Jun 30 2011 11:52am

The Anxiety of Power and the Love of Wise Men: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The penultimate book. It was at this point that fans of the Harry Potter series wanted to freeze time; we could see the end fast approaching, and we were desperate to let it linger. We wanted to see the tale through to its conclusion, but we weren’t ready to admit that the final installation was riding close on its heels. Even as the pace demanded that we press on and reach the impending battle, we craved time to bask in that world.

In that way, we were just like Harry.

Because the Half-Blood Prince is the beginning of an ending, it is hard to judge on its own merits. While Rowling delivered as usual on the development of her characters, the emergence of new faces and the building of an epic conflict, the story carries all the pauses and meditations of a silence-before-the-storm period. Critiqued as a book by itself, some have found it lacking for that reason. But judging it as one cobblestone on the road of myth, it is a truly special story.

Because the Deathly Hallows was always going to be a journey toward the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort and would not have time to dwell on other aspects of impending adulthood, Half-Blood Prince was more concerned than any of the other books with romance. Not the infatuation, confusion and embarrassment of first crushes and bad dates, but the growth of real feelings between maturing people. Harry may only be sixteen, but he’s seen quite a bit more than most kids his age, and he knows what is important to him. His love for Ron’s sister, Ginny, is fulfilling on many fronts; it grounds him, it allows him to experience a kind of love that he hasn’t been exposed to before, and it affirms his place as a member of the Weasley family, something that he has wanted since he became friends with Ron that first day at Hogwarts.

The most satisfying aspect of his relationship with Ginny is that their love is a comfortable, easy thing once it begins. They joke and kiss and sit together in the Gryffindor common room for hours. Ron, on the other hand, is learning about love the tried and true way; not having to grow up as fast as Harry means that he makes all those typical errors in courtship. It’s important for him to do this—no matter how much Hermione may care about him, he’s not ready for her yet. Ron’s journey is about gaining experience in love, and though he stumbles badly, you still love him because you recognize his mistakes.

Harry’s morals solidify during this story; the little boy who was once so concerned with fitting into a brand new world now thinks nothing of defending his more off-color peers to other students. This is the Harry who takes Luna as his date to Slughorn’s club dinner because he knows that she’s going to be more enjoyable company than anyone else there. The hero that his readership has been waiting for slowly begins to emerge, not through his valiant deeds, but through his character. I remember feeling incredible swells of pride throughout the book at Harry’s newfound awareness, at the way he handles his grief and his choice to keep his friends closer than ever. The angst-ridden, screaming teenager of Order of the Phoenix was fascinating and essential to the development of the story, but the Harry of Half-Blood Prince is the one who will defeat Voldemort.

The anxiety of wielding newfound power is a theme that runs deep in the novel. Harry struggles with choosing the easy way out when he discovers the annotated secrets provided by the Half-Blood Prince’s old textbook. His mishandling of those lessons leads to him brutally injuring Draco Malfoy in a fit of pique. Draco is also facing difficult decisions, arguably for the first time in his life, railing against a fate chosen for him by his family due to their position in the darker parts of the wizarding world. His fear over the task he has been given by Voldemort and the Death Eaters proves that, despite Draco’s more despicable characteristics, he is not the villain that Harry believes he is capable of being. This is paralleled in the journey taken years ago by Sirius’ brother, Regulus, in his desire to relinquish his role as a Death Eater. However, Regulus made the active choice to give up his power in favor of doing the right thing. Draco is absolved of ever having to make that decision outright, and he is poorer for it.

But, of course, the real tragedy of this book is Dumbledore.

I confess to being prepared for his passing; it’s standard mythical practice. The wise guide is always lost after giving the hero all the knowledge he requires for his journey. Dumbledore was never going to see Harry through his final year at Hogwarts and wait for him with a quiet smile at his headmaster’s desk after the final battle. But unlike so many similar figures who died before him, Albus Dumbledore is an exception because of how close we grow to him as Harry’s bond with him deepens, the time we spend in his company.

