Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban-Themes

  • The Injustice of Legal Systems. This book makes several moral attacks on a legal system that is controlled by men like Lucius Malfoy who bully people until he gets his way. …
  • The Duality of Life. …
  • The Importance of Loyalty


Good vs. Evil

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry begins to understand that the world is not divided into a simple binary of good versus evil or people who do only good things or only bad things. Harry and his friends are thirteen now, breaching adulthood, and the new cast of significant characters forces them to question their ideas of cut-and-dry, black-and-white morality.

A shining example of this new perspective is when Harry challenges Snape’s claims that his father, James Potter, was “exceedingly arrogant.” Harry tells Snape to shut up. He says, “I know the truth, all right? He saved your life! Dumbledore told me! You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for my dad!” (p. 284-285). But Snape has another side of the story. He says, “Have you been imagining some act of glorious heroism? Then let me correct you—your saintly father and his friends played a highly amusing joke on me that would have resulted in my death if your father hadn’t got cold feet at the last moment. There was nothing brave about what he did. He was saving his own skin as much as mine” (p. 285). Harry has to account for this new information and consider the idea that his father, who died while Harry was still an infant, and who he only knew through photos and the stories told by those closest to him, might not be as perfect as he thought he was. His idealized vision of his father is suddenly challenged by a plausible story of someone who he loathes, Professor Snape.


   The feeling of fear assumes a physical form with the introduction of Dementors, creatures who feed on hope and happiness and instill fear in anyone they approach. Once Harry encounters a Dementor, they become his greatest fear (as demonstrated by the fact that the Boggart turns into a Dementor when Harry faces it). The fact that Harry’s greatest fear is a Dementor attack means that his greatest fear is that which instills fear—in other words, he fears “fear itself,” as the popular adage goes.

            The ominous and omnipresent Dementors are Rowling’s way of introducing a more tangible and adult version of the fear and trauma that Harry has endured in his life. Voldemort, though notably not present in the novel, looms in the distance; Harry, for the first time, must confront the night his parents died and the complex betrayals that led to the tragedy. At the same time, the Patronus charm is introduced as a way to physically combat the Dementors; Patronuses are inherently good, light things, battling fear and darkness and giving Harry a power he had not previously possessed. Since Patronuses can only be powered by the happiest of memories, it is easy to see what Rowling is saying, here: you won’t sink into despair or lose yourself in fear if you remember the happy, light things in your life that motivate you to keep fighting.

Friendship and Loyalty

       This third installment of the Harry Potter series introduces a major conflict between Ron and Hermione, which ignites before the school year even begins. Ron’s rat Scabbers has been ill, and Hermione decides to buy a pet cat after it attacks Ron in the pet store. Throughout the book, Hermione is forced to be the voice of reason, keeping Harry’s safety her top priority, while Ron and Harry would rather focus on having a good time, going to Hogsmeade, and flying on the best and fasted broom ever made. Hermione constantly reminds Harry that he shouldn’t be leaving the castle, threatens to tell McGonagall about the Marauder’s Map, and does tell McGonagall about the Firebolt sent to Harry without any indication of who sent it.

Harry and Ron shun Hermione for much of the novel, which increases her anxiety—already heightened by her inordinate workload. Hagrid calls the boys to his cabin for tea and reminds them that they should value their friend more than rats and broomsticks, and tells them that even with all her homework, Hermione made time to help him prepare for Buckbeak’s trial (something that Harry and Ron promised they would do, too, and forgot).

Friendship and Growing Up. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban introduces the reader to two generations of friendships: those between Harry and his friends in the present day, and those between Harry’s father, James, and James’s crew while they were students at Hogwarts.Feb 23, 2019

The Injustice of Legal Systems

   This book makes several moral attacks on a legal system that is controlled by men like Lucius Malfoy who bully people until he gets his way. Due to liability and general xenophobia, Buckbeak is sentenced to execution for harming Malfoy, when every reader saw that Malfoy deserved to be scratched. Furthermore, once Black is caught, only Dumbledore believes that he is innocent, since nobody else cares to listen to a story supported by no evidence other than the words of Hermione and Harry. Cornelius Fudge even says at one point how bad losing track of Black will look for the Ministry of Magic. None of these are fair choices; they are just easy ones. A third choice involving this injustice is the assumption that Crookshanks killed Scabbers. This assumption was supported by evidence. In the cases of this story, the big people are framed, and yet the system won’t bother to notice.

