The 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.
Emmet 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.