Expelliarmus!: Retaliation and peaceable outcomes in the Harry Potter series.

Janet iafrate

Janet Iafrate earned her B.A. in English from Fordham University (USA) and her M.A. in Modern and Contemporary Studies from the University of Newcastle on Tyne (UK), focusing on children's and young adult literature.  She currently lives in Philadelphia and teaches English literature and creative writing at Saint Basil Academy.

With its House Elf Liberation Front and the pervasive conflict of “pure-blood” and “half-blood” status, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga can be considered, in a contemporary political context, a liberal-slanted series.   After all, the governing Ministry of Magic is riddled with corruption, and a group of wizard-teenagers organize an underground response to injustices taking place in their school.   It is the progressive parents’ dream-series, complete with labor-reform for house-elves, a brilliant female who prizes books over popularity, and underlying messages about how to treat people.  What I would like to focus on is another aspect of the series which I believe expands upon its running emphasis on compassion and right-versus-easy choices, a theme which has for the most part been left out of the film adaptations: the treatment of and retaliation against criminals, enemies and villains.  Compassion toward kind, lovable characters like Hagrid and Lupin is easy to achieve.  I think Rowling does something even more radical when she asks her readers to examine the actual treatment of the unlovable, irredeemable enemies in the story, and suggests that in order to defeat our enemies, we must make different and ultimately better choices than those enemies. 

Books 3 and 5, specifically, underscore characters that have been incarcerated, abused and enslaved, and Rowling’s treatment suggests an alternative and progressive approach to violent retaliation. In Book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban, she introduces us to ominous, hooded prison guards called dementors:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth.  They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Every happy memory will be sucked out of you… You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

There is no criminal rehabilitation going on in the wizarding world.  As Remus Lupin describes it, “prisoners are trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought” (188).  The Ministry takes away not only personal liberties but also memory and the possibility for happiness.  The physical image of Azkaban, a large castle isolated by water on all sides, embodies that emotional isolation of the prisoners and mirrors the physical, modern structures of Alcatraz in San Francisco, The Cellular Jail on Andaman Island, the Chateau D’If in France, and New York City’s Riker’s Island.  The most contemporary example that more recent readers might associate with Azkaban is Guatanamo Bay.  The publication of Prisoner precedes 9/11 by two years and Guatanamo’s terrorist-detainment purposes by three years, and so the novel can not be a direct commentary on Guatanamo’s practices, though the post-9/11 novels suggest Rowling’s recognition of the similarity and her own perspective on the treatment of suspected terrorists.  Whether Rowling based Azkaban on one prison or is using it as a general representation of modern incarceration, her depiction is something a contemporary reader would feel familiar with.  In this world, wizards have progressed beyond telephones and cars, but Rowling is making clear that their world contains shadows of our own systems, governance and punishment.

What could be compared to a wizard-version of the death penalty in Azkaban, though Lupin calls it “much worse” than death, is a “dementor’s kiss,” reserved for the lowest of criminals: “It’s what dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly…[They] suck out the person’s soul… There’s no chance at all of recovery…. Your soul is gone forever” (247).  I compare it to the death penalty because of its finality: Lupin makes it clear that the kiss is the ultimate punishment in this world, and that it is irreversible, regardless of whether one is later vindicated of the crime. 

Half-way through the novel, Harry and Lupin discuss the dementor’s kiss in light of Sirius Black, who was accused of betraying Harry’s parents and has recently escaped Azkaban.  That conversation is interesting because Lupin, whom we have by now learned to trust, questions the level of justice in the dementor’s kiss against even the worst of criminals:

“He deserves it,” [Harry] said suddenly.
“You think so?” said Lupin lightly.  “Do you really think anyone deserves that?” 
“Yes,” said Harry defiantly. “For… some things.”  (247)

It is Lupin, however, who knows more about those “things” than anyone else, having been a close friend of the accused and feeling just as betrayed as Harry.  Again, the point is the finality and irreversible element of the kiss, and the question of whether “anyone,” regardless of the crime, deserves an outcome that robs one of her or his “essence,” the soul.  Added to Lupin’s distrust of the system is Dumbledore’s own doubts regarding the use of dementors, as other characters note throughout The Prisoner of Azkaban (66, 181, 393). [1]  I believe Lupin and Dumbledore’s hesitation concerning an alliance between the government and the “foulest creatures” also emphasizes the unanswered questions surrounding the use of a dementor: Who “deserves” the finality of the dementor’s kiss, and for what crimes?  What if the prisoner is later vindicated, but the soul has already been taken away?  What if the criminal was not acting of her or his own accord?  Who makes the decision to order a dementor’s kiss, and does that person always possess the whole truth and nothing but the truth? 

