Sunday, April 14, 2024

Grim Feelings at Grimmauld Place

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”

Harry Potter’s fourth year and thus the fourth book ended pretty catastrophically, as we all might vaguely remember: with Voldemort’s return from the dead. (Or… un-dead but body-less. Not entirely sure about the technicalities.) This is definitely one of the lowest points in the book series so far and one of its darkest parts, especially because Voldemort’s return involved the murder of an innocent student. But, as I stated at the end of my last post, Goblet of Fire still manages to steer clear of total grimdark, instead ending on a message of hope that the fight against Voldemort could be won through unity and cooperation—exactly the thing that the Triwizard Tournament was supposed to strengthen.

The first part of Order of the Phoenix, however, paints a very different picture. Not only is Harry struggling with feeling abandoned in Privet Drive, it also only gets marginally better after being escorted to Grimmauld place where the reality of what it means to be at a clandestine war with Voldemort settles in.

Harry James Potter Defense Squad

But the first few chapters of the book are essentially focused exclusively on Harry’s misery and ho boy, is he miserable. Then again, if anyone has reason to be miserable, irritable and a bit angsty, it’s Harry. He’s not had the best life so far.

Let’s recap quickly: The first eleven years of his life, Harry had to live with his psychologically abusive and neglectful aunt and uncle and their bullying, thoroughly unpleasant son who made sure Harry had no friends because his parents supposedly died in a car crash. Only that they didn’t die in a car crash, they were murdered by an evil wizard—because wizards generally are a thing, as Harry finds out when he’s eleven, and he’s one of them—who also tried to murder Harry but couldn’t, subsequently lost his power and disappeared. In the following years, Harry attends a Wizarding a school where he almost dies twice at the end of each of  his first two school years and almost loses his soul at the end of his third.

And as if all of that wasn’t traumatizing enough, in his fourth year the now fourteen year old Harry is involuntary thrown into a tournament where each individual task could essentially kill him. His participation in the tournament makes him the focus of the Wizarding media, but very few people actually believe that he did not actually enter it himself. To make matters even worse, when Harry believes he has almost survived and won the tournament, it turns out that the evil wizard who murdered Harry’s parents has engineered his participation to be able to return and kill Harry. He murders one of Harry’s fellow students in front of Harry’s eyes and then tries but fails to kill Harry who returns to his school and alert Wizarding society to the evil wizards return. However, the Minister of Magic does not believe Harry and there are no other witnesses to the evil wizards return.

art by anxiouspineapples

Harry has suffered through enough things to seriously traumatize someone much older by the time he is almost fifteen. He is then sent back to his abusive relatives with very little contact to the Wizarding World. This is bad enough, but in addition Ron and Hermione, who are writing letters to him, are obviously in the same place and keeping things from him, increasing his feelings of isolation and frustration. When he is then attacked by Dementors and finds out that he has been essentially supervised without his knowledge or consent, this is obviously only adding to the general bad of the situation.

Essentially, what I am trying to say is that Harry’s frustration and anger at the beginning of Order of the Phoenix is absolutely justified. It’s not a case of Harry being whiny or annoying or entitled or weak, it’s a case of him having gone through deeply traumatizing events for years which culminated in the murder of a fellow student in front of his eyes, his torture and a fight for his life. He shows clear signs of PTSD and depression, like nightmares and utter apathy after being attacked by the Dementors. Throwing him back into an abusive household and isolating him from essential information about a situation that deeply affects him is cruel and irresponsible.

I get why people feel uncomfortable with Harry lashing out as much as Ron and Hermione as he does, especially because in his angers he orders Hedwig to get him answers any way possible which causes his friends actual physical injuries. But I also think it’s important to take into account that his relationship with Ron and Hermione has been one of the most stable and best things in his life so far, despite their fights, and that they had assured him that they would be by his side and support him after Voldemort’s return. Their behaviour when he is at the Dursley’s essentially seems like the opposite of this.

Of course, Ron and Hermione are not at all responsible for the situation Harry is in, especially not his isolation. That responsibility rests solely on Dumbledore’s shoulders. But Harry is a fifteen year old victim of abuse by his parental figures. He has never learnt to express or even generally cope with anger in a healthy way, especially not when this anger is directed at authority figures. It is understandable that the people who have to suffer when Harry first opens the floodgates of his anger are the friends who are closest to him and whose silence has thus felt the most like a stab in the back.

