In Honour of September 1st: Concentrate on Your Happy Memory [Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling]
Once again, it’s September 1st, the date that I still associate with start of term at Hogwarts. Once again, it’s time to talk about those books that shaped my teenage years, that are so full of memories…
My 15th birthday was a quiet affair, and I wouldn’t remember it at all if not for the book I got. I don’t remember if I was delighted or embarrassed by it – I was still in denial about being a Harry Potter fan then, but my mother was not fooled and not only gave me Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but also took me and my brothers out to the cinema to see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Which doesn’t really have anything to do with the book I want to talk about, but now the book also holds the memories of the little movie theatre in the centre of Big Town that has closed long ago, and laughing when the Clown Brother talked back to the people on the screen… that was probably the day when my brothers got interested in Harry Potter too, the Clown Brother pointing out every vaguely castle-like building and asking if it was Hogwarts, and demanding that Harry come visit us on his broomstick, and the Carpenter Brother, never much of a reader, suddenly wanting the books…)
The moment I remember most clearly about reading Prisoner of Azkaban for the first time is lying stretched out in my bed – that big loft bed I had then, in the House on the Hill – late at night, and finally turning off the light and closing my eyes after the Quidditch final was over. After all, I figured, I knew Harry would be alive and well at the end of the book – he was the main character and had to stay alive for several more books – but I could not be as sure that Gryffindor would win the Quidditch championship (that was before I knew that Harry would be OK… other characters might not.) I’d given up playing water polo just a few weeks before that and the excitement I felt while reading that chapter felt exactly the same as the nerves before and while playing in a match. Reading about Quidditch is decidedly more fun than playing water polo, though.
I haven’t read Prisoner of Azkaban quite as often as Philosopher’s Stone, but it is undoubtedly my favourite Harry Potter book. Which, with Harry Potter being among my favourite books in general, means it’s very high up in the favourite book ranking. (I absolutely can’t decide which book is really number one, though!)
For me, a favourite book is one that I can reread again and again. Not because it is such a complex book that I discover something new each time that I read it, but because it’s a book that makes me feel happy. And Prisoner of Azkaban certainly does.
Partly because it makes me laugh. There’s Quidditch (lots of Quidditch – no games cancelled or missed because of injuries, detentions, getting banned, Triwizard Tournaments or Horcrux-hunting) with Lee Jordan’s commentary, and there’s Professor McGonagall, who is especially fun when she is talking about/to Professor Trelawney. “You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in.” I don’t know how often I’ve read that line, but it still makes me laugh. There’s the Weasley twins. Neville’s boggart. The Marauder’s Map. “Mr Moony presents his compliments to Professor Snape, and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people’s business.” Probably one of the lines I’ve quoted most often, and if I let the book fall open to a random page, it is this page, which should tell you how often I’ve read it!
But the other, and probably bigger, part of the high rereadability rating is that it’s the least dark Harry Potter book. It’s the only one that doesn’t involve Voldemort as the main antagonist. In fact – and I’ll assume that if you’re bothering to read this, you’ve read the book and I’m not spoiling you – the one we’re led to think is the villain isn’t at all. OK, well, that is pretty frequently the case, take Quirrell for example. But in this case, no crime has actually been committed. And Harry isn’t even actively trying to solve a mystery – but he got it right, early on in the book: “I don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble usually finds me.” And when trouble finds him in the form of a big black dog, what’s a Gryffindor to do but rush in and try to save his friend?
I love those last few chapters, going from hate and longing for revenge, to distrust, to finally believing Sirius. I love having a happy, hopeful ending, and Harry finally having a connection to his past and his parents. And I love, love, love the moment when Lupin says, “unless – unless he was the one … unless you switched … without telling me?” Because during this moment, I don’t care how Harry, Ron and Hermione feel, I can only think about how Sirius and Lupin must feel. How it must feel that the friend you thought was a traitor was a true friend after all – and at the same time, that another friend was a traitor instead. How it must feel to know that your friend, who thought you a traitor for so long, believes you. All the things they must feel during that hug… It occurred to me today that I’m now closer to Sirius and Lupin in age than I am to Harry and his friends (I was just two years older than them the first time I read Prisoner of Azkaban), maybe that is why I feel more and more drawn to them…
(There are those fans who interpret that moment differently, who see Sirius and Lupin as a gay couple, which… well, they’re perfectly entitled to their own opinions*, but I won’t deny it also irritates me a a little. Why can’t people just be friends? Yes, love is the theme that the Harry Potter books come back to again and again, but it’s the love you feel for friends and family, not romantic love…)
A happy, hopeful ending… even knowing now what happens in the later books, it’s still a happy book. It makes me sad that Harry never got more time with his father’s friends, but at least I know Sirius and Lupin got to spend time together. There was a time when I was sure I would never ever be able to read Prisoner of Azkaban again without bursting into tears, but it seems that some time in the five years since Deathly Hallows (has it really been five years? Where has the time gone, and the friends I used to celebrate with?) the grief has worn off, and I never once thought of all the people who are going to die on my most recent reread.
If I didn’t suffer from must-finish-series syndrome, maybe I could have pretended the last three books simply didn’t happen? No, not really. Because Prisoner of Azkaban has this nasty little hook in it that I got caught on for good.With Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, I was still only nibbling at the bait, so to speak, I could still have gotten away. But once I picked up Prisoner of Azkaban, I swallowed it all… with the prophecy and with Pettigrew getting away, with knowing Voldemort would rise again, I had to read on. How could I abandon the series just as it was getting truly exciting?
And of course, sad as they sometimes were, I’m glad I read the rest of the books. There would be so much missing from my life without them.
And without Prisoner of Azkaban, I would never have had this hilarious conversation with a fellow apprentice before the first time I travelled to the Netherlands to meet with (mostly-)online friends:
“Where is it that you’re going?”
“What? Near Azkaban?!”
We made her a postcard:
Happy memories indeed.
* and of all the slash ships I’ve read about, that is the one I find easiest to deal with in fanfics… most others make me go, “pass me the brain bleach, please.”