Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
March 14, 2016 10:27 PM - by J.K. Rowling - Subscribe

For twelve long years, the dread fortress of Azkaban held an infamous prisoner named Sirius Black. Convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, he was said to be the heir apparent to the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Now he has escaped, leaving only two clues as to where he might be headed: Harry Potter's defeat of You-Know-Who was Black's downfall as well. And the Azkban guards heard Black muttering in his sleep, "He's at Hogwarts...he's at Hogwarts." Harry Potter isn't safe, not even within the walls of his magical school, surrounded by his friends. Because on top of it all, there may well be a traitor in their midst. Contains series spoilers

J.K. Rowling has sidestepped the usual series-writer trap of sticking so closely to a successful formula that each book is just more of the same. With Harry about to enter adolescence, the series, too, seems to be changing; this entry is darker, more complex, and morally more ambiguous than the first two. As he is forced by the Dementors to confront his parents' deaths directly, Harry -- who was always so cool in the earlier books -- is more emotionally unstable. Unlike the static characters in other series, Harry is getting older, with all that entails. - Common Sense Media
So far, in terms of plot, the books do nothing very new, but they do it brilliantly. The first three share a similar structure: pre-teen-age orphan boy gets in trouble with his unwilling guardians -- a gloriously tiresome pair of relatives -- and goes on to spend the academic year at Hogwarts, England's boarding school for the training of witches and wizards. With each installment we learn more about the background of the series, the mysterious death of Harry Potter's parents, the doing of evil Lord Voldemort. So far, so good: plainclothes kid born to the heroic breed. Another diamond in the rough. -New York Times
My Own Blather
Prisoner of Azkaban marks a shift in the HP series. It's the first book where the reader gets more of an overarching sense of the wizarding world, sees and learns about powerfully magic things, and the books feel like series from this point forward. Harry's relationship with the Dursleys also changes in this book.

Harry and the Dursleys
-Harry is able to speak up to Uncle Vernon and negotiate for things he wants/needs
-The Dursleys are exposed to Harry's magic and how dangerous it can be

World Building and History
-We learn (more) about Azkaban and the dementors. The prison was mentioned in CoS but gets much more attention in this book
-Modes of magical transportation are expanded to include a triple decker bus
-Wizards have some contact with muggle government/media (we learn the details of this in HBP but it's heavily telegraphed early on in this book)
-Dumbledore vouching for Hagrid was enough to keep him out of trouble as a kid and let him have a job at Hogwarts but it wasn't until he was officially cleared of opening the Chamber of Secrets that he was allowed to teach. That always seemed like an interesting comment about law and order in the HP world.
-Divination is the communications degree of the wizarding world
-Potraits can be damaged and it seems to be implied that the occupant of the painting can also be damaged if they do not escape to another painting.
-Secret passages out of Hogwarts and the Shrieking Shack

Cool Magical Stuff/Creatures
-Dementors. Soul-sucking prison guards coming to a school near you.
-Boggarts, red caps, hinky punks, grindylows, hippogriffs, flobberworms, and the Monster Book of Monsters.
-Crookshankes the (part) kneazle. Coolest ugly cat ever (anyone else imagine Prim's cat as Crookshanks in the Hunger Games series?)
-Patronus Charm and Harry's sad lack of a real happy memory.
-Werewolf professor guy. Quite interesting that before this book werewolves are commented to live in the forest by the school but then one is presented as a usually normal guy who is an excellent teacher.
-Time Travel. It's amazing that this exists and that a 13 year old is given this power for school.
-Anamagi! The skill that everyone has in fanfiction. But, really, who wouldn't do this if they were good at transfiguration
-The Marauder's Map. This bit of awesome magic isn't really explained but is very powerful
-Sneakoscopes. They sound really cool but don't see much action after this apart from a few other brief mentions in other books.

