The dementors and the patronus charm are examples of firm and soft elements working in combination to create the hybrid magic system of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series.
Dementors & The Patronus Charm
Rowling’s use of magic throughout the first half of the Harry Potter series creates a pattern: firm magic creates conflict, and soft magic resolves it. An example of Rowling’s firm and soft magic working in combination to create and solve problems are the dementors and the patronus charm in ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’.
The Firm Magic of Dementors
Dementors are firm magic and not hard because their effects are emotion-based, consistent, and predictable – cold, lack of happiness, despair, risk of the ‘kiss’. Rowling keeps the consequences of a dementor attack and their attraction to enjoyment steady throughout the series and applies them equally to all characters. At the beginning of ‘Order of the Phoenix’ dementor attacks are effective against both wizards like Harry and Muggles like his cousin Dudley. In ‘Deathly Hallows’, Umbridge uses dementors to intimidate Muggle-borns.
Rowling raises the stakes and creates more narrative tension by making Harry more vulnerable than anyone else to the dementors. Harry is the only person on the Hogwarts Express to lose consciousness when dementors search the train for Sirius Black. As Professor Lupin explains in the film version, Harry is more vulnerable to dementor attacks because there are ‘real horrors in his past’. Unlike the other students, Harry experiences debilitating flashbacks in the presence of dementors – he hears his mother pleading for his life then screaming moments before Voldemort kills her when he was a baby.
Rowling’s connection between trauma and being susceptible to dementor attacks is a clever way to use the magic system to underscore Harry’s character arc (more on this in a future post).
The Soft Magic of the Patronus
Rowling’s counterbalance to the depression and despair of the dementors is the patronus charm – a spell that creates silvery light that repels dementors. It’s softer magic than the dementors because although a patronus is also emotion-based magic, the results are not consistent or reliable like the dementors. As Harry struggles to learn it, his patronus develops in shape – first a whisp, then a shield version, and finally the corporeal form of a stag.
Rowling links the strength and form of the patronus to the magic user’s willpower and emotional state. This works brilliantly in terms of Harry’s character arc, but creates problems in the magic system. If he manages to pronounce the entire incantation without passing out, sometimes Harry’s thoughts are happy enough to create a patronus, and sometimes they aren’t. This allows Rowling to effectively control Harry’s patronus and time its strength to conform with her story beats.
In the book Harry doesn’t produce a stag patronus until the climax, when he, Sirius, and Hermione are being attacked by a hundred dementors and Sirius and Hermione have been overcome. It’s perfect heroic timing in terms of plot and Harry’s character arc, but there is a whiff of plot convenience.
Rowling also applies the dementors’ attraction to happiness and the varying result of the patronus to her villains. In ‘Deathly Hallows’ Umbridge’s cat patronus – powered by her self-righteous delight – glows brightly to protect her from the dementors which are attracted to her smug satisfaction while interrogating Muggle-borns.
By linking the patronus to the magic user’s emotional state, Rowling externalizes Harry’s character arc with a beautiful visual element that is narratively effective. But the softness of patronus magic also allows Rowling to shortchange Hermione.
If Rowing treated the patronus as firmer magic, consistently corresponding with the magic user’s willpower, positive thinking, and an incantation (there is no specific wand movement), then it would be Hermione – not Harry – who would have the strongest, most reliable patronus in the series. Rowling has shown us that Hermione is the best in her year at spellwork, and doesn’t lack willpower, determination, or focus in stressful circumstances.
But Rowling handicaps Hermione’s ability to maintain the patronus as Harry’s signature hero move. Hermione doesn’t have any trouble with the patronus charm once she learns it from Harry in ‘Order of the Phoenix’, but Rowling saddles her with a weak patronus during the ministry break-in in ‘Deathly Hallows’. Harry even mentions that ‘…it’s the only spell she [Hermione] ever has trouble with’.
The film adaptations sidestep this problem and allow Harry to occupy the patronus spotlight by simply not having Hermione attempt to cast a patronus at any point in the series except during DA classes in ‘Order of the Phoenix.’
Ron & the Horcrux Locket
Rowling applies the anxiety-ridden effects of the Horcrux locket to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. This equal application keeps the Horcrux magic consistent and predictable, making it firmer magic than the patronus and similar to the effects of the dementors.
In ‘Deathly Hallows’ Rowling makes a smart choice by having the Horcrux locket and the isolation of the trio’s aimless wanderings affect Ron more strongly than Harry or Hermione. Ron is ill-tempered and emotionally volatile while wearing the Horcrux locket, and this is consistent and believable with his established character. Unlike Harry who was regularly ignored by the Dursleys and grew up without any friends, and Hermione who is an only-child, Ron was raised in a large, supportive family and already has confidence issues. It makes sense that the Horcrux locket would cause him the most anxiety and self-doubt.
Rowling uses the Horcrux locket and Ron’s logical aversion to it to power his character arc, which concludes with Ron destroying the locket after it taunts him about his insecurities.
The Patronus Hole in the Magic System
In ‘Deathly Hallows’ the softness of patronus magic creates a hole in the magic system. Harry is unable to produce any sort of patronus due to anxiety while he’s wearing the Horcrux locket. While the concept is believable, the magnitude is not. Harry can’t produce any form of patronus – not even a whisp – ostensibly because he’s anxious due to the Horcrux locket, hungry, and faced with a handful of dementors. This doesn’t square with Harry’s impressive stag patronus when battling a hundred dementors in ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’.
Hermione’s handicap and Harry not being able to produce any patronus at all due to anxiety are two examples of how Rowling prioritizes story above the magic system. This tradeoff is less noticeable when applied to soft, emotion-based magic rather than hard, logic-based magic as in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender‘.
Conclusion: It’s So Effective I Don’t Mind the Glitches
I’ve picked apart Rowling’s use of soft patronus magic and spotted some inconsistencies, but in the end I’m not bothered by foibles in her magic system. The concept of the dementors and the patronus, and Rowling’s use of them in ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ – both in the plot and in Harry’s character arc – are so inventive and meaningful that the snags don’t pull me out of the story or lessen the emotional impact. Rowling prioritizes character development and telling a satisfying story above creating a magic system without any holes. I think she made the right choice.
Additional Posts in This Series
Part 1 – ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ – the characteristics of a hard magic system.
Part 2 – ‘Magic User Spectrum of ‘Harry Potter” – the differences between firm, flexible, and soft magic users.
Part 4 – ‘Magical Conflict in ‘Harry Potter” – how and why Rowling uses firm and soft magical elements to create and resolve conflict throughout the series.
Part 5 – ‘The Thematic Magic of ‘Lord of the Rings’ – how Tolkien uses soft magic to convey theme.
What do you think of the magic in Harry Potter? Tell me in the comments!