Harry Potter and The Problem With The Pensieve Memories


I’ve read each of the Harry Potter books multiple times. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (HBP), Dumbledore takes Harry through a half-dozen memories — some his, some those of others that the Headmaster has collected. And for years, something was troubling me about them — they didn’t add up. Over the last few days, I’ve finally pieced together why.

(If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you know the books rather well.)


The Six Memories: A Timeline

Here are the six memories in the order that the recollected events occurred. (We’ll begin exploring when Dumbledore collected the memories later.) I’ll be relying on these memories throughout, so, it’s good to have a point of reference.

  • 1924 or 1925: The arrest of Marvolo and Morfin Gaunt (Bob Ogden’s memory)
  • 1938: Dumbledore meets Voldemort 1 in the orphanage (Dumbledore’s)
  • 1943: Voldemort asks Slughorn about creating multiple Horcruxes (Slughorn’s)
  • 1943: Voldemort and Morfin Gaunt argue before the murder of the Riddles (Morfin Gaunt’s)
  • Sometime between 1955 and 1961: Voldemort visits Hepzibah Smith 2 (Hokey the House Elf’s) 
  • Sometime between 1965 and 1971: Voldemort visits Dumbledore at Hogwarts (Dumbledore’s) 

(It’s unclear which of the two memories from 1943 happened first, but it’s immaterial.)

We’ll need to address most if not all of these six memories, but the Bob Ogden one was the one that didn’t sit right with me. As it turns out, it’s not all that important, but let’s start there anyway — because I did.


What is Ogden’s Memory About?

The first one is the memory of Bob Ogden, the Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad, who investigated Morfin Gaunt (Voldemort’s uncle) for using magic in front of a Muggle (who happened to be Tom Riddle Sr., Voldemort’s eventual father). Ogden shows up, finds out that Morfin and his father Marvolo are poor wizards who are mean to Merope (Morfin’s sister and Voldemort’s eventual mother), who they believe to be a Squib. The Gaunt men are also pureblood elitists who believe that they are above the law, especially when it comes to how they act toward Muggles and those they believe to be Squibs. 3

For us readers, this establishes where Voldemort came from and his family tree. Like Harry, we learn that the Gaunts are descendants from two major Wizarding families. First, we again learn they are descendants of Salazar Slytherin’s (which we knew about already from the Chamber of Secrets) when we find out that the Gaunt family owns Slytherin’s locket, which Merope wears around her neck. We also find out that Voldemort is a descendant of the Peverell family, specifically Cadmus Peverell (as we’ll learn later) because Marvolo shows Ogden a ring he’s wearing. Marvolo calls the markings on the ring’s stone the “Peverell family crest” and, in the words of the book, “the ring sailed within an inch of his [Ogden’s] nose.”

It’s unclear why Dumbledore shares this memory with Harry otherwise, though. Unlike the other memories, it doesn’t do much to help inform what or where the remaining Horcruxes are. It introduces the ring but Dumbledore already has that, and for that matter, it’s already been destroyed. It also introduces the locket, but Hokey’s memory does that too, and Hokey’s memory is critical for Harry to see regardless. (And Dumbledore thinks he is relatively close to finding the locket, in any event.)

The memory may serve two other purposes, though. First, it kind of, sort of helps establish that Voldemort never experienced love, not even through the relationship of his parents, which was loveless. It explains why Voldemort grew up in an orphanage even though his father and uncle are both alive at the time. Voldemort doesn’t understand love, and that — love — is “the power the Dark Lord knows not,” according to Dumbledore’s interpretation of Trelawney’s first prophecy. If Dumbledore thinks Harry is skeptical about this “power,” driving it home by showing Harry this memory makes a lot of sense.

The other purpose — and the one I’m more interested in: Harry now has a critical clue about the identity and location of the Resurrection Stone. Of course, at that time, he has no idea that there is such thing as the Resurrection Stone, but when he learns about it and the other Hallows in the seventh book, Harry uses this memory-learned connection to the Peverells to figure out that the Stone is real (which he then perhaps aggressively concludes is inside the Snitch). In telling Ron and Hermione this in Book 7, Harry admits that he couldn’t make out the sign of the Deathly Hallows from Ogden’s memory (“There was nothing fancy on there, as far as I could see; maybe a few scratches. I only ever saw it really close up after it had been cracked open”) and couldn’t be sure it was the same sign. But he made the connection nonetheless.


