Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix book cover
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series. Having witnessed Voldemort's return to power the previous school year, Harry, frustratingly for him, is once more deposited at his Aunt and Uncle's door for the summer. He pays great attention to the muggle news, watching out for stories that might relate to wizards but manages to discern little. However, magic is never far away, and when Harry protects himself and Dudley from a Dementor attack in leafy Surrey there is a very real threat that he may be expelled from Hogwarts for the crime of practicing magic as an underage wizard. Happily, Dumbledore steps in and Harry is allowed to return to Hogwarts. However, things are not quite as he had expected. The Ministry of Magic are staunchly denying Voldemort's return, aided by The Daily Prophet, who have launched a smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore. With students questioning not only Harry's honesty but his sanity too, it looks like it will be a bleak year for the teenage wizard. This is only compounded by the installation of Ministry hack, Dolores Umbridge, as new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Umbridge is a vile, vindictive woman, and as her ministry-granted powers grow, she comes to dominate the school. She also refuses to teach practical lessons, and so Harry steps into the breach, imparting his own practical knowledge to a brave few, whilst agonising about his own life as a regular teenager; girls, exams, and sports (Quidditch!). When Harry begins to have recurring visions of Voldemort attempting to break into the Ministry of Magic and steal a very important prophecy he feels compelled to act, but he doubts both the visions and the power he himself can command.

Knowledge has always been important in the Harry Potter series, with Rowling prizing education highly. Here it becomes clear that Harry's education means more than simply his wizarding lessons, but rather his experience of life and the knowledge he picks up as a consequence of his experiences. Dumbledore slowly reveals the mystery of Harry's own past as Harry grows into life. Here the young wizard finally has the full implications of the prophecy revealed and is both burdened and empowered by the knowledge. With the Ministry of Magic interfering in the running of Hogwarts, there is a real danger that Harry and the other students’ education will be diminished. Taking this matter into his own hands (with more than a small helping hand from Hermione) Harry acts to protect the education of his fellow students by running secret Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons for a select few (who are known as Dumbledore’s army), and in so doing emphasises the importance of knowledge when facing a harsh world.

Under the watch of Dolores Umbridge, the healthy school rivalry between houses is corrupted and divisions are more deeply cut, with Umbridge's Inquisitor Squad, made up of Slytherins like Malfoy, constant rivals to Dumbledore's Army and a thorn in Harry's side. Those that are loyal to Dumbledore stand strong but others fall, perhaps loyal to a different cause, or just scared and struggling with uncertainty.

Beyond the malicious bureaucracy of the Ministry, Umbridge demonstrates the extent to which unchecked power can corrupt. With the full backing of the Ministry she unleashes a string of vindictive rules that are designed purely to punish those that she deems distasteful. Under Umbridge, Hogwarts becomes a totalitarian state where she attempts to control all beneath her and employs her network of spies to ensure she is obeyed.

With all this going on, it’s easy to forget how young Harry is. O.W.L exams humanise the students’ experience but they also demonstrate the divide between book learning and practical knowledge. Harry may be an average student but he has more than enough knowledge to be a valuable alternative to the theory-based defence against the dark arts lessons that Umbridge delivers. However, as more is asked of Harry, and with seemingly less support from Dumbledore, he lashes out not only at his enemies but his friends too, his teenage angst misdirected but smouldering. Occlumency, the skill of closing one's mind to malicious invasions, demonstrates the need to control one's emotions and feelings, and further demonstrates that Harry is still an adolescent, unable to fully master himself or the subject.

Harry's world is more complex now, with truth not only being withheld, but lies being disseminated, chiefly by the Ministry of Magic and the wizarding media. Even Harry and his associates become smart to the need for something more than the truth and begin to deceive in their own quest for good. With the control of information and propaganda coming to the fore, this is a more sophisticated world that Harry must navigate and he grows into it painfully.

With the increasing length of the books, Rowling writing falls under greater scrutiny. Sadly her less sophisticated style doesn't always hold its own over such a page count. The plot can be repetitive and there is an awful lot about the minutiae of being a student. At times this is valuable and enjoyable back story, at others it is indulgent or lazy. A lot of the book could have been edited down and a lot more thought could have gone into the central mystery. What one does gain from the increased length is a greater insight into a wider range of characters, the connections between them becoming stronger.

The teenage dramas are well done, and there is a real sense that Rowling understands the age group - her three central teenage heroes developing into clearly recognisable teenage types. While the boys struggle with raging hormones and clumsy socialising with the fairer sex, Hermione bubbles with feisty, well-directed intelligence. While some of the characters develop, others seem to become confused. For a character who stewed for a decade in the filth of Azkaban, Syrius here becomes almost as stroppy as the teenage characters, and one wonders where the gnarled, strong character that appeared in the Prisoner of Azkaban has gone.

The much anticipated death is foreshadowed by a series of comedic false-starts, a soap-opera-like technique that perhaps suggests Rowling was by this point writing for the crowd, the anticipation, rather than for the story. Equally, for a novel of this length, when the death eventually arrives it is rather underplayed. A pity as such a large event could have been a rare spark of genuine plot progression that might have warranted a reaction worth reading about from the characters left to deal with the circumstance.

In creating a totalitarian state and focusing on the troubles of adolescence, Rowling begins to focus more on the human side of her world and moves away from the magical. This leaves something lacking, and perhaps pitches the work at a more cynical, adult level. Compassion and tolerance still strike strong themes here, but there is a new need for rebellion and cynicism in the book.

The prophecy, far from offering anything truly revelatory, proves to be something that most readers will have assumed or guessed early on in the series. That the whole plot is built around this means the book is on weak footing. Nevertheless, there are still details to be enjoyed here, as Harry’s world is developed still further.

There is some good stuff here, but it's buried in an awful lot of waffle. Whilst this is indulgent, there is something comfortable about reading the smaller details of Harry's life. Order of the Phoenix is flabby, but still enjoyable.


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Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on Amazon (US)

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