In my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I suggested that the structure of the Harry Potter series mirrors the process of children maturing into adulthood. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban continues the process by introducing layers of complexity and shades of grey. The book challenges Harry’s – and readers’ – preconceptions about Harry’s world.
In the previous Harry Potter books, adults were at best distant authority figures, like Dumbledore, and at worst arbitrary bullies, like Vernon Dursley. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets began to demystify adult authority figures by deconstructing the celebrity Gilderoy Lockhart and proving Hagrid’s innocence. Prisoner of Azkaban allows Harry to develop meaningful relationships with adult characters and to see them as friends.
For the first time, Harry finds a mentor and confidant in the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin. Previously, Harry’s instinct had always been to mistrust adults and refuse to share his concerns with them. At one point, Lupin asks Harry if anything is bothering him. At first, Harry lies and responds, “no,” but then immediately changes his mind and says, “yes.” He then asks Lupin why he had prevented Harry from confronting the Boggart during one of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes. It’s an important moment because Harry makes himself vulnerable by opening up to an adult. He realizes that he doesn’t have all of the answers and that he can turn to adults for help – at least some adults.
Harry also develops an unexpected relationship with Sirius Black. At the beginning of Prisoner of Azkaban, the Ministry of Magic warns that convicted mass murderer Sirius Black had escaped from Azkaban Prison. The book builds Sirius up as a major threat, especially after Harry overhears a conversation in which a Ministry official claims Sirius killed Harry’s parents. Then, near the end, the book pulls the rug from under readers by revealing that Sirius is innocent and is in fact Harry’s godfather. However, it’s important that Sirius never treats Harry as just a kid; Sirius always seemed more like Harry’s cool older brother than a parental figure. In a way, he acts as a bridge figure in Harry’s interactions with adults.
Prisoner of Azkaban trains readers to not trust first impressions. Everything in the first three-quarters of this book – the Ministry of Magic, Hogwarts professors, the media – tells Harry and the reader to fear Sirius. Only Sirius and Lupin’s word – and Harry’s instincts – suggest otherwise. It’s a sign of Harry’s maturity that he’s able to abandon his preconceptions when confronted with new evidence and accept Sirius. This twist also helps prepare readers for more dramatic reveals about major characters later in the series.
That said, I felt the ending cheated a bit. Harry and Hermione to use a Time-Turner to travel back in time and rescue both the Hypogriff Buckbeak and Sirius Black. Time travel stories are always problematic because of paradoxes. If somebody goes back in time and changes the past, then wouldn’t that remove the initial reason for that person to originally go back to the past in the first place? Prisoner of Azkaban cleverly acknowledges this by not actually having Harry and Hermione change the past, but rather fulfill actions in the past that were simply “off-screen.” It turns out that future versions of Harry and Hermione had already rescued Buckbeak and Sirius; we the reader just didn’t realize it. However, this then opens the question of why the characters couldn’t just use the Time-Turner to solve almost every problem they encounter (as spoofed by How It Should Have Ended).
Ultimately, time travel stories can’t get around these problems, which is why the best time travel stories use time travel as a device to tell a story, rather than merely as a device to solve a problem in the story. My favorite time travel stories put familiar characters in an unfamiliar time and place, the classic “fish out of water” scenario. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did this effectively, not only providing laughs as the Enterprise crew wanders around San Fransisco during the 1980s, but also warning against overexploitation of natural resources. Back to the Future, arguably the most famous time travel movie, is really a movie about characters, with time travel simply an excuse for Marty McFly to meet his parents as teenagers. Stories that use time travel too freely, such as Looper, tend to get bogged down in internal inconsistencies and plot holes.
Unfortunately, Prisoner of Azkaban uses time travel as a plot contrivance to get Harry out of an impossible situation. Not only does it create plot holes, but it also undermines the themes of the book. By enabling Harry to save both Buckbeak and Sirius, time travel conveniently allows the heroes to have their cake and eat it too. This seems contrary to the idea layered complexity and moral ambiguity that the book introduces. I give the Harry Potter series credit for not relying too heavily on gimmicks and magical devices to resolve the characters’ problems The later books don’t shy away from forcing the heroes to make sacrifices. Perhaps Prisoner of Azkaban is meant to be one last hurrah for easy answers to tough problems.
Next week, I review Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the Harry Potter series…