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?

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 16-18

Well. It seems like all the pieces are falling into place. Professor Lupin is a werewolf, Sirius Black is innocent, and Peter Pettigrew has been hiding in the form of a rat for years. For the first time, we’re offered a glimpse at the previous generation that goes beyond Lily and James’ deaths. We learn about the Marauders’ childhood friendship, their rule-breaking exploits, and the tragic end to their story.

I’m still not sure who I pity the most. James and Lily, who died at 21 because of a friend’s betrayal? Sirius, who was framed for said betrayal and spent twelve years in prison, surrounded by creatures that suck all the happiness and hope out of you? Or Remus, who was left completely alone, believing two of his childhood friends to be dead and the third to be a traitor?

Harry Potter as a whole isn’t a tragedy, although it has elements of one. It deals with serious themes such as injustice and corruption. It puts its characters in horrible situations and often requires them to be far braver than any child their age should have to be. By the end of the series, many beloved characters have died, including all of those I mentioned above. And yet, there is always hope. The more tragic aspects of the story never outweigh the hopeful ones. In the end, good triumphs over evil and the world is set right, and Harry sends his children off to school nineteen years later in a world where “all was well”. A true tragedy would have left him dead in the Forbidden Forest. Order would still be restored, but at a much heavier price.

And yet, the stories of many minor characters are indeed tragedies. The Hogwarts founders, who were unable to coexist in peace and left behind a legacy of division rather than unity. Ravenclaw’s daughter and the Bloody Baron. Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Credence from Fantastic Beasts. Andromeda Black. Regulus Black. The Weasley twins. Neville’s parents. Cedric Diggory. There are only too many characters whose stories end tragically, whether due to a tragic flaw, a mistake realized too late, or simply bad luck and bad timing. The story of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs is all of those things. Their suspicion of each other, Peter Pettigrew’s cowardice and betrayal, Lupin’s uncontrollable condition, Sirius’ impulsive nature and unpleasant family, and a whole lot of bad luck all contribute to their eventual downfall.

Tragedies don’t usually end with a victory for the villain. Rather, they end with things set right, but at a horrible price. The Montagues and the Capulets stop feuding, but only after their teenage children’s suicide. Hamlet’s father’s murder is avenged, but Hamlet dies in the process, as do Ophelia, Polonius, and many other innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Edgar survives and becomes king, but almost every other character is dead, including Lear and Cordelia. From Sirius Black or Remus Lupin’s point of view, the war against Voldemort is a tragedy as well: one in which good wins in the end, but at the cost of everyone they loved, as well as their own lives.

Hesitant Vengeance: Hamlet and Harry Potter

I’m getting near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban in my re-read, which means I’m in the middle of the Marauders’ story and thinking about how tragic the Harry Potter books are from their point of view. I mean, all of them die young, one betrays his friends, another is framed for that betrayal and murder, and the fourth is ostracized from most of society for something that’s no fault of his own. There’s a little flicker of hope with James and Lily’s son and his destiny as the Chosen One, but none of them live long enough to see that happen. In preparation to write about that, I went back to look at those old posts I wrote last winter when I was reading Shakespeare. I was shocked to find that I’d never said anything about Hamlet, because I knew I’d written something comparing the themes of revenge and murder there to things that happen in the final few Harry Potter books. So, I dug this out of my unpublished drafts. Better late than never, right?

Revenge is not as central a theme in Harry Potter as in Hamlet, but the fact that it’s not is noteworthy. After all, the central character is a young man fighting his parents’ murderer, and many of the other heroes have suffered and lost loved ones at the hands of the villains. Neville’s parents, for instance, were tortured to insanity by the Lestranges and Barty Crouch Junior. In the Order of the Phoenix movie, when Neville first meets Bellatrix Lestrange, he responds to her mocking question about his parents by saying they are “about to be avenged”. However, vengeance is never his main motive, and he doesn’t kill any of the people involved in his parents’ torture. In fact, as far as we know, he doesn’t kill any people at all. Instead, his big moment of heroism consists of defying Voldemort in front of both assembled armies and destroying his last horcrux, making him mortal again. It’s the conclusion of an entirely different character arc, one about an awkward young boy learning to believe in himself and fighting for what he knows is right. Neville is, in a way, the opposite of Hamlet; instead of hesitating out of doubt, he hesitates due to low self-esteem, and when he grows past it it’s to find a greater purpose than revenge.

