Nor am I going to write about identity and the distinction between appearance and reality with regard to it, as I did for The Chamber of Secrets, even though that sub-theme is even more prominent (and with all those shape-shifters in The Prisoner of Azkaban, even more confusing).
What I am going to scribble in the margins about is how Peter Pettigrew - Wormtail - fails to display virtue.
Wormtail spent a dozen years hiding out as the Weasleys' rat, Scabbers, first belonging to Percy, and then to Ron. Under what circumstances he was acquired is unknown, but by the time of The Prisoner of Azkaban, he'd been in their possession for twelve years.
I haven't even started looking closely at any passages, and already things aren't looking too good for poor Peter Pettigrew. How virtuous can you really be if you spend a dozen years pretending to be a rat?
But this is to get ahead of ourselves; the discovery of Scabbers' true identity doesn't occur until late in the book, and in the meantime we learn a fair bit about Wormtail from which we can deduce, to a certain extent, how virtuous he was, or at least what potential he had, as a youth, for displaying virtue.
We hear of Peter Pettigrew for the first time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban during the conversation at the Three Broomsticks between Cornelius Fudge (then Minister for Magic), Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, and Hagrid, and Rosmerta, the proprietor of the Three Broomsticks (pp. 150-6). Harry, Ron, and Hermione are eavesdropping - it is remarkable how many times Harry eavesdrops.
Let's see what those people have to say about Pettigrew.
A long silence followed Hagrid's story. Then Madam Rosmerta said with some satisfaction, 'But he didn't manage to disappear, did he? The Ministry of Magic caught up with him next day!'Our introduction to Wormtail is auspicious enough. Killed by a mad Dark wizard, having displayed bravery knowing that he could very well be killed himself - true Gryffindor spirit. That takes courage, although perhaps it was more reckless than courageous of 'little Pettigrew' [as Hagrid calls him on p. 155] to tackle Sirius Black, whom everyone knew was better than Pettigrew at magic. ('Well, of course, Black was quicker.') McGonagall states that Peter was neither Sirius's or James's equal in using magic, nor was he an adept duellist.
'Alas, if only we had,' said Fudge bitterly. 'It was not we who found him. It was little Peter Pettigrew - another of the Potters' friends. Maddened by grief, no doubt, and knowing that Black had been the Potters' Secret-Keeper, he went after Black himself.'
'Pettigrew ... that fat little boy who was always tagging around after them at Hogwarts?' said Madam Rosmerta.
'Hero-worshipped Black and Potter,' said Professor McGonagall. 'Never quite in their league, talent-wise. I was oftern rather sharp with him. You can imagine how I - how I regret that now ...' She sounded as though she had a sudden head cold.
'There now, Minerva,' said Fudge, kindly, 'Pettigrew died a hero's death. Eye-witnesses - Muggles, of course, we wiped their memories later - told us how Pettigrew cornered Black. They say he was sobbing. "Lily and James, Sirius! How could you!" And then he went for his wand. Well, of course, Black was quicker. Blew Pettigrew to smithereens.'
Professor McGonagall blew her nose and said thickly, 'Stupid boy ... foolish boy ... he was always hopeless at duelling ... should have left it to the Ministry ...' [p. 154]
Of course in retrospect what seems like genuine, if reckless, bravery on the part of a young wizard who must have known he was in over his head but had to do something turned out to be a set-up. I doubt most of us who read this passage suspected from the start that there was anything amiss. But after two books in which Rowling adeptly shows us that things are never what they seem, you'd have thought we'd have been more skeptical of what we're told at this point. However, unlike, say, the memory in Tom Riddle's enchanted diary, McGonagall and (at this point) Fudge are, or ought to be, reliable narrators. We should be able to trust their account of the past.
At any rate, Pettigrew comes across as having been bravely reckless at the last, 'maddened by grief', perhaps, as Fudge puts it, and as, during his school days, a boy keen to be a part of something bigger and better than himself, a tag-along to two more skilled, charming, and mischievous students. He also comes across as deeply concerned for the welfare of his old friends. So even though Pettigrew is, as it were, lionised in this introduction to him and his character (Fudge says that the Ministry awarded him the Order of Merlin, First Class, posthumously), already it is unclear as to whether he has actually mastered living virtuously. But I, and I suspect most readers, on first reading did not notice this; we got caught up admiring his bravery.
