Guest Post: Professor Patrick McCauley, Chestnut Hill College, ‘The Symbol of the Father in Prisoner of Azkaban’

by John on October 17, 2013

Dr. Patrick McCauley is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Chestnut Hill College just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I spoke with him and his colleague Professor Karen Wendling last night about the course they have taught in Chestnut Hill’s innovative Interdisciplinary Honors Program and about papers each presented at last year’s academic conference. It was a conversation you can hear at MuggleNet Academia this week, and, if I say so myself, it’s a podcast you’ll enjoy. Prof McCauley shared his thinking about ‘The Symbol of the Father in Prisoner of Azkaban,’ which was fascinating even in thumbnail vignette. I asked his permission to share his 10 minute lecture notes here so you could also benefit from his more ordered presentation. Enjoy!

October 26, 2012 – Harry Potter Conference – Chestnut Hill College

“The Symbol of the Father in the Prisoner of Azkaban”­

It can often be difficult to determine our own most excellent or fulfilling aspiration.  Paul Tillich discusses the necessity of orienting symbols within the search for our most appropriate individual purpose.  Joseph Campbell focuses in on the specific symbol of the Father as inspiring guide toward authentic identity and personal mission.  J. K. Rowling offers a sophisticated glimpse into the nature of this empowering symbol in The Prisoner of Azkaban.  Rowling effectively and purposely brings the external and internal image of the Father into productive tension.  This talk will attempt to reveal that belief in the literal existence of the Father figure may perform an indispensable role within the overall dynamic of symbolic orientation and inspiration.


We meet Harry Potter as an orphan.  For many of us one of the most difficult scenes in the entire series occurs in the very first book, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, where we find the young Harry standing before the Mirror of Erised, yearning for the presence of his mother and father.  Throughout the series we find Harry looking for shreds, fragments and clues as to the nature and character of his parents. We also find him holding on to an irrational hope for their possible return. From the Mirror through to the Resurrection Stone, we can see that Harry never strays for long from his quest for his parents.

We also find Harry looking for surrogates of one type or another.  Molly Weasley is revealed as a mother figure in her encounter with the Boggart at 12 Grimmauld Place.  If we look merely at the father figure, we find a list of potential candidates including Sirius Black, Vernon Dursley, Albus Dumbledore, Arthur Weasley, Severus Snape, Barty Crouch, Jr., Remus Lupin, Minerva McGonagall and Tom Riddle.  What is so important about the quest for the father? (I must note here that I am not referring to the father in a gender specific manner.  I will be discussing the father quest as symbolic or archetypal in nature).

Joseph Campbell, noted author of the Hero with a Thousand Faces and renowned religious scholar makes the following points: “. . . you’re born from your mother, and your father may be unknown to you, or the father may have died. Frequently, in the epics, when the hero is born, his father has died, or his father is in some other place, and then the hero has to go in quest of his father. . .      In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ son Telemachus is a tiny babe when Odysseus goes off to the Trojan War. The war lasts for ten years, and then, on his journey home, Odysseus is lost for ten more years in the mysterious world of the mythological Mediterranean. Athena comes to Telemachus, who is now twenty years old, and says, “Go find your father.” He doesn’t know where his father is. He goes to Nestor and asks, “Where do you think my father would be?” And Nestor says, “Well, go ask Proteus.” He’s on the father quest . . . Now, the finding of the father has to do with finding your own character and destiny. There’s a notion that the character is inherited from the father, and the body and very often the mind from the mother. But it’s your character that is the mystery, and your character is your destiny. So it is the discovery of your destiny that is symbolized by the father quest. . . You remember the story of Jesus lost in Jerusalem when he’s a little boy about twelve years old. His parents hunt for him, and when they find him in the temple, in conversation with the doctors of the law, they ask, “Why did you abandon us this way? Why did you give us this fear and anxiety?” And he says, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my father’s business?” He’s twelve years old — that’s the age of the adolescent initiations, finding who you are. That father quest is a major hero adventure for young people. That is the adventure of finding what your career is, what your nature is, what your source is. You undertake that intentionally.”

Aristotle argues that we must first set a target before we take aim.  I must determine what I want before I can pursue it.  Aristotle felt that each of us possesses a unique potential.  He called this eudaimonia.  Eudaimonia can be defined as complete individual human flourishing or fulfillment, my own personally defied excellence.  Eudaimonia can be seen as a question that asks me what my own most appropriate life path might be.  It is not the question of my potential from the point of view of a guidance councilor or other such person.  It is the question of my potential from my own perspective, from deep within my own point of view, experience and judgment.  Aristotle suggests that we each have a deep and unrelenting desire to seek out the best possible expression of our own infinitely unique existence and potential.  He says that while physical pleasure and the approval of others can both bring significant happiness, they can never satisfy our desire for the intimate intuition of our own most excellent aspiration.  Pleasure and approval can never bring happiness as fulfilling as that of eudaimonia.

