Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Old Conflicts, New Enemies

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”

The last part of the Harry Potter reread series ended shortly before the Golden Trio returns to Hogwarts for their fifth year in a more and more politically adverse climate. While Harry was just cleared of all charges for using magic in front of a Muggle to defend himself against two Dementors, Ron and Hermione were made Prefects and we as readers get to see both the effects of Voldemort’s return and the first Wizarding War on the Order more clearly.

A Toad Named Dolores

One of the consequences of Voldemort’s return is of course the conflict between the Ministry and Dumbledore taking center stage that results in Dolores Umbridge being sent to Hogwarts. However, her first appearance isn’t in Hogwarts, it’s during Harry’s trial. I really like it because it’s very clear from the first moment that this is going to be an antagonist:

On Fudge’s right was another witch, but she was sitting so far back on the bench that her face was in the shadows. […]
“Then,” said Dumbledore, quietly but clearly, “We must ask ourselves why somebody within the Ministry ordered a pair of Dementors into that alleyway on the second of August.”
In the complete silence that followed these words, the witch to the right of Fudge leaned forwards so that Harry saw her for the first time.

It’s a very classic, movie-esque antagonist moment so when Umbridge reappaers in Hogwarts, you know that her presence is not going to cause anything good, especially when she interrupts Dumbledore’s start of term speech to give a speech of her own. It’s an interesting speech full of thinly veiled political threats that shows JKR’s knack for this. While I would love to read the full speech nowadays, it would have probably bored me to death as a teenager so I can also appreciate that JKR finds an elegant way of avoiding this by instead focusing on the reactions of the other students. Having Hermione summarize it for both the readers and Harry and Ron is a clever way of making sure that everyone gets what’s going on.

art by loquaciousliterature

Umbrage is a great antagonist and, quite frankly, a character that I love to hate.  She’s an absolutely repulsive, cruel person without any redeeming qualities but at the same time, I somehow find her fascinating. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect Wizarding society from what she sees as threatening it – in this case, Harry, Dumbledore and their “lies” about Voldemort as well as general progressiveness – with zero moral qualms about her methods. There’s no explanation for this ruthlessness except that she’s a truly fanatic conservative.

But despite being fascinated by Umbridge, she isn’t a villain or antagonist that I’ve suddenly found myself rooting for, like Cersei Lannister or Raina from Agents of SHIELD, to give two personal examples. I’ve read the books about a dozen times now – possibly more often, I stopped counting at some point – and the first time Harry walks into her classroom I still have an immediate hateful gut reaction. But it’s not just me: Umbridge seems to be universally hated within the Harry Potter fandom.

What I also really like are the similarities between Minerva McGonagall and Umbridge. It’s something I didn’t realize at first, especially because they seem to contrast a lot more at first look. But both women are headstrong, commanding, opinionated, and deeply loyal to a man in a powerful position in the Wizarding society. The fact that they’re on different sides of a conflict makes for some of the best interactions in Order of the Phoenix, for example when Umbridge inspects McGonagall’s lesson and later during the career advice session. 

What I’m kind disappointed with when it comes to Umbridge is JKR falling back on markers of traditional femininity to mark her as repulsive. She’s all pink and ruffled clothing with an office covered in lacy drapes, dried flowers, and plates with kitten. Even the voice she speaks with is high pitched and overly girlish. Of course it creates an unexpected contrast: femininity is generally not associated with the kind of predatory evilness that Umbridge possesses, so you don’t immediately expect her to be this bad despite her setup as an antagonist. However, she’s the only female character that I can think of that is this obviously, almost aggressively feminine and it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

The Politics of Higher Education

Another thing that I find quite interesting is the morality surrounding the Ministry’s involvement in Hogwarts. It’s something that’s very clearly presented as being a bad thing as the Ministry is trying to undermine Dumbledore’s authority, convince the students that Voldemort is not back, intimidate Dumbledore’s allies and find evidence to absolutely disempower Dumbledore and even persecute him. All of these things are not just bad because they impact the narrative negatively, they’re objectively bad: abusing institutional power to undermine someone’s legitimate authority, indoctrinate and intimidate others, and persecute people on made up charges is morally wrong. Of course that’s exactly what Fudge is doing by placing Umbridge in Hogwarts.

At the same time, the assertion that things have been going wrong at Hogwarts isn’t wrong. There is no system in place to make sure that teachers are competent and non-abusive, as evidenced by essentially all teachers except McGonagall, Flitwick, Sprout, and Lupin. There also seems to be no one outside of Hogwarts checking that students learn the things they need to learn until the OWL examinations in fifth year at which point it is essentially too late to make up for significant gaps in knowledge.

Ultimately, school is not just supposed to provide education for the sake of education itself or for personal growth, it is also supposed to prepare children and young adults for adult life within the world. It’s supposed to foster essential life skills as well as prepare people for finding and practicing a profession. So of course society outside of the school itself and the state have an interest in making sure that schools actually do that.

