When Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released back in 2003, I loved it like everyone else, but like everyone else I was a bit put off by the darker, more angry Harry. Dude, I know Voldemort is back and that kid from last year died, but can’t you lighten up just a little? Harry’s teen angst made for a book that was not only the longest in the series, but the most aimless and boring. All I can ask myself now is, what the hell was I thinking? Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a remarkable book.
My new opinion of the book is informed right from the start with the opening chapter. Harry is slumming around Little Whinging during the hottest Summer on record, listening intently to news reports for hints of what Voldemort might be up to. His contact with the wizarding world has been minimal, with vaguely written letters from Ron and Hermione only making him more anxious. Everything is just too quiet and too slow, that is, until Dementors attack Harry and Dudley right there in the middle of a muggle town. Harry uses his powerful Patronus charm to stop them, which is really what kickstarts everything. Harry isn’t allowed to use magic outside of Hogwarts and he quickly receives a series of letters: Harry is expelled, told not to give up his wand, un-expelled, and told he will soon be picked up.
Finally a group of wizards, many of whom he has never seen before in his life, descend on the Dursleys’ house to get Harry. They are members of the Order of the Phoenix, a group put together by Dumbledore during the first war against Voldemore to fight Death Eaters. They bring Harry to Grimmuald Place, a house belonging to the Black family, that serves as the headquarters of the Order. Here Harry learns that the Ministry of Magic has launched a campaign to discredit Dumbledore and Harry and convince people that Voldemort has not returned.
To me, this is where the book becomes most compelling. The effect of the Ministry’s disinformation campaign on Harry is palpable. He has just been through so much during the Triwizard Tournament, what with the dangerous tasks and his meeting with Voldemort, and he has mostly been kept in the dark by Dumbledore and everyone else. To also face a wider wizarding world that believes he is lying is devastating. The angst that so many have complained about in Order of the Phoenix exists for a reason. Harry has never asked for his position, but he is heavily burdened by its responsibility. He is now confronting the dark side of his destiny. There will be those who do not side with him. There will be those who don’t believe in him. There will even be those who actively work against him.
The Ministry’s activities also paint a more complete vision of their role in everyday wizarding life. The Ministry is there to suppress information and control magical activities. The insane bureaucracy and traditions of their various departments makes for a portrait so labyrinthian and obtuse that it’s easy to see why they are so easily corruptible. And corrupt they are. Their stance against the return of Voldemort is set about by a few high ranking officials, including Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic. It’s a stance that actually doesn’t make much sense. Not only does all evidence point to Voldemort’s return, but the wizarding community at large would be much better protected if the Ministry was working to counter the Dark Lord’s influence. Still, Fudge’s personal inability to come to terms with reality make life that much more dangerous for Harry and his friends.
This is also the first book where we actually get to see the inside of the Ministry for Magic. Rowling deftly describes it as a giant, impressive, and in many ways oppressive place. When Harry goes there for his hearing on his use of the Patronus we really get a sense for what the Ministry is all about. It’s also here that we are introduced to the new villain for the book, Dolores Umbrdige. Umbridge becomes the Ministry-appointed Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and later is given the position of Hogwarts High Inquisitor.
The parallels to oppressive Fascist and Dictatorial regimes are clearly intended. Umbridge is there to maintain the anti-Dumbledore propaganda, as well as maintain a tight control over the learning and activities going on at Hogwarts. She even gets herself a group of students who act as informers and de facto police, exerting power over students as well as teachers. It’s great political allegory, but it also gives the book a more immediate obstacle than the more abstract threat of Voldemort. Plus, Umbridge’s special quill that carves writing into the back of the writer’s hand is really creepy.
And what of Voldemort? Well, this book has his presence mostly felt through dreams in which Voldemort controls Harry’s thoughts. This leads to some very serious questions about Harry’s culpability in the goings on. It also gives us Occlumency lessons with Snape. Any chance to give Snape a bigger role in the story is always welcome, and here he spends nights poorly trying to teach Harry to block his mind from intruders. The lessons don’t really help, partly because Harry does not practice very well, but they do give us a scene in which Harry sees some old memories Snape has stored away. Specifically, memories in which Harry’s father is a terrible bully, aiming his torment at a young Snape. This increases the doubts Harry has had, stemming from the third book, about his father’s heroism.
The issue of destiny also arises. I think as readers we always understood that Harry and Voldemort were destined to meet in some kind of final duel, but this book confirms that. It also explains the reason Voldemort was out to kill Harry as a baby, and it further entrenches the theme of choices as our defining characteristic. Voldemort had heard tell of a prophecy that said a baby would be born who would bring about his downfall. There were two kids who fit the described date, Harry and Neville. Voldemort chose to go after Harry, thus fulfilling the first part of the prophecy and sealing Harry’s fate as Voldemort’s ultimate nemesis. Now, Voldemort has realized he did not fully understand the meaning of the prophecy, and so he sets out to retrieve the it from the Hall of Prophecies in the Ministry of Magic. He lures Harry there for this purpose, and after the climactic events Dumbledore tells Harry the true nature of his destiny: neither can live while the other survives.
Finally, I’d like to make mention of Harry’s qualities as a leader. Until this book Harry has generally been pulled in one direction or another and without any real control over his situation. He has survived through a combination of supervision, resourcefulness and luck. But in Order of the Phoenix, in order to stand against Umbridge, Harry forms Dumbledore’s Army, a group of students who set about learning proper Defence Against the Dark Arts on their own. Harry is ostensibly the teacher, applying his past experience and helping the other students learn. It’s the first time we really get to see Harry in this sort of position, and though he is at first reluctant he shines in the role. it would be hard to believe in Harry as the only hope for the World in the final book if Rowling had not taken the care to develop this quality in him. With Dumbledore’s Army she does so in style.
There is so much more that’s great about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It’s a long book, but it is filled with heart and humour and suspense. It also continues the trend of subtle thematic, emotional and character development, this time taking a slightly more internalized approach to Harry himself. Many have complained that Harry is a character without much personality to hang on to, but I really think that Order of the Phoenix is the answer to that. So much of the book is about developing his own internal struggle and really allowing us to understand his thought process and empathize with his sometimes aggravating behaviour. Most of all, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a great read, and I highly recommend that anyone who was less that impressed by it upon its release should go back and give it another go. You might find yourself, as I was, surprised by just how great it is.