Gandalf is never truly powerless. Obi-Wan dies before we ever really get to know him. Merlin spends most of his time babbling incoherently about a future he hasn’t yet lived. But Dumbledore is a fully fleshed out human being whose heart we can glimpse, regardless of the unfathomable power he wields. He pays for his flaws, he admits his mistakes, he grieves for what he has done to Harry. We witness his terror, his shame, his resolve. We mourn him because we know him, not just because we feel for Harry when he loses his mentor. And even though the Deathly Hallows reveals a part of the great man that he would perhaps have wanted to remain hidden, we cannot fault him for his weaknesses. Albus Dumbledore is a treasure, and prepared as many of us were for his final performance, it still hurt to discover that sudden gap in Harry’s world.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ends on the edge of the abyss. There is no haven to hide in. There is no more time left to grow up. There is no pretending that someone else holds the answers. And like Harry, we are left holding our breath—

—unwilling to believe that it will all soon be over, one way or another.

Emily Asher-Perrin has a hypogriff tattoo on her chest. (Not really. Though that would be pretty cool.) You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

This article is part of Potterpalooza on ‹ previous | index | next ›
Emily Asher-Perrin
1. EmilyAP
As a comment on Twitter was good enough to point out I don't really talk about Snape here. I did that specificaly because I felt that all of his most important character development truly occurred in Deathly Hallows. All the same, I'm all up for Snape talk! After all, there was that gargantuan debate about whether or not he was "really evil" when the book came out. Did you believe he had fooled Dumbledore all along? Did you know he was doing the right thing from the beginning? Let's give the Potions Master (well, DADA Professor--finally--in this one) some love!
2. hapax
An excellent analysis, and I'm looking forward to the comments.

But this:
leads to him brutally injuring Draco Malfoy in a fit of peak

grinds my copy-editor's soul.

"A fit of peak" WHAT? Excitement? Turmoil? Or perhaps did you mean "pique"?

(and is it just me, or are the Captcha words becoming increasingly arcane and unintelligible?)
Chris Long
3. radynski
For me I think it came down to loyalty. Dumbledore was gone, but I was still loyal to him. And HE believed Snape was a good man, defending him over and over again. I had to believe that Dumbledore hadn't been wrong, hadn't been fooled.

And so I believed that Snape was still loyal, but playing the only hand he could.
Ursula L
4. Ursula
The great disappointment I had with this book was Dumbledore's "lessons" with Harry.

We were finally getting to see Dumbledore and Harry interact with each other for an extended amount of time, and with vitally important things that Harry would need to know. But the "lessons" were entirely about Dumbledore using Harry to try to get information.

There were many important things that Dumbledore could have taught Harry. How to destroy a horcrux, for one. The things Dumbledore had already figured out about where and how Voldemort had hidden the horcruxes. How Harry could protect himself and others while looking for the horcruxes.

The poor quality of Harry's "lessons" confirmed to me that not only was Dumbledore a poor headmaster, appointing teachers for his own political reasons rather than the quality of their teaching, he was also a poor teacher, using lessons for his own benefit rather than to meet his student's needs.
Skip Ives
5. Skip
@2 hapax, I was going to say the same thing. I was going to blame spell-check, but Word actually catches it (if you know it ends in -que anyway) and offers it corrected with or without the accent aigu. This is one of those words that many people hear and read differently; never knowing they are the same word. I was that way about "segue" for years, there doesn't seem to be enough there to justify all the consonant sounds in that word.
6. Dr. Thanatos
I agree with much of what's said above, although I think that Harry demonstrates his supremely bad judgement when he takes Luna to the SlugFeast but then drops her like a hot potato to take up with that weasely woman...

I do think that we learned a lot more about Snape here; I suspected even at the end of the book that there was more going on than appeared, even in his final confrontation with Dumbleydoor.

I had suspected from the beginning that Snape was shunned and reviled because he was a nerd; he set the puzzle in book one that could only be solved by brains, not by brute force magic; he was the one who left notes in his potions book demonstrating that he was doing just what Dumbleydoor was doing as a student, except not getting fame and fortune; and he was the one who carefully made sure Neville Forgetting Longbottom had the proper stresses applied to him during his formative years to produce the real hero that he became .

