It has been over a decade since the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows brought the best-selling series to a conclusion, but from there an enormous media franchise has evolved. Apart from the film adaptations, the spin-off/prequel series Fantastic Beasts is now two films in (with three more to go), while the two-part theatrical play and sequel to the main series – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – has been selling out every week since it opened back in 2016.
While both Fantastic Beasts and Cursed Child have been enormously polarising within the Potter fan base (and understandably so), the fact that they exist, and have been enormously successful, testifies to the fact that the popularity of Harry Potter will endure for decades to come. With such a big media franchise having come about in the wake of the publication Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone back in 1997, however, something has to hold the honour of being the finest in the pack.
It is hard to believe that it has been so long but, to mark 20 years since its original publication, I am going to discuss five reasons why I firmly believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the finest installment in the entire series. The book may not be a large tome of Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix proportions, and it may not depict Harry coming face-to-face with Lord Voldemort, but there are nevertheless very good reasons for why the third book in the series is the best.
A Tonal Transition
Despite having an enormous fan base of all ages, Philosopher’s Stone will always be considered a children’s book, which can be found in the ‘Ages 9-12’ section of your local Waterstone’s. While there were some darker underlying themes in Philosopher’s Stone, it was in Chamber of Secrets that J.K. Rowling first tried to take the series into darker territory. However, while a Basilisk petrifying students, a sentient diary and giant spiders made for darker and scarier reading than a cloaked figure in the forest did, the tonal transition was not quite achieved. Why? Because the very cheesy Gilderoy Lockhart and dwarves dressed as Cupid running around Hogwarts on Valentine’s Day was the stuff of a more light-hearted children’s book.
In the second chapter of Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling gives us the first indication that we are in for a much darker instalment when Harry sees a news report about an escaped mass murderer – Sirius Black (later revealed to be the titular Prisoner of Azkaban). Chapter Three, however, introduces a new motif – a large black dog. While younger readers may not find the idea of the dog itself scary (I didn’t when I first read the book at aged 8), the fact that Professor Trelawney sees it as an omen of death and refers to it as ‘The Grim’ signifies the darker aspects of this motif to younger readers. Trelawney’s reference does indeed reflect the fact that a large black dog has been regarded as an omen of death for centuries, with many people in medieval times even regarding it as the Devil’s preferred form.
However, while the motif of ‘The Grim’ is in itself proof that Prisoner of Azkaban has much darker subject matter than your typical children’s book, it is the Dementors which cement Prisoner of Azkaban as the point where the series stopped being ‘just’ children’s books. The Dementors, who serve as the guards of Azkaban and are sent to Hogwarts to protect the castle from Sirius Black, are not unlike the Grim Reaper in description – tall, thin and garbed in a long, black cloak and hood. However, it is the description of their effect on people, and how that impacts Harry, which gives the entire novel a colder, bleaker feel. Dementors are described as feeding on human happiness, draining it from the humans within their presence and generating feelings of hopelessness and intense coldness that penetrate the very heart.
Professor Lupin later describes to Harry that they can suck a person’s soul out through their mouth, – the Dementor’s Kiss., Their presence forces Harry to relive his parents’ murder inside his head. There are nevertheless some humorous moments in the book, such as Harry accidentally causing Aunt Marge to inflate and Lupin’s first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson. However, even those cannot change the fact that with Prisoner of Azkaban the series took a tonal transition into far more dark and bleak literature, a tone which would remain prevalent in all subsequent books.
Rowling’s Writing at its Best and Most Personal
While the fact that J.K. Rowling successfully transitioned the series into a darker tone is in itself worthy of critical praise, that is not the sole reason why her writing is at its best in Prisoner of Azkaban. The Harry Potter books came from a writer with a great imagination, and the end of each novel has shown this. However, I would argue that the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban is Rowling’s writing at its best. The main part of the climax is essentially a time-travel adventure, but also one in which Harry gains self-confidence and realises that his father lives on in him. The time-travel aspect is very cleverly executed, while Harry’s character development is beautifully realised, all of which is made more impressive by the fact that Rowling contained all of this within a single chapter. It is complex, but it is concise, which is a great way to sum up Prisoner of Azkaban as a whole, as it is more complex than its two predecessors, but far shorter and much more concise than its four successors.
Furthermore, Prisoner of Azkaban is also when Rowling’s writing is at its most personal. The entire series is born from Rowling’s imagination, and she had to work enormously hard to get the first book published – 22 years later, many publishers undoubtedly continue to kick themselves for turning her down. But Prisoner of Azkaban gives far more insight into her personal life. How so? Well, it comes down to the Dementors. As I mentioned, they are a key factor in the successful tonal transition, but Rowling’s inspiration for them adds far more weight and gravitas to them. In the years following the publication, Rowling has spoken of how the Dementors were inspired by her struggles with severe depression in the years before she became a published author.
