Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling

Jonny Duddle cover

For this re-read of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, I bought the series as a single Kindle book (all the better to quote you with, my dear), a side-effect of which was I could see how far, percentage-wise, I was through the series as a whole. And it’s only with this, the fifth (and longest) book of seven, that I passed the halfway point. Halfway points are often major turning points in stories, and I’d say Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (first published in 2003) is no exception.

You wouldn’t think so immediately, though. For a large part of The Order of the Phoenix, the presiding feeling is one of frustration. Harry being so isolated at the Dursleys and getting no news of what’s going on in the Wizarding World; none of the kids being told what Dumbledore’s Order of the Phoenix is up to; nobody knowing what Voldemort’s up to; Harry being disbelieved by everyone at school; Dumbledore avoiding not only speaking to, but even looking at Harry; Hagrid’s unexplained absence; Ron and Hermione’s being prefects, leaving Harry on his own and feeling left out; Ron and Hermione’s constant bickering; the increased homework and revision the trio have to put up with as well as (for Harry) detentions, on top of the burden of their usual extracurricular school project of defeating the forces of evil; Harry’s inability to talk to Cho, or to understand her emotional state (plus the frustrations of early adolescence generally); Umbridge teaching only the theory, not the practice, of Defence Against the Dark Arts; her increasing stranglehold on communications in and out of Hogwarts, and her limiting of everyone’s freedoms, until “It seemed to Harry that Umbridge was steadily depriving him of everything that made his life at Hogwarts worth living: visits to Hagrid’s house, letters from Sirius, his Firebolt and Quidditch.” On top of all this, there’s Harry’s frustrating dreams, which are, he soon realises, only echoes of Voldemort’s frustration. The first half of the book starts to feel like a powder keg waiting for a match.

The first UK cover, art by Jason Cockroft

Another part of the frustration is that Harry is denied the usual sense of coming to his true home that has, so far, begun every book in the series, whether that home is Hogwarts or the Weasleys’. Instead, we get number 12 Grimmauld Place, current headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, but still dominated by the character of the morally dark, pure-blood-elitist Black family who once lived there. Now it’s a sort of prison for the last scion of that family, Harry’s godfather Sirius, who turned his back on his parents’ elitism but now finds himself swamped once more in their prejudicial gloom, as though the house were a living symbol of a repressive childhood lingering into adulthood. (And the family’s house-elf, Kreacher, wandering around muttering darkly, is like the sort of inner voice instilled by such a childhood, and just as hard to get rid of.)

Talking of elitism, this book — and how could it be otherwise with a title such as The Order of the Phoenix? — is full of elites. There’s the Order itself, there’s “Dumbledore’s Army”, there’s being a Hogwarts prefect, and Umbridge’s Inquisitorial Squad that replaces them. People who see Thestrals (those who have witnessed death) form a sort of unnamed elite. There’s Death Eaters, the upper echelons of the Ministry of Magic, Aurors, the Wizengamot, the Order of Merlin, and the Griffindor Quidditch team (the last three being highlighted because major characters are ejected from them — leading to more frustration). All this serves as a reminder that Harry’s adult initiation into the Wizarding World, which ought to have been sealed by his winning the Triwizard Cup in the last book, is still somehow incomplete. The admission, in that book, by both Voldemort and Dumbledore, that young Harry had faced tasks even an adult might fail at, hasn’t taken hold — in large part because the Wizarding World doesn’t want to believe Voldemort is back, so ceases to trust Dumbledore. But even Dumbledore isn’t treating Harry as fully initiated. He’s still protecting him, both from danger and from the truth.

Brian Selznick cover

The frustration finally loosens its grip when this new generation starts to take action for itself. Denied proper Defence Against the Dark Arts instruction, they form Dumbledore’s Army to learn it for themselves; at Hermione’s suggestion, Harry gives an interview to The Quibbler (the wizarding version of The National Enquirer) about what really happened to him at the Triwizard Tournament; and then, at the end, the kids launch their own rescue mission into the bowels of the Ministry of Magic, like a full-on assault on the adult establishment.

