Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 7-9

Over a year ago, I wrote a post for this blog titled “Dementors and Boggarts”. You can read it here, but basically, what I had to say is that the two creatures are very similar. Both represent intense negative emotions (fear, misery) and can be fought off – although not destroyed – by focusing on a powerful positive emotion (humor, happiness). They’re among the most “real” threats in Harry Potter, because unlike fire-breathing dragons or murderous vines, they represent very real struggles. We all have things we’re afraid of, and we all have bad memories that haunt us.

One thing I noticed on this read-through is that dementors, as well as boggarts, are associated with fear. When Professor Lupin realizes Harry’s boggart takes the form of a dementor, he tells him this:

“I see,” said Lupin thoughtfully. “Well, well, … I’m impressed.” He smiled slightly at the look of surprise on Harry’s face. “That suggests that what you fear most of all is – fear. Very wise, Harry.”

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first glance. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that Harry’s worst fear is despair, hopelessness, or misery, since those are the things the dementors spread? But that icy-cold dread that comes with them is a lot like fear. Dementors tap into the darkest parts of your mind and bring all the worst stuff to the surface, so it makes sense that fear would be a part of that. It’s just a different kind of fear than what the boggart brings to the surface: a literal manifestation of something you’re afraid of versus a creeping chill of despair.

I guess that means that Prisoner of Azkaban is about learning to face your fears. First the boggarts, which are defeated with humor, then the dementors, which are banished by happy memories. The fact that Harry’s boggart takes the form of a dementor makes this connection even more obvious, because for him, learning to fight off one of the creatures means learning to fight off the other as well. And just as he reacts more strongly to the dementors than other kids, his boggart is also more terrifying. The other kids in his class are afraid of things like snakes, severed hands, and unpleasant teachers, while Harry’s worst fear is a soulless, misery-spreading embodiment of evil.

Courage doesn’t mean being fearless. It means being able to get past your fears instead of being paralyzed by them. It takes a lot of bravery for Harry to learn to cast a patronus because it means routinely exposing himself to his worst fear, but instead of being scared away, he keeps trying until he’s finally able to defend himself. He learns to use a patronus – created from happy memories – to fight off fear and misery. That’s real courage, and that’s why I say this book is about facing your fears.

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Dementors and Boggarts

What do these two creatures have in common, aside from the fact that the latter turns into the former when Harry sees it? Well, a lot, actually.

Boggarts are a physical manifestation of fear. They look like giant spiders for Ron, dementors for Harry, and Professor McGonagall telling Hermione she failed all her classes, but they always take on the worst fear of the person facing them. They are defeated by the ridikulus spell, but the spell on its own means nothing. It’s laughter that defeats a boggart; all the spell does is morph one’s fear into something that can be laughed at.

Dementors are cloaked monstrosities that suck the hope and happiness out of the world around them. Unlike boggarts, they are not considered easy to defeat; while Professor Lupin teaches his third year students how to fight boggarts, he warns Harry that the magic used against dementors is far more advanced. However, much like ridikulus, it is not enough to simply shout “Expecto patronum!” and wave one’s wand. The Patronus Charm is fueled by happy memories, the very things that dementors drain away.

In other words, laughter is to a boggart what happiness is to a dementor. Both are dark creatures that represent a very real negative emotion, and both are stopped not simply by magic but by an equally real positive reaction.

Let’s take it a step further: Voldemort, the greatest evil in the Harry Potter series, is defeated by love. It is Lily Potter’s sacrifice, made out of love, that protects baby Harry and defeats Voldemort the first time around. Later, at the end of the fifth book, Dumbledore tells Harry that the line in the prophecy about “power the Dark Lord knows not”, refers to Harry’s ability to love, which is something Voldemort cannot even begin to comprehend. He himself is cold and unfeeling, and he constantly underestimates the things that others will do for love, eventually leading to his downfall.

Hate and evil can only be defeated by love. Despair can only be defeated by holding on to happy memories. Fear can only be defeated by finding a way to laugh at it.