Welcome Back to Hogwarts everyone! The first thing I noticed upon opening Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is “oh, this is the book where they had to shrink the font size.” I am reading Books 1-4 from a paperback box set, Books 5-7 I have in hardcover. The change is quite noticeable and one can definitely tell that this is where Ms. Rowling starts picking up steam in her storytelling without so much as reading one word.
We start back at the despicable Dursleys and I found myself just dying for the day when Harry doesn’t have to go back there any more. However, placing him back in this setting allows Rowling to show off how Harry has learned and matured, realizing that the promise of “normal” behavior can be leveraged to get himself what he needs. The summer after his first year, he went back with an acceptance of how things were with the knowledge that at least it would be temporary. This time, having experienced hospitality and warm family life while staying at the Burrow in the beginning of Chamber of Secrets, he is not so keen on the accepting the status quo.
Harry’s newfound freedom once he escapes the Dursleys is simultaneously wonderful and heartbreaking. He’s such a good kid that he’s terrified of the consequences of the smallest (and completely justifiable–frankly I’d have killed Aunt Marge for what she pulled) act of disobedience. We get another reminder of how detrimental it is to Harry to have basically been imprisoned by the Dursleys his whole life. Unequipped to survive in the Muggle world on his own, he’s lucky to be rescued by the Knight Bus and kept under the watchful eye of the magical community at large. And seriously, what a good kid, to spend this newfound freedom doing homework, eating large quantities of ice cream, and managing his finances responsibly. Makes a Muggle mother like me proud.
Year 3 at Hogwarts brings us a couple of interesting new teachers. First, Professor Trelawney brings us a way to introduce the idea to readers that some people have a sort of belief that not everyone holds. Hermione and Lavender Brown represent opposite reactions to it. Rowling is very careful not to debunk mysticism, since she does have one true prophecy for the series. She leaves unresolved the question of whether there is any value in divination, but Dumbledore obviously keeps her around for a reason. The fact that he places value on her teachings, valid or not, makes a statement. We also meet Lupin, who serves as the first real hands-on mentor for Harry in the series. His hiring is Dumbledore’s first step in setting Harry up with better Defense Against the Dark Arts training. The headmaster knows Lupin is properly equipped to provide the training Harry will need and that he is extra invested, having been a part of James Potter’s gang. Although the battle with Voldemort isn’t obviously imminent yet, Dumbledore is going ahead with prepping Harry anyway, despite’s Snape’s objections. At this stage, though we know Dumbledore ultimately trusts Snape. The Potions Master’s behavior in this book is dirty and underhanded enough to discredit any objections he makes against Lupin’s presence on the staff. Sorry, Snape, but given your history with the OG Potter crew, no one’s going to listen to you if you keep pulling that werewolf homework essay BS. Be smarter.
Harry and Ron display a special level of recklessness in this book, as would only naturally come from two boys this age who are just comfortable enough in their environment in this, their third year, to think they know everything. I find it a touching gesture that Fred and George share the Marauder’s Map with Harry, showing a new level of respect and brotherly love from the twins, however misguided. On first reading, adventures involving the map seemed like harmless, mischievous fun. As an adult and a parent, I see them for the dangerous endeavors that they are, given the apparent seriousness of the threat in the form of Sirius Black. This is far too risky for so little a reward. It’s the same with the mysterious delivery of the Firebolt. It’s not to say I don’t understand the temptation these items bring; for the boys to act as they do is consistent for their characters, but I’m with McGonagall and Hermione on this one.
