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Essays

The Complications with Memory

by Suzanne Foster

Table of Contents



Introduction

As Muggles, memory is a fairly straightforward process for us and unless we read a story about someone with amnesia or about a dramatic court case where someone's memory of an event plays a major role, we probably don't think too much about it. Something happens to us and we remember it. However, in Rowling's Harry Potter books, memory is much more complicated than that. In analyzing the stories, I have identified six different ways Rowling uses memory in ways that we common Muggles cannot and do not. In fact, the more I have thought about it as I prepared to write this essay, the more I have realized that memory is certainly one of the main keys to the entire series.

When we first meet Harry Potter, he has no memories of the wizarding world at all. He was removed from it completely as an infant, of course, and his one brief memory of a flash of green light was dismissed and explained away by the Dursleys as a car accident (PS2). They certainly make no effort whatsoever to give him any new memories of his parents. Petunia is so terrified of Lily's and James's memory that she rarely even mentions their names.  However, as Harry enters the magical world, Hagrid, then others begin to fill in more information; and in each new book, we learn more and more about their lives. I think we come to love Hagrid so much right from the first moment that we meet him because the first thing he says is "An' here's Harry! . . . . Las' time I saw you, you was only a baby, . . . Yeh look a lot like yer dad, but yeh've got yer mum's eyes" (PS4). Finally, someone, anyone, who has a memory of his parents and who is willing to share them with him!

As Harry learns more about his parents through the books, he comes to realize more about himself and human nature in general. Our journey also parallels his. As Harry's history is revealed to us through the memories of those around him, our understanding of his true role in the wizarding world increases. I am sure that in the last book, this will continue. Along with learning specific memories about Harry's parents and the past war in each book, we also learn more about memories and how they are used in the wizarding world.

Pensieves

One of the most obvious and complex ways that Rowling uses memory in a magical way is the Pensieve. The idea of being able to physically remove a memory from one's brain where it can then be stored in a basin and viewed by oneself or others is something completely foreign to our way of thinking. In an examination of two instances where the Pensieve is used in the books, in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, there seem to be two different levels of use for the Pensieve. The first level is using the Pensieve as a type of memory "enhancer." Professor Dumbledore tells Harry that he uses it when "I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind. . . . One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the [Pensieve], and examines them at one's leisure" (GF30). There is no suggestion that by removing those memories, he cannot remember them himself. It seems almost as though he removes a copy of the memory, but the original thought is still there.

An example of second level of Pensieve use is when Snape removes his memory so that Harry cannot see it. "Snape was standing with his back to Harry, removing, as usual, certain of his thoughts and placing them carefully in Dumbledore's Pensieve" (OP28). He is obviously removing the entire memory from his brain so that it is inaccessible to Harry. That way if Harry should happen to get into Snape's mind again, there would be nothing incriminating there for Harry to see. We do not know very much about the spells or wand movements used to remove memories and put them into the Pensieves, so we have no idea whether these two different levels of removal differ in any way, or if it is simply a matter of discretion by the person performing the magic.

Of course, Pensieves become even more vital to the overall plot of the story in Half-Blood Prince. In this book, we see that memories can be stored away from the Pensieve itself, apparently for very long periods of time, and then poured into the stone basin. (HBP10) At that point, then, the Pensieve becomes a "memory viewer" more than anything else. It has played no part in the retrieval of or the storing of the memory, but is simply a tool through which one can access it. I also found Professor Slughorn's memory of his conversation with Tom Riddle, Jr. fascinating. He was able to modify a Pensieve memory, change it to the point where even Professor Dumbledore could not view the original, and Harry had to get a new copy of the true memory (HBP17). Slughorn did a very poor job of modifying the memory, for which Dumbledore was grateful. "It is, as you will have noticed, very crudely done, and that is all to the good, for it shows that the true memory is still there beneath the alterations" (HBP17). This little interaction tells me that there are some definite weaknesses to the Pensieve's "memory-saving" purpose. It also, in a way, leads to even more paradoxes in the story. Can we trust "Snape's Worst Memory?" What if he had somehow modified that memory before Harry saw it? I do not believe he did, but the possibility certainly exists. I somehow do not feel he would have done quite as badly as Slughorn when it came to the process of memory modification.

