Aug 14 2014 10:00am

The Harry Potter Reread: The Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapters 1 and 2

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban coverThe Harry Potter Reread is listening to a howling breeze at the moment, and dearly hopes that this is not a harbinger of bad news or bad sleep or bad company. (Not like the band Bad Company, which is an altogether different subject.)

We are starting the third book! And Harry is becoming a teenager. Which should worry the Dursleys probably more than it actually does. We’ve got the first two chapters of The Prisoner of Azkaban to start—Owl Post and Aunt Marge’s Big Mistake.

Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.

Chapter 1—Owl Post


Harry is doing his homework under the covers with a flashlight because the Dursleys can’t know he has any of his school supplies outside of the locked closet they confined them to. He hasn’t heard from his friends yet this summer because Ron made the mistake of calling the Dursley’s house without understanding how phones worked; he shouted into the receiver, infuriating Vernon.

It’s one in the morning on his birthday and a few owls come to visit with gifts and cards. Ron sends Harry a sneakoscope, which tells you when someone untrustworthy is about. He’s been spending time with his family on holiday—his father won a Ministry prize draw, allowing the whole family to visit his oldest brother Bill in Egypt. Bill is a curse breaker for Gringotts bank. Hermione sends Harry a letter and a fancy Broom Servicing Kit. Hagrid sends Harry a book that bites and scuttles about titled The Monster Book of Monsters, though he won’t explain to Harry why he’ll need it for his upcoming year at Hogwarts.

He also receives his supply list for his return to school. Along with the list is a permission slip form—students Third Year and up are allowed to visit the nearby wizarding village of Hogsmeade, provided that they can get a parent or guardian to sign it. Harry knows there’s practically no chance for that, and wonders what he might do about it. But aside from that, everything is brighter than usual: he's is pleased that it’s his birthday for the first time in his life.


It’s a great way of introducing Harry to potentially new readers this time around, by moving right to what distinguishes him from other kids on vacation. Summer is no fun, homework is fun but must be done in secret. The bit on witch-burning is actually horrifying because the text in Harry’s book makes it clear that plenty of non-magical people were caught and burned at the stake. Rowling is clever in not dismissing history, but making it clear that it was different for the wizarding world. This book is still pretty early on in reading level, so no need to traumatized the children.

Clues abound even in the first chapter and they’re all already pointing to the rat. Harry notices Scabbers perched on Ron’s shoulder in the family portrait for the newspaper. Ron tells Harry that Bill doesn’t believe the sneakoscope works because it went off at dinner… but Fred and George had put beetles in his soup. Of course, it might have gone off due to the massive liar in Ron’s robe pocket. Again, we have no way of guessing that.

I love Hermione’s sense of understatement in her post script:

Ron says Percy’s Head Boy. I’ll bet Percy’s real pleased. Ron doesn’t seem too happy about it.

Coming after Ron’s clear irritation, it’s just the perfect mark to hit.

Then there’s Hagrid’s book, which manages to be more fun than frightening, mainly due to the fact that it doesn’t get Harry into trouble the way Dobby did last year. Maybe the Dursleys are sleeping more soundly than usual.

But most important of all is Harry finally getting the chance to feel a little love on his birthday, which has been a long time coming. His first chance to properly celebrate, even if he does have to do it in the dead of night.

Chapter 2—Aunt Marge’s Big Mistake


The next day there’s word on the news of a man with the surname Black who has escaped from prison. Harry finds out that Vernon’s sister, “Aunt” Marge, is coming to visit for the week. What’s more, Harry has a part to play, making Marge think that he’s been sent to St. Brutus’s Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys. Marge enjoys giving Harry a hard time whenever she visits, so Harry tries to make something good come out of it—he tells Vernon that he’ll be better at pretending around Marge if Vernon agrees to sign his permission slip for Hogsmeade. Vernon tries to threaten him, but relents.

Marge arrives with her nasty bulldog Ripper and immediately starts in on Harry at dinner. She wants to make sure he’s being properly beaten at school. Harry goes along, saying all the right things until Marge brings up “breeding,” claiming that there’s something wrong with Harry due to his parentage. Her wine glass shatters in her hand. Harry retreats quickly from the table after that.

On Marge’s final night at the Dursleys, she has too much to drink and really lays into Harry. When she asks what his father did for a living, Vernon claims he was unemployed. Marge says she’s not surprised and that Harry’s father was a no-good loser, that his parents were probably drunk when they died in that “car crash.” Harry is so furious that Marge begins to blow up like a balloon. Vernon is livid, but Harry says she deserved what happened. He tears to the cupboard under the stairs, blows the door open, collects his things and runs from the house.


