Because Harry is still a child during his third year at Hogwarts, many of the adults around him do their best to mediate the information that he receives about the escaped criminal Sirius Black. Some adults, like Mrs. Weasley, don't want Harry to know at all that Black is supposedly after him; most others settle for telling Harry that Black is after him, but leave out other crucial elements of the story to try to manipulate Harry's feelings in the name of keeping him safe. As Harry slowly acquires information about Sirius Black and eventually comes to realize that Sirius isn't the evil murderer that most people believe him to be, Prisoner of Azkaban asks piercing questions about the power of storytelling and how individuals' perspectives and histories alter how they interact with the truth. Ultimately, the novel proposes that whoever has the power to tell their story--regardless of how truthful it is--then has the power to dictate reality on a larger scale.
At the beginning of the novel, Harry has less information about Sirius Black than anyone else. He first hears about Black on the muggle news and, given Harry's isolation from the wizarding world, he doesn't realize that Black is a wizard and escaped from Azkaban until he leaves the Dursleys to rejoin his community in Diagon Alley. Though relatively benign, the way that the wizarding and muggle governments portray Sirius Black to their citizens illustrates clearly how providing or leaving out information influences how a person processes the story as a whole. Uncle Vernon refers to Sirius just as a "filthy layabout," a descriptor that represents how little Uncle Vernon knows about Black. To the wizarding world, which is aware of the crimes he supposedly committed, Black is more than dirty and unattractive--he's considered the most dangerous prisoner in Azkaban, and one of Voldemort's most valuable servants.
For much of the novel, Harry uses the version of events that Mr. Weasley gives him (that Black killed thirteen people with a single curse and has been saying in his sleep that "he's at Hogwarts," leading everyone to believe he's after Harry) as fact and as the whole story. However, when Harry discovers that Black was actually his parents' Secret Keeper (the only person who knew Lily and James's location) and outed them to Voldemort, he learns another important lesson about perspective and storytelling: emotions, especially negative ones, make it much easier for stories like this to take hold. The fact that every adult in Harry's life kept this part of the story secret from him suggests that they are all well aware of this fact and were acting in Harry's best interests. They know that Harry has a habit of getting into dangerous trouble and fear--correctly--that were Harry to know this version of the truth, he'd willingly put himself in danger in order to catch Black himself.
At the novel's climax in the Shrieking Shack, Harry finally learns the truth of what happened twelve years ago. Black didn't actually give up Harry's parents on purpose; he believed that Peter Pettigrew would be a less likely target for Voldemort and so encouraged the Potters to make him their Secret Keeper. Unbeknownst to all of them, Pettigrew actually was working with Voldemort. Pettigrew was then the person who blew up a muggle street, killing twelve muggles, framing Black, and faking his own death by turning into his rat form. This revelation plays with ideas of perspective and storytelling in several ways. First, it suggests that Pettigrew was a skilled manipulator and knew how the wizarding world would interpret things when he blew up the street and disappeared. Given the high emotions at the time, the wizarding community's desire to look as though they were putting Death Eaters behind bars, and the fact that Pettigrew's "death" effectively discredited the truth if it came from Black's mouth, the version of events that Pettigrew crafted became the story accepted by the masses.
Though Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Lupin accept Black's version of events, Snape--who is knocked out cold while Black explains what happened, and therefore doesn't hear the story--refuses to do so. For him, the longtime resentment he harbors towards Lupin and Black is enough to make him unwilling to believe this new spin on what happened, while the fact that he also never sees Pettigrew in his human form means he never gets proof that Black is telling the truth. Once they all know the truth, previous events also take on new meanings. It becomes clear that Black's mutterings in Azkaban were about Pettigrew, not Harry, and most importantly for Harry, he realizes that he hasn't really been seeing the death omen the Grim all year--the big black dog was actually Black.
For Harry, Ron, and Hermione, these revelations allow them to shift their thinking and engage with the world with a more critical eye. Sirius's story in particular is one more shred of important evidence that impresses upon them that their government is fundamentally untrustworthy and willing to take the easy way out when it comes to criminal justice. Harry's happiness at discovering that Sirius is his godfather suggests even more clearly that there's much to gain from knowing the whole story. Though it shows everyone who believes the new version of events who their true enemy is (something that becomes extremely important in the later novels), for Harry personally, knowing the truth of what happened means that for the first time in his life, he gains someone kind and caring to call family.
Storytelling and Perspective ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Perspective Quotes in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Non-magic people (more commonly known as Muggles) were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever.
