Friday, September 16, 2005

The Penultimate Potter

I finally finished "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" last night - the end was a page-turner, similar to the end of the others in the series. If you haven't read this one yet and are still intending to, I'm going to add some spoiler space because I want to talk about this book, the rest of the series, and where J.K. Rowling may intend it to go....




First of all, I like the series. I really do. Before this book came out, I went back and re-read the previous two installments to catch up. I've seen all three movies with BrainyBoy, and he enjoys them as well - although "Prisoner of Azkaban" got a little intense for an 8-yr-old, I thought, what with the "angel of death"-like dementors floating around and sucking out souls. But that's beside the point. It seems to be fairly light fantasy, with just the right amount of mythological creatures (giants, centaurs, sphinxes), spells, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night to please most any fan.

But, being primarily a children's series, it doesn't stray too far into the heavy fantasy realm. It's not a Lord of the Rings, or a Dune, or even a Dragonlance (my personal favorite), which sweep the reader into epic landscapes filled with complex people solving complex problems. The Harry Potter story is about a kid who's just trying to grow up in a very strange world. He's thrust into a role he never wanted and has no control over. Surviving the magical attack of one Lord Voldemort at the age of one has given him a certain notariety (as I'm sure all who are bothering to read this are familiar with) that forces him to act certain ways as he grows up. There is the over-arching battle of the magical forces of good, the Order of the Phoenix, against Voldemort and his dark army of Death Eater soldier mages and the floating dementors. But at the heart, it's about a poor kid going through adolescence with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Keeping Harry's personal conflict as the heart of the narrative was vital, and overall Rowling does it pretty well. When we first meet Harry he's 11, and through each subsequent book he ages a year at time, till now in book 6 he's finally about to turn 17. All the requisite pangs of growing up appear in good order, from frustration of being the best athlete, to being a good student, to missing his parents, to wondering about where he's supposed to fit in, to conflicts with bullies and of course his first cases of puppy love and infatuation. These conflicts are reflected in his friends Ron and Hermione as well, and a whole range of adolescent insecurities are shown by these three throughout the six volumes.

But this seems to be the book where he must grow up. He's sixteen, going on seventeen (ahem). It's his next-to-last year at Hogwarts. The war with Voldemort has begun to consume people he cares about - primarily his godfather Sirius Black in the previous book. Each new edition of the Daily Prophet newspaper reveals more deaths, more disappearances and more mayhem, which brings him closer and closer to the reality of the world in which the wizards live. This would be the book where he grows up, to face the finality that the seventh book would bring. This would set him on the path to the ending.

But, you know, it really doesn't.

At the first of "Half Blood Prince", Harry's just turned sixteen. At the end he's two-three months from being seventeen. But most of the actual events of the book take place outside his sphere of influence, until the very end. His mentor, Dumbledore, takes him on several journeys of memory recall where the story of the origin of Lord Voldemort takes shape. Through these vignettes we're able to piece together what the Dark Lord's short-range plans might be. Interspersed between these scenes Harry tries to deal with Ron and Hermione's on-again, off-again romance as well as one of his own. He deals with suspicion of Snape, of Malfoy, of the potted plant in the corner.... all the key elements of the plot swirl around him, while Harry watches, frets, and gripes about the injustice of it all.

Is he really growing? I just can't quite tell. Maybe I'm too far removed from sixteen to remember what that time of a boy's life feels like. Maybe that's the point - that at sixteen, we all want desparately to be in control of our lives, but none of us really are. Events take place that affect our lives greatly, that we have no real influence over. We fall in love (or infatuation) and suffer for it because the girl three rows over in Calculus doesn't know you're alive. You try and try to conjugate the verbs correctly in French but it just doesn't take, and the jerk who trips you every day outside the cafeteria doesn't help. Your parents are too involved in their work, or country clubs, or TV and booze to pay much attention to what you're going through.

And so on, and so on.

And that's great commentary on life, but does it really make for stimulating reading in a fantasy novel?