Another brief hint, our first mention of Sirius’ prison break. Vernon points out that the news station doesn’t say what prison Black broke out of, the biggest red flag that this should receive the reader’s attention.

And then we move to the news of Marge’s visit:

“Firstly,” growled Uncle Vernon, “you’ll keep a civil tongue in your head while your talking to Marge.”

“All right,” said Harry bitterly, “if she does when she’s talking to me.”

What I love most about the opening to this book is how clear it is that Harry has become a teenager. He’s suddenly far mouthier, more sarcastic, willing to push back against the treatment he receives at Privet Drive. He’s furious that Vernon has told Marge he goes to St. Brutus’s. He turns the game back on Vernon, working to get something he wants for good behavior. He knows what it feels like to be cared for by his friends, and it makes him more intolerant of how Vernon and Petunia treat him.

And Marge is quite the piece of work, of course. I do find it interesting that, with how important it is for Vernon that his family be normal, he doesn’t balk at having an unmarried sister. It seems like the sort of thing that the Dursleys would look down on, but Marge is clearly an independent force. That doesn’t change the fact that she’s unimaginably cruel and superior, but it’s interesting to think that Vernon might actually be the more timid of the two of them.

You can feel Rowling’s disdain toward people who dismiss the struggles of those in need. Harry’s parents may not have been unemployed or died in a car crash, but Marge’s insistence that they must have been near-criminal slouches (based on what little she thinks she knows), that Harry must be the same for “breeding,” is exactly the sort of prejudice Rowling likely battled as a poor single mother. You can’t blame Harry for his anger, particularly not at such a tender age when talking back to an adult is a much bigger deal.

I always enjoyed the idea that certain magic could not be controlled, particularly in magical children. Here is the first time we’ve truly seen it occur out of anger and hurt, rather than fear or danger. One wonders how often the subconscious use of magic affects wizards, and how often it’s used as an excuse for bad behavior as well.

It’s a great cliffhanger for the chapter, Harry rushing out the door. Running away does seem like the only viable option here, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frightening.

Emily Asher-Perrin can only imagine the kind of trouble she’d have gotten up to if she’d been able to use subconscious magic as a kid. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

I always loved the progression of the Dursleys' scenes through the books. I wish they'd gotten a little more time in later movies. Anyway, I disagree that an unmarried female relative would be a scandal. I'm not plugged into British culture, but in general in western literature there have always been spinster aunts depicted as perfectly respectable even in the most conservative societies.

I'm a little surprised Harry was able to get so far away from the scene considering the power of apparition and the apparently instant tracking notice the Ministry of Magic was supposedly getting of magic being performed. Also, I always thought it was one of the more glaring plot holes that he didn't get in trouble for using 'Lumos' under the covers . . . or was that added in for the movie?
Matthew Glover
2. themightysven
So, the Monster Book of Monsters, the bookseller doesn't want to stock them in the future, which causes them to move to Scarmander's book for GoF and OotP (revealed in OotP), so I've often wondered what happens to the books. I like to imagine that they're in a pile in the Burrow's Attic, and that maybe a few years down the road they go check on the ghoul and find a bunch of notebook sized Pesky Book of Pests scuttling around.
3. mutantalbinocrocodile
I wouldn't say there is anything at all unusual about Vernon having an unmarried sister. If anything, Marge gives a useful sociological clue that, even though Vernon is plainly a tasteless social climber (talking about his new car so that everyone can hear, etc.), he didn't come from the bottom of the heap either. Everything we hear about Marge (her country home, her friendship with old military, her bulldogs, her clear lack of any career or desire/need for one) makes it clear that the Dursley family has money at least one generation back. It's quite a neat defense against accusations that the Dursleys are just a classist satire of "new money".

I remember, even though I was a college student at the time, being utterly shocked at Marge's use of the word *itch (altered for mods, please don't remove as it's in the text and critical to the character). Even though she is getting away with it by supposedly using it in the context of dog breeding, compared to the language of the previous books it really got across how much higher the emotional stakes are going to be in this book--and also makes it much easier to empathize with Harry given that what he does to Marge, however painful, is both unconscious and in response to an extremely serious and intentional insult.
Joseph Cook
4. Jobi-Wan
I love your re-read! PoA is one of my favorite books and movies of the series.