Unlike Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, we must not arrive at the end of life having to admit “I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life!”  I personally met a man who told me on his deathbed that he had “spent his life doing things that he did not care about and now it is over.  Nothing to be done.”  Our society tends to direct young people toward conformity and obedience.  It is a rare voice that asks such a person about their thoughts regarding their possible unique contribution to the wide world.  It is the rare person who can offer trusted guidance in regard to a question that can only be answered within the subjectivity of the individual.

So what of Harry’s Parents? One of the fundamental characteristics of Rowling’s Potter series the question of whether or not Harry desires the physical presence of his parents or their guidance.  We meet Harry at the age of eleven and under the regrettable control of the Dursleys.  It cannot be said that the Dursleys physically torture or seriously starve Harry, but there can be no question that Harry is ignored or derided for much of his early life.  We find Harry understandably wishing for care and comfort, for protection and nurture.  This is made evident in chapter 20 of the Prisoner of Azkaban:

“Yes,” said Black.  “But I’m also – I don’t know if anyone ever told you – I’m your godfather.’

“Yeah, I knew that,” said Harry.

“Well . . . your parents appointed me your guardian,” said Black stiffly.  “If ever anything happened to them . . .”

Harry waited. Did Black mean what he thought he meant?

“I’ll understand, of course, if you want to stay with your aunt and uncle,” said Black.  “But . . . well. . . think about it.  Once my name’s cleared . . . if you want a . . . a different home . . .”

Some sort of explosion took place in the pit of Harry’s stomach.

“What – Live with you?” He said, accidentally cracking his head on a bit of rock protruding from the ceiling.   “Leave the Dursleys?”

“Of course, I thought you wouldn’t want to,” Said Black quickly.  “I understand, I just thought I’d –“

“Are you insane?” said Harry, his voice easily as croaky as Black’s.  “Of course I want to leave the Dursleys!  Have you got a house?  When can I move in?”

This is an expression of the desire for a parent from the point of view of the child.  The child, painfully aware of his or her own inability to protect, provide or care form him or herself, desires the care and protection of a powerful and compassionate adult.  The powerless child stands in conscious need of protective power of a merciful adult.  We see a much more vivid presentation of this at the very end of chapter twenty:

But then, from beyond the range of their vision, they heard a yelping, a whining: a dog in pain . . .

“Sirius,” Harry muttered, staring into the darkness. . .The yelping had stopped abruptly.  As they reached the lakeshore, they saw why – Sirius had turned back into a man.  He was crouched on all fours, his hands over his head.

Nooo,”  he moaned.  “Noooo . . . please . . .”

“And then Harry saw them.  Dementors, at least a hundred of them, gliding in a black mass around the lake toward them.  He spun around, the familiar, icy cold penetrating his insides, fog starting to obscure his vision; more were appearing out of the darkness on every side; they were encircling them. . . .The dementors were closing in, barely ten feet from them.  They formed a solid wall around Harry and Hermione, and were getting closer . . . Harry felt his knees hit the cold grass.  Fog was clouding his eyes.  . . . By the feeble light of his formless Patronus, he saw a dementor halt very close. . , A paralyzing terror filled Harry so that he couldn’t move or speak.  His Patronus flickered and died.”

At this moment we are with Harry as he is losing both his own life and that of the man who was to be his protector and provider.  The child Harry tries in vane to conjure a protective Patronus.  He does not have the power to protect either himself of his newly acquired father figure.  We might note here that the word Patronus comes from the Latin meaning “defender, protector, former master (of a freed slave); advocate,” from pater (gen. patris) “father” (www.etymonline.com).  More than anything, Harry needs to have a protector, not to be one.

It is just at this point that the following occurs:

And then, through the fog that was drowning him, he thought he saw a silvery light brighter and brighter . . . He felt himself fall forward onto the grass . . . Facedown, too weak to move, sick and shaking, Harry opened his eyes.  The dementor must have released him.  The blinding light was illuminating the grass around him . . . Something was driving the dementors back . . . it was circling around him and Black and Hermione . . . With every ounce of strength he could muster, Harry raised his head a few inches and saw an animal amid the light, galloping away across the lake . . . it was a bright as a unicorn . . . Fighting to stay conscious, Harry watched it canter to a halt as it reached the opposite shore.  For a moment, Harry saw, by its brightness, somebody welcoming it back . . . someone who looked strangely familiar . . . but it couldn’t be. . .