At the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, Draco Malfoy seems eager for revenge. While his father is not dead, he has been defeated and imprisoned, and the family has fallen out of Voldemort’s favor. Being recruited by Voldemort and tasked with murder must have seemed to him like a chance to get even, which he embraces without realizing what it entails. As the year goes on, he becomes more and more hesitant, until – facing a disarmed and helpless Dumbledore – he can’t bring himself to kill him. Like Neville, Draco is something of an inverted Hamlet; while Hamlet hesitates at first but later pursues revenge, Draco becomes hesitant later and never kills anyone. Rather than a tragic flaw, this is portrayed as evidence that he still has a conscience (however deeply-buried).

Neville and Draco are both foils to Harry, so it’s no surprise that similar themes appear in Harry’s own journey. Harry never hesitates to fight against Voldemort, and it’s impossible to say that revenge isn’t at least part of his motivation. In Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore asks him how he’d feel if he had never heard the prophecy, Harry replies, “I’d want [Voldemort] dead, and I’d want to be the one to do it”. However, when he faces Voldemort in Deathly Hallows, revenge is the least of his motives. His willingness to sacrifice his life shows that much. Rather, it’s his strong ability to love that drives him: both love for the people he’s lost to Voldemort and love for the people still living who he wants to protect. He would want to be the one to kill Voldemort even without the prophecy because he has seen the worst Voldemort is capable of and will do anything in his power to protect others from him. Any personal desire to see his parents’ murderer die is secondary to this overwhelming, self-sacrificing protectiveness and love.

There are a few moments, however, when he does seem to be motivated by revenge. After Dumbledore’s death, he chases after Snape, shouting out all kinds of curses, including one that he knows from past experience could be deadly. He implies several times in Deathly Hallows that he’d like to seek revenge against Snape, but of course, he never gets the chance. In Prisoner of Azkaban, he initially longs for revenge against Sirius, but later decides to prevent Peter Pettigrew’s murder, preferring to turn him in and clear Sirius’ name instead. He also attempts twice to use the cruciatus curse, which causes its victim immense pain. The first time, he’s unable to, even though Bellatrix has just killed one of his father figures; the second time, he uses it easily, and with much less provocation. In fact, Harry using an unforgivable curse when a stunning spell would have sufficed is one of the darkest moments of Deathly Hallows. These moments stand out because they are uncharacteristic for Harry. He is not usually hesitant, much less cowardly, but he is rarely cruel or vengeful.

In fact, Harry can be described as “reluctant” in one very important way: reluctant to kill. He fights in battles while trying not to cast any lethal spells, which is admittedly much easier when one is a wizard and can stun or disarm the enemy with magic. However, even the other heroes are surprised and dismayed. Once, after Harry refuses to kill a man he suspects to be under the imperius curse, Lupin tells him that “the time for disarming is past”. Harry nevertheless continues in a fairly consistent pattern throughout Deathly Hallows, stunning, disarming, and escaping from his enemies without doing them any lasting harm. The only life he takes is Voldemort’s.

