Essay: Playing the Game
They made their way back up the crowded street to the Magical Menagerie. As they reached it, Hermione came out, but she wasn’t carrying an owl. Her arms were clamped tightly around the enormous ginger cat.
“You bought that monster?” said Ron, his mouth hanging open.
“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” said Hermione, glowing.
~Chapter Four, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts is shaped by the three Quidditch matches he plays during that year, which is the first and last time that he plays a complete Quidditch season. Each match carries symbolic importance to future books in the series, which further reinforces that JK Rowling has not inserted Quidditch or any game into the books frivolously. When she describes a match or when Harry plays it’s for a good reason, and when she pulls back from Quidditch or other games it’s also for a good reason, such as it doesn’t advance the big plot or carry love or war symbolism, or she’s replacing literal games that are metaphorical battles with literal battles that happen to resemble games.
The framework for the third book is a full Quidditch season, but it’s not the first “game” mentioned in the book. Ron sends Harry a letter with a photo and a clipping from the Daily Prophet about his family winning the “Daily Prophet Grand Prize Galleon Draw”. The Weasleys use this prize money to go to Egypt to visit Bill, the eldest Weasley son. This leads to Sirius Black seeing the same photo that Ron sends Harry, and Sirius recognizes Ron’s pet rat in the photo when Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, visits the wizard prison, Azkaban. This sets the entire plot in motion.
Sirius asks Fudge for his newspaper specifically for the crossword puzzle—a game—and when Sirius sees the Weasley family’s photo and recognizes Ron’s rat, Scabbers, as the Animagus form of Peter Pettigrew, traitor to James and Lily Potter, he decides to breaks out of prison. There’s nothing in the previous two books to suggest that Peter was dangerous to Harry while he was Ron’s pet. Sirius’s real goal seems to be to punish Peter for his treachery, not to protect Harry, who was probably perfectly safe from Scabbers/Peter as long as the world thought he was a mangy rat who’d lived an implausibly long time.
Games (first a lottery drawing, and then a crossword) impel the plot forward, and games (Quidditch matches) shape the book. The Weasleys could have been in the news for any reason, and Sirius could have asked for the newspaper for something other than the crossword, but in both cases Rowling connected the impetus for the plot to games.
The birthday gifts Harry receives from his friends have a game/war theme: Ron’s gift is a Pocket Sneakoscope and Hermione’s gift is a broomstick servicing kit (to maintain his “weapon”). The Sneakoscope is a so-called toy for finding spies or traitors, such as Ron’s rat, and it goes off when Fred and George put beetles in Bill’s soup (unknown to Bill), so we know it’s in good working order.
The first game that Harry personally plays is remaining calm while Marge, his Uncle Vernon’s sister, visits Privet Drive. He distracts himself with thoughts of the manual for the broomstick servicing kit, reinforcing that Harry is again playing a game that is really a war, this time against Marge. The prize is very dear to Harry: Vernon signing his permission form so that he can go on Hogsmeade trips. Harry loses the game, spectacularly. He cannot help responding to Marge insulting his parents. Now he can’t go to Hogsmeade and he’s plunged into a dangerous situation by running away, another event in the plot linking Harry to the archetype of the Metaphorically Queer Liminal Being. (See Hail, the Conquering Liminal Being or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 8: Have You Tried Not Being Liminal?) Harry also isn’t completely certain that he isn’t facing expulsion from Hogwarts.
Harry’s battle for survival takes on a game-like character when he accidentally hails the Knight Bus, yet another dodgy form of magical transportation. During the Knight Bus Game, Harry sees Stan Shunpike’s newspaper and learns that Sirius Black, an escaped convict he’d seen on the Muggle news, is a wizard. According to the paper, he was Voldemort’s second-in-command. This game turns out better than Harry had any right to expect when Cornelius Fudge meets Harry at the Leaky Cauldron and tells him about the arrangements that have been made for him to stay there. In contrast to Harry’s later virtual imprisonment in the castle, this gives him access to Diagon Alley for an extended period, unchaperoned, letting him gaze rapturously at a broom in the front window of Quality Quidditch Supplies that will become his new weapon: the Firebolt.
This is one of the reasons (but not the only reason) that the third threshold that Harry crosses with Hagrid in the first book of the series is linked to this book. The first threshold was Harry entering the Muggle world of Privet Drive, where he is brought by Hagrid to the person who best embodies the Wise Old Man, ruling archetype of the first book: Albus Dumbledore; the second threshold was Hagrid taking Harry over water again when they leave the hut on the rock after Hagrid delivers Harry’s Hogwarts letter to him. The third threshold is Hagrid taking him through the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron to Diagon Alley, where Harry gets to live during the remainder of the summer between his second and third years, after leaving Surrey on the Knight Bus. With each new book, Harry sees and experiences more of the wizarding world, and in the third book, he lives in a wizarding place other than Hogwarts for the first time since he was a baby. And that place is Diagon Alley.
