15 December, 2003Issue 3.1FictionLiterature

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Growing Pains

Gillian Dow

J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Bloomsbury, 2003
766 pages

Where were you on the 21st of June 2003? Queuing up outside your local bookstore as the clock struck midnight? Gritting your teeth and scorning the stupidity of the masses? Or somewhere in between, bemused by the hype, but also looking forward to the next instalment in JK Rowling’s tale of a boy wizard? Many commentators have lamented the hard-sell marketing that accompanied the launch of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth in the series of J.K. Rowling’s Potter books. Well before the publication date, there was much speculation about the plot (someone, it was whispered – indeed, a main character – would die!). Rowling chose to be interviewed by a heavyweight political commentator, Jeremy Paxman.1 During the resulting television programme, we were shown copies of the book and given elusive hints that we might ‘learn more about Snape’ and Harry’s past. Impatient with media reverence, David Aaranovitch, writing in the Guardian,2 told us it was impossible to ‘live in the Western world and be unaware that there is a new Rowling book’. And several critics resorted to mud slinging and preaching from the pulpit of ‘high-culture’. A.S. Byatt’s article in the New York Times damned the adult readers of the Potter books, which she said are ‘written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated… mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip’.3

This reviewer is one of that despised group. I ordered my copy of The Order of the Phoenix in advance from Amazon, was annoyed when it was not delivered on the publication date, wrote a disgruntled email to the distributors, and settled down happily with all 766 pages when it finally arrived. The previous book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, had ended with a cliffhanger. The dreaded Lord Voldemort had returned, killing one of Harry’s classmates, and regrouping his faithful Death-Eaters around him. The whole of Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry was informed of the resurrection by their headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, and sent home for the school holidays with the words ‘remember Cedric Diggory’ ringing in their ears. It is little wonder, then, that the opening of The Order of the Phoenix shows Harry becoming more and more agitated as summer drifts by without news of You-Know-Who. When Harry eventually gets to meet the Order of the Phoenix – the group that Dumbledore has hastily reassembled to fight the Dark Lord – he learns that the Ministry of Magic has been discrediting the story of Voldemort’s return and has demoted Dumbledore from all positions of power outside Hogwarts. Despite Dumbledore’s seeming optimism – ‘Dumbledore says he doesn’t care what they do as long as they don’t take him off the Chocolate Frog Cards’ – things are looking bleak. The members of the Order point out that it is hard for them to convince the public that there is danger when those who govern them insist there is none. As Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, puts it, if ‘everyone thinks I’m a mass-murderer and the Ministry’s put a ten thousand Galleon price on my head, I can hardly stroll up the street and start handing out leaflets, can I?’

In The Order of the Phoenix we are in a larger and more frightening world than in the previous Potter books. It is a more grown-up world where, for example, the government controls the media. The Daily Prophet are running a nasty anti-Potter campaign, as eager to do down celebrities as our own press, and the impending danger is worse for being unknown. Voldemort is back, but he doesn’t seem to be acting. In the meantime, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, is creating plenty of terror on her own. Marina Warner, in her article ‘Did Harry have to grow up?’,4 points out that Umbridge’s idea of detention is something that ‘recalls the tortures of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony’. Harry is fifteen in this book, the Bildsdungroman of the sequence. He has his first kiss, a couple of disastrous dates, discovers that his adored father ‘had been every bit as arrogant as Snape had told him’, and ends the book feeling isolated from his friends, and more alone than ever before.

One of the important lessons Harry must learn is that ‘the world isn’t split into good people and death-eaters’. There are truly vile characters such as Umbridge, who is not in league with Voldemort, and there are good people who make bad decisions: Percy Weasley, for example, has argued with his family and decided to attempt to further his career by siding with the Ministry against them. The wizarding world’s sense of superiority over the rest of the magical community is perilous – house elves, centaurs and goblins are all shown to be rightly disgruntled, and the symbol of the fountain of magical brethren is quite literally shattered at the end of the book. Even poking fun at Muggles – ‘muggle-baiting’- is shown to be an expression of something more sinister.

