The Harry Potter Reread would really like to know where the year went, and how it’s supposed to handle another holiday when the previous one was quite tiring. Oh, wintery festivities.
This week we’re gonna find out how you defeat a Dark Lord and try to talk ourselves out of asking our BFF’s sister on a date. It’s chapters 23 and 24 of The Half-Blood Prince—Horcruxes and Sectumsempra.
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.
Felix Felicis is wearing off for Harry as he makes his way back to the castle, and by the time he hits the Fat Lady portrait, she tells him that the password has already changed. Luckily (haha, still got some juice left after all!), after a chat with Nearly-Headless Nick, Harry finds that Dumbledore just arrived back at the castle. Harry rushes to the headmaster’s office, presents him with the memory and they get right to it. In Slughorn’s unaltered memory, he tells Tom that he expects him to become Minister of Magic within 20 years. When Tom stays after the party and asks Slughorn about Horcruxes, the professor pretends to presume that it’s for schoolwork. Tom tells him he came across the term and doesn’t understand it, carefully parsing his language and tone to flatter Slughorn.
The professor proceeds to explain to Tom that a Horcrux is an object that contains part of a person’s soul. If one has a Horcrux, they cannot truly die because pieces of their soul are still intact, though the life they retain would be a terrible life indeed. Riddle asks how they are made, and Slughorn explains that splitting the soul is a violation and can only be achieved through an act of evil: committing murder. Tom wants to know the spell, but of course Slughorn does not know it. Tom then suggests that it would be better to pick a larger number of Horcruxes if one wanted to use them, to make the person stronger. He suggests seven, as it’s a powerful magical number. At this point Slughorn becomes very uncomfortable with the conversation and clearly regrets having given the information. He suggests that Tom not mention this chat—even being an academic one—as it’s a banned subject in school.
They leave the memory and Dumbledore suggests that Harry understands the significance of this conversation. That Voldemort wanted more than just one Horcrux, to create several, which had never been done before. Dumbledore admits that he first realized that Voldemort had succeeded when Harry brought Riddle’s old diary in at the end of his second year; the diary was a Horcrux, and one that could be used as a weapon as well as a vessel. Intending the diary for that purpose, to possess a student and potentially be put in harm’s way, suggested to Dumbledore that Tom must have made many Horcruxes. He then quotes something that Harry told him Voldemort said on his return two years ago: “I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality.” Again, a reference to Horcruxes. Harry asks why he wouldn’t simply use a Philosopher’s Stone, but Dumbledore points out that he did try to steal it, and that it wouldn’t have been quite as alluring as a Horcrux. Tom wouldn’t have wanted to be dependent on the Elixir of Life for all eternity.
But again, Dumbledore brings up the number seven, as Tom did, and Harry balks—if there are seven, they could be anywhere. Dumbledore tells Harry that there are only six, for the seventh part of the soul resides in Voldemort himself, and that would be the last part to destroy for anyone intent on killing him. He then explains that they have already destroyed two of them: one was the diary, the other was Marvolo’s ring. Harry is concerned that the other Horcruxes could be anything at all, but Dumbledore points out that Tom liked his trophies, and would want anything housing a piece of his soul to be an object of great importance. Harry suggests that the diary wasn’t special, but Dumbledore points out what Harry said earlier about the diary proving he was an Heir of Slytherin. Harry realizes that Slytherin’s locket and Hufflepuff’s cup might also be Horcruxes. Dumbledore agrees, and theorizes that having objects that belonged to those two founders, Tom likely wanted the other Horcruxes housed in items belonging to Ravenclaw and Gryffindor. He is certain that Gryffindor’s only relic—the sword—remains safe, but he can’t be certain for everything that belonged to Ravenclaw… which Tom might have found when he came back to ask for the DADA job.
