Fantastic Beasts Question: Is an Obscurus the Opposite of a Patronus?

obscurial-fantastic-beasts-3The Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie introduced wizarding fans to the Obscurus (and its host, the Obscurial). The Obscurus is described as a “dark, parasitic” force that develops in children forced to repress their magic. While Potter fans had not seen this entity before, they had seen something that seems to be the polar opposite of the Obscurus: the light, protective force known as the Patronus. Many viewers have questions about Obscurus manifestation: most notably: was Ariana Dumbledore an Obscurial?  And why did Harry not become one, during those years the Dursleys tried to “squash all that nonsense out of him?” I’m going to look more closely at the Patronus-Obscurus parallels to see if we can discern any answers.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-deleted-scene-description-answers-what-really-happened-to-credenceYoung witches and wizards develop an Obscurus when they are forced to suppress their magic.  Newt tells us that Obscurials  were more common when magic people were persecuted by Muggles, suggesting fear, isolation and abuse contribute to their formation.  Young Credence Barebones would seem to be a good example of this. In fact, his Obscurus seems to be most powerful and least controllable when he is most alone and frightened; he transforms into the Obscurus when Grindelgraves rejects him as a Squib, and returns to human form when Newt and Tina try connect with and calm him.

patronus_pm_silverstagpatronus_momentillustA Patronus, in contrast, is conjured with happy memories, and particularly depends on positive social connections.  Harry sometimes uses thoughts of escaping the abuse of the Durseleys and Umbridge to summon his Patronus; more often, he thinks of his friendship with Ron and Hermione. Patronuses often take the appearance of an animal of significance to a loved one (Tonk’s wolf, Snape’s doe). George loses his ability to cast his patronus after Fred’s death.

The Patronus and the Obscurus are also physical opposites. An early stage Obscurus, according to the Harry Potter Wiki is invisible, or only partially visible, capable of destroying objects or people around the host, and often targeting the host’s tormentor, but is not under the control of the Obscurial.  When the Obscurials reach the “breaking point”– as Credence did when Grindelgraves called him a Squib, they fully transform into the Obscurus, taking the form of a black cloud or wind. At this point, the host Obscurial typically can control the destructive power, although the emotional instability of the Obscurial at this point makes such control hard to achieve.

It is this power that Grindelwald wants to channel as a weapon, by contacting, training (or more likely, given it’s Grindelwald, dominating) the young Obscurial he believes is wreaking havoc in 1926 New York. Unfortunately, either the bodily transformations or the power itself is apparently often too much for the host to withstand; the Obscurus typically kills the young host before the age of 10, at which time, like any parasite, the Obscurus also dies.  Only Newt Scamander has managed to separate an Obscurus from a dying host and enclose it in a magic bubble, not unlike the bubble Voldemort used to protect Nagini. In this state, the Obscurus is “harmless” (to Newt) and “useless” (to Grindelgraves).

harrypatronuspoaThe Patronus also exists in fledging and fully-formed versions. Unlike the baby Obscurus, the rudimentary Patronuses are visible, taking the form of a whisp of white smoke, which can then take the form of a shining shield that can protect the caster from a Dementor. Even though these immature Patronuses are considered weak compared to the real deal, they can, as Harry tells the DA, be quite useful. This is apparently the type of Patronus Lupin used to repel the Dementors on the Hogwarts Express, and the only type Harry could manage in his lessons with Lupin.

The fully-formed Patronus is much more “corporeal” than the cloud-like mature Obscurus.  It takes the form of a beautiful shining silver-white animal or magical creature. What is most important is that the Patronus is a purely defensive and nondestructive force. A Patronus does not seem capable of actually harming anything, even the Dementors it is repelling.  Moreover, if the wizard can create a Patronus, it is always 100% in control of its actions.  Thus, we have two polar opposite forces: Patronuses as light, positive, protective and controlled; Obscuruses as dark, negative, destructive and uncontrollable.

kingsley_shacklebolts_patronusHarry, of course, was a Patronus prodigy, mastering this very difficult the spell at age 13, even though it is advanced magic that many adults never learn. But, let us consider for a moment how he got there. First, he had an excellent teacher, Remus Lupin.  But how did Remus learn the Patronus charm?  I am going to propose that Dumbledore had special expertise in the Patronus spell, and made sure all first generation Order of the Phoenix members knew it. Though we are told the ability to cast a corporeal patronus is a pretty rare talent, most of the Order of the Phoenix members: Kingsley, Arthur, Minerva, even the less-than-talented Aberforth, can do it.  Dumbledore also developed a new use for Patronuses; on several occasions we see Order members use them to send secure messages over great distances.  So, it is not unreasonable to assume one of Dumbledore’s many scholarly interests was the Patronus charm, perhaps even as early as his Grindelwald days.

