Reading by Ear: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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

Now we’re getting into the Harry Potter books I’ve only read once. During this relisten, I occasionally—and briefly—feel like I might not have liked Harry Potter as much as I do had I not been part of the Harry Potter generation. (Incidentally, way cooler title for us than Millennials, which, admittedly, is pretty cool.) And then Hermione does something awesome or Neville breaks my heart, and I realize I probably would have made it over to them eventually, even if the worldbuilding would give me more pause in this hypothetical parallel universe where I would have to be just a wee lass now. Okay, that analogy broke down, but I think you understand me.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix finds the titular boy wizard isolated and angry. After Dementors attack Harry and his cousin in the Muggle world, Harry is swept back to a wizarding world where the effort against Lord Voldemort (known as “The Order of the Phoenix”) has been forced underground by a government that desperately—and oppressively—doesn’t want to believe that the Dark Lord is back. To curb Dumbledore’s influence on wizarding youth, the Ministry of Magic has sent the atrocious Dolores Umbridge to Hogwarts as the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher. Dumbledore—and the rest of the Order of the Phoenix—won’t tell Harry anything, his classmates don’t believe him, and Umbridge seems solely created to dog his every step. Not to mention the fact he’s been having some very strange dreams about a mysterious corridor…

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is absolutely infamous for Harry’s whining. After the three years we had to wait after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it was a shock for some people to find fundamentally decent Harry so… unpleasant. So I was definitely expecting that—but I wasn’t expecting Harry’s anger and how much it makes him identify with Sirius, whose isolation is so bad that it makes him more impulsive than normal. Throughout this relisten, I’ve been particularly attentive to masculinity and how Harry fixates on Sirius as a role model, especially when Dumbledore is absent. I’m not trying to excuse Harry; every adolescence has a period where you’re just thoroughly unpleasant. But, as Dumbledore realizes at the end of the book, the measures the Order of the Phoenix take to protect Harry and Sirius are ultimately what lead to Sirius’ meaningless death. It’s a perfect storm of circumstances, misunderstandings, and miscommunication that make this a situation that just exacerbates Harry’s attitude, especially when he realizes the majority of the wizarding world doesn’t believe him about Voldemort. But Rowling softens this by having Harry’s friends treat him like a loaded gun and occasionally call him out on his shenanigans. (That’s one of my absolute favorite Ginny moments. Guys, I love Ginny.)

All of this is compounded by Rowling’s most odious creation, Dolores Umbridge. Just thinking about her makes my shoulders lock up. She’s pink, patronizing, and thoroughly evil, keeping information from students right and left and torturing them. She’s the living embodiment of a government brutally oppressing its people—worse, oppressing its potential in the younger generation. Ultimately, I’m not quite sure how to feel about Umbridge. On one hand, you just hate her so much, to the point that it’s almost not enjoyable. On the other hand, she doesn’t feel like a human being. Voldemort may have a seriously twisted and racist ideology, but he’s motivated by the fear of death, which is an understandable motivation. Umbridge’s motivation is explicitly a fanatical devotion to the Ministry of Magic, but I’m just missing anything that would make her remotely human—and thus, infinitely more terrifying than she already is. I am appreciating the parallel between Umbridge and Bellatrix I noticed this time around, however.

And among all of this, we’re watching the kids experiencing an awkward time in adolescence—they’re not children anymore, but they’re not adults yet. We have Neville being alternately proud and ashamed of his parents (Neville!), Harry being extraordinarily thick when it comes to girls (and, let’s face it, everything else in this book), and Ron dealing with the shame of having stage fright. The girls, however, are managing this transition better; while Ron’s reactions to Hermione and Ginny’s love lives are definitely subconscious jealousy and brotherly protection (respectively), it can also be read as bafflement at the fact that the girls are managing their love lives discreetly and elegantly. Not to say that Hermione doesn’t have awkward moments; S.P.E.W., anyone? (I assume Ginny has awkward moments as well, but self-centered Harry, especially an angry and angsty self-centered Harry, isn’t particularly going to notice.)

Jim Dale’s narration remains quite good, but there were two stand-outs this time around—his Umbridge and his Bellatrix. His Umbridge is dripping with patronizing sweetness and adapts well when Umbridge loses control of herself; I can imagine it’s difficult to maintain such a different voice in those situations, and I appreciate it. And I love his Bellatrix—not because the voice work is as distinctive and pitch-perfect as his work on Umbridge, but because he’s made Bellatrix French. Never mind the fact that Lestrange is her husband’s name, it’s still awesome. Helena Bonham Carter’s performance of Bellatrix in the films has disenchanted me with the character, but imagining Bellatrix as a strutting, sadistic, desperately glam Frenchwoman has breathed new life into the character for me, so thank you, Jim Dale. The music, alas, remains wildly inappropriate for anything but the first three books.

(Also—robes? All the time? Really? Talk about a stagnant culture! No wonder the costume designers for the films just ignored that.)

Bottom line: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is dark—Harry is full of anger and angst (to the point it may turn off some readers), Dolores Umbridge makes my shoulders lock up (and lacks proper motivation), and the kids are trying to negotiate a particularly awkward time in adolescence. Jim Dale’s voice work remains solid, with a pitch-perfect Umbridge and a Bellatrix that revived the character for me. The music remains wildly inappropriate, however.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

  1. Order of the Phoenix is actually one of my faves. Which is weird because I don’t like whiny Harry in HP and the Half Blood Prince, but I’m fine with him here. Maybe it’s because there’s no “chest monster?”

  2. I sooooort of know what you mean about Umbridge, and I agree in a way, but then I also feel like what makes her so loathsome is that she just wants things to go the way she wants them to go. It’s not even a fanatical devotion to the Ministry, it’s an unwillingness to revise her views even when not revising them means she’ll be doing really unforgivable things. She wants to be RIGHT. I mean she’s definitely a rather cartoony villain but I can sympathize with the motivation of wanting to be right, and of being tremendously resentful of the things that prove you wrong.

  3. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Genre Fiction and Feelings « The Literary Omnivore

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