Phoenix 5: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

I’ve finished Order of the Phoenix, which means that a fairly major character is dead.

Sirius Black became one of my favorite characters, partly because he came from such an interesting premise, and at least partly because I pictured Gary Oldman every time Sirius appeared. I’m sure I would have still liked the character if I hadn’t seen the films before reading the books, but anytime you can picture Gary Oldman, it never hurts.

As Phoenix progressed, though, Sirius’ flaws became more pronounced. I mentioned in a previous post that Sirius was becoming slightly disappointing to me. Part of the appeal of the character had been in his intense devotion to Harry. His triumphs over the Dementors and insanity to get to Harry in Azkaban had been one of the most impressive things in the series to that point; he continued that devotion in Goblet, risking everything in his flight from justice to meet with Harry. In Phoenix, though, he became moody, so upset about his forced isolation that he sulked alone rather than spending time with Harry. It was believable, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

It wasn’t until Sirius died that I fully understood how essential the Book 5 brooding was to his character.

When Harry used the pensieve to see Snape’s memory of James and Sirius as teenagers (a great, bold scene), we get our biggest glimpse of pre-Azkaban Sirius. He’s arrogant, easily bored, and contemptuous of Snape. Yet we can also at least understand the causes of his flaws: he naturally excels at everything, is wildly popular, and has reason to dislike pureblood agendas (like Snape’s) because of his family. Sirius isn’t supposed to be an ideal character; he’s generally good but still flawed. He’s full of contradictions and faults he can’t quite overcome.

It feels incredibly important that Sirius’s last words were mocking his cousin and killer, Bellatrix Lestrange — “Come on, you can do better than that!” — right before she hit him with a fatal blow. This couldn’t have been a more serious situation: his god-son was in peril, his fellow members of the Order were sustaining significant blows, Voldemort’s plan was near fruition. Yet in the midst of it all was Sirius, seemingly just giddy to again be a part of the fight. And after all he’d been through, how could he not have been? He’d spent years in a hellhole, tortured by Dementors and racked with guilt over the fate of his best friend; when he finally confronted Peter, he didn’t get the revenge he so badly wanted, needed. He never got his name cleared. He got shut him up in a house he hated. To see him finally battling Death Eaters was to see pure id unleashed: all instinct and emotion — but no reason or caution. It was his final contradiction. He was so driven to help fight the battle that he weakened the war by dying.

That’s what his flaws throughout Phoenix were supposed to show us, and that’s what his death is supposed to teach Harry. Harry spent so much of Phoenix angry at his circumstances, lashing out at friends and being difficult to be around. Sirius’s death showed the eventual outcome of such a trajectory — losing yourself in id, losing the fight. And, we can presume, his deadly example ultimately will pull Harry off that path. Sure, Harry’s anger continued, as potent as ever as he confronted Bellatrix and even Dumbledore. But this anger was more a stage in the grieving process, and we see Harry progress through others, as well: denial (believing Sirius was still alive beyond the veil), bargaining (looking for Sirius to return as a ghost), and of course, depression. We get a hint at his acceptance as the book closes, but I assume that stage will remain a moving target for Harry, as it is for all of us. The only family he ever really knew is gone.

If Dumbledore was the wise man in Dylan Thomas’s poem, then Sirius Black was the wild man, raging against the dying of the light. But rage is an uncontrollable emotion, and Sirius was an uncontrollable character. He didn’t follow an easy character arc, but he might have been all the more poignant for it.

