Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was, for many years, my favourite in the series, and reading it again gave me a newfound appreciation for what Rowling accomplished with it. It’s with this third book that Rowling begins the weighty process of moving Harry into adulthood and preparing him for his own mortality. She maintains many of the childish elements of the series while pushing it more into the realm of serious suspense, drama and emotion. I really believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the best novels ever written. The prose isn’t War and Peace, but the depth of humanity in the book is astounding, particularly for what is still ostensibly a book for kids.
Prisoner of Azkaban begins very similarly to the preceding entries in the series. Harry is stuck with the Dursleys and dark hilarity ensues. His Aunt Marge is over, and after barraging Harry with insults over the course of a week finally causes him to lose his temper and accidentally blow her up like a balloon. This time, though, the magic at the Dursleys’ takes a much more emotional tone. Harry doesn’t just lose his temper, he has come to a point where he can no longer accept the abuse hurled upon him by both the Dusleys and Aunt Marge. Marge insulting him is fine, but it’s when she insults the parents he was never fortunate enough to know that Harry finally loses it. And though he inadvertently causes Marge to blow up like a balloon, it isn’t a moment of glee. In fact, the scene is handled with quite a lot of pathos. Vernon and Petunia are yelling at him to help Marge, but Harry simply grabs his stuff and runs out of the house into the dank, dark street.
It’s in this darkness that he catches his first glimpse of a large black dog who follows him around for much of the rest of the book. That dog turns out to be Sirius Black, the perceived villain of the book, but even without this knowledge the dog is an omen of terrible things to come. That is a constant theme running through Prisoner of Azkaban. The world is becoming a more and more dangerous place for Harry Potter, and not just because of the vague threats of Voldemort. In fact, Voldemort doesn’t even appear in this book; only one of two books in the series where we never see the Dark Lord in any current form. No, in this book it is the power of influence and fear that Voldemort once had that runs through the background. It’s about the people who followed Voldemort and the scary fact that the wizarding world was eaten out from the inside by those who went over to Voldemort’s side. If the best friend of the Potters could turn on them and lead them to their deaths then truly anyone could be evil.
And that introduces another theme throughout the book. Trust. The Potters were supposed wrong to put their trust in Sirius. In reality they were wrong to trust Peter Pettigrew. Questions of trust are raised. Could James Potter and his friends really trust their werewolf friend, Remus Lupin? Can Harry even trust his own infallible image of his father? The truth of it is that the ability to trust others is an invaluable trait, but also important is realizing that everyone is fallible. Everyone has flaws, and this is something Harry must come to terms with. Harry learns more about his father than he ever has before, and he begins to have a more firm understanding of his father’s humanity, and also just how alike and different he and his father really are.
Also present are the Dementors, the guards from Azkaban prison, who have been set by the Ministry to secure the school. Their very presence sucks all the happiness from those around them, causing Harry to relive the worst moment of his life, a moment he can’t even properly remember: the murder of his parents. Over the course of the book, Harry learns to confront this darkness in his heart and find that which lights up his life. It’s a powerful arc in the book that results in an extremely emotional climax.
Then we have the issue of destiny. Harry’s coincidental meeting with Voldemort in Philosopher’s Stone had already foreshadowed the destiny of Harry eventually facing off against Voldemort in some kind of final battle. Prisoner of Azkaban brings that idea even more to the forefront. The actual prophecy only comes to light in the fifth book, but there is some set up for it here in the character of Professor Trelawney. In this book she delivers the prophecy of Voldemort’s follower escaping to help restore Voldemort to his body. That prophecy speaks toward Voldemort’s second rise, and that in turn brings to mind much more seriously the fact that Harry will probably have to face him and kill him at some point. In the meantime, the reality of darker times to come is something that hangs over this single story, as well as the future Harry is looking to by the end of the book.
One last thing I wanted to bring up is the fantastic methods of storytelling Rowling employs in Prisoner of Azkaban. The previous books functioned quite clearly as mystery novels, and this one retains much of that. Still, it manages to change things up very effectively. The mystery here is one that we learn about gradually and is actually something Harry at first doesn’t want to pursue too strongly. In fact, in this case Harry is genuinely frightened by the threat of Sirius Black, and also by the black dog following him around. Then, nearing the end of the book, Rowling delivers a climax in which all is revealed and a new understanding of everything that has come before comes to light. It’s startling and very well handled and leads to a marvelous confrontation with the Dementors. And then, as though that wasn’t excitement enough, Rowling surprises with a whole second climax, employing the wonderful magic of time travel. It’s brilliant the way she sets up one set of very dour circumstances and then reverts back in time to get everything sorted out without it feeling purely like a cheat.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is an amazing book. It’s an intricately crafted and emotionally dynamic novel for anyone of any age, and reading it again has only increased my appreciation of it. It’s also remarkable just how well it sets the stage for all the books that follow in its tone, themes, and even plotting. It’s also an insanely fun read, with suspense that never lets up, and a conclusion that is satisfyingly bleak and hopeful at the same time.