"No need to tell us he's no good," snorted Uncle Vernon, staring over the top of his paper at the prisoner. "Look at the state of him, the filthy layabout! Look at his hair!"
But this didn't tally at all with Harry's past dealings with the Ministry of Magic. "Last year, I got an official warning just because a house-elf smashed a pudding in my uncle's house!" he told Fudge, frowning. "The Ministry of Magic said I'd be expelled from Hogwarts if there was any more magic there!"
"The guards told Fudge that Black's been talking in his sleep for a while now. Always the same words: 'He's at Hogwarts...he's at Hogwarts.' Black is deranged, Molly, and he wants Harry's dead. If you ask me, he thinks murdering Harry will bring You-Know-Who back to power. Black lost everything the night Harry stopped You-Know-Who, and he's had twelve years alone in Azkaban to brood on that."
"We're witnesses," said Harry. "You said hippogriffs attack if you insult them. It's Malfoy's problem that he wasn't listening. We'll tell Dumbledore what really happened."
"Yeah, don't worry, Hagrid, we'll back you up," said Ron.
"Possibly no one's warned you, Lupin, but this class contains Neville Longbottom. I would advise you not to entrust him with anything difficult. Not unless Miss Granger is hissing instructions in his ear."
"It's very lucky he picked tonight, you know," said Hermione as they climbed fully dressed into their sleeping bags and propped themselves onto their elbows to talk. "The one night we weren't in the tower..."
"I reckon he's lost track of time, being on the run," said Ron. "Didn't realize it was Halloween. Otherwise he'd have come bursting in here."
"Anyone?" Snape said, ignoring Hermione. His twisted smile was back. "Are you telling me that Professor Lupin hasn't even taught you the basic distinction between--"
"We told you," said Parvati suddenly, "we haven't got as far as werewolves yet, we're still on--"
"Silence!" snarled Snape.
"But you were innocent!" said Hermione.
"Think that matters to them? They don' care. Long as they've got a couple o' hundred humans stuck there with 'em, so they can leech all the happiness out of 'em, they don' give a damn who's guilty an' who's not."
"Well, isn't it obvious?" said Hermione, with a look of maddening superiority.
"If you don't want to tell us, don't," snapped Ron.
"Fine," said Hermione haughtily, and she marched off.
"She doesn't know," said Ron, staring resentfully after Hermione. "She's just trying to get us to talk to her again."
Hermione burst into tears. Before Harry could say or do anything, she tucked the enormous book under her arm, and, still sobbing, ran toward the staircase to the girls' dormitories and out of sight.
"Can't you give her a break?" Harry asked Ron quietly.
"No," said Ron flatly. "If she just acted like she was sorry--but she'll never admit she's wrong, Hermione. She's still acting like Scabbers has gone on vacation or something."
"THE DARK LORD LIES ALONE AND FRIENDLESS, ABANDONED BY HIS FOLLOWERS. HIS SERVANT HAS BEEN CHAINED THESE TWELVE YEARS. TONIGHT, BEFORE MIDNIGHT...THE SERVANT WILL BREAK FREE AND SET OUT TO REJOIN HIS MASTER. THE DARK LORD WILL RISE AGAIN WITH HIS SERVANT'S AID, GREATER AND MORE TERRIBLE THAN EVER BEFORE."
"Your father would have done the same for me. Brave of you, not to run for a teacher. I'm grateful... it will make everything much easier..."
The taunt about his father rang in Harry's ears as though Black had bellowed it.
"But if--if there was a mistake--"
"KEEP QUIET, YOU STUPID GIRL!" Snape shouted, looking suddenly quite deranged. "DON'T TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!"
"Of course," Lupin breathed. "So simple...so brilliant...he cut if off himself?"
"Just before he transformed," said Black. "When I cornered him, he yelled for the whole street to hear that I'd betrayed Lily and James. Then, before I could curse him, he blew apart the street with the wand behind his back, killed everyone within twenty feet of himself--and sped down into the sewer with the other rats..."
"Yes, I do," said Dumbledore quietly. "But I have no power to make other men see the truth, or to overrule the Minister of Magic..."
Harry stared up into the grave face and felt as though the ground beneath him were falling sharply away. He had grown used to the idea that Dumbledore could solve anything. He had expected Dumbledore to pull some amazing solution out of thin air. But no...their last hope was gone."
"It didn't make any difference," said Harry bitterly. "Pettigrew got away."
"Didn't make any difference?" said Dumbledore quietly. "It made all the difference in the world, Harry. You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate."