The Horror, the Horror: Harry Potter and the Dementors

The Dementors in the Harry Potter series conjure up images of the Ringwraiths in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Cowled and deadly creatures to be avoided, they conjure up basic fears of the protagonists. Whilst Tolkien’s wraiths are symbols of avarice and lust for power in their search for the One Ring, Rowling’s fears are more personal for Harry, the main subject of the Dementor’s torments.

The figures provide an element of horror, a close encounter with a living death. In her essay, “The Game Called Death”, Geraldine Brennan concludes that novels reflect teenager’s lives and insecurities. She finishes her essay by writing that teenagers “are prepared to be frightened, to huddle in the dens they have created, … as long as they are led safely out again”i. Horror, thus, is a way of exploring the insecurities of life, safely providing an outlet for darker thoughts which upset the continuum. Yet she claims that the reader must be led out of the horror by the author; it is not a narrative which the reader themselves must engage with to exorcise and see the truth of the world.

John Clute argues in “Fantastika in the World Storm” that Horror “is about our resistance to the truth: a resistance which lasts until we are left naked in the real world”ii. The reader avoids the truths but Horror, through its existence as a dark twin to the Enlightenment, encourages them to be expressed and made clear to them through its disruption of the world. In The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, he outlines a seasonal model to define our approach to the genre which I will be exploring through the Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Defining four terms -Sighting, Thickening, Revel and Aftermath – he finds way of defining our reactions to encountering the darker aspects to life.

Sighting is defined as “a glimpse of the terror to come, it is uncanny to experience … and it tells us that something worse than what we have sighted is to come”iii. The horrific experience begins with an event that fractures the world as it is known by the characters. In the Harry Potter series, the books usually begin with a train journey from Kings Cross to Hogwarts school where Harry, Ron and Hermione share a carriage and fashion their cosy club which will be help them survive the coming school term. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, this recreation of the club is interrupted when the train stops and is plunged into darkness and”[s]tanding in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling”iv. The Dementor’s entrance has changed the club world and rendered it unsafe since the inner sanctum of the train is now sullied by the dark figure that does not belong. Only Lupin has the strength to stop the attack upon Harry and banish the guard.

The club provides a strong social circle which allows them to survive the difficulties during the term, such as homework or Draco Malfoy. It normally provides a way of sharing issues and problems that allows them to be solved. The entrance of the dark character shatters this harmony and it needs to be restored by the Lupin’s flame and his unannounced use of the Patronus and chocolate. Rowling clearly hints at the effect of the Dementors on Harry and their effects upon the physical surroundings.

The next stage is Thickening normally “felt as a cumulative movement towards a further stage”v. It is in one respect plot thickening and development which Lupin develops in his Defence Against the Dark Arts classes. The children are unaware of Lupin’s real status as a lycanthrope and Lupin uses this to develop a practical class where he uses the wardrobe containing the Boggart to develop the theme of standing up to the dark creatures.

In secret Lupin teaches Harry the Patronus charm, “a kind of positive force,a projection of the very things a Dementor feeds on – hope, happiness and the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair”(Azkaban, p176) with which he can defend himself against the Dementors. Having had the club atmosphere disrupted, Lupin is in part giving Harry the skills with which he can adapt to the changes in his life. He comments that what Harry “fears most of all is – fear” (Azkaban, p 117).

What Harry fears is revealed is the attack on his parents, in particular, the final moments which he endlessly repeats because “no one else heard echoes in their head of their dying parents”(Azkaban, p137). It is the reminder of his orphan status and he “feels sick and humiliated”(Azkaban, p137) every time he thinks of the Dementors. His inward humiliation is mirrored by Malfoy and his friends making fun of him after the first attack on the train. The severity of the attack clearly marks him as different from the boy who comes from a large family.

His self-doubt is underlined in the attack during the Quidditch match. Harry has played the central role of Seeker since the first book and Wood, the team captain, exclaims “we’ve got a Seeker who has never failed to win us a match!”(Azkaban, p109). The ending of his own school career means that he pressures the team into wanting to win the school Quidditch cup. Whilst training, Harry finds himself dreaming of “winning the huge silver Quidditch cup”(Azkaban, p109) and adds pressure to himself as the first match comes along. Due to Malfoy’s arrogance with the Hippogriff, leading to a slight injury, the match opponents are swapped from Slytherin to Hufflepuff, meaning that the preparations have been for the wrong team.

