Before reading the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books (The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix), my opinion of the series was that it was quite good, but not quite what I would consider to be masterful work. I did quite personally enjoy the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the earlier two were of more academic interest to me: I enjoyed them, but no more than I would any average book.
For more on my thoughts, you can read the previous installment of my review and reflection.
The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix (Amazon affiliate links) are a lot larger and darker than previous books, clocking in at a combined 1400 pages and featuring a lot more peril.
I read The Goblet of Fire in an old-school print format, but I switched over to reading from Kindle on my phone for The Order of the Phoenix, something which helped since the book got a little large to comfortably take with me and I was able to sneak constant little reads of the text.
When I was reading the first three books, my interest was largely satisfying personal and academic curiosity before developing into a desire to actually read the books for their own merit, but I’m happy to say that the fourth and fifth book strung me along quite well. It’s been a long time since I’ve devoted hours-long reading sessions to a book on multiple occasions during a day; I tend to break up reading between little tasks, but The Order of the Phoenix in particular led to a few occasions of me sitting on my couch, my cat in my lap (or beside me, or diligently ignoring me) for hours at a time.
A lot of this comes from how invested one has become in the characters by the time you get to the fourth and fifth books. They’re realistic, deep, and invoke sympathy and vicarious reactions. Even when they jump to wrong conclusions (a trope Rowling uses reliably but sparingly) and “pick up the idiot ball” to borrow an expression I’ve heard used frequently, they still feel like they’re making decisions because of their own motivations, rather than choices that drive the plot.
Much of what I could say about Rowling’s writing I have already said: I consider it to be very vivid and practical; it’s not quite the most deep prose, but for its audience it is sufficient, and I would argue that measuring writing by the depth of its prose is a poor metric. It is generally improved in the later books by any account, even though it did not necessarily need to.
Further, the stories get more archetypal depth as they develop; this is not only a consequence of extended length, but a reflection of the process of Harry and his friends growing more mature and becoming more aware of the reality around them.
One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about the Harry Potter series is looking at the deep characters and how they’ve grown even deeper.
I mention archetypal characters a lot: through my Loreshaper Games stuff I’ve written a short series on role archetypes, the possible roles that characters can take in a story.
What I love about Harry Potter as I get deeper into it is that there are really deep interactions between the archetypes: Potter as the Hero, Hagrid as the Herald, Harry (and occasionally other characters, like Ginny, as the plot rolls on) as the Underdog, Dumbledore as the Mentor, George and Fred as the Trickster, Hermoine and Ron as the Ally, a plethora of characters as the Villain (at least one per novel, somewhat unsurprisingly), Sirius and Snape as the Shapeshifter, various characters as the Outsider (Harry, Hermoine, Sirius, Lupin, etc), and through it all Voldemort as the Serpent.
It’s patient and willing to develop these interactions and roles quite a bit, and it sets up a Hero’s Journey that is both divided into segments and then later into a longer complete saga of Harry growing up.
I know a lot of people have expressed concern about the darkness of the universe, but I think that this is actually a strength of the Harry Potter franchise. Children know that there are things in the world that they cannot see if they are sheltered from them (and if they are not sheltered, then there is no harm in what is contained in Harry Potter to begin with), but in the series they are directly uncovered and confronted allegorically through the role of the Hero and the development that Harry has to undergo.
Jung speaks of confronting the Shadow, the secret part of us that we choose not to look at, which holds both strengths and sins that we do not want to explore.
Harry Potter’s fourth and fifth book do that wonderfully; Harry is confronted by his own limitations but also his own potential and must rise up to meet the call that he has received. He makes mistakes, and there is real suffering that results both as a result of his action or inaction and forces that extend beyond his control, but his ability to be a compelling and noble figure is drawn from the fact that he strives, not that he always succeeds without loss.
There is death, sacrifice, and loss in these books, and also wanton deliberate evil. That may seem like a dark thing to contemplate, but it is also part of becoming fully human: one cannot accept themselves if they do not confront their Shadow, and cannot be good if they have not realized what it is to be evil.
There’s a point in The Order of the Phoenix when Harry is in a fight with a Death Eater, one of Voldemort’s servants, and he tries to use a Cruciatus curse to inflict unbearable pain on the Death Eater.
He tries, and ultimately fails, not because his execution of the spell was off, but because his heart was not in it: the Death Eater retorts that in order for such a spell to be effective, one must really mean it.
It’s a testament to his nobility, and one which shows this exploration of the Shadow in the most meaningful way: to be in a fight but not wish malice upon one’s opponent requires a control and willpower that is part of the Hero’s journey toward light and away from darkness.
I find the Harry Potter books to be growing on me as I read them more; this is probably because I am an adult reading them for the first time and their target audience definitely gets older as the books move on.
There’s a lot of good stuff in here, but it’s also an enjoyable read beneath that, which is quite a merit in its own right.