Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Meddling With Harry Potter Book 5

As “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” begins, Harry has warned the wizarding world that Voldemort is back but the Ministry of Magic refuses to believe him. A brave few, including the Hogwarts leadership, revive a Voldemort-resistance group called the Order of the Phoenix, so the Ministry replaces them with a cheery marinet-in-pink named Dolores Umbridge. In solidarity with the banished leadership, Harry starts a resistance group of his own called Dumbledore’s Army. Meanwhile, Harry must work with his most despised teacher Snape to try to block his mental link with Voldemort using Occulmency. This fails, and Voldemort uses the link to lure Harry into the Ministry itself in search of a prophecy about the two of them. In the ensuing fight, Harry’s surrogate father Sirius Black is killed. Dumbledore arrives to save Harry and everybody else gets away unhurt.
Strengths of the 5th book...
  1. This is by far the strongest of the final four. Dolores Umbridge may be Rowling’s greatest villain, one who cannot help but remind you (with a horrible shiver) of your own first encounter with institutional evil, driving home the point that little Voldemorts exist everywhere in life and must be confronted.
  2. And yet Rowling is still surprisingly fair to her: which teacher does she target first? Trelawny, who actually is incompetent, and probably should be fired. Umbridge is utterly repugnant, yet her chilly logic is almost persuasive and we never once doubt that she is truly righteousness in her own mind.
  3. It would have been so easy to just let Voldemort run rampant, but Rowling instead takes this opportunity to tell a more morally complex story. This is a devastating portrait of how those who deny the existence of evil do just as much harm as the evildoers themselves.
  4. A zany new friend joins our core group, in the form of the beguiling Luna Lovegood. I knew a lot of Lunas in my time.
  5. After last book’s passivity, Harry finally comes alive, speaking truth to power, suffering the consequences, forming his own army, and leading the charge at the end, even if it does just lead into another trap.
  6. Rowling continues to come up with clever new concepts like the Room of Requirement, which appears only if you need it for specific purpose. This conceit is cleverly turned on its head a few times.
Weaknesses of the 5th book
  1. At no point did my heart sink more than when the dread word “prophecy” was brought up. Prophecies almost always mean that a writer has gotten lazy—it’s foreshadowing with any shadows. This was especially disappointing because the second book had dismissed this issue brilliantly, by making it clear that Harry was “destined” to be evil, but chose to be good. (And for that matter the third book made great fun out of ridiculing prophecy as well.) It weakens any story to imply that the heroes are destined to be heroes—it reduces them from kings to pawns.
  2. Rowling continues to struggle with Dumbledore, getting him dismissed for the second time in four books in order to free up Harry to be the hero. It was time for him to go...
  3. …But though the final Dumbledore/Voldemort duel is spectacular it’s also totally inconsequential. We need consequences here!
  4. It’s a wonderful way to dig into the tragic relationship between Harry and Snape, but the long occlumency storyline just doesn’t work. It’s three hundred pages of watching someone trying to not think about something. We all know that doesn’t work, and sure enough it fails. Whenever a storyline can be summarized as “either something will happen or it won’t,” then the reader already knows the answer: something will happen. Instead, a storyline must be: “one thing or a different thing will happen.”
  5. Harry finds the death of Sirius Black to be tragic, but we don’t, because Rowling seemed to have no idea how to use him in this book or the previous one, so his death feels like a way to dispose of a inconvenient character rather than a shattering moment. Ironically, Rowling would have had to pump a lot more potential back into him if she wanted to tragically kill him off.
A lot of this book works, so I’ll just do some spot fixes:
  1. First of all… I’m actually going to leave the prophecy business in. Rowling left herself a big out by leaving some wiggle-room in the prophecy, so I assumed at the time that she was setting up a clever reversal in the seventh book. If that reversal had paid off, then the prophecy storyline could have been brilliantly retroactively justified. So rather than fix that here, I’ll fix it in the seventh book. (Though they should acknowledge that the sudden interest in prophecies contradicts the dismissal of them in the second and third books.)
  2. The occlumency storyline would be so much stronger if Dumbledore ordered Harry and Snape to use his link to attempt to spy on Voldemort, not just to stop Harry from being spied on. That way, the question becomes: “Will we trap him or will he trap us?”, not just: “Will he trap Harry or not?”, which only has one answer. Trying something daring and failing is compelling. Playing defense and failing is just lame. Also, as it is now, it feels like Rowling is cheating every time that Harry accidentally sees into Voldemort’s mind and gets valuable information. Instead, let Harry earn that info by prying intentionally.
  3. Sirius should live (for now) but Dumbledore must die. Unlike Sirius, the death of Dumbledore would have been truly devastating here, for the characters and the readers. In the final duel, Sirius’s wand is broken, but he lives. Dumbledore arrives and seemingly kills Voldemort in a massive duel. As the members of the Order appear, Dumbledore cautiously goes to inspect the body, saying that Voldemort has shown ways of cheating death before. Voldemort seems to be clearly dead so Dumbledore puts his wand away. Voldemort’s charred corpse re-animates enough to strike down Dumbledore. The Order pulls their wands and strike the still weakened Voldemort who flees. Dumbledore has his funeral (Harry refuses to cry), McGonagall gets his job, everybody goes home sad.
That’s it for today, tomorrow we tackle the most woebegone book in the series, in every sense of the word…


