by J.K. Rowling. New York: Scholastic Paperbacks, 2004. 870pp. Paper $9.99. ISBN: 9780439358071.

Reviewed by Bruce Peabody, Department of Social Sciences and History, Fairleigh Dickinson University. Email: bgpeabody [at] msn.com.


At over 4,000 pages, and with more than 400 million books sold, the seven part Harry Potter series is an expansive cultural inkblot – largely unavoidable and open to diverse, and, at times, contradictory interpretation. This review of J.K. Rowling’s fifth Potter book, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, presumes that whatever the literary merits or deficiencies of the saga, its widespread and, at times, feverish consumption makes it relevant as an object of scholarly study and reflection. In five years or so, millions of students who have attentively followed Harry’s exploits will be on their way to college. Seen in this light, Rowling’s work can serve as a literary conduit for engaging a coming cohort who grew up with Potter as their figurative companion.

Prior commentaries on the legal and political themes in the Potter novels have pointed to the presence of contract law principles in the books, their depiction of punishment and torture, the author’s hostility to bureaucratic forms of rule, and the undercurrent of libertarianism coursing throughout the lengthy tale (see, e.g., HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-CRAZED BUREAUCRACY; HARRY POTTER, LAW, AND CULTURE). This review takes a somewhat different tack, noting themes of likely interest to a wide audience of law and courts scholars and offering particular teaching strategies for using Rowling’s work. In order to make the sprawling series more accessible and manageable, the emphasis here is on specific approaches teachers might adopt in exploring the perennial legal themes embedded in just one of the novels.

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX opens with the protagonist defending himself and his cousin against a pair of wraith like “dementors.” Harry staves off their assault, but only by employing magic in an area populated by “Muggles” (non-magical humans), an act that is prohibited by “paragraph C of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery” and “section thirteen of the International Confederation of Wizards’ Statute of Secrecy” (p.140). Harry’s use of sorcery, in apparent violation of these prohibitions, is scrutinized and initially punished by the Ministry of Magic, the bureaucratic and lawmaking body in charge of regulating all things magical.

In the mean time, Harry learns about the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society pitted against his nemesis, Voldemort, who is, in turn, scheming to consolidate power. The Ministry of Magic features prominently in this struggle, with much of the novel’s plot turning on the Ministry’s corruption, amorality, and inefficacy, shortcomings that make it blind to Voldemort’s rising menace. [*352]

These failings are presented in an extreme form through the character of Dolores Umbridge. Umbridge is a Ministry official who initially helps lead the prosecution of Harry and subsequently installs herself at his cherished school, Hogwarts. Gradually, Umbridge’s personal aggrandizement comes at the expense of the school’s operation and the students’ magical education. By the end of the novel, Harry and his classmates revolt against her increasingly autocratic and arbitrary rule.

In this narrative and in the Potter tales in general, law is a quiet but insistent presence. Throughout the series, many of Harry’s most important decisions turn on whether to break or uphold various school rules or Ministry decrees. Indeed, Harry is often depicted as someone outside of the normal law. “The usual rules do not seem to apply with you, Potter,” declares his recurrent tormentor, Severus Snape (p.531).

Three legal themes are especially prominent in HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. First, Rowling invites us to reconsider the traditional dichotomy between the rule of law and the rule of individuals. In general, Rowling’s work evinces a high regard for the choices and autonomy of individuals in opposition to formal institutions, including legal organizations. Indeed, laws and regulations often work best when their authority is synonymous with the authority of a single person. For example, in the first four novels of the Potter series, Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, presides over the school with minimal external constraints or formal guidelines.

But in HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, Rowling shows greater concern for how the rule of law can be denigrated when it becomes subsumed by the capricious choices of individuals. In the book, legal and moral transgressions typically follow when the impersonal and formal equality of the rule of law is replaced with the agendas and vindictiveness of specific characters. Dumbledore, for example, chastises the Minister of Magic for deviating from past traditions in holding a full criminal trial against Harry for a “simple matter of underage magic” (p.149). As he further admonishes, “[i]n your admirable haste to ensure that the law is upheld, you appear, inadvertently I am sure, to have overlooked a few laws yourself” (p.149).

The danger posed by the unfettered rule of ambitious individuals is also embodied in the figure of Dolores Umbridge. Umbridge initially comes to Hogwarts as an officious teacher seeking to reform its educational system. In short order, however, she is appointed by the Ministry as “Hogwarts High Inquisitor” with sweeping and ever increasing power. As Rowling puts it, Umbridge consistently exhibits a “furious desire to bring every aspect of life at Hogwarts under her personal control” (p.551). The result of this conflation of the law at Hogwarts with the predilections of the High Inquisitor is calamitous. The students and staff are, in turn, bored, stifled, and terrified by Umbridge’s restrictive decrees (p.351, 416) and highly personalized rule.

As a cognate issue, Rowling seems to recognize that as a form of social regulation, law possesses distinctive traits and claims to authority. Among [*353] the features distinguishing and legitimating the Ministry’s law from, say, the decisions and agreements Harry makes with his friends, is its written-ness, specificity, and formalism. When Harry is first informed that he has violated the Decree against Underage Sorcery, the official Ministry notice outlines the particulars of his offense, the forms of law he has broached, and the terms of his preliminary and pending sanctions (p.26). This letter is almost immediately opposed by a short, scrawled message Harry receives from the father of his best friend. But this note’s command (exhorting Harry to stay where he is and not use magic again) is only backed by Harry’s personal relationship with the author, and the vague promise that Dumbledore is “trying to sort it all out” (p.28).