There does seem to be a tool to keep an eye on what’s going on in Hogwarts even before Umbridge is made High Inquisitor in Order of the Phoenix, namely the Hogwarts Board of Governors. However, it only comes into play in Chamber of Secrets when Lucius Malfoy blackmails the other Governors into forcing Dumbledore to step down. JKR essentially portrays all attempts by outsiders to influence what is going on side of Hogwarts as negative and I don’t think that that’s accurate either in-universe or outside of it.

The Prefects, the Trio and Harry’s Angst

Another aspect of school life where Hogwarts is lacking from a system of essentially checks and balances is the prefect system. I didn’t originally get the point of it, probably because it is something that’s just deeply alien to me, but now I do. It’s the easiest way to keep the roughly thousand students that Hogwarts is supposed to have in check without burdening the teachers with additional responsibilities or hiring additional staff. Or at least I guess that’s the idea behind it.

Of course, that’s not how it turns out to be like in actual Hogwarts reality. On the one hand, prefects don’t seem to have any tools to make sure their authority is respected by their fellow students. Hermione has to threaten to write to Mrs. Weasley to get Fred and George to stop testing their sweets on fellow students in the common room because they don’t care about the usual punishments – detention and taking House points. On the other hands, there also seems no way to make sure that prefects take their position seriously and fulfill their responsibilities or don’t use their powers to bully other students, like Draco Malfoy does.

It’s a shame because on a purely narrative level the idea of the prefects works really well. Being made prefect finally gives Ron a role outside of his friendship with Harry and his family and makes him feel appreciated and respected. It’s a good continuation of the exploration of his inferiority complex that started in Goblet of Fire, even if we mostly see him shirking his responsibilities. And not being made prefect further drives a wedge between Harry and Dumbledore, something which may not be good for the mental and emotional state of our protagonist but is necessary to drive the narrative forward as well.

art by prongsiedraws

At the same time, Ron and Hermione being prefects while Harry isn’t also creates a rift between Harry and the two that hasn’t exited in the previous books. While there were conflicts within the Trio in almost all of the previous books, it was never a case of Harry being on the outs with both of them. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Ron and Hermione weren’t speaking to each other at first and then both Harry and Ron weren’t talking to her, while in Goblet of Fire, Harry and Ron were fighting. Even though the three aren’t openly consistently fighting or not talking to each other, there still is a distinct sense of Ron and Hermione being closer to each other than either one of them is to Harry despite them continuing to bicker in almost every scene.

Of course, Harry doesn’t just feel isolated from his friends but also from the rest of the school. Although he’s always been in the limelight and on the receiving end of his fair share of hostility, especially in Goblet of Fire, the way the Daily Prophet portrays him as an attention seeking liar literally divides the school, including his dormitory. The fight with Seamus, who starts to doubt that Voldemort has returned after spending the summer holidays at home, is the first time Harry really realizes how the way he is portrayed actually affects him. It’s a heartbreaking scene, to be honest, because Harry has been looking forward to returning to Hogwarts for most of the first part of Order of the Phoenix because he still fundamentally sees Hogwarts as his safe place. Even when other students throughout the school behaved hostile towards him, that never carried into his dormitory before which is something that the fight with Seamus and the ongoing hostility between them then changes.

It’s interesting because the first part of Order of the Phoenix – where Harry is stuck at the Dursleys before being moved to Grimmauld Place – sets up the return to Hogwarts as the point at which Harry will be happy again. That doesn’t happen, though, not just because of the tension caused by the Daily Prophet’s portrayal of Harry as almost unhinged and the way Umbridge tries to silence Harry, but also because of mounting academic pressure. In addition to that, Hagrid is missing and Harry has disconcerting dreams about a door and a corridor when he doesn’t have nightmares.

The angst that all of this causes Harry unfortunately results in him mostly expressing itself through snapping at Ron and Hermione. While I found his lashing out at them for not sharing their knowledge while he was stuck in Privet Drive understandable, it becomes less understandable when they’re in Hogwarts again simply because there is nothing that Ron and Hermione are really doing wrong.

The Weasley Family Drama Continues

Someone who definitely is doing something wrong is JKR in her portrayal of the Weasley family drama, another consequence of Voldemort’s return and the refusal of the Ministry to acknowledge that return. It’s not that I find the root of the conflict unbelievable or think that there shouldn’t be any conflict within the Weasley family. As Mims Dahn and others discussed in the comments to my “halfway through summary” post a while ago, the term that describes the Weasley’s best is probably dysfunctional despite them seeming like a picture perfect family.