Why Did Dumbledore Seek Out Ogden’s Memory?

This is simple to answer at first — when sharing Morfin Gaunt’s memory, Dumbledore tells Harry that he “was able to secure a visit to Morfin in the last weeks of his life, by which time I was attempting to discover as much as I could about Voldemort’s past.” It makes sense that he’d interview the Ministry official who investigated Riddle’s magical family.

But keep in mind that this is a wild goose chase. While Harry (and by extension, us as the reader) learn a lot from this memory, Dumbledore didn’t. He already knew that Voldemort was the son of Merope Gaunt, the grandson of Marvolo, and the nephew of Morfin. Dumbledore already knows that Tom Riddle Sr. was Voldemort’s dad. Dumbledore was also a member of the Wizengamot and almost certainly knew about Morfin’s attack on Tom Riddle Sr. and on Marvolo’s attempt to defend his son against Ogden and the other authorities. In other words: Dumbledore already knew why Ogden went to the Gaunt shack and how that basically played out. Seeing Ogden’s memory of the events doesn’t add much to that. What was Dumbledore hoping to see?

I’ve seen a few explanations, but only one makes sense.

First, maybe Dumbledore was looking for clues about Horcruxes. That’s unlikely, for a few reasons, most notably because the memory is older than Voldemort himself. (That said, the memories do establish that both Marvolo Gaunt’s Ring and Slytherin’s Locket — two of the Horcruxes — were Voldemort’s family heirlooms.)

Second, maybe he was looking for clues as to what Trewlany’s first prophecy meant when she said that Harry (or Neville, but nevermind that) has the “power the Dark Lord knows not.” That certainly makes sense given the previous section, but the timing seems weird. Ogden was at least 20 years old when he visited the Gaunts in 1925 — and probably much older, given his title of Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad — and the prophecy wasn’t until 1980 (and Harry wasn’t marked as the survivor for a year after that). At best, Ogden was 75 or so. Most likely, he was long dead. 4 (In HBP, Dumbledore tells Harry that Ogden “died some time ago, but not before I had tracked him down and persuaded him to confide these recollections to me.”) It’s plausible, but it really requires you to force the math.

And finally, Dumbledore had no idea what he was looking for but figured it was worth the look. We generally think of that as a good idea: when you’re dealing with the Dark Lord, leave no stone unturned, right? But that’s not consistent with what we already know — Dumbledore began his investigation into Voldemort’s past in 1943 if not before, as established by when he obtain Morfin Gaunt’s memory.

So that leads us to a question:


Why was Dumbledore investigating Voldemort’s past before Voldemort was Voldemort?

Here, to quote Dumbledore, we’re “entering the realms of guesswork and speculation.” I have three theories as to why Dumbledore began this investigation. All are plausible, but I prefer the last one because it’s novel (I think), it’s more likely (as I describe) and because it’s more fun.


Theory 1: He’s Investigating the Chamber of Secrets

A few months before the events of the two 1943 memories happened, Voldemort opened the Chamber of Secrets. He framed Hagrid for it but Dumbledore was skeptical. Dumbledore probably suspected Voldemort, having already learned (during his visit to Voldemort at the orphanage) that Voldemort was a parsletongue, and therefore a potential heir to Slytherin. Dumbledore also likely knew the events of Bob Ogden’s arrest of Morfin and Marvolo, even if he didn’t have the memory yet, which would have further helped establish that Voldemort was Slytherin’s heir. If Dumbledore wanted to exonerate Hagrid, and had Dumbledore noticed the clues above, researching Voldemort’s history would have made a lot of sense.

