*This post will contain Harry Potter spoilers. If you have not read Harry Potter and do not want to be spoiled, please refrain from reading on.*
This week we will continue our examination of the beloved Harry Potter series with a peek into the wonder of the sixth book. For a look at my commentary on the previous installments, please see here, here, and here.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the calm before the storm. It’s tone is similar to that of Prisoner of Azkaban. There aren’t any upfront and personal confrontations with Voldemort, though he is still omnipresent and in this case the danger is more real than ever as people are dying and going missing left and right.
The novel opens with the British Prime Minister meeting with Fudge and then Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic. (Not a huge improvement, but less incompetent than Fudge. Also it was NO SURPRISE that Fudge was sacked.) I always thought the use of the “other minister” was an excellent tool to catch the readers up on what we’ve missed that summer without being too explicit about it. It also demonstrates the severity and seriousness of the situation. Things are so bad the muggles need to be informed. Many awful things have happened and continue to do so.
So the tone is grim as the novel begins, but the danger is not very immediate. Harry and his friends are safe at Hogwarts with Dumbledore. And Dumbledore is the axis upon which the Half-Blood Prince spins. The book is predominantly Voldemort history lessons, suspicion about Snape and Malfoy, and teenagers in the throes of young love and lust. That final aspect relieves some of the gravitas of the book.
In this installment, we learn a great deal about Tom Marvolo Riddle, information that is crucial to understanding his villainy and understanding what Harry’s up against. First off, there is Riddle’s power and arrogance. Even at a young age, he was already using his powers, even before he really understood them, to frighten, punish, and control. He has always been something of a sadist, born cruel and with a belief in his own superiority. He is quick to believe that he is a wizard, that he’s “special.” He hates the name Tom and anything that connects him to the ordinary. He does not desire companions or friendship. He is friendless, secretive, and desirous of power. There is no redemption for Voldemort. He’s always been bad.
Then there is Merope Gaunt and young Tom’s belief she must have been a muggle since she died. Her abandonment and inability to stay alive for her son intensifies his distaste for muggles and muggleborns (since his father’s abhorrence of his mother caused her to lose the will to live) and also instills in him a fear of death as the ultimate weakness. He hates his mother for her “shameful human weakness of death.”
It is through Slughorn’s memory about horcruxes that we learn how Voldemort marries his desire for trophies and his fear of death. He wants to conquer death, to surpass it. Nothing less than immortality will do for him. He has no fear of killing, that much is made clear when he murders his father and grandparents and pins the killings on his Uncle Morfin. From there, it is no such big thing for him to tear his soul into pieces and place them in physical objects. I wonder if Rowling knew from the beginning about the horcruxes. Certainly, it seems she knew that Voldemort was less than human, what with his snake-like appearance and general lack of human feeling. But the horcrux is a fascinating and terrifying device.
Dumbledore is excellent, as always. He enters the novel to escort Harry from Privet Drive to the Burrow and also have Harry accompany him on a brief errand (to try to persuade Horace Slughorn to return to his post at Hogwarts). His interaction with the dumbfounded Dursleys is a laugh. The thing about Dumbledore is he oozes mystery, charm, confidence, and power. He advises Harry to be on his guard as they depart but also adds, “I don’t think you need to worry about being attacked tonight…You are with me.” What a badass. Dumbledore is everything a wizard ought to be. In the very end, when they are in the cave, watching Dumbledore work out Voldemort’s riddles and traps is enchanting. He is mysterious, wise, powerful, and seemingly all-knowing. It’s very Gandalf-esque, that scene. It is also a very disturbing scene as Dumbledore drinks the potion, weakens himself, and begs Harry to kill him. It shows his confidence in Harry. As he echoes his own words at the beginning of the book in the reverse, “I am not worried, Harry. I am with you.”
Dumbledore’s faith in Harry comes from Harry’s own purity of heart. It’s said again and again that Harry’s ability to love is his greatest weapon. It stopped him from being seduced by the dark arts or becoming infatuated with power. After the chapter where Dumbledore tries to impress upon him the difference between what he has to do and what he must do in his heart, we get a snippet of Harry’s inner monologue: “It was the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew — and so do I , thought Harry with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents — that there was all the difference in the world.” Harry doesn’t just have to kill Voldemort because of some prophecy; he has to do it because it’s the right thing to do. Because he won’t be able to rest knowing he’s out there. Because he’s taken too much from him. Harry knows he’s the one who has to stop it.
