Albus Dumbledore and the Mysterious Forceful Spell – Part 2
by Gregory Hughes
To start, a quick recap of Part 1: Albus Dumbledore enters the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic to find Harry Potter in mortal peril, immediately recognizes Voldemort’s error in coming to the Ministry personally as a chance to finally expose his return to Cornelius Fudge, and strongly suspects it won’t do any good to kill Voldemort now because of his multiple – but how many, and where are they? – Horcruxes. Albus acts swiftly to safeguard Harry behind a statue, neutralizes Bellatrix Lestrange under a statue of her own, captures Voldemort’s attention, and quickly insults his intelligence, which baits the Dark Lord into an angry and ill-aimed retort. Then, the very first spell Albus Dumbledore aims directly at Lord Voldemort himself is the mysterious forceful spell.
From the standpoint of Dumbledore’s motives, we should ask ourselves three questions:
- Is the forceful spell intended to keep Harry safe during the duel?
- Is the forceful spell intended to expose Voldemort to the Ministry?
- Is the forceful spell somehow supposed to reveal something about Voldemort’s Horcruxes?
In answer, we can reasonably say this:
- Possibly but unlikely. Harry is already reasonably safe behind his statue guard when Dumbledore uses the forceful spell.
- Very possibly. Exposing Voldemort to the Ministry is, logically, Dumbledore’s next immediate move in his chess match against Voldemort. Perhaps the spell is meant to trap Voldemort at the Ministry, like a super-duper Anti-Disapparition Jinx?
- Intriguing, but is it possible a spell could reveal such information? How would that even work?
Having established Albus Dumbledore’s possible motives for using the forceful spell, let’s now take a look at what we know – or think we know – about the forceful spell itself.
An Oddly Chilling Sound
Let’s start with a quick study of the spell as it is described in the text, including Voldemort’s reaction to it. Reproduced again from chapter 36 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the passage below is the only and entire description of the forceful spell in all seven books:
Dumbledore flicked his own wand. The force of the spell that emanated from it was such that Harry, though shielded by his stone guard, felt his hair stand on end as it passed, and this time Voldemort was forced to conjure a shining silver shield out of thin air to deflect it. The spell, whatever it was, caused no visible damage to the shield, though a deep, gonglike note reverberated from it, an oddly chilling sound…. ‘You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore?’ called Voldemort, his scarlet eyes narrowed over the top of the shield. ‘Above such brutality, are you?'” (OotP 813–14)
We can distill this passage into a few straightforward observations, which will then be helpful to analyze the nature and perhaps the purpose of the forceful spell:
- The spell can be cast nonverbally.
- The spell is cast with the flick of one’s wand.
- The spell can cause an observer’s hair to stand on end.
- Voldemort is “forced” to conjure a physical object, in this case, a silver shield, to block the spell.
- The spell caused no visible damage to the shield.
- The spell did physically impact the shield, causing it to vibrate out a gonglike note.
- The spell is not lethal.
- Voldemort was able to conclude that a conjured shield would block the spell and that it was not lethal.
These eight observations require a bit more interrogation before we can use them to speculate on the nature and purpose of the forceful spell.
Swish and Flick
Points one and two above can actually be dispatched with relative ease because they are not terribly informative. Since Dumbledore casts the spell nonverbally and Harry (and the narrator) are not using Legilimency – though Voldemort might be (more on that below) – to “hear” the spell via Dumbledore’s thoughts, we readers are denied any knowledge of the incantation. An investigative dead end.
Next, that the spell is cast with a flick of one’s wand is also pretty useless. Flicks and slashes and waves and jabs are used very inconsistently throughout the books: Think of the swish-and-flick of Wingardium Leviosa in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (chapter 10) versus Harry simply pointing his wand at the sidecar of the motorbike in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (chapter 4), though both times the Levitation Spell seems to work as intended.
Harry’s Untidy Hair
The third point, that the spell caused Harry’s hair to stand on end as it passed, is certainly a compelling way to draw the reader’s attention to it. But it also invites more questions: Why exactly does Harry’s hair stand on end? Is it a rush of adrenaline in Harry, a subconscious fight-or-flight response? It is a displacement of air, like a gust of wind which blows Harry’s hair around, caused by the spell as it moves through space? Or does the spell radiate some kind of electromagnetic charge that surges through those around it, causing their hair to stand up away from their body? Certainly, there is a myriad of evidence throughout the books documenting the physical manifestations of spells – the force of three combined Disarming Charms blast Severus Snape off his feet and unconscious in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; the stone floor becomes hot and cracked as Molly and Bellatrix duel ferociously in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Certainly, spells can act like physical objects and can cause displacement and heat, so they could also reasonably produce an electromagnetic charge as well.