The atrocious weather, which gets worse as they play, is illuminated by a lightening strike which reveals the “silhouette of an enormous shaggy black dog”(Azkaban, p133). During the novel, the escaped Sirius Black is assumed to be after Harry to kill him not to be a surrogate father. As the weather worsens, harry sees his goal, the Snitch, and chases after it but glimpses “a hundred Dementors, their hidden faces pointing up at him, were standing below.”(Azkaban, p134) In the ensuing chase, Harry is attacked and falls of his broom. His failure is compounded by the destruction of his broom, the tool of his success. When he awakes he is greeted with the news that his friend Cedric got the snitch in his first failure. Harry’s fear now also includes failure and letting his friends down which might lead to him being alone.

Lupin becomes a surrogate father for Harry, encouraging him to remember happy thoughts to summon the Patronus. Yet this serves to unmap his own world and thicken it against him as he feels “angry with himself, guilty about his secret desire to hear his parents’ voices again”(Azkaban, p182). Caught between the desire to become part of a family but also to get rid of the Dementors, he fails to conjure up a charm against the Boggart. Although he is unable to completely vanquish them, Lupin’s lessons have allowed Harry to at least keep himself safe until he can reach ground. Yet Harry still equates his happy thought with sporting prowess. As the Gryffindor team pass around the Quidditch cup, he feels “that he could have produced the world’s best Patronus”(Azkaban, p230). Being in the winning team reverses his earlier accident and also allow him to begin rebuilding the club which the Dementor’s attacked in the train. Hogwarts has become safe to him but it can only be the beginning of the journey to the Revel but it can only be a superficial return.

As Harry has been trying to deal with the Dementors, Sirius Black is found by Harry and his friends in the Shrieking Shack where they also discover that Lupin is a werewolf. Black helps Harry and Hermione escape the attack but is hurt. Sirius is attacked by the Dementors and Harry exhorts Hermione to help him come up with the Patronus. He can only come up with the “I’m going to live with my godfather. I’m leaving the Dursley’s”(Azkaban, p280) and protestations of Sirius’s innocence, a move away but not remaking the world. Again it is a superficial change and the Patronus fails. It is up to Hermione to act as an agent to help him find the Revel.

The third is Revel which can be read in two ways. As a noun, it can be the event which transforms the world and the verb refers to the actions which lead to the event. Clearly Harry’s world enters the Revel when he and Hermione return to the Forest to save Sirius having used the Time Turner. Harry is convinced that the shadowy figure who rescued him was his father, mysteriously returned from the dead, hinting at his desire to have his family returned and to also become his father, when he comments “I think it was my Dad”(Azkaban, p297) to Hermione. He cannot countenance it being a ghost so that it must be real, however more illogical that might be. Whilst he and Hermione stand waiting, he thinks that whoever “had sent that Patronus would soon be appearing at any moment”(Azkaban, p300). As the Dementors encroach on the prone forms on the bank, realises that nobody is coming to rescue them and that the character on the bank is himself.

In that moment, he conjures up the Stag which defeats the attackers but it does something unexpected and returns. As it bows his head, he realises that his father was the Prongs of the Marauder’s map. As reaches out to touch the apparition in recognition, it disappears but is something that only he can conjure so it is clearly a personal part of him. Since Harry has conjured his father’s emblem, he becomes the missing piece of the temporarily reformed band of friends. It is a fleeting moment but it allows him to gain the self-confidence to begin remapping his own world.

The final season is Aftermath which begins in Prisoner of Azkaban but takes place in the ensuing novels where Harry reshapes the world of Hogwarts. Aftermath is the reshaping of the world where it becomes static and safe. It does not shift. It allows him to defend Dudley when the Dementors attack him at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where he can defend himself but Dudley, who is used to being head of his gang, cannot. Harry’s actions are punished by both the Ministry and the Dursleys who see him as the aggressor. It stands him in good stead when during the final battle against Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when the students with him conjure the Patronus to help him. It is the culmination of his work to enable the students to challenge Voldemort and stop being afraid of fear itself.

Through Harry’s journey from concerned student to an agent, Rowling explores Harry’s inner world allowing him to move into his father’s place and begin dealing with self-doubt. She does echo Brennan’s concern that the author must always lead the child out of the dark place but she emphasises that this can only be done by the child. Rather than showing the avaricious path of Tolkien, she concentrates upon the inner. As Clute comments in his definition, the Thickening takes most of the novel as Harry concentrates on the superficial. He can only come to the Revel in the moment of greatest terror.

i“The Game Called Death: Frightening Fictions by David Almond, Philip Gross and Lesley Howarth” in Frightening Fiction, Kimberley Reynolds, Geraldine Brennan and Kevin McCarron (Continuum, London, 2001) p 127

iiJohn Clute, “Fantastika in the World Storm” in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction issue 102: Summer 2008 (Science Fiction Foundation, Liverpool, 2008) p 6

iiiThe Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, John Clute (Payseur & Schmidt, Cauheegan, 2006) p129

ivHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (Bloomsbury, London, 1999) p 65

vClute, ibid, p 141

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