Essay: Harry Potter, Occlumens?

by Josie Kearns, February 2010.

As Harry Potter sits in Grimmauld Place over his fifth-year Christmas holiday, he has a lot to think about. After all, he wouldn’t be at Grimmauld Place at all if he hadn’t somehow seen Voldemort’s attack on Arthur Weasley; and since then he’s also faced down an unexpected, burning desire to harm Dumbledore, as well as overheard Moody suspecting that he’s being possessed by Voldemort. And while Harry and his friends have since concluded that Voldemort isn’t possessing him, there’s clearly something strange going on, and he has no idea what it is.

Meanwhile, Harry has spent much of the year burning with other questions, too. He knows the Order of the Phoenix is meeting, and he knows Voldemort is targeting a weapon of some sort, but beyond those simplistic (and largely unhelpful) facts, he really has no idea what’s going on. Furthermore, he’s recently learned that his buddy Snape happens to be a former Death Eater who turned spy for Dumbledore, and as far as Harry can tell, he’s continuing in that role now as well. So what, Harry can’t help but wonder, is going on? And what does Snape have to do with it all?

Of course, all of this comes to a head on the last day of Harry’s holiday, when Snape takes Harry by surprise and asks to speak with him.

“The headmaster has sent me to tell you, Potter, that it is his wish for you to study Occlumency this term.”
“Study what?” said Harry blankly.
Snape’s sneer became more pronounced. “Occlumency, Potter. The magical defense of the mind against external penetration. An obscure branch of magic, but a highly useful one.”
Harry’s heart began to pump very fast indeed. Defense against external penetration? But he was not being possessed, they had all agreed on that….
“Why do I have to study Occlu – thing?” he blurted out.
“Because the headmaster thinks it a good idea,” said Snape smoothly.

This encounter kicks off a rather fascinating series of one-on-one lessons between Harry and Snape, which even Dumbledore will later refer to as “a fiasco.” Snape penetrates Harry’s mind over and over again without giving Harry any real instruction as to how to resist; and Harry does his part by steadfastly refusing to practice, despite the insistence of virtually every adult in his life that it is the most important thing he could possibly do.

When you think about it, it’s interesting that Dumbledore would put Snape and Harry both up to such a task. After all, there are several fairly obvious roadblocks standing in the way of the project’s success. The biggest problem – and one which Dumbledore does eventually admit to Harry that he underestimated – is Snape and Harry’s mutual animosity. Snape firmly believes Harry to be incapable of Occlumency, and Harry steadfastly refuses to heed Snape’s lessons on the subject. Furthermore, thanks to Snape’s obvious enjoyment at probing Harry’s mind, he doesn’t seem particularly inclined to actually help Harry improve. It’s not a situation set up for success.

Compounding the problem, though, is Harry himself. Harry is an emotional guy – never more so than during this particular school year – and has never been one to even attempt to control those emotions. This doesn’t exactly make him a prime candidate to become a great Occlumens. J.K. Rowling later described this challenge in an interview:

“Harry’s problem with [Occlumency] was always that his emotions were too near the surface and that he is in some ways too damaged. But he’s also very in touch with his feelings about what’s happened to him. He’s not repressed, he’s quite honest about facing them, and he couldn’t suppress them, he couldn’t suppress these memories.” (7/16/2005)

Harry’s ability to love may protect him in other regards, but when it comes to Occlumency it’s a definite obstacle.

That’s two quick strikes against the possibility that this endeavor will actually work out. But there’s a third roadblock here, too, and it’s one that is far, far more interesting than either of the first two.

Severus Snape knows how to play his cards. For years he has been able to convince both Albus Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort that he is on their respective sides – and neither of those two are wizards easily taken in. The challenge inherent in such a position, of course, is to give each wizard enough information that he is convinced Snape is genuinely working for him and not the other. And actually, if it weren’t for the danger in being suspected of treason, it would be a pretty good method of hedging one’s bets (whether Voldemort or Dumbledore was eventually victorious, Snape would have been in pretty good shape either way). Remember Phineas Nigellus’s quote, “We Slytherins are brave, yes, but not stupid…. For instance, given the choice, we will always choose to save our own necks?” It’s a tricky proposition, but Snape has long been able to successfully stay in the middle of these two foes.