arianadumbledoreportraitSo, this takes us back to Dumbledore, Grindelwald–  and poor Ariana.  Was she an Obscurial?  At first, it seems obvious: following her attack by the muggle boys, she “wouldn’t use magic” and so it periodically “exploded out of her” with destructive consequences, including killing her own mother. Sounds pretty Obscurial to me, and I think Kendra and Mary Lou might both concur with that perspective.  Aberforth also claims he alone could calm her in her rages, just as Tina and Newt managed to briefly soothe Credence. In that sense, the Ariana Obscurial hypothesis looks very promising.

But, on the other hand, Ariana lived until age 14, and, if the Dumbledore brothers are to be believed (which is by no means  a given), she died not from an Obscurial transformation but from a stray spell in a duel between Albus, Gellert and Aberforth. The one thing Newt Scamander and Grindelgraves agree on is that no Obscurial has ever lived past the age of 10; Grindelwald apparently never even considered that Credence could be the “child” he is looking for. If Albus and Gellert had recognized or even suspected Ariana was an Obscurial, they would know that the 10-year lifespan was not correct.  And, assuming Dumbledore had at least discussed Obscuruses with his prize pupil Newt, why would Newt also be perpetuating that myth?

There is also the fact that Ariana was not in the same position as a child whose magic is chronically suppressed by an abusive family or an oppressive society. I got the distinct impression that Obscurials develop over time, in children who are consciously aware of their magic and actively trying to hide it. Ariana experienced a one-time attack by outsiders– certainly a horrifically traumatic experience, whether it was a physical, sexual or some other type of attack,  but short-term. She lived a family of skilled wizards who presumably did everything they could to get her to acknowledge and control her magic; there is no evidence Ariana was abused or mistreated by her family even after she became destructive. Albus Dumbledore remained devoted to his parents and grieved both their deaths, and we know his intolerance for cruelty. In that sense, she doesn’t seem a likely candidate to become an Obscurial.

So, I am going to speculate that if Ariana’s rages were Obscurus-related at all, they were caused by a a very rudimentary form of Obscurus–the equivalent of the “white smoke” version of the Patronus. I am not convinced she ever underwent a full-fledged transformation into the “black wind” version that Credence became.  Aberforth, after all, describes her as “sometimes strange and dangerous,” not “sometimes transforming into a oleaginous black cloud and blowing up the house”–  so, he makes her sound more like the host of  the invisible version.

That does not mean that her proto-Obscurus could not have done considerable damage to the Muggle boys who attacked her,** or to Kendra, or to Grindelwald after he Crucio’ed her favorite brother.*** But, I don’t think it is likely that either Albus or Grindelwald recognized Ariana as an full-fledged Obsurial during her lifetime.  Albus may have figured out a rudimentary Obscurus connection after the fact, but he certainly would not have told Grindy. It may be that Albus concluded that the 10 year lifespan rule applies only to the fully transformed version. Perhaps too, his realizations about destructive power of the Obscurus are what led him to 1) support Newt’s efforts to learn about Obscuruses and develop means to save their child hosts and 2) put so much effort into studying their polar opposite, the Patronus.

tumblr_o0t5oj36ed1qkvbwso1_500The Patronus Charm is more that a visible manifestation of good memories and social bonds. It is the Wizarding equivalent of cognitive behavior therapy, the treatment Rowling herself used to banish her own dementors in the form of clinical depression. She recently had an exchange with a fan where she reacted positively to the idea of an Obscurus being a “baby dementor,” which seems further evidence for the Patronus being its “anti-force” or opposite. Knowing Rowling’s tendency to complete circles, is it possible that the Obscurus will come to represent some dark element in mental health practices?  Or will it simply dignify the destructive power of abuse, intolerance and self-loathing, in the same way the Patronus is a sign of positivity and self-help?  We’ll have to have more of our questions answered before we can tell, but that’s the reason for the next four films.


