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Expecto Patronum

As you may have already read in other pages of this blog, I’m a big C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien fan. I was slow to pick up on the Harry Potter series, but eventually it grew on me, and I came to enjoy J.K. Rowling’s creativity, character development, and use of language.

If you’re not familiar with the series, Harry Potter is an orphan being raised by his aunt and uncle, who treat him rather like a servant in comparison to their own son, Dudley. One day his rather dismal life is broken into with the surprise discovery that he is actually a wizard, and has been accepted into a school for young wizards and witches called Hogwarts. We learn about this strange new world along with Harry throughout the series, and he and his friends are put through many tests and adventures.

Rowling is a wonderful wordsmith, and creates lyrical names for her characters, the locations in the wizarding world, and the spells that the students learn to use. [You can find a quick review with some examples here: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/07/harry-potter-linguistic-innovator/] One spell in particular sparked my interest. It is known to be a difficult one to learn, and advanced skill is needed to produce it. It’s called the Patronus Charm.

We first learn about this particular charm in the books after Harry Potter is confronted by a Dementor, which in itself is a compelling term for such a creature. From the HarryPotterWiki online we learn the following about Dementors:

K. Rowling has revealed that the inspiration for Dementors came from her bout with severe depression before her phenomenal success. She described the feeling as an “absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.”[1][9]

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around 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… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

—Description of Dementors, from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban[src]

Of course with the first reading of the word, we see the echoes of the terms “demonic,” “mental,” and with the suffix “–or,” we pick up that this is a person or thing that does something, in this case, rather torturous. Looking closer at the Latin origins of the term, however, we can parse out another meaning…


“De-“ is a prefix used to indicate privation, removal, and separation (dehumidify), negation

(demerit; derange), descent (degrade; deduce), reversal (detract), intensity (decompound).[2] Removal and separation, negation, descent, reversal, and intensity…let’s look at what this is referring to in the second part of the word…

“Mentor” is an experienced and trusted adviser, or an experienced person in a company, college, or school who trains and counsels new employees or students.

ORIGIN mid 18th century: via French and Latin from Greek Mentōr, the name of the adviser of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey .[3]

So from this we learn that a literal translation of “Dementor” could be “A person or thing that removes, separates, negates, and/or reverses someone who is an experienced and trusted adviser, trainer, and counselor.”

Another grim aspect of a Dementor that was hinted at in the description above is their ability to not only rob one of hope and happiness, but also can eventually suck out a person’s soul. This is called the “Dementor’s Kiss” in the wizarding world, and is considered a fate worse than death. (http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Dementor’s_Kiss) We’ll come back to the significance of these things later on.

In order to fend off a Dementor, one can use the Patronus charm. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry learns this spell from Professor Lupin, who describes it as: “… a kind of anti-Dementor – a guardian which acts as a shield between you and the Dementor.” He goes on to say that, “The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so Dementors can’t hurt it.” Presumably, the Dementor, finding that the being confronting it does not suffer as a human would, retreats in confusion.


Here is more of Professor Lupin’s lesson from the book:

‘And how do you conjure it?’

‘With an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.’ Harry cast about for a happy memory. Certainly, nothing that had happened to him at the Dursleys’ was going to do. Finally, he settled on the moment when he had first ridden a broomstick.

‘Right,’ he said, trying to recall as exactly as possible the wonderful, soaring sensation in his stomach.

‘The incantation is this –’ Lupin cleared his throat, ‘expecto patronum!’

‘Expecto patronum,’ Harry repeated under his breath, ‘expecto patronum.’

‘Concentrating hard on your happy memory?’

‘Oh – yeah –’ said Harry, quickly forcing his thoughts back to that first broom-ride. ‘Expecto patrono – no, patronum – sorry – expecto patronum, expecto patronum –’

Something whooshed suddenly out of the end of his wand; it looked like a wisp of silvery gas.

‘Did you see that?’ said Harry excitedly. ‘Something happened!’

‘Very good,’ said Lupin, smiling. ‘Right then – ready to try it on a Dementor?’

