I think we can all agree that Prisoner of Azkaban is the turning point of the series, right? It’s the book where this cute little series about an orphan boy who becomes a wizard turns into something else. Something, as my esteemed cohort just mentioned, darker. It’s also more than that, though. It’s also the book where Rowling really opens up the wizarding world, showing us things that have only been mentioned before. If Chamber of Secrets showed us the social side of the wizarding world–Mudbloods, house-elves, purity bullshit–then Azkaban showed us more of the geography of that world.
The Prisoner of Azkaban is special for me, in a weird way. First of all, it has–
–a werewolf. And, I LOVE werewolves. They are my very favorite monster and, in my humble opinion, deserve to be in the spotlight way more than either vampires or zombies do. On top of that, Azkaban was the first Potter movie I’d seen after reading the books (okay, sure, I had decided to finally read the first three books in preparation for the movie, but it still counts). So, for these reasons, Prisoner of Azkaban will always be my de facto favorite of the series, even though Half-Blood Prince probably gives me more of what you internet people call “feels.”
CHAPTER THREE: THE KNIGHT BUS
Where were we? Ah, yes: after unintentionally casting a Beauregardium Leviosa charm, Harry grabs his shit, leaves the Dursleys, and runs off into the night.
Alone, in the middle of the night, Harry holds a one-man meeting of the Hogwarts Overreaction Club. Clearly, after accidentally using magic outside of Hogwarts, Harry will be expelled. And, he assumes, locked up in Azkaban, the insanely ominous wizard prison that was first mentioned in Chamber of Secrets. I kinda get the way Harry’s mind is working here. As kids, we’ve probably all had one of those moments where, after committing some minor infraction, we convince ourselves that we’re gonna get sent off to the clink. But, Harry isn’t some silly little kid anymore. By now, he should know better. Of course, on the other hand, Harry has seen how illogical (I’m being polite) the Wizard community can be. So I can almost understand why he’d assume the Ministry would just lock him away regardless of the circumstances surrounding the aforementioned illegal use of magic. (Hey, Harry…you think Wizards are illogical? You ain’t seen nothing yet.)
This is where I should mention the “OMG Big Scary Thing” that Harry sees in the alley. It’s an important part of the book’s plot–not to mention the catalyst for what comes next in the chapter–but, it’s just a passing moment and something that I’ll happily let one of you discuss in detail. (Also, when I first read Azkaban, I had no idea what to think about the OBST.)
So, our green-eyed little orphan boy is so startled by whatever the heck is staring at him from the ominous, stygian darkness that he stumbles backward and falls over his trunk, but not before he flings out his arm in an attempt to break his fall. Lucky for Harry, sticking out your wand hand is all a wizard needs to do in order to summon the Knight Bus, “emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard”…which apparently operates along the same lines as Benny the Cab.
I live in New York City. I have always lived in New York City. A 24-hour public transit system is just something I take for granted. It would never occur to me that I could be stranded somewhere in the middle of the night without access to a cheap and (relatively) safe way to get where I needed to go. Sure, not every train would run around the clock, but there’s almost always at least one train serving a line around the clock. Same thing with buses. (Note: This was before the old white dudes in suits who run the MTA embezzled so much money from the system that they started cutting service. Man…someone needs to steal the MTA.) Anyway, my point being, never in a million years would I ever have needed to know what a night bus was. And yet, somehow, I got the gist of what Rowling was referencing with the Knight Bus. (Fun fact, in some cities, night bus service is called owl service.)
Anyway, Harry gets on the Knight Bus, after meeting its conductor, Stan Shunpike, and is greeted with something that he (and we, for that matter) shouldn’t be at all surprised by. The Knight Bus is no ordinary bus. Of course it isn’t. Witches and wizards would never sit in uncomfortable public transit seats when big comfortable beds make your trip much more pleasant. This is the first example of how Rowling is using starting to really open up her world to the readers. Yes, we’ve already seen the Hogwarts Express and there’s been a flying car, not to mention a flying motorcycle, and Harry has had his first taste of traveling via the Floo Network. All of these things are all very wondrous, yes, and that’s why I kind of like the almost mundane quality of the Knight Bus. Sure, it can get you anywhere with a BANG!, and is probably based, at least in part, on Time Lord technology, but the idea of witches and wizards needing a bus, even a tricked-out one, is such a brilliant little piece of worldbuilding. It’s a nice way for Rowling to reinforce that, for all of their magic, there’s still something very “human” about witches and wizards, which will add a layer of depth to some of the decisions that the Ministry makes in later books.
