Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Picked up the new Harry Potter book at the library today. Read the first two chapters on the bus ride home. Felt like blogging it. Didn’t want to “spoil” anything for those who check the blog’s main page on a regular basis. Decided I would try something new. Any comments I make about the book will be posted not as “updates” to this post, but as “comments”, which are hidden from the main page. So if you click on “comments”, be prepared for spoilers galore. But I’ll break ’em down and line ’em up by chapter, so if you’re part-way through the book and want to see what I think of just the first half-dozen chapters or so, then it shouldn’t be too hard to avoid reading spoilers from the rest of the book.

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  • CHAPTER 1: This is way too eerie. The book begins with the British Prime Minister stewing over recent murders and other public acts of violence — dare we call them “terrorist”? — in “the middle of July”. “A grim mood has gripped this country,” says the PM’s opponent. And then the PM discovers that these incidents were caused by rogue elements within the magical community — a community that most Britons are utterly unaware of. Who could have foreseen that this book would came out only one week after the terrorist bombings in London and the revelation that those bombings were perpetrated by seemingly normal, and thus in a sense hidden, members of England’s Islamic community?

    Obviously, we can no more condemn Muslims as a whole for the actions of a relative few than we can condemn Dumbledore and Harry Potter for the actions of Voldemort and the Malfoys. But it is interesting all the same to note that part of the problem here is the inability of the wizard community to get its own house in order — just as people in the real world are increasingly calling upon “moderate Muslims” to take a stand against their more extreme co-religionists.

    I assume the reference to the “wretched man” who is “the president of a far-distant country”, in the second sentence of this book, is a thinly veiled reference to Dubya. At least, I cannot imagine that J.K. Rowling or her editors failed to realize that it would be read that way. Then again, there is reason to believe that the Harry Potter books actually take place during the 1990s, in which case Half-Blood Prince would seem to be beginning in July 1996 — when the American President was Bill Clinton (and the British PM was John Major). For whatever that’s worth.

    CHAPTER 2: I really like the way this chapter plays up the ambiguity around Snape and his motives. I do find myself wondering whose side he really is on; or, rather, even if I do believe he is really on Dumbledore’s side, I wonder how well he can go on convincing Voldemort and the other Death Eaters that he is Dumbledore’s enemy without ultimately convincing himself, too.

  • CHAPTER 3: Finally, Harry Potter himself. Virtually every book until now has begun on Privet Drive, with the single exception of Goblet of Fire, which began with a chapter set in the ancestral home of Lord Voldemort — a significant place to begin that particular story, since that was the story in which Voldemort made his return. And for the most part, Rowling has been very good about telling these stories entirely from Harry’s point of view, limiting our knowledge of what’s going on to whatever it is that Harry knows — so by putting off Harry’s re-introduction until the third chapter of this book, she is surely signalling that the scope of this story is about to get a heck of a lot wider.

    Anyway, I didn’t note much here, apart from a reference to the heightened security measures in the wizarding world — again, an interesting parallel to our own world, and the debate over what measures we should be taking.

    CHAPTER 4: Dumbledore visits the Dursleys in person — cute. He seems a much more serious chap now than he was in the past, but there are still hints of that winsome humour that was so endearing in the earlier books, and that the first two movies failed to capture. I like his references to his favorite jam, knitting patterns, and the hat full of spiders in particular. I also like his remark about the way Horace Slughorn would rather be friends with, and a mentor to, the famous and powerful than actually be famous and powerful: “he prefers the back seat — more room to spread out, you see.”

    CHAPTER 5: Harry, Ron, and Hermione together at the Weasleys’ house again — yay! But wow, 100 pages into the book and still the dialogue is so full of exposition, recapping events from the earlier books. I can’t say I didn’t need the recap myself, though. And I love the bit where Mrs Weasley — in the interests of security — has to reveal what she likes to be called when she’s “alone” with her husband.

  • CHAPTER 6: I like the bit where Ginny asks the Weasley twins if the “love potions” they sell at their joke shop work. “Certainly they work, for up to twenty-four hours at a time depending on the weight of the boy in question,” says Fred. “And the attractiveness of the girl,” says George.

    CHAPTER 7: I was ready to roll my eyes at the way Harry, hiding under his Invisibility Cloak, can remain utterly undetected even as he pulls off some rather agile acrobatics — and in rather cramped quarters, too — but then it turns out Draco did spot him after all! I was actually relieved to see that Harry’s nemesis got the better of him, there — it means I’ll have to take him more seriously.

