Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Dark Arts & Dark Marks
The Potterverse Essays

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

In my “Foundation” essays, I made an energetic effort to postulate that there was an inherent reason to leave the Dark Arts alone. That reason being a variation of the traditional trope that to get swept up in Darkness ultimately diminishes you. By that time we’d seen the creature that came out of the stone cauldron in the graveyard of Little Hangleton, and that creature did not stack up favorably with the charismatic Dark Lord of everyone’s wibbling about through the story up to that point.

I postulated that Tom RIddle was suffering from what I then dubbed Dark Arts-related dementia. That was an early iteration of the concept and one that could not really be sustained in its original form, although a later variation of the concept is still in play across the collection.

I had originally thought that the lure of the opportunity of study such magic under patronage might be one of the benefits that was framed as a reason to sign up with Tom Riddle’s Death Eaters. At the time, I believed that to many of the other characters in the Potterverse, such an offer might have a reasonably widespread appeal.

While the arrogance of youth and its accompanying conviction of personal immunity might very well have shielded a young follower during the early days, when he considered Dark Arts study to be a part of his “birthright” that those wusses in the Ministry were trying to deny him, he might, after a period of unrestrained Dark Arts activity under Voldemort’s sponsorship, have very well found himself undergoing some “dark night of the soul” as a consequence of those activities which might have set any available family skeletons a-dancing, and may have served as the necessary wake-up call prompting him to rethink whether signing up with the DEs was really all that good an idea. That is certainly a variation of the story that Dumbledore was handing out regarding Professor Snape, anyway.

I no longer support this particular theory. Whatever degree of perceptual damage a wizard may develop (and any damage really does now appear to be perceptual rather than organic) through unwary exposure to channeling Dark magic seems to take a long time before it reaches the point of making his actions dangerously unstable.

In point of fact, by this time, I also do not believe that Snape did sign on with the DEs for any such straightforward reasons. Rowling now invites us to believe that he signed on for no better reason than that he was asked to, by the only people who would give him the time of day. But then Rowling fairly obviously has no interest in even making up her mind about what the Dark Arts even are supposed to be. She never bothered to set up that part of the foundation of her exercise in world-building.

So, if no one objects, I will stick to my own interpretation on the issue. I at least have one. Admittedly, while applying it to the Potterverse may be a mistake, it can only be an improvement in matters of offering some kind of guidance. For, inside of canon, there appear to be no guidelines whatsoever.

• • • •

A necessary digression regarding the Dark Mark:

We have been given comparatively little solid information regarding the Dark Mark, considering the level of significance it seems to carry in the story. For one thing, we have very little information on its cultural origin. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that this is yet another ancient symbol (such as the sigil of the Deathly Hallows) which was once benevolent in meaning, and whose original symbolism has been corrupted and besmirched by Voldemort’s use of it.

Nor do we know quite how Voldemort coordinates and manages this particular communication network. It seems to me unlikely that he must always have a follower at hand in order to activate a summons, as was shown toward the end of GoF. It also seems unlikely to me that he would not be able to summon his followers individually or in smaller groups than that required for a full assembly.

Particularly since if Karkaroff was telling the truth — and we had no reason at the time to believe that he wasn’t — about the DEs underlying “cell structure,” to only meet in full assemblies would not have been conducive to maintaining the secrecy of each others’ identities which he claims was the case across the organization. Karkaroff claimed that only the Dark Lord himself knew the names of all of his followers.

In DHs this internal secrecy regarding one anothers’ identities appears to have been completely discarded. It is obvious from the first chapter that everyone in the organization knows exactly who all of his associates are. Rowling seems to have either forgotten about it the cell structure, or Voldemort changed his organization’s structure after his return. I suppose that once the Ministry was due to fall, he could have decided that internal secrecy no longer mattered. His followers, after all, were not planning to rule anonymously from behind the scenes. Even if the Minister himself was an imperiused puppet.

As to the issue of the summons from the graveyard; the simplest explanation that I can come up with is that the newly created simulacrum of a body was still lacking whatever “anchor” this direct connection to his followers required, and that he was, therefore, unable to perform this function until he had a chance to reproduce it. Or, perhaps it was merely that to issue a general summons had always been sufficiently uncomfortable that he had always awarded to one of his subordinates this particular “honor”.

Snape, who is presumed to have been enlisted toward the end of Voldemort’s first rise, states that the Dark Mark was used by the DEs to identify each other. Consequently, we do not know whether the Dark Mark had always been a part of the organization’s communications network or if it was a comparatively late innovation replacing some older system. Post-DHs we now know that any individual DE was also capable of summoning his master. I suspect, however that one did so only in the most dire of circumstances or only by prearrangement.

It is just possible that causing the Mark to be revealed was something over which the DEs had some voluntary control. Although Rowling gives us no real information on this matter. If this is the case; I suspect that it may have been possible to conceal it by a spell, which its wearers could normally cancel and restore at will. It would have been only when they were actually summoned by their Master this concealment was overridden, and it may have either needed some sort of “cooling off” period before it could be concealed again or, on the night of Voldemort’s rebirth, Snape simply didn’t bother to do so since he hadn’t originally been intending to roll up his sleeves for anyone that evening.

• • • •

Or did he?

Conversely, he may have intended to do exactly that, in the service of some form of double-bluff that we were never let in on. After all, given that to reveal his Dark mark at just that point seems, perversely, to have lulled the readers’ suspicions of him more than otherwise, it is possible that it had the same effect upon enough of his witnesses to be a risk worth taking. For he did not just reveal himself as a former Death Eater in that demonstration; he revealed himself as a spy. Their own spy. Which would have been confirmed by the first glance into his sealed file in the DMLE (and do not try to convince me that there isn’t one. Of course there is one).

He also gave himself an alibi. If he was standing in the Hogwarts Hospital wing at the side of Albus Dumbledore, then he obviously wasn’t off meeting with Dark Lords in unidentified cemeteries who-knows-where, as Potter is claiming, is he?

And the possibility that the Mark can be concealed is the only circumstance under which I could accept the multiple statements that Voldemort enlists followers who are still in school, and living in a dormitory. And at that I still resist it.

Rowling supplies us with no good reason why he ever should do so (apart from taking advantage of adolescents’ eternal determination to believe they are the hub of the universe). I don’t suppose she ever bothered to think the matter through.

Voldemort grew up in an orphanage, and he attended Hogwarts, himself. He knows how little privacy someone living in a dormitory is likely to have. One cannot readily believe that he would physically mark followers who are exposed to that level of risk of discovery. Unless the Mark can be concealed by the wearer.

It would be far simpler in any case for him to merely wait out the necessary time for them to be finished with school and have that particular risk past.

Or at least wait until they have acquired Apparation licenses! Which they won’t legally be able to do until the age of 17. The Dark Mark is a summoning device. Why give one to someone who cannot obey the summons?

They would be of little practical use to him as Death Eaters without being able to Apparate. And you are not taught that skill until 6th year and you do not get a license to do it until you are of age.

For all that Harry and his friends are convinced that Draco Malfoy was revealing a Dark Mark to Borgin in order to force his cooperation, I still think what is far more likely is that Draco was told that to complete his mission was the price of his admission into Voldemort’s followers’ ranks. It was his initiation ordeal. Whatever he was using to intimidate Borgin is likely to have been something else. Even if it was only one of the edible Dark Marks available at Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes.

And while, at a stretch I could — just barely — be able to accept that an exception was made in Draco Malfoy’s case and he was inducted into the ranks before his 6th year, I flatly do not believe that there were any circumstances under which it would have been necessary to make such an exception in the case of Regulus Black. I think that Kreachur was talking through his (virtual) hat.

Or that he cannot count any better than Rowling can.

• • • •

However, if routine concealment of the Dark Mark is the case, by the time most DEs were no longer in control of the concealment of their Mark they would typically have already been dead, or unconscious, or in the hands of the Dementors, who, as Crouch Jr informed us, are blind.

In the case of death, Voldemort would probably be aware of it and have no reason to “call” a corpse (unless he wants to turn it into an Inferus). Those who were dead in his service might even no longer have had any visible mark on them to identify them as his.

In the case of the captured, Voldemort would have fairly quickly been made aware of this as well and would have taken care not to activate their Marks. It is plausible that no one ever examined the DEs in Azkaban for Marks which might have reappeared since their imprisonment when the concealing spells failed. And after Voldemort’s fall the marks would have disappeared anyway.

