Potter vs. Umbridge: Two Types of Power

The war has begun….

Courtesy of IMDB
Photo courtesy of IMDB

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix introduces a dark twist in the series, from the storyline to the changes that the characters, particularly Harry, undergo, and the dangers that the characters face. In Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort has officially returned; he is present not through an object (such as Tom Riddle’s diary) or another person (such as Quirrell) but instead has a body of his own. Voldemort’s presence in this book is much more formidable than in the previous books, and the extent of his danger is conveyed through Harry’s frequent views into his mind and the frequency of his scar hurting. Hogwarts is no longer a safe haven or source of comfort to Harry in this book, as the Ministry of Magic has taken over and changed Hogwarts, and the sense of community Harry once felt is dissolved. The characters face dangers much more threatening and real than in any of the previous books – for instance, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Luna, Neville, and Ginny have a face-to-face encounter with the Death Eaters and, for the first time, have to fight off Dark curses thrown at them. The danger they face is no longer within the confines of Hogwarts. Finally, Harry’s character development undergoes a darker turn; he is reaching his adolescent years, facing trauma from witnessing Cedric’s death and Voldemort’s return, and feeling isolated from the rest of the Hogwarts and the Wizarding World, who refuse to believe that Voldemort is back. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix deepens the plot and takes a darker turn, providing a glimpse of the terrible dangers that Harry has yet to face in order to defeat Voldemort.

One of the predominant themes explored in Order of the Phoenix is that of power.

In the novel, Rowling uses Umbridge and Harry to show the distinction between types of power – between a false power (something that only resembles power) and true power (a kind of power that is effective and commands respect and trust). Umbridge is an example of the pitfalls of a lust for power; her character desires power, order, and authority above all else, yet those are all things she never does attain. Harry, on the other hand, is a student, who does not choose to be a leader nor does he desire power. He simply is put into the place of leader in order to teach students Defense Against the Dark Arts, and through this, he earns his peers’ trust and is able to effectively lead this community. Harry, unlike Umbridge, represents a true leader, with true power and influence. He is someone who does not go after power, lust for power; he simply desires the good of the community, and that in itself is what makes Harry an effective leader.

Two characters, Umbridge and Harry, present contrasting types of power and leadership.

In the novel, Umbridge is a powerful, influential figure who instills fear in the students of Hogwarts. She is a direct liaison to the Minister of Magic, and she has the power to deduct House points, administer punishments, and even dismiss teachers at Hogwarts. Umbridge punishes Harry harshly on multiple occasions. She uses her evil quill on him, forcing him to cut the words, “I must not tell lies,” into his skin for hours, giving him a lifetime Quidditch ban for getting into a skirmish with the Slytherin team, and passing some of the most absolutist decrees, such as forbidding student societies from meeting without her permission or not allowing students to possess The Quibbler. However, what Umbridge has is not true power, and Umbridge is not a true leader. While she inspires fear in her students, she does not have their faith, their trust, or their respect. Umbridge is someone who loves power, who is infatuated with power, and it is for this very reason that she does not have it. The more Umbridge makes an effort to command power and authority, the more the students and other teachers subvert her power and try to undermine her authority. For instance, when Fred and George set off the fireworks, the teachers do not even try to help Umbridge get rid of them, and instead rather enjoy watching her get flustered as she tries to regain order. When Umbridge bans The Quibbler, it ensures that every student reads it. Although Umbridge bans student societies, the D.A. continues to meet. Umbridge does indeed have official authority, but the rules she sets are broken right under her nose. It could even be argued that rules are broken because she sets them.

Rowling uses the character of Umbridge to convey the idea that power for the sake of power is ineffective and destructive. Umbridge embodies the idea that having disordered desires leads one away from the very thing one seeks. The more Umbridge tries to assert her power over Hogwarts, the less effective she becomes, and the more the students rebel against her (for example, Fred and George’s fireworks and swamp). Umbridge is a character who believes that absolute power will bring her fulfillment, that exercising absolute power will keep order, yet the opposite is actually true. Fulfillment comes not from the desire and attainment of power; order comes not from absolute rule. Rather, fulfillment comes from the defense and upholding of a good, selfless cause; fulfillment comes from community and humility; and order comes from faith, trust, and community.

On the other hand, Harry’s style of leadership and his attainment of influence and power is starkly different from that of Umbridge. Harry does not have any sort of official authority, yet he still gains the respect of his fellow D.A. (Dumbledore’s Army) members and holds more favor with the Hogwarts teachers, such as McGonagall, who fervently defends Harry’s aspirations to become an Auror after Umbridge belittles him. Harry becomes the leader of the D.A., a secret student organization that meets to practice defensive spells and prepare themselves for an attack by Lord Voldemort. Harry’s leadership differences with Umbridge are apparent even before the D.A. forms. It is not Harry’s idea to start the D.A., and Harry is initially hesitant to take on the role of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to this covert student group. It is Hermione who says,

We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us how to use the spells…I’m talking about you, Harry…teaching us Defense Against the Dark Arts (326).

