The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite of the Harry Potter novels, because it isn’t overgrown, and has a strong balance of the trivial against the impending doom-laden elements that dominate the later novels. It’s a more satisfying and less nerve-wracking read. It’s also got my favourite adult character, Lupin the werewolf, and a proper appreciation of chocolate. In this catch-up from the Really Like This Book podcast scripts, things are getting darker.
The story starts with another use of the now familiar pattern of a magical crisis at the Dursleys that releases Harry into the magical world. And, once again, he’s a little bit older, he can handle a little bit more knowledge and experience. But he is only just turning 13, and there is so much he doesn’t and can’t know about the wizarding world. When he’s run away from the Dursleys’ home with his trunk and wand after making Aunt Marge float like a ball bouncing on the ceiling, and is starting to think that the black shadow in the alleyway might be looking for him, and the Knight Bus comes: that has to be my all-time favourite moment in the books, and I am trying very hard not to be influenced by the marvellous film version. It’s about maturity, stepping into the real world on one’s own, and finding, shakily, that one can cope after all. For this bit, at least. And there is the romance of long-distance travel at night.
I like the Knight Bus so much because, as a teenager in Scotland, the night bus was the only affordable way to get down to London, the centre of the universe, so I am a veteran of sitting upright on the 12-hour bus journey eating biscuits all night, listening to my Walkman, and getting out at an ungodly hour for chips somewhere near Manchester. Travelling at night when most people are asleep is the stuff of romance, because you’re heading off into the dark alone. Travelling in a bus that leaps about all over the UK, with witches and wizards being delivered wherever they want to go, is such an intelligent development of the experience of seeing fellow travellers come and go. Adding the magic that you want when you’re in a hurry is simply logical: to get past the cars in the way, to dodge past obstacles and road regulations, to get wherever you want as fast as you can. However, making this an uncomfortable and queasy ride reminds us that doing magic has penalties. Nothing comes from nothing.
I also like Stan Shunpike, the bus conductor, because he prompts the question: where do British wizarding children go to school if they don’t go to Hogwarts? Hogwarts is a very small school, taking only about 40 children in each year, which means no more than 300 children in the whole school at any one time. That’s not enough places to cope with the entire school-age wizarding population, so where are the other magical schools? Are there wizarding primary schools? I’m sure this has all been asked before, and dealt with, in the fanfic sites, on online fora, and in Pottermore. But I am still interested in the question as a response to the reading experience: is this wizarding world only worked out in patches of detail for plot purposes? Does it have to be fully worked out, in all possible details, to satisfy as a reading experience?
The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to the bigoted and self-serving careerist Cornelius Fudge. This is another aspect of Rowling’s writing that I enjoy: introducing slightly archaic vocabulary in small illustrated doses to readers (children) who might not have had the extensive background in classic children’s literature that Rowling has. To fudge something means to make a mess of it, try to ignore it, and so the Minister for Magic is a fine satirical carrier of that name. That he is in Her Majesty’s Government is a glorious invention for adult readers, because every world has to be administrated, even the magical world, so to introduce the idea of a Minister for Magic periodically visiting new British Prime Ministers is a great, complex joke. Was Mrs Thatcher instrumental in Voldemort’s rise? What would Churchill have said?
The Ministry’s interest in Harry is due to his vulnerability to attack by Voldemort, but naturally they don’t tell him this because he’s only 13. Harry the focalising character reads as a lot older than 13, but we have to keep being reminded that his knowledge and skills are limited, and that he knows hardly anything about the wizarding world. The great fuss that the Ministry, and the Weasleys, make about his safety, and the special treatment he gets from Fudge about using magic in the holidays: these send the message that adults in official posts of power tell lies routinely, and keep information hidden when they ought to be open and truthful. The confusion of adolescence is compounded by irritation at obvious stupidity in older people.
