The Harry Potter Reread was told that this coffee was lightly sweeten with brown-sugar syrup, and is perplexed to find that this coffee is not sweet at all. Mutiny. On the upside, this coffee is still pretty delicious.
Today we’re going to watch our fifteen-year-old hero suffer through torture and have an unfortunately tense conversation with a fugitive animagus. It’s chapters 13 and 14 of The Order of the Phoenix—Detention With Dolores and Percy and Padfoot.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
Chapter 13—Detention With Dolores
Harry hears students talking about his little tiff with Umbridge during dinner. It’s so disruptive that Hermione has them leave the Great Hall early, and they trek back to the Gryffindor common room. Once there, Hermione rails against Dumbledore allowing Umbridge to teach them. The trio start in on their homework when Hermione notices that the twins are testing their sweets on first year volunteers. She storms over (Ron refuses to follow along) and tells them that they have to stop. When the twins ask what she plans to do about it, she threatens to tell their mother. Fred and George are appalled. Then Hermione decides to head up to bed, but not before setting some poorly-knitted wool hats down amongst some garbage in the hopes that the house-elves will pick them up, thus freeing themselves. Ron doesn’t think it’s right since she’s hiding the hats, and he clears the rubbish away so they can be seen. He and Harry also head up to bed; Harry walks by Seamus on the way and thinks that the other boy might be about to talk to him, so he speeds past.
The next day, they have double Charms followed by double Transfiguration, where both Flitwick and McGonagall stress the importance of O.W.L.s and how hard they will have to study this year. Then it’s Care of Magical Creatures, which they have with the Slytherins. Professor Grubbly-Plank has some bowtruckles for the kids to look at, and she won’t answer Harry’s question about where Hagrid is. Draco seems to know, however, and intimates so just to annoy Harry. Next up is Herbology, where Harry encounters Luna as she’s leaving with her class. She marches up to Harry with giant radish earrings swinging from her ears and tells him that she believes what he said about Voldemort. Hermione is completely dismissive of her, but Ernie Macmillan also gives a loud vote of confidence once they’re in Herbology, which makes Harry feel a bit better. Professor Sprout, of course, is keen to talk about how important O.W.L.s are.
Harry has detention next, so he heads to the Great Hall to eat dinner quickly. There, he’s confronted by Angelina Johnson, who berates him for landing in detention all week when she’s got their Quidditch tryouts on Friday. She tells him to get out of it. Harry knows there’s not much chance, but figures he’ll try and heads to his detention. Professor Umbridge’s office is a terrifying menagerie of cat plates, lace, and pinkness. He asks Umbridge if she will allow him to serve Friday’s detention on another night, and she takes great pleasure in denying the request. Then she tells Harry he will write lines for her, using a special quill of her own. He is instructed to write the words “I must not tell lies” as many times as it takes for the message to sink in. There is no ink for the quill. What Harry finds instead is that every time he writes the words down, they appear cut into the back of his hand, then heal over. He is writing the words in his own blood again and again. Eventually Umbridge calls him over and examines his hand, but she’s not pleased with the progress–so Harry will have to come back tomorrow.
Harry is having difficulty keeping up with his homework due to the detentions, and Ron seemingly is too, though he won’t explain why. Harry won’t admit to Hermione and Ron what’s going on in his detentions either, perceiving a battle of wills between he and Umbridge, and fearing their reactions. After his second detention, he works long into the night, simply to have something to turn in for his Thursday lessons. His detention that evening leaves the words scratched into the back of his hand. Umbridge seems happy about this, though she insists that he turn up on Friday all the same. On Harry’s way back to the common room, he runs into Ron (who is hiding as the twins pass to test their products away from Hermione’s watchful gaze). Harry asks why Ron has his broom with him and he reluctantly admits that he’s planning to try out for Quidditch Keeper. Harry loves the idea, relieving Ron, who then perceives the cuts on Harry’s hand and asks him what’s going on. Harry explains the detentions, and Ron insists he tell an adult. Harry refuses.
The next day, Harry carefully maneuvers his chair in detention so he can glance up at the Quidditch tryouts every so often. He can’t tell who is Ron, and eventually it gets too dark to see anyway. The words are cut sharply into the back of his hand, and when Umbridge comes over to examine him Harry’s scar starts to hurt him badly. He wonders if perhaps Umbridge is directly responsible, if she’s somehow connected to Voldemort. She dismisses him from detention and he rushes back to the common room only to find out that Ron has been made Keeper.
