Harry Potter: Exploring the Unforgivable Curses

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Today I’m delighted to be participating in the Potterhead July blog festival, hosted by Aentee @ Read at Midnight. All through this month many other wonderful bloggers are writing about a wide variety of topics to celebrate the release of the Cursed Child script! You can check out the full schedule here.

I decided to write about something which I have a deep interest in — Wizarding law! Even though you might not think it features a lot in the books, there’s a LOT of fascinating material to look at. *nods* (If you couldn’t tell: I am nerdy when it comes to Wizarding law.) But the whole of Wizarding law is rather a broad topic, and neither you nor I would have the willpower to read and write a massive sprawling paper on it. Although I am  kind of sad not to be able to write about werewolves. But ANYWAY. In this post I’m focusing on the Unforgivable Curses! I’ll be looking at the reasoning behind them, their flaws, what they mean for morality in the Wizarding world.

As I’m sure many of you know, there are three Unforgivable Curses: the Imperius curse, the Cruciatus curse, and the Killing curse. (AKA Avada Kedavra. For ease that’s what I call it most of the time. SORRY, TECHNICALITIES.) Imperius makes the victim unquestioningly follow the will of whoever cast it — i.e. mind control — Cruciatus causes extreme pain/torture, and Avada Kedavra instant death. The penalty for casting an Unforgivable Curse is an automatic life sentence in Azkaban.

“And they are so named?”
“Because they are unforgivable. The use of any one of them will….”
“Earn you a one-way ticket to Azkaban. Correct.”

(This is from the movie of The Goblet of Fire, by the way. Not actual canon, but I though it was a rather nice explanation.)

The reasoning behind them is essentially that these spells are so evil that you can never be forgiven for using them. (The clue is in the name.) They’re some of the — if not the — worst crimes a witch or wizard can commit. It seems fairly logical; after all, in the Muggle world we usually have strong penalties for murder, torture and slavery. (There isn’t a completely direct Muggle Imperius comparison, but that seemed most fitting .) In many places people can go to prison for life for these crimes.

However, if you look into them a bit more then the concept becomes rather flawed. Firstly, the inconsistent reasoning behind the Unforgivable Curses themselves. Although many people would call them the ‘worse’ of the three Curses, Cruciatus and Avada Kedavra are both rather problematic. Like I said earlier, there isn’t a direct comparison to Imperius in the Muggle world — you can’t get the same effect in any other way. But the results of Cruciatus and Avada Kedavra can be achieved fairly easily via non-Unforgivable means, whether that’s with other curses or through Muggle means. The penalty is placed on the method rather than the result.

Avada Kedavra has the weakest argument, to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very strongly against murder! But there are many other ways to be killed in the Wizarding world and the same punishment isn’t meted out, particularly in reference to Aurors. It doesn’t figure that only people who murder using Avada Kedavra should be punished with the Unforgivable penalty. So the first problematic element to the Unforgivable Curses are their inconsistency.

The second problem is the automatic sentence to Azkaban. It’s unclear whether this includes a trial or not, but as you might now the Wizarding judicial system isn’t exactly trustworthy. *coughs* let’s hope they did some reforms Normally a judge would decide the punishment. But it seems as though with the Unforgivable Curses, the caster is given no option but to go straight to Azkaban. (Which is especially unfair if that’s without a trial.)

Following these rules, several characters we see as good — including Molly Weasley and Harry himself — should be in Azkaban. In the books they did escape this, but what of those without fame and some form of trust from the establishment on their side? It’s far more fair and logical to hold a trial, consider the situation and evidence and then punish the caster. Considering the horrific conditions of Azkaban, you don’t really want to be sending the wrong person there. (Although that seems to happen, er, fairly frequently.) (Okay, I know this post isn’t a discussion about the prison system, but we should probably consider whether Azkaban is actually a useful place for criminals to go. I mean, it wouldn’t be beneficial for the world if Harry Potter was locked up in prison, so…?)