****************************************

  • So, Harry used Crucio. Not particularly effectively, but still, that seems like it should have had repercussions (and perhaps still might?). Is that really an “unforgivable” curse, or do they give you a break if you just watched your world shatter before your eyes?
  • Dumbledore vs. Voldemort was perhaps the most thrilling scene in a book full of them. I covered in my last post how we finally saw Dumbledore unleash his inner badass while escaping Hogwarts. Child’s play, as it turned out. He should have been at an impossible disadvantage, being unwilling to resort to deadly force like Voldemort. Yet Dumbledore countered every move with precision and power. I wanted it to go on longer and have a more decisive victor, but Rowling left no doubt who would have won if that battle had been to the death. But Dumbledore couldn’t be the one to take out Voldemort, because he just isn’t the chosen one. Which brings us to…
  • Prophecy time! This was a case where the book held another distinct advantage over the films. In both, the prophecy isn’t exactly earth-shattering. We can tell in the first installment that this series has to end in a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, just because we’re so conditioned to how fictional narratives inevitably play out; explicitly telling us that one has to kill the other really only confirms what we could easily infer. But in the book version, the “revelation” still carries a big blow. We readers might have known it would all come down to that, but Harry didn’t. Seeing a teenager, still reeling from watching a loved one die, grapple with the knowledge that he must either murder or be murdered was very impactful, and I’m sure will be wrestled with even more as we move forward.
  • When fans talk about how Rowling laid the groundwork for later parts of the series early on, I assume the further revelations Dumbledore makes to Harry are part of what they’re talking about. Do I really believe that Rowling had everything planned out as to why Harry had to stay with the Dursleys when she began the series? Honestly, no; those early books were too elementary for me to buy that every element she introduced there was always intended to be part of a master plan. But nevertheless, I respect the hell out of her finding a way to tie that all together. The whole “blood magic protection” thing was a little weird and hokey, but at least it was an explanation. If she had revealed that Dumbledore knew the prophecy, and thus Harry’s extreme importance, all along, without explaining better why he would leave Harry in such a seemingly insecure location, that would have been a problem in the narrative. But she solved it, quite well.
  • If you think I am going to devote a bullet point to the heroic departure from Hogwarts by the Weasley twins, my favorites, then you are…wrong, actually. That deserves way more than a bullet point. That’s getting its own post at some point, maybe as part of a post-series wrap-up. It also deserves its own statute, its own commemorative coin, and an annual Weasley Twin Day (celebrated by giving kids the day off school, of course). It was that awesome.
  • Another item that may deserve a longer follow-up is the house-elf situation, considering how long my initial critique of that subplot was. It progressed in good and arguably bad ways, with Dumbledore’s take being the best argument in favor of Rowling redeeming the issue. I’m still not entirely there, though.
  • Harry’s relationship with Cho ended with a whimper. I was hoping for a little more resolution after all that buildup, but I suppose what happened was just as believable, if less satisfying. Sometimes relationships don’t have easily pegged starting and stopping points, but rather, a slow, awkward build, and an uncomfortable trailing off. I was still glad to see that subplot.
  • Meanwhile, Ginny Weasley officially became the one friend who just tells Harry to shut up when he’s being a jerk. Hermione spent the entire book tip-toeing around Harry’s moodiness, and Ron mostly tried to stay out of any conflict he could. But as the gang prepared to go save Sirius, it was again Ginny who stood up to Harry when he started acting rude. While I still might wish some of this character development had been happening sooner, I’m thrilled it’s happening. Harry may be the chosen one, but he’s still going to end up with a wife who can back him down, and we saw in this book how much he needs that sometimes.
  • Neville rules. Know that.
  • Dolores Umbridge is finally defeated, carried off by violent, angry centaurs. If we never heard from her again, we could just assume she was dead. But we do see her again, very much alive, nearly catatonic … and with not a scratch on her. Huh? Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Unless you read the first entry on this list. Then it seems to make a lot more sense, in a rather horrific way. My initial instinct was to reject that website’s explanation as too extreme for this young adult series, even if only implied. But really, what’s the alternative explanation for her very odd state in the hospital? I don’t have one. What else scarred her so much while leaving no visible damage? I think Rowling really did go there. Wow.
  • I was bummed to see Professor McGonagall stunned during Hagrid’s attempted capture. We saw Dumbledore unleashed in this book, and twice, it seemed like we were about to see McGonagall unleashed as well, only to have it foiled both times (when Dumbledore told her to back down in his office, and when she was attacked in the dark without warning on her way to help Hagrid). It was still great watching her openly defy and mock Umbridge, but now I want to see what her magical fury can do. Book 7, perhaps?
  • Let’s finish by returning to what Harry saw in Snape’s memory. Again, what a bold scene by Rowling. It would have been far easier to let James Potter remain forever untarnished, a wonderful memory of a loving father cut down before his time. But of course he couldn’t have been perfect, a fact that she made us and Harry confront by seeing him at his worst. We may know that he was still a good person, and we may be told how much he matured from that moment. But that’s still the only scene we’ve actually had of James, and therefore, it’ll probably be the one that sticks with me the most when considering him. It forces you to reevaluate not only him, but Sirius, Lupin, and of course, Snape. Harry will try to move past it, but when he’s lived a life of hero-worshipping, the flawed reality will be tough.

And that concludes Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. What a book. This was my favorite yet in the series.

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