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In this podcast we’re going to take a look at the incredible magical duels in chapter 36 of the Order of the Phoenix.
Before we get to the main duel in the chapter, however, that between Voldemort and Dumbledore, we learn a bit about the Unforgivable Curses when Harry and Bellatrix have their own duel in the Atrium before Voldemort appears.
After killing Sirius, Bellatrix runs away through the Department of Mysteries and into the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic headquarters. Harry chases after her, consumed by righteous anger. Once he catches up to her, he fires off the Cruciatus curse in her direction, knocking her off her feet. But she isn’t affected the way he would have expected. He has cast the spell incorrectly.
Here we see something very interesting. The spell clearly involves more than the words and the wandwork. In some ways it mirrors the Patronus Charm, which requires happy thoughts. In this case, Harry’s anger, fierce though it is, doesn’t provide the needed “energy,” if you will. Here’s how the book describes it:
Hatred rose in Harry such as he had never known before; he flung himself out from behind the fountain and bellowed, “Crucio!”
Bellatrix screamed: the spell had knocked her off her feet, but she did not writhe and shriek with pain as Neville had – she was already back on her feet, breathless, no longer laughing. Harry dodged behind the golden fountain again. Her counter-spell hit the head of the handsome wizard, which was blown off and landed twenty feet away, gouging long scratches into the wooden floor.
“Never used an Unforgivable Curse before, have you, boy?” she yelled. She had abandoned her baby voice now. “You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain – to enjoy it – righteous anger won’t hurt me for long – I’ll show you how it is done, shall I? I’ll give you a lesson -”
The intention must be there, not just the emotion of hatred, but an actual desire to cause pain. Perhaps this is why the Curses are considered as evil as they are: they are specifically caused by evil emotions.
Rowling actually has another larger reason for this exchange, a reason which comes into play at the very end of the series in the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort in chapter 36 of Deathly Hallows. You see, the key to that confrontation and indeed, the key to the overarching plot of the entire series, is Harry’s intentions in that moment. He is facing Voldemort, the cause of all the pain and suffering and sadness in not only his life but that of so many others in the Wizarding World. He has every reason to be filled with hate and anger. He has every reason to want to make Voldemort suffer and die with dramatic vengeance. In other words, he has every reason to want and be able to use the Unforgivable Curses on Voldemort.
And here, in chapter 36 of Order of the Phoenix, we see that he has learned how to use one of them, the Cruciatus Curse, from a true mistress of inflicting pain, Bellatrix Lestrange. He has learned his lesson well. He has clearly mastered the Imperius Curse, as we see when he uses it to control Bogrod and Travers during the raid on the Gringotts vaults. And later that day, in Ravenclaw Tower, Harry also successfully uses the Cruciatus Curse on Amycus Carrow.
So when he faces Voldemort in the Great Hall as the sun rises, we know that he is capable of casting an Unforgivable Curse. He has demonstrated both curses within the last twenty-four hours. This makes Harry’s decision to turn away from the evil emotions that drive those terrible spells and instead cast a non-violent, an ANTI-violent spell, Expelliarmus, so striking. He offers Voldemort the chance for remorse, for redemption. He is embodying the deep magic espoused by Dumbledore himself: the power of love. Remember this exchange between Dumbledore and Voldemort when the latter came to Hogwarts asking for a teaching job?
“Yes, I certainly do know that you have seen and done much since leaving us,” [Dumbledore] said quietly. “Rumors of your doings have reached your old school, Tom. I should be sorry to believe half of them.”
Voldemort’s expression remained impassive as he said, “Greatness inspires envy, envy engenders spite, spite spawns lies. You must know this, Dumbledore.”
“You call it ‘greatness,’ what you have been doing, do you?” asked Dumbledore delicately.
“Certainly,” said Voldemort, and his eyes seemed to burn red. “I have experimented; I have pushed the boundaries of magic further, perhaps, than they have ever been pushed —”
“Of some kinds of magic,” Dumbledore corrected him quietly. “Of some. Of others, you remain . . . forgive me . . . woefully ignorant.”
For the first time, Voldemort smiled. It was a taut leer, an evil thing, more threatening than a look of rage.
“The old argument,” he said softly. “But nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore.”
“Perhaps you have been looking in the wrong places,” suggested Dumbledore. (HBP20)
Voldemort’s kind of magic is embodied in the Unforgivable Curses, the curses which Harry knows and can perform. But in what is clearly a prophecy fulfilled, he doesn’t use them. He chooses love, and Voldemort dies.
What we see in that moment is a transformed Harry, a young man who has gone through terror and horror and loss to learn the hardest lesson of all, that the deepest, most powerful magic in the universe is the power of love. This painful transformation begins in the very next chapter of the book.