Just one more word before we leave the complex subject of Pensieves. It seems to me a bit of a paradox that you could remove a memory from your brain for temporary storage. If you did remove it completely, how would you ever remember to go back and retrieve it? I can imagine a wizard writing himself a little Post-it Note and sticking it on his mirror. "You've got a memory in the Pensieve. Retrieve today after job interview" or something like that. Also, the complete removal of a memory brings us to more complications. If you cannot remember why you hate someone or why you love someone, does the feeling still exist? In Snape's case, the answer seems to be yes, but then he had had so many reasons to hate James that removing just one or even several memories of their interactions may not have made the resulting repugnance disappear.

Memory as a Weapon

Another magical use of memory we see beginning in the third book: the use of memory as a weapon or a punishment. The Dementors punish and torment by using a person's worst memory against them. And from what we know of Azkaban this memory-punishment is considered the worst torture possible, enough to drive someone insane. Indeed if we follow that line of thought a little further, I can see that even the Dementors' final torment is related to memory. By performing the Kiss, the Dementors remove a person's soul, all their memory and ability to think, the ability to interact with others.

The fifth book gives us yet another example of memory being used against a person. Truly, isn't Legilimency the ability to read someone else's memory? It isn't specifically discussed in that way, being described as the ability to read someone's mind, but when it is performed successfully on Harry by Professor Snape, he finds himself reliving unpleasant memories; and when he accidentally does the same to the Potions master, he, too, sees Snape's memories of his childhood rather than his current thoughts (OP26). There is more to Occlumency/Legilimency than memories, certainly, but I must argue that access to or denial of access to memory is a major component of that branch of magic. Dumbledore even mentions that it took "A great deal of skilled Legilimency to coax it out of him" when he is discussing Morfin's memory that he and Harry viewed in the Pensieve (HBP17). He was not reading Morfin's mind at the current time, but prying out of it a certain memory, which he was then able to capture in a bottle for future viewing.

Memory as Aid

In direct contrast to the use of memory as a punishment or torture, memories are also used as an aid or an assistance. Indeed, when Lupin is trying to help Harry conjure a Patronus, the first thing Harry needs to do is find a really good memory of when he was happy so that he can use that power to amplify the spell . . . "which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory" (PA12). The happier the memory he is able to focus on, the stronger his Patronus will be. It is telling that in that book he really has to work hard at finding a happy memory in order to conjure the Patronus. "He racked his brains. A really, really happy memory . . . . one that he could turn into a good, strong Patronus" (PA12). And what is he using the Patronus for? To protect himself from something horrible, being forced to relive the worst memories of his life.

Modification of Memory

A fourth use of memory in a magical way is the ability that wizards have to modify memories. This is primarily used on Muggles if they witness some act of magic or see something they should not have seen. (Although it can certainly be used on other magical people, that is, Bertha Jorkins.) I believe that this is considered fairly harmless and as not doing much damage to the poor Muggle it is performed on. However, Mr. Roberts's confusion at the Quidditch World Cup after having so many memory spells cast on him tells me that it may not be as harmless as the wizards believe it is. "Instantly, Mr. Roberts's eyes slid out of focus, his brows unknitted, and a look of dreamy unconcern fell over his face. Harry recognized the symptoms of one who had just had his memory modified" (GF7). Furthermore, we learn in Half-Blood Prince that memories can not only be removed, but false ones can be implanted. Tom Riddle Obliviated his uncle Morfin, removing all traces of memory that Riddle had come and gotten the ring and then planted a false memory that Morfin had been the one to kill the Muggles (HBP17).

Because Harry has never learned how to do these spells or had them performed on him we do not know very much about how they are done or how it feels to have them done. Personally, I feel that it would be very unpleasant to have someone be able to change your memories at will, without your knowledge and consent. We guard our memories closely, because they make us who we are. I do not think it is a coincidence that it was a memory-modifying charm that backfired and resulted in the insanity of Gilderoy Lockhart. He lost his memory; he no longer knew who he was.

