Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Dystopia (Part 1) * 2003
Last time we were at Hogwarts, it was readily apparent that dark times were coming. Well, now they’re here. From here on out the situation within the wizarding world only gets worse and worse and the previously joyous and whimsical atmosphere becomes more and more oppressive. The set up for this book is pretty simple. Voldemort, the evil Dark Wizard with a desire for immortality, has returned. Nobody in the wizarding community wants to deal with this, because he was such a nightmare the last time he had power. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is about a lot of things, but the crux of the book is about the intransigence of the Ministry of Magic in the face of imminent danger.
Meanwhile, heroic teen-boy Harry is at his adolescent worst, which makes sections of this book hard to read. As I’ve brought up previously, Rowling does a magnificent job of presenting an unflinching viewpoint of a moody, angsty, despondent teenager. That’s not always a fun viewpoint to read from and there are times when I definitely wanted to reach into the pages and smack his dumb teen head around a little bit. Yet if we’re being fair, it should be very clear that Harry has every right to be angry with the situations he finds himself in. Sure, he makes some of them worse by being an insufferable fifteen-year-old, but he’s dealing with some seriously heavy shit throughout this book, the vast majority of which is beyond his limited control. That would be frustrating for anyone, so the tone of the novel makes sense. It’s just… a lot to deal with. Also maybe don’t take it out on the people who love you and are not responsible for your situation. Dickhead. Of course, it doesn’t get much better moving forward. Anyway, beyond that this is the one with the loathsome Dolores Umbridge, Sirius Black’s horrible house, series M.V.P. Luna Lovegood, Dumbledore’s Army, Occlumency, some of Snape’s backstory, Grawp, O.W.L.s, and the darkest ending yet.
The Order of the Phoenix is where Harry Potter gets political, and it’s weird. I don’t mean political in the real world sense, obviously, but the role of government becomes the major theme of this book, and in a lot of ways becomes the focus of the series going forward. Yes, Voldemort is still the big bad evil villain. Yet it’s remarkable how little we see of him from here on out. In this particular book, he’s not even the biggest threat to Harry, his friends, Hogwarts, and the wizarding world at large. That would be the Ministry of Magic, the leadership decisions of the Minister, Cornelius Fudge, and the policies put forth by his government and their effects on the wizarding public. Of course, the reason the government becomes so obtrusive is a direct consequence of Voldemort’s return, but most of the actual damage done in this book is done by bad governing.
While Dolores Umbridge is the most visible villain in this book, and she is a wonderfully awful nightmare person, she is present in Hogwarts at the direction of the Cornelius Fudge, who sucks at his job. He’s extremely vain and paranoid, and places his own sense of importance over the welfare of his constituents. You know, like a politician. His whole deal is that he’s terrified that Dumbledore wants his job. This makes no actual sense, considering that Dumbledore could have had his position like five times over and turned it down, but when has logic ever gotten in the way of a politician’s ego? The problem, however, is that Fudge dictates policy within the Ministry, and his irrational fear of Dumbledore causes him to make all the wrong decisions in regards of the largest threat facing the wizarding world.
Instead of mobilizing against the resurgent Wizard Nazis, Fudge pretends that they don’t exist and are therefore not a threat. This is a very Neville Chamberlin move of ignoring blatant hostility by a powerful, racist enemy, and of course the consequences turn out disastrously. To make matters even worse, and this is where any real-world analogue is lost (at least insofar as my limited knowledge of British history is concerned), Fudge turns authoritarian in his effort to ignore the truth. He unleashes Umbridge on Hogwarts in an attempt to lock down the educational system and to neutralize Dumbledore. He turns the media into a State organ, not unlike Soviet-era Pravda. The intricacies of Wizard Government are never spelled out – I assume they’re a democratic body, although I’m not sure there’s an equivalent to Parliament – but Fudge’s influence is clearly paramount to policy here.
Since the Ministry of Magic is hostile, the good guys are forced underground, which makes their job much harder. One of the first things Harry must do is head to the Ministry in order to face the Wizengamot, which appears to be a judiciary body. Harry’s been charged with using underage magic since he had to bust out his Patronus to save his idiot cousin from dementors. Harry is acquitted, of course, but the fact that Fudge is abusing his power in order to strike at Dumbledore through Potter is made exceedingly clear. After the trial, Fudge shifts tactics and leans on his influence with the media. As a result, the Order of the Phoenix must also fight a counter-propaganda campaign as well as continue their clandestine war against the Death Eaters. They’re essentially fighting two separate wars.
