Hey, check it out. My book reviews have chapters. I am da queen of essays.
Order of the Phoenix thoughts, with comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Wars
OK, before I start this review, a moment of silence for the dearly departed Sirius Black.
Hangs head in sorrow
I tell you, every time I start ‘shipping any two characters, something comes along to rip them apart. And I don’t mean break-ups. Whenever I ‘ship, there isn’t just a parting of the ways. One of the pair dies or is summarily kicked off the show (or removed from the book series). Witness what happened to my beloved Angel+Connor father-son ‘ship. Or my Willow/Tara luv ‘ship. Or my Sirius+Harry godfather-godson ‘ship.
Harry Potter: Messiah
OK, on with it. We all know the literary reason why Sirius had to die. Harry made a mistake. He was… being himself. And there had to be life-altering consequences for that, or we’d just be stuck in boring predictable Mary-SueVille.
The rash young hero dives in head first where angels fear to tread without sufficient information because he believes his loved ones or the innocent are in danger.
Sound like anyone else you know?
When Buffy Summers was a teen, she was the queen of rash, despite her assurances that there “wouldn’t be any rash. Anywhere.” She puts her best friends in mortal danger on the first day of school. She charges into the Master’s lair to defy prophecy and gets herself killed. She runs into a bomb shelter to save some vampire wanna-bes and ends up face-to-fangs with a lot of hungry actual vampires.
Luke Skywalker was like this, too. In The Empire Strikes Back, he leaves his Jedi training incomplete to go to save his friends, who are at the mercy of Darth Vader in the cloud city. But Luke’s friends would not have been in danger if Darth didn’t know Luke so well. It was a set-up to lure Luke to him.
Heroes are so predictable.
And that was exactly what Voldemort was counting on. Draw Harry to the Department of Mysteries so he will find and claim the Prophecy that Voldy’s Death Eaters can’t lay their hands on.
And how about that prophecy, eh? Prophecies reveal destinies, and destinies turn heroes into Messiahs.
Well, OK, Harry’s destiny is a little murky. He will either kill Voldemort or be killed by Voldemort. But honestly, do you really think Rowling will surprise us with a stunningly dark subversion of the Hero myth and have Voldemort kill Harry in the end? I don’t know. Maybe she will. Maybe she has an interesting angle on it. How Jossian.
But there’s something to be said for leaving mythic stories well enough alone. You can have the predictable “the hero survives and kills the bad guy” and still introduce some interesting unexpected twist on it that makes it satisfyingly unpredictable even in its predictability. Because, as I have argued elsewhere, there’s something to be said for following the old story formulas. Doing so is a society’s way of reaffirming its values, of saying, “heroes are rewarded and evil doesn’t pay.”
But back to Harry Potter: Messiah. Now you’re probably laughing. “Harry Potter? A Messiah? Pffft.” But think about it. Most mythic saviors are very human, with very ordinary lives and humble roots. But they have a hidden well of extraordinary character and talent, and the harrowing circumstances of their lives end up bringing this out.
Buffy’s just a blonde chick from the L.A. who’s worried about her hair and nails and whether she’ll have a date for Friday night.
Luke is just an orphan (he thinks) from a back-water planet who dreams of going to the star-fighter academy while he’s supposed to be helping his uncle with the harvest.
But while Buffy sashays around L.A. playing the bimbo, she’s already been chosen from birth to be a Slayer, and prophecies already abound about the deeds she’ll do.
And though Luke kicks rocks with disgruntlement on Tatooine bemoaning his insignificance in the universe, he is still the son of Padme Amadala, a queen/senator and Anikan Skywalker, a Jedi Knight. His sister is a princess. He has all that heritage he knows nothing about.
Likewise, Harry’s future has been the subject of prophecy and discussion and the responsibility of great witches and wizards to protect while he was still sleeping in a cupboard on Privet drive and getting kicked around by his cousin.
Humble origins, a destiny already in the making, ready to unfold when that humble person of extraordinary character grows up and meets the challenges of their birth-righted world: Messiah.
