Just revisited: 'Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince'

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?). I'll put all the Harry Potter-related entries over here moving forward.

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[crying face emoji] We sure are getting toward the end of this Harry Potter re-read here; today’s entry is about Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince, the penultimate installment in our seven-part saga. My re-read of the Harry Potter series is prompted by the podcast Binge Mode, in which Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion are deep-diving into each book one by one. Matching the format of their shows, I’ve been choosing a theme in each blog for each book. For Stone it was joy, for Chamber it was duty, for Prisoner it was kinship, for Goblet it was division, for Order it was growing pains, and now for Prince it will be passing the torch.

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Unlike my relatively unpopular opinion about The Order of The Phoenix in my last blog — it was my favorite book when I ranked them before I started this revisitation of the series, while I think many Potter fans would rank that toward the bottom of the second half of the books (4-7) in their own lists — I widely agree with the common opinion that The Half-Blood Prince is one of the top entries in the saga.

In fact, Prince will move ahead of Order in my re-ranking when I finish the seventh book soon. This book is nearly perfect. J.K. Rowling’s craft is on display in so many different ways throughout this story, from the perfectly plotted piece-by-piece reveals of Tom Riddle’s past to the foreshadowing of Severus Snape’s ultimate role and true alliance in Albus Dumbledore’s death. She also does a remarkable job of slotting in happy mundane moments to counterbalance the often epic-feeling, overarching story arcs. Moments with Harry and Ginny, moments with Ron and Hermione, moments of friends just being friends — they all serve to remind the reader, and even the characters, that what they’re battling for is as relevant close to home as it is relevant in a much more worldwide sense.

“You'd think people had better things to gossip about," said Ginny as she sat on the common room floor, leaning against Harry’s legs and reading the Daily Prophet. "Three Dementor attacks in a week, and all Romilda Vane does is ask me if it’s true you’ve got a Hippogriff tattooed across your chest."

Ron and Hermione both roared with laughter. Harry ignored them.

What did you tell her?"

I told her it's a Hungarian Horntail," said Ginny, turning a page of the newspaper idly. "Much more macho."

A scene like this — unquestionably unimportant in the sequence of events that does ultimately define this part of the story — is simultaneously so important to our characters and our overall understanding of their world. They’re fighting to protect what they want most, which is to live relatively normal lives with relatively few deadly enemies hunting them, to say the least.

a great moment in the books, but really poorly executed in the movie.

a great moment in the books, but really poorly executed in the movie.

Rowling’s mastery shines from beginning to end. The first two chapters of Prince might be my favorite opening to any of the Potter books aside from Sorcerer’s Stone, which likely takes that honor for purely nostalgic reasons. In Prince, we get to luxuriate in two chapters of truly excellent narrative storytelling. In the first chapter, “The Other Minister,” we get to meet the Prime Minister of England, the man who oversees the Muggle government. We enjoy a delightful reveal of how the Prime Minister is introduced to the Minister of Magic and Rowling effectively squeezes in a “previously, on Game of Thrones”-esque recap into the Muggle Prime Minister’s first meeting with new Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour. The second chapter sees Narcissa Malfoy seeking out Snape’s help in his home at Spinner’s End, a place rife with meaningful allusions to Snape’s true character (listen to Binge Mode for a great detailed rundown on that sorta stuff). Bellatrix Lestrange performs the Unbreakable Vow between Snape and Narcissa, one of my favorite pieces of magic that Rowling has invented for her universe. We then follow Harry along in a mission to help Dumbledore convince Horace Slughorn to return to Hogwarts as Potions master.

To talk about the film for a little bit … the beginning of the movie adaptation of this book is a necessary mess, by comparison. Harry is seen chatting up a pretty bartender before Dumbledore carts him off to help with Slughorn. For as nice as some of this set-up is, the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry is much too harsh and just completely unlike what we’ve come to know in the books. This is due in part to Michael Gambon’s very rough portrayal of a very kind character, but it tosses the whole movie into a swirl that it never recovers from. The corners cut off the original story to make the movie fit into two hours and change don’t make any sense … if you watch this film without reading the book, the storyline will range from questionable to outright confusing and nonsensical.