Feeling like a Series
-Harry shows exceptional skill in this book (with the patronus charm and boggart), finds out more about his parents and their friends, and meets Sirius. He also forms a relationship with Lupin which follows him through the end of the series.
-Hermione loosens up a bit. Okay, she starts to think about it. Basically she just punches Malfoy. She does start to balance the academic over-acheiver with girl who has friends and socializes.
-Ron. Well, Ron just kind of floats through this book and doesn't have any meta-arch stuff going on. Most of his character development happens in the last few books. Ron does help with Buckbeak's case which shows he will/can be useful, but only if no one else is available to do it.
-Last book where they (re)explain the series, who Harry is, the houses, etc.
-Voldemort wasn't directly in this book and the main bad guy ended up not being a bad guy. There's less of a mystery/Scooby Doo feel with this too. While Sirius and Peter come up and we learn more about them, there's not a huge big problem they're trying to solve like they were in SS and CoS. Hermione's time travel is a curiosity throughout but is just a reveal at the end.
-This is the first book that sparked an interest in the history of the HP world, especially with the Marauders.
-As mentioned in one of the reviews above, this book does move towards a darker subject matter. Harry reliving and remembering his parents' deaths is quite emotional as is the up and down of finding and losing Sirius as a guardian.
posted by toomanycurls (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's less of a mystery/Scooby Doo feel with this too.

Have to disagree with you there. It's got a haunted house, and the plot involves snooping around a secret passage. Plus there's the bit where they pull the rubber mask off Scabbers and reveal that it was Peter Pettigrew all along.
posted by eruonna at 6:40 PM on March 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

posted by wabbittwax at 8:25 PM on March 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd like to know just HOW Wormtail came to live with the Weasleys.
posted by brujita at 8:31 PM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think everyone I knew got into the books between Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire. So this was one of the three books we all devoured and then we had to wait for what felt like a thousand years for GoF to come out. (And then OotP actually TOOK a thousand years (okay, three) and everyone got into fanfiction waiting for it.) As a result, I think of this as an interesting "transitional" book because for me and pretty much everyone I knew at the time, the first three books of the series were essentially one fat book, and from this point on it was a story told in a serialized format with long waits and lots of anticipation and speculation between installments.

There is no question that PoA is a stronger, more confident, and more interesting book than the first two. I remember thinking at the end of my first read of CoS that it didn't show the same promise as PS. By the end of PoA I was dyyyying to read more and so sad the next one wasn't out yet. Rowling does a great job of world building in this book and letting the characters grow while making sure the backstory and exposition never bog down the plot. It's quite the balancing act. I'm not sure which is my favorite Harry Potter book but I could make a strong argument for this one.
posted by town of cats at 10:43 PM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is definitely my favorite Harry Potter book, mainly because after this one Harry Potter had reached "a big deal" and JK Rowling was not as heavily edited. So we end up with a tightly plotted book full of hints to a past that Harry sorely needs to connect with his family.

I'm convinced that the Marauder's Map is too powerful for them to have come up with it themselves. I think instead they set out to make a map and managed to hack into some fundimental enchantment built into Hogwarts that tracks the current layout and location of everyone inside. I suspect Dumbledore has access to similar information in his office.

Also, the new cover art for this book (and the others as well, but this one in particular) is fantastic. I love the hidden images built into each one.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:10 AM on March 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

My theory would be that after she had finished writing Chamber of Secrets, and seen the success of Philosopher's Stone, she finally felt that she was going to have the freedom and opportunity to write the remaining parts of her planned Septalogy(?). So Prisoner of Azkaban is her cracking her knuckles and saying, "now you're gonna see some serious shit." Azkaban is more confident, a little bit less formulaic, and it extends and enriches the wizarding world in ways the previous books didn't.
posted by wabbittwax at 11:13 AM on March 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree that PoA is one of the stronger books in the series. After the fun but formulaic school adventures of the first two books we really start to see the camera pull back a bit and get a taste of the diversity of the wizarding world (and for people like me obsessed with the socio-political background more hints of the deep problems in magical society that we glimpsed when Mr. Weasley and Malfoy Sr. got in a fistfight in front of Hermione's parents in book 2).

I'd push back against toomanycurls assertion that Ron floats through this one. I'm not much of a Ron fan but I will say that he stands up well in PoA, and that this is an instance where the movie really screwed Ron over in favor of Hermione. It's easy to forget because it's overshadowed by Lupin's big blob of exposition but when H&H rush to rescue Ron in the shack after doggie|Sirius grabs him he tries to warn them away from the trap. It happens quickly but it's a brave thing to do; his first thought is to spare his friends not a desire for rescue.