As well as these two major problems, there are also many other terrible fates out there in the Wizarding world that aren’t branded Unforgivable, such as the Dementor’s Kiss. It just doesn’t make sense to single out these three for particular attention and then disregard others.

The strong penalties aren’t even very effective. Many wizards seem unafraid to cast Unforgivable Curses. Like I said before, this includes many characters we’d see as good, and brings into the equation the question of their own morality. Ultimately, the governing system is still very flawed and practices violence despite their laws. And, as Hermione might point out, they don’t have very good relations with non-wizard magical beings. It’s pretty unclear as to what the law is concerning Unforgivable Curses in this manner. You’d think it would be the same, because a lot of the phrases are to do with the method rather than the effect, but the Ministry of Magic seemed pretty content with killing Buckbeak so it’s difficult to say.

In summary, although I find the concept of Unforgivable Curses very interesting, I think that they’re a rather flawed concept and — like many aspects of Wizarding life — require changes. If you fancy reading up on a bit more, then it turns out there are some rather excellent legal articles out there (by actual law students) about Harry Potter! Yes, that’s an actual thing. 😛 I found this one by Aaron Schwabach extremely useful, but this is also great if you want some broader information about the Law in Harry Potter.

what do you think about the unforgivable curses? are they fair? are you participating in the potterhead july festival?

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21 thoughts on “Harry Potter: Exploring the Unforgivable Curses

  1. Oooh I love this post so much! I had never given it much thought, I just accepted it as it was, but you made excellent points. Also, about Azkaban, I’m 99% sure that after the events of Deathly Hallows Harry made sure some changes were made, like the removal of Dementors. Don’t quote me on this though, since I don’t remember where I read this. Might have been a headcanon instead woops

    1. Thanks so much! Ahaha I spent quite a lot of time thinking about very minor things in Harry Potter. I do admit that I don’t really keep up with all the post-Deathly Hallows things, but IN MY SOUL THEY ALL MADE REFORMS. Hermione is definitely sensible enough. *nods*

  2. LOOK AT HOW FAR THE FANDOM HAS COME. This is so cool! I…have never really thought about wizarding law and the technicalities? I mean, we all can see it’s insanely flawed, but it’s so cool that you just dove in and thought through and wrote about all this stuff! And that does make so much sense about Avada Kedavra- I mean, self defense? Not everybody who uses it is automatically a terrible person, so it’s really interesting how you wrote about this!

    1. I KNOW. And there were people writing about this in 2005. The Harry Potter fandom is pretty insane. Er, I do feel like Wizarding law perhaps isn’t at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but I had to debate a Cruciatus curse thing last year and I got SUPER into it. Ooh yeah, I actually forgot to mention self defense! But the main thing is that blanket rules will always lead to some injustices, I guess. 🙂

  3. Super interesting discussion. Yes, I agree that the logistics surrounding these Unforgivable Curses seem almost too straight forward to us, who live in a world where we are used to seeing a system that includes a jury and judge. We really don’t know the origins of the curses or why these particular are “Unforgiveable”, but I wonder if this was an extreme reaction to something that happened in the past. I’m trying to think if it stems from Voldemort’s rise, but I’m not sure. Lots of things to think about, great post!

    1. We can’t really know the full story, I suppose, so it’s difficult to completely make a judgement. I don’t think much about the past of the Unforgivable Curses is in the actual books, but I believe there’s something about them first being called that in the 18th century in The Tales of Beedle the Bard? I’m not very good with keeping up with additions to the HP universe, though! Thanks so much for commenting, I’m glad you enjoyed. 🙂

  4. This is such a great post! I wondered about this myself when I was reading. Thinking about something as simple as a Jelly Legs Jinx, if someone held you under that for hours it could be just as much torture as anything else. And that’s supposed to be a mild spell! And thank you for pointing out that despite that fact that there are meant to be unforgivable, everyone and their mother (literally Ron’s mother) is using them without penalty. But the wizarding world in general kind of seemed to be backwards in some respects so it’s not terribly confusing that some of their laws would be strange.

