The Imperius Curse, the Cruciatus Curse, and Avada Kedavra have been dubbed the Unforgivable Curses by the wizarding world. These curses have inspired much debate among fandom, particularly since the advent of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Some take the term “unforgivable” literally and argue that only the truly evil could use them effectively; others disagree. What does it take to cast these spells? What sets them apart from other Dark Magic? And are they really unforgivable? This essay attempts to cut through the emotions and misconceptions surrounding these curses and take an objective look at what canon tells us about them.
The first time we hear of the Unforgivable Curses is from Barty Crouch Jr. masquerading as Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.1 He defines these three spells. The Imperius Curse gives the caster total control over another person, the Cruciatus Curse causes terrible pain, and the Avada Kedavra is the unblockable killing curse. He also says that these curses are the “most heavily punished by wizarding law” 2 and that “the use of any one of them on a fellow human being is enough to earn a life sentence in Azkaban.” 3
Why? What separates these curses from other Dark Magic? To be sure, these represent the worst acts that human beings can commit against one another: enslavement, not only of the body but of the mind; torture; and death. But it’s hard to believe that none of the other Dark Arts even come close to producing similarly repugnant effects. There are certainly other curses that can kill. Why are these three – and only these three – considered unforgivable? Bellatrix Lestrange gives us the answer in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: you have to mean them.
Some curses require no specific intent at all to cast. Sectumsempra, another bit of powerful Dark Magic, is a case in point. Harry had no trouble using this spell in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even though he had no idea what the spell would do and certainly no desire to kill Draco, as he almost did.
But the Unforgivable Curses are different. When Harry attempted to use the Cruciatus Curse against Bellatrix at the Ministry of Magic, he lashed out rashly in grief and anger – and failed. Though he caused Bellatrix momentary pain, he couldn’t sustain it because he didn’t have the proper intent. As Bellatrix explained, Harry’s “righteous anger” wasn’t enough. He needed “to really want to cause pain – to enjoy it.” 4 Harry hadn’t even thought through his actions, let alone become possessed of a sadistic desire to torture.
From these two examples we can see that the wizard who casts an Unforgivable Curse must do so with a clear understanding of what they are doing and a serious intent to carry through. These curses cannot be used accidentally or casually and it is this that distinguishes the Unforgivables from the other Dark Arts.
Given the gravity of this requirement, it is easy to see why these curses are deemed unforgivable and to conclude that anyone using them must harbor the most evil of intent. We can point to Voldemort murdering James and Lily Potter then turning his wand on baby Harry or Bellatrix Lestrange torturing Frank and Alice Longbottom into insanity. These were horrific acts. But as with most things in J.K. Rowling’s universe, we make a mistake if we judge the Unforgivable Curses and those who use them too quickly. We must look beyond the most notorious uses of these spells in order to truly understand them.
An Exception to Every Rule
Having learned of supposedly absolute prohibition against use of the Unforgivable Curses from Crouch Jr., it isn’t long before we learn that there are exceptions to this rule. Sirius tells Harry that during the first war against Voldemort, the Aurors were given permission to kill and to use the Unforgivables against suspected Death Eaters. 5 Furthermore, it is impossible to believe that anyone who might use an Unforgivable to defeat Voldemort would suffer legal retribution. It would seem that in the eyes of the law the Unforgivables are only unforgivable when used criminally.
If a Death Eater uses the Imperius Curse to make an innocent person commit horrible acts, that’s illegal and will earn them a one-way ticket to Azkaban. But what if an Auror, as part of his duties, were to use the Imperius Curse on a Death Eater in order to gain vital information – in effect to turn the person into an unwitting spy against Voldemort? Would wizarding society call for the same punishment? Likewise, if a Death Eater uses the killing curse to murder an innocent victim, that clearly calls for a life sentence in prison. But would an Auror who uses the same curse as a last resort in battle earn that same condemnation?
In both cases the answer is no. While some would undoubtedly say that using these curses under any circumstances is unacceptable, society generally makes exceptions for acts perpetrated in self-defense or defense of the common good and this is especially true in time of war, when society itself is being threatened. The situation in the wizarding world is dire and many would sanction desperate measures in order to fight the overwhelming threat from Voldemort. Such necessary evil is deemed acceptable, even heroic, by those it protects.
