Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling

Art by Jonny Duddle

…So, maybe bathrooms aren’t that important in the Harry Potter series, as they don’t feature at all in the third book. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) feels different in a number of ways from the first two books. The basic elements of a Harry Potter story are here — the eruption of magic into the Dursley’s ultra-mundane lives at the start, leading to a spectacular magical-form-of-transport escape (this time the Knight Bus), a visit to Diagon Alley (the Harry Potter equivalent of James Bond’s visits to Q before a mission), a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher first encountered outside of Hogwarts, Quidditch, Quidditch, and more damned Quidditch (too much Quidditch in this one), a dark character assumed to be the cause of the main evil but who turns out not to be (previously Snape, then Malfoy, now Sirius Black), an underground chamber (or at least one reached by an underground tunnel) where we get a long exposition before a showdown with the actual evil… But some of the other elements I listed as part of the Harry Potter “formula” in my entry on The Chamber of Secrets are getting a lot more tenuous. The magical item unknowingly acquired in Diagon Alley that turns out to drive the rest of the plot, here, is Ron’s rat. He’s been around for a lot longer, of course, but his oddity (his long-livedness) gets highlighted in Diagon Alley for the first time. Ron and Harry don’t, as they do in the last two books, venture into the Forbidden Forest to meet a dangerous-but-neutral magical creature and gain a vital clue, but Sirius Black has been living in the Forbidden Forest for most of the novel; he just comes out to meet them. And the usual resolution, where Harry pulls a magical object out of an item of clothing — a pocket, a hat — might in this case be fulfilled by Peter Pettigrew, who emerges from Ron’s pocket.

Cliff Wright cover

Perhaps most different to the previous two books is that this is the first in the series (the only one, I think) not to feature a personal appearance by Voldemort (or even a fragment of him). This easily might not have worked — normally, you’d expect each book in a series to up the stakes each time — but actually it allows for a much more satisfying and complex resolution, as it can’t all be explained away as the actions of pure evil, but of human beings in all their complexity of flaws, failures, and virtues. By not featuring Voldemort, the third Harry Potter book actually takes the series up a notch in terms of moral and emotional complexity.

I do think that this book — which is half again as long as either of the previous two — feels a bit baggy in the middle, with a lot less focus, and a few scenes on the soap-opera-ish side that add a little colour to the characters but nothing to the plot. Plus, it’s particularly Quidditchy, and Quidditch — whose matches are, in a way, echoes of the main story’s Eucatastrophic endings, with Harry snatching the Snitch out of nowhere to win the game, just as he pulls a Philosopher’s Stone from his pocket, or the Sword of Gryffindor from a hat — feel a bit manipulative in story terms, as it’s all about Harry feeling bad (when his team loses) or good (when he wins), but without gaining any knowledge or interesting experience en route. (Except for the usual mid-match attempts on his life, I suppose.)

But the ending, as I say, is the best so far — helped no end by being a double ending, as the final events are replayed by Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner, giving them a much-needed nudge towards another (but not wholly) happy ending. That’s satisfying on a plot level (and it’s done even better in the film, where they have a lot more fun with it), but there’s also deeper emotional satisfaction in Harry’s finding he’s gained a godfather and thinking at one point he’s seen his father.

Brian Selznick cover

There’s a lot more of a personal connection between Harry and the past events that drive this book, too. There’s always the connection of Harry wanting to get his own back on Voldemort for killing his parents, of course, but here we learn a lot more about Harry’s father and his friends at school, and how one of them betrayed him, and how another took the blame. We also learn that Harry’s father and his friends weren’t entirely “good”, as they played a prank on a young Severus Snape (who, in this book, is at his most venomous and mean) that could have killed him. For added poignance, we get to witness a moment whose significance it’s easy to miss, as it’s not underlined in the text, as Harry finds himself in a position very similar to that of Voldemort on the fateful night when his parents died. Voldemort wanted to kill baby Harry, but Lily Potter stood in the way; now, we see Harry wanting to kill Sirius Black (who he thinks is responsible for his parents’ death), only to have Crookshanks the cat leap in the way. It’s like a test of how different Harry is from Voldemort — or, maybe, it’s a living flashback. And Harry’s been having plenty of those, thanks to the Dementors bringing back in vivid detail his mother’s screams on the night she died.

