Human-Animal Relationships in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Although animals only occupy marginal positions in most adult literature, they are frequently central figures in children’s books. This makes children's literature an interesting playground for exploring human-animal relationships. How are different animals imagined and constructed in these narratives and what does this tell us about our cultural understanding of animal-ness and human-ness as separate categories? This paper uses the third entry of the Harry Potter book and film series to explore speciesist boundary crossing in one of the most popular children narratives in recent history.
Animals in children’s literature
Animals have played a central role in children’s literature for many years. This has been most evident in stories with anthropomorphized animals as protagonists. Vanessa Joosen en Katrien Vloeberghs (2008) argue that these stories should be understood as ‘encounters between the human and the animal’. Through animal characters in children’s books, we are encouraged to first consider what is ‘human’ about the animal (e.g. clothing, speaking, and practices such as cooking or going to school). Second, we consider what is ‘animal’ about this animal, apart from their physical appearance (e.g. diet, instinctive reactions to basic emotions such as hunger or fear). As such, animal characters offer both recognition and estrangement, possibilities for both identification with and differentiation from the animal.
For the most part, encounters between animals and humans in children’s literature serve to re-iterate the distinction between speciesist categories. Joosen and Vloebergh argue that by placing a narrative in the context of the animal world, we frame certain habits and conventions as ‘natural phenomena.’ We understand the animal world to be regulated by ‘nature’, while the human world is regulated by ‘culture.’ For example, we accept that Peter Rabbit eats carrots and lettuce because he is a rabbit. By extension, we also accept that Mother Rabbit stays at home and takes care of her four children, because we understand it as ‘natural.’ As such, animal stories often naturalize existing structures. However, despite the conservative inclinations of the genre, animal stories also carry the potential to subvert human-animal categories and hierarchies. Famous examples of this more subversive tradition in children’s literature are Charlotte the spider in Charlotte’s Web (cf. Overholt Wake, 2004), Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and his friends (cf. Copeland, 2004), and the chickens in the animated movie Chicken Run (cf. Cole & Steward, 2014). In this paper, I will argue that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series should be understood in this tradition.
The world of Harry Potter
Between 1997 and 2007, British author J.K. Rowling published a series of books about a young wizard named Harry Potter. The impact of this series on the larger field of children’s literature can hardly be overestimated; it established an academic tradition that still produces a body of work referred to as ‘Harry Potter Studies’ (see, for example, the 2013 volume on ‘perspectives on Harry Potter Studies’ by Bell). The story of the neglected boy who is whisked away to a magical school and grows up to fight the most powerful evil wizard of all times still functions as a cultural landmark that inspires and informs books published today. The popular movie adaptations of these books, released between 2001 and 2011, have contributed greatly to our understanding of the magical world of Harry Potter. These adaptations allow for an additional layer in the representation of human-animal relations because they offer us a new interpretation of the original material while staying within the same narrative universe.
In her book A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon explains that adaptations allow us to understand them not as autonomous “works”, but rather as “texts” that are in an explicit dialogue with earlier narratives, characters, and themes. She writes: “Although adaptations are also aesthetic objects in their own right, it is only as inherently double or multilaminated works that they can be theorized as adaptations.” (2006, p.6) As such, each Harry Potter narrative gives us at least two opportunities to investigate human-animal relationships: first in the book written by J.K. Rowling and second in the movie adaptation of that book, which presents a creative interpretation of that book through the lens of that movie's director. The movie adaptation of the third Harry Potter narrative is particularly interesting because it marked a departure from the first two ‘transpositional’ adaptations (i.e. adaptations that stick as close to the source material as possible) by Christopher Columbus. By contrast, Alfonso Cuarón’s film has been called ‘bold’ and ‘a creative triumph’. (Smith, 2004 and Roeper, 2004, respectively) As such, it provides us with an extra layer of meaning to interpret in this exploration of human-animal relationships.
When is an animal an animal?
In their excellent podcast called Witch Please, Hannah McGregor and Marcelle Kosman provide humorous but critical and well-informed discussions on the Harry Potter world. In their episode on ‘Animals’ (29.09.2020), McGregor and Kosman explore the different kinds of animal figures in this magical world. After creating a list of all the animal-like representations in the second book, Kosman attempts to construct a classification system that will explain how these different creatures relate to each other. This proves difficult, as Kosman explains: “The possibility of a spectrum becomes totally complicated when we see the overlap between the different species and the complicated relationship that the different species have.” How, for example, can you judge in what ways a ‘centaur’ is more or less human than a ‘goblin’? And how do you understand the ontological relation between ‘ghost horses’ and ‘animagi’ (i.e. wizards who can transform into animals at will)?
