Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is an all around amazing book, but perhaps my very favourite thing about it is its inclusion of time travel as a plot mechanic during the final act. I love time travel more than is probably healthy, so to see it show up in my favourite series of novels is a dream. But I love time travel for more than just its ability to provide crazy plots. I have long stood by time travel as a form of communicating depth and emotion through a variety of means. I find that time travel provides the perfect mechanic for allowing characters to reflect on themselves, their pasts or their histories. Back to the Future, for example, is a time travel movie, but the time travel is mostly used as a device to let Marty see what his parents were really like as teenagers, as well as discover some of his own courage. Similarly, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban uses time travel to create an emotional climax for Harry.
Rowling begins to weave in her third act time travel twist right from the start. Hermione is taking more classes than logic allows. She disappears and re-appears at random points before, during and after classes. It doesn’t make any sense, but in reality this is Rowling setting up the device she will properly introduce later. Amazingly, she doesn’t just limit the set-up to pure foreshadowing. Hermione is using her Time Turner to get to all her classes, but it takes a huge toll on her. She has always been a girl striving to learn as much as possible, and some of that might be overcompensating for not coming from a magical family, or maybe its just that her lack of magical background makes her that much more interested in that world. Whatever the motivations, Hermione is a major overachiever. In the real world Hermione might just take extra classes, night courses, summer courses and do all kinds of extra-curricular activities to soak in all she can. In Rowling’s universe time travel enables Hermione’s personality; she incorporates magical concepts to explore facets of Hermione, and later she uses the same concepts get into Harry’s mind.
In that wild third act of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, time travel comes in full force, but the circumstances before that occurs are incredibly important. Harry has just learned that Sirius Black had urged James and Lilly Potter to make Peter Pettigrew their Secret Keeper. When Pettigrew led Voldemort to their home, Sirius tracked him down to kill him only to fall for a trap and land in Azkaban. In the present, Snape has managed to get to the Shrieking Shack and disrupt everything. Lupin has changed into werewolf form and the Dementors show up. Finally, the Dementors catch up to Harry and Sirius, and at the very worst moment a blindingly bright Patronus appears to save them.
The situation is very dour. Harry might have been saved, but Sirius, the man he has so quickly allowed into his heart, has just as quickly been caught and is awaiting the Dementor’s Kiss in Hogwarts’ highest tower. There is no way to fix the situation and Harry is about to lose the person who represents the best chance he might have at gaining a parent. This would have been a dark ending to the book, but Rowling doesn’t end it there. She allows Harry and Sirius a reprieve in the form of Hermione’s Time Turner. This is Harry’s chance to make things right.
Harry and Hermione go back in time several hours to view the goings on from a different angle, and really, a different perspective. You see, Prisoner and Azkaban uses a very peculiar form of time travel. It’s the same form Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof used in the television series, Lost. Time, as Rowling puts forth, is a fixed entity. Anything that has already happened, happened. There is no changing it. Going back in time to change things only causes those things to happen. It’s a theory of time that supports paradoxical loops, and in fact the entire concept is highly paradoxical, but that actually makes it even more fascinating. In Lost, the paradoxical loop is exemplified by a compass. The compass was given to one character, who then took it back in time and gave it to another character who would live on for many more years only to pass on the compass to the person who had given it to him in the first place. That person takes the compass, goes back in time, gives it to the second person, who ends up giving it back to the original person. It’s a loop. The interesting question then arises: we are able to see the entire loop of the compass’ existence through time, but where did the compass come from in the first place?
That question is at the very heart of what Rowling does with time travel in Prisoner of Azkaban on both a cool plot level as well as an emotional and insightful level. When Harry and Hermione go back in time, they first rescue Buckbeak the Hippogriff from execution. Then they wait and wait for the past versions of themselves to go through their whole Shrieking Shack adventure. While they are waiting, Harry reveals to Hermione that when he was being attacked by the Dementors he saw someone save him with the Patronus. That someone, Harry is certain, was his own father. He knows it doesn’t make any sense, and he knows it can’t really be possible, but deep down he also knows that it must have been his father. When the Dementors descend on the other Harry, Harry waits for his father to show up and save them. He knows, because he has been told by Hermione, that it could be devastating to reveal himself to… himself, so his father must show up. But of course, his father doesn’t show up, and at the last second Harry runs out and casts the Patronus. In fact, it was never his father who cast that Patronus; Harry was it the whole time.
Which of course all relates back to Harry’s Patronus practice with Professor Lupin. Harry had been able to cast decent, but relatively weak charms. He simply could not find the light within himself to cast a stronger spell. What the time travel experience allowed Harry to do, however unintentionally, was find that light deep down inside and bring it right out. The Patronus should have been his father coming to save him, but as we quickly realize, his father was never there in the first place. In reality, Harry inspired his own charm, which is a remarkably strong thematic idea. What Harry never believed he could find within himself was there the whole time, and all it took was the need to step up and be the hero for him to do what seemed impossible. This theme of needing to understanding what must be done and taking action runs right through to the final face-off against Voldemort in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That it shows itself in the third book, and that it uses the trope of time travel to force it to happen is simply great writing. But of course, his father does play a role in that Patronus charm. The mere thought of James coming to same him gave Harry the fortitude to do what was necessary. The connection and love of family was buried deep because it was something he never properly experienced. Still, it was there when his parents were alive, and that force is still with him, as evidenced by the scar on his forehead. All it took was that deep desire coming through—and the recent addition of Sirius Black into his life—to make Harry capable of greatness.
Time travel works its way into the story in another way, though. That is, through recollection and flashbacks. Once again, like Lost, there is a lot of relating past events and viewing them full on through different means. In the next book, Rowling introduces the Pensieve, a device used explicitly for having flashbacks. But even in Azkaban we have characters relating stories from the past that in effect do the same thing. And these flashbacks are not there simply to expand the universe or mythology, though they do that as well. They are there to reframe and redefine what we think we already know. Sirius Black, simply through related stories, goes from random criminal ally of Voldemort, to best friend, to betrayer of the Potters and back to best friend. The Harry Potter books do this kind of reframing quite often, and this acts as a tool to elicit different emotional responses from both Harry and the reader. The stories about Voldemort’s past in Chamber of Secrets and Half-Blood Prince make us sympathetic to a young boy who had as rotten a childhood as Harry, but also provide a better understanding of just how different he and Harry truly are. That difference is most often revealed through Voldemort’s choices, because, as Dumbledore says, “it is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.” Prisoner of Azkaban‘s flashbacks are very much the same. Sirius was given the choice to be the Potter’s Secret Keeper, but he chose to decline because he feared his strength in the face of pure evil. Peter Pettigrew chose to betray the Potters. James Potter chose to go along with his friends when they played their life-threatening prank on Snape, but he also chose to put a stop to it, saving Snape’s life. These actions in the face of serious decisions define us, and Rowling uses the time-traveling characteristics of flashbacks to reframe our understanding of this undeniable truth.
I have long stood by time travel as one of the best tropes for storytelling, particularly in movies. J.K. Rowling brings it into the third Harry Potter novel in glorious fashion, and infuses the rest of the books with the best qualities of storytelling that time travel exhibits. Those being the ability for self-exploration and reflection on the past and they way it has affected the present. The time travel in Prisoner of Azkaban, with its paradoxical time loop, is wild and thrilling and provides for one of the very best and most emotional set-pieces in the entire franchise. It’s pure magic.