Olly Moss ebook cover

I said in my entry about The Chamber of Secrets that memory and memory-related magic were important to the series, and it’s even more true in this book. Rowling finds all sorts of ways of bringing the past alive as a living force. It can be in characters who were thought to be dead coming back to life (Peter Pettigrew), Harry’s Dementor-driven flashbacks (traumatic memory as a source of weakness), or the counter to them, where positive memories can power a Patronus (memory as a source of strength). Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner to revisit their own close past and make a few changes is like another version of the series’ use of relived memories (the Mirror of Erised in Stone, Tom Riddle’s diary in Chamber, and Dumbledore’s Pensieve later on). Meanwhile, the malleability of memories and stories about the past are highlighted by Peter Pettigrew’s faking his own death to frame Sirius, but also perhaps in this book’s other memory-themed thread, Divination, where prophecies are a sort of memory of the future, and just as deceptive as memories of the past. (And just as powerful in their ability to reshape the world, too, as comes clear in a later book, where we learn Voldemort’s motive in seeking Harry that night — and thus bringing about his own demise — was down to his believing one particular prophecy.)

Recovering — and correcting — memories and stories of the past, in this book, are part of Harry’s role as a truth-seeker, which can lead not just to a sense of the truth revealed but to a righting of wrongs. Given the chance to kill Pettigrew, the man who brought about his parents’ death, Harry decides to hand him over so his story can be told, meaning not only will Pettigrew get his proper punishment, but Sirius Black can be absolved. As Dumbledore says, in one of his wise summings up at the end of the book:

“Didn’t make any difference?” said Dumbledore quietly. “It made all the difference in the world, Harry. You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate.”

Kazu Kibuishi cover

And it’s no surprise that a book with such a title as The Prisoner of Azkaban is full of prisons both literal and metaphorical, as well as escapes from them. There’s Harry’s escape from the Dursleys in a burst of magic (and a certain amount of wild-talent psychokinesis, too, which makes this now-teen resemble Stephen King’s Carrie, in a way — both get locked in cupboards by their parent/guardians, after all). There’s Sirius’s escape from Azkaban. There’s Harry’s being told to stay at the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley till he’s released by the arrival of the Weasley clan. There’s Buckbeak’s escape from a sentence of death. There’s Pettigrew’s escape from a self-imposed imprisonment as Ron’s rat. Hogwarts becomes a sort of prison for Harry when he doesn’t have the signed form to let him visit Hogsmeade — until he escapes with the aid of his sneaky magical possessions, the Cloak of Invisibility and the Marauder’s Map. Hermione gets herself trapped in a self-imposed prison of too much schoolwork, till she sets herself free by admitting how much she’s expecting of herself (which is also part of the theme of mental illness that runs through the book, including Lupin’s self-injuring when he struggles with his wolf-side, Harry’s traumatic flashbacks, Sirius Black’s purported “madness”, and Hagrid’s despair at Buckbeak’s fate). Harry learns to escape a little from his own past, too, by learning to counter the traumatic memories the Dementors bring out in him. (And I can’t help likening Harry’s fainting fits before the dark-hooded Dementors to a wounded Frodo’s wooziness before the Nazgûl in Lord of the Rings.)

Along with this theme of imprisonment and freedom is one of punishment and retribution. As usual, it’s introduced in comic form in the Dursley section, with Harry having to pretend he goes to school at “St Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys”, which leads Aunt Marge to ask if he’s “beaten often”. Uncle Vernon, meanwhile, on hearing the Muggle-friendly version of Sirius Black’s supposed atrocities, asks:

“When will they learn,” said Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his large purple fist, “that hanging’s the only way to deal with these people?”

Back cover of UK paperback, art by Cliff Wright

While the series has had dark moments from the start, they become less comic and more oppressive in The Prisoner of Azkaban, with its decidedly Gothic tinges of trauma, betrayal, depression, and madness. This is all part of the series’, and its main characters’, growing up. (Their entry into adolescence — the start of their transformation from childhood to adulthood — is perhaps heralded by the four key figures from the past, Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, all being animagi, wizards who can transform themselves.) Harry is more outspoken against the Dursleys, and experiences a killing hatred in this book, something I don’t feel would fit in the previous two. Perhaps the ultimate sign of his growing up is that he at one point mistakes himself for his own father. Hermione, meanwhile, learns not to expect so much of herself, and indulges in a little uncharacteristic rule-breaking. Ron, um… Well, Ron learns to get over the loss of his rat.

(And it’s nice to see that, as Harry’s Patronus is a stag, he’s joining other YA protagonists covered on this blog — Stag Boy, A Monster Calls — in allying with the horned god Cernunnos.)

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