Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Reread Review (Mario)

The Harry Potter reread has been interesting for several reasons so far. For starters, it’s always nice to revisit a series you’ve read before and that you know you enjoy. It’s also nice to pick up on things you didn’t really notice before. There are a lot of details in each and every book of the series and you’re guaranteed to find new details in the larger books the second, third and even fourth time you read them. It’s been particularly interesting for me to reread these books because it’s the first time that I’m reading them as an adult. Because of my great familiarity with the characters and story, what’s been keeping me most interested this time around has been paying attention to how J. K. Rowling has constructed this series. The world building and the construction of the narrative are keeping me as engaged as the characters and as entertained as someone enjoying these stories for the first time.

Myriam mentioned it at the very beginning of her post, and I’ll second it here, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sends the entire series up several notches. Don’t get me wrong, the first two books are modern classics of young adult literature but Prisoners of Azkaban greatly expands the size and scope of the story and I would argue that it’s because of this book that Harry Potter has become a worldwide phenomenon and endured since the publication of the first novel. It sounds like high praise for a series that is still so young compared to other classic novels but let’s face it, the Harry Potter series is here to stay. I know that I’ll be reading these books with my kids someday, and maybe they’ll do the same with theirs, because Rowling didn’t just write cool stories about a boy wizard. She’s created an entire fictional universe for young and old readers to visit time and again. Harry, Dumbledore and Hogwarts may have been introduced in the first book but the Wizard World, as we know it today, was first introduced in Prisoners of Azkaban.

Rowling doesn’t waste a page in this book. We only get two chapters of the Dursleys in this volume and it’s a nice change of pace for two reasons. First, the Dursleys are the most boring part of Harry Potter, even if I understand their importance to the story. Second, less Dursleys means more Wizard World. Harry’s encounter with the Knight Bus is an indication that the Wizarding World is everywhere. They live in the same cities as we do. Witches and wizards have always been right around the corner but it’s only once you become part of their world that you can truly see it for all it’s worth. When Harry asks Stanley Shunpike how come the Muggles don’t see the Knight Bus, Stan replies matter-of-factly “Muggles? They don’t see nothing, do they?” The Dursleys appear to be close minded and unimaginative to us, the readers, but to witches and wizards, all Muggles are like the Dursleys. Pretending that what’s in front of their very eyes is nothing but a trick of the light, an illusion. They refuse to see the world for what it truly is, shared amongst Muggles and Wizards.

It seems that one of Rowling’s goals with Prisoners of Azkaban was to show the reader that there is more to the Wizarding world than Hogwarts. We already know that of course, there is a Ministry of Magic and Diagon Alley but we don’t really know much about those places, only that they exist. Harry’s stay at the Leaky Cauldron serves to show the reader that Diagon Alley isn’t just a place parents and their kids visit to buy school supplies. There are plenty of other stores there and it’s essentially the largest pedestrian outdoor mall in the Wizarding World. There’s a store that’s all about Quidditch stuff, there’s an ice cream store and there’s also a joke shop and a pet store. Rowling also adds other locations such as the Azkaban Prison (briefly mentioned in Chamber of Secrets) and Hogsmeade, the only all-wizard village in Britain.

Cover of the Danish edition.
Rowling doesn’t entirely follow the Harry Potter formula with the third book, but she does manage to hit quite a few staple elements (when did Sirius Black first break into the school? On Halloween night, of course). The biggest difference is that she doesn’t provide one big mystery for the reader and the main trio to solve. Instead, she offers several smaller mysteries. Who is Sirius Black and why is he after Harry? What is Voldemort plotting (he must be plotting something if the first books were any indication). What’s up with Professor Lupin? The previous two Defence Against the Dark Arts professors were hiding secrets, why would this one be any different? Who are Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs? What’s up with Hermione? How is she taking multiple classes at the same time? In the end, I think it makes up for a better novel because the reader and characters aren’t consumed by one single story. By slightly reducing the scope of the mysteries, Rowling provides a more accurate description of what everyday Hogwarts life is really like. Narratively, it’s nice to see all the smaller elements converge into a climactic ending. Things that seem unconnected turn out to be different parts of a larger whole. Most of the mysteries and sub-plots converge in the end and the final result is surprisingly good. There’s much more going on in the third book than the first but it all feels natural.

Rowling continues to add more elements to her fictional universe, not content to sit on her laurels. She continues to explore things introduced in the previous books but generally adding more depth to them. One notable exception is in Harry’s faux-antagonist, Draco Malfoy. I find him to be a very flat character in the first half of the series. His only contribution to the story is to provide Harry with minor distractions and annoy him. Compared to the rest of the stuff he has to deal with, Malfoy is as annoying as a fly buzzing around your head. Besides that, and a few other minor quibbles, Rowling demonstrates once again that she understands how to effectively do world building in a multi-part series. She’s constantly progressing with the story and the world building happening simultaneously without nullifying what came before. It’s very impressive.

