The Dreams and Nightmares of Harry Potter

This opens a new and profoundly dangerous dimension of dream experience for Harry.  Beyond the post-traumatic nightmares, beyond the prophetic visions and performance anxiety dreams, he now finds himself in direct contact with the inner thoughts of the most evil wizard in the world.

Harry’s dream-link with Voldemort becomes a central factor in the plot of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  This novel, the longest in the series (870 pages), begins with a new reason for Harry to suffer post-traumatic nightmares.  The Triwizard tournament ended disastrously with another attack by Voldemort, leading to the death of Cedric Diggory, a Hogwarts student.  It happened in a graveyard, and no one but Harry witnessed it, barely escaping death himself.  As this novel opens Harry is still suffering the emotional aftershocks:

“It was bad enough that he kept revisiting the graveyard in his nightmares, without dwelling on it in his waking moments too….[H]e had nothing to look forward to but another restless, disturbed night, because even when he escaped nightmares about Cedric he had unsettling dreams about long dark corridors, all finishing in dead ends and locked doors, which he supposed had something to do with the trapped feeling he had when he was awake” (5.8,9)

This corridor scenario reappears in Harry’s dreams throughout the book.  The simultaneous prickling of his scar indicates a connection to Voldemort, but for most of the story it’s unclear to Harry and the readers where these recurrent dreams are leading.

Early in the story Harry arrives at the secret headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, whose members are pledged to defeat Voldemort.  On his first night there, after a warm reunion with his friends and teachers, Harry falls asleep to the sound of people walking on the stairs outside his room: “….In fact, many-legged creatures were cantering softly up and down outside the bedroom door, and Hagrid, the Care of Magical Creatures teacher, was saying, ‘Beauties, aren’t they, eh Harry? We’ll be studying weapons this term….’ And Harry saw that the creatures had cannons for heads and were wheeling to face him….He ducked….” (5.101)

The silliness of this dream reflects Harry’s relatively low anxiety level at the moment.  For a brief interlude he feels safe and protected; he’s able to relax enough to indulge in the whimsical freedom of dreaming.  Of course, there’s always something more going on–the cantering, weapon-bearing, many-legged creatures familiar to his friend Hagrid turn out to be anticipations of the book’s final battle when a troop of arrow-shooting centaurs rescue Harry and save the day.

The night before he takes the train to school he has another odd dream in which old fears and new concerns push their way back into his sleeping mind: “Harry had a troubled night’s sleep. His parents wove in and out of his dreams, never speaking; Mrs. Weasley sobbed over Kreacher’s dead body watched by Ron and Hermione, who were wearing crowns, and yet again Harry found himself walking down a corridor ending in a locked door.” (5.176)  Kreacher, another victim of Voldemort’s, was a house elf loyal to Harry; Ron and Hermione have been named prefects of their house, an honor that leaves Harry unexpectedly envious.  He feels no closer to his parents, no more capable of defeating Voldemort, and no closer to the secret behind the closed door.  The dream reflects his preoccupations as the new school term begins.

In Professor Trelawney’s class on Divination this year the students are introduced to the practice of dream interpretation.  I am sorry to report it does not go well.  The students are assigned a book by Inigo Imago titled The Dream Oracle, which appears to be a symbol dictionary instructing readers to interpret dreams by calculating the age of the dreamer, the date of the dream, and the number of letters in the subject.  Professor Trelawney tells her students, “dream interpretation is a most important means of divining the future” (5.237), but she offers no further guidance before setting them in pairs to interpret each other’s dreams using the book.  Not surprisingly, Harry has no patience with this and he simply makes up a dream rather than share a real one.

If Mr. Dursley represents one kind of dream ignorance, Professor Trelawney represents another.  Her foolishness teaches readers how not to interpret dreams: Not in a pressured public situation, not using a symbol dictionary, not ignoring the dreamer’s personal feelings, not focusing always on omens of doom.  Just when Harry could benefit from some trustworthy practical knowledge about dreaming, his Divination class makes the whole subject seem like a waste of time.

Nevertheless, the dreams of the corridor and the locked door increase in frequency, and each time Harry becomes more greedily curious to know what lies on the other side of the door.  One night, right after his first kiss with a girl named Cho Chang, he has a “normal” dream that takes a suddenly terrifying turn.  It starts out with Cho and the question of whether or not to give her his Firebolt as a gift; then:

“The dream changed….His body felt smooth, powerful, flexible.  He was gliding between shining metal bars, across dark, cold stone….he was flat against the floor, sliding along on his belly….It was dark, yet he could see objects around him shimmering in strange, vibrant colors….He was turning his head….At first glance, the corridor was empty….but no….a man was sitting on the floor ahead, his chin drooping onto his chest, his outline gleaming in the dark….Harry put out his tongue….He tasted the man’s scent on the air….” (5.462)

In the dream Harry rears up and bites the man; then he suddenly wakes up in panic, covered in sweat, his head throbbing, sick to his stomach.  He immediately tells his friends and teachers that Mr. Weasley, Ron’s father, is in danger—that was the man he bit in the dream.  They keep asking if he’s sure it wasn’t “just” a dream.  Harry urgently tries to explain: “I was having a dream at first about something completely different, something stupid…and then this interrupted it.  It was real, I didn’t imagine it.” (5.465)  Eventually he gets to Professor Dumbledore, who believes Harry is telling the truth.  The Order of the Phoenix springs into action and they save Mr. Weasley, who barely escapes Nagini with his life.