It is clear, however, that if a follower does try to summon their Master, any other follower in the vicinity is also aware of it. If, that is, we are willing to accept anything told to us in the course of DHs.

But, the only example we’ve seen of Voldemort calling his DEs to him did not conform to any of this. He sent out a general call to all of them at once, and needed to use Pettigrew’s Mark in order to do it. This does not speak strongly in favor of any great degree of sophistication regarding the Mark unless there is a good deal more to the matter that we have not seen, and nothing that Rowling showed us in DHs suggested any great level of sophistication to it either. Thus rendering the Dark Mark into yet another piece of balognium for us to have to swallow. Much like the Order’s message-bearing Patronus system, which doesn’t make a whole lot of practical sense either.

• • • •

What is even more likely is that — as good as the system might be — there would probably have been at least a few slip-ups, of which the Dept. of Magical Law Enforcement was aware.

When one factors in the likelihood that the final, most wantonly violent phase of Voldemort’s first rise was launched over the last 24 months of it, either there were too few of these cumulative incidents to have struck the investigating Aurors as significant yet, or, more likely, this particular information was classified. I think that the fact that any of the DEs were “marked” might probably have been highly classified information that Crouch Sr. as head of Magical Law Enforcement would have ruthlessly suppressed outside his own department. The real Moody, and any other Aurors in the field may have known about it from this source, but Moody also may have learned about it later from Dumbledore.

The false Moody certainly knew of it, and taunted Snape with it. Which could have turned out to be suspicious. Yet another missed opportunity of Rowling’s.

But without magical concealment, the Mark, being bright red, would be sufficiently noticeable even when not “active”. Even if it can be concealed, there may well be magical ways to cause it to reveal itself — so long as Voldemort is alive and present on the physical plane somewhere to “complete the circuit”.

After he was gone, there was no longer a physical connection to be activated, visibly or in any other manner. How much the significance of the Mark on those few captured DEs who were unable to conceal it in time was realized is uncertain. It is for this reason that I suspect that Voldemort did co-opt a pre-existing symbol for this purpose. One which a wizard might reasonably have been expected to have adopted as a decoration even without Dark Arts associations.

In any case, Minister Fudge, who was still a Junior Minister in the Department of Magical Catastrophes during VoldWar I, would not have been on the “need to know” list. He remained clearly unaware of the DEs’ personal Dark Marks’ existence after all his years of public service. In fact it is quite possible that sealing those particular records was another of Crouch Sr’s big “mistakes” which he acknowledged at the end of his life, having attempted to protect and reserve it as his own private resource. It could have been the sort of thing that he intended to keep to himself as a tool toward capturing that “one last Dark wizard” which, toward the end of his career, is said to have allegedly occupied his ambitions.

• • • •

So far as the question of Severus Snape, the Dark Arts, and the original lure of Voldemort’s organization go, as late as HBP we seem to have all been expected to believe that Severus Snape was the very model of the typical non-“aristo” Death Eater recruit (assuming there ever actually was such a thing, looking back, the whole organization seems to have been a lot more “elite” than we were led to believe over the first 5 books), for whom the primary lure was the study of the Dark Arts. And it is easy to accept that if such a reading of the situation was the correct one, to the young Severus Snape the whole issue would probably, at first, have looked very simple. Under Voldemort’s sponsorship he would have had full latitude to study, and practice, the Dark Arts, without any pettifogging Ministry restraints.

It also would give him a continuing “in” to retain the patronage of his social betters like Malfoy.

The only problem with this reading is that upon closer examination, it doesn’t hold water.

• • • •

For one thing; there do not appear to be any Ministry restraints imposed upon the study or practice of the Dark Arts at all. Only on specific spells.

Snape allegedly was widely acknowledged to have been fascinated by the Dark Arts from childhood. “Famous” for it, while still at Hogwarts. Admittedly, our only informant on the subject being Sirius Black, so consider the source.

However, if this were the case, Snape would very likely have considered the study of the Dark Arts to be his entitlement, had perhaps placed all of his earliest hopes upon getting to Hogwarts and learning the Dark Arts, and ultimately arrived at Hogwarts to discover that this study was not officially offered, and indeed was discouraged as much as possible.