One of the big questions I always had about Pettigrew/Scabbers was why the Weasley Twins never noticed his little nameplate hanging out in Rons room all the time on the Mauraders Map. It seems like at some point one of them would have noticed Pettigrew always around Ron. But maybe the Weasley Twins have better things to do than stare at Rons name on the Map all the time.
Matthew Glover
5. themightysven
@1 they can block apparation, and I would assume that since they think Black is on his way to Little Whinging (technically correct) that blocking off apparation would seem like a good idea. If they have Aurors in the area it may take some time for them to receive messages from the Ministry (even Patronus-mail isn't instantaneous)
Adam S.
Yay! Prisoner of Azkaban!
I really enjoyed this book, quite a bit more than COS, which was okay for a sequel but didn't have as much originality to it as the opening book (IMHO).
The opening sequence is another typical British poor boy plot, straight out of Dickens or Roald Dahl, and Marge is a particularly nasty piece of work (she reminds a lot of the bad parents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda, and her desire to know that Harry is beaten is straight out of Dickens).
Harry is definitely a teenager, but it's hard to know how much of his moodiness is that versus how much is just his being sick of being belittled now that he knows what it's like to be loved.
I love the Monster Book of Monsters. Such a Hagrid thing to assign for students!
David Levinson
7. DemetriosX
As noted @1, spinster aunts are something of a trope in the UK, although they're really more a residual of the era between the wars rather than anything current. There's also the fact that Marge is Vernon's older sister and undoubtedly bullied him mercilessly while growing up. I'd bet that he's more than a little bit afraid of her and would never dare to suggest that she isn't "normal".

If I had a quibble with anything here, it's that witches in Britain were hanged, not burned. Isn't it also pointed out that it was almost exclusively muggles who got caught in the witch hunts, since witches and wizards had the means to get away?
Emily Asher-Perrin
8. EmilyAP
@Jobi-Wan - Yay, thank you!

I always assumed that if Fred and George did notice Peter, they thought there was something wrong with the map. Only the Marauders really know that the Map is incapable of lying, and the Weasleys probably figure there are questionable aspects to the Map considering its source. Since they don't know Pettigrew's name, they'd have no reason to fixate on it.
9. beastofman
You have to wonder how often this happens. It's been a while since I was a teenager, but I remember being angry at someone at least on a weekly basis, and I know I'm not the only one. You'd have to think there would be floating relatives all over the country everytime some teeanger thought something was unfair. Not just anger mind you, but also being ridiculously girl-crazy would have gotten me into a lot of magical trouble.

@4 Good point. I'm going to fan-wank it by saying that they weren't using the Map to spy on Ron, but rather see where professors were and if they did notice Pettigrew's name, they might not know who he was, assuming he was another student at the school.
10. ShawnPCooke
MutantAlbinoCrocodile @3: The meaning of "female dog" is far more current in UK usage than in US usage. The double meaning still exists, but that would be the term used by a dog breeder, and it would pass without comment.

Offensiveness doesn't often translate across the pond. In the US, to call someone a "spaz" is quite mild, but in the UK, it is hideously offensive. US television shows that use the term playfully will often be censored when aired in the UK.
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams
Evil spinster aunts were also a trope of 19th-century fiction- check out Kipling and Saki. Aunt Marge could have walked out of any of their works without a twitch.
Ashley W
12. Angharad
@4. Jobi-Wan
Also, even if they thought it was odd, who were they going to tell? I doubt they wanted to give up the map, and who would suspect it was Scabbers?
Rob Munnelly
13. RobMRobM
I really enjoy PoA. I struggled to get through the first two books (and even gave them up at different times) but from PoA on I was locked into Rowlings' world.
14. Rancho Unicorno
@9 - not just another student, but another Gryffindor. And it seems like everybody knows everybody.