I think it all comes down to what we as a society value. Today, we are less likely to celebrate those who take pursue revenge for its own sake, so we have to find new motivations for our heroes. They instead fight out of a sense of duty, or to protect others, or to defend themselves, all reasons for violence that are viewed more positively today than revenge. This is especially the case in a series like Harry Potter, which emphasizes the importance of love, allows for second chances, and describes murder as “an act against nature” which splits the soul and spoils any innocence a person might once have had. A Harry who acted mainly for revenge would have been much harder to make into a modern-day children’s hero and would not have fit in with the series’ view of the world, while a Hamlet who behaved like Harry Potter would have been out of place in a historical revenge tragedy, even one that often transcends the genre as Hamlet does.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 14-15

When I talk about guilt and innocence as a major theme in Prisoner of Azkaban, I’m not just talking about Sirius Black. Even the subplots revolve around similar ideas. In these chapters, Ron feuds with Hermione when he believes her cat has eaten his rat, while Hagrid goes to defend Buckbeak the hippogriff in court.

Crookshanks did not eat Scabbers, although it certainly looks that way now. In fact, Ron is right that Hermione’s cat has an obsession with attacking his pet rat, but it’s not because he wants to eat him. He’s smart enough to know an animagus when he sees one and is attempting to help Sirius by bringing Peter Pettigrew to him. Not that the first-time reader is aware of that at this point in the story. However, as Hagrid points out, even if Crookshanks did eat Scabbers, he’s behaving as all cats do, and Hermione is guilty only of failing to prevent that. How guilty does that make her? Well, it depends who you ask. Hermione herself would say not at all, while Ron would say it makes her very, very guilty.

Then there’s Buckbeak. It’s true that he did attack Malfoy, but only because Malfoy provoked him. He’s really no more dangerous than any other hippogriff. However, should such easily-provoked creatures really have been introduced in the very first Care of Magical Creatures lesson? Does that make Hagrid guilty for having them work with an animal they weren’t prepared for? Should anyone, human or animal, pay the price for Malfoy doing exactly what they were told not to? That’s an even harder question to answer. Hagrid doesn’t always make wise decisions about what kinds of animals are appropriate for young kids to be around, but he had no way of controlling Malfoy’s reckless behavior.

What I’m getting at here is that guilt isn’t always black-and-white. This is hardly the first time that’s been brought up. In the previous book, for instance, Hagrid is framed for opening the Chamber of Secrets but still guilty of keeping a monster in the castle, while Ginny did open the Chamber and set the basilisk loose, but only because she was possessed by Voldemort. But it’s especially important in Prisoner of Azkaban, because it’s all setting the stage for the twist ending.

Speaking of the twist ending, here’s another big sign that Sirius is innocent: when he sneaks into Gryffindor Tower, Ron wakes up to find him standing over his bed, holding a knife. They all wonder why he simply vanishes rather than continuing to search for Harry, and they assume it’s because there are so many people around. However, it makes a lot more sense if he was never after Harry in the first place.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 13

Many people joke about needing more hours in a day, but can you imagine what it would really be like? Hermione doesn’t seem to be handling it too well, and if anyone can be counted on to manage a crazy schedule, it’s her. But it’s not hard to see why. She’s been living for months now on at least 26-hour days!

And that’s assuming as little time-turning as possible. It’s assuming that – since the other kids seem to be taking 2-3 new classes and she’s taking 5 – she has to travel back in time twice each day. It doesn’t take into account the “double” class periods Hogwarts students often seem to have, and it doesn’t take into account the time allotted for homework.

Most people have a natural body clock that runs on a 24-hour schedule. They go to sleep, wake up, and go about their daily routine. Hermione is pushed out of that sort of schedule and into an unnaturally long day, meaning it’s probably impossible for her to get into any kind of predictable rhythm. Her body isn’t expecting all the repeated hours, delayed meals, and longer days.

Speaking of meals, for that matter, how long is she going without eating? If most of her overlapping classes are in the morning (which seems to be the case), is she eating lunch before or after she goes back in time? If before, that’s a long time until dinner; if after, that’s a long time between breakfast and lunch. Either way, it doesn’t seem like a healthy schedule.

And how much sleep is she really getting? She has not only extra classes but extra homework as well. It seems as if she’s constantly tired and miserable. Even if she’s using the time turner to make sure she gets 8 hours of sleep, that would only make her day longer, meaning she’s sleeping 8 hours out of … 27? 28? 30? Just how long have her days become?

