Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (Book 3, Harry Potter)

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling book cover
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) is the third book in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding series. Here things take a turn for the darker, with Harry learning more about his past whilst facing up to great terrors in his present. After Harry accidentally inflates his aunt he is forced to run away from the Dursley’s home. Catching the night bus into London, Harry is met by Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic. Fudge pardons Harry for his misuse of magic, but warns him to stay safe as there is a murderous criminal on the loose, one of Voldemort’s closest allies: Sirius Black. Having committed a mass-murder after The Dark Lord’s demise, Black has recently escaped from Azkaban, the wizarding prison, and Harry returns to Hogwarts under the threat that Black will attempt to succeed where his master had failed. Dumbledore too fears for the safety of Hogwarts’ students and, reluctantly, allows the wardens of Azkaban to be stationed around the school. Dementors; dark, malevolent, wraith-like beings, suck all happiness from their surroundings, and affect Harry particularly badly. There is good news too however, with Remus Lupin (an old friend of Harry’s parents) being installed as the new defence against the dark arts teacher. Lupin is nurturing and a brilliant teacher – he and Harry quickly form a bond, but there is more to both Lupin and Black than meets the eye, and as the year progresses Harry slowly uncovers a great secret, which will change the shape of both his past and his future.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is full of duality, perhaps most markedly announced by Lupin’s secret life as a werewolf – Lupin who is capable of great kindness, but who in his altered state is also capable of terrible and uncaring destruction. Similarly, there is the duality between Black’s public image as a crazed and dangerous murderer and his true nature, as well as Pettigrew’s concealed deceit and Pettigrew himself hidden as the loyal and harmless Scabbers. The reader becomes acclimatised to a state which lacks absolute truth, where things are rarely as they appear, and so when, at the end of the book, Harry and Hermione alter events through time travel the ultimate sense of duality is complete, and the reader is forced to accept that anything can be a number of things simultaneously, and that one must be prepared to delve deeply into a person or issue to truly master it.

By travelling back in time Harry and Hermione are able to save both Buckbeak (a magical creature wrongly condemned as ‘dangerous’) and Black from unjust ends, and this theme of injustice runs throughout the novel, with characters manipulating or abusing the legal system for political or malevolent reasons. Rowling also questions the right of anyone to put another to death, no matter how heinous their crimes. That Harry refuses to let Black and Lupin kill Pettigrew, the man who is responsible for shaping Harry’s life for the worse, is testament to both Harry’s and Rowling’s conviction that retributive punishment must not extend to the killing of other humans; that to become a murderer in the pursuit of justice affords no resolution.

Loyalty too is very important throughout the series, and never is it more pronounced than here, with the really vile element of Black’s, later Pettigrew’s, crime, being the betrayal of a friend. When friendship is as important as it is in the Harry Potter series, to betray a friend is just about the worst crime a person can commit.

From Boggarts to Dementors, The Prisoner of Azkaban deals increasingly with the theme of hope in the face of despair, and standing up to one’s fears and anxieties. Lupin is central to this theme. He guides Harry through a process of self-development as the young hero learns to face these terrible magical creatures and his own fears. Lupin himself is the ultimate embodiment of the struggle between hope and despair, he having to fight his own nature, and only learning to tolerate and manage his condition with the help of his friends; as ever, friendship and happiness are shown to be the best defences against the darker side of one’s nature. Harry too begins to wrestle with his own emotions and begins to learn to control them, taking his first steps to maturity.

This is a darker and more intense read than previous books in the series. The vacuum created by the Dementors representative of the turning mood of the series – the slow blackening of all that was once light. Here too the characters begin to develop into stronger and more complex personalities. Interestingly, this is the only book in the series in which Voldemort does not play an active role, and the story is stronger for this disruption in form.

Towards the end of the book, Rowling introduces the idea of time travel, and this decision feels flawed in several ways. Firstly, the idea that a young witch like Hermione would be allowed to wield such incredible power, and for the simple reason of taking a few more classes, is entirely incongruous. Secondly, and more importantly, by allowing the possibility of time travel Rowling opens up a plot issue that will have far-reaching consequences, potentially undermining much of what she does in the subsequent books.

The Prisoner of Azkaban marks a transition within the Harry Potter series, gently moving from the routine and comfortable tradition of the first two books, in which the reader enjoys all the pleasures of the wizarding world whilst being led through slightly juvenile adventures, to the more complex, adult themes of the later books, where Harry’s world is harsher and more is expected of him. Rowling here begins to bring together the various elements that will go on to form the foundations for the later books in the series, not only the characters and situations, but also Harry’s personality, his flaws and strengths, and the demons he will have to wrestle with.

In many ways this sticks out as possibly the book with the most defined aesthetic in the series. It's combination of darkness and brevity makes it one of the best Harry Potters for me. 


Useful Links
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on Amazon (US)

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3 comments:

Petra said...

It's my favourite book (and movie) as well. I love the duality and the darker tone.
The time traveling does feel flawed, but thanks to it there are some impressive scenes. Like the Expecto Patronum moment in the forest. I also love the concept of that spell. The idea that in order to fight fear you have to find happiness/strength in yourself is wonderful and it's a great message.

Matthew Selwyn said...

You are a discerning reader, obviously :P

You are very right about the ideas around fighting fear, and finding the strength from both within and from friendship. I'm really pleased that so many children grew up reading books with such brilliant ideals.

Petra said...

Yep, that's me. ;)

I know, there are many great things and ideas in these books. And those ideas are nothing new, but they are important. :)