The sixth point, the gonglike note, also points to the idea that the forceful spell is moving through space and displacing air like a physical object. It is interesting that no other physical attribute is described for this spell; it has no color, makes no flash of light, makes no sound in and of itself. It only physically impacts the shield, like a mallet on a gong, causing the shield to vibrate out sound waves.
I think we can conclude that the purpose of the spell is not, in fact, to produce a gonglike note – that would be quite a useless spell in a duel after all. Rather, the physical manifestation of the spell and its ability to cause physical vibrations in the shield is the (perhaps unintended) side effects of the intensity with which the spell has been cast. Consider again the example of the three Disarming Charms used on Severus Snape. The Disarming Charm should not knock one off their feet and unconscious, yet the combined power and intensity of all three do just that. Another example of a spell doing physically more than it would do normally can be found in this passage from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
‘Stupefy!’ There was a blinding flash of red light, and with a great splintering and crashing, the door of Moody’s office was blasted apart –
[…] At that moment, Harry fully understood for the first time why people said Dumbledore was the only wizard Voldemort had ever feared. The look upon Dumbledore’s face as he stared down at the unconscious form of Mad-Eye Moody was more terrible than Harry could have ever imagined.” (GoF 679)
Dumbledore, furious, fires a Stunning Spell that knocks Moody unconscious. But as it does, it blasts apart the office door. Flash of red light? Sure. Unconscious Moody? Yep. Blasted-apart door? Well, that was unexpected.
This line from the duel between Molly and Bellatrix is also instructive:
Jets of light flew from both wands, the floor around the witches’ feet became hot and cracked; both women were fighting to kill.” (DH 736)
Aside from being one of the most exciting passages of the final book and an awesome moment for Molly, this excerpt combined with the other examples above points to an interesting conclusion: The more emotionally invested and intensely one feels when casting a spell, the more powerfully the spell will manifest physically through heat, displacement of air, concussive force, etc. I think this also explains why the golden centaur, when intercepting Voldemort’s Killing Curse, shatters into a hundred pieces – Voldemort really hates Dumbledore and is really angry at that point, so his Killing Curse carries an extra punch.
So while these points demonstrate very little about the nature or purpose of the forceful spell itself, what points three and six do show us is that, whatever the spell was supposed to do, Albus Dumbledore felt very strongly about it. Add Dumbledore’s strong feelings to his wielding the Elder Wand, and we would expect this spell to be quite forceful indeed.
Above Such Brutality
Another pair of observations about the forceful spell – points five and seven – are informative in that they seem to relate to and confirm observation number eight: Voldemort was able to conclude that a conjured shield would block the spell and that it was not lethal (or at least not destructive or harmful). Which begs the question, how did Voldemort arrive at those conclusions? Though we cannot know for sure, three distinct possibilities present themselves.
The first possibility is the simplest: Voldemort had seen, heard of, read about, or even used this mysterious spell before. It is worth remembering that the Dark Lord’s commanding knowledge of magic is rivaled only by Albus Dumbledore’s. If a spell or potion exists, one or both of these two wizards is likely to know of it.
The next possibility is actually the least likely: Voldemort, the expert Legilimens, may have perceived something about the forceful spell from Dumbledore’s mind and thus was able to determine its nonlethal nature and a means of deflecting it. While we should acknowledge this remote possibility, since any lapse in Dumbledore’s defensive Occlumency would not be apparent to Harry (or the narrator), the idea that Dumbledore would commit such a tactical blunder is unlikely, bordering on preposterous.
The third possibility is, for reasons explained in the final part of this series, the most likely: Voldemort sensed or intuited something about the spell as it flew toward him, enough to know it wasn’t lethal and that he’d need to conjure a material object to physically block the spell. We’ve actually seen Albus Dumbledore do something very similar in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Albus works things out in a way Harry had never seen before, sensing the blood toll enchantment and determining that the emerald potion must be drunk. If Albus can sense magic in this fashion, Voldemort likely can too.
However Voldemort arrived at his conclusions about the mysterious forceful spell, he ultimately determined that a physical object (in this case, a shield) must be conjured to block the incoming spell. Rowling’s text is unambiguously clear on this point – Voldemort is “forced” to conjure a shield, which is to say, the mysterious forceful spell is conventionally unblockable, meaning it cannot be blocked magically by some counter-spell or Shield Charm.
This is, to put it mildly, a big freakin’ deal!
Levicorpus, Stupefy, Crucio, every single other jinx, hex, or curse in the books, even Legilimens, are all shown to be blockable by a Shield Charm or some other defensive spell or specific counter-curse. The only two spells in all the books that are unblockable – unblockable by another spell, one must put a physical object like a shield or statue between oneself and the incoming spell to be protected – are the Killing Curse and the forceful spell.
This would seem to invite an examination of what we know or think we know about the Killing Curse so that we might compare and contrast it to the forceful spell. After all, we know almost nothing about the forceful spell and have only this similarity to the Killing Curse as a place for our understanding to start.
More on the Killing Curse in Part 3…