I feel like this is the first book in the series where we learn something about the plot before chapter five or six. The book is called The Prisoner of Azkaban and, what does Harry learn about in this chapter? That’s right. He learns about an escape from that most terrifying of places: Azkaban. Sirius Black, one of Voldemort’s chief lieutenants, murderer of twelve innocent Muggles and one heroic wizard, has escaped from the wizard prison. Mad Sirius Black. And speaking of Azkaban, how great is it that Rowling sets up the Dementors without even mentioning them by name? We just have a bunch of folks saying how strange and creepifying the Azkaban “guards” are. Surely I wasn’t the only one who just assumed they’d be some kind of super-badass wizards, right? I mean, who could have guessed the Azkaban guards would turn out to be a pack of soddin’ Nazgul?
Oh, and Harry pretends to be Neville Longbottom because it was the first name that “came into his head.” It could be a coincidence. It could be that Rowling chose Neville’s name because he’s such an unassuming character. Or, it could be that she was planting a seed about the connection between Voldemort, Harry, and Neville. Since this is also the book where we meet Sybill Trelawney for the first time, I don’t feel comfortable writing this off as a coincidence.
So, Harry takes the Knight Bus to the Leaky Cauldron, planning to spend the rest of his summer holiday bumming around Diagon Alley. As soon as he arrives, he’s ambushed by Cornelius Fudge. I want to say something snarky about Fudge, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I mean, sure he’s a fumfering bureaucrat. And spineless. And easily swayed by those around him. But, he’s just so pathetic that you can’t help but feel bad for him.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE LEAKY CAULDRON
You’re young. You’re free. And you have a pocket full of Galleons. What could be better? If you’re Harry Potter, the only way things could have gotten better at this point would be if Ron and Hermione were there. Harry spends his days in Diagon Alley, scarfing down ice cream and checking out the latest magical geegaws and thingamabobs on sale. This is, I believe, the last time we get a “Harry buys his school supplies” chapter and, as such, Rowling glosses over a lot of what she’s already covered in the first two books. We spend most of our time in Flourish and Blotts, mainly to lay the groundwork for Padfoot and the Grim.
Ron and Hermione finally arrive at the Leaky Cauldron and react to Harry’s unintentional use of magic as you would expect them to: Ron thinks it’s hilarious, while Hermione offers nothing but stern reproof. Now that our three main characters are together, we can really drop a few plot-bombs. First, Hermione’s insane class schedule. It should come as no surprise that I totally relate to this situation. There were several semesters in college when I took way more classes than I should have. Part of that was because my college had a ridiculous number of required classes, but it was also because I kept finding classes that I thought would be interesting. (Why does a normal person take a Chaucer class that’s taught in Middle English? Answer: they don’t.) The line about how much time all of Hermione’s classes will take seems like a total throwaway, but as Rowling has shown time and time again, most of her throwaway lines aren’t.
The other plot-bomb is, of course, Scabbers. Ron’s poor rat is in a state, so Ron wants to take him to the Magical Menagerie and have the little bugger checked out. Now, this whole scene seems to be just another way of showing that the Weasleys are not the wealthiest family in the world. Ron’s rat is a hand-me-down. Ron’s rat isn’t as talented as the other rats. Ron’s rat doesn’t have any powers. If only we had known at the time how important it was that Scabbers was missing a toe. Or that he’s lived longer than a rat should. But, as usual, Rowling just drops these little hints on us without the slightest bit of fanfare. I’m pretty brilliant, but Rowling never fails to make me feel like an obtuse, drooling mooncalf. I probably shouldn’t feel too bad, maybe I’d have been able to figure it out if the Scabbers examination hadn’t been interrupted by the sudden appearance of–
–Grumpy Cat! No, wait… The sudden appearance of Crookshanks!
As they reached it, Hermione came out, but she wasn’t carrying an owl. Her arms were clamped tightly around the enormous ginger cat.
Trust me, Hermione, once you go ginger, you never go…something that rhymes with ginger. Man, remember how we all sat around trying to figure out what the hell Crookshanks was? It was clear he wasn’t a “normal” cat from the start. But when, exactly, did we figure out the whole Kneazle thing?
The chapter ends with another example of Harry spying on adults while they’re talking about important stuff. When it comes to lurking in corridors and skulking in stairways, Harry Potter is second only to O’Brien and Thomas, the Evil Footman. Arthur and Molly are discussing (what else?) Sirius Black. The elder Weasleys are certain that Black has escaped to seek revenge on Harry for defeating Voldemort, even recounting that the Azkaban guards mentioned that Black had been talking in his sleep, repeating “He’s at Hogwarts” over and over. Of course, Harry writes this all off because there is no way that anything bad could happen to him while he’s at Hogwarts…
…while Professor Dumbledore is around…