Angelina takes Harry aside to explain that there were two better options that Ron in the tryout, but one of them has too many after school commitments and the other was a “whiner.” She asks Harry to help whip Ron into shape. Harry finds Hermione by the fireside and tells her what happened with Umbridge–she suggests that he tell Dumbledore about his scar hurting. Harry doesn’t want to hear it, uninterested in talking to the headmaster when he’s clearly been avoiding Harry since June. He wants to write to Sirius, but Hermione reminds him that Moody warned them all not to put much in letters, since they could be intercepted. Hermione asks Harry if he’d like to help her knit more hats for the house-elves (which have been disappearing from the common room like crazy), but Harry declines and heads upstairs to go to sleep.
It’s so satisfying to see Hermione get angry over what’s happening with Umbridge. So similar to McGonagall, really, just any crack in the demeanor becomes exciting.
While I don’t think that Fred and George are doing anything too horrible in testing their products once they’ve already tested them on themselves, I do think they should have insisted on older students for said tests. (My guess is they couldn’t get older students because most of the older Gryffindors know better than to eat anything that the twins hand them.) First years are just too freaking young to make those sorts of decisions. That said, there must actually be a wide community of wizard product testers, same as the Muggle world. Wonder if anyone makes a living that way—it must be a pretty perilous job, all things considered.
Yet again, we find Hermione going about activism in the wrong way; tricking the house-elves into freedom is emphatically doing it wrong. It’s one of those fascinating places where Ron’s instincts are actually correct over Hermione’s rationale–he knows that the duplicity of the tactics are wrong, regardless of their intention or his personal opinions on them. In addition, Hermione isn’t really thinking this through as logically as she believes; if any house-elf who picks up a piece of clothing is automatically free, then these guys would constantly be accidentally freeing themselves by picking up scarves and hats and gloves that students left in their common rooms. It’s likely that Dobby was a special case because he wanted to be free, and was therefore willing to accept a broad interpretation of being “given” clothes. Of course, we’ll get to the house-elf reaction to her ploy later on, but even now it’s plain that this is not the way to go. Also, the irony is lost on her; she started S.P.E.W. because she saw Winky get forcibly freed by Mr. Crouch, and is now technically trying to force the exact same scenario on other house-elves.
So we have more teachers panicking the kids about O.W.L.s, and frankly, it makes me want to go on a long screed about education and lack of effectiveness where testing is concerned, but I’ll save it and just point out that the pressure of this situation would have done me in as a teen. On the other hand, it does lead to one of my favorite McGonagall moments; when she tells her class that she believes they can all do well on their test and Neville responds anxiously, she makes a point of saying that he’s not a bad student, only that he lacks self-confidence. We don’t actually get as many chances to watch McGonagall operate in her classroom, but it’s clear that she is an excellent teacher in most respects; she expects hard work from her students, but she believes in them. And she’s well aware of the fact that Neville’s block in her class (and many other classes) has nothing to do with his true abilities as a wizard. It may seem cruel to point out his low self-esteem in front of other students, but she’s giving him something valuable all the same—out loud assurance in front of his classmates that he is equally capable to any of his peers.
Man, I’d completely (deliberately?) forgotten how nasty Hermione is about Luna at the start of this book. And I get why it makes sense for Hermione to react that way–when it comes to intellectual approach, they could not be more different as people. But it really stings to watch Hermione belittle a) another female student who b) has many of the same issues with people that Hermione has herself. It’s important for Rowling to include because it’s good to be reminded at every turn that even our heroic characters aren’t always going to behave in a heroic manner, but it’s always rough to watch a character that you love be such a jerk. The comment of “you can do better than her” is so belittling, and you just want to grab a megaphone and shout it’s great that you care about house-elves and that you’re aware of sweeping social injustices, but you just spoke about another person like she was an ugly dress at a discount store and you have to do better, Hermione, I believe in you.
It’s not Harry’s finest moment either; he’s glad to have Ernie’s support (no matter how pompously it’s stated) because it’s nice to have people in his corner that the rest of the student body don’t consider crazy. But the politics here are interesting because, up until Umbridge’s coming takeover, the students are basically allowed to declare allegiances openly as they wish—which their families can’t necessarily risk, particularly if they work at the Ministry.
I’d forgotten that Angelina gets kind of just as bad as Oliver Wood being Quidditch captain. I mean… it’s detention, Angelina. It’s not exactly a thing that one bypasses. Especially not in this very special case.
So… let’s talk about that quill, huh?
