Some Character Observations
Harry has already grown up a bit in the last two years, which he shows by talking back to Uncle Vernon early on. But in this book, he not only has a lot thrown at him (as usual), but he’s thirteen years old and a proper teenager now. He’s quite emotionally sensitive – he lets his temper get the better of him around Aunt Marge, and is insecure about his own strength, thinking he must be seen as weak because Lupin stopped him facing the Boggart and because the Dementors affect him so strongly. And as with most teenagers, he makes some incorrect judgements based on what he wants rather than what is sensible. Upon learning that Sirius Black is targeting him, he’s not so much afraid as concerned about restrictions on his freedom, though some of this probably comes from all the attention he gets as the Boy Who Lived: he knows that people focus on him and he doesn’t like it. Twice he illegally goes into Hogsmeade to have fun, and it takes a hard-hitting telling off from Lupin to make him realise that he was wrong. Harry’s argumentative retorts as Ron and Hermione try to persuade him not to seek revenge on Black feel very real for a teenager.
We see Harry in the grip of real hatred when he learns that Black supposedly betrayed his parents to Voldemort, and it’s quite alarming to see him take that out on Sirius when they meet. Yet even then, Harry can’t bring himself to kill Sirius, because killing’s just not that easy – something Rowling reflects on both in later Harry Potter books and in her detective novel The Silkworm (“Strike had heard the glib assertion many times, that everyone had it in them to kill, but he knew this to be a lie…there were also people who had drawn up short, even under the most intense pressure, unable to press their advantage, to seize the opportunity, to break the final and greatest taboo.”) Upon learning the truth, a calmer Harry makes the more mature decision not to let Pettigrew die, and he also bonds with Sirius extremely quickly – he has, after all, wanted a real parent figure for some time. In banishing the Dementors with a perfect Patronus, he demonstrates his skill in Defence Against The Dark Arts – maybe it’s inherent, or maybe it’s just because his experiences have given him an especially strong will in this brand of magic.
Ron Weasley & Hermione Granger
Ron and Hermione are growing up along with Harry, and their interactions with both Harry and each other become more complex in this book. Besides the obvious arguments about Hermione’s cat trying to eat Ron’s rat, they also clash over their differing attitudes to the Grim, which neatly reflect their different backgrounds: Ron, who grew up in wizarding society, takes the Grim seriously, while Hermione, with no such cultural bias, applies her usual logic and is not convinced. We also get an idea of how they sometimes interact when Harry’s not around: as they try to persuade Harry not to go after Black, he senses they have “rehearsed this conversation while he had been asleep”. There’s a lot of emphasis on Hermione’s flaws this year: she’s so determined to do well that she almost drives herself mad with stress doing too many subjects, and she is insensitive at times – going behind Harry’s back about the Firebolt really doesn’t seem right, whatever her intentions. And as for the people (mostly Harry/Hermione shippers) who consider Ron a less worthy friend to Harry than Hermione, they should note Ron preparing to try and defend Harry against Black, while trying to balance on a broken leg.
We learned a little bit about Snape’s background in Philosopher’s Stone, but here, we get to delve even deeper, while still not realising just how deep the rabbit hole goes. The scene involving Harry, Snape and Lupin after Harry gets back from his second Hogsmeade visit is interesting with hindsight, once we understand Snape’s relationships with the Marauders. Also, while Snape is nasty and snide about it, he’s not really wrong about Harry irresponsibly putting himself at risk, or indeed about Harry’s father.
Snape demonstrates just how strong his hatred for Sirius and Lupin is when he confronts them at the Shrieking Shack, telling Sirius, “How I hoped I would be the one to catch you…” His school experiences have (understandably) had a strong effect, and Snape isn’t the type who moves on from these things. His feelings could also be related to his belief that Sirius is responsible for Lily’s death, yet when he hears the story about Pettigrew, he doesn’t care – he wants to believe that Sirius, his greater tormentor, is guilty. As he loses control and yells at Harry for helping Sirius escape, we can see that while he claims to “treat (Harry) like any other student”, he does understand that Harry isn’t like any other student – he is capable of something like that.
Remus Lupin is often listed as a favourite character by readers, even by JK Rowling herself. It’s not hard to see why: Lupin is just a really nice guy, and at Hogwarts, he ticks all the boxes as a teacher. He’s calm, knowledgeable and supportive: he’s especially good with building Neville’s confidence in their first DADA lesson. At the same time, he knows when to exert discipline, as he explains just why Harry was wrong to sneak into Hogsmeade. The added detail of him being a werewolf gives an extra layer of sympathy, as his frequent ill pallor is explained and the prejudice he has suffered is revealed (Rowling has said that she treated lycanthropy as a metaphor for AIDS and similar illnesses).