Harry’s Sneakoscope (which is a toy and a weapon) is probably set off on the train by Scabbers/Peter hiding his true form. This leads to a discussion of Ron wanting to visit Honeyduke’s sweetshop in Hogsmeade, which Harry can only do as a sort of spy, under his Invisibility Cloak (which makes him a doppelganger for Peter here). The tunnel out of the castle takes him to the sweetshop itself. Toys, games, sweets and war or spying are all intertwined. Hermione calls the Shrieking Shack an interesting feature of Hogsmeade, but this is also a “disguise” for the Shack, which is not haunted but was designed to shelter Remus Lupin during full moons when he was in school. It becomes the site of the confrontation at the end of the book in which Scabbers’ disguise is finally removed.
In Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling introduces “the chocolate cure”. Using sweets as a response to despair first appears when dementors stop the school train. Remus Lupin gives Harry and his friends chocolate afterward, to ameliorate the dementors’ impact on them.
At Hogwarts, Harry and Hermione are pulled aside by McGonagall, Harry because he fainted from the dementors and Hermione because McGonagall needs to speak to her about “her timetable”. After this Hermione is very cheerful; we may conclude that this is when she receives a rather dangerous toy that will prove useful for the war: the Time-Turner. As the best embodiment of the archetype of the Mother, the ruling archetype for this book, Hermione wielding the Time-Turner helps Harry save the day at the end of the book. (See The Mother Archetype, Part I or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 4: Mother, May I?)
Harry already lost one game/battle, with Aunt Marge, and Harry’s failure to withstand the dementors on the train is another battle lost, resulting in his most present human enemy, Draco Malfoy now rather than Aunt Marge, having fun at Harry’s expense, as he mimics Harry fainting. As usual, when those who are not on Harry’s side use laughter it’s a negative weapon, for wounding, not a positive one, for healing. Fred and George’s recommended remedy for Draco’s gloating is to fight a sort of battle at which Harry excels: Quidditch.
As with all overt games in the Harry Potter books, Rowling also never shows Harry in a school lesson without good reason, and the lessons at the beginning of his third year all take on the overtones of games. Divination with Trelawney is first. The tea leaf readings seem to be real predictions, though Ron and Harry think of it as a game. Ron suggests that Harry will work for the Ministry of Magic; JK Rowling has said that Harry will do this after the end of the seventh book. Next Ron predicts for Harry, “A windfall, unexpected gold,” which could be Harry’s Tournament winnings at the end of the fourth book, or his bequests from Sirius (the Black house and Kreacher) and Dumbledore (who leaves Harry a “Golden” Snitch).
Trelawney interrupts Ron’s interpretations with her own: she sees a falcon, which she says indicates Harry having a deadly enemy. Hermione scoffs, since everyone knows Harry has a deadly enemy. She also sees a club, indicating an attack (which Harry experiences later); next she sees a skull, pointing to danger in Harry’s path (again a no-brainer); and finally, a Grim, a black dog. However, rather than predicting Harry’s death, this seems to literally point to Harry meeting a large black dog, also known as his godfather: Sirius Black. In McGonagall’s lesson she urges the Gryffindors to laugh off Trelawney’s predictions. Once again laughter is used to fight despair.
The students are introduced to Hippogriffs in Hagrid’s first lesson, which they expected to be dangerous due to his assigning The Monster Book of Monsters, a biting book. Draco Malfoy makes the mistake of treating a Hippogriff cavalierly and he’s wounded. Many people, including Hermione, treat dangerous things cavalierly in this book and learn that it is a bad idea.
Harry was immediately successful at flying in his first year and is also successful at Hippogriff flying because flying is a game at which he naturally excels, but also because he doesn’t dismiss something that seems to be “fun”, which he knows is not a synonym for “harmless”.
The first Defense against the Dark Arts lesson with Lupin is also the first in which fun and games are an intentional part of a lesson, because laughter is the way to fight a boggart, the creature they’re all facing. However, the fears a boggart brings out, rational or not, can make it difficult to treat them as a laughing matter. Harry doesn’t get to see how well he can laugh at his worst fear because Professor Lupin worries that the boggart will become Voldemort when it is in proximity to Harry. He leaps between Harry and the boggart so that it takes on the appearance of the full moon instead, which Harry mistakes for a crystal ball.
Due to a game Harry lost earlier (the Pretending-Marge-Isn’t-in-the-House game) he’s not permitted to play another game: going to Hogsmeade. This gives him an opportunity to talk to Lupin about another game at which Harry feels he failed: confronting the boggart. Harry reveals to Lupin that the first thing that leapt into his mind was a dementor, not Voldemort, which impresses Lupin and sets the stage for their dementor lessons later in the book.
After the Halloween feast, a game Harry has played since the first book, using passwords to get into Gryffindor Tower, devolves into a battle: the Fat Lady’s portrait guarding the entrance has been attacked and she’s missing, having fled her canvas to find safety in other paintings. According to Peeves the Poltergeist–who’s usually disregarded because fun and games are his sole focus–the attacker was Sirius Black.
