Delivered at the Harry Potter Conference at Chestnut Hill College, October 21, 2016. It is incomplete, designed to fit into a 20-minute conference slot, but there will be plenty more to discuss along these lines, including Ron’s characterization as a Jungian trickster and the way Draco’s love for Astoria continues to strengthen him, as Snape was fortified by his love for Lily.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. For almost three months, we’ve been asking ourselves: Do we like it? Does it make sense? Is it canon?
On my first read, I kept in mind that it was a play and I was missing the acting, the effects, the music. This approach ended up undermining my ability to get to know the story – it introduced so much distrust of the words on the page. The second time, I decided to stop worrying about that and read it as a straightforward story, asking a lot of the text, focusing on word choice, clues, repeated themes. To my surprise, I found a way to read it that makes sense of the entire play to me, that unifies the wilder aspects of it, and that makes this play canon for me, absolutely and gloriously the eighth Harry Potter story.
For me, there are three main questions in the Harry Potter series:
- Why would anyone try to kill a baby?
- Why did this attempt fail?
- Can the community, the village, get this baby safely to adulthood with roughly the same chances at life that his peers can expect?
The first seven books explored that question and concluded, “All was well.” What did that mean, “all”? Certainly not that the wizarding world was free of evil. But this one victim of a tyrant, through enormous collective effort, survived to achieve the unremarkable adulthood of his dreams, with a partner and children and ordinary struggles.
The eighth story of the series, for me, explores the question: “Whatever happened to that baby?” Well, he’s 40 years old now, and he has three kids. So, how’s that going? In most areas, it’s going well. But in a few areas, the story isn’t over yet.
For many readers, our initial question about Cursed Child was: “How will this mesh with preexisting canon?” Three elements stuck out to me from my initial read: Cedric Diggory becoming a Death Eater; Delphi being described, near the end of the third act, as having silver-blue hair; and Voldemort having a biological daughter.
Cedric: the least likely personality ever to become a Death Eater. Silver-blue hair: a signifier of a Mary Sue, a generally disrespected fanfiction trope in which writers introduce an original character, often a stand-in for themselves, with fantasy appearance and greater powers than the characters of the source material. Voldemort reproducing: this raises all sorts of questions. Hagrid once said, accurately, that Voldemort didn’t even have enough human in him left to die. Could someone who subsisted on unicorn blood and snake venom father a child, even if he wanted to?
On my second read, I looked for something to explain these elements and found them in the riddles from Hermione’s bookshelf at the end of Act One. The first two answers are familiar words, “dementors” and “Voldemort.” The third riddle introduces a new key word:
I am the creature you have not seen.
I am you. I am me. The echo unforeseen.
Sometimes in front, sometimes behind,
A constant companion, for we are entwined.
In 1938, psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
In books one through seven, Harry’s shadow self can be characterized as Voldemort, and his struggle is to differentiate between his true self, including dark impulses, and the unwelcome effects of Voldemort’s crimes against him. He’s terrified of becoming Voldemort.
In Deathly Hallows, when Snape is containing the damage to Dumbledore’s hand, he says “it is the sort of curse that strengthens over time.” In Cursed Child, Draco uses similar words about Astoria’s illness: “An ancestor was cursed . . . it showed up in her. You know how these things can resurface after generations . . .” This is characteristic of Dark Magic. Through our shadow selves, the parts of ourselves we cannot consciously remedy, we are at risk of passing on our damage to our children.
Jung said that the less an individual is conscious of his shadow, “the blacker and denser it is.” Harry’s fears form the “dangerous black cloud around Albus” reported by Bane the centaur. The problem is that it is often too frightening to recognize our own shadows, so we project them onto others, as Jung wrote in 1945: “A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.” Thus, when Harry is panicked by the rift with Albus, he attributes this “dangerous black cloud” to the return of Voldemort, or giants, or werewolves, or hapless little Scorpius Malfoy. His shadow self is in control, defining that “dangerous black cloud” as, basically, “anything in the world except Harry Potter.”
