Friday, August 12, 2005

HARRY POTTER & THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE

I discovered Harry Potter about seven years ago, while perusing an eclectic children’s toy store in Harvard Square. Apparently because I am a shallow person, and judge a book by its cover, I was taken in immediately by the artwork on the sleeve of a book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. After reading the description on the inside flap, I immediately concluded that this would be a book that I would have loved as a younger child, and decided to get it for my youngest brother, who was about ten years old at the time. Little did I know at that time that Harry Potter was to become an insane intercontinental sensation, and a series that a couple years later, I would grow to love myself. My junior year in college, when I should have been studying for finals, I locked myself in my room and devoured the first three volumes of Harry Potter during my school’s “reading period”.

After all these years, cracking open the new Harry Potter has become like revisiting a group of old friends. The unforgettable characters and universal themes that remain as familiar as ever. It is with immense delight that I have watched the main characters grow from ages eleven to sixteen, and with the change in age, everything that comes with the territory, teen angst, growing pains, crushes and rebellion.

I have only read each volume once, and found myself with this installment more than ever trying to jog my memory over some of the more specific details of the previous books.

With this book, as with all her others, Rowling weaves together a multiple interconnecting storylines. Voldemort and his minions are terrorizing wizards and witches across the globe, and even the Muggles are feeling the aftershocks of their heinous crimes. Harry, Ron, and Hermione enjoy new responsibilities as upperclassmen, as captain of the Quidditch team, prefects, and elders at the school. Harry begins to take private lessons with Dumbledore where together, they explore Voldemort’s youth and past, as they search for answers that may aide them in his destruction. As Ron and Hermione struggle through their ever evolving love/hate relationship, Harry must confront the fact that after all these years, he’s beginning to notice some feelings he has for Ginny Weasley (Ron’s sister), and he doesn’t know how his “best mate” will react. Harry’s antagonism with student arch-nemesis Draco Malfoy is more powerful than ever as Harry suspects he is involved with the Dark Arts, and is aspiring to become a death eater himself.

Oh, and of course there’s the half blood prince, the former owner of a Potions textbook that Harry has stumbled upon, with enhancements for each potion scrawled on the margins. The textbook’s notes have made Harry the star pupil of his Potions class, no longer lead by Snape, but by new comer Professor Slugworth. Finally, after all these years, Severus Snape has been granted his ultimate wish, and now leads the class of Defense Against the Dark Arts, a position which no professor has been able to maintain for more than one year at Hogwarts in more years than anyone can remember. And so as we delve deeper into Potter’s world, these questions hang above our heads –is Snape actually on the dark side? Will Voldemort’s true weakness be revealed? Will Ron and Hermione snog? Will Harry ever snog anyone again? What the heck is that Draco boy up to, and why is Dumbledores’ right hand all black and knarled?

Interesting that the same year Lucas puts out the last chapter in his Star Wars saga dealing with Annakin Skywalker’s final transformation into Darth Vader, Rowling explores deeper than ever the metamorphosis of a young boy named Tom Riddle into the evil entity, Voldemort. What is it about these personal journeys from dark into light that fascinate us so much? Is it our desire to find a clear turning point or event? Is it easier to believe that some people are born twisted out of the wombs? Or better to think that abuse, misfortune, and an environment of depravity created evil dictators, serial killers, and intergalactic tyrants?

I myself, cannot help but be drawn into the mythology of Tom Riddle, a trouble youth who seemed to be destined for dark things. Some of the most enjoyable portions of the book for me, were the “memories” that Harry and Dumbledore watched together after tumbling through the Pensieve, learning more and more about Riddle/Voldemort with each flashback.

(I love the conceit that memories in the wizarding world may be extracted from the owner’s mind as silvery wisps of liquid kept in tiny glass bottles)

I liked that the peek into Tom Riddles’ history began before he was even born, and started with the origins of his family. I loved learning about Tom’s mother, Merope and how miserable her life was, the wretched house where she lived, how she was treated terribly by her father and brother, longing to run away with the handsome, dashing muggle who would pass by her window. Also intriguing were the first few glimpses that we got of Tom Riddle as a young boy. It couldn’t have been pure coincidence that Tom was just about to turn eleven when Dumbledore visited him at the Orphanage to explain to him what his mysterious gifts were about. Clearly Rowling meant to draw a parallel, between Tom and Harry, because it was the exact age Harry was when he first discovered the meaning behind his “strange powers.” (Also like Harry, Riddle was an orphan) Unlike Harry, who at worst used his powers for mild mischief, Tom Riddle seemed to have abused his power to sinister effect. The two young men had two similar backgrounds, but appear to be polar opposites. Rowling is obviously saying something, I’m just not sure what it is. Is she drawing a parallel between the two young men to show that what defines people’s characters are not their environments but their innate propensity for good or evil? Of course, Tom and Harry’s origins are not exactly alike, --Tom seemed to be conceived out of desperation, despair, and false pretenses (Riddle Sr. was under the effect’s of Merope’s love potion at the time), while Harry came out of two good hearted people who were in love. I’m guessing that there will be more revealed about the parallels between the two in the final chapter, but ultimately I’m not entirely sure where Rowling is going with this one.