However, teaching Occlumency to Harry Potter is a task that is patently one-sided. Dumbledore absolutely wants this to happen; Voldemort absolutely does not. Of course if Snape were able to do it in secret, and keep Voldemort from learning about the lessons, he’d be in a straightforward enough position. The trouble is that at the moment, Voldemort has access to Harry’s mind.. And we know he can see what Harry sees, whenever he wants to, because Dumbledore admits that he’s worried Voldemort will “use [Harry] to spy” on him.

And when are Harry’s emotions at their strongest, and his mind therefore its most vulnerable?

Why, when he’s taking Occlumency lessons with Severus Snape, of course. Do we really think that Voldemort wouldn’t feel pangs of those emotions? And pop in occasionally just to see what’s going on?

Voldemort has to know that Snape is teaching Occlumency to Harry. He knows why he’s doing it. And furthermore, Dumbledore and Snape are fully aware that Voldemort knows all this.

From Voldemort’s perspective, there is No Way that Snape can be successful in giving these lessons. It would completely destroy his entire plan to entice the boy to the Department of Mysteries. And if Harry did succeed in learning Occlumency, it would look awfully suspicious from Voldemort’s point of view; Snape’s status as a Death Eater would likely be in serious jeopardy.

But Dumbledore knows all this, too. And despite it, still chooses to put his top secret agent in charge of a mission that he simply can’t complete without losing his ability to be a top secret agent!

What is Dumbledore thinking?

After Harry has his vision of the attack on Arthur Weasley, Dumbledore’s position is a precarious one. It’s clear that Voldemort and Harry have a level of access to each others’ minds that is probably unprecedented in wizarding history, and there’s no way that Voldemort doesn’t realize it. And given their relative magical skill, it’s not hard to guess who’s most likely to come out on the losing end of this one, either. Dumbledore doesn’t know yet what Voldemort might do with this level of access to Harry Potter’s mind, but it’s safe to assume it could be nothing good.

There’s only one way to prevent this from happening. Harry Potter absolutely must learn Occlumency. And do it before Voldemort has a chance to formulate a plan around this connection.

The flaw, of course, is how to teach it to him.

Dumbledore can’t teach Harry Occlumency himself, because he’s worried that doing so might give Voldemort all the more incentive to try something before Harry can learn it. He’s also worried about what Voldemort would do to Harry in the meantime. For the boy’s safety, it’s really not an option.

On the other hand, Snape can’t teach Harry Occlumency either, without putting his status as a double agent in serious jeopardy.

On the surface it seems like Dumbledore could simply skip the lessons altogether and warn Harry that Voldemort might try something. But there’s a huge flaw here, too – which is that Dumbledore can’t tell Harry anything without Voldemort finding out that he knows. I’d be willing to bet that Voldemort has enlisted Snape’s help in his plan to lure Harry – so if Dumbledore confides his expectations in to the boy, it will look to Voldemort like Snape has been passing Dumbledore valuable information. This is far more dangerous to Snape than simply teaching the lessons would be.

And of course, if Dumbledore stands pat and does nothing, he will be serving Harry up on a platter for Voldemort. He’s got to do something to at least put the boy on his guard, without making Voldemort too suspicious.

Talk about a no-win situation.

(Seems like this is the problem with double-agents, no? You always run into this type of situation eventually.)

All of this really only leaves one possibility, when you think about it.

So Dumbledore orders Snape to give Occlumency lessons to Harry Potter. And here’s the kicker: he also orders him not to actually teach the boy to do it.

Say what?

Here’s why this makes sense:

Ideally, Dumbledore would want Harry to learn Occlumency. But Dumbledore surely knows Harry well enough to know that Harry is not going to be an ideal student in this particular subject. He knows virtually everything else about the boy, after all, right?

Dumbledore also knows that if Harry does learn Occlumency, it is going to cause massive problems for Snape’s relationship with Voldemort. There’s just no getting around the fact that, in this situation, Snape will have knowingly foiled the Dark Lord’s plan. His ability to serve as a double agent (and likely his life) are as good as over.