tanita✿davis said...

I definitely agree that Harry got "freebies" from Voldemort's mind -- those were BIG time cheats, and I never understood why she did them.

This was a hard book for me, because Sirus' death caught me off guard. He was more pathetic than anything else, and so it seemed to make no real sense to kill him. I'm also not sure I would have killed Dumbledore out of office - I would have left him in position, had him killed, and then it would have made sense for Umbridge to swoop in and Restore Order.

It seemed more than anything that the adults were just USELESS in this volume, and I got frustrated. I know Harry was supposed to be the hero, but man, the adults were dumb.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a Harry Pottery fan, so maybe I'm just being overly nitpicky. But does it seem weird to anyone else to name a villain Dolores? That's a loaded name in Christian mythology and in English literature, and it's usually for a sympathetic, beaten-down character who is also somehow magnified. When a (literary) Dolores inflicts sorrow, it's because she has absorbed so much.

Ellen Booraem said...

This is interesting. On an intellectual level, you're spot on. But in my gut I disagree that this is the strongest of the last four. When I was reading it, I thought the writing was the worst of the lot: CAPS LOCK HARRY, all those lazy adverbs. Also, there's the giant brother, totally pointless. I profoundly wanted somebody to edit this one.

I was devastated when Sirius died, particularly since Harry's mindless heroics helped kill him. Rowling completely sucked me in to the notion that all of Harry's important adults were being picked off, eventually exposing him to the elements unprotected. It made sense to me that Sirius would be first, followed by the more important Dumbledore.

I do agree that Umbridge and the bureaucracy make for marvelous enemies.

The real marvel of these books is that I adored them, and still do, even though they are so obviously flawed. Rowling is a fantastic tale-spinner, and her characters are deeply compelling.

Libby said...

I also didn't feel very devastated when Sirius died--it seemed like there hadn't been enough time to really get to know him. Plus, even though I knew he was on the right side, I didn't particularly like him.

One point I disagree with you on is that Rowling should have had Dumbledore ask Harry to use his connection. One thing I think Rowling does well is portray that these are still kids, that the adults are still trying (to the extent they can) to keep them safe. The tragic inevitability of Harry getting trapped is really Dumbledore's failure to give him enough credit and it's kind of like the tragedy in Oedipus Rex. A character knows tragedy is coming, does everything possible to avoid that tragedy, and plays right into it.

Laura S. said...

The Order of the Phoenix is my favorite book in the series. I hate that Sirius dies! My heart just went out to Harry; he lost his parents when he was a baby, discovers a wonderful godfather, who then must remain in hiding, then he dies before they really even get to know each other well. It happens in real life to people all the time. So sad and unfair.

I disagree about the Prophecy. I thought it was terrific how Rwoling handled it because it came down to choices. Dumbledore explains that not all prophecies come true; it's people's choices that make them come true or not. It has nothing to do with fate or destiny. Everything comes down to choice!