Depression and Dementors: the magic of Harry Potter and grief
When people think of the infamous children’s literature series that is Harry Potter, a number of things may spring to mind. Perhaps it’s the fanatic queuing at midnight for the new book release, hordes of people eagerly awaiting the nextshowing in Britain’s top film franchise, or even the two major visitor attractions (in both London and Orlando) that 12,981,000 holidaymakers collectively visit each year.
For me, I will always remember Harry Potter in two ways. The first is the sweeping feeling of nostalgia that comes whenever I open The Philosophers Stone, and the second is how my insight and understanding of characters evolved once I’d experienced something that Harry, Luna and JK Rowling herself had: the loss of a parent, and the feelings that came with it.
When JK Rowling finally published ‘Harry Potter’ in 1997 on a limited print run, the effect was literal magic. But what added to the allure of Pottermania was the fact that the author was a single-mother, living on state-benefits in Edinburgh. Papers jumped on it. It was the rags-to-riches story that nobody could put down.
But to me, the fact that Rowling was suffering with clinical depression during this time, whilst raising her daughter and writing in a dire situation always struck a chord — and it resonates in her writing, also. Rowling’s mother had passed away from multiple sclerosis seven years prior to ‘Harry Potter’ reaching publication, and never knew of her daughter’s success.
It was likely through this significant loss that Rowling chose to include and expand on the themes of grief, and the effects of depression (and even PTSD) in her books. In this process, she provided incredibly ‘human’ characters dealing with issues not often discussed or deemed appropriate for children's books.
Rowling does not shy away from introducing grief early on in the series and highlighting how it effects young people: this being seen in the very first book.
Around halfway through, we are presented with the poignant and iconic scene of Harry watching himself reflected in the magical Mirror of Erised, but with the images of his deceased parents looking back at him (which always brings me to tears.) Harry goes back every night just to sit and watch, wondering what life would have been like if they were still alive, until Professor Dumbledore finally discovers his late-night excursions and has the mirror moved to another wing.
Following this, his words of wisdom to Harry are ‘it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live’ - which to anyone who has lost someone dear to them, is sage advice. The idea that it’s soothing and comforting to remember our loved ones with fondness is very true, and the fact that we also tend to imagine what our lives would be like if they were still here is even more so. But the line between nostalgia and obsession is thin, and these ‘dreams’ can become unhealthy.
When I was younger, the whole idea of Dumbledore taking away Harry’s most desperate and honest desire seemed bitterly unfair, but now I realise that if he hadn’t, Harry’s grief would have made him reliant on the mirror — and the book would never had progressed, including his character development.
However, the most powerful book demonstrating grief, loss and depression to me is the Order of the Phoenix (Deathly Hallows comes a close second, but we’ll have to leave that for another time.) This is the book that is often critiqued as the marmite of the series, as Harry becomes too angsty, too whiny and just… well, teenagery.
Rowling throws her readers right into the middle of her character’s emotional turmoil: the return of Voldemort, the murder of Cedric Diggory and through Priori Incantatem — the brief return of Lily and James Potter. Harry is in pieces. Seen in the passage above, his grief is raw, painful and so real that even now I am thrown back to my own experience of screaming in my Aunt’s car after my Dad died.
It’s ugly, messy and makes your throat hurt. It’s the real deal.
Which is one of the reasons why I love this book. The other, is down to Rowling introducing us to the wide-eyed and eccentric Luna Lovegood.
To me, Luna encapsulates nothing but acceptance and positivity, and Rowling places her as a guide for Harry out of his dark place. Luna’s backstory does seem to hearken Harry’s, as she also tragically lost her mother in an accident when she was nine — and it becomes apparent that she actually witnessed the tragic event when she can see Thestrals.
The thing about Luna is that although her grief is still palpable, it’s no longer at the point that it’s hardened her or made her bitter. She almost juxtaposes Harry completely. Rowling presents him as dark, angry and fearful (mostly due to the infiltration of Voldemort in his mind and the events of the previous book) causing him to isolate himself. He becomes selfish and distrustful. Harry seems to become the antithesis of a typical young adult hero, which is often why people struggle with this book — but to me, I feel that Rowling makes incredibly good choices with his characterisation.
It’s truthful. He is a human, with flaws and almost self-destructive tendencies as a result of the trauma he has been through (which has led some fans to believe that Harry suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.) It takes some going to get past the initial dislike of Harry’s new ‘attitude’, with characters seeming to struggle with it: who can forget Rita Skeeter’s scathing line from the fourth film: ‘…your parents, were they alive, how do you think they’d feel? Proud? Or concerned that your attitude shows, at best, a pathological need for attention? The worst psychotic death wish’.
But, it is Harry’s humanity that brings him through, especially after the death of his godfather Sirius Black. After stopping himself from torturing the murderer, Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry combats Voldemort’s mental infiltration by clinging to this humanity: recalling feelings of friendship, happiness and love.
In terms of depression, it is widely documented that Rowling based the terrifying Dementors (which is a blend of both ‘torment’ and ‘dement’) on the feelings and effects that she experienced during her depression, and it’s an incredibly close-to-the-bone interpretation.
“If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” They “freeze your insides” and most importantly: “they don’t need walls” to keep their prisoners, their prisoners become “trapped inside their own heads”.
In the books, Dementors are traditionally used to guard the wizarding prison of ‘Azkaban’, but they follow Harry to his home and Hogwarts itself on a few occasions throughout the series. The metaphor is not lost on fans, with many deeply relating to the trials and emotions found with their own depression reflected in Dementors.
Rowling writes that a great way to restore yourself after a Dementor ‘attacks’ you is by eating chocolate — a lovely allusion to comfort eating. She also provides readers with another metaphor for strength against these deadly creatures in the form of the famous Patronus Charm, which requires casters to think of a powerful, happy memory to create a shield, or unique animal protector (it makes more sense in the books and films, I assure you.)
The spell of ‘Expecto Patronum’ translates to, ‘I await a protector’ in Latin — but it emphasises, in my opinion, that the caster isn’t specifically waiting for anyone. They are their own protector, and they have the power to overcome the Dementor themselves.
There is a beauty in Harry Potter and that is the fact that it’s relatable in so many shapes and forms. Rowling as an author knows how to add her own experiences with grief, loss and depression, and write it in a way that both children, teenagers and adults find accessible without being patronising. You can take the writing and story in whatever direction you please, such as stressing a certain theme to feature in the backbone of the story, or stripping it all back and enjoying Harry Potter as a series simplistically.
In my case, Harry Potter has become somewhat of a comfort in an incredibly difficult time. It feels good to read about characters such as Luna Lovegood who overcomes pain and heartbreak in such a way that it translates into positivity.
The magic starts in reading these stories, somehow gaining power through getting to know these fictitious people, which finally becomes complete when I feel that strength and close the book.