Since it’s been a while since I posted about my return to the world of Harry Potter, I thought I’d finally get down to writing about the third volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Although its film version is by far my favourite of all of the films, the book version is not my favourite of the series, though it does mark, in my opinion, a significant turning point in the way that the story develops and is for that reason a linchpin in understanding the series as a whole.
If the first two books saw Voldemort neatly defeated and banished back to his in-between life, this book finally starts to suggest that he may in fact be making a more significant and longer-lasting return. The revelation that Scabbers the rat–a character that, while tangential, has nevertheless maintained a constant presence in the earlier two novels–is in fact Wormtail is sheer brilliance, as it forces us to reflect on just how much of the doings of the wizarding world were inadvertently revealed to him after Voldemort’s original fall from power.
What is most striking and enjoyable about this novel, however, is the way in which the big reveal brings so much else of the narrative into clearer focus. I have written before about how it is only after you have read the entire series that you can recognize the gradually-unfolding brilliance and structure of the whole, and I think this novel illustrates that fact better than any of the others. It is only after we find out about Wormtail’s real identity, as well as Sirius’ innocence, that we recognize the instability of meaning and everything that we have up until now taken for granted about this world.
And speaking of Wormtail…in many ways, I find him to be the most reprehensible character in all of the Potterverse, even more than the horrid Malfoys and even Lord Voldemort himself. There is something disgustingly lurid about his absolute cowardice and his willingness to betray even those who loved him best, all out of his alleged fear of what the Dark Lord was capable of doing. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure that I take Wormtail at his word that his reason for submitting to Volodemort was his fear. It seems just as likely to me that he was as ambitious and ruthless as any of the Death Eaters but found it convenient (and safe) to hide behind his mask of ineptitude. That, I think, makes him even more reprehensible.
Just as importantly, this novel finally begins the series’ turn toward the endlessly and relentlessly tragic. As we learn throughout this novel, both Lupin and Sirius have suffered unjustly because of the conditions that govern their world. Lupin’s affliction in particular has decidedly queer overtones, as the Wizarding world’s rejection of him as a result of his werewolf nature evokes the specter of what happened to those with AIDS during the height of the pandemic. And the injustice of Sirius having been imprisoned all of these years, while tragic and profoundly pathos-inducing in itself, is only compounded by the fact that everyone believes he betrayed the people that he loved most. One cannot help but wonder how he could live with that knowledge through those long years of imprisonment in the worst place imaginable (Harry wonders something along the same lines in The Order of the Phoenix).
This novel, in other words, begins the slow process of revealing just how repressive the Wizarding world truly is. While we have gained glimpses of this in the earlier references to the obsession with blood purity and the Malfoys’ ability to manipulate those who are in power, Prisoner really begins to tear away the flights of fancy motif of the first two novels to reveal the darker, more sinister side of the magical realm. The fact that this world relies on a prison that uses the Dementors–easily one of the most potently evil and unpleasant forces in this universe–as the guards indicates what type of world we are dealing with, and it is not a very flattering portrait.
Lastly, no review of this novel would be complete without at least mentioning the vitriolic and unpleasant Aunt Marge. Though she disappears from the narrative early on, she leaves a lasting impression, as Harry remains haunted by his lack of knowledge about his father. What stands out most to me about the scene where she continues to assault his parents’ is just how angry I became while reading it. Small wonder that he loses control and ends up blowing her up to several times her normal size. And small wonder that he reacts with such joy when he thinks that it is his father who has summoned the Patronus charm, and with such disappointment when he realizes that it was himself all along. It will not be the first time we weep with Harry, as my next Harry Potter post will show.