Jun 21 2011 11:17am

Mischief Managed: An Appreciation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban US coverI started reading the Harry Potter books right after Prisoner of Azkaban was first published, which coincided with the general rise of the Harry Potter fandom. Fans and people in mainstream started to recognize that these books weren’t “just for kids” or, in the eyes of my angsty teenage self, as being “Okay to be seen reading on the bus.”

While I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, they still came off as a bit…. kiddish (remember, I was a little more than a kid myself at the time, so I was snobbish about those things). They were fun, I enjoyed them, but I didn’t want to be Harry after the first book and that vainglorious git Lockhart and the house elf Dobby both annoyed me to no end in the second, so I wasn’t eager to pick up the third book. But pick it up I did, primarily because my little sister got the book, so I might as well read it, too. And once I closed the covers to the Prisoner of Azkaban, I read it again. Immediately. The fandom bug bit me and I became a fangirl.

Why that happened is obvious: Prisoner of Azkaban’s tone is emotionally darker than the previous books. The Dementors that steal happiness lurk on every corner, an escaped mass murderer bent of revenge is on the loose, and death omens pop up left and right. Alongside these growing threats, Harry becomes more aware of the complexities of the adult world; at the same time, however, he’s negotiating with his own teenage insecurities. How can he hang out at cool places like Hogsmeade if he can’t get Uncle Vernon to sign his permission slip? Does fainting in the presence of a Dementor mean he’s a coward? Would he be able to play Quidditch again once his Nimbus Two Thousand becomes campfire fodder? Prisoner of Azkaban captures the beginnings of Harry’s adolescence before the arrival of the caplocked rage, romantic entanglements, and endless page counts that tended to bog down the later books. Moreover, the third book combines the right amount of adventure and suspense while also complicating the picture by hinting at a past when people didn’t think Voldemort was the only bad guy… but that anyone could’ve been. And the results of the cultural trauma during that time period didn’t fade away after the Dark Lord’s presumed defeat at Godric’s Hollow.

But the connection I felt with Harry’s teenage journey and my own wasn’t the only reason why I became a Harry Potter fangirl, and neither were the darker themes.

The story of the Marauders pulled me into fandom, head-over-heels.

A part of Harry’s developing maturity is his growing awareness of his parents’ lives. Prisoner of Azkaban is the first time readers glimpse a bit of the wizarding past, during a time of war, mistrust, and anxiety. Because Harry’s position in this book is that of a child observing adults, we readers are teased with bits and pieces of information and unexplained character tensions between the grown-ups around him. Does Snape hate Lupin because he took the coveted DADA position, or is it something more? Why does talk about the Marauders and Sirius Black affect Lupin so much? How can Harry protect himself from Black’s hell-bent desire to get rid of him? Harry’s point of view provides enough misdirection to give readers a complete 180 when the truth is finally revealed in the Shrieking Shack. That in itself is a masterful feat of storytelling on Rowling’s part.

Not only does Rowling win in terms of planting red herrings, but Prisoner of Azkaban wins for great use of plot devices and secondary characters. Time travel gets a genre crossover into children’s fantasy, and Hermione shows just how damn clever she is by her ability to use it. The Whomping Willow is more than just for smashing wayward cars and broomsticks, and it being a key plot point in this book started the trend of micro-analyzing previous books for other clues about future ones. Professor Trelawney, as ridiculous and melodramatic as she is, serves as timely comic relief in a book that contained so much darkness, and actually proves her prediction prowess later on. Buckbeak the hippogriff was always my ride of choice, and in the end, becomes the perfect companion for a fellow convict on the run.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban UK coverAnd of course, there are the Marauders themselves, and one of the great character-based strengths of the novel is that they are described from so many conflicting perspectives. There’s the “common knowledge” tale in the wizarding community, where Black is the traitor who goes insane and Peter Pettigrew, the boy who “hero-worshipped Black and Potter” is hailed as a hero. There are the Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot & Prongs, the jokester teens who were smart enough to create the Map for their own amusement and become Animagus in the name of friendship. Then, there are the Marauders grown old: Lupin suffering from the effects of lycanthropy and unemployment, Black driven to near insanity after years of imprisonment, Pettigrew a sickly, simpering rat both literally and figuratively. James is present even though he’s gone, most strongly represented as Harry’s stag Patronus (and Lily is there too, in the form of a traumatic recalled memory). Thus, Harry—and the reader—gain an understanding of how terrible the threat of Voldemort had been by how these secondary characters become fully formed in our eyes, defined piecemeal throughout the book by their most joyous and most tragic memories.