If Harry’s shadow is Voldemort, I’m reading Delphi as Albus’s shadow self. Jung said a person’s shadow is “continually subjected to modifications.” Delphi presents several mutually contradictory identities, from the Tonks-like nurse to the girl whose name was ridiculed in school to the girl who was too frail to go to school to the young woman with silvery-blue hair to the Augurey who can fly. At the end of Act Three, after they’ve checked out Delphi’s background, Hermione says, “There’s no record of her. She’s a shadow.” Her story changes according to what others need her to be.
Delphi first appears immediately after Albus overhears Harry telling Amos Diggory that the Time-Turners were all destroyed: “Whatever you’ve heard, the Theodore Nott story is a fiction, Amos, I’m sorry.” The next word in the script is Delphi saying hello.
Albus hears the word “fiction” and begins constructing his own fictions – hypothetical alternate universes, or AUs – to work through his feelings about his father-son relationship.
Why does that particular comment have such an effect on Albus?
Harry lies that all the Time-Turners were destroyed because, in his survivor guilt, he wants to push away Amos Diggory. But he refused a different father’s plea for a public statement that all the Time-Turners were destroyed, even though this would change the life of his own son’s only friend. Albus is chilled by his father’s inability to do what is right, rather than what is easy, regarding a father’s love for his son. Albus conceives of Delphi as a caretaker and comfort for Amos Diggory, as well as someone who sympathizes with Albus that “It’s tough to live with people stuck in the past” — stuck being the operative word here, immobilized by unresolved issues.
The next day, Harry demonstrates his inadequacy with an intensely awkward failed attempt to connect with Albus.
He gives James Sirius the Invisibility Cloak – thanks to Sirius and Remus, Harry knows enough of his father to pass on something to his adventurous Gryffindor son.
He gives Lily Luna fairy wings – thanks to the memories of his mother from Snape, Harry knows how to parent a girl who loves to fly.
But when Albus has been ostracized as a “Slytherin squib,” he has needed daily comfort, reassurance, an effort from his father to draw him out. When his friend Scorpius has been rumored to be the son of Voldemort, Draco – whose father, for better and for worse, did advocate for him – has asked Harry to shut down the rumors.
Parental comfort and advocacy are things Harry never received. Outside of a few treasured moments with Sirius, he had no adults to advocate for him – not when he was rumored to be the heir of Slytherin, or to have gotten his name in the Goblet of Fire, or to be lying about the return of Voldemort.
What little Harry has had, he gives to Albus, unable to hear that this is not what he needs. He comes with Albus to Platform 9 ¾ and he signs the Hogsmeade note. He tells Albus to get friends like Ron and Hermione, ignoring Scorpius. He gives the baby blanket and we see Albus’s disgust: That old thing? That’s not enough. And we feel the heaviness: No, it isn’t, is it. That’s all Harry got, fifteen months of parental love, and everything he got, he will give to Albus. He doesn’t know how to give what Albus needs; once again, he feels pain because of things that Voldemort has stolen from him.
The day after that, Albus jumps off the Hogwarts Express. From that moment, I read the various AUs, with and without Delphi, as the imaginings of a 14-year-old boy as he grapples with his father’s inability to see him for himself. Cedric Diggory becoming a Death Eater? Only someone who never knew Cedric Diggory – the pure-hearted student we readers got to know through Harry’s story – could even think that was possible. Only someone who didn’t live through a Death Eater regime could think that a farcical humiliation is what it takes to turn a loving, secure, well nurtured young adult into a Death Eater. Delphi as a silver-haired attractive older girlfriend? Let us give thanks that in the Muggle world, our 14-year-old concepts of the ideal girlfriend or boyfriend are not visible to all. Voldemort and Bellatrix as…parents? Every possible scenario delves into uncomfortable or improbable territory, but aside from that, Albus can picture a world in which Voldemort and Bellatrix had a child because he is innocent. He has never met Voldemort; he doesn’t understand the depth of his inhumanity. He doesn’t know, as we do, that Bellatrix said if she had sons, she would have sacrificed them to the Dark Lord.