I'm curious about teh sneakoscope. Since it doesn't go off at Privet Drive (both before and after Marge arrive), shouldn't that be a clue that the Dursleys are, through it all, good people. They're certainly wrong-headed much most nearly all the time, but they are trustworthy. I suppose it's also a hint about the scary dog in chapter 3.
Don Barkauskas
15. bad_platypus
TBGH @1: Yes, the "Lumos" scene was invented for the movie. In the book, Harry is writing an essay by flashlight.
jeff hendrix
16. templarsteel
This was the first Harry Potter book I read and bought for myself out of christmas money I got from relatives
Kit Case
17. wiredog
"Here is the first time we’ve truly seen it occur out of anger and hurt, rather than fear or danger"
In the first book he turns the snake loose, and there is mention of him somehow getting on a roof to get away from bullies.
18. DougL
Well, didn't Harry make the glass disappear when he was angry at Dudley way, way back when?
David Levinson
19. DemetriosX
@11 Pam Adams
And Wodehouse. Aunt Marge could easily be one of Bertie's bullying aunts.
Emily Asher-Perrin
20. EmilyAP
@Rancho Unicorno - I'm not sure I'd go that far with the Dursleys; being trustworthy doesn't necessarily make you a "good" person. In fact, it fits in the Dursley's MO--if they have a problem with you, you'll know. All it really indicates is that they're not going to flat out lie to anyone, or be deceitful to a point that could endanger someone. Being trustworthy without kindness and compassion doesn't really amount to much.
Chris Nelly
21. Aeryl
Ghosts show up on the map, and there are more ghosts at Hogwarts than just the House ghosts. They likely just suspected it was another ghost.
Ursula L
22. Ursula
Emily @20

The Dursley's will flat out lie, such as to Aunt Marge about Harry's school.

But they don't lie to Harry, who is the owner of the sneekoscope.

And I'd expect a sneekoscope to respond specifically to lies made to the owner, to be most useful. It would do no good to have a sneekoscope that gave away your own lies.

The Dursley's don't care enough about Harry to lie to him.
Sasha P
23. AeronaGreenjoy
But Scabbers wasn't voicing lies at the dinner table. Maybe the twins were somehow lying about not bugging (haha) Percy's soup. If it detects general untrustworthiness, it could be going off constantly in the presence of Scabber and/or the twins.

Being terrified of fire, I really wish I could do a Flame Freezing Charm. But how would a magic user appear to have not only been in pain but actually burned? Apparate away when nobody was looking and hope they would be believed to be among the ashes?

@2: Wasn't Scamander's (very fine) book on the first-year reading list Harry got in Book One? I think so. And I want to read the Monster Book of Monsters.
24. HelenS
ShawnPCooke writes: "In the US, to call someone a "spaz" is quite mild, but in the UK, it is hideously offensive."

It's been considered quite offensive by a great many people in the US for a long time as well. I can point you to previous discussions here and on James Nicoll's Livejournal if you like.
Chris Nelly
25. Aeryl
But Scabbers wasn't voicing lies at the dinner table.

But Scabbers very existence is a lie. I let it pass
26. beastofman
A thought about the trustworthiness of the Durselys. You have to remember they did take him in when they could have sent him to an orphanage, and that's pretty darn important because it keeps Harry safe. So even though they're jerks most of the time, they are (in the larger sense) doing right by Dumbledore.
27. Dr. Cox
PoA reread, yay!
Interesting post and discussion of things I hadn't noticed or noticed but hasn't spent much time thinking about.
I'm looking forward particularly to the posts and discussion on later chapters; I reckon y'all have had the "but what about . . . " and "why did they . . . ?" that I did about certain tbings.
PoA is maybe my favorite in the series, despite the "but what abouts" and "why didn't theys?" for what goes on and the glimpses we get of earlier times via the return of the Marauders. I've got a British copy, bought at the Oxfam shop near a bus station in Cheltenham :).
I'm also looking forward to the film tho' certain changes don't help the film or characters. I do have a soft spot for it because it was the first film I saw at the cinema after an eight-year drought. (A certain adaptation of another author's work was Totally.Perishing.Awful and put me right off spending money to go see a film :o).
28. Owlay
In the books Harry is described as reading with a torch, which is a British term for a flashlight. However, I think this was changed for the American release. Now, how many of those of you who read it this way really thought Harry was reading with a flaming torch? Wouldn't that have been awfully inconvenient?

What do you guys think may have been included within the Monster Book of Monsters? What I mean is, what differences in content do you think there are between this and Fantastic Beasts...?

Do you prefer the film version of Harry inflating Aunt Marge? In the book she only floats to the top of the room, but in the movie she floats out into the sky. In my opinion this was a kinda good change but also a disturbing one: What if she stays floating forever?

Forgive me for the short post, but I don't have the book at hand right now.
Matthew Glover
29. themightysven
@23 I can't check on it right now, but I do know that it's the class text for year 5 because "forgetting" it is how Harry can tell Hagrid that Firenze says the attempt isn't working without Umbridge getting in the way. (I'm just reading OotP right now)
Sasha P
30. AeronaGreenjoy
I don't have the books now either, but Pottermore sez it's required first-year reading.
31. mr baskerville
I'm thoroughly enjoying this re-read.

