comfort reads

Comfort Reads: Revisiting Harry Potter (Part 5)

Welcome to Comfort Reads: where I talk about re-reads and what I’ve learned on second (or twelfth) encounters.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

some facts & opinions

  • publication year: 2003
  • movie release date: 2007
  • age of my first encounter: 13
  • favorite moment left out of the film series: St. Mungo’s 2Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. One of the best aspects to Book 5 for me was getting to see all the different sides of the Wizarding world, from Harry’s initial trip to the Ministry of Magic, to visiting Mr. Weasley at the Wizarding hospital. Not only is it cool to see the magical equivalent of things from the Muggle world, this is also an important scene in that Ron and Hermione find out about Neville’s relationship to the Order: his parents were tortured into madness by Voldemort’s followers. This is a big reason Neville becomes so involved in Dumbledore’s Army, and explains where his Gryffindor bravery comes into play. It’s a huge part of his character that, in my opinion, is poorly explained in the film version.
  • favorite magical object/creature introduced: Sirius’s mirror. It happens so quickly, but it’s something that sticks out to me every time I re-read it. Harry forgets that Sirius even gave it to him, and only figures it out when it’s too late. At this point Harry’s dealing with all the guilt associated with the fact that his godfather is dead because Harry believed the vision planted in his head by Voldemort. Every time I re-read the 5th book, I want to yell at Harry to just use the mirror, which would’ve shown that Sirius was not, in fact, being held and tortured by Voldemort. But alas, re-reading can’t change the ending of this one.
  • best supporting character: Neville Longbottom. (Yes, I realize I already cited him as #1 supporting character in Book 1, but let’s be real about how little characterization there even was in Book 1.) Especially on re-reading, I’ve noticed the amazing characterization of side characters like Neville, who goes from being a forgetful, apparently untalented boy, to proving his loyalty and willingness to fight for a cause. I love that we learn more about what happened to his parents and how that acts as a catalyst for his joining the D.A. I love that Neville ends up being one of the strongest characters in the series, despite what we might think of him at first.
  • best professor appearance: Minerva McGonagall. I want to hug and/or high five McGonagall every time she and Umbridge are in the same room. The sass is strong with this one. Plus, the way she’s taken down by four stunners to the heart breaks me every time. I think as a kid I wasn’t able to appreciate just how awesome McGonagall really is. She comes across as strict and even harsh with Harry, but she’s always working in the background and doing what needs to be done. She does care about him, she just shows it differently than other adults. Plus, she’s just an amazingly talented witch. She deserves more credit, in my opinion.
  • best Dumbledore quote: “In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.”

The Order of the Phoenix has been my favorite book in the series since it came out in 2003. I was thirteen that summer, and once I got my hands on a copy, I read the entire book in two or three days (quite a feat, when you consider that it’s 870 pages, and the font is 11.5 instead of 12, like the rest of the books—yes, I notice these things). As a teenager, I loved Book 5 for the attention to detail and the way Rowling reveals so much about the Wizarding world. As an adult, I love Book 5 for its honest depiction of Harry’s emotional turmoil—I love this book for its darkness.

Reading about Harry’s struggles doesn’t get easier, no matter how many times you’ve read it. I guess, for a lot of readers, Harry’s angry outburst and selfish isolation in his fifth year might be a total turn-off. For me, it only made me love him more, both now and when I was a kid. See, when I was about 14, a year after the book came out, I started exhbiting what I now recognize as early symptoms of adolescent depression: I was angry all the time, about everything and nothing at the same time. I started keeping a journal, in which I complained about absolutely everything in my life, because none of my friends wanted to hear it. I was functioning, sure, surviving, but I was incredibly isolated and I felt entirely misunderstood.

Granted, my adolescent angst is nothing compared to what Harry goes through, being not only misunderstood but misrepresented by the world at large, and feeling like he’s losing control of his own mind. Harry also feels he has nowhere to turn, because no matter how much Ron and Hermione care about him, they can’t understand exactly what it means to be Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, The Boy Who Lies, The Chosen One. On top of that, he’s cut off from reaching out to his father figure, Sirius, and Dumbledore won’t even look at him all year. Oh, and then there’s the fact he saw someone die the year before and narrowly escaped death himself.

I’m not trying to diagnose Harry as being mentally ill. I don’t quite think mental illness works the same way in the Wizarding world that Rowling created. I do think it’s worth noticing the connections, and it’s worth recognizing that the way he reacts—with anger, by withdrawing from people—is completely valid and understandable. I also think it’s worth recognizing how powerful it can be to read a fantasy book where the main character struggles through the same emotions that you do, while dealing with so much more than you could ever understand. Harry’s emotional fifth year gave me life as a teenager because I saw bits of myself reflected off the page—I wasn’t alone, even if my only reflection of myself was a fictional character who happens to be a wizard.

What really struck me on this go-round was the part of the book when Harry worries that Voldemort is possessing him. After he witnesses Mr. Weasley being attacked by the snake, Harry withdraws from even his closest friends, both out of shame for having been inside the snake during the vision, and because he worries that he will burden or even endanger them. When he realizes that even the adults in the Order are worried about the state of his mind, Harry withdraws even further and considers running away to spare everyone around him.

As extreme as his situation is, it reminds me so much of some of the worst days of my depression. In my darkest moments, I have hidden my emotions from my closest friends because I felt like burdening them with my problems would be entirely selfish of me. I have even considered running away, disappearing to another city or even going back home, because I felt that I was more trouble to my friends and loved ones than I was really worth. The moment Ron, Hermione, and Ginny confront him about withdrawing mirrors so many moments I’ve had: Harry realizes that he’s not being possessed, that he has allies (and someone who understands, in Ginny at least), and he’s filled with warmth again, the same way I’m filled with hope in the moments when I finally do come clean to my friends about being depressed.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Dumbledore on this re-read. As a kid, I lauded him as the wisest hero in fiction (this was before I encountered Gandalf, by the way). Now, though, I’m forced to acknowledge the ways Dumbledore’s choices have hurt Harry. Others before me have pointed out that Dumbledore basically co-signs the Dursleys’ abuse of Harry throughout the series in the name of Harry’s physical safety. Book 5 in particular makes me furious with Dumbledore. When you get right down to it, Harry is dealing with serious trauma that’s basically never stopped, from the night his parents died to each time he’s encountered Voldemort, but especially witnessing the Dark Lord’s rebirth at the end of Book 4. Yet instead of getting Harry to talk about his feelings and speaking with Harry honestly about his present and future, Dumbledore enforces Harry’s complete isolation, even refusing to look at him. As if it’s not bad enough being saddled with a mind connection to the worst wizard in history, Harry has to do it alone and without knowing what it really means.

When Dumbledore finally does come clean, it almost seems like it’s too too little too late. Yet the whole conversation shows that Dumbledore isn’t just a great wizard, a hero, a brilliant mind—he’s a person who’s made mistakes. Knowing that Harry will ultimately have to be the great sacrifice for the Wizarding world, Dumbledore has struggled for 14 years with how and when to impart this knowledge, and he truly does care for Harry as well. Someone like Voldemort would argue, “See! Love makes you weak!” but I don’t think that’s what Rowling is really getting at. I think she wanted to show that everyone makes mistakes, nobody is perfect. And ultimately, as Dumbledore points out, it is love that has saved Harry’s life multiple times. Love is the power that Voldemort doesn’t understand—and it’s ultimately his downfall.

Thanks for reading this long ramble, for those of you who are still with me. I know I’ve left things out, so let’s talk in the comments!


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