He then faces down a psychotic looking Black even though he's barely able to stand:
Without knowing what he was doing, [Harry] started forward, but there was a sudden movement on either side of him and two pairs of hands grabbed him and held him back…"No, Harry!" Hermione gasped in a petrified whisper; Ron, however, spoke to Black.

"If you want to kill Harry, you'll have to kill us too!" he said fiercely, though the effort of standing upright was draining him of still more color, and he swayed slightly as he spoke.
Ron's supposed to be, what, 13 in this book? He's badly injured and facing down a crazy wizard who must look like Charles Manson after a bad acid trip at this point, but he interposes himself between the threat and Harry. I think this display of loyalty goes a long way towards explaining why Harry values Ron as a friend and helps explain the angst over what happens between them in GoF. (The movie leaves him crying in the corner and gives his line and actions to Hermione.)

As a reader its easy to forget the significance of this brief scene, because we quickly learn Sirius is actually a good guy, but that doesn't undo the fact that in that moment Ron reasonably expected to be violently killed defending his friends and faced the situation with courage (and admittedly a helpful combination of shock and adrenalin).
posted by Wretch729 at 11:15 AM on March 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also I have MANY THOUGHTS about Minister Fudge based on his actions in this book but I don't want to hijack the thread...
posted by Wretch729 at 11:16 AM on March 17, 2016

Personally, I’d love to hear your thoughts about Fudge…
posted by mbrubeck at 4:43 PM on March 17, 2016

Me too!
posted by toomanycurls at 4:59 PM on March 17, 2016

The motion carries, Wretch you have the floor for "What is up with that minister fudge"
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:15 PM on March 17, 2016

He is a very accurate depiction of a certain type of politician.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:31 PM on March 17, 2016

eep! I didn't mean to build anything up! It’s not that my thoughts are deep, just that I ramble on.

Anyway, I usually deal with Harry's whiny angst (sorry Harry, I know your life sucks) by tuning out and wondering about what's going on in the background and this book is no exception. Let’s look at Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge.

Sure he provides an opportunity for Rowling to satirize politicians; we know caricatured satire of British institutions is scattered throughout the Potter series, from the way the silly currency spoofs pre-decimalization British currency (29 knuts to a sickle? 17 sickles to a galleon?) to the absurd civil service bureaucracy at the Ministry of Magic (exploding bonbons disposal unit?). As wabbittwax mentions above, there’s also some real bite behind the laughs. I can’t find the quote now but I know Rowling has said that she explicitly based the Ministry’s head-in-the-sand approach on Neville Chamberlain and his pre-WWII government. Fudge puts on a show, but has feet of clay.

Satire and analogy aside it’s also fun to try and imagine how Rowling’s ridiculous world might actually work. I should mention here that my headcanon about the politics of wizarding Britain is heavily influenced by two pieces of writing. Nobody has to read them to get my argument or anything but if you enjoy this sort of arcane speculation about the Potterverse I highly recommend AJ Hall’s essay on justice in the wizarding world (available as a PDF here) and Pharnazabus’ extended LJ essay about patronage in the wizarding world here. Summarized, the essays argue that Magical Britain has existed under a de facto state of emergency since the implementation of the secrecy statute in 1692 and that despite superficial appearances it is not a western democracy in the sense that Hermione and Harry are familiar with from their muggle upbringing but rather a largely pre-Age of Enlightenment society without a strong tradition of the rule of law. Instead it has a client/patronage system of extralegal protections for life, liberty, and property much more similar in style to the Roman Empire than to post-Enlightenment democracies.

With that in mind, let’s look at what we know of Fudge at the time of the events in PoA. He was introduced in CoS when he has Hagrid arrested on trumped up charges, ostensibly so that he can be “seen to be doing something” about the attacks at Hogwarts. He grabs Harry off the Knight Bus, though whether this is pure luck or via some sort of tracking magic is unclear. It’s not explicit in the text but he is clearly anxious that Sirius Black, whom he believes to have betrayed the Potters, might attack Harry. The high profile escape of a top death eater is a bad enough PR disaster; any damage to the Boy Who Lived on Fudge’s watch would be a catastrophe, might even end his career (and remember despite some schoolyard gossip in CoS this is a pre-GoF Harry, who has been built up to the public as their hero-savior for 13 years).

