Rowling, J.K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [Book 5]. New York: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic.

Reviewed 21 June 2003

Rowling, Order of the Phoenix (cover) Another "marketing phenomenon" that will "take the world by storm." There are a lot worse things that could take the world by storm, such as more Star Wars novels (or, on the evidence of the last two, movies), or continuing debate over campaign finance reform put forth by the very people who most benefit from the current system.

The major criticism that one can offer against Rowling is the lack of elegance in her prose. This is not entirely surprising in a children's book, because they have to be written down to the literary acumen of the average marketing dork. The children usually know better. At least, however, Rowling is not prone to florid prose or foreshadowing that drips pseudoliterary menace, as in Lois Lowry's The Giver (almost good [2 stars)]). Neither is she prone to the moralizing that seems almost required of children's literature that is anything other than selfrighteously escapist. While not precisely clunky, Rowling's prose has a regrettable tendency to become extremely choppy at critical moments, whether in or not there is much action being described. As clunky as this gets at time, though, she never uses baby language in talking down to her readers, and "whatever one's view of her prose style, it can't be denied that Rowling knows how to produce a page-turner" (Unsigned Review, The Observer).

The criticisms that one can offer against the publisher, however, are much more serious. Although they did not influence my evaluation of this book, they are nonetheless disturbing. At least this time the book was properly bound. However, it was brought out much too fast, resulting in some disturbing errors that are in the publisher's control and responsibility. For example, the copyediting suffered greatly; the beginning of the first chapter notes that the cars on Privet Drive are dusty due to drought, but later in that chapter describes other cars in the neighborhood as "very clean." Of course, the author should make every reasonable effort to catch these things before turning in the manuscript; but this was so obvious that my ten-year-old picked it up when I was reading the book to him with a 45-minute break in the middle for lunch. This is far from the only copyediting error in the book, and certainly far from the only production error. I'm afraid that Mary Grand Pre's illustrations have run their course, and the excessive leading actually makes reading the book more difficult.

These criticisms pale next to the intellectual dishonesty of the marketing campaign.

So none of the bad stuff was the fault of the readers, or even the author; but the fact remains that there is a quite profound cheapness these days to the marketing of Harry Potter, and all the major book chains who pretend it's all about the joy of reading are basically at it, and their managers, Pied Pipers all, might just as well swap their cheap suits for torn tights and a flimsy crepe cape, and lead all the kids off with a touch more honesty, and take all their money.

Euan Ferguson, "Marketing robs Hogworts hero of his magic", The Guardian

Frankly, Mr. Ferguson is being too nice to Scholastic. But then, he's over in England, and only has to put up with Bloomsbury's bullshit—which, as the passage above makes clear, is bad enough. Literature and reading are processes, not things—far more so than film or music, at least from the viewer/listener's perspective. The more books are treated like iceboxes and readers treated like Eskimos, the more likely it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Enough on the publisher; back to the book.

Order of the Phoenix is a substantial improvement over Goblet of Fire (Book 4), if not as good as Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3). Joanne Rowling has said in two interviews that she cried when she kills off a main character in Order of the Phoenix. Unfortunately, she (or, more properly, her editor, because it's the editor's job, dammit) appears to have had the same reaction to killing off unnecessary scenes or descriptions. Goblet is too long by a third, or perhaps a little more, for the quantum of story it contains. Order is also too long, but by about half that—even though it is a significantly longer than is Goblet. Put another way, Order has about twice as much relevant story material as does Goblet. More importantly, the thematic material in Order requires much more room in a story than in any of the preceding books; without that room, the book would descend into moralizing and the awful "problem books" that are foisted off upon unsuspecting children and probably do as much damage to children's motivation to ever seriously study literature as do TV, videogames, and comic books—combined.

"Fallibility" is the underlying theme of Order. This is extraordinarily complex for a "children's book," or even for that matter most "serious" literature these days. The key distinction between good and evil in Rowling's universe is not that the good characters always have superior knowledge (they don't), morals (ditto), and judgment (double ditto) to the venal and outright evil characters. It is that the "good guys" find a way to live with their fallibility—even fallibility magnified by raging teenage hormones and true alienation. For example (not giving away any plot points), the one thing that Hermione has always had going for her is academic prowess and enthusiasm, just as Harry has attempted to avoid them. Throughout the series, Hermione often ends up teaching Ron and Harry (and other classmates as well) much more than the teachers or their textbooks. The critical turning point in Order, however, requires Hermione to force Harry to see that there is one academic subject in which Harry is superior to everyone at the school, excepting only Dumbledore: Defense Against the Dark Arts. The consequences of this admission of fallibility by Hermione and the creative way that she both lives with it herself and uses it as a way to snap Harry out of a dangerous spiral of self-doubt infuse the remainder of the novel with a subtle strength. This is much more than the stereotypical "novel about growing up," because the adults (or at least the good ones) admit to fallibility too—which, ironically, is part of what makes Harry Potter continue to grow as a character.

Fallibility and self-doubt are also inextricably intertwined with the increasing psychological darkness in the Potter narrative. The previous four books have revolved around exterior threats to Harry and his world. Order adds significant interior threats, hauntings, and images of madness to the palette, and is thereby much richer. I cannot go into more details without sinking into a plot summary; and that I refuse to do, for reasons other than just the facile excuse that "I don't want to spoil the story for those who haven't read it."

Structurally, and particularly at the mythic and archetypal levels, Rowling's work is prone to serious misinterpretation.

Partly because of its necromantic subject-matter—and partly because of the coincidence of huge movie projects—the Potter sequence has tended to be compared with Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings. But book five confirms the impression that George Lucas's Star Wars stories are a crucial influence. Throughout The Order Of The Phoenix, Harry is haunted by dreams, visions and stories of his parents and, in particular, his dad. You increasingly feel that the whole sequence will turn on paternity or the circumstances of Harry's orphaning.

Mark Lawson, "A Kiss, A Death, A Secret", The Guardian

Well, maybe you feel that things will turn on paternity, Mr. Lawson, but I'm afraid that interpretation reveals a regrettable shallowness in your background in mythic literature. I seriously doubt that Star Wars had much, if any, influence on Rowling. I strongly suspect, particularly based upon some of the fun-for-kids-but-pointed-at-adults references in all five books, that Rowling's influences include some of the same influences that shaped Lucas's work, although fortunately not Joseph Campbell. Ah, the benefits of a classical education, as the actor who plays Snape in the films remarked in another film.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Definitely a more complex, ambiguous, and therefore satisfying novel than most children's or even adult work. Comparing Rowling's series to His Dark Materials is inevitible, and unfair to both works, for they have entirely different—perhaps even fundamentally incompatible—literary contexts, purposes, and influences. Harry Potter remains a work in progress. As, at least in theory, do we all. A Powell's Books Partner

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