So all that’s left to be done is for Dumbledore to put Harry on his guard. He can’t warn him specifically of what Voldemort will try to do, although he does know what that is. But if he emphasizes the importance of Occlumency to Harry enough, maybe – just maybe – when Harry sees that vision of the Department of Mysteries, he’ll hesitate just enough to realize that it could be a trap.

I suspect Dumbledore is also relying on Harry’s friendship with Hermione. He’ll tell Harry later that he deliberately used Hermione in his scheming to slow Harry down, and make him think about his actions. He’s probably counting on her here to realize that Harry’s vision is precisely the sort of thing Dumbledore didn’t want him to see, and convince Harry not to act on it.

What Dumbledore doesn’t account for, ultimately (and what ultimately is the undoing in his plan), is Kreacher.

Kreacher causes two problems with this plan. First, he passes word to the Dark Lord that Sirius Black is the person Harry cares for most (and consequently the person most likely to make Harry’s hot head overrule his brain). And second, Kreacher forces Sirius to the attic so that when Hermione does convince Harry to slow down – and she does – Sirius isn’t present when Harry comes looking for him.

If you think about it, if it hadn’t been for the house-elf, Dumbledore’s plan ultimately would have worked. Harry wouldn’t have learned Occlumency, but he would have been prevented from going to the Department of Mysteries. And since Snape would have “failed” in his mission to teach the boy Occlumency, Voldemort still would have been content that Snape was in his camp.

Alas, the best laid plans….


31 Responses to “Essay: Harry Potter, Occlumens?”

  1. Awesome theory! I never could have thought of it (I almost got a headache reading and figuring out who knew, supposed, guessed or discovered what) but as far as I can tell it fits perfectly with everything we know.

  2. Well played.

  3. Brilliant!!!!

  4. As usual, your theories come at things from 90 degrees and make absolute sense. I’m really glad I don’t have to make a flow chart of the above. My head is already spinning as if on a swivel.

  5. Wow that’s very interesting! I feel like I’m getting addicted to this website…

  6. Whoa. I would never have thought of this! I’m not sure I totally buy it, but it is definitely intriguing! Thing is, I’m not sure Voldy would have just been popping in and out of Harry’s head all the time. If he had, then why would Kreacher need to tell him Sirius is the person Harry cares most for? Unless I’m mistaken, Sirius orders Kreacher out the same night Voldy becomes aware of the connection. It would have taken some time for Kreacher to tell Narcissa that information, and Voldy could’ve just checked in with Harry’s mind right away according to you. In fact, we don’t know if Voldy was actually reading Harry’s mind at any point, we konly know that he put visions there.

  7. hpboy13, I guess the point isn’t so much that he was popping in and out of Harry’s head, so much as that he could – and therefore Dumbledore and Snape have to plan accordingly.

    Incidentally, it’s never explicitly stated that Voldemort is capable of this, but it’s hard for me to imagine he wouldn’t be. Dumbledore’s line about Voldy using Harry to spy on him is the closest we get to real confirmation. But given their connection, Harry’s ability to pop in and out of Voldemort’s mind at will, and Voldemort’s obvious superior power, it’s hard for me to fathom Voldemort wouldn’t be capable of the same thing.

  8. This makes me wonder about Kreacher — and what could possibly cause Harry to ever come to accept him in Book 7, knowing he was responsible indirectly for Sirius’ death.

  9. hpboy13, I see what you’re saying about Voldy popping in and out of Harry’s head. I wonder though, maybe there were certain places in Harry’s head that he just couldn’t penetrate. Or rather, he could penetrate them, but not very well and not without lots of forethought. It’s fairly well known, for instance, that Harry has two best friends he’d put his life on the line for–yet, Voldy never goes after them. He had a golden opportunity to use Ginny as a hostage in HBP, and he didn’t. I don’t think he can tell which relationships are the strongest without someone specifically pointing them out. Ultimately sharing Harry’s mind couldn’t work because of how much Harry feels for others. I propose that we’ve seen this exact situation occur with Voldy before, both with Snape and Regulus. A great occulmens he may be, but Voldy just doesn’t see (or doesn’t register) thoughts about love or caring.