It makes sense to me to see the absurdities in these alternate timelines as the kids’ imaginations. Cedric blowing up like a balloon, Bathilda Bagshot’s conveniently unlocked front door, Ron’s clownishness. But these premises get Albus to the conclusions he needs. Eventually, he and Scorpius meet Cedric Diggory, and the stories they’ve always read about him become real to them: Cedric’s goodness, the pity of his senseless death and Harry’s blamelessness. Eventually, seeing an alternate Ron accept the dementor’s kiss, they understand that he fought life-or-death battles. Eventually, they understand the terror of Harry’s childhood.
One time, Delphi appears without Albus present: when Albus and Scorpius are separated, she “scurries in” to speak to Scorpius, even though, as she says, “technically – I shouldn’t be here” – she’s Albus’s shadow, after all, not his. Scorpius can’t help speaking jealously, asking how many owls Albus has sent her. But she also transforms to meet some of Scorpius’s needs, confiding that she was isolated as a child, like he was; that she prefers “not to be seen as a tragic case”; that at his age, she, too, wanted a friend “desperately” and made one up; that Albus needs him and they belong together. Scorpius rejoins Albus and they return to the past so Scorpius can take a turn at understanding his father’s shadows.
In speaking to Harry, Draco reveals an expectation of Scorpius that can only serve to make Scorpius feel unseen: “Scorpius is a follower, not a leader, despite everything I’ve tried to instill in him.” Scorpius is being scapegoated as the son of Voldemort. To be disappointed in him for not being a leader makes no sense – it’s a Malfoy identity that’s stuck in the past.
Following Albus’s example, Scorpius travels to the past to understand a world in which Malfoys are leaders. He emerges to be scolded by Professor Umbridge for upsetting the dementors on “Voldemort Day” – another comical scenario that makes sense when we think it was authored by a fourteen-year-old boy, especially this one. Draco is a bureaucrat in the totalitarian Ministry, treating Scorpius coldly until they speak of Draco’s love for his late wife, after which Draco says, in careful doublespeak, “Whatever you’re doing – do it safely. I can’t lose you too.”
Scorpius understands more, then, about how guarded Draco had to be as a young Death Eater. At this point, his imagination leads him to Snape, the Slytherin mentor who taught Draco how to walk this line, how to protect the lives of his loved ones while speaking the party line – by drawing strength from thoughts of those he wants to protect.
Scorpius’s conversation with Snape shows one of the major wish fulfillment reasons why Potterverse characters crave Time-Turners: to give posthumous thanks or apology. Scorpius gets to deliver the tribute that Snape never heard: that Harry Potter considered him “the bravest man he’d ever met.” Scorpius doesn’t include Harry’s qualifier, “probably” – a Malfoy would have a different perspective on Snape, after all he did for that family. Snape tells Scorpius that Death Eater “Cedric Diggory killed only one wizard and not a significant one – Neville Longbottom.” The reminder of Neville’s role gives Scorpius a luminous alternative to the notion that being a “leader” is the only way to make a difference.
The Time-Turners in Cursed Child have frustrated some readers with what feel like inconsistent rules for time travel in Potterverse. I found it helpful to read Time-Turners as allegory rather than science fiction. In Prisoner of Azkaban, we saw Hermione use a Time-Turner under strict supervision, with two rules: change nothing, and you must not be seen. After a year of training, Dumbledore authorized her to be Harry’s time travel guide, the friend who would anchor him while he sought a different perspective on his own past.
Albus and Scorpius steal a Time-Turner and use it without supervision, with dangerous results. Their goal, as they say to each other in second-year potions, is to “change everything,” rather than gain perspective. They go back to meddle in the pasts of other people. They are seen. Their Time-Turner experience is nothing like Hermione’s.