And Dumbleydoor didn't have the class or style to leave an Albus-shaped hole in anything when he left office. Now that's style!
7. Lsana
On a reread, this book was the one that was my greatest disappointment. First time through, I liked it, thought it was a good return to form after the endless whining in OotP. On a reread, though, I found myself not really finding much to care about. Slughorn is an okay character, but not nearly so interesting as Luna or Umbridge. We get some subplots about whether or not it's okay to use another student's notes and learning to apparate. And the whole I'm-all-of-a-sudden-desperately-in-love-with-Ginny plot, which I didn't care for (and no, I'm not a Harry/Hermione shipper, I just felt that it came out of nowhere).


I agree with you. I was highly disappointed with Dumbledore in this book. He promises Harry that he will share with him "Everything I know or suspect." Then he refuses to tell Harry what a horcrux is because...well, for the meta reason that Rowling wanted to build some suspense about it, but in story, I have no idea why. What I'm most angry with him about, though, is his handling of Malfoy. Malfoy put another student into a coma, and Dumbledore does nothing. Then he poisons Ron, and again the sainted Dumbledore takes no active steps to protect the other students.

I won't go so far as to say that he was a poor headmaster or didn't care about his students, but this book didn't showcase his sterling qualities.
Noneo Yourbusiness
8. Longtimefan
I always enjoyed this book for the mystery of who the Half -Blood Prince could be. Yes the book hints every so strongly that it is Voldemort and that is pretty much how you know it is not.

It is a very dense book in some ways, rushing about in to the darker aspects of the wizarding world and creating unusual diversions into the past and other relationships besides the main characters romances. This is where one really gets more information about Snape not just as a teacher but as a person and the complexity of being a person magical or not who feels like he is a good person but is treated like a bad person. This also in some ways applies to Draco.

It is a short lesson in not being a jerk to someone just because you do not understand them. It may cause them to get all Dark Arts on your ass. :) (and yet in their mind they are still not a bad person, they are just looking for approval.)
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
Half-Blood Prince struck me as a remix- Harry finds secret notes to guide him along- didn't we see this in Book 3?
Joel Cunningham
10. jec81
Snape's good guy status was always a foregone conclusion to me. There is so much groundwork laid for him to be good that it goes beyond potential red herrings... if Snape turned out to be evil, it would have been simple bad writing through dishonest misdirection on Rowling's part.

I was always rather dumbfounded that it was a point of contention among anyone older than, say, 15, which is the "intended" audience. But I have good friends who were convinced he was bad, so who knows...
11. (still) Steve Morrison
I'd hardly call it pique, in any case; remember, Draco was starting to cast an Unforgivable Curse on Harry! Of course, Harry should never have used an unknown spell on a human being for any reason; but he was still acting in self-defense, and had to make a split-second decision as to which counter to use.
@Hapax: No, it’s not just you. I’ve had increasing trouble solving the captchas here, and I don’t think it’s entirely because my eyes are getting worse as I age (though they are). But few sites make much effort to accommodate disabilities — which makes me appreciate those which do all the more (and wish to send fluffy iguana cookies to their board administration teams).
Emily Asher-Perrin
12. EmilyAP
@hapax and Skip - Thanks! It's fixed. I actually didn't write it in Word, but it wouldn't have made much of a difference anyway; one of those moments when you mean to write "whether" and write "weather" instead without realizing it. Oops!

@radynski and jec81 - I agree on both counts. I think it would have been tragic (and frankly unrealistic considering how much Dumbledore always has up his sleeve) to know that he had trusted Snape all that time only to be wrong, and I also think that if Snape had ended up evil, it would have been a betrayal of the character setup Rowling had put so much work into. But it's true, some people really did think he was batting for Voldemort the whole time. It makes you wonder what specifically had them convinced....

@Ursula - There is a very interesting conversation to be had about being in Dumbledore's corner or not. I know many people who feel the way you do, but I have always felt completely the opposite. While I understand that Dumbledore's manipulative techniques seem callous to some, the bottom line is, he gave Harry what he needed. Harry defeated Voldemort. The proof is in the final showdown. We don't know that Dumbledore knew how to destroy the other Horcruxes, and what he did know, he might have thought it was important for Harry to learn on his own or not at all. It is something that we see often in similar stories: Obi-Wan omits that Vader is Luke's father, etc.

