Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix
(Harry Potter 5)
For some reason I feel like I’m prepared to cut Rowling more slack than some other writers. It’s not just because she’s popular: I’ve dissed many a best-seller in my time. It’s not that she doesn’t have weaknesses and contradictions – she does, some of them quite striking. I think it’s because I find her strengths outweigh them. I think in each book so far I’ve found something to surprise me, a few clever ideas among the predictable ones, and that much of the ride was enjoyable.
This time, for example, I was surprised to find that much of this kids’ story had more in common with, say, Orwell, than Disney. The echoes were unsubtle, sure, but here we are in a Britain between the wars, with the Aryan thing in full swing – sympathisers, compromisers, deniers, and this oppressive atmosphere where government is gradually stripping away any dissent. The secret police turn up in the dead of the night, but there’s even the understanding that the ‘goons’ aren’t faceless or without history, so they may have conflicting sympathies. Rowling is such a mix: gauche and insultingly one-dimensional in one instance (e.g. slytheryns are bad), but insightful in another (e.g. the Weasley family split). Some of this may be deliberate in targeting a young audience – who might like, for example, the unmitigated fairy-tale Dursley-trolls (while I consistently find the opening Dursley chapters the weakest in each of the books). Although is there even a hint of unreliable narration, or, at least, the reader being encouraged to wince at some of heroic Harry’s markedly unheroic and petty bullying – shades of his father (another clever twist).
She’s got such a scattergun approach. There are several interesting ideas whirling along in the mix: Hermione’s emancipation efforts; Harry’s refreshingly clumsy romance; Fred and George’s realisation that you can change the game if your goals shift; Umbrage’s malicious lines punishment. These alongside casual weaknesses: supposedly smart and potentially slytheryn Harry – because of his cunning potential – not able to shut up for a second to be able to easily avoid giving his enemies ways to hurt him and his friends; why didn’t he simply use his magic mirror – where Sirius made it emphatically clear that it was the way to contact him?; the fate of just about everything depends, apparently, on Harry, but Dumbledore never bothers to even check that Sirius and Harry are progressing with his defence lessons; Harry’s lack of trust in Dumbledore, or even Snape, are no longer understandable given the gravity of the issues; supersmart Hermione says, “Hey, we’ve got a secret society: lets all write our names down and pin it up on the wall!”; the ease with which the ministry space is penetrated – running against the certainty that occasionally both sides have that it is impenetrable; the general level of spite and distrust towards Dumbledore and Potter, who at other times are such popular figures – Dumbledore particularly has had the chance to have his authority and integrity observed by generations of wizards passing through Hogwarts. There are more. Rowling is profligate with her ideas and would rather have twenty undeveloped ideas bumping uncomfortably up against each other than have half a dozen carefully integrated and explored.
Maybe she’d never have got the books done if she focussed more on consistency, or maybe the ride wouldn’t have been as enjoyable. It does, for me, mean it’s reduced from a potential classic to a largely enjoyable diversion. But, hey, an enjoyable diversion will do.