  10. Jennifer, I’ve wondered about this too – but after some thought have realised that at the point where Kreacher went to the Malfoys and Bella, he was the servant of Sirius – and Sirius did not treat him well (I would even go so far as to say that Sirius was almost Voldermort-like in his treatment of Kreacher). In Book 7, Harry had matured and had come-of-age,and I think had realised that Kreacher was being used by Voldermort and the Malfoys and that all he was looking for was love and acceptance – just like everyone else.

  11. With Dumbledore and Snape being the only two who could teach Harry, but neither of them being able to teach at the same time, there’s something else behind it as well. There must be somebody else who can preform legilimency, whether it be a teacher or somebody in the Order. That’s why I think your ‘teach him occlumency, but don’t really’ is extremely likely. Therefore teaching Harry that it’s important to close his mind, but not opening it in front of Dumbledore for Voldemort to see all, especially when Harry uses the shield charm, and rebounds into Snape’s memories. This would be far more dire if they were Dumbledore’s. But I think there was another reason Dumbledore wanted Snape in particular in Harry’s mind, and it’s outlined in DH33: ‘He is his father all over again’ with Dumbledore’s response being: ‘In looks, perhaps, but his deepest nature is much more like his mother’s.’, a memory that took place far into HBP. For some reason, I feel that Dumbledore wanted Snape to figure that out for himself, through contact with Harry’s mind.

  12. I was just rereading the first Occlumency chapter again. I noticed that every time Harry tries to say something about seeing from the snake’s point of view, Snape cuts him off, telling him not to interrupt. At the time, it just seems like Snape being Snape. But…
    Perhaps Dumbledore had confided his idea about Harry’s ability to see from the snake (because of Voldemort’s various pieces of soul floating about in Harry and Nagini, I think you said something about this in one of the chapters, Josie). Voldemort didn’t realize the implications of this to his horcruxes, and Snape was trying to prevent Harry from revealing this.

  13. Good point, Adele, about Dumbledore wanting Snape to possibly figure out for himself that Harry is much more like his mom than his dad. I really feel that it is true Harry is much more like Lily. Harry really isn’t ever as arrogant as James and certainly, at no point, behaves like James did in “Snape’s Worst Memory.”

    I really loved it when Snape gave Harry his memories as he’s dying in the 7th book because it’s like he realized he needed Harry to know why he had been risking his life as a double agent for 16 years. I think Harry also needed to know something else from the memories with Dumbledore to defeat Voldemort, but I can’t remember what it was right now. I wonder if Snape had lived whether he would have shared his motivation with Harry. Probably, right?

  14. Fascinating essay, although, as always, I find it hard to believe that any of this could have been J.K. Rowling’s intention, considering she left no hint of it in the books.

    What you say is plausible, except for the fact that I don’t think Voldemort has the same kind of connection with Harry’s mind as Harry has with Voldemort’s.

    Harry’s connection with Voldemort’s mind is due to the piece of soul that is attached to his own, which means that he is tuned-in like and aerial to Voldemort’s moods.

    However, Voldemort has a much less receptive connection to Harry’s mind (to continue with the metaphor of the aerial); no piece of Harry’s soul is attached to Voldemort. Of course, Voldemort can make use of the connection to go into Harry’s mind at will, he just isn’t tuned into it.

    So, it’s up to Voldemort to look into Harry’s mind, which cannot be very often as he is busy wreaking havoc on the civilized world, and it’s unlikely that he’d find out about the Occlumency lessons this way. After all, the mind is not a book to be opened and read at will; Voldemort only sees what Harry sees or is thinking about at the time. Unless he happens to enter Harry’s mind during a lesson or Harry happens to be thinking about Occlumency at the time (and we all know Harry doesn’t think much about Occlumency), no hint of these lessons is likely to reach Voldemort’s ears.

    I think it much more likely that Dumbledore, as always, saw the best in Snape, and believed he would put his grudge with Harry aside for the greater good.

