Two Shades of Dark

by Joe Manson

What is “Dark Magic?” What is a “Dark wizard”? A careful reading of the first five Harry Potter books shows that J.K. Rowling uses the word “Dark” to mean two rather different things, but this inconsistency is never addressed directly. I believe that the difference between the two senses of “Dark” will be made explicit and will play an important role in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Book 7.

The first sense of “Dark” refers to a set of magical techniques, most of which harm people. This is the sense conveyed in the title of the subject matter “Defense against the Dark Arts,” which includes instruction in defense against Dark creatures as well as against curses performed by wizards. Sometimes, though, the connection of “Dark” to “harmful” is unclear, as in this exchange between Parvati and Professor Binns in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

‘But, Professor,’ piped up Parvati Patil, ‘you’d probably have to use Dark Magic to open it-‘
‘Just because a wizard doesn’t use Dark Magic doesn’t mean he can’t.'” (152)

But in any case, in this first sense of “Dark,” henceforth Dark(T), Dark Magic means a set of techniques that can be used in the service of any goal, whether that goal is rationally formulated by a person or merely instinctual, as in the case of Dark creatures.

The second sense of Dark, henceforth Dark(I), refers to a specific ideology: the belief that pureblood wizards should reign supreme in the wizarding world, and indeed that those of less than pure blood should be excluded/expelled. Dark(I) is what Barty Crouch Sr. is referring to when he says, “And I trust you remember the many proofs I have given, over a long career, that I despise and detest the Dark Arts and those who practice them?” (GoF 136-37). He certainly doesn’t mean that he despises and detests the use of Dark(T), because it was he who authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses (archetypal forms of Dark(T)) against suspected Death Eaters (GoF 527). Crouch Jr. is talking about Dark(I) when he raves that he killed his father “to ensure the continued rise of the Dark Order!” (GoF 678). By “the rise of the Dark Order,” he doesn’t mean higher frequencies of Cruciatius Curses and grindylow attacks; he means the racist “purification” of the wizarding world.

As the case of Crouch Sr. shows, JKR’s inconsistency in the use of the word “Dark” is not a merely semantic matter. Dark(T) and Dark(I) don’t necessarily go together. Logically, there are four possible combinations of the two that could characterize an individual witch or wizard:

  1. Willing to use Dark(T), but working against Dark(I) (e.g. Crouch Sr.)
  2. Using Dark(T) to advance the cause of Dark(I) (e.g. Voldemort)
  3. Unwilling to use Dark(T), and fighting against Dark(I) (e.g. Dumbledore)
  4. Unwilling to use Dark(T), but sympathetic to the cause of Dark(I)

We haven’t yet met any characters of the fourth type. But there’s nothing in canon to suggest that such people couldn’t exist, and there are a few hints that they do indeed exist. For example, there seems to be a split within Slytherin House regarding sympathy for Voldemort and his cause. During the end-of-year feast in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Dumbledore proposes a toast to Harry, “Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle, and many of the other Slytherins…remained defiantly in their seats, their goblets untouched” (725). Note that many of the Slytherins refused to drink to Harry, but not all of them. We’ve also been told by JKR in the Edinburgh Book Festival interview that we’ll see more of Blaise Zabini, a Slytherin in Harry’s year, in Books 6 and 7. I see no reason for JKR to develop another purely evil Slytherin character – what would be the point? Zabini will probably be a morally conflicted Slytherin. And what about Regulus Black, who a recent MuggleNet editorialist, T.L. Bodine, suggested is still alive? He joined the Death Eaters out of ideological sympathy but then “panicked about what he was being asked to do and tried to back out” (OotP 112). Maybe this was just cowardice, of course, but maybe it was moral qualms. All these people (the Slytherins who drank to Harry, Blaise Zabini, and Regulus Black), might be believers in Dark(I) but unwilling to use Dark(T). If I’m right about this, I’m sure that JKR will drive home the point that racism, even unaccompanied by the use or threat of violence (that is, Dark(T)), is deplorable. But such characters would be consistent with her portrayal of a morally complex social world. As Sirius tells the trio, “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” (OotP 302).

Could JKR be unaware of her inconsistency in the use of the word “Dark”? I doubt this very much. Two of the strong points of her work are her careful use of words and the internal logical consistency (once you grant its premises) of the Potterverse. I think that at some point during the last two books, one of Harry’s mentors (probably Dumbledore, but possibly Lupin) will have a serious talk with him about the two senses of “Dark” and the need to steer clear of both. In HBP, Harry, still grieving and bitter over the death of Sirius, will be tempted to follow in the footsteps of Crouch Sr. and use Dark(T) against the Death Eaters (we were given a foreshadowing of this in his use of the Cruciatus Curse against Bellatrix Lestrange). JKR has told us that a major theme of the last two books will be the choice between what is right and what is easy. It would be easy, but wrong, to use Dark(T) against the DEs. A major lesson that Harry will need to learn is that the ends don’t justify the means, and in fact, that immoral means end up subverting even the most praiseworthy ends (e.g. the MoM employing the Dementors, something Dumbledore presumably suspected would have nasty consequences).