We continue our seven-part exploration of the most theologically potent elements in the Harry Potter saga with a look at the nature of, and inspiration for, the dementor–the hellish wardens of Azkaban prison–and the only counterforce that repels them. Just how did Sirius Black escape?! For Parts 1 and 2, click here and here.
Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry’s eyes darted downward, and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water…
And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.
An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deep than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart…Harry’s eyes rolled up into his head. He couldn’t see. He was drowning in cold. There was a rushing in his ears as though of water. He was being dragged downward, the roaring growing louder…
Harry first meets a dementor on a train to Hogwarts School in The Prisoner of Azkaban, in his third year at Hogwarts. The famed renegade criminal Sirius Black (whose innocence is undisclosed until the end of the novel) has escaped the Azkaban Prison—something unheard of in the magical world—with the apparent intent of finding Harry and killing him. As Harry’s new professor, Lupin, instructs him, dementors are the soulless guards of the Prison, “set on a tiny island, way out to sea, but they don’t need walls or water to keep the prisoners in, not when they’re all trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought.” Harry’s first experience with the dementor on the train is a terrifying one; a rush of cold enters his body, and before he loses consciousness, he hears the scream of his murdered mother. Harry feels shame for not being able to handle them as well as his peers, until Lupin explains their nature:
Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.
It is not Harry’s lack of courage or fortitude that weakens him before the dementor, but the anguish of his past. Feeding on his happy moments, the dementor leaves its victim in a pit of isolating despair, with only his/her worst memories, robbing them also of the ability to pull themselves out of that hopelessness. Ron notes that he “felt like he would never be cheerful again.” Such defenseless feeding and helplessness immediately conjures the reader into the world of addiction, or bouts with anxiety and depression. Rowling herself mentioned that the dementor concept came from a time when she was throttled by severe depression, where she felt “that very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.”
It is from this downward-spiraling loss of hope and help that one must be saved, lest one is driven as mad and soulless as the attacking dementor. The Dementor’s Kiss, its final blow, is one in which victim’s soul is literally sucked out. This, according to Professor Lupin, is worse than death:
You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no…anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just—exist. As an empty shell.
The only charm which can defend someone from the dementor is the Patronus Charm. Rather than battling the dementor on one’s own, the wizard who conjures the Patronus Charm is summoning a power which is greater than they are, which will stand before the dementor as a positive force. It is a complicated spell, because one must connect with and focus upon a memory that is powerful and positive enough to protect. If one’s conception of happiness is not rooted in love but in exhilaration or excitement, the Patronus founders. In other words, the strength of the Patronus is as strong as the love which generates it:
The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the dementor feeds upon—hope, happiness, the desire to survive—but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the dementors can’t hurt it. But I must warn you, Harry, that the charm might be too advanced for you. Many qualified wizards have difficulty with it.
In Latin, the charm’s incantation (“Expecto Patronum”) means “I await a protector.” The Patronus charm works as a kind of advocate that stands in for the wizard, a spiritual force of good that cannot despair as humans do, thus acting as subsitute prey for the dementors to feed on (or not feed on, as the case may be). The reason that Harry attracts the attention of dementors is also the same reason that he is one of the youngest wizards to have ever conjured a Patronus. He is stamped by the love of his parents, who died so that he might live. The murder of his parents is more than eternal stain upon his memory, it signifies the power of the self-giving love that gave him life. Through it, Harry communes with the deepest depths of grief and hope.
To continue to Part 4: The Pensieve, click here.