The Harry Potter Reread has reached the penultimate offering! It took the reread far too long to understand what “penultimate” meant, though. What a sad truth.
This week we’re starting in on The Half-Blood Prince! Chapters 1 and 2—The Other Minister and Spinner’s End.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
Chapter 1—The Other Minister
The Prime Minister of Great Britain is having a terrible week. It seems as though the whole country is going through a rough patch, and disasters are everywhere; a bridge collapse, two murders, a freak hurricane, one of the Junior Ministers acting strangely. Then a portrait in his room coughs and tells him that he must speak with Fudge. The Prime Minister would rather not, but he isn’t given much of a choice. Fudge arrives in his office via the fireplace, and makes it clear that all these disasters are a part of their community.
The Minister thinks back to when he first met Fudge, which was his first day in office. Apparently the Minister of Magic only reveals himself to each Prime Minister in turn to maintain secrecy. Fudge doubted they would ever see each other again because he would only come by if there was a difficulty that could affect the Muggle population. But three years ago, he came to warn the Prime Minister about Sirius Black’s breakout from Azkaban prison, and explain who Voldemort was. Then he came the next year to tell him about the incident at the Quidditch World Cup. The following year, he came to tell him about the mass breakout from Azkaban.
Fudge now tells the Prime Minister that all the problems across the country have been magical in nature, and that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. The Minister inquires about Sirius Black, and Fudge explains that he is dead and was never actually in league with Voldemort anyway. But they are at war; the bridge collapse happened because Fudge refused to stand aside for Voldemort, the “hurricane” was the result of Death Eater activity and possibly giant involvement. Amelia Bones was murdered, perhaps by Voldemort himself, as well as Emmeline Vance. And the dementors of Azkaban are now attacking the general population at will and breeding as well, causing a cold mist in the middle of July. When the Prime Minister demands Fudge do something, Fudge tells him that he no longer has the power—he was fired three days ago.
Fudge only came to bring the Prime Minister up to date and introduce him to his successor… who is running late writing a letter to Dumbledore. When he arrives, the Prime Minister is instantly given the impression of an old lion. This new Minister of Magic is named Rufus Scrimgeour. He tells the Prime Minister that they are upgrading his security so he isn’t put under the Imperius Curse. They’ve made Kingsley Shacklebolt a secretary in the outer office to that purpose. The Junior Minister that was acting strangely had been put under a bad Imperius Curse, and has been taken to St. Mungo’s for treatment. Scrimgeour makes to leave, as that’s all he had to say. He tells the Prime Minster that he’ll keep him posted on events, or Fudge will—he’s decided to stay on as an advisor. The Prime Minister asks why they can’t fix the problem, since they are wizards who have magical powers. Scrimgeour tells him that the other side also has magic, unfortunately. He and Fudge leave the office.
This is a pretty brilliant way to start the book, in that we’ve never had any idea how official branches of magical government interact with the Muggle one, but we sure to need to know now that things are getting ugly. (It’s also a great way to info dump without making anything seem very infodump-y.) And what’s even better, we’re getting it from the Muggle Prime Minister’s perspective, so we can comedically appreciate how insane this must seem to some perfectly normal person who has never come into contact with magic before. And we need a bit of comedy here because everything else is just… terrible.
Since the fourth book, every opening has been upping the stakes in terms of the warfront. So we have the death of Frank at the Riddle house as Voldemort forms his first key plan, then the realization that the dementors have gone rogue in the fifth book, and now we’re seeing the true beginnings of an all-out war here. A few key murders and swaths of mass casualties. There’s an element of satire to Rowling’s depiction of politics from the Prime Minister’s point of view, and that helps to alleviate some of the blow, but it’s still there to reset the tone. We know instantly that these final two books are going to be wartime stories, and that is a substantial change from the where the series began. We’ve already got two deaths of known characters on the books; Emmeline Vance and Amelia Bones. (The Bones family can clearly never catch a break. Ever.)
