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That magic touch

In the "Order of the Phoenix," J.K. Rowling blends adventure and a certain young wizard's growing pains

I doubt there's a critic alive who didn't quickly have to share her copy of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" with some eager family member. In my case, both husband and son would wait until I fell asleep, then sneak off with it. Our 15-year-old son, the sometimes-reluctant reader, flew past me easily. So one thing that occurs to me is how many readers of all ages have, thanks to J.K. Rowling, read a few thousand pages of well-crafted prose in the past several years.

Like any great writer of fantasy, Rowling has created an alternate universe, one which lives on in the reader after the book is set down. She has invented not merely a new literacy, a shared canon of literature, but a population of archetypes and a vocabulary that I suspect will long endure: Muggles and Dementors, Death-Eaters and Mud-Bloods, The Boy Who Lived.

The Boy Who Lived, which is to say Harry Potter, the center and complex hero of this seven-book series, comes into his own here in book five. Rowling spends 500 or 600 pages on character development - nearly 700 before any serious climactic action occurs. Not since the first book of the series, the remarkable "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone," has she spent so much time on character, so little on plot - or so much time on good, so little emphasis on evil. This is not to say that she has swerved from her epic battle of good vs. evil, but only that book five seems a pausing place, a gathering of strength for whatever is to come in the last two books.

In "The Order of the Phoenix," Harry is 15, and fully a teenager at last. We first spot him "lying flat on his back in a flower bed . . . a skinny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who had the pinched, slightly unhealthy look of someone who has grown a lot in a short space of time." He is full of the sin of all great heroes, that of pride: "Hadn't he proved himself capable of handling much more than they? Had they all forgotten what he had done?" As one ancient wizard, speaking from his own portrait, tells Harry, "No, like all young people, you are quite sure that you alone feel and think, you alone recognize danger, you alone are the only one clever enough to realize what the Dark Lord might be planning."

It's here, in "The Order of the Phoenix" that the young Harry becomes almost-a-man, here that he has his first (offstage) kiss, here that he is at his crankiest, most self-isolated, his most impulsive - in short, his most vulnerable. But in this novel, too, he begins to differentiate himself from his lost parents, to think deeply about life and death, even to teach an extracurricular "Defense Against the Dark Arts" class. He falls victim to teenage mob mentality, and he is raised up by teenage group adoration. And there's not much about this struggle that Rowling seems not to know. She understands resentment, jealousy, the swift upsurging of a romantic crush, the boredom of certain dull classes: " `There, now,' said Professor Umbridge sweetly. `That wasn't too difficult, was it? Wands away and quills out, please.' Many of the class exchanged gloomy looks; the order `wands away' had never yet been followed by a lesson they had found interesting."

"The Order of the Phoenix" shows Harry speeding along his own learning curve, growing into the man he must become in order to defeat evil. This fifth book is much about learning; it is also much about teaching - both good and bad - and takes place at a moment when Hogwart's, the imaginary yet seemingly quintessentially perfect British boarding school, is spectacularly falling apart. Rowling has created a new, malevolent adversary in the squat, sickly sweet Professor Umbridge. (She does indeed take umbrage at nearly everything done against her own command.)

By and large, the wizardry of "The Order of the Phoenix" is less frightening and intense than that of the past few books. The mood is sober, but hardly bleak. Here, for the most part, we are dealing with charms and magic, wizardly shortcuts. The Ministry of Magic provides a new locus of magical effects, including flying lilac-colored memos, a "peacock-blue ceiling ... inlaid with gleaming gold symbols that were continually moving and changing like some enormous heavenly notice board." A store window provides one portal to wizardry, as does one of the famous red telephone booths of London. Of course, one can also expect a direct confrontation with the arch-enemy, Voldemort, not to mention a couple of spectacular scenes of comic defiance which should bring readers (metaphorically speaking) to their feet, cheering.

I have sometimes heard critics express astonishment at the enormous popularity of the Harry Potter books. I can't see why we are surprised to find that, as a species, we have the capacity to recognize and applaud greatness. No other living novelist has evidenced the same wide and playful imagination, wild and sure inventiveness, and painted the same epic canvas of good and evil. Rowling's metaphors leap effortlessly from the page: "Professor Umbridge's smile vanished as suddenly as a lightbulb blowing." And there are moments of pure beauty throughout: "There was a cool line of pale green along the horizon. Dawn was approaching." Rowling seems to have recognized our need for magic - for a technology that takes us beyond the human, that limited sphere which Harry, in one anguished cry, wishes to escape: "THEN - I - DON'T - WANT - TO - BE - HUMAN!" Yet nothing that is human seems to be beyond, above, or beneath Rowling's scope. I know no other writer simultaneously so domestic and so untamed, so full of tiny beauties and panoramic effects. How lucky we are, really, to live in a time when such works are coming to us fresh and new.

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