Honesty time: The Prisoner of Azkaban has always been my favorite Harry Potter book and rereading it only strengthened my attachment to the book. Part of that is definitely my unending literary infatuation with Sirius Black, but there are of course other things that I like about this book, just like there are things that annoy me.
Of course, the beginning of the book is fairly similar to the other books: Harry is stuck in Privet Drive with the Dursley, who, despite locking his things in the cupboard under the stairs, treat him mostly as if he wasn’t there and otherwise behave as much as the typical conservative upper middle class British cliché as they did in the other books. Actually, things seem to be comparably peaceful until Aunt Marge arrives and starts abusing Harry emotionally and verbally.
There were, however, three sources of slight irritation even within the first few chapters of the book that I couldn’t entirely let go, even though they were comparably small. Firstly, Vernon Dudley being explicitly pro-death penalty weirded me out as I can’t imagine this opinion being overly widespread within British society – it seemed over the top villainous to me.
Secondly, it doesn’t seem entirely believable to me that Hogwarts students need a signed permission by their parents or guardians to leave the school grounds, but not to play Quidditch, a game that could and does get people seriously hurt.
And thirdly, when Marge Dursley makes a comment about Harry having bad blood because of his parents this is clearly framed a disgusting and morally wrong comment to make. At the same time, Hagrid said the same thing about the Malfoy family in Chamber of Secrets after the fight in Flourish and Blotts. Not a single character reacted to it in any way. This is something that I feel is a bit of a concerning trend in JKR’s writing: unacceptable actions and character flaws are not necessarily framed as being unacceptable or flaws when it comes to certain characters. As Barbara pointed out in her excellent piece about Dumbledore,
It’s strange. Often, the question of what it means to endorse, or even apologise for, problematic behaviour is complicated. Does the author have to clearly spell out that what a character does is Wrong to avoid endorsing it? Obviously not.
But if two different characters make essentially the same statement and other characters only react negatively – or, for that matter, at all – to said statement if it is made by a character that is obviously not one of the good guys, it becomes difficult not to see this as the author simply ignoring problematic behavior if it comes from one of the characters that she has written as good.
At the same time, there are two aspects within Prisoner of Azkaban where JKR clearly shows that she is capable of depicting wrong things and behavior without endorsing it. I am talking about the fight between Ron and Harry and Hermione, and the injustice of the Wizarding World’s justice system.
The conflict between Ron and Hermione is established fairly early in the book when the Trio visit a magical pet shop and a giant orange cat tries to attack the already sickly Scabbers, Ron’s pet rat, and Hermione buys said cat. According to Ron, this is egoistical and insensitive: Scabbers needs rest, but Hermione buys a cat that clearly has it out for him. At the same time, according
to Hermione, Ron is overreacting completely and clearly prejudiced against cats and her cat specifically. The two bicker and fight, but the conflict escalates when Harry is anonymously given a Firebolt for Christmas and Hermione alerts Professor McGonagall to this, as she believes this may be a plot by Sirius Black to get Harry killed with an enchanted broom. When Harry gets the Firebolt back and he and Ron intend to make up with her, Crookshanks, Hermione’s cat, seemingly kills Scabbers, and the conflict escalates again.
Not only does JKR manage to portray the behavior of thee thirteen year olds in a conflict situation realistically and the characters motivations comprehensibly and fittingly, it is simultaneously clear that all three of them are not behaving right. Hermione refuses to put more of an effort into keeping an eye on Crookshanks. Ron, who has never really cared about Scabbers, is later on rubbing his death into Hermione’s face to hurt her feelings and demanding that Hermione get rid of Crookshanks entirely. And Harry is not taking the danger in which he is seriously enough. At the same time, although we see the conflict almost exclusively through Harry’s eyes and thus follow his justifications for his and Ron’s behavior, it is made clear that Harry and Ron are not behaving correctly when Hagrid explicitly tells them the following:
I thought you two’d value yer friend more’n brommsticks or rats.
The other aspect that JKR depicts well without endorsing it is, as already mentioned, the injustice that seems to pervade the Wizarding World’s justice system. That the system is flawed is hinted at the first time when Harry is let off by Fudge without even so much as a slap on the wrist after blowing up his own aunt. This is confusing for Harry, especially as he’s been threatened with expulsion for Dobby’s usage of magic barely a year earlier. It becomes even more obvious when Buckbeak is sentenced to death for attacking Draco Malfoy. This can happen because Lucius Malfoy apparently has the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures in his pockets. We’ve seen in Chamber of Secrets that Malfoy also had the School Governors under his thumb, just like we’ve seen that people are chucked into Azkaban without trial just because they’re suspected to be involved with something.