Here's the thing. Harry goes through this entire book reacting to things, and thinking about them and commenting on them, but until the end he never actually does a lot about any of them. And it's not his fault - he's tied to his lessons, and the rules of the school, and his loyalties to Ron and Hermione, Dumbledore, and his obligations to the Order of the Phoenix.

Oh, there are times he breaks off and acts - he tries to break into the Secret Room to spy on Draco Malfoy. He plays a lot of Quidditch (and if I never read another description of a Quidditch match, it will be too soon). He enlists house elves to tail Malfoy, as well. He's just not that proactive in this book, and it got tedious after a while. I kept waiting for someone to do something, rather than watch it, comment on it, complain about it, and then move on.

Does it make for a good commentary on growing up? Sure, I think so. Is it stimulating fantasy? No, not really.

I enjoyed the book, I just think it could've been better as the Penultimate Potter.

Here are some other thoughts:

  • Sometimes it bothers me when the characters are painted with such a brush as to continue to be hopelessly one-dimensional and unable to grow. Take poor Hagrid. For six books now, he's been the same sappy, gruff, big-hearted but ultimately clueless Magical Creatures teacher. The huge spider Aragog attacked Harry and Ron back in "Chamber of Secrets" and nearly fed them to his spider army, but in this book the spider has died and Hagrid is torn apart with grief. He even invites the friends to the burial. Ron is of course confused why Hagrid still has friendship with the spider, and we are too. The half-giant mourns the loss, and refuses to admit the truth of what happened. This kind of schtick happens through all the books, where otherwise dangerous creatures that bite, sting, stomp, burn and otherwise plague our heroes are treated as poor, defenseless mice by Hagrid. Ok, ok, he's kind to the animals. We got it. Can you give him a little common sense, please? Thank you.

  • After tiptoeing around the subject for five books now, we finally see Ron and Hermione take their first real steps toward getting together. It's kind of cute, and I'm rooting for the two of them. Harry, however, suddenly comes out of nowhere with feelings for Ron's little sister Ginny. It's been telegraphed a bit in previous books but it seems to have little emotional basis. Ginny's never really been part of their group, and whenever she's with them it seems forced. I think Rowling realized Harry needed some kind of love interest and Ginny was there, so she had him develop feelings for her. But that's what it felt like - a writer making an editorial decision, rather deus ex machina-ish, rather than something that evolved on its own. Maybe it will turn into something special in book 7, but judging by how book 6 ended, I'm not sure.

  • I'm going to get to the fate of Dumbledore and Snape in a moment, but look at the locket that's found at the end. Someone got to the locket before Harry and Dumbledore, and switched it out while leaving a note behind. The note was signed with the initials "R.A.B." (I believe). Who is "R.A.B."? Hermione does some brief research just before the end of the book and can find no relevent wizards with those initials. I'm certain it's a key mystery that will be solved in Book 7, but who could it be?

    I'm thinking it's Sirius Black, and Harry's godfather is not really dead. There would have to be some revelation about his real first name, and some explanation on how he survived the trip through the Gateway of Death. I just never got the feeling he was really and sincerely dead. I think we haven't seen the last of our Animagus friend.

  • Ok, Snape. Snape's main thing is that he's rotten, nasty, rude, ugly, mean and his mother dresses him funny. He's a former Death Eater and ally of Voldemort. He's head of the Slytherin house and champion to Draco Malfoy, Harry's worst enemy. He makes Potions class (and later, Defense of Dark Arts) classes a nightmare for Harry and his friends. He's an all-around bad piece of work. And yet, he's a (reluctant) member of the Order of the Phoenix and for some reason - in spite of all the rottenness and mistrust he engenders - he has the complete and utter trust of Dumbledore, which allows him to remain on staff at Hogwarts and in the Order.

    But Snape kills Dumbledore.

    Yes, he does it. After apparently betraying the Order early in the book and behaving even more suspiciously than normal throughout, Dumbledore seems to stand behind Snape till the bitter end. And bitter it is, as he's blasted off the top of the Astronomy Tower to end up in a crumpled heap on the ground below, courtesy of Snape's Killing Curse.


