I've been rereading the Harry Potter series, and like with anything you read as a child and reread as an adult, I've been noticing things I didn't ten years ago.
Asa kid, I didn't realize that Harry's behavior in Order of the Phoenix might be due to PTSD from everything that's happened to him. I didn't realize that Kreacher exhibited signs of dementia. I didn't realize that dementors pretty served as a pretty accurate metaphor for depression.
That's part of the joy of rereading these books. Each time, even if it's the tenth or twentieth reread, I discover something new. Sometimes it's a flaw in the storytelling, as I discussed in my post about Goblet of Fire. Sometimes, like now, it's a realization of the pervasiveness of a "grown-up" topic like mental illness within the story.
Because because mental illness is such a recurring theme in the series, I couldn't talk about every instance where it's brought up. Instead, here's a list of seven ways Rowling deals with the issue that stuck out the most to me. Some are empowering, some are confusing or problematic, and some are ambiguous—like many aspects of the Harry Potter series, the portrayal of mental illness is more nuanced than it may seem at first glance.
1. Luna Lovegood.
Luna Lovegood, or “Loony Lovegood” as her Hogwarts classmates call her, is an eccentric girl who, according to Hermione, will believe anything as long as there’s no proof. She’s dreamy, distractible, and seemingly detached from reality—quite a feat in a world where “reality” includes dragons, love potions, and wraith-like, soul-sucking Dementors.
Early on, Harry resents Luna for making him look uncool by association with her weird antics. When she’s the only person to stand by him, such as when no one else sees the skeletal Thestrels who pull the carriages to Hogwarts, Harry isn’t comforted. At one point, Luna even says, “You’re as sane as I am,” which Harry doesn’t appreciate. The implication is clearly that he believes Luna isn’t sane and that he’s frightened of becoming like her.
However, by the end of Order of the Phoenix, the book where Luna is introduced, Harry and his friends learn that she’s a brave and loyal friend. She fights alongside them against the Death Eaters, earning Harry’s respect. From then on, he finds her observations amusing rather than embarrassing and he even takes her to the Christmas party with him.
“Madness,” in this case—as in several others throughout the series—is used as a dismissive label for someone who doesn’t conform. Someone who is “insane” doesn’t fit within what our society determines as the parameters of “sanity.” Someone who is eccentric doesn’t fit within our society’s parameters of “normal.” It’s easy to see the overlap. Whether you take Rowling’s frequent blurring of these lines as a reflection of the way society sees them or her own misconceptions is up to you.
2. The Gaunt Family's "Vein of Instability and Violence."
"Marvolo, his son, Morfin, and his daughter, Merope, were the last of the Gaunts, a very ancient wizarding family noted for a vein of instability and violence that flourished through the generations due to their habit of marrying their own cousins."
The Gaunts are the prime example in the wizarding world of how the obsession with “pure blood” can backfire. They are the last surviving descendants of Salazar Slytherin and Voldemort’s only magical relatives.
When Harry visits them through memories in Half-Blood Prince, Marvolo and Marvin are frightening and erratic. Dumbledore’s description of the Gaunts as unstable and violent seems apt. It’s a pretty caricaturesque portrayal of inbreeding; Morfin and Merope have crossed eyes, Morfin carries a knife and is prone to unprompted outbursts, and Marvolo is an abusive hermit.
“Instability” is another one of those vague words that suggest mental illness but don’t commit to anything in particular. It’s often associated with violence and danger, as it is here—if a building is unstable, you don’t want to go in, and if a person is unstable, you tend to be wary of them.
It’s unfortunate that evil and violence had to be associated with the suggestion of mental illness in this case. The Gaunts could have been merely cruel and lacking in empathy, disconnected from the world and limited by their pseudo-racist views of Muggles and Muggle-borns. That would have been more interesting to me than making them “unstable,” which seems like the lazy way out. Mental illness doesn’t need even more stigma attached to it.
3. Neville's Parents.
"My son and his wife were tortured into insanity by You-Know-Who's followers.”
In Goblet of Fire, Harry learns why Neville Longbottom was raised by his grandmother. After Voldemort’s fall, Neville’s parents were interrogated using the Cruciatus Curse until their minds were damaged beyond repair. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry and his friends meet Neville’s mother in the ward of St. Mungo’s hospital dedicated to the care of patients with permanent mental impairment due to magic.
The nature of Neville’s parents’ condition is left vague, although “insanity,” as it’s continually referred to, seems like the wrong term. Neville’s mother’s childish behavior and her inability to remember that he’s her son suggests cognitive impairment such as the kind that follows a traumatic brain injury, which is not the same as a mental illness—nor, in layman’s terms, being “insane.”
