Thursday, March 13, 2008

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling

Or, In Defense of JK Rowling's Fifth Harry Potter Book, with Spoilers

I am aware that Order of the Phoenix is the least appreciated of all the Harry Potter books--Carlton in particular thought it was quite the slog--and I am aware why. The book has numerous flaws, including its interminable first half that eschews Hogwarts for the setting of Twelve Grimmaud Place, the bloodlessness of the feuds between the three principal characters, Harry's incessant emoing, and, in my opinion the most damning, the rather minor presence of Voldemort and the relative inconsequentiality of the object for which the ultimate showedown occurs. However, I do not feel, as Carlton and Brent do, that this is easily the worst book of the seven; in fact, I feel as if it is quite a bit better than the first two and about as good as the third. Let's not forget that this isn't exactly an enduring literary classic--huge flaws come with the territory. The question is, does the book work in spite of them, and I believe that it does. Accordingly, this entry will be about what I like about Order of the Phoenix and will avoid any further discussion of its oft-detailed failures.

The Ministry of Magic: In my opinion, the best plot element outside of the Tri-Wizard Tournament is the fact that, in this book, Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry of Magic wage a huge public relations war on Harry and the notion of Voldemort having returned. These two plot elements share a common trait in that they serve to really expand the reader's understanding of the world in which Harry lives--the former in an international sense, and the latter a domestic one--and, it seems to me, the chief appeal of the Harry Potter series is the complexity and texture of Rowling's fictional universe. We were given a small insight into the dysfunction of the Wizarding world in the previous two books--and, if you recall, my solution to this problem was to look to the Muggle world for political solutions--but here we really get the full picture of what the consequences of political corruption and negligence are in the Wizarding world. The book begins with Harry defending himself by his Patronus charm from Dementors near his home in Little Whinging, followed by a hearing at the Ministry of Magic to determine whether or not his use of magic broke Wizard law. It threatens to be a show trial until Dumbledore shows up to defend Harry, and ultimately Harry wins the day, though narrowly. But the Ministry does all in its power for the next 700 pp. to convince the Wizarding world that everything is A-OK, from keeping a tight stranglehold on the principle Wizard newspaper, The Daily Prophet, to installing apparatchik Dolores Umbridge as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Her job is to be the Ministry's man inside Hogwarts, and as Fudge feels ever more threatened, she assumes more and more autonomy at the school until it is completely under her control.

What I love about this plot element is that, despite being in a children's fantasy book, the Ministry's malfeasance reflects real-world political and cultural conflict more accurately than most thrillers. Historically speaking, the fight against evil is checked not just by evil itself but also by political corruption, bureaucratic inertia, and petty egotism. Cornelius Fudge looks uncannily like the Neville Chamberlains and the Vidkun Quislings of the world, and I'm sure that's no coincidence.

Furthermore, this kick-starts a chain of events that leaves Harry completely without authority figures: When things at Hogwarts go to Hell, Dumbledore goes on the lam from prosecution, Hagrid is suspended and kicked out by Umbridge, Sirius is incommunicado, and McGonagall is in the hospital ward. What this creates is a dynamic heretofore unseen in the Harry Potter novels--as much as he's been complaining about being on his own throughout Order of the Phoenix, Harry is finally and utterly on his own. Through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there is the suggestion that Harry has never really been that close to danger because he has the Hogwarts staff to back him up should anything go awry, but Cedric Diggory's death at the end of the book puts that notion completely to rest. Here, worst has come to worst; all of Harry's guardians are gone and Voldemort must be stopped from obtaining whatever is in the Department of Mysteries. But this is what Harry has been training for, gathering school mates in Dumbeldore's Army, and ultimately it is what Harry must do to grow as a character. When you think about it, it's very Hamlet-like--though, as we find out in the end, it very well may mean his own destruction, Harry finds the solution to his bitterness and ennui through action.

Characters: Another thing I liked about Order of the Phoenix was two of its central characters, one new and one old: Umbridge and Sirius.