Appointing teachers for political reasons was something I recall the Ministry of Magic doing much more prominently than Dumbledore. Also, it seems very clear that Dumbledore is relying a lot on Ron and Hermione to pick up the slack with Harry. He's been watching them since they were children, he knows how they work together. And that's just what happens.
Emily Asher-Perrin
13. EmilyAP
@Dr. Thanatos - I'm pretty sure that Harry wasn't bringing Luna to the SlugFeast as a romantic date, more as a friend. As for Snape, I think you're right, people likely did make fun of him for being nerdy. He is a classic example of what happens when children mistreat those who are different. On the other hand, I wouldn't say that he specifically groomed Neville for anything; Rowling has said on more than one occassion that despite the awful things that Snape has been through, he simply is a "bad teacher." He plays favorites and bullies children. Neville turned out awesome because he really always was - it just took some time for everyone to notice.

@Lsana - Ginny seems to be a big point of contention among Potter fans, and I can see both sides to that one. While it may have seemed like there was very little backing their attraction in terms of the past few books, their relationship had arguably always been coming since the second book when Ginny developed her crush. Just because she put it aside doesn't mean it vanished; in the end, I thought they ended up together because Ginny finally grew up enough to take what she wanted, something that Harry respects. Also, there's a pretty direct parallel between the two of them and Harry's parents. :)

@Longtimefan - It's true. Snape made plenty of bad choices, but he also didn't receive much kindness either. Rowling was very good about slowly unravelling that character, making him understandable.

@(still) Steve Morrison - I recall Harry still being pretty angry with Draco - but then, he's angry at him throughout the entire book (and most of his childhood), so maybe it shouldn't be counted because of that? ;)
15. hohmeisw
I'll join some of the other commenters in saying I was disappointed in Dumbledore. My disappointment crosses over into the next book, however, where we get a look at Dumbledore that is essentially "he was young and reckless, kinda evil, then he wasn't". I loved him in this book because we get a look at the other side of the wise, kind guide. In HB Prince we see Dumbledore as the sly, secretive, manipulative person he is, willing to do anything to achieve his goal. We realize he has never let go of his early philosophy, "for the greater good." For the greater good, he's willing to let Draco take potshots at (and possibly kill) other students as he works up to killing Dumbledore. Why? So he has enough time to arm Harry and set him on the path to die, and so Snape can be positioned closer to Voldemort than ever.
Luke M
16. lmelior
I have to break ranks: I loved this book. Rowling consistently glossed over details in her magic system, as she considered it unimportant compared to the characters. So we see and hear about Dumbledore doing things no one else can do, but in HBP, we get a taste of what that really means. I frankly could not get enough of the time Harry spent with the HBP's Potions book, and I thought he was an absolute fool to agree to get rid of it (though it worked out since he avoided having Snape taking it away).

That brings me to the next point, actually. Here, finally, we begin to see that not everything in Rowling's world is black and white. We got a little of that when Harry tries to use an Unforgivable Curse in book 5, but now we really start to find out that Harry's father really was a bully, Draco might not turn out as bad as we thought, and Dumbledore has dark secrets. Unfortunately, some people (Hermione, and Rowling seems to want to lead the reader in that direction as well) don't see the potions book that way. Despite it containing highly useful and beneficial information, she condemns it entirely for also containing dangerous information.
Arthur Harrow
17. Dr_Thanatos

I was speaking with a certain amount of tongue in cheek, although I will admit that I was rooting for Harry and Luna

Regarding Snape as a moulder of young minds: I agree that he's better suited teaching graduate students than young children. I was visualizing the spin put on things by those who swear by all things Severus: he wasn't really the most spectacularly abusive teacher of all time, he was actually doing this to forge Neville F. Longbottom into the hero that was inside him all along. Instead of feeling scared and terrified and picked on, the wretch should be thanking him.

