Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Owl Post
It is nearly midnight at the Dursley home, and Harry, crouched under his bed covers, is reading A History of Magic and writing a summer homework essay on witch burning. Uncle Vernon locked Harry's school trunk in the cupboard, and Harry had to pick the cupboard lock and steal his books, quill, parchment, and ink, in order to do his homework.
As usual, Harry celebrates his birthday alone. Other than Ron's botched phone call, which ended with Uncle Vernon hanging up on him, Harry has heard nothing from his Hogwarts friends all summer. As Harry prepares to go to sleep, Hedwig and Errol (the Weasley’s owl) arrive with presents. Ron sends Harry a Pocket Sneakoscope and a Daily Prophet article about Ron’s father winning a contest. The Weasleys used the prize money for a trip to Egypt; the article's photo shows the entire Weasley family, including Ron's pet rat, and Percy wearing his new Head Boy badge. Hermione, vacationing in France with her parents, sends Harry a Broomstick Servicing Kit. Hagrid's gift is a strange book titled The Monster Book of Monsters. It almost seems alive, nipping at Harry and nearly waking the Dursleys as it scrambles around the room before Harry subdues it.
Another owl delivers the usual Hogwarts' letter with instructions about classes, textbooks, and supplies. Professor McGonagall has included a permission form that a parent or guardian needs to sign, allowing students to visit Hogsmeade, the Wizarding village in which Hogwarts is located. Harry doubts he can persuade the Dursleys to sign it, but for now, he is happy that his birthday has been remembered by his friends.
Harry must endure yet another unhappy summer at the Dursleys. His confinement there only reinforces what little connection Harry retains to the Muggle world and how he longs to return to Hogwarts, the only place he feels he truly belongs. Although Harry's first eleven years at the abusive Dursleys were unhappy, he survived relatively well, unaware then that he actually belonged somewhere else. Now, knowing that another world exists where he is happy, has friends, and is accepted for who and what he is, his confinement to Privet Drive is intolerable. He was prematurely liberated the previous year by Ron and the Twins, who rescued him in the flying car and took him to their home, but it seems unlikely Harry will be as fortunate this summer. He has not been totally shut off from the Wizarding realm, however. Reading A History of Magic is one means by which he remains connected. Also, Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid have remembered him, sending gifts and letters. Ron's present, an inexpensive Sneakoscope, likely will play a significant role in the plot, as may the photograph of the Weasleys in Egypt. Hagrid's gift is also notable, though it seems more aligned to his own interests than Harry's. And while Harry is left confused as to why Hagrid sent such a "ferocious" gift, the "Monster" book, as well as Hermione's present, may also foreshadow upcoming plot elements.
Readers might notice a minor mistake in early editions of this book. The textbook that Harry is reading, A History of Magic, is said to be by Adalbert Waffling. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we are told that A History of Magic is by Bathilda Bagshot. Adalbert Waffling is the author of Magical Theory, according to Book 1. This mistake is pointed up by Bathilda's becoming a more important character in book 7. While it is possible, as in the Muggle world, that these are two separate books by different authors that just happen to have identical titles, and that Magical Theory is another book by Waffling, it seems in fact to be only a minor mistake, corrected in later editions.
- What is unusual about the book Hagrid sends to Harry?
- What is the permission slip for? Why is Harry concerned?
- What does Ron send Harry for his birthday? What is it for?
- Why does Percy wear his Head Boy badge while on a trip to Egypt?
- How might Harry convince Uncle Vernon to sign the permission slip? How likely is Vernon to sign it?
- Why would Hagrid send Harry such an unusual book for his birthday?
The Weasley family photograph, though seemingly mundane and insignificant, is actually what spurs the majority of the book's action. When Harry's convicted godfather, Sirius Black sees the picture in the Daily Prophet, he recognizes Ron’s rat as being something other than a pet; this compels him to escape Azkaban prison, apparently intent on murdering Harry, but actually for another purpose.
Ron mentions that the Sneakoscope is cheap and probably faulty, it having gone off two times when he believes it should not have. Harry's thought that it had reacted to the Twins, and later Ron, behaving in an untrustworthy manner, leaves us wondering whether Ron's assessment is correct. It will go off twice more, and though the warnings are again disregarded, the Sneakoscope is, in every case, correctly signaling an untrustworthy person's nearby presence.
Hermione's gift, a broomstick servicing kit, while unimportant to the plot, may represent just how significant Harry's brooms are to him, as well as foreshadowing a major subplot involving Harry's treasured Nimbus 2000 broom. When it is accidentally destroyed, he will receive an expensive replacement from an anonymous benefactor, only to have it confiscated by concerned Hogwarts staff, though it is eventually returned when it is declared to be safe. This cycle's effect of loss and recovery will be felt by Harry, Ron, and Hermione, as well as the Gryffindor Quidditch team, and it could also be seen as a metaphor for Harry's own life.
Unknown to Harry just yet, Hagrid is the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher. The Monster Book of Monsters is his chosen "set book" (textbook), and he has partly selected it because he finds it humorous. The book can only be opened by stroking it, whereupon it purrs and relaxes. No one will be able to figure this out, and the entire class will have bound their textbooks with belts and ropes to prevent attacks. This is hardly surprising; the Flourish & Blotts staff, who as booksellers should know such details about the books they sell, are equally unable to tame the vicious tomes and keep them securely caged.
- The Sneakoscope will appear twice more in this book, once on the Hogwarts Express, and again near Christmas. A different Sneakoscope will appear on Professor Moody's desk in the fourth book, and another, possibly Moody's, will appear in the Room of Requirement in the fifth book. The specific Sneakoscope that we see in this chapter will not be seen after this book until, old and broken, it is cleaned out of Harry's school trunk in the final book. Hermione will give Harry a new Sneakoscope for his birthday that year, and it will be used multiple times during the Trio's travels through England in that book.