Great plans in fantasy literature have a tendency to go wrong. This is not really through any fault of the heroes’—to give them their due credit, they slog on even when things go really, steeply downhill. Great plans go wrong in fantasy because, well, that’s how things often turn out (or don’t) in real life, and say what you will, a lot of fantasy’s power as a genre comes from its ability to spin out amazingly ‘real’ and true-sounding stories in universes and settings nothing like our own.
But in fantasy, people, or events tend to show up and, sometimes, make the bad things go away, or salvage the situation before it is completely beyond repair. If done convincingly, this looks nothing like a deus-ex-machina, and instead segues smoothly into the narrative. Rowling is a master of this, and the character who perhaps best depicts this ability to just show up when needed is Sirius Black.
The plotting of any novel requires precision, and I don’t think anything exemplifies this better than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In my review of the book for Fantasy Book Critic, I stated that what really impressed me about this novel was the sheer intricacy of its plotting—how each character, each event and seeming coincidence had a function to play in the larger scheme. To me this is still the most tightly plotted of the Potter books, and a real treasure of the mystery genre. Given that Sirius found his way onto the stage proper in this book, it seems fitting that it be the most well constructed and (pun not intended) well-‘timed’ of its fellows.
In an earlier post, I had celebrated Sirius’s unparalleled ability to love, and how I believe his unwavering, unconditional loyalty really defines his character. In that same post, I alluded to how his ability to just show up when needed, with no questions asked, is one of the greatest markers of said love for Harry. Sirius’s drive to drop all and be there for his godson is, to a large extent, simply a function of who he is—he is a dog, loyal, unquestioning, bound by feelings deeper than most around him would understand to someone he barely really knows. I think, however, that this tendency in him was probably exacerbated by ‘mistakes’ made early on in life, including that most crucial one of all: the decision to trust Peter over Remus in the first war against Voldemort.
Enough and more fan fiction has been written speculating on why Sirius chose to trust Peter. The most compelling reading, for me at least, is that Sirius, always so hopped up on his own beliefs and loyalties, would never have considered for a second that the same didn’t apply to one of those he had chosen to protect, unless he had, at some point in his life, betrayed that other person. Sirius’s childhood, whatever little we know of it, seems far from a warm and nourishing experience. When Sirius turned his back on his family, he appears to have done it without any intention of ever going back, asking forgiveness, or even giving them a chance to change and come around to understanding his point of view. In the case of the Blacks this was probably a judicious decision, given how most of them turned out, but it also cut out any prospect of reconciling with those who did—such as Regulus.
Given this, I think there are two character traits that, if taken together, could explain Sirius’s lack of trust in Remus and resulting decision to turn to Peter:
(i) Sirius values loyalty above all else, and seems to believe, to a great extent, that others should do the same. ‘Then you should have died,’ he tells Peter in the Shack, ‘died rather than betrayed your friends, as we would have done for you.’ There is no other option for a ‘true friend’, in his mind. The only reason anyone might not remain incredibly, steadfastly loyal to someone they ‘should’ stick with is if they have been badly treated by those same people, as he was by his family. The infamous ‘prank’ involving Snape and the exposure of Remus’s secret could, in all fairness, constitute such a betrayal of trust and friendship, and thereby expose Sirius and his pack to the same sort of betrayal from Remus’s side.
(ii) Sirius does not have great faith in people’s ability to change. This could be put down to the fact that he is the only adult character to have been actively disallowed from ‘growing up’, instead being frozen into an emotional mess at the age of 21-22. Sirius does not have the same sort of maturity and mellowness that most of the other adult characters (with the exception of Snape) seem to possess. It’s ironic that the two characters who seem to detest each other the most are actually in many ways the most similar—fiercely loyal to those they have sworn to protect and/or love and unable, very often, to contain their interactions and emotions in a mature fashion. They just have different ways of expressing that chosen loyalty. I also think this lack of ability to believe in change is a result of Sirius’s own unwavering nature. He perceives any sort of shift in his preconceived notions of how a person should be as some sort of betrayal—such as when Harry decides that the ‘fun’ of Sirius coming up to Hogwarts in Order of Phoenix is not worth the risk. At this point, Sirius coolly tells him that he is ‘less like James than [he] thought’, and its evident to Harry that he is, for the first time ever, upset with him. Peter, who had never been betrayed (as far as Sirius could tell), and had always remained faithful, could not possibly change—at least until he went and proved Sirius dramatically wrong.
Rowling gives her characters amazing strengths—but she also does a very clever thing wherein she makes these strengths function as their weaknesses as well. Dumbledore’s cleverness and skill and consequent pride proved his youthful undoing; Harry’s selfless ability to throw all aside and play the hero leads to the death of his godfather, Sirius’s stubborn and unwavering nature played a decisive role in the tragedy that marked his, and his godson’s, life. Loyalty has a price, and one slip exacts demands from Sirius, drives him to push himself ever more to be there for his godson.
But hey, if it weren’t for that slip, we might not have had a series at all.