Savoring a beast of a book

Sharp allegory, thrilling plot twists and good old-fashioned storytelling make for a long and exciting read

By Stephanie Merritt  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Mon, Jun 23, 2003 - Page 16

Previously in Harry Potter ...

At the end of Book IV we left Harry about to embark on a daring suicide mission to defeat the fundamentalist terrorists by flying the detonated nuclear device into the heart of the Nevada Desert, only minutes before the whole of Los Angeles ...

No, hold on, I'm getting confused. But in fact it's not so far from the truth; J. K. Rowling's exhaustively anticipated fifth instalment draws on exactly the same basic plot points that shape current realist adult dramas. The status quo is threatened by evil, the established authorities are either deliberately corrupt or simply incompetent, and the fate of ordinary lives rests on the actions of one brave maverick who has to go underground and break the rules in order to triumph and save the innocent.

These are the bones of all good mythical adventures, and the Harry Potter books have already created a corpus of modern legend that their young fans will remember long into their autumn years, not merely in the story they tell but in the phenomenon that has grown around them.

If I were nine and had been waiting eagerly for the past three years for The Order of the Phoenix I would be thrilled with the heft of it. It would mean the reward could be prolonged and savored.

Being 29, and having fewer than 12 hours to read it, I was slightly less thrilled when a volume bigger than the New Testament arrived at 1.30am yesterday. But whatever one's view of her prose style, it can't be denied that Rowling knows how to produce a page-turner. Many pages can be turned extremely quickly, in fact, because she does like to put in large amounts of background color -- details of schoolbooks, lessons, rules, food, recipes -- all of which delight children, who love to build up a thorough picture of Harry's world.

These can be safely skimmed by adult readers who find them a bit longwinded -- though to me there is still a large question mark hanging over anyone older than 15 who reads this when they don't have to write about it.

So, to begin again: at the end of Book IV, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry witnessed the long-prophesied return of his arch-enemy, Lord Voldemort, and the refusal of Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, to believe that this was possible.

As with the previous adventures, Phoenix begins with Harry, now 15 and beginning to experience the odd hormonal twitch, enduring a miserable summer holidays with his grim Muggle Aunt and Uncle. After a terrifying incident which requires him to use magic in self-defense (forbidden to underage wizards outside Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry), Harry is threatened with expulsion and summoned to the Ministry of Magic where the wilful self-delusion of the wizard bureaucrats with regard to Voldemort is reinforced.

The Order of the Phoenix is a select group of comrades dedicated to fighting Voldemort. Many of the original Order, including Harry's parents, were killed, "disappeared" or turned insane by the Dark Lord when he was last in power; the new Order includes Harry's godfather, Sirius (still in hiding from the authorities after his escape from the prison of Azkaban in the third book) and the Weasleys, the parents and brothers of Harry's best friend Ron.

Those parents who accuse the stories of being inconsequential fantasy need to look closely at the recent volumes; Rowling is making use of the extended length to weave in serious themes. The last book contained a sub-plot of Harry's friend Hermione campaigning vigorously for the emancipation of house-elves; her premises and the counter-arguments of her opponents reproduced exactly the debate that surrounded the black slave trade in the US and has always circled around the education of the proletariat.

In Phoenix the parallels with totalitarian regimes are made more explicit. Tolkien always strenuously denied that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of Nazi Germany; Rowling, whose books are essentially a Tolkien-by-numbers for younger readers, makes a virtue of such comparisons: "They thought Voldemort had the right idea," says Sirius of his dead parents, "they were all for the purification of the wizarding race, getting rid of Muggle-borns and having pure-bloods in charge. There were quite a few people, before Voldemort showed his true colors, who thought he had the right idea about things."

She's not preaching, but there are weightier things in these last two books than simply the rules of Quidditch and the transfiguration of toads, just as Harry, at 15, is made to understand that there are graver things in life than detentions and his ongoing feud with Professor Snape.

Finally, to the crucial plot points that have generated so much online speculation and feverish activity at the bookies. Hogwarts does acquire yet another new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher -- a position unenviably akin to being drummer in Spinal Tap -- but it's none of the obvious contenders.

There is a fantastic battle and - as Rowling included in the brief notes she allowed to be auctioned last year - there is a death of a major character, but again, it foils expectation (except, possibly, the expectation of the bloke who bet pounds sterling 20,000 on a certain character a couple of days after the Merseyside lorry heist).

We learn Voldemort's real name, which is bizarrely anticlimactic, rather like learning that Satan's first name is Derek, and we learn, most importantly, the true prophecy that links Harry and Voldemort.

It's a beast of a book, but there's no question of Rowling losing the plot.