Master Manipulators: Albus Dumbledore

I ambitiously began a series I called ‘Master Manipulators’, profiling characters who fit this category in their respective worlds, tweaking circumstances and their peers to fit, more often than not, some hidden agenda. The object of this was to give readers a chance to objectively view their strengths and weaknesses and then, perhaps, judge for themselves as to who would win a throw-down between them. A specialised Suvudu cage match, as it were, where the cage would be the known world, or as much of it as they might be able to influence.

I profiled the most obvious candidate first, Petyr Baelish from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Today, I’ll present the vital stats of Master Manipulator #2: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

manipulative dumbles

Strengths

Age and experience: Besides Nicholas Flamel, Dumbledore is easily the oldest person, with the most extensive career, that we meet in the series. The full range of his achievements is hinted at in the first book, and by the time we reach the seventh, they’ve only been substantiated. Dumbledore was around 115-116 when he died, and has dabbled with all kinds of magic (both light and dark, one would imagine), so he brings considerably experience, whether of people or technique, to bear on any situation.

Extensive political reach: Dumbledore is a mover and shaker despite being Headmaster of a school. He sits on councils, he has a hand in the government through his influence on Cornelius Fudge (supposedly he was sending Dumbledore constant owls at one point, soliciting his advice) and was even offered the top position himself. Yes, he gets painted as a liar and a madman at one point in the series, but the fact that the government bothers to do this at all shows how terrified they are of him and his influence.

Kindly old man persona: The other manipulators (Baelish and his fellows) have one major drawback, and that’s that no one really trusts them implicitly, the way people in the Potterverse trust Dumbledore. As long as he is around, they feel, things will turn out all right. ‘Dumbledore trusts him, and I trust Dumbledore’ is the reasoning much of the Order has for trusting Snape; his arrival at the Ministry makes everything magically all right that night in Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s response to Hermione’s worry in Half Blood Prince is ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll be with Dumbledore.’ He provides a steady, anchoring presence in Hogwarts, at least for the ‘right’ students, inspiring them to follow him. Because of this, most people don’t even realize when they’re being manipulated, except, of course, for poor old Snape.

Weaknesses

Emotional attachment: I’m rather sceptical about this professed weakness. Dumbledore tearfully confesses to Harry in Order that he ‘cared’ too much for him to place the burden of the prophecy on his young shoulders. He distances himself from his protege in order to better protect him from Voldemort. He refuses to explain things to Harry, a decision that results in Sirius’s death and major emotional turmoil for our hero. Dumbledore’s plan almost goes awry before the Horcruxes are even introduced, let alone destroyed; Harry could have died countless times during that ill-advised rescue mission.

Severus-Snape-Albus-Dumbledore-severus-snape-4853008-1279-541

Pride: In my post on Snape, I mentioned that the success of Dumbledore’s grand plan hinged on three things:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry the truth of the last Horcrux (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

Dumbledore made these assumptions because he is used to being correct, he believes he knows people better than they know themselves. ‘I am a great deal…cleverer than you,’ he tells Harry rather snappily,when pressed for the reason why he trusts Snape. Dumbledore never believes he has to explain himself except in cases of utmost distress (notably in that office scene in Order and during his King’s Cross walk with Harry in Deathly Hallows), but this sort of overweening pride could easily have caught up with him and tripped him spectacularly in a more realistic, less kid-friendly universe. I think this is a serious blind spot that Dumbledore really needs to watch out for. His pride, in some instances, makes him as bad as Voldemort.

Need for ‘moral’ backing: Dumbledore’s teenage insecurities made him such a mess that he refused to step in while Grindelwald ravaged Europe. He waited years to make his move, too terrified to hear that he might have killed his own sister. I find this a really crippling weakness; Dumbledore gave his enemy leeway to destroy both him and the lives of countless others. In this instance, Dumbledore betrayed stupidity: even if he did tell him that Dumbledore was the one who cast the final, fatal spell on Ariana, what reason did Grindelwald have to tell him the truth? If Grindelwald were any kind of villain worth his salt, wouldn’t he lie if he knew it would throw Dumbledore off his game?

Dumbledore’s need to be morally in the right puts him at a severe disadvantage when battling masters like Littlefinger. I understand that  good deal of this is because he is in a young adult/children’s series, and needs to stand in moral opposition to Voldemort, but since he’s proven he is not afraid to get his hands dirty in other ways—such as by ruthlessly manipulating Snape or lying all his life to Harry—this one scruple makes him seem ridiculous rather than admirable.

Conclusion: If it came down to sheer firepower, Dumbledore has it all. Magic is a great asset. But if you threw Dumbledore and Littlefinger on opposite sides of a chessboard stacked with real people, placed some ‘sympathetic’ figures on Dumbledore’s side and then asked them to play, I think poor old Albus would have a tough time seeing the bigger picture for the tears in his eyes. 