There’s a clever one-two punch here with Fudge’s arrival. We assume that he’s still in charge, since he’s the one who shows up to the Prime Minister’s office. Then we get the rug pulled out when Rowling drops that he’s been sacked and is only there to introduce the new guy who’s got his job. It’s another deliberate flip of the narrative—Fudge has been around throughout these books, and even he has lost his pull now. You could almost feel bad for the guy… if you’re able to put aside his willful ignorance and inability to let go of his own power.
In the introduction of Scrimgeour we get a commentary on the preferred characteristics of wartime leaders, which the Prime Minister notes immediately. Fudge is a peacetime politician in every sense; bureaucratic, wishy-washy, people-pleasing, placating. Scrimgeour has no time for decorum, for niceties. He also doesn’t hold anyone’s hand. We know from the previous installment that he was the Head of the Auror Office directly before this, and that also makes sense; you’d want a leader who was adept at fighting the force you’re up against.
We’ll get to this more later on, but the real tell that Scrimgeour still won’t be what’s needed at the Ministry should be that he’s not a member of the Order of the Phoenix. He’s still part of the government machine, and as we’ve been seeing over and over, magical government is basically broken. So Scrimgeour might make the people feel better, he might seem like the right guy for the job, but he’s still ultimately operating under rules that don’t work. He’s going to be a figurehead who prevents panic, and that’s pretty much it.
And then there’s the Prime Minister himself, who gives us one of the only glimpses in the series of what it’s like to be on the other side of all this. How Muggles are allowed to interact with the magical world if they don’t have any relatives over there to inform them. All that wonder we get from these stories, it’s completely absent to this man. Everything is an unknown, and everything is none of his business. If you needed clearer proof that it would be wise to have more communication between the Muggle and magical communities, this is it. Furthermore, there’s the cavalier aspect to all of this—because the magical community is a secret, wizards take it upon themselves to alter the non-magical community whenever they so choose. You have to hope that once this is all over and there’s more back-and-forth, this constant attack on Muggle autonomy would stop.
Chapter 2—Spinner’s End
On the other end of London, in as area with a disused mill and a dirty river, Narcissa Malfoy apparates in, followed by her sitter Bellatrix. Belatrix kills a fox nearby, thinking it was an Auror. She is dismayed by their surrounding and the fact that one of their kind lives there. She is trying to stop Narcissa from giving away the Dark Lord’s plan to someone who she does not trust. Narcissa is adamant and won’t hear her sister’s pleas. She continues throughout the streets until she reaches Spinner’s End, and approaches a house there that happens to belong to Professor Snape. He invites them it at Narcissa’s request. When she asks if they’re alone, Snape reveals Wormtail behind a hidden door. He orders him to bring them drinks, which earns Peter’s ire, but he obeys anyway. After he brings them the wine, Snape casts a little jinx to make certain he heads upstairs rather than listening in on their conversation.
It is clear that Narcissa has much to say to Snape, but Bellatrix is too angry, so Snape encourages her to bring her accusations against him beforehand. He answers every one of her questions, explaining that he took the Potions position at the Dark Lord’s request, that he hadn’t known Voldemort was trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone five years ago, that he was happy to stay in his job at Hogwarts rather than serve time in Azkaban, that he never searched for Voldemort because he assumed he had been defeated, that he returned to Voldemort’s side later than the rest so that he couldn’t continue to be a spy at Hogwarts by only leaving when Dumbledore ordered him to go. He tells her that he never killed Harry because he was curious to see if the boy might be the great dark wizard that some had suspected, and also that killing him under Dumbledore’s nose would have been foolish. He tells her that he has played his part well, that Dumbledore trusts him, and that he is finally showing signs of age—he was injured in his duel with Voldemort at the Ministry.
Once she has no more questions for him, Snape asks what Narcissa came to him for. Narcissa claims that it involves at plan that the Dark Lord has commanded no one to speak of, and Snape tells her to keep to his wishes… the only thing that has made Bellatrix happy since they got there. But Snape admits that he knows this plan as well. (Bellatrix is not pleased at that.) Narcissa is worried for Draco, who has been chosen to enact this plan—she believes it is punishment for Lucius’ mistakes and knows that Draco will fail. Snape agrees with her, but isn’t fool enough to try and talk Voldemort out of anything. Narcissa asks if Snape could do the task set to Draco instead, and he reminds her that the Dark Lord is angry and wants Draco to do as he is commanded. Narcissa is beside herself, even as Bellatrix insists that she would gladly give over her kids in service of the Dark Lord….
