I Don’t Want to be The Prisoner

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling

In a recent post, I mentioned my lifelong, never-given-enough-attention reading project. Luckily, I usually have more than one project in progress (compensation, I suppose, for never finishing anything) and so it’s time to return to the series that launched a movie franchise and got an entire generation reading: the Harry Potter saga.

Here at the Stone Cottage, I started reading the books aloud to the AHC kiddos about a year ago and it’s become a sort of bedtime ritual. We have our issues (the girl, being older, has read ahead, at a blistering, Evelyn-Wood-like, detail-missing pace, and likes to play the spoiler), but mostly we have fun. And I get both to indulge my streak of ham and the opportunity to prattle on about whatever language or writing delight catches my eye.

Azkaban is the third volume in this series and in many ways, it’s a pivot point. Each novel, you’ll recall, covers one whole school year at Hogwarts, the boarding school for England‘s wizards and witches. Now we’re in Year 3 and the frame is firmly set: the castle-like building set in the Lake District, or maybe Scotland, the faculty–good (McGonagall) and bad (Snape)–the all-wise, omniscient headmaster (Dumbledore), even a bumbling, gentle-hearted giant with a penchant for odd pets (Hagrid). And, of course, the three amigos.

Harry, our hero, is an orphan and the nemesis of the evil wizard who would unleash the Dark Arts to establish dominion over all the world (or at least the wizarding world; I’ve always been a bit vague on Voldemort‘s ambitions). His BFFs are Ron Weasley–the youngest son in a ‘just folks’ wizarding family–and Hermione Granger, daughter of non-magical parents (her dad, I believe, is a dentist). The three of them are so tight there’s no room for daylight between them except for those times when someone isn’t talking to someone. Those occur about once a volume.

Was Alcatraz the real-world model for Azkaban?
The rock in 2018.
Photo by AK-Bino, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What’s been missing up until now is context. We’ve learned a lot over the past two years. We now know something about wizarding, and its history, and this sort of civil war raging between the good guys and Voldemort’s crew. We might even be tempted to believe that school-day grudges lie at the heart of it all, given everyone attends the same high school and as  Snape’s incessant complaints about Harry’s parents, his dad in particular, demonstrate.

This time, the school year begins amid a state of crisis. Sirius Black, a mass murderer, has escaped from Azkaban prison. Azkaban, which we caught a glimpse of in the second volume, is Alcatraz for wizards–an island fortress from which escape is nigh on impossible. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both island jails start with the same letter, share the same number of syllables and even have a similar sonority. Say them both aloud, you’ll see.

Now, indulge me in an example of the sidetracks these tales allow me to wander off on. If you have never before heard of Sirius, except as a satellite radio company, you should. It’s the brightest star in the nighttime sky, located in the constellation called Canis Major. For non-Latin speakers, that’s Big Dog (canis is the Latin root of our word, canine) and Sirius is known colloquially as the Dog Star. Lest you think my meandering is self-indulgent, I’d ask you to remember this tidbit.

Canis Majoris in the night sky. The bright star at the base of the neck is Sirius.

So, Black has escaped and the powers that be–the Ministry of Magic especially–are worried that he aims to kill again. More importantly, many fear his primary target is Harry. No one is saying why, but the reaction of officialdom to this possibility speaks for itself. In a school year during which third-year students, with appropriate permissions, can leave school grounds on the weekend, Harry is locked down like a coastal state in a pandemic.

But with a little help from Ron’s twin older brothers and his invisibility cloak, Harry gets out and learns two facts that infuriate him: Black was his parents’ close friend and he is Harry’s Godfather. What’s a young wizard to do but vow destruction of his enemy.

That, of course, requires the magical Judas to show up and the authorities have taken steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. Hogwarts–starting with the train ride–is now protected by Dementors. These creatures, employed primarily as guards at Azkaban prison, literally suck the joy out of people. Harry is especially sensitive to their presence and a new faculty member, Professor Remus Lupin, also a classmate of Harry’s folks, helps him learn how to ward them off. (Pay attention to that name, btw.)

I can’t ignore the religious overtones in the Potter saga. Betrayal plays a significant role in both.

This being a Potter tale, there are a couple of sub-plots involving pets and magical creatures that tie into the climactic events. It’s involved and I hate to spoil the fun, but basically the entire backstory of Harry’s immediate family emerges. In fact, except for a surrogate, Voldemort is almost entirely missing from this book.

That’s why I say it’s pivotal. From this point forward, the books lengthen considerably and grind inexorably toward a Manichean confrontation. Here we’re learning the balance of the foundational material we’ll need to follow the intricacies of the magical War of the Roses that follows. Except for the last 80 or so action-filled pages, this could be the quietest of the novels.

I’m not being a know-it-all. It is an English story after all.

I don’t want to give away any important details, but I do want to circle back to language. Harry’s dad was part of a crew with Lupin, Black and another wizard named Peter Pettigrew. Lupin has a secret displayed right there in his surname. Add a not-so-silent silent ‘e’ and look it up. Just in case the point is missed, Lupin’s given name, Remus, makes him the twin brother of Romulus, the legenday founder of Rome. The twins were raised by a non-human surrogate mom.

Lupin’s friends have taught themselves a form of advanced magic to help him. They are, in a delighful portmanteau, animaguses. Look closely and you’ll see the last part is magus, the singular of magi, a word Christians should know from the Christmas story. The magic they’ve learned allows them to change into an animal at will.

If you’re putting the pieces together, I bet you can guess Mr. Black’s  animal form.





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