Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince
J. K. Rowling
While in the middle of reading this volume aloud to the lad and lass, I stumbled across an article by Crispin Sartwell entitled “Why They Suck: Harry Potter.” Though Professor Sartwell and I have disagreed, I find myself in some alignment with him on this matter.
Growing up alongside these tales of the wizarding world’s St. Saviour, one might not notice how tedious they become. The things I like about them–the intricate plotting, the wordplay that offers the opportunity to digress on language, the silly twists on British culture that turn the merely different into the curiously peculiar–are all present in this volume, as they have been in the previous five. It’s these damn teenagers I’m fed up with.
Adolescence fascinates adolescents. It also arguably fascinates a broad cross-section of people who found their high school years to be among the best of their lives. Then there’s the other cohort who found the whole maghilla to be a sort of ongoing torture that they managed to escape and need never revisit. Count me among the latter.
I sense a protest brewing. Surely I can’t be using my own adolescent experience as a reason to find fault with the penultimate volume of the fantasy epic of our time? Though that seems a fair question every reader experiences writing through the prism of their own, lived experience.
My issues with Harry, though, are not about me. They’re about the author’s breaking a fundamental compact with the reader, a compact rooted in the form she has chosen. An epic quest requires its hero’s transformation. Why struggle mightily, at great risk to one’s entire existence, if the reward isn’t transformation into if not someone new, then a more complete person?
I can’t stress enough that this is a requirement. Aeneas was transformed. Odysseus was transformed. Huck Finn was transformed. Both Bagginses–Bilbo and Frodo–were transformed. The only literary figure I can think of who undertakes a quest and never fundamentally changes is Moses, and he paid a price for that.
Moses may well be a better model for Harry than the one I’ve been using.
In this volume, after spending the longest volume in the series as an ostracized figure, Harry is no longer whispered about as the “The Boy Who Lived.” Now he’s been anointed as “The Chosen One.” Though the fickle wizarding public is now ready to believe–and once again adore–him, he’s having none of it.
And so, like the brattiest teen you’ve ever known, Harry doubles down on his most irritating behaviors. That these are the same behaviors responsible for his adventures in the previous volumes makes no matter. The truth is, they were irksome at 11, 12, even 15, but you could chalk it up to immaturity. Now, perched on the cusp of manhood, it’s behind irksome. It’s self-indulgently foolish.
This isn’t just carping because the stakes have been raised immeasurably. Immediately at the start, we’re thrown for a loop. Severus Snape, potions professor and Harry’s faculty nemesis, vows a blood oath to Narcissa Malfoy (I do love the names) to watch over her son as he completes a critical task for Lord Voldemort, that most evil of wizards.
But wait, aren’t the Malfoys now disgraced, despite their pure lineage? After all, the head of household, Lucius, lies in Azkaban prison. And isn’t Snape really in the Order of the Phoenix, the ragtag underground group fighting Voldemort’s Death Eaters? It’s a new world, with more unknowns than ever lurking about.
Despite that, as in Prisoner of Azkaban, Voldemort does not appear in this book, at least not as he is now. When he does it is in a revisited memory and he does so as the person he was born as, Tom Riddle. Those recovered memories, which Dumbledore, the headmaster, shares in a device called a Pensieve (another great neologism), are part of Harry’s extra-curricular studies this year. Now that Harry knows Voldemort believes they will engage in a life-ending battle, Dumbledore wants to arm Harry with as much knowledge of the maleficent magus as he can. It’s as though he’s racing a deadline.
These educational sessions are often strained because Harry believes Draco has become a Death Eater. He can’t let go of the idea, so much so that I suddenly realized I’ve been complaining about this for several volumes now. Perhaps the inability to reshape one’s thinking in light of new information is a hallmark of adolescence. I can’t remember holding that particular mindset but I was insufferable, so the notion strikes me as plausible.
Life at boarding school isn’t all private tutorials with the headmaster, though. There are still classes and Harry finds himself in a peculiar position. His least-favorite subject, potions, has a new teacher, Snape having moved to his dream job of teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. A scheduling mix-up means Harry starts the term without the textbook and as he awaits its arrival he uses a copy stored in a cupboard.
That edition is inscribed to indicate it was the property of the half-blood prince. The mystery of who that is holds some interest for Harry and his sidekicks, Ron & Hermione. What’s a mystery, though, when it turns out the book’s marginalia turn Harry from mixological dunce into potion-maker supreme.
The outperformance begins early, earning Harry a vial of felix felicis, a sort of nothing-can-go-wrong-for-me-today super potion, and continues throughout the school year despite Hermione’s repeated attempts to set Harry on a straighter path. See, stubborn.
I know, adolescence, which brings me to a rhetorical question. Could there be teenage kicks without young love? Harry’s had a stutter-start interest in girls for a year or so now. And Ron’s turned sweet on Hermione, or at least his jealous behavior towards her time spent with other boys suggests so. In a turn right out of Teen Beat, Ron starts dating the publicly demonstrative Lavender Brown.
Harry, meanwhile, is sweet on Ginny Weasley, Ron’s younger sister and he spends a good chunk of the school year trying to avoid the complications acting on that attraction would cause. Yet they do get together only to have Harry break up with her for very stubborn reasons.
There is, as is almost required by now, a dramatic battle to round out the school year that results in an unexpected casualty, one that Harry blames himself for. Though I’m tempted to see that as teenage solipsism, maybe this is the event that will help Harry shed his childish ways. By the end of this book, he’s experienced more death–some at first-hand–than most 16-year olds.
That experience should change him. Stephen Colbert, a man who knows of such things from personal experience, once said,
“I immediately had, I won’t say a cynical detachment from the world. But I certainly was detached from normal behavior of children around me. It didn’t make much sense. None of it seemed very important.”
That’s a statement immediately recognizable to anyone whose childhood has been so interrupted. Okay, maybe I should be less emphatic. My jaw dropped in recognition when I saw that interview.
Maybe Harry’s would, too.