This experience gives Harry the strongest evidence yet that he can trust his dreams.  (He skips over the “stupid” part about Cho and his Firebolt.)  Ironically, this is the very moment when he should be most cautious, because Voldemort has now realized that Harry can see into his mind.  Soon after saving Mr. Weasley, Harry goes to sleep and “it was as though a film in his head had been waiting to start.” (496)  He walks down the corridor toward a plain black door, feeling an overwhelming need to reach the other side.  This dream comes back to him again and again, even though Professor Dumbledore has told Harry he must learn the magical art of Occlumency to guard his mind: “practice [Occlumency] particularly every night before sleeping so that you can close your mind to bad dreams—you will understand soon enough, but you must promise me—remember, close your mind—you will understand.” (5.622)

But the truth is, Harry is intrigued by the dreams and he wants more than anything to know where that door leads—“he was quite keen for the dreams to continue.” (5.682)  This makes him an easy target for the Dark Lord.  During his final exam in History of Magic Harry falls asleep and slips into a dream where he sees Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic torturing Sirius.  Harry awakens in a panic and persuades all his friends to rush to Sirius’ rescue.  It turns out to be an ambush—Voldemort has been using Harry’s dreams to lure him to this very place to kill him.  In the ensuing battle Sirius dies, and afterwards Harry feels intensely guilty: “If he had not been stupid enough to fall for Voldemort’s trick, if he had not been so convinced that what he had seen in his dream was real….”  (5.821)  To his woe, Harry learns that the prophetic power of dreaming brings with it a dangerous potential for deception and misinterpretation.  He was all too willing to believe another dream was calling him to play the hero, a noble but uncritical impulse Voldemort used to seduce him into a fatal mistake.

Two more novels remain in the series, but the role of dreaming diminishes after its peak of significance in The Order of the Phoenix.  In the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry begins dreaming of Ron’s younger sister Ginny, signaling the love interest that will carry him to the end.  He has a brief anxiety dream about Ron’s displeasure at their relationship (6.290), and a broken series of images of Draco Malfoy, Professor Snape, and Professor Slughorn, another Slytherin teacher (6.456).  At the end of the book, when he must prepare for the final battle against Voldemort, he dreams of the challenges ahead: “[H]is dreams were thick with cups, lockets, and mysterious objects that he could not quite reach, though Dumbledore helpfully offered Harry a rope ladder that turned to snakes the moment he began to climb….” (6.636)  The outer-world challenges have come to the fore, and the narrative focuses less on Harry’s inner world and more on the external task of finding these magical objects that will enable him to kill Voldemort.

The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, leads up to the inevitable duel-to-the-death between Harry and the Dark Lord.  Along the way Harry has another clairvoyant dream about Voldemort’s real-time activities (7.111).  His friend Hermione warns him against trusting his dreams; “I didn’t mean it to happen,” Harry says, “It was a dream.  Can YOU control what you dream about, Hermione?”  Apparently lucid dreaming is not a wizarding skill.

Later, during a tense night in hiding, “Harry’s dreams were confused and disturbing: Nagini wove in and out of them, first through a gigantic cracked ring, then through a wreath of Christmas roses.” (7.363)  The cracked ring refers to a magical object that killed Dumbledore, and the wreath to Harry’s sadness at missing the comforts of a Christmas family holiday.  Voldemort, represented by his serpent, is directly responsible for these aching emotional holes in Harry’s life.

Other than those brief mentions, dreams play little part in the climactic battle that consumes the rest of the seventh book.  The prophetic visions of his dreaming mind can only carry him so far.  After that, Harry must act in the waking world.  This has been Professor Dumbledore’s message all along.  In the first book of the series, when Harry becomes excessively enchanted with images of his parents reflected in the Mirror of Erised, Dumbledore warns him, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.” (1.214)  At the end of the seventh book a ghostly vision of Dumbledore confesses his own guilt in pursuing magical power at all costs, telling Harry it was “a desperate man’s dream!” (7.713) His use of “dream” as a metaphor to describe vain, selfish desires is a reminder to Harry and his readers that no matter how exciting and compelling one’s dreams may feel, there’s real work to be done in the waking world.  It’s a paradoxical message to find in a work of fantasy fiction, but it’s true to J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of magic as a source of ancient wisdom and power that can be a source of good or evil, depending on one’s choices and actions in life.

(This essay first appeared in DreamTime Magazine, Spring 2011 (vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 14-17, 37-38).)

2 Replies to “The Dreams and Nightmares of Harry Potter”

  1. I found this article very informative! Also, such an in depth analysis of his dreams really seems to point to true meanings in dreams, although I always assumed it was a literary device/forshadowing. This was a much more positive look into dream analysis than the Divination professor’s.

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