“ ‘They’re dead … listening to echoes of them won’t bring them back’ ” (Rowling, 243). In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter of the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry insists that echoes cannot raise his parents back to life. And yet, throughout Prisoner of Azkaban, “echoes” of Harry’s parents seem to constantly call them back into existence. Far from simply being bodies in the earth, the imagined versions of James and Lily which Harry conjures out of his imagination serve as dynamic forces which not only haunt the novel, but provide a kind of “posthumous parenting.” Harry constructs idealized images of James and Lily who provide protection and comfort respectively. He conjures their ghostly echoes into existence and gives them space to parent him by acting in their likenesses and in a final climax to this, he recreates his own traumatic childhood in a moment which works but ultimately fails to redeem their tragic deaths.
Harry creates an image of his father as a great protector out of his imagination and limited memory, even when evidence arises to the contrary. When Harry unsuccessfully produces a Patronus to protect him from the dementor’s in training, he, for the first time, recalls his father yelling, “ ‘Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him! Go! Run! I’ll hold him off – ’ ” (Rowling, 240) in James’ final moments. Traumatic though Harry’s past is, it is key in shaping his idealization of James: Harry’s only memory of his father is James’ effort to protect Harry and Lily and he views his father as courageous and inspiring. He also draws this image out of the knowledge that James once saved Snape’s life (Rowling, 285). But Snape complicates Harry’s heroic understanding of the event and asks if Harry has “ ‘been imagining some act of glorious heroism’ ” (Rowling, 285). Based on the way in which Harry “bit his lip” when Snape asks this, it would imply that Harry did have a certain valiant image of how his father came to save Snape. But even after Snape’s explanation of James’ less-than-heroic act, Harry continues to view his father in his particular conjured image. He even implies it when he yells at Snape and accuses him of being blinded by the fact that James and his friends “ ‘MADE A FOOL OF [SNAPE] AT SCHOOL’ ” (Rowling, 361). Harry possesses a certain lack of sympathy for Snape in this, ignoring the circumstances of which Snape previously made him aware. At later points of the series, Rowling continues to complicate the reader’s, and Harry’s understanding of James Potter. But in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry allows his imagination and incredibly limited memory to shape his view of his father, even when Snape combats this. Harry holds tight to a vision, to his imagined father rather than tickling the possibility of James’ less-than-saintly youth.
Though Lily proves the more elusive and mysterious of the two parents in this particular novel, this only solidifies her “ghostliness” and Harry conjures an idealized image of her as well, imagining her as a force of comfort. Harry conjures her most tangibly in his encounters with the dementors and her voice haunts him thereafter. Rowling describes how “Harry dozed fitfully, sinking into dreams full of clammy, rotted hands and petrified pleading, jerking awake to dwell again on his mother’s voice” (Rowling, 184). Lily exists as a sourceless voice which likens her to a ghost or banshee figure; but this moment paints her as an oddly comforting one, connected to home and safety. The word “dwell” seems an intriguing choice. Not only does his mother’s voice wake Harry from nightmares, removing him from the immediate terror of dementors, but the word “dwell” is connected to a sense of home. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dwell” as both to “linger over (a thing) in action or thought” and also “to abide or continue for a time, in a place, state, or condition” (OED). Lily’s screams, though in one sense, distressing, still offer a strange kind of comfort, characteristic of stereotypical motherhood. Rowling indicates that Harry “half wanted to hear his parents again” (Rowling, 243) and in his moment of greatest peril when the dementors are about to Kiss him, he hears Lily “screaming in his ears… She was going to be the last thing he ever heard” (Rowling, 384). Harry finds a kind of comfort in what he believes is his final moment when the ghost of his mother is with him. Despite the pain which he associates with his mothers screams, Harry’s encounters with the dementors provide him a space to imagine Lily and conjure her into existence, imagining his mother as the idyllic force of safety in his life. She exists as mother and comforter for him, even without a domineering presence in the novel.
