If Prisoner of Azkaban is about Harry’s father and Half-Blood Prince is about his mother, Order of the Phoenix is about family relationships.
Family Ties That Bind, Choke, and Divide
We have many families in Harry Potter’s world, but only four of the ones we meet are intact nuclear families—the Dursleys, the Weasleys, the Grangers, and the Malfoys. The others are splintered by dysfunction, death, and division.
In OotP several families are already familiar to us and we learn more about them, while others are introduced for the first time. Some are conventional families by blood, while others are unconventional, formed of individuals bonded together by love, propinquity, and shared goals. Families of either kind can provide loving, beneficial, and health-giving environments or offer bitter estrangements and permanent, damaging wounds. In both types of families given prominence throughout the series we encounter only one good father figure and three good mother figures.
Familial connection and disconnection are key themes in OotP, with family members shown to be loving, happy, involved, cruel, intolerant, disaffected, emotionally injured, and sometimes combinations of these traits. Several families in the book suffer the loss of a parent or parental figure: Arthur Weasley’s near fatal injury; Dumbledore’s emotional and physical absence; Sirius Black’s death; Hagrid’s absence while on assignment; Frank and Alice Longbottom’s insanity, and Lucius Malfoy’s imprisonment.
In J.K. Rowling’s seven-book saga, and in this book in particular, characters are framed in families and tribes, with many dynamics at play. Their dramas raise many questions. What is the family structure? How does a family support or deny its members, and vice versa? How do parental expectations burden a child and must the child live up to them to be accepted? How does abuse impact children’s lives into adulthood? Is individuality encouraged, or at least allowed? How far does tolerance go? How are families split or mended? Is someone or something outside or within the family usurping it? Should a child become the family caretaker? What is the breaking point of family relationship, and when do family members become “other”? Can deep wounds and rifts heal? What does “brethren” really mean? Am I my brother’s keeper?
There are no easy answers, because Rowling gives us no family that is ideal or without imperfection, one lighting the way by sterling example. Family relationships, blood or chosen, suffer tension, pain, or alienating discord. We follow a family’s progress and growth, but the end result disappoints our hopes for them. We want something better, all the messiness tied up in a hopeful bow.
Rowling refuses pretty ribbons. We see ourselves in her families filled with selfish, noble, immature, wounded, aspiring, sacrificial, unkind, nutty, fallible, relatable people. Restoration and resolution, when it occurs (and often it doesn’t), is hopeful but flawed—sometimes satisfying and sometimes incomplete. Such honesty about family dynamics is one of the strongest aspects of the Harry Potter books. Rowling portrays families as they are, rather than how we’d like them to be. And this reality rings true.
Over the course of three posts, we’ll examine the many family units in OotP. However, before we can discuss individual wizarding families, we must look at the wider picture—the umbrella of the magical world itself. So we’ll begin by examining that umbrella, and how the racial families under it relate to it and to each other. All page references are from the Scholastic editions.