Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban (Audio by Fry)

(I love the art work for the Harry Potter books by Mary GrandPre, especially this one of Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban.)

After listening to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I breezed right through Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I have always counted this as one of my favorites of the Harry Potter books, whether I'm reading it or listening to it. I particularly like the new characters and the unfolding of Harry's backstory. By the time I first read this book, which I was able to read immediately after the first two, Harry's story is familiar. Having Rowling go through it again seemed a bit unnecessary, to be honest. Yes, he has no parents because they were killed by Voldemort; he was raised by his unloving uncle and aunt and tormented by his cousin. And Voldemort, for some inexplicable reason, had tried to kill Harry when he killed his parents, Lily and James.

The thing that Rowling does each year, though, is to find a new and different way for Harry to leave the Dursleys and Privet Drive. We, by now, assume that he will return to Hogwarts where he is learning to be a wizard and has friends, something he didn't have before his eleventh birthday. As with many things, it's the little details that make the story interesting and fresh, when so many things will be the same. Rowling seemed to have a lot of fun with Harry's departure on this one. Blowing up one's aunt sounds serious, but there is an amount of humor in the way Harry's Aunt Marge is described as she floats up to the ceiling, looking like a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. The reason he blows her up and the situation he finds himself in as a result of his uncontrolled anger is anything but funny. In fact, it's Harry's reaction to Aunt Marge saying cruel things about the parents he never knew that send him over the edge.

After realizing just how alone he is when he leaves the Dursleys, certain that he will be a fugitive from the wizarding world as well as the muggle one, Harry sees something mysterious lurking in the shadows just before he is rescued by the Knight Bus. After a wild ride, which lightens the mood just a bit, Harry finds himself safely deposited at the Leaky Cauldron and welcomed by Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic. And here was Harry thinking that he'd not only be expelled but was likely to be arrested.

After spending the next two weeks in Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron, Harry meets up with Ron and Hermione and they head back to Hogwarts. The train ride brings a new clue to Harry's past in the form of his reaction to the Dementors that board the train looking for the escaped convict, Sirius Black - the one that Harry has learned is out to kill him, like he killed Harry's parents. Rowling manages to write this in a way that conveys just how sinister and scary these creatures are, even before we get the explanation for what they are and what they do, taking away every happy thought and having the ability to suck out a person's soul. Just seeing how all of them are affected lets the reader know that the story has gone to a darker level than the first two books. I think it was at this point that I really started to wonder just how many young children could read this book without having nightmares. I know I couldn't have done.

All the usual characters are there - the other students and the professors. Hagrid, the game keeper and Harry's friend, has now been promoted to teaching Care of Magical Creatures. And there is a new professor, Remus Lupin. The only thing we know about Lupin at this point is that he was able to make the Dementor on the train leave, he recognizes the cheering and healing properties of chocolate (maybe that's why I immediately liked him, and probably reached for some chocolate of my own). Professor Lupin, tired-looking and not well-dressed, is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and Severus Snape doesn't seem to like him very much. No surprise there - Snape doesn't like many people, especially anyone who has the job that he really wants.

I think that I've posted about Prisoner of Azkaban before, so the only thing I really want to add is why I particularly like this book. Harry is introduced to Sirius Black in a way that tests his ability to think for himself. Everything he knows up to that point tells him that this is someone he should fear, someone who is feared by everyone else. At this same moment, Harry learns more about his parents than he ever knew before. It turns out that Sirius was their good friend. And Professor Lupin, whom Harry has trusted, was also a friend of Harry's parents, as was Peter Pettigrew. In this moment of seeming danger, Harry listens to Lupin's story and decides to trust his instincts that Lupin and Black are telling the truth. I'm not sure how many people would do that. Upon hearing the details of the night of his parents' deaths and his own survival, he chooses to spare the life of the betrayer, knowing that James wouldn't want Remus and Sirius to become murderers. This quality of trusting his own instincts is one that serves Harry well most of the time. That it worked out in this instance is probably the reason we are so willing to trust Harry to make the right choices in later books - it's only later that we learn that Harry's instincts are not always right.

Prisoner of Azkaban is the book where Harry learns who really betrayed his parents and led Voldemort to them the night they were killed. There is a little of how fragile his safety was in his first two and a half years at Hogwarts when Ron realizes that his pet rat, Scabbers, is really the traitor, Peter Pettigrew. But Harry doesn't seem to dwell on the danger he was in having Scabbers watching his every move when they were at school. Instead, he now has the anger to deal with, knowing that a friend betrayed his parents.

