The Unspoken Horror in ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’


Happy Halloween!

‘Tis the season of ghost stories, Trick-or-Treating, and reflecting on our mortality in the face of the Dead. There’s one thing each of these traits of the Gaelic festival have in common. That common theme is the central topic of this post; wherein Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will be the lens through which we emphasis an emotion more sinister and contagious than the allure of the Dark Lord himself.

Allow me to make the claim that Prisoner is the across the board fan-favorite of the series. You may, of course, have a personal favorite (Goblet of Fire for me); however, after this post is finished, I believe you won’t deny the unique trait of this novel, a trait which is the heart of the Halloween spirit.

I would ask you a simple question: what does every other Potter book contain except Prisoner. . . ? The answer is what makes this book so powerful as a stand-alone.

It doesn’t have Voldemort in it.

Crazy! It’s so great because Harry’s main bad guy isn’t in it? But I haven’t gone mad. You see, as I’ve grown into my writing and read more varied stories, I am weary of the irredeemable villain. (I think A Song of Ice and Fire is the largest contributor to this.) I want to know the motivations and reasons for characters taking the “light” or “dark” path, as it were. Does Jo give us reasons for Voldemort delving into the Dark Arts? Certainly. [Look for my reasons why I want more focus on Voldemort before-he-was-Voldemort in a later post.]

For now, I want to look at the real villain that haunts almost every page, every character in Prisoner of Azkaban. This villain cannot be reasoned with, cannot be communicated with. Dementors? You would be very close to the mark. Dumbledore, at the start of term feast, says “it is not in the nature of a dementor to understand pleading or excuses” (92). But dementors merely cause this villain, this horror. For the horror has many different weapons for its victim. This villain is the embodiment of the Halloween spirit: fear. A fear of the unknown; a fear of not knowing why a mass-murderer is hunting you; a fear of being marked for death; a fear of the thing that can consume happiness like Ron with roasted potatoes. Fear provides Jo with much more territory of the human psyche to explore than the physical wickedness of Voldemort. Fear also provides the reader with a way to relate to the characters and the story on a more intimate level. Because not everyone has a Lord Voldemort-type in their life, hell-bent on their demise. But we all experience fear.

  • The Dursleys experience fear when Harry blows up Aunt Marge.
  • Wizard-kind and Muggles alike experience fear at the escape of the murder Sirius Black.
  • The students experience fear from Professor Trelawney’s “predictions” mostly in the form of the Grim.
  • Hagrid experiences fear for Buckbeak’s safety.

The list could go on. . . .

One of the most fascinating aspects to the potency of fear is whenever Harry comes face-to-face with a dementor. At those times, he receives glimpses of his parents since he was a baby. During his first Patronus Charm lesson with Profession Lupin, Harry isn’t sure if he wants to repel the dementor, to not hear his mother’s last screams. Jo gives us irony in perfection: A creature who brings misery gives our hero a window into the last act of love from James and Lily that saved their son’s life. Harry, a thirteen-year-old, feels “drained” and “strangely empty” at replaying the last moments of his parents in his head. On top of this, the multiple sightings of the “spectral black dog” have Harry asking if it is “going to haunt him until he actually died?” (184)

As bad as Lord Voldemort is, as vicious his murdering of innocent souls to create artificial immortality, spending the rest of your life looking over your shoulder is the make of insanity. That is what fear threatens Harry with throughout this entire book. Voldemort has the potential to be communicated with, the potential to see his past, what lead to his mutation from Tom Riddle into the Dark Lord. Fear, however, cannot be communicated with. Only confronting it will extinguish its power. In fact, Voldemort too fears something. He fears death, so he attempts to avoid facing his own mortality by forging Horcruxes. Even the declared villain of the Potter series is subjected to the unspoken horror.

To end I’d like to find out from you which is your favorite Potter? Where does Prisoner sit on your ranking? Comment below to show me if my observation of Potter fandom is correct.


***This post is part of my Perusing Potter – a series of exploring the known and not-so-known aspects of the Harry Potter Series***

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