As you’ve probably noticed, we often think about Harry Potter at Black Girls Nerd Out. Even with our weekly #WizardTeam podcast, I always find that there is more to think about the more I think about it, and actually this post is the result of a conversation Robyn and I had while recording our podcast (an episode that won’t come out for a few more weeks—timey wimey, wibbly wobbly and all that).
There are a lot of unlikeable characters in the Harry Potter universe, from outright evil (think Voldemort), to the abusive (Vernon Dursley), to ones who are terrible but on the right side of the fight (like Severus Snape). However, I don’t think I hate two characters more than I hate Dolores Umbridge and Gilderoy Lockhart.
Everyone hates Umbridge, so it’s not a real surprise that she’s included in this post. There is not a moment within the series where you feel sorry for her, or even root for her when she’s up against another character people generally dislike (I rooted for Snape during his inspection, and I suspect that if she ever had to go up against Voldemort…well, the Dark Lord’s gotta do what he gotta do). I was surprised, however, through rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, how much I hate Lockhart. Part of it, I think, had to do with the fact that he shows up so early in the series; he plays a major role while the books were geared toward children. You forget as the story matures, just how horrible he was. Since I was reading Order of the Phoenix while we discussed Chamber of Secrets on the podcast, I started to recognize a lot of similarities between Hogwarts with Lockhart and Hogwarts with Umbridge.
The most obvious similarity between the two is that they both taught Defense Against the Dark Arts. Within the Harry Potter universe, there is a belief that that particular position at Hogwarts is cursed, as there hasn’t been a teacher who has lasted more than a year in a very long time. A lot of the time, Dumbledore is desperate to find someone to take the job, and in the cases of Lockhart and Umbridge, they came along when there were absolutely no better options. While Lockhart likely took the post as a result of his ridiculously vain and misinformed ego, Umbridge was placed there by the Ministry of Magic under Educational Decree Number 22.
This fact, however, does not compel them to be effective educators and stay in their lane. In fact, they both seem unaware of the concept. Both Lockhart and Umbridge attempt to take over the school in their own way. Lockhart does this by taking up space. Anytime something happens, be it the healing of the Whomping Willow, the opening of the Chamber of Secrets, or Harry breaking his arm, he asserts himself as the top expert in knowing how to deal with it. He constantly promotes himself, his Defense Against the Dark Arts class becoming more or less an infomercial for the books that he’s already forced every student in Hogwarts to buy. He is always looking for a spotlight, even in a building full of children, and despite the fact that he actually has no magical talent at all (though if you ask him, placing Memory Charms on the people he plagiarizes is hard work).
Umbridge’s control over Hogwarts is a bit more official and therefore more serious. Whereas Lockhart just pushes himself into whatever situation he can find, the Ministry pushes Umbridge onto Hogwarts. Umbridge’s main goal is power, no matter what she needs to do to get it, and she preys on Fudge’s fear of Dumbledore as a way to get more power. She isn’t content with just being a teacher, it only takes one slight from McGonagall to convince her that she needs even more power over the other teachers, including final say on punishments of the students and the ability to inspect the teachers. While they go about it in different ways, both Umbridge and Lockhart are extremely self-important, dishonest, and have a tendency to make everything about them.
Because of this, even the teachers are unable to hide their dislike. It’s obvious why students would hate them, but the teachers have a hard time as well. With Lockhart, they have to deal with someone constantly asserting themselves in their business (see: Lockhart “advising” Sprout on how to properly doctor a Whomping Willow, offering to whip up the Mandrake Restorative Draught in front of Snape, and attempting to mend Harry’s arm rather than just sending him to Madam Pomfrey), and constantly telling them all the things he’d accomplished. With Umbridge, they have to deal with her constant undermining, questioning their teaching skills, and making it difficult for them to teach their subjects without stress and interruption. The teachers, of course, do try to hide their disdain in front of their students, because they recognize that they are mature adults and work in a school. However, once Lockhart and Umbridge both leave, everyone can tell that the teachers are relieved (in Umbridge’s case, no one is happier than McGonagall, who allows Peeves to take her walking stick and beat Umbridge with it).
It was interesting reading Chamber of Secrets and Order of the Phoenix side by side and seeing the similarities between these two teachers and the reactions from the rest of the inhabitants of Hogwarts. While there are real Dark wizards in the universe who are going around murdering Muggles and Muggle-borns and planning assassination attempts on both Harry and Dumbledore, it’s ironic that the two worst characters aren’t Death Eaters at all. The problem with Lockhart and Umbridge is that though they aren’t on the side of He Who Must Not Be Named, it doesn’t necessarily make them good people. As Sirius said, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. Both Lockhart and Umbridge embody this sentiment, and can have several seats as they learn to stay in their lane and act like adults who work in a school.