This is a perfectly plausible explanation — it wouldn’t surprise me if J.K. Rowling endorsed it — but it doesn’t sit right with me. Dumbledore never does anything with the information. And it wasn’t like Dumbledore was going to find any more information. To date, Voldemort’s life was straightforward until that point: he was born, given up for adoption, came to Hogwarts, and… is still at Hogwarts. The only thing odd is the murder of his Muggle father and grandparents, but again, Dumbledore investigated that. Dumbledore — even if he doesn’t have Ogden’s memory yet — definitely has enough to get the Ministry and/or Wizengamot to investigate the theory and is at a dead-end otherwise.

You’d think that, if you had a murderer in your student population, you’d do something about it. But Dumbledore didn’t.


Theory 2: He’s Investigating the Murder of Tom Riddle Sr and Voldemort’s Grandparents

This one almost works. The reason it doesn’t is the key.

In 1943, Voldemort — a student without any friends or family, but one that Dumbledore knew well — shows up one day wearing a new ring. Just weeks before, his father and grandparents were murdered by his uncle. The uncle confessed but didn’t talk much about it; instead, he carried on about a lost ring. That’s going to set off alarm bells, no? Dumbledore already distrusts Voldemort; this link, I think, is something Dumbledore is going to investigate.

Dumbledore investigates this crime by obtaining Morfin’s memory. There isn’t much to the memory; as Dumbledore later concluded, Voldemort tampered with it. But it gives us three key clues.

First, it demonstrates that Voldemort was at his uncle’s house right before the murder. That’s pretty important!

Second, in the memory, “Morfin pushed the hair out of his dirty face, the better to see [Voldemort], and Harry saw that he wore Marvolo’s black-stoned ring on his right hand.” So, we have proof that before Voldemort visited Morfin, Morfin had the ring.

And third, there’s what Dumbledore tells Harry after the two have viewed the memory 5:

So the Ministry called upon Morfin. They did not need to question him, to use Veritaserum or Legilimency. He admitted to the murder on the spot, giving details only the murderer could know. He was proud, he said, to have killed the Muggles, had been awaiting his chance all these years. He handed over his wand, which was proved at once to have been used to kill the Riddles. And he permitted himself to be led off to Azkaban without a fight.

All that disturbed him was the fact that his father’s ring had disappeared. ‘He’ll kill me for losing it,’ he told his captors over and over again. ‘He’ll kill me for losing his ring.’ And that, apparently, was all he ever said again. He lived out the remainder of his life in Azkaban, lamenting the loss of Marvolo’s last heirloom, and is buried beside the prison, alongside the other poor souls who have expired within its walls.

That second paragraph is evidence of two things — first, that Marvolo didn’t have the ring upon his arrest, which occurred almost immediately after the murders; and second, that Dumbledore had reason to look into the whereabouts of the ring. 6

And, from Slughorn’s memory, in still tampered form, we learn that Voldemort had the ring right after the murder:

Harry saw that [Voldemort] was wearing Marvolo’s gold-and-black ring; he had already killed his father.

Dumbledore didn’t have Slughorn’s memory until probably the 1980s — Slughorn only tampered with it well after Voldemort graduated and moved onto greater, darker things. But Dumbledore didn’t need the memory to establish that Voldemort was wearing the ring at the time because Dumbledore was there, in the school, to see it for himself. Dumbledore had all the evidence you’d need to show that Voldemort was a triple-murderer: he had two memories (Ogden’s and Morfin’s) showing that the ring was previously in the possession of Morfin Gaunt — including one memory where Voldemort is present while Gaunt still has the ring; he has Gaunt’s persistent anguish about losing it; and he has the ring sitting there on the finger of the last person to see Morfin before the murders took place.

And again: You’d think that, if you had a murderer in your student population, you’d do something about it. In this case, though, Dumbledore may not have been able to paint the full picture. It’s likely that Dumbledore didn’t have Morfin’s memory unil after Voldemort hid the ring, making it difficult at best to connect the dots. So he kept investigating, and part of that on-going investigation brought him to Bob Ogden. 7

That makes a ton of sense, right? Dumbledore was investigating the murder of the Riddles and, therefore, obtained Morfin’s memory.

