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.

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Right vs Easy

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead of us. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

It’s easy to do what’s right when what’s right is also easy, but doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and it’s worth doing anyway. That’s a valuable lesson to learn, and one that certainly applies to real life just as much as it does to the world of Harry Potter. But it’s more than just a quote with a good message. It’s a theme that’s woven throughout the series in the journey of every single character. (At least, every character with enough of a conscience not to do the wrong thing just for its own sake. Voldemort, Bellatrix, and Umbridge are their own special category.)

Harry has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in every single book, and he always chooses the former. When he goes after the troll to save Hermione, when he fights a basilisk to save Ginny, and when he travels back in time to save Sirius, he is choosing the right thing over the much easier alternative of simply doing as he’s told and letting events unfold without him. Likewise, Ron and Hermione often make those choices alongside him. As the series goes on, he seems to have less of a choice – Voldemort wants him dead – but even then, he chooses to fight him. Near the end of Deathly Hallows, when Aberforth encourages him, Ron, and Hermione to flee the country rather than face Voldemort, they refuse to even consider it. And, of course, running away might become even more tempting once he realizes he has to die in order for Voldemort to become mortal, but Harry is willing to lay down his life to protect his friends, just as his mother sacrificed herself to save him. That’s not an easy choice to make.

Order of the Phoenix is all about the choice between what’s right and what’s easy. It’s what separates the Order from the Ministry of Magic and Dumbledore’s Army from the Inquisitorial Squad. It’s easy for Fudge to deny that Voldemort is back; it would be much harder to admit the truth. It’s easy for the Daily Prophet to publish whatever “news” will sell and scandalize, but harder for Harry and those who support him to speak the truth when the Ministry is actively trying to silence them. It’s much harder for the Order to fight against Voldemort when they find themselves at odds with the magical government as well, and Dumbledore’s Army likewise refuses to let themselves be unprepared for the coming war. The DA’s insistence on doing the right thing even when it’s not easy becomes even more obvious in Deathly Hallows, when they spend the year fighting back against the Death Eaters who now run Hogwarts and fight on Harry’s side in the final battle.

Everyone at Hogwarts has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in the final battle: to evacuate or stay and defend the castle, to hand Harry over to Voldemort or fight on his side, and eventually, to surrender or keep fighting once Harry appears to be dead. Nothing says choosing what’s right over what’s easy like Neville telling Voldemort “I’ll join you when hell freezes over”, pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of the hat, and chopping off the head of Voldemort’s monstrous snake, Nagini, right there in front of everyone, especially not when – as far as he knows – Harry is already dead.

I think it’s interesting that the movie-makers chose to contrast his actions with those of Draco Malfoy, a character who consistently chooses the easy path, rather than the right one or even the wrong one. He doesn’t kill Dumbledore, but nor does he accept Dumbledore’s offer to protect him. Later, in Deathly Hallows, he pretends not to recognize Harry, but he doesn’t do anything to help him escape. In both cases, he does nothing and simply allows others to act. Draco is not in the book version of the scene where Voldemort announces Harry’s “death”, and I’m not a big fan of the awkward hug, but going back over to join his parents does seem consistent with his character and emphasizes that standing up to a powerful Dark Lord who seems to have already won is not an easy thing to do.

There are many characters who make the easy choice, some more sympathetic than others. Of course, that’s largely a matter of personal opinion, but I think few people would argue that Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal of Lily and James Potter was anything other than vile and cowardly, while on the other hand, Xenophilius Lovegood’s decision to turn Harry in was very complicated due to the fact that Voldemort was holding his daughter hostage. Many more characters struggle with making the harder, better choice, like Professor Slughorn, who initially gives Dumbledore a false memory, not because he wants to protect Voldemort, but because he is ashamed of having unknowingly helped young Tom Riddle become Voldemort. The amount of nuance is surprisingly deep for a children’s series, but I love it. I think it’s important to understand that not everything is black and white, without downplaying the importance of trying to do the right thing.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it seems harder to make the right choice after having already made the wrong one; the consequences and risks become much greater. Take Regulus Black, for instance. He joined the Death Eaters as a teenager and quickly realized it wasn’t what he had expected it to be. When he found out just how far Voldemort had gone, he did the right thing, but it cost him his life. Likewise, Snape made many wrong choices as a young man, and it wasn’t until he found out he had inadvertently put Lily’s life in danger that he began trying to do the right thing. The Harry Potter books certainly don’t send a message that morality is black and white or that you can never come back from your mistakes, even very serious ones. On the contrary, many characters do, including Dumbledore himself, who made mistakes of his own in his youth. However, they do seem to say that it takes great courage to do so, and that it’s never easy.

Most people are not Voldemort. There may be some, both in fiction and reality, who care so little about right and wrong that they would hurt other people for no reason at all, but I think that most people would rather do the right thing when we can, and yet sometimes struggle with it. It’s easy to tell the truth if you have nothing to hide. It’s easy to be brave if you’re not afraid. It’s easy to stand up for what you believe in if everyone around you agrees. It’s when doing the right thing is the hardest choice to make that things get difficult, and it’s in those moments that our character is truly tested.