It’s always fascinating to re-read the Harry Potter books and see how the complex backstory is pieced together a little bit at a time. In the very first chapter of the series, we learn that Harry’s parents were murdered, that he was the sole survivor, and that when Voldemort failed to kill Harry, his own powers were somehow broken. By the end of Deathly Hallows, we have all the details on how and why that worked the way it did. But where I am right now, in the middle of Prisoner of Azkaban, a huge amount of misinformation is added that will take the rest of this book to resolve, and many new questions are raised, while old ones remain unanswered.
First of all, we learn that the Potters knew Voldemort was after them and tried to hide. Fudge claims this information came from a spy working for Dumbledore. Later, we will learn that it actually came from Snape, who was not a spy yet at the time; it was Voldemort’s decision to kill Lily that convinced him to change sides and become a spy. This is not revealed until Deathly Hallows.
Then, of course, there’s the explanation of the Fidelius charm. It’s all very accurate, with one big exception: Sirius Black was not the Potters’ secret keeper. Peter Pettigrew was, and he’s the one who betrayed them to Voldemort. This will be revealed by the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.
And, finally, several unanswered questions remain. Why did Voldemort try to kill the Potters? How did he know about the prophecy? How did he survive when his killing curse rebounded? What exactly happened that night to give Harry his lightning scar, parselmouth powers, and mental link with Voldemort? The answers to those questions unfold slowly over the course of the next four books, along with unexpected connections to Professor Trelawney, Neville’s parents, and the Deathly Hallows.
On a related note, here are some early signs that Sirius isn’t as evil as he seems:
- Madam Rosmerta says, “I still have trouble believing it … of all the people to go over to the Dark Side, Sirius Black was the last I’d have thought …”
- Dumbledore “had suspected for some time that someone on our side had turned traitor”, but no one ever said he suspected Sirius. The Order of the Phoenix did in fact have a traitor, but that traitor was Peter Pettigrew.
- When Sirius arrived at the Potters’ house after their deaths, Hagrid says he was “white an’ shakin’” – which at the time he assumed was out of grief for Lily and James, but later decided must have been because of Voldemort’s disappearance. He had it right the first time.
- Peter Pettigrew was supposedly murdered, but they never found the body, just a “heap of bloodstained robes” and a single finger. In fiction, if there’s not a body, there’s a good chance they’re not dead. (Although, incidentally, when Sirius himself died, there was no body to find.)
- The dementors don’t affect Sirius the way they do other people. This implies that there’s something different about him. Later, it will be revealed that he thinks obsessively about his innocence, which reminds him who he is in a way they can’t drain away.
- When Hagrid talks about the short time he spent in Azkaban, he says that the dementors “don’ give a damn who’s guilty an’ who’s not”. This reminds the reader that innocent people can indeed be sent to Azkaban and reinforces that the prison’s inhuman guards don’t see much difference between tormenting a guilty person or an innocent one.
- Sirius is the only one who could have sent Harry the Firebolt, Hermione is right about that. And yet the broom isn’t
- And finally, the things we learn about Azkaban in this book are just too horrible. Along with the Buckbeak subplot, this sets up the story to be one of corruption and injustice, which doesn’t work unless Sirius is innocent.
There’s also an early hint that the Ministry knows Voldemort isn’t gone for good. Fudge says they hope to catch Sirius before he can rejoin Voldemort, because “give him his most devoted servant, and I shudder to think how quickly he’ll rise again”. The very next year, Voldemort is indeed reunited with a loyal follower who helps him rise again, and when that happens, the Ministry refuses to acknowledge it.