Even Jesus of Nazareth was human, came from ordinary, humble origins, had a decidedly non-humble heritage unsuspected by those around him, and grew up to fulfill a great deal of ancient prophecies.
This is classic stuff, anciently classic stuff, retold again and again in interestingly different ways, but with the basic elements of the ancient tales in tact. (At this point, I would wax poetic with a deep Campbellian analysis, but I’m not really a Joseph Campbell expert).
Umbrage with Umbridge
I really wanted a war in this book. A nice big wands-and-hexes good-fights-evil war. Dumbledore’s army (no not the little DADA class, but a huge legion of adult witches and wizards plus Harry) vs. the Death Eaters. I mean, I know I got a little battle resembling this in the end, but I wanted a novel-length war.
I suppose the big war’s waiting for us in the next book. Or maybe book seven. In that sense, Order of the Phoenix becomes another big 750+ preface, like Goblet was.
But I’m beginning to realize why Rowling does that. A big war would totally disrupt Wizard society and Harry would probably not finish his classes and he’d have to be put back a year in school or something. And “the school year” is the frame around which every one of the novels is structured. You couldn’t have a giant society-disrupting war in year five, for heaven’s sake. How would Harry pass his OWLs?
Well, it is a wonder he passed his OWLs anyway (assuming he has). The Wizard world had become so corrupt, I was surprised that Fudge and Umbridge didn’t find a way to dictate what would be on the OWLs or find a way to flunk Harry outright and get away with it.
I tell you, I was cringing through the first 3/4ths of this book with this Umbridge thing (hem, hem). I have this little pet peeve, you see. I hate being misunderstood. If someone doesn’t get what I’m trying to say, or if someone thinks something about me that isn’t true, I can’t rest until I set them straight. It’s like an anxious moral imperative. I get mental about it.
So you can imagine how I feel about it happening for hundreds of pages to the main character of a book, especially Harry, who I am rather fond of.
I really, really wanted to bitch-slap Umbridge something silly.
And I get that Umbridge got poetic justice in the end. But I wanted more. I wanted Umbridge to be stripped one by one of every one of her rights and pleasures. I wanted everything she said to be systematically misinterpreted. I wanted her enemies to lurk behind her scrutinizing her every move and judging it unfairly. I wanted her to know the torment she inflicted on my Harry, his classmates, and his other professors.
Instead, the bigoted Umbridge is carted off by some pissed-off centaurs, which only confirms, in her mind, everything she already believes about the inferiority of “half-humans”.
But it was funny, wasn’t it?
Promissory notes and pay-offs
And you can see why Rowling’s centaurs are the way they are–seeing “helping” humans as the ultimate betrayal of their kind. Rowling’s Wizard sub-culture is a stratified society. Humans are better than centaurs, elves, and giants. Magical folk are better than Muggles. Pure-blood Magical folk are better than Magical Muggle half-breeds. This ideology is embodied in the statue at the Ministry of Magic, with the lesser species looking up in admiration at the humans.
After my review of Goblet, selenak told me that there would be a pay-off with the whole house-elves thread from novel 4. I think that pay-off is yet to come, with a promissory note in “Phoenix”. Dumbledore reveals that house-elves are the way they are–happy slaves–because humans enchanted them. The chains of magic. The ultimate in arrogant superiority that, Dumbledore warns Harry, will have to be paid for. But not in novel 5.
Rahael noted to me that Phoenix explained why a number of things in Rowling’s earlier books were the way they were. So let’s see if I can pick those out.
(1) Dumbledore’s explanation about the house-elves explains the indentured servitude of the elves in Goblet of Fire.
(2) Snape’s memory of being tormented and bullied by James Potter explains why Harry has been consistently mistreated by Snape since his first day in Potions. It also explains why Snape might have gone down the dark path for a while and then redeemed himself. Following Voldemort might have seemed like a way for the disempowered Snape to gain power over those people who tormented him. When Voldemort fell, Snape, a basically good person, took the opportunity to change his ways. That doesn’t mean he’s over the traumas of his youth, though. He enjoys picking on the James-resembling celebrity-spotlighted Harry; he sees thrusting the bully Malfoy on Harry as a kind of poetic justice.
