Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Blame it on the Government Bureaucrats!

Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Not much ambition for this post other than to offer some commentary on having just completed the fifth book of the celebrated Harry Potter series of novels by J.K. Rowling, entitled Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I have made no secret on this blog of my over-arching ambition to read both this series and Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series and some day write about both. I also provided some general thoughts on the Harry Potter series at the midway point last August after finishing the fourth novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Although most people know it by now (but not all – Duke wouldn’t, for example), this installment in Rowling’s ridiculously profitable and widely-read series returns the young wizard of the title, a.ka. “The Boy Who Lived”, to Hogwarts School of Wizardry & Witchcraft for a fifth year of studies – and the imminent scourge of “O.W.L.” exams that confronts all fifth year students at the end of the school calendar. But as usual, Harry can’t wait to get back, because of the mistreatment he suffers during his summers living at the home of his Muggle-born guardians, the Dursleys, whose disdain for Harry apparently is limitless. To this point Rowling’s novels usually have begun with a somewhat madcap and Keystone Cop-like intro circulating around this family unit that involves a form of misfortunate befalling either themselves or their guests and then fixing Harry with 100% of the blame, only to have him affect a zany escape back to school.

This novel is different, however, and darker, and this much is foreshadowed by the opening episode in Phoenix. Dudley Dursley, Harry’s cousin, is again involved, but in this case a surprising collision of the magical and Muggle puts Harry and Dudley into grave danger, and Harry can only think to worm his way out using magic – something strictly forbidden for Hogwarts’ students in the Muggle world. (Note: in the film version, directed by David Yates in 2007, this scene is spectacular.) Even though Harry saves Dudley’s life, he gets into hot water with both the Dursleys AND the Ministry of Magic, who learn quickly of his crime and threaten to expel him. He is summoned to a “hearing” early in the novel where he must attempt to exonerate himself. Just one more weight to pile on Harry’s shoulders as he drags his baggage, literally and figuratively, into a challenging fifth year at Hogwarts.

Once back at Hogwarts, the customary moving pieces to Rowling’s grandiose plot mechanisms sort of lumber into life, and the whole weighty chuckwagon of a novel begins to churn forward dutifully. Questions abound, as they always do: Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster and Harry’s mentor, has reconvened an ancient group called The Order of the Phoenix to help determine ways to resist the workings of Lord Voldemort, or “You Know Who” – but why is he keeping a steady distance from Harry, even through his displinary hearing? Why does Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, have to stay in hiding from the Ministry of Magic? For that matter, why does the Ministry itself refuse to believe Harry’s eye-witness account of Voldemort’s return from the conclusion of Goblet of Fire? Why is Hagrid no where to be found for half the novel, and when he does finally come back, why does he always show up covered with cuts & bruises? And, perhaps less importantly, does the pretty young wizard girl Cho Chang really “fancy” Harry Potter or not? (Adolescent drama, so poignant in the rear view mirror but so agonizing when it’s still in front of your grill, comes into play here; but somewhat half-heartedly, in my opinion.)

All of these questions are answered in due time, of course, and if there is anything Rowling does specialize in, it’s tying all the disparate pieces of her labyrinthine plots back together in an orderly and satisfying fashion. Her plotting skills and pacing continue to impress me; she knows how to keep readers interested and fully immersed in her world. It is her most obvious gift, and it’s one that she seems to have become more aware of and in full command of as her series grew longer.

The prime mover in terms of plot lines in Order of the Phoenix, however, is the introduction of a new character, Professor Dolores Umbridge, a hand-picked operative of the Ministry of Magic who is thrust upon Hogwarts as the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. The Ministry, as noted earlier, doesn’t accept the fact that Voldemort hasn’t returned, and thus wants to squelch the entire idea as a theatrical rumor. This means muzzling Harry Potter, and doing everything possible to keep him from succeeding in much of anything – from playing Quidditch to leading an unathorized band of schoolmates in his own Dark Arts lessons, based on his growing catalogue of experience against Death Eaters, Dementors, and even Voldemort himself. Harry endures cruel and painful detention sessions with Professor Umbridge, the embarrassment of expulsion from his dorm house’s Quidditch team, and a nefarious press campaign that turns many students against him.

