November 09, 2017
(++++) DARKNESS AND DETAIL
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The Illustrated Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $39.99.
Starting as a fairly light series, albeit with dark overtones, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books became progressively darker and darker until, by the end of the sequence, they were genuinely chilling, very intense and filled with death. But a re-reading of the series shows, retrospectively, that much of the darkness was there from the start, skillfully downplayed by Rowling or partly concealed beneath scenes of wonder and amusement. This realization comes to the fore in looking at Jim Kay’s marvelous illustrated editions of the Rowling books. The newly released third of these, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is very intense indeed. Rowling was blessed with fine illustrators throughout the original publication of her series in Great Britain and the United States: Jonny Duddle did the British children’s editions, Andrew Davidson the British adult paperback versions, and Mary GrandPré the U.S. editions published by Scholastic. But as fine as these illustrators’ works were, they were incidental to the stories that Rowling told, not integral to them. Kay’s are something different: they enter the story, help propel it, and give readers a focus on aspects that the prose alone does not.
Thus, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban includes a two-page spread showing the Hippogriffs that Hagrid, teaching a class on magical beasts, introduces to the students in what will become one of the key elements of the book’s plot. The creatures are bizarre and magnificent, their eagles’ heads, wings and front legs blending so seamlessly into their horses’ bodies, hind legs and tails that it almost seems that these animals really could exist. Another two-page spread of a minor creature, the Grindylow, makes this vaguely froglike water demon seem both realistic and very frightening indeed – and still another two-page illustration, of a werewolf, is genuinely terrifying. But in terms of integration into the text and story, all these excellent illustrations pale beside the one of a horrible, brilliantly imagined doglike Grim that stretches through parts of six pages, the text of the story running around and beside its body as if quailing at its proximity to this monstrous and portentous beast. This is illustrative brilliance.
Yet there are even more small pleasures than large ones in what Kay has done. The wholly unnecessary but very amusing picture of two troll guards comparing their clubs – which takes off from a passing phrase in the text – lightens some very scary goings-on. The facing-page portraits of Quidditch Seekers Harry of Gryffindor and Cho Chang of Ravenclaw are excellent portrayals of both young people’s personalities, not just their appearances. Early in the book, a two-page look at the Magical Menagerie shop, showing Harry, Ron and Hermione gazing at a wide variety of wonders (some of which come from the real world and only look impossible), is an excellent lighthearted touch, doubly so because Hermione’s face is amusingly distorted by the fishbowl through which it is seen. Kay lavishes as much care on color washes of page backgrounds as he does on the detail of his pictures. And his choices of what to illustrate are often unconventional in highly successful ways: for the chapter in which a Dementor appears aboard the Hogwarts Express, the large opening illustration is not of the creature but of a partially unwrapped bar of chocolate – that being what will later help Harry and his friends recover from Dementor exposure. The fact that bits of chocolate appear scattered across two pages later in the chapter is equally apt and very clever. Indeed, cleverness permeates Kay’s choices both of matters to portray and of the portrayals themselves: his portrait of the silly and inept Sir Cadogan is perfectly apt and especially funny. Kay does make an occasional error, as in a picture showing Professor Snape holding Neville Longbottom’s toad, Trevor, in his right hand, when the text says Snape picked Trevor up in his left; but little inconsistencies like this scarcely matter in the overall excellence of Kay’s art.
And what of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as a story? This particular Rowling book is somewhat over-plotted, with three separate intermingled stories: the search for the baleful prisoner of the title, the attempt by Draco Malfoy to ruin Hagrid by having Buckbeak the Hippogriff destroyed, and Gryffindor’s desperate desire to win the Quidditch Cup. Subsidiary elements focusing on Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin (who has the crucial role of teaching Harry how to produce a Dementor-repelling Patronus), flighty and possibly fraudulent Divination Professor Trelawney (who is quite unaware when she eventually does channel a message of considerable importance), and the joys and perils of visits to the town of Hogsmeade, interweave with and are used to complement the main story threads, which Rowling successfully pulls together into a rip-roaring climax that hints for the first time at just how deadly matters will become in later novels. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a top-tier book, either when discovered for the first time or when rediscovered 18 years after its initial appearance in 1999. Whether reading the book without prior knowledge of it or coming back to it after nearly two decades, readers will find Kay’s illustrated version every bit as captivating and enthralling as the intricate and exciting narrative that Kay so wonderfully brings to vivid visual life.