Anyway, our theme here is passing the torch, and to get to this I must fast-forward ahead quite a bit. Harry is trusted more by Dumbledore in this story than in any previous installment, and this happens because Dumbledore knows that it’s now necessary to prepare Harry to be a leader and get things done without as much guidance. Dumbledore shows Harry memories of Tom Riddle’s childhood and asks him to retrieve a crucial memory from Slughorn, which Harry accomplishes with the help of the luck potion Felix Felicis. He teaches Harry about Voldemort’s horcruxes, and a passionate dialogue ensues here at the close of Chapter 23.

"But, sir," said Harry, making valiant efforts not to sound argumentative, "it all comes to the same thing, doesn't it? I've got to try and kill him, or --"

"Got to?" said Dumbledore. "Of course you've got to! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you've tried! We both know it! Imagine, please, just for a moment, that you had never heard that prophecy! How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!"

Harry watched Dumbledore striding up and down in front of him, and thought. He thought of his mother, his father, and Sinus. He thought of Cedric Diggory. He thought of all the terrible deeds he knew Lord Voldemort had done. A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat.

"I'd want him finished," said Harry quietly. "And I'd want to do it."

"Of course you would!" cried Dumbledore. "You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal. ... In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you . . . which makes it certain, really, that --"

"That one of us is going to end up killing the other," said Harry. "Yes."

But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, 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, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumble-dore 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.

You are much tougher than I am if you can get through this exchange without tears at least welling up a little bit. Dumbledore then takes Harry along with him to a faraway cave, where Voldemort has hidden one of these pieces of his soul, and the growth that we see from Harry at the close of Chapter 23 is put on full display. The events at the cave are straightforwardly horrific, with an army of dead bodies attempting to stop Harry and Dumbledore from stealing this horcrux. In retrospect, it’s good that Dumbledore chose this horcrux to chase right now … because it seems like it would have easily been the most difficult one for Harry, Ron and Hermione to acquire on their own merits in Deathly Hallows.

safe to say our guy harry probably fails to find the horcrux in this cave if he, ron and hermione have to go it alone in ‘deathly hallows.’

safe to say our guy harry probably fails to find the horcrux in this cave if he, ron and hermione have to go it alone in ‘deathly hallows.’

Harry’s actions in the cave show his ability and readiness to receive the torch. While he certainly isn’t able to do everything — not even close to everything — without Dumbledore’s help, his courage and ability are affirmations of his recent growth. This is a character we’ve now spent six years with, and it’s emotional to think of how far he’s progressed in ability, smarts, and emotional maturity in even the past two.

While Harry leaves Hogwarts with Dumbledore, he gives the remainder of his luck potion with the people he loves most — Ginny, Hermione and Ron. These three round up Neville and Luna to protect the castle with the help of members of the Order of the Phoenix from a Death Eater attack that was plotted by Draco Malfoy. Here we have an instance of torch-passing as well; while Ginny, Hermione and Ron aren’t necessarily leading the charge of the defense of Hogwarts, they are playing integral roles and showing their own readiness and willingness to become critical soldiers in this war. It’s a step up even from their battle at the Ministry of Magic a year ago, and indicative of their own impressive growth.

Dumbledore and Harry retrieve the horcrux and are directed to the top of the Astronomy Tower when they see the Dark Mark hovering above it. It’s here where Harry, frozen, watches Malfoy corner Dumbledore and Snape ultimately kill him in one of the most brutally difficult to read sequences in any of the books. I will never forget the first time I read this, sitting in my parents’ bed on a weekend they were out of town, and feeling an empty hole in my stomach at the idea of Dumbledore’s death. A “hole” is a finite yet appropriate way to describe what Dumbledore left behind in his death — a man who, to a fault, kept almost the entire plan to himself the whole time, who failed in multiple instances to help Harry understand the full context of what lay ahead, but who ultimately made the right choices in this book to prepare Harry and his friends for the forthcoming events. It feels like an impossible void to fill when it happens; how can you replace someone with that type of knowledge, the person who you turn to with the most difficult questions with near-total confidence that he will be able to answer them.

this wandlit memorial is a great addition by the movie, but does not excuse the decision to not feature a proper funeral for dumbledore in the adaptation.

this wandlit memorial is a great addition by the movie, but does not excuse the decision to not feature a proper funeral for dumbledore in the adaptation.