The conjured images of Harry’s parents function as more than just ideals: they parent him as they inspire his actions and in the case of his father, Harry acts heroically under James’ influence. His imaginary James gives him resolve in moments of distress. But even beyond this, Harry’s vision of James inspires his decision to have mercy on Pettigrew (Rowling, 376). He follows what he believes his father would have wanted and this instills in Harry a capacity for and desire to protect those around him. Even when he seems to have little sympathy for Pettigrew, explaining that he doesn’t “ ‘reckon my dad would’ve wanted his best friends to become killers – just for [Pettigrew]’ ” (Rowling, 376), his actions are still in an effort to protect – protect Lupin and Sirius from having Pettigrew’s death upon their consciences. Also, his memory of James’ sacrifice for Harry and Lily translates into a sense of duty and desire to protect within Harry. When Harry first hears his mothers screams, “He wanted to help whoever it was” (Rowling, 84) and whenhe hears her the second time, “He needed to help her… She was going to die… She was going to be murdered….” (Rowling, 179). Just as James spent his final moments protecting Harry and Lily, when Harry hears his mother, his instinct is to save her. The idea of James is deeply ingrained within Harry and it motivates his capacity for heroism. Even in death, the ghost of James haunts Harry’s psyche and pushes him to act as protector.
Though far more subtle in her parenting of Harry than James, Lily’s spirit seems flicker into existence once more in the novel’s conclusion, hinting that her comforting nature is present in Harry. Though various characters insist that Harry is just like his father, Dumbledore suggests that Harry looks like James “[e]xcept for the eyes… you have your mother’s eyes” (Rowling, 427). Though Harry’s outward appearance is that of James, in his eyes – the part of the body which most indicates interior expression and is said to provide “a window to the soul” – Harry is most like his mother. The importance of Harry’s likeness to Lily strengthens throughout the series but in Prison of Azkaban, the reader receives a clue into Harry’s character of kindness. The character of James comes into question with Snape’s description of James as a bully and “ ‘exceedingly arrogant’ ” (Rowling, 284). But in contrast, Harry’s dreamy vision of his comforting mother is never challenged. The conjured version of Lily remains undisputed all the way to the end of the novel and is even affirmed in Dumbledore’s praising statement that Harry has his mother’s eyes. Though a less prominent parent figure than James, Lily’s manifestation stretches beyond just her ghostly screaming and seems to be embedded in Harry.
Lily and James’ supernatural influence comes to full fruition in the climax of the novel when Harry produces a full Patronus, literally conjuring a physical apparition of his father. Rowling describes the Patronus as a bright, silver stag whose “hooves made no mark on the soft ground” and vanished as Harry reached out to touch it (Rowling, 412) and the stag was his father’s animal form (424). The Patronus bears significant likeness to a kind of ghost or apparition, though benevolent in nature. Harry’s task in producing this apparition requires that he conjure something out of his memory and in doing so, he brings something that has passed – something that is now over and dead – up into the present. A Patronus, then, is a memory which blurs the line between present and past, just in the way that a ghost is a deceased person who blurs the line between living and dead. Out of his memory and imagination, Harry physically recreates a vision of his father, the protector.
Using this physical apparition, Harry inadvertently attempts but fails to redeem his traumatic childhood. In his moment of greatest peril, the spirits of James and Lily enter spaces eerily parallel to their horrid murders: because of the dementors, Harry’s “mother was screaming in his ears” (Rowling, 384) as she once did before her death and the Patronus – a figure of James – steps into the roll of protector. The final scene imagines a scenario in which James successfully defeats Voldemort and saves Harry and Lily. And in an instant, this vision of possibility, this most tangible of manifestations of the parents, is ripped away and Harry is left, once again, needing to imagine them and allow their memories to protect and comfort him. The Patronus ultimately vanishes (Rowling, 412) and Lily’s screams are audible only in the presence of dementors. Harry returns to his previous state – an orphan and the lone survivor of a terrible event. Lily and James, after their moment of presence, return to their previous rolls as parents who haunt Harry as spirits, flickering in and out of his consciousness. Harry is forced to take on the responsibility to parent himself by generating his own imagined versions of Lily and James and in this final climax, these visions seem to teeter on the boundary between imagination and reality. But ultimately, for all his recreation of the event, Harry cannot protect his mother or father, even with a full Patronus.
Though Lily and James are at no point physically present in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s imagined visions of them haunt the novel and even seem to parent him. Though Harry fails to redeem his traumatic childhood and can never fully regenerate his parents, the echoes of his parents continue to provide Harry with comfort and protection. Even posthumously, the ideas the parents seem to come to Harry’s aid, even if only in Harry’s imagination. Tragic though their deaths are, James and Lily are never fully absent from Harry’s life. Harry, and the reader, can take comfort in Dumbledore’s question of whether “ ‘the dead we have loved ever truly leave us?’ ” (Rowling, 427).