Like a Phoenix I Have Risen

Harry Potter and the Oder of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling

I am happy to report that the lad and I survived our read-aloud Battle of Stalingrad. That may not be the kindest characterization of this longest installment in the Harry Potter series, but it accurately conveys the feeling of endless, dark struggle that permeates the book.

It’s probably appropriate that we began reading in the middle of summer and finished as the dying of the light was rushing toward its inflection point. This is one grim tale with a denouement that may rival Macbeth for sheer bloodiness. Or maybe it’s the OK Corral. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As we work our way through the series, the lad hanging on every plot twist like a General Hospital fan going starkers over the Luke & Laura machinations, it’s apparent to me that the Harry Potter saga is a tale of stolen adolescence. There are few teenage kicks for Harry. He’s literally a marked man, locked in an increasingly personal duel with evil incarnate. It’s an old tale, which is why it works, but that requires obliterating the post-World War II inventions of Technicolor teenagedom and the more recent arrival of teenage hell.

Harry’s hell is all too real, even if he spends much of the year ensconced in the comparative safety of boarding school. At the conclusion of the prior volume in the series we saw him beaten and battered, the corpse of a schoolmate at his feet, with all about him ready to believe the worst. That all the powers of the magical state are committed to the denial of evil’s existence just ensures that Harry will become a pariah.

Maybe the Technicolor teenage 50s weren’t all happy days.

He also can’t be totally alone. So this volume adds characters, more characters than we’ve met since year one. To start, there’s the Order of the Phoenix itself, a group originally formed during Lord Voldemort‘s first attempt at seizing control of the wizarding world.

As a child, I never understood why Batman’s foes had to be not just criminals but criminal masterminds. Same with Voldemort. I’m not disputing the presence of evil in the world. But there’s no animating idea behind Voldemort’s evil. It just exists in and of itself. The decision to battle it is largely personal, which, now that I write that, is probably the right literary path to trod.

The Order, like Harry, are committed. They are also, in a way, resurrected. There’s a lot of Christain metaphor in these books, intentional or otherwise. The phoenix itself serves as the embodiment and symbol of self-resurrection. So original members, a group which once included Harry’s long-dead parents and the comatose parents of classmate Neville Longbottom, have come together with new recruits to protect Harry and fight the Death Eaters, the name given to Voldemort’s most devoted followers.

Add a soundtrack and some choreography and adolesence starts to look more bearable.

The lot of them, okay, a lot of them (some have day jobs),  are holed up in the London townhouse owned by Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather. It’s a place Sirius hates, a monument to the pureblood obsession of his closest relatives. It sports a room wallpapered with a family tree from which insufficiently loyal family members have been visually, brutally obliterated. There’s also a nasty elf who shares the family’s worst instincts and who probably believes his greatest act of service to the Black family would be to help destroy the disloyal heir.

There’s a new face at school, too. Luna Lovegood appears during the train ride to Hogwarts and must have been at school prior to this. Until now, ancillary student characters have come and gone; it’s the adult characters who persist. Lorna serves a purpose though, she’s Harry’s guide to being an outcast.

Potter’s ongoing feud wth Draco Malfoy, Professor Snape and the Slytherins aside, Harry’s never really been an outsider. Sometimes he’s a curiosity. But he has friends and is secure enough to befriend more insecure students. Now, he’s the boy who lied and maybe killed a fellow student just to have the glory of winning. Maybe the only thing worse than being a lost teenager is going from top-of-the-heap to the near-bottom.

Then again, even vapidity can be tough.

Luna, by contrast, is a born outsider. Her father is the editor of The Quibbler, a sort of National Enquirer for the wizarding world. So she’s prone to matter-of-factly uttering things that sound absurd to others. Of course, it’s her job to help Harry see differently.

That begins when they arrive at school. For the first time, Harry notices the creatures, thestrals, pulling what he always thought were self-propelled carriages. Ron and Hermione, who see nothing,  believe he’s losing it. Luna explains what they are, explaining that only people who have seen someone die can see them. It’s a bit unsubtle, but I know people my age with parents still walking around, so experiencing death in childhood is not as common as it once was.

While the Order continues it’s clandestine activities, Harry deals with a bigger problem: he’s in Voldemort’s mind, seeing and thinking along with the sinister magus as the monster plots his return to power. Eventually, Harry must confess this since he “sees” Ron’s dad attacked, an even that proves all too real.

Then there’s outright nastiness.

To help Harry defend himself Professor Dumbledore assigns Harry to occlumency lessons with Snape. I love how Rowling invents things from existing parts. “Mency” (or mancy) is sort of an all-purpose root suggesting witchcraft. So if arithmancy is the study of numerology, occlumency must be the study of magic that obscures something, in this case, what Harry’s thinking.

These lessons were bound to fail because Harry’s hatred of Snape has been years in the making. It is, also, reciprocated because Snape is a contemporary of Harry’s long-dead parents. Since Harry never knew them, they are perfect in his mind and in one of the more penetrating and shattering moments, Harry learns that his father was, perhaps, one of the more mean-spirited popular kids to lead the tormenting of a pathetic classmate.

I’ve dwelt on non-plot things because the plot leads, as it always does, to a final conflict. This one is more involved than previous ones, but we’re gearing up for war and the casualties will start to mount. The battle, this time, is over a prophecy about Voldemort and Harry and it’s yet another piece of unwelcome news for our hero.

Sometimes, teenage years are just a hoot.

In all of this it’s almost possible to overlook one of Rowling’s more perfect creations: the unctuous toady Dolores Umbridge. A functionary in the Ministry of Magic, she worms her way into the school, teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts as a textbook subject with no practical applications. She’s a bureaucratic totalitarian with a  sadistic streak who manages to take control of the school before helping bring about her own demise.

The whole novel is an almost Wagner-length exposition of the terrors of adolescence. Being cast aside. Seeing things others don’t. Trying to get adults to listen to you. Having your personal myths shattered. Stubbornly adhering to personally destructive behaviors. And death. Death and loss in a way that seems particularly unfair except that it is often so.

Literature is a word tossed about for good and for ill. And universality of experience is looked askance at these days. But how else can we experience a wider range of emotions and occurrences than our lives allow? And aren’t some terrors, and pleasures, similar? Answering such questions is the job of the books that survive long enough to be deemed literature.

And that’s no less true when we place the adjective children’s in front of it.


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