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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Harry Potter Retrospective Part 3

Reading it again I've come to realise that Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA) is one of my favourite books in the series. This is mostly because of a unique story aspect that seperates it from the other entries. You see, whereas Voldemort is the big bad in all the other books, via his direct actions or people following his orders, he is nowhere to be found in PoA except for nightmares and stories. That opens up the question of who is going to play the role as the big bad of this book. Luckily there are quite a few options so that everybody can be happy. 

First up we have the titular character.

...NO, not Harry Potter! The Prisoner of Azkaban, AKA Sirius Black. In this novel he'll be playing the role of the villain du jour. At least that's what we all, speaking generally, thought when we read the book for the first time. Rowling totally had us fooled with this guy and she did a great job of it. The way this dude was hyped up made him seem like a bigger deal than Voldemort, at least to me. Seriously, just him getting out got the magic world to react as though there was a large terrorist threat going down. Granted it's pretty scary that a murderous maniac is out on the loose but the entire Ministry of Magic was putting everything else on hold so that they could focus on locating Sirius. And he apparently didn't get bothered by being in Azkaban while everybody else went insane. Even the muggles were alerted and on the look-out for him. He was just REALLY big news.

But the thing that got me most interested was that I, and probably about a million other readers, remembered that he'd been mentioned once before, in one of the two previous books. It was from him that Hagrid had gotten the bike he used to fly Harry to the Dursleys'. So not only was he such a big deal that the wizarding world went into a state of panic but he'd also been foreshadowed in the very first book. First time I realised that there were so many questions that flew through my mind about this guy. I wanted to know what his deal was and I bet that so did pretty much every other reader.

Then Rowling gave us quite a lot of information about Sirius. She revealed so much about him and what he'd done that it felt a bit like information overload. At the same time we were given the most info about what it was like when Voldemort's regin of terror darkened the world. It all satisfied the readers nicely and kept us from thinking too much about the teeny tiny little holes in the stories. Rowling set us up greatly for that giant plot-twist. We, and everybody in the book, thought that Sirius was the bad guy.

Then it turned out that that wasn't the case at all.


At the time it was really hard to believe but the way it was revealed somehow made seem plausible. That's one of Rowling's great talents as a writer. She can take the WTFest of plot-twists and have it make sense. Not perfect sense mind you, but sense.

Anyway. So it turns out that Sirius is any kind of actual antagonist. He's just percieved as one by everybody and that looming threat is enough to send the magical world and Hogwarts into a disarray. Still, it's a trick so Sirius can't actually be called the big bad. So let's look at the next candidate. The one who should've been put in Azkaban in Sirius' place. Peter Pettigrew.

Man, if you thought that the reveal that Sirius wasn't actually a mass-murdering, back-stabbing psychopath was big news then the other giant plot-twist of this book probably sent your mind reeling. Let me write it down clear as day.

Ron's rat, who's been in the all three books, is actually a wizard that used to work for Voldemort and used to be one of Harry's father's best friends.

That Rowling pulled that one off without the entire audience screaming foul is borderline mind-boggling.

Now, Peter isn't the big bad of the book either. But unlike Sirius he actually is an antagonist. At least in the sense that his actions all pretty much screw the protagonist over at every turn. He's an enemy that needs to be dealt with. However, unlike Voldemort Peter isn't any kind of master villain. He just a cowardly and pathetic little man who ends up being a very important part of the over-arching storyline. In short, he's actually more significant than one might assume. But that's not enough to make him the big bad of the book. He comes in way too late for that and he's never actually a threat. He's more like the key to a secret chamber of happiness and good living that the heroes have to chase down rather than a person they have to defeat.

So with the two, for the series, new candidates out of the running let us look at the more traditional antagonists of the book to see if either of them are the big bad. I am of course talking about Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy.

At first glance it would seem that they're still stuck in their by obligatory roles of making Harry's school-life as miserable as possible and in general being douchbags. Then comes the first twist in the form of Malfoy being mauled by Hagrid's hippogriff, it's not as bad as it sounds, followed by Malfoy trying to use that to get Hagrid fired and the hippogriff executed. This of course pushes Harry's and Malfoy's rivalry further than it's ever been before. Beyond his normal asshole tendencies Malfoy is now trying to hurt one of Harry's closest friends. And unlike Peter, Malfoy can actually be fought. Not in the fisticuffs, or would that be wandicuffs, kind of way. But by just beating him at Hogwarts yearly quidditch tournament.

Allow me to get a little sidetracked here. I just love this sub-plot so very much and it's all because of Oliver Wood, Harry's quidditch captain for those that don't know/can't remember. I love this guy. He's just so determined, many might say obsessed, with winning that trophé that he doesn't even flinch at the idea that a mass-murderer might be gunning for his star-player. Yeah, Oliver can be comical in his personal quest to win the tournament, a feat that has escaped him due to unfortunate circumstances. But at the same time he's a very endearing character, at least to me.

You really get the feeling that quidditch is his life, he's young and he'll get time to focus on other things later in life, and to not win the quidditch tournament even just once is sort of sad. And Oliver isn't just passionate about the game, he's really good at it too and in general he's a good guy who's just had quite a lot of bad luck. So you want the Gryffindor quidditch team to win not just because it'll be a metaphorical punch in Malfoy's face but because it's Oliver's last chance to finally accomplish this one really important goal.