Once you take a closer look, though, it becomes really obvious how many conflicts exist within the family. First, none of the siblings seem to actually have a good relationship with one another. Percy and the twins are the most obvious example, as Percy tries to discipline the twins while they make fun of him, but I also genuinely can’t think of a friendly or positive interaction between Fred and George and Ron. Instead, the twins do nothing but make fun of him. Ginny is a bit of the odd one out: There is no open hostility between her and any of her siblings the way there is between the twins, Percy and Ron but we also barely see them interact with one another. That may, however, be largely due to Ginny’s general absence for about four and a half books and the fact that she rarely does more than make witty quips when she is actually there. Then there’s Molly’s control freak behavior and the fact that Arthur is not just overly lenient with his children but also often absent. Add the money worries and the fact Arthur could advance in the Ministry but doesn’t and you essentially have all ingredients necessary for a truly dysfunctional family dynamic.

Which makes it interesting that these many small conflicts only truly come to light once the tension between the Ministry and Dumbledore escalates. I think that’s where JKR went wrong in the first place: linking these two essentially unrelated conflicts to one another. I get that the main conflict is between Percy and the rest of the family but that’s not just because Percy takes a different side than his parents and siblings in the aforementioned conflict. The root of it lies with the fact that Percy is incredibly isolated within the family to the point where he doesn’t even tell anyone that he has a girlfriend. He’s the one that essentially all of the siblings pick on, that gets the worst of Fred’s and George’s bullying and very little attention from his parents, especially his father, who never bothers to defend him. Thus, the conflict could have easily broken out in Goblet of Fire when Percy had a job that gave him a bigger financial independence from his parents as well as exposure to the Ministry. His sense of being held back by his parents and his frustration with his father’s lack of ambition could have manifested just as well around the middle of Goblet of Fire instead of in Order of the Phoenix.

Instead, JKR directly links the tension to Fudge and his leadership of the Ministry. Percy essentially aligns himself completely with Fudge and that’s where he starts to behave in a way that I find unbelievable and out of character. Firstly, as Mytly stated so eloquently a while ago, “in what universe would anyone with a working brain consider Umbridge ‘truly delightful’?” But additionally, there is no way that Percy would argue that Harry got off an a mere technicality in his trial because Percy is a firm believer in law and order. He wouldn’t describe the right to use magic as an underage wizard in life threatening situations as a mere technicality but he does just that in his letter to Ron after Ron has become a prefect. And although Percy’s never been great friends with Harry, I also can’t believe that he’d see him as unstable and violent simply because everyone surrounding him claimed that he was.

Building Tension

Interestingly enough, the part of Order of the Phoenix between the end of the summer holidays and the official establishment of Dumbledore’s Army is remarkably uninteresting, at least in comparison to what comes both before and after it. It’s not boring, though. It’s entertaining and easy to read, but it’s also just not as interesting as the rest of the book which is why I feel like I don’t have nearly as much to say about it as I had about the first part.

art by jpaddey

I think that’s largely because apart from Umbridge, this section of the book establishes very few new things in terms of characters as well as conflicts and themes. Of course, there’s Luna but she remains very marginal: She appears twice and doesn’t say more than three or four sentences during each appearance. Instead, it builds on foundations that were laid in the previous chapters and shows us things that we were previously told, like the meddling of the Ministry at Hogwarts, but without having these storylines pay off yet or lays further foundations like the idea for Dumbledore’s Army, Hagrid’s disappearance or Cho as Harry’s love interest.

Of course JKR is also already laying the seeds for the final conflict of the book but not just through Harry’s repeated dreams of a long corridor with a door but through Sturgis Podmore. He’s a member of the Order that was supposed to accompany Harry, the Weasleys, and Hermione to the Hogwarts express but doesn’t show up. An article in the Daily Prophet later reveals that he was arrested in the Ministry of Magic for trespassing when he was trying to get through a high security door. Ron theorizes that someone at the Ministry tricked him into coming there to arrest him, a theory that seems plausible but is ultimately wrong. What happened instead is that Lucius Malfoy put the Imperius curse on Podmore who was keeping guard in front of the door to the Department of Mysteries. This happened when Malfoy was at the Ministry and near the courtrooms during Harry’s trial.

Of course, none of this is far obvious when reading the book for the first time as JKR provides alternative explanations for all aspects of it: Malfoy was trying to spy on Harry’s trial and Podmore’s behavior remains unexplained except for Ron’s theory which Hermione finds credible. But once you know that Voldemort is trying to get into the Department of Mysteries and the Order is trying to prevent this, it’s the most logical explanation.

This is one of the aspects I still like most about the Harry Potter series. JKR is amazing at building up tension and following the principle of Chekhov’s gun over the course of both a single novel and the entire series. That in combination with the deeply engaging characters makes the books thoroughly enjoyable to read even if you have read them many times before.

Coming soon: The Trio forms a secret study group that quickly becomes illegal.

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