However, much like the hero’s journey paradigm, Harry agrees to it not for the sake of power, glory or authority. Rather, Harry agrees to teach defensive spells because of the necessity to spread awareness of the return of Voldemort, to be prepared and help others prepare for his return and attacks, and simply because he is the only one who has faced the Dark Arts and can help others learn to face it as well.

Harry’s reasons for becoming a leader are not out of a lust for power, like Umbridge’s. Harry does not choose to be a leader; he simply ends up in the position of leader because of his belief in fighting Voldemort, just like the Order of the Phoenix. Unlike Umbridge, the students (besides that sneak Marietta) do respect Harry and have faith in him; they do not rebel against him, or try to undermine his leadership. The students are in awe of what Harry has faced (in the Hog’s Head, Neville, Ron, Hermione, and Cho talk about the various dangers he overcame in previous years), and they are enthusiastic about D.A. meetings (when Harry arranges the second D.A. meeting, Dean Thomas responds, saying, “Sooner!” while “many people nodded in agreement” (396))*. What Harry has is true influence, and a kind of power that is not forced or abused, but rather, used for good and used selflessly. Harry is a true leader because he has earned the faith, trust, and respect of his community.

Harry and Umbridge represent stark opposites in terms of leadership and power, and it is through these characters that Rowling makes the distinction between true and false power. Through Umbridge and Harry, Rowling shows that power is best given to those who do not ask for it, to those who do not want it, as they are the least likely to abuse it and grow to desire and want more of it. Through Harry and Umbridge, Rowling shows that true leadership is earned, not forced. Much of what makes Umbridge a detestable character is her disordered desire for power and her continual usurping of authority, as opposed to Harry’s earning of the very authority Umbridge covets. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix not only introduces a darker turn in the series and more real, ever-present dangers. The novel also explores deeper themes of leadership and power. Umbridge’s disordered desire and abuse of her power sets a parallel example to Voldemort’s disordered desires, his desire to rule absolutely over the entire Wizarding World. Umbridge’s lust for power shows just how dangerously close she is to Voldemort’s mindset, and it also shows how Harry is different from Voldemort, despite his fears of becoming like him. In this novel, it is implied that any evil, any vice, stems from disordered desires. The way to achieve true fulfillment is through correctly ordered desires; in other words, through virtue, which in the series, Harry most certainly possesses.

It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.  Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. –Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

*All direct quotes taken from the Scholastic edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

New Book Discussion Series!

Hey everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but school, work, and life in general have just been crazy. This post is just an introduction to something I’m calling the Book Discussion Series, where I’ll be blogging about my favorite books, from classics, to Harry Potter, to popular YA novels. You can find all these blog posts under the tab labeled, “Books.” These posts will provide my own insights into the books, including social, philosophical, and cultural significance, and I’ll welcome any further insight and comments on the books, or on my blog posts. I’ll also welcome suggestions for further reading and blogging – so if there’s a book you love that you want to discuss, by all means, post it in the comments! I’m always happy to receive more reading recommendations. 🙂

My idea for this series came about last semester, when I took a course on children’s literature. We read some amazing stuff, including Tom Sawyer, Anne of Green Gables, The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course, what’s a children’s lit course without any Harry Potter? During that course, I’ve come to realize that true, classic children’s novels aren’t limited to the eyes of children; as adults revisiting these books, there’s much to glean from them as well. Although classic literature is known to have deeper meanings that enhance our understanding of human nature, I think that children’s novels have this same quality as well, although I won’t limit the series to solely children’s novels.

This past semester, I took a course called Harry Potter and the Epic Tradition/English Fantasy. Yes, it’s a real course, and yes, it’s just about the best course ever. I’ve loved Harry Potter since I first picked up the books when I was ten, and they continue to be my favorite books. This course has really gotten me to think about Harry Potter in a philosophical, a theological, and a social context, and these books are so rich in meaning and have so much to say on subjects like good and evil, free will versus predestination, love, death, the immortal soul, community, and the implications of war and division. Because of this, I’ll be starting the series off with none other than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone! We’ll progress through the entire series, and I’ll even have some tidbits about the Tales of Beedle the Bard, as well as characters I may have glossed over, such as Draco Malfoy, Luna Lovegood, and Neville Longbottom. It’s going to be (at least, I hope it will be) a fun, enlightening journey, that allows us to find further meaning in the books we love!

I hope you’re just as excited about the new series as I am. I can’t wait to hear your insights into Harry Potter!

–Ariadne