Which isn’t to say that one cannot still learn them, or learn them at Hogwarts. Because people clearly do. But they were not offered as a formal study by the time Snape started there.

So why would Snape need the Death Eaters at all?

Even more to the point; why would the Death Eaters think they needed him?

Well, it seems reasonable to suppose that Snape probably also dreamed of power and glory, like most youngsters, and across the fandom it is generally supposed that he would readily have signed on to whichever group assured him of the greatest opportunities to achieve them.

But would that really have been the Death Eaters? They were an illegal organization. Membership could not have been a feasible route to social or professional advancement.

Many fans also suppose that he might have signed up willingly if he could do so under the sponsorship of someone as socially prominent as Lucius Malfoy, and even more eagerly if there had been nothing in his own upbringing which would have conditioned him to regard the stated sentiments of the typical pureblood-supremacist agenda as abhorrent in itself. That much seems likely enough, as far as it goes.

It is not in the least illegal to believe that pureblood wizards are superior to mixed-blood wizards. Even if such a belief is manifestly unsupported by any sort of facts. And if a mixed-blood wizard can make himself noticed and of use to the purebloods who seem to be running things, well, why ever not?

Particularly when there is nothing in his own command of magic, or knowledge of wizarding traditions that would suggest, to anyone who did not know better, that his own bloodlines were any less pure than theirs.

I am sure that on the surface, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion for someone, particularly someone like Harry, to be drawing.

But when did we ever get the feeling that Severus Snape was, exactly... superficial?

One rather suspects that such a surface reading for Snape’s actions must have been made available, both to his supporters and to his detractors. But such a reading does not really explain his actions, does it? So let’s follow that thread a bit farther. Yes. Again. This time with a twist.

• • • •

Assuming that Severus Snape did not sign on with the DEs as a spy in the first place (which is a remarkably easy interpretation to support, really, given the possibilities handed us over the course of the first six books of the series) and — for the duration of this exercise dismissing the whole issue of Snape-Loved-Lily — it would still be easy enough to extrapolate that while his involvement over his first year or so inside the DE organization may very well have brought him to a certain “dark night of the soul” he would have been able to tell himself that he had been brought there with the very best of motives.

And that now he needed to get himself out.

I do not think Voldemort’s order to take a post in Hogwarts was at all unwelcome.

Given my own original suspicions regarding the possible degenerative side effects of a careless indulgence in Dark magic by the mentally undisciplined, if, despite Snape’s intelligence and high inherent capacity to conduct magical energy, he managed to “hit the wall” within a fairly short period of imprudent indulgence, and to have discovered in himself some dangerous shifts of perception, and to come up against the knowledge of his own mortality (which would certainly be only what one might expect to happen by some point in one’s early 20s) and realized that at this rate, rather than power and glory, the end of all his dreams was far more likely to spiral down into just another bed in a ward in St. Mungo’s, a personal epiphany of this nature might also very well have fully opened his eyes to any subtle symptoms which might mimic a DA-related dementia which their Leader was not quite managing to conceal*.

(*Note: the chances that the former Tom Riddle has developed a “classic,” i.e., early iteration, form of DA-related dementia are vanishingly small. But the abnormal pathologies with which he does appear to be afflicted mimic many of the symptoms that I suggested were generally understood to accompany the progress of such a malady, and any genuine DA-related dementia which he might have been developing would only have amplified it. Snape, raised with full awareness of the wizarding world — and he was wizarding-raised, even though his father was a Muggle — would have interpreted his observations within a wizarding context and drawn a conclusion which although inaccurate in fact, was very similar in effect. His own responses and actions would have been the same in either case.)

If on the outside chance that Snape did sign up with Riddle in good faith, it might well have been considerations along the line of realizing that he had signed a contract with a madman which prompted him to seek out and offer his support to Dumbledore.