    CHAPTER 8: I must admit I am a little shocked to see that Snape is finally getting his chance to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. I had long thought he might get around to teaching this course, but I had assumed such a move would be saved for the final book. At any rate, it’s interesting to see the characters give voice to all the questions that the fans must be asking themselves at this point — e.g., if the DADA position is jinxed and no teacher sticks with the school longer than one year, then what will become of Snape by the end of this book?

    CHAPTER 9: Yet another reference to love potions, this time in Potions class! Interesting. And I especially like the distinction that is made between actual “love” and mere “infatuation”, which is what the potions provide.

    It is also interesting to see how readily Harry accepts the presumably illicit magic in the textbook that once belonged to the “half-blood prince”. Ginny’s concern is well-founded, I think, especially if the “half-blood prince” turns out to be Voldemort, as I have always suspected it will. (There are two reasons why I wouldn’t bet actual money on the “half-blood prince” being Voldemort: one is that it’s too obvious — and Rowling has a way of pulling the rug out from under what seems obvious; and the other is John Granger’s assertion that the titles of all the previous books have referred to Christ-figures of one sort or another.)

    CHAPTER 10: I rather like the glimpse we get of Voldemort’s ancestors — and hey, lookee here, another reference to love potions, and to the distinction between true love and the effects of said potions. There’s something rather Dickensian, in an Oliver Twist kind of way, about the image of Voldemort’s mother being abandoned by her “husband” and giving birth in an orphanage, whereupon she died.

    I also like the humour in this line of Dumbledore’s, describing what happened after Voldemort’s mother, who had been a virtual slave to her father, left Grandpa: “The shock of her desertion may have contributed to his early death — or perhaps he had simply never learned to feed himself.”

    CHAPTER 11: I’ll be honest, I’m not much into sports, so the Quidditch stuff tends to make my eyes glaze over. Not much to say here.

  • CHAPTER 12: I’m a little concerned by the way Harry is testing the various hexes and jinxes that the “half-blood prince” jotted down in his potions textbook — first, because he’s testing them without even knowing what they do, and second, of course, because he had no idea whether the source of these hexes and jinxes is, shall we say, trustworthy. I totally share Hermione’s reservations here.

    I also like the brief description of how Ron casually tosses a first-year student out of a chair. In the books, Ron is now in his sixth and penultimate year at Hogwarts, but in the films, Ron has so far only made it to year three, so it is still very easy for us to remember what things are like for the younger students, even if Ron seems to have lost touch with his younger self.

    CHAPTER 13: Very interesting description of Dumbledore’s first meeting with Voldemort-to-be, when he was just a boy named Tom Riddle. The trick with scenes like this is always how much of the future one should hint at, without making it seem like the characters must have that future. In other words, when you relive a moment from the past, you want to be able to experience the freedom that you hope is there in any given moment — the freedom to choose right instead of wrong, for example, even if that is not the choice that the person makes in the end. This is something I think George Lucas might have done a little better than Rowling, by depicting the nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker not as a villain in the making or a prepubescent bad guy, but as a boy who shows signs of both light and dark but has not yet been molded into the adult he will become. Of course, there has never been any indication that Rowling will redeem Voldemort in the end, so I guess she’s freer to make him look like a bad boy from the beginning.

    This chapter also reminds me of the Kill Bill Vol. 2, and the way that film takes the fearsome, almost divinely objectivized villain of Vol. 1 and humanizes him by fleshing out his character and his back-story. Bill is still an unrepentant bad guy, but we can understand where he’s coming from a little better; and this knowledge makes us a little more compassionate even as it makes him a little more vulnerable and thus easier to kill.

    CHAPTER 14: Ah, so this time Ron and Hermione hate each other because they really like each other and won’t admit it. Yup, they are the Han Solo and Princess Leia of this storyline, all right. I also liked Harry’s trick with the pumpkin juice — it kind of echoes the recurring theme of the love potions, where the refusal to use a potion signifies a respect for the mind and freedom of the other person.

    CHAPTER 15: I’ve always liked Luna. And to name an Italian vampire “Sanguini” is kind of cute. I’ll have to go back and look up the entry for vampires — assuming there is one — in my copy of Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them.