But wait — that’s not what Dumbledore told Harry, right? Dumbledore said that he was “attempting to discover as much as [he] could about Voldemort’s past.” Why lie?

Okay, now we’re really going into speculation and guesswork. I think Dumbledore’s explanation — attempting to discover stuff about Voldemort’s past — is a lie. But that’s because he was ashamed of telling the truth.


Theory 3: Dumbledore wasn’t really interested in discovering more about Voldemort’s past or investigating the murder of the Riddles. He was investigating the whereabouts of Marvolo’s ring.

This is the theory I’m going with. 

Part 1: Dumbledore’s Lie

In the Deathly Hallows, Harry and Dumbledore reunite at some space-time between life and death, represented as King’s Cross train station. Dumbledore is dead. Harry has sacrificed himself to Voldemort’s killing curse. There’s really no need for Dumbledore to lie to Harry about anything — and yet, he does. To set it up, we need first to revisit Lily Potter’s letter to Sirius Black.

We had a very quiet birthday tea, just us and old Bathilda who has always been sweet to us and who dotes on Harry. We were so sorry you couldn’t come, but the Order’s got to come first, and Harry’s not old enough to know it’s his birthday anyway!  James is getting a bit frustrated shut up here, he tries not to show it but I can tell—also Dumbledore’s still got his Invisibility Cloak, so no chance of little excursions. (emphasis added)

OK, got that? Now, to something Dumbledore said to Harry at King’s Cross.

“You. You have guessed, I know, why the Cloak was in my possession on the night your parents died. James had showed it to me just a few days previously. It explained so much of his undetected wrong-doing at school! I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I asked to borrow it, to examine it. I had long since given up my dream of uniting the Hallows, but I could not resist, could not help taking a closer look . . . It was a Cloak the likes of which I had never seen, immensely old, perfect in every respect . . . and then your father died, and I had two Hallows at last, all to myself!” (emphasis added)

Harry was born on the last day of July; his parents were murdered on Halloween. That’s a three-month gap. It’s possible that Lily didn’t write the letter until a few days before Halloween, but that’s unlikely. It’s much more likely that Dumbledore is lying — especially when you look at what precedes this part of the encounter at King’s Cross.

To set up the scene, Harry meets a broadly-smiling Dumbledore in some place between the planes of living and dead. As the conversation continues, Dumbledore’s smile gets bigger and bigger — and then Harry brings up the Deathly Hallows.

“The Deathly Hallows,” [Harry] said, and he was glad to see that the words wiped the smile from Dumbledore’s face.

“Ah, yes,” he said. He even looked a little worried.


For the first time since Harry had met Dumbledore, he looked less than an old man, much less. He looked fleetingly like a small boy caught in wrongdoing. “Can you forgive me?” he said. “Can you forgive me for not trusting you? For not telling you? Harry, I only feared that you would fail as I had failed. I only dreaded that you would make my mistakes. I crave your pardon, Harry. I have known, for some time now, that you are the better man.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Harry, startled by Dumbledore’s tone, by the sudden tears in his eyes.

“The Hallows, the Hallows,” murmured Dumbledore. “A desperate man’s dream!”

“But they’re real!”

“Real, and dangerous, and a lure for fools,” said Dumbledore. “And I was such a fool. But you know, don’t you? I have no secrets from you anymore. You know.”

“What do I know?”

Dumbledore turned his whole body to face Harry, and tears still sparkled in his brilliantly blue eyes.

“Master of death, Harry, master of Death! Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort?”

“Of course you were,” said Harry. “Of course—how can you ask that? You never killed if you could avoid it!”

“True, true,” said Dumbledore, and he was like a child seeking reassurance. “Yet I too sought a way to conquer death, Harry.”

“Not the way he did,” said Harry. After all his anger at Dumbledore, how odd it was to sit here, beneath the high, vaulted ceiling, and defend Dumbledore from himself. “Hallows, not Horcruxes.”

“Hallows,” mumbled Dumbledore, “not Horcruxes. Precisely.”

