Featured in the October 2022 issue of The Rowling Library Magazine.

The Dementor Metaphor

1515 words.
By Oliver Horton.

Shorn of world-building Prisoner of Azkaban is the story of one boy’s struggle with depression, as Harry Potter comes to terms with the murder of his parents. Harry’s depression is manifested in the terrifying form of the Dementors of Azkaban, which threaten to consume his soul. Depression is the adversary he must overcome to survive his third year at Hogwarts.

The first Dementor, from a psychological point of view, is Aunt Marge. Vernon’s sister is pure antagonist. She needles Harry for days before hitting his thermal exhaust port with a couple of photon torpedoes: Harry’s weak spot is his parents and malicious Marge maligns James Potter as a drunken layabout. Harry blows up. Then so does Auntie.

Until this confrontation, Harry is unaware of the uncontrollable rage monster that lurks beneath. Marge’s vile slander unlocks Harry depression, which can be defined as anger turned inwards. Marge’s insults are cruel and so on, yet she pinpoints a terrible truth. Harry does not really know anything about his dead parents. That is his wound. He has only the faintest sense of James and Lily Potter; as benevolent spectres in the Mirror of Erised, and from the warm words and happy snapshots supplied by Hagrid.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry yearns to grieve. He craves knowledge about his parents. But there exists an obstacle of his own creation: the idealized image of the Potters that lives in his imagination. Harry is hot to defend this fantasy family. He auto-denies any contradiction: “My father didn’t strut.” Well, yeah, he kinda did. To truly know his parents Harry must let go of the picture-perfect ideal. He must demolish his own fantasy. This is going to hurt.

Remus Lupin slumps dormant in an otherwise empty carriage on the Hogwarts Express. He has the knowledge of James and Lily that Harry needs. Dammit, the information comes wrapped in trauma. Remus Lupin is the second Dementor, awakened on the train. The baggage he brings is unavoidable, the pain he causes is unintentional. But Lupin is also able to revive Harry with kindness, returning the kindness that Harry’s mother showed him years before.

Harry faints. Yet the dive into depression unexpectedly brings him closer to his parents; he recalls his mother’s voice. This is the process, a painful advance, baby steps. Harry is right to be wary of Lupin, who will coax Harry into feeling the full weight of his parents’ deaths. No wonder the poor boy passes out. Childhood is no longer a refuge.

And Quidditch is no longer an escape. Sirius Black, the foreboding black dog, squats in the stands to watch Harry play. Sirius, too, carries knowledge about James and Lily Potter. But he is demented by anger, revenge and murder. Sirius Black is what Harry will become if his rage is not addressed. Sirius is the third Dementor. His presence triggers the sudden depression that causes Harry to fall from his broom. The Nimbus 2000, once a symbol of unbridled joy, is smashed to bits by a ferocious tree. Harry cannot fly away from this problem! Depression, he realizes, can strike any place, any time. Heroically, Harry Potter commits to change.

The cure for depression is a many-layered thing. In the magical version, Harry goes to Remus Lupin and learns the Patronus Charm. In the psychological version – glimpsed between the lines – Harry undergoes therapy. The troubled 13-year-old replays his mother’s murder over and over again until he can control his emotions. This, in essence, is the cognitive-behavioural approach to post-traumatic stress disorder. By facing the horrific events in his past, Harry stops the negative thoughts from catching him off guard. Once he comes to terms with his trauma, Harry connects with the true happiness needed to drive away depression.

Yay! Harry the sorcerer blows away one hundred and one Dalmations, sorry, Dementors with his Expecto Patronum.

Except he does not. Not the first time. Lupin gives him the tools, and Harry experiences some levity, but there is more work to do. The foundational memory that Harry uses to conjure the Patronus charm is the fantasy of his family, born of his heart’s desire; “complicated”; dishonest. The happy memory fails when the Dementors initially descend. And Sirius makes it worse by feeding Harry another fantasy. The world’s most famous boy wizard can live with a convict! Wow, the idea catches fire in Harry’s mind. He can remain a boy! A boy whose father saves him when darkness falls.