Rowling described that feeling as an “absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.” While I have never suffered depression myself, I have witnessed first-hand many friends and family members battle clinical depression, and a number of them have described it in a similar manner to Rowling. When reading the book’s description of the effect which Dementors have on people, with Rowling’s description of her battle with depression in mind, it is impossible to not see her personal struggles come through in her writing, to not see the bleakest aspect of her personal life reflected in the tone of her writing. I have to commend Rowling for being able to channel this into her storytelling, and for being willing to open up about her struggles.
An Expanded Backstory
While Harry had learnt the truth of his identity and his parents’ fates from Hagrid on his 11th birthday in Philosopher’s Stone, neither his backstory nor his parents’ got any more depth during Chamber of Secrets. However, that all changed with Prisoner of Azkaban. As mentioned above, the Dementors’ presence forces Harry to relive his parents’ murder by Lord Voldemort, a memory which until then he did not realise he had. This adds even more weight and gravitas to his backstory, and the harrowing description of what Harry is being forced to relive makes him an even more sympathetic character as the impact which it has on him adds another layer of vulnerability.
However, it is his parents’ expanded backstory which makes this such a significant part of the series. The book not only introduces Sirius Black, Professor Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew, but also the Marauders’ Map, which serves as a significant plot device. Harry learns that Sirius, Lupin, Pettigrew and his late father were best friends in their youth and became the Marauders behind the map, but that some years later Pettigrew would betray his school friends to Voldemort, leading to the murder of Harry’s parents. These revelations not only give the reader a fuller understanding of the circumstances of James and Lily Potter’s murder, but also foreshadow just how significant Sirius, Lupin and (to a lesser extent) Pettigrew would go on to be to Harry in the subsequent books. The absence of the Marauders’ revelation in the film adaptation five years later is why, despite being considered the best of the film adaptations, Harry Potter fans were not wholly satisfied with it.
The concept of wizards and witches riding broomsticks is far from original – I mean, you just have to look at the 17th century Salem witch trials to see that it is ingrained in human history. However, the concept of an entire sport being played on broomsticks was original, and Quidditch is such a popular aspect of Harry Potter that it is now an actual sport that is played worldwide (albeit on the ground, disappointingly). In the first two books,Quidditch was never used to its full potential, with Harry never playing as Seeker in a full season. In Philosopher’s Stone, Harry’s Quidditch talents primarily served to add more weight to his fall from grace when he was caught out of bed after hours. The sole Quidditch match of Chamber of Secrets (before the season’s cancellation) served as the catalyst for Harry re-encountering Dobby.
In Prisoner of Azkaban, however, Quidditch finally got the sole spotlight which it deserved. For the only time in the entire series, Harry plays an entire season of Quidditch, while there was added weight and significance to this season as it was Gryffindor captain Oliver Wood’s last chance to lead Gryffindor to victory in the Quidditch Cup before he graduated from Hogwarts. While the disastrous first match against Hufflepuff served as the catalyst for Lupin teaching Harry to use a Patronus charm, the second match against Ravenclaw and the intense final against Slytherin served primarily as matches and a welcome, lighter subplot. The final match against Slytherin is a Quidditch match at both its longest and most exciting in the entire series, as the two rival teams engage in the least sportsmanlike match imaginable. It is a match that is a lot of fun to read, and the outcome will leave you with a wonderful sense of satisfaction as Harry beats Malfoy to the Snitch – which is especially great given how spiteful Malfoy had been to Hagrid throughout the novel.
The Catalyst for the Rest of the Series
Goblet of Fire is typically regarded as the turning point for the series, and rightly so as it was the book that saw Lord Voldemort return to physical form, plus at 640 pages (original U.K. edition) it was the point where the novels became tomes which were at least twice the size of any of the first three books. However, with the entirety of Goblet of Fire building up to Voldemort’s return, a lot of people seem to overlook just how significant Prisoner of Azkaban actually is to the series as a whole. Voldemort’s return in the climax of Goblet of Fire may have been the catalyst for the narrative of the final three novels, but it could never have happened without Prisoner of Azkaban.
The climax of Goblet of Fire is foreshadowed in Prisoner of Azkaban, when Professor Trelawney makes a prediction – “The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant’s aid, greater and more terrible than ever before.” Had Harry not (honorably) stopped Sirius and Lupin from killing Pettigrew, then Pettigrew would have never escaped, and had Pettigrew never escaped then Voldemort may never have returned to power. Not only does Harry’s act of mercy serve as the catalyst for Goblet of Fire, but for the rest of the series as well, with Prisoner of Azkaban foreshadowing four novels which would be filled with death, terror and a war that would determine the fate of the Wizarding World. Harry’s act of mercy would also go on to have significance on a more intimate level in Deathly Hallows, when he reminded Pettigrew of it and in doing so stopped Pettigrew from killing him.