Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

by J.K. Rowling

766 pages (as reviewed), 2003

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Growing Up With Harry

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski


In his essay "On Fairy-Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien says two things that might be considered relevant to the Harry Potter series. One is that what he calls fairy-stories tend to be relegated to the playroom like old furniture adults don't want any more. The other is a suggestion that it's better to stretch children's minds with reading that is perhaps a little too hard for them than to give them material that is too easy.

While there's no doubt that the original Harry Potter novel was for children, a sort of cross between Blyton and Dahl, the series has developed into something more. It is a delight for an old lover of children's literature like myself to sit on the train and see everyone from university students to men in business suits reading J.K. Rowling. Of course, there are still "adult" covers for those willing to shell out an extra three or four dollars not to be caught reading "kiddielit." And there is the man who asked me, one day at a book store, where the Potter books were. I directed him to the children's section and he groaned, "Oh,no, don't say that!"

Possibly, Rowling wants the stories to grow up with their readers. This makes a certain sense -- after all, the original child readers are now teenagers. Of course, you then have to decide what to do about the newer readers, who have all the novels available and naturally want to read them. This is where Tolkien's other suggestion comes in. It is to be hoped that censorship won't rear its ugly head to prevent it.

For this novel is no longer children's literature. Young adult, perhaps but, as always, Rowling has written on several levels for a wide variety of readers. It is a richly realized universe that becomes more complex with each book. One of the most fascinating things about the series is the back story, about which the author reveals more each time. It is almost as if the reader is getting two novels for the price of one.

One joy of Rowling is not the originality of her ideas -- there are plenty of other novels with boy wizards and boarding schools -- but what she does with them. This is the story of an ethnic community in which everyone knows everyone else and where enmities formed at school are still there years later. The adult characters are every bit as interesting as the young protagonists and she constantly reminds you that they, too, were once children. Apart from a few over-the-top caricatures, such as the Dursleys, most of the characters, adult and child alike, are three-dimensional. In this one, even Aunt Petunia is presented more sympathetically than usual.

Another delight is that in the midst of Wizard World War II, there is normal teen angst -- exams, friendships, the opposite sex (Harry gets his first kiss), who's on the team, who's going out with whom.

Harry's inner circle of pals is joined by Neville Longbottom, who has begun to come into his own, a girl called Luna Lovegood, whose father edits the wizard version of the National Enquirer, and Ginny Weasley, grown from a silent Harry-worshipper to a confident young woman who can hold her own in any adventure and plays Quidditch.

What can I tell you without too many spoilers? Many of Harry's props are kicked from under him and he ends the novel with a huge burden and some of his sustaining beliefs gone. And, yes, somebody dies, somebody he cares about. If you're a sophisticated reader, you'll probably work it out after a few chapters. I did. Don't waste your reading-time wondering, it happens near the end.

As the novel begins, two Dementors turn up in Harry's village of Little Whinging (and don't you love what Rowling does with names? Presumably there's a Much Whinging somewhere. She also has fun with people's names, like calling a black dog Animagus Sirius -- Dog Star -- Black, a werewolf Remus Lupin and a Divination teacher Sybill). Harry is forced to use magic to save himself and his cousin Dudley and is called up before a tribunal to explain himself. Worse still, Hogwarts becomes a police state, at the orders of the paranoic Fudge, who thinks Dumbledore is after his job.

The Harry of this book is an angry and frustrated young man. He has been kept in the dark, supposedly for his own good, and it's suggested that this was, indeed, a mistake, as certain information would have put him on his guard and enabled him to avert a major disaster. Yet he makes mistakes too: his almost insane hatred of Snape prevents him from learning to protect himself and the tragedy at the climax happens, ultimately, because he couldn't control his anger long enough to let Snape teach him what he needed to know. But then, he is a teenage boy...

Is the length worth it? Yes. Rowling writes at length, but she writes tightly. Everything is relevant, even the comic relief. Read carefully. There are the usual references to history and mythology -- hopefully, there are children out there looking them up!

Just one tiny plea to Rowling from this teacher-librarian: please, please get rid of the cliched Hogwarts librarian and replace her with a real one, the kind who helps you with homework, who finds exactly the information you need and teaches you how to find it yourself. Please?

Other than that, what can I say but, wow! Bring on the next book. | July 2003


Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.