‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’: Nobody Expects the Inquisition

The New York Times, July 13, 2003

By J. K. Rowling. 896 pages. Scholastic. $29.99

We first met the Weasley whereabouts grandfather clock in Book Four of Potter’s Progress. Its nine golden hands, rather than pointing at numerals, stopped instead to suggest a location where each of Ron Weasley’s family members might be found: ” ‘Home,’ ‘school’ and ‘work’ were there, but there was also ‘lost,’ ‘hospital,’ ‘prison’ and, in the position where the number 12 would be on a normal clock, ‘mortal peril.’ ” Mortal peril! By the time this wonderful clock reappears in Book Five, the witching hour will have arrived for almost everybody we care about.

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Yes, someone important to Harry dies. No, it’s not who you think. Anyway, I wouldn’t tell you. Still, ”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is an angry book, a lamentation and a thanatopsis, a ”Song of Roland” and an ”Epic of Gilgamesh,” with the usual chorus of doxies, puffskins, bowtruckles, spattergroits and thestrals, not to mention a crumple-horned snorkack.

While the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters are out to destroy Our Gang, another part of Harry’s problem is hormonal. He is 15 years old, and so naturally he feels sullen, resentful, self-pitying, whispered about and put upon. Imagine being tried by a criminal court for under-age magic. Between dreams of serpents and anxieties about his O.W.L. levels, he’s not getting enough shut-eye. The daily wizard paper keeps insinuating that he’s a ”lying weirdo.” Hermione wonders if maybe he loves playing the hero a bit too much. His first kiss can only be described as ”wet.” He learns things he’d prefer not to know about his dead father. And the High Inquisitor of Hogwarts has banned him from ever again playing Quidditch.

But the boombox terrors of childhood and adolescence are as pips and squeaks compared with the thunderous corruptions of adult power and adult greed. That High Inquisitor? Her name is Dolores Umbridge. She is supposed to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. She is really a mole from the Ministry of Magic, which is in a state of denial about Voldemort’s return and determined to get rid of Headmaster Dumbledore. Before professors and students combine to overthrow this inquisition, we are educated into the snobbery and arrogance of an earlier generation of the gifted young (poor teenage Snape was cruelly bullied), the racist ideology of the Dark Wizards (”mudbloods”! ”half-breeds”!), the hysterical politics of the recent past (witches hunting witches, kangaroo courts, torture, camps) and the disgraceful behaviors of the distant past (giant wars, goblin rebellions, werewolf segregation, elf serfdom and disgusted centaurs).

All of a sudden, like puberty, everything is more complicated and ambiguous, besides the usual fraught. ”The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” Sirius warns Harry. Wizard history isn’t a lot prettier than Muggle history, any more than Hogwarts is automatically a nicer place than your local junior high detention center just because the kids play with wands and brooms. The food may be superior, but otherwise there is the same malice, sadism, hierarchy and humiliation, plus, of course, unfair teachers and impossible exams. We probably should imagine these training-wheel wizards as the magical equivalents of students at a special school for the performing arts, the higher maths or the natural sciences. They bleed when pricked.

J. K. Rowling is the real magician. If her first very long Potter, ”The Goblet of Fire,” seemed to lump and lurch about, as if to suck in air before derring yet more do, ”The Order of the Phoenix” starts slow, gathers speed and then skateboards, with somersaults, to its furious conclusion. (As in ”One Hundred Years of Solitude,” there is a magic realist prophecy, although our hero is the last to know.) As Harry gets older, Rowling gets better. Even the modifiers she uses so promiscuously, in sudden bursts like cluster bombs, to cue us in on the emotions of her speakers — the ”he said” and ”she said” gently, politely, faintly, earnestly, reverently, tonelessly, angrily, stupidly, gloomily, grimly, pompously, frantically, suspiciously or dismissively, when, like characters in Judith Krantz, he and she haven’t already sniffed, flinched, roared, wailed, choked, hissed, gasped, squeaked, muttered, howled, barked, spat, snorted, bellowed, yawned or snarled — disappear for hundreds of pages at a time. Meanwhile, as always, she has looted the shelves of literature and mythology, fairy tales and folklore, anthropology and comparative religion, firing up a pop-culture crockpot and adding pratfalls, wordplay and dread.

Thus a multiethnic multiculture of warlocks, mermaids, mugwumps, trolls, vampires, fairies, dwarfs, ghouls, mummies, pixies, gnomes, banshees, wood nymphs, dementors, boggarts, veelas, animagi and parselmouths. And a colorful bestiary of gargoyles, gorgons, ravens, mandrakes, manticores, stags, porlocks, kneazles, crups, knarls, griffins, bubotubers, flobberworms, grindylows (water demons), hunkypunks (bog sirens), three-headed dogs, bat-winged horses, map-reading cats, ferret-eating hippogriffs and blast-ended skrewts. And a rich diet of eels’ eyes, bat spleens, ice mice, butterbeer, armadillo bile, nosebleed nougat, pickled slug, fizzing whizbees, powdered root of asphodel, powdered spine of lionfish, powdered horn of unicorn and shredded skin of boomslang. In addition to which, a charm, a curse, a hex or a spell for everything from summoning to vanishing to freezing to disillusionment.

