For Famous Young Wizard, a Darker Turn, Much Less Humor

New York Times

June 21, 2003

Near the beginning of the fifth and latest installment of "Harry Potter," one of Harry's former teachers performs a "Disillusionment Charm" on him. It's a means of disguising his appearance and making him less visible to prying eyes, but it also serves as a metaphor for Harry's loss, in this volume, of his boyish illusions and for his teenage immersion into the ambiguities and perils of the grown-up world.

Already shorn of much of his innocence in his earlier battles with Lord Voldemort, this 15-year-old wizard is compelled, in "The Order of the Phoenix," to confront even more unsettling revelations about his relationship with that evil lord, as well as some uncomfortable truths about his own parents and the role that fate has chosen him to play.

This Harry Potter is less Prince Hal than a budding Henry V; less the callow boy in "The Sword in the Stone" and more of the young King Arthur.

A considerably darker, more psychological book than its predecessors, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" occupies the same emotional and storytelling place in the Potter series as "The Empire Strikes Back" held in the first "Star Wars" trilogy. It provides a sort of fulcrum for the series, marking Harry's emergence from boyhood, and his newfound knowledge that an ancient prophecy holds the secret to Voldemort's obsession with him and his family.

Though Harry is still the brave, decent boy we've met in the earlier novels, he's a much angrier character in these pages, beset not only by the pressures of trying to save the world from Voldemort and his Death Eaters, but also by ordinary adolescent frustrations and the burden of fame that his exploits at Hogwarts have placed on his skinny shoulders — a burden not dissimilar, in some respects, to the fame that his creator, J. K. Rowling, has experienced herself with the extraordinary popularity of this series. Harry is trailed by reporters, gossiped about by schoolmates and constantly told that he is special.

Because Harry is often in an irritable mood and spends much of the opening chapters brooding about his problems, "The Order of the Phoenix" gets off to a somewhat ponderous start.

There is also less humor in these pages than in the earlier books, and fewer Quidditch games; magic has become less of an art and more of a means of war. The benevolent headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, is curiously absent — or distant — for large portions of the book, and so, for that matter, is Harry's Falstaffian friend, Hagrid, the school's gamekeeper. Instead, Harry and his pals, Ron and Hermione, must contend with the noxious omnipresence of Dolores Jane Umbridge, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and a government spy, who conceals beneath her fluffy pink cardigan the cold heart and bureaucratic soul of a Grand Inquisitor.

Harry finds himself subject to a series of alarming, Kafkaesque dreams — filled with long corridors and closed doors — while the grown-up members of the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society organized by Dumbledore to combat Lord Voldemort, find themselves battling incompetence, denial and cover-ups by the Ministry of Magic. Dread hovers over the novel, as everyone awaits the next move of He Who Must Not Be Named and ponders the loyalties of others, like Ron's brother Percy; Sirius's petulant house elf, Kreacher; and the perennially nasty Potions professor, Snape.

What Ms. Rowling is trying to do in the novel's first half is to delineate both the increasingly grim world in which her characters find themselves after the return of Lord Voldemort in the series' previous installment (Year 4: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") and the awkward emotional changes her characters are going through as they grow up, something rarely addressed by this sort of children's story, which usually leaves its heroes frozen in a single snapshot in time. The themes of self-sacrifice and betrayal sounded in previous volumes are amplified here. New light is shed on Harry's relationship with his awful Muggle (i.e., nonmagical) relatives the Dursleys, and as Ms. Rowling has said in recent interviews, a character close to Harry dies.

Although it takes a while for the gears of this immensely long novel to mesh fully, the author's bravura storytelling skills and tirelessly inventive imagination soon take over, braiding together the mundane and the marvelous, the psychological and the allegorical with consummate authority and ease. Even as Harry discovers that his teachers and mentors are fallible, he must question how his own weaknesses — anger, pride and ambition — may be leading him into Voldemort's clutches. Even as he tries to comprehend the terrible fallout that Voldemort's return could have on the world, he must search the past for answers as to how to thwart him. And come to understand, as his beloved godfather, Sirius, tells him, that the world "isn't split into good people and Death Eaters," that there are more ambiguities to grown-up life than he imagined.

One of the things that has made the Potter books so appealing to children and many adults is Ms. Rowling's magpie ability to take archetypes and plot points from myriad sources — myths, fairy tales, children's classics and movies — and alchemize them into something new. The Potter novels are, at once, detective stories (with Harry and his friends playing the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew all at the same time), moral fables, coming-of-age chronicles and action adventure epics. Harry has been written to embody a daunting gallery of associations (including Luke Skywalker, Telemachus and even Jesus), while Voldemort vibrates with the auras of Darth Vader, Hitler and Milton's Satan, among others.

Although Voldemort, who is trying to get his clammy hands on a powerful new weapon in this volume, can seem a bit cardboardy at times, like a silent-movie villain, Ms. Rowling has made Harry such a flesh-and-blood character that the reader has an instant sense of recognition. It's as if the boy next door had been miraculously transported from the Muggle world we all know to a magical realm where dementors and thestrals lurk, a world where people can pour their extra thoughts into a "Pensieve" or whisk themselves from one place to another with a Portkey.

As this volume, like its predecessors, attests, Ms. Rowling has imagined this universe in such minute and clever detail that we feel that we've been admitted to a looking-glass world as palpable as Tolkien's Middle Earth or L. Frank Baum's Oz. The wizards, witches and Muggles who live there share complicated, generations-old relationships with one another and inhabit a place with traditions, beliefs and a history all its own — a Grimm place where the fantastic and fabulous are routine, but also a place subject to all the limitations and losses of our own mortal world.