As the story moves on, Umbridge becomes the Fudge surrogate in Hogwarts, and is given unprecedented power through various Ministry decrees, all of which are varying shades of totalitarian. Unlike Fudge, Umbridge is not motivated by fear. As far as I can tell, she’s a psychotic, racist, sadist who’s in love with her own power. In other words, she’s the worst possible person to take over Hogwarts save Voldemort himself. She’s a representative of the repressive arm of the government, which is demonstrated through her willingness to torture students while simultaneously depriving them of an actual education. The formation of Dumbledore’s Army is a nice break from the oppressive atmosphere and I love Luna and Neville with all my heart. The D.A. is also a look at resistance dynamics within an oppressive regime.
The conduct of the Ministry of Magic is of course the larger-picture, macro-scale problem in The Order of the Phoenix. From the perspective of Harry Potter, whose head we’re unfortunately stuck in (and starting with this book I almost wish Rowling would have jumped around other character’s perspectives, George RR-style), the lack of Dumbledore’s communication is worse than what the Ministry is doing (or not doing, as the case may be). Fudge isn’t the only person with authority who makes a critical error over the course of the novel. For Harry, the unpleasant overall theme of this year at Hogwarts is the realization that everyone fucks up. Those in authority, even those you respect, can and will make errors in judgement. When all is said and done, critical errors can do lasting damage regardless of the intentions behind them.
While it is immensely satisfying to see Neville and Luna kick a little Death Eater ass towards the end of the novel, it’s hard to come away from The Order of the Phoenix in a good frame of mind, what with the death of Sirius Black and all. Harry has been utterly disillusioned at this point, and since he’s fifteen he handles it rather poorly. Can’t say I blame him. Dumbledore really biffed it, just donked the whole operation up, simply because he forgot how young people work. Harry, as heroes are wont to do, takes the blame for the situation entirely on himself. From the reader’s point of view, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Personally, I think it’s clear that most of it lies with Fudge and the grossly inadequate response by the Ministry of Magic. Had they been on the trolley from the jump, the situation at the end would never have arisen in the first place.
That said, neither Harry nor Dumbledore are without their share of responsibility. Obviously, Harry is a minor. Yes, his more obnoxious tendencies kept him from doing what he was told and practicing the Occlumency which would have prevented him from being a dumbass. However, he’s fifteen. It’s a lot to ask of a fifteen year old to overcome his flaws right away and do what is the clear (to us) right thing. Therefore Dumbledore has to answer for his failings, which he does. And his reasoning for keeping Harry at arm’s length is sound. He’s a kid, and this whole “murder the most evil wizard ever” thing is a big ask. All things considered, Harry does well dealing with all of his losses, which are more than anyone should have to deal with at that age (or ever, really). At this point, if he were a normal teenager, he would be a total delinquent, smokin’ hella wizard weed and doing crimes. But for all his flaws, he still has a solid support system, and is therefore able to push on. He’s a dang hero after all.
A Note on the Movie
Not unlike the books, the movies keep getting better as they go. Once again, the biggest issue facing the filmmakers is turning a long, complicated, nuanced novel into a two-ish hour movie. As before with Goblet of Fire, the story here is a much simplified, streamlined version of what we get in the book. As with all of the movies, I feel they work best as supplementary material to the novels. They just work better once you’re familiar with the full characterization and plots of the book. David Yates, who takes over directing from here on out, does an excellent job of continuing to adapt the atmosphere and overall vibe of the novel, which is to say that things are much darker and more ominous, and the whimsy quotient is dialed way back. Meanwhile, as the actors get older they continue to improve, and luckily for everyone involved Daniel Radcliffe is able to convey Harry’s overwhelming angst without being too obnoxious about it. The casting of new characters continues to be spot on. Umbridge and Luna are perfect. Obviously there are going to be details from the book I wish made it in the film, but as a whole it’s hard to say much bad about this one.