It’s always been easy for me to relate to Harry when he arrives at Grimmauld Place and talks to Ron and Hermione for the first time in a month with little contact. It’s not just the fact that JKR’s writing of that scene is very intimate and real, for example in this paragraph:

“Every bitter and resentful Harry had had in the past was pouring out of him: his frustration at the lack of news, the hurt that they had all been together without him, his fury at being followed and not told about it—all the feelings he was half-ashamed of finally burst their boundaries.”

It’s also that the conflict of being very happy to see someone again but being deeply hurt and angered by their behaviour is a conflict I can easily relate to, especially as Harry tries to swallow his anger because he feels like it isn’t justified but only turns angrier with everything Ron and Hermione say. That’s why I never really understood or shared the widespread view that Harry was being unfair or even whiny or throwing a tantrum. Rereading the books has only made me more defensive of him and his actions.

Grimmauld Place No 12, the Order of the Phoenix and the politics of resistance

Harry being picked up and flown to Grimmauld Place No 12 is easily one of my favourite scenes of Order of the Phoenix, partially because it introduces some fun tertiary characters like Tonks. Her spunky nature and the nonchalant way in which the concept of Metamorphmagi is introduced through her is a nice lighthearted contrast to the surrounding seriousness of the book.

Of course, the lightheartedness of Tonks is then counteracted by the general depressive atmosphere that is Grimmauld

art by pokieart

Place No 12. Living in a dusty, decade long abandoned house filled with essentially evil magical artifacts where people are additionally constantly coming and going must take a toll on one’s psyche even if it isn’t one’s ancestral family home filled with memories of what was probably a very unhappy childhood. As interesting as living in the centre of the resistance of Voldemort probably is, I wouldn’t want to do it if it’s in Grimmauld Place No 12, and Harry expresses genuine happiness at the prospect of leaving the house behind.

I generally find the Order of the Phoenix to be interesting, though it also raises a whole bunch of questions. For example, there’s the fact that it seems to consist of at best a dozen to twenty people at the beginning of the book, which is not surprising considering that it has to operate in secret and thus isn’t able to recruit openly. But Lupin says that even the first Order was outnumbered twenty to one by the Death Eaters and being picked off like flies, so how could this be at the heart of the anti-Voldemort resistance during the First Wizarding War? And why did they not get more support from ministry Wizards and aurors during it when Wizarding society was openly at war with Voldemort?

Another thing I was confused by was the fact that when Harry and Arthur go to the Ministry of Magic for Harry’s hearing they went past the floor on which the International Magical Office of Law is located which means that there is cooperation between wizard societies in different countries to fight crime. Although it makes sense that there is little international support for the fight against Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix as the magical British government which would have to reach out to the IMOOL as a supranational body with a request for support does not recognize that Voldemort is back, it doesn’t make sense that this doesn’t happen in book 6 and that there also seemed to be little international involvement in the past.

I know that it seems nitpicky but considering that Voldemort was a serious magical fascist threat to Britain I never got why there was never any actual international support for fighting him except JKR mentioning that Charlie was trying to recruit people to the cause in Romania. If she bothers to come up with a name for an international magical crime fighting unit, why not actually use it?

A scene that takes on a very different context when you reread Order of the Phoenix than it has during the first read is the scene where Harry and Arthur Weasley run into Lucius Malfoy after Harry’s hearing. What neither Harry nor the readers are aware in that scene on first reading it is that it is happening directly in front of the Department of Mysteries and that Malfoy is thus trying to spy on or even get to the prophecy. What I also originally wasn’t aware of was the fact that there was an invisible Order member standing guard, all of which makes the scene much tenser It’s fun to reread this scene and realise the ways in which JKR is deliberately misleading the readers, for example with this exchange:

“What was he doing down here?”
“Trying to sneak down to the courtroom, if you ask me”, said Mr. Weasley, looking extremely agitated and glancing over his shoulder as though making sure they could not be overheard.

It also illuminates the double life the Order members have to lead even in front of people they trust so as not to risk exposing Order secrets.

At the same time, I loved the fact that JKR mentioned that the goblin’s involvement in the fight against Voldemort was questionable because they were essentially completely disenfranchised by British wizarding society. This is the kind of information about Wizarding society and politics that I am seriously thirsting for. Then again, I’m aware that I’m a policy geek and lengthy discussions of this stuff might not at all be interesting for large parts of Harry Potter’s target audience—they probably would have put me to sleep when I first read the book in my teens.