    So, either one of two things. Did Snape really did pull the wool over everyone's eyes, and Dumbledore just completely misplaced his trust all these years? We're shown over and over and over that Dumbledore has a special sight, and is head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of wisdom, insight, etc. So doesn't it seem like an enormous betrayal of his character, by Rowling, to finally prove that Snape so utterly played him for a fool after all these years? Are we to believe that Dumbledore was simply wrong? After so much was invested in the character, can it be destroyed as easily as his body was?

    I smell a rat, and it ain't Peter Pettigrew.

    I think it's the other thing - I think Dumbledore had complete trust in Snape, and still did until the end, and it was still rightly placed. Draco boasted that Snape was a double agent, working for the Order but secretly still working for Voldemort. I think it was the other way around, he was secretly/not-so-secretly working for Voldemort but still working for the Order.

    I think, either by planning or happenstance, they both realized the ultimate act that would ingratiate Snape to Voldemort, and put him within arm's reach of the Dark Lord - killing his worst enemy. If Snape killed Dumbledore, freely and with malice aforethought, the former Death Eater would finally have "proved" his loyalty in blood. Perhaps Dumbledore finally realized that a straight assault/defense by the Order would not defeat Voldemort (side note - why can't these guys have short names like "Fred" or "George"? oh, me achin' fingers...) so Dumbledore and Snape realized there was only one thing to do. And they did it.

    Now Snape (and Malfoy) have escaped, run off to Voldermort. Snape is now a hero to the Dark Lord, and in better position than ever before to help destroy him.

    But was it worth it to lose Dumbledore? I mean, to the Order and the cause? Dumbledore's the greatest living wizard in the world. Could the Order afford to lose him, just to get Snape closer? Well, Dumbledore had been weakened lately - his hand was withered, he was tiring. I think he realized his usefulness was almost at an end, and decided to take advantage of that position by sacrificing himself.

    The Order would continue - McGonagall would keep the school going, Lupin and Tonks and Mooney and the Weasleys would continue the work of the Order, and Snape would work from his unique position within.

    I may be proved absolutely wrong - Snape may end up truly being a bad guy through and through and his murder of Dumbledore may be a serious setback for the Order. I hope not, though, because it lessens Dumbledore's character seriously to have been so completely fooled and taken in. Very seriously.

    One final thought about Snape. The revelation of he being the actual titular "Half Blood Prince" seemed anticlimactic and almost an afterthought. If my theory is wrong, and if Harry had seen fit to show Dumbledore the book, and the old man had correctly deduced who the previous owner was, would it have make a difference in his opinion of Snape? Enough difference to tip his trust away from him? I don't know. But I do know that the whole story of the "Half Blood Prince", and the book, and the identity seemed to be a Maguffin that had no real bearing on the whole saga. And that seemed odd.

  • Finally, what about Harry? You remember him...young fellow, glasses, big scar on his forehead. The Chosen One, that sort of thing.

    Well, Star Wars apparently has caught up with Harry Potter. The Princess and Han Solo have gotten together. The Evil Empire and its Dark Lord are plotting their final assault on the Rebellion. And Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi have just died. What does that mean for young Luke/Harry?

    Same as it does in every myth, from Obi-Wan/Luke in Star Wars to Merlin/Arthur in Camelot, to even Gandalf/Bilbo for a time in Lord of the Rings - the mentor must die or be otherwise transformed for the hero to achieve his final growth. You could see it telegraphed from book 1 that Dumbledore wouldn't survive the series, and now it's happened. He's led Harry from adventure to adventure, helping out whenever possible and teaching as he went along. Harry was "one of Dumbledore's people" and admitted as such to the headmaster, which touched him deeply. But now, work is unfinished. Harry must find the last of the magical soul-storing "horcrux" devices of Voldemort but without his mentor. Ron and Hermione will accompany him on this final quest, but they will do it alone.

    As they should, because when you grow up it's time to do it on your own.

    I'm looking forward to seeing how they do...

(Edited to correct spellings)

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