<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 114 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 18, 2003

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- 5% Text Table--%>

Under her Spell

Can JK Rowling maintain Harry Potter's appeal? NICHOLAS LEZARD takes a look at her long-awaited new volume, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by JK Rowling
766pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99

Is this a childish phenomenon or an adult one? One may be arrested, as I was, by the image, during a break in the TV coverage of a cricket match, of an MCC member about a third of the way through The Order of the Phoenix (this some 12 hours after the book's publication); but the truly extraordinary thing about it is that it is not all that extraordinary. One became used, long ago, to the spectacle of adults reading JK Rowling's work in all kinds of public places, unembarrassed about being seen immersing themselves in a world of spells.
It is a phenomenon that one struggles to imagine the more austere cultural critics commentating on without perplexity. What would Walter Benjamin have had to say about it? Or Karl Kraus? That its popularity was a symptom of a mass regression to infancy, perhaps? It may constitute a desire for a temporary flight from adulthood, but that isn't exactly the same thing. And besides, what highbrow critic ever dismissed Wagner because of his use of magical elements?
Still, much of the criticism levelled against Rowling does seem to fall under the heading "category error". To complain about her, shall we say, conservative imagination, her somewhat stilted dialogue, or, as one critic cruelly put it, her "mumsy and artless prose", is in a sense to miss the point. The target audience, semi-officially, is in the nine-to-12 age range, and on those terms, the books are infallible. They deliver. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix also delivers more of the same, a shade more grown up, with extra explanation of the back story. I can't imagine anyone who is already happy with Rowling's world being disappointed with its latest manifestation.
As for "mumsy and artless" - that was my line, in this paper, when I compared Rowling unfavourably with Ursula Le Guin, who also wrote a series of books beginning with a young would-be adept being sent to wizard school in order for him to enhance and discipline his power, and learn to confront his destiny. But reading this book has made me now realise that the comparison is specious - the two authors are barely involved in the same process at all. All children's authors have to take their worlds immensely seriously, and that is about all that Rowling and Le Guin have in common, once you have noted the superficial similarities. Le Guin writes seriously; Rowling writes just the way an 11-year-old would ideally like to write.
If one pole of Rowling's imagination is the comic mayhem of the Weasleys, the other is Dumbledore. She has to be very careful with what he does and says. On his authority rests the authority of her entire structure, just as is the case with Aslan in the Narnia books, or Gandalf in Tolkien's world. It is important for such characters to be like ideal fathers: they are by no means without a sense of fun, but their word is ultimately law - even when the world turns against them. Dumbledore spends a good deal of time in The Order of the Phoenix as a fugitive - he is sacked as headmaster - and this expulsion from Eden is an almost inevitable development for Rowling, as it is for Potter and the reader.
One question that had bothered me as much as anything else was whether these Muggle relatives were ever going to be granted a shred of humanity. In this book one of them is, if fleetingly; and so, interestingly, is Snape, whose cinematic incarnation in the supremely charismatic form of Alan Rickman tells against his charmlessness in the novels.
So Rowling is pacing herself very well, then, and on her own terms. She may be taking a swipe at the media with her depiction of the muck-racking Daily Prophet, but she still has time for the alternative press - Hermione's cunning manipulation of Harry's fame saves the day at one point. The pressures Rowling is under, both to deliver and not to crack up, are almost inconceivable. This may give her a sympathetic push when describing Harry's trials. (The critic Robert Winder suggested to me that one of Harry's punishments in Phoenix is strikingly reminiscent of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony". I won't spoil either story for you by saying which.) But however she's managed it, she's still on form. You have to hand it to her.
Source: The Guardian


(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star