Rowling’s writing in the wake of Dumbledore’s death is some of her most impressive. From Chapter 29, “The Phoenix Lament,” comes this beautiful expression of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Lupin and Tonks’ immediate mourning of Dumbledore:

Somewhere out in the darkness, a phoenix was singing in a way Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt, as he had felt about phoenix song before, that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song that echoed across the grounds and through the castle windows.

How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning, but it felt like a long time later that the hospital door opened again and Professor McGonagall entered the ward.

This is beautiful magic, and the type of passage that is so easy to remember in the canon of the Potter books. I could quote endlessly from these final two chapters, but I’ll fast forward to the very end of the book, when Harry and his friends realize that the metaphorical torch has absolutely been passed.

(This is a long passage. Sorry.)

'I can't bear the idea that we might never come back.' she said softly. 'How can Hogwarts close?'

'Maybe it won't,' said Ron. 'We're not in any more danger here than we are at home, are we? Everywhere's the same now. I'd even say Hogwarts is safer, there are more wizards inside to defend the place. What d'you reckon, Harry?'

'I'm not coming back even if it does reopen,' said Harry.

Ron gaped at him, but Hermione said sadly, 'I knew you were going to say that. But then what will you do?’

'I'm going back to the Dursleys' once more, because Dumbledore wanted me to,' said Harry. 'But it'll be a short visit, and then I'll be gone for good.'

'But where will you go if you don't come back to school?'

'I thought I might go back to Godric's Hollow,' Harry muttered. He had had the idea in his head ever since the night of Dumbledore's death. 'For me, it started there, all of it. I've just got a feeling I need to go there. And I can visit my parents' graves, I'd like that.'

'And then what?' said Ron.

‘Then I've got to track down the rest of the Horcruxes, haven't I?' said Harry, his eyes upon Dumbledore's white tomb, reflected in the water on the other side of the lake. That's what he wanted me to do, that's why he told me all about them. If Dumbledore was right - and I'm sure he was -there are still four of them out there. I've got to find them and destroy them and then I've got to go after the seventh bit of Voldemort's soul, the bit that's still in his body, and I'm the one who's going to kill him. And if I meet Severus Snape along the way,' he added, 'so much trie better tor me, so much the worse for him.'

There was a long silence. The crowd had almost dispersed now, the stragglers giving the monumental figure of Grawp a wide berth as he cuddled Hagrid, whose howls of grief were still echoing across the water.

'We'll be there, Harry,' said Ron.

'What?'

At your aunt and uncle's house,' said Ron. 'And then we'll go with you, wherever you're going.'

'No -' said Harry quickly; he had not counted on this, he had meant them to understand that he was undertaking this most dangerous journey alone.

'You said to us once before,' said Hermione quietly, 'that there was time to turn back if we wanted to. We've had time, haven't we?'

'We're with you whatever happens,' said Ron. 'But, mate, you're going to have to come round my mum and dad's house before we do anything else, even Godric's Hollow.'

'Why?'

'Bill and Fleur's wedding, remember?'

Harry looked at him, startled; the idea that anything as normal as a wedding could still exist seemed incredible and yet wonderful.

'Yeah, we shouldn't miss that,' he said finally.

His hand closed automatically around the fake Horcrux, but 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 still one last golden day of peace left to enjoy with Ron and Hermione.

So many portions of this to cherish. Ron and Hermione’s immediate willingness to go wherever Harry goes, at his side. Hermione’s reminder that of course they’re going with him — that they effectively made that choice years ago. “We’re with you whatever happens.” The realization that attending a wedding, in a way, is one of the most important things they could do at this time — doing something normal in the face of the extraordinary. “One last golden day of peace.” This is my favorite finale to any of the books.

The film adaptation … as I mentioned before … makes some really bad choices in what to leave out. It also botches this simple, beautiful ending by having Harry say “I’ve never noticed how beautiful this place is” or something like that, for some reason. It does make some good choices, but if I’m grading the movies as book-to-film adaptations, this one might take the lowest score.

Prince may also have the highest re-readability score of any book in the Potter series. The plotting and the storytelling all move pretty quickly … much more quickly than in Order. And while you do certainly have some emotionally gutting sequences, it isn’t as draining as re-reading Hallows. That said, I’m so excited to wrap up this journey back through the original books, and perhaps move forward into some more stuff depending on what Binge Mode is doing.

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince is available on Amazon in e-book, hardcover, and paperback editions. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.