Review by Christopher G. Nuttall
During the three-year wait between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, I read a lot of Harry Potter fan-fiction. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, some of it was ground-breaking at the time (and now looks ridiculous), some of it was of questionable morality and some of it was just plain stupid. But, when I finally put down my copy of Order of the Phoenix, I was left with the thought that some of the fan-fiction was simply better than the canonical book. Order of the Phoenix marks the start of Harry Potter’s slow decline.
This is, in many ways, the result of Harry Potter’s nature. Rowling did not stay within the limits of fiction for one age group. She did not intend to write a series aimed principally at children (The Worst Witch), teenagers (Schooled in Magic) or adults (The Magicians), but one that would grow up with its characters. It was an ambitious decision and one that, in some ways, failed. The contradictions between childish tropes and more adult concepts weakened the series. For example, in the early books, the Dursleys are little more than comic relief, characters akin to Matilda’s parents; in the later books, the Dursleys are unwilling and helpless conscripts in a war they can neither fight nor escape, victimised by the ‘good’ guys and threatened by the bad guys. It does not excuse their treatment of Harry, but it does make it a little more understandable. But the two conflicting versions of Harry’s unwanted relatives simply do not sit well together.
As the book opens, the war comes home with a vengeance: Harry and Dudley are attacked by Dementors, forcing Harry to use magic in self-defence. This leads rapidly to threats from the Ministry of Magic, with Harry eventually forced to stand trial in front of the entire Wizarding World’s government. (As one commenter pointed out, Minister Fudge tried to stampede them into an act of state against Harry.) Worse, perhaps, Harry discovers that his friends – Ron and Hermione – have been at the Order of the Phoenix’s headquarters for weeks, while he’s been stuck with his relatives. They didn’t tell him anything. Harry – in a foretaste of his unpleasant transition into adolescence – does not take it well. He feels like he’s being left out of everything important.
It rapidly becomes clear that he’s right. Although his trial barely gets off the ground, thanks to a hasty intervention by Dumbledore, the grown-ups are reluctant to tell him anything and have to be forced to give him the bare minimum. Indeed, Harry’s sense of being left out is only worsened when Ron and Hermione become prefects – and he doesn’t. And matters get worse at Hogwarts. Fudge, determined to keep his head firmly in the sand about Voldemort’s return to power, has appointed the sadistic (and thoroughly useless) Dolores Umbridge as DADA teacher. It rapidly becomes clear that Umbridge has no intention of teaching her pupils anything. Worst of all, Harry needs to take lessons in shielding his mind … from Snape.
Harry – with some pushing from Hermione – fights back by forming Dumbledore’s Army, a covert DADA study group. However, his attempts to learn how to shield his mind are far less successful (as proved by the constant stream of nightmares, courtesy of Voldemort) and, when he goes snooping, he discovers that Snape has very good reason to hate James Potter. He was the target of a borderline sexual assault. Relations between Snape and Harry break down completely, leaving Harry’s mind exposed to the Dark Lord. And then he becomes convinced that Sirius Black is being held captive in the Ministry of Magic …
Taking the bulk of Dumbledore’s Army with him, Harry enters the Ministry … only to discover that it’s a trap. A small army of Death Eaters is waiting for them. They fight valiantly, but are eventually overwhelmed and nearly captured, only to be saved in the nick of time by the Order of the Phoenix. Dumbledore briefly duels with Voldemort before the Dark Lord escapes, leaving too many Death Eaters behind as prisoners. Fudge, who sees Voldemort, before he escapes, can no longer deny his return …
… And Harry, once again, is returned to his relatives.
There are good things about Order of the Phoenix. It’s nice to see Harry being a little more proactive, although he has to be pushed into it by Hermione. It’s also nice to see the romantic elements of the plot being downgraded, with Harry’s abortive relationship with Cho Chang crashing and burning in a realistic manner. Harry, going through the worst of adolescence, is in no state for a proper romance and learns it the hard way. The tangled web of Ron/Hermione relationship is also quite realistic, with Hermione sending Ron some pretty mixed messages and Ron feeling – again – as if he’s been beaten by someone far superior to him.
Indeed, both Ron and Hermione go through additional development of their own … development that shows their flaws. Both prefects, both fail at their roles; Hermione fails by being too bossy – there are hints that she tries to make herself the unofficial Head Prefect – while Ron fails through being overshadowed by Hermione and his brothers. (And really, was it fair to ask Ron to keep Fred and George in line?) Hermione also starts to develop a striking ruthlessness that suggests she could become far more dangerous in the future, although she also starts to demonstrate the limits of her intellect. She can and does parrot romantic advice to Harry, but she’s strikingly bad at applying it – and other things – to her own life. If we assume that the older generation and the younger generation are meant to mirror each other – Harry as Snape, Ron as Sirius – then I can’t help feeling that Umbridge is Hermione’s counterpart. She is what Hermione could become, if Hermione allows her darker side to rule.
It’s also nice to see other personal details. The Weasley Family starts to crack apart with Percy, feeling understandably betrayed by his parents and siblings, choosing to walk away from them and side with the Ministry (although it’s quite possible that Percy was working for Dumbledore all along, as someone had to warn the headmaster that the time and date of the trial had been changed at very short notice). It’s notable that Percy’s letter to Ron contains a great deal of information the trio need at precisely the moment they need it. Molly, by contrast, seems to be coming apart at the seams, bossing Harry around and generally trying to keep him away from Sirius. This may not be entirely misguided. There are quite a few clues that Sirius has turned into a drunkard.
