Prisoner of Azkaban: Page 300
Harry not thinking straight, how to avoid detection in a big school, Snape's slimy things in jars, and the only way Harry can be punished.
Welcome back to a new issue! I apologize for the long wait between newsletters; let me say that “hectic” doesn’t even begin to describe my last few weeks. I always hope to have new issues out every Sunday or Monday; I’ll hope for that in the future as well, and I sincerely hope that my hope comes true. Today, we dive into page 300 of Prisoner of Azkaban, as Harry tries to avoid being punished for a crime he certainly did commit. Enjoy!
Page 300 of Prisoner of Azkaban starts with Harry in a pickle. His invisibility cloak has accidentally just slidden off in Hogsmeade, where he’s not allowed to be, and Malfoy has seen his face. Now he’s trying to get back to Hogwarts before anyone realizes he’s been gone. As the page picks up, he’s sprinting through the secret passage that comes out behind the one-eyed witch. But as he runs, he makes a few bad decisions.
Harry is sprinting back to Hogwarts. He wants to get back as fast as possible so that he can plausibly claim that he wasn’t in Hogsmeade, but he makes a few tactical errors that really don’t make sense.
First, he leaves the invisibility cloak in the secret passage, because “it was too much of a giveaway if Malfoy had tipped off a teacher.” But…even if Malfoy has tipped off a teacher, what can they do if Harry is wearing the cloak? The only time Harry is discovered under the cloak is when Moody sees him using his magical eye, and obviously, that doesn’t apply here. If Harry is wearing the cloak, he quite simply cannot be caught.
He's leaving the cloak behind on the theory that if a teacher finds it, they’ll know he’s been using it to hide — but as long as he’s wearing it, no teacher is going to find it. It’s invisible. It will be a dead giveaway that he’s been in Hogsmeade, but only if, for some reason, he’s walking around completely visible with his cloak in his pocket. If, on the other hand, he actually puts the cloak on, he’ll be invisible, and no one will be able to spot the dead giveaway. He’s got plenty of time to walk invisibly back to Gryffindor tower, set up alibis with friendly classmates, and stow the cloak back in the dorm.
That’s the first problem with Harry’s plan. The second is that while not using the cloak, he also doesn’t use the Marauder’s Map. He could use both — we see him looking at the map while under the cloak in other scenes — but in this case, even one would work. Harry could take a quick look at the map before leaving the secret passage, and rather than getting out right as Snape happens to be walking by, he could wait 30 seconds. Hell, he could wait 30 minutes. Even if Snape has a hunch that Harry is utilizing the one-eyed witch as the entrance to a secret passage, he can’t guard it forever; he has to leave eventually, if only to check other places, and at that point, Harry can watch him leave on the map, then (preferably wearing the cloak) leave the passageway himself and make his way back to the dormitory.
Harry’s rapid, unthinking haste to get back to the castle rests on the implausible assumption that the moment Malfoy tells Snape what has happened, Snape will launch a full-faculty school-wide search for Harry, and Harry has to be in the castle right at that moment. But that kind of thing never happens. What Harry should anticipate — and, in fact, what ends up happening — is that Malfoy will tell Snape what has happened, and Snape will go looking for him. But Snape can’t search the entire school at once; it’s not like he has some instant way to know that Harry is nowhere in the building. Harry doesn’t really have any reason to hurry back to the castle; in fact, the longer Snape needs to look for him, the easier it is for Harry to get in undetected, because Snape has so many different places to check. By abandoning the cloak and forgoing the map, Harry is completely eliminating the only advantages he has. If he’s just blundering back from Hogsmeade in plain sight, exactly where Snape caught him acting suspiciously a few hours before, of course he’s going to get caught again.
Harry’s hands are still muddy. His face is still sweaty. He’s done absolutely nothing which would allow him to plausibly claim that he’s been at Hogwarts the entire time. Here’s what he should have done: watched the Marauder’s Map, then climbed out of the secret passage in his invisibility cloak, either before Snape had gotten there or after he’d left. Then he should have walked to the library, still invisible, and explained his predicament to Neville, who was there working on his vampire essay, while still invisible. He should probably keep things general so that Neville doesn’t learn about all of Harry’s exploits, but that’s easily done. After he sets up his alibi with Neville, he walks back to the common room, still invisible, and drops off the cloak and the map, as well as everything he got from Hogsmeade, in the dorm. He grabs the supplies for his vampire essay, then walks back to the library.
Even if Snape catches him en route, what can he do? Neville already knows the alibi, so he can confirm that Harry has been there the entire time helping him, and had to go back to the dormitory to get a new quill, or something like that. Neville is always terrified of Snape even when he’s telling the truth, so Snape won’t see anything out of the ordinary in the fact that Neville is terrified this time too. Snape no longer has any evidence that Harry has been anywhere but the library besides Malfoy’s say-so; no Marauder’s Map, no cloak, no bag of Zonko’s tricks, no sweat. He can still cause some trouble for Harry, but he’ll have a lot less to go on. In the actual book, though, Harry completely panics and does the opposite of the sensible thing. Which actually sounds pretty familiar.
Snape escorts Harry to his office in the dungeons, which Harry has only visited once before. At the end of the series, we know all about the slimy things in jars on the walls, but at this point, it’s a pretty new environment.
I wonder — what are the horrible slimy things? What exactly is Snape doing? From the descriptions we get throughout the books, it sounds like some sort of perverse pickling, submerging objects in magical liquid in order to preserve them. “Slimy” presumably refers to the consistency of the liquids the objects are floating in, rather than the objects themselves, because seeing them through liquid and a jar, Harry really has no way of knowing the objects’ texture.