In previous books, Harry being likened to his father — even mistaking himself for his father at one point — could be taken as a sign of his growing up, but here it’s his starting to notice how he’s unlike his father that reads like a sign of maturity — certainly, of individuation. And this book has an increasing moral complexity throughout, with almost all of the main characters revealing vulnerabilities and weaknesses, or having them highlighted to a greater degree than before: the fact that Sirius is trying to relive, through Harry, his lost youthful friendship with James Potter; Molly Weasley’s “mollycoddling”; Harry’s “weakness for heroics”, and his “saving-people thing”; his father being revealed as an arrogant bully; Ron’s klutziness being put on display before the whole school in Quidditch; Neville’s secret about his parents being finally admitted. I like to think another pair of weaknesses revealed in the final fight section is that not-so-clever Ron is trapped in the tentacles of a living brain, while too-clever Hermione is felled by a wordless spell. Even Professor McGonagall gets Stunned. We glimpse something of the weakness behind Voldemort’s power — his belief that “There is nothing worse than death” — and Dumbledore admits, at the end, his own weakness: the fact that he cared too much for Harry’s happiness to carry out the plan he’d initially conceived.

Olly Moss’s ebook cover

And that leads to the final part of Harry’s “initiation” I spoke of in my mewsings on the previous book. As well as tests and trials, and a public recognition, initiation requires education. In a traditional society, this means teaching a child, in its passage to adulthood, the myths of the tribe. (And of course this is the book where Harry & co. sit their exams, which is our modern-day version of this stage.) Here, Harry gets told the full truth about himself and Voldemort — or, the full truth as Dumbledore knows it, anyway:

“It is time,” he said, “for me to tell you what I should have told you five years ago, Harry. Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything…”

The link between Harry and Voldemort is, I think, one of the most satisfying aspects of the series. It’s not just that Harry is “good” and Voldemort “evil”, and that there’s some sort of prophecy that says one will defeat the other (as there is in my childhood’s equivalent of the Harry Potter series, David Eddings’ Belgariad) — though there is, in this book, a prophecy, it turns out — it’s that Voldemort’s evil actions by themselves created Harry as he is, so evil planted the seed of its own downfall. This becomes clearer as the series moves on, but on this re-read I can’t help wondering at how restrained Rowling has been in revealing just a little at a time to what is, by The Deathly Hallows, a thoroughly well-thought-out reasoning for why Harry is who he is.

Kazu Kibuishi’s cover, whose colour scheme reminds me of the 70s paintings of Bruce Pennington

Another thing that stands out about The Order of the Phoenix is that Rowling really starts bringing on the interesting female characters. We’ve had teachers (McGonagall), parent-figures (Mrs Weasley), and two minor villains (Aunts Marge and Petunia), as female characters before, but in this book we get a wider range and deeper characterisation. We get two new female “hero” characters, in the shape of punky Auror Tonks (who “never quite got the hang of these householdy sort of spells”, though her mum could “even [get] the socks to fold themselves”, making me think her mother may have been Mary Poppins), and Luna Lovegood (a sort of antithesis to Harry in his truth-seeker capacity, in that “she’ll only believe in things as long as there’s no proof at all”, which means she believes in all the Wizarding World’s versions of conspiracy theories). Even better, though, are the female villains, Dolores Umbridge — passive aggression personified, a living version of the “smiling no” by which you can spot a psychopath — and deliriously unstable Bellatrix Lestrange. Both of these female villains are so much more emotionally provoking than the series’ main male villain, Voldemort. Voldemort is coldly arrogant, but both Umbridge and Bellatrix have a way of needling their victims’ (and the reader’s) most emotionally vulnerable points. Perhaps that’s because we expect Voldemort, a sort of “Dark Father” archetype, to be remote, but the viciously nasty “Dark Mother” behind both Umbridge and Lestrange can’t help hurting that much more.

Despite its air of frustration — no, because of its extended initial frustration — Order of the Phoenix is the most satisfying piece of Rowling storytelling yet, particularly when that frustration breaks and the action’s unleashed. My favourite part of this book (and perhaps of the series) is the scene of that final unfolding, the Department of Mysteries. Harry & co.’s wandering through the dark, surrealistic bowels of the Ministry of Magic’s strangest division remains one of my favourite fantasy sequences, both in the book and the film. The rooms they pass through (in the book, anyway) are a sort of gallery of Symbolist scenes (reminiscent of the sort of non-commercial painting Michael Whelan does). This department of the Ministry is looking into the fundamentals of human existence, at such abstracts as Time, Death, Love, and Dreams, but Rowling captures them with a moody weirdness I’d really love to see more of — or perhaps it’s there throughout, it’s just so easy to miss amongst all the wizard-school-romp stuff.