But one can't deny that in the grand scope of things a school sports tournament doesn't seem all that relevant when compared to all the other struggles that Harry and his friends have been through. I mean, in the first book somebody who was directly being ordered by Voldemort was actually trying to kill Harry and in the second one an ancient monster was trying to kill off a majority of the school's students. In the third book the quidditch tournament is given almost as much importance as those events. Like I said, it's the one way Harry has to actually combat Malfoy in a way that won't get him suspended. But more than that it can also be seen as a sort of transitional phase for Harry and his friends.

You see, sometime between PoA and Goblet of Fire, the next book, things take a turn for the worse and the stuff that Harry has to deal with just keeps getting darker and more soul-crushingly oppressive with each year. So the quidditch tournament is more or less one of the last few times Harry will get to do as a kid before he's really forced to grow up horribly fast.

So yeah, the quidditch in this book is important for many reasons. Getting back to Malfoy, the quidditch is used to show him that for all his riches and pure blood he's no better than anybody else. Of course, that isn't enough to beat him as he still gets his father to make it so that the hippogriff is found guilty. It all works out in the end and Draco doesn't get wish though. So yeah, he's an antagonist that Harry & co can fight, though not in the conventional fashion, and he causes a lot of the drama in this book. At the same time he can't really be seen as the big bad of the book. Mainly because while he's a direct antagonist he's also just a spoiled brat who's using his father's influence and wealth to get what he wants. Granted, such a character could be the main antagonist in a story but that's not the feeling you get here. Malfoy's just being Malfoy and the harm he's causing is more directed at Hagrid than at Harry.

So let's look at the other classic antagonist, Severus Snape. To excuse a rant that may very well appear in one of these little retrospectives I will say this right now. Snape is without a doubt my favourite character in the entire series. He is just so incredibly complex and well-written and tragic and delightfully awful and awesome and he's totally not the big bad of this book. Granted, his antagonism and character both get some serious development when we learn that both Sirius and Remus Lupin, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, are parts of Snape's past. Parts that Snape would like nothing more than to grind into the ground with a particularly large and pointy rock.

Now when this was the latest book to have come out Snape seemed unusually douchey and horrible in the situation when the truth about Sirius was revealed. Snape wouldn't consider it and wouldn't even listen to Harry, Ron and Herminone's pleas to hear Sirius out. At the time it seemed like Snape was just exacting revenge for Sirius pulling a very nasty and near-fatal prank on him during their school days. This made Snape seem like a glory seeking prat who couldn't let bygones be bygones, much aided by the fact that he is an ass. However, in these days when all the books have been read his actions are understandable.

It isn't because of any teenage prank that Snape is compeltely unwilling to even consider that Sirius is innocent, though it certainly helped. It's because as far as Snape knows Sirius is the person that led Voldemort to Harry's parents. Or more importantly to the woman Snape loved. Believeing this to be a fact Snape hates Sirius for the very same reasons that Harry initially hated Sirius. They blame him for Lilly's death. In Snape's case this hatred has been festering within him for 12 years and he probably see's this as a chance to avenge Lilly's death. But more than that bringing Sirius in for justice would also finally get Snape some reckognition.

Snape is a man without any family and the amount of friends he has is limited to Dumbledore alone. Despite his incredible skills as a wizard, he's generally seen as the third most powerful wizard in the series, he's stuck as a teacher in a school where like three fourths of the student body hates his guts and even there he's denied the teaching position that he longs for. If he were to turn in the infamous Sirius Black he wouldn't only be avenging Lilly's death he'd also get some proper respect from the rest of the magical world. At least that's what I think is going through Snape's mind.

So Snape isn't the big bad. He's an antagonist for sure. But he's also a bitter and flawed human being who can't see that he's in the wrong when it comes to Sirius Black. He's not being a villain, he's actually trying to be a hero. It's just the wrong circumstances.

And now allow me to apologise for dragging this out. Everybody who's read PoA knows very well who the big bads are in this book. They're one of the most terrifying and at the same time, coolest original creations to come out of the Harry Potter series.

I am of course talking about the Dementors.

The soul-sucking prison guards of Azkaban are the primary threat in PoA as they are the only thing to actually that actively endangers Harry's life on more than one occasion to the point where he has to learn a very specific and powerful spell to fend them all off. They're also an embodiment of the idea that there's something worse than death which is a central theme to the series. Dementors might not kill you but they'll rob you of everything else and thereby force you to live a hollow and meaningless existence where you are nothing. That right there is a monster that may actually be scarier than Voldemort himself.

So yeah, that's all the antagonist of this book and the big bads. The thing that makes the book so interesting and fun to read is how the problems caused by all the guys I've gone through here interesect with one another and how Harry, Ron and Hermione deal with these problems. The large array of situations and problems and the various solutions to them all make the story diverse and interesting and you honestly don't miss Voldemort one bit.

Now join me next time when Harry's story becomes darker than ever before due to contents of the Goblet of Fire.

...I dare you to find a lamer transitional phrase than that one.

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