*This may be a reason Harry and other children raised by muggles don’t become Obscurials. Perhaps the small bits of uncontrolled magic that flies out to protect them at times of stress—  the magic, for instance, that grew Harry’s hair back, shrunk the ugly sweater and set the snake on Dudley– are embryo-Obscuruses, but because the child is unaware magic exists, there is no effort to suppress them and so the embryo-Obscuruses can’t strengthen in power. Tom Riddle, of course, was unusual in the degree of control he had over his magic and his ability to deliberately use it to harm others; in him, there was no effort at suppression at all.

**It is always a possibility that Ariana was the one to  kill her Muggle attackers, and her father claimed responsibility for their deaths to protect her.

*** I have always though the most likely case was that Gellert intentionally killed Ariana, who, by 14, was in better control of her rage-power than people gave her credit for, and aiming it specifically at Gellert.


  1. Matt Ousley says

    My new interpretation of Ariana’s death revolves around the idea that Albus and Gellert had realized she was an Obscurial, and Gellert wanted to use her powers the same way it is implied he wants to use those belonging to Credence. An argument broke out between the two, while Ariana was present, and the stress of them fighting over her power caused her to snap and her power to explode in a huge way. Albus, Aberforth, and Gellert could have been in a situation of both dueling each other and trying to contained Ariana’s obscurus at the same time – shooting spells to try to figure out how to contain her before she caused too much damage. All of them aiming spells at her would add legitimacy to the fact that no one was sure whose spell actually killed her.

  2. Brian Basore says

    Okay, it makes sense for a patronus and an obscurus to be the same in the balance of nature, as in the perfect joining of sodium and chloride to became salt, and hydrogen and oxygen to become water, or in the composition of air. We can’t explain those things though we rely on them to live. We shouldn’t allow this tidy affirmation of the balance of nature to keep us from considering all the other related things Ms. Rowling puts out there, like what about, for example, Neville, Snape, Tom Riddle, Draco, Merope Gaunt, Hagrid, Victor Krum, and Dumbledore?

    Or that Neville, the other potentially Chosen One, is more like Madame Sprout? Or that, drawing on the textbook and the movie, Newt Scaramander has the same Hufflepuff affinities for animals that Madame Sprout has for plants, while sharing with Harry Potter learning to lie and keep a secret from spymaster Albus Dumbledore?

    This is so like Agatha Christie crime fiction. Before JKR, Agatha Christie was, to quote a cover blurb, “the most widely published of all time in any language, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Agatha Christie died in 1976.”

    It doesn’t take anything away from JKR to be in the company of Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, and Shakespeare. Like them, she wants her reader to attend to the clues she drops into the story she’s writing. Personally, I wish I were quicker to do that more often, but that’s what re-reading is for, and I’m also glad to have other people like you, and John, and the others at HogPro, to tell me what I’ve missing.

  3. Brian Basore says

    Sorry about the “Scaramander”. I think I decided while watching the film that it’s ‘Salamander’. I’m almost sure that JKR planted that suggestion.

  4. Brian Basore says

    I read somewhere that the Puritans of New England degenerated in further generations into businessmen. I am also glad that this probably occurred in the UK as Scourer (Puritan) families in the Wizarding world managed to fit in quite nicely in the Muggle world by the 20th Century, as was their wont. I am thinking, of course, of Vernon Dursley, who has the sensitivities and perceptions of a wizard in his unguarded moments, and who is the head of Grunning Drills Ltd.

    As JKR works so hard to develop from page one, by the time Harry Potter was left at the Dursleys’ doorstep, Vernon Dursley, with his “Mimble Wimble” spell in the fisherman’s cabin, is far more bark than bite as a scourer. It’s not that he didn’t intend to beat the magic out of Harry, he didn’t begin to keep Harry in fear for his (Harry’s) life. If the Dursleys had been like the earlier Mrs. Barebone, Harry may have been an Obscurus by his eleventh birthday, and there would be no Harry Potter for JKR to use to guide us through the Wizarding world.

    “Oh but the Dursleys weren’t wizards, they were Muggles. JKR says so over and over and over.” All the more reason to pay attention to that, and to observe that the Dursleys are treated with familiarity and suspicion by the Ministry of Magic, Dumbledore, and Hagrid. They’re not treated like Muggles but as poor relatives in the Wizarding social order. I’m glad JKR followed history on that. I like Harry Potter. I’m glad that Scourer tradition had faded in the UK to the point that Harry was still a Wizard by the time Hagrid fetched him to Hogwarts (although the FB movies strongly suggest that even an Obscurus like Credence was promised time at Hogwarts if he could hold himself together).

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