The most remarkable development in book publishing of recent years has been the phenomenal popularity of J. K. Rowling’s children’s novels about Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the saga, raises this series to new levels of popularity, while challenging traditional boundaries of children’s literature. Although there is no question that these novels are first and foremost children’s books, their increasingly somber subject matter, growing length, and widespread popularity among adult readers make them worthy of consideration in discussions of adult literature.
Harry Potter is a wizard. Moreover, he is a wizard with extraordinary powers and an extraordinary history. His history is of special interest because he learns new things about himself in every book. His saga begins in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997; published asHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in England), which opens as Harry approaches his eleventh birthday.
An orphan, Harry lives in the suburban English home of his mother’s sister, Petunia Dursley, and her husband, Vernon. Their house is spacious and comfortable, but not for Harry. Although the Dursleys are comparatively well-off, they treat Harry as poorly as the wicked stepmother treats Cinderella in the classic fairy tale. They give him cast-off clothes, make him do more than his share of chores, exclude him from special family activities, and virtually ignore him on Christmas and his birthday. Meanwhile, they lavish gifts and attention on their only child, Dudley, who, like Cinderella’s stepsisters, is a selfish and mean-spirited lout whose greatest joy is to torment Harry.
Harry seems to be resigned to a future of loneliness and drudgery. However, the night that he turns eleven, his life changes dramatically: A wondrous giant named Hagrid appears and reveals to him that he is not only a wizard but also a famous one. When Harry was an infant, his parents died trying to protect him from the powerful dark wizard Lord Voldemort. Voldemort also tried to kill Harry but failed and lost his powers in the attempt. Harry is thus both the only wizard ever to survive a battle with Voldemort and the apparent vanquisher of the most dangerous force in the magical world. For these reasons, he learns, the name “Harry Potter” is famous and revered among witches and wizards throughout the world.
Hagrid’s main mission that first night, however, is to tell Harry that he is now old enough to enter Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, whose seven-year program trains young wizards and witches in the skills that they will need to pursue productive lives in the magical world when they become adults. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone takes Harry through his first year at Hogwarts, and each succeeding novel takes him through another school year. The fact that Rowling planned the series of seven novels in advance gives them a unity, complexity, and consistency that are unusual in multivolume series. Indeed, it might be fair to regard the whole series as a single novel.
It would be an overstatement to say that all the Potter novels follow a formula. However, certain patterns characterize each of them. For example, each book typically opens with Harry experiencing another miserable summer in the Dursleys’ home and longing to return to Hogwarts. After he arrives at the school, he links up with his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, with whom he discovers and gradually solves a major new mystery. Each book culminates in a terrifying face-to-face encounter between Harry and Voldemort, whose origins and fates increasingly appear to be intertwined.
Despite the similarity in the novels’ plots, the individual stories have steadily taken on darker themes. Each time that Lord Voldemort reappears, he commits nastier crimes, and some of these result in the deaths of major characters. Meanwhile, Harry’s passage through his first five years at Hogwarts is far from smooth. During his first two years, his experiences are mainly pleasant. He revels in finding a home in which he feels he belongs, in having close friends, and in being surrounded by people who admire and like him. His clashes with the sinister professor of potions, Severus Snape, who seems to have it in for him, and his bullying rival, Draco Malfoy, are merely distractions.
In the later novels, however, and especially in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry’s problems become more serious. As his reputation as a powerful wizard grows with each of his encounters with Voldemort, so do suspicions regarding his motives. Which side is he on? Even he becomes unsure. His fifth year at Hogwarts is by far his most difficult. He is troubled by frightful dreams in which he seems to be Voldemort. While he is sure that Voldemort is again returning, he finds few people who believe him, and even the headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, seems to shun him. Also, Harry begins the school year with a cloud hanging over his head from an incident that occurred at the end of the previous year in which another student was killed by Voldemort. Although Harry tried to save the student and eventually repelled Voldemort’s attack, many people think he was responsible for the death. For the first time, Harry is not eager to return to Hogwarts.
While Harry experiences increasing doubts about his place in the wizarding world, he also experiences the normal adolescent stresses of puberty. He has sudden mood changes, flies into rages against his friends, and makes a complete hash of his first attempts to develop a relationship with a girl, Cho Chang. To make matters even worse, an official from the Ministry of Magic, Dolores Jane Umbridge, comes to Hogwarts and manages to displace Dumbledore. Under her repressive administration, Hogwarts becomes as unpleasant a place in which to live as the Dursleys’ home.
Despite the dark themes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the book is also full of fun. Comic moments pervade all the novels, in which humorous...
(The entire section is 2496 words.)