The classic wizard, with his long white beard and his starry cloak, has been around a good long while. Humans have always told stories of old, slightly befuddled men full of sage advice. We like our fatherly mentor figures to have magical powers, and we like them to depart tragically halfway through the story, leaving our boyish hero to fend for himself. Modern media is chock full of these mentor wizards, from Gandalf to Obi-Wan Kenobi to Professor Albus Dumbledore himself.
Dumbledore’s character, too, is a hodge-podge of many different wizards who came before. He’s got a bit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf in him, and a bit of C.S. Lewis’s Aslan (right down to his affection for lions and his sacrificial death). But if we were to name one wizard as Dumbledore’s direct predecessor, one especially wise and batty, white-bearded fellow who takes a special interest in the magical education of important English orphan boys, there is one obvious choice:
Merlin. Or, to be exact, Merlyn, from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the beloved re-telling of Arthurian legend.
White’s Merlyn solidified our classic, literary wizard in a lot of ways: he's got the beard and the spectacles, the hat and the pet owl and the magical powers. He wants to teach young Arthur (unfortunately called "Wart") how to be a good person and a good king.
But perhaps the most important thing is that Merlyn, like Dumbledore, lives in entirely the wrong time.
In The Once and Future King, you see, Merlyn lives backwards. He was born in the far future, and as he gets older, the world around him gets younger. By the time he meets Arthur in 5th or 6th Century England, he's already seen England's future. He's already lived through Arthur's reign, in all its glory and its folly.
When Arthur meets Merlyn for the first time, it is, from Merlyn's perspective, their last goodbye.
This backwards living makes the wizard a humorously confused character, tinged ever so slightly with tragedy. As Merlyn puts it in the book,"I was unfortunately born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind."
He's seen great the inventions of the future, but he's seen terrible violence and intolerance, too. Merlyn's lessons for young Arthur (which usually involve transforming the poor boy into various animals) almost always boil down to the sentiment, “Might does not make right! Right makes right!”
T.H. White, too, knew the feeling of being born in the wrong time. He came of age in the early 1900s, and it has been speculated by many that he was gay, but never felt comfortable openly living as a gay man. In one of his diaries, while describing his unrequited love for a boy named Zed, White wrote: “It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them.”
White's entire book is more or less an exploration of this theme. Once Arthur grows up, the main plot of The Once and Future King deals with the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, and the love triangle between King Arthur, Queen Guenever, and Sir Lancelot. Lancelot is heavily implied to be in love with Arthur, but unable to act upon his feelings. Instead, in both The Once and Future King and most subsequent adaptations of the story, Lancelot has an affair with the queen (one notable exception is the Monty Python musical Spamalot, which ends with Lancelot happily married to a prince).
The tragedy of Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot is their inability to love openly, to make the most of their own capacities.
Rowling's characters, too, are defined by their capacity for love. Harry is able to defeat Voldemort because he is capable of feeling love. Voldemort is doomed to be defeated because he feels neither love nor remorse, because he believes that might does make right.
And Dumbledore is ultimately tragic because he has this great capacity for love and joy, and no hope of using them.
His history with Grindelwald is the story of an unfulfilled romance. But also, Dumbledore is never allowed to express his romantic orientation within the text of Harry Potter. He is not allowed to be "explicitly gay" in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel, either. That is the fault of his creators.
Like Merlyn, the charcter of Dumbledore has learned from the mistakes of his youth. He knows that might does not make right, and he wants to stop the world from regressing into hate. He is permitted to impart this knowledge on a young, heterosexual boy, before his time in the story is up. But, also like Merlyn, he is doomed to be lightyears ahead of everyone around him. Like White, he is never given the chance to live and love openly.
Even now, with Harry Potter fans in an uproar over yet another film featuring a "not explicitly gay" Dumbledore, he is still consigned to White's "hideous fate" of living at half capacity. His sexuality exists in author interviews and tweets and fan-fiction, and not in the story itself.
Rowling has frequently cited T.H. White as one of her chief influences. And it's clear, from young Harry's orphaned beginnings to Dumbledore's long, wizardly beard, that The Once and Future King has left its mark on the series. Both authors have given us beautiful, powerful stories about the nature of love and heroism. Both authors have given us spunky English boy heroes and hilariously wise wizard mentors and enough magic to inspire a generation.
But even all these years later, Merlyn and Dumbledore are stuck in a world that's not ready for them. Merlyn because he's doomed to live backwards, always surrounded by people living forwards. Dumbledore because even in 2018, the idea of an openly gay wizard in a fantasy film is, apparently, still too radical.
Let's just hope that, with the next generation of writers, the world catches up.