And yet Lupin is not perfect: at school, he allowed himself to be influenced by his friends into breaking the rules and Dumbledore’s trust (though it should be noted that these friends genuinely cared about him), and even as an adult, he acknowledges he is too cowardly to admit his past misdeeds even when it could help protect the school.
It’s a shame that Lupin didn’t reveal the extent of his friendship with James to Harry sooner, and that he had to depart so soon after he did. But at least we’ll be seeing him again.
It’s only towards the end that we actually meet Sirius Black despite him hanging over the rest of the story, but these chapters are enough to give an idea of his character. Even though he may be innocent of the crime he was imprisoned for, he’s no saint: he’s determined and impatient to kill Peter Pettigrew, and apparently feels no regret for almost killing Snape years earlier. However, he was also truly loyal to Harry’s parents, and devoted to Harry himself: indeed, his happiness at the prospect of them living together is probably why the Dementors are subsequently able to affect him, after he was able to resist them in Azkaban.
Professor Trelawney is something of a subversion. She wears a shawl, beads and bangles, speaks in a ethereal, all-knowing manner, and lives a largely secluded life in her perfumed tower. At first, Rowling appears to have created a cliché mysterious fortune teller – but it turns out this is a deliberate act as Trelawney, for the most part, doesn’t possess true Divination ability. The act certainly takes in Harry and his class, who are strongly affected by Trelawney’s prediction of Harry’s death – until McGonagall tells them that she does the same thing to a student every year. McGonagall’s snide remarks at Trelawney over Christmas dinner are fun: “Tripe, Sybill?”
Little Observations and Nitpicks
• The prose is still as brilliant as ever, including the imagery of the similes – “Ron bellowed back, as if he and Uncle Vernon were speaking from opposite ends of a football pitch” – and how Rowling conceals swear words for her younger audience: “He called Snape something that made Hermione say ‘Ron!’”
• I really love how Fred and George make fun of Percy’s self-important attitude when they first appear: “Simply splendid to see you, old boy!” These two never get old.
• Even though people don’t think much of Hufflepuff, they certainly have a good Quidditch record against Gryffindor. In Harry’s time at Hogwarts, Gryffindor have a 100% win rate against Slytherin (5 matches), 75% against Ravenclaw (4 matches) but only 25% against Hufflepuff (4 matches).
• The first hints of a romance for our hero arise as Cho Chang makes her first appearance, though we learn very little about her and Harry doesn’t get much time to dwell on his feelings for her. He’s still only thirteen, after all.
• Thinking about Slytherins again, specifically how dirty they play in the Quidditch final. Perhaps it’s not really because they’re ‘bad’ but because of the qualities of the specific people who get sorted into Slytherin. Slytherins are ambitious and prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they want – so if anyone’s going to commit a lot of fouls in Quidditch, it’s them.
• Harry’s Divination exam feels symbolic to me. Unable to see anything in his crystal ball, Harry claims that he can see Buckbeak flying away instead of being executed – and he himself ends up making that happen. A subconscious example of deciding the future by choice and not being ruled by fate?
• Did nobody in Hogsmeade during Lupin’s school years realise that the horrible noises from the Shrieking Shack only occurred during the full moon, and deduce that a werewolf was involved?
• I’d be interested to know whether any of the Marauders had a proper idea of Snape’s relationship with Lily. Sirius and Lupin don’t give any indication of it.
• So do werewolves in this universe only change when the full moon is visible? Do they change back and forth on nights with varying cloud cover?
• One imagines Pettigrew taking great satisfaction in getting a little payback and cursing Crookshanks right before his escape.
• It’s strange to see Dumbledore lying to Snape about Sirius’s escape at the end, considering how closely they’re seen working together in flashbacks in Deathly Hallows. Did Dumbledore explain later once Snape had calmed down, or did he keep the truth from him until the following year?
So there’s no doubt that Prisoner of Azkaban is a brilliant book. What makes it so good? Well, all sorts of things. Rowling is now comfortably settled in the world she has created and consistent rules have been established. The writing has matured, becoming more detailed, and the tone already feels a little more grown-up. There’s lots of interesting character exploration, and more complex subplots, but the elements of magic and mystery from the first two books are still retained. Everything feels cohesive and well-connected, flowing together like a well-cast spell.
Ultimately, it’s just a really fun reading experience. Too bad that things are going to get darker from this point onwards.