Harry and Dumbledore’s relationship is complex and beautiful. He is Harry’s ultimate protector. Harry trusts him implicitly, confides in him. He refuses to tell the ministry anything. Scrimgeour correctly identifies him as “Dumbledore’s man through and through.” After his previous mistakes in the fifth book, Dumbledore invites Harry into his inner world, asking his opinion and teaching him what he knows about Voldemort, ultimately preparing him for his destiny as the “chosen one.” Their relationship, while always closer than headmaster and pupil from the beginning, changes. Harry is more candid with Dumbledore than ever before, their conversations more open about what it is Harry has to do and what he has to learn.
Yet, Dumbledore gives Harry information in a very selective manner, partially for his protection, partially as part of his very delicate plans for destroying Voldemort, which we’ll get into in the next book. Harry deeply mistrusts Snape. When he finds out Severus is the one that told Voldemort about the prophecy, he rages at Dumbledore (a rage he thinks is justified after Snape kills the headmaster). But while giving Harry his assurance that he trusts Snape, he hesitates for just a moment, as if he’s trying to decide whether or not to tell Harry something. Likely in that moment, he thought of Lily Evans. The truth of the matter is that Dumbledore trusts Snape because he believes in the power of love. Only love would cause Snape to switch sides so completely and betray Voldemort.
Snape is a fascinating character for so many reasons, and I won’t get into all of them now, but his the degree to which he deceives everyone and his control over his emotions and mind are extraordinary. In the second chapter of the book, we see Narcissa Malfoy’s desperate plea for Snape to protect Draco. This is interesting for a number of reasons. The depth of his ability to deceive the Death Eaters and Voldemort is amazing. He essentially makes the Unbreakable Vow on Dumbledore’s orders. He knows in the end he’ll have to kill Dumbledore. And the vow is effective. It makes him look loyal to Voldemort.
The first time I read this through, I was so certain Snape was a betrayer. I was with Harry. I couldn’t think of anything Snape could have possibly told Dumbledore that could have made him believe he was reformed. I even had a “Snape will betray” sticker courtesy of Borders Books on my wall. But Snape’s anguish is intense in this book and totally unknown to a first time reader. You just see him rushing to help Draco, when in all actuality he’s trying to prevent Draco from injuring himself further. Draco’s not capable of killing Dumbledore. In fact, Draco is in a very bad position; he grows more and more desperate and sallow looking as the year progresses. The scene in which he and Harry duel, Draco’s fear and despair are palpable. In the end, even Harry pities him. “He despised Malfoy still for his infatuation with the Dark Arts, but now the tiniest drop of pity mingled with his dislike. Where, Harry wondered, was Malfoy now, and what was Voldemort making him do under threat of killing him and his parents?” Meanwhile, Snape’s running both sides of the field trying to figure out what Draco’s up to. But from the outside, from Harry’s perspective, it looks very bad.
And of course there’s the argument Hagrid accidentally overhears between Snape and Dumbledore.”I hear Snape sayin’ Dumbledore took too much for granted an’ maybe he — Snape — didn’ wan’ ter do it anymore…” Harry thinks it’s an example of Snape’s treachery, but really he’s saying he doesn’t want to do this anymore. He doesn’t want to kill Dumbledore. He doesn’t want to lead Harry to the fate he must eventually go to and do all these things Dumbledore expects of him.
That final scene is brilliant. Dumbledore says, “Severus…please.” Harry thinks he’s begging for mercy, to be spared, but rather he is begging for death, for Snape to uphold his end of the bargain and do what must be done to set himself up as Voldemort’s most trusted adviser.
It is a brilliant dichotomy that Harry and Ron admire the Half-Blood Prince but hate Snape so much. Unbeknownst to Harry, Snape is the Half-Blood Prince, who’s clever help has turned him into such a model potions student. It sets up the idea that Snape is more than just a villain; he’s also a person, one obsessed with the Dark Arts, but a person still and a clever one at that. Harry comes to quite like the Prince, respect him even. At the very end, after everything Snape’s done, his declaration of being the Half-Blood Prince is as much a blow to Harry as a jinx.
Dumbledore’s death isn’t quite as tragic, given what we learn, compared to that of Sirius. He was going to die anyway. The curse contained in his hand was going to eat away at him. The worst part is how awful it is for Harry: another guardian, another parental figure gone. The aftermath of Dumbledore’s death is the most heartbreaking and had me sobbing on and off through the last three chapters. Harry’s anguish, his desire to catch Snape, his racing to catch him, to somehow reverse it, his utter despair and how much he cares is just incredibly sad. Snape’s anger in that scene at being called a coward is so great and somewhat justified considering everything he’s done and will do are some of the bravest things anyone in the book has to do. He has to deceive everyone, on Dumbledore’s orders, to keep them all safe.