The Leaky Cauldron is the gateway between magical and mundane Britain; it’s a highly public, closely surveilled, controlled environment where Fudge can park Potter (surely with Dumbledore’s tacit approval) until school starts. Harry is confused by Fudge’s behavior because he doesn’t understand his own position in magical Britain or that Black might be interested in him specifically, but to us it makes perfect sense that the Minister would wave away the Aunt Marge incident. He doesn’t care about muggles or the law; he cares about controlling (if we want to be charitable say protecting) Harry Potter the political symbol. This also explains why the otherwise accommodating Minister refuses to sign the permission slip. Fudge piously declaiming that “rules are rules” after sweeping Harry’s violation of the underage magic laws under the rug is a hilarious bit of hypocrisy, but letting Harry leave school grounds to visit Hogsmeade is an obvious security risk.

Ok, so everything thus far has been solidly based on canon. Now I’m going to speculate a bit. We will later find out Fudge was one of the first on the scene when Sirius was arrested in 1981 and sent to Azkeban without trial; indeed this incident helps jumpstart his political career. Millicent Bagnold was the Minister at the time, and while we don’t know for sure which political faction her support was based in we can guess she’s supposed to be a Thatcher-esque tough-on-Deatheaters type. (An obvious analogy to Voldemort’s rise is the IRA terrorism of the 1980s, still very recent history when Rowling was writing the series.) Barty Crouch Sr. was the DMLE head during the end of the war and was favored to succeed Bagnold, but is tarnished by the scandal of his own son turning out to be among the Deatheaters who tortured the Longbottoms into insanity. Canon seems to imply that the Longbottoms were both popular and the heirs of a powerful family (Pottermore says the Longbottoms were included in the Sacred 28 “truly pure-blood” families in the wizarding Social Register).

So going into the 1990 “election” (exactly how elections work is unclear but I’ll avoid that digression) who will become Minister for Magic? Canon says the post is Dumbledore’s for the taking, but he refuses it for reasons of his own. The Pureblood faction is in disarray following the first defeat of Voldemort, with its high-profile leaders either in prison or rebuilding their reputations and resources. Crouch was presumably the favored candidate of the civil service bureaucrats, but once he’s compromised there’s no obvious alternative. Cornelius Fudge seems like a good compromise candidate. His actions during Sirius’ arrest seem to have lent him some war-hero prestige and allies in the DMLE, he knows the Ministry, he doesn’t have any public scandal hanging over his head, and finally he doesn’t seem to have too much ambition or an agenda of his own. For a society that seems to want to forget about Voldemort as fast as possible without making any changes to the social order that produced him he’s a perfect candidate. We know from canon Fudge at least initially turned to Dumbledore for advice, even as he nursed resentment, so it’s possible that Dumbledore felt that Fudge, while perhaps imperfect, was someone he could use as a puppet without inflaming further pureblood opposition.

By 1993 and the events of PoA the political situation has evolved. As I speculated in the thread for CoS, it seems likely that the events of the 1992-93 school year have damaged Dumbledore’s prestige somewhat, and possible compromised his position with the wizard UN. (As an aside: there’s a fun fanfic out there based on the idea that a basilisk is actually considered an existential threat to magical Britain and its appearance in CoS should have brought down a similar response to a nuke being discovered in the school. Not far-fetched when you consider the small population of wizarding Britain and realize that had the basilisk shown up at a full school assembly it could have killed an entire generation of magical children instantly, along with the entire faculty of the nation’s only school.)

Anyway, Dumbledore is knocked back a bit, while Lucius, despite having apparently lost his position on the Hogwarts Board of Governors has clearly devoted considerable time to building his influence in the Wizengamot and the Ministry. We’ll hear in GoF that he is a generous donor to St. Mungo’s hospital, gaining him influence with the Minister and a nice seat at the World Cup. Additionally, Fudge has presumably been building up his own base of support within the Ministry (Umbridge seems like a useful minion), dispensing patronage and making himself more independent of Dumbledore’s progressive faction.

In this context Fudge’s response to Black’s escape is understandable. The events of CoS proved Dumbledore was fallible, even if things turned out ok. Sirius’ escape is a PR disaster, and might even be a direct political threat. Black is the heir to a powerful family, and has personal reasons to hate Fudge.

