I FINALLY finished Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Once I closed the back cover at 2 in the morning, eyes heavy, covered in cats, I realized this was the first book I had finished since graduating from my master's program...
Until now, I was really ashamed to say that. I've been known as a reader for as long as I can remember, and I practically preach about the healing powers of having books out on display. Now, I've realized that for the last year, I've been punishing myself for slowing down, when really, I was just investing in other pieces of life - relationships, my career, music with my band, my own headspace.
When I closed that book, I took a deep breath and smiled. I finally had enough capacity in my mind and imagination to be inspired by reading again. I honestly forgot how much literature is a power-packed mine of creative energy; how strong and nourishing it is. I carried the world of Hogwarts with me for days, and I lived in both reality and fantasy, making my reality even more real.
There were so many moments in The Prisoner of Azkaban that deepened my love of the characters I had already come to know so well. And surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly at all), the narrative followed a familiar flow - loss, grief, and finally, connection.
If you know anything about this story, you know there is a deep theme of loss that runs through the undertow of the entire Harry Potter series. However, in book three, I finally started to see its face from multiple angles.
First, it appeared to Harry in the form of The Grim, an omen of death that takes the form of a large, black, spectral dog. In his divination class, Harry realized his encounter with the dog in the Muggle world wasn't necessarily happenstance. He saw its form in the bottom of a tea cup, where he was searching for his future, and thought, “Was the Grim going to haunt him until he actually died? Was he going to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder for the beast” (184)?
During a recent conversation over coffee, a friend and mentor reminded me of the work of a poet, Rainer Rilke, and said that death is a gift so precious that God saw fit to give it to us all. It was the first time I had heard words that accurately described my bittersweet grief, thankfulness and sorrow all at once. Here, where the known and the unknown cross, where our world and magic coexist as separate, but equal realities, sits death, the thing that unites both sides of the threshold. The Grim appeared to Harry in both worlds, as it does so often for us. And, like him, we often do spend our entire lives looking over our shoulder for that beast.
Luckily for Harry, and for us, "The Grim" turned out to be one of his biggest advocates and most loving protectors - his only family. By the end of the book, Sirius Black had become a tremendous source of stability for Harry, and as a reader, I can't help but think the same of my own "protectors." Death isn't glamorous, but it also isn't waste. It is a complicated friend that forces us to deal with the deepest parts of our humanity.
“Death is our friend, precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love. Death stands before eternity and says YES.” ― Rainer Marie Rilke
Death is a funny thing. It stays with you long after you realize it's there, and while it's unbelievably complex, it can also be a gift of clarity and sight for the ones left to live alongside it.
When loss hits, it leaves traces that can't be undone. And those scars mark us vulnerable to grief, or in Harry's case, the dementors of Azkaban.
"Harry felt sick and humiliated every time he thought of them. Everyone said the dementors were horrible, but no one else collapsed every time they went near one. No one else heard echoes in their head of their dying parents" (184).
The creatures come in vague form, as shadows that turn life to death, and they seem to haunt those most familiar with the same emptiness with which they identify. Like depression, they prey on last hopes and convince their victims there is nothing left to live for. They convince them to exchange life for an empty existence, which also reinforces feelings of shame and weakness.
“‘It has nothing to do with weakness,’ said Professor Lupin sharply, as though he had read Harry’s mind. ‘The dementors affect you worse that the others because there are horrors in your past that the other don’t have…Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. And the worst that happened to you, Harry, is enough to make anyone fall off their broom. You have nothing to feel ashamed of’” (187).
Logically, the thing that can take down the darkness is light, forged by joyful memories of life. While dementors feed on these emotions, too much will destroy them. But, it's not only about how much happiness you throw at your grief, or at a dementor. We can only truly change its course by taking the emotions that fuel it and extracting purpose from them, reshaping them into resourceful energy, whether that's learning, encouraging, or just understanding what it means to be human. It's about the way those emotions are trained and wielded - as a weapon against the dark.
When left unprotected, joy makes you vulnerable, but when cultivated in strength, it can shatter the darkness.
Friendship and human connection
All of these facets of the story led me to the theme that was the most misunderstood in my previous experience with Harry Potter - the theme of friendship and the power of human connection.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, I got to know the Marauders in a way the movie just couldn't offer. I understand, you can't always commit the amount of film time needed to unpack the layers of experience and loyalty that Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs built together as young wizards.
But I have to say, it's a shame that couldn't have been explored more deeply in film...
The love and dedication it took to learn the magic necessary to ease the suffering of their friend, Remus Lupin, speaks volumes of James Potter and Sirius Black.
“‘But apart from my transformations, I was happier than I had ever been in my life. For the first time ever, I had friends, three great friends. Sirius Black….Peter Pettigrew…and, of course, you’re father, Harry - James Potter…And they didn’t desert me at all. Instead, they did something for me that would make my transformations not only bearable, but the best times of my life. They became Animagi'” (354).
The remedy for Lupin's werewolf curse was not a magic spell or elixir. It was a sense of love and belonging. “Under their influence, I became less dangerous. My body was still wolfish, but my mind seemed to become less so while I was with them” (355).
While this beautiful gesture of friendship unfolded, I also got to see how that power can be destructive when not handled with care and respect.
The Potters displayed a magnitude of trust when they used the Fidelius charm to protect themselves against Voldemort. This act shows the depth to which we entrust our souls to our dearest friends. When Peter Pettigrew exposed James' and Lily's location to Voldemort, their lives became vulnerable to harm. Their belief in their friend shattered, and along with it, their belief in hope for themselves.
The bond that they created when they all became Animagi made that betrayal so much worse. Just as it was a choice to protect one another, it was a choice to forsake the Potters' trust...
And out of his own loyalty to his parents, Harry wrestled deeply with his decision to spare Pettigrew's life, believing that his moment of mercy negated all of his courage.
“‘Didn’t make any difference?’ said Dumbledore quietly. ‘It made all the difference in the world, Harry. You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate.’
‘But - I stopped Sirius and Professor Lupin from killing Pettigrew! That makes it my fault if Voldemort comes back!’
‘It does not,’ said Dumbledore quietly. ‘Hasn’t your experience with the Time-Turner taught you anything, Harry? The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed…Professor Trelawney, bless her, is living proof of that…You did a very noble thing, in saving Pettigrew’s life’” (425-426).
* * *
In The Prizoner of Azkaban, we're faced with the difficult truth of mercy. Coincidentally, 'mercy' is the word that I chose for myself in 2019...
Like Harry, I like to see justice played out in a timeline that I can see and understand. Unfortunately for both of us, that isn't how justice works. The only thing we can take comfort in is knowing that we did the right thing, or that we sought the truth with our entire being, to our deepest extent.
Belief is personal. There is not one thing I can do to force another to believe or see as I do. Even Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard alive, couldn't control the free will of others. When Harry and Hermione looked to him for affirmation, asking if he, in fact, believed them about Sirius Black's innocence, he said, “Yes, I do...But I have no power to make other men see the truth, or to overrule the Ministry of Magic…” (393).
When we insist that our faith be lived out by those around us as we live it out ourselves, we lose sight of our role in the story. Harry Potter freed an innocent man, saved an innocent creature, and uncovered the truth about his parents. All the while, his enemies believed that they had won. It's only when he was able to let go of what "they" thought that he was able to take comfort and find freedom in the truth.
What an unexpected look at what it is to be merciful...