I found the plot point involving Slughorn’s memories to be quite clever. I liked the fact that wizards can alter their own memories, like movies cleaned up for TV with bad dubbing. I also liked the scene where Harry takes the Felix Felicis and it leads him down to Hagrid’s hut, and he gets Slughorn drunk in order to extract the real memory of what he told Tom Riddle after class that fateful day. To me this was Rowling at her best, --she takes a plot point that she had introduced much earlier in the story, and just when you have forgotten about it, she brings it back, and leads you down a road of adventure that you least expect.

The last hundred or so pages of the book were completely riveting. The chapter entitled “The Cave” was amazing, Rowling’s depiction of the black still lake with the green glow far off in the distance was as visual as it was eerie. When Harry attempts the summoning charm for the Horcrux, and Rowling writes:

“With a noise like an explosion, something very large and pale erupted out of the dark water some twenty feet away; before Harry could see what it was, it had vanished again with a crashing splash, that made great, deep ripples on the mirrored surface.”

My heart froze with terror. I really thought Rowling stepped it up having a lake filled with tons of dead corpses. She created great tension in this whole scene, especially by having Dumbledore make Harry swear to force him to drink from the basin. It was torturous to read Dumbledore writhing with agony, and then Harry fighting off zombies? I felt as though I could picture exactly how the filming of this scene will look. This chapter make actually go down as one of my favorites in the Potter series.

At first, when I had heard talk that a main character was going to die, I thought that it was going to be one of the kids (either Ron or Hermione). But it became clear as the book went on, that good old Albus D was probably not going to make it to book 7. I must say I felt as lost as Harry must have when I read those last chapters. Who would council Harry when he was feeling conflicted? Who would help lead him out of confusion and darkness towards light. It was very Obi-Wan Kenobe for Albus to go the way he did, and others who I’ve discussed it with have agreed that this was an inescapable part of Harry’s Hero’s Journey. In order for Harry to complete his growth and become the Hero that he is meant to be, Dumbledore must leave him. Only then will he be able to defeat Voldemort. Just in the way that Obi Wan passing was a necessary step for Luke to defeat Darth Vader.

And what of Snape? As has been posted on many a website before mine, SNAPE KILLED DUMBLEDORE Now me, I’ve always resided on the camp that Snape was actually evil. From day one, I never really believed that he truly cared for Harry’s well being, even if he did purportedly save him from death once or twice. When this book opened up with the scene between Snape, Bellatrix and Narcissa, I found myself yelling out loud, “I knew it! I knew it!” Of course I was still shocked that he killed Dumbledore, but I also felt glad that his true colors were finally out in the open. Now I have discussed this with a number of folk, who believe that Snape is in fact playing the double agent, and that he killed Dumbledore, on Dumbledore’s request so that he could gain the ultimate trust from the dark lord. These folk tell me that if I go back and read the last chapters of the book, where he kills Dumbledore, and fights with Harry, it is quite apparent that he is not evil. Well, I went back and read them, and I’m still not convinced. Rowling writes about Snapes face being “suffused with hatred” and appearing “demented, inhuman”. I don’t really buy it that he’s secretly not a baddie. If you ask me he’s a double double agent. He is working for Voldemort, even though Dumbledore thought he was pretending to work for Voldemort, but really working for him. Besides he’s always hated Harry’s father, and it comes out in this book that he was the one who told Voldemort of the Potter’s whereabouts, though apparently he claims he didn’t know it would lead to their death. Dumbledore’s explanation that Snape felt horrible guilt for his actions never flew with me. People have argued that Dumbledore would never trust someone evil, but I think Dumbledore is simply too good hearted and trusting. After all he was the one who brought Tom Riddle to Hogwarts, and tried to coddle him into goodness. But it didn’t work. Dumbledore’s only flaw was that he didn’t know when it was time to give up on someone.