The case of Neville’s parents is a great example of how the characters in these books, like people in everyday life, abuse and misuse terms related to mental illness. My next point, incidentally, is another good example.
The idea of a “mad scientist” or “mad genius” is hardly exclusive to Dumbledore, but he’s a fascinating example. Especially in the first few books, Harry repeatedly hears that Dumbledore is brilliant but “mental.” Plenty of characters, especially Hogwarts students such as Ron and the Weasley twins, insist on it. Their evidence seems to be that Dumbledore is eccentric and inscrutable—he doesn’t react to situations in the expected manner, so according to the students, he clearly must be mad.
However, when Harry and the readers get to know Dumbledore on a more personal level in the sixth book, Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore seems much less eccentric. As he explains his choices and actions to Harry, we understand that what other characters took as inexplicable behavior was just over their heads.
I think this is a fantastic reversal of expectations. The Dumbledore of the earlier novels fits the mad genius stereotype, whereas the Dumbledore we get to know in later books subverts it. Often what is categorized as “madness” is simply noncomformity—just like I brought up in the section about Luna Lovegood. Madness is a term often used to describe the actions of someone we don’t understand, so it stands to reason that this vague idea would not hold up when we actually get to know Dumbledore.
5. Moony (A.K.A. Remus Lupin) and Lycanthropy.
While many people have argued, and J. K. Rowling herself has confirmed, that lycanthropy was meant as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS, I think an equally compelling argument can be made for werewolves as a metaphor for mental illness. The mentally ill have traditionally been associated with the phases of the moon—that's the origin of the word "lunatic." From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
late 13c., "affected with periodic insanity dependent on the changes of the moon," from Old French lunatique "insane," or directly from Late Latin lunaticus "moon-struck," from Latin luna "moon."
“Periodic insanity dependent on the changes of the moon” sounds an awful lot like werewolves. While Remus’ suffering from HIV/AIDS tracks with the ostracization he experiences, so does mental illness. Remus’ needing to be locked up periodically for the protection of others is reminiscent of the institutionalization of mental illness and the perception that it makes people dangerous, like we saw in the point about the Gaunts. The nickname for Remus, Moony, is also closely associated with "Loony."
Of course, it's not a perfect metaphor, because obviously mental illness is not contagious, unlike lycanthropy. However, neither is the metaphor of HIV/AIDS. Good metaphors are never perfect; they expand the conversation, not end it.
Introduced in Prisoner of Azkaban, Dementors are some of the scariest monsters to appear in the Harry Potter universe. They feed off hope and happiness and drain their victims’ will to keep fighting. As such, Dementors pretty accurately represent the effects of depression.
Depression isn’t sadness. Depression is the feeling that you’ll never be happy again and that your life has no meaning. That’s exactly how characters describe their experience when they encounter Dementors.
Fortunately, Dementors can be fought, and Harry learns how to do it from Professor Lupin. The key to defeating a Dementor is to conjure the happiest memory you can think of. The memory creates a Patronus, a magical being made entirely of joy and hope, which battles the Dementors.
To me, this idea is one of the most enduring and beautiful ones in the whole Harry Potter universe. Too many times, when mental illness comes up in any way in a piece of media, it’s treated as… well, untreatable. A mental illness might as well be a death sentence. But Harry fights back and shows us that we can, too.
7. Harry's PTSD.
Each time he encounters the Dementors in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is forced to relive the moment of his parents’ murder, over and over. With continuous help and guidance from Professor Lupin, Harry learns to control his flashbacks and fight back against the Dementors, as I discussed above.
While I talked about Dementors in terms of their parallels with depression, what Harry experiences could also be understood as PTSD. Intense flashbacks caused by a trigger—in this case, the Dementor—is pretty much a defining characteristic. With Lupin’s help, Harry overcomes these flashbacks.
However, two books later, after witnessing the death of a fellow student, having to fight for his life, and being cut off from all contact with his friends—or really, anyone who cares about him—for weeks, Harry is experiencing recurring nightmares, another staple of PTSD. When he’s reunited with his friends, he lashes out at them. His outburst near the beginning of Order of the Phoenix could be read as teenage angst, but it also fits perfectly with the irritability and anger that often characterizes PTSD.
Order of the Phoenix didn’t sit well with me the first time I read it, but now it’s one of my favorites precisely because of the bold way it deals with trauma. Harry isn’t likeable during a lot of the book and he makes rash decisions with terrible consequences. It was a risk for Rowling to take with a boy hero who had been pretty standard up to this point, but I think it paved the way for other fantasy stories aimed at younger readers to tackle issues of mental illness, too.
Leave a Comment!
I know there’s a lot of examples I left out. Anything stick out to you?
Have you reread the Harry Potter series or any other series from your childhood? What do you notice now that you didn’t when you were younger?