One thing that struck me is the (perhaps unintentional) connection between Umbridge’s quill and the last magical quill we encountered–Rita’s Skeeter’s Quick-Quotes Quill. Both were created by the women who use them, both women are powerful, ambitious figures. And both quills are used to encourage lies; Skeeter’s quill by omission and alteration of the facts, Umbridge’s by discouraging others from speaking out. In many ways, they are both plays on the idea of “the power of the written word” to harm. One allows the user to affect others by means of persuasion and deception, the other punishes people who would seek to spread the truth by literally weaponizing words.
About Harry’s punishment: I love this part. Obviously I don’t love what happens at all (at all at all at all), but I feel like this should be a highlight in some treatise about how violence is handled in fiction. What Umbridge does to Harry is horrific. It’s horrific because it is a form of torture, but what’s more, it’s a creative form of torture that Harry is forced to self-inflict. Rowling has made a point of stating that the scar left by the quill is permanent, making Umbridge the only other person to leave a lasting physical mark on Harry (the other being his lightning-bolt scar). That information could not make it more clear how relevant this passage is to the series as a whole. Dolores Umbridge is the only other being who ever had enough power at her disposal to damage Harry; the stakes have changed.
The one place that Harry still deemed safe is now a place where he can be maimed and humiliated on a level he never anticipated. Previous encounters at the end of the school year aside, Hogwarts was still where he felt most comfortable. It’s important that his newly minted discomfort is taken from the emotional and mental realm (rumors among the student body, the Prophet‘s lies) and shoved into the physical one. No part of Harry is safe anymore. This is made even more clear when Umbridge breaches his personal space at the end of every detention and touches him, prodding at his skin to make sure the mark sinks in. (I cannot begin to describe how uncomfortable it makes me, that part is far worse than the quill every time I read it.) It’s made clear in Harry’s impulse to break into a run once he’s far enough away from Umbridge’s office that she won’t hear his footfalls. Every person who whines about the fact that this is unrealistic, that Harry should have told an adult is missing the damn point. This is a form of assault and it’s deeply personal to Harry. Of course he doesn’t want to tell anyone about it, of course he feels obligated to battle it out on his own terms.
And this manner of punishment is extremely relevant to the conversation of how violence is portrayed in fiction. With the shift toward the popularity of “grimdark” fantasy, there’s an argument that extreme violence is needed to make points in certain narratives, to create character development. I’m not going to claim that extreme violence is always out of place in fiction, but look at this. Really pick this chapter apart. On the surface, it seems so simple, so small. It isn’t dismemberment or flogging or burning alive. It isn’t rape. And yet it bears many of the aftereffects that go with such extreme violence. Because we’re human, we’re fragile. An intelligent person with terrible motives will know how to exploit that without visibly destroying someone. That is what makes Umbridge potentially the most frightening of any Potter series villain. Her methods are calculated and she has the stomach for it.
It’s such a relief when Ron notices Harry’s hand because keeping it hidden creates the greatest possibility of longterm effects, but it’s also so important that Ron respects Harry’s wishes to keep it to himself, even as he advises him to go tell an adult. Had Umbridge’s actions continued, some form of intervention would have been necessary, but when it comes to the revelation, Harry receives precisely what he needs from Ron; the ability to unburden himself and know that the person he told would be on his side. It’s sad that the two of them are keeping secrets this chapter–Harry about Umbridge, Ron about trying out for Quidditch—yet that more than anything proves that they’re teenagers. At this age, we tend to guard ourselves furiously, even from our friends. But their reactions to each other’s secrets ultimately help to strengthen their bond because they’re reminded that they can and should confide in each other.
I’m frankly amazed that Ron manages a halfway decent Quidditch tryout with Fred and George looking on. While this may seem trivial in light of what Harry’s going through, I’d argue exactly the opposite—it’s a clear parallel between Harry and Ron, both fighting to find some kind of normalcy and legitimacy in the wake of so much change. But we’ll get to that more in the following chapter.
Hermione advises Harry to tell Dumbledore about the scar hurting when Umbridge touches him in his final detention (again, no, she just should not ever be allowed to do that, break a kitty plate over her head, Harry), then suggests that Harry help her make house-elf hats. And, you know, Hermione… priorities. I get that you’re on a crusade, but your friend is being tortured by a professor. He might not be so excited to take up magical knitting just now.
