The beast is conquered! The longest and most convoluted of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chose a terrible time to be my current read: I started it the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the holiday season, working, and a death in the family all arrived very shortly after so it took me far longer than expected to finish this monster up. Once the hell week of Thanksgiving was over, my work schedule calmed down and I managed to complete this book in about two days of concentrated reading. I enjoyed it more than expected, but it was also my least favorite so far.
Wow, this one was a beast. A fantastic beast, but still a beast. From here onward, it’s pretty clear that Rowling is only taking us darker. We ended The Goblet of Fire with a death and the return of Voldemort, so we were set up for trouble in the fifth installment, but I hardly expected it to go so badly so soon! We’d been sailing along for four novels, focused on kid’s plot and drama, and suddenly, we’re thrust into some very mature themes and dilemmas. I think one of my favorite parts of the series is Rowling’s dedication to growing every aspect of the story as the readers are growing themselves. Every installment/year, it gets a little darker, and readers are asked to think a little more seriously about the events of the novel, and more importantly, the characters. We see Harry, Ron, and Hermione (along with everyone else) grow up a little, but we’re also reminded that despite being wizards facing some serious dangers, they are just kids and they don’t make the right choices all the time. It’s one of my favorite aspects of Rowling’s work, how she keeps her characters in flux, keeps them growing, and keeps them real.
I had more complaints with this installment than any other in the series so far, but I have to admit that I see the narrative function of nearly every one of my complaints. Rowling frustrates me, but she’s doing it deliberately.
Harry starts off this book angry and he doesn’t stop being angry for hardly a second. He’s at maximum capacity here, and we’re reminded how hard his life is, and how it’s really a wonder that he’s made it to fifteen. Not only is he constantly in some kind of mortal danger, but he is utterly without emotional support for a large majority of the novel. This comes from a few places: he has no parents to protect or guide him and Sirius doesn’t prove to be a very effective replacement; he is eager to prove himself as strong and in control so he refuses to talk when he should talk and cry when he should cry and break down when he should break down; he is facing so much at once that he struggles to find suitable outlet for his feelings, which often conflict or grind against one another; he is isolated, sometimes by his own doing and sometimes by the choice of others; he’s a teenager with way more on his plate than his already mixed up body can cope with. I wanted to reach in and give him a big hug nearly every chapter. This book took the biggest toll on my emotional self as well: I was frustrated with Harry, annoyed with Dumbledore, anxious about Voldemort, sad about Sirius, disappointed in some characters and proud of others.
Rowling does a superb job of making us feel right alongside Harry, so every slight against him is a slight against us, but she’s also careful to make sure we don’t always side with Harry because he doesn’t always make the right calls. That is so important. Being able to see flaws in our heroes is something that this book does a good job of teaching us and Harry. Fred and George sometimes bully Ron, Hermione says some unkind things to Luna, Ron starts fights that don’t need to be fought. It doesn’t make us hate these characters, but it does remind us that they are humans with feelings and impulses that sometimes go unchecked.
As we get more time with him, we start to see flaws in Sirius, who I have already said I was a big fan of. We see he’s reckless and rash, which aren’t good combinations for the guardian of Harry Potter to be in possession of. We understand why he’s so anxious to leave the house and participate in the Order more actively, but we also can recognize how horrible of an idea that is. We also see a lot of conflict when Mrs. Weasley, and later Hermione, points out that Sirius is treating Harry as if he were James, instead of his godson. Against this, we also finally get a glimpse of James and Lily Potter that is substantial — we see Sirius and James bullying Snape, Lupin ignore the bad behavior of his friends, and Lily attempt to stand up for Snape, who resolutely refuses her help (we feel bad for him until he calls Lily a mudblood for her efforts to help). James, our hero’s heroic father who died protecting his family, who was a star Quidditch player, and was known the Wizarding world over as a leading force in the rebellion against Voldemort, becomes little better than Draco Malfoy as he relentlessly mocks Snape and acts out for attention. He paints an unsavory picture of himself. With all three of our Marauder heroes, we see their shining armor may not be as gleaming as we thought. Sirius and Lupin both get a chance to explain to Harry, and even resent their behavior (but neither seems to apologize to Snape). It’s a small redeeming moment, which is greater in power as evidence of the growth that humans experience. Harry can expect to change just as much by the time he’s their age, and we already have borne witness to his growth as a person.
This book also introduces our Silver Trio of Neville, Luna, and Ginny. They’ve all circled about in the background, but their own character growth in the background of Harry’s story is illuminated when they each in turn display bravery and cunning worthy of Harry’s own best friends. Ginny becomes more vocal and active (which Hermione credits to her getting over her crush on Harry), Luna comes forward and proves a handy connection for Harry to have, and Neville, who’s backbone had been steadily growing since he stood up to the Golden Trio in the first novel, comes forward as a more dimensional character. I’m excited to watch these figures grow as the series winds to a close.
The end of the novel, for all its grief, is my favorite. Not only does the Voldemort plot split open even wider and envelope more lives than merely Harry’s as it becomes the business of the entire Wizarding world, but we also bear witness to the Prophecy which begins to give us an idea of where this series is going and how it must end. Harry’s most serious and interesting thinking comes forward at the end as he grabbles with depression and grief, and Rowling gives us a wonderful insight into his mind and heart. We also get some ideas about how the Harry/Voldemort situation began, and see the connection of the Neville/Harry links that Rowling had been sneaking into the narrative so far. We also see Dumbledore in action, after nearly an entire novel without hide or hair of him. Dumbledore became incredibly human in the final chapters, as we see his feelings about Harry and the Prophecy come to the surface. He had so far been a mysterious, god-like figure, but Albus Dumbledore becomes a man as he confesses his errors and misjudgments and promises to do better by Harry in the future.
Overall, I liked how we were winding up to the bigger picture with this installment, how we begin to see the outlines of the shadow in the distance that is the finale. It was a more draining read than the others so far, but I still enjoyed it nonetheless.
So we’re on to book six, thankfully leaving Umbridge behind for a while, and December is upon us! Time to cuddle up and take advantage of some serious holiday reading!