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How to be a Millenial, Ryan Howard style

‘I was the youngest VP in company history.’

‘More recently, he worked in a bowling alley.’

I watch a lot of TV. To be precise, I watch a lot of American TV, as do many people of my socio economic background and ‘Westernised’ upbringing in this part of the world. American TV is our go-to, our comfort food, something we keep up to date with as religiously as we update our Facebook statuses and do Buzzfeed quizzes. In some cases, more religiously. American TV isn’t even considered ‘foreign’ for us any more, in the same way American pop music and cinema has become ours more than its more ‘desi’ counterparts, at least in my case.

So it’s not surprising that I find, as I tend to find in literature, characters and situations from these TV shows that correspond almost uncomfortably well with my life. Recently, I’ve been ploughing through the US version of ‘The Office’. It took me at least half of the first season, but now I’m hooked and find myself turning almost unconsciously to Michael Scott and his band of not-so-merry men and women when I have a half hour to kill.

There’s one character I love watching more than the rest, not because I find him particularly entertaining (if there is one singularly always-entertaining character it’s definitely Kelly Kapoor) but because he is so freakishly close to home. In fact, if me or many people I know were to be slotted into a type and then ridiculed using a character, that character would be, sadly enough, Ryan Howard. ryan 2

Ryan Howard seems to me the classic ‘millenial’, the wunderkid who soared high on expectations, his own and that of others, and then came crashing spectacularly to earth when it turned out he had no idea how to function in the real world. He went to a fancy business school and then got hired on a ‘temp’ basis at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, a job he quite obviously thinks beneath him. ‘I could have gone anywhere,’ he says once, with a rather awestruck look. He could have been placed as a temp ‘anywhere’ in Scranton, and he ended up here, in this office.

Let’s consider Ryan’s professional track record: from ‘temp’, to no longer a temp (but never a true salesmen, having never made a sale), to obnoxious corporate hotshot who pushes for digitalisation in the name of progress (everyone gets a Blackberry when Ryan gets on the job), to fallen star. In Season 5 we find out he’s working in a bowling alley and has bleached his hair blonde. Apparently the sun in Fort Lauderdale is very strong.

What I find most disturbingly close to home about Ryan is his sense of total entitlement. There’s no doubt he’s smart, and at the beginning at least, he has dreams of starting his own business. His number one fan, Michael, disses those dreams straight off by telling him ‘That’s a terrible idea’. Ryan goes from quiet and ambitious to messed up power-hungry and back to temp in the course of five seasons. Ryan takes no one seriously unless they have a job at the corporate headquarters in New York or are validated by a fancy business degree. Ryan ignores the efforts of his boss to befriend him and then takes an obvious pleasure in pushing that boss, and everyone else, down when he gets to a superior position. Ryan then tumbles down and is exposed for the overreacher he is, the fire guy second time temp who can’t even make one measly sale and now lives, once again, with his mother.

I'm doing you a favour, yo.

I’m doing you a favour, yo.

I know The Office is a comedy and we’re supposed to laugh at all this. The thing about comedy is, if the same stories were captured in drama or a slightly more ambiguous genre, like the one Girls occupies, we’d feel more than a little sad, or disturbed. Ryan’s inability to stick with anything is similar to the dilemmas and self-created problems that trouble the characters of Girls. The latter is considered a pretty searing portrait of today’s twenty somethings, adrift in the world and armed only with seemingly unnecessary and unusable degrees and loads of self worth. Does Ryan have lots of self worth? Oh yeah. enough that he can tell Kelly ‘I need to break up with you so I can go on this trip to Thailand. It’s just something I have to do.’ In his own eyes, his personal net worth is huge, and this filters through in all he says and does.

Do I think Ryan is a bad person? No way. I think he’s super realistic. I can sympathise with his desire to have it all now, to not have to wait around for ‘good things’ to happen, and work his way to the top. I can also totally get on board with his need to be on the phone all the time. I think he’s a college kid who didn’t entirely grow up, or not yet at least. I think he’s an entitled twenty something, and a character that I find eerily and perhaps disturbingly sympathetic. After all, it’s taken more than a few of us a long time to forget that we’re not in college anymore.

More’s the pity.

Keep on Keeping On

Epic fantasy heroes share many traits. Many of them are orphans, cast aside at some point or the other by their fellows/society, entrusted with a burden that few believe they really have the strength to bear, lose mentor figures at crucial moments of their quests and, finally, despite all odds manage to pull through and show everyone, both bad guys and good, that they were the right ones for the task after all. A glance a pop culture shows many heroes with these traits: Harry, Rand, Arthur, Egwene, even Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan.

Must set reminder to discuss the latter two at some point.

