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.

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.

Re-Reading Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ch. 7-9

Over a year ago, I wrote a post for this blog titled “Dementors and Boggarts”. You can read it here, but basically, what I had to say is that the two creatures are very similar. Both represent intense negative emotions (fear, misery) and can be fought off – although not destroyed – by focusing on a powerful positive emotion (humor, happiness). They’re among the most “real” threats in Harry Potter, because unlike fire-breathing dragons or murderous vines, they represent very real struggles. We all have things we’re afraid of, and we all have bad memories that haunt us.

One thing I noticed on this read-through is that dementors, as well as boggarts, are associated with fear. When Professor Lupin realizes Harry’s boggart takes the form of a dementor, he tells him this:

“I see,” said Lupin thoughtfully. “Well, well, … I’m impressed.” He smiled slightly at the look of surprise on Harry’s face. “That suggests that what you fear most of all is – fear. Very wise, Harry.”

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first glance. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that Harry’s worst fear is despair, hopelessness, or misery, since those are the things the dementors spread? But that icy-cold dread that comes with them is a lot like fear. Dementors tap into the darkest parts of your mind and bring all the worst stuff to the surface, so it makes sense that fear would be a part of that. It’s just a different kind of fear than what the boggart brings to the surface: a literal manifestation of something you’re afraid of versus a creeping chill of despair.

I guess that means that Prisoner of Azkaban is about learning to face your fears. First the boggarts, which are defeated with humor, then the dementors, which are banished by happy memories. The fact that Harry’s boggart takes the form of a dementor makes this connection even more obvious, because for him, learning to fight off one of the creatures means learning to fight off the other as well. And just as he reacts more strongly to the dementors than other kids, his boggart is also more terrifying. The other kids in his class are afraid of things like snakes, severed hands, and unpleasant teachers, while Harry’s worst fear is a soulless, misery-spreading embodiment of evil.

Courage doesn’t mean being fearless. It means being able to get past your fears instead of being paralyzed by them. It takes a lot of bravery for Harry to learn to cast a patronus because it means routinely exposing himself to his worst fear, but instead of being scared away, he keeps trying until he’s finally able to defend himself. He learns to use a patronus – created from happy memories – to fight off fear and misery. That’s real courage, and that’s why I say this book is about facing your fears.

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.