Inspired by their podcast, my students and I performed a similar exercise in our class on boundary crossing in children’s literature. We, too, struggled to find a solid basis for distinguishing between these categories. What is more, my students pointed out that the book complicates human-animal categories by animalizing or even humanizing certain objects (such as the Monstrous Book of Monsters and the Marauders Map) and by suggesting that access to magical abilities places wizards and witches over non-magical people (called Muggles). As such, the book not only destabilizes human and animal categories, but also brings categories of the object and the magical/supernatural into play.
Interestingly, J.K. Rowling has provided us with textual confirmation of this complex set of relationships in the world of Harry Potter. In 2001, Bloomsbury published a booklet called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for the nation-wide charity event ‘Comic Relief’. This small volume is a real-world version of the school book with the same title that Harry uses to study Magizoology (i.e. the study of magical creatures). The booklet, supposedly written by Newt Scamander (with some help from J.K. Rowling), opens with an introduction that poses the question “What Is A Beast?” The answer given by Scamander gives us insight into the complex negotiation of human-animal relationships in this magical world:
“The definition of ‘beast’ has caused controversy for centuries. Though this might surprise some first-time students of Magizoology, the problem might come into clearer focus if we take a moment to consider three types of magical creature.
Werewolves spend most of their time as humans (whether wizard or Muggle). Once a month, however, they transform into savage, four-legged beasts of murderous intent and no human conscience.
The centaurs’ habits are not human-like; they live in the wild, refuse clothing, prefer to live apart from wizards and Muggles alike and yet have intelligence equal to theirs.
Trolls bear a humanoid appearance, walk upright, may be taught a few simple words and yet are less intelligent than the dullest unicorn and possess no magical powers in their own prodigious and unnatural strength.
We now ask ourselves: which of these creatures is a ‘being’ – that is to say, a creature worthy of legal rights and voice in the governance of the magical world – and which is a ‘beast’?” (Rowling & Scamander, 2001, p.x)
Although the uptake from here onwards is mostly humorous (providing amusing anecdotes such as the time ghosts refused to be labeled ‘beings’ because they claimed to be ‘has-beens’), the short fragment above demonstrates the complex way in which the world of Harry Potter reflects on what distinguishes humans from different kinds of animals. It also points towards a central concern in the study of human-animal relationships, that is: being granted the status of ‘being’ makes you “worthy of legal rights and voice in the governance”. The definition of those categories thus plays an important role in the inclusion and exclusion of certain groups from certain rights and privileges. In the podcast episode discussed above, McGregor explains that this discussion provides an important function in the field of animal studies:
“What animal studies is interested in is the cultural representation of animals. (...) How are we imagining them, how are we constructing them, how are we representing them, and what does the way we represent animals tell us about how we are also understanding and constructing the category of the human. (…) Where this becomes very interesting, is where we see animalistic tropes being used to de-humanize certain people.”
McGregor argues that notions of ‘the animal’ and ‘the human’ can be used to include some creatures and exclude other creatures from certain regions, discussions, and privileges. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third entry in the series, this exploration is evident in the core storyline. The remainder of this paper will explore two main characters in that narrative that challenge the distinction between the human and the animal: Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. I will focus my analysis on the effects this challenge has on their status in the wizarding world.
Sirius Black: Animagus (and Grim?)
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we find out that Sirius Black – the titular prisoner, or rather: ex-prisoner – has escaped from Azkaban, the wizard prison, to track down and murder our protagonist. As a result, the book’s atmosphere is dark and the characters live in fearful anticipation Sirius Black's appearance. This dread takes an explicit form in the shape of the Grim, a threatening, ghostly dog that only Harry keeps seeing throughout the novel. As explained by Professor Trelawny, Hogwarts' eccentric Divination teacher, this is not good news: "The giant, spectral dog that haunts churchyards! My dear boy, it is an omen—the worst omen—of death!” (Rowling, 1999, p.118) It takes until the end of the book for us to discover that the dog is in fact not a spectral omen, but rather Sirius Black in the shape of a giant dog. Black is an Animagus: a wizard who can transform into an animal at will. Black, who turns out to be innocent of the crimes that put him in prison, is in fact a benevolent character who wants to take care of Harry. He takes on a father-like role for Harry throughout subsequent books.