A second major theme throughout the novel is the complex and often divergent relationship between law and justice. Even Harry’s uncharitable Uncle, Vernon Dursley, is perplexed upon hearing that Harry has been disciplined for using magic to protect himself and Vernon’s son, Dudley. “If it was demenders [sic] who hurt Dudley, how come you’ve been expelled?” he inquires (p.35). At Harry’s judicial hearing, it becomes clear that the Minister of Magic wishes for a speedy resolution of Harry’s case, preferably with a finding of guilt. But Dumbledore, serving as Harry’s legal advocate, urges a more circumspect and deliberative approach. “[N]aturally,” he coolly suggests, “you would not care how many times you heard from a witness, if the alternative was a serous miscarriage of justice” (p.148).

Harry is ultimately cleared of all charges, temporarily vindicating due process and lending credence to the association of law with just outcomes. On other occasions, however, this relationship is by no means secure. Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, remains hunted throughout the novel for crimes he did not commit. When Harry and several of his friends fight with Draco Malfoy, a despised classmate, Umbridge hands out sentences that Rowling depicts as widely divergent, harsh, and unfair. In still another case, a suspect accused of terrorizing Muggles with “regurgitating toilets” is not prosecuted in return for his delivering information about Harry’s clandestine and illegal efforts to teach his classmates how to defend themselves against the “dark arts” (pp.614-615).

Finally, Rowling’s fifth novel is distinguished by its somewhat ambiguous evaluation of law. On the whole, Rowling does not offer positive assessments of the performance of law, or its role in our lives. In the final book of the Potter series, Harry’s friend Hermione rejects the suggestion that she might pursue a career in “Magical Law,” retorting that “I’m hoping to do some good in the world!”

In HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX law and legal forums are generally depicted as dark and convoluted. Legal procedures are at once threatening and removed – important legal decisions and commands are issued at a distance. When Harry enters the chamber for his hearing, he is greeted by “shadowy figures,” an “ominous silence,” and a large body of inquisitors who stare “down their noses at him” (p.137). He sits at a chair with chains designed to magically bind [*354] individuals accused of even more serious crimes.

At the same time, law is portrayed as being somewhat absurd. Complex regulations seem to govern every aspect of magical life. When Umbridge is confronted by a group of irate centaurs, she feebly invokes “Law Fifteen B” and other regulations, but this only has the effect of enraging the creatures further (pp.754-755). In Rowling’s world, the law is ultimately no match for the raw, unadulterated power implicit in natural forces and entities.

But these critiques are somewhat tempered by Rowling’s portrayal of other aspects of the legal system. Law and legal decisions are depicted as swift and decisive. Harry is given notice of his hearing efficiently, and he is tried and acquitted in a single morning. At a number of turns, Rowling also concedes that the law can be distinctively powerful – it possesses a comprehensive reach and is backed by the force of official institutions such as the Ministry and the Wizengamot, the Ministry’s highest tribunal.

Furthermore, the law is not without an inner logic. Harry’s defense turns, in part, on a stipulated exception to the normal rule that wizards can not perform magic in Muggle areas. His behavior is exonerated because of recognized “exceptional circumstances” including events that threaten the life of the accused wizard or Muggles (p.148). Moreover, Dumbledore is depicted as an agile and commendable legal advocate, who defends the credibility of Harry’s witness, insists upon due process and recognizes the trial court’s limited jurisdiction. In short, while Rowling casts the law as something that can be perverted in the wrong hands, it is also capable of rendering fair outcomes when proper procedures are followed.

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX would be appropriate for inclusion in any class that touches upon the themes delineated in this review. In particular, the novel could fit in well with law and society courses, especially discussions about the nature of law and legal authority. The book would also be suitable for a law and literature class, and could be interestingly paired with other, more traditional fictional selections, such as THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER or THE TRIAL. Since the Potter series is situated in the United Kingdom, and since the wizarding world is itself a distinctive milieu, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX could also be used in courses examining comparative legal issues, although, given the fictional backdrop, this would obviously need to be handled with some care. Finally, the presence of a popular movie version of the book could be of use to faculty wishing to teach the novel’s themes in a law and film or law and popular culture class.

With respect to more specific teaching strategies, one obvious approach would be to assign students portions of the book rather than asking them to read nearly 900 pages. Even if they are not familiar with the novel as a whole, undergraduates should be able to engage its principle legal themes by focusing on a handful of chapters including those detailing Harry’s attack by the dementors, his being served official legal notice, the resulting hearing, and Umbridge’s efforts to bring the [*355] Hogwarts academy to heel through her draconian decrees. Finally, as intimated earlier, the most helpful suggestion with respect to HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX may be simply to wait. In the course of a few years, incoming undergraduates are more likely than contemporary students to be familiar with Harry’s tale – and will therefore be better positioned to grasp its powerful cultural hold and relevance.

Barton, Benjamin. 2006. “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy.” MICHIGAN LAW REVIEW 104: 1523-1538.

Benet, Stephen Vincent. 1999 [1937]. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER AND OTHER WRITINGS. New York: Penguin Books.

Kafka, Franz. 1998 [1925]. THE TRIAL. New York: Schocken Books.

Thomas, Jeffrey E., et. al. 2005. “Harry Potter, Law, and Culture: Harry Potter and the Law.” TEXAS WESLEYAN LAW REVIEW 12 (1): 428-484.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Bruce Peabody.