I think we can all be honest with ourselves and say that originality in creating characters is not, at least through the series' first half, Rowling's strong suit. Harry, Ron and Hermione all play to certain archetypes that defy real characterization--Harry as the Byronic hero, Ron as his stumbling sidekick, and Hermione as, yes, the brainy schoolgirl. Yawn. Voldemort, as iconic as he is, is not really a man of complex character, and some of the minor characters--I'm looking at you, Lupin--are flat as boards. But I think in Dolores Umbridge, Rowling has really created a unique villain, someone who puts more chills in me than Voldemort ever could. Whereas Voldemort cashes in on all of those images we typically associate with fantastic evil--dark clothes, snakes, etc.--Umbridge inverts them, presenting a figure whose evil lurks behind kitty cat plates, pink dresses, and an almost robotlike unflappability. Her transformation from Ministry plant to High Inquisitor to the usurpation of the office of Headmaster is pitch-perfect; she is the epitome of the phrase, "the banality of evil." I do have some questions about her motivation--it's clear why Percy is such a Ministry toady, but what's in it, exactly, for Umbridge? But I don't think that those questions undermine her efficacy as a character, in fact, the mysteriousness of it all makes her all the more frightening.

As for Sirius, well, here's a character I initially thought didn't have a lot going for him--the bad-character-is-actually-a-good-character bait and switch of The Prisoner of Azkaban was a little too pat for my tastes, and I always sort of questioned how Sirius and Harry could form such a bond in so short of time. But I find that Order of the Phoenix does a lot to answer that question for me; after all, here is a boy clearly starved for guardian figures in the absence of his parents and a man who has been in the world's most horrendous prison for years for supposedly killing his Harry's parents, his best friends. Harry is his chance to be redeemed as well as the last living artifact of James and Lily's existence; it is no wonder that they gravitate to each other so strongly. What I like about Sirius in this book--that I don't think the other two books in which he is a presence really exhibit--is his conflictedness as a character, and the way his love for Harry often comes to conflict with his and Harry's safety. There is the real suggestion that the wisest decisions--like letting Harry leave for Hogwarts instead of staying at Twelve Grimmaud Place--are exceedingly difficult for Sirius; the way in which he follows Harry to the train platform as a dog (only to be recognized by Lucius Malfoy) is very un-Dumbledorelike in its foolishness. Rowling wisely avoids the trap set by other authority figures in this book--who, until this book, have been depicted as largely without flaws--and makes Sirius into a real figure, whose love for Harry may be his biggest shortcoming. When Sirius gives his life for Harry, it is all the more powerful because Rowling has worked so hard at making him a convincing character.

As a corollary, I also like the way that Rowling makes her regular characters a little more complex in this book. Dumbledore, who until now has been a little grating in his perfect wisdom, is shown to be an imperfect character by the way he has failed to tell Harry of the prophecy told about him until it was too late. Cho Chang, who might have been any old bimbo in The Goblet of Fire, is really fleshed out as Rowling shows her complicated feelings concerning Harry and the death of Cedric. Ron, who can usually be trusted to fuck up anything, is really given a reprieve by becoming a star Quidditch keeper, but moreso than that his early struggles as a poor player move his character beyond the realm of comedic relief, where bumbling sidekicks never feel bad about their bumbling. And then there's Neville Longbottom, whose development from goofy sidenote to important figure is really to Rowling's credit. All in all, I would go so far to say that this is Rowling's best book, character-wise, with one exception--Hagrid, who is always making Harry's life unnecessarily complicated with hare-brained schemes but no one calls him out for it.

So, there it is. Only two subcategories but I think they're strong. I don't have much to say about the style in this book, except that, apart from the lack of any really eye-catching scenes like the opening to The Goblet of Fire, is as good as its predecessor and decidedly above the Dan Brown minimum acceptable level.

Post-Script: Okay, so I said I wouldn't dwell on the book's flaws, but I had to mention this: Whatever happened to the watch that Hermione used to turn back time in The Goblet of Fire? We couldn't have used that to, oh, I don't know, save Sirius from an untimely death? What the fuck, Hermione.


Carlton said...

This really should have been split into two reviews.

Nihil Novum said...

This review is what inspired them to split the movies.