  • trent

    Chapter One:

    If you read JKR’s notes on the book, though, this chapter has been brewing since the first book, and got cut, like, three times before finally making it into this book. The timing is certianly interesting, considering, but then again, you’ve never been a fan of coincidence. (I recall a discussion where I told you about two friends, who hadn’t seen each other for years and years, bumping into each other on a bridge in Nepal. You said that was interesting, but it would have been much more…interesting? I’m not sure of the word you used, but that was the gist…if they had both been on the bridge, but five minutes apart, and hadn’t met each other.)

    Chapter Nine:

    Love and Love potions are a common element in the book, as you’ll find out.

    Chapter 13

    While her characterization of Tom here might be a little presagious, I like what she does with Dumbledore, here and in the entire book, and how it compares to where Harry is at. I am really interested to see if Harry changes by the end of the next book. For someone who is the “good” guy, he is very prone to hating and loathing and a lot of “bad” emotions. Unlike is Star Wars (“Give in to your anger…join the Dark Side”, these emotions power Harry’s…well, goodness, if you will. Will he go through the long dark tea-time of the soul in the next book, and emerge on the other side a changed person, or will he just continue to be who he is….

    I finished the book last night. I really liked it. The Phoenix book didn’t really hit me like the Goblet book, but this one did. I’ll have to re-read them all to see where I’d order it, but I really liked this one. The ending is pretty tense.

  • Thanks for the comments, Trent. Onwards…

    CHAPTER 16: The war-on-terror subtext seems to rear its head again as Harry objects to the Ministry of Magic holding an apparently innocent individual in prison despite the lack of any evidence that said individual is associated with Voldemort. Then again, this needn’t be a reference to current events; the British have had to wrestle with terrorism and mistaken arrests for years. (Was not In the Name of the Father (1993) about the imprisonment of innocent people during the British government’s war against Irish terrorists?)

    Some interesting sexual imagery in Celestina Warbeck’s love song (“Oh, come and stir my cauldron, / And if you do it right / I’ll boil you up some hot, strong love / To keep you warm tonight“). And I rather like the pun of that line in the song that follows (“Oh, my poor heart, where has it gone? / It’s left me for a spell…“). More references to the “love” theme which appears to be central to this book.

    CHAPTER 17: Hmmm, I know the Fat Lady has her own overindulgent drinking in mind when she changes the password to “Abstinence”, but I cannot help wondering if that word is also somehow subtly tied in to all the “love” theme stuff that’s going on in this book.

    In other news, I was genuinely touched by the reference to Dumbledore’s watering eyes, when Harry professes his loyalty to the old man. The description of Slughorn’s tampered memories is yet another reminder that the “magic” in these books is basically just a stand-in for modern technology (the “fog” in the tampered memory resembling video static, perhaps). And the way Harry’s classmates are fascinated with what it feels like to Apparate reminds me of a Star Trek novel that once introduced a character by describing how much she enjoyed the feeling of being Transported. It’s interesting, actually, how rarely the Star Trek franchise has ever addressed what the experience of Transportation might be like (although 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection does hint at it).

    CHAPTER 18: And speaking of Apparitions, I’m sure a film version of the first lessons in that subject, with the students hopping and falling, would be rather amusing. As would a film version of Ron falling under the spell of Romilda’s love potion.

    I wish I had time to read more today — and I’m rather appalled that I didn’t read any of it yesterday — but work beckons!

  • CHAPTER 19: Hmmm, Luna’s Quidditch commentary includes her attempt to remember the name of a character who she mistakenly calls “Bibble — no, Buggins” — is this a nudge-nudge-wink-wink reference to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Bilbo Baggins, I wonder? Also, the scene in which Dobby says that he obeys Harry because he is free to disobey him is another nod to this book’s recurring theme of free will.

    CHAPTER 20: I like the way Harry is worried by the fact that Hogwarts was becoming to seem like home to Voldemort, just as it is now becoming to seem like home to Harry. I also like the way Dumbledore, on meeting the adult Voldemort, chooses to emphasize the things they have in common, even though he obviously doesn’t expect this emphasis to have any effect on the Dark Lord. Also, note the disparaging way Voldemort refers to Dumbledore’s belief that love is more powerful than magic, or at least Voldemort’s kind of magic.

