Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Even though it says this was posted on July 12, I didn't write this until August 15, which is the reason I talk about having already read Deathly Hallows. I was not one of those people who read what was posted before the book was released--far from it. That last week I didn't go near the internet, except for a few trusted sites that were not posting any spoilers, whether they were real or not; I barely checked my email, and didn't listen to the news or read the newspapers. The date here just shows that my intention was to post something before the last book--something that obviously didn't happen.

I had hoped to finish or at least post some thoughts on Half-Blood Prince before I read Deathly Hallows, but that didn't happen. Since I've now read DH twice, I feel the need to revisit HBP. My reading of it now, however, will always be different than my original feelings about HBP. Maybe that's not such a bad thing, though. It was a book that I found, at once, fascinating and frustrating, making it ultimately one of my least favorites of the series. Now, however, I find that Rowling was very right in saying that HBP was really the first part of the last book, and viewing it in that way changes a lot. I've also found that listening to Stephen Fry reading HBP is even better than reading it--his interpretation of what the characters were feeling is excellent, and gave me new insight into the depth of Dumbledore's pain in the Cave as well as the grief of all the Order after Dumbledore's death.

In Half-Blood Prince, not only do we see a very different Dumbledore, but we see a different Harry. Dumbledore is suddenly talking to Harry, all the time, and on a much more collaborative level than we have ever seen. First it's Dumbledore who comes to collect/rescue Harry from the Dursleys, and Dumbledore who gives the Dursleys a needed lesson in manners as well as child rearing. It's then Dumbledore who takes Harry along on a mission to secure a new Hogwarts teacher, when it seems the most unnecessary thing for him to do. It's Dumbledore, then, who says that Harry will be having private lessons with him throughout the year, and no, it won't be to repair the failed attempt at Harry learning Occlumency. And it's Dumbledore, who leads Harry through the Pensieve memories in an attempt to learn more about what Voldemort has done and might be planning to do, as well as Dumbledore who further reiterates that he completely trusts Severus Snape, even after Harry learns that it was on Snape's word that Voldemort sought out Harry's parents and himself to kill.

(One side note, here, though, about Occlumency--and a spoiler if you haven't read DH, which I assume people now have. Even though Harry was abysmal at it with Snape, and could never keep Snape from probing his own thoughts, I always thought that Harry had had enough Occlumency lessons to understand how it was supposed to work and what he needed to do. I was glad to see that all that time spent with Snape wasn't wasted when Harry was able to use Occlumency, but more important, Legilimency in DH. Occlumency always seemed to be the negative of the two old forms of magic--one, closing your mind, while the other opened the mind and gave one the ability to move forward, using information and intuition.)

So much of HBP is Harry's time with Dumbledore, distracted by Harry's time with the Prince--who, it turns out, is the very person he has decided he hates the most--Snape. He spends a lot of time with the Prince, when he pours over the Advanced Potions book, with Snape's notes written everywhere. (Hermione occasionally points out that he could have got that information from Snape in their Potions classes if he had paid better attention.) Harry is convinced that the Prince was the most brilliant student ever, to come up with all these wonderful hints at potion brewing, which work better than the book's intstructions, not to mention all the useful spells, which Harry often tries without having a clue about the consequences. Some are funny--Ron being lifted upside down as a wake up call one morning, and the idea of Filch not being able to talk, or Crabbe (or was it Goyle) having toenails too long, making it hard for him to walk.

It's funny, until Hermione points out that hanging someone upside down for sport is not that different than what they saw the Death Eaters doing at the World Cup. And then it's not funny at all. Nor is the memory that Harry saw his dad doing the same thing to Snape in Snape's Pensieve memory. Or Snape's constant taunting of Harry that his dad and Sirius were known for hexing people in the halls just because they could.

Suddenly we see a side of Harry that made me--and others, some of whom still haven't got past it--very uncomfortable. I'm not sure that I'm really 'past it' either, but I have come to see it differently than when I first read the book. I found it much easier to be sympathetic to a yelling, angry, depressed Harry in Order of the Phoenix than to embrace this new adventurous Harry, who had become somewhat of a bully. And truth be told, I still don't like it that Harry "went there". In one way, it seems so inconsistent with Dumbledore always saying that Harry was so pure of heart. None of that seemed very pure of heart to me, and still doesn't.

Perhaps, though, that's where the definition of pure of heart becomes more important. I read it, especially after Harry was so distraught over seeing James and Sirius being bullies, and Harry clearly understanding Snape's point of view, that it meant Harry was above any of the sort of things that teens often try out--and then come to realize they were wrong, and they grow up and wouldn't think of doing those kinds of things once they are adults.

It doesn't excuse James and Sirius (who apparently were bullies for most of the time they were at Hogwarts, starting apparently with Snape on their first train ride to Hogwarts), but it does show that Harry was not perfect. He was not above temptation--the temptation to reap the public praise from Slughorn of being a brilliant Potions student--especially after all the humiliation he suffered at Snape's hands in the class. He found a way to "pay back" some of those who had bullied him for the previous five years, by using some of the Prince's spells on them. Right behavior? Good choices, on Harry's part? Absolutely not. Understandable, maybe.

The most disturbing use Harry makes of the unexpected windfall of spells from the Prince is when he uses Sectumsempra on Malfoy. It was one of those moments that happens to people, a moment when our common sense is driven to the back of our minds and we make the mistake of lashing out at someone because of fear and anger, without considering the consequences; Harry experienced a moment of sudden fear and anger (Malfoy was trying to Crucio Harry, and he knew what that felt like already), and having the Sectumsempra spell lurking in the back of his mind, having wished he could try it out to see what it did, it's not surprising that Harry used it on Draco, who had taunted Harry and his friends from their first year. It does not excuse Harry in any way. But what happens afterwards is more important, I think.

Harry is horrified to see what the spell does, he immediately regrets his use of it, and only wants to help Draco (which, lost in the moment, was Harry's instinct in the first place when he saw Draco crying), though of course, there is nothing that he could have done. As Snape tells him, that was powerful Dark Magic, and Harry would have no way of knowing the counter-curse. Snape arrives, and is able to partially heal Draco, then turns on Harry. Harry offers no excuses for his exceedingly poor choice; he obeys Snape's order to stay there. He does hide the Prince's Potions book, and tries to get Snape to give him some other punishment, other than missing the last Quidditch game. But mostly what we see is that, even though Harry resents Snape and the detention Snape came up with, Harry does know and accept that what he did was so very wrong, and he regrets his foolishness in trying out that spell on anyone, even on Draco.

When Dumbledore talked about the purity of Harry's heart, then, he didn't mean that Harry was always going to be a perfect little boy, always doing the right and proper things, leading a goody-two-shoes kind of life. What he