Those questions are underscored in the novel’s climax when the truth finally reveals itself in the Shrieking Shack: Sirius was framed for murder by the still-living Peter Pettigrew, and Peter’s life is now at the hands of Sirius, Harry and Lupin.   Harry and readers are left with the realization that if Sirius had been caught and delivered to the dementors, the kiss administered, the truth would have died with him and the result, as argued, would have been irreversible.  We now feel compassion toward the innocent and falsely-accused fugitive Black, but Rowling allows Harry to go a step further and have mercy on his enemy as well.  Peter Pettigrew, at this point, is our real villain.  He betrayed his best friends to Voldemort and is responsible for Sirius’ 12 years in Azkaban.   A kind of rite-of-passage occurs, however, when Harry overcomes an urgent need for retaliation and declares that he believes his father would not want his friends to “become killers” (376).  He independently spares Pettigrew’s life, moving above Voldemort and Pettigrew’s actions so that he and his father’s friends will not become executors of the same crimes.

I think that The Prisoner of Azkaban accomplishes two things: first, the novel questions its world’s current means of crime and punishment, even looking at the hypocrisy involved in executing the most horrific of actions in order to scare others from committing, well, horrific actions.  In Lupin’s simple question, “Does anyone deserve that?” we are at least offered doubts on the system’s means of punishment.  I do not believe Rowling necessarily answers that question outright, nor does she offer an alternative to prison, nor establish rehabilitation for wizards.  I believe our most trusted characters underscore that the treatment—and the purpose of that treatment—of the faceless criminals in Azkaban is at least questionable.  The Wizengamot, the wizarding version of the court, represents a justice system that proves fallible, and will only continue to do so as the series progresses.  Secondly, the novel suggests that in order to move beyond evil actions and move toward peaceable outcomes, we must make choices that divert us from becoming what our enemies are.

By the time we reach Book 5, The Order of the Phoenix, we have learned about the unforgivable curses that can land a wizard in prison: Crucio, which inflicts physical pain; Imperio, which controls a wizard’s mind and actions through a kind of hypnotic state; and Avada Kedavra, the killing curse.  I think it is important to mention that by the time we reach the publication of Book 5, the world has experienced the media coverage and political atmosphere of the September 11th attacks.  “Guatanamo Bay,” “racial profiling” and “detainees” are now common terms, and war was declared three months before this novel’s 2003 release. Most readers know that Rowling had carefully planned much of the series as far back as the mid-1990’s, and so it is difficult to say that the plot itself was altered according to events like 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005.   What can be argued is that she was influenced by the political atmosphere itself, as we see in Book 6, when those suspected of running with Voldemort are sent to Azkaban without substantial proof of their guilt. The Death Eaters execute random violence against muggles, what can be compared to terrorism.  Loyalties are constantly in question, and characters from the Minister of Magic to Mr. Weasley to Stan Shunpike are victims of a culture of fear; no one seems to trust anyone.  If Guatanamo was similar to Azkaban before, by now the resemblance is eerie, and I think it can be argued that even if Rowling changed little in her plot and characterization, that her portrayal of simply living, working and going to school in this world is a direct response to the events taking place in our world.  Dumbledore’s Army, introduced in The Order of the Phoenix, can be interpreted as a response to living and reacting to violence taking place in that world.

The Wizengamot proved its fallibility in Books 3 and 4 when it made mistakes about Sirius Black, about the return of Voldemort, and about the identity of several Death-Eaters who were cleared because of lies, gifts and donations.  Now the same Wizengamot is interrogating Harry, suspecting Dumbledore of treason and questioning wizards’ loyalty to the governing Ministry.  The new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, vehemently aligned with the Wizengamot and Ministry, is watering down lessons, and thus Harry and company organize an underground group called Dumbledore’s Army: they will meet in secret, train and practice defensive spells against the dark arts.  The progressive-parents’-dream is for a moment crushed—a children’s army?   While militant in name, however, Rowling gives us a different version of an army, one which I think further illustrates the series’ alternative perspective on violent retaliation. 

Rather than practice unforgivable curses or violent attacks, the students practice charms like “Expelliarmus,” which expels the enemy’s weapon and can actually force the spell to repel back.  These are not spells that inflict pain, nor force others under wizards’ control.  The students also learn to produce a Patronus, a jet of light in the form of an animal which results from good thoughts and positivity.  The army is not fighting fire with fire; rather, its members produce charms and shields that enact the exact opposite of what the enemy produces.  Thus, the vision of Rowling’s “army” is radical in that its purpose is not to kill, but to actually repel and disarm those who possess the weapons and rage to summon such curses.  The children, then, like in Harry’s interaction with Pettigrew, are not asked to become what they already believe is wrong.   In this world, an unforgivable curse is actually dangerous to oneself, because in unleashing it the wizard makes her or himself vulnerable to a counter-attack, an “expelliarmus,” which might send the spell backward.  Metaphorically speaking, violence begets violence; the children’s spells and charms are essentially a refusal to use the same deadly curses.

