Book Review - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J. K. Rowling


Harry Potter is an annoying, conceited little brat. Anything that was likable about the character through the first four books of the Harry Potter series has been overshadowed now by his generally distasteful personality. After reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I wished I could have apologized to my mother if I’d ever acted anything like that. And therein lies the genius of the book – Harry Potter is 15-years old.

The book serves as a subtle warning to children who have not yet hit puberty, and their parents, while also providing a certain painful nostalgia for all readers who have made it through those horrible years. The jokes about Harry’s burgeoning manhood have been around as long as the series. It was a question many of the series’ older readers were asking – how is it going to be dealt with or will it be dealt with at all? In this book J.K. Rowling dispels any notion that puberty doesn’t exist or is all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows in the wizarding world she has created.

Of course, as in all the books in the series, Harry and his friends fight adventurous battles in the fight to keep the evil Lord Voldemort from regaining his power and taking over the world. But unlike the other four books, that is not the main focus of this hefty novel. If you pared it down to just the adventures, you’d have something smaller than an issue of TV Guide.

What bulks it up is Rowling’s investigation of the 15-year-old mind. Harry’s crush on Cho Chang continues, and they even go on a date and lock lips. Ginny Weasley, though a year younger than Harry, is shown with multiple boyfriends through the course of the book. Hermione Granger still hangs out with the boys – Ron Weasley and Harry – but a certain sexual tension interrupts their friendship’s giddy and conspiratorial conversations. Harry’s adult friends and mentors aren’t as prevalent in this book as they were in the previous installments. And while he deals with feelings of abandonment, he’s also unable to stop thinking about how superior he is to all the know-nothing adults around him. In other words, he’s 15.

Many of the themes and conflicts that were central to sidestories in previous books are continued in the fifth installment. The financially overburdened working-class Weasley family is still in conflict with the wealthy and politically connected Malfoys. Severus Snape is still good and evil all at once, keeping up the mystery of what side he stands on. Hermione is still smart, and still trying to free the enslaved house elves. And school pride still revolves around which house wins the Quidditch Cup. While there is much humor and lightness in Order of the Phoenix, it is a very dark book. As readers, we are pushed along with Harry as he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, whether it really is or not.

And that’s the problem I have with this book – Harry himself. The maturity beyond his years that was seen in earlier books has faded away. In his conflict with his cousin Dudley, it’s no longer a good vs. bad situation. If anything, you start feeling a little bad about Harry’s treatment of Dudley, rather than the other way around. His maturity has been replaced with a textbook stereotype of middle adolescence. I felt compelled to look up what some child psychologists had to say about that age. “Self-involvement, alternating between unrealistically high expectations and poor self-concept,” says the website of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology. Based on their list of what the “symptoms” of adolescence are, one wonders if Rowling didn’t try to get every single one of them into Harry’s character for this book.

It doesn’t make Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix a bad read, though, just harder to endure. The black-and-white morality of the earlier books has faded away. The good people are bad, and the bad people are often only slightly worse. While, for adult and child readers alike, this gritty truth might be an unwelcome change, it is far overdue. Rowling’s series has been banned for its “heathen” subject matter. In praise, it has been favorably compared to J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Now, with the fifth book, I think it actually belongs in that crowd.

The dark side of children’s literature has been around for years, and perhaps only hidden in recent decades thanks to the likes of Disney. Rowling’s turn at realistic adolescent psychology places the Potter series firmly in the realm of great children’s literature.

I was once told by an English professor that literature at its best reflects real life, whether placed in an unrealistic locale or down the street. Rowling has now turned the Harry Potter series from a bunch of kids’ books to literature – maybe not at its best – of a very high standard.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling New York, Scholastic, 2003.