There is an awful moment in every child's life when he realizes, all at once, that his parents are not omnipotent. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that moment lasts 870 pages: the much awaited fifth installment in the continuing saga of the young wizard presents a sustained disenchantment of author J.K. Rowling's hyper-enchanted world.
As children's fantasy adventure stories go, the Harry Potter books have always tended a bit morbid. When we first met young master Potter some six years ago, he had spent ten years in the care of his overbearing "muggle" (non-magical) aunt and uncle after surviving the murder of his parents by the evil wizard Voldemort. But since the climax of the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we have clearly entered the dark core of the series, the Empire Strikes Back of the Hogwarts septology.
At the close of Goblet, Lord Voldemort has returned to full power in a grisly ritual involving bloodletting and severed limbs, following shortly on the heels of the murder of one of Harry's classmates. The Harry we encounter as Order of the Phoenix opens has picked up some internal scars to match the lightning-bolt shaped mark on his forehead. Now 15, he is acting every bit the troubled teen, picking fights with his boorish cousin Dudley and flying off the handle at his closest friends. His own deep anger and rashness even lead him, late in the book, into a series of errors in judgment that prove to have deadly consequences for one of his closest friends.
The Potter series is not merely a set of fantasy stories, but an extended Bildungsroman that seeks to age with its readers. As Harry and his peers mature, so too does the language in which is tale is told. To pick two quite random examples, a character's face is described in the early pages of the book as "sepulchral," and another later on displays his gold coins "ostentatiously," words not to be found in the early adventures.
Rowling's portrayal of the wizarding world has changed and deepened as well. Harry Potter's appeal, at least initially, had its roots in an escapist fantasy that probably all children have entertained at some point: your parents are not your parents; you have strange and wonderful powers; you are famous in another world. In the early books of the series, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry provided relief from the compulsive conformism of Harry's adoptive muggle family. With the return of Lord Voldemort, however, we see that the wizard world has its own status quo, one that the magical government, in the form of the Ministry of Magic, is reluctant to upset.
Through the efforts of the bureaucratic Cornelius Fudge, minister of magic, Harry has been branded an attention-seeking lunatic by the magical media for his attempts to spread the word about the Dark Lord's return. In fact, Harry's chief antagonist for the bulk of this bulky book is not the self-consciously evil Voldemort or his acolytes, the Death Eaters, but the magical establishment, as represented at Hogwarts by the officious Dolores Umbridge.
Umbridge is a Nurse Ratched figure who, like so many government busybodies, is "here to help." Appointed professor of "defense against the dark arts" by ministerial fiat, she soon becomes High Inquisitor at Hogwarts, charged with ensuring that neither Potter nor the powerful Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore upset the magical world's insistent denial of the ugly truth.
As Sirius Black, Harry's wizard godfather, tells him at one point "the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters." Umbridge and Fudge may be power hungry, but their malevolence is not the raw nihilism of a Voldemort. Umbridge is particularly insufferable precisely because her transformation of Hogwarts into an increasingly regulated panopticon is motivated by an apparently sincere self-righteousness.
A central theme of The Order of the Phoenix, then, is what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil." As Isabel Paterson wrote in The God of the Machine: "Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends." If the agents can't quite be cast as virtuous, they are nevertheless doing "good" by their own lights. Former Hogwarts prefect Percy Weasley, brother of Harry's confidant Ron, is a case in point. In the past, Percy served as comic relief, a stuffed shirt whose obsequiousness to authority figures was matched only by his imperiousness toward younger students. Now Percy is a Hogwarts graduate and assistant to Cornelius Fudge, and his blind affection for his masters leads him to join the smear campaign against Harry. The transition from buffoonish to sinister is seamless.
That is not to say that Ministry officials, Umbridge in particular, lack a sadistic streak. In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, O'Brien tells Winston Smith: "The command of the old despotisms was 'Thou shalt not.' The command of the totalitarians was 'Thou shalt.' Our command is 'Thou art.'" Taking a page from Big Brother's book, Umbridge sentences Harry to detentions in which he must write "I will not tell lies," over and over again while the words are magically carved into the flesh of his arm. (Kafka fans may also be reminded of the punishment machine from his short story The Penal Colony.) For them, as for so many of those in power, it is not enough that their subjects comply with orders: they must believe the orders are just and right. They must learn to love Big Brother.
Umbridge's comeuppance, when it finally arrives, drives home another important truth about the nature of authority: Power over people ultimately relies on their own compliance. When the students and teachers who had let Umbridge have the run of the school out of fear finally decide to employ a sort of passive resistance, she learns all too quickly that she cannot maintain her cherished control.
This latest and longest entry in the Potter saga is also the biggest immediate success. It's first print run, 8.5 million copies, was the largest ever in the U.S., yet the publisher, Scholastic, still seems to have underestimated demand. Slaughtering previous records as ruthlessly as an Avada Kedavra, The Order of the Phoenix sold an astonishing 5 million copies on its "opening day," and Scholastic recently announced a third printing that will bring the total number of copies in print to 9.3 million.
While most parents celebrate anything that gets adolescents to put down the remote and pick up a book—a powerful bit of magic in itself—others are concerned that the series celebrates the "dark arts." An Australian school is only the most recent to have banned the bespectacled mage. Perhaps parents and teachers who relish unquestioned obedience are right to be concerned about Harry Potter, but their focus is misplaced. It is not the magic, but the morality of Harry Potter that is truly subversive.