Nineteen years ago today, on June 21, 2003, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released. The Harry Potter series was already an international phenomenon, so of course, the fifth book was an instant hit. In the years since, however, a lot of people have started not to like Order of the Phoenix, with many even calling it the worst Harry Potter book. But there’s a lot in this book that gets easily overlooked, and I believe that it shifted the series toward bigger and better things. Here’s why I think Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix changed the series for the better.
Harry Potter Before Book 5
The Harry Potter books were originally supposed to be books just for kids. When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997, it was marketed as a middle-grade novel, for fifth to eighth- graders. But it didn’t take long for fans of all ages to fall in love with the series. Once that happened, the books started to get a little darker and more grown-up, especially with the introduction of plots like Sirius Black being framed and the Triwizard Tournament. But it isn’t until the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that most people mark the moment the series became more mature.
Voldemort’s return is plenty dark: blood magic, Death Eaters, and a fight to the death all certainly aren’t “just for kids”, and Cedric Diggory’s death is the first time someone dies in the books right in front of Harry who’s considered to be “good”. But it isn’t until Order of the Phoenix that the consequences of You-Know-Who coming back are really clear. Book five is the first where the characters are at war and have to deal with figuring out who’s “good” and “bad” in a more complicated way.
The Wizarding World is Much Darker This Time
The world Harry knows is a lot more sinister this time around, with the war between Voldemort’s followers and the Order of the Phoenix beginning. But it isn’t just the Death Eaters that are after him now. The government of the Wizarding World is so invested in refusing to admit Voldemort is back that they try to slander Harry and Dumbledore in the press. They also try to interfere at Hogwarts, sending one of their worst to undermine the headmaster’s authority and hinder the students’ education (We’ll talk more about Umbridge later).
Showing us that the Wizarding World has politics just like anywhere else brings a new and much-needed dimension to the series. We’d seen before that characters like the Minister and Lucius Malfoy didn’t have everyone’s best interests at heart, and used the government to get their way, but Order the Phoenix is the first time Harry realizes that the Ministry can control pretty much anything, including the truth. It also shows just how dangerous fear can be, with Fudge so terrified of Voldemort he almost ruins the Order’s chance of doing anything to stop him and leaves Hogwarts vulnerable by forcing Dumbledore out.
Umbridge is a Scarier Kind of Villain
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Umbridge is the best Harry Potter villain. When she arrives at Hogwarts, most people don’t pay much attention to her, since she seems so harmless, even if she is annoying. But Hermione knows right away, telling Ron and Harry that her arrival means “the Ministry’s interfering at Hogwarts”. It’s clear that she’s right, pretty quickly, and things with Umbridge quickly escalate to the point where none of the students are learning anything in Defense Against the Dark Arts, obviously a necessary subject when a war is starting outside.
But Umbridge doesn’t even let anyone talk about the war; she even makes Harry scar himself in a gruesome detention scene where he is forced to write lines that say, “I must not tell lies.” Umbridge gets to decide what’s true at Hogwarts, and that’s a really scary thing. Harry and his friends know this and decide to start their own defense training group, Dumbledore’s Army. Even this is based on propaganda, the name a joke about what Fudge fears the most, Dumbledore rising up against him.
Umbridge is scary because she’s the kind of evil that can exist outside of fantasy stories. While someone like Voldemort is rare, Umbridge is everywhere. Ever since the books came out, people have talked about the Umbridges in their lives, people that do horrible things while pretending to be nice and harmless. She’s just one more thing that changes about the series in Order of the Phoenix, bringing the antagonists into a more real, mature context.
Harry’s Character is More Complex
One of the biggest complaints about Order of the Phoenix is that Harry is an angry, angsty teenager throughout most of the book, and the narration is a little much to handle. But I actually think that’s a good thing, too. Harry is angsty in this book, but he’s also fifteen years old, and that’s perfectly normal. Not to mention he has much more to complain about than the average teenager anyway. In fact, at the end of the book, we find out that Dumbledore was isolating him as much as possible on purpose, fearing he could be possessed by Voldemort. So the loneliness and confusion that Harry is feeling isn’t just teenage angst, it’s very real.
Beyond all that, the world Harry is living in is getting darker, and more confusing too. At the end of Goblet of Fire, he saw his friend die, and now the Ministry is doing their best to not even let him talk about it. All around him, people are denying what he knows to be true: everyone is in terrible danger, and they need to act now. His frustration at this leads his character to grow a lot in this book, founding Dumbledore’s Army and taking a much more active role in fighting back. This is another shift in the fifth book, away from the more passive way things would just happen to Harry in the first four stories.
The Story is Bigger and the Stakes Are Much Higher
Before Order of the Phoenix, most of the conflicts in the Harry Potter series were just about that one book’s plot. Quirrell is stopped, the diary is destroyed, the dementors are repelled, and all is right with the world. But this book isn’t like that. Everything has bigger consequences and affects the entire Wizarding World’s future. People tell Harry that it feels like another war is starting, and he learns about the toll the first war took on his parents and their friends. And at the end of the book, the final battle at the Department of Mysteries makes Harry experience this firsthand, with the death of Sirius.
Cedric dying was horrible, but Sirius changed something for the rest of the series. Anyone could die, and things would get worse before they get better. And in the aftermath of the battle, Harry learns about and accepts his responsibility as the only one who can destroy Voldemort. He understands now that the war is bigger than him, and knows what he has to do.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a turning point for the Harry Potter series, where things ramp up beyond anything the books did before. The stakes get higher, the characters more complicated, and everything is different from when Harry boarded the train for his first year. This book sets up the last two novels and the final battle between Harry and Voldemort in a whole new way and starts to tie everything together as a truly great fantasy series.
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