Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling is the fifth book in the series. I thought that, while slow in its early parts and a bit on the long side, the book was very good and that it ended on a very strong note. I found that Rowling displayed some of her best writing and characterization in the last part of the book.
During the first two thirds of the story, very little new happens. The narrative mostly consists of Harry’s day to day interactions at Hogwarts. The evil Voldemort is still hovering around the edges of the story. He seems be establishing a psychic connection to Harry. A group of adult wizards, known as the Order of the Phoenix, has reformed and is dedicated to fighting Voldemort. The order consists mostly of Harry’s adult friends who are at odds with other wizards that are in denial about Voldemort’s return. This time around, Harry’s enemies at school have gained in power and are making life miserable for the young protagonist. Even Harry’s friends seem to be underappreciating him. Harry reacts with some resentment and lashes out a bit. Though he encountered bullying and really bad treatment from both his peers and adults in all of the books, the escalating and constant parade of bad treatment and even abuse that Harry suffers in this book is a major plot point.
Things pick up in the latter third of the book. There is an epic battle between Harry and his friends and Voldemort’s supporters that becomes brutal. Harry’s surrogate father, Sirius Black, is killed. Some of his friends are seriously injured, and Harry is exposed to other shocks. Harry responds by displaying serious grief, anger and perhaps some signs of post -traumatic stress syndrome.
As in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, the story has turned darker. Tales of Voldemort’s torture and murders abound. Malicious teachers and students begin to run rampant at Hogwarts. The authoritarian Professor Umbridge wrests control of the school from the benevolent Albus Dumbledore and begins meting out physical abuse upon Harry and others.
This is the longest novel in the series so far. The book does seem long. At times, the plot feels like it is meandering on. I agree with what I have heard from others that this novel would have been better if it was shorter.
I thought that the book got a lot better in its last third. First, Rowling introduces several interesting ideas. One particularly intriguing concept involves bullying and the way in which people fall into being the perpetrators of it. Throughout the series, Harry and his friends are targeted by bullies on every level. Harry’s family, his school peers and some teachers are merciless bullies. In this book, these folks find that their power to be on the rise and the vitriol that they direct at Harry is redoubled. Things take a further ironic turn. At one point, Harry, gains access to Professor Severus Snape’s memories. He is shown a vision of Hogwarts twenty in the past where he sees that his father, James Potter, as well as the beloved Sirius Black, were themselves bullies and tormented an adolescent Snape. Harry observes as Snape is targeted,
Snape’s wand flew twelve feet into the air and fell with a little thud in the grass behind him. Sirius let out a bark of laughter.
‘Impedimenta!’ he said, pointing his wand at Snape, who was knocked off his feet halfway through a dive towards his own fallen wand.
Students all around had turned to watch. Some of them had got to their feet and were edging nearer. Some looked apprehensive, others entertained…
‘How’d the exam go, Snivelly?’ said James.
‘I was watching him, his nose was touching the parchment,’ said Sirius viciously. ‘There’ll be great grease marks all over it, they won’t be able to read a word.’
Several people watching laughed; Snape was clearly unpopular. Wormtail sniggered shrilly. Snape was trying to get up, but the jinx was still operating on him; he was struggling, as though bound by invisible ropes.
‘You – wait,’ he panted, staring up at James with an expression of purest loathing, ‘you – wait!’
‘Wait for what?’ said Sirius coolly. ‘What’re you going to do, Snivelly, wipe your nose on us?’
Snape let out a stream of mixed swear words and hexes, but with his wand ten feet away nothing happened.
‘Wash out your mouth,’ said James coldly. ‘Scourgify!’
Pink soap bubbles streamed from Snape’s mouth at once; the froth was covering his lips, making him gag, choking him
In the present day, Snape is now a bitter and angry character who bullies Harry to the point where it can be described as verbal abuse. (Snape’s character is much nastier in the books as opposed to how he was depicted in the films). However, in the above passage, Harry comes to understand why Snape has come to hate the Potter family.
Later, Harry confronts Sirius about the incident. Sirius guilty explains that it occurred a long time ago and attempts to rationalize it in other ways. It seems that Rowling is saying that there are a lot of people who did very questionable things in the past. Even those who we idolize are imperfect. She also seems to be observing how easy it is for some to fall into the role of a bully. I thought that this plot twist was very well done and added depth to this story.
This book continues the somewhat dark trend and introduces some more complex themes that are in line with what I wrote about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire . I think that Rowling continues to draw parallels with her wizarding world and the real world. At one point, Dumbledore observes how non-human creatures, such as elves, giants, goblins etc. have been terribly treated by human wizards throughout the centuries. Some of these creatures are now joining Voldemort. This situation seems akin to the treatment and ensuing consequences of non-Western peoples by the West.
As noted above, the novel ends very strongly. The interesting and complex themes that I mention above come to the forefront. There is a magical battle between Harry and his friends on one side and Voldemort’s followers on the other. The fight is superbly written and conveys the chaos and violence that is inherent in a real-life street fight. This fracas is one of the highlights of the novel.
Though this book starts out a bit tedious and unoriginal, it eventually gets very good. Some interesting themes are also introduced. Rowling also displays some of her best chops towards the ending. This is another entertaining entry in the series.