Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 4-6

Prisoner of Azkaban is an acquired taste, or at least, it was for me. When I first read it, it was my least favorite Harry Potter book, but now it’s one of my favorites. All these years later, I’m still trying to figure out why.

I think what it all comes down to, though, is that the first two books have very high stakes and very obvious dangers. The three-headed dog, the monster from the Chamber of Secrets, and of course the threat of Voldemort’s return are clear-cut and frightening, the tension is palatable, and the main characters’ steps to confront those evils are compelling and obviously worthwhile. Starting in Goblet of Fire, the whole series starts getting darker and darker, with Voldemort back and the wizarding world suddenly at war. Prisoner of Azkaban sits in a murky, ambiguous gray area. We haven’t quite reached the turning point, but nor is it a whimsical adventure story like the first two. It has a certain creepiness about it that becomes more and more frightening as you get older.

When I was ten, dementors didn’t seem scary. I was lucky enough – as every child should be – to not have a whole lot of truly horrible memories, and to have not felt much real despair of the kind the dementors bring out in their victims. I’m still pretty lucky in a lot of ways, but I’ve grown up. I have memories that would be worse to relive than getting sand in my eye or being bullied on the playground. That creeping cold and fear does not seem as far away as it did the first time. It doesn’t seem as fictional, either. Dementors are one of the scariest things in the world of Harry Potter, because even though they’re not real, the things they can do to you are. And I’m grateful I didn’t understand that at ten years old.

It’s not just the dementors, though. It’s Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew, too. I remember feeling let down at the end, when it turned out Harry hadn’t been in any real danger. Of course, Sirius goes on to be a father-figure to Harry, and by the time I got to Order of the Phoenix I certainly wouldn’t have traded that for a Sirius who really was a murderer. But unlike Rowling’s other twists, it didn’t feel like a thrilling revelation that heightened the suspense. I don’t think I understood at the time that the true horrors were the real murderer hiding in plain sight for so long and an innocent man being sentenced to a fate worse than death without even so much as a trial. How strange that the things I missed at age ten are the things that make it all the more compelling now.

It takes a certain amount of maturity to appreciate Prisoner of Azkaban. Much like a thestral, which can only be seen by those who have witnessed death firsthand, the darker themes of Prisoner of Azkaban are nearly invisible to a sheltered child reader but very immediate to a mature adult. Therefore, it’s easy to miss the point entirely, which is a deep, compelling story that confronts evils far more real than Voldemort or the Basilisk.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban, ch. 1-3

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban starts out – like so many of the Harry Potter books – with Harry at Number 4, Privet Drive, missing his friends and counting down the days until he can return to Hogwarts. When his repulsive Aunt Marge comes to visit, he loses his temper, inflates her like a balloon, and runs away from home. This is when we’re first introduced to the Knight Bus, which travels around Britain picking up stranded witches and wizards and taking them wherever they need to go. It’s also when we first meet Stan Shunpike, the Knight Bus conductor, who will later be arrested for a crime no one believes he’s guilty of, sent to Azkaban, and put under the Imperius curse by the Death Eaters when they escape en masse. How fitting that Stan, who becomes sort of a symbol of the Ministry’s corruption in Half-Blood Prince, is introduced at the same time that we get one of our early glimpses of their two-faced nature.

When Harry arrives at Diagon Alley, Cornelius Fudge is waiting for him. To Harry’s surprise, though, he’s not in any trouble for using magic on his aunt. Fudge just wants to make sure he’s safe and book him a room at the Leaky Cauldron. Harry, who has previously been warned that using magic outside of Hogwarts will get him expelled, is naturally suspicious, and he notices Fudge “suddenly looking awkward” when he brings it up. What he doesn’t realize yet, although he will, is that the Ministry has no desire to expel the famous Harry Potter while there’s a murderer on the loose who may be trying to kill him. That would be bad for their publicity. Harry will be safer at Hogwarts, so he’s spared from punishment for the time being.

It’s easy to overlook this, since, after all, it’s to Harry’s benefit. He won’t be so lucky a few years later, when he uses magic in a truly life-threatening situation and ends up facing a full-scale criminal trial for it. By that point, he’s making things difficult for the Ministry with his insistence that Voldemort’s back, and they’d like nothing more than an excuse to kick him out of the magical world. Fudge has a tendency to change the rules as it suits him, which Harry benefits from now but will eventually suffer from once he starts voicing truths the Ministry wants kept quiet.

There’s a lot about injustice in Prisoner of Azkaban. I actually wrote an essay on the topic in college – easiest, most enjoyable school paper I’ve ever written – and I’m sure some of that will come to the surface as I read through it again. By the end of the book, it’s more certain than ever that the Ministry of Magic is fallible and flawed, that their mistakes can ruin an innocent person’s life, and that they don’t always listen to reason. Already, in the earliest chapters, we have our first subtle hint at that unpleasant truth.