After this, the students spend the night in sleeping bags in the Great Hall, with prefects on guard. When the castle is perceived to be under attack the students engage in something that’s very much like camping, which originated as a wartime activity, though here it’s a watered-down version of war, both a “game” version (as camping is when it’s divorced from war) and the real thing (since an escaped convict may be in the castle). Camping is both a game and part of war in the fourth book, at the Quidditch World Cup, and when Harry, Ron and Hermione are camping while they’re hunting Horcruxes in the seventh book.
Substituting for the Fat Lady is a portrait of Sir Cadogan, who turns the Password Game into something far more complicated, changing the password frequently. He’s very confrontational, challenging those who approach to duels and in general taking his duty as seriously as a soldier’s post at the entrance to an army’s encampment—which it now is, basically. Despite this turn of events, Sir Cadogan serves as comic relief, so he’s a mix of war and games.
The first glimmer of genuine danger for Harry during his first Quidditch match, which is with Hufflepuff, is when he spots a black dog in the top row of the stadium seats. This distracts him from Cedric Diggory, who dies in the next book, so we must wonder whether Cedric noticed this “Grim”—and also wonder whether perhaps Sirius was a harbinger of death for Cedric. Soon after this the true threat appears: dementors. Harry relives the worst memory of his life, his parents’ murders, hearing their last words and falling from his broom, losing the match. But Cedric is an inherently fair person and doesn’t want credit for the win; he wants a rematch, marking him as a sharer of power, like Harry. Even though his position as Hufflepuff’s Seeker makes him Harry’s nominal enemy, this response marks him as Harry’s ally and comrade, foreshadowing their being comrades in the Triwizard Tournament.
On top of this loss, Harry’s chief weapon–his Nimbus Two Thousand–is destroyed by the Whomping Willow, leaving him unarmed for battle. This works well as an analogy for his needing to arm himself anew for the coming war and doesn’t just apply to needing a new broomstick; he must also prevent dementors from affecting him. A Patronus, a protective entity created through positive, happy thoughts, is the only weapon against dementors and is the true “weapon” that Harry masters in this book.
Harry tells Lupin that his broom was destroyed by the Whomping Willow and in Chapter Ten, The Marauder’s Map, Lupin tells him about another game:
“They planted the Whomping Willow the same year that I arrived at Hogwarts. People used to play a game, trying to get near enough to touch the trunk. In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it. No broomstick would have a chance.”
This brings to mind the old saying, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye!”
Later in the term the students visit Hogsmeade for the second time, except for Harry–until Fred and George Weasley give him a new toy: the Marauder’s Map, something rightfully his as the only heir of the map’s creators, though Fred, George and Harry don’t yet know the identities of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs. The map’s legend calls them “Purveyors of Aids to Magical Mischief-Makers”, which is a fair label for the twins and the Marauders.
Harry makes an unauthorized trip to Hogsmeade, cheating at a very dangerous game. This first takes him to Honeyduke’s (a sweetshop) and leads to his hearing that Sirius Black was his father’s best friend and betrayed him. Harry, Ron and Hermione overhear this because Hermione uses a Christmas tree (which is linked to toys) to hide while McGonagall, Flitwick and Hagrid discuss this with Madam Rosmerta in the Three Broomsticks, which is a reference to the weapons used for the game of Quidditch.
Sirius sends Harry a new broomstick for Christmas, the Firebolt that Harry admired in Diagon Alley, but it is immediately assumed by Hermione (and Professor McGonagall) to be a weapon against Harry, not for him, though Hermione is correct when she assumes that it’s from Sirius—she just doesn’t know yet that Sirius likes Harry and isn’t trying to kill him. When the broom is confiscated, Harry is weaponless again and unprepared for battle, plus figuratively emasculated and therefore incomplete.
While Harry, Ron and Hermione argue about the broom, the war/game of Crookshanks vs. Scabbers erupts again, causing Harry’s Sneakoscope to fall out of his trunk, “whirling and gleaming on the floor”, most likely because of its proximity to Scabbers, the rat-who-isn’t. It doesn’t occur to them to take this “toy” seriously, though there is a faint indication that Ron thinks Crookshanks has set it off. They’re clearly told of the presence of someone untrustworthy but the Sneakoscope is “just a toy”, so it’s repeatedly ignored and dismissed—even by kids, though by now, Harry, Ron and Hermione are maturing and thinking, at times, more like adults than kids. Or at least, like adults who aren’t like Dumbledore, a Wise Old Man who values toys, sweets and games as much as if he were still a child.
When Harry, Ron and Hermione discover the real reason that the Sneak-O-Scope has been going off, they couldn’t be more surprised that it is due to a man everyone—except for Sirius Black—has assumed to be dead for nearly thirteen years.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 15: Prisoner of Quidditch, Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.