Further, Fudge likely is aware that Potter was the person who defeated the basilisk, confirming his hero status even if Dumbledore was able to hush up the events of his first year and making him more valuable as a political pawn. The motivations for him to attempt to co-opt Potter (as Scrimgeour will later attempt to do) are stacking up. In fact, his failure to seize the chance to further ingratiate himself with Potter over the subsequent three weeks before school starts in retrospect seems like a huge error. The only explanation I can think of is a combination of Fudge’s arrogance, misjudgment (perhaps he instead prioritizes cultivating Malfoy), and finally Dumbledore intervening behind the scenes to shield Potter/keep him ignorant.

My conclusion that Fudge is a mediocre politician who gained his status largely through luck and patronage. He makes a bid for more power and independence starting from ~1993 and peaking in 1995 when he is nearly able to take control of Hogwarts and the Ministry but is ultimately, due in large part to Voldemort’s return, outmaneuvered by his opposition on both sides of the British wizarding political spectrum.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:01 PM on March 17, 2016 [10 favorites]

(This is the part where someone has to go "No you fool! You're clearly misguided and wrong! Let me tell you why!" Otherwise I just feel like a bloviating boor.)
posted by Wretch729 at 11:26 AM on March 18, 2016

But what if you're not wrong?

The one quibble I would have is your mention of Harry's whiny angst, which I don't find to be a problem in this book yet. Order of the Phoenix Harry is by far the whiniest Harry. That's also the book where his refusal to go to Dumbledore about his problems is the most maddening, but that's a discussion for another day.

Has there been a movie thread for this one yet?
posted by wabbittwax at 12:25 PM on March 18, 2016

True. The angst comes later. And is not entirely unjustified.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:51 PM on March 18, 2016

Has there been a movie thread for this one yet?

Movie thread will be out on the 22nd!
posted by toomanycurls at 3:48 PM on March 18, 2016

Wretch729, I think you paint a reasonable picture of Fudge. I don't know how much was textually intended, but it certainly seems justified on the page itself.

This is maybe not my favourite book, but it is the tightest. I actually enjoy the sprawl of the next four, but each could have been shorter. This is perfectly formed. As others have mentioned, it's the first to not actually feature Voldemort, and the glimpse we get of a generation past is really great. As a side note, wizards vary massively in magical strength. I think maybe we can make a distinction between fighting wizardry and magic in general. This would help explain why Harry is able to frequently defeat death eaters who are much older than him: when you get down to it, unless you are very good at magic, most people can be taken out by a well placed stunner.

The dementors represent a really cute creation. They have lots of elements of other mythical creatures, but really are their own thing; metaphorically creating beasts of depression is a pretty great idea. I also love how the book engages with teenage Harry's fears. Of course there's nothing wrong with breaking down when forced to relive your parents deaths, but a teenage boy will just know he's just collapsed in front of his peers.

One of the things I think Rowling gets and lots of fanfictions do not, is how teenagers think and behave. Their fears and worries often seem petty to adults, but Rowling finds a way to make them feel real to us (I think she fails a bit at this in OotP, which is why people get annoyed at him in that book)
posted by Cannon Fodder at 5:20 AM on March 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

...wizards vary massively in magical strength.

Oh man magical strength that's a whole other disquisition I could write about where Potterverse magic falls on the numinous Tolkien to systematized AD&D spectrum of magic and some of the things that feed into that with JKR's plotting choices but I do not have time today. Maybe when we get to book 7 where "wandlore" goes off the rails (IMHO).

Agreed that the dementors are a great creation. Lots written elsewhere about how JKR's own struggles with depression influenced them.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:15 AM on March 22, 2016

PoA was the first book where the reader really gets a more detailed look at what was going on with the adults and Harry's parents' generation during the first war with Voldemort, and that's what really hooked me into the fandom. The depth of backstory there, and how it was still acting on the present events of the books and informing character motivations, was just such great fodder for fandom.

Also I basically fell irrevocably in love with Sirius Black when he told Wormtail "THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!" Sirius is such a tragic figure and my heart breaks for him. Life fucked him over in a major way, and it's all the more tragic given that his major sin was basically being a reckless and slightly douchey young adult.
posted by yasaman at 5:33 PM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

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