Meanwhile, Umbridge gleefully smiles and cackles her way through a one-woman campaign to turn Hogwarts into a Ministry-run government outfit worthy of Orwell’s 1984, posting directives and declarations restricting students from this or that freedom, and getting herself into position to be appointed “Hogwarts High Inquisitor” first, and, finally, Headmistress - supplanting Dumbledore, who seems only too ready to step down on a questionable violation.

With Umbridge, Rowling lays it on thickly as she does with all her villains. You can say what you want about Stephen King, but he knows villains; when he creates one, he lets his imagination run wild and avoids most stereotypes. But the concept of having a Ministry implant at the school is intriguing, and a subtly entertaining way of introducing some more sophisticated realities to younger readers. After all, these intricacies do exist. In adult life, of course, there are plenty of examples to be found of how high office can corrupt people, and how the wasteful and bureaucratic structures of governments can incite paranoia, cause no end of conflict, and snuff out the promise of the individual. It just makes sense that in a fictional world as large and fully-imagined as Rowling’s wizarding universe there would be, somewhere, a government-type behemoth ready and willing to come in and screw things up.

Meanwhile, while I have already blogged previously on how Rowling’s villains aren’t particularly well drawn and don’t seem to even have the writer’s full attention – her sympathies are so firmly set with her young hero that it’s as though she doesn’t have the time or energy to make villains like Draco Malfoy, Snape, or Umbridge any more sympathetic or even worthy of our consideration – her ongoing development of Harry Potter himself is successful and engrossing in this novel. Harry is plagued with dreams that seem to connect him mentally, almost spiritually, with Voldemort, quickly ushering the reader towards the already-apparent conclusion that only one or the other can make it out alive when all is said and done. Not both. The reader doesn’t mind that the ultimate showdown has been telegraphed since Book One – the way Rowling builds tension slowly for this inevitable collision makes the series more exciting.

Also, in this volume and in this series in general, the author comes up with just enough interesting and original ideas to keep her story fresh and feeling unique, even though it leans heavily on almost every conceivable folklore tale and saga known to humankind. In this case, the climactic scene takes place in an eerie labyrinth deep in the bowels of the Ministry itself, lit with millions of small glass globes, each containing ancient prophecies – an entire vault full of mystery and secrets. It may be illusory, but it’s a neat way to create the impression of a long, old, history of magic and legends. In a thrilling battle with wands and magic against a troop of Death Eaters, glass shattering and ghostly secrets escaping everywhere, one particular prophecy involving Harry is revealed, and in this way we find some of the pieces of the puzzle that have been missing from the very beginning. The encounter in the Ministry also claims the life of one of Harry’s closest friends and ushers the teen wizard into more pain and confusion, not to be dissipated before the end of this installment.

Rowling’s utter mastery over her creation remains the most satisfying aspect of the series. It is hard to think of any epic of this size and scope where the creator seemed to have a more thorough understanding of the entire macro-economical picture. Imagine Dickens’ voluminous novels, but all tied together in one seamless and engrossing saga, and you’ll have an idea of the scale of her feat. Even Stephen King – in fact I would say particularly in the Dark Tower series – often seems to be flying by the seat of his pants. You can’t say that for Jo Rowling. She knows exactly what she is doing, and she inserts different pieces into her construction at the exact correct times and in the right places. She’s a storyteller by nature, and although this isn't the case everywhere, the simple fact that the Harry Potter saga is a wonderful story can overcome most of the series’ shortcomings. It not only does what we ask stories to do – lift us out of our own circumstances, entertain us for a while, and reveal to us our own nature. It also will do what the greatest stories can, and we ourselves cannot, at least not in this world.

That is to say, it will endure.