One of the big additions to the Potterverse is also part of the formula, Professor Lupin. Consider for a moment all of the things Rowling achieves with this one character. Gives the school a new Defence Against the Darks Art teacher, check! Provides the reader with a mystery, check! Creates interesting conflict between characters, particularly with Snape, check! Contributes to the world building and development of the story of the Wizarding World pre-Harry being born, check! She makes a great character out of what had quickly become just another part of the formula. Unlike the first two professors to teach the subject, Lupin doesn’t permanently disappear at the end of the novel. He’ll remain a staple of the series until the very last book.

Cover of the French edition.

Rowling also continues to build on what constitutes magic. She introduces various new subjects that are taught at Hogwarts but, because of Harry and Ron’s course schedule, she only really develops one of them: Divination. It always seemed a bit strange to me that divination is regularly regarded as being a load of crap. If you live in a world where magic is real why is divination so difficult to accept? If you can believe in flying broomsticks why do you find it difficult to believe in fortune telling? If someone was trying to pass divination as something real in our world, I wouldn't even engage them in conversation about it. But in the fictional setting of Harry Potter, why not? It's nice that Rowling confirms Trelawney as a fortune teller of some considerable skill. She doesn't deserve the hard rap she always seems to get. Sure, she's weird but who in the Wizarding World isn't at least a little weird? It's a credit to Dumbledore that despite her being so odd, he recognizes her worth.

Rowling properly introduces us to Animagi, witches or wizards who are able to take on the form of an animal whenever and however long they want, while also keeping their wits about them. She’s shown us that McGonagall can transform into a cat in the early pages of The Philosopher’s Stone but now we know it wasn’t just vague magical stuff. Animagi and their powers fit within a specific context of this world. The most interesting thing about Animagi is how rare they are and that they are registered with the Ministry of Magic.

Even in a world where magic is common place, there are spells and abilities that need to be monitored. Being an Animagus is one such ability but Rowling will introduce different types of magic later on in the series, specifically the Unforgivable Curses in the fourth novel. Rowling also introduces incredibly powerful magic like the Fidelius charm. The charm is used for hiding secrets of great importance. In short, the secret is hidden within a person, a person you trust utterly and completely, and only they can reveal the secret. I absolutely adore the idea that there are certain spells and charms that cannot be beaten. Voldemort couldn’t simply magic away the Potter’s Fidelius charm. You can’t even use the old fashion way of looking for someone because for as long as the Fidelius charm is in effect, you could stare directly at the person and still be unable to see them.

Such a terrible, terrible cover. Who did
the digital manipulation on this? For shame!
Rowling doesn’t stop there. For the second time in the series, Dumbledore (and Rowling) hint at a stronger and mysterious type of magic. The first time was in the first book when Dumbledore talks about the protection Harry has due to his mother’s love. Much like scientists have yet to fully understand the mysteries of our world, wizards are still trying to understand all of the mysteries of their world. By choosing to spare Pettigrew’s life in the third book, Harry has created a bond between himself and Ron’s former pet. The exact nature of that bond is something we will discover in greater detail later on in the series but for now, it remains a loosely defined element of the Harry Potter saga.

Rowling really shows how Hermione is a good person in this book. She helps Hagrid write his defence case for Buckbeak even though she's swamped with a ridiculous amount of school work. She also takes the time to make sure Harry and Ron don't do anything stupid and Harry, who has a murderer after him is acting particularly stupid and Ron is acting more self-centered than usual. She forces discussions that upset her friends, but she does it for their own good (things like getting the Firebolt checked out by the professors). She’s constantly helping others and she infrequently gets any gratitude for it and when she does, she gets it weeks or months after the fact. It's really sad that her two best friends shun her for weeks at a time and all she can go to is retreat to her school work and Hagrid. You get a sense Hermione's not very popular with girls (or boys for that matter) and it's probably because she tries a bit too hard. I don't blame her, one of her best friends is Harry Potter and despite the fact that he’s got big issues to deal with, he also has it real easy for a lot of things. "Look at me, I'm one of the best Hogwarts seekers ever!" Ya dude, you've also got the best brooms ever. I'm not saying that he does everything effortlessly, but he doesn't put much effort in his day to day stuff. Harry kind of coasts through life. Like how he barely studies for exams but does alright anyway. Hermione tries so hard but she’s mostly ignored by everyone except by adults. That's why I love it when Hagrid lectures the boys for being shitty friends. Yeah, Quidditch is cool and it sucks your rat got eaten (he didn't) but your friend should be a priority, here. Stop sucking at being a friend.