Dumbledore explains that Voldemort likely meant to use Harry’s death to create the sixth Horcrux, but he obviously failed. Having used Nagini to kill the Muggle caretaker of the Riddle house a couple years back, Dumbledore suspects that the snake herself might have become the final Horcrux. He tells Harry that he has been searching for the others whenever he leaves the castle, and believes he’s close to discovering another. Harry asks if he can come along and help destroy it if he does, and Dumbledore agrees that he’s earned that right. Harry asks if Voldemort can tell when the Horcruxes are destroyed, and Dumbledore assumes that he won’t until he’s quite close to death. He explains that the diary’s fate was a mistake; Voldemort probably did intend for a student to get their hands on it and open the chamber again, but not for Lucius to hand it out without permission. Dumbledore tells Harry that without the Horcruxes, Voldemort will be mortal, but still very skilled and hard to kill. Harry doesn’t understand how he could possibly beat him since he’s not special or powerful, with or without the “power of love” that Dumbledore keeps harping on. But Dumbledore points out that the only reason the prophecy about them holds sway is because Voldemort believes in it—he created his own worst enemy by believing the prophecy.
He goes on in effort to explain Harry’s unique position; that Voldemort hand-picked him and then in doing so, handed him the abilities he would need to defeat him. Harry has a window into Voldemort’s mind that no one can have, yet he has never been swayed by the Dark Arts because of the death of his parents—in short, his ability to love. He tells Harry that only someone so pure of heart could have looked into the Mirror of Erised his first year and seen what it took to stop Voldemort. When Harry counters that it still means he’ll have to kill him Dumbledore agrees—but knows it is because Harry himself needs to do it, prophecy be damned. Harry realizes that the Headmaster is right. And in that moment, he realizes that the prophecy has no sway over him at all, and that the choice he is making to fight back is essential and powerful.
So we finally get the memory, and find out what all the little blanked out bits were about. You have to feel bad for Slughorn here; he knows the subject is off, but the narration states that he doesn’t really get the full measure of it until Tom starts asking the super uncomfortable questions. Also, it’s unlikely that having this conversation or not would have made much difference in Riddle’s eventual path; he clearly has most of the information he needs, and is simply asking about making multiple Horcruxes. So Slughorn has been dealing with that guilt when, in truth, Voldemort’s decision to use Horcruxes is far from his fault in any sense. It’s likely that Tom would have attempted multiple Horcruxes even in absence of this conversation, and he probably would have gotten information somewhere else either way.
I appreciate that the narrative states that Harry can read Tom’s careful wheedling tone because he’s had to use it himself more than once. (And once quite recently on the very same person, in fact.) It continues to play that parallel between them, showing how similar means can result in polar opposite outcomes. Harry uses this tactic to learn what he needs to defeat evil, and Tom Riddle clearly used it to entirely different ends. Methods themselves are not good or bad, but people can be. Harry and Tom are a perfect object lesson in that regard, and continue to be throughout the series.
Slughorn says to Tom that he’s not surprised about his interest in Horcruxes, stating “Wizards of a certain caliber have always been drawn to that aspect of magic….” I find myself wondering how true that is across the board. We are told time and again that Slytherins seem into the Dark Arts, and Slughorn would observe that being their Head of House. But is it simply true of all very powerful magical users? This seems a fair assessment in terms of absolutely power and all that. This is even more interesting when Slughorn points out that Horcruxes are a banned subject at the school, and that Dumbledore is particularly keen on that. This would still be at the point when Dippet is Headmaster, if I’m not mistaken, yet Slughorn makes a point of how Dumbledore feels about this. It suggests that Albus was quite vocal in disallowing studies of the Dark Arts too closely. It makes you wonder—what did Grindelwald think of Horcruxes?
The conversation at the end of the chapter is deeply important, a formative point for Harry’s entire character arc. Rowling is careful to attack the issue from every angle, to allow Harry to roll his eyes where he feels the explanation is lacking. It forces Dumbledore to lay everything out much more carefully than before, to explicitly examine the power of prophecy and its hold on Voldemort, to prove to Harry that he will be the one who defeats Voldemort because he wants to, not simply because he must. And there are some fantastic lessons in here too, particularly Albus’ discussion of how tyrants constantly fear those they oppress because they know they will eventually be rallied against. The entire book has been leading up to the point where Harry is allowed to feel some control over his destiny, and this is it. This is the point where Harry realizes that he’s not a Chosen One. He’s just a kid who wants to prevent the man who murdered his parents from ever hurting another person again.
Because, ultimately, that’s what heroism is. Having created a prophecy, Rowling had to address Harry’s arc outside of this fated thing that Voldemort constructed between them. And when she finally does, you have to come away just a little bit proud of Harry. Being a teenager makes it difficult to truly understand or define yourself, and in this moment, Harry makes that choice. He sees himself from the outside, and recognizes what sets him apart. And it’s far from self-aggrandizing—in the end, it’s just a moment where he’s able to feel less a victim of circumstance. When he’s allowed to decide.
Harry tells Ron and Hermione what went down with Dumbledore the previous night when they’re in Charms class. Both of his friends are astounded. Ron admits that he and Lavender broke up, which he’s grateful for, particularly since she did it and he didn’t have to. Hermione informs Harry that Ginny and Dean ask split up last night. She also points out that their break up might make Quidditch awkward. Harry is reeling from thinking about Ginny and trying to convince himself that the fallout with Ron wouldn’t be worth approaching her. When he gets back to the common room, they find that Katie Bell has returned, so now his original team is fit for Quidditch. He asks Katie if she can remember who gave her the necklace, but everything’s a blur to her. Harry thinks he might use the luck potion to try the Room of Requirement again, but Hermione insists that would be a waste, since luck can only help with so much.
Harry finds himself wanting to use the luck potion where Ginny is concerned, just to prevent Ron from murdering him. He continues to spend more time with her, but can never get her alone. The Quidditch team is flying superbly, but they have to beat Ravenclaw by over 300 points to win the Championship. Emotions before the match are running high as ever, but Harry is still also intent on finding out what Draco is doing in the Room of Requirement (to no avail). A few days beforehand, Harry is heading down to dinner alone when he notices Malfoy on the Map in the boys’ bathroom with Moaning Myrtle. He heads down to the bathroom and sneaks in. Myrtle is trying to comfort Draco, to get him to tell her what’s wrong. All he’ll say is that no one can help, and that “he” is planning to kill Draco if he doesn’t do as he’s told. Draco is crying, truly crying, but when he looks up and sees Harry in the mirror behind him he leaps into action. He and Harry both avoid the first hexes they throw at each other and Myrtle panics and begs them to stop. Draco almost casts the Cruciatus Curse on Harry, who then thinks to try Sectumsempra—
—and Draco starts bleeding from his face and chest as though he was sliced up by a blade. He falls to the floor as Harry scrabbles to help. Myrtle cries murder and Snape shows up, slowing the blood from Draco’s wounds and helping them to heal. He drags Draco to his feet and takes him to the hospital wing, telling Harry to stay put. Snape returns, telling Myrtle to leave and questioning Harry about the spell. Harry tells him that he hadn’t known what would happen, but Snape is curious about where Harry learned Dark Magic. Harry admits to reading it somewhere, claiming a library book, but Snape’s not having it. He uses Legilimency to suss out the potions book and tells Harr to bring him all of his schoolbooks immediately. Harry rushes to Gryffindor Tower, takes Ron’s copy of their Potions textbook from him, then takes the Half-Blood Prince copy and hides it in the Room of Requirement, in a room where people have clearly been stashing their secret items for centuries. He rushes past the Vanishing Cabinet and stows the book in a wardrobe. Then he brings his books to Snape, who examines each of them. Finding nothing, he still insists that Harry have detention with him every Saturday for the rest of the year. That overlaps with the final Quidditch match, which makes Snape particularly gleeful.
The news of what Harry’s done spreads fast and he is in terrible trouble, getting a dressing-down from McGonagall as well. He tells the team that Ginny will be Seeker and Dean will be Chser for the match, barely able to look anyone in the eye. Hermione is having field day, insisting that she’d been right about the Prince all along, but Harry won’t have that, insisting that the mistake was his in using the spell, and that he feels terrible for it. Ginny defends him against Hermione, causing a fight between them that shocks Harry and Ron. On the day of the match, Harry heads to detention and finds that he’ll be copying out Filch’s old punishment files—the ones that have grown faint or been mussed—without magic. Snape hands him a box that contains files with many of the detentions and punishments doled out to the Marauders. Three hours later, Snape lets Harry leave. He heads up to the common room, unsure of the outcome of the match. Once the portrait swings forward, he is met with cheers: Gryffindor won.
Ginny approaches Harry, and without thinking it overmuch, Harry kisses her. The common room breaks out in giggles and whistles, Dean and Romilda Vane look furious, Hermione is pleased, and Ron is startled before giving Harry the silent sure-why-not. Harry and Ginny leave the common room to take a stroll on the grounds.
Finally all the annoying couples are broken up, and all the couples that have been pining away for each other are aligning. Or at least, that’s what the narrative conveniently does for us in one fell swoop. Whatever. It’s cool. I wasn’t really keen on hearing much more about Dean scowling and Lavender crying. I feel bad for them, but their teenage heartbreak isn’t important enough to what’s going on to hold my attention. In fact, I could levy some criticism here at how superfluous those relationships feel all the way through. I get that they’re a stepping stone, but it would have been nice to see them fleshed out just a little bit.
So Harry finally gets the chance to corner Draco, and what we see is just so damn painful. After years of this haughty, superior brat who loves to throw his weight around, we encounter this shell of a boy who’s terrified for his life and utterly alone. I mean, I was never one of those “oh Draco, my poor baby” fans at all, but this moment always gets me. It’s easy to forget that bullies are still people when they’re cruel enough. It’s easy to forget that Draco Malfoy was a product of his upbringing and still has feelings of his own. It’s easy to ignore the pain of someone who causes so much pain to others. But by being able to see him at his most vulnerable, it rushes back to you… and it’s hard not to care about this abused kid who’s being press-ganged into what is essentially an evil cult.
And then he and Harry instinctively go at each other, and Harry uses the spell that you always knew would be a problem, but the visceral damage it does to Draco still comes as a shock. I remember gasping aloud the first time I read it, that wave of dread that hits you. In the moment where we see Draco vulnerable, it’s important that we also have a moment of oh no, Harry, what did you do?
Snape rushes in, and you have to give the book credit—it makes it clear that he knows what’s going on, but it does an excellent job of keeping his identity as the Prince hidden. Rereading makes this all so much rougher, though; Harry hiding the book in the Room of Requirement and RUSHING RIGHT PAST THE VANISHING CABINET, not even taking the time to realize that if he’s looking for a place to hide something, it stands to reason that Draco would have been looking for the exact same thing when he used the room. Ugh. The irony just burns here. Uuuuuggggghhhhh.
He gets his detentions, and Hermione is superior, and we gets this really awkward moment where Ginny defends Harry and she and Hermione are at odds. On the one hand, it’s nice to have someone other than Harry telling Hermione to step off because Harry really doesn’t need to feel more guilty. And it’s also impressive that he manages to take all the blame onto himself; yes, he wants to keep the book, but ultimately taking the blame is a move of maturity—I shouldn’t have done this stupid thing, I messed up. (I end up having such a personal reaction in this section, the physical sensation that you feel when you know you’ve screwed something up, it overwhelms me at this point in the book.) On the other hand, it’s awkward to have this moment where Ginny and Hermione have a kind of stand off over who is willing to defend Harry. And that this is supposed to be the first time they’ve ever been at odds about something. Just… friends fight about other things sometimes. It’s weird that this had to be the first thing, even if it’s supposed to be a clue that Ginny is just as into Harry as he is into her.
Harry has to go to detention, and yet again I’m struck by how intensely Filch is effed up as a person to have kept all these files, and to want them recopied. Dude… all this stuff happened decades ago. Why do you still need to have hardcopy on it. Do you take out files of your favorite punishments and read them at the end of a long day with a glass of brandy? Because that’s real creepy. Also, I’m kind of surprised that Harry never notes Snape coming up in those files. Then again, his crowd was probably real good at never getting caught for what they did. The Marauders clearly didn’t care much.
And then Harry gets something nice to balance out all the crappiness—Gryffindor wins! Ginny wants to kiss him! Ron is cool with it!
Honestly, his reaction is one of my favorite things about this. After all that panicking, Ron—ever the best friends—is all “Huh? ….I mean, okay, dude. Weird, but okay.”
Actually, I remember being super excited about how this went down when I first read it. Because Ginny is such a boss here, and Harry just kinda falls into it because he’s helpless against her charms. Pretty darned romantic for teenagers. And then all those kids get to tell their children that they were around when Harry Potter kissed his wife for the first time, and that’s twelve kinds of hilarious.
Emmet Asher-Perrin is just so happy that Gryffindor won when Harry was doing something else, so we didn’t get a blow-by-blow of the match. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.