  15. roslinators, I agree. Your point about Voldemort not having the same kind of connection with Harry’s mind as Harry has with Voldemort’s would also be supported by the fact that Voldemort can’t feel it when his Horcruxes are destroyed. It seems that once he has severed a bit of soul away from himself and hid it in a horcrux, he can’t access it or feel it anymore, but it can still feel him. In DH, Voldemort has to physically travel to each horcrux to see if it’s safe, but the horcruxes themselves react when he or another bit of his soul comes near (for instance, the soul seems to beat harder inside the locket when it is near Nagini, who as we know contains a fragment of voldemort-soul); in Bathilda’s house Harry even feels it twitch on his chest. The way his own scar reacts to Voldemort’s feelings and proximity makes a Horcrux’s sensitivity to the other parts of itself evident. During the attack on Mr. Weaslery, Voldemort simply becomes aware that Harry can access his mind and decides to plant falsehoods in his own (Voldemort’s own) mind for Harry to find. For Voldemort to attempt to posess harry or to read harry’s mind from a distance (and through the protections of Hogwarts) would take a concerted effort at the very least, on his part. So I think we can assume Voldemort is not able to read harry’s mind the way Harry can read Voldemort’s.

    Hehe, everytime I say “read x’s mind” I feel a twinge of guilt. THE MIND IS NOT A BOOK, TO BE READ AT WILL…” :P

  16. I have to admit, I’ve always found it a weakness that the worry of Harry being possessed by Voldemort is pretty much dropped after OotP. I suppose Voldemort has learnt his lesson that it’s too painful to try and posess someone like Harry, but in DH Harry relies on seeing into Voldemort’s thoughts an awful lot and never worries that he’s seeing images planted to trick him. Why is this never an issue again?

  17. It drives me crazy that Harry went to so much trouble to contact Sirius in breaking into Umbridge’s office when all he had to do was to have opened the present Sirius had given him and used the mirror. Anyway, I’ve always had a lot of respect for Snape, who can only be seen as a pain in the story but is probably the only person who has ever managed to trick Voldemort into trusting him when he is really on Dumbledore’s side almost the whole time. I think that the reason that Voldemort is unable to see or understand that he is being betrayed is that the reason Snape ever returned to the good side was because of love, the only thing that Voldemort really doesn’t understand. I wonder if Dumbledore put Harry and Snape together hoping to cure them both of their hatred of each other and make them realize that they need to work together. Maybe Snape would finally see the parts of harry inherited from his mother instead of just his hatred of James and harry would understand that Snape was trying to help him, and we all saw just how well that worked out.
    Also, at this point in the story I don’t remember there ever being any actual evidence that of Voldemort being able to read Harry’s thoughts or to see what he is seeing. Harry has a part of Voldemort in him that makes him see and feel some of the things that Voldemort does but I don’t think that Voldemort can see or feel Harry’s emotions because he doesn’t have a part of harry in him even if Dumbledore is worried about Voldemort learning of their relationship. He just finds a way to exploit what Harry sees. So anyway, I don’t think that Voldemort would know what was happening in Harry’s life or that Snape was teaching him…but I might just be forgetting something from the story as it’s been a while. I suppose that if you really think about it there are a lot of things in Harry Potter that doesn’t fit with something else but any Harry Potter fan knows that this just makes for more interesting discussions trying to fit things together even if they are just mistakes and it usually works, making everything more intricately woven tan it is really meant to be.

  18. Don’t want to be too spoilery, but there’s a certain scene in a later book when Snape asks someone if they’ve seen Harry, but is cut off before he can explain why he wants to see him. This suggests to me that Snape was planning to tell Harry everything in a more comfortable environment than the eventual one in which he told Harry the prince’s tale.

  19. I don’t think it makes Voldemort any more able to look into Harry’s head, I happen to mostly agree with hazelwillow, but I do want to point out that some part of Harry is in Voldemort at this time, and it becomes very important in Book 7.

