By Mark York
I do wish I had it in me to cover more niche topics with my articles.
And one day, I might find the inspiration to discuss the philosophical writings of a 12th-century fisherman or to analyze the symbolic significance of corn husks in Russian literature. For the time being, my tastes remain disappointedly mainstream. Thus, I shall continue this trend by discussing the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling, or specifically, the mechanisms behind its most divisive book.
Let it not be denied, however, that these books have earned their place in the public eye. While this series is lengthier than most epics — with a proper arm, some books could double as murder weapons — I have fallen in love with the fascinating world-building, gripping character work, mind-bending plot and Rowling’s ability to somehow make wizard gardening interesting. “Harry Potter” is one of my primary writing inspirations, and one of my favorite reads in general.
Yet, a sharper eye might notice a disturbance in the force (I realize that I’m referencing the wrong series, but work with me) — a slight hiccup, so to speak, in a lush opera, or a green fry in the batch. Ask the devoted fans of this beloved series, and many would point their fingers at the fifth book, “Order of the Phoenix,” as the guilty party.
Though, there are also those who wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. Not only would they say “Order of the Phoenix” does not deserve such a reputation, but many would even say that this book is the best in the series!
Such widespread and consistently differing opinions has led me to believe that “Order of the Phoenix” is the pineapple on pizza of the “Harry Potter” series (while we can all agree that “Cursed Child” is the broccoli). But why is it that this book, out of all the entries in this lengthy series, garners such divisive opinions? Why is “Order of the Phoenix” different from, say, “Goblet of Fire” or “Chamber of Secrets”? Why can I never spell “phoenix” right on the first try? And why — oh WHY — can one possibly say a SINGLE bad thing about this masterpiece when it has introduced Luna Lovegood?
Well, there is one obvious answer… Harry Potter is going through a Holden Caulfield phase.
Yes, throughout the longest book in the series (going well over 800 pages) our hero Harry has taken up rye-catching. He spends a good chunk of the novel snapping at friends, adults and pretty much anything else that dares draw breath. There is a grimy tone throughout the entire narrative that offers the reader no break. Wizard Puberty, as I call it, is alive and well, and it can be a trudge — at least, that’s the most common explanation for this book’s shortcomings.
I must admit — it can get old fast. Often have I despondently moaned “Haaarrryy” into the pages as the lyrics to some Twenty-One Pilots song echoes inside my head. And it must be said that, in the context of the series, these emotions are far in the realm of understandability; though, in the context of the reader, it is a lot to sit through and might act as a thorn in the overall experience.
Given how much emphasis is placed on these turbulent emotions, there is also far less plot to sink your teeth into when compared to previous books. We are lacking in the “whodunit”s or even the “it was YOU the whole time!”s that hooked us in the past. Only occasionally does the book remember that it has a mystery to explore (the door inside Harry’s dreams) as we instead focus on our characters dealing with the Hogwarts equivalent of Trunchbull — Professor Umbridge. All the while, we are stuck with a rather unpleasant feeling without much else to distract us.
To many, this is a hefty blow in an otherwise solid book. But to others, this is an asset rather than a hindrance.
While one might find Harry’s attitude generally unpleasant, another could say that this book — more than any others — pushes the protagonist. “Of course he’s acting this way” they reply. “That’s the point. His development would not be nearly as impactful if he didn’t.”
Indeed, this is a turning point for the darker in the series — “Order of the Phoenix” acts as a bookmark in the story, signifying the instance in which we go from fun and whimsical to trying and dangerous (clearly, the Hungarian Horntail was not intimidating enough). These are no longer the trivial misadventures of children, and we need a dose of bitterness to sell that. How can we truly expect Harry to keep a smiling face when the world around him clearly does not reflect that?
Here’s the point: “Order of the Phoenix” has sacrificed plot for character. This is what makes it so unique when compared to its siblings — depending on your outlook, that could be for the better, or for the worse.
I believe that you can tell a lot about a story by the questions that it asks. When a new, budding reader experiences “Sorcerer’s Stone” for the first time, they may ask something along the lines of “why are these owls flying about?”, “what is Hogwarts like?”, “where IS the sorcerer’s stone?” and “who’s trying to get to it?” Later in the series, with “Goblet of Fire,” one might ask “who put Harry’s name into the cup?”, “what’s up with that Barty Crouch?” and “why did the Dark Mark appear in the Triwizard Cup?”
These questions are the driving force of these books — the very reason fans have neglected their sleep schedules as they flip page after page. But have you noticed that they are all plot-oriented?
We, as readers, are encouraged to read more because we want answers that fill in gaps in our knowledge (answers that only come as the plot progresses). This is apparent throughout nearly the entire series, from beginning to end. “Who is the heir of Slytherin?” “What is up with this Sirius Black?” “Can the Half-Blood Prince be trusted?” But when we get to “Order of the Phoenix,” we are prompted to ask different kinds of questions.
When we see Harry Potter, marred by trauma, neurotically checking the news, we ask questions that beats in the plot won’t necessarily satisfy. “Is Harry going to be ok?” “How far can he get pushed?” “Is there any hope for our protagonists?” These questions are spurred not by mystery, not by scholarship, but by emotion — pure and simple.
Thus, the groundbreaking event in “Order of the Phoenix” is not a big reveal or a mind-splattering piece of lore but rather the death of a loved one, the rekindling of a mentorship and the foundation of “Dumbledore’s Army.” These resolutions might be considered trivial when compared to the rest of the books, and for those who are especially attached to the plot side of the “Harry Potter” series, that is a major drawback.
But, if you’re into more character-oriented, emotional craft, “Order of the Phoenix” offers this in a way no other entry in the series has matched before, or since. Thus, maybe a thinner plot is easier to overlook — surely, by this point, we’ve seen greater magic before.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.