Indeed, the ‘consolation’ that the Order tried to offer to Harry – by degenerating the very position of a prefect – could not have fallen well on Ron’s ears. Right from the start, people are telling him that he’s useless or that he’s got a useless role – again. Even Dumbledore says that Harry should have been Prefect. Ron’s failure was practically inevitable. When he says that Hermione will handle trouble in the common room, as some others have pointed out, it’s a sign that he has mentally resigned from his position. And who can blame him?
Order of the Phoenix is also the first book where Dumbledore’s failings start to become impossible to miss. Two of them, in particular, are incredibly dangerous. We are told that a degree of trust is necessary between the teacher and pupil where shielding one’s mind is concerned, but there is no trust between Harry and Snape. They hate each other, not without reason on both sides. Worse, if Snape succeeded in teaching Harry to shield his mind, Voldemort would not be very pleased with him. Snape, the only person on Dumbledore’s chess board who is not expendable, would be put at immense risk. Did Dumbledore calculate that Harry wouldn’t be able to learn? Or did Snape deliberately sabotage the lessons? The whole kabuki play might have been intended to give Snape another in with the Dark Lord.
Worse, Dumbledore leaves Sirius in his house – house arrest, Snape mocks, and he has a point – when Sirius needs to be doing something. And there is something he could do – DADA! If Barty Crouch Jr. Can pose as a teacher for a year, why can’t Sirius pretend to be a random wizard and do the same? It would ensure that the Ministry doesn’t have the excuse to appoint Umbridge, would it not? Sirius is hardly stable, but he’d still be a far better hire.
Rowling also introduces us to two new characters, Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange. The former is very much a lawful evil character – she is a bureaucrat who uses the rules to get what she wants, rather than jumping outside them – while the latter is chaotic evil personified. (Weirdly, Umbridge does not appear to have ever been formally a Death Eater, even though she is more extreme in her views than some of the Death Eaters we meet.) It’s easy to see how Umbridge manipulates the rules to chase Dumbledore out of Hogwarts and take control – and also how she loses control, when the school starts to rebel against her. In some ways, her lack of control when faced with the unanticipated mirrors Hermione having the same issue. Bellatrix, on the other hand, is fired with evil and bathes in chaos.
I do wonder if Voldemort deliberately intended to get most of his Death Eaters captured at the Ministry. It’s curious to note who isn’t there – Snape and Pettigrew do not seem to have been invited to the party – and also that Voldemort managed to rescue one of his most loyal followers, Bellatrix Lestrange, without making any attempt to free the others. Did he want them captured? It would make it impossible for them to claim to have been under a spell for the second time (particularly when he had plans to attack the Ministry fairly soon) and bind them closer to him. But … if not … how were a bunch of inexperienced kids able to hold their own for so long against adult wizards? Could it be that Voldemort was never as threatening as the Wizarding World believes? There is a neat little analogy between the Death Eaters and the terrorists threatening our society. They are only strong as long as we fear to move. That fear will not last.
But, at the same time, Order of the Phoenix is a colossal missed opportunity. Harry being kept in the dark – a wise precaution, as Harry isn’t in a trustworthy state even without the Dark Lord probing his mind – makes it harder to see what’s going on. Worse, perhaps, Harry misses an opportunity to reach out to Snape – and Slytherin House in general. Given that both Harry and Snape experienced bullying and domestic abuse from a very early age, they should have at least tried to build a rapport. Harry apologising on behalf of his father might have gone some way towards building a bridge. And Harry is determined to ensure that his students pass their exams, but he makes no attempt to invite anyone from Slytherin. Is the entire house irredeemably evil? Or is Harry just being as discriminatory as a Muggle-hating Death Eater?
And while Harry does start to grow up a little, in this book, he simply doesn’t grow up enough. He should have reached a point, now, when he starts to assert himself, claiming independence from the adults who are trying to direct his life. And yet he does not. He has been given conclusive evidence that Dumbledore is not all-knowing, that Dumbledore, Molly and others will make decisions on his behalf … and, most importantly of all, that those decisions may not be very good. And yet, he doesn’t manage to assert himself properly. He also makes stupid mistakes that get his godfather killed. I won’t even get into the blundering stupidity of naming his defence club ‘Dumbledore’s Army’. Harry, you little idiot. That’s exactly what the Ministry fears! You dropped all the proof they could possibly want in their life.
Overall, Order of the Phoenix is not without its strengths. Dolores Umbridge is instantly hateable because we’ve all met an Umbridge, someone who screws around with the rules to screw us. She’s far more common than Lord Voldemort. (And it’s hard to understand why the author who created her has problems understanding why so many people hated Hillary Clinton.) But it also has its weaknesses. It is neither a childish book nor an adult book, but sits uneasily on the dividing line. It’s younger characters have yet to take on their adult roles. Indeed, many of the problems I have noted – and others – stem from Order of the Phoenix being a bridge between Goblet of Fire and Half-Blood Prince.
And while it has its moments, its weaknesses drag it down.