More importantly to this fangirl, though, is Remus Lupin. To Harry, he is one of his first mentors. Unlike Dumbledore’s distant and quirky paternalism, Molly’s coddling, or Hagrid’s chummy friendship, Remus Lupin is the first adult who treats Harry as someone who can make decisions and respects them. He also guides Harry’s judgment, asking him to rethink his assumptions about Sirius and about himself. When Harry fears his own cowardliness, for example, he confides in Lupin; in return, Harry is not belittled or comforted but is reassured of his ability when Lupin offers him Patronus lessons.

Throughout the book, Harry goes to Lupin for advice and information in a way that he hadn’t been able to with other teachers. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Lupin is the Marauder that becomes the father figure Harry needs, the one that James was unable to be and that Sirius wanted to be so badly.

Character-wise, Lupin is the most mysterious figure, second to Sirius. He’s also got a high angst factor, though he never reveals it. (Countless fanfics have made up for that!) Lupin is controlled by the secrets and lies placed upon him by circumstance and society. During his time at Hogwarts, Lupin is forced to hide his lycanthropy, to lie about his Animagus friends to his most trusted mentor, to cope with the betrayal that left him friendless and abandoned for years. In some sense, the constant subterfuge Lupin plays becomes second nature to him: feigning sleep on the train to Hogwarts, lying through his teeth about the Marauder’s Map to Snape, hiding his reactions about Sirius, holding back a comforting hand when Harry confesses to hearing Lily’s final pleads. At the same time, his guarded control makes him a target of suspicion—no wonder Hermione accused him of being in league with Voldemort!

Like with the house elves and the term “Mudblood,” Rowling shows us another form of oppression in the wizarding world through werewolf discrimination. More significantly, Lupin’s experiences and reactions reveal how damaging microaggressions can be. At the same time, however, his triumph over the emotional and physical burdens he bears makes him an admirable character. Lupin’s subtle strength, his undeniable intelligence, his dry wit, and even his emotional restraint were all draws for legions of fans, including myself (and legions of shippers as well. Puppy love forever!)

Prisoner of Azkaban ends with uncertainty. Pettigrew escapes, Lupin resigns, Black is on the run… but despite all of this, Harry is still left with hope. For the first time, he realizes that he has options besides life with the Dursleys, and knowing that he has other family out there—in the form of his parents’ old friends—is enough for him for now.

Ay-leen the Peacemaker freely admits that she has an unfinished Remus Lupin fanfic novel floating on the interwebz somewhere, and her plot notes are shoved in a box in her attic. One day, perhaps, she’ll release them for infamy to those who still remember it. In the meantime, she runs the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana.

This article is part of Potterpalooza on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. sofrina
i agree this was the one where the series stopped being kids books. by the time the revelations at the shrieking shack were over, i needed a nap and a cold-compress. i remember thinking, 'i would never let a kid read this!' the drama.

also agree with your point about how voldemort's actions effectively ruined all the marauders' lives. pettigrew may have gotten away with his betrayal of the potters, but he lived in his own prison everafter. (ever wonder what he was up to at night when no one was around? probably sitting around the weasley house smoking a pipe and reading the papers, or strolling through hogwarts chatting up the ghosts...)
2. Serp
I remember sitting in the school library with my friends for weeks and weeks designing our very own Maurauder's Map, complete with little footsteps, all in green, red and purple ink with our own Maurauder's names and logos. It spanned about 6 A3 sheets of paper all Sellotaped together, though I'm not sure if my friend still has it. He never throws anything away, perhaps I should ask...

Anyway, although it's not my favourite of the series (DH and GoF come first I think), the plot was amazing particularly with the Time-Turner sequence and saving Buckbeak (who didn't cheer at that?). I really enjoyed Lupin's character, though I'm depressed he didn't turn out to be so awesome in the other books, especially after he and Tonks started their relationship.

Reading through your epic list of the things Lupin had to put up with while he was teaching, I noticed you missed out one of the things that stuck out at me the first time I read it: the fact that he had to rely on Snape of all people to keep his secret underwraps. I kept thinking Snape was going to poison him or something, since only professionalism seemed to be keeping him from doing just that.
Emily Asher-Perrin
3. EmilyAP
I agree with everything you said (the Marauders were always my favorite aspect of the series, no matter how much I loved Harry and Co.), but more importantly, I'm glad I'm not the only person around here who ships Remus/Sirius. ;)
4. Lsana
This is my favorite of the books, no question. It was much less "kid-like" than the first two, but didn't suffer from the same bloat that the later ones did. I've read this one to pieces.

