The Quest for the Father in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Originally printed in the July - August 2004 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Algeo, John. "Harry Potter's Four Fathers." Quest 92.4 (JULY - AUGUST 2004):145-149.
By John Algeo
The Harry Potter stories have enchanted readers—both children and adults—all over the world since the first book appeared just seven years ago. Why have these books captured the imagination of people differing widely in maturity and culture? They have done so because, like all great literature, the Harry Potter stories speak to people of all ages by presenting universal truths—not by preaching but in a subliminal, parable-like way.
The theme of the third book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is Harry's search for his father. The quest for a father, or the Father, is one we all participate in. The surface-level story begins in the first book, when Harry was orphaned as an infant. His mother and father were murdered by the evil wizard Voldemort, whose own body was destroyed when he attempted to murder the infant Harry as well. But Harry survived and was given to his mother's sister and her husband (Petunia and Vernon Dursley) to rear. When Harry reached the age of eleven, he was sent, according to arrangements made by his parents before his birth, to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to prepare him for a career as a wizard.
Harry is happy at the school, where he progresses in his studies and becomes a star in the wizard sport, Quidditch, which is played in the air on broomsticks. He spends each summer, however, with his aunt and uncle in their house on Privet Drive, Little Wingeing, Surrey. They are Muggles (that is, nonwizards) but also are prejudiced, ignorant, and mean-spirited. These summers are miserable times for Harry because in the Dursleys' house he is a Cinderlad, ill-treated by his relatives, deprived of contact with his school friends, and forbidden to engage in his studies or favorite pursuits.
Harry's real life is at Hogwarts, where each year he has a quest to perform, and sometimes more than one, all of which are aspects of a single great quest: the quest for self-knowledge—the quest to discover who and what he is. In the third book, Harry's specific quest is somehow to find his dead father embodied in what today we call a "father figure."
Harry's passionate love for his father is introduced early in the book, when Aunt Marge, his uncle's sister, arrives for a visit at the Dursleys' toward the end of the summer. Aunt Marge breeds bulldogs and picks on Harry unmercifully:
She jerked her head at Harry . . . .
"This one's got a mean, runty look about him. You get that with dogs. I had Colonel Fubster drown one last year. Ratty little thing it was. Weak. Underbred. . . .
"It all comes down to blood . . . . Bad blood will out. Now, I'm not saying nothing against your family, Petunia [the sister of Harry's mother] . . . but your sister was a bad egg. They turn up in the best families. Then she ran off with a wastrel and here's the result right in front of us. . . .
"This Potter," said Aunt Marge loudly, seizing the brandy bottle and splashing more into her glass and over the tablecloth, . . . "A no-account, good-for-nothing, lazy scrounger who—"
"He was not," said Harry suddenly. The table went very quiet. Harry was shaking all over. He had never felt so angry in his life. (26—7)
But Aunt Marge continues to insult Harry's parents as she swells with fury. But then she begins to swell all over. Her whole body swells up as though it were full of hot air, and it floats up to the ceiling like an over inflated blimp. Harry, unconsciously, has put a spell on Aunt Marge so that her physical form mirrors the emotions and empty falsehoods she was expressing.
That is the introduction of the Father theme in this third novel, and from it we know that Harry's love for his father, whom he greatly resembles in appearance and character, is so strong that Harry will brook no unjust criticisms of him. Later in the novel, when Harry is back at Hogwarts School, he has a run-in with one of his teachers, Professor Snape, who was a schoolmate and rival of Harry's father and between whom there was bad blood:
"How extraordinarily like your father you are, Potter," Snape said suddenly, his eyes glinting. "He, too, was exceedingly arrogant. A small amount of talent on the Quidditch pitch made him think he was a cut above the rest of us, too. Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers —the resemblance between you is uncanny."
"My dad didn't strut," said Harry, before he could stop himself. "And nor do I."
"Your father didn't set much store by rules, either. . . . Rules were for lesser mortals . . . . His head was so swollen—"
Harry was suddenly on his feet. Rage such as he had not felt since his last night in Privet Drive was thundering through him. He didn't care that Snape's face had gone rigid, the black eyes flashing dangerously.
