Sunday, June 24, 2007
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
This sixth book was full of surprises, and though it starts out cheerfully enough, the ending is shocking and sad.
J.K. Rowling's details, as usual, are delightful. During one of the opening episodes in this book, Dumbledore takes Harry on a short journey with him so that Harry can help persuade Horace Slughorn to come out of retirement and join the teaching staff at Hogwarts. Every year, Dumbledore is one teacher short because his Defense Against the Dark Arts professors never seem to last more than a year. However, Slughorn is a comical coward who is hiding from Lord Voldemort and the last thing he wants to do is take a cursed job at Hogwarts. When Prof. Dumbledore and Harry first arrive at Slughorn's house, the former teacher is rather ingeniously disguised, and has even made the house appear to have been ransacked and blood is splattered everywhere. At first, Dumbledore is distressed, but not for long--he quickly realizes that Slughorn is right in front of him:
And without warning, Dumbledore swooped, plunging the tip of his wand into the seat of the overstuffed armchair, which yelled, "Ouch!"
"Good evening, Horace," said Dumbledore, straightening up again.
...."There was no need to stick the wand in that hard," [Slughorn] said gruffly, clambering to his feet. "It hurt."
..."What gave it away?" he grunted as he staggered to his feet, still rubbing his lower belly. He seemed remarkably unabashed for a man who had just been discovered pretending to be an armchair.
Harry has no idea why Dumbledore thinks that he, a sixteen year old student, can persuade Slughorn to take the job, but that is exactly what happens. This is just the first task Dumbledore sets Harry up to accomplish this year; Dumbledore treats Harry much more like an adult now, and is on an urgent quest to teach Harry about Voldemort's history and to help him understand some of the Dark Lord's motivations. Dumbledore tells Harry, several times, that it is important that he is capable of love, while Voldemort is not. Love, after all, is what saved Harry's life (his mother used a magic charm that enabled her to die in his place).
One of the surprises in store for the Hogwarts students this year is that Prof. Slughorn will take the position of potions master, while the dreaded Prof. Snape will finally get his chance to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. In fact, there are a couple other surprises involving Snape in this installment, none of it good news. It's particularly distressing that Snape takes advantage of and betrays Dumbledore's trust in him.
This book ends with the funeral of Professor Albus Dumbledore. It's uncertain whether Hogwarts will open the following year, but Harry knows that whatever happens, he will not be returning to school; he must finish what he and Dumbledore had set out to do, which was to weaken and then kill Lord Voldemort. I'll try to make this brief: Voldemort, wanting to be immortal, has divided his soul into seven parts, and placed each of these parts into something called a horcrux. Dumbledore had figured out some of the mystery of which objects Voldemort was using as horcruxes, and had destroyed one over the previous summer. Two others had already been destroyed during previous books, and one, he knew, was in Voldemort's snake, Nagin. That's four horcruxes for Harry to find and destroy before facing Voldemort for the final showdown...
It's a bleak ending.
And Harry saw very clearly as he sat there under the hot sun how people who cared about him had stood in front of him one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him; but now that was over. He could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort; he must abandon forever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one, that the shelter of a parent's arms meant that nothing could hurt him. There was no waking from his nightmare, no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all in his imagination; the last and greatest of his protectors had died, and he was more alone than he had ever been before.
His friends will try very hard not to leave him alone, of course, and that's what makes the next book so potentially disastrous. I think Voldemort will be done in, but he won't be the only one; I suspect that Harry will die, too, along with other good, brave people.
Of course, hope springs eternal that Rowlings will let Harry live to marry Ginny Weasley and that they'll live down the block from Ron and Hermione, and the birds will sing and all will be right with the world.
Addendum: it crosses my mind that Severus Snape wants glory and recognition, and of course has a high opinion of himself--perhaps he still calls himself the Half-Blood Prince! Anyway, this longing for glory might lead him to try to kill Voldemort and seize power for himself. He really must die, anyway, for killing Dumbledore.
Second Note: After my back-to-back reading of all the Harry Potter books, I'm having withdrawal symptoms, and the worst symptom is not being able to get into the book I need to read now because it was chosen by our book group. We meet in August, and I want to have it read. What book is it? A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I'm not in the mood for nonfiction, even if it is well-written and aimed at nonmath people like me. I have hope that I will suck it up and really start to enjoy it. Soon. Maybe cooler weather would help, too...