Well, it’s been a very long time since I’ve written you anything about Harry Potter, despite my proclaimed love for his story. I will admit, I’ve recently gotten sucked into Anne of Green Gables fanfiction, which has been revitalized by Netflix’s release of Anne with an E. I didn’t make it through the first episode – it was a little dark and a little too different for me – but I digress. As much as I love Anne (and I really, really do) there is still something special about the wizarding world.
When I first wrote about Harry Potter (over a year ago!) I mentioned that I got to take a college class (yes, a real class, for credit and everything) about Harry Potter. One of the things we focused on when we read book three was fear. I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you today.
**Do I really need to put a spoilers warning here? I’m going to anyway, just in case.**
(Plot summary for those who need a refresher: Harry spends his summer trying to be good in order to get the Dursleys to sign his permission slip for him to go to Hogsmeade, the wizarding village near Hogwarts. This ends disastrously when Harry loses his temper and inflates his Aunt Marge. He runs from home and ends up spending the rest of the summer in Diagon Ally, courtesy of the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge. He learns that Sirius Black has escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban, where he was serving a life sentence for the betrayal of Lily and James and the murder of Peter Pettigrew and thirteen other Muggles. This escape leads to Dementors, the magical Azkaban guards, being posted around Hogwarts. Remus Lupin, a friend of the Potters and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, teaches Harry the Patronus charm after Harry finds he is especially badly affected by the Dementors, who suck happiness from all around them. In the midst of all of this, Hagrid is fighting to save a hippogriff named Buckbeak, who slashed Draco Malfoy during Care of Magical Creatures class and is set to be executed. In a twisty ending, Harry, Hermione and Ron meet Sirius and Peter Pettigrew, learn that Peter has been masquerading as Scabbers the rat, and that it was in fact Peter who committed all the crimes attributed to Sirius. Sirius is Harry’s godfather, and for one moment Harry thinks he can leave the Dursleys and have something of a family. Peter escapes, however, and Fudge doesn’t believe anyone who tries to tell him that Sirius in innocent. Harry and Hermione use Hermione’s Time Turner to go back in time to save Buckbeak and free Sirius. Or that’s the gist, anyway.)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a special book in many ways. For the first time, we know more about the generation of witches and wizards before Harry. We get to meet Remus Lupin, werewolf, Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and one of James Potter’s best friends. We spend the entire book wondering about Sirius Black, and learn the secrets of the castle with the Marauders, only to learn their identities at the end of the book. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs end up being no less than Remus, Peter Pettigrew, Sirius, and James. Harry identifies incredibly strongly with his father in this book – in Latin, the incantation for a Patronus literally translates to “expect father.”
It’s also the first book where readers gained insight into the fact that JKR had an incredibly detailed master plan. Scabbers, Ron’s pet rat, became a pivotal character. Hagrid’s comment about borrowing Sirius’ bike in the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone is suddenly monumental. In the fandom, this book was the one that started the online communities and the explosion of fan theories. If details such as those could become important, what else was hiding in plain sight?
But beyond the generational parallels, which are fascinating, the theme that we spent a lot of time discussing was fear. When Harry runs from Number 4, Privet Drive, he’s nearly crushed by the Knight Bus because he stumbles backwards in fear, thinking he’s seen the Grim. The Grim is a dog, and all those who see one die of fear. Hermione thinks this is preposterous, Ron claims that’s how is Uncle Bilius died, and Trelawney, the professor of Divination (or future-telling) continually uses the symbol to predict Harry’s death.
You also meet Boggarts in this book in the Defense Against the Dark Arts class. Boggarts are shape-shifters that turn into the thing each person fears the most. For Ron, it’s a giant spider. Hermione meets McGonagall, telling her that she’s failed everything. Neville is confronted with Professor Snape. However, Boggarts are easily defeated once a witch or wizard has identified them. The trick is to think of some way to make the feared thing funny and to use laughter (and the incantation Riddikulus, which implies the same thing) to get rid of it. It can also be helpful to confront Boggarts in groups, because the creature gets confused about what to turn in to. Everyone is delighted when Professor Snape appears in Neville’s grandmother’s vulture hat, dress, and large handbag, for example.
I also find it interesting that this is the first book in which we’re introduced to werewolves. Most of wizarding society fears and discriminates against werewolves, but the professor we know in Remus Lupin is the last person who would normally be scary. He becomes Harry’s mentor and first real connection to his parents. Like boggarts, when scary things are placed into the right context, they’re no longer scary.
In contrast with these two examples are the Dementors. JKR has said in interviews that Dementors were directly born out of her experience with depression. Dementors suck happy thoughts and memories from people, feeding on positive emotions. In the presence of a Dementor, people are forced to relive their most awful memories. When left uncontrolled, they can suck the soul from a person. The Dementor’s Kiss is a fascinating alternative to the death sentence in wizarding law. Rather than laughter, a wizard facing a Dementor needs to call upon their strongest joyous memory to fuel the spell.
As part of my class, I wrote an essay about my “Boggart fears” and my “Dementor fears.” Boggart fears are very real, but somewhat silly and overcome-able with support from friends and the right mindset. These are things like how I run from wasps and get nervous before getting evaluated in my classroom. Dementor fears are the things that grip my whole being and paralyze me. For example, feeling out of control of my situation makes me uncomfortable to the point of avoidance and/or tears. Another Dementor fear that used to grip me with incredible power was the fear of being alone. In my loneliest times, it seemed to me that I would always be alone.
Dementor fears aren’t insurmountable. Particularly the fear about being alone has proven to be categorically untrue. (I’m looking at you, dear readers.) The one about control and ambiguity…I’m still working on that one.
The incredibly powerful thing about Harry is that his Boggart is a Dementor. The thing he fears more than anything is being afraid to the point of being powerless.
Your homework: What are some of your Boggart fears? What are some of your Dementor fears? How do you empower yourself in the face of these fears?