Of course, legal systems and politicians can be corrupted and frightened populations led astray. Just because an act is legal or even admired doesn’t mean that it is right. If the Unforgivable Curses are not absolutely prohibited by law then perhaps it is in the realm of morality that absolute judgment against those who use them exists. “Unforgivable” is more properly a moral rather than legal designation, after all, and indeed this is where the debate centers.
When we talk about morality, we are talking about evil and there are two questions that need to be asked: Can the Unforgivable Curses be used only for exclusively evil purposes? And is the use of these spells so grotesquely beyond all sense of decency as to be unforgivable – or put another way; is the person who uses these irredeemably evil?
The first question is the one most often debated and it centers on the fact that one has to have clear intent in order to use the Unforgivable Curses. But what does that actually entail? This question is a surprisingly muddied one so the first step in answering it is to confront the most common misconceptions surrounding it.
To begin with, the question of purpose is neither trivial nor the answer self-evident. Some might argue that, by definition, one cannot commit an evil act without evil purpose, but this isn’t true. Ask any soldier or police sniper who has ever had to kill in the line of duty and they will adamantly tell you that they had no evil purpose in mind when they, quite deliberately, took another life.
But maybe the Unforgivable Curses require uniquely evil intent. As we have already seen, it is intent that separates them from the other Dark Arts. In this vein, two arguments are generally put forth as “proof” that these curses always require an evil purpose.
The first is the idea that hate is required to cast the Unforgivables. Not simple anger or dislike that any one might feel, but a poisonous, deep-rooted, malevolent ill will. Perhaps this notion grew out of the look of hatred on Snape’s face in the Lightning-Struck Tower6 or perhaps people associate hate with one or the other of the curses. But the fact is that nowhere in canon is hate ever mentioned or even implied as a prerequisite for these curses and if we think about this for even a moment we’ll see that it can’t be.
Imagine these curses being used by Death Eaters to murder, terrorize or control their victims. It is beyond belief to think that Voldemort’s thugs know, let alone hate, every single one of their victims. Peter Pettigrew surely didn’t know or hate Cedric Diggory when he killed him7 and it’s hard to imagine that Draco hated Madam Rosmerta when he subjected her to the Imperius Curse.8 Even Bellatrix evinced no particular hatred for Neville when she cast the Cruciatus Curse on him.9 Indeed it is precisely the lack of hatred that makes her actions so chilling. She coolly tortures Neville because she enjoys watching others suffer. That isn’t hate; it’s sadism.
If we look at the Aurors, hate becomes even less likely as motivation for using these curses. The Aurors were fighting a war and surely used Avada Kedavra to kill in battle and the other Unforgivables in the line of duty. Their motivation wasn’t hate but self-defense and the defense of the wizarding world.
And what of Crouch Jr. and the spiders he used in his Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson? One might dislike spiders or have a phobia of them, but hate them in the sense that is meant here? That is hardly credible.
This does not mean that someone using the Unforgivables can’t hate their victim, but for this to be a requirement would place a debilitating and wholly unacceptable limitation on these powerful spells.
The second argument is that one must harbor a sadistic desire to cause pain in order to cast not only the Cruciatus Curse, but all of the Unforgivables. This theory stems from Bellatrix Lestrange’s words to Harry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
“Never used an Unforgivable Curse before, have you, boy?” She yelled. […] “You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain – to enjoy it – righteous anger won’t hurt me for long – I’ll show you how it is done, shall I? I’ll give you a lesson –” […] “Crucio!” 10
Bellatrix’s meaning here is ambiguous, however. She might mean that all of the Unforgivables require a desire to cause pain, or she might be referring specifically to the Cruciatus Curse. Fortunately, an examination of canon clears this up and shows us that the second meaning must be the correct one.
First, there is the Avada Kedavra. The Killing Curse is remarkably efficient. This is no lingering death, replete with writhing or screams of agony. The victim is simply alive one moment and dead the next. How much pain can one suffer when death is instantaneous? Not a lot. This is hardly the sort of death a sadist would choose to inflict upon a victim.
Then there’s the Imperius Curse. It also causes no pain; in fact it produces exactly the opposite effect. “It was the most wonderful feeling. Harry felt a floating sensation as every thought and worry in his head was wiped gently away, leaving nothing but a vague, untraceable happiness. He stood there feeling immensely relaxed…” 11
It is unreasonable to think that a desire to cause pain could be required to cast spells that cause none. I should also note that semantic arguments that attempt to redefine pain as something other than actual pain are rather useless because they lose the element of sadism, which is the whole point. Any way we look at it, a sadistic desire to torture cannot be a blanket requirement for the Unforgivable Curses. Rather, it is the perfectly logical intent required to use the Cruciatus Curse.