We finally meet Peter Pettigrew in the flesh in the Shrieking Shack, during Harry, Ron, and Hermione's confrontation with Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. That is to say, we finally learn his true identity, since, of course, Wormtail has been with Ron since at least his first year at Hogwarts, under the alias (no doubt bestowed on him by one of the Weasley boys) of Scabbers. Strictly speaking, our introduction to Wormtail occurs in The Philosopher's Stone when Ron pulls Scabbers out of his pocket to show him to Harry:
Ron reached inside his jacket and pulled out a fat grey rat, which was asleep.So Wormtail was a rather lazy rat. But he is at last unmasked (as it were):
'His name's Scabbers and he's useless, he hardly ever wakes up. Percy got an owl from my dad for being made a prefect, but they couldn't aff - I mean, I got Scabbers instead. [p. 75]'
'The point is [said Lupin], even if you're wearing an Invisibility Cloak you show up on the Marauder's Map. I watched you cross the grounds and enter Hagrid's hut. Twenty minutes later, you left Hagrid, and set off back towards the castle. but now you were accompanied by somebody else.'Hello, Peter! This revelation, although yet to be confirmed, checks, if it does not yet demolish, our understanding of Peter as a largely fawning, if loyal and for once recklessly brave, young man. Do Black and Lupin mean to say that Ron's rat, who has been with the Weasley family for twelve years, is really their old friend Wormtail? Of course, it turns out he is.
'What?' said Harry. 'No, we weren't!'
'I couldn't believe my eyes,' said Lupin, still pacing, and ignoring Harry's interruption. 'I thought the map must be malfunctioning. How could he be with you?'
'No one was with us!' said Harry.
'And then I saw another dot, moving fast towards you, labelled Sirius Black ... I saw him collide with you, I watched as he pulled two of you into the Whomping Willow -'
'One of us!' Ron said angrily.
'No, Ron,' said Lupin. 'Two of you.'
He had stopped his pacing, his eyes moving over Ron.
'Do you think I could have a look at the rat?' he said evenly.
'What?' said Ron. 'What's Scabbers got to do with it?'
'Everything,' said Lupin. 'Could I see him, please?'
Ron hesitated, then put a hand inside his robes. Scabbers emerged, thrashing desperately; Ron had to seize his long bald tail to stop him escaping. Crookshanks stood up on Black's lap and made a soft hissing noise.
Lupin moved closer to Ron. He seemed to be holding his breath as he gazed intently at Scabbers.
'What?' Ron said again, holding Scabbers close to him, looking scared. 'What's my rat got to do with anything?'
'That's not a rat,' croaked Sirius Black suddenly.
'What d'you mean - of course he's a rat -'
'No he's not,' said Lupin quietly. 'He's a wizard.'
'An Animagus,' said Black, 'by the name of Peter Pettigrew. [pp. 254-5]'
Peter's talent receives another knock as Remus Lupin tells Harry, Ron, and Hermione about being a werewolf and the arrangements made for him to stay at Hogwarts (pp. 258-61). Peter, we learn, 'needed all the help he could get from James and Sirius [p. 259]', though, to be fair, he did eventually manage the transformation and became an Animagus, no mean feat. Peter's talent, or lack thereof, is not at issue; we shall soon have the opportunity to explore Wormtail's lack of virtue presently. I would say, though, that Peter's overall lack of magical talent explains (but does not excuse), in part, his tendency to chum with powerful friends.
Finally, there is the confrontation between Wormtail and his erstwhile friends (pp. 269-76). Obviously the reader should be questioning whether a man hiding out as a rat for twelve years is going to be virtuous, even if, as he claims, he's been 'a good friend ... a good pet [p. 273]'.
Sirius, who has probably spent the better part of his twelve years in Azkaban brooding on the subject, has the measure of Wormtail:
'Voldemort, teach me tricks?' [Black] said.Here, Sirius, who laughed as he denied any involvement with Voldemort (one sign that this is so is that he uses the Dark Lord's name), is implying that Pettigrew has learned a few tricks from He Who Must Not Be Named, which is probably not far off.
Pettigrew flinched as though Black had brandished a whip at him [p. 270].
'You haven't been hiding from me for twelve years,' said Black. 'You've been hiding from Voldemort's old supporters. ... they all think you're dead, or you'd have to answer to them ... . Sounds like they think the double-crosser double-crossed them. ... If they ever got wind that you were still alive, Peter - [loc. cit.]''Double-crosser'; harsh words, and Sirius isn't exactly viewing the situation coolly, but as we know, he's on the mark. And, as Remus points out (loc. cit.), why would an innocent man want to spend twelve years as a rat?
Sirius has more to say about Peter:
'How dare you,' he growled, sounding suddenly like the bear-sized dog he had been. 'I, a spy for Voldemort? When did I ever sneak around people who were stronger and more powerful than myself? But you, Peter - I'll never understand why I didn't see you were the spy from the start. You always liked big friends who'd look after you, didn't you? It used to be us ... me and Remus ... and James ... [pp. 270-1]'Wormtail is forced to admit the truth, that he betrayed the Potters to Voldemort, but whinges, trying not to admit responsibility.
