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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.