"What did you say to me, Potter?"
"I told you to shut up about my dad!" Harry yelled. "I know the truth, all right? He saved your life! . . . You wouldn't even be here if it weren't for my dad!"
Snape's sallow skin had gone the colour of sour milk. (209—10)
Any unjust criticism of Harry's father provokes a violent response from him because he has constructed an ideal figure of his father, a figure he himself is trying to live up to. Harry has put his dead father on a pedestal and honors him with intense devotion. In one of the recurring visions Harry has of his parents' death, he sees his father heroically battling the evil wizard Voldemort, trying to give his wife time to escape with their infant son, Harry himself.
James Potter, Harry's father, was indeed brave, intelligent, loyal, and accomplished. But in his younger years he was also something of a hellion and a scamp. He was, that is, a bright, independent, and normal young man. Harry is, however, seeking an ideal image of his father, and he embodies it in four persons, each of whom reflects some particular characteristic of the father image and each of whom also has his own limitations. A subordinate theme of the book is that no person is perfect, but all—however good and admirable in some ways—have imperfections of some kind. That is the nature of human beings, even wizard human beings.
A Albus Dumbledore as Intuition
The first of the four father figures is the Headmaster at Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, who might more appropriately be called a grandfather figure, for he was a teacher at Hogwarts in James Potter's day. Dumbledore (whose given name, "Albus," means "white" in Latin) is reputed to be the greatest and best wizard of the time: "Harry happened to agree . . . that the safest place on earth was wherever Albus Dumbledore happened to be. Didn't people always say that Dumbledore was the only person Lord Voldemort has ever been afraid of?" (55).
But Dumbledore, though wise and powerful, is not omniscient or omnipotent. He could not save Harry's mother and father from being killed by Voldemort. And he cannot save a poor Hippogriff (a beast that is half horse and half eagle) from being put down because it was goaded by a nasty boy into a violent response, nor can he save Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, from being sent back to prison and death for a crime he did not commit. Dumbledore tells Harry, "I have no power to make other men see the truth," and in response, Harry stared up into the grave face and felt as though the ground beneath him was falling sharply away. He had grown used to the idea that Dumbledore could solve anything. He had expected Dumbledore to pull some amazing solution out of the air. But no —their last hope was gone" (287—8).
But actually no, their last hope is not gone, and Dumbledore does pull something out of the air. He says to Harry's friend Hermione, "What we need . . . is more time." That cryptic remark with its special emphasis was a message to Hermione that she and Harry have what they need to save both the Hippogriff and Sirius Black. Hermione, who is the most industrious student at Hogwarts, has been taking several courses at the same time. As a special privilege as the best student at the school, she was allowed secretly to use a Time-Turner, which is a device that allows the user to travel back in time. At the end of a class, she simply turned the time back before the start of that class and went to a different class instead, thus doubling the number of courses she was in.
With his cryptic remark, Dumbledore suggested to Hermione that she and Harry could go back in time and save the Hippogriff from being beheaded and then use the Hippogriff to fly Sirius Black away from his persecutors and to safety. That's the way all the Great-Souled Teachers work. They do not tell us what to do or how to do it; they do not direct. They suggest; they give little hints or clues, which we are expected to act upon on our own initiative and in our own way. The Great-Souled Teachers do not give us instruction. They give us intuition. And that is Dumbledore's role.
Albus Dumbledore is the Father, or Grandfather, of Intuition. He is the embodiment of Buddhi.
A Remus Lupin as Knowledge
The second of Harry's four father figures is Remus Lupin. His name is significant because he is a werewolf, a man-wolf, who was bitten by a wolf in his childhood and therefore turns into a wolf at every full moon. In Roman mythology, Remus was the brother of Romulus, both of whom were suckled by a she-wolf as babes; and "Lupin" is from Latin lupinus, meaning "of a wolf."