I got the impression that all of these by comparison smaller instances of messed-up-ness in the Wizarding justice system were laying the groundwork for the big reveal of Sirius’ innocence. It would have been far less believable had we only seen the Wizarding justice system work perfectly, flawlessly, absolutely justly and trustworthy. But the fact that we had the Minister of Magic essentially say that he would throw a man about whose guilt he didn’t know anything into prison because he needed to be seen doing something made it far more believable that Sirius – for whose guilt far more indicators existed, by the way – was also imprisoned in Azkaban despite being innocent.
Let’s not forget that at the end of the book, Dumbledore – the wise mentor figure who we, the readers, are supposed to see as the embodiment of goodness, wisdom and sound judgment at this point – tells Harry and Hermione how to bypass the Wizarding justice system entirely to save two innocent beings because he knows that no other members of Wizarding society will believe them because of their ingrained prejudices. I honestly don’t know how to read any of this as an endorsement of the Wizarding justice system.
If I knew anything about the state of the British justice system, I’d even feel comfortable interpreting some of the statements Dumbledore makes as also being applicable to the British system and thus being a (subtle) condemnation of it. I’m talking about these three statements
Werewolves are so mistrusted by most of our kind that his support will count for very little – and the fact that he and Sirius are old friends –
There is not a shred of proof to support Black’s story, except your word – and the word of two thirteen-year-old wizards will not convince anybody.
You must see that Professor Snape’s version of events is far more convincing than yours.
with which Dumbledore explains the necessity to work outside of the system. As I don’t actually know anything about the British justice system, I’m just uncomfortably and awkwardly putting this interpretation out there.
I also think that we are meant to find the existence and presence of the Dementors – one of my all time favorite inventions of JKR, by the way – at least unsettling, if not outright disturbing, but let’s face it: She could have done a better job of explaining how they fit into the Wizarding World’s justice system, especially because I can’t imagine being locked up with and surrounded by them 24/7 being anything but a gross violation of human rights.
The depiction of Snape’s behavior in Prisoner of Azkaban is a whole other can of worms, though. As always, Snape is a continuous bully to some of his students, mostly Neville, Hermione and Harry, but in addition to that, he is also absolutely willing to get two men essentially killed aka Dementor-kissed because they hated each other in school, despite the fact that both of them are innocent of the crimes he accuses them off.
I have never been a fan of Snape and I think that has shone through in my two previous reread posts, but Prisoner of Azkaban reminded me why I, quite frankly, loathe Snape. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not because he hates Sirius and Remus, my Problematic
Faves™. I find this hatred, quite frankly, to be understandable. After all, they hated each other so much during school that Snape tried to expose Remus as a werewolf. Sirius tricking Snape into almost getting himself killed and getting away with that only increased said hatred. Snape probably also believes that Sirius was the spy that got Lily Potter killed. And in addition to all of that, he’s also forced to brew Wolfsbane for Remus and keep his secret.
But what rekindled my loathing for Snape in Prisoner of Azkaban was his behavior in the Shrieking Shack where he was completely unwilling to listen to Sirius and Remus’ explanations and let them prove their innocence because of his own hatred and wish for vengeance. Snape is not only willing to throw to men who could prove their innocence to him with the flick of a wand to the Dementors to be kissed, he is almost joyful at the prospect. And when, at the end of the book, he doesn’t get what he wants – Sirius an empty soulless shell, Remus punished for supposedly helping Sirius and an Order of Merlin – he announces to his students that Remus is a werewolf and gets him fired out of pure spite and disappointment. It’s disgusting.
But I do think JKR manages to portray Snape’s behavior towards Remus and Sirius without endorsing it. During the scene in the Shrieking Shack, Snape is clearly (one of) the villain(s), his behavior is seen as unacceptable by the protagonists and point-of-view characters and we literally have Harry telling him that he is pathetic before hexing him. His behavior is erratic and he’s literally described as looking “deranged” and “madder than ever”. The same is true of his behavior after Sirius has escaped: Snape is described as being beside himself, shrieking and spitting and unbalanced. Again, I don’t know how to read any of the descriptions of Snape’s behavior at the end of Prisoner of Azakaban as being justified or acceptable.
Of course, there are things that JKR doesn’t handle nearly as well, but I will go into these in part II of The Faults in the Wizarding World.