Here we have Harry at his most vulnerable receiving the very intervention he needs and desires.  At the very moment his own power is revealed as insufficient, an outside force rides to the rescue.  He has been taken under someone’s wing. Later Hermione asks:

Harry, there is something I don’t understand . . . Why didn’t the dementors get Sirius?”

Harry sat down too.  He explained what he has seen; how, as the nearest dementor had lowered its mouth to Harry’s, a large silver something had come galloping across the lake and forced the dementors to retreat.

“But what was it?”

“There is only one thing it could have been, to make the dementors go,” said Harry.  “A real Patronus. A powerful one.”

“But who conjured it? . . . It must have been a very powerful wizard, to drive all those dementors away . . . If the Patronus was shining so brightly, didn’t it light him up?  Couldn’t you see — ?”

“Yeah, I saw him . . . but maybe I imagined it . . . I wasn’t thinking straight.

Who do you think it was?

“I think – Harry swallowed, knowing how strange this was going to sound.  “I think it was my Dad. . . Maybe I was seeing things . . . But . . . from what I could see . . . it looked like him . . . I’ve got photos of him . . . ” He was thinking about his father and his three oldest friends . . . Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs . . . Wormtail has reappeared this evening when everyone thought has was dead . . . Was it so impossible his father had done the same?”

Harry knows his father is dead and Hermione makes sure he does.  However, we see here Harry as the desperate child desiring the protective parent he hasn’t had since his first birthday.  His desire adjusts his interpretation of events.   This Harry does not desire advice or guidance.  This Harry merely wants to be taken care of and this is exactly what he received.   For the space of about an hour, Harry lives under the belief that his actual father had rescued him.  Belief does not have to be true to be powerful.

Paul Tillich writes “’Father’ is a symbol for God in so far as he preserves man by his sustaining creativity and drives him to his fulfillment by his directing creativity.” (Pg 287)  This reflects Campbell’s ideas.

Tillich also writes “Whatever is essentially mysterious cannot lose it mysteriousness even when it is revealed . . . Revelation of what is essentially and necessarily mysterious means the manifestation of something within the context of ordinary experience which transcends the ordinary context of experience.  (pg 109) . . . Revelation always is a subjective and an objective event in strict interdependence.  Someone is grasped by the manifestation of the mystery; this is the subjective side of the event. Something occurs through which the mystery of revelation grasps someone; this is the objective side.  These two sides cannot be separated . . . Ecstasy (“standing outside oneself) points to a state of mind which is extraordinary in the sense that the mind transcends its ordinary situation.  Ecstasy . . . is a state of mind in which reason is beyond itself, that is, beyond its subject-object structure. .(pg 113) . . .There is no reality, thing or event which cannot become a bearer of the mystery of being and enter into a revelatory correlation.  (pg 118) Religious symbols are double edged.  They are directed toward the infinite which they symbolize and toward the finite through which they symbolize it.  They force the infinite down to finitude and the finite up to infinity.  They open the divine for the human and the human for the divine.  (pg 240)

In other words, Tillich is saying that a physical thing or event can be the finite or real world occasion, or location for a subjective or personal insight or awaking.  The physical substance that becomes symbolic is not to be confused with that which is sacred.  The symbol points beyond itself to something that cannot exist in reality or finitude.  The symbol is the temporary occasion within which the ineffable becomes momentarily graspable.  Of course, this is a subjective and personal, perhaps even private experience.  The symbol is only a symbol for the person who is grasped by it.  This experience is, as Kierkegaard says, intimate.  These objects that become symbols have the capacity to deliver revelatory insight about significance, about meaning.

This brings us to the other side of the lake.  By means of the Time-turner, Harry and Hermione gain the power to exist in two places at once.

“Harry stared out toward the lake, his heart doing a kind of drum roll in his chest. . . Whoever had sent the Patronus would be appearing at any moment. . . . he had to know . . Harry began to run.  He had no thought in his head except his father. . . . If it was him . . . if it was really him . . . he had to know, had to find out. . . A terrified excitement shot through him – at any moment now –

“Come on!” He muttered, staring about.  “Where are you? Dad, cone on –“

But no one came.  Harry raised his head to look at the circle of dementors across the lake.  One of them was lowering its hood.  It was time for the rescuer to appear – but no one was coming to help this time –

And then it hit him – he understood.  He hadn’t seen his father – he had seen himself

Harry flung himself out from behind the bush and pulled out his wand.

“Expecto Patronum!” he yelled.

And out of the end of his wand burst, not a shapeless cloud of mist, but a blinding, dazzling, silver animal . . . He saw it lower its head and charge at the swarming dementors . . . the dementors were falling back, scattering, retreating into the darkness . . . they were gone.

The Patronus turned.  It was cantering back toward Harry across the still surface of the water.  It wasn’t a horse, It wasn’t a unicorn, either.  It was a stag.  . . It stopped on the bank.  Its hooves made no mark on the soft ground as it stared at Harry with its large, silver eyes.  Slowly, it bowed its antlered head.  And Harry realized . . .

Prongs,” he whispered

What is happening here?  As both Campbell and Tillich suggest, the symbol of the father is not limited to a presentation of protective parental power.  The symbol of the father can provide a powerful intuition of my own mysterious calling or eudaimonia.  A child waits for rescue.  The hero, however, is delivered onto his or her quest through his or her own deliberate and courageous action.  Rowling will later reveal that the Patronus of each witch and wizard has a specific animal form.  It is suggested in this that your Patronus reveals something of your authentic identity.  However, while every witch and wizard will glimpse a clue as to their own authentic nature in the shape of their Patronus, there is more than this going on from Harry’s perspective.

In this scene by the lake Harry is both rescuer and rescued, parent and child.  It is crucial that we remember that a symbol is a subjective event and can only be understood from the perspective of the individual who receives it.  From the moment we are introduced to Harry Potter we find him yearning for his parents.  But as we have seen, parents play a dual role.  They are both my protector and the symbol of my own true nature and destiny.  As an orphan Harry has been denied both.  We all go through the transition whereby we release our desire to be taken care of and assume the mantle of responsibility.  In this transition we release the image of our parents as protectors and look to them in a new way, as symbolic intimations of our own true epic voyage into the future.  We look to them in the hope that we might catch a glimpse of our own future self.  In the Prisoner of Azkaban, we are permitted a front row seat as Harry crosses this threshold.

However, Harry has no father to perform this role.  If it is true that Harry’s father has not been permitted the chance to protect his son, how can we assume that he could perform the role of eudaimoniac symbol?  Tillich helps us here.  The physical symbol is only a stand-in for the transcendent truth that is revealed in the experience of that symbol.  When I stare at an object that is holy for me, it is not the object per se that receives my esteem and reverence.  It is that to which the symbol points or alludes (not the symbol itself), that grabs me and throws me into ecstasy.  For the first Harry, the Harry that passes out by the lake, the protector father arrives just in time.  For an hour or two Harry is granted leave to recline into the belief in the existence and presence of his father.  He was, after all, really rescued.  For the boy who spent days in front of both the Mirror of Erised and Dudley Dursley, how wonderful must this have felt?  Despite the explanation Harry gives to Hermione, it is this very real feeling that fuels the later Patronus.  It is this real feeling that makes that Patronus possible at all.  We must remember that the Patronus charm is one driven by only the deepest feelings.  Harry had not been able to cast a strong one for lack of the very feeling we are discussing here.  His belief in the existence of his father made him literally capable of something he had not been capable of before.  It was his belief that he had been protected by his father that made him capable of not needing that protection any longer.

One last question.  As we have seen, the Patronus stag canters back across the water and is said to stare at Harry.  Harry stares back and names it Prongs.  It is not hard to notice that Harry’s Patronus, his image of his authentic identity, just happens to be his father’s animigus shape.  So who is it that is looking at Harry when the silver stag stares at him? Whose gaze is that?  Rowling leaves this in delicate and poetic indefiniteness.  It is, of course, Harry and James, mysterious and paradoxical and that may be.   We will leave to another day a discussion about how the paradoxical unity of father and son walks across water.

According to Aristotle, we are all destined for a unique and important epic voyage.  We all feel ourselves called to this personal mystery.  And yet, epic voyages always require confidence and courage from those who so often are scared and self-doubting.  They also require the development of confidence in one’s own subjective judgment over and against the tendency to conform to habit or cultural authority. A symbolic presentation of my own unseen capabilities may be required to initiate such a challenge.  According to Tillich and Campbell, it is the symbol of the Father that can provide this presentation.  In the end it is always of moment of deliberate and defining existential decision that allows me to step out of the role of the protected and into the realm of authentic and courageous self determination.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

phoenixsong58 October 18, 2013 at 9:02 am

This is breathtaking and touched me deeply. It speaks of some of the most transcendent moments of the books. Thank you for sharing it.
How do I listen to the podcast you mentioned?

John October 18, 2013 at 9:06 am
Susan January 20, 2014 at 11:53 am

As I prepare for a presentation about the Prisoner of Azkaban, I find myself returning to reread this article again and again. It is one that rewards careful reading, with insight into not only Harry’s eudaimonia, but my own. Thank you John and Patrick!

weblink June 1, 2014 at 7:27 pm

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