Twenty Years Later: Looking Back on a Childhood Shaped by Harry Potter

Twenty years. That’s hard to believe. Harry Potter been around almost my entire life. I was just starting school when kids were opening up the first book for the first time, and I don’t think any of us knew what all this would become. For so many people of my generation, childhood is synonymous with Hogwarts. We grew up reading the books, waiting impatiently for each one, and going to see the movies even though they could never do justice to the stories in our heads. Deathly Hallows marked the end of not just a book series, but a phase of life that we can never go back to, no matter how hard we try. And trust me, we’ve never stopped trying.

They say that in difficult times, you learn who your real friends are, and maybe that’s why it’s so easy to think of the Hogwarts kids as old friends. Middle school isn’t a fun time for anyone, but they were there beside me every step of the way. Simply by opening a book, I could practice spells with the DA, laugh at the Weasley twins’ jokes, fly on a broom next to Harry, and find my way to Ravenclaw Tower, where I was certain I’d belong. It’s always been so easy to imagine myself as a part of that world, even as a muggle who has never set foot in England, let alone Hogwarts.

I can’t credit Harry Potter with teaching me to love reading. I was an avid reader long before I got caught up in the Potter craze. But hearing so many stories from other kids who hated it before these books came along has taught me something just as important: that all it takes is one good book to change a child’s world. Now that I’m all grown up and working as a teacher, I’m constantly on the lookout for that book. And it warms my heart to know that for so many kids today, that book is still Harry Potter.

The series has brought me true friendships and memories worthy of fueling a patronus. I’ll never forget taking Harry Potter books to summer camp, knowing they’d be the perfect icebreaker, because I might not have known anyone there or had much else in common with them, but we all had a favorite character and a House we were sure we’d be sorted into. I’ll never forget when all the kids at school had an opinion about whether Dumbledore was really dead. I’ll never forget how I couldn’t stop smiling as I held Deathly Hallows in my hand and carefully turned the first page, savoring that feeling of starting a new Harry Potter book for the last time. I’ll never forget bonding with college classmates over Pottermore and Hogwarts houses and favorite characters. It was like being in middle school again, but without all the awkwardness and drama.

I don’t think I’ll ever be done with the wizarding world. There’s just so much there, and as I’ve grown up, the world has gained more and more complexity. I’ve asked questions about the ethics of Slytherin house, the symbolism of Quidditch, and everything in between. I’ve made artwork and written poetry inspired by the books. I’ve got a Pottermore wand that I love and an awful patronus that I’ve mostly made peace with. Even during the times in my life when other things have taken precedence, Hogwarts has been there in the background, slowly simmering like a potion, and I’ve known it would be all the better when I returned.

There may not really be a Hogwarts out there, or a Ministry of Magic, or a Grimmauld Place or a Burrow. But that’s okay. They exist in our collective imagination. The characters may not be living, breathing people, but they live in our hearts. They’re our friends and foes and mentors. As Dumbledore says, “Of course it is happening inside your head … but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Likewise, no matter how far-fetched and fanciful the goings-on at Hogwarts are, we imagine them in our mind’s eye, we pour out our sympathy into these fictional characters as if they were people we knew, we escape again and again into their world. That’s what makes it all come to life. “It’s real for us”, and although it ended a long time ago, it’s not really over. I don’t think it ever will be.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets ch. 16-18

There’s a lot about memory in Chamber of Secrets, especially these last few chapters. First of all, there’s Tom Riddle, who claims to be a memory rather than a ghost. Readers who have finished the whole series will know he’s something far more sinister than a memory of the type put into a pensieve, and yet, his diary works very much the same way for Harry when he shows him evidence of Hagrid’s supposed guilt. Just like in a pensieve, Harry is there without truly being there, unable to interact with anyone he encounters. It would seem that, along with a part of his soul, the diary does indeed contain Tom Riddle’s memories.

There’s also Ginny, who finds awful gaps in her memory that coincide with the times the attacks take place. Whenever Tom possesses her and forces her to set the basilisk loose on people, he does so without her knowledge and erases the events from her mind. This inability to remember is one of her very first clues that something is wrong.

Finally, Professor Lockhart’s one real talent turns out to be his memory charms. He has made a career out of tracking down witches and wizards who have done something heroic, wiping their memories, and taking credit for their accomplishments. In what can only be described as karma, one of his memory charms backfires, and he loses his own memories.

