Phoenix 2: All hail the barely competent hero

I’m now 16 chapters (~350 pages) into Order of the Phoenix, a smaller chunk since my last update than I normally cover for a post. But there’s so much to discuss in this book that this seemed like a good spot to take a quick detour and ask: just how good is Harry at magic?

It seems like he should be really good, right? I mean, it’s a series about magic and his name is in the title. And ultimately, I think that’s probably the right answer. But it’s not as clear cut as I was expecting by this point in the series.

Now that I’m nearly halfway through the fifth book, I can’t help assessing where we’re at in the series. There are certain things that Rowling has been doing incredibly well at developing gradually. Perhaps most notable is the relationship between Ron and Hermione, who have been in a near-constant frenemy state since Book 3. But Rowling keeps showing a growing affection, and you feel like it’s manifesting as bickering largely because the emotions aren’t matured enough to manifest as romantic. (And because it’s just in both of their natures to bicker, of course.) The most overt example of that underlying, growing affection was Hermione yelling at Ron in Goblet for not asking her to the dance. But it’s also been shown in subtler ways, like Hermione trying (though failing) to stay awake for the celebration when Ron makes the Quidditch team, and her genuine interest/concern in how he’s progressing as a player — despite the fact that we know she doesn’t really care about Quidditch otherwise. It’s been a layered, gradual approach, and it’s really good writing. Ron hasn’t really shown the same signs, though we can easily infer he has similar feelings underneath, but is less capable of manifesting them or realizing it — because he’s kind of an idiot, in a completely lovable way.

On the flip side, there’s the complete lack of development with Ginny and Harry. That’s been a disappointment, after I was told that Rowling built that relationship much better than the movies (where they seemed to just be very suddenly into each other). And it’s actually not that I mind the lack of romantic development between them, as I’m enjoying the Harry/Cho subplot and am fine with his feelings for Ginny coming later. But I do wish Rowling had been building Ginny as a character this whole time. Again, it’s nearly halfway through Book 5, and all she’s really done is be duped into opening the Chamber of Secrets. I feel like I know nearly nothing about her personality or abilities; she rarely even has lines. Sure, it’s tougher to develop her because she’s not in the same year as Harry and the others. But Luna Lovegood is also a year behind them; it hasn’t even been 200 pages since she was only introduced, and I already feel like I know her better than Harry’s future wife.

Somewhere in between the good and bad is the development of Harry’s magical ability. I guess I’m undecided how I feel. Early in the series, I wrote that I liked how Rowling didn’t make Harry immediately good at everything. I still like that; it’s much more interesting to watch someone grow and develop than it is to watch him come in and just be pure awesome. Yet she also showed that he was a natural at some wizardy things, like flying in the first book, so that you still felt like he was special, even when he was failing miserably in Snape’s class. Again, well done.

But now, I’m wondering if he’s good enough at this point in the series. Where I’m at, he just had the meeting in the pub to agree to teach a bunch of fellow students some real Defense Against the Dark Arts. They all oohed and aahed as they got a refresher course in Harry’s achievements thus far, while Harry himself mostly protested about how it all wasn’t as impressive as it sounded.

So how impressive is he? Earlier in the book, I was really starting to wonder, as we see him continue to struggle and fall behind in every single class. It was humanizing early in the series, but has started to feel slightly excessive at this point. Shouldn’t he be getting better by now? Struggling in Snape’s class is one thing, but he’s consistently a little bit slower or worse at just about everything. He doesn’t have to be Hermione, competing for every top mark, but I want to see him progressing a little more at this point.

Presumably, that’s where his role as an unauthorized teacher will come in. I hope and expect that his Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons will serve to reinforce that for all Harry’s struggles, he can already do many things his fellow students (or even adults) cannot. It kind of already has reinforced that, even in that first meeting to schedule future lessons. I guess I just hope it doesn’t stop there; we already know he’s good against the dark arts. I’m hopeful that this spurs him on to try harder and be better at other subjects, too.

Because of the O.W.L.s that are supposed to encourage fifth-years to think about their future and careers, I’ve also been trying to imagine future jobs for our heroes. I don’t know if Rowling unveils what they all actually do for a living in the book version of the series’ epilogue, so for all I know, it’s left to the imagination. Hermione’s love of academia would seem to make her a natural to come back to Hogwarts as a professor, and her drive for social change would also make the Ministry a possibility. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her as the Headmistress or the Minister of Magic, with the former being my preference. Ron, I don’t even know; he kinda has me stumped. He expressed interest in being an auror, but it just doesn’t feel as natural of a fit. Maybe parlay his love of Quidditch into being Ludo Bagman’s successor running the magical games? Everything in Harry’s background would suggest auror, and that’s certainly been where his talents lie so far. Though I wonder, after the seven years he’s going to spend battling and eventually defeating Voldemort, would he get to a point where he thinks, “Eff it, I’m burnt out on fighting dark wizards.” And if auror were off the table (for any reason), what other fit is there? Is he good enough to play professional Quidditch? Even if so, what does he do after he retires from that? Right now, he’s not good at anything else. (To be fair, I wasn’t good at much at 16, either, but the wizard world doesn’t seem to have a college or graduate school; Harry doesn’t have as much time to figure things out.)

That whole line of thought makes me think of a moment at Harry’s trial earlier in Phoenix, with he and Arthur Weasley going through the Ministry. Harry has to turn over his wand to a bored security guard. Obviously, this security guard has to be a wizard, since Muggles can’t know about all this stuff. We’ve mostly seen adult wizards with cool magical jobs, like dragon tamer, curse breaker, and dark wizard hunter. But the wizarding economy is apparently the same as our own: there are still jobs like bored security guard and bus driver. Those jobs surely still take some wizarding skill, but I doubt they’re what anyone went through Hogwarts dreaming of doing. So start studying, Harry. I don’t want to see you working at a McDumbledore’s, asking customers if they’d like fried flobberworms with their hippogriff burger.

Final thought on this chunk of Phoenix: I’m not hating Dolores Umbridge. I’ve sighed a lot in previous books at Rowling’s use of excessively annoying or unrealistically exaggerated characters, and nearer the end of the series, I might do a post more fully explaining why that tendency bothers me. As I mentioned in passing in my first Phoenix post, I was bracing myself for Umbridge to be the latest such character I hate; she certainly was in the film version. But to my pleasant surprise, she hasn’t been. I’ve actually found her a fairly enjoyable villain so far, as her villainy-by-sweetness has come off much better in the book (not having to actually hear her probably helps). It’s still somewhat early, but right now I’d put her more in the “love to hate” category with a character like Snape. I hope I still feel that way at the end.

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