Snape is petty, but not petty enough to stay his hand when Harry needs protection from something much more evil than a bully. Then Snape does the right thing.
(3) Dumbledore also explains why Harry ended up with the Dursleys. The conversation between Dumbledore and McGonagall at the beginning of “Philosopher’s Stone” implies that Dumbledore did it to keep Harry humble, and because the Dursleys were family. And that was partly true. But–and this is where one of Rowling’s two-dimensional characters actually gets some depth–it was also to keep Harry protected by his mother’s blood magic in the form of Aunt Petunia.
As much as Petunia disdains magic (and disdained James Potter, not such a big surprise anymore), she was willing to keep custody of Harry rather than see him die. Both when he was a baby, and again when he was 15.
Shadow-selves and better-selves
(4) Finally, we get a (rather long-winded) explanation about why Voldemort attacked Harry Potter as a baby and why Voldemort has a big thing for picking on Harry and seeing Harry dead.
Now just a side note before I explicate this: Rowling once again falls back on a variation on her own formula. She has Harry face Voldemort in the climax of the book, this time getting help from Dumbledore in person rather than by long-distance, and afterwards Dumbledore explains why everything turned out the way it did.
Anyway, I find it interesting that in some ways, Voldemort has, through his own evil ways, created his own worst enemy. He hears about the prophecy that a child will be that enemy. He tries to kill the child, but through Lily Potter’s love-magick (which Voldemort continuously underestimates as a bitter child who grew up in an orphanage), Harry not only survives, but Voldemort passes on many of his abilities to him (e.g., being a parseltongue), and creates a psychic connection between them that both of them will use to their advantage against the other from time to time.
Did Voldemort also pass along some of his character traits as well? One wonders how much of Harry’s personality is just Harry, and how much was imbued in him by Voldemort. Dumbledore implies in Chamber of Secrets, for example, that Harry’s disregard for the rules comes from Voldemort (however, it could just be Potter genes).
Regardless, Voldemort and Harry are linked, and they are linked because of Voldemort’s initial attack on Harry, which he made because he heard part of the prophecy. The prophecy self-fulfills itself.
And Voldemort picked on baby Harry over the other candidate, baby Neville, because of another trait they have in common, Muggle blood. Then he turns Harry into the orphan he himself was.
Now at this point, I’d be tempted to go on and on about how Voldemort is Harry’s “shadow self”, the Faith to Harry’s Buffy, yada yada. But really, Voldemort came first, and though we share Harry’s point of view in the books and not Voldemort’s (much), it is more accurate to say that Harry is Voldemort’s “better self”.
Harry is who Voldemort could have been given other circumstances. Which sort of begs the question: what makes an evil man evil? Is it just a bad childhood? Or was Voldemort born evil, giving him no choice about his behavior? Can he be redeemed? Should he be redeemed to make an interesting story, or can Rowling keep him an evil unrepentant villain to the end and still write an interesting book series?
On the other hand, we are expected to wonder if Voldemort is who Harry could have been. Harry had a traumatic upbringing of his own. And like Snape, he has been picked on even at Hogwarts.
But it goes beyond this. Perhaps Voldemort is who Harry still might be. With the Wizard community dumping on his reputation, and Umbridge taking away every incentive Harry had to follow the rules at school (she certainly pushed Fred and George over the edge), and then Sirius dying, Harry was so angry and so “fuck this! fuck everything!” I could have seen him saying the hell with it all and deciding he’d had enough of that fickle hypocritical thing called morality.
And now I’m feeling just a little bereft… that marathon book read kept me occupied for a month. I guess it’s time to head back to the library and find other stuff to read. That seems a very odd notion to me now, and I was a regular library-visitor as recently as August.
On the plus side, I can visit all the HP websites/LJ communities now and not have to worry about being spoiled!