I’ve been faithfully popping these up every week,but now that I’m onto the doorstopper books, I have a suspicion they’ll become fortnightly. I just can’t read that fast… Anyway, here is the last slender Harry Potter book, number 3…
Last week, I mentioned that The Chamber of Secrets was my least favourite HP book; well, the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it; I’d often pick it up and read it as a standalone. Along with Alice in Wonderland and Northern Lights, it was a comfort blanket book. I’m glad to say it’s stood the test of time.
Possibly the strongest entry in the series, it’s a true novel. JK Rowling’s gift for plotting is evident again, but here, the characters- especially of our three leads- advance further than they have done in the previous two books.
Harry is thirteen, a difficult age. Stuck again with the Dursleys, he rebels in the dead of the night, sneaking out and studying magic beneath the covers. Unlike the previous summers, his spirit is kept up by letters and gifts from Ron and Hermione. He might just be able to make it through the summer without incident, until Vernon’s foul sister Marge turns up. Driven to the edge by Marge’s jibes and insults, Harry loses control and magically inflates her like a balloon. (Insulting a teenager’s dead parents- Marge is a real classy broad).
Remembering the pudding incident the previous year, Harry is convinced he has been expelled from Hogwarts. With nothing to lose, he runs away in a temper with his suitcase, broomstick and Hedwig. He’s got no-one for company on a deserted suburban street… apart from a mysterious black dog. And then a giant purple triple decker bus turns up.
Thinking about the Knight Bus on my evening commute, barely able to keep my eyes open, was when I decided to reread Harry. That evening, I really wished the bus I was on had feather beds, hot chocolate and toothbrushes. Sure, the Knight Bus is prone to jerking bangs and expects buildings to get out of its way, but then you could say the same about Dublin Bus.
Harry is safely delivered to London by Ern and Stan, two old-style Cockneys straight from central casting (fun fact: Stanley and Ernie were the names of Rowling’s granddads.) He’s greeted by Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic.
When I was a kid and it seemed Bertie Ahern would be Taoiseach forever, I always pictured Fudge as a sort of English wizard version of him (the fact that Cornelius is a relatively common name in Ireland probably helped). What that says about either figure, I will leave it up to you to decide.
Anyway, Harry’s not in trouble, at least with Hogwarts. There’s an escaped maniac on the loose and he’s after The Boy Who Lived. The first prisoner to ever escape the terrible guards of Azkaban, Sirius Black is a loyal follower of Voldemort. A former friend of the Potters, he betrayed Harry’s parents’ whereabouts, leading to their deaths.
Hogwarts is under siege. The Dementors, the creatures who guard Azkaban, are stationed around the grounds. They make everyone feel horrible, but Harry is especially affected; he passes out and hears his parents pleading for their lives whenever he gets too close.
When the Dementors ruin a Quidditch game for Harry, he decides to have extra classes with the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin. Lupin is sickly and shabbily dressed, but he’s soon beloved by all the Gryffindors. Hagrid, now out of disgrace following the events of the last book, is the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher. Unfortunately, it’s not long before Malfoy makes trouble for him, and Hagrid’s beloved Hippogriff Buckbeak is threatened with execution.
Meanwhile, with third year comes new privileges. The students are now allowed to visit the village of Hogsmeade, but without permission from the Dursleys, Harry’s not allowed. There are also new subjects to be chosen, and Hermione signs up for everything, even though it’s physically impossible.
The Prisoner of Azkaban is less plot-driven than the previous two books; there’s no Voldemort to fend off this time around. That’s not to say that the book drifts along without any of Rowling’s clockwork planning; the twist that Sirius is really a good guy and Ron’s rat Scabbers is really Peter Pettigrew, an old schoolfriend of Harry’s dad, is masterfully done. It’s Pettigrew who is the betrayer, and he’s the one who faked his death and killed twelve Muggles in the process, and framed Sirius for the crime.
It’s dark, and more relatable to us Muggles. It’s a story of betrayal and power, and there are no immortality-granting trinkets or giant snakes in sight. It’s also the first time we hear of Muggles suffering due to wizards’ actions. Later on, we will realise that there is a cover-up between the Muggle and magic governments when it comes to Voldemort; this naturally has chilling implications. There are also the Dementors, wraiths with the ability to suck out human souls. Rowling based these on her experiences with depression, and they are one of the most on-the-nose depictions of the condition since Winston Churchill popularised the term ‘the black dog’. (Funnily enough, a black dog is precisely what Sirius Black turns into).
“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced… It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope,” Rowling said in an interview. “That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.” The Dementors embody this horror excellently.
These are dark creatures indeed for a kid’s book. But Harry is a teen now, and suitably enough, it’s here that he, Ron and Hermione start to grow up. Harry is in rule-breaking, rebellious mode throughout; Ron shows that he can equal Hermione (when he puts his mind to it) by researching ways to get Buckbeak off his charges. It’s Hermione, though, who grows the most. Still the swot who began The Philosopher’s Stone, she takes on so much work that she has to use time travel to get it all done. Under pressure, her stress exhibits itself in a number of strange ways; slapping Malfoy and walking out on the ridiculous Professor Trelawney’s Divination class. It’s here though that Hermione encounters failure for the first time. She simply can’t complete the task she’s set herself, and while she remains clever and driven throughout the rest of the series, she never places quite the same importance on schoolwork again.
The book finishes on a hopeful note; although they have failed to get Sirius’ conviction overturned, they know he’s safe. Harry is free to visit Hogsmeade thanks to Sirius, and for the first time he has living family outside of the Dursleys. Even the idea of Pettigrew being free to rejoin Voldemort seems to bother nobody; but that will all change next time around.
Notes on my copy: Ah, I finally have a story. This is the first Harry Potter book I bought myself. Although it was published in 1999, I daresay I bought it a bit afterwards, I was older than ten. I remember the day vividly. At that time, there was a big bookshop in the centre of town (the shop is still in business, although it no longer stocks fiction, rather schoolbooks and printing supplies). My mother worked until 5.30pm each day and I would go to my next door neighbour, Sally (RIP) for tea after school. For some reason, perhaps Sally was away, that day I was allowed to stay home by myself. I bought myself a pizza and devoured it and Azkaban that afternoon. It was a good day.
As befitting a book that has been read countless times, my copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban is a disgrace. It’s falling apart, and it smells musty. (I think this is due to a pipe bursting in the house back in 2010, it seems it got a direct blast). Once there was a faint pizza stain on it. On the inside cover I have written my name and address in childlike fountain pen, and on the back cover a certain schoolmate of mine wrote that she loved Sirius. We ALL loved Sirius. Sirius was a complete dreamboat, and joined our pantheon of male idols. This is what happens when you send your daughter to an all-girl’s Catholic school, FYI.