Memory in Objects

The fifth use of memory in a uniquely magical way is in the magical paintings and the Sorting Hat. We do not see the portraits discussing their memories of their lives very much, although they certainly must have them. But somehow, and this has not explained at all in the books, that person's memories and "essence" must be used to create the portrait. And the portraits also definitely have the ability to make new memories. The Fat Lady learns each of the new students and can remember if people went in and out and also is able to remember which password is being used as they change throughout the year.  Even Sir Cadogan, the most colorful of the portrait characters we have met so far in the series, is able to remember that he allowed Sirius Black into Gryffindor tower because he had all the passwords.

"Sir Cadogan, did you just let a man enter Gryffindor Tower?"
 . . .
"Certainly, good lady!"
 . . .
"You — you did?" said Professor McGonagall. "But — but the password!"
"He had 'em!" said Sir Cadogan proudly. "Had the whole week's my lady! Read 'em off a little piece of paper!"

(PA13)

Phineas Nigellus is able to learn about and remember Sirius, his rather remote descendant (OP37), and Mrs. Black is able to remember (with rancor) how much she hated her son. With that in mind, then, the appearance of Dumbledore in his portrait in now-Headmistress McGonagall's office at the end of Half-Blood Prince was a tantalizing hint that we may yet have a chance to hear the story of the blackened hand . . . and have Harry receive advice on finding and destroying the Horcruxes from the one who knows the most about them.

The Sorting Hat also seems to have a very good memory. It is able to compose original music and recite it as well as remember the history of the school. It also seems to be able to remember each sorting, as well as other family members which have been sorted in the past. Harry double-checks with the Sorting Hat to make sure that he actually got put into the right house and the hat is able to remember its thought process during the sorting (CS18). These inanimate objects with memories are certainly a fun addition to Rowling's magical world.

Memory as Embodied as a Threat

The sixth and final way Rowling has used memory in the books is in a very tangible way. The threat in Chamber of Secrets turns out to be nothing more than a memory: a very nasty memory who actually comes to life and attempts to kill an innocent little girl in order to stop being a memory and become an actual person. Tom Riddle is a mere shadow, a record of the memories of a very sick and twisted 16-year-old boy.

"Are you a ghost?" Harry said uncertainly.
"A memory," said Riddle quietly. "Preserved in a diary for 50 years."

(CS17)

Harry saw and confronted this "memory" of Tom and knows more about him than anyone else except for perhaps Dumbledore, who remembers him from school and didn't trust him even then. In the sixth book, most of Dumbledore's and Harry's interactions consisted of the Headmaster teaching Harry even more about Tom Riddle, passing on his memories, giving Harry the knowledge that he is going to need to be able to fight the self-styled Lord Voldemort. It seems that in this series, memory is a powerful tool. I am very anxious to find out how these memories do eventually give Harry the answers he seeks. Certainly, the entire sixth book was not written as an exercise in futility. I am certain that somehow in the last volume, the fact that Harry has these memories of Tom Riddle will become critical to the success of his own difficult mission to destroy him.

Conclusion

So, there are six different ways Rowling uses memory in the books: Pensieves for storage or organization; as a weapon; as an assistance; we see how memories can be modified; how inanimate objects can actually make new memories; and how a memory can actually become a solid threat. All of these ways Rowling uses memory are magical and we as Muggles have no chance to use them as such. However, we can learn from them. Memories, we learn, are powerful things, even for us Muggles. They can hurt us or help us, overwhelm us with sorrow or help us find strength through our times of great struggle.

As a final note, I have often thought that there is more than just amusing comedy in the fact that Harry has learned absolutely no wizard history. I don't know for sure what Rowling intends to have happen with that fact, but I fully expect it to matter in the last book as the interaction I expect between goblins, centaurs, giants, house-elves, and wizards starts to heat up and Harry knows nothing about anything. History has been defined as collective memory of a group or culture. Is the fact that Harry has cut himself off from this "collective memory" going to be important? I really think so. And I think that is where Hermione is going to shine, because she has full access to this collective memory. And what book does she always quote from? A book that Harry still has never even cracked open? That's right! Hogwarts: A History! She, then, also has access to a wealth of memory about Hogwarts that neither Harry nor Ron has.

We will have to wait until the end of the seventh book to find out for sure if my theory about memory being important to the final outcome of the book is an accurate one. But as we impatiently await the release of the last volume in this marvelous series, I know I will be looking forward to finding more about memory's role in the wizarding world.

© 2006 Suzanne Foster
edited by Paula Hall
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