As for the reveal of Snapes’ identity as the Half Blood Prince, I was a bit disappointed. The idea of Harry finding an old text book with hidden secrets in it was fascinating. Whoever owned the book seemed to have a highly varied knowledge of magic, and a good sense of humor. The hexes written on the text’s margins helped Harry along the way, and his excellent performance in Potions classes benefited him and Ron and Hermione, in ways that resonated for the entirety of the book –most significantly the Felix Felicis potion, that assisted in saving all their lives in the end. {The Felix Felicis potion bit was brilliant, I particularly like the chapter where we the readers, as well as the characters in the book are led to believe that Ron took the potion, when in fact he didn’t! While by no means a novel philosophical concept for that Ron’s luck to be “all in his head”, I was definitely fooled as much as Hermione. }

But back to the Potions textbook. Why did I feel so let down when it was revealed that Severus Snape was the previous owner of the book? Logistical discrepancies aside, (doesn’t Harry realize the person must have been at Hogwarts at least fifty years before him, and this eliminated anyone from his parent’s class because they were not old enough??) I didn’t understand the full implications of Harry using Snapes’ notes to carry him through the semester. Harry believes that Snape is a dark servant of Lord Voldemort, but what does it mean if Snapes old tricks helped Harry? Is this a message that perhaps Snape isn’t really evil after all ? Am I to believe Snape purposefully slipped it to him to help Harry through the year? ( I don’t buy it)

I thought the final chapter, “The White Tomb” was touchingly written, and felt a lump rise to my throat as Rowling said goodbye to one of the most beloved characters in the series. But as with all her books, she masters at finding just the right balance of sadness and joy. There is no more clear or buoyant theme in any of her books than that of friendship. No matter what happens around them, tragedy, dark magic, school politics, thwarted crushes, opposing points of view, one thing always remains triumphant for Harry, Ron and Hermione, and that is their friendship. Even in the midst of death, floats the light of a new beginning: Bill and Fleur’s wedding.

“…In spite of everything, in spite of the dark and twisting path he saw stretching ahead for himself, in spite of the final meeting with Voldemort he knew must come, whether in a month, in a year, or in ten, he felt his heart lift at the thought that there was sill one last golden day of peace left to enjoy with Ron and Hermione.”

4 Comments:

Blogger Mike said...

I also enjoyed this book (although I have the same problem of remembering specific events from previous volumes). The moment when Dumbledore joins the portraits in his office in Hogwarts was particularly touching. I also appreciated the fact that rather than go through yet another Quidditch match, Rowling simply knocked Harry out.

Unfortunately, you are dead wrong about Snape. We've been waiting this whole time to hear what the ONE thing was that makes Dumbledore trust Snape. We haven't heard it yet, but I guarantee that when you hear it in the 7th book, you will see that Snape is indeed on Harry's side, even if he is no friend. I'm sure it has something to do with the note that Harry found where the Horcrux was supposed to be. Perhaps when Voldemort killed Lily Potter, something clicked in Snape that made him regret his associations. I don't know. All I know is that you can bet on Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape, AND Draco taking their shots at Voldemort in the next book. I predict that either Snape or Draco sacrifices themself in the fight, thus cementing the fact that just because someone appears evil does not necessarily make it so. I think Rowling wants to show that everyone is capable of great good. You'll see.

7:25 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

You bring forth an interesting point which is that either Snape or Draco may "turn" good in the last book. While I don't think that is beyond the pale, I do think that Snape has been dabbling in the dark arts, as he always has! Dumbledore has basically stated Snape's allegiance to Voldemort, and in the rest of the book, it seems most people who used to be on his side have STAYED on his side. I don't think Rowling is saying that everyone is capable of great good necessarily because I think she has clearly made a point of showing Tom Riddle as having always been evil, and never having done any good. This shows to me that there are absolutes in Rowlings world, and I think the double twist in the last one is going to be that Snape is a double double double agent.

But as they say, you say tomayter, I say tomahto.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Fine, Voldemort has cemented himself firmly on the side of evil, but Draco and Snape are not beyond redemption. This whole book was a nice red herring to throw off the little children who would hiss at Snape's name, but it's only a dramatic device to make his fight against Voldemort in the 7th book more "dramatic". I know for a fact because me and JK Rowling are like THIS (my fingers are intertwined right now).

My prediction: There will be a large-scale battle next book, complete with wizards, Death Eaters, dementors, werewolves, centaurs, giants (Grawp will bridge the gap), and Muggles. Neville will tear some shit up, Ron will act cowardly at first and then do something useful, Hermione will do something by the book, and Harry will jab Fawkes' feather into Voldemort's eye. Count on it.


By the way - it's "tomatquo" with a silent "qu."

7:42 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I am so looking forward to Neville kicking major ass in the seventh book too!

8:33 PM  

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