not a true Parselmouth, as he can understand Parseltongue, but cannot speak it. Because this is — once again — a very rare skill, theories abound as to why the Hogwarts headmaster was able to understand the language of snakes. Among them:

  • Dumbledore learned Parseltongue from his ex-partner, Gellert Grindelwald.
  • Dumbledore learned Parseltongue to better understand Voldemort.
  • Dumbledore learned Parseltongue, Mermish, and Gobbledegook because he's a badass.

There's nothing innately wrong with any of these theories, of course, except for the fact that Pottermore explicitly states that "you don’t so much learn [Parseltongue], as just innately know it." If that's the case, then none of the theories above make sense, because they all require Dumbledore to have made some sort of effort to master the language.

Compiling data from Rowling and her books, Redditor Obversa has come up with a fan theory that explains exactly why Dumbledore can understand Parseltongue: he may, in fact, be a descendant of Salazar Slytherin.

Earlier this year, in anticipation of Fantastic Beasts' theatrical release, Rowling published never-before-seen information about wizarding schools around the world, including Ilvermorny: the bastion of magical academia in the U.S.

Ilvermorny was founded in the 17th century by Isolt Sayre: an immigrant who was descended from both Morrigan — a legendary Irish witch — and Salazar Slytherin. After spending the first five years of her life living in peaceful cohabitation with her Muggle neighbors, Isolt was orphaned in a fire set by her Parselmouth aunt, Gormlaith Gaunt. Gormlaith "rescued" her niece, and raised her in isolation from Muggles and Muggle-borns, believing that a child of such rich ancestry should only associate with pure-blood witches and wizards.

After 12 years of this, Isolt learned enough magic to escape to the American Colonies, where she married James Steward, a No-Maj. The couple adopted two orphaned wizards, Chadwick and Webster Boot, and founded Ilvermorny. Isolt later gave birth to twin daughters: Martha and Rionach.

Like Albus Dumbledore, Isolt was not a Parselmouth, but she could understand Parseltongue: a skill she later used to communicate with the Horned Serpent who lived in the creek near Ilvermorny. Rionach was a very gifted witch, and was rumored to have been born a Parselmouth, like Gormlaith. She never married, and this fueled the rumor "that she was determined not to pass on Slytherin ancestry into the next generation."

Martha, on the other hand, was a Squib. She married her Pocomtuc friend's non-magical brother and lived out her life as a No-Maj. Bearing in mind that Rowling has confirmed Muggle-borns to be the descendents of Squibs, and assuming that Martha's family continued to live, for a time, as part of the Pocomtuc, Obversa has a compelling theory as to how her family line may have produced one of the Harry Potter series' most "terrifying" witches: Kendra Dumbledore.

According to Obversa, many of the Pocomtuc merged with Abenaki tribes and European settlements in the mid-18th century. Those who attempted to retain their tribal identity suffered through horrific eradication efforts at the hands of their white colonizers, including abusive boarding schools and eugenics programs. In order to survive, it's likely that Martha Steward's descendents would have had to pass for white, and possibly even quit North America altogether.

How does this all lead to Kendra Dumbledore? Let's take a look at what the Weasleys' Aunt Muriel had to say about Albus Dumbledore's mother in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

a terrifying woman, simply terrifying. Muggle-born, though I heard she pretended otherwise ... proud and very domineering, the sort of witch who would have been mortified to produce a Squib[.]

Why would Kendra Dumbledore, a Muggle-born, have been upset by the thought of producing a Squib, unless she had reason to believe that being a Squib was shameful — perhaps as Martha Steward herself felt?

As for why Aunt Muriel thinks Kendra was "terrifying," Obversa admits that it "could be d[ue] to Kendra's personality," but suggests that it may be a "latent Parseltongue gene" that activated alongside her magical abilities. Given that Parselmouths continue to be vilified among wizarding communities for their connection to Salazar Slytherin, this summation seems fair.

Finally, let's remember that Harry's first thought upon seeing Kendra's portrait — which showed her "jet black hair[,] ... dark eyes, high cheekbones and straight nose" — was of Native Americans. For Rowling, an author known to write intricately detailed character histories, it's an odd statement to make as a mere throwaway. Given that non-black, non-Asian people of color and those of mixed-race ancestry make up a very small percentage of the U.K.'s population, that Rowling specifically cites Kendra's Native American "look" makes Obversa's theory all the more believable.

If Kendra Dumbledore was Martha Steward's descendant, then Albus Dumbledore could have inherited the ability to understand Parseltongue from his mother. That would also make Dumbledore a descendant of Salazar Slytherin and Morrigan, which could explain his exemplary powers.

What do you think? Can Dumbledore understand Parseltongue because he's descended from Salazar Slytherin through Martha Steward? Let's talk about it on Twitter!

Image: Warner Bros.