I too loved the Marauders. And I kept my love for them, even after the revelations in OoP that Snape's hatred of them wasn't unjustified.

I loved Lupin as an advisor to Harry, but I never really saw him as a father figure. I think Lupin (and Sirius too), was much closer to an older brother. Someone willing to be frank and helpful, while still respecting Harry's right to decide for himself.

Finally, it never occurred to me before, but I wonder why Snape didn't call Lupin on the Marauder's Map. Obviously, Lupin claiming it was from the joke shop wasn't going to work on him, but Snape let's Lupin get away with covering for Harry there. Why not a simple, "Cut the crap, Mooney"?
5. Stefan Jones
This one is my favorite of the series. I managed to be genuinely surprised by . . . the surprise, and the new depth of the wizarding world was very welcome.
Susan Sipal
6. SusanSipal
This is such a wonderful analysis of an amazing book. From many fans I've talked with, it was Prisoner of Azkaban that turned them from being interested in the series to die-hard fans (although my personal favorite is Goblet of Fire).

I think the depth of emotion and her level of mystery plotting just took off here. I'm amazed that you can go back to Philosopher's Stone, two books earlier, and see a reference to Sirius Black planted so slyly in that first chapter -- just one sentence from Hagrid about borrowing his motorbike. JKR plotted well ahead and she laid her clues so expertly. It was this book and this trail-of-clues mystery revealed in Wormtail that made fans forever after search out every tiny bit of evidence in her stories for who might die and what might happen!

Also, Lupin was definitely my favorite in this book. Such a wonderful, tortured hero.
7. Jeff Dougan
I noted in Mari's appreciation of HP:PS that this is my favorite of the 7 because it's one of the few books I've ever seen do a time-travel sequence without breaking causality. It's also where you start to see (on a first read-through) how carefully things are planned, but that's almost an afterthought for me.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
8. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
Thanks everyone for your feedback & outpouring of PoA love!

@sofrina: I never had much love for Peter, but he does get my pity vote for how his cowardice had trapped him twofold: both in a body that isn’t human for a dozen years and then in his service to Voldemort, to whom he was dedicated because of his fear of the repercussions as much as it was loyalty.

@Serp: That’s awesome you & your friends made your own map! My friends and I totally made our own painted wands and stuff before they started being sold with the onset of the movies (I even still have mine!)

And it is frustrating that JKR never did anything more awesome with Lupin in the later books (I feel the same way for Sirius too, especially since it seemed like he was on a tragic spiral even after he got out.)

And you’re right about praising Lupin’s cool head in dealing with Snape too; though I think in that case it was also a “keep your friends close but your enemies closer” situation for both of them, and Lupin knew Snape well enough that he wouldn’t risk do anything to him (in a way that could be traced back to him, at least), and Snape wouldn’t want to be responsible for a situation where Lupin’s werewolf went out of control because of something he did.

@EmilyAP: Yeah, as young & hip Tonks is, I never really got to liking her; the puppies just work so much better!

@Lsana I think Snape was probably 95% sure that the Marauders’ Map was created James & Co, but wasn’t couldn’t fling off the accusation until he could be 100% sure with proof and that Lupin was a thus a threat to Harry by giving him it. And then Ron came running in saying that he got it at the joke shop and ruined any moment Snape had to accuse Lupin of anything.

@Stefan: Me too! Which is also why I read it again after, so I could “read between the lines” for everything.

@SusanSipal PoA was just one of the better constructed books in the series, overall. The plotting, the characterization, and the world-building all balanced each other out. And I agree this was the book that made everyone start reading into every single detail thereafter.

@Jeff Dougan Yes about the time travel! I’ve read a lot of different explanations of time travel in books, but to see a simple “time is a loop and here we go” is quite refreshing.
9. I Love the Weasley twins
Did anyone notice that Harry's scar was on the left side of his forehead in the boggart/dementor classroom scene, then back on the right side in the next scene of the Hogsmeade visit????
10. bentobox
the prisoner of azkaban is and continues to be my favorite book of the series. i remember being likewise enthralled by it when i first read it and i think those good feelings about the book carried me through the darker days ahead in the series thereafter.

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