In the 1999 book version of this narrative, Rowling takes care to mystify the ontological status of the dog. Harry, and the reader with him, are never sure whether or not he is dealing with a supernatural being, a hallucination, or an actual dog-like animal. When we first encounter the creature, the book tells us that Harry had “sensed rather than heard” its presence before he finally sees it: “Harry saw, quite distinctly, the hulking outline of something very big, with wide, gleaming eyes.” (Rowling, 1999, p.41) He later describes the creature as “a big black thing”, “like a dog … but massive”. (Rowling, 1999, p.42) In this instance, the dog is described as a something between an animal and an object. Harry is not so much scared of the creature as he is intrigued by it. It is only upon later learning that the Grim takes the form of a big black dog that he begins to fear it. The creature then derives most of its fearfulness from its uncertain status rather than its appearance. Harry comes to fear the dog because of the cultural meaning the wizarding world attributes to it, i.e., an omen of death.
The ultimate disarming of the dog happens simultaneously with the disarming of Sirius Black. After a final confrontation, Black explains to Harry and his friends that he has been following them as a dog. In one stroke, we find out that both Black and the dog have been benevolent characters all along. Although the moral character of the dog is now clear, its ontological status has only taken up a different kind of challenge. In terms of human-animal relations, where do we place a man in a dog’s body? Throughout the book there are several mentions of Animagi. Professor McGonagall, one of Hogwarts' most respected teachers, is also an Animagus. We eventually learn that it took Sirius “the best part of three years to work out how to do it”, even though he and his friends were “the cleverest students in the school.” (Rowling, 1999, p.381) As such, Animagi are not considered threathening or marginal figures, but rather the opposite: they are respected members of the wizarding community.
In Alfonso Cuarón’s 2004 movie adaptation of this book, we see a very different interpretation of the Grim's ontological status. Cuarón recreates the scene discussed above, where Harry first meets the dog and describes it as “a big black thing”. However, in Cuarón’s cinematic interpretation, the scene becomes significantly more fearful (see clip below).
Clip 1: the first appearance of the Grim
The dog is not only distinctly recognizable as a dog, but he is explicitly aggressive towards Harry – growling and making as if to attack our hero. If we take seriously the project to understand this movie as an adaptation, and analyze this scene as an interpretation of Rowling’s text, we see a significant departure in the status of the dog. First, the dog seems to possess the supernatural power to spookily move around a playground and tamper with street lights. The scene plays on cinematic horror tropes to underline the supernatural creepiness of the encounter. Second, it becomes very unlikely that the dog is in fact a benevolent Sirius Black – why would Black snarl at Harry? Viewers who have read the book and understand the movie in relation to it are thrown for a loop: is the dog not in fact Sirius Black?
Throughout the rest of the movie, the audience is encouraged to understand the Grim as specter. For example, he shows up in the shape of a cloud formation to scare Harry off his broomstick during a game of Quidditch. [see figure below] Even when we eventually find out that Sirius Black is a benevolent character who can turn into a dog, the movie never refers back to these earlier instances or tries to explain the incongruencies of those moments. In this movie adaptation, then, we are left with an uncertain status for the creature: he seems to be both Animagus, that in-between form of human/animal, and Grim, the spectral dog that announces death to human characters. In an older episode of the Witch Please podcast, Kosman sums up her frustration with this re-positioning of the Grim:
“The internal logic of this film fails to comprehend the fact that Sirius Black as the dog is not the Grim. It does not seem to understand that the big reveal is that it was never the Grim, it was always this dog who is actually quite benevolent.”
Although there is a significant difference in how the book and movie adaption present Sirius Black, both versions of this narrative shape Black's storyline around his unstable ontological status, challenging the strict boundaries between the human, animal, object, and supernatural.
Remus Lupin: werewolf
In addition to Sirius Black and the dog-like creature, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban features another inter-species figure: the charming new professor Remus Lupin, who turns out to be a werewolf. We first come across the existence of werewolves in the context of Defense Against the Dark Arts, one of the classes taught at Hogwarts. In this class, students have been learning how to defend themselves from different kinds of magical creatures that pose a potential threat to wizards. After one class, the students are assigned an essay on how to “recognize and kill werewolves.” (Rowling, 1999, p.187) This context not only positions our understanding of werewolves as animal-like rather than human-like, but also as dangerous and part of the ‘dark arts’ (i.e. ‘evil’). When we eventually see Lupin transform into a werewolf, he also loses all human-like attributes along with his physical transition:
“Lupin’s head was lengthening. So was his body. His shoulders were hunching. Hair was sprouting visibly on his face and hands, which were curling into clawed paws. (...) There was a howl and a rumbling growl; Harry turned to see the werewolf taking flight; it was galloping into the Forest –” (Rowling, 1999, p.410-411)
In these couple of sentences, we see the narrative shift from the human-like phrases of “Lupin” and “his body”, to the animalistic “the werewolf” and “it”. Lupin-as-wolf also “gallops” rather than “runs” away. Via these linguistic cues, we are to understand that Lupin has lost his human qualities and status post- transformation.
When we first find out that Lupin is a werewolf, we are struck by the contrast between werewolves as viciously evil figures and Lupin as kind-hearted figure. Interestingly, the book encourages readers to sympathize with Lupin rather than discard him for his animalistic counterpart. This happens most movingly in a monologue in which he explains how his ‘condition’ – as he calls it – has shaped his life:
"I was a very small boy when I received the bite. My parents tried everything, but in those days there was no cure. The potion that Professor Snape has been making for me is a very recent discovery. It makes me safe, you see. As long as I take it in the week preceding the full moon, I keep my mind when I transform... I’m able to curl up in my office, a harmless wolf, and wait for the moon to wane again. Before the Wolfsbane Potion was discovered, however, I became a fully fledged monster once a month." (Rowling, 1999, pp.379-380)
Apart from creating sympathy for Lupin the werewolf, this passage also explains what elements of his transformation constitute the actual problem. Through innovations in magical potion-making, Lupin is able to hold on to his consciousness when his body transforms. With this magical medicine, he becomes ‘a harmless wolf’, rather than ‘a fully fledged monster’. This indicates that it is not his animal form that is the problem per se, but rather the surrender of his conscious mind to an animal-like creature. This is why, in the transformation scene quoted above, we need Hermione to point out the peril of the situation: “He didn’t take his Potion tonight! He is not safe!” (Rowling, 1999, p.410) With the appropriate potion, Lupin’s ambiguous status as part-human, part-wolf should not be a problem.
In Cuarón’s cinematic interpretation of the scene, we also focus on Lupin’s de-humanization. (see clip below) In this version of the scene, Lupin's liminal transitional state is extended versus that in the book. When the characters see the full moon rising and realize what is about to happen, Sirius Black, Lupin's oldest friend, attempts to reason with the wolf taking over his friend's body. He calls him “Remus, my old friend” and tries to argue that “You know the man you truly are, Remus. This heart is where you truly live, this heart here! This flesh is only flesh! Remus! Remus!” - again focussing on the importance of the conscious mind ruling over the animal body. Hermione Granger, one of Lupin’s students, tries to reach out to her teacher after he his transformation, addressing him and thus appealing to his human identity. It is only after this moment that the wolf howls at the moon and fully becomes an aggressive beast. After the transformation is complete, the movie depicts Lupin-as-wolf in a purely animalistic and monstruous way, much like the book.
Clip 2: Lupin transforms into a werewolf
The societal status of the werewolf is quite different from that of the animagus. Despite the confirmation that werewolves do not necessarily constitute a danger to humans when controlled by certain potions, they are nonetheless marginalized by the wizarding community. Lupin has lived on the margins of society ever since he left school, because no one is willing to hire him. After Lupin is outed as a werewolf at the end of the book, he is forced to resign as a teacher and return to that relegated position.
The perils of interspecies boundary crossing
In this exploration, we have seen that in both the book and the movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black and Remus Lupin both challenge human-animal relations. These two forms of interspecies boundary crossing, however, come with very different socio-political consequences. Whereas animagi are considered respected members of the wizarding community, werewolves are deemed a threat to children and society at large. So what is the deciding difference between animagi and werewolves? Both transform from human form to animal form, but animagi do so at will while werewolves are forced to. Animagi transform into animals after a period of prolonged study and practice, demonstrating the control and intellectual abilities we attribute to humans, while werewolves transform into animals after being bitten – a practice that is distinctly animalistic. As such, it seems that when it comes to interspecies boundary crossing, it matters who is in control. In the case of the animagus, it is the human who controls their animal shape, whereas in the case of the werewolf, it is the animal that forces the human to give up control of their body.
As such, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban thematizes the socio-cultural practice of categorizing humans as separate from animals. It shows that these categories are not only unstable but also that upholding these arbitrary categories has severe consequence for those that do not fit neatly into them. Thereby, the narrative stands in a long tradition of children’s books that promote the discussion of human-animal relations.
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