And anyone who doesn't see this as obvious is just biased against poor Sev...
18. hapax
EmilyAP @12
While I understand that Dumbledore's manipulative techniques seem
callous to some, the bottom line is, he gave Harry what he needed. Harry defeated Voldemort. The proof is in the final showdown.

Dr Thanatos @17
I was visualizing the spin put on things by those who swear by all things Severus: he wasn't really the most spectacularly abusive teacher of all time, he was actually doing this to forge Neville F. Longbottom into the hero that was inside him all along.

And this is why those of us who despise Dumbledore think he was a terrible teacher. There isn't a thing to be said to defend his treatment of Harry that couldn't better be applied to Snape.

(P.S. -- Obi-wan lying to Luke about his father has to stand as one of the Great Dick Moves of cinematic history as well. And don't get me started on Delphic Apollo...)
19. the good doctor
i was one hundred percent certain snape was not evil. he's one of my favorite characters, and i was shocked and unsurprised at the same time when he killed dumbledore. i was hoping he wouldn't but knew it was inevitable. but never for a second did i doubt he was on the good side. i was patently obvious.

if you trust dumbledore, then you must trust snape. simple as that.

Joseph Blaidd
20. SteelBlaidd
I've always thought it was a great marker of Snape's personality and character as a teacher that he was still teaching the uncorrected recipies.
Emily Asher-Perrin
21. EmilyAP
@ Dr Thanatos - Ah, I see. :) I just had a vision of Snape with a bunch of 20somethings, starting out his class by saying, "98% of you walk out of this room. That's how many of you will succeed in this field." It all makes perfect sense.

@hapax - I'm not quite sure I understand exactly what you are suggesting there: that Snape and Dumbledore are on the same level in terms of how much they abuse students? If that's the suggestion, I would say that Snape is actively doing so to a good portion of the student body because he has an axe to grind and because he has the power to do it, whereas Dumbledore is training one person who is going to basically save the world. Different tactics as needs must.

(The argument for Dumbledore and Obi-Wan comes down to a matter of perspective and opinion, I think. It's completely fair to say that what they are doing isn't super nice, but when you're trying to defeat Ultimate Evil, it's likely that you'll have to do some not nice things to achieve your goals. Deciding whether or not those choices are worth the cost to the hero is something that every person is bound to feel differently about.)
James Whitehead
22. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I thoroughly loved this book & felt that Dumbledore's lessons with Harry were just right. Part of how it was set up was, I am sure, Rowling building tension. However, think how boring the book would've been had Dumbledore just spoonfed Harry everything?

One of the cornerstones of these kind of stories is that the protagonists need to go on the journey not only to get the needed answers but also to gain experience. To grow up, in some way, and therefore be prepared for the climatic battle/ending.

Otherwise the hero/heroine won't truly learn what needs to be done; as the knowledge won't truly be learned.

I do, however, like the analogy for Snape being so contemptuous of his students lack of skill that he becomes a very poor teacher. He probably would be better off teacher NEWT level courses only. ;-)

As for James being a bully, well we've all been cruel or unkind to someone else in our past; whether we're the 'popular' kid or the 'fringe' kid. It's what we do afterwards that's telling. James grows up & out of his arrogance, or Lily never would've fallen for him. Conversely, Snape repeats the cycle of bullying as he becomes an adult - not an uncommon theme either, sadly.

I also think this speaks volumes about Harry's character that he befriends and genuinely likes people like Neville & Luna. He really does believ that they are truly worth ten Malfoys. Also, I liked how the Ginny/Harry thing grew over time & worked the way it did. It seemed real to me; 'course I might be projecting a little as I've always had a thing for redheads. ;-)

Finally, regarding Obi-Wan, what else was he supposed to do? Tell Luke straight off that what Luke knew up to that point about dear old dad was a lie?

"Hey kid," Obi-wan says off-handedly, "Your dad was wicked powerful but a tool. He fell to the darkside. Wiped out the entire Jedi order, excepting me & some green/grey dude, and was responsible for your mum being killed & you ending up on this hole of a planet. Oh! And by the way, you're gonna have to fight him and probably kill him. No pressure. Just FYI." ;-)


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