    1. Thanks! Yep, there are LOTS of unpleasant things that could happen to you in the Wizarding world besides these curses. And that’s a good point about how lots of things are backwards. I mean, we don’t know what it would be like now! Whilst they do have magic, many parts of Wizarding life would seem to ridiculous to a modern Muggle. They’re very different worlds!

  5. I feel like murder through any method would result in a lifetime sentence, even if it’s never stated in the series. Also, I think there are trials after using Unforgivables because in the books the Lestranges and Barty Crouch Jr. have a trial after they are accused of torturing the Longbottoms with the Cruciatus curse. It seems like that was a standard practice whenever anyone uses an Unforgivable.

    One scene that I’ve always found interesting in Deathly Hallows is when Remus criticizes Harry for using Expelliarmus because it’s a war and he needs to use stronger spells. Harry argues with him that he doesn’t want to use the spells the Death Eaters are, but then he uses them anyway later in the book. I feel like that could have been explored more within the book itself.

    Pottermore says that Kingsley Shacklebolt got rid of Dementors after the war and placed Aurors as guards instead, and Jo has said that Hermione as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement did a lot for werewolves and house elves rights. I wonder if she could have worked on the wizarding world’s justice system as a whole. It’s arguable whether or not Jo’s word is canon, but maybe we’ll see some hints of a reformed system in Cursed Child? It could be interesting if we did.

    1. I’d hope that there would be something similar to that! But in the books Aurors in particular seem to do a lot of killing — I think Sirius says that Moody never killed if he could help it, which suggests that it’s common for Aurors to do just that. And ah, thank you so much for that! I’m afraid it has been a while since I last re-read Harry Potter and obviously I missed some things.

      Yes, I think it’s a very interesting character development. Throughout the books Harry really does stick to his values, so it makes you wonder how the situation has changed him.

      Thanks once again for that info! 🙂 Yeah, I don’t really keep up with post-Deathly Hallows additions, since I don’t really see them as canon. (Even if it’s the Cursed Child. Which I’m still excited for, but I probably won’t take its word as the law.) But despite that it’ll be very interesting to see, and I’ll be looking out for any clues of reforms and changes to the Wizarding world!

  6. I feel like murder through any method would result in a lifetime sentence, even if it’s never stated in the series. Also, I think there are trials after using Unforgivables because in the books the Lestranges and Barty Crouch Jr. have a trial after they are accused of torturing the Longbottoms with the Cruciatus curse. It seems like that was a standard practice whenever anyone uses an Unforgivable.

    One scene that I’ve always found interesting in Deathly Hallows is when Remus criticizes Harry for using Expelliarmus because it’s a war and he needs to use stronger spells. Harry argues with him that he doesn’t want to use the spells the Death Eaters are, but then he uses them anyway later in the book. I feel like that could have been explored more within the book itself.

    Pottermore says that Kingsley Shacklebolt got rid of Dementors after the war and placed Aurors as guards instead, and Jo has said that Hermione as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement did a lot for werewolves and house elves rights. I wonder if she could have worked on the wizarding world’s justice system as a whole. It’s arguable whether or not Jo’s word is canon, but maybe we’ll see some hints of a reformed system in Cursed Child? It could be interesting if we did.

    1. I’m so sorry, I thought I’d replied to this comment but apparently it was still waiting to be approved?! Aah thank you so much for informing me of this — I tried to do a little research but obviously I didn’t pick that up. I’m glad to hear that they do have trials.

      Yes, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about morality in there. Does using the same spells put them on the same level as the Dementors? Or is it different because it’s for a good cause? (Although I do think it would have been nice to see more moral greyness in HP rather than, like, an evil baddie, but anyway.)