Chapter 14–Percy and Padfoot
Harry wakes up before everyone else and takes great pains to pen a letter to Sirius that doesn’t give anything away. Once he’s satisfied, he heads up to the Owlery and sends the letter off with Hedwig. Looking out onto the grounds, he sees a thestral fly up into the sky. Cho arrives at the Owlery with a birthday present for her mother, and Harry tries to strike up conversation. He tells her that Ron is the new Gryffindor Keeper (which is less impressive to her), and when he mentions being in detention during the tryouts, Cho tells him that she thinks Umbridge is terrible and that Harry was brave for standing up to her. Harry is all aflutter when Filch bursts in, insisting that Harry is placing a giant order for Dungbombs and demanding to see the order form. Harry informs him that he already sent it, which Cho confirms on his behalf. Filch is livid, but skulks off, leaving Harry and Cho and wonder why Filch thought he was placing an order for Dungbombs in the first place. They part ways, leaving Harry in a considerably better mood.
Ron asks Harry to give him some extra Quidditch practice before their official one, though Hermione warns them both against it, and tries to get them focused on homework. The Daily Prophet that morning contains news that Sirius is hiding in London (confirming that Lucius Malfoy recognized Sirius in animagus form on the train platform) and an article about Sturgis Podmore being arrested and sent to Azkaban for trying to break into the Department of Mysteries at one in the morning. Ron reckons that someone in the Ministry was trying to frame him after figuring out that he was one of Dumbledore’s. They head out to the pitch, and Harry finds that Ron is pretty good at Quidditch–also that he gets better with practice.
They eat lunch then head back for the official practice, where the Slytherin team and their pals are waiting to give them a hard time. Harry tells Ron to ignore them, but the practice goes particularly awful, with Ron accidentally giving Katie a bloody nose when he throws the Quaffle her way and the twins giving her the wrong Skiving Snackbox (intending to give her the half that would cure the Nosebleed Nougat), causing her to lose a frightful amount of blood. When they arrive back at the common room, Hermione tries to console Ron about the practice, but due to some unfortunate wording just makes things worse. Harry and Ron spend the rest of the weekend neck deep in homework. Percy’s owl suddenly arrives out of nowhere with a letter for Ron, which the trio read immediately. It turns out to be a letter that congratulates Ron on becoming a prefect, suggests that he sever all ties with Harry (for the sake of his future), and points out that changes are coming to Hogwarts via Umbridge. Percy insists that their parents are deeply mistaken about the kind of company Dumbledore keeps and that he (and Ron) would do well to steer clear of it. Harry tries to make light of the letter, while Hermione finally agrees to look over and correct their essays.
Later that evening, Harry realizes that he is seeing Sirius in the fire–his godfather has been popping in and out every hour to try and make contact with them. Hermione insists that’s dangerous, but he doesn’t seem to care much. He wants to talk to Harry about his letter; he doesn’t think that Umbridge has anything to do with Voldemort, no matter how awful she is. He tells them that she has a horrible fear of “half-breeds” and about the werewolf legislation she created that’s made it so hard for Remus to work. He’s been stuck at Order HQ with Kreacher alone for a long while, and it’s clearly getting to him. He assures them that Hagrid is likely fine, just got separated from Madam Maxime. Also, they shouldn’t bring it up because Dumbledore doesn’t want anyone wise to Hagrid’s absence. The Ministry interference at Hogwarts is occurring because Fudge is convinced that Dumbledore is using the school to build an army that can challenge the Ministry and take power.
Sirius suggests that he could come to Hogsmeade as Snuffles on their next visit, which the kids ardently oppose, explaining that they’re worried the secret might be out on his animagus form. He’s visibly upset by their lack of enthusiasm, telling Harry that his father would have enjoyed the gambit for the risk. Then he swiftly ends the conversation and disappears.
Harry’s little run-in with Cho is very sweet with the added bonus of his internal monologue over how lame it is to mention the weather when you’re trying to be cool in front of a lady. (It’s okay, sweetie, you’re doing a good job.) Then we get an unwelcome cameo by Filch, which turns welcome when we see Cho defend Harry from what would have presumably been a very uncomfortable strip search because what the heck else was Filch going to do to try and find that order form on Harry’s person. Stop, Filch. Please stop.
Now that Ron and Harry are being better about confiding in each other, Ron asks Harry to help with Quidditch practice, which saves Harry the trouble of having to figure out a way to broach the idea of extra practice time on his own (per Angelina’s request). Tellingly, Ron does well working with Harry, and notably improves with time. Which is basically Ron as a person, distilled down into a Quidditch practice. But then they have the real team practice and the Slytherins show up to be jerks and there goes all Ron’s hard work down the tubes because self-esteem. The twins are markedly unhelpful in giving Ron a leg up here (it’s nice that they don’t tear him down, but a vote of confidence would be nicer), and frankly the abrupt end of practice is ALL THEIR FAULT, so maybe they should just keep their mouths shut about who is worse for the Quidditch team and sort their sweets better, hmm?