Usually, these heroic struggles lend themselves very well to onscreen adaptations. With the killer combination of angst, adventure, morals and good looks, what’s not to love in these movies? Harry thus gets a new, far less pasty look with a searingly blue eyed Daniel Radcliffe, racially ambiguous Katniss becomes America’s sweetheart Jenn Law, and Legolas, such a minor character in the Tolkien trilogy, gets to steal hearts in five different visits to Middle Earth. You could say that in some cases, Legolas’s for instance, the movies do a lot to bolster a character and make him more ‘palatable’ in some ways. In other, arguably more important ways, cinema is less kind.

What I think most important about a fantasy hero’s journey is his or her ability to just keep going. This is quite possibly the least glamorous trait any hero has, but it is, in my opinion, the most important, and what really sets them apart from their fellows. Often, this ability to carry on is most severely tested in circumstances unappealing, or downright boring, to a spectator.  The example that jumps to mind is that of Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Compared to Aragorn’s mad rush through the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is plodding, slow and dull. I know many people, myself included, groaned every time the camera cut away from Aragorn and company to the Ringbearer(s). That walk through barren, grey lands, and the import of his ability to just carry on through it didn’t translate well. Let’s face it: the only time we were ever even the slightest bit interested in Frodo was when Shelob nearly got him and Sam proved his ‘bodyguard’ skills. frodo and sam

Yet, when I read the book, I found the ‘war scenes’ most dull. It’s a curious paradox isn’t it; action sequences in literature rarely inspire as much excitement as their renditions on screen, while long, insightful bits like Frodo and Sam coming upon a stream of water in the middle of the Plains of Gorgoroth are axed summarily from screenplays for being ‘extraneous’. But really, could anyone else in that book have done what Frodo and Sam did? No, I think. The supreme quality of the hobbits is tenaciousness, stubborness, an unwillingness to let go of the world, or reality, or habit, or what have you. Frodo and Sam are dogged figures, and in the Middle Earth’s hour of need, doggedness and sheer persistence, not genius and flashing swords, are the saviors.

harry deathlyThe same thing applies to Harry. Harry’s greatest moral crisis in the entire series is not, as might be expected in Order of the Phoenix, whether or not to commit murder. Surprisingly, he seems fairly cool with that (and doesn’t even end up really ‘killing’ Voldemort himself). No, Harry’s biggest dilemma comes when he finds out that his idol and trusted mentor hid things from him his entire life. The notion that faultless Dumbledore might not in fact have been as white as his beard sears Harry for a time, almost paralyzes him in the woods. Perhaps this prepares him for the knowledge that Snape later delivers to him, that he was always intended as a sacrifice. Despite this betrayal, Harry carries on.

I had a bit of a problem with this. To me, Harry seemed a very passive hero. Surely, I thought, he could have fought it, he could have acted a little human and seemed less accepting of Dumbledore’s final plan. He sort of numbly walks out to meet his death, not even reflecting on the idea that his headmaster had planned his end with such cold clarity.

And then a friend pointed out to me that that, really, is what makes Harry Harry and a hero in this context. Harry never really does things because he wants to. He never does things because he knows they will work out. He operates on sheer instinct, in conflict situations and with people, and he fights Voldemort more out of an innate sense of justice than anything else. Unlike Hermione, Harry does not rationalize his decisions. Unlike Ron, he does not strategize and think ahead. He just closes his eyes and does what he thinks needs to be done, and if that involves sacrificing himself as intended by a man he considered his closest guide, then so be it.

That’s persistence again, for you. Hard to translate on screen, especially when you have the explosions and cooler stuff going on in Hogwarts.

Finally, Rand. The Wheel of Time books have not yet been brought to the screen, but given the burgeoning of fantasy, sci fi and superhero franchises, they probably will be soon enough. Unlike these guys, Rand is an almost all-powerful hero. He is smart, good looking, very well connected, has the world backing him as he goes into battle, and can handle immense amounts of the Power, a trump card in his universe. But none of these are required, or of any help, in his ultimate face off with the Dark One. What pulls him through here is, sure enough, a conviction that he is right, that his struggle is necessary, that he must pull through. Egwene, too, wins over her competitors for the same reason. both have an iron will, complete faith in themselves, and so they succeed where others falter under weights they deem unendurable.

How would you put this on screen though? Usually a hero’s angst phase is captured in a series of workout sessions, some photogenic brooding, dramatic soundtrack and indications of time passing (like a montage of the seasons, calendar sheets falling to the floor, sand dripping through an hourglass, etc). How can you take something as downright boring as the idea of ‘doing your duty because nothing else occurs to you’ and make it sexy?

