Power is gained in many ways. Voldemort grabs for it, Dumbledore accepts it with grace, and Harry by turns resists and embraces that which has been thrust upon him. For all three, their powers are inextricably linked.
Voldemort and Harry’s connection is obvious, with Voldemort himself having conferred power on Harry as a baby. His actions created a link that accounts for Harry’s scar, his Parselmouth ability, the connected visions and the inexplicable behaviour of their wands.
Less is known about Dumbledore’s relationship with Voldemort, but they are also entwined: after all, Dumbledore is the only one Voldemort has ever feared. So why is that?
Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the ways they define power. For Voldemort, it is about dominance – his, over other wizards, wizardkind’s over magical creatures, and the magical world’s over Muggles. Within this twisted hierarchy there are numerous sub-divisions, with Muggle-born wizards and non-humans subject to abuse and derision.
Dumbledore’s definition of power, by contrast, is about love. This, he tells Harry time and again, is the thing he has that Voldemort does not. Love drives Voldemort out. He can’t possess Harry when he is thinking of Sirius; he couldn’t even touch Harry because of his mother’s sacrifice. And from love springs friendship, humility, equality and other things Dumbledore identifies as powerful. Voldemort does not comprehend this kind of thinking and so he cannot understand Dumbledore’s motivations, which helps explain his fear.
There are other reasons. When Dumbledore and Voldemort do battle in the Ministry of Magic, Dumbledore’s magical prowess is apparent. They are pretty evenly matched in terms of spells, without either needing to voice many incantations, and Dumbledore keeps his cool while commanding statues and deflecting curses.
And while Voldemort doesn’t understand Dumbledore, Dumbledore understands him. Not just because Dumbledore has seen Voldemort grow up, or even because – we later discover – he has looked into Voldemort’s family background. These give him insight, but so too does Dumbledore’s own past. Because he hasn’t always equated power with love.
One of the first things we ever learn about Dumbledore is that his fame was partly forged by defeating Gellert Grindelwald, the world’s Darkest wizard in a pre-Voldemort age. Their legendary duel saw two extraordinarily talented wizards at the peak of their abilities. It ended with Grindelwald imprisoned, and it cemented Dumbledore’s reputation for fighting the Dark Arts. In itself, this is a solid reason for Voldemort to fear Dumbledore. He’s already beaten another very Dark wizard, so in an actual, physical sense, Dumbledore has proved he is worth fearing.
But, we later learn, Dumbledore also knew Grindelwald personally, and this relationship defined his life. As young wizards bound by circumstance, Dumbledore and Grindelwald shared wild ambitions. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rita Skeeter reproduces a letter from Dumbledore which refers to the superiority of wizards over Muggles, and their supposed responsibility in pursuit of ‘the greater good’. While the letter indicates Dumbledore was more cautious about how to enact power than Grindelwald, there is no doubt it casts the Dumbledore Harry knows in a different light. In the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them we get a glimpse of Grindelwald, and it is obvious that while Dumbledore’s outlook changed, Grindelwald’s obsession with ‘the greater good’ only intensified.
That change in outlook makes Dumbledore even more powerful, at least when it comes to Voldemort. Although ultimately he rejected Grindelwald’s ideals, there was a time when some of those things that appeal to Voldemort – power, glory, leadership – appealed to Dumbledore. After a family tragedy, Dumbledore deliberately chose to stay away from power, realising it was his ‘weakness and… temptation’. And, as he says in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.’ So Dumbledore chose not to be Minister of Magic, remaining at Hogwarts and using his talents to teach others.
It’s a choice that Voldemort – whose lack of self-awareness and responsibility towards others makes him Dumbledore’s polar opposite – can’t understand. But Voldemort is right to fear Dumbledore, because Dumbledore understands how clever boys with powerful ambitions become Dark wizards. And understanding Voldemort is key to defeating him.
That Voldemort’s fear comes in part because Dumbledore has refused power speaks to the fact that it is a hard thing to define. It also reflects some of Harry’s own uncertainties. Towards the end of Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore says:
‘It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
From the outset, Harry is powerful within his own sphere of influence. When it comes to fighting Voldemort his friends defer to him, with Hermione recognising cleverness is not as integral to leadership as friendship and bravery. That’s why she persuades Harry to host D.A. sessions, and why Ron agrees to follow the spiders in Chamber of Secrets. Like Dumbledore, they recognise Harry’s leadership – even when Harry doesn’t acknowledge it himself. Voldemort certainly doesn’t think Harry’s power is all his own. He disregards Harry because of his inability to acknowledge what Dumbledore says is Harry’s greatest strength: love.
Yet love does give Harry power. His leadership qualities aren’t sought solely because he’s defeated Voldemort before. He’s determined, empathetic and, despite all that he’s endured, he has the ability to love.
So, although Voldemort is manipulative and Dumbledore is wise, neither has the unique power Harry has. It’s a power created by an unusual combination of circumstance and personality and Voldemort underestimates it for the same reason he fears Dumbledore – because he can’t understand any motivation other than his own.