I read J. K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter book earlier this year and found it the most rewarding volume of the series so far. (I have not tackled Book #4 yet. This decision to proceed slowly through the series has baffled the rest of the readers in my family—four of whom had devoured all seven books in a matter of weeks and thus could not understand why I would want to read anything else . . . let alone how I could sleep at night knowing Voldemort was out there somewhere scheming and growing in strength.)
The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets—though entertaining—struck me as “accidental adventures” when I began the series late last year. In those tales, Rowling frequently moves the plot along by way of the chance encounter. Someone forgets something somewhere; goes to a place he or she would not have been otherwise; and so “coincidentally” discovers a bit of information that invariably leads to the next encounter or adventure (this seems to be the case especially in Book 2). In contrast, The Prisoner of Azkaban flows along with a more sophisticated, compelling storyline. It is almost certainly helped by a structure that differs from its two predecessors: the climatic confrontations toward the end of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber, as well as the obstacles Harry and his friends must overcome immediately prior to each of these scenes, are very similar in construct, if not in detail.
Some thoughts that came to mind as I read The Prisoner of Azkaban:
== Rowling has multiple “lines of intrigue or surprise” that she develops and sustains until weaving them together at the book’s climax (i.e., what is the “Grim”?; what (or who) is Scabbers really?; what is Hermione’s secret?; is Sirius Black really the “serious bad guy” he is presumed to be?).
== The development of Hermione’s character. Rowling works hard to make Hermione bolder and more aggressive (Harry and Ron appear to be rubbing off on her). She speaks truth to power more than once . . . but especially in attacking the silly mysticism of Professor Trelawney. (Hermione is not alone here. With humorous effect, Rowling subjects Trelawney’s strain of postmodernism—represented by her contrived predictions and fanciful interpretations—to outright mockery throughout the book.)
== The idea of the “dementors” as the guards of Azkaban Prison and the kind of punishment they inflict seems very clever.
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. . . . Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself . . . soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” (p. 187)
Dementors are monsters that thrive on the stolen happiness of others. Their “kiss” consumes a person’s soul. Agents of wrath, they are employed by a higher power to administer justice—however evil and cruel they themselves may be.
== The development of Harry’s character. As Rowling reveals much more of the mystery surrounding the history of her protagonist, she allows him to grow. While this growth is necessary for the storyline to ripen, it is—thankfully—not forced. Harry overcomes the urge to mete out revenge when he spares Black in the “Shrieking Shack.” When an old friend of his parents admonishes him, Harry appears to “get it.” Indeed, Professor Lupin’s reprimand is worth quoting: “Your parents gave their lives to keep you alive, Harry. A poor way to repay them—gambling their sacrifice for a bag of magic tricks.” (p. 290) As followers of Christ, we are not called to “repay” Him. But, I have to ask, what will I do in light of the sacrifice He made for me?
== Sirius Black reminds us how absolutely critical it is to remember who we are in times of trial. “‘I don’t know how I did it,’ he said slowly. ‘I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn’t a happy thought, so the dementors couldn’t suck it out of me . . . but it kept me sane and knowing who I am . . . helped me keep my powers . . .’” (p. 371) Black endures the suffering at Azkaban only because he was innocent. He wasn’t happy, but at least he knew who he was. This knowledge—a sort of faith, even—served as the basis of a deep, abiding hope.
== Black forcefully rebukes Peter Pettigrew, declaring the fear of death to be no justification for treachery. When Pettigrew rationalizes his betrayal of James and Lily Potter by indicating that his only choices were to cooperate with Voldemort or to die by his hand, Black lashes out: “Then you should’ve died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!” (p. 375) That is the choice we must all be prepared to make—to stand for good . . . to stand for truth . . . to defend the innocent against darkness and evil, even if taking such a stand means suffering and death.
== Albus Dumbledore’s observation on the limits of power. Dumbledore accepts Harry’s explanation of Black’s innocence, but—apart from physical evidence—he has “no power to make other men see the truth.” (p. 393) This wisdom reminds us that, in the end, men must choose for themselves what they believe. As witnesses for the gospel, we must trust in the grace of God and rely on the Holy Spirit to grant others repentance, “leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25)