Even in death, Dumbledore was ashamed of his obsession with the Hallows. Here’s more on that from their conversation:

After another short pause Harry said, “You tried to use the Resurrection Stone.”

Dumbledore nodded. “When I discovered it, after all those years, buried in the abandoned home of the Gaunts—the Hallow I had craved most of all, though in my youth I had wanted it for very different reasons—I lost my head, Harry. I quite forgot that it was now a Horcrux, that the ring was sure to carry a curse. I picked it up, and I put it on, and for a second I imagined that I was about to see Ariana, and my mother, and my father, and to tell them how very, very sorry I was . . .

“I was such a fool, Harry. After all those years I had learned nothing. I was unworthy to unite the Deadly Hallows. I had proved it time and again, and here was the final proof.”

“Why?” said Harry. “It was natural! You wanted to see them again. What’s wrong with that?”

“Maybe a man in a million could unite the Hallows, Harry. I was fit only to possess the meanest one of them, the least extraordinary. I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it.

“But the Cloak, I took out of vain curiosity, and so it could never have worked for me as it works for you, its true owner. The stone I would have used in an attempt to drag back those who are at peace, rather than to enable my self-sacrifice, as you did. You are the worthy possessor of the Hallows.”

Shame. Lots of it.

So, if Dumbledore were looking into people’s memories to find himself one of the Deathly Hallows, he’d probably be ashamed to admit it — and he’d probably lie. Just like he lied when his afterlife-self told Harry that he only had the cloak for a few days.

Part 2: Dumbledore’s Obsession

That quote above has another key passage: the Ressurection Stone was “the Hallow [Dumbledore] had craved most of all.”  I don’t think I need to spell this one out, but just in case: after the death of his sister (perhaps at his hands), Dumbledore gave up the search for the Hallows, but only temporarily. He ends up acquiring the Elder Wand, takes the Cloak for a bit longer than he should have, and, as he admits above, he wanted to see his deceased family members again, and the Stone could bring that dream to fruition. And when he finally obtained the Stone, the normally calculating and logical Dumbledore makes the fatal mistake of putting the cursed ring on his finger — all in hopes of seeing his sister and family again.

The Hallows were an obsession of his youth; I think it’s fair to say that Stone was a life-long obsession.

So, let’s revisit the second theory

Again, it’s 1943. Voldemort — a student without any friends or family, but one that Dumbledore knew well — shows up one day wearing a new ring. Just weeks before, his father and grandparents were murdered by his uncle. The uncle confessed but didn’t talk much about it; instead, he carried on about a lost ring. That’s going to set off alarm bells, no? Dumbledore is probably going to end up getting a look at that ring. What he’s going to see is the mark of the Deathly Hallows. 8

His obsession is now within his grasp. Almost. Shortly thereafter, the ring vanishes.

So, he goes hunting for it. There are two living people who have possessed the ring: Voldemort and Morfin. Dumbledore probably isn’t going to get much out of Voldemort here — he may have tried, for all we know, but as we’d later find out, Voldemort wasn’t about to tell anyone where he hid the now-Horcrux ring. Morfin, of course, gives Dumbledore his memory. That’s a bit of a dead end 9, so the wild goose chase begins. Only one other person in recent memory, dead or alive, possessed the ring — Marvolo Gaunt. And the only person still alive who we know interacted with him? Bob Ogden.

Ogden’s memory doesn’t help Dumbledore locate the ring, but it does confirm (or close enough) that the ring is the Resurrection Stone. Marvolo pushes the ring “within an inch of [Ogden’s] nose,” so maybe Dumbledore got a good look at it; if not, Marvolo proclaims that the crest of the Peverell family is engraved upon it. Remember, as discussed above, that Harry makes the connection between the Peverell crest and the mark of the Hallows; Dumbledore surely would have realized Marvolo’s error.


A Final Piece of the Puzzle

There’s one memory I’ve almost entirely glossed over, and that’s Hokey the House-elf’s memory of the murder of Hepzibah Smith. It’s critical to figuring out that Slytherin’s locket and Hufflepuff’s cup (and by extension, Ravenclaw’s diadem) are Horcruxes. The timing, again, has a problem.