You Have to Mean Them
So if hate and sadism are not universal requirements for casting the Unforgivable Curses what sort of intent is needed to successfully cast each of these spells?
Simply put, to cast the Unforgivables requires knowledge of the spells’ effects and serious intent to inflict those effects upon a victim: Cruciatus requires the desire to cause pain; Imperius requires the intent to control another; and Avada Kedavra requires the intent to kill. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by example.
Delores Umbridge is a sadist. She enjoys making others suffer pain, as was plainly evident in her choice of detention. All she needed was an excuse to use the Cruciatus Curse on Harry and her eagerness to do so was chillingly obvious. “There was a nasty, eager, excited look on her face that Harry had never seen before. [… She] was now panting slightly as she pointed her wand at different parts of Harry’s body in turn, apparently trying to decide what would hurt the most.” 12
Compare this to Draco Malfoy’s use of the Imperius Curse against Madam Rosmerta.13 Draco is smug and self-satisfied when he discusses this with Dumbledore. He’s proud of his cleverness, but he shows no sign of seeing the curse as anything more than a means to an end. Draco is used to commanding others and having underlings to do his bidding. He used Rosmerta because it was expedient to do so – an arrogant and callous act.
Then there’s Peter Pettigrew. He evinced no particular emotion at all when he killed Cedric Diggory. He didn’t know the boy and couldn’t have had any feelings for him one way or another. He simply killed because he was commanded to do so and seemed to spare no thought for having taken the life of another human being.14
From these examples we can see that while it is certainly the case that using the Cruciatus Curse always requires a malevolent purpose, there is no guarantee that this is true for the other Unforgivable Curses. An Auror who tortures a suspect would have to have an ignoble purpose in his heart – enjoyment at inflicting pain. But the same cannot be said with certainty of those who might use Imperius or Avada Kedavra. An evil purpose is not a given for these and particularly not for the Killing Curse. We know from real life that people are capable of killing for myriad reasons from the most depraved to the genuinely honorable.
Evil is a Strong Word
Given that these curses are acceptable to wizarding society when sanctioned due to desperate times and given that those who use them don’t necessarily have to have an evil purpose, are these curses – and those who use them – really unforgivable, really irredeemably evil?
Before we attempt to answer this question, we need to take a close look at what “unforgivable” means. First, it is important to distinguish the quality of being forgivable/unforgivable from the action of forgiveness/blame.
Forgiveness centers on the victim of some wrong-doing. It addresses that person’s decision to let go of blame and resentment towards the one who has hurt them. It says nothing about whether or not the culprit is worthy of that forgiveness.
Forgivable takes the opposite view. This centers on the perpetrator and addresses whether or not the person is worthy of forgiveness regardless of whether or not they ever receive it.
Unforgivable is therefore a universal – almost cosmic – reckoning. In terms of the Unforgivable Curses, it is not a question of whether or not an individual might choose to forgive, but rather, whether or not these curses and those who use them are capable, in principle, of being forgiven.
There are those who would adamantly answer no; who believe that the term “unforgivable” must bespeak the highest truth; and that the use of these curses must be evil regardless of circumstances or purpose. By this reasoning, there is never an excuse for using an Unforgivable Curse and anyone who does so crosses a line and can never be forgiven, not even if they have acted for honorable reasons.
Naturally, there are others who just as vehemently disagree with this viewpoint; who conclude that “unforgivable” is a somewhat poetic term given to the highest crimes that can be committed in the wizarding world, but which was not meant to imply an absolute moral judgment.
We could debate these opposing views, the demands of war and the morality of “necessary evil” forever and not come to a consensus. That’s because opinions on these issues are defined by each individual’s moral code and decent, honorable people honestly disagree here. The real question to ask is what does J.K. Rowling believe? It is her universe and her moral judgment on these curses is final. So what can we deduce of her opinion from canon?
To begin with, good people can do terrible things – sometimes for the right reasons; sometimes for the wrong ones. Mad-Eye Moody has killed, though only as a last resort.15 A thirst for vengeance nearly drove Remus and Sirius to murder Peter Pettigrew who was defenseless and begging for his life in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.16 And in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry tried twice to use the Cruciatus Curse on Snape.17 One shudders to think what could have happened if Snape hadn’t blocked him.