Also, Pansy Parkinson makes a delightfully racist comment to Angelina Johnson about her hair looking like “worms” (because it’s braided), and by “delightful” I mean I’m gonna throw up, Pansy is worst, 1000 points from Slytherin, it’s bad enough that you’re wizard racist but you just had to take it further, go home.
Ron gets Percy’s letter and there’s just something about Percy’s lack of self-awareness that is boggling. Like, he somehow assumes that because Ron is a prefect they have things in common now, even though Charlie and Bill both were prefects too, and could not be more different from Percy. It’s possible that there’s a part of Percy (however small) that misses his family, and this letter to Ron is his attempt to reach out and get some of it back, but there are several disgusting passive-aggressive tactics in there that just make my skin crawl. It also makes all the bad press feel more real to Harry, which is completely understandable. It’s one thing to hear it on your periphery, another to hear it from someone who is a member of your surrogate family (even if Percy has disowned said family at the time being). Both Harry and Hermione are excellent friends in this moment, Harry trying to make light of it in the most endearing possible way:
“Well,” he said, trying to sound as though he found the whole thing a joke, “if you want to—er—what is it?” (He checked Percy’s letter.) “Oh yeah — ‘sever ties’ with me, I swear I won’t get violent.”
Hermione offers to finally help the boys with their homework (she helps Ron a lot), and while I understand that this rubs a lot of people the wrong way, it really doesn’t bother me. Ron is going through some serious emotional trauma right now in his family. The fact that it doesn’t seem to be affecting him much on the surface means nothing because Ron is very guarded about his emotions; he prefers to pretend that he can laugh everything off. Hermione recognizes that this is something that is continuing to wound him and offers to help in the way only she can–by mitigating some of the effect that this will have on Ron’s academic career. And before anyone says “he still should have done his homework instead of practicing Quidditch!”, I want to point out that trying out for the Quidditch team is not just for fun. It’s a coping tactic. It’s Ron’s attempt to build some self-esteem and draw himself up. If you think that’s not the case, allow me to give a very long speech about how extra-circular activities are often used for therapeutic purposes, which is why stripping those privileges from kids who do poorly in school is often the worst thing you can do. (Pretend speech went here, it would be very long and vehement and stuff.)
I’m also noticing this time around that Hermione seems a lot more attuned to Ron’s emotions than Harry’s… she can tell when Ron is in genuine distress, but has a harder time parsing out when Harry is having a rough time. And that makes sense, given which one she’s harboring some romantic inclinations toward. Harry is perhaps harder to read, of course, but Hermione’s tenderness (for lack of a better way of putting it) is often directed entirely at Ron–she pointedly only offers to help both of them with their work following Ron’s distress, so he’s the catalyst.
Then we have the trio’s fireside chat with Sirius, which is helpful, but also just plain sad on a number of levels. The deterioration is so clear, from his recklessness in making contact in the first place to his comments about being stuck alone in the house with Kreacher. He does offer a kernel of information which will propel the rest of the book forward, the acknowledgement that the Ministry is concerned that Dumbledore is building a student army within the walls of Hogwarts. What an idea, huh….
Sirius’ mental state can be basically paired down to two comments within this conversation. The first is one of my favorite points made to Harry in the whole series, a truly important kernel of wisdom that all children need to adjust for:
“I know her by reputation and I’m sure she’s no Death Eater—”
“She’s foul enough to be one,” said Harry darkly and Ron and Hermione nodded vigorously in agreement.
“Yes, but the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” said Sirius with a wry smile.
And then we have his parting shot:
“You’re less like your father than I thought,” he said finally, a definite coolness in his voice. “The risk would’ve been what made it fun for James.”
Oh, Sirius. This is not school anymore for you, this is the life that comes after. This is not the first war you fought with your adult best friend, this is his teenaged son. And both of these facts are lost on him, on a man who moments beforehand displayed such a level head and shrewd understanding of people. The moments where Sirius contradicts his own adulthood and experience are the places where you see the cracks in his psyche. His fate is spelled out right here, in these conversations. I really hate experiencing it all over again.
But, you know, we’ve got other things to worry about. The kind that Percy was so-unsubtly alluding to.