Volume 5 of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series finds our hero and his friends cramming for (and agonizing over) their end-of-term exams, known at Hogwarts School as O.W.L.s (Ordinary Wizarding Levels). Of course, Harry has a few other things on his plate –– the growing
menace of Voldemort, a.k.a. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and his serious crush on the beautiful Cho Chang are only two of them –– but here, in the spirit of the exam motif, are some questions (and answers) of my own. The first is the most important...and may, in the end, be only one that matters in what is probably the most review-proof book to come along since a little best-seller called the Bible.
1. Is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as good as the other Harry Potter books?
No. This one is actually quite a bit better. The tone is darker, and this has the unexpected –– but very pleasing –– effect of making Rowling's wit and playful black humor shine all the brighter. Where but in the world of Jo Rowling would one find deadly supernatural beings and their frightening familiars existing side by side with empty gloves that twiddle their thumbs impatiently, not to mention enchanted interdepartmental memos that fly from floor to floor in the Ministry of Magic as paper airplanes?
2. Are there spoilers in this review?
Spoilers from a novelist who thinks the best dust-jacket flap copy ever written was "[Gore Vidal's] Duluth tears the lid off Dallas"? Perish the thought! But even if there were spoilers, would it matter? I'm betting that by the time this piece sees print, 90 percent of the world's Potter maniacs will have finished the novel and will be starting their letters to Ms. Rowling asking when volume 6 will be ready.
3. You say this one's better than The Prisoner of Azkaban, better than The Goblet of Fire, is there still room for improvement?
Heavens, yes. In terms of Ms. Rowling's imagination –– which should be insured by Lloyd's of London (or perhaps the Incubus Insurance Company) for the 2 or 3 billion dollars it will ultimately be worth over the span of her creative liftime, which should be long –– she is now at the absolute top of her game. As a writer, however, she is often careless (characters never just put on their clothes; they always get "dressed at top speed") and oddly, almost sweetly, insecure. The part of speech that indicates insecurity ("Did you really hear me? Do you really understand me?") is the adverb, and Ms. Rowling seems to have never met one she didn't like, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. Harry's godfather, Sirius, speaks "exasperatedly"; Mrs. Weasley (mother of Harry's best friend, Ron) speaks "sharply"; Tonks (a clumsy which with punked-up, particolor hair) speaks "earnestly." As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, and often –– given his current case of raving adolescence –– ANGRILY.
These minor flaws in diction are endearing rather than annoying; they are the logical side effect of a natural storyteller who is obviously bursting with crazily vivid ideas and having the time of her life. Yet Ms. Rowling could do better, and for the money, probably should. In any case, there's no need for all those adverbs (he said firmly), which pile up at the rate of 8 or 10 a page (over 870 pages, that comes to almost a novella's length of -ly words). Because, really –– we hear, we understand, we enjoy. If the sales figures show nothing else, they show that. And if by the end of chapter 3 we don't know that Harry Potter is one utterly, completely, and pervasively angry young man, we haven't been paying attention.
4. There's been a lot of discussion –– some of it pretty warm –– about whether or not kids, especially those under the age of 10, should be reading these novels, which contain vivid scenes of grief, terror, death, and even torture. What's your take on this?
My take on it is my mother's, actually. She used to say, "If they're old enough to understand what they're reading and to enjoy what they're understanding, leave 'em alone –– it keeps 'em out from underfoot." I also subscribe to her corollary: "If it gives 'em nightmares, take it away."
The first couple of Potters were PGs. Azkaban and Goblet of Fire were PG-13s, and Phoenix makes it under the PG-13 by the skin of its teeth...or its fangs. Would I give these books to my own kids, were they still 9, 7, and 5? Yes, and without hesitation. The suspense here is never prurient; the scares are more than balanced off by the simple decency of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. If teaching life lessons is one of the jobs books do, then the Potter novels teach some fine ones about how to behave under pressure. And Rowling never preaches. Harry and his friends strike me as real children, not proto-Christian tin gods out of a Sunday-school comic book. Hogwarts School is a long way from Bob Jones University, which is one of the reasons right-wingers decry the books.
A more interesting question is when did Ms. Rowling stop writing the stories for chidren and start writing them for everyone, as Mark Twain did when he moved from Tom Sawyer to Huckleberry Finn and Lews Carroll did when he moved from Alice in Wonderland to Through the Looking-Glass? I'm guessing it was a process –– most subconscious –– that began with volume 3 (Azkaban) and hit warp speed in volume 4 (Goblet of Fire). By the time we finish The Order of the Phoenix, with its extraordinary passages of fear and despair, the distinction between "children's literature" and plain old "literature" has ceased to exist. The latest Potter adventure could be The Cather in the Rye, minus the dirty words and the drinking...or maybe just the dirty words: Just what the hell is butterbeer, anyway?
5. What's the best thing about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?
This one's a slam dunk. A great fantasy novel can't exist without a great villain, and while You-Know-Who (sure we do: Lord Voldemort) is a little too far out in the supernatural ozone to qualify, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts does just fine in this regard. The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter. One needn't be a child to remember The Really Scary Teacher, the one who terrified us so badly that we dreaded the walk to school in the morning, and we turn the pages partly in fervent hopes that she will get her comeuppance...but also in growing fear of what she will get up to next. For surely a teacher capable of banning Harry Potter from playing Quidditch is capable of anything.
6. Last, but not least, how good are these books? How good are they, really?
- Stephen King, 'Potter Gold', Entertainment Weekly, 11 July 2003