'Voldemort would be sure to come after me [said Black], would never dream they'd use a weak, talentless thing like you ... it must have been the finest moment of your miserable life, telling Voldemort you could hand him the Potters. [p. 271]'
'There!' said Pettigrew shrilly, pointing at Hermione with his maimed hand. 'Thank you! You see, Remus? I have never hurt a hair of Harry's head. Why should I?'
'I'll tell you why,' said Black. 'Because you never did anything for anyone unless you could see what was in it for you. Voldemort's been in hiding for twelve years, they say he's half-dead. ... You'd want to be quite sure he was the biggest bully in the playground before you went back to him, wouldn't you? Why else did you find a wizarding family to take you in? Keeping an ear out for news, weren't you, Peter? Just in case your old protector regained strength, and it was safe to rejoin him ... [loc. cit.]'
'If you made a better rat than human, it's not much to boast about, Peter,' said Black harshly [p. 274].
Pettigrew burst into tears. It was horrible to watch: he looking like an oversized, balding baby, cowering on the floor.Quite the indictment of Peter Pettigrew's character. But it is well-deserved. Even upon being unmasked (as it were), he quite futilely tries to paint Black as the wrongdoer, and even when the force of the evidence silences his denials of having served Voldemort, he pleads that he had no choice, that Voldemort would have killed him had he not given in. Begging Ron, Hermione, Lupin and Harry, and even Sirius, in turn, he is quite the pitiable figure.
'Sirius, Sirius, what could I have done? The Dark Lord ... you have no idea ... he has weapons you can't imagine ... I was scared, Sirius, I was never brave like you and Remus and James. I never meant it to happen ... He Who Must Not Be Named force me -'
'DON'T LIE!' bellowed Black. 'YOU'D BEEN PASSING INFORMATION TO HIM FOR A YEAR BEFORE LILY AND JAMES DIED! YOU WERE HIS SPY!' [Notice that Pettigrew does not deny this accusation.]
'He - he was taking over everywhere!' gasped Pettigrew. 'Wh-what was there to be gained by refusing him?'
'What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed?' said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. 'Only innocent lives, Peter!'
'You don't understand!' whined Pettigrew. 'He would have killed me, Sirius!'
'This cringing piece of filth [snarled Black] would have seen you die, too, without turning a hair. You heard him. His own stinking skin meant more to him than your whole family. [pp. 274-5]'
Had Peter died by Voldemort's hand protecting the Potter's secret, he would have deserved the Order of Merlin, First Class, which he was awarded. It is almost tragic that he was simply never brave enough to be able to make that choice.
Peter Pettigrew, then, was cowardly, dishonest, a flatterer, timid (by which I mean unwilling to use properly such few talents as he had), and unable to accept responsibility for his mistakes. He is certainly not the very picture of virtue.
But as McGonagall's statement, that she was sorry she had been so hard on him, indicates, the tragedy is that, perhaps, he was not given much of a chance to practise virtue. His brief appearance in Snape's memory which Harry sees in the Pensieve in The Order of the Phoenix (pp. 567-9) implies, I believe, that Sirius and James were quite happy to have Peter around as a fawning flunky. Still, as Remus Lupin pointed out, they worked hard to help Peter become an Animagus so that he could accompany his other three friends.
Which is to say that Peter did not make his choices, did not fail to be virtuous, in a self-enclosed vacuum. The choices of others, including McGonagall and his friends Remus, James, and Sirius, affected his acquiring (or not, as the case may be) of and habituation with virtue. Responsibility for failing to choose his friends over Voldemort remains with Peter Pettigrew, however; he does not get off the hook. He chose to betray James and Lily; he chose to frame Sirius (and in doing so commit murder!); he chose to hide out in rat form with the Weasleys until the time was right to flee to Voldemort once more. It remains the case that Wormtail is, in effect, incontinent (this is an older term for what we might now call 'lack of self-discipline' or 'lack of willpower'; it translates the Greek word akrasia; see, e.g., Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics).
Wormtail's incontinence (or lack of self-discipline, or lack of willpower) is evident in The Prisoner of Azkaban, based on the fact that he never shows any ability to make choices which would risk his own 'stinking skin' and on the fact that he hid out as a rat in the hopes of evading punishment, instead of accepting responsibility for what few choices he did make. As the series progresses, we see how Wormtail's lack of virtue, his inability to choose rightly, eventually robs him of choice altogether. His fate ends up being altogether pathetic. He therefore serves as a warning as to what sort of things happen when one does not take the opportunity to learn virtue.