Speaking of my favorite heroine of the series, at times during this reading I started to wonder why the whole thing wasn’t about Hermione rather than Harry. Her reaction to the Marauder’s Map and the Firebolt’s arrival are both examples of situations where she weighs the potential benefit of breaking the rules against the potential for danger or trouble, as she did in Chamber of Secrets with the decision to make the Polyjuice Potion. In this case, it’s way more important to follow the rule because of how dangerous not following it could be, regardless of how much it sucks to follow the rule. So Rowling is showing both sides of decision-making to her readers. Of course, she also has to find yet more ways to get Hermione out of the picture in this book. Rather than have her be a victim (as in the previous book), here the reasons are far more organic and consistent with her character. Of course she is going to take as many classes as she can and that would take her away from her less-studious friends. This separation is strengthened by the schism between the friends over the behavior of their pets. The continuation of the feud, mostly shown by Ron, is an extension of the same character traits shown by the insistence of both boys to get themselves into dangerous situations. (It is also an example of that maddening logic that only makes sense to teens this age who are in love and don’t know it yet.) The conflict also serves to show different types of friendship; Ron’s idea of good friendship is to blindly back Harry, where Hermione realizes that the true way to be Harry’s friend is to protect him from himself, even if that means turning him in. Given the stubbornness of each side, it was only ever going to be outside forces, in this case the endearing pleas from Hagrid, to bring the trio back together.
The section of the book from the point that the trio finally meets up with Sirius (in dog form) until Pettigrew escapes and Sirius is captured (Chapters 17-20) serve as a real turning point for the series. Up to this point, Harry has been spoonfed details about his parents and Voldemort as needed, but this is the point of no return. When he is confronted with the truth and makes the choice to overcome his rage and see Pettigrew tried and punished for his crimes, this is when he begins to become the hero, by earning it, not just because the story is about him. Right here is where he shows why the book is about him (and not, as I sometimes wish it were, about Hermione). As an aside, I appreciate the detail of the Whomping Willow being incorporated into Lupin’s backstory. I do wonder whether she had that planned when she introduced it in the previous book or just put it together as she was creating this backstory, but either way, it’s a cool detail and one of many that makes the series as a whole more fun when read consecutively.
Rowling also handles the tricky subject of time travel really well in this book. First, she proves that Hermione is best equipped to handle it by having her execute it throughout the book without anyone taking notice or figuring it out. So, when hatching an escape plan for Sirius, Dumbledore does well, with little time to spare, just by giving hints to Hermione about what should be done. Harry is still the hero of the story, but the best heroes know when to rely on the strengths of their friends. Throughout Chapter 21, Rowling does a great job of explaining the time travel rules of this universe in an easily digestible way. Harry’s suggested deviations from the plan are the same as ours might naturally be, and Hermione’s explanations work on both Harry and the reader. It’s a nice role for Hermione, serving as the authority, possibly paying the character back from having her been absent for so much of the story. Her absence had a purpose and it pays off here.
Rowling’s wrap-ups are as good as her set-ups. I’ve been meaning to mention what an excellent job she does of recapping events from prior books. Every time a plot point from a past adventure comes up, she walks the line, reminding readers what happened without going into so much detail as to bore readers who have memorized every word of the series. She is equally as talented with providing closure at the end of each Hogwarts year. Dumbledore plays a key role, showing up to explain to Harry why his choices in the climax of the book were the right ones. It’s one thing to do the right thing in the moment, to make the right choice because you have been instilled with the right values, it’s another to understand the reasons behind why they are right, even when those right choices seem to have led to bad consequences. The book could have wrapped up without this explanation, but this scene with the headmaster goes the extra mile to address the doubts some more analytical readers might have about the ending, without sounding preachy. And, although it’s a far more minor lesson, I also liked seeing Hermione’s resolution to drop some of her classes, understanding that just because a certain level of achievement is possible doesn’t make it a great idea. It’s another good lesson that’s applicable to just the type of perfectionist who is in the target audience for this book.
So, unfortunately, it’s back to the Dursley’s yet again, but at least we have the Quidditch World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament to look forward to! Come back next month* to see how far we get into the heaving behemoth that is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!
*The author is due to give birth between this installment of the series and the next. She has vowed to do her best to meet the next deadline, please bear with her while she brings a new Potter fan into the world.