Magical British Politics

I think it speaks to JKR’s authorial skills to include these small nuggets of information about magical politics in the UK in what is essentially an overheard, two line sentence that still supports a previously drawn picture of the Wizarding society as a deeply unequal place without overwhelming her target audience of young teens with political details.

The fountain in the foyer of the Ministry of Magic that she describes essentially mostly functions at supporting this picture but also provides some interesting information through its name. It’s called “The Fountain of Magical Brethren”, implying that even though the magical community disenfranchises non-human magical beings, it sees itself as treating them as equals. The fact that this view is common even among otherwise completely decent wizards and witches is, of course, exemplified by the treatment of house elves, for example, and the way Bill speaks about goblins in The Deathly Hallows.

At the same time, this dedication to portraying the general Wizarding World as incredibly judgemental towards non-human magical beings as well as non-magical humans makes JKR’s assertion that there is no racism in the Wizarding World even more unbelievable. It’s just not internally consistent to claim that a society that is full of prejudices based on species, magical ability and class, among other things, is not racist.

Another aspect of magical politics that I found interesting was something Sirius revealed about the pureblood families. They supported Voldemort’s general political ideas—barring Muggleborns from Wizarding society and magical humans dominating and ruling everyone else—but disapproved of his methods when he turned out to be a terrorist. I think it mirrors the way real-life extreme conservatives treat more extreme right wing political factions, namely with a general approval of their ideas and ideology, but a recoil from the actual reality these ideologies would create or need to create to become achievable.

There are two more ways in which Harry Potter politics in Order of the Phoenix mirror real life political circumstances, one of them more subtle than the other. The first is the treatment of Harry by the Ministry of Magic after he defends himself against the Dementors, especially his hearing being rescheduled on short notice and him being reprimanded for being late because of this. JKR said in an interview that she wanted the Wizarding World to contain all the flaws of the real world and that even before the Ministry is taken over by Voldemort, it is reminiscent of real world governments we all know and love. When one takes into account that JKR largely grew up when Margaret Thatcher was in power, that she lived off welfare for an extended period of time during this time and that Thatcher tried to get as many people as possible off of welfare by making it incredibly hard to access it and demonizing the people using it, I think it’s not a reach to interpret the Ministry’s behaviour as mirroring British bureaucracy during Thatcher’s time.

The second, more openly recognizable and even confirmed parallel between magical and real life British politics is the one between Fudge and Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was the British prime minister from 1937 to 1940 and remains most well known for the way he downplayed the threat posed by the Third Reich, instead choosing to demonize his political opponent Churchill as a power-hungry warmonger.

I also thought it was interesting that during Harry’s hearing, which essentially becomes a political battleground between Fudge and Dumbledore, Dumbledore points to the Wizengamot Charter of Rights, thus confirming that the concept of something like human rights isn’t completely alien to Wizarding Society. It’s even weirder that these rights then don’t include the right to a fair trial once accused of a trial, as exemplified by the treatment of Hagrid, who is thrown into Azkaban because he is suspected of being responsible for the Chamber of Secrets being opened, and later Sirius, and the right to not be subjected to ongoing psychological torture in prison.

Serious Blackness

I stated that I would probably hate to be at Grimmauld Place No 12 even if it wasn’t my childhood home earlier already. It’s a seriously unpleasant place, even though it allows the readers an interesting glance into the lives of dark wizards that I don’t think we would have gotten otherwise. But my general dislike for it makes me understand Sirius behaviour and bitterness very well.

art by blcisezabinis

I get that Sirius is far from being a responsible or competent adult. He is jaded and angry and  willing to take unnecessary risks, but then again, he spent large parts of the years that were supposed to be formative of his adult self first involved in a dangerous magical war and then imprisoned and continuously psychologically tortured despite being completely innocent. When he frees himself and has the proof for his innocence in his hands, it slips through his fingers again which forces him to spend the next year first constantly on the run and then in a cave living off of rats. And after that he gets essentially re-imprisoned in his childhood home which consistently reminds him of what was probably a deeply unhappy childhood.

Essentially, I am willing to cut him some slack when it comes to his lack of general adult behavior and responsibility because it’s not like he had much opportunity to develop into the responsible adult that Molly Weasley, for example, wishes he was.

