Character Study: Sirius Black


This is how I imagined Sirius looking around the events of Goblet of Fire.

When I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I fell in love with Sirius Black. Literally. Let’s just say that books 5-7 were an emotionally turbulent time for me.

Since my husband and I are working our way through CinemaWins’ Harry Potter videos, I decided to go back and take a look at some parts of the series, beginning with my favorite character.

The first thing, I think, to say about Sirius, is that, like many figures in the Potterverse, he’s very gray. He was never a Death Eater, and he never bought into the ideology of pureblood-supremacy. He doesn’t even show that many signs of human-supremacy. (I know, I know… Kreacher…. but I don’t think that was necessarily speciesism. I think he just disliked that particular elf.)

The biggest blot on his character, and yes, it’s a doozy, is his prank on Snape. It was a horrible thing to do.

But I don’t think he was trying to kill Snape. If he’d really wanted to, he would have come up with a way that wouldn’t have involved making Lupin culpable. I think, like Lupin said, Sirius was just trying to scare Snape. As Padfoot, Sirius was strong and tough enough to keep Lupin in check and protect Wormtail. Maybe those adventures made him think Lupin’s wolf-state wasn’t as dangerous as it really was. We won’t ever know for sure, but that’s my theory. And from what we later see of Sirius, thinking things through and impulse control aren’t necessarily his strongest suits (like attacking the Fat Lady, which is much less excusable than his confronting of Pettigrew in the middle of a crowded Muggle street).

Also, since I’m on the subject, and not to victim blame, but… Snape. Snape. Severus. If one of the boys who is usually mean to you tells you to do something dangerous… maybe don’t do that thing! It’s kind of like reading the incantation off the scroll in the creepy tomb, or something. Coincidentally… Sirius’ darkest moment might mark the beginning of James Potter cleaning up his act. Think about it. Snape’s Worst Memory takes place in their fifth year; James saves Snape from Lupin in their sixth year. James deflates his head enough to start dating Lily in their seventh year. Hell.

Anyway… let’s talk about Sirius’ pedigree. Given the sheer number of genocidal maniacs in the Black family tree, I think it’s safe to say that there was some kind of mental illness running, no, galloping, through the lineage, made worse by in-breeding, and sadly, there is no wizarding psychiatry. His parents wanted him to be Death Eater, after all, and were thrilled when his brother joined up. (And even though Regulus turned out to be a surprise white-sheep, what Regulus did to Kreacher is still incredibly unethical. Even though he had the noblest of intentions.)

Back to Sirius… given the family history, and the fact that he was locked up in Azkaban for thirteen years, it’s probably nothing short of a miracle that he’s only slightly unhinged in Book 3. Who could keep all of their sanity in that situation? Even though he does fly off the handle and stab the Fat Lady, break Ron’s leg, and stalk Harry, the amount of control he shows in later books is nothing short of heroic.

Even in the midst of developing an implied drinking problem, he doesn’t slug Fred Weasley when Fred lashes out while they’re waiting for news of Arthur Weasley after Nagini’s attack in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He also doesn’t just not hit Fred, he doesn’t do anything violent. He doesn’t break a glass to calm himself down first, he just takes a few seconds to collect himself and declares that everyone in the room needs a drink. That shows real growth. Book 3 Sirius probably couldn’t have done that.

On a similar note, I hear that the fact that movie Sirius punches Lucius Malfoy instead of hexing him is criticized, but that’s totally in character. Also, just from a layperson’s perspective, if you’re mad enough, it might be more satisfying to use physical force instead of magic sometimes. And I don’t really like movie Sirius all that much. Gary Oldman is a fine actor, but I think Michael Wincott would have been a better choice. I always pictured Sirius as sounding like him. But they nailed that part of his character.

I don’t blame Gary Oldman for being upset that his character was getting killed off, especially after barely knowing freedom. But he died finally out of the dungeon that was Grimmauld Place, and in the thrill of battle. It’s oddly fitting, even though I really wish he’d been able to stick around, and not just because of my pubescent infatuation.


3 thoughts on “Character Study: Sirius Black

  1. The timeline for this is off, at least as regards the books. The incident where Snape was nearly eaten by Lupin happened in early or mid fifth year, then the SWM scene is at the end of fifth year. This is absolutely definite, because two days after the werewolf incident we see Lily reassuring Sev that he is her best friend, so this is before they quarrelled.

    If you work out the timeline, the werewolf incident happened around the time Sirius split from his family, so he may have been having some kind of breakdown.


      • It’s more in DH, in The Prince’s Tale – we see Sev and Lily discussing the werewolf incident, which happened “the other night”m, so two or three days ago, and the conversation ends with her reassuring him that he’s her best friend, so this is *before* SWM.

        We don’t know how much before, but there are clues. At the end of OotP Remus tells Harry that James was fifteen in the SWM scene. According to the birth date Rowling has given for James, this was untrue and James was sixteen (and so was Remus). This could be a simple error or it could be that Remus’s mind tends naturally to dwell on the werewolf incident, and that James was fifteen then – which would put it prior to march of fifth year. And Snape says Sirius was sixteen at the time of the werewolf incident, which puts it after early November of fifth year.

        Then, we know that the SWM scene wasn’t a one-off, because Rowling says James and Sirius subjected Snape to “relentless bullying”. Yet, Snape is not on the look out for them after the exam, even though he has just answered a question on werewolves. Thus suggests that they left him alone after the werewolf prank, and for long enough that he has ceased to look out for them. That tends to support it happening between November and February of fifth year,.

        Now, we know Sirius quarrelled with his family in fifth year. We don’t know exactly when he got his own flat, but the way he speaks about it, probably soon after he turned 17, in the first term of sixth year. He says that after leaving his family and before buying a flat he spent the holidays, plural, with the Potters. People sometimes refer to the summer holiday as “the holidays” but in context it sounds more like he means more than one holiday. So that;s the summer holiday between fifth and sixth years, the Easter holiday of fifth year and maybe the Christmas holiday of fifth year. So he quarrelled with his family between September and April of fifth year, and probably tried to kill Snape between November and February. That makes it very likely he was having some kind of breakdown.

        Also, we don’t actually know whether Dumbledore knew *at the time* that Sirius had set Snape up. There’s a strong presumption against telling tales at British schools, so it could be that Snape didn’t tell him until Sirius was arrested for mass murder years later. But if Dumbledore did know, then Sirius having already split from his family, or being in the process of doing, would contribute to his *not* having been expelled – we don’t know of any orphanage in the wizarding world, so expelling him would have left him homeless.

        Either way, there’s no doubt the werewolf incident preceded SWM, and it casts James in a very poor light. He saved Snape from Sirius’s insanity, then resumed persecuting the boy he had saved, and encouraging Sirius to go on attacking the boy he had nearly killed. It makes James look like a very malign influence.

        I dislike Sirius, but I have some sympathy for him. It is Sirius, not Snape, who is hanging on to old grudges – Snape’s problem is that he has just heard Sirius *now*, 18 years after the werewolf incident, still bragging about it. But Sirius says the knowledge of his own innocence protected him from the Dementors, so I suspect he couldn’t afford to admit to himself that he actually had been guilty of nearly killing a classmate. He had to keep telling himself he had been justified, because any guilt would give the Dementors a way in.

        Btw, given that he survived a very long swim in the North Sea, I am 99% certain that Padfoot – a huge, bear-like black dog with yellow eyes – is a Newfoundland. Black with yellow eyes is one of the colours they come in, and not many breeds do. So Padfoot has webbed feet.


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