Chapter 3 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The Knight Bus
Harry finds himself, with his possessions but no Muggle money, on a dark deserted street. Fearing Ministry officials are searching for him to expel him from the Wizarding community, Harry decides that using more magic could hardly worsen his situation. He intends to magically lighten his trunk, and, hidden under his Invisibility Cloak, fly to Diagon Alley in London on his broom to withdraw his inherited fortune from Gringotts Bank. While rummaging through his trunk, he has an uneasy feeling eyes are upon him. Flashing his wand-light at a dark corner, he sees a huge dog; recoiling, he trips over his trunk and falls into the street. A purple triple-decker bus suddenly appears from nowhere, nearly running over him.
A conductor in an equally purple outfit hops out and introduces himself as Stan Shunpike, conductor for the Knight Bus. Only after he partially gets through his spiel does Stan realize that the person who "flagged" the bus is lying on the ground. Helping him up, Stan asks Harry his name. Harry, afraid that he is already a wanted fugitive, identifies himself as his Hogwarts classmate, Neville Longbottom, and asks if the bus can take him to the Leaky Cauldron. Stan tells him the Knight Bus will take him to London for eleven sickles; for thirteen, he gets hot chocolate, and for fifteen, a hot water bottle and a toothbrush. Harry climbs on board, while Ernie, the driver, manhandles his trunk into the bus. Inside, the bus is furnished with four-poster beds rather than chairs.
The bumpy ride leaves Harry unable to sleep, while Stan reads The Daily Prophet. Sirius Black's photo is on the front page—the same fugitive Harry saw on Muggle TV. The story says Black killed thirteen people with a single curse, and he is believed to be a strong supporter of Voldemort.
When the Knight Bus arrives at The Leaky Cauldron the next morning, it is met by Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge. Stan Shunpike, already awed by accounts of "The Boy Who Lived", is astounded when Fudge greets his passenger, addressing him as "Harry". Fudge escorts Harry to a private parlor in the Leaky Cauldron and informs him that his Aunt Marge has been punctured and her memory altered. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia are willing to take Harry back next summer if he stays at Hogwarts for Christmas and Easter. And, most puzzling, given what happened when Dobby the House-elf used magic at his home the previous year, Harry learns there will be no consequences for having performed under-age wizardry.
Harry will stay at the Leaky Cauldron until school starts, and Fudge requests that he confine his travels to within Diagon Alley, not venturing into Muggle London. Harry asks Fudge to sign his Hogsmeade permission slip, but Fudge seems disconcerted by this and refuses. Harry finds Hedwig inside his room, where he promptly falls asleep.
Harry, thrown into a panic, is thinking and acting irrationally, and, in what becomes a somewhat typical behavioral pattern, takes his trunk and runs away, unable to endure his family's abuse any longer. Although Harry's reaction is childish, he knows from his own past experience the harsh penalty for using underage magic. He expects only the worst: expulsion from Hogwarts and having his wand snapped in two. His brief foray into the nighttime Muggle world is frightening, and however unhappy he was at the Dursleys, he was at least safe, and comforted by knowing he would always return to Hogwarts. Now everything he holds dear seems to have vanished, and Harry is too used to unfair treatment to expect the incident to be resolved favorably. He is unsure what to do next, but decides his only option is to become an outcast living clandestinely on the Wizarding world's fringe. Fortunately, his faulty plan is derailed by a scary large dog and the Knight Bus' timely arrival.
Harry experiences another way wizards coexist unnoticed with the Muggle world—the Knight Bus, a vehicle that seamlessly navigates through Muggle traffic undetected. Conductor Stan Shunpike, a rather comical and ineffectual character, represents Harry's lifeline back into the Wizarding realm. The return trip is bumpy, however, both literally and figuratively. Even aboard the Knight Bus, Harry is unable to escape his celebrity, overhearing Ernie and Stan Shunpike chatting about the famous Harry Potter, unaware he is their passenger. During the long ride, Harry learns about the escaped fugitive, Sirius Black, though he only briefly takes notice, instead preoccupied by his current unhappy situation. Harry's concern and reaction over the episode with Aunt Marge was unnecessary, however—Fudge, surprisingly, brushes off the entire incident and arranges for Harry to stay in Diagon Alley until school starts.
As a minor aside, there is a small numerical discrepancy here. Harry's birthday and Aunt Marge's arrival fall on the 31st of July; Aunt Marge's visit is only for one week, and Harry leaves on her last night there, which should be August 6. The next day, Fudge twice remarks that Harry will be staying in the Leaky Cauldron for the last fortnight (two weeks) of his vacation; but if school starts on 1 September, Harry's stay in the Leaky Cauldron should be closer to three and a half weeks than two. This discrepancy has been corrected in later editions, giving the length of Harry's stay in the Leaky Cauldron as three weeks.
- What does Harry see when he is on the dark street? Why is he so affected by it?
- What is the Knight Bus and how did it know where to find Harry?
- Why does Harry say his name is "Neville Longbottom" when he boards the Knight Bus?
- Why does Fudge brush off the incident involving Aunt Marge?
- Why would Fudge refuse to sign Harry's permission slip for Hogsmeade Village?
- If Stan and Ernie did not recognize Harry, then how did Cornelius Fudge know he was traveling on the Knight Bus and headed to Diagon Alley?
- Why don't Stan or Ernie recognize Harry?
- Why is Harry allowed to stay in Diagon Alley by himself, rather than sending him to the Weasleys or another wizard family that would welcome and protect him?
- Considering Sirius Black is reportedly one of Voldemort's followers, why does Harry pay so little attention to the Daily Prophet story about him?
Throughout the year, Harry repeatedly sees the same black dog that appeared moments before he accidentally hailed the Knight Bus. He initially believes it is the Grim, a spectral creature (having no physical reality) believed to be a death omen. The first few times Harry sees it, it appears that he may be in mortal danger. However, before a Quidditch match, he sees Crookshanks and the dog together, which reassures him that the canine must not be spectral. Ironically, though Harry initially considered it a death omen, the dog's first appearance actually aids Harry by causing him to stumble backwards and raise his wand arm, thus hailing the Knight Bus, the vehicle that carries him to safety. The dog is actually the fugitive wizard, Sirius Black, who is an Animagus (a wizard that can transform himself into an animal at will). They continually encounter each other because Black wants to see Harry, who is his godson, though Harry is still unaware he has a godfather. When he first finds out, it proves to be particularly distressing, believing Black betrayed his parents. It is only later that he learns the true circumstances leading to Black's arrest and imprisonment.
Although Harry appears to choose Neville's name randomly when introducing himself, this may be a hint at the connection between the two boys. We will discover in a later book that a prophecy foretold that either boy could have become Voldemort's target.
Harry is still considered a hero: "The Boy Who Lived," who is widely believed to have caused Voldemort's downfall some twelve years earlier. As such, Fudge's "pro-Harry" stance is hardly surprising. Add to that, the general Wizarding population's belief that Sirius Black is (or was) Voldemort's right-hand man who apparently wants to kill Harry, and we see that it would be political suicide for Fudge to allow himself to be identified as the government head that left Harry defenceless against Black. Mystifying as it may seem to Harry, dismissing his magical misbehaviour is the only course the politically-driven Fudge can possibly follow.
Neither can Fudge allow Harry to roam London proper or venture into Hogsmeade village where he would be relatively unprotected from Black. It is also a little surprising that Fudge waffles at signing Harry's permission form; he certainly has a legitimate excuse, that he is not Harry's legal guardian. As the form requires a legal guardian's signature, that would be a ready-made and valid reason; it is therefore surprising that Fudge never uses it.
Stan Shunpike reappears throughout the series, though he remains a minor character. While he occasionally engages in petty mischief, Shunpike represents how easily innocents can become hapless pawns and scapegoats of a corrupt or political institution.
- The Knight Bus, that appears again in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is part of the ever-elaborated Wizarding transportation infrastructure. We have already seen the Hogwarts Express and the use of brooms and the Floo network, and in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire we will find out about Portkeys and Apparition. It may be of interest to examine the multiple modes of transportation, to see how each one's failings are covered by another one's strengths.