If Hermione’s days are 28 hours (2 extra hours to sleep + 2 extra hours for classes), and if she’s sleeping 8 hours a night, she’s awake 20 hours. If she’s also time turning another 2 hours for homework, that makes 30 total, and 22 hours awake in a row. Most people who are awake that long would be falling asleep on their feet.

Is it any wonder, then, that Hermione is working instead of celebrating after Gryffindor’s Quidditch victory? Is it any surprise that she doesn’t have the patience and energy to make amends with Ron when they squabble? And is it shocking that she loses her temper and storms out of Divination? Maybe not.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 10-12

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.

If I Went to Hogwarts

It’s nearly impossible to read Harry Potter without asking yourself how you’d fit into that world. What Harry Potter fan hasn’t thought about which house they’d be in? I know I have. I also know what kind of wand I would use (rowan and unicorn hair), and although I’ve more-or-less made peace with my cat patronus, I still insist it would be a normal cat, not an ugly hairless one. There’s a reason we all keep taking those quizzes even when they give us results we’re not crazy about. We want to catch a glimpse of who we would be if we’d really gone to Hogwarts.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, which I’m currently re-reading, the kids start taking new elective classes: Care of Magical Creatures, Divination, Ancient Runes, Arithmancy, and Muggle Studies. Most students sign up for 2 or 3 of these, but of course, Hermione takes all of them. And, even more predictably, reading those chapters again has made me wonder which classes I’d choose to take if I went to Hogwarts.

I’d definitely take Ancient Runes. I’m very much a language person, and my real-life college major was a foreign language, so studying an archaic writing system sounds right up my alley. One of the things I love about the world of Harry Potter is the power that words and language hold there, so I’d definitely want to explore it in as much depth as possible.

I’d also take Muggle Studies, not to learn about the muggle world itself, but to learn about how wizards see it. Most don’t bother to learn much about muggles, and those that do often have weird misconceptions. I think that if I found myself in the middle of a situation like that, I’d want to do something about it, and I’d need to understand both sides of the equation first.

I’m not sure I’d want to take any of the other three. I feel about the same way about Divination that McGonagall and Hermione do: there are real prophecies in the world of Harry Potter, but Trelawney is a fraud 99% of the time, and the subject isn’t useful unless you’re actually a Seer. I don’t have much respect for fortune-telling in the real world, and I doubt I’d feel much differently about it at Hogwarts.

Arithmancy is basically wizard math, and I have no reason to believe I’d like it any better than muggle math. I did well in my Algebra classes, but I never felt the need to go on to calculus. Likewise, I doubt I’d choose to take an optional math class at Hogwarts. As for Care of Magical Creatures, I’d take the class if Newt Scamander was teaching it. Hagrid, as nice a person as he is, doesn’t always have the best judgment about what creatures are too dangerous for teenagers to handle. If I did end up in his class, I’d probably drop it after the first year. So it might just be Ancient Runes and Muggle Studies.

What about the other classes, the ones required from the start? I feel sure I’d be more of a Neville or a Hermione than a Harry when it comes to flying lessons. I’m not particularly athletic, and I’m not fond of heights, which isn’t really a great combination when it comes to flying around on a broom and playing quidditch. I’m also not so sure about potions, but Herbology and Transfiguration always sound fascinating, and Defense Against the Dark Arts would definitely be worth knowing. Charms seems like the most useful and versatile branch of magic, and I suspect that one might be my favorite out of the first-year classes.

I think what I’d miss the most from the muggle world would be English classes. I’ve always enjoyed studying literature, and whatever literature the magical world has is apparently not seen as important enough to devote a class to. Nor is writing, for that matter. The kids write essays for school, but they’re not taught writing skills the way that most muggle high schoolers are. That would be a big disappointment for me. Luckily, I’d be a Ravenclaw, so it wouldn’t be too hard to get together some kind of book club or study group to learn about it on our own.