Remus Lupin teaches the course in Defence against the Dark Arts, which Harry takes during his third year at Hogwarts. The dark creatures that Harry is most terrified of are the Dementors. They are guards at the wizard prison of Azkaban, from which Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, has escaped. But the Dementors are not normal guards. They are sightless creatures who suck out all happiness and hope from their victims, leaving them in mindless despair. The Dementors are personifications of psychotic depression. Their ultimate weapon is to suck the very soul out of their victims. Because the Dementors play upon the fears of humans, Harry, having been attacked by Voldemort as an infant, is especially susceptible to them.
Remus Lupin tells Harry that what the boy fears most of all is fear itself, and then teaches him a defense against fear and the Dementors. It is the Patronus Charm. This charm "conjures up a Patronus . . . which is a kind of Anti-Dementor—a guardian which acts as a shield between you and the Dementor" (176). The Patronus is an embodiment of the most intense happiness the user of the charm has ever experienced. Harry wants to know what the Patronus looks like, but Lupin tells him that each is unique to the wizard who conjures it. It is a very difficult charm to work, and even some of the most skilled wizards are unable to use it successfully. The word patronus is Latin for "protector" or "defender," but it is based on the Latin word pater, "father."
Because Remus Lupin is a man-wolf, he combines the human and the bestial. In that, he is like the mind, which is also twofold, human and animal. In his human phase, Remus is helpful and mild; in his wolf phase, he is vicious. Because he knows he is both man and wolf, both human and beast, he is wise, full of the knowledge of both the higher, light side and the lower, dark side of life.
Incidentally, Remus is also the first one to prescribe chocolate for Harry as a remedy for shock or whatever else ails him. The nurse at Hogwarts discovers this and remarks approvingly: "Did he now? . . . So we've finally got a Defence against the Dark Arts teacher who knows his remedies."
Remus Lupin is the Father of Knowledge. He is the embodiment of Manas.
A Sirius Black as Devotion
The third of Harry's four father figures is Sirius Black, who was James Potter's best friend, best man at his wedding, and godfather to Harry. But Sirius was framed as the betrayer of James and his wife, Lily, and also as a mass murderer. For those supposed crimes he was sent to the prison of Azkaban. But whereas most prisoners in that most feared of all prisons go mad within a short time, deprived of all hope and overcome by fear of the Dementors, Sirius Black had control over his emotions. Because he did not succumb to fear, he survived in Azkaban and eventually managed to escape, in order to hunt down James and Lily's actual betrayer, who was also the real mass murderer, and also to protect his godchild, Harry.
Sirius Black and James Potter were also close friends with Remus Lupin. To be companion for Lupin and help to control him when he entered his wolf phase at the full moon, they both became Animagi, wizards who can assume an animal form at will. Sirius Black became a huge black dog. The dog is proverbially man's best friend, and Sirius was James Potter's best and devoted friend.
Sirius is also the name of the brightest star in the sky, located in the constellation Canis Major (Latin for "big dog"), and Sirius is therefore called "the Dog Star." The name Sirius comes from Greek seirios, meaning "the scorcher"; it was so called because the time of the year when this star rises with the sun is the hottest season or midsummer, also known as the "dog days." Heat is associated with active emotion, and warmth with devotion. In ancient Egypt, the first rising of Sirius in the morning sky marked the beginning of the Nile flood, on which the agricultural richness of the land depended. Water is traditionally associated with life and emotion, and rising water with rising emotions.
Sirius Black was energized by his emotions and especially his devotion to friends. Although he usually controlled those emotions, not they him, they did sometimes run away with him. In his school days, he was the initiator of the high jinx that created an enmity between another student, Severus Snape, and James Potter, which still affects Harry's relationship with Snape, who is one of his teachers. But Sirius loves Harry and is a devoted godfather to him. He gave Harry great hope and happiness when he invited him to come to live with him rather than with the boy's Muggle relatives. In turn, Harry's devotion to him results in Sirius Black's freedom from being the "Prisoner of Azkaban."
Sirius Black is the Father of Emotion and Devotion. He is the embodiment of Bhakti.
A James Potter as Active Will
The ultimate of Harry's four father figures is his own biological father, James Potter. It was Harry's spirited defense of his father's name and reputation that triggered the events of the third book in the saga. Harry is the spitting image of his father, except for his eyes, which are those of his mother. Harry is consequently especially identified with James as his ultimate father figure. And he responds to critical challenges as his father would have.