Once again, I’ll finish off the post with some random thoughts. As the books increase in length and content, it’s becoming more difficult to keep all of my thoughts organized. Besides, there are so many little things I want to comment on that this seems the best way to go about it.

-Cornelius Fudge is not Prime Minister of the Wizarding World, he's just Minister for Magic. He tells the British Prime Minister about Sirius Black. Does he regularly report to the British Prime Minister? I recall something like that.

-Man, racing brooms are the computers of the Wizarding World. This is the third book in a row where a new broom model comes out which is better than all the rest. Book one: Nimbus 2000, Book Two: Nimbus 2001, Book Three: Firebolt.

-I like that even though he gets it from Fred and George, friends, Harry is weary of the potential danger of the map. He's thinking of Mr. Weasley's advice from the end of the second book: "Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can't see where it keeps its brain." It’s also a way for Rowling to tell her readers to just relax. She’s saying “Look, I’m making you think of it so you don’t think Harry is dumb for doing something potentially dangerous. Just enjoy this cool new addition to Harry’s arsenal of mischief.”

Cover of the Swedish edition. The Whomping
Willow has a face!
-I really like that Snape reveals to Harry hat his father wasn't as perfect as Harry seems to think. His dad, while a student at Hogwarts, was a teenager who did stupid things. He clearly had a head full of hot air but that's something relatively common amongst teens. James and his friends were rule breakers that also had good grades and you can easily imagine teachers going easy on them when disciplining them for their pranks and rule breaking because of their scholarly accomplishments. My point being, it's nice that Harry's parents weren't perfect because Rowling is often writing about Harry as if he were perfect and it’s a regular annoyance to me while reading the series.

-Despite his heroic accomplishments, Harry Potter is still very much a teenage boy. When learning how to defend himself from Dementors he tells Lupin that he must learn the Patronus Charm otherwise how will he be able to defend himself while playing the next Quidditch match against Ravenclaw? Right, that's what's important, winning your school's version of the next volley-ball match. His priorities are all out of order and as annoying as he can be sometimes, Rowling does write him as a teenager and it works well because the professors, other adults and Hermione continuously tell him he's being reckless and stupid. Lupin even mentions it's disrespectful to the memory of his parents that he's gambling with his life just to go visit Hogsmeade when his parents died to save him.

-I get that Lupin haunts the Shrieking Shack during the full moon but who haunts it normally? What exactly makes it the most haunted dwelling in Britain? Was it Lupin as a child? I imagine nobody has haunted it in quite some time. Maybe he apparates there every month?

-I think it's a little odd that the winner of the Quidditch cup isn't the team that won the most matches. It's whoever scored the most points. It's also interesting that there only seems to be three matches per team per school year. What is that, a total of twelve matches during the whole school year? Yeah, ok, that does seem like enough considering there would be a new match every second weekend or so.

-Foolish things that people have done in their young age can easily come and haunt them in adulthood. Lupin's great shame of lying by omission to Dumbledore is a good example of that. He could have avoided quite a bit of trouble for quite a bit of people had he simply told Dumbledore about all the secrets passages he and his friends uncovered.

-I love the ending in the shack. All the talking about misunderstood truths and lies. People walking in one at a time into the shack, the whole room getting increasingly crowded with tensions running higher and higher, it's great. It's also very refreshing that Voldemort isn't back for a third time. We needed a break from him. Rowling needed to expand the world and history of her fictional universe before she could continue on with the story. She focuses the world building on character and Voldemort, its unfortunate, wasn’t much of a character at this point in the series.

-Snape, Lupin and Sirius Black are great examples of how high school never ends.

-It's Hermione that saves the day. Awesome. Sure, Harry does an excellent Patronus but Hermione’s the one who enable him to travel in time and be in two places at once.

-Speaking of time travel, Rowling does an excellent job with it. She puts limitations on it which helps to keep it grounded. Time travel is the kind of story telling trick that can very easily get out of hand (and it often does). She also makes a big deal out of it for wizards. This is one of many examples of dangerous and rarely used magic. Time travel, much like Animagi, are very closely controlled and monitored because of the world shattering consequences it can have. It just makes sense that one of the Wizarding World’s more important laws is to not change history by means of time travel.

-I just realized I haven’t really said too much about Dementors. They’re super creepy! ‘Nuff said, on to book four! This post has overstayed its welcome, anyway. 

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