I am also aware that I am willing to cut Sirius more slack than I have been willing to cut Snape in the past, for example when I was incredibly angry about Snape’s willingness to throw two innocent men to a fate worse than death by giving them to the Dementors. Barabara’s excellent piece about Snape made me change my mind about him a bit and develop more of an understanding of where he was coming from in this situation which must have been deeply triggering, but that doesn’t change that I find Snape’s lack of adult competence more reprehensible than that of Sirius.

I think that might mostly be due to how it expresses it: Snape consistently abuses his students, who have done him absolutely no harm, while Sirius is mostly sarcastic and incredibly bitter and occasionally struggles with treating Harry as a young adult for which he is responsible instead of like his best friend. Additionally, unlike Sirius, Snape was not imprisoned in the psychological torture hell that is Azkaban for twelve years, even if Hogwarts probably also wasn’t the best place for a traumatized, resentful adult who was both bullied and bully there.

At the same time, I find it interesting to think about the fact that it is entirely possible that Sirius was not just willing to tell Harry more about matters of the Order and Voldemort’s plans because he genuinely thought that Harry should know but also because he wanted to sort of go against Dumbledore’s orders out of resentment for keeping him confined to Grimmauld Place No 12. From what we see of Sirius, it is absolutely in character for him.

Family Matters

This brings me to another thing that changed during my reread of Order of the Phoenix: my ever dwindling sympathy for Molly Weasley. What annoyed me most was her babying of Harry that showed itself in her absolute unwillingness to let him know anything about what’s going on with regards to Voldemort.

On the one hand, I sort of get it: He’s only fifteen and he has gone through enough traumatizing stuff already, as outlined above. I get the intense wish to protect him from more traumatising stuff by excluding him from the brewing war, essentially wrapping him in a fluffy blanket and giving him hot cocoa. But on the other hand, it’s just not realistic, not to mention not in Harry’s best interest.

Yes, he’s a deeply traumatized teenager, but he’s also at the heart of the coming war. Coddling him is not good for him because it will only leave him unprepared, insufficiently informed and frustrated and thus more prone to rash and bad decisions, rather than preparing him as well as possible by giving him as much information as possible is. But then again, if any of the adult characters in Order of the Phoenix had actually treated Harry like that, large parts of the plot simply wouldn’t exist.

Then there’s the fact that although Molly is supposed to be the embodiment of perfect motherly warmth, care and understanding, she turns out to be quite cruel in multiple instances. One prime example is to Sirius when she throws his stay in Azkaban and subsequent inability to godfather Harry for twelve years at him. It’s a low point for her, but she goes even lower when she exclaims that everyone in the family was a prefect in front of Fred and George, who decisively weren’t. It’s a scene that’s sort of played for laughs but it shows the cracks in the Weasley’s image of the perfect loving family.

Of course, there is a far deeper, far more visible crack in that image, namely the conflict with Percy. This is an aspect of Order of the Phoenix that deeply frustrates me: Percy is portrayed as a heartless, overly ambitious traitor to his family whose concerns are invalid. But he has consistently received very little support from his family, if he hasn’t been outright mocked for his earnestness and ambition. Although his promotion is definitely suspicious and most likely meant to primarily create a way for Fudge to spy on the Weasleys, known supporters of Dumbledore, I can’t imagine Arthur broaching this topic in a way that isn’t a slap to the face for Percy. And although I can’t imagine Percy expressing it in a way that is at all sensitive or tactful, his assertion that his father has no ambition and that’s why the Weasley family lacks money is essentially true.

Another problem is that JKR makes Percy act in ways that I don’t think fit his character, for example by making him proclaim that Percy knew that his loyalty was supposed to be with the Ministry, absolutely denying Voldemort’s return and making him enjoy Harry being humiliated and intimidated in front of the Wizengamot during his hearing. Percy has always been portrayed as a pompous stickler for the rules, but never as someone who’d lie to himself and turn on people he had good relations with just for power and recognition. Essentially, JKR is trying to use inner-familial tension to explain Percy’s political break with the Order in favour of the Ministry and it just doesn’t work for me.

What does work for me, despite my growing dislike for Molly, is the scene where she tries to confront the Boggart in the drawing room at Grimmauld Place No 12 on the last night before her children, Harry and Hermione leave for Hogwarts. The Boggart turning into the corpses of the people she and the audience loves in combination with what Moody told Harry about the faith of the members of the first Order really shows just how high the stakes are now that Voldemort is back.

Next time Harry makes some new friends and has a not so happy return to Hogwarts.

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