• • • •

For the two years between the release of OotP and HBP, we had been led to believe — chiefly on the strength of statements made by Sirius Black in OotP — that there was a specific point at which Voldemort had suddenly “revealed his true goals” to his supporters’ and followers’ dismay; at the time it seemed plausible that this “grand revelation” alone might be what gave Snape cause to reconsider his options. It may well have also given him cause to suddenly wonder whether DA-related dementia might be a factor in their Leader’s behavior. Whether he was able to convince himself that he saw signs of such a malady I did not know. Whether he applied a burst of wary introspection and convinced himself that he saw hints of the early signs of what he had been led to believe were the symptoms of the condition in himself is even less certain.

Since that point it has become apparent that any hints in OotP of a “grand revelation” on Voldemort’s part was either intended as a red herring, is an artifact of an abandoned plot element, an indication of Sirius Black’s particular biases and tendency to make things up which support his own contentions, rendering it merely a detail of characterization, or it was just plain shoddy writing, for nothing in the “official backstory” given to us over the course of HBP or later supports anything of the sort. For this reason I have chosen to abandon this line of reasoning, and most of its baggage.

Also, until HBP came out I had still believed that Snape’s turn-around might have had something to do with the death of Regulus Black.

Whose death “some 15 years before” was believed to have taken place around 1980. Consequently, we were subjected to an ultimately fruitless detour which was introduced by the information contained by the Black family tapestry sketch, released in February 2006.

One reason for this was the discovery that according to the sketch, the death of Regulus Black did not take place in 1980, as was all but openly stated in OotP, but in 1979.

Before the Trelawney Prophecy was made.

Maybe. At that time I also was convinced that the Prophecy had taken place around January of 1980, too.

I don’t believe either of these things any more.

The implications of the grand contradiction between Albus and Sybil’s accounts of what took place on the night that the Prophecy was made which were dropped upon us from a great height in HBP soon forced me to the conclusion that Snape was already working with Albus Dumbledore by the time the Prophecy was added to the equation.

After which it seemed very unlikely that the death of Regulus Black could be connected with Snape’s association with Dumbledore.

• • • •

Another question which was raised by the tapestry sketch is; what was Snape doing between the time that he finished Hogwarts and started teaching? For that matter what were all of them doing?

Because the information on the tapestry made it clear that — in order to work with everything else that had been said on the subject — the Marauder cohort had to have been born a year earlier than I had always calculated, in 1958 rather than 1959. And that if that is the case, they would have finished with the class of ’76. Which would give them a full five years between the time that they entered the ww as adults, and the fall of the Dark Lord.

I began to wonder whether Snape may have been at St Mungo’s. As a trainee Healer. And that he may well be a formally qualified Healer, with a specialty in curse damage. It would certainly suit his skills.

Or that to train as such might have been his ambition before he was suddenly ordered to go and teach kids at Hogwarts, possibly before he had finished his qualifications.

The Death Eaters could certainly have used an in-house Healer trained in treating curse damage. St Mungo’s requires only an ‘E’ in the NEWTS for Charms, Transfiguration, Herbology, Potions, and DADA. It is almost inconceivable that the “Half-Blood Prince” as he was presented to us in the book that bears his nickname couldn’t have managed at least that. Snape’s NEWT scores and the Malfoys’ patronage could have readily secured him a place in St Mungo’s training program. And with five whole years to play with there was probably even time for him to complete his training before being ordered back to Hogwarts.

Being a qualified, or almost-qualified, Healer would certainly have made it all the easier for Albus to install him as Potions master when Voldemort redeployed him by ordering him into the school to spy. And it would have kept him out of the cursed DADA position.

But, in fact, it was no such thing. In DHs Rowling has endorsed the HP Lexicon’s 1960 birth date for the Marauder cohort rendering all of the tapestry sketch dates of the Marauder cohort’s generation completely unworkable with anything Rowling has ever told us in canon of the interpersonal relationships between any part of the Marauder cohort and their slightly older relatives or associates. When the addition of Kreachur’s tale is added to the mix, both Regulus Black’s birth and death dates from the tapestry sketch became similarly unworkable. Ergo: The tapestry sketch dates are summarily dismissed, and unofficially reworked in the related essay to fit the information actually given us in canon.

Which barely gives everyone time to get into place for the big show-down at Halloween of 1981.