Marina Warner’s view is that ‘something about Harry growing up has taken away Rowling’s own sense of fun and, with it, Harry’s hopes and high spirits’. It is certainly true that The Order of the Phoenix is a darker creation than its predecessors. Harry himself spends the first half of the book extremely angry (AND THE RESULTING CAPITALISATION IS SOMEWHAT WEARING). But the inventiveness of the new places in the magical world, the Ministry of Magic, and St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, is as delightful as the very first description of Owl Post. And our favourite characters are all there: Mr Weasley’s enthusiasm for all things Muggle-related is unabated (‘”simply fabulous” he whispered, indicating the automatic ticket machine’ in the London Underground), Peeves is ever ready with his doggerel insults (‘oh, most think he’s barking, the potty wee lad/but some are more kindly and think he’s just sad’) and there is even a brief return of Gilbert Lockhart, the vain former Defence of the Dark Arts teacher, not seen since Book Two. There are also enough minor new characters to keep readers entertained; Nymphadora Tonks, the Auror who likes to change the shape of her nose during dinner and Luna Lovegood, eccentric and a victim of severe bullying, are two of the most appealing.

Where Rowling excels, however, is in relating the Hogwarts experience to the world her readers know. We may never have sat OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels – the wizarding examinations taken at the end of the fifth year at school), but we’ve all had the kind of careers interviews that involve looking at endless leaflets with titles like ‘So You Think You’d Like to Work in Muggle Relations?’ and ‘Have You Got What it Takes to Train Security Trolls?’ And we were all at school with someone like Ernie Macmillan, who, we learn, ‘had developed an irritating habit of interrogating people about their revision practices’:

‘How many hours d’you think you’re doing a day?’ he demanded of Harry and Ron as they queued outside Herbology, a manic gleam in his eyes.
‘I dunno,’ said Ron. ‘A few.’
‘More or less than eight?’
‘Less, I s’pose,’ said Ron, looking slightly alarmed.
‘I’m doing eight,’ said Ernie, puffing out his chest. ‘Eight or nine. I’m getting an hour in before breakfast every day. Eight’s my average. I can do ten on a good weekend day. I did nine and a half on Monday. Not so good on Tuesday – only seven and a quarter. Then on Wednesday – ’

The Second War may be about to begin, but there are still Divination homeworks to be fabricated and Quidditch matches to be won. Hagrid will always have a new monster to conceal, Mrs Weasley will always be delighted about a new prefect in the family, and Harry and Ron will never read Hogwarts: a History. It is these recurring themes that remind the reader throughout The Order of the Phoenix that Rowling always intended the Harry books to be a seven-part series, that the project was thought through long before the marketing started, before the films and the accompanying merchandise. Minor details from earlier books are brought up and explained. When Harry is shown to the Room of Requirements by Dobby the House Elf, and told that this room always equips itself for the user’s needs, he is reminded of a much earlier episode: ‘if you really needed a bathroom,’ said Harry, suddenly remembering something Dumbledore had said at the Yule Ball the previous Christmas, ‘would it fill itself with chamber pots?’ It is attention to detail, humour and a fast pace that makes Rowling a fine storyteller. Derivative, certainly, revolutionary, perhaps not. Worth a read, yes. Lets hope the hype doesn’t put too many people off.

Gillian Dow is in the final year of a DPhil on the 18th Century French author, Mme de Genlis, author of works for children with edifying titles such as Eglantine, or Indolence Reformed. Those who think the ‘Harry Potter’ series is moralising should try Genlis.


  1. ‘Newsnight’, 18 June, 2003.
  2. ‘We’ve been muggled’, The Guardian – 22 June, 2003.
  3. ‘Harry Potter and the Childish Adult’, The
    New York Times
    – 7 July 2003.
  4. ‘Did Harry have to grow up’, The Observer,
    29 June, 2003.