[DWJ] Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Mon Jul 16 01:14:01 EDT 2007

(All page references are from the first Scholastic trade paperback printing,

We had our Friday expedition to see _Order of the Phoenix_ cut short when,
about forty-five minutes into the film, the theater complex's generator shut
down and took all the films in all twelve theaters with it.  Why they would
put the *sound* on the backup generator but not the *picture* is beyond me.
Okay, sure, it probably takes less energy to run the sound, but why bother
at all?  It's not like we wanted to sit there in the dark listening to
Dolores Umbridge begin her mad fascist reign of terror at Hogwarts.  Very
odd.  It was too late in the day to get our money back and go to a different
theater--even during summer vacation, we don't let the kids stay up all that
late--so we opted to hang on to our ticket stubs and come back another day.
Now I'm positively aching to know if Umbridge is an agent of the Dark Arts
or not.  :)  (But anyone who wears that much pink cannot possibly be up to
anything good. Isn't Imelda Staunton lovely?  She cracks me up.)

So I spent Friday evening toodling around Wal-Mart, picking up some few
random items like bread and juice and the blinker bulb for the rear light of
our van, and then finishing up _Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban_. I
wasn't able to read this in one sitting as I did the first two, thanks to
those pesky children needing things like maternal love and attention.  The
first session ended with Harry and Lupin having tea in his office for the
first time, the day everyone else goes to Hogsmeade, and I left it thinking
how much I liked Remus Lupin and how nice it was to have a teacher who took
a personal interest in Harry and was a good guy as well.

And that's where I ended up, though my view had broadened by the end:  I'm
starting to like these characters.

See, my opinion of Rowling's writing hasn't changed much.  Her prose style
is still just average.  But her dialogue (with the major exception of the
infodump in Hogsmeade (p. 202-209), and even there she tries hard to rise
above the inherent awkwardness of the situation) is pretty good, sometimes
really good, and she knows how to build her characters through it.  Combine
that with her descriptions of their behavior and you end up with some
interesting, emotionally compelling characters. And it's in _Prisoner of
Azkaban_ that they really start to operate outside the stereotypes Rowling
started with.

For example, in the second and third books it becomes clear why Hermione,
who in the first book is your stereotypical unattractive brainy know-it-all,
is in Gryffindor rather than in Ravenclaw with the rest of the eggheads.
There are still jokes about her studiousness and rapacity for knowledge, but
she repeatedly turns her abilities toward solving her friends' problems:
discovering the nature of the basilisk in _Chamber of Secrets_, trying to
save Buckbeak in _Prisoner of Azkaban_.  And I love it when she starts
breaking the rules; her methods are nothing like the Weasley twins' or even
Harry's, but they're totally effective.  I have the feeling that if she
didn't have a strong sense of right and wrong she would probably rule the
world.  Not the wizard world.  The whole world.

And Lupin.  Remus Lupin--another example of Rowling putting in hints that a
typical juvenile reader will never catch.  (My teenage daughter said she
caught it, but I wasn't clear whether she meant back when she was eight and
first read the book, or just that she knows Roman mythology now.)  For the
first time--at least, as I see it--we have an adult character who actually
has a backstory that has little to do with Harry Potter, except indirectly.
Even before Harry & Co. know the truth about Lupin's condition, it's clear
that this man has had a great deal of trouble in his life--and it's also
clear that he's found some way to achieve inner peace regardless.  I think
this occurred to me because it's right where I stopped, at Snape bringing
Lupin his potion while Harry is in the room.  Snape obviously wants to
needle Lupin about his "condition," and Lupin just doesn't rise to the bait
in any way (pp. 136-7).  The later comparison between Lupin and Sirius
Black's behavior in the Shrieking Shack (pp. 343-377) reveals the same
contrast: Lupin remaining calm and logical though still feeling strong
emotions, Black on the edge of violence every moment.

(Granted, this isn't a totally fair comparison; Sirius Black is barely sane
after twelve years with the dementors in Azkaban, and though Lupin has been
going through his own troubles all that time, I'd say Black's torment was
worse.  But based on the reminiscences of Professor McGonagall (p. 204), we
know that the young Black was a "troublemaker" and, with James Potter, the
ringleader of their group, and it seems likely to me that Black was *always*
more high-spirited and quick to act.)

