This is the last of the Harry Potter books that I consider to be within the Children’s genre. After this, I will label them as YA.
Joining me in this review is Angry Dimples, a Pajiban and new Cannonballer.
We have no respect for new readers. If you don’t know the whole series, stop reading now. There will be no spoiler coddling!
My main prompt for starting The Great 2017 Harry Potter Reread was Angry Dimples. She started her own reread and wanted to talk about them. Angry Dimples and I built our friendship on watching Dara O’Briain and British panel shows on YouTube together, so I jumped at the opportunity. After writing the first two reviews, my tired old brain suggested I ask her to contribute to these reviews, because she always has good things to say. She did warn me that there might be rants about raisins and confusing parallels, and I am ok with that. I’m so happy she took me up on this, because she is brilliant.
Angry Dimples: My favorite aspect of the book is the mechanics of the storytelling at play. Music theory nerds and fans of the Beatles and are probably familiar with the many, many books written on the subject of Beatles “early” period, their zenith of history making that includes “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper,” and their later years, with the “White Album,” “Abbey Road,” and “Let it Be.” It always causes me a little whiplash realising they managed to do all that growing and record breaking and music-changing in the span of 7 years. I feel similarly about the Harry Potter series, and this became ever more prominent to me while re-reading the series in a marathon this time.
In my opinion, there are two very prominent spurts of growth of JK as a writer in the course of the series. The first is the third book, and the second is the 6th. This makes the 4th and the 5th the awkward teenage stage of the series, although my preamble made it sound like it’s the “Sgt. Pepper,” and for that I apologize. The 5th book is the worst part of the series, which makes it the “Yellow Submarine?” The song? I did warn my metaphors get out of hand sometimes. Anyway, the third book is the “Revolver” of the series, of that I am sure.
The mechanics of the first books are pretty straight-forward: we have one red herring (Snape, it’s always Snape), we have one task – get the stone before Snape, and we have several obstacles in dragon eggs and Malfoy and detention, and a surprising resolution – SURPRISE! It’s not Snape!! The second book has a slightly more complicated plot, with Ginny Weasley complicating the story and adding additional red herring (to Snape, because always Snape), as well as the resolution being a guy on a back of another guy’s head which, just don’t ask me which Beatles album is that, is rather great. Jumping ahead a little to the fourth book, the greasy teenager of the series, we have half a dozen red herrings with basically everyone being dodgy, all the time with Snape, Ministry officials with gambling problems, other champions, and Eastern European dark wizzards wizzarding about all being suspicious. The third book though? The third book is the “Revolver.” It is different. It is growth of a storyteller, just a little before it gets overwhelmed with its own responsibility.
The third book is my favorite of the series, hands down. It is gorgeous in its economy of the plot. It packs a lot of ideas and surprises and character development, in the same length it took JK to get our heroes past the three headed dog in the first book. As my beloved crime partner Emmalita says below, Harry is surrounded by his father’s ghosts. He is not told important details about it, and yet we, the readers, get constant flow of important information pertinent to the plot, just not in the right order to built the complete picture correctly. For example, Hogsmead makes it first appearance. Harry’s inability to get the parent slip for it packs an emotional punch, sure. It serves as a reminder to us of his loneliness, but it is mostly there to a) show and tell us of the supposedly haunted place that will be the scene of the final confrontation and b) to get Harry alone with Lupin, sealing their bond on one hand, and showing us that he drinks potion made by Snape. Because this wouldn’t be a Harry Potter book if Snape wasn’t fucking suspicious. (I will find someday the perfect Beatles analogy for Snape, don’t you worry about that.) that, that is economy of storytelling. We can’t take it for granted. I can go on and on, pointing how every scene in the book has important information for the resolution of the central mystery. No scene is superfluous, no scene is there for the atmosphere. Harry brooding in his room in Privet Drive? Yeah, they are awful people. But he is also examining the picture of Ron with a rat missing a finger. Buckbeak? Escape for Sirius. Hermione disappearing all the time? My favorite part of the book with Hermione and Harry re-playing the previous evening as spectators and sometimes participants. Brava, JK. Brava.
Emmalita: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban is probably my favorite of the series. But it’s like saying that dark chocolate caramel truffles are my favorite truffle when I love all of the truffles. Voldemort is in the background, but not the primary antagonist. The accused antagonist and actual antagonists are old school friends’ of Harry’s father, James Potter.
The main themes that stick with me in this book are that the past is still very much with us, and adults are dumb because they don’t tell Harry things he ought to know.
The slate of the world isn’t wiped clean when we are born. We live our whole lives with the consequences of the past. I probably ought to have started talking about this in book 2, when an echo of Teen Tom Riddle wreaked havoc at Hogwarts. In book 3, as will happen again in book 6, James Potter’s escapades as a student at Hogwarts have consequences in Harry’s life. Harry doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by his father’s old gang. Which gets us to the next point that what Harry doesn’t know can hurt him.
By attempting to shield Harry from the painful truth, they ensure that he will hear about it in the most awkward ways, he will have no one to talk to, and he can’t trust the adults in his life. On the one hand, that frustrates me terribly, on the other, maybe it’s not such a bad lesson. Adults are great at fucking things up, and Harry and his friends are the ones who have to save the world. It doesn’t make sense to me that someone didn’t think to tell Harry who Sirius Black was, and why they were worried about Harry’s safety. And I’m not sure why Remus Lupin wouldn’t tell Harry he was an old friend of his father’s. Not telling Harry isolates him.
On the flip side, when Harry and his friends do have information, they generally make the right decisions. Harry is able to save his own life and others because Lupin taught him the Patronus charm. Hermione is all about demonstrating that knowledge is power. Hermione instills in Harry and Ron the habit of going to the library. Because Hermione reads and knows things, she is often the only one reaching the correct conclusion.
Knowledge may be power, but fore-knowledge is bullshit.
Professor Trelawney takes delight in predicting Harry’s imminent demise. Her daily predictions are easily applied to routine events. Her true prophecy is as useless as her fake predictions. Without context and without understanding, the fore-knowledge the prophecy provides is meaningless. Without knowing that Peter Pettigrew is alive and living as a rat, no one could know that he is the subject of the prophecy. Without knowing Pettigrew is the subject, no action could be taken to prevent him from rejoining Voldemort.
By asserting the pointlessness of prophecy, Rowling highlights her main thesis – our choices are what are important. Harry chooses to show mercy to Pettigrew, which will eventually be more important than Trelawney’s prophecy. What we don’t know yet, but Rowling surely did, is that there is another prophecy – the one about Harry and Voldemort – that becomes a central plot point in the final three books. By having Dumbledor dismiss Trelawney’s prophecy in favor of Harry’s choices, we are set up to do the same with the prophecy we will hear in the next book, the one that drove Voldemort to kill Harry’s parents and turn Harry into Voldemort’s downfall.
One of the joys of co-writing is that, intentionally or not, your partner reminds you of things you forgot. Angry Dimples reminded me that JK Rowling is a boss when it comes to setting up later story elements. The Marauder’s Map, in addition to being a link to the past, is critical in later books. The very idea of secret ways into Hogwarts is critical in books 6 and 7. The Dementors, Azkeban, and the population of Voldemort’s followers become increasingly important, as does the Patronus charm. When Lupin teaches Harry the Patronus charm, he sets the ball rolling for the defense of Hogwarts at the climax of book 7 (and one of angry dimples’ favorite chapters ever, “the silver doe”.)
One final thing that Angry Dimples reminded me of is that this is the book where Hermione becomes a real badass.
Angry Dimples: Lastly, I just want to remind everyone that Ron slept in his bed with a creepy middle aged man in three books. Because I don’t think we should ever stop mentioning it. Also, fuck raisins. You are just grapes that gave up.