By the time Harry arrives at Gryffindor Tower, the potion has mostly worn off and the Fat Lady refuses to let him in, saying that the password changed at midnight. However, Nearly Headless Nick is gliding by and informs Harry that Dumbledore has just returned to the castle from a mysterious errand. Harry sprints to Dumbledore’s office and breathlessly presents the memory, earning a wide smile and an exclamation of praise from the headmaster.
Harry is pleased to secure the memory not just because it helps in the fight against Voldemort, but because it earns him Dumbledore’s praise. Moments like this display his growing dependence on the headmaster for parental guidance and validation – and hint at the emotional crisis he’ll face after his mentor’s death.
Dumbledore empties the memory into the Penseive and he and Harry find again find themselves in the young Slughorn’s office, with Riddle and the other Slytherins sitting around him. Instead of blotting out his words in fog, Slughorn genially predicts that Tom Riddle will rise to Minister of Magic in twenty years – adding that with his “abilities,” it’s clear that he comes from “decent Wizarding stock.”
Even though Slughorn was testifying to muggle-born Lily’s intelligence just moments ago, here he says that Riddle’s talent is proof of his pureblood Wizarding ancestry (which, of course, he does not have). Vacillating between sympathetic and odious remarks, Slughorn forces Harry to confront the existence of people who can’t be easily categorized as “good” or “bad.”
After the other students leave, Riddle stays behind and asks Slughorn about Horcruxes. The professor is taken aback, but Riddle perseveres, telling Slughorn that he’s turning to him as a wise and knowledgeable wizard. Reluctantly, Slughorn explains that a Horcrux is a physical object in which a wizard stores part of their soul so that, even if he is attacked or killed, he won’t die. However, existence as a bodiless soul is wretched, and the price for performing this magic is terrible: in order to split the soul, one has to commit a murder.
Riddle has adeptly exploited Slughorn’s desire for praise and flattery to his advantage. Ironically, this is a very similar tactic to that which Harry took in persuading the professor to reveal information just now. Moments like this show the eerie similarity that exists between Voldemort’s and Harry’s behavior.
When Riddle presses for more information on the mechanics of this magic, Slughorn becomes irritated, asking if he looks like a person who has tried this. Riddle apologizes, but then proceeds to ask if it’s possible to split one’s soul more than once – for example, to create seven Horcruxes. Clearly repenting of the entire conversation, Slughorn tells Riddle never to speak about this again, especially not to Dumbledore. The student turns away, his face full of sinister and “wild” delight.
Even though Slughorn made a grave mistake in educating Riddle about Horcruxes, his memory is doing a great service right now – he’s essentially revealed how many Horcruxes the villain has created. The novel argues that sometimes only people who have done bad deeds have the capacity to fix them.
Dumbledore and Harry exit the memory. Dumbledore says that this episode confirms his theories: that as a teenager, Voldemort had already figured out how to make himself immortal, perhaps many times over. Dumbledore reveals that four years ago, when Harry handed him Riddle’s magic diary, he realized that since the object was starting to think for itself and give orders to humans, it had to be a piece of Voldemort’s soul. At the same time, the carelessness with which Voldemort treated this Horcrux – allowing it to fall into the hands of a random student – convinced him that there had to be more in existence.
Harry’s experience fighting Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets was chilling, but now Dumbledore explains that it’s part of an even more sinister plot, which Harry will have to confront in the future. For Harry, part of growing up is learning to see the events of his childhood not as individual escapades ending in certain triumph, but parts of a larger series of events with an uncertain outcome.
Harry asks why Voldemort didn’t just use a Sorcerer’s Stone to guarantee immortality, rather than this more drastic course. Dumbledore hypothesizes that the Dark wizard wouldn’t want to be dependent on a potion – or the person who brewed it. He prefers to “operate alone,” and Horcruxes allow him to do that. Dumbledore is convinced that, just as Riddle suggested in the memory, Voldemort has split his soul into seven pieces, creating six Horcruxes. This is appalling to Harry, as the objects could be hidden anywhere in the world.
Even though Voldemort and Harry share similar origins and sometimes behave in similar ways, Voldemort’s instinct to isolate himself from others is what makes him fundamentally different than Harry. Voldemort believes that the Horcruxes will liberate him from reliance on others, but his lack of true friends will actually make him vulnerable to Harry, who operates with the support of a wide network.
To cheer him up, Dumbledore points out that Harry has already destroyed one Horcrux, the diary, while he has eliminated another – Marvolo’s ring, which he found hidden in the ruins of the Gaunt house. It was in this endeavor that Dumbledore injured his hand, and only because of Professor Snape’s timely magic did he not sustain more serious injuries.
Dumbledore’s mention of Snape is a tacit affirmation of his trust in Snape – but it also points out that Snape knows the headmaster’s deepest secrets, and could easily report them to the Death Eaters.