A cardinal law of Potterverse is that super-magical objects must only be used to protect others, not for indulgence or personal gain. When Draco appears with a more powerful Time-Turner, he is following the rules of Potterverse. Draco longed to use his Time-Turner for one more minute with Astoria but resisted, proving himself a Master of Death. He is right to produce it to connect with Scorpius and Albus. For the boys to be freed of their fathers’ shadows, they will all need new perspectives on the past.
Albus, like Scorpius, needs to see the Augurey timeline, so Delphi reappears in her new identity as child of Voldemort, compelled by a prophecy. Albus sees the constant threat Harry lived with as a child, feels protective toward his father, and sends Harry a message through their one point of connection, the blanket – a heartrending way for the story to show that sometimes, what little we can pass to our children is enough. Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Draco accompany Harry to meet Albus and Scorpius.
Ginny understands what Delphi is in a way that Harry and Albus do not. Albus says, “And she was – Voldemort’s daughter?” Ginny does not answer yes or no. The others think Delphi wants to return to the past to kill baby Harry, but Ginny realizes that Delphi wants to meet Voldemort and “be with him, the father she loves.” Ron, ever the underrated strategist, suggests that Harry, Transfigured into Voldemort, lure Delphi where they can all “zap her together.” Harry tells Delphi, “Come here, in the light, so I may examine what my blood made.” Delphi says to Voldemort what Albus would find too painful to say to Harry: “I have devoted my life to being a child you could be proud of.”
Hearing Delphi’s cry for parental love, Harry cannot maintain Voldemort’s form, and Delphi recognizes him. She attacks with the cry, “Are you crawling away from me? Harry Potter. Hero of the wizarding world. Crawling away like a rat.” An unhappy teenage boy might well be this angry at a father who doesn’t have the guts to face his own child’s anger. Delphi’s anger is stronger than Harry’s magic, but Harry overpowers her with the combined strength of all of his loved ones – showing Albus that even if he has doubts about Harry, he can trust in the faith that his mother, Hermione, Ron, and even Draco show in Harry.
Carl Jung wrote, “When we must deal with problems, we instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness. But to penetrate the darkness we must summon all the powers of enlightenment that consciousness can offer.”
When Albus sees that Harry has overcome his shadow self and taken on Voldemort’s form without fear, has brought Delphi’s murderous rage into the light and proven himself merciful, Albus no longer needs Delphi.
Earlier in the play, Draco told Harry that Tom Riddle was a lonely child and that he thinks Ginny understood that. We see that on a subconscious level, Harry understands this, too, through his dreams of Aunt Petunia. When he dreams of them running away from his Hogwarts letters, Petunia says, “The boy has cursed us! This is all your fault.” In a later dream, Petunia tells lies about James and Lily and Harry hears Voldemort’s voice: “I smell guilt, there is a stench of guilt upon the air.” This is what Voldemort said to his Death Eaters when he regained his body in Goblet of Fire, the rage of a child at the caretaker who has neglected him and then, guilty, cursed the child by projecting blame.
Enabled by Ginny, Albus, through Delphi, is able to express this rage to Harry as Voldemort, and still be loved. Until baby Harry, Tom Riddle never encountered a power greater than his own infant rage, able to commit murder out of anger before he reached adulthood. Harry has just given Albus what Tom Riddle never got. This gives Albus the security to understand Harry’s effort in fighting through his own darkness to be a parent – the very thing Harry was hoping Albus would understand when he gave the gift of the blanket. The use of a Time-Turner to witness Voldemort’s attack is an allegory to mean that Harry and Albus, anchored by friends, returned to the past to change nothing, just gain new perspective. Once they witness what baby Harry survived, Delphi disappears: “And slowly what was there is no longer there.”
For me, this sequence answers the question: Did Harry Potter get a family who could understand what he went through? For me, this is the eighth Harry Potter story, and it is absolutely canon.