It’s hard to sell. And it’s even harder to put into practice. Maybe that’s why there’s an entire book devoted to just that basic tenet, and people worship the man who supposedly declaimed it. And maybe that’s why we salute and make fantasy heroes out of those who not only abide by that tenet, but do awesome things like save the world through their adherence to that one rule. Being a hero is hard, and at times, deadly boring. After those doldrum struggles, perhaps an encounter with a deadly foe served to ‘break the monotony nicely’. Trust Sirius Black to have the perfect phrase at hand.

One More Thing

Is there anything better than discovering a new favorite author?

Before you go all Buzzfeed on me and start listing things, let me say that that was a rhetorical question.

For me, one of the greatest joys is finding a good book. As I’ve grown older, this has become increasingly hard to do. This may be because my reading has, to a great extent, narrowed. I don’t have as much time to devour books, and so the ones that I do read are chosen with great care and only (usually, if it’s a new writer or someone I’ve never tried before), after I scroll through a few reviews from trusted websites. At least, this is the process I follow when I pick up a new fantasy series because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of trash out there that finds itself into unsuspecting hands, especially in this genre.

When it comes to the more vaguely dubbed ‘lit fic’ however, my selection process is not nearly so clinical. If I’ve heard of the book from a trustworthy source (usually a friend who’s read it), or read and been intrigued by a newspaper/magazine review, I might be inspired to peruse it. Or I might have seen and been thoroughly impressed by the author in at a literary festival and then decided to not be pseudo intellectual—no more pretending to like him/her, let’s see if they read as good as they sound.

BJNovak_AFThe case of B.J. Novak and One More Thing was slightly more complicated. Or simpler, depending on your perspective. I love Mindy Kaling, and I raced through her Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other concerns faster than I had any other book for what felt like a long time. It was hilarious, and at times I felt as though I were listening to an older sister or friend talk about things that I hope, in a few years, I might be qualified to speak about myself. Going by the law of transitivity or whatever it is, I assumed that I might like her fellow The Office writer’s work as well, and so I picked up Novak’s book.

The cashier at the counter took one look at the white-covered, innocuous looking text and told me that I was going to ‘love it’. Turns out, he was totally right. And the law of whatever-it-is was, for once, proven totally right.

One More Thing is brilliant. It is a collection of short stories, poems, little notes, that are very obviously the work of a very, very smart guy who has (it seems to me) always wanted to be a ‘real writer’. Everything about Novak’s career—a double major in English and Spanish Literature from Harvard, a stand-up comedian, a writer on the hit NBC series The Office, producer, actor and now, author of two books—signals an extremely creative person with perhaps more than his fair share of talent. His book is just like that career path, zigzagging from scene to scene, jumping through a whirlwind of emotion and snapping with energy, but never, ever anything less than hilarious and, at moments, beautifully poignant.

One More Thing strikes me as a very ‘literature student type’ book. It makes digs at the whole process of studying English, the over-reading and analyzing that becomes second nature to its students, and very considerately provides ‘discussion questions’ at the close of some of the pieces. At the end of the book, for example, he asks:

Did you think the book was funny? Why or why not?

Do you think discussion questions can be unfairly leading sometimes? Why?

Do you think “why not” is ultimately a better question than “why”?

Why or why not?

Very thought provoking, as you can see.

Some of Novak’s stories, the more obviously sci-fi or ‘uncanny’ ones reminded me a great deal of one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. Like Gaiman, he infuses these short glimpses into strange worlds with more reality than many ‘fantasy saga’ writers do in their twelve-book-long epics. Like Gaiman, his writing is simple, concise, no room for bloated words or sentiments. He pins his ideas onto the page with a minimum of fuss, a skill I suppose he honed during his time writing for The Office. For instance, with a few sentences, he manages to paint this character perfectly:

For the adoration due a great poet, he made a point of writing his articles longhand on legal pads in fashionable cafes, always looking like a brilliant, beautiful mess, a priceless piece of set decoration for any independently owned coffee shop: the poet completely lost in his work, pausing only to explain—often, and at length, depending on the questioner—what it was he was working on.

Totally recognizable type, I’d say.

Not all of Novak’s stories are as openly ridiculing as this one might seem to be. Like I said, OMT contains a range of emotion and encounters, and the tones of the pieces vary, but the overall effect is … comforting. I felt like I was spending the night talking to an old friend, one I knew and admired, laughing at the stories he had to tell me even when some of them made me want to cry. I knew from the first page that this was good writing, I knew this was a writer I could trust, and I know, now that the covers have been closed, that this is a writer I will go back to. 330x360xNovak_photo-e1359764894573-330x360.jpg.pagespeed.ic.3gYi-IDGZF

I hope Novak writes more, lots more. I have a feeling he will, and that he’ll continue to work his way into my heart with every paragraph he pens. He is the wunderkind after all.

One more thing—go read this book right now. I promise you, it’s totally worth your time. If you’re not convinced, maybe the hilarious book trailer will help:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FxhTn9cEhI