But Snape tells Narcissa that he might be about to help Draco. Narcissa asks him to make the Unbreakable Vow, and Bellatrix insists that he would never do it. Snape acquiesces and asks Bellatrix to bond them. He agrees, according to the vow, to protect Draco and carry out his task if it seems he will fail.
Most important thing—I love that Bellatrix, deep down in her heart, knows that Snape is really doubling for Dumbledore. It’s such a delicious bit of helplessness on her end. (And it does make me wonder; if they hadn’t failed at the Department of Mysteries, would she have been better trusted and put Snape in a more precarious position? Did losing the prophecy help win the war for that reason alone?)
With that in mind, this is another one of my favorite Snape bits in the entire series. When he’s not around students and we get to watch him really work, and he’s so damned good at what he does. He plays Bellatrix’s insecurities like a fiddle or an oboe or whatever, turning her suspicions around into a panic over how much Voldemort really trusts her. He knows exactly what to say, how to intimate her failings, when to drop upsetting information on her—like the fact that he’s in on Voldemort’s most secret plans. It does make me wonder what it was like for people reading who actually suspected Snape was sided with Voldemort, though. All of this must have been such a different experience.
One thing that always grabs me later on in the books: Voldemort calls Peter by the name Wormtail, so all the other Death Eaters do, as does Snape here. Sure, it’s a reference to his Animagus status (which is a big deal in the wizarding world), but it’s also a reference to the friends that he’s betrayed. I can’t help thinking that it’s a deliberate twist on Voldemort’s behalf, one that all of his followers adopt by taking his lead. And in addition to reminding Peter of his past, it also dehumanizes him by refusing to call him by his given name. Seems pretty important to me given the role that Peter still has to play in all this.
This chapter is extremely clever in what it chooses to reveal in terms of setup. We know that Draco is supposed to do something terrible for Voldemort, as a punishment for Lucius’ failure. We know that Narcissa does not believe Draco can do this thing, so she comes to Snape for help. We get just enough information to make this a fascinating draw, yet Rowling is careful to withhold anything too specific. Moreover, this is the most we’ve seen of Narcissa Malfoy in the series, and we learn something incredibly important about her—she is not like Bellatrix. She cares for her family above all.
Also of note: when Narcissa laments the possibility of losing her only son, Bellatrix is furious, claiming that she’d gladly give any children (if she’d had any) to Voldemort’s cause. It’s been suggested by fan before that perhaps Bellatrix is unable to have children, or her husband is. Being a pureblood who is unable to offer up more pureblood kids to the cause would certainly be a blow in Bellatrix’s mind. While I’m typically not a fan of the trope “not being able to have babies makes women crazy,” I have to admit that it would make some sense out of her blind allegiance here. Otherwise, I really have to assume that she’s flat-out in love with Voldemort and is secretly hoping that he’ll kill Rodolphus and marry her once the war is over. Because her devotion is extreme in every sense of the word, and so uncomfortable.
Narcissa asks Snape to make the Unbreakable Vow—later on, we’ll learn that you die if you don’t keep them, so they’re serious business. But there’s a lot of room to mess up here in the verbiage; Narcissa says that if it “seems Draco will fail” in his task, Snape will take it on for him. But how do you calculate that in terms of the vow? My guess is that there’s some subjectivity to Unbreakable Vows, meaning that it has to be clear to Snape that Draco will fail. If it were an omniscient thing, it seems like a lot of people would die for no good reason.
I like the snake-like imagery tied to the vow, which is apropos for a group of Slytherins and such. On a reread, we can see that Snape is risking nothing by making the vow because he’s already disclosed this plan to Dumbledore and promised that he will go through with it on Draco’s behalf if it ever got that far. So that makes this whole scene extra interesting… in fact, it makes me far more curious about Snape’s life as a double agent. I wish we could see more of it in these books, or anywhere. He’s walking such a fine line, and he never really slips. He’d make a terrifying double-oh.