Warning: Unless you totally don’t care about spoilers, read Book Six before you read what follows.
Harry Potter fans will all remember the moment in Book Four when Harry touches the Goblet of Fire and is teleported into the graveyard where Voldemort, finally ready to take physical form again, has laid a trap for him. It’s when the bottom falls out of Harry’s, and our, world—what had once been a fairly genteel story about kids at a wizarding school becomes something far darker. Harry’s friend Cedric dies. The broader conflict of this seven-book series comes to the fore, with the familiar outlines of high-fantasy plotline: flawed good stands off against ultimate evil, with even the safe havens held most dear at risk.
All of this raised the bar tremendously for J.K. Rowling. And now, a couple more books in, it’s clear that despite the great things now afoot in her world, she insists on maintaining the formula of all the earlier books. Book Six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, like its predecessors, still spends most of its time concerned with the ins and outs of the academic year at Hogwarts, and on the relationships and growing pains of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The plot, like that of its predecessors, is an intricately crafted magical mystery. The tone does not fundamentally change—at no point, despite the high stakes, does it ever approach anything that would merit the term “epic.”
Thank goodness for all of that! Rowling shows restraint in keeping her story tied to the everyday experiences of Harry and is friends (at least until the final chapters, when, as with Books Four and Five, the rollercoaster kicks in). And either she got a grip on her overwriting or her editor started cracking a whip—Book Six is considerably shorter than Four or Five, though still closer to Four than Three. (It may appear longer because it went back to the larger font size of the earlier volumes. But Book Five is now the clear outlier in terms of length, as well as the only book so far that is markedly longer than it should have been.)
Halfway through I realized that: 1) it was still unclear who the antagonist was, 2) the conflict that held the most interest was whether Ron and Hermione were going to get together, and 3) that that was just fine with me. By that point, too, not only has Harry not engaged in any particularly heroic action, but he’s busy cheating in Potions using the marginalia in his used textbook, once the property of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. Hermione has also cheated in order to get Ron on the Quidditch team. And Ron spends most of the book acting like a grade-A asshole. They are all self-absorbed, and tend to make selfish decisions. In other words, they’re behaving just like the teenagers they are. And, befitting a story about teenagers, questions of Who’s Going Out With Who dominate the middle section of the plot. Why wasn’t this incredibly annoying? Simple: we know these characters, we have watched them grows up, and time and again Rowling nails gets the psychology of their situation exactly right.
Though I’m overall very happy that Book Six keeps its attention on the characters—that there are no big battles ‘till the very end, and that Voldemort doesn’t even show his face—one downside is that the buildup to the climax, in the form of Harry being suspicious of Malfoy and Snape, gets old after a while. There are a handful many scenes in the form of:
HARRY: But listen, guys! Draco is up to something!
RON a/o HERMIONE: But Harry, we think you’re making too much of it.
And the other letdown is that, at the end of the day, all of Harry’s suspicions turn out to be entirely justified, just like they always are. He was right about Draco being up to something. He was right that Dumbledore shouldn’t have trusted Snape. What’s different is that this time we as readers are held (successfully, I think) at a point of uncertainty about whether Harry is right or not; that counts for something, though I found myself wishing he was wrong and thus a little disappointed when he wasn’t.
I’m still not entirely sure what to think about all the Pensieve Chapters, in which Dumbledore takes Harry through a stroll through the memories of people who encountered Voldemort early in his life. Ultimately they add up to a whole lot of exposition—an info dump about Voldemort’s background that Rowling tries to make less cumbersome by spreading it throughout the book, though it’s still basically an info dump. Viewed purely in the context of this book, those chapters are unforgivable—all they’re doing is providing background on a character who doesn’t even show up. But viewed in the context of the whole series, and especially Book Seven, I have a feeling they’ll be essential. The Pensieve Chapters also give us lots of Dumbledore—more dialogue with him, I suspect, than the rest of the books combined. And it’s good stuff, too, not just Dumbledore being the enigmatic Headmaster, but one who’s starting to confide in Harry as an equal, preparing him to go it alone because, as he surely must suspect and possibly even expect, his own days are numbered.
The War on Terror analogies come on strong in Book Six. (A while back I noted a “memo to John Ashcroft” section of Book Four.) The struggle against Voldemort and his Death Eaters is a war only in the same imprecise sense that the WoT is. Their actions are, so far, exactly those of terrorists—not blatant attempts to conquer, but attempts to undermine and sow fear by striking at anyone, anywhere. And, as it is in the real world, the government (in this case the Ministry) is making plenty of mistakes in dealing with the situation. Stan Shunpike, imprisoned in Azkaban just so that the Ministry can be seen to be Doing Something, is a transparent reference to Guantanamo. But here, too, Rowling’s focus on the mundane redeems what might have been a hamhanded bit of political finger-waving—her real concern is how the kids and parents alike must contend with the fear of a constant and ambiguous threat, and that part, from Mrs. Weasley’s constant worries to the tense conversations at Hogwarts about whose parents are pulling their kids out, Rowling gets just right.
