Potter 5 Critiques Power
by Ari Armstrong, January 14, 2004
"'Now you mention it,' said Hermione happily, 'd'you know... I think I'm feeling a bit... rebellious'."
I finished reading the fifth Harry Potter book, Order of the Phoenix, feeling a bit melancholy. For now I shall have to wait for years before J.K. Rowling finishes the series. I hadn't begun until the fifth book was published.
Phoenix carries on several themes advanced in the fourth book -- the irresponsibility of the press; bigotry against elves, Muggles, and other rational beings; the struggles of romance -- but the most important theme is the abuse of government power and how to cope with it. Lord Voldemort remains the ultimate villain throughout the series, but in the fifth book the main antagonist is a representative of the Ministry of Magic, Dolores Umbridge.
The bureaucrats at the Ministry generally are too concerned with avoiding embarrassment and maintaining power to take action against Voldemort or even recognize the threat he poses. Instead, the Ministry bothers with trifles, forms alliances with dark forces, institutionalizes bigotry, and persecutes those who would stand up to Voldemort. Worse for the students of Hogwarts, Umbridge is forced upon the school by the Ministry as the new professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts.
"Wands away," Umbridge continually reminds the class. Umbridge promises her class a "Ministry-approved course," and "it is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge" -- that is, a knowledge cut off from practical application -- "will be more than sufficient to get you through your examination, which is, after all, what school is all about." Umbridge assures the students they'll be able to "perform the spells under carefully controlled examination conditions."
Though Umbridge eventually forbids non-approved student groups, Harry Potter and his friends take matters into their own hands. They know learning self-defense is too important a task to be stifled by petty bureaucrats.
Dumbledore, the school's headmaster, works within the system of capricious rules, using them to his advantage as much as possible, until doing so simply becomes impossible. Finally Dumbledore takes the fall to protect his students. Cornelius Fudge, the bungling Minister of Magic, informs Dumbledore, "You will now be escorted back to the Ministry, where you will be formally charged and then sent to Azkaban [prison] to await trial!" Dumbledore's reply is the best line of the book -- indeed of the series -- which is why I can't quote it in a review. It is a riveting scene.
Of course, Umbridge is appointed by the Ministry as the new headmaster. She finds that neither the other teachers nor the students take well to her authority.
Through it all, Harry Potter is growing up. He fails miserably at a date. He discovers some disturbing information about his father and god-father. He also has to deal with his own temper and rashness.
The theme of honesty is developed in the background in some interesting ways. Rowling takes the position that honesty is a moral virtue in the context of normal healthy relationships. But a clever lie to a villain can save the day. That is, one has no moral responsibility to tell the truth to those who would use such knowledge for evil purposes.
If education today is often a bureaucratic disaster, and if some teachers behave rather like Umbridge, Rowling offers complex fiction to entertain, yes, but also to instruct young readers about life, morality, and literature. The real-life order of the phoenix consists of rebels like Rowling who light the fires of independence and strong character in the next generation.
See also Potter for the Masses, a review of the fourth book.