Light Magic and the Dark Arts

by Louise Fletcher

It has been remarked by some that one thing conspicuously absent from the Harry Potter books is an explanation of what magic is, where it comes from, and how it works. Those people would be right: we never are given any real explanation of magic, and I don’t think we’re ever going to get one. Magic is just magic – if there were some way of rationalizing it, it would just be some obscure strand of science.

After the passage in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, however, when we find out a little bit more about what the Department of Mysteries is, if not what it does, it seems we may actually get an explanation about magic, after all. And if not, we can always imagine that learned wizards in the Department of Mysteries are studying the matter. (Incidentally, wouldn’t we all love to know why they’re called “Unspeakables”?)

There have been enough articles and editorials written on the nature of magic, so I haven’t bothered thinking about the matter. It is still possible that we will get an explanation in the future, so there’s no point in being proven wrong. Instead, I want to offer my analysis of a branch of magic we know next to nothing about, and another branch whose existence has been implied (but never mentioned) throughout the course of the books. Namely, the Dark Arts and light magic.

I’ll begin with the Dark Arts, because at least we know for sure such a branch of magic exists.

After thoroughly reading through the books, there seem only to have been five individual spells/abilities/potions related to the Dark Arts mentioned. The ability is to speak Parseltongue. The potion is that which resurrects Lord Voldemort. The spells are the three unforgivable curses: the Imperius curse, the Cruciatus curse, and Avada Kedavra, the killing curse.

Parseltongue. The ability to speak with snakes. A seriously creepy ability, certainly, but how precisely is it “dark”? One could probably cause a lot more trouble speaking to humans. With the exception of the basilisk, snakes are not Dark creatures. On the subject, Rita Skeeter writes, “Parseltongue has long been considered a Dark Art.” Tom Riddle says, “…probably the only two Parselmouths to go through the school since Slytherin himself.” Assuming Riddle had done his homework, and assuming all English wizards go to Hogwarts, that means only two natural Parselmouths have been born in England in one thousand years (as Harry “inherited” the gift after being attacked). Even making allowances for the wizarding community being so small, that is a minuscule number. And no wonder Parseltongue has long been considered a Dark Art, if the only two to arise in England in recorded history are Salazar Slytherin and the kid who grew up to be Lord Voldemort. My personal opinion: Parseltongue is not really a Dark Art, except officially.

The Resurrection Potion. I can’t say much about this, but I do know that out of everything in the series, that potion is the most profoundly evil thing that has surfaced. All that “flesh of the servant, blood of the enemy, bone of the father” stuff … well, you know what I mean. There was an uproar over the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie, in Australia, initially being classified M (for mature audiences), but if Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire gets such an extreme rating, it could well be justified, solely due to that one scene with the potion. We don’t know if anything other than the ingredients being put in the cauldron was required for the potion to work; it may have involved some visualization or channeling of power on the part of either Voldemort or Wormtail – I can’t say. Therefore, I’m afraid I’ll have to put this piece of magic to the side while I consider the others.

The Unforgivable Curses. We have two pieces of information about how the curses work, though admittedly one is more about how they don’t work.

Never used an unforgivable curse, have you, boy? You have to mean it.” – Bellatrix Lestrange (OotP)

 You could all get your wands out right now and point them at me and say the words, and I doubt I’d get so much as a nose-bleed.” – Alastor Moody (GoF)

From Moody’s speech there (yes, I know he wasn’t really Moody, but being technical about that kind of thing gets really annoying), we can see that there is more to performing the spell than saying the words. We can guess that it requires some willpower on the part of the wizard. Consider what Bellatrix has to say on the subject. Do you think Moody would have dared suggest to a class of, say, Slytherins, that they should all take out their wands and say the words? How many Slytherins have parents in Azkaban because of Moody? How many have grown up with the idea that Aurors are the Enemy? How much hatred, anger, and need for vengeance would Malfoy the Amazing Bouncing Ferret be feeling at that particular time? If a class of Slytherins had been issued and taken Moody’s challenge, the need to replace the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher could well have come a lot sooner.

You probably gather that, based on the two quotes above, I believe the Dark Arts, the spells associated with them at least, are fuelled by the negative emotions of the witch or wizard. Take Harry’s attempt at a Cruciatus Curse: fuelled by grief and anger, he can produce the curse, but it is rather weak. Voldemort, however, enjoys causing pain and is constantly filled with contempt and hatred, and his curses are much, much stronger.

So what light magic do we know? As far as I can tell, very little. Will making a pineapple tap-dance along the floor actively work against the forces of evil? Will turning a stoat into an anteater help you conquer Dark Magic? The answer to both those questions is yes, but only in extremely specialized circumstances. Pretty much every spell and charm, every potion, and even every hex and jinx we have heard of so far is what I classify as neutral magic. It is neither a force for good nor for evil, though it can do valuable work for either side (or in the case of the dancing pineapple, neither).

In the whole of the series, I think we have only come across two pieces of light magic. If Dark Arts rely on negative emotions, logically, light magic must rely on positive ones. The two spells we have seen, the only two I classify as “light”, are the Patronus charm, and the boggart-repelling charm.

The Patronus is conjured by the wizard thinking happy thoughts. Specifically, we are told a happy memory, but by OotP we can see that it is only the feeling that counts, not the reality of the thought – Harry is able to conjure a Patronus in his exams by simply imagining Umbridge being sacked. The Patronus is created solely to repel a Dementor, one of the foulest and darkest creatures to roam the Earth. The Patronus actively fights against Dark forces and is fuelled by positive emotions. Therefore, it is the exact opposite of the Dark Arts and counts as light magic.

The second charm, the Boggart-Banishing Spell, works against a boggart. Since boggarts are such terrifying creatures, preying on the minds and fears of whoever is around, and since they are first encountered in Defense Against the Dark Arts class, I would say they would be truly Dark creatures. The Boggart-Banishing Spell only works if the wizard is focused on an amusing thought, or perhaps mental picture. Again, this seems to be “light” magic.

I think that there is not, in fact, much difference between the Dark Arts and what I have termed light magic, for both areas of magic seem to work in the same way. Judging by what little evidence we have, I would say the difference between light and Dark Magic and neutral magic is that neutral magic relies on thought, while light and Dark Magic rely on feeling.

I find it surprising, though, that we have learned so little about the Dark Arts and light magic when compared with the many, many neutral spells, charms, and potions we know about. With Harry and friends moving into NEWT-level Defense Against the Dark Arts, it will be interesting to see if and how this area of magic develops.