In addition to the Ministry of Magic, Dolores Umbridge and Professor Snape, Book 5 introduces a seemingly harmless villain in the house-elf Kreacher, a servant to the Black family.  Kreacher’s role expands upon the treatment of villainy in the series and examines systematic abuse.  When we meet Kreacher, he is muttering “mud-bloods” under his breath and treats our heroes with contempt and revulsion; we immediately dislike him, even against Hermione’s warning that Kreacher should be treated with respect.  Ultimately, his cooperation with the enemy leads to Sirius Black’s death.   Rowling asks Harry and her readers to question themselves, however, and their contempt for the house-elf when Dumbledore chastises his fellow wizards for long-term abuse against the species:

Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards, Harry… Yes, he is to be pitied.  His existence has been as miserable as your friend Dobby’s. … Sirius regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice.  Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike… We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.  (833-34)

Like Hermione had argued in both this novel and The Goblet of Fire, wizards’ treatment of seemingly lesser beings is on par with the blood-prejudices that characters like the Malfoys might execute.  In Book 7 we learn of further abuses that Kreacher had suffered as a house-elf and servant of Death-Eaters.  An enemy that is essentially responsible for the death of a beloved character and Harry’s last chance at a normal home-life is now understood as a victim of systematic abuse.  Whether the reader still holds Kreacher directly responsible for Sirius’ death is up to that reader. The point is that the book is at least asking us to move beyond a good-versus-bad, black-versus-white perspective of good and evil.  In the wisdom of characters like Dumbledore and Hermione, evil, blame and retaliation are complicated, and often part of a larger, complex system in need of examination.

By Book 7, The Deathly Hallows, we become prepared for Harry’s unforgivable curse, expecting him to kill Voldemort because he has been told that this is the only possible solution. There is the complicated finale involving wand-allegiance, blood-ties and the ancient magic of Lily’s blood-protection.  In short, Harry eventually reasons that Voldemort’s wand is actually loyal to him, not to Voldemort, and that he need not use a killing curse to disarm him.  As Voldemort yells “Avada Kedavra,” Harry uses his counter-curse of “expelliarmus.”  The killing curse is thus returned backward, Voldemort essentially killing Voldemort.  It is hard to say whether or not Harry would have attempted the Avada Kedavra against him had the wand’s allegiance not been his after all; however, metaphorically speaking, I believe it was a wise and consistent choice that Harry does not turn into a killer, himself.  Just as the use of the soul-draining dementors backfires on the Ministry, and the poor treatment of house-elves backfires on the wizarding world, Voldemort’s killing curse rebounds on himself, and Harry’s “expelliarmus” allows the hero to avoid becoming a killer.  Voldemort’s violence, his own choice to kill, is what ultimately killed him.

The treatment of enemies in this series reminds me of another fantasy novel, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967), in which a spoiled boy, easy to despise for most of the book, actually surprises us all with the declaration that he will accept humiliation, accept pain, willingly be tormented and humiliated by his enemy.  He accepts his own insecurities and refuses to retaliate.  I believe that Rowling’s series offers a similar and consistent theme, and I hope it is remembered, both in and out of its historical context, for a perspective in which “evil” is not necessarily a black and white issue, but complex, often gray, and at least worthy of examination.  I would not argue that every character always “turns the other check,” so to speak, nor, most likely, do most readers. Who did not feel a sense of satisfaction when after enduring chapters of Dolores Umbridge’s cruelty, lies and physical abuse, we find her struggling in a hospital bed from a Centaur attack?  Harry Potter and his friends have no problem tormenting Draco Malfoy now and then, albeit usually in their own defense and not because they are “bored,” as Harry’s father once attributed his own bullying of Snape (Order, 670).  But I think there are yet radically peaceable solutions throughout these novels, notably in the use of spells like “expelliarmus,” in conscious decisions to not become the enemy, and even in asking why a system functions the way it does.



1. In Book 6, The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore’s warning rings true: the dementors have actually aligned themselves with Voldemort’s forces.

Works Cited

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  New York: Scholastic, Inc, 2007.

---- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, Inc, 2005.

---- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  New York: Scholstic, Inc, 2003.

---- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  New York: Scholstic, Inc, 1998.


Janet Iafrate

Volume 13, Issue 3 The Looking Glass, September/October 2009

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