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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The Scariest Thing About Dementors

It’s not that they drain all the happiness out of the world. It’s not that they can’t be killed. It’s not even that they’ll suck your soul out through your mouth if you get too close. Those are all horrifying, but the scariest thing about them, in my opinion, is something that takes longer to sink in.

They’re sentient.

At least, they are in the books. It’s not really clear in the movies whether they can think for themselves or whether they’re just mindless embodiments of evil. However, in the books, dementors are not classified as a “beasts”. They must be either beings or spirits, meaning they have “sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community and to bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws” (Fantastic Beasts, xii). They are capable of some form of speech or communication with humans, having told Fudge that Sirius Black was talking in his sleep, and capable of reaching an agreement with the Ministry of Magic to torment the prisoners in Azkaban and leave everyone else alone. In other words, they have intelligent minds and some degree of free will.

These horrible, happiness-stealing, soul-sucking monsters are capable of logic and reason, fully aware of what they are doing, and completely devoid of compassion or remorse. No other creature in Harry Potter is like that. Merpeople might be creepy, and centaurs cold and aloof, but they’re not monsters. Werewolves can choose to be perfectly good people at any time but the full moon, and humans are a mixed bag, with only a few who come anywhere close to that level of evil. Dragons, basilisks, and most other monsters are basically just highly dangerous animals. But dementors are a horrifying combination of human-like intelligence and cruel, predatory instincts. They really are pure evil, and they presumably know it.

Resisting Dementors Without a Patronus

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry seems to struggle in Snape’s class despite having personally fought dark wizards and monsters many times and survived. He even expects to do poorly on a dementor essay, despite being able to cast the patronus charm:

Having wasted a lot of time worrying aloud about Apparition, Ron was now struggling to finish a viciously difficult essay for Snape that Harry and Hermione had already completed. Harry fully expected to receive low marks on his, because he had disagreed with Snape on the best way to tackle dementors, but he did not care … (page 448, American hardcover edition)

Does this make any sense? At first glance, no. After Harry learns the patronus charm in Prisoner of Azkaban, no alternative ways of fighting off dementors are ever presented. It’s obvious why Snape doesn’t want to teach his students to cast a patronus: his love for Lily is his most deeply-buried secret, and the form of his patronus makes it obvious. But if Harry could disagree with him on how best to deal with a dementor, there must be another method he prefers.

In fact, since very few dark wizards can cast a patronus, I think there must be another method that relies on something besides love and happiness. Voldemort forms an alliance with the dementors in Order of the Phoenix, and yet neither he nor any of his followers seem to be tormented by them. It’s true that the dementors are dark creatures, and the Death Eaters’ allies, but if bad people weren’t affected by them, Azkaban wouldn’t be the nightmare it’s portrayed as. Or at least, it would only be a nightmare for the innocent.

Still, there is one character who manages to stay sane through his years in Azkaban: Sirius. Near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban, he tells Harry: “I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn’t a happy thought, so the dementors couldn’t suck it out of me … but it kept me sane and knowing who I am …”  Later, he describes that finding out Peter Pettigrew was at Hogwarts in his rat form “was as if someone had lit a fire in my head, and the dementors couldn’t destroy it … it wasn’t a happy feeling … it was an obsession … but it gave me strength, it cleared my mind” (371-372, paperback)

It cleared his mind? That sounds a lot like occlumency, which – as described by Snape in Order of the Phoenix – “seals the mind against magical intrusion and influence” (530, paperback). When Snape attempts to teach Harry occlumency, he continually tells him to clear his mind of emotion in order to shield it. Perhaps Snape’s way of dealing with dementors is to use something similar to occlumency against them, clearing his mind and focusing on something powerful yet not happy, much like Sirius did when he was in Azkaban. It wouldn’t do any good against the Dementor’s Kiss, but it could help against the misery they spread. And Harry, who never mastered occlumency, would certainly have disagreed that such a method was better than casting a patronus.

In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – SPOILER WARNING – Snape and Scorpius encounter dementors in the world ruled by Voldemort and get past them without ever casting a patronus. It makes sense that they can’t, since Snape’s would reveal his true loyalty and Scorpius has never learned how. And, of course, being who they are, casting a patronus would make them look suspicious rather than protecting them, something that is true of Snape throughout the Harry Potter books. However, the way the scene plays out is interesting: while Scorpius begins describing the effects of a dementor and hears his mother dying, Snape seems totally unaffected and tells Scorpius to “stay calm” and “think of something else”. “Think about why you’re doing this”.

SNAPE: Think about Albus. … All it takes is one person. I couldn’t save Harry for Lily. So now I give my allegiance to the cause she believed in. And it’s possible – that along the way I started believing in it myself.

SCORPIUS smiles at SNAPE. He steps decisively away from the dementor.

SCORPIUS: The world changes and we change with it. I am better off in this world. But the world is not better. I don’t want that. (141, Nook edition)

Like Sirius’ fixation with his innocence, these are not happy thoughts. Snape’s actions led to the death of the woman he loved, and in this timeline, he was also unable to save her son. Scorpius accidentally erased his best friend from existence and created a world like something out of a nightmare. Those are the kind of thoughts a dementor would remind you of, not ones they would drain away, and yet they would act as a sort of anchor to reality.

It would be easy to write off that scene as making no sense, because protecting yourself from a dementor without casting a patronus shouldn’t be possible. But it always has been possible. Sirius was able to retain his sanity and eventually escape from Azkaban by focusing on something that, while not happy, reminded him of who he was. Snape disagreed with Harry on how to deal with dementors, and presumably, that means he did have a different method that he considered effective enough to shield his mind from them. Could it have been something like what he and Scorpius do in Cursed Child? I don’t see why not.

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.