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling

At last we’ve come to the words that first kindled my interest…”expecto patronum.” If you’ve seen the Harry Potter films, this spell saves Harry from quite a number of dangerous situations. It’s considered quite the prodigious achievement that he comes to be able to successfully use this spell at all.

HPEPHarry Potter protecting himself and Sirius Black from Dementors, using the Patronus Charm http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Dementor

How the incantation is achieved is intriguing – one needs to concentrate fully on a single happy memory. In other words, being singularly focused on joy is what is needed to create the protection from a Dementor, from the being that can rob you of all hope and cheer and ultimately your soul. I love how Rowling uses joy as a defense against soul-depleting depression in her series. But the words of the charm hint at something more.

“Expecto” – when we read this the connotation that first comes to mind is “expect,” and indeed that is part of the original Latin meaning, but it more accurately means “await.”   It can also mean look for, need, require, or hope.

Patronum – in Latin, the word “patronus” means “protector,” or “patron.” In archaic Latin, it means “father.” (The root “pater” is where we get the term “paternal.”)

So we can say that the translation of expecto patronum is: “I await (expectantly) a protector.”

Now why go through all this word study about a world of wizards, with soul-sucking beings and spells and such? I find this all interesting not only of it’s own merit, and the wordcraft and world-generating creativity of J.K. Rowling is quite the admirable talent, but it’s also worthy of thought because fiction often draws out realities and truths that our scattered minds have a tough time bringing into focus. C.S. Lewis put it this way in regards to stories:

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”

What, then, is the reality brought to light through the use of the patronus charm that I see applying to our non-wizarding, yet still spiritually brimming world?

In the Christian life, we live in the midst of a paradox. Tempted and tried, yet forgiven and redeemed; considered righteous in Him, yet confronted each day with our own sinful nature. We live in two places at once, between the now and the not yet. Living in this paradox creates an underlying and persistent tension.

The Now And The Not Yet

No longer what we were before,

But not all that we will be.

Tomorrow, when we lock the door,

On all our compromising,

When He appears,

He’ll draw us near,

And we’ll be changed by His glory,

Wrapped up in His glory….

We will be like Him,

For we shall see Him,

As He is.

No longer what we saw before,

But not all that we will see.

Tomorrow, when we lock the door,

On all our disbelieving,

When He appears (holy, holy),

Our view will clear,

And we’ll be changed by His glory,

Wrapped up in His glory….

But I’m caught in between

The now and the not yet;

Sometimes it seems like

Forever and ever,

That I’ve been reaching to be

All that I am,

But I’m only a few steps nearer,

Yet I’m nearer….

~ Amy Grant

How do we live well in the midst of this tension between the now and the not yet? I believe that living in hope is key. Not the kind of threadbare, splintered hope against an unbeatable foe, nor the kind of fanciful or foolish hope that is simply in denial of reality. Rather a hope that is comprised of a confident expectation. A hope that means stepping out in faith, with our eyes focused on Jesus, pointing to the thing that would suck out our very soul and shouting out –

“Expecto patronum!”

“I await a protector…” God is going to show up there…here…in the midst of my calamity, at the end of my rope, in this pit of depression, in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges. I expect Him to show up, and work out His will for my good.

What a powerful thing to call out in one’s defense! And what a powerful attitude to carry with you though life.

We can live each day in confident expectation that the Lord is there, that He is working out His plan in our lives, crafting us into the likeness of Jesus. This is a hope that upon which one can build a sustainable life, in the midst of great obstacles and pain.

Here are a few verses to consider that speak of this kind of hope:

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,

   And in his word I put my hope.

Psalm 130:5 (NIV)

I wait [patiently] for the Lord, my soul [expectantly] waits,

     And in His word do I hope.

Psalm 130:5 (AMP)

…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)

But those who wait for the Lord [who expect, look for, and hope in Him] Will gain new strength and renew their power; They will lift up their wings [and rise up close to God] like eagles [rising toward the sun]; They will run and not become weary, They will walk and not grow tired.

Isaiah 40:31 (AMP)

[1] http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Dementor#cite_note-8

[2] Online Google dictionary

[3] Online Google dictionary


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