Once again, I’ve found myself working my way through J.K. Rowling’s world-famous Harry Potter series. As a strong believer of re-reading books, including (especially??) children’s books, I feel no shame here. Strip away the movie franchise, the amusement park, the vast amounts of memorabilia, and the general hubbub of pop culture, and we’re left with a genuinely compelling and thought-provoking story, filled with interesting themes and characters.
This time around, I’m thinking about dementors, a species that we’re introduced to in the series’ third installment. These dark, cloaked creatures feed on human happiness. Their mere presence causes a place to go cold, and people who encounter them instantly recall their worst memories, losing all hope and joy. Dementors were traditionally used to guard the wizard prison, which is fitting, as physical restraints would be useless against magical criminals. Instead, they’re bound by their own despair, thus greatly limiting their physical abilities. Rowling has said that dementors were inspired by her struggle with depression – they are a physical manifestation of the kind of suffering and anguish that can only come from within the human mind.
Compared to his peers, Harry’s experience of dementors is unique. He first encounters one en route to his third year of school. It’s an unpleasant experience for everyone: the other students describe feeling cold, and “like (they’d) never be cheerful again,” but Harry’s reaction is also physical – he trembles and passes out. Though he’s deeply ashamed of this apparent weakness, it’s later explained that the dementors affect him so deeply because of his traumatic past (i.e., witnessing his parents get murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort).
Harry becomes determined to learn how to defeat dementors, which are cast away by a Patronus charm – a sort of magical guardian the projects positivity. The core maneuver of this complex charm is to concentrate on something happy – a feat in itself when facing a dementor. In Harry’s young and sad life, his happy memories are limited and simple, but meaningful: The delight of flying on a broomstick. The joy of genuine friendship. The hope of living with his godfather.
Ultimately, Harry is able to successfully produce a Patronus and cast away hundreds of dementors at once. This surprises everyone, as it’s uncommon for fully educated wizards to be able to do such a thing, let alone a 13 year-old. In the subsequent books, Harry regularly saves the day with his Patronus. He eventually teaches some of his friends the charm, but even then, no one is able to cast as good a Patronus as Harry’s.
It’s never spelled out explicitly, but the meaning of his ultimate success is fairly clear: just as Harry’s tragic childhood caused the dementors to affect him more, he’s likewise able to defeat them so readily because he’s also experienced great hope and joy. Each time he drives away a dementor, he demonstrates that because his suffering was so great, his joy was that much greater. The happiness that he did experience was so complete, that mere memories of it could send the embodiment of fear and sadness running.
This literary theme resembles an answer to the problem of evil that’s often echoed in common culture. That is, the theory that it’s okay – and maybe even necessary – for evil to exist in this world, because suffering can make us better people, and without it we wouldn’t fully understand or appreciate the good. The more colloquial articulation of this is that the bad things that happen in life are worthwhile because they make the good things seem so much better, and that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
When I first studied the problem of evil as a second-year philosophy student, I wrote this idea off as little more than sentiment. We want to believe that bad stuff can be used for good, because it appeases our sadness and makes us feel better. But, God didn’t need to let your house burn down to teach you to trust in Him. God didn’t need to let you suffer from cancer to teach you about hope. God didn’t need to make your sister autistic to make you more compassionate and patient. God didn’t need to let your father die to restore and enhance your relationship with your mother. God is sovereign; He could have figured out a way to spare you and your hypothetical family from all that mess.
Incidentally, I feel a tiny bit different about this now than I did as a college sophomore. In theory, I’m still on board with the idea that it’s probably better for people not to suffer, even if that suffering has a satisfactory silver lining. But lately I’ve been intrigued by the relationship between beauty and brokenness. I wonder about the art and ideas we’d miss out on if it weren’t for things like oppression and mental illness. I wonder about kind of strength is takes to look suffering in the eye, and then turn around and be satisfied by a tender moment between friends, or a cool breeze on a warm day. I wonder if brokenness – redeemed – could be the most beautiful things in the world.
Is the beauty worth the brokenness? At the very least, the hope that it is isn’t mere sentiment. There’s something about the desire to see the good surrounding evil things that is so humble, so curious, and so spirited, that I can’t help but find the idea compelling.