What do Professor Snape, Queenie Goldstein, Lord Voldemort and the Sorting Hat all have in common? Not much at all, apart from a rare ability that allows them to read a person’s thoughts. That’s great if you’re a piece of headwear specialising in school admin. But for the rest of us, life as a Legilimens would be tougher than you’d expect.
First of all, though, what exactly is (or rather, isn’t) Legilimency?
‘Only Muggles talk of “mind-reading”. The mind is not a book, to be opened at will and examined at leisure. Thoughts are not etched on the inside of skulls, to be perused by any invader. The mind is a complex and many-layered thing, Potter – or at least, most minds are.’ He smirked.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Epic Snape-snark aside, this does help explain things. Legilimens don’t see a stream of coherent and well-formatted sentences laid out before them, because that’s not the way humans think. Thoughts are intermingled with emotions, memories, sensations and whatever annoying tune just popped into your head. Legilimens must hear a lot of advertising jingles.
There’s no doubt this skill would come in handy at times (it certainly helped Queenie in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) but it would also be a real headache – maybe literally, thanks to all those noisy thoughts buzzing around. Here are a few reasons why Legilimency might be no fun at all.
Trust is the key to friendship, but how do you trust someone who can pry into your deepest secrets without permission? Even if your Legilimens BFF promised to respect your privacy, well… sometimes they just wouldn’t be able to help themselves. Especially when you were getting emotional about something – apparently this makes people easier to read.
Most people wouldn’t want to get too close to a Legilimens no matter how friendly they were. It spoke volumes that someone as kind and charming as Queenie Goldstein didn’t seem to have many friends besides Tina, and even she seemed uncomfortable around her sister at times. When talking to Pottermore about playing a Legilimens, Alison Sudol told us, ‘It can make you feel quite lonely, to have something that differentiates you from people like that.’ Aww, poor Queenie!
Severus Snape had a ‘slight natural ability’ as a Legilimens, and we know he didn’t have the happiest childhood. Imagine feeling the mirth of your bullies as they mocked you, while hearing all the names they wouldn’t dare call you out loud. Or knowing your best friend, who you’ve developed secret romantic feelings for, was daydreaming about someone else. We don’t know exactly how young Severus experienced the world, but Legilimency might have made his school days extra miserable.
And yet Professor Snape returned to Hogwarts, prepared to take absolutely no nonsense in the classroom. By then he would have trained his Legilimency to perfection, but what teacher would want to hear the innermost thoughts of a bunch of insipid, snickering youths? Not Severus, that’s for sure. No wonder he seemed to loathe them all.
If you thought friendships would be difficult as a Legilimens, just think of the damage it would do to your love life. First dates can be a minefield, trying to avoid saying or doing anything too embarrassing. Throw Legilimency into the mix and the other person would have to make sure they didn’t even think of anything inappropriate. Awkward for them… and so much worse for you.
‘Aww, don't worry honey. Most guys think what you was thinking, first time they see me.’
Queenie - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Queenie Goldstein was a confident witch who didn’t happen to be self-conscious about her body. Good for her, but that isn’t the case for everyone. Unwanted attention can feel awful, especially when it comes from complete strangers or people you don’t like. Who’s to say Queenie was comfortable with it all the time, either?
As a Legilimens, you’d be forgiven for wanting to avoiding human contact altogether, never mind turning down that second date.
Imagine you’re having a bad day. Everything’s gone wrong and people have been rude to you all morning. To cap it off, your boss reminds you of some tedious job you were supposed to have finished already. Briefly, you think of some wonderfully nasty name you’d like to call them, before getting back to work.
Now imagine your boss is Lord Voldemort. Not so funny anymore, is it? Especially not for the person whose job it now is to clear all the bits of you off your desk.
Not that we’re at all sympathetic to the Dark Lord, but just think of what his powerful Legilimency talents would have done to his sanity. The more often he heard thoughts of betrayal, however fleeting or insincere, the more he would have feared mutiny. He would have ended up seeing a potential traitor at every turn. By the end, he must have been utterly paranoid. His solution – to kill loads of people – is, of course, not recommended.
Always be careful what you wish for. Would you really want to hear what everyone thought about you all the time? Legilimency sounds like far more hassle than it’s worth. Those around you would probably agree.