In the train to Hogwarts, just as Harry has had enough of being kept in cottonwool, we encounter the most horrible magical creature yet, a Dementor, which makes all the fuss seem meaningful, at last. This is real Dark magic. Professor Lupin appears as this novel’s surrogate father, protecting the children, feeding them chocolate, but most importantly, he knows what’s going on and he can fix it. Like Dumbledore, Lupin is a great man. Such a pity he’s a werewolf, but that is good storytelling: not only is no man perfect, but a really great man can overcome apparently impossible impairments. We could read being a werewolf as having a physical or psychological condition that can’t be got away from and that has to be managed. Epilepsy seems a good analogy, since the physical effects of an attack are similar, and fear of an epileptic fit by people who don’t know anything about it seems a reasonable reflection of what happens to Lupin. Unlike a person with epilepsy, Lupin is a very dangerous creature at the wrong time of the month.
It seems extraordinary that a school full of nearly 300 children are to be guarded by Dementors, and that they will be taught by a werewolf, but these different standards of safety and security appeared in the last novel, and match the tone of the plot. The Prisoner of Azkaban is a twisting story of betrayal in the past, a deranged need for revenge, terrified hidings in animal form, and involuntarily dangerous actions, set in a children’s world in which happiness is achieved through Quidditch and magical sweets. This tension between the mundane and the limited and the world-encompassingly important and scary is something all children’s authors have to get right, because it comes with the territory: the small grappling with the big. Rowling avoids falling into traps of being self-important or bathetic (too close to Monty Python territory) by using metaphors and symbols. Spells, for instance, are life lessons and skills that need to be learned, and here they deal with the real fears of adolescents. How to dispel fear of the person who frightens you most? Think of them in a silly costume. How to throw off the misery of depression? (because I think that’s what the Dementors represent) Think happy thoughts, really powerful needy happy thoughts that you cannot live without.
And then, there’s Sirius Black. Everyone who comes into contact with him has a different idea of what happened when James and Lily Potter died, so the reader has to tackle a vast amount of contradictory information, as well as work out what is believable from the little we’ve been told about Azkaban. When the wizards’ prison was first mentioned in The Chamber of Secrets, it didn’t receive the terror treatment it gets in this novel: did Rowling decide to give it the more important role it has in the series, and in the wizarding world, after she had finished the second novel? Or is the increase in terror just an indication of what Harry, and Ron and Hermione, can understand and appreciate? The combination of how she delivers emotional impact and complex information is impressively thorough. Rowling is particularly good at writing tension in this novel, because she combines the necessary exposition with very tense episodes: Harry under his cloak in Hogsmeade hearing the teachers discuss Sirius; the three children in the Shrieking Shack hearing Sirius, and Lupin, confront Wormtail to get the story straight, and then Snape bursts in to give his side of James Potter’s character. Hermione and Harry listening to Buckbeak’s execution, which, though it might not seem a moment of exposition, is such an important episode that we have to flip back and reread it, much later in the novel, when we have to rethink what happened at a crucial moment. And finally, the Patronus at night that saved Harry and Hermione from death while Lupin was rampaging in the forest: so much detail, and every word counts. That episode needs to be read slowly out loud, to get it all right, and to fully appreciate what is going on.
The Marauders’s Map is a thought-provoking gadget: deeply useful and ingenious, so practical for evading discovery and entrapment, but also in (as we will see in later novels) hunting down the people you’re looking for. It also places a lot of responsibility on its users: what will they use it for, good or bad, cleverness or mischief, wickedness or meddling? Since the Map’s creators were only schoolboys, mischief is the obvious intention, but the Map is a tool that can cause a lot of trouble in the wrong hands, such as in Snape’s hands, or in any other enemy’s possession.
These are many serious thoughts in The Prisoner of Azkaban, making the tone of this novel much older and darker than that of The Philosopher’s Stone, only two books earlier. This is the first of the grown-up Harry Potter novels, in which he takes responsibility, saves more lives, and stops being a child. Teenage agonies lie in wait.