Inside the Department of Mysteries

Some of Michael Whelan’s Symbolist-feeling works. More at Michael Whelan.com

From Order of the Phoenix on, the series is about the now-publicly-acknowledged war with Voldemort. The gloves (and the blinkers) are off… Or are they? We’re not at the final book yet, so we’re not at the final confrontation. What can possibly hold that final moment off? We’ll find out in the next book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

The Belgariad by David Eddings

Asked what he and his co-author wife Leigh had brought to the fantasy genre (in an interview by David J Howe for Dreamwatch magazine in March 1999), Eddings’ reply now seems about 180 degrees off target:

“Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back.) We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory—which is where the good stuff is.”

Compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, “gritty reality” The Belgariad most certainly ain’t. Its characters may sweat and bicker, but none of the main ones die, and nor are they ever in any serious danger of doing so. All the good characters, though lightly flawed, are clearly good, and basically get on with each other. Only the clearly-telegraphed villain-types ever stab anyone in the back, and they get their comeuppance right away. Even the comparison to Malory is stretching it, as The Belgariad has nothing like the moment in Le Morte Darthur when King Arthur dies and suddenly all that’s good and noble goes out of the world, leaving it nothing but a bloody battlefield strewn with dead or dying knights being looted by opportunistic peasants. In The Belgariad, things go wrong only to be, at the end, set right back to how they were at the start — if not better.

Pawn of Prophecy, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Eddings admired Tolkien (fondly calling him “Poppa Tolkien” in interviews, and including The Lord of the Rings on the syllabus of a lecture course on “The Modern Novel” he gave while teaching in the 1960s — see this article for some interesting insights into Eddings’ teaching days), but — particularly now we have the Peter Jackson films, whose success and style paved the way for Game of Thrones — it’s hard to judge The Belgariad as “gritty reality” compared to Tolkien’s harrowing epic of endurance in the face of overwhelming despair, or his insistence that power can corrupt even the noblest of souls. There are no serious betrayals in The Belgariad, and the series’ five book quest is hardly harrowing, its central character, the boy Garion, being pretty much constantly in the company of his super-sorcerer guardians, along with a solid cadre of highly capable helpers, to protect and guide him every step of the way.

What Eddings probably meant by “gritty reality” is that his characters, far more than Tolkien’s and Malory’s, come across as very ordinary. They bicker, they complain, they have a sense of humour, they make friends with one another, and they remain friends. The thing that really powers the books is the gentle everydayness of their emotional lives — in particular the boy Garion’s relationships with his Aunt Polgara and Grandfather Belgarath (both, in fact, age-old sorcerers whose relationship to him, though genuine, is far more distant), and his mostly comic romance with the Tolnedran Imperial Princess Ce’Nedra. Garion is, perhaps unlike any prior teenager at the centre of a world-saving fantasy epic, a real-seeming adolescent, given to moodiness, sulks, and stubbornness, as well as occasional bursts of good sense.

Queen of Sorcery, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

(The same goes for Ce’Nedra, and if The Belgariad does have a claim to have made an advance in the fantasy genre, it may be that it contains more interesting, active, and real-seeming female characters than the commercial fantasy epics that came before it. It’s no feminist landmark, but it certainly outdoes Tolkien and Malory, as well as Donaldson and Brooks, in this respect.)

Even Eddings’ millennia-old sorcerers — on the good side, at least — make sure we know that, deep down, they’re basically ordinary folks. After every grand gesture or (brief) moment of high poetry, someone says something to deflate the situation, to bring it back to normal, to let us know the characters know they’re putting it on:

“Dost thou question my word, Sir Knight?” Mandorallen returned in an ominously quiet voice. “And wilt thou then come down and put thy doubt to the test? Or is it perhaps that thou wouldst prefer to cringe doglike behind thy parapet and yap at thy betters?”

“Oh, that was very good,” Barak said admiringly.

Magician’s Gambit, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

If it’s comparable to anything, I’d say The Belgariad is most similar to Star Wars. Begun in about 1979, and published between 1982 and 1984, its five books came out mostly in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Garion’s learning to harness his burgeoning sorcerous abilities is strongly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s coming into his powers as a Jedi. The Belgariad’s “Will and the Word” is pretty much identical to the Force: only a few (Jedi/Sorcerers) can do it, and it’s all about imposing one’s will via mind-force on the world. Even the way Belgarath teaches Garion to do it — by having him move a big rock — is similar to Yoda’s getting Luke to try levitating his beswamped X-Wing.