I think Aunt Marge's opinion of Harry's allegedly unemployed parents is a parallel to the Malfoy's opinion of "mudbloods" in that they are irrationally condemning people for choices they didn't make. Granted, being born with the ability to do magic is not the exact equivalent to loosing one's job, (as thousands do in a crappy economy) but the sense of superiority and elitism from Aunt Marge may make Harry think that wizards can be just as crappy as Muggles (and vice versa).
Nt Ch
32. ntch
@Jobi-Wan @EmilyAP @Rancho Unicorno
I think it was established that animagi in their animal form don't show up on the map. And it kinda makes sense cause maradeurs wouldn't want to be seen on the map when transformed.
Chris Nelly
33. Aeryl
@32, But Lupin sees Peter with Ron in the Shrieking Shack, when he's still in rat form.
34. mutantalbinocrocodile
@10, I agree that in its technically correct meaning the word in question is much more acceptable with Brits like Marge than with Americans--but that definitely doesn't mean that implicitly calling Harry's mother that (not to mention implicitly associating both of them with dog mating) is breathtakingly offensive in the great British tradition of disguising something remarkably cruel under the veneer of acceptability.

It's serious enough that one might surmise that, even given teenage tempers, this kind of accident is not massively common. However, I do think that, if you start to think about it, we are getting increasing evidence that, under normal conditions, the Decree for the Restriction of Underage Wizardry is basically a cloak for repression specifically of Muggle-born wizards. How exactly would a wizarding child ever be caught? There is magic in their homes all the time. We repeatedly hear that wizard-born children have things like magical toys or brooms which are used outside school hours.
Nt Ch
35. ntch
@33 you're right. I found a quote about Peter that was posted at JKR web site
"Fred and George never noticed Pettigrew on the Marauder's Map because they didn't know who he was. Even if they had recognized his name, they would have assumed he was just a student with the same last name. Pettigrew was one of many moving dots on the map, and Fred and George would have only been focused on the path their mischief took that day."
36. Stumblebunches
I've lurked my way through the re-read of the first two books, including all the comment threads, and just have to say - this is a ton of fun and the best method of procrastinating (insert name of mundane task here) ever! Had to finally post a tip of the wizard's cap to Emily and the comment community!

I'd never thought about Pettigrew's appearance on the Marauder's Map in previous books. This makes me wonder about Quirrell's avatar on said map. "Is Lord Voldemort playing piggyback with Professor Quirrell?" Of course, if it showed Tom Riddle you'd still have to wonder about the student that was standing on top of the prof even in class.
Phil Boswell
37. NotACat
We know that not only do Animagi appear on the map but so do animals: didn't Harry see Mrs Norris when he first looked? Also, Peeves is shown bouncing round the trophy room.

I figure it's entirely plausible that Gred and Forge might have spotted Peter's dot and name but assumed that it referred to someone's pet or maybe a ghost. As long as it wasn't anywhere likely to interfere with their pranks, as JKR says, why would they be bothered?

The question of Tom Riddle is a bit more tricky: how much of a person has to be present to register on the Map? Would he show up as a ghost? I can't recall whether they show up or not…
Chris Nelly
38. Aeryl
Too bad the Room of Requirement doesn't show up on the map, the horcrux there could answer the question.

Another answer might be did F&G ever notice the boy named Tom Riddle following Ginny all year, including in her dorm room?
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
39. Lisamarie
I am so excited to get to this book. I don't remember how quickly I read this book (how many sittings it took me), but I remember how excited I was when I saw how much thicker it was than the previous two, and when I did finish it, it was the result of an all night binge read that left me with only a few hours of sleep before getting up for school the next morning. I remember waking up bleary eyed and with a headache and sligtly sour stomack, looking over at the book, and seeing the green raised letters faintly glowing in the early morning light. It pretty well described how I felt, haha. But ever since then I was hooked.

Aunt Marge is definitely a piece of work.

Agreed that the Underage Restriction is really unfairly and unevenly enforced. Although, it might make a little (non sinister) more sense to more greatly restrict magic use among Muggle children since it's more of a risk. But it's kind of dumb that they can't even distinguish something like House Elf magic from human magic.
40. Sophist
I think the failure to distinguish house elf magic is a feature, not a bug, for the pureblood supremacists in the Ministry. Pretty much by definition, Muggle families won't have a house elf, so all magic performed in a Muggle house will be deemed illegal. In a pureblood house, any magic performed by an underage wizard can be blamed on the house elf or attributed to one of the adults.
41. beastofman
@40 That's a good point, you could classify that under the banner of "institutionalized prejudice"

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment