The Harry Potter Reread

The Harry Potter Reread: The Half-Blood Prince, Chapters 9 and 10

The Harry Potter Reread currently cannot stop eating gummy bears, and it’s probably not a good thing since they’re basically corn syrup and gelatin. But at least it’s not compulsively eating candy corn, which is basically corn syrup and wax?

We’re going to get a fancy new textbook and find out a bit about Voldemort’s relatives! It’s chapters 9 and 10—The Half-Blood Prince and The House of Gaunt.

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 9—The Half-Blood Prince

Summary

Neither Ron nor Hermione are entirely convinced that what Harry heard Draco say on the train has any meaning. Ron is looking forward to having free periods this year, and tells a first year off for pointing at Harry and whispering about him. Hermione confiscates a Fanged Frisbee from a student, and when Ron tries to take it for himself, Lavender Brown laughs at his commentary, seeming to find it very funny. The trio head down to breakfast, worried over Hagrid finding out that no one is taking his class. McGonagall tells Neville that he can’t continue with Transfiguration with his O.W.L.s score, but that he can keep going with Charms. Neville is less than enthused given his gran’s opinion on both subjects. McGonagall tells Neville that his grandmother needs to learn to appreciate the grandson that she has, rather than the one she wishes she had, and encourages Neville to take Charms again. Parvati is unhappy to find out that Trelawney is teaching the sixth year Divination class, rather than Firenze.

McGonagall asks Harry why he isn’t going forward with Potions, since he wants to become an Auror. Harry points out that she told him he needed an ‘Outstanding,’ but this was only true with Snape; Slughorn is happy to take the ‘Exceeds Expectations’ students as well, so Harry decides to take Potions; McGonagall assumes that Slughorn will lend Harry materials and such, since he didn’t buy any of them. She also tells him that she will pass on the list of hopeful Gryffindors who want to try out for the Quidditch team this year. Ron and Harry clear to take all of the same classes, and return to the common room, having a free period. Katie Bell is there and asks Harry to let her know when the Quidditch tryouts are, insisting that he retest everyone to be certain that the team is the strongest it can be. Ron seems uncomfortable at the thought.

They head to Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Snape begins his lesson by telling them that he is astounded that so many of them received an O.W.L. in the subject, given their variety of teachers. He then talks of how the Dark Arts are ever changing, and how they need to adapt to them, speaking about dark magic with a sort of love and respect that sets Harry on edge. His classroom is filled with pictures of people who have had various curses cast on them. He begins the lesson by having them pair off and attempt nonverbal magic, something that none of them has done before. Hermione manages it first, repelling Neville’s jinx nonverbally. Snape sees Ron trying, and decides to push him aside and have a go at Harry himself. Harry reacts by forgetting the nonverbal part of the lesson and using a Shield Charm. When Snape gives him flak for it, Harry mouths off, getting detention.

As they leave, Harry goes off on Snape being so in love with the Dark Arts, but Hermione insists that Snape sounds quite a bit like Harry in lessons; he talks about being quick, using your wits, about not over-relying on spells. Harry gets a message from Dumbledore to start their lessons on Saturday evening, which conflicts with Snape’s detention. They work on the DADA homework, then head down to Potions. Only a dozen students have made it to the N.E.W.T. level class; four Slytherins, four Ravenclaws, the trio, and Ernie Macmillan. They head into the dungeon—which already has several different potions brewing away in it—and sit down by a gold cauldron that smells of treacle tart, a broomstick handle, and something flowery from the Burrow. Harry asks Slughorn for materials, since he and Ron hadn’t known they’d be able to take the class, and Slughorn provides, handing them two battered textbooks.

He tells the students that the potions in the room are ones they should be able to make by the time they complete their N.E.W.T.s, and asks them to identify each. Hermione is first with her hand every time, and identifies them all—Veritaserum, Polyjuice Potion, and finally Amortentia, the most powerful love potion in the world. Hermione knew it from the color, the steam spirals, and the fact that it smells different to each person, according to what attracts them. Slughorn asks for Hermione’s name, and when she tells him that she’s Muggle-born, realizes that she was the friend Harry was talking about. Malfoy is dismayed at Slughorn’s lack of care toward her heritage, and Hermione is entirely pleased that Harry has talked about her so favorably. (Ron is quick to interject that he would have done the same.) Slughorn explains that the Amortentia potion can’t actually make someone feel love—it only makes them infatuated, which is very dangerous. Ernie points to the cauldron on Slughorn’s desk, which the professor identifies as Felix Felicis. Hermione tells them that it is a liquid luck potion, and the whole class is suddenly very interested.

Slughorn explains that it is incredibly difficult to make, and goes horribly wrong if you mess it up. Terry Boot asks why people don’t take it more often, and Slughorn tells them that it causes dangerous and reckless behavior if overdone, and gets toxic in large amounts. The potion is banned from organized competitions as well. He has taken it twice in his life, and had two perfect days from it… and he is offering twelve hours worth as the prize for the end of the lesson. They are tasked with creating the Draught of Living Death, and whoever does it best will get the Felix Felicis. As everyone begins, Harry notes that his copy of the textbook has writing in the margins from the person who owned it first, and he has a hard time ignoring it. Eventually, he tries out one of the altered directions in the margins and it works like a charm. So he tries it on the next part of the directions, and his potion starts shaping up faster than anyone else’s. Slughorn calls time, and Harry easily wins the bottle of Felix.

He tells Ron and Hermione about the book, and Hermione is disappointed that Harry didn’t do his own work. Ron doesn’t think it’s a big deal, though he wishes he could have gotten the book. Then Harry catches that flowery scent from the Amortentia potion and Ginny is behind him, getting concerned over directions Harry is taking from a book. Harry insists that it’s not like Riddle’s diary, but Hermione checks it with magic just to be sure. The book is normal, however, and Harry is annoyed at everyone for bugging him about it. On the back cover the same handwriting can be found, reading: This Book is the Property of the Half-Blood Prince.

Commentary

We get our first glimmer of Lavender/Ron here, and… look, I know teenaged relationships are weird, but I never really got this one. I mean, unless Ron suddenly looks amazing because he’s standing next to Harry all the time and now the student body believes Harry is special and stuff. Lavender is Parvati’s BFF, and it’s not like Parvati would have nice things to say about Ron following how terribly he treated her sister at the Yule Ball in fourth year. It’s part of the problem with Hogwarts being such a small school (if we really only go by the numbers we get in classes and on the page), and also a problem with needing to create uncomfortable relationships in this book and only having a certain number of people set in your cast. Having Romilda Vane crop up is fine if there aren’t a bunch of other characters just like her. So we get Ginny dating Dean Thomas instead of some kid we don’t know, and Ron ends up dating Lavender. The whole set up is understandable from a structural perspective, but it still has moments where it comes off forced.

McGonagall just keeps getting more and more BAMF as the series goes on, and that makes perfect sense to me; given that this is primarily told from Harry’s POV, it takes a while for him to grow up and properly notice how perfect his Head of House actually is:

“I’m sorry, Longbottom, but I cannot let you into my N.E.W.T. class. I see that you have an ‘Exceeds Expectations’ in Charms, however — why not try for a N.E.W.T. in Charms?”

“My grandmother thinks Charms is a soft option,” mumbled Neville.

“Take Charms,” said Professor McGonagall, “and I shall drop Augusta a line reminding her that just because she failed her Charms O.W.L., the subject is not necessarily worthless.”

McGonagall is a tough (though entirely fair) teacher, but more importantly, she is an incredible advisor to her students. It’s not just that she suggests that Neville’s grandmother needs to start accepting Neville for who he is, it’s how perceptive she is of her students’ abilities and wants. She knows that Neville doesn’t really like Transfiguration all that much, and rather than shame him for doing poorly in her own subject, she suggests that he work to his strengths. Moreover, she knows that Augusta Longbottom has an internal prejudice toward a subject that Neville excels at (due to her own lack of aptitude at it). And McGonagall is more than willing to take the heat off of Neville by contacting his grandmother ahead of time. I luff you, Minerva. *heart eyes*

I do love that Harry and Ron just decide to take all of the same classes—Harry has a better idea of what he wants to do, going for the Auror-qualifying lessons, but Ron going along with him is definitely a thing I did with friends while I was in school. We also get mention of the Quidditch tryouts, and I feel like this was one of the smartest moves for book six; Harry being captain makes Quidditch interesting again. It’s easier to care when all the tough decisions are on him this time around, and it’s nice to have some lighter fare in the middle of all this building chaos.

We get to Snape’s class, and while I agree with Hermione that his teaching method is far more grounded, similar to Harry’s—what the hell with all those pictures in the classroom? Sure, you want the kids to see the effects of dark magic as opposed to only reading about it, but you’ve decided that the best way to do that is having animated photographs of horrible curses hanging around the entire year? That’s messed up. It basically proves that Snape is trying to make his students uncomfortable. And there could be merit to that in the practice aspect of the course, when you’re trying to prep these kids for a war, but the pictures are just an atmospheric choice.

They get into pairs to practice and Snape comes at Harry, then scolds him for defending himself and gives him detention for mouthing off, and at this point it’s old hat. Even so, it’s frustrating; the results of last year’s Occlumency lessons have left Harry even more wary of Snape than usual, and he is plainly triggered by the attack. At the point at which he doesn’t even think about the impulse to retaliate, we can recognize the kind of auto-response Harry already displays around people who have abused him.

Potions is next, and as was pointed out in the comments previously, it’s pretty goofy that they didn’t at least tell students that the requirements for the N.E.W.T.-level Potions class had changed. I get that the kids can send away for their supplies, but setting them up to be unprepared for the very first lesson seems antithetical to getting an education, is all. We get more time with Ernie Macmillan, and I’m more amused by the kid every time he shows up. He’s got that super-prep vibe that makes everything he says ever-so-slightly over the top. He’s almost a cliche— I keep expecting him to say things like “Pip pip!” or “Spiffing!” or “I say, good fellow!”

That said, we’ve got a really interesting mix of students in this class. (And if Snape only took the kids who got ‘O’s, you have to wonder how many would have moved on… like, three of them, maybe?) It’s partly an indication of Snape as a teacher, and perhaps partly an indication of which personalities are better-suited to potion-making. Presumably, some kids opted out of the class, not needing it for the careers they’re hoping to get down the line. But with that in mind, we’ve got mostly Slytherins and Ravenclaws. And while Snape certainly showed favoritism amongst his own students, I think that there might be something to the idea that Slytherins and Ravenclaws are predisposed toward the art. It doesn’t seem to be part of the Hufflepuff wheelhouse, given that Ernie is the only one there, and the trio are interesting exceptions for Gryffindor; Hermione wants to take everything and is logical enough to be good at the discipline, while Harry is taking it for job-purposes, and Ron is just there to hang with his pals. (I wonder how potion skills are useful for Aurors, in a practical sense?)

We finally get those telling scents from the Amortentia potion, and what Harry smells is pretty adorable; his favorite dessert, a broomstick, and Ginny. What’s more, it’s a super cute way to clue us into Harry’s feelings before he’s really come to terms with them. He notices that Ginny smells the same way by the end of the chapter, but it’s not enough to be a penny-drop moment for him.

A few words on Felix Felicis: first off, apparently the potion takes six months to make, and Slughorn did not know he was coming back to Hogwarts until super recently, so when/why was this potion brewing? Did he just have a cauldron on hand that only needed heating up? Second, I wonder a lot about how this potion actually functions, and I feel like it’s not truly “luck” in a literal sense so much as it’s something that alters state of mind. This is supported by the fact that taking too much of it leads to recklessness—making it clear that part of what Felix Felicis does is boost your confidence (ironic, considering its “use” on Ron later in the Quidditch match). My suspicion is that the potion alters the user’s perception, unclouding their judgement so that they’re not bogged down by normal human emotions that get in the way of favorable outcomes; worry, doubt, fear, etc. Being that it’s magic, there must be a bit of true “luck” somewhere in there, but I do think that perception is the majority of the trick.

And here we get the introduction to the textbook, and the eponymous Half-Blood Prince. Let’s get one thing out of the way first—“But how could Harry not know it was Snape when he’s been reading his handwriting off the chalkboards for years now?” And there’s more than one option here:

  1. A person’s handwriting can continue to change over the course of their life, and it’s been about 20 years since Snape wrote in that book.
  2. His writing in the margins was super cramped, so it might have looked quite different than blackboard writing where he had more room.
  3. If (as we often see in the films) Snape used magic to write on the board, who’s to say the writing would look remotely similar to his actual handwritten script?
  4. Cursive versus print handwriting is also a possible throw-off here.

Take your pick. It doesn’t bug me all that much as a loose thread.

Then there’s Harry’s use of the altered directions in class. There’s some debate here about whether this is cheating in Hermione’s mind, and this depends a lot on how their textbook is written from where I’m sitting. Because many textbooks are terrible at conveying information, or at giving said information at a useful point. Does the book simply give you the directions for making the potion, or does it carefully explain why the directions result in a well-made potion and how this applies to potion-making overall? If it doesn’t do that, I find no issue whatsoever with Harry using li’l Snape’s directions. If the book does explain why the recipes work the way they do, and Harry is using a text that doesn’t bother with that (because Snape knows for himself, so he has no reason to share), then other students are still learning more than he is. It’s something I actually wish the book dove into more, particularly because Snape’s directions are so helpful.

Of course, Hermione and Ginny are immediately on his case, which makes Harry defensive. Not particularly helpful on the first day of class, guys.

 

Chapter 10—The House of Gaunt

Summary

Harry continues to use the book, making him the star pupil of Slughorn’s class. (Ron can’t read the Half-Blood Prince’s handwriting, and Hermione will only go by the official text.) The textbook contains notes on nearly every page, and some of them seem to be spells that the Prince made up himself. Hermione thinks it might be a woman who wrote it, but Harry points out the “prince” is fairly gender-specific. He heads to his lesson with Dumbledore, ducking out of sight to avoid Trelawney—whose playing cards are referring to conflict, ill omens, violence, and a troubled dark young man who dislikes “the questioner.” Harry arrives at the headmaster’s office, where Dumbledore informs him that he will serve his detention with Snape next week instead. He tells Harry that these “lessons” will be primarily concerned with giving Harry information, which vexes Harry, as the headmaster promised he had told him everything at the end of last term. But Dumbledore wants to move on to information that will require some interpretation on their part, some guesswork.

Dumbledore retrieves the Pensieve, assuring Harry they will enter it together this time. They are heading into Bob Ogden’s memories, a former employee of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, who gave these recollections to Dumbledore before he died. They tip into the memory and follow Ogden toward a town called Little Hangleton, but veer off before reaching the town to find a rundown shack surrounded by thick trees. A dead snake is nailed to the door. A frightening-looking man jumps down from one of the trees to menace Ogden; he tells Ogden to leave, but the man doesn’t understand. Harry realizes that the other man—named Morfin—is speaking Parseltongue. Morfin casts a curse on him, and another man comes out of the house, older, looking rather like a monkey. He laughs at Ogden, insisting that his son was right to defend himself. This other man is Mr. Gaunt, and he sends Morfin inside, though Ogden insists that he’s actually there to see Morfin. Mr. Gaunt suddenly starts asking Ogden whether he’s a pure-blood or not, which Ogden doesn’t care to discuss.

Ogden tells Gaunt that the Ministry sent an owl, but Mr. Gaunt doesn’t open letters. Ogden asks to step inside the house and talk about why he’s come, and after much cajoling, Mr. Gaunt relents. Morfin is inside, singing to a snake in Parseltongue about how he’ll kill it and nail it to the door if it’s not good. By the stove in the main room is a defeated-looking woman, Gaunt’s daughter Merope. When Ogden explains that he’s there because Morfin performed magic in front of a Muggle the night before, Merope drops a pot, and Gaunt and Morfin start shouting at her and making fun of her. Ogden helps her repair one of the pots, and Gaunt taunts his daughter for being a Squib. When Ogden brings up Morfin’s crime again, Gaunt is unfazed, insisting that teaching a “filthy Muggle” a lesson is fine. Ogden tells them that Morfin has been summoned for a Ministry hearing, which sets Gaunt off, and he goes on about their ancestry, talking of how they’re descended from the Peverells and waving a ring with a black stone in the man’s face. He drags his daughter forward by the locket around her neck, a locket that he says belonged to Salazar Slytherin; he claims they’re his only living descendants. Ogden is adamant that Morfin go to the Ministry for his hearing regardless….

Suddenly, they hear the sound of horses. A young man named Tom and a young woman are riding by the house. The woman is aghast at the ugly place, but Tom’s family can do nothing about it, since they don’t own the land there. After they ride away, Morfin starts talking in Parseltongue, telling his sister that Tom was riding with a woman he fancied, so he’d never have her. Gaunt asks about it and Morfin tells him that Merope likes looking at Tom, keeps hanging out of their window when he rides by. It turns out that Tom was the one Morfin hexed, though his memory’s been scrubbed. Gaunt is furious that his daughter would even look at a Muggle and tries to strangle her, leading Ogden to stop him. Morfin rushes Ogden, who flees the house for his life.

Harry and Dumbledore leave the memory, and Dumbledore tells Harry that Ogden came back with reinforcements and Morfin and Mr. Gaunt—whose first name is Marvolo—did some time in Azkaban for the incident. Harry recognizes the name, and Dumbledore confirms that the man is Voldemort’s grandfather. The Gaunt family was a very famous wizarding family that was know for instability and inbreeding. Merope was Voldemort’s mother, and young Tom was his father. When Harry expresses his disbelief that they could wind up married, Dumbledore reminds him that Merope was a witch; her powers had difficulty manifesting around her father, but she worked them out while her father and brother were in Azkaban, and likely used a love potion on Tom Riddle, causing a village scandal when he ran away with her. Marvolo came home to find her gone and died shortly after, either from the shock or from never feeding himself. Tom Riddle came back a few months after running off with Merope, talking of how he was hoodwinked. Dumbledore thinks that Merope stopped giving Tom the love potion, hoping that he had learned to love her back during their time together, or would stay for the sake of their coming child. But they never saw each other again, and eventually Merope died, leaving her baby to an orphanage.

Harry can’t quite figure out what this all has to do with the prophecy, or how knowing Voldemort’s past is useful, but Dumbledore insists it is. He gives Harry permission to tell Ron and Hermione about what he’s seen, but asks him not to tell anyone else. Harry realizes that the ring on the headmaster’s hand is Marvolo’s ring from the memory. Dumbledore tells him that he acquired it right before fetching Harry, but he won’t say anymore and bids Harry goodnight.

Commentary

Hermione is still on Harry about the use of the book, and refuses to use the different directions in class. This is one place where Hermione falls down for me, her complete unwillingness to accept anything outside the delineated guidelines set down by rule makers. If she doesn’t want to use the altered directions because she doesn’t understand why they’re effective, that’s cool. That’s a sound reason. But it seems like she’s refusing on the principle of it, and that’s bad for any person who truly values learning for the sake of learning the way she does. Figure out the altered recipes, become a better potion maker. Don’t become a sanctioned potion maker. It’s the primary divide between Hermione’s methods versus Fred and George’s; by-the-book vs innovation. It’s one way that Hermione hasn’t been properly tested yet, and something that will come up again down the line.

We get a clever clue about the “Half-Blood Prince” when Hermione insists that the owner of the book could have been a woman. Harry dismisses the idea on account of the word “prince.” Of course, we know that Prince is a surname, specifically Snape’s mother’s maiden name. Which means that the Half-Blood Prince could have been a woman, technically speaking. It’s a smart way of alluding to that little trip-up.

So, Slughorn is super praising of Harry, but he would have taught Snape too back in the day… calling Harry his greatest student seems silly when he would have seen the same level of technique from Severus. Which likely means that Slughorn overlooked Snape due to his lack of fancy connections or his dark art leanings. Unfortunate, because Snape was obviously something of a savant with potions. (Just think what an incredible generation of potion-makers he could have trained were he more willing to share that around.)

On the way to his first lesson with Dumbledore, Harry comes across Trelawney and we have another clever bit of misdirection; she’s reading cards (always liked that they were regular playing cards here, rather than the traditional tarot) and there’s one that sounds like it could be about Harry avoiding her, but it’s really about Draco.

We get to Harry’s “lessons” with Dumbledore, which will be all about exploring Voldemort’s past and figuring him out. As usual, Dumbledore does not tell Harry this, but starts right in by showing him. On one hand, this makes sense in terms of Albus Dumbledore as an educator. Despite his various failings, I do think that in his heart, Dumbledore is a teacher first and foremost. It is certainly what he’s best at, though he insists on playing the part of a teacher when it’s far from convenient. On the other hand, Albus retains a great deal of power by choosing when to release information to Harry and how. It’s a very calculated order of events, as proven by his reluctance to explain his hand to Harry at this point.

He tells Harry that because he is so powerful and smart, his mistakes are considerably larger than the average person, which is a huge clue, not just for this book, but for everything we will learn later on in book seven. I’m trying to shore up for all those reveals because Dumbledore’s past is damned sad.

But this time around, we’ve got the Pensieve and the Gaunt family to meet. And it’s about as bad as you could imagine Voldemort’s origins to be. I’m not sure how to feel about the outward appearance of the Gaunts; I understand that they’re inbred, and there’s scientific truth to the sorts of problems that can cause, but they also fall into the “ugly/poor/uneducated people are scary/evil/gross” trope. That said, I think it’s incredibly important that Voldemort’s birth is the result of two very extreme sides of class and society—on the one hand, his poor, inbred, angry, struggling, magical family. On the other hand, his wealthy, ostensibly educated, near-feudal in their power, and decidedly non-magical family. These extremes make a volatile mixture, one that is mired in the problems of a hidden magical community, pureblood fanaticism, class power, sexism, and so many more systematic injustices.

At the center of this is Merope Gaunt, a timid young woman, so abused that her father and brother have literally frightened her into being a Squib. Which does make you wonder how often a Squib could be the result of abuse in a magical household. (And suddenly makes me ask a lot of questions about Filch and his obsession with physical tortures. Oh god, that went to a very upsetting place very quickly. Whoa.)

But abuse begets abuse, even if it’s meant to be a tenderer sort in the abuser’s mind. What Merope does to Tom Riddle is rape, plain and simple. (Again, I come back to the pointed tendency toward male rape narratives in science fiction and fantasy stories.) Riddle is lucky in that he is still a white male and rich and loved, and his reentry into society is guaranteed once he’s back home and has renounced his strange affair. But what happens to him is still horrific. And what happens to Merope is unforgivable.

And on that note… see you next week?

Emily Asher-Perrin is going to have lots of sad thoughts about Squibs for the rest of the day. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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