Harry has spent yet another miserable summer at home with the Dursleys. He can't wait to get back to school at Hogwarts, and he's especially anticipating the third-year privilege of visiting the all-magical village of Hogsmeade near the school. The only problem is that he has to get Uncle Vernon to sign his permission slip to do so. Harry's bargain with his uncle over the form backfires when Harry gets angry and accidentally "inflates" Aunt Marge.
Frightened that he will be under arrest by the Ministry of Magic for the improper use of magic by an underage wizard, Harry tries to run away but is picked up by a magical bus and delivered to Diagon Alley, where he is able to meet his Hogwarts friends and purchase his supplies for the new school year.
Rather than being punished by the Ministry of Magic, Harry soon finds that he is being protected. A much-feared prisoner named Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, the wizard prison, and Harry is believed to be the target of his next kill. Soon, Black has found his way into Hogwarts, so Harry isn't even safe in his own dormitory.
Once again, Harry, Ron and Hermione must solve the mystery—what were the circumstances of Black's original crime, and how is he related to Harry's parents and their death? Who is the traitor who informed on Harry's parents to Voldemort? In working out this puzzle, Harry finds both his father's best friends and his own godfather. Even though Harry and friends do find the traitor, he escapes in the end, leaving both Voldemort andone of his loyal supporters to haunt Harry in the next volume.
Harry practices self-control in not spending extravagantly, even though he desperately wants a new flying broom, he is on his own and he has plenty of money. New Professor Lupin teaches the students that laughter fights what one fears the most. Selfless loyalty to one's friends is upheld as a high virtue: " 'If you want to kill Harry, you'll have to kill us too!' [Ron] said fiercely."
Harry's Family: Harry's adoptive family is still abusive. Aunt Marge says, "I won't have any of this namby-pamby, wishy-washy nonsense about not hitting people who deserve it. A good thrashing is what's needed in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. Have you been beaten often?" Harry replies, "Oh, yeah … loads of times." And Aunt Marge continues, "I still don't like your tone, boy. If you can speak of your beatings in that casual way, they clearly aren't hitting you hard enough. Petunia, I'd write if I were you. Make it clear that you approve the use of extreme force in this boy's case."
Harry's loyalty is clearly to his birth family, and he responds angrily in their defense when Uncle Vernon lies to make Harry's father look bad. Again, Harry finds a family at Hogwarts, where the dormitories take on a family feeling and the students look out for others in their Houses.
When Harry finds his father's friends, he also finds hope, because his father has left a caring and wise man entrusted with guardianship of Harry. This man gives Harry gifts and offers to care for Harry as his own son.
Hatred and Anger
As Harry and his friends grow into their teenage years, hatred and anger become more prominent themes:
"A reckless rage had come over Harry. He kicked his trunk open, pulled out his wand, and pointed it at Uncle Vernon."
"Even Harry, who hated Snape, was startled at the expression twisting his thin, sallow face. It was beyond anger: it was loathing. Harry knew that expression only too well; it was the look Snape wore every time he set eyes on Harry."
"A hatred such as he had never known before [for the person who betrayed his parents] was coursing through Harry like poison."
Since the final confrontation of Book III is more psychological than physical, there is less violence found here than in the first two volumes. Still, there are a few bloody scenes:
"It happened in a flash of steely talons; Malfoy let out a high pitched scream and next moment, Hagrid was wrestling Buckbeak [a magical animal that Malfoy has provoked] back into his collar as he strained to get to Malfoy, who lay curled in the grass, blood blossoming over his robes.… Harry saw that there was a long, deep gash on Malfoy's arm."
"The Fat Lady had vanished from her portrait, which had been slashed so viciously that strips of canvas littered the floor; great chunks of it had been torn away completely." [Subjects in paintings at Hogwarts are alive—they speak, move from one frame to another and have jobs.]
"I was one of the first on the scene after Black murdered all those people. I—I will never forget it. I still dream about it sometimes. A crater in the middle of the street, so deep it had cracked the sewer below. Bodies everywhere. Muggles screaming. And Black standing there laughing, with what was left of Pettigrew in front of him … a heap of bloodstained robes and a few—a few fragments."
"Snape was lifted off his feet and slammed into the wall, then slid down it to the floor, a trickle of blood oozing from under his hair. He had been knocked out."
Crude or Profane Language
Another habit that Harry's friends (though not Harry himself) are picking up as they age is the use of rougher language. "D n," "crap" and "Gawd" are all used at least once.
Situation Ethics: Professor McGonangall, still respected, stands firm with the rules: "The form clearly states that the parent or guardian must give permission. … I'm sorry Potter, but that's my final word."
Harry is afraid of being punished for breaking the "misuse of magic" rules, but the Ministry of Magic overlooks his wrongdoing in light of the threat to his life that has come up quite separately from Harry's misbehavior: "Circumstances change, Harry. … We have to take into account … in the present climate. … Surely you don't want to be expelled?"
Once again, Hermione, who usually disdains rule-breaking, saves the day when she concedes to one wrongdoing for a good cause.
The maturation process that J.K. Rowling has promised as the series continues is just barely evident in Book III: "Wood looked as though he could have kissed her."
In a restaurant in Hogsmeade, Ron is clearly attracted to the beautiful waitress: "A curvy sort of woman with a pretty face was serving a bunch of rowdy warlocks up at the bar. 'That's Madam Rosmerta,' said Ron. 'I'll get the drinks, shall I?' he added, going slightly red."
"Cho Chang [an opposing player in a Quidditch match] was the only girl on [the other team]. She was shorter than Harry by about a head, and Harry couldn't help noticing, nervous as he was, that she was extremely pretty."
New magical creatures are introduced in Book III: Dementors. "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk the earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can't see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself … soulless and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."
Dementors are presented as an enemy that Harry must learn to defeat. "The Dementor's Kiss … [is] what dementors do when they wish to destroy utterly. … They clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim—and suck out his soul. … You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you'll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no … anything. There's no chance at all of recovery. You'll just—exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever … lost."
As third-year students, Harry and his friends begin a new subject in school: Divination. This is the closest that the books come to an appeal to an outside, or occult, source ("The Sight"). Their instructor says to them, "We shall start by practicing relaxing the conscious mind and external eyes … so as to clear the Inner Eye and the superconscious. Perhaps, if we are lucky, some of you will See before the end of class." This Sight is referenced as a gift with a vague origin.
Dark Magic is still seen here as a great evil to be combated by good witches and wizards. And Dark-Side wizards are often portrayed as selfish and of bad character: "When a wizard goes over to the Dark Side, there's nothing and no one that matters to him any more." But that merely underscores Rowling's intimations that there can be good and bad witches. Such is not the case. The underlying danger of Rowling's books is the fact that, though witches and wizards aren't portrayed realistically, they (at least the "good" ones) are portrayed positively.