But Snape’s still a real dick about it. That’s the thing about Snape. He’s a hero, but he’s also awful. He gives Harry detention and makes him sort through boxes where he’ll constantly be confronted by the names of his dead father and godfather. He has just killed Dumbledore and knows what Harry must be thinking, but still takes that moment to talk shit about Harry’s dad. Is he just trying to sell the whole Death Eater thing or is he really that much of a jerk? It’s hard to say. But still. In that moment, what Snape must have felt as he had to kill a man he respected, as he witnessed Harry’s rage, heard him call him a coward is massive in its intensity.
The book has a lot of turmoil, mostly based around Dumbledore, Snape, and Voldemort, but there is also some more light-hearted anxieties, namely, those to do with matters of the heart. The tension between Ron and Hermione and Harry’s realization of his feelings for Ginny break up some of the heavier moments of the book.
First off, Ron and Hermione are SO DUMB. It’s very obvious they are both interested in each other, even before they have that moment where Hermione confesses she was going to invite him to Slughorn’s party. Even Harry, one of the most clueless humans, picks up on it there. But Ron is very self-conscious. They both are so unsure. Ron gets annoyed when Harry compliments Hermione (see the “best in our year” comment to Slughorn). He also gets very annoyed when Hermione starts listing off the reasons why Harry’s “never been more fanciable.” Because she’s his FRIEND RON. HIS FRIEND. He’s a very insecure guy and always very insecure about Harry. Nevertheless, Ron acts like a right prat. You can’t hold a kiss against someone ESPECIALLY if it happened years ago. He gets so mad about the fact Krum probably kissed Hermione. He and Lavender Brown are so ill-suited and she is the worst. If making out is all you have in common, I suggest you reassess your relationship.
I always thought it was kind of funny that heartbroken Hermione set a bunch of birds to attack Ron AND that she went to Slughorn’s Christmas party with slimy Cormac McLaggen to annoy him. Even Harry thinks about the terrifying depths to which women might go for revenge. The fact that Ron and Hermione don’t talk until Ron gets LITERALLY POISONED is crazy. Nothing like a good poisoning to make everyone friends again. They are both ridiculous and need to use their words. Communication has never been a strong point between Ron and Hermione, but I don’t care. I love it anyway.
The fifth chapter of the book allows for Ginny to become even more developed as a character. She’s funny, sarcastic, talented, witty. Ginny wins the audience over; it’s not surprising when Harry starts falling for her. Our first hint of it is the odd twinge Harry feels when Ginny goes and sits with her boyfriend Dean Thomas on the Hogwarts Express. We get another clue when Harry describes the smelling “something flowery from the Burrow” in Slughorn’s love potion. This comes up many times afterward.
I laugh every time at the scene where Harry and Ron see Ginny and Dean kissing, namely, because of Harry’s reaction as he tries his utmost to convince himself his feelings of distate are just because she’s Ron’s sister, but “unbidden into his mind came an image of that same deserted corridor with himself kissing Ginny instead…the monster in his chest purred…but then he saw Ron ripping open the tapestry and drawing his wand, shouting things like ‘betrayal of trust’ and ‘supposed to be my friend.'”
The scene in which Harry takes Felix Felicis is one of my favorites, not only because it is comical, but also because his use of the lucky potion breaks up not only Ron and Lavender, but also Dean and Ginny, leaving room wide open for Harry and Ginny to get together. Though it takes him FOREVER to justify it to himself in a beautiful and amusing way. Exhibit A:
She’s Ron’s sister.
But she’s ditched Dean!
She’s still Ron’s sister.
I’m his best mate!
That’ll make it worse.
If I talked to him first–
He’d hit you.
What if I don’t care?
He’s your best mate!
(Also see the amazing Harry and the Potters song “Save Ginny Weasley from Dean Thomas.” Bless them.)
Their eventual kiss after Gryffindor wins the Quidditch Cup, against all odds, is particularly intense. I love how Rowling describes Ginny as “running toward with [with] a hard, blazing look in her face as she threw her arms around him.” And then he just kisses her and it’s GREAT.
Of course, he has to break it off because Voldemort wants to kill him, but their love is PURE AND TRUE AND GREAT. #TEAMHARRYANDGINNYFOREVER
The novel ends with Ron and Hermione’s resolve to accompany Harry on his quest to find and destroy all the horcuxes, which sets up the seventh and final installment nicely. Yeah… Get yourself nice and prepared for that and don’t forget the tissues, friend.
Until next time!