Just when Harry finds his parents' friend, Sirius Black, who is also his godfather, he almost loses him forever to the Dementors. The way out of that is the Time Turner that Hermione has been using all year to get to extra classes. I have to say that time travel always makes my head hurt. I just have to read it or listen to it, and nod and smile and move on. If I try to figure out how that would actually work, I feel like Hermione when Harry tells her "I knew I could do it [produce the Patronus] this time," said Harry, "because I'd already done it . . . . Does that make sense?" [POA, p. 412]

Hermione's response? "I don't know." Yep, that's my reaction as well. And like Hermione, I just decide to trust Harry on this one. There are more important problems, like rescuing Sirius and Buckbeak, than figuring out how this bit of fiction could work in real life.

By the end of this book, it's clear that Harry has a better understanding of the evil with which he is confronted each year. It's worse than he knew, but he now has two more adults in his life who care for him and who are loyal to him and to the memory of his parents. Harry has learned something else valuable, to not take things or people at face value. He's learned to look carefully at each situation before taking action. And he now has something else that's as useful as his Invisibility Cloak - the Maurader's Map, courtesy of Fred and George, and returned to him by Remus Lupin, one of the four map makers.

Here, I won't go into my usual rant that the critical information about the Maurader's Map and its creators (Lupin, Black, James Potter and Pettigrew) was completely marginalized in the movie and that Harry never asks Lupin how he knows that the bit of parchment IS a map. However, . . . 'nough said.

There is something that always bothered me about the book, however. It was corrected in the movie (my favorite scene in the POA movie, actually) when Lupin and Harry talk on the bridge. In the book, they have a conversation over tea in Lupin's office. It's not important where they are, but what was missing in the book, in my opinion. Lupin has the perfect opportunity to tell Harry that he knew James. I understand that it would have spoiled the twist that Rowling had coming when Lupin joins up with Sirius Black in the Shrieking Shack. But it just would have made more sense for him to say to Harry, in that moment when they were alone - "I knew your dad and mum at school." He needn't have said they were best friends or any more than that. But it seemed odd that he never mentioned it at all. I think any adult who sees the child of a deceased friend would say something.

The other thing that has always seemed off to me is that Harry doesn't ask about his parents. I know he wouldn't ask the Dursleys, but once he is at school and has the chance to talk to people who might have known James and Lily, why didn't he ever say to Dumbledore, Hagrid, or any of the professors "Did you know my mum and dad? Did you have them in class? What were they like? Were they good students? Who were their friends?" It is normal for children to want to know about their parents when they were younger, and it's out of character for Harry, as an adopted child (or a foster child or whatever the arrangement was), to not ask those questions. Especially, since thre was nothing hapy about his situation.

I speak as an adopted child on this issue. I had a happy childhood with loving parents and a good home. But I remember wondering who my birth parents were, what they were like, what happened to them. As I got older, I no longer felt the need to find answers to those questions, but it was because I was happy. I came to understand that my "real parents" were the mom and dad who raised me, the ones who were there for me when I was sick, who shared in my joys and sorrows. Not every adopted child gets to that point. But if I'd had a family like the Dursleys, I definitely would have wanted all the information I could find about my [birth] parents. We find out later, in Goblet of Fire, that Tom Riddle searched for his birth parents because he hoped that would answer questions about who he was. I think Rowling missed in handling how Harry would act after learning that he'd had loving parents. He would have been more curious than she allowed him to be. In everything else, Harry isn't content to accept what he's told, so why are we to expect that he would be so incurious about his parents until he finally meets Sirius and Remus?

As I said when I started this post, I went right through books two and three by listening to Stephen Fry. The books are best, I think, when read aloud. There is a richness that comes off the page when the story is told rather than just read. Reading a book aloud means that the reader an the listener have the time to reflect on the story, enjoy the funny bits, agonize over moments of sorrow or apprehension, in a way that just can't be properly done as one rushes through when reading silently.

Now that I've caught up, I'm off to listen to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

. . . if I just had a Time Turner, I could get some more sleep. Someday I'll learn to not start writing things so late at night. But, I probably couldn't figure out how to work it anyway.