Saturday, June 25, 2005

Books: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I recently finished reading the fifth book in the Harry Potter series and not only am glad for the entertainment, I'm also impressed with the growing sophistication of these stories. The stories provide a rather detailed illustration of the many ways that one can deal with power--both with having power and having power used against one's self.

The stories begin when Harry is 11 years old, and each book chronicles his development as he advances through another year at the Hogwarts school of magic. Not only do the main characters become older with each book, but it seems that the target audience also ages, as Harry is faced with more complicated choices and comes to appreciate the complexity of the individuals around him. The stories start in a rather simple world of kids in school--friendships, competition, classes, and mean teachers--set in the context of a simplistic cosmic battle between good and evil.

By the fifth book, the battle between good and evil has expanded to cover a vast middle ground, where many characters aren't quite evil, but they definitely aren't good either, and some characters can even make the transition from being clearly evil to being clearly good. Meanwhile, this battle has intruded on the day-to-day life inside of Hogwarts school of magic so that Harry and his friends have to decide how to deal with those persons who fall into this middle category of "not quite friend nor enemy".

Ultimately, these are children's books, so an adult will not find anything profound in them. However, to the millions of readers who are just entering adolescence, these books have the potential of bringing their attention to particular aspects of our world which many adults seem all to willing to ignore. These themes will be examined below:

In this book, three institutions vie for power, representing good, evil, and politics:
  • The primary antagonist in these stories is the power-hungry Lord Voldemort (the Dark Lord). Years ago, he began a quest to conquer the wizarding world, enslave or eradicate non-wizards, and gain immortality. His rise to power was stopped by Harry's family, and the first four books address his attempts to regain his personal (magical) powers. In the fifth book, he sets about to rebuild his army and we see the nature of his organization: it is a hierarchy of fear with Voldemort at the top, which cannot persist without Voldemort himself.
  • This stands in sharp contrast to the structure of the Hogwart's school of magic, which is built on mutual respect and shared ideals and continues to operate even in the absence of its powerful leader, Professor Dumbledore.
  • Voldemort's army is also contrasted to the Ministry of Magic, which is the government of the wizarding world and consists of politicians and bureaucrats, acting like politicians and bureaucrats. The Ministry exhibits the flaws and weaknesses that exist in the society at large. While they are basically reasonable folk, they are easily corrupted by their power. They display the daily arrogance and prejudice that is largely absent from Hogwarts under Dumbledore's enlightened administration. They also have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, essentially convincing themselves that the world revolves around them.
One of the main conflicts in this book centers on the "Defense Against the Dark Arts" class. As its name suggests, the purpose of this class is to train the students in self-defense, with an emphasis on the types of magic (weapons) used by evil wizards. Once the Ministry of Magic comes to view Harry and Professor Dumbledore as political enemies, it moves to halt these classes in an attempt to eliminate any potential resistance coming from Dumbledore and his allies. Knowing that Voldemort's servants are trying to kill Harry and infiltrate the Ministry of Magic, Harry organizes his own self-defense classes, leading to further conflict with the Ministry of Magic. In the end, this training pays off when Harry and his classmates have to fight Voldemort's spies.

The Dark Lord regularly uses deception to achieve his ends, and in every book Harry learns that he should not have trusted someone who he thought was credible. However, in the fifth book, Harry finds that even regular folk and respected institutions are not always credible. When the idealistic Hermione tells a reporter that the newspaper's job is to spread accurate information, the reporter scoffs and replies that the newspaper's "job is to sell itself". Even worse, the newspaper is subject to political influences and launches a smear campaign to discredit Harry because he is reporting facts that are inconvenient for the Minister of Magic.

In their single-minded and unjustified persecution of Harry and Professor Dumbledore, the Ministry of Magic repeatedly encroaches on the liberty of Hogwarts students and staff, giving more and more power to the "High Inquisitor" who uses her authority in an arbitrary manner. Through this process, we see why government officials must submit to limits on their power and oversight of their actions. We also see how citizens respond to this encroachment with non-compliance and outright disobedience.

Effective activism:
A subplot of these stories is the plight of a race of slaves, the "house elves", and Hermione's quest to eliminate the institution of slavery from the wizarding society. Hermione attempts to take advantage of a quirk in this system of slavery in order emancipate the slaves one-by-one. While her plan makes sense and seems like it should work, she puts a ton of effort into it without ever verifying that it is producing the desired results. This is a common situation of real-world activists, especially those of us who try to make contributions "in our spare time", which doesn't leave much time to verify the effectiveness of our actions or to coordinate with those who would do the verification.

Causality, Responsibility, and Blame:
Finally, when the characters of the book are looking back on the events leading up to the death of Harry's godfather, Sirius, the author illustrates complex nature of causality, responsibility, and blame. After Harry blames himself for mistakes he made, Professor Dumbledore blames himself for creating the conditions that encouraged Harry to make his unwise decisions, and recounts how rash decisions by Sirius also contributed to his death. As each of the characters could have acted differently to avoid Sirius' death, they all share responsibility for his death. Of course, this responsibility is completely different from the responsibility borne by those who actually killed Sirius, which isn't even discussed since everyone knows that those wizards are the enemy.

I expect the Harry Potter stories to have a considerable impact on American, English, and the global culture due to the extensive content (seven books and seven movies) and the incredible sales, measured in the tens of millions for each volume. On their own, they may teach their readers a lot about the nature of power, but with the guidance of the older generations, many more lessons may be drawn from these books.

Note: It has been a few weeks since I finished reading the book, and I no longer have possession of it, so I apologize for any inaccuracies that have entered my description of the book.

Related review of the book:

No comments: