“Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.”
The fifth book in the Harry Potter series, Order of the Phoenix sees the Ministry for Magic desperately trying to suppress the news of Voldemort’s return, running a smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore and putting a Ministry employee, Dolores Umbridge, in a key teaching position at Hogwarts. Soon, with the help of countless Educational Decrees sanctioned by the cowardly Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge, Umbridge is effectively ruling the school, banning all kinds of things from Quidditch teams to copies of an eccentric magazine called The Quibbler. Meanwhile, Harry begins to discover a dangerous connection he has to Voldemort.
To me, Order of the Phoenix feels like a watershed moment in the series. It’s the book in which This Shit Gets Serious, with the wizarding world completely and utterly fucked; only its seriousness is treated not in a nuanced and complex way which explores the human propensity for evil (a la The Hunger Games, and I’m only half joking) but in a way that actually reduces the very real uncanniness of the earlier books into a kind of superficial gloss of Dark Shit. (Now that’s a colour you don’t want on your walls.)
Here’s what I think is going on. I think Order of the Phoenix is the book in which the role of magic and fantasy in the series begins to change. In the earlier books, Rowling is drawing on a long, long tradition of myths and legends and archetypes and folklore (riddles, mazes, the Philosopher’s Stone, quests, strange tongues, the magic castle, hidden chambers, the man with the thousand faces, the wise old mentor, and so on and so forth), an ancient store-cupboard of plots and ideas which is deeply familiar and very, very good at holding symbolic meaning. Magic works in those early books symbolically and metaphorically: it’s a deliberate device drawing on our shared mythological heritage to explore and to question. For instance: the monster in the hidden dungeon of a magical castle becomes in Chamber of Secrets a way of describing racism, figuring it as a violation of the safe domestic space. This kind of transmutation of meaning, the turning of a stock myth into a story that is deeply political and/or topical through metaphor and suggestion, is something that fantasy is pretty much uniquely placed to do; it’s one of the reasons why most fantasy texts – most good fantasy texts – are always already in conversation with their genre: fantasy as a mode works on constant subversion and rewriting of our mythological and narrative expectations.
(This is all idle speculation and theorising, you understand.)
On the other hand, in Order of the Phoenix, and beyond, magic and fantasy stops, really, being part of the narrative – we don’t see those old mythological tropes any more, not really – and starts being primarily used for worldbuilding.
Last month I idly speculated and theorised that Goblet of Fire sees a kind of return of the repressed: it describes a society in a constant state of flux because it’s being terrorised by the ghost of its past (to use an appropriate Rita Skeeter-ism), the text constantly interrupting itself, echoing between the past and the present, unable to go back or move on. The wizarding world refuses to speak the name of that which haunts it, and so it goes on being haunted. “Complex” is a word I hesitate to use, but Goblet is certainly doing something mildly interesting with its mythological trappings. Phoenix collapses that oscillating wave-function: although it’s ostensibly also a novel about what happens when a society deliberately chooses to forget and suppress past trauma, it does so in a way that’s far more literal and thus far less disturbing. Umbridge is literally High Inquisitor at Hogwarts: she is literally Evil Incarnate. The Ministry is consciously ignoring the evidence pointing to Voldemort’s return, rather than subconsciously repressing it.
To be fair to Phoenix (and on all accounts we must be fair), there is a case for arguing that it’s a Teenage Book, representing that heightened emotional state of adolescence when you think that all authority figures hate you (this, incidentally, is perhaps why Umbridge’s speech is so insistently corporate-ese – “We will be following a carefully structured, theory-centred, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic this year” – this is the language of authority, of teachers and government, and it doesn’t make any kind of sense when you’re sixteen and have never experienced it before) and the whole world is inherently unfair and you just have so many Feelings and you want to snog people but you’re not sure if they want to snog you back and it’s no surprise, really, all things considered, that occasionally you yell at your friends. But even under this reading the sheer earnestness of the novel undermines its effectiveness. It’s a little hard to credit Rowling’s continued assertions that Harry is Good and Kind and Brave when he’s busy shouting at Ron and Hermione because all the adults are ignoring him one minute and refusing to listen to anyone’s advice the next. Rowling’s rather black-and-white worldview, which works OK alongside a symbolic-metaphoric treatment of fantasy, isn’t really built to contain the self-awareness needed to treat a Teenage Book about Feelings and being angry all the time well or fairly.
I seriously considered giving up on this re-read at the end of Phoenix. Apart from anything else, the novel is far too long at 766 pages, with both the premise and the cardboard characters severely outstaying their welcome. However, the next two books are, at least, shorter; and I do want to see if the end is quite as bad as I remember it.