Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 19-22

Time travel is never easy to write – or to read! More than any other kind of fantasy, it defies all the laws that govern our world. It’s far easier to imagine waving a wand to levitate a feather, brewing a potion, or discovering a magical beast than traveling back in time to change the past, because there is simply nothing even close to an equivalent in the real world. The past is untouchable. Set in stone.

Sure, we can think about what we’d do if we could travel in time. Would you take life-saving medicine back to the days of the Bubonic Plague? Would you try to stop Hitler’s rise to power? Would you copy down the winning lottery numbers and go back in time to buy a ticket? Could you do any of those things without risking irreversible damage to time itself? It all seems to depend on which theories you buy into. In some fictional worlds, messing with the past at all is a risky business, while in others, time seems to fall into place around the time travelers as if they’d always been there. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban seems to be the latter, but there are subtle hints that it is in fact the former.

In the movie in particular, Harry and Hermione’s actions in the past only seem to explain things that came out of nowhere before. The patronus that saves them is a big one, but smaller scenes are added, such as Hermione imitating a werewolf’s howl and Harry throwing pebbles at their past selves to make them realize they have to leave. However, in the book, Hermione explains how dangerous time turning can be:

“We’re breaking one of the most important wizarding laws! … Professor McGonagall told me what awful things have happened when wizards have meddled with time. … Loads of them ended up killing their past or future selves by mistake!”

If it’s possible to kill your past self, then it sounds like the Grandfather Paradox is in full effect here. The consequences of doing such a thing are not fully explained. However, in Cursed Child, Albus Potter’s actions in the past inadvertently cause his father’s death, erasing him from existence. I’m not sure whether to apply Cursed Child logic to Prisoner of Azkaban, since it was written so long after and the time turners there seem to follow different rules (or at least allow the user to travel back much farther into the past). However, there are hints even in Prisoner of Azkaban that time travel is a messy, dangerous business.

There is still one important moment, though, when it seems that Harry has already changed the past before he goes back in time to do so (which makes time travel seem more stable and less risky than it might be otherwise). During the trip back in time, he casts a patronus, saving his past self. If he hadn’t already been there to cast the patronus, he wouldn’t have lasted long enough to go back in time and do so. The only things they change are things that they didn’t personally witness the first time around, or things that they did see, but didn’t fully understand. Is this simply because Hermione is careful and knows to keep out of sight? Or is that just the way time travel works – and if so, why all the sinister warnings about wizards who ended up murdering their past selves?

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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.

Re-Reading Harry Potter

Because I totally needed another summer project, I got the idea to do a complete re-read of the Harry Potter series, from The Boy Who Lived all the way up to Nineteen Years Later – and to blog about it. After all, this summer is the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter, and this fall is when that once-distant epilogue finally takes place. That seems like as good an excuse as any to re-read the series.

Like most Harry Potter fans, I can remember pretty clearly the first time I read that very first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone. I was in fifth grade, and a lot of my classmates liked it, but I doubted it would live up to the hype. Still, I had to at least try it. I cracked open the spine and started to reading.

Before I knew it, I’d finished that first chapter … and another … and another … and eventually, the whole book. It did indeed live up to the hype, and from then on, I was hooked.

Since then, I’ve read each of the Harry Potter books more times than I could possibly count. But I don’t think I’ve ever re-read them all in order, and I know I haven’t blogged my way through them the way I’m planning to now. This seems like as good a time to do it as ever.

Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapters 1-3

 “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

There’s something very special about this line, at least if you’re a Harry Potter fan. It’s nothing special in and of itself. Most of us in the real world know plenty of people like the Dursleys. But it’s a familiar opening to a beloved story, and reading it is like seeing that Warner Brother’s logo with the Harry Potter soundtrack playing in the background. You know something extraordinary is about to start.

Sorcerer’s Stone starts the trend of introducing the reader to the Muggle world first, which is repeated in almost every single book. I’ve written a lot more about that here. In this book, it’s by introducing the Dursleys, with their fear of magic and stubborn refusal to notice the owls and people in cloaks that flood the streets that day. Then, many pages later, Dumbledore enters, and we start to see a little more of this world the Dursleys are so afraid of. Because we’re set up to dislike them, it’s easy to like the strange group of people who show up unwelcome at their doorstep, and even easier to sympathize with the unfortunate child left in their care.

Speaking of that unfortunate child, the first few chapters of Sorcerer’s Stone are much darker in hindsight. Now that Fantastic Beasts is out and we know exactly what can happen when muggles try to “stamp out that dangerous nonsense” from a magical child, the way the Dursleys treat Harry is even more horrifying.

I can’t imagine that J.K. Rowling knew what an Obscurial was when she wrote these opening chapters, but there is a ton of foreshadowing in them. There’s Harry speaking Parseltongue, although he doesn’t realize it yet. We hear the word “Muggle” for the first time and learn that they’re not supposed to know about magic. We also see a first glimpse at the Order of the Phoenix, although we don’t know that’s what they’re called yet. While the ordinary witches and wizards are out celebrating Voldemort’s downfall, the few who truly fought against him are busy mourning the Potters’ deaths and making arrangements for their son.