• • • •

If a condition such as DA-related dementia, on the order that I had postulated from the point at which I first posted the first iteration of this collection in 2003 does indeed exist, we do not know whether the current state of medi-magic can correct or repair the kind of psychic damage that such careless over-exposure to the Dark Arts produces. For that matter, if the condition is not in fact organic, but solely the result of having lost one’s grasp on reality from having become too deeply entangled in the delusions generated by the forces with which a practitioner of the Dark Arts must contend and attempt to control, we do not know whether there is any medi-magical remedy at all, or if the only treatment is to isolate and contain the afflicted for his own and the community’s safety.

It is at least possible that ameliorative processes are available. But, first, one must admit that one needs such treatment, and, one probably must offer some explanation of how one originally came by such damage. If an indulgence in the Dark Arts is not altogether socially approved of, this policy might well deter more people from seeking treatment than it ultimately assists. Although it may well be a known hazard in certain professions, such as, for example, cursebreaking. However, the apparent lack of regulation or oversight in the practice of the Dark Arts across the whole series would suggest this is not the case.

This last consideration might certainly not be that much of a deterrent in Snape’s case. After the fall of Voldemort, the Ministry must have had to admit itself to be very much obliged to Albus’s agent, Severus Snape, and should any such medical treatment be available, it is likely that some means of facilitating it would have been found. Had he felt a need for it.

Which, given that mental discipline does not appear to be a quality in which Snape is particularly lacking, he probably didn’t.

What is most likely is that the development of any observable symptoms of DA-related dementia requires far longer-term exposure and a much weaker will than anyone, certainly the former Tom Riddle brought to it, and more exposure than had by that time been accrued by a young Severus Snape. Even the darkest of Dark wizards uses far more “Light” magic than Dark. Snape, at the age of 21 would be unlikely to have been affected by his own exposure to such influences.

• • • •

For that matter, insofar as Ministry obligation goes, I rather think that Snape proved to be invaluable in the post-Voldemort mop-up of the DE’s activities. Behind the scenes, at any rate.

And, for that matter, given that pretty near all of the known DE captures and deaths while resisting arrest of which we have actually been told appear to have taken place in the period between the night of the Prophecy — by which time I still prefer the reading that Snape was already working with Albus — and the date of his taking up a teaching post at Hogwarts it is not too much to wonder whether Snape may have had a hand in at least a few of these as well. He is unlikely to have been the only agent informing on the DEs but he may have been one of the better ones.

• • • •

By the time the Lestranges were arrested, there was certainly no longer any likelyhood of a Ministry policy of leaving the small fry observed but not interfered with in hopes of catching the bigger fish. If, that is, there had ever been such a policy in the first place. We are given no clear indication of such.

By then the emphasis was to get as many of the evil bastard’s followers out of commission as possible and leave any remaining small fry without a potential hub around which to regroup. This campaign was not helped by the fact that the Dark Marks all disappeared when the Dark Lord did, leaving investigating Aurors without any inarguable indication of suspects’ allegiances. Of course this also presupposes that the Aurors of the day were aware that the Dark Lord had set a physical mark on his followers, and, however likely this is, it has never been fully confirmed in canon. Indeed the whole issue has been ignored.

The disappearance of the Dark Marks would have made a mess of the DE’s communication lines also, and it is also just barely possible that even sending up the image of the Dark Mark was suddenly something that his followers were no longer able to perform, giving additional cause for the panic on all sides at the World Cup when Crouch Jr. managed to do exactly that.

Albus’s comment in HBP that Slughorn’s tableau was missing the Dark mark, however, suggests that anyone who knew the incantation could probably cast it, regardless of Arthur Weasley’s and Amos Diggory’s understanding of the matter in GoF. We know that the Marks all began to return once Voldemort was again, however vestigially, on the physical plane. But they may not have been apparent even to their bearers for some weeks, or months afterward.

For the record, I also tend to think the reason that Dumbledore knew to send Hagrid to Godric’s Hollow to collect Harry so quickly was that Snape informed him of his Dark Mark’s sudden disappearance. This would have sent out the alert that the Dark Lord was no more. That the Potters, his acknowledged targets, had only been in hiding a week would have been a strong indication of where Voldemort is most likely to have been when he fell. But further speculations regarding this matter are to be found in the article regarding the “missing” 24 Hours.