Harry Potter’s uncertain identity is established in the early pages. He goes to school at, er, St Brutus’s, where he is regularly beaten. His name is, ah, Neville Longbottom. He lives at, uh, the Leaky Cauldron. His best friend is, um, the ice cream man. His surroundings broadcast his inner turmoil: sudden darkness, the lurches and bangs of the Knight Bus, a Quidditch match that dissolves into a storm, the furious disorder of the Shrieking Shack. ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ journeys deep into Harry’s psyche. It’s happening inside his head.

The Shrieking Shack is a metaphor for Harry’s subconscious. Four of the book’s 22 pages are devoted to the chaotic group-therapy session therein. Seven distinct identities, in essence divided, battle for the soul of Harry Potter.

For much of the book, Harry’s conscious self – his Ego – is conflicted. So naturally his Id and Superego, aka Ron and Hermione, go to war. Sirius Black is the Harry that is hellbent on revenge. Wormtail is the Harry that would rather be back in his cupboard, which for Scabbers takes the form of Ron Weasley’s pocket. Remus Lupin rationalizes the unforgivable crime of murder. And at the point of understanding, Severus Snape crashes the party, a portrait of pure mania. Seven Potters. The cat is just a cat.

Ego, Id and Superego then reconcile in spectacular fashion: Harry, Ron and Hermione blast Snape/madness off his feet. Harry tames Sirius/vengeance, and chooses now and forever not to tarnish his soul with murder. Peter Pettigrew again goes into hiding. Which the Lupin persona takes badly. Professor Lupin’s rationality is a front. He, too, has been sitting on an uncontrollable rage monster and the inevitable eruption is epic. Because anger imprisoned has dangerous consequences. Anger itself is not the enemy. But anger turned inwards becomes Dementors. Restrained for too long anger transforms into a mindless werewolf.

Harry’s problems are not resolved until the final book, but the work in the Shrieking Shack makes him stronger. On the Time Turner’d rerun, everything comes together in one decisive moment. With his past, present and future in jeopardy at the Lake, Harry alone blows Dementors/depression clear out of Hogwarts.

I am fascinated by the behaviour of the characters in the Shrieking Shack. They act in ways that are unique to this book. Severus Snape never again blows a fuse. Nor does he need an Invisibility Cloak. Sirius Black is not stirred by revenge. Hermione Granger does not feud with a teacher or slap a fellow student. Peter Pettigrew gives up the rat act. Remus Lupin’s wolf trick is one night only. And then there is Cornelius Fudge who, this one time, treats Harry with kid gloves and bonhomie, as if the boy were mad or dangerous. On Diagon Alley, Harry is pacified with ice cream until help arrives.

What is going on? How? Where?

Harry, in all probability, populates his subconscious with familiar faces. He is sedated. A fat chunk of year three passes in the dank fug of the Divination classroom, where the atmosphere is as thick and cloudy as dreams. His brain struggles to make connections, is unable to discern simple shapes and patterns. His conscience resists the pharmaceuticals, weakly at first: Hermione the Superego rails against the tedium. In the Hospital Wing: nothing anyone said or did could make Harry feel any better. Finally Dumbledore, the head of the facility, intervenes. He prevents Madam Pomfrey from administering treatment, a tactic he repeats in Goblet of Fire. Harry must feel his pain before he is permitted the sleep of the Poppy.

Crookshanks the emotional support animal calms the flailing anger of the Whomping Willow, which protects the entrance to Harry’s mental sanctum. Danger. Do not enter. Unsafe. The cat brings peace to the furious Sirius persona too, curled up and purring on his lap. So Harry goes to work… on himself. He accepts the terrible and beautiful truth about his parents. Ultimately, he sees them clearly, and loves them, and his honest memory of them (the source of happiness for the Patronus defence) becomes truly powerful. The child is father of the man. Self-reliant Harry chooses the sort of adult he will be: the Protector.

In Goblet of Fire, the Dementor is a joke, a Boggart in a maze. Depression returns only after fresh trauma: the death of Cedric Diggory. Harry retains the skills, even in Little Whinging, to dismiss the soul-sucking Dementors. But there are worse monsters. In Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort is in his head.

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