And, of course, there’s a lot happening outside of the narrow little glimpse of the magical world that we see. Somewhere, Peter Pettigrew is preparing his escape and Sirius Black is still unaware of how much he’s about to lose. Snape is making a promise to protect Lily’s son. Barty Crouch Sr. is cracking down on Voldemort’s followers, unaware that his own son is one of them. The Lestranges are still searching for their Dark Lord, while other Death Eaters lie and bribe their way out of trouble. Minister of Magic Millicent Bagnold is defending her people’s “inalienable right to party” as they ignore the statute of secrecy and celebrate in the streets. As readers, we don’t get to see all that right away, but it’s part of the story, nonetheless.

Poem: Graduating Hogwarts

Graduating Hogwarts
Standing hand-in-hand
Ready for the future
And whatever it has planned

Graduating Hogwarts
After seven years
Pouring over spellbooks
And facing all our fears

Graduating Hogwarts
Memories preserved
In moving photographs
One final feast is served

Graduating Hogwarts
We sail across the lake
Houses stand together now
Badger, lion, eagle, snake

Graduating Hogwarts
But the story never ends
We’ll always have the memories
The magic, and the friends

Don’t pinch me. I don’t want to wake up.

I think I must be dreaming, because today, I got to teach a Harry Potter lesson to the kids at school.

Let me back up. It’s the last week of school, and with sixth grade graduation on Thursday and – unlike most middle and high schools – no final exams to worry about, this week is an exercise in finding something for the kids to do. One thing we came up with is to get the 4th through 6th graders together for a movie and then plan a special lesson around it. As you might have guessed, that movie was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and as the resident Harry Potter nerd, I got to be in charge of it.

I suggested making it a character education lesson based on the Hogwarts houses, circling back to how they started the year (with character education, not Hogwarts). We talked about the virtues of each house, with emphasis on the idea that everyone has different strengths, but everyone’s strengths are important. In the case of Slytherin, we talked about positive ambition and holding yourself to high standards, versus selfish ambition and taking what you want at any cost. They then wrote a paragraph about which house they thought they would be in, while I helped those that were not sure or weren’t very familiar with Harry Potter.

Did I agree with all of their self-assessments? No. But then again, Hogwarts houses are about what you aspire to be even more than what you are. I think it was definitely a worthwhile project to do. They all got a chance to think, first of all, about what it means to be a good person. Just as importantly, they got to take a look at their own best qualities and strongest values, and what they bring to the table. Hopefully they also learned to appreciate each others’ strengths a little more. A child who is kind to others and a loyal friend is just as important as one who is athletic, does well academically, or is a natural leader among their peers.

We had about as many kids pick Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff as Gryffindor, which I see as a sign that the message got through. Only a few picked Slytherin, and I didn’t try to dissuade them from doing so. Instead, I thanked them for their honesty and emphasized that ambition, turned toward positive goals, could take them far.

The kids loved it. Most of them are Harry Potter fans, anyway, and I think even those few that weren’t ended up enjoying it. As for me, I still don’t believe this is real life. Surely, in just a few minutes, I’ll wake up and find out that it was all just a dream. But for now, please don’t pinch me. I want to enjoy this.

Kelpie

kelpie

One last magical creature before tomorrow’s movie release, and if you think this one looks sweet and innocent, think again. A shape-shifting monster that likes to take the form of a horse, the kelpie drags its victims underwater and devours them.

No-Maj-Born?

I’ve been thinking a lot about American muggle-borns. Rappaport’s Law forbids wizards from befriending, marrying, or forming any real relationship with muggles – so what about those who have muggle family members? How does this society treat them?

Are they allowed into the magical world at all? Or do their Ilvermorny letters simply never come? The school may have a muggle as one of its founders, but it’s possible their policies changed around the time of the Salem Witch Trials or the incident that led to Rappaport’s Law. Did they decide that letting muggle-borns in on the secret was just too dangerous? Do they no longer have any concept “no-maj-born” at all? Do American muggle-borns simply grow up in the muggle world, never realizing there are others like them, never learning how to control their powers?

I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than the alternative: children with magic being taken from their parents, forbidden from contacting childhood friends, forced to leave behind completely the world they grew up in. Parents being lied to about the true nature of Ilvermorny and obliviated if they start to guess, never knowing why their kids are drifting so far away. Or would they even wonder? Would they simply be made to forget?

I kind of favor the first option, mostly because I find it slightly less horrifying. But it also fits with my theory that Credence Barebone is secretly a wizard. If muggle-borns are never brought into the magical community, it makes sense that he’d be able to hide his powers from his New Salem family.

Either way, though, the way that characters like Hermione and Harry go back and forth between the two worlds would hardly fit in the version of 1920’s America that Rowling has created. The strict separation of magical from “no-maj” would make that impossible.

For that matter, what about squibs? In the Harry Potter series, those from magical families with no magic of their own are sort of caught between two worlds. Would they also be forbidden from mixing with muggles in this new setting? Or would they be viewed as a threat, in the same way that muggles are?

I’m not sure any of this will be explored in-depth in Fantastic Beasts. Unless I’m right about Credence Barebone, there don’t seem to be any muggle-born or squib characters. Still, it’s horrifying to think of the implications of what would happen to those who are part of both worlds when they’re separated so completely.