Four years have gone by. Four battles have been fought. Four victories have been won. The fifth book in J.K. Rowling’s series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (OotP), marked a pretty significant change in tone from the previous books. Harry had watched a friend die in Goblet of Fire, and, as we quickly learn, he’s had to endure a summer of public ridicule and derision from the Wizarding community, denouncing his claims that He Who Must Not Be Named had returned as lies or merely the ravings of a crazy boy. Combine that with the fact that he turns fifteen in the book, and it’s not surprising to find that a new cross, moody, and short tempered teenage Harry has replaced ‘The Boy Who Lived.’
“So that’s it, is it? Stay there? That’s all anyone could tell me after I got attacked by those dementors too! Just stay put while the grown-ups sort it out, Harry! We won’t bother telling you anything, though, because your tiny little brain might not be able to cope with it!” -Harry
Fan reaction to this new Harry was mixed. Of the near 6,000 reviews for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on Amazon.com (more than any other Harry Potter book I might add), close to 4,000 of those are 5 star reviews applauding these “symptoms of adolescence…that show how a maturing Harry who is sullen, rude, and contemptuous of adult behavior, especially hypocrisy fits especially well into the plot.” Others questioned his irritability and propensity to lash out at those closest to him “as a big jump to the guy who spends the entire first third of the book either sulking, wallowing in self-pity, or exploding at his friends.”
The Harry Potter books, with the exception of The Deathly Hallows, all follow a similar story structure: Harry escapes to Hogwarts from an odious summer spent with the Dursleys, meets a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, clashes with Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy, struggles through a year of classes, and finally defeats Voldemort in one form or another. The OotP is no exception, but it does distinguish itself from the series in several key ways.
Each Harry Potter book introduces new characters, but perhaps none are more memorable than senior undersecretary to the Minister of Magic, Dolores “hem, hem” Umbridge. Never have pink cardigans, fluffy kittens, and bows looked more sinister. Stephen King went so far as to call her “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.” First as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, later as High Inquisitor of Hogwarts and eventually Headmistress, Rowling uses her to evoke the same kind of impotent rage in readers that we see Harry experience as Umbridge unjustly chucks him from the Gryffindor Quidditch team, forces him to carve the words I Must Not Tell Lies into his flesh, and very nearly uses the Cruciatus Curse on him. Personally, I haven’t been so infuriated at a character since reading about the Seanchan in The Wheel of Time series.
In addition to the Nazi-like Umbridge, there are several other new characters and creatures worth noting in OotP. There are the Thestrals, carnivorous winged skeletal horses that are only visible to those who have seen death, and the diminutive giant Grawp, Hagrid’s half brother. Then there’s old house elf and polar opposite to Dobby, Kreacher, the sweetly spacey Luna Lovegood, and Order members Kingsley Shacklebolt and Nymphadora Tonks. And while not a new character, Harry does experience his first ill-fated and suitably awkward romantic relationship with Ravenclaw Seeker Cho Chang.
As heinous as Umbridge was however, without her inept theory-only Defense Against the Dark Arts class, Dumbledore’s Army (the DA) would never have been formed. This is the first time Harry willingly accepts a leadership role and he doesn’t really ever relinquish it. Up until now, Harry, Ron, Hermione and the other students have been, well, students. Yes, Harry has fought Voldemort at the end of each book, but OotP is the first time he and his friends are in an out and out battle. They are fighting alone against the Death Eaters with no hope of aid. And even when the Order members arrive, they just join the fight alongside the DA. It’s a dark scene in the Ministry of Magic when we see adults trying to kill these kids. If there was any doubt left that the Harry Potter books were just for children, that scene alone ended it.
But the question that I heard over and over again from fans: was it really necessary for Harry to suffer as much as he did in OotP? To endure the hostility of his community, the alienation from his friends, the abuse from authority figures, and ultimately the loss of his godfather? I would say yes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is when Rowling begins to remove the father figures from Harry’s life, first with Sirus and then Dumbledore—who was largely absent in this book—in The Half-Blood Prince. In hindsight, we know what Rowling was preparing Harry for, but at the time, some, like the interviewer for the BBC wondered, ”do you [J.K. Rowling] have to be so cruel to him?”
I think it’s understandable to balk at Harry’s suffering. He has become such a beloved figure the world over. Dumbledore could have been speaking for all of us when he said, “Is there a defense? I defy anyone who has watched you as I have—and I have watched you more closely than you can have imagined—not to want to save you more pain than you had already suffered. What did I care if numbers of nameless and faceless people and creatures were slaughtered in the vague future, if in the here and now you were alive, and well, and happy? I never dreamed that I would have such a person on my hands.”
And yet Harry’s creator, J.K. Rowling, explained it best:
“Well, Phoenix, I would say, in self-defense Harry had to, because of what I’m trying to say about Harry as a hero. Because he’s a very human hero, and this is, obviously, there’s a contrast, between him, as a very human hero, and Voldemort, who has deliberately dehumanized himself. And Harry, therefore, did have to reach a point where he did almost break down, and say he didn’t want to play anymore, he didn’t want to be the hero anymore and he’d lost too much. And he didn’t want to lose anything else. So that Phoenix was the point at which I decided he would have his breakdown. And now he will rise from the ashes strengthened.”