If you look at the timeline at the top, you’ll see that the events of Hokey’s memory occurred no earlier than 1955, more than a decade after Voldemort murdered his Muggle family. And after the murder of Smith, Voldemort disappears for a decade. In other words, there’s really no reason for Dumbledore to seek out Hokey’s memory if his objective is to learn more about Voldemort, because at the point of Smith’s death, Voldemort’s basically a nobody. Once again, you need to give Dumbledore a ton of credit for having the foresight to collect this memory — more foresight than even he is due.

But my theory makes it work without that stretch. Here’s another quote from Deathly Hallows which explains why:

By the time Hokey was convicted, Hepzibah’s family had realized that two of her greatest treasures were missing. It took them a while to be sure of this, for she had many hiding places, having always guarded her collection most jealously. But before they were sure beyond doubt that the cup and the locket were both gone, the assistant who had worked at Borgin and Burkes, the young man who had visited Hepzibah so regularly and charmed her so well, had resigned his post and vanished. His superiors had no idea where he had gone; they were as surprised as anyone at his disappearance. And that was the last that was seen or heard of Tom Riddle for a very long time.

You’re Dumbledore. Voldemort’s involved in an event where rare, treasured artifacts — including one owned the Gaunts — have disappeared. Is there a chance that Hepzibah Smith had the ring? Or that Tom had it when he visited her? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to get that memory from the aged Hokey before he dies. Which is exactly what happens.


Some Concluding Thoughts

As with any theories about works of fiction, this one has lot of holes. That’s what makes it fun.

Also, I think my version of the events makes Dumbledore a lot more human — and a lot more sympathetic. If you believe that he was investigating Voldemort’s background from a very early point, he seems brilliant and wise, yes, but ultimately ineffective because he’s insisting on going it alone. (This is also the vibe you get from him in Order of the Phoenix, so it’s a fair takeaway.) Mine, though, he’s still brilliant and wise, but he’s also flawed. And that flaw makes him accidentally effective — in the search for clues about the Hallows, he ends up learning a lot about Voldemort, his weaknesses, and the Horcruxes.

And you know what? I like that Dumbledore. He’s the greatest wizard of all time — that doesn’t mean he has to be perfect, or even should be.



  1. Throughout this, I’m going to refer to Tom Marvolo Riddle as Voldemort, even if he hadn’t taken the name yet. It’s just easier, given that I’m going to be talking about both Tom Riddle Sr. and Marvolo Gaunt as well.
  2. http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Tom_Riddle#cite_note-HBP-19 is really helpful here
  3. Neither man seems to understand why Morfin’s attack on Riddle Sr. was unacceptable. Similarly, Marvolo tried to strangle Merope when he learned that she had a crush on Riddle Sr.
  4. Yes, I know that in general, we’re led to believe that Wizards live longer than Muggles, as Dumbledore himself is 115 when he dies and Abeforth is only a few years younger. This never sat right with me either — where are all the great-grandparents? Wizards have kids young — Harry was born to 20-year-old parents, and Harry had his first child at 23 or 24. The Great Wizarding War aside, there should be generations of wizards, particularly old ones, everywhere. But, nope.
  5. I’m using some pdf of the book I found online to make quoting easier; there may be some typos
  6. On the other hand, it makes Morfin sound insane, which he probably was, so the officials probably discounted any truth behind Morfin’s statements about the ring.
  7. Or maybe he went for Ogden’s memory first, dunno. As it turns out, I don’t really think it matters if Ogden’s came before or later; I just think it’s really odd for one of Dumbledore’s first steps — in any narrative — to try to track down Ogden for the purposes of going on a wild goose chase.
  8. When Harry opens the Snitch, revealing the ring, the book states that “the black stone with its jagged crack running down the center sat in the two halves of the Snitch. The Resurrection Stone had cracked down the vertical line representing the Elder Wand. The triangle and circle representing the Cloak and the stone were still discernible.”
  9. In fact, we never find out how Dumbledore discovered the location of the ring/Horcrux.
Originally published on April 11, 2017