For example, when Remus Lupin and Sirius Black have captured Peter Pettigrew, who actually betrayed Harry's father and mother and also was the mass murderer, they intend to kill him. But Harry intervenes to save his life and explains to the culprit, "I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing it because I don't reckon my dad would've wanted his best friends to become killers—just for you" (275). And Dumbledore later confirms that reckoning: "I knew your father very well, both at Hogwarts and later, Harry . . . . He would have saved Pettigrew too, I am sure of it" (311). And when Sirius Black leaves Hogwarts and the dreaded Dementors for freedom, his farewell words to Harry are "We'll see each other again . . . . You are—truly your father's son, Harry."
But the real identity of Harry with his father James comes when he successfully uses the Patronus charm. Harry and Hermione have used her Time-Turner to go back several hours in order to rescue the Hippogriff and to use it to free Sirius Black. They have the Hippogriff and are biding their time, waiting for the proper moment to free Sirius. Harry scouts around to see whether the coast is clear for them to move, and as he looks out over a lake he sees, on its other side, the Dementors about to overcome Sirius Black and himself (as he was at that earlier time). He knows that the only way to save them both is with the Patronus charm, which he has never been able to work well. But at that moment he knows that he must use it and that it must work because he survived that earlier attack.
So Harry evokes a Patronus—a magnificent, huge, luminous white stag, which gallops across the lake and scatters the Dementors. The Harry of that earlier time saw the Patronus coming to save him and then returning to the distant figure on the far side of the lake, and he thought that figure was his father. But of course it was himself from another hour, come back to be his own savior as well as the savior of Sirius Black.
The stag form of the Patronus is also connected with Harry's father, for as an Animagus James Potter transformed into a stag, and in that transformation was called "Prongs" because of his antlers. As Chevalier and Gheerbrant show in their Dictionary of Symbols, stags are important symbols in shamanic cultures and in Celtic myth; they represent creation and renewal, as well as the sun and light. Harry's Patronus stag was a brilliantly white animal, a fitting complement to Sirius's black dog. The Church Father Origen likened Christ in his active role in the world to a stag. The stag is swift to act, leaping and speeding. Alchemically, it is mercury or masculine will.
The earlier Harry, who witnessed his later self sending the Patronus and who mistook that self for his father, comes to realize that it was he himself who saved himself. He later talks with Dumbledore about it:
"It was stupid, thinking it was him," he muttered. "I mean, I knew he was dead."
"You think the dead we have loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him. How else could you produce that particular Patronus? Prongs rode again last night. . . . So you did see your father last night, Harry —you found him inside yourself." (312)
H. P. Blavatsky talks about much the same thing in The Key to Theosophy:
|ENQ.||Is there any other kind of prayer [than that to an anthropomorphic god asking for things]?|
|THEO.||Most decidedly; we call it WILL-PRAYER, and it is rather an internal command than a petition.|
|ENQ.||To whom, then, do you pray when you do so?|
|THEO.||To "our Father in heaven"—in its esoteric meaning. . . . a Theosophist addresses his prayer to his Father which is in secret (read, and try to understand, ch. vi., v. 6, Matthew ["But when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy father which is in secret"] ) . . . and that "Father" is in man himself. . . . We call our "Father in heaven" that deific essence of which we are cognizant within us. (67)|
James Potter is the Father of Active Will. For Harry, he is the embodiment of Atma, the Higher Self, the "Father in heaven." As an Anglican liturgical reading addresses God: "We are the clay, you are the potter." And that Potter is Harry's Father and Father of us all.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Key to Theosophy. London: Theosophical Publishing Company, 1889.
Chevalier, Jean, and Alain Gheerbrant. A Dictionary of Symbols. London: Penguin, 1996.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
John Algeo, PhD served for nine years as president of the Theosophical Society in America and is now international vice president of the Theosophical Society. He is author of the Quest book Reincarnation Explored and now editor of The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky 1861-1879. He is widely published in Theosophical magazines.