But the main thing that makes the two so similar — apart from their huge success, of course — is the way both made no bones about their blatant reliance on basic templates from myth and fairy tale. Both Luke and Garion start out as orphaned farm-boys who come to learn that they have royal/Imperial connections and sorcerous power, and that their family history is deeply tied up in long-term world/galactic conflicts between good and evil. As Eddings says in his introduction to The Rivan Codex:

“I planted more mythic fishhooks in the first couple of books of the Belgariad than you’ll find in any sporting goods store.”

Castle of Wizardry, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Inevitably, The Belgariad has come under a lot of criticism. One man’s archetype is another’s cliché, and anyone who didn’t fall under the series’ spell tended to be affronted by its commercial success and accused it of being nothing but a cynical rehash of genre clichés. (As also happened with Star Wars.) And it’s hard to argue against this, The Belgariad is so nakedly archetypal. Its fantasy world is nothing but a grab-bag of characteristic historical eras (in an interview with Stan Nicholls, Eddings called it “dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender”), with its equivalent of Imperial Romans (Tolnedra) peacefully coexisting with Norman-era French (Arendia), Vikings (Cherek), Cossacks (Algaria), and a sort of overheated Weird Tales version of Ancient Egypt (Nyissa). (The ghost-haunted land of the Marags, presided over by an eternally-mourning god, is perhaps its most original and quietly powerful touch, in this respect.)

In addition, so that none of Eddings’ world-building goes to waste, the quest for the vaguely super-powerful Orb takes our heroes on a convenient tour through every land on the map. But to say this is contrived is to miss the point. The quest, in The Belgariad, is like a Hitchcock Macguffin — an excuse to get the story started, and to keep it going, while the real stuff happens. The search for the Orb isn’t really the point about The Belgariad, and all the time it’s going on you, as reader, if you’re captured by the series at all, don’t actually want them to find the Orb — not in the same way as, when you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, you really, really want the One Ring destroyed.

Enchanter’s End Game, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

What I think The Belgariad is doing while you’re following its characters on their vaguely world-shaking quest, is casting a readerly spell of gentle enchantment for the duration of its five books. It’s not a particularly forceful or wildly magical spell. Perhaps the best word for what it does is the simplest and least magical of all magical terms: it charms. Its charm is in the easy humour of its characters (sometimes belaboured — Eddings has a tendency to underline his punchlines not once but twice), their low-scale emotional ups and downs, and in the quiet but lasting development of their friendships, loves, and companionship. All this is leavened with a generous smattering of lightly thrilling adventure, and an evenly-paced uncovering of the series’ mysteries — about Garion’s identity, and the true nature of the quest they’re on — drip-fed at just the right speed.

The Belgariad perhaps only works if you come to it at the right age — Garion’s age, early adolescence. Fortunately, I did, and I have to say the books certainly worked their charm-spell on me, as well as convincing me of the undeniable power of a simple, fairy-tale coming-of-age narrative — and, perhaps only because I came to it when I did, it continues to work the same spell whenever I re-read it.

The Belgariad may not have the grit of Game of Thrones, it may not confront the darker forces that The Lord of the Rings does, but I’d certainly miss its charm, its air of comradely companionship, and its gentle fairy-tale power, if the genre were ever wholly given over to nothing but “gritty reality”.

The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin

The Other WindAlder, a sorcerer whose talent is fixing broken things, arrives on Gont to seek help from the former (and still unreplaced) Archmage, Ged. Every night in dreams, Alder finds himself standing by the wall that borders the land of the dead, whose occupants gather before him, clamouring for release. His own dead wife begs to be set free, but when Alder uses her true name, it has no effect. Meanwhile in Havnor, King Lebannen hears of dragons harrying the lands of men, attacking villages and burning forests, where previously they had been content to keep to their own lands far to the west.

As I said in my review of Tehanu, Le Guin seems to have progressed through the Earthsea series by answering, in each new book, a question implied by her previous work. Tehanu finished with (and “Dragonfly” in Tales from Earthsea underlined) a question about the relationship between humans and dragons, how some humans can, somehow, also be dragons. And, though Earthsea’s version of the land of the dead was present in the first book, it was The Farthest Shore that brought that limbo-like land into full, desperate detail. Surely a place like that is wrong, in a world like Earthsea? In The Other Wind, Le Guin embodies these two issues in two characters: Alder, who, thanks to his dreams, carries around with him the problem of the land of the dead being such a place of ‘suffering where suffering is past’, and Tehanu, now 15 years older than in the book named after her, who literally embodies the question of people-as-dragons.