The first two books seemed like stand-alones; despite the references to
Voldemort returning, etc., to me it never felt like there was a bigger story
arc.  But in _Prisoner of Azkaban_ the pieces finally seem to be falling
into place.  With Buckbeak's trial, we get more information on the politics
of the wizarding world beyond Hogwarts.  Cornelius Fudge shows himself to be
the sort of politician who's more worried about his position and maintaining
the status quo than in larger concerns of right and wrong or even good and
evil (not to mention one of those complete nimrods who thinks that saying
something makes it true, when they just don't want to have to deal with
things that violate their worldview.  Take his opinion on Harry's
relationship with the Dursleys, when Harry tells him he never wants to go
back to Privet Drive:  "'Now, now, I'm sure you'll feel differently once
you've calmed down....They are your family, after all, and I'm sure you are
fond of each other--er--very deep down'" (p. 44).  Twerp).

The initial story about Sirius Black's involvement in the Potters' deaths,
though false, introduces Harry and his friends to a broader view of how
Voldemort's evil affected everyone, not just Harry's parents; the true story
reveals that Voldemort still has supporters and that they can still pose a
danger to the wizarding world.  This is all part of a framework for that
larger story arc--the hint that a war may be coming.  Even Ron's references
to the Quidditch World Cup at the end of the book suggest that Rowling knows
where she's going next (borne out, of course, when _Harry Potter and the
Goblet of Fire_ opens at that same World Cup).

Overall, I think this is where I started truly being interested in the
story.  Rowling is still feeling her way, but here you can see her trying
new things and pushing the boundaries of the world she's set up.  She's come
a long way from the first book--but she still has a long way to go.  And the
primary weakness of this book is the same as it's been all along:  Rowling
creates creatures or ideas that are extremely clever, but don't bear
examining too closely.

One word:  Dementors.

Yeah, they're scary.  That's because they're TOTALLY EVIL.  Not in the sense
that Voldemort is, by choice, but because by their nature they are the
antithesis of every good thing humans value.  Keeping them around is like
having an alligator in your swimming pool as a security measure; you won't
have strangers in your backyard, but you'd better keep a close eye on your
kids as well.  Dementors don't or can't distinguish between good guys and
bad guys.

But keeping dementors is exactly what the wizards who make these kinds of
security decisions have done.  And no one can say the dementors aren't good
prison guards.  It's even possible that this might be the only sure way to
keep a convicted wizard from breaking out.  If you don't evaluate this
decision any further, it works for the story:  Dementors keep bad wizards in
check; only bad people suffer from their presence.  That's fair, right?

Except...the dementors don't stay in Azkaban.  They're not only allowed out
around ordinary people, but they're actually stationed near a school full of
underage wizards who aren't trained enough to defend themselves, not to
mention all the adult wizards who probably *can't* defend themselves if
Lupin is right and the Patronus Charm is hard even for fully-trained wizards
to pull off.  The aforementioned Wizards In Charge (imagine a whole room
full of Cornelius Fudges, because that man is totally the kind of person who
would say "I have it completely under control" up to the point where the
dementor starts sucking his soul out through his nostrils) feel justified in
this action because Sirius Black is so dangerous, but also because they
believe, erroneously, that dementors can be controlled.  I keep thinking of
the harpy in _The Last Unicorn_; it was safe only because it was behind
bars, not because its nature had changed.  And just like the harpy, the
dementors prove that there's really nothing keeping them from doing what
comes naturally.  When they finally catch up to Sirius on the lake shore (p.
382) you could argue that they're just doing their job, but attacking Harry
as well...their nature allows nothing for reason, and that makes them
extremely dangerous.

Some people realize this, particularly Dumbledore, who is furious about the
decision to bring dementors anywhere near Hogwarts, and Lupin, whose
description of dementors leaves no doubt that he sees nothing good about

"'Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth.  They
infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they
drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them....Get too near
a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of
you.  If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to
something like itself...soulless and evil'"  (p. 187).

So there is some attention paid to the larger implications of this
character-idea.  Much more *would* probably overwhelm the plot.  But
something Rowling can get away with in a juvenile story has to be dealt with
in a young adult book, and she's edging ever closer to the point of no
return.  Many of her ideas, as I've said before, are meaty enough to support
a YA text, but whether or not she'll be able to deal with them properly is
anyone's guess.

I always end up with way more notes than I actually use in these things.
That's probably fortunate for everyone concerned.  But one thing I discarded
on purpose, and that was my analysis of Snape's behavior.  It occurred to me
that when I originally read these books, all I really cared about Snape was
that he always looks like the villain and he always turns out not to be.  I
didn't start to like him--or, rather, feel compassion for him--until _Order
of the Phoenix_.  So I'm going to table that discussion until I get to that

_Prisoner of Azkaban_ is still my favorite.  So far.

Next up:  _Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire_, still shockingly long.  I
don't know if it felt long, reading it.  But isn't it amazing that so many
kids weren't put off by its James A. Michener Tome of the Month Club status?

Melissa Proffitt

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