We might like to believe that our heroes can do no wrong and that every mistake they might make will be an innocent one born of noble purpose. But that’s unrealistic. No one is perfect. There is darkness lurking inside each of us and only the very wise or the very lucky manage to always keep it in check. Even Dumbledore was capable of using Dark magic.18 He just had enough self-control not to do so.
We must be very careful, therefore, in leveling judgments of “unforgivable” or “evil”. Evil is a strong word and in Rowling’s universe, few things – few people – are that black and white. Most come in ever shifting shades of gray, so I think it is safe to say that Rowling does not take an absolutist view of these curses either.
Perhaps then we must make exceptions for the good people who do bad things and acknowledge that they are worthy of forgiveness. But what of those who use the Unforgivable Curses for the worst possible reasons and with the worst possible intent? Can we at least deem them unforgivable and truly evil?
Alas, no. Unforgivable, focusing as it does on those who use these curses, is closely related to another oft-discussed concept that is a major theme in Harry Potter: redemption. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition gives the following pertinent definitions:
To forgive is “[…] to refrain from imposing punishment on an offender or demanding satisfaction for an offense. […] More strictly, to forgive is to grant pardon without harboring resentment […] Pardon more strongly implies release from the liability for or penalty entailed by an offense.” 19
To redeem is “[…] to set free […] to save from a state of sinfulness and its consequences.” 20
Forgivable and redeemable then have similar meanings. They both imply that a person is capable of being absolved of wrongdoing and released from the consequences of their actions. But redeemable supersedes forgivable since being capable of being redeemed of one’s sins must include being capable of being pardoned of one’s crimes.
This is important because J.K. Rowling has said that only Voldemort is beyond redemption21 and one cannot be redeemable while remaining unforgivable. Voldemort has committed acts that have pushed him beyond all hope of redemption, but no one else has. Everyone else is capable of being redeemed and hence, forgiven for their actions, including those who have used the Unforgivable Curses.
We are given a poignant example of this in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when it becomes apparent that Draco used the Imperius Curse to force Rosmerta to give the cursed opal necklace to Katie Bell and the poisoned mead to Slughorn. Dumbledore is not horrified by this. Rather he acts as though this was a clever solution to a perplexing problem, “Yes, very neat… very neat…” 22 He does not condemn Draco for the use of this curse. On the contrary, he offers Draco forgiveness for his crimes.23 As the moral touchstone of the Harry Potter series, this is a telling choice on Dumbledore’s part and an important example for Harry and for us.
Ultimately, the designation “Unforgivable” tells us more about those who named these curses than about those who use them. It tells us that wizarding society has chosen not to forgive them except when they are used for society’s benefit. But if love is truly what will win the day against Voldemort, then it is Dumbledore’s example that we must look to. Love – compassion – implies forgiveness and surely love cannot thrive where forgiveness is denied. Recognizing that others are worthy of forgiveness is a crucial step in embracing love – for Harry and for each of us.
The Unforgivable Curses provide us an invaluable lesson in judgment and mercy. They represent the worst impulses of humanity – the worst acts a person can commit against another. But Rowling and Dumbledore tell us that even those who have chosen to enslave, torture or kill for evil purposes can still choose a different path and are worthy of compassion and mercy. The Unforgivable Curses are not, in the end, unforgivable.
1. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 188-90.
2. Ibid., 187.
3. Ibid., 192.
4. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 810.
5. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 457.
6. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 595.
7. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 553.
8. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 588.
9. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 800-801.
10. Ibid., 810.
11. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 204.
12. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 746-47.
13. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 588-89.
14. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 553.
15. Ibid., 462.
16. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 373-75.
17. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 602.
18. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 152.
19. American Heritage® Dictionary, s.v. “forgive.”
20. American Heritage® Dictionary, s.v. “redeem.”
21. An Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp, paragraph 55.
22. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 589.
23. Ibid., 591-92.
An Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp: Readings and questions #1. 1 August 2006. http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/2006/0801-radiocityreading1.html (accessed 25 September 2006).
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
-. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000. -. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005. -. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003. -. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. -. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. s.v. “forgive.” http://www.bartleby.com/61/17/F0261700.html (accessed 25 September 2006).
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. s.v. “redeem.” http://www.bartleby.com/61/83/R0098300.html (accessed 25 September 2006).