Memories play an important part in the Harry Potter story. In last week’s post, I mentioned occlumency – “the magical defence of the mind against external penetration” – and legilimency – “the ability to extract feelings and memories from another person’s mind”. As I said then: In Rowling’s Wizarding World, this can get a little more ‘physical’ than we are used to in the Muggle world…
In his Headmaster’s office at Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore keeps a magical device called the Pensieve. It is introduced to us in Chapter 30 of the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire. Harry discovers it while he is waiting for Dumbledore in his office:
A shallow stone basin lay there, with odd carvings around the edge; runes and symbols that Harry did not recognize. The silvery light was coming from the basin’s contents, which were like nothing Harry had ever seen before. He could not tell whether the substance was liquid or gas. It was a bright, whitish silver, and it was moving ceaselessly; the surface of it became ruffled like water beneath wind, and then, like clouds, separated and swirled smoothly. It looked like light made liquid – or like wind made solid – Harry couldn’t make up his mind.
When Harry bends down over it, he find himself drawn into the substance, and transported to another place and time, where all he can do is watch (he cannot interfere).
When he gets pulled back into the present time, he asks Dumbledore what the thing is.
‘This? It is called a Pensieve,’ said Dumbledore. ‘I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.’
’Er,’ said Harry, who couldn’t truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.
’At these times,’ said Dumbledore, indicating the stone basin, I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.’
’You mean … that stuff’s your thoughts?’ Harry said, staring at the swirling white substance in the basin.
’Certainly,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Let me show you.’
Whereupon he demonstrates by drawing out his wand, placing the tip of it near his temple, drawing out a glistening strand of the same kind of substance from his head, adding it to the Pensieve and swirling the stone basin “rather as a gold prospector would swirl for fragments of gold”.
The word Pensieve is of course derived from “pensive” (=deeply thoughtful) and “sieve” (utensil for straining or sifting etc).
The Pensieve continues to be an important object throughout the rest of the series; as is the whole idea of being able to dive into another person’s memories.
The most important difference between using the Pensieve and just listening to someone telling you about their memories, is that with the Pensieve, you get an objective view of what happened; and you are free to draw your own conclusions about it.
But to be able to use the Pensieve, you must first obtain the memory you want to examine, in the form of that physical substance.