  20. Fascinating discussion everyone, and a wonderful essay. Ragnar Dorkins, I think I had similar thoughts as you, that Snape was in fact acting to protect Harry, but I always wondered why Snape never seemed to give poor Harry any pointers or helpful tips; constant bombardment with insults is not a good teaching method, certainly! As I often do when I cannot figure out the reason characters behave a certain way, I begin to ask myself why the author might be laying the story out in this way… So I always assumed the whole Scenario was to allow for Harry to see Snape’s worst memory. And one of my favorite parts of book 5 is when Harry sees his father from Snape’s point of view; it’s shattering for our poor hero! And astounding for the reader.

  21. No matter how much Snape loved Lily and despite his promise to Dumbledore to take care of Harry because of this love, the fact remains that not only is Harry James’ son, but he also looks exactly like him, and I think that that’s something that Snape can never shake off no matter what happens because of his hatred for James, and that it was almost a betrayal in his mind on Lily’s part that they both disliked the marauders, especially James, and so when she ended up marrying James and having his kid it made it that much worse. So no matter how much he is protecting Harry he can’t like him or be very helpful cause he would really love for the James part of Harry to die.

  22. I thought Voldemort COULDN’T see harry’s POV. Otherwise, think of all the times he could have used this eg to find where Harry was and jut kill him. I thought it was pretty much one way as Voldemort has no part of Harry in him, but the inverse is true.

  23. Babibell, remember at the end of DH – Dumbledore’s portrait warns Snape that when he gives Harry the sword of Gryffindor, Snape can’t let Harry see him in case Voldemort reads his mind. So it must be able to work both ways, whether Voldemort realizes it or not.

  24. I thought Dumbledore meant read Snape’s mind, not Harry’s? But I don’t have the book with me, so I could be missing context

  25. Here’s the quote:

    “Now, Severus, the sword! Do not forget that it must be taken under conditions of need and valor—and he must not know that you give it! If Voldemort should read Harry’s mind and see you acting for him—”

    “I know,” said Snape curtly.

  26. Thanks. I guess I was drastically mistaken lol

  27. Posting to second the observation that Voldemort has a piece of Harry inside him.

    The Dark Lord took some of his blood at the end of book 4, for the resurrection ceremony, and Dumbledore considers this of tremendous importance. After that, Voldemort cannot be warded off by the spells Lily put on Harry – the Avada Kedavra that he sends at Harry in book 7 finds its mark – but he also has something in him that is redeemable; something that can be appealed to because it knows what love is. In the end, he doesn’t change, and is destroyed. But the fact that he’s forged a connection that puts part of Harry in Voldemort is something that Dumbledore portrays as a net win for the light side. Whether this directly leads into his being able to plant false memories in Harry’s mind and possess him in book 5 is not specified, though.

    Speaking of possession, no two times the Dark Lord takes someone over are alike. Quirrell had that two-heads thing going. Ginny was herself sometimes, but was frequently disoriented and felt like she couldn’t account for her time. Harry was the only one who retained consciousness, during (as far as I can tell), and managed to muster a strong enough emotional response to what was happening that it made Voldemort recoil from him and get out. He’s also the only one where it was patently obvious what was going on – everything his body was showing was an expression of Voldemort, the voice, the sneer, et cetera. My point is just that, useful in the story as it was to have Ginny say “this is what being possessed is like. If you don’t have these symptoms, you needn’t worry,” was, it’s not an accurate reflection of what we saw Voldemort doing.

    Also, it’s … plot convenient, but strange that Voldemort only tried to exploit the telepathic connection between them (a little) in the end of book 5. He really could have ripped Harry to bits, mentally. That probably would have been the surest, safest way to defeat him.

  28. Will you complete essays on HBP and DH?

  29. This is absolutely fascinating! Thank you for spelling it out so clearly!

  30. Lovely discussion in essay and comments. You turn things on their head and make it seem real. When are you going to do HBP and DH essays?

  31. I keep thinking about that mirror that Sirius gave him. If Harry had remembered the mirror while Sirius was alive, he could have used that rather than the fire to check whether he was at the house and not at the Dept of Mysteries. That mirror did prove useful two years later. But if only…

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