The Duality of Life

        As shown by Lupin, who spends much of his time as a respectable professor, and then another part as a man-eating werewolf, we understand that everything is capable of having two sides. We see this again when Black is innocent, Hermione begins breaking rules, and Buckbeak’s execution is reversed through a simple intrusion through time. Nothing in these stories is ever what it seems; everything stands in a position to surprise. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, every story has two sides, and in a world where time may change, we have to believe that both of them can be true.

The Importance of Loyalty

         The reason Harry feels such personal hatred toward Black is the thought that he betrayed his best friend, James Potter. When it turns out that Pettigrew had done it instead, Lupin and Black turn snarling on him. “YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED!” Black yells at him, “DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!” Harry finds himself facing Black in the first place because he went down the Whomping Willow to rescue Ron. One of the greatest and most repeated messages in this series is summed up by Hagrid’s sobering advice to Harry and Ron in chapter fourteen: “I thought you two’d value yer friend more’n broomsticks or rats.” Human relationships are the core of this book.

Friendship and Growing Up

            Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban introduces the reader to two generations of friendships: those between Harry and his friends in the present day, and those between Harry’s father, James, and James’s crew while they were students at Hogwarts. By exploring the contours of the different friendship generations and how the friendships evolve over time, the book positions how a person treats their friends as an indicator of maturity and selflessness—or as an indicator of a lack thereof.

            For much of the novel, Hermione finds herself at odds with Ron and Harry. Ron is understandably angry when Hermione chooses to adopt Crookshanks, an orange cat intent on murdering his rat, Scabbers, while both boys are beside themselves when Hermione tells Professor McGonagall about the Firebolt broom that Harry receives mysteriously at Christmas. For Hermione, particularly in the case of the Firebolt, her close friendships with Ron and Harry are worth sacrificing in order to keep the two safe and healthy (she suspects the Firebolt came from Sirius Black, whom they believe at that point is trying to kill Harry). This suggests that at times, being a good friend means going against a friend’s wishes with the understanding that, eventually, the angry friend will appreciate the gesture and concern. However, for most of the novel, this concept is lost on Harry and Ron. Instead, they blame Hermione for their misery and refuse to speak to her, which means that Hermione is alone and effectively friendless at a time in her life when, thanks to her use of the Time-Turner, she could really use camaraderie. Eventually, Hagrid takes it upon himself to talk to the boys about Hermione and their treatment of her. He disappointedly tells them that he’d hoped they’d know enough to prioritize friendships over objects, which is the kick that Harry and Ron need to make up with Hermione and move in the direction of a more mature view of friendships and relationships.

The novel explores these ideas in a slightly different way in the case of James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew, who are adults or deceased in the present but attended Hogwarts a generation before the trio. Lupin was allowed to attend Hogwarts in spite of the fact that he’s a werewolf–in the wizarding world, werewolves are shunned and experience discrimination, as they’re believed to be subhuman and dangerous. The Shrieking Shack and an accompanying tunnel, guarded by the Whomping Willow, were constructed so he had a safe place to transform every month, and Lupin’s true identity was kept secret from the student body. Lupin’s friends, however, became understandably curious about where and why he disappeared every month. When they learned the truth, rather than shunning him, they set out to figure out how to turn themselves into Animagi, humans who can transform into animals at will.

         Because of the dangers associated with turning oneself into an Animagus, Lupin sees this as the ultimate sacrifice on the part of his friends–they could’ve died or suffered permanent damage had things gone wrong, let alone the fact that attempting the transition without Ministry supervision is illegal. However, at the time, this also appeared to be the ultimate act of friendship. James, Sirius, and Peter weren’t in danger around the werewolf Lupin in their animal forms, which enabled them to turn Lupin’s horrifying monthly transformation into something exciting, fun, and, most importantly, something he didn’t have to go through alone. With friends, the experience became bearable.

It’s important to note that in the novel’s present, Lupin and Sirius acknowledge that what they did as teens was shockingly dangerous and immature of them–their gallivanting could have easily resulted in Lupin biting someone, while becoming Animagi in the first place represented a similarly dangerous lack of judgment. In the present, Harry and Ron’s choice to ignore and be mean to Hermione comes across as stubbornly immature to both the reader and the adults in the trio’s lives. By offering the adults’ mature perspective on their own teenage friendships, however, the novel offers the hope that Harry and Ron will one day recognize their immaturity at this point in time. In the same vein, the progress that the friends do make in this regard over the course of their third year acts as proof that they are well on their way to growing up, developing adult relationships, and acquiring increasingly more mature critical thinking skills.