Back to Hogwarts – Part the Fifth (and a half)
So, when we last left our heroes, things were not great, but as we know, they get a whole lot worse over the course of the second half of book 5. Umbridge gets a whole lot worse (as Hermione rightly predicted, so maybe she should be teaching Divination). We learn a lot more about Snape. And the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore breaks wide open. It’s not exactly a fun read, but the only way to the happy ending is through the darkness so let’s plunge in.
Hermione proves her brilliance yet again by involving Rita Skeeter and The Quibbler in the revolution. The press has always been a strong weapon against tyranny, but Hermione’s secret weapon is that she knows her enemy. Like a toddler desperate for attention from a weak-willed parent, she knows exactly what will piss Umbridge off, exactly how she will react when pissed off, and exactly how that will backfire and bite her in the ass. Umbridge seems obsessed at times with persecuting Harry, but it’s really his right-hand, Muggle-born sidekick she should fear. Hermione continues to be prescient, noting that Umbridge firing Trelawney is just the beginning while everyone else sees it as the last straw.
As we say in our house, Hermione has seen TV before (which makes sense, as she’s a Muggle), so logically she’s the only one who suspects Voldemort of trying to manipulate Harry through legilimency when he dreams about Sirius in the Department of Mysteries. It’s so satisfying to see her turn around and use the same tactic on Umbridge (again), convincing her to take Hermione and Harry into the forest alone, and inspiring that Umbridge falls for manipulation again, revealing that there are ways to successfully fight back against the darkness. The scene in Umbridge’s office before Hermione lures her away also marks a tonal shift in the series. It’s been bad news for this whole book, but when Umbridge reveals how dirty she’s willing to play, having sent the Dementors after Harry over the summer, there’s no going back. Voldemort’s return in the end of Book 4 is evil, sure, but at least he plays by the rules. Umbridge is somehow worse because she’s willing to go to lengths that even her allies would consider unreasonable.
Another underappreciated weapon in this fight is Snape. In part, he is underappreciated because Rowling doesn’t quite let the reader know whose side he’s truly on just yet. One really has to read deeply to find the clues that prove he’s loyal to the Order (other than Dumbledore’s trust). Snape explains that only those skilled at occlumency can lie to Voldemort. Snape has been chosen to teach this skill to Harry based on his expertise, which should serve as a clue to the reader that he is skilled enough to lie convincingly and serve as a double agent. However, as skilled at occlumency as he may be, he’s still a terrible teacher, failing to articulate how Harry should do something he’s never done before and therefore doesn’t understand what a successful attempt feels like or how to achieve one. Meanwhile, Snape yelling at Harry that he’s doing it wrong frustrates Harry to the point where he starts to do it out of spite and therefore starts to understand how to do it, but it’s not something that can really be explained in words. Which doesn’t stop Snape from being a dick about it because of his animosity towards James. I have a feeling if it were say, Lupin giving the instruction, he would be gentler and explain to Harry more that it’s just something he has to feel to understand. Of course, by the time the Order figures out that Harry needs to learn this skill, they’ve lost the opportunity for Lupin to be his tutor that they might have had over the summer (when the kids were being underutilized for just cleaning out the house), so we have to deal with Snape’s dickishness.
Snape’s conflict with young James Potter is so complex. For starters, it pretty much serves as Snape’s sole source of motivation for the whole series. James’s torment inspires Lily’s pleas for mercy on his behalf which inspires Snape’s unrequited love which inspires his dedication to Harry. The incident also provides a strong anti-bullying message and and makes it more powerful by having the aggressor be someone who was previously perceived as a heroic ideal. The takeaway is: If bullying can turn someone into a Snape, it’s probably a really bad idea. Still, if this is Snape’s ACTUAL worst memory, he needs to get over it. Kids can be mean jerks, but dude. Harry’s worst memories include seeing his mother being killed to protect him in front of his eyes, an innocent friend being killed in front of him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time because of him, and being tortured at the hands of his archenemy. Snape needs to settle down with his anti-Harry venom. I’m also left wondering why Snape placed this memory in the Pensieve. I get him wanting Harry to not see the scene because of his humiliation, but wouldn’t it be tempting to show Harry what a jerk his dad was? The truth is, we don’t know WHY Snape removed that memory to prevent Harry from seeing it. Maybe he was trying to spare Harry that knowledge of his father out of loyalty to Lily. It’s an interesting point to ponder.
Subsequently, it seems like Harry wasted a HUGE opportunity when he breaks into Umbridge’s office just to talk to Sirius (and Lupin) and learn that teenagers can be cruel and thoughtless. It’s understandable that Harry felt like he didn’t have anyone he could talk to about this, but if he was going to put up such a huge risk to communicate with his godfather, it should be in case of an emergency, not because his feelings were hurt. It seems like the same could have been achieved in a conversation with one or both of the Weasleys, giving an example of how an older brother who seems great now was a bit of a jerk at Harry’s age and he grew out of it. It could have then tied in nicely to how the Weasley twins seem like scoundrels now, but actually grew into heroes, if the conversation preceded their farewell to Hogwarts.
So, Dumbledore. Angry though I (and Harry) may be about his choice to push Harry away, he more than makes up for it by taking credit for the DA and escaping Umbridge and the Ministry’s clutches. That scene just proves him to be the biggest BOSS in history (honorable mention to McGonagall for her standing up to Umbridge in Harry’s career advice session alone). It is a bummer among many bummers, then, that we don’t see him again until the fight in the Death Chamber at the Ministry. When he shows up, it’s like Gandalf’s arrival at the battle of Helm’s Deep, but it makes far less of an impact on the audience than Gandalf’s arrival because we are so focused on Harry’s grief. The person I feel worst for in this scene is Lupin, having to hold Harry back, knowing exactly how painful the loss he’s just suffered is, especially on top of everything he’s been through this year. My sympathies quickly shift to Dumbledore when he debriefs Harry in his office. To have to explain how he chose to prioritize Harry’s happiness over the Order’s cause and how that ended up being (arguably) the wrong choice? Heartbreaking, not to mention fucked up that a battle against evil has to take precedence over the happiness of a child. It makes me so mad. It is the most adult thing in these books yet and the most adult thing Harry has had to deal with yet.
I’ll close with the prophecy, because I love it so much and it’s nice to end on something that makes me happy. Of course, I don’t love its result, that the people involved must kill or be killed, but it’s existence opens so many doors, story-wise. The possibility of Neville being the other boy in the prophecy adds so much complexity: it’s so much more interesting than “you are cursed by Voldemort because DESTINY.” To have a prophecy, but underscore it with the idea that events did not unfold as they did simply because they were prophesied, but because of choices Voldemort made based on bad information about the prophecy? Genius! If you want to believe that fate is really driven by these prophecies, then Neville could still be the one who’s tied to Voldemort. It’s just so much more interesting when left up to the reader’s interpretation! Rowling does it again!
And so the second war has begun and we’re bound for even darker times, if that’s even possible. I’m now getting to the books in the series that I’ve reread the least number of times, so I’m excited to rediscover how things play out. See you all next month for the first half of Half-Blood Prince!