He's back! After a three-year hiatus -- an eternity to preadolescent readers -- "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the fifth installment in the ongoing adventures of the world-famous wizard-in-waiting, was released at 12:01 Saturday morning. And it is obvious that there are now two Harry Potters.
One remains a literary character, the 15-year-old protagonist of the eponymous series by British author J.K. Rowling. The other is a global publishing and marketing phenomenon the likes of which has never been seen before in children's books.
The release of the fifth book raises the question: Will Harry Potter the character be subsumed by the thundering waves of superlatives that Harry Potter the phenomenon is churning up?
After finishing the 870-page book, readers will find the answer is a resounding no. For the bottom line in assessing the success of the series -- and its individual volumes -- is not merely a matter of dollars but also of delight and bedazzlement. There is something authentically and inarguably magical about the books, and much of it is vested in Rowling's marvelous capacity for creating characters that readers around the world can identify and empathize with.
In conjuring him up, Rowling decided to let her lad grow up over the life of the series, aging him from 10 in the first volume to a prospective 17 in the seventh and final book. As with his development, the books also are becoming increasingly mature. The first, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was inarguably a children's book. That the fifth can be considered a young-adult novel is equally inarguable.
For not only is Harry now 15, but the book's length, complexity, thematic weight and dark narrative all brand it a title for teens. Evil is real in Harry's world, and it'll get you if you don't watch out. Nor is violent death a stranger, and it appears again in a singularly heart-wrenching way in "Phoenix."
What else happens? Here's the plot in brief, so read no further if you've yet to finish the weighty tome.
Harry is in trouble. His unauthorized -- although justified -- use of magic has put him at risk of expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he is beginning his fifth year. Meanwhile, the school itself faces crisis. Powerful rivals of Headmaster Dumbledore are using the media and a whispering campaign to discredit him (and Harry), along with their assertion that the evil Lord Voldemort (He Who Must Not Be Named) has returned with his full powers restored.
To keep an eye on things, the Ministry of Magic dispatches the odious, Harry-hating Delores Umbridge (a memorable new character) to Hogwarts as the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and resident bete noire for Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron.
To protect Harry from the resurgence of evil, a number of his adult allies form the Order of the Phoenix but frustrate the boy with their refusal to permit him more active participation in their efforts. Meanwhile, Dumbledore has become oddly remote and Harry is beginning to feel increasingly isolated. He reacts with typical adolescent anger and impatience, lashing out at friends and enemies alike.
In fleshing out her plot, Rowling devotes considerable attention to such coming-of-age aspects of Harry's personality, making him a richer and more psychologically complex character than ever before. There's no doubt that Harry is growing up, and the process isn't always pretty, although he remains wonderfully appealing and, when necessary, heroic.
His relationship with his godfather, Sirius Black, is another important aspect of Harry's emotional growth, as is his increasing infatuation with the beautiful but unpredictable Cho Chan. Yes, Harry is beginning to think not only about girls but also about life after Hogwarts, speculation that is being fueled by the dreaded fifth-year OWLS (Ordinary Wizarding Level tests).
All in all, it's a nightmare year for Harry and for Hogwarts. Nightmares figure in his life in more literal ways too. He begins having recurring dreams of being alone in a long corridor, trying to open a door at its distant end. His dreams turn to waking visions and epiphanies as Voldemort becomes an increasingly vivid and frightening presence in his mind.
In dramatizing the angst that Harry experiences, Rowling does her usual page-turningly good job. Although this is a complex novel, the high energy level almost never flags, thanks in part to the author's ability to create vivid scenes and set pieces. And although her tone is much darker than previously, there are welcome elements of humor too, many of which are rooted in the characters and quirks of Harry's friends Hermione, Hagrid and Ron, who comes into his own as a newly designated prefect and keeper for the Gryffindor quidditch team.
Inevitably, the complexities and emotional intensities of this novel bring any discussion of it back to the question of audience. Young kids have not been forsaken for teen readers. They will gobble it up for the story and the sake of spending more time (much more time in this case) with characters who now feel like old friends. Teens and adults will enjoy the action too, but they will also appreciate the thematic richness of the novel and its treatment of enduring issues of good and evil and the sometimes fine line separating them.
Are these books classics in the making? Too early to tell, but there is no doubt that Rowling has a prodigious imagination and the capacity to create a world where magic is an integral, even offhand, aspect of everyday life. Instead of pencils, Harry's friends stick their magic wands behind their ears. Witches and wizards, giants and centaurs are just average next-door neighbors. And surprise is a staple of existence.
The numbers that drive Potter the phenomenon are also surprising, even stupefying, but all the hyperbole and hoopla in the world can't hide the success of Potter as literary character. The world of Hogwarts is so richly realized and, for readers, so imagination-enriching that it deserves to endure.
Certainly, readers everywhere will be rewarded by making its acquaintance, but the real bonus comes in encountering Harry Potter as a character who is complex and engaging enough, human and heroic enough to be a welcome presence on every page. Here's to Harry -- and the countdown to volume six of his adventures.