The rollercoaster starts the minute Harry nearly kills Draco with the Sectumsempra spell he learned from the Half-Blood Prince. He’s unwilling to face the dark implications of the act, and before he has time to truly face them, he learns of Snape’s role in exposing his parents (a little too conveniently, I thought), and before he can contend with that Dumbledore is whisking him off to the cave. Suddenly, a plot which has been leisurely ambling along kicks into high gear, and before we can blink, Dumbledore is dead.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I strongly approve of the de-mystification of Voldemort’s background. Again, this is not epic fantasy—it is fitting, even necessary, that we see Voldemort’s history and his relationship to Hogwarts. He is no longer E-vil, but someone for whom an inexhausible desire for knowledge, coupled with a basic inability to love, yields a personality prone to the dismantling of his own soul. The Horcruxes will make for some convenient plot milestones in Book Seven, but they’re also an outgrowth of Voldemort’s magpie-tendencies and an ironic symbol of the self-destruction he’s engaged in while in pursuit of immortality. Going into the final book, he’s still the Big Bad, but now he’s one that’s three-dimensional.
And the Cave, oh, the Cave. Great chapter. Dumbledore’s last hurrah—and what fun it is to see him in action, too. We see the subtlety of a powerful magician, and always his understated humor, even as he moves toward his death. Does he know it? That’s not entirely clear, though I hope we’ll hear a little more from him (maybe through his painting?) in the next book.
We have a bit of Tolkienesque recovery going on in the form of the Inferi. They are, basically, zombies, as common a fantasy bugaboo as you can find. But because they haven’t been seen before in Harry’s world, and because of the fear and awe the kids express when contemplating them, and of course because of the way they’re perfectly described in the scene itself, they become terrifying and new, as if Rowling was the first one to invent the concept.
And, of course, there’s Snape. He has always been one of my favorite characters in the books, and always one I felt got a bum rap. I always hoped that beneath his gruff demeanor and his obvious dislike of Harry was a guy who would do the right thing when the time came. And room was left for this, right up until the bitter end. In the excellent scene in chapter two, Snape wins the trust of the Death Eaters by making them think he knows from Voldemort what Draco’s mission is—but, if you look closely, at no point is he forced to demonstrate this knowledge. At the time I assumed he was still Dumbledore’s mole. And, I say with more self-congratulation than is probably warranted, I had him pegged as the Half-Blood Prince fairly early on, and loved the fact that Harry’s ace-in-the-hole was knowledge gleaned from the one professor he despised.
The upshot is that when Dumbledore was slumped there at the edge of the Astronomy Tower, and it was clear that Draco was not going to be able to summon the will to kill him, and when Snape arrived on the scene, I really really thought he was going to turn against the Death Eaters and save the day. And when he didn’t, I felt, not the “I knew it!” rage that Harry must have felt, but the deep-down sense of betrayal and disappointment that must have been going through Dumbledore’s head before he died. And the power with which that moment punched me in the gut is more than enough reason to forgive Rowling for taking things a different direction than I might have liked.
But I can’t resist a little bit of speculation on the future redemption of Snape. As I noted, it’s still entirely possible that he was lying to Bellatrix in chapter two about Voldemort confiding in him about Draco’s mission. But it quickly became evident that the only way for him to gain their trust in him was to take the Unbreakable Vow to assist Draco in his mission. And that vow is, y’know, unbreakable—so perhaps, in that moment when he nailed Dumbledore with an Avada Kedavra, he was still doing what the vow compelled him to do. And, again—and it would be so cool if this is how it plays out in Book Seven—maybe Dumbledore knew all of this was coming, and realized that the only way to get Snape in position to strike a crucial blow against Voldemort and redeem himself was if he himself was allowed to die in this manner.
Yeah, that would rock. Ms. Rowling, feel free to steal this idea. I won’t tell. (and see the update, below)
Anyway, even though it shocked me while I was in the moment, in retrospect, Dumbledore had to die in this book. This way we get the post-Dumbledore Harry—grown-up, innocence lost—for a whole book. It became clear in the past couple of books that Dumbledore really was incredibly powerful, to the point where a showdown with Voldemort didn’t have quite the necessary sense of tension while he was still around. But while that he would die was inevitable, the way Rowling manages to wring the last drop of tragedy out of the moment isn’t by making it more violent or by throwing in a few extra deaths, but by making it for nothing—Harry and Dumbledore didn’t even get the Horacrux they set out to find. There’s no upside, no “well, if they hadn’t gone, X or Y wouldn’t have been possible.” The upshot of the whole book is that the good guys got creamed, pure and simple.
All this sets us up for Book Seven, which looks like it will be very different from the others. Harry & Co. may not even return to school—if Hogwarts opens at all. The familiar formula of Books 1-6 will likely be abandoned for something else, and, while I praise Book Six for sticking to that formula, I think the time is now right to break the mold. Let’s see our heroes get out into the world. Harry’s stance at the very end—carefully cultivated all through the book by Dumbledore—is one of determination, not despair. His readiness to get out there, find the Horacruxes, and bring Voldemort down is inspiring. Get out there and kick ass, Harry. Two years is going to be awfully long to wait.
UPDATE: As is so often the case, getting a chance to talk about the book with others has helped clarify things, and now I wish I hadn’t softpedaled the whole notion that there’s something more than meets the eye with Snape going on. Thinking about it more, it seems self-evident that Dumbledore knew what Snape would do. My friend Julia also pointed out that in making sure things went this way, Dumbledore was protecting Draco. This is true both of his soul—making sure that Draco had a chance to kill him but realized he couldn’t—and his body—ensuring that Draco’s mission wasn’t a failure so that Voldemort wouldn’t just kill him outright.
So yeah, my estimation of Dumbledore, and the book as a whole, has been kicked up a notch or two since first writing about it. (see also James’ point in the comments.)
UPDATE2: Don’t miss the comment by Anonymous, who theorizes that Dumbledore ain’t really dead, and has some very interesting textual tidbits to back it up.