The practicality of the Patronus

Expecto Patronum is a spell for everyone

For a so-called series of children’s books, Harry Potter can get rather dark. This begins in Prisoner of Azkaban, where JK Rowling touches graver and grimmer topics than in Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s previous two adventures. The story explores animal cruelty and criminal injustice and introduces the wickedest of the wizarding world’s creatures: Dementors.

The book succeeds because Rowling balances this badness with friendship and courage. In Azkaban this is manifest in myriad ways—Hermione slugging Malfoy is perhaps the most satisfying—but the standout occurs in the penultimate chapter when Harry climactically conjures a Patronus.

We learn earlier in Azkaban that the Patronus charm is an “anti-Dementor.” It can only be understood in the context of what Dementors do to humans, which is to drain all of our “peace, hope, and happiness” and to perform a “kiss” that is, quite literally, soul-sucking. To cast a Patronus and vanquish these villains, one must concentrate “with all [their] might…on a single, very happy memory.” If done right, the ensuing swish-and-flick will dispel any proximate Dementors.

Yet Rowling’s Patronus is more than a plot device or an artifact of her world-building. A ritual that combats despair by focusing on a happy memory is the real deal, an idea not limited to witches and wizards. We might not have to cope with Dementors, but we do battle dejection, depression, and despondency—every day, for some stretches—and unlike Harry and company, we do not live in a world with prewritten happy endings. We need practical strategies to handle with our personal crises. Cue the Patronus, a strategy of memory-remedy coded into the pages of Potter. 

In our world it is tempting to rely on technology as a substitute for memory, but, as Harry learns, for a Patronus to work it must be summoned with a great, inward focus. The same goes for us. Swiping through old photos and videos is more a reminiscent indulgence than it is emotionally restoring and, usually, is buoying only for a moment or two. It is a passive kind of recollection, and falls far short of the requisite “with all [our] might” concentration. Because of the prevalence of phone-cameras and online autobiography, this habit of scrolling-as-remembering feels normal. Taking pictures for pictures’ sakes is routine, and making memories for memory’s sake seems an afterthought. But pixels do not make Patronuses: there must be more.

There is an essential, practical difference between viewing memories and sincerely remembering them, and their restorative potential is better unlocked with the latter, even if it is only a few minutes spent visualizing a past triumph in a quiet room. Such an unhurried, earnest effort at remembrance can have a powerful, healing effect—almost like magic.