One of the pleasures of the last three Harry Potter novels has been the way that JK Rowling has played with the scale of the dimensions of her world. The last couple of books, the flawed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the brilliant Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling has taken Harry Potter from the hero of a children’s book to a kid growing up while discovering the awesome responsibility he has been born into. Like Frodo, or Luke Skywalker – he has started to see how things fit in – and he has stared down the barrel at his rival Lord Voldemort. We have a sense of the battle for the wizarding world Harry has been thrust into.
But this just makes Harry Potter another epic hero – which is fine and all, but he is also a teenager. A whiny, snively, angry sulky teenager who has been through a lot, but is increasingly less generous with his friends – and convinced that he has unique powers and understanding of what has happened to him. It is this spirit that permeates throughout Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a thrilling novel which never relaxes its tension for one moment while advancing the themes from the earlier books. But for all of its value as a thrilling adventure, it is a superb character study of a teenager grappling with his own issues as well as the issues facing all of Wizarding.
Per usual, we start with Harry’s return to Privet Drive – but this time, something is different. How could it not be? After Albus Dumbledore threw the gauntlet down so memorably in the final passages of the prior book, it is hard to think that Harry could just return without having all the chaos surrounding Voldemort’s return just not visit. Indeed, when an unexpected Dementor encounter trips up Harry and Dudley one night – it leads to both a startling revelation about his neighbors as well as a charge for the improper use of magic. This leads to Harry being whisked away to the hideaway of the Order of the Phoenix, an organization which had existed and has been revived, now that the Dark Lord is circling his own wagons. Of course, we see the adults discussing matters without Harry or his friends – a fact which is increasingly not getting lost on Harry. The resentment that is building comes through in typically teenaged outbursts. Harry is mean to his friends, and angry that nobody is telling his what is going on. After all, HE is the one who subdued Voldemort – who else is in a position to understand?
This happens a lot to Harry as he is trying to muck through his key fifth year at Hogwarts. The people in the Order of the Phoenix are treating him like a kid by hiding stuff. Dumbledore will hardly look at him – even when he shows up to bail out Harry at his Ministry of Magic trial. The other kids at school did not get to see him battle Voldemort – they just have the word of Dumbledore that he is back, and the powerful Ministry of Magic is clearly concerned with letting that out. Frankly, Harry’s tale strains credibility for a lot of the fellow students and their families. Nobody understands him. All this, and his key exams at school are coming at the same time, and of course Quidditch.
Indeed, Hogwarts starts really giving him problems, as the Ministry of Magic has started to infiltrate the school to keep a lid on the Voldemort stuff. Among the changes they force on the school is the inclusion of Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense of Dark Arts teacher. She prefers however, a theoretical underpinning and pooh poohing the practical need (since dark arts are a non-issue). This of course, is insane, for anybody who has read this series at all. Of course her insistence on this worldview and getting the students to toe the line gets her on the opposite side of Harry. Harry’s first detention with Miss Umbridge might be the scariest scenes to date.
Umbridge herself is one of the best recent literary villains. Committed to the Ministry of Magic’s view of things, and committed to Dumbledore’s ouster – her decrees and clashes with Harry and the rest of the students is legitimately frightening. When she starts exerting more power over faculty, it gets even worse. She makes my skin crawl just thinking about her as I type this.
That said, the book is not all gloom and doom. There is some lightheartedness as Harry screws up his first dating encounters, and has his first kiss and whatnot. Ron and Hermione’s sniping continue to amuse in the sort of way that almost makes it inevitable that they will find each other. And then there is “big story” behind the rest of it. On that level, this book delivers as much as Goblet as we get an encounter with the Death Eaters, and a prophecy involving Harry and Voldemort’s fates which while interesting, sort of ends up a MacGuffin at the end of it all. In particular, the revelations about Sirius Black’s family connections and an unexpected encounter with Neville Longbottom were particularly powerful.
There is a ton to unpack in this book – it is not quite Goblet’s equal in its impact, but is nearly as packed with plot and story and character development. I am sure I will return to some of these, perhaps as the sixth book unfolds. But more than anything, we get a sense of who Harry is in a deeply personal way – it is hard not to connect with him if you have had any sort of teenaged youthhood.