”Before we begin our banquet,” Dumbledore told his student body in the very first Potter, ”I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!” To which I would only add: ”Obliviate!” and ”Scourgify!”

And this is to neglect Rowling’s specialized, somehow domesticated magic, like the whereabouts clock, or the mail-delivering owls, or subjects who abandon their own painted portraits to visit or hide in other people’s picture frames, or wizard wands with unicorn hairs and phoenix feathers and dragon heartstrings, or staircases that decide to go up to somewhere else on different days of the week, or getting around by portkey and Floo Powder, or a ”pensieve” into which to deposit those thoughts and feelings and memories we’d rather not carry around in our heads right now, or the whole idea of Quidditch. All in all, this retro stuff seems to me more plausible, as well as more interesting, than its postmodern update of alien abduction, anal probes and sperm-sucking.

You are probably as weary as I am of the one-note Draco Malfoy, who, when he isn’t sneering, invariably sniggers, with or without a gleeful guffaw, which has to be hard when you also drawl. And Voldemort also repeats himself a lot, which is why each new novel needs a subsidiary villain, like Inquisitor Umbridge. But Harry Potter is a Seeker, and what he’s after is the Golden Snitch. And that is all we really have to know about the narrative’s jumping beans. Say hi to Aesop and Scheherazade, Joseph Campbell and J. R .R. Tolkien, Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm. To shamans, foundlings, changelings and boogeymen, webbed feet and cloven hooves, Hercules belabored, Jason fleeced, Sinbad the Sailor and the Flying Dutchman. See Luke Skywalker and Jacques Lacan pedal hard on an Oedipal cycle. Welcome to Wonderland, Camelot, Brigadoon and Oz.

In one way, the Leviticus-quoting fruitcakes who accuse Harry of Satanism have a point: there is not much Christ in Rowling’s pagan pages. On the other hand, there used to be many more miracles and magics in that old-time religion of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross than there are today. On the third hand, those of us who had to explain ”The Chronicles of Narnia” to our children will be grateful that Harry isn’t Parsifal. And on the last hand, any series that celebrates courage, friendship, owls and brooms does more good than harm. Trust (of Dumbledore) and forgiveness (of Wormtail) are also recommended. And all of us could do worse than to model ourselves on Rowling’s centaurs, who refuse for any reason to kill a ”foal.”

Wendy Doniger, who knows everything worth knowing at the University of Chicago, explained a while back to readers of The London Review of Books all about Harry and the mark of Cain (that lightning bolt forehead scar), Harry as the ugly duckling and the Freudian family romantic (keep your eye on Aunt Petunia), Harry as an English public-schoolboy victim/scapegoat (George Orwell and Tom Brown), and Harry as the Cyrus of Herodotus, the Hindu Krishna, a Cinderella and a Superman (there will even be a telephone booth, as in ”Dr. Who” and ”The Matrix”). From Lewis Carroll, talking chessmen; from Snow White, magic mirrors; from T. H. White, swords in stones; from Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, levitation.

Whereas Stephen King argued three years ago in these very pages that one of the secrets to Harry’s appeal was his fealty to the form of the whodunit, that Rowling’s real mentors were Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. And Robert Lipsyte, a few months later in the Times sports pages, added a wicked gloss on ”jock culture” — the sort of bully-boy World Cup hooliganism according to which a good sport like Cedric Diggory is doomed to die, which of course is what he did at the end of ”Goblet.” This analysis may not quite persuade you if, like me, you found the death of Cedric too convenient, considering that he had a head start over Harry in the Cho Chang sweepstakes.

But least persuasive of all are the nitpickers who disdain children’s literature to begin with, which just means that they are tin-eared, tone deaf and born dumb. (Where do they think we begin to care about stories?) Or the furballs who would prefer that we read instead Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Richard Adams, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl or Philip Pullman. (As if we were choosing up for a secret society; as if we couldn’t enjoy Hermione in the library while at the same time taking a bloodthirsty interest in Hazel the Warrior Rabbit.) And finally the world-weary and wart-afflicted who complain about the mediocre movies, the media hype, the marketing blitz, the embargo and maybe even the notion of a single mom becoming richer than the queen. (As if the filing of contrarian opinions weren’t itself a standard component of media hype; as if Harry himself cares.) Me, I really liked standing in line at the first film with hundreds of talkative short people, all of whom had read the book.

”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is rich and satisfying in almost every respect. It also delivers a genuine apocalyptic shiver, as dated as Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New, or the Dead Sea Scrolls and the poems of Blake. Mortal peril! Every troubled age embodies its own worst fears in some equivalent of devil worship and demonic possession; of succubi, incubi, Gog, Moloch, Minotaur and Caliban; of dark nights, judgment days, lakes of fire and hellhounds, wet nuggies, mad jigs and erotic contraband. Magic went away awhile after Hiroshima, in favor of radiation mutants like Godzilla and cold-war science fictions about triffids, pods, blobs and body snatchers, about man-eating dandelions, meteoric slimeballs, bloodsucking carrots and collectivized Bolshevik killer ants. Which were followed soon enough by a conspiracy of satanic day-care child molesters. We long, like Harry, for a Dumbledore. We need the comradeship of Hermione and Ron. But we will have to grow up alone.

John Leonard reviews books for Harper’s Magazine and The Nation, movies for ”CBS News Sunday Morning” and television for New York magazine.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 14, 2003.
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