ModernScholarOf the two, I hadn’t expected the question about the land of the dead to need answering, though I said in my review of The Farthest Shore that that book’s vision of a dull and unpleasant afterlife seemed out of keeping with the series’s general affirmation of the natural course of things. In his lecture series The Modern Scholar: Rings, Swords and Monsters, Professor Michael D C Drout says that one of the things Le Guin does as the Earthsea series progresses is to correct what he calls the ‘buried Christianity’ it began with (the assumptions taken on wholesale from Western Christian culture — or ‘the heroic fantasy tradition’ as Le Guin put it — which don’t fit her own Taoist/Buddhistic beliefs). Drout says The Other Wind performs the final fix, correcting the hellish afterlife of trapped, tormented souls into one in which the souls of the dead are free to rejoin the world, either through reincarnation, or by being reabsorbed into the life of the whole.

(Another way of looking at it is that, while the first two books dealt with the coming-into-selfhood of young people — Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan — later books deal with the necessary letting go of self that comes with a preparation for death. Cob, in The Farthest Shore, refuses to die and thereby unbalances the world. Ged defeats him by relinquishing his own power, then has to learn to deal with his new powerlessness in Tehanu. In The Other Wind, we find him fully reconciled and at peace.)

As I say, I wasn’t expecting the problem of the land of the dead to be dealt with in this last book of Earthsea. What I was expecting were two questions raised by both Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea: ‘Why can’t women study at Roke?’ and ‘Who will be the new Archmage?’ The first question isn’t dealt with explicitly, but its answer may perhaps be found in Alder’s marriage to Mevre, a witch with a similar talent to his. Their relationship was one of equals, both emotionally and in terms of magical ability:

‘So rather than his teaching her, they put their skills together and taught each other more than either had ever known.’

Here, then, Le Guin seems to be saying that, whatever the rule of Roke is, women and men are equals in magic-use, and their talents can only be improved by their joining together.

OtherWindThe other question, about what will happen at Roke now Ged is no longer Archmage, isn’t answered. In its place, The Other Wind seems to raise a whole host of other questions to do with the future of magic. The Earthsea mode of wizardry — using the true names of things to control or change them — is, in The Other Wind, linked with the wrongness represented by the land of the dead. It’s implied that what to me is the founding notion of the whole Earthsea series — that people have a true name as well as a use-name, and that it gives access to both the power and the vulnerability that derives from selfhood — is part of the imbalance and wrongness of the world. The Other Wind fixes the problem of the land of the dead, but what does this do to Earthsea wizardry, and to Roke? Is magic itself finished?

It’s obvious Le Guin likes those of her wizards who seek knowledge and understanding, or who work directly with the Balance — the Master Doorkeeper, the Master Patterner, the Master Namer — but has grown to distrust those who use magic as an active, wilful power — the Master Summoner in particular, whose speciality is conjuring the spirits of the dead. Ged, her ultimate wizard, has found his own ultimate in the renunciation of power, and the destiny of Earthsea — and its story — has passed into the hands of Lebannen, a king and a non-wizard. (Who, here, has the makings of a screwball romance with a Kargish princess. If only Le Guin could do screwball romance! David Eddings did the whole awkward arranged marriage thing a lot better in The Belgariad, but The Other Wind doesn’t really have room for that degree of humour.) As in Tolkien, whose Elves in The Lord of the Rings are departing from Middle Earth to leave it un-magical and in the hands of men, here Le Guin’s dragons are also departing — are her wizards going to lose power, too? It’s a question I felt was raised but never answered.

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

The Farthest Shore, cover by David Smee

My reaction to The Other Wind is similar to my reaction to The Farthest Shore. In both books, the central character is Earthsea itself, and as a result I found myself intellectually drawn by the themes of these novels, but not emotionally drawn, as I would have been by a more character-centred story. Fantasy, I think, works best when it interweaves the personal and the epic as one — Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is a small-scale personal story that leads to an epic-scale result — and the books I love most in the Earthsea series (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu) are those which are primarily character stories, only tangentially touching wider events.

I’m glad, though, that I finally got round to reading the whole series. I’ll certainly come back and re-read the first two books. I don’t think I ever needed the world presented in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan to be expanded, but I’m certainly glad Le Guin wrote Tehanu (though it took me a few years to come back to it and fully appreciate it). Maybe the same is true of the series as a whole? The books I’ve liked most are those I’ve re-read, rather than read for the first time. Maybe I’ll come to a fuller appreciation if I ever go through the whole sequence again. But, that’s not something I’ll be doing for a few years yet!