      Ah, authorial intent. There’s been a lot of stuff going round about this lately! Personally I believe if it isn’t in canon, it isn’t canon, but I do think it can be interesting to see what the author does think even so. Okay, this comment is so crazily late that I have actually read the Cursed Child now — alas, not too much on the justice system but I’m still fascinated in exploring it all the same. 🙂

  7. Great post, Eve! New follower 😊 I think it does depend on the situation where they use these spells, and then too, there is no guarantee that the offenders will go to prison because Wizarding Law. But now that Harry and Hermione have joined the Ministry I hope that there is some change and progress 😀

    Here is my post about my favorite HP Fan art: girlswholovetoread.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/my-favorite-harry-potter-fan-art/ Check it out if you can! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for the follow & I’m very glad you enjoyed the post! Yep, I think that it’s really important they consider the situation so hopefully Harry & Hermione have tweaked those rules. 🙂

      I just commented, thanks so much for the link!

  8. I love how you brought this up, because I think you make some very, very good points… Just… yeah… I mean, especially when you think about how the spells themselves cause an automatic sentence, I feel like that isn’t quite fair. For example, in the muggle world we have guns and such, and if you shot a gun but missed, you wouldn’t be taken to trial for shooting a gun, but rather for attempted murder. I know it probably shouldn’t make a HUGE difference since in both situations you wanted someone to die, but it would still be worth bringing up in a fair trial.

    I also have to wonder if the uses for the spells are automatically bad. I mean, I know I can’t think of anything good for the Cruciatus curse because, y’know, torture, but the other two… I think they are both easily abused spells, so their sentence must be grave, but I also don’t think they’re automatically immoral. Especially when we’re debating the morality of euthanasia in the muggle world, if they had similar arguments in the wizarding world… I mean, all things considered, the Killing Curse does not sound like a bad way to go. It’s clean, it doesn’t hurt, it’s just a flash of light and you’re dead. Considering how most ways of death often involve some form of pain or suffering, simply for everything to stop, I could imagine that some people would much rather have the curse. Likewise, I don’t want to justify slavery of course, but say you saw a kid run into the street and you were too far away to pull him out when a car turned on the street. I feel like you could morally justify using the Imperious spell to force the kid to get to a place of safety so long as you withdrew your control the moment he was safe. Again, this would be so easy to misuse, which is why it’s called Unforgivable, but at the same time, without a case-by-case examination of the spell I think that a small, small minority of people could be punished for something they ought not be punished for.

    And, finally, your thoughts on the inconsistency and ineffectiveness of their judicial system is fair and worth considering. I would find both of those terms worth considering not just in the situation presented by the Unforgivable Curses but also in many of the other areas. For example, when Harry doesn’t get in trouble for using magic outside of school or running away from home. Obviously, I don’t think he should have gone to PRISON for either of those infractions, but name-dropping with the minister of magic doesn’t sound really fair to other people his age. It’s just, I guess… It seems like there are a lot of exceptions made in the wizarding world, and exceptions make the law a shaky business indeed.

    This was a great post! Thanks for such a provocative discussion! 🙂

    1. Thank you! And that’s an excellent analogy. Although I don’t think I ended up mentioning it in the post, one issue with Imperius is that some wizards are able to resist it to various extents, which is a further complication to consider I suppose. On one hand: whoever cast that most likely intended to control the mind of the victim. On the other hand: if it didn’t have the intended effect and nothing happened, it doesn’t seem right to have a life sentence in prison.
      ANYWAY. That’s getting rather off topic. You make some really great points! Even though I do think in most cases the Unforgivable Curses are used for bad, they could have many other uses other than those explored in the book. They had a very strong focus on killing Voldemort, which was pretty interesting considering the Unforgivability of the Killing Curse. And for Cruciatus: I mean, arguably you could say that it could be used to gain information in order to save people’s lives as with torture in the real world, but it does have a much less strong case than the other two. (I personally don’t feel it would be justified. But someone might bring that up.)
      Yep, I feel like Wizarding law and the Ministry in general aren’t perfect by any means. In particular we as the reader did get to see a lot of corruption – but we also saw that in many cases following the rules would have impeded the greater good. (Like when the Dementors attacked Harry and Dudley and there was the whole issue of using magic as protection.) So I think it would be important for them to look at the balance of freedom & punishment so that perhaps we can end up with less exceptions to begin with.
      Thanks so much for your comment, and I’m very happy to hear it led to more discussion!

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