    CHAPTER 21: The reference to Harry “rematerializing” during his Apparition lesson is a little too Star Trek for my tastes (is there any point at which the wizards and witches are dematerialized and converted into pure energy, say, in a transporter beam?), but then, it just reinforces what I have said before, about the magic in these books being a purely mechanical substitute for sci-fi technobabble. Speaking of which, I also love the Weasley brothers’ “spell-checking quill” gag.

    It is also amusing to discover that Draco Malfoy has been compelling Crabbe and Goyle to transform themselves into girls, using Polyjuice Potion. Has Rowling always intended something like this? Has it always been implicit in the names (which sound a little like “crabby” and “girl”)? Is she saying, in a sense, that these boys are Malfoy’s “bitches”?

  • CHAPTER 22: I am intrigued by the description of the effects of Felix Felicis potion. Whereas I once thought it brought the person who drank it good luck by making other people do things against what might have been their will, it turns out the potion actually controls — or, rather, motivates — the actions of the person who drank it, in such a way that the desired outcome comes about. It is a potion that increases the consumer’s intuitive powers, and thus works strictly internally. So when Harry takes the potion, he experiences a feeling of “infinite possibility”, and yet, the potion “sets a path” for him that he follows without hesitation. It is like having total freedom yet always choosing to do the “right” thing (bearing in mind that the “right” thing is defined here somewhat subjectively; i.e., the potion helps Harry to achieve his goals, which may or may not be morally valid).

    CHAPTER 23: I love these chapters where multiple strands from the previous books are pulled together and the entire saga’s back-story is filled in a little more. It’s weird to think that the diary in Chamber of Secrets seemed at the time like just a fun plot device; now, it turns out to be part of something much bigger, and I wonder how much of this Rowling had already figured out when she wrote that earlier book.

    It’s also interesting to see how Voldemort’s trophy collection parallels the way Slughorn treats his students and other contacts as though they were collectable.

    Also, following up the bit in the previous chapter about feeling free even as the path is set before you, I like the way this chapter ends with Harry realizing that there is a vast difference between “being dragged into the arena” and “walking into the arena with your head held high.”

  • CHAPTER 24: I get the impression a lot of characters are more vulnerable in this book than they have been before. Dumbledore has had an injured hand throughout this story, and now we see smug, pompous Draco Malfoy crying and sharing his grief with Moaning Myrtle, of all people.

    On a very different note, I love Ron’s reaction when Harry finally kisses Ginny — made me laugh out loud, it did.

    CHAPTER 25: I love the moment where Harry takes a dig at Professor Trelawney, and she figures it out in mid-reply.

    CHAPTER 26: Dumbledore swimming, in his robes? Curious image. And just one more reason why I can’t believe they ever cast Richard Harris in the role — he was a fine actor, all right, but nowhere near as fit or agile as the character in the books.

    The bit where Dumbledore makes Harry promise to force-feed him touches, once again, on this book’s recurring theme of freedom and the lack thereof. Dumbledore knows that he must drink the potion, but he knows that he will not have the will to keep doing so once he starts, so he makes Harry promise to force him to drink the potion; and at the same time, Harry must voluntarily keep the promise he made to Dumbledore to disobey him once Dumbledore tries to stop drinking the potion. It’s all rather reminiscent of how Snape made the Unbreakable Vow in Chapter 2, except Dumbledore and Harry are both relying on Harry’s free will, whereas Snape has given his up.

    And speaking of vulnerability, I can’t begin to imagine how shocking it must be for Harry to hear that Dumbledore is not afraid because he is with Harry — all along, it is Harry and his friends who have taken comfort in the knowledge that they were with Dumbledore! I like the way Rowling ends this chapter with that statement from Dumbledore, and just sort of lets it hang there, without telling us how Harry reacts; instead, she lets us react.

    CHAPTER 27: Yikes. So Snape has killed Dumbledore. And in a manner that is eerily similar to how Mace Windu died in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

    CHAPTER 28: Snape is the “half-blood prince”? Interesting — so Harry, who hates Snape, has been imitating Snape all along without realizing it. I wonder what this does to John Granger’s theory, that the titles of all these books allude to something Christ-figure-ish?

    Meanwhile, it is difficult to figure out, from the description of Snape’s actions and emotions following the death of Dumbledore, whether he really is on Voldemort’s side or whether he is merely compelled to act like one now that the Unbreakable Vow has compelled him to do perhaps the most unforgivable thing.