The importance of memory certainly doesn’t stop with Chamber of Secrets. It becomes a more and more important theme as the series progresses. In the next book, Prisoner of Azkaban, the story of Harry’s parents begins to take shape; in Goblet of Fire, Harry witnesses important events from the past through a pensieve; in Half-Blood Prince, he and Dumbledore explore many people’s memories in order to learn about Tom Riddle’s transformation into Voldemort and discover a way to stop him; and finally, in Deathly Hallows, it’s through memories in a pensieve that Harry finally learns what his Chosen One status means and that he will have to sacrifice his life to defeat Voldemort.

Even the spin-off stories place an important focus on memory. Albus and Scorpius from Cursed Child travel back in time to their parents’ school days and, eventually, the day Harry’s parents were murdered. The past is more important than the present to their story. Jacob Kowalski, from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is a muggle who finds himself brought along on a magical adventure and falls in love with a witch, but loses his memories at the end of the movie. Amata, from “The Fountain of Fair Fortune”, cannot move on and be happy again until she lets go of her memories of the lover who abandoned her. She does this literally by removing them from her mind as a silvery liquid and throwing them into the river. And, of course, the whole point of Quidditch Through the Ages is to show the long history of the magical sport.

There are many important themes in the Harry Potter series, but memory is certainly one of them. Things that happened in the past – whether as long ago as the Hogwarts founders’ time or as recently as earlier in the series’ present-day timeline – keep on turning up and being important. The Harry Potter stories don’t often use traditional flashbacks, instead using things like the penseive and Tom Riddle’s diary to keep the reader in our present-day protagonist’s viewpoint but allow us – and Harry – to discover the past through magically-preserved memories.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets ch. 13-15

Before Tom Riddle became Voldemort, he was far more secretive about his wrongdoings. He was already committing some of the worst crimes imaginable even while still at Hogwarts, but he did it all behind-the-scenes, while outwardly appearing to be trustworthy and responsible. Dumbledore was the only professor who could see through all that, and even he didn’t realize what Tom Riddle would eventually become.

So, whenever Tom Riddle did something truly horrible, like murder, he never took the blame for it himself. He always made it seem as if some innocent bystander was responsible. Hokey the House Elf accidentally poisoned Hepzibah Smith’s tea. Morfin Gaunt murdered Tom Riddle Sr. and his parents. Hagrid opened the Chamber of Secrets.

The people he framed were always vulnerable to suspicion. House Elves are not seen as wizards’ equals, so it must have been easy to accept Hokey’s bewitched confession as truth and move on. The Gaunts were a family of muggle-hating dark wizards, so naturally they would be the first suspects when a nearby family of muggles was murdered. And Hagrid? While he would never intend for one of his monsters to hurt anyone, he does have an odd fascination with them. Even Harry is willing to believe he opened the Chamber of Secrets as a child, just to get a look at whatever was in there and give it a chance to stretch its legs.

What we see for the first time in Chamber of Secrets is a pattern that repeats itself again and again as we learn more about Voldemort’s backstory. It’s also a pattern that repeats itself in other characters’ stories. Stan Shunpike was arrested in Half-Blood Prince, even though nobody really believed he was working for Voldemort. Sirius Black spent twelve years in Azkaban without a trial for a crime committed by Peter Pettigrew, one of his supposed victims. It’s implied he may not be the only innocent person in that situation, since many others were sentenced without trials. And Barty Crouch, Jr., turns out to definitely be guilty, but when he’s first introduced in the penseive flashbacks, as a twenty-something boy sobbing and insisting he’s innocent, we’re expected to believe he might be. That only works because there’s an established pattern of innocent people being blamed for – or framed for – horrible crimes.

Hagrid is the first obvious example of this, but even Snape and Quirrel are similar. One is obviously guilty and the other clearly harmless, up until the end, when it’s revealed that the harmless one is responsible for everything that’s been happening at Hogwarts. The point, I think, is that it’s not always easy to tell at first glance what someone is really like, and that makes it easy for someone like Tom Riddle to literally get away with murder.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets, ch. 9-12

The Harry Potter books often read like mysteries. Even though they’re set in a school for magic and build up to these big battles between Harry and Voldemort, the plot is driven by some kind of overwhelming question. What is that three-headed dog guarding, and who’s trying to steal it? Who put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire, and why? Who opened the Chamber of Secrets?

The answer seems obvious. Snape is trying to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. Igor Karkaroff put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire. Draco Malfoy opened the Chamber of Secrets. But as Harry and his friends learn in the set of chapters I just finished, the obvious answer is sometimes wrong. After they spend a month brewing polyjuice potion in secret, they finally manage to impersonate Crabbe and Goyle, only to learn that not only is Malfoy not the Heir of Slytherin, he doesn’t have any idea who it is. In fact, it seems all he does is complain that his father won’t tell him more about the heir, because if only he knew, he’d be out there trying to help them.

This is very different from the previous book, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione were allowed to go on believing Snape was guilty up until the dramatic plot twist in the final chapter. In Chamber of Secrets, the mystery is more complex, and Harry and his friends have to investigate more than one suspect in order to get the whole story. Once they figure out that A) Draco Malfoy isn’t the one behind this, and B) the Chamber of Secrets was opened before, it’s only natural that they’d start following that new lead instead.

Meanwhile, Ginny is lurking somewhere in the background, writing in her diary and getting very upset at any mention of the attacks, and everyone still assumes she’s just a timid first-year who’s afraid of the monster. But Ginny isn’t the only one who’s guilty in plain sight. First of all, there’s Lockhart, who remains arrogant, egotistical, and utterly incompetent. At this point, any reader would be asking themselves what they’re missing about this man who has supposedly dedicated his life to fighting the dark arts but is incapable of dealing with pixies or casting a shield charm. And then there’s Lucius Malfoy. What Harry and Ron hear via polyjuice potion makes it seem as if the Malfoys are not involved, but in fact, a lot of what Draco says points directly to his father being behind it all. Why else would he be instructing Draco to “keep [his] head down and let the Heir of Slytherin get on with it”?

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets ch. 6-8

I’m someone who always thinks the book is better. Always. The only exception I can think of is Les Misérables; I’m always very thankful that the musical cuts out the 50+ page lectures on the Battle of Waterloo and the history of the Paris sewer system. But even there, I’m glad to know all that I know about Valjean’s sister’s kids, Javert’s family history, and of course, Eponine and Cosette’s more nuanced personalities. I just doubt I’ll ever feel the need to read the full unabridged version again. Once was more than enough.

What does this have to do with Chamber of Secrets? Well, the Harry Potter books – as long as the last few are – tend not to include those distracting 50-page info-dumps I was talking about. What they do include is a lot of subtle nuance and attention to detail that gets lost in the movie versions.

First of all, character personalities. In the books, Hermione is wonderfully human. And by that, I mean that she’s flawed. She admires Lockhart, whereas in the movie, the other girls swoon over him, but she seems relatively immune. She’s bossy, and she doesn’t always act too sympathetic towards Harry and Ron when they get themselves into trouble. I’m not saying this because I don’t like Hermione; on the contrary, she’s one of my favorite characters. But there’s a lot more to her than just being very smart and capable. She is those things, but she’s a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, and there’s way more to her than that.

On the other hand, if Hermione is reduced to her most positive traits, the opposite is true of Ron. In the books, he brings more to the table than just comic relief and general likability. He’s the only one of the three to grow up in the magical world and understands a lot about it that even Hermione doesn’t. But this is downplayed in the movies. For instance, in the book, Hermione can tell that “mudblood” is a rude thing to call someone, but she doesn’t know just how bad it is until Ron explains. In the movie, she explains to Harry while Ron is still throwing up slugs. Now, Hermione is very bright and knowledgable, but foul language is not something she’d have read about in a book. It makes far more sense that she wouldn’t have heard it until someone called her that, and only be able to figure out that it’s a rude thing to say, while Ron – who grew up in a wizard family – would understand on an instinctive level just how rude it is.

Even minor characters are given far more development in the book than the movie. Colin Creevy, for instance. In the movie, he’s simply a slightly annoying younger student who enjoys photography a little too much. In the book, we know that he – like Harry and Hermione – grew up in the Muggle world and was never exposed to magic before receiving his Hogwarts letter. He’s overwhelmed by all the incredible things around him, and he wants to capture them all on film to show his Muggle father, to give him an idea of what a special place Hogwarts is.

And Mr. Filch is not just a grouchy, unpleasant old man who hates the students and his job. He’s all of that. But he’s also a bitter would-be wizard who could never get magic to work and is still trying all these years later. He hates the students because they have an opportunity denied to him, even though he had a magical parent, and likely grew up in that world. Of course, taking it out on the kids is no way to deal with it, but still … it’s not a justification, but it’s an explanation, and one that makes his character seem all the more realistic.

Characters aren’t the only thing more fully fleshed-out in the books. The intense detail work is often shocking. In chapter 8 of Chamber of Secrets, for example, we first hear mention of a vanishing cabinet at Hogwarts, and we find out it’s just been broken. Four years later, Draco Malfoy will use that same cabinet to let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Earlier in the book, in Borgin and Burke’s, Harry actually hid inside the other vanishing cabinet, and we saw the cursed opal necklace that will later send Katie Bell to Saint Mungo’s. On a more short-term level, we’ve already been introduced to mandrakes, which will be used to make a potion to restore the people who are petrified at the end of Chamber of Secrets. The mandrakes are the only part of that included in the movie.

It’s not that I dislike the Harry Potter movies. On the whole, I like them a lot. It’s just that I’m reminded every time I read the books how much deeper and more thorough and more complex the story is when it’s told – as it was originally done – with ink and paper and hundreds upon hundreds of pages.