Wands and Words: What are the Dark Arts?

by Sephia

Editor’s Note: This editorial was written before HBP was released
There are quite a few conflicts in the Harry Potter books, dealing with everything from personal animosity to political rivalry, and of course, lurking at the back, good vs. evil. This is one of the main conflicts, in that the protagonist, Harry, is what usually represents “good.” JKR has certainly changed things around a bit, since Harry, at times, is certainly not an angel. He takes every available opportunity to torment Dudley, and his own rotten childhood is not an excuse. Harry deliberately goads Dudley in OotP, enjoying his quivering fear of magic. Yet, despite the qualities not being firmly fixed as “good” Harry vs. “evil” Voldemort, or “evil” whoever the main antagonist is (Snape, Draco Malfoy, Umbridge, etc), we have “normal” Harry. Despite this deviation from the norm, however, we do have a battle of good vs. evil, a battle with the Order of the Phoenix, Harry, and others on the good side versus Voldemort and his Death Eaters on the other side. And while there are certainly shades of gray in this arrangement, the evil is quite clearly defined. Or is it?

What is the one bad thing that Voldemort and the Death Eaters share? It is not ambition or a wanting to rule, since that is mostly Voldemort himself. MacNair and a few others do not particularly care about rule. MacNair wants a chance to kill, as do many others. But that is not the be-all and end-all of Voldemort’’s agenda. There is another category that, better than anything else, brings together all the main “bad guys” in this book. I use “bad guys” quite deliberately, as antagonist refers to anyone who is not on Harry’s side, thus involving Snape (who I hope is really on Dumbledore’’s side of the fence), Umbridge (who is not a Death Eater), and even minor foils like Marietta Edgecombe. What defines all the really “evil” or “bad” characters in these books is actually the Dark Arts.

Whatever those are.

In order to even start trying to define just what these mysterious Dark Arts are (for nowhere in the books are they defined by JKR or any of her characters), it is necessary to gain an understanding of magic and what that is in this particular paradigm. Every fantasy novelist, in fact every novelist who deals with magic, creates a slightly different system. In JKR’s system, magic is split into two—–the acceptable witchcraft and wizardry that is taught at Hogwarts and used by all witches and wizards daily, and another category, known simply as the Dark Arts. This is the magic apparently known, and used, by the Death Eaters, and those who follow the so-called “old ways,” according to Voldemort at his rebirth.

So, then, what is magic in the Potterverse? From what we see from lessons at Hogwarts, the most basic magic (not including Potions, Herbology, and Care of Magical Creatures) is made up of a word and a gesture. “Wingardium Leviosa” is accompanied by a “swish and flick” while “Silencio” is used with something like a jab. At first glance, it seems that words are half of what makes up a spell—a word/phrase and an action is the complete formula. But then, if saying “Alohamora” is what makes the door open, why don’’t the professors do it that way? Dumbledore is hardly ever heard pronouncing a spell; a flick of the wand is enough. The same is true for Professor Snape, who clears a mess from his dungeon floor with a wave of his wand, not an incantation. So, why then are words necessary, and why are they taught? Can’’t the students be told to just think the words?

At this point, I must consider who speaks and who doesn’’t. The students (the trio, Draco, etc.) all speak the incantations. Professors Dumbledore and Snape do not. Professor Lupin does not. Sirius Black does. Why? At first, my gut instinct was to say that at a certain point, when one gets more advanced, one can stop using the incantations. Yet, Hermione says them. And it is not even mentioned that not using them is a possibility.

This leads me to wonder how necessary they are, and why they are seen as so necessary. Enter second query: What are the Dark Arts? Well, for any reader, the answer is rather simple: Eeeee-vil! (Twists cruel mustache). Yet, that makes very little sense upon further reflection. After all, are all hexes and curses considered Dark Arts? Not at all. In fact, we have never even been expressly told that Avada Kedavra or Cruciatus are Dark Magic. While they are discussed in the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classes, it is only their severity, and, in the case of Avada Kedavra, irreversibility, that they are Dark. Curses themselves are not necessarily Dark Arts material. And besides, Harry and company know plenty of good curses and jinxes, everything from bat-bogey to jelly-legs to the full body bind used on Neville in Sorcerer’’s Stone. So, then, just because magic is malicious does not mean that it is Dark. What is Dark Magic, then? And furthermore, does Harry even know? He has long been adamant about his hatred of the Dark Arts, since Chamber of Secrets, and yet, he quite possibly has no idea what they are.

Drawing on Red-Hen’’s supposition that they had previously been taught, and only recently looked down upon, and the knowledge that they are still taught at Durmstrang and considered okay by many, makes me wonder. If this is the case, then they can’t really be all that bad or calamitous. In fact, they are useful. But dangerous. Dangerous not in the sense that all Dark Arts-type spells are malicious, but that practicing the Dark Arts is dangerous to the wizard/witch performing the spells.

The only reason I can see for this is the issue of control. Control of magic, and keeping certain uses for it untapped. I propose that the Dark Arts are simply uncontrolled magic, magic used not in a formulaic, but a completely unfettered way, in the sense that any mental force can be considered magic. Then, the Dark Arts are using one’s mental strength and perhaps a wand, though maybe it can be done without one, to alter reality. This is indeed dangerous, especially for children. This explains why the Dark Arts are not only not taught, but not even identified at Hogwarts. A child’’s imagination is rather strong, and if they can do anything they dream, they would be uncontrollable. Having this power would make one power-hungry, as well as obsessed with one’s own talents and powers. A rather accurate description of Voldemort and his Death Eaters, actually. That is why the Dark Arts are not taught, and considered dangerous.

In their stead, the wizards developed a different way of teaching and doing magic. By focusing not on one’s own mind, but the wand, there is less chance for megalomania to set in. Yet, even Harry can do simple spells, such as Lumos, without actually touching his wand. In the current accepted system of magic, what one can do is rather finite. If one does not know the spell to do something, one cannot do it. This is what the students are meant to learn and how they are supposed to regard magical doings. This is actually rather far from the truth. Before entering Hogwarts, all young witches and wizards tend to do spontaneous magic. Neville bounced; Harry made his hair grow and vanished a pane of glass at the zoo. What if Harry wanted to grow his hair out now? Would he know how to? If he was not familiar with the spell, he would probably not be able to do so. Yet, he has.

The Dark Arts, focusing uncontrolled magical energy with just the force of one’’s willpower, are difficult and dangerous, and students at Hogwarts are not taught anything of the sort. Yet. Maybe, eventually, with N.E.W.T. level classes, someone will get around to telling them what they are fighting against. So far, they have learned a few specific curses, which we (and they) assumed are Dark without any confirmation (especially considering who taught the class that year) and a lot of information about Dark Creatures. None of these creatures, we note, has a wand. They do their magic the good old-fashioned way, by focusing on their willpower.

This conjecture doesn’’t really explain the “good” wizards, like Dumbledore or Lupin, not using the full incantation-and-wand-movement for a spell, but it explains some of the inconsistencies, and at least attempts to identify the enemy, as it were. The Dark Arts, in the Harry Potter books, are bad, wrong, and evil. Yet, our young protagonist isn’t even sure of what they are. Maybe they are simply magic, brought to its full potential by mental control and unleashed without a focus point given by the wand and incantation. Just wild, perhaps incontrollable, magic, which may even overpower the individual drawing it forth. (If anyone wants to prove me completely and totally wrong, or to argue any points, email me at sephia at mugglenet dot com.)