Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Sirius Black

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling features characters who have been wrongly accused. The opening scene depicts Harry writing about innocent people being burned for witchcraft as a result of Muggles’ fear of magic. It is suggested that while Muggles took these events very seriously and believed they were protecting themselves, the actual witches knew it was fruitless. The unjust persecution of the first scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel and foreshadows later events.

In the opening scene, Harry reads about the witch-burnings of the fourteenth century. Harry’s book declares that often times the people accused of witchcraft were innocent and that although Muggles feared magic they were “not very good at recognizing it” (2). This discussion of wrongful prosecution closely resembles the unjust punishment that Sirius faces for the crimes he does not commit.

Concealed by his Invisibility Cloak, Harry overhears a conversation about the day his parents were killed Lord Voldemort. He learns that his parents, James and Lily, had entrusted Sirius Black with secrets which he later revealed to Voldemort, ensuring their demise. Harry also hears that another friend of his parents, Peter Petigrew, attempted to avenge their deaths, but is killed by Sirius. Harry is then under the false idea that his “parents had died because their best friend had betrayed them” (211). It is because Sirius betrayed Lily and James and killed Peter that he is sent to Azkaban, the infamous high security wizards’ prison. But later, Harry learns the truth: that it was actually Peter who had turned the Potters over to Voldemort, causing their deaths. Despite appearances, Black was the one who had been trying to protect Lily and James while Peter was the one who switched his loyalty to Voldemort. Peter had even survived that night and had only pretended to be killed by Sirius, but had actually transformed into a rat and slipped away unnoticed only to be presumed dead and awarded a wizard’s honor, the “Order of Merlin, First Class” (208).

Sirius’ imprisonment and Peter’s honorary status in the wizarding community are foreshadowed by the opening discussion of the witch burnings. Despite the fact that many people in medieval times were afraid of witchcraft and seriously believed that they were acting righteously by killing people, they were actually taking the lives of innocent Muggles. So it appeared obvious that Sirius had been the one to betray Lily and James, especially considering Peter’s fake death, while the real events leading up to their deaths went unknown for majority of Harry’s life.

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