The objects’ descriptions are sort of reminiscent of the brains in the Department of Mysteries, but there’s no indication that any of the jarred objects in Snape’s office are alive or moving in any way. Rather, they seem like…what? Rare potion ingredients? Animal body parts? Decorations?
The strangest part is that Harry says Snape had acquired more things floating in jars. The number is higher than it was before, which means that either Snape hasn’t used any of them since the last time Harry was there, or he’s used some, but added even more. If they’re ingredients, he’s not using them very much. There’s one out-of-the-box explanation: maybe Snape has had to augment his stores with a year’s worth of Wolfsbane Potion ingredients. The potion is almost never needed — there aren’t that many werewolves — so maybe Snape previously had no need for the ingredients, but when Lupin showed up, he immediately had to collect twelve wolf livers and pickle them for use across a year. Or something like that.
But honestly, I’m not sure I believe that, for the simple reason that we’ve never seen anything like this in Potions before, even at NEWT level. All the Potions ingredients that we see the students use are either dry — beetle eyes, lacewing flies, boomslang skin, the like — or liquid — salamander blood, pomegranate juice, juice of the sopophorous bean, etc. They’re all the kind of thing that students can get out of an ingredient cupboard. Of course, it’s possible that Snape is brewing up potions that are way more advanced, which require preserved ingredients of this type, but based on all the other potion-making we see throughout the series, it doesn’t seem very likely.
Which leaves decoration. I wouldn’t consider this a realistic possibility, except for two things. First, it’s Snape, and these do sort of fit with his aesthetic to the best of our understanding of it. Second, I just came back from Washington D.C., and at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, I bought a teardrop-shaped piece of glass with a jellyfish (real or artificial, I’m honestly not sure) inside it. It’s not quite a slimy thing floating in a glass jar, but it’s pretty close, and it looks pretty cool. Maybe decoration makes more sense than it seems.
The thing is, the negativity that Harry associates with these objects — horrible, slimy, etc. — could come, partly or entirely, from the negativity he associates with their location. If these were in Hagrid’s hut, for instance, maybe Harry would be intrigued by them, or even impressed. Devoid of context, maybe they’re pretty cool. In fact, this actually seems pretty likely. Harry has seen a lot, and he’s a pretty tough kid; he doesn’t seem like he’d be overly repulsed by a thing floating in a jar. But because the jars are in Snape’s office, and every time Harry is in Snape’s office he’s terrified that he’s about to be expelled, Harry subconsciously decides that the jars are disgusting. That still leaves the question of what’s actually in them and what they’re there for, but at the very least, maybe they’re not the vaguely evil things that Harry sees.
Crime and Punishment
In Snape’s office, there’s a weird dynamic at work.
When Snape sits Harry down, he knows that he himself can’t be the one to deliver punishment. After all, we’ve seen Snape himself say before how much he wishes that he could punish Harry (and Ron), but that he’s not the one who can do that. Snape can give Harry detention and take points from Gryffindor, but beyond that, the power of punishment is reserved for Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall.
If Snape is certain that Harry actually was in Hogsmeade, he probably wants Harry expelled. But Snape also knows that Dumbledore will never expel Harry. It will be only too easy for Dumbledore to dismiss what Snape is saying. For one, there’s no actual evidence that Harry was there, so Dumbledore can just say “Malfoy already hates Harry, we’re not going to expel Harry on Malfoy’s word alone.” For another, even if Snape can somehow prove beyond any doubt that Harry really was there, Dumbledore can just say “I don’t care, we’re not expelling him.” Dumbledore can do whatever he wants without justifying himself to anyone. Snape knows that.
So now we have a situation in which Snape knows full well that Harry is not going to be fully punished for what he’s done. Harry probably knows it too, although he’s too scared to think about it rationally. So Snape does all he can do: he delivers punishment in his own way. He psychologically torments Harry. Snape knows that he only has a few minutes, and then things will change somehow, and he’ll lose his chance. So he decides he’s going to give Harry the worst few minutes of his life.
The full scene plays out over the next few pages, so it’s far beyond the scope of this particular issue, but still, it’s worth examining what’s going on here. Harry and Snape are in a very gray area for a lot of reasons. Harry isn’t allowed to go to Hogsmeade, and Snape knows that he did…but he can’t quite prove it to Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall. Professor McGonagall has told Harry in no uncertain terms that he’s not allowed in Hogsmeade…but she’s also sympathetic to Harry, because she thinks there’s a murderer chasing him and she knows he has a terrible home life and his parents were both killed. And of course, Snape knows that Harry is a worldwide hero who brought down Voldemort, and he knows that Dumbledore is keenly interested in keeping Harry safe and figuring out exactly what happened to him and why, so there’s absolutely no chance that Harry gets expelled.
When you think about it, this is the basis for a lot of Harry and Snape’s interactions throughout most of the series. Beyond taking house points, and maybe giving detentions for more serious issues, the only way Snape can punish Harry is by making him enjoy life less. Harry is pretty much untouchable as far as official punishments go; Snape gives him detention every once in a while, but never really out of proportion with what he’s done. What Snape can do, though, is A) take house points from Harry whenever he wants to, because they don’t seem to be closely monitored at all, and B) make mean remarks to Harry in class and throughout the school, because Harry’s not the kind of person to go to Professor McGonagall and say “Professor Snape is disrupting my learning experience with his impoliteness.”
It’s an unfortunate dynamic. You don’t want a teacher to have to be mean to a student, but you also don’t really want a student to be so punishment-proof that the only way to proportionately punish them is through rudeness. Maybe if Snape could suspend Harry for a week for showing up in Hogsmeade, he wouldn’t have to be mean to Harry for six years. Then again, though, if Snape could act rationally like that, what would be the point of all the horrible slimy things in jars?