  • CHAPTER 29: Dumbledore’s portrait is up on the wall so soon? Interesting. I wonder how much of Dumbledore’s personality — and how much of his memory — will survive in this form, and how often we will see him in the next book. Plus, it reminds me of my friend Karl’s query regarding the place of art at Hogwarts — who makes these paintings? how are they made? and so on.

    CHAPTER 30: Yet another nod to the war on terror, methinks, as the book ends with Harry, Ron and Hermione discussing their plans to attend a wedding while they prepare to go hunt down Voldemort’s Horcruxes — I am reminded of how Rudy Giuliani attended a wedding (as a member of the wedding party, if I’m not mistaken) shortly after New York was attacked on September 11, to send the message that life still goes on.

    And so I have finished the book. Now I must go back and re-read John Granger’s predictions for Books 5, 6 and 7, and see just how close he came to the truth. I do remember he predicted the death of Dumbledore, though I think he believed it would happen in Book 5, not Book 6.

  • As you say, two recurring themes in the book are the difference between infatuation and love, and the difference between compulsion and free will. Could I suggest these themes are connected? I noticed that in both cases where a relationship based on infatuation breaks up, it happens because one party complains about the other party taking away their freedom.

    The first two-thirds of HP6 (HPatHBP) struck me as an uneasy mixture of story elements aimed at different age groups of readers. From the joke shop selling “U-No-Poo”, it’s a big leap to the singer on the “wireless” telling her man to “stir my cauldron”. The last third of the book is aimed solidly at the older readers and therefore works better for me. It will be interesting to see how HP7 handles this tension.

    And what are a “wireless” and a “gramophone” doing in the Wizarding world anyway? Don’t they have magical ways to store and reproduce sound? To North American readers it might not be obvious that in the UK, “wireless” and “gramophone” are not truly ancient terms but go back no more than a generation — indeed, many young people might still say “wireless” (meaning “radio”), and the term “gramophone” only fell out of use when that technology was replaced by CDs.

    There is a plot error in an early chapter, when Harry misses the coach and has to walk from Hogsmeade station to Hogwarts and “realizes for the first time how far it is”. Yet Harry has walked to and from Hogsmeade several times before — I’m assuming that students go on foot on those days they are allowed into Hogsmeade to spend their pocket money on jokes and butterbeer, but even if they get rides on those days, Harry has also walked that distance at least once via the tunnel that starts beneath the whomping willow.

    I also saw the reference to Bilbo Baggins immediately. It’s obviously not an accident by the author, particularly since the character’s real name is nothing like that.

    I see your point about Felix Felicis potion acting on the mind of the person who consumed it, but I don’t agree with you 100%. Notice that when Harry took the potion, Filch accidentally left the gate unlocked for Harry to walk through, and the girl Harry wants had an argument with her current boyfriend. Those events did not happen in Harry’s head; so the luck produced by the potion, though largely internal in the form of guidance and attitude, also has an external component.

    Under Chapter 26 you mention Snape giving his will up by taking the Unbreakable Vow. No, he still has his free will — it’s just that if he doesn’t keep his vow, he will die. The threat of death doesn’t take away our free will, it just presents us with a different set of choices.

    Under Chapter 27 & 28, note that Harry is shocked to hear Dumbledore “pleading” for the first time, and with Snape. My belief is that Snape, who has always been an ambiguous figure, is working with Dumbledore even at this point; that Dumbledore has been aware all along that Snape made the Vow. Dumbledore, who must be in his 90s, has lost the use of one hand and just consumed Voldemort’s magic potion which left him weak. He has already told Harry that Harry’s blood is more valuable than his own. I think Dumbledore knows his time is limited, and he has worked out with Snape that it should be Snape who kills him and not Draco. I see two benefits coming from this: Snape’s trustworthiness must now be unchallengeable among the Death Eaters, and Draco does not have the stain of the murder on his soul. Snape is now in a position to harm the Death Eaters from inside, and Draco may eventually join the right side.

    I did not believe at first that Dumbledore was really dead, just as when I first saw Episode 5 of Star Wars, I did not believe Darth Vader’s claim that he was Luke’s father — I saw it as just a trick to distract Luke during their fight. Maybe I don’t trust authors — or maybe I have issues about the deaths of people close to me. Anyway, I didn’t believe Dumbledore was really dead until the scene where we are told his painting is already on the wall in his old office.

    I’m concerned about Harry saying he won’t be returning to Hogwarts “next year” (i.e. Book 7). Surely the dear old place must figure somewhere in the story!