Overwhelmed, Harry points out that any object could technically be a Horcrux. But Dumbledore responds that Voldemort has always been attracted to powerful or significant objects, and that he’s probably taken great care in selecting the ones for his Horcruxes. With a start, Harry realizes that Hepzibah’s locket and cup are probably among them. Dumbledore further hypothesizes that having procured objects belonging to Hufflepuff and Slytherin, Voldemort would have sought two more from Ravenclaw and Gryffindor – although the only known relic of Gryffindor is the famous sword that belongs to Dumbledore.
Dumbledore’s earlier emphasis on the fact that the young Tom Riddle liked to collect “trophies” and felt intimately connected to Hogwarts now emerges as crucial in understanding his choice of Horcruxes. While Harry tends to think of feelings as inherently distinct from the fight against Voldemort, moments like this show that emotional intuition is important not just in his personal life but in solving this mystery.
Even if Voldemort did manage to procure something belonging to Ravenclaw, the remaining Horcrux remains unclear to Harry – until Dumbledore says he’s long suspected that it’s Nagini, Voldemort’s prized snake, whom he always keeps close to him. Astutely, Harry guesses that when Dumbledore leaves the school he’s been searching for Horcruxes, and the headmaster says he believes himself close to finding another one. Harry asks if he can come with him to destroy it, and to his surprise Dumbledore agrees. Harry is happy “not to hear words of caution and protection for once.”
Harry views Dumbledore’s acquiescence to his request as affirmation of his desire to take a more adult role in the fight against Voldemort. However, his enthusiastic desire to accompany the professor shows how little he knows about such dangerous missions – in other words, how far from adult he actually is. Once he’s been to retrieve a Horcrux, and has to contemplate doing so again without Dumbledore’s guidance, he’ll see this task not as a burden, not a thrill.
Harry asks if Voldemort can tell when a Horcrux is destroyed, and Dumbledore responds that he’s probably dehumanized himself too much to be able to tell. He only knew that the diary had been destroyed after questioning Lucius Malfoy, who smuggled it into Hogwarts without his permission, hoping to get an incriminating object off his hands.
Even on a mechanical level, Voldemort’s tendency to isolate himself from others makes him vulnerable to efforts to destroy his Horcruxes.
If all the Horcruxes are destroyed, Voldemort can be killed – but only by someone with “uncommon skill or power.” Discouraged, Harry says that he’s not the one who can do it. He’s unimpressed by Dumbledore’s response that Harry’s power “to love” is something Voldemort has never had, but the headmaster quietly insists that, given everything that has happened to Harry, this is a “great and remarkable” ability.
Even though Dumbledore has just shown Harry how crucial emotional intelligence is, and how important it is to be surrounded by loyal friends rather than fundamentally isolated, Harry still can’t believe that his ability to love others is a tactical advantage. Even as this characteristic distinguishes him from Voldemort, his reluctance to value it is reminiscent of the Dark Lord.
In fact, Dumbledore says that Harry’s ability to love is the power referenced in the prophecy. However, the prophecy is only important because Voldemort heard it and chose to kill the Potters, thus giving Harry both the desire for revenge and the special protection of love through his mother’s sacrifice. Like “tyrants everywhere,” Voldemort’s greatest fear is the person he has tried to “oppress.”
Even though Harry’s character is antithetical to Voldemort’s, Dumbledore sees it as stemming from the moments in which their lives intersected. His conception of the situation differs from Harry’s moral universe, in which “good” and “bad” people share no similarities and don’t affect each other’s character.
By trying to kill Harry, Voldemort actually paved the way for his own defeat. Dumbledore points out that, although Harry can see into Voldemort’s mind and understand Parseltongue, he’s never been “seduced” into following Voldemort – because of his grief for the parents that Voldemort killed. In short, he’s protected from and elevated above Voldemort by his ability to love, which has kept him “pure of heart,” despite the many dangers and temptations he has faced. Moreover, Voldemort doesn’t even understand Harry’s advantage because he’s never valued “the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.”
Although Dumbledore generally refrains from telling Harry how special he is, here he remarks on the genuine strength of character which is evident in Harry’s instinctive kindness and rejection of the preferential treatment he’s constantly offered. In a sense, the Horcruxes not only represent Voldemort’s increasing inhumanity, they highlight Harry’s contrasting goodness. It’s also interesting that Dumbledore considers Harry’s everyday good behavior evidence of a tactical advantage over Voldemort.
Dumbledore says it’s not the prophecy that requires Harry to fight Voldemort – it’s his sense of injustice and all the terrible deeds he has witnessed in the past years, as well as the fact that Voldemort will never stop hunting him. Harry understands that Dumbledore is trying to impress upon him that he must not fear or evade battle with Voldemort, but rather meet him “with [his] head held high,” just as his parents once did.
Although he perhaps knows that Harry is too young to feel comfortable taking on the burden of fighting Voldemort, Dumbledore is showing him a way to conceive of his adult duty without feeling overwhelmed by it. Unlike various other moments in which Harry feels cognizant of his increasing responsibilities, here he’s proud and enthusiastic about the path ahead.