23

In Philosopher's Stone, we hear Dumbledore replying to McGonagall's query as to whether he could do something about the scar baby Harry has on his forehead:

“Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Scars can come in handy. I have one myself above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground." - Chapter 1, The Boy Who Lived.

Now, I have no idea what that last sentence means.

It could be because English is not my native tongue. Is it some kind of a joke, or does it really mean something?

  • 2
    Related, not dupe; scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/73636/… – Valorum Feb 20 '15 at 18:38
  • 2
    I read this to mean that Dumbledore's scar was complex, with multiple cross-cuts rather than literally being a map of the London underground system. – Valorum Feb 20 '15 at 18:42
  • 2
    It's a joke. Straight up. That's all. I know some of the comments are getting at this point but really that's all there is to it. For any native English speaker this is a plainly fatuous statement. – user23715 Feb 20 '15 at 21:14
  • 4
    @NUnnikrishnan: I don't understand why you consider it so utterly impossible for a scar to resemble a map. – Martha Feb 20 '15 at 23:28
  • 1
    @Martha The keyword is 'perfect'. I just wanted to confirm, whether it was one of his more lighthearted comments or whether there was some native English thing about it. – N Unnikrishnan Feb 21 '15 at 11:11
37

The London Underground is a public transport network of underground railways in London, also called The Tube.

Dumbledore is referring to the Tube Map, which is the map used by travellers on the underground. It’s not simply an overlay of the railway lines onto a map of London; it’s a simplified version of lines to make it easier to follow. It’s become a cultural icon for London, and is recognised as a design classic. This is how Wikipedia describes it:

Beck [the designer] was a London Underground employee who realised that because the railway ran mostly underground, the physical locations of the stations were irrelevant to the traveller wanting to know how to get to one station from another — only the topology of the railway mattered. This approach is similar to that of electrical circuit diagrams. […]

To this end, Beck devised a simplified map, consisting of stations, straight line segments connecting them, and the River Thames; lines ran only vertically, horizontally, or on 45 degree diagonals.

This is a recent version of the Tube Map:

enter image description here

It’s a very distinctive image. Most people in Britain would instantly associate it with London. It’s quite an unnatural arrangement of lines (and hence quite remarkable), but also something that most British readers would be familiar with.

I expect it was intended as a joke for British readers. Rowling probably didn’t expect the original books to have such a large international audience.

(Sorry if it that seems as I’m over-explaining it, but I’m guessing that since the OP isn’t a native English speaker, they probably didn’t grow up in the UK and don’t realise the map’s cultural significance.)

As far as I know, it’s never explained how he got this scar. Rowling said in an interview that she might explain it eventually:

How did Dumbledore get his scar in the London Underground?

You may find out one day. I am very fond of that scar.

J.K. Rowling at the Edinburgh Book Festival (August 2004)

But I don’t think she ever followed up. Perhaps a future Pottermore update?

  • 1
    Great. So JKR turned the intended joke into a retcon. -- This is plainly a case of misunderstood humor. In English idiom, under the narrative circumstances, there is no other reasonable interpretation. -- In-universe, attempting to defend the statement as literal just turns Dumbledore's quip into plain nonsense; i.e. it becomes not even fatuous. – user23715 Feb 20 '15 at 22:49
  • 13
    @user23715: why on earth would the statement need to be a joke? Why wouldn't the literal interpretation be reasonable? Can you not picture a scar that looks kind of like the crisscrossing lines of the London Underground map? Granted, calling it a perfect map is probably an exaggeration, but that doesn't mean it must have been a joke (except insofar as hyperbole can be a form of humor). – Martha Feb 20 '15 at 23:05
  • 3
    @Martha - These words of Dumbledore, in the context they were given, are analogous to Gandalf's in The Hobbit -- " He took the Golfimbul's head off with a club. The goblin's head flew through the air for 100 yards and went down a rabbit hole; it is said that this is how the game of golf was invented." -- Both statements are witty and fatuous at the same time; aka an intentional joke. – user23715 Feb 21 '15 at 0:13
  • 2
    @Martha: it seems unlikely that Dumbledore literally means that the scar is similar enough to the LU map to be useful. I would suppose that the scar exists, and "looks kind of like" the LU map as you put it, but mentioning it in the context of "scars can come in handy" can only be a joke. – Harry Johnston Feb 21 '15 at 5:44
  • 7
    Actually, I could see it being an exact representation as of when it happened-- Dumbledore dodges a spell shot by an enemy by ducking behind a transit booth, a sign, or something else imprinted with the map. The spell hits the map, and fails to kill him, but, focused by the bowing out of the glass behind it into a lens shape, it is concentrated down to a few square inches in size, and hits him just above the knee, imprinting an copy of the map on him permanently. (Think of the shadows of bodies on walls after a Nuclear Explosion.) Silly? Yes. But no worse than other things in the stories :) – K-H-W Feb 21 '15 at 21:11
27

The London Underground refers to the underground train system. I.e. the subway. The British also call the Underground "The Tube".

  • 32
    We're talking about a universe where fragments of souls are stuck in lockets and diaries, and people can talk to snakes, or fly on broomsticks, and the shape of a scar is the thing you can't believe? – phantom42 Feb 20 '15 at 18:38
  • 12
    Obviously, a Dark Train cursed his knee... – FuzzyBoots Feb 20 '15 at 18:41
  • 5
    Or obviously Dumbledore was a self-cutter when he was an angsty queer teen in a quite homophobic society, and the scar is his body's memory of that period. – Lexible Feb 20 '15 at 18:47
  • 14
    Rule 1: The Dumbledore lies. Or, perhaps he was just being silly to put Harry at ease. (It's entirely possible that this was him making a humorous comment, as I don't recall it EVER being mentioned again. Consider that this person has enough of a sense of humor to conduct the Weasley Twin's Funeral Dirge version of the Hogwarts Anthem, at least one year.) – K-H-W Feb 20 '15 at 19:31
  • 3
    @NUnnikrishnan Maybe we can't expect a scar to naturally match the Underground map, but who says the scar is natural? – KSmarts Feb 20 '15 at 21:36
8

Given Dumbledore's affection for Harry, it is most likely he is exaggerating to put the boy at ease. But there is no reason to believe it wouldn't be possible a wizard of Dumbledore's stature might not indeed have a magical map of the London Underground on his knee...

  • If we were to consider a less mechanical version of the London Underground from say 1908 you might be able to get a feel for a scar which could indeed be both, a bit of a joke and yet still, perhaps in a world of magic, a representation of the Underground as well.

enter image description here

5

There's no reason the statement couldn't be literally true, i.e. Dumbledore has a complex scar above his left knee, the lines of which correspond to the lines of a map of the London subway system. The most likely interpretation is thus that Dumbledore is indulging in a bit of hyperbole: the scar consists of intersecting lines, and if you squint just right, you can see similarities between it and a map of the London Underground. It's really not any more complicated than that.

2

The answers here already explain what the London underground is, so I won't go into that. I think it's quite likely Dumbledore was being literal when he said he had a perfect map of London underground on his knee. It's exactly the kind of thing that you would attribute to Dumbledore's character.

I'll go further and say whilst Dumbledore doesn't lie (generally speaking) in the books, he does an awful lot of redirecting questions he doesn't think should be answered. At this point he's not fully aware of the scar's significance but he may already suspect there's more to it than just being a scar and is redirecting the conversation.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.