I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter series from page one after a break in the fandom following the publication of the seventh book. Going back, I’m finding a lot of interesting little tidbits (like the fact that Dumbledore is terrible at gamification, or wondering if there’s a muggle medical journal from 1992 talking about the boy with the pig tail in London).
Today I re-read the boggart scene, Professor Lupin’s first class with Harry. A closer look, including prior knowledge of the later books, has given me some insight into the core of some crucial Harry Potter characters. What can we learn from people’s boggarts? It’s more than just dementors and moons and sallow-skinned potions masters. If we look deeper, we can find the roots of their true fears. Rowling’s choice to give her audience this sneak peak is very intentional and comes at an opportune time for the overarching plot of the series.
The first Boggart we see is Neville Longbottom’s. It’s Professor Snape. Professor Snape is scary, sure, but there are plenty of other more formidable witches and wizards at Hogwarts. Why isn’t Neville more afraid of Dumbledore? If it’s the dark Slytherin-ey aspect, then why isn’t his boggart Voldemort? Maybe it’s the real immediacy of the Snape threat, or maybe it’s something deeper that he represents.
At the beginning of this scene, Snape is in the room. He makes a snarky comment about Neville, going out of his way to humiliate the boy in someone else’s class. Snape is humiliation, but he’s also failure. In the previous scene, Neville is messing up his potion. Snape is not only Neville’s fear of his own inadequacy, but he represents something more. That fear, in Snape’s presence, compounds and makes his failures even more glaring. Snape is the self-fulfilling prophecy that leads Neville to feel like he’s worthless and, tied up in that fear, behave as such. Snape is the pressure that makes it impossible for Neville to prove everyone wrong—including himself.
Of course we know now that Neville will eventually prove himself in the final hour and prove that he is worthy of Professor Trelawney’s prophecy just as much as Harry is. But where Harry, since that Halloween night, is expected to show signs of greatness, Neville has been set up for failure. Neville’s fear highlights that dichotomy, the two boys who could have been the chosen one. Neville’s fear comes from that fact that he was not chosen. Snape represents everyone who expects him to fail.
The Boy Who Lived
Now, Harry’s boggart is a really interesting case to study because Remus Lupin flat-out gives us his interpretation of it, but he’s wrong.
“[W]hat you fear most of all is — fear.”
That’s a great theory to go on, but it has flaws. First of all, JK Rowling has been very clear in interviews what Dementors mean to her. She is also clear in Prisoner of Azkaban:
“[T]hey glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around the. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”
Yes, Harry has had some pretty terrible experiences in his life, but he’s never really had a problem with fear. He doesn’t struggle with fear. It’s never something we really see Harry grappling with in the series. Lupin is off-base here.
What we do see Harry struggle with often, however, is the worry that any moment his dream might end and Hogwarts might be snatched away from him. His entire life before Hagrid showed up at the hut on the rock was misery. He has so few happy memories for dementors to pull on, which means that it takes very little exposure to drain Harry to a state that Rowling is very familiar with: depression.
Harry’s fear is not of fear, but of never being happy again. We see it every time Harry gets in trouble for performing magic outside of school, and we see it every time Harry and Ron do something bad enough to threaten expulsion. Harry, a boy who only knew glimpses of happiness until his eleventh birthday, fears going back to that miserable life that he knew all-too-well for ten years.
And then we have Lupin. Lupin is never as important in the series as he is in Prisoner of Azkaban, and so this is the ideal place to explore his character. His boggart is the moon, and it’s pretty obvious why. The moon transforms him into an out-of-control beast. What Lupin fears more than anything else is losing control of himself.
Lupin’s entire life since the bite has been ruled by fear that he might hurt someone while out of control of his body. As a result, twenty-seven days out of the cycle he is the picture of control—keeping secrets about Sirius’s animagus ability, refraining from trash-talking Snape when his students complain, and keeping his relationship with Harry—his best-friends’ son—strictly professional.
We see a few other boggarts throughout the series. Some of them are shallow things like banshees and mummies. Molly Weasley’s is pretty obvious: the loss of her family. But these three boggarts, Harry’s, Neville’s, and Lupin’s, give us real insight into their character. Rowling’s choice to give us this look into Neville’s character at this time is no accident. Prisoner of Azkaban is the book where Rowling sets up Professor Trelawney for the big prophecy reveal in Order of the Phoenix. Rowling’s choice to give us this look into Neville’s character at this time is no accident.