Life Lessons from “Prisoner of Azkaban”
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is sometimes criticized for a lack of real plot development when it comes to the overall story arc of the series. And while this is true, the book remains an important part of the series in ways that extend beyond plot. It marks a shift in the series from the more upbeat and whimsical tones of the first two novels to the darker and more adult themes of later books. As such, it contains many applicable life lessons for all of us, coming at the threshold of Harry’s teenage years and representing a departure from childhood.
1. Savor the small triumphs.
Neville’s third year at Hogwarts is full of challenges, mostly at the hands of Professor Severus Snape. His past is peppered with pressure from his family to do well and live up to the names of his tragically lost parents, something that Neville constantly strives for but also struggles with. This year, Neville is able to start facing his fears and the things holding him back, quite literally. His triumph over boggart!Snape is perhaps one of my favorite moments because it’s a small triumph that comes to shape Neville into the snake-slicing badass that he is. Big, heroic triumphs like Harry’s experiences are impressive, but it is often the small moments that create the largest ripples. And that’s a life lesson that really makes an impact – for all us non-Voldemort-fighting Muggles, anyway.
2. Accept your limitations.
Hermione has a brilliant mind, and that cannot be disregarded. However, in her third year, we see Hermione overextend herself. While taking so many classes may satisfy her intellectual curiosity, it takes a real toll on her well-being. By the end of the year, Hermione is under enormous pressure, so much so that her boggart ends up being the knowledge that she’s failed everything. We get the feeling that, if Hermione had been more realistic with her own capabilities, she would have thrived a bit more. It’s obviously important to pursue your own aspirations, but it is also important to take care of yourself in the process. Accepting that you cannot sanely live with a Time-Turner isn’t giving up on your aspirations; it’s just being more mature and pragmatic about your capabilities.
3. Hold on to the good in your life.
In the Dementors, J.K. Rowling created a truly terrifying monster. Dementors represent how crippling depression can be to a person and the difficulty of overcoming it. That’s why the idea of the Patronus Charm, that you can literally arm yourself with powerfully happy memories, is so potent. This is a hard lesson to learn, and we see Harry struggle again and again with his Patronus, and for good reason. Sometimes it does feel like all the bad things in our lives are threatening to overwhelm us and that they eclipse and dim all the good that there is. But holding on to that good, and to the people who surround us, can be powerful enough to combat it. It’s a truly beautiful way of teaching these lessons to children and reminding several of us adults along the way.
4. Life can be unfair.
Something that makes this book different from previous books is its ending. While Harry technically triumphs over the Dementors and frees Sirius, he doesn’t get a textbook happy ending. In fact, few characters come out on top in this book. For Harry, Sirius, and Remus, their hopes are dashed and life deals them an unfair hand. It’s in these moments that you have to find the good in the situation. Harry himself needs reminding that he has accomplished something, even if the outcome isn’t what he wanted. Because that’s life, isn’t it?
‘It didn’t make any difference,’ said Harry bitterly. ‘Pettigrew got away.’
‘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.’ (PoA 310)
5. Create your own future.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to Divination, one of the more obscure branches of magic. With nutty Professor Trelawney and her many eccentricities, we’re encouraged to view the subject with a certain amount of disdain. While prophecies and Trelawney herself become important keystones of the series later on, we’re introduced to the subject through this lens of skepticism for an important reason. However much others try to predict and influence our own futures, it’s important to remember that, in many ways, we create our own paths. In the end, Harry learns the truth about his Grim and doesn’t fall prey to the fear surrounding this death omen, which is more than I can say for Ron’s uncle Bilius…
As we all embark on 2019 beyond January and our New Year’s resolutions, I hope we can all take some of these life lessons imparted from J.K. Rowling, remembering that whatever this year throws at us, we are surrounded by support and comfort, from friends and family to a beloved collection of inky marks on a page.