A wisdom of wizards

WITH The Order of the Phoenix, the invention which has marked the previous four instalments of the Harry Potter saga is undiminished, but J.K. Rowling's ultimate purposes are clearer. She is a humane moralist with unusual architectonic abilities, committed to an old-fashioned investment in encouraging "common decency", not unlike George Orwell, this summer's other focus of publishing hype. In her fifth volume she asks us to read back and forth and reconsider our interpretations of its predecessors. The prevalence of portraits, reflecting surfaces and looking glasses should alert us to something.

There is more uncertainty than hitherto. From the Sorting Hat's early admonitions about unity, her Hogwarts opens on to a society whose virtues have the weaknesses of their strengths: the vulnerabilities of tolerance and the preference for protecting only "our" weak; the abuses of leadership, even the best-intentioned; the team spirit which encourages rivalry, then feud; the impossibility of anticipating the effects of even right actions. When Harry asks his house ghost where we go when we die, Sir Nicholas replies that he doesn't know because he was so afraid that he chose an unhappy simulacrum of life rather than leave it; Luna (or, unkindly, "Loony") is sure that we will see the dead again. The centaur, Firenze, insists in "divination" classes that fortune-telling is preposterous and vulgar and that the study of the heavens is difficult and requires many years' dedication by more-than-human minds — that is, centaurs. If there are prophecies, it is the characters' reactions to them which make things happen. The present has roots, and among its best-kept secrets are those of the previous generation. Harry and his friends cannot see how far they are repeating their predecessors' experience, the history of their school, and the venerable political traditions of struggling against tyranny. Nor, of course, can those readers for whom these books are an introduction to venerable literary traditions use their previous reading to foretell what will happen along generic lines.

With this book Rowling enters the realm of the coming-of-age novel. The children are fifteen. They have begun pairing and unpairing; moods swing; they see once-idealised adults more in the round. One of the restrictions of the novels has been how focussed they are on the three friends, concentrating on the partiality of their experience and their abilities to reflect on it. Rowling makes it quietly clear that Harry's intermittent alertness to the dangers of his own gifts recapitulates the arrogance of his parents' generation, which came from self-assurance built on good looks, physical prowess, intelligent courage, and confident leadership. If, as Rowling wrote earlier, it is not our abilities but our choices which make us what we are, then this book revolves around the implications of choosing and the unforeseeable consequences of even our best decisions.

Intractable problems remain just that, and strong emotions cloud the characters' judgement. Harry's passionate sense of justice quickly leads him to recognise wrongs where he or his friends are involved, such as prejudice against half-human characters, or the children who do not come from "pure-blood" wizarding families. Concomitantly, bad characters, who have seemed to succumb to the seductions of power as individuals, now begin to have explanatory pasts which thicken the plot. For the first time, by insolently invading the privacy of someone else's memories, Harry sees the world from another point of view and doesn't much like what he learns there about his heroes — though he is still too loyal to revise his judgement. Nor can he see the imperfections of wizard society, as the more alert Hermione does. As Dumbledore acknowledges at the end of the book, wizard society is not just. In other circumstances we might wonder about institutional racism: house elves are slaves. Species-ism is hardly exclusively human: the other centaurs banish Firenze when he helps Hogwarts. For them even benign expansionism is a threat, as it is to the biodiversity of, say, Giants.

People read and interpret variously, and weight what they notice on different scales. If you are one kind of reader, then the stubby-fingered apparatchik who introduces totalitarianism to Hogwarts is part of the broad-brush nasty-teacher satire, because you know her reign will be brief. If, however, you know (because you are another kind of reader) just how destructive can be the tenure of bureaucrats, cowardly managers, or self-seeking careerists, her reign of terror and pain may be more worrying. Both innocence and experience are likely to observe that bullies attract bullies; that virtue is a muscle which requires constant exercise; that adults, like children, can be moody, irrational, and mistaken.

Fighting Dark Lords, however we imagine them, always entails the risk of imitating what we hate. My consultants (now aged 12 and 10) currently read Harry as a modern-day knight, peerless and beyond reproach. Their reading will evolve as Harry does, and as they do. Elsewhere, the current reaction against Potter-mania is almost always disproportionate and to do with that, in another context, we might recognise as fear of subaltern festivity, as well as expressing contemporary disgust with marketing and dislike of exaggerated financial gain. These books are not always comfortable works; if they are dangerous, it may be because reading helps children think.


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury, p.766, �16.99. 0 7475 5100 6 � The Times Literary Supplement

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