“What you fear most of all is – fear. Very wise.”
The Prisoner of Azkaban is, of course, the third book in the monumental Harry Potter series, and it seems to be the favourite of a lot of fans. Because this third book is, so the argument goes, where the light whimsy of the earlier books becomes dark and serious and (at least a little) morally complex; this third book is where this shit (if you’ll excuse my Klatchian) gets real.
It begins – more or less – with a murderer: Sirius Black, who appears on Muggle television as a serial killer recently escaped from prison. “Hang on!” barks Harry Potter’s abusive Uncle Vernon, as the news item finishes, “You didn’t tell us where that maniac’s escaped from! What use is that?” This is a clue, for those who are paying attention; we learn later on that Sirius Black is, in fact, a wizard, who has escaped from the wizard prison Azkaban, having been arrested twelve years ago for the murder of thirteen Muggles and a wizard.
It is a moment of slippage: the magical world intrudes into the non-magical, and the novel is never quite stable again. When Harry’s unpleasant Aunt Marge comes to stay with the Dursleys, her constant insults on the subject of his dead parents enrage him, and his rage manifests itself magically, so that she blows up like a balloon. Believing himself expelled from Hogwarts for his underage use of magic, Harry threatens his uncle with his wand, and – leaves home.
Again: the fabric of the novel lurches as the seal between home and magic is broken. In the first two books, the Dursley family home and the magical castle which is Hogwarts are kept comfortably, definitely discrete. We are never in any doubt as to which world Harry is inhabiting at any one time: the Muggle world or the magical one. But at this moment Harry is simultaneously lost Muggle and powerful wizard; a boy with a broomstick in a suburban street.
It’s not a coincidence that the unstable figure of Sirius Black turns up again at this point, as an enormous black dog who terrifies Harry half out of his wits. And it’s not a coincidence that, despite the comfortingly, obviously magical Knight Bus that arrives to spirit Harry off to the Leaky Cauldron, portal to the equally definitely magical Diagon Alley, Black pursues Harry throughout the novel, destabilising its certainties. We’re told he wants to murder Harry, for reasons, and the book is spent somewhat meanderingly asking what Harry is going to do about it.
I wonder if each novel in this series isn’t engaged in deconstructing what came before it. Philosopher is a fairly straightforward Hero’s Journey semi-portal fantasy whose main antagonist is a Dark Lord invading the safe space of the castle from outside. Chamber destabilises the idea of the castle as safe and sovereign by revealing a lurking evil, a monster dwelling within it which turns castle society upon itself. Prisoner, developing the idea of prejudice, refuses to allow itself the refuge of monstrosity: its antagonist is nothing so obvious, so unambiguous as a Dark Lord or a monster; by the end of the novel, it’s not clear at all who the bad guy actually is, even though bad and unjust things have happened, are happening, will happen. It deliberately destabilises the binaries created in the earlier novel, the happy ending, the cleansing of the castle, the lessons so handily learned. There is no locus of badness here, and no well of goodness to defeat it. Not all traumas can be recovered from, Prisoner mutters darkly. Not all criminals meet justice. Not all good men are saved. Not all chances can be taken. It deals, for the first time in the series, not with evil but the fallout from evil: a representationally much more complex task, of course, but one it does not shy away from.
I suspect that this continual process of re-reading what has come before can be linked to the fact that this series, possibly uniquely in YA fantasy, was read, chronologically, by a large audience of fans who were growing up at roughly the same rate that Harry and his friends were. The popular teaching technique which Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen memorably describe in The Science of Discworld as “lies-to-children” is more or less exactly what’s going on here: starting off with a relatively simple model of a concept (a society), revealing at each successive stage that this was actually a lie and here is a slightly more complex truth, although not actually the truth (not until book seven, at any rate). The series is, at least until this point, aware of the binaries it has been building up, constantly turning back on itself to question them and problematize them.
The thing is. I have a lot of respect for narratives (especially YA ones) that are prepared to do the work of reimagining and problematizing our novelistic expectations, but reimagining and problematizing can’t be the only thing a story does. In truth, I didn’t really enjoy Prisoner that much: I missed the tight, dense plotting of Philosopher and Chamber, their wit and warmth and humour, replaced here with a story that doesn’t quite have the direction it needs, the potential of its destabilising impulse watered down somewhat by its lack of narrative drive. It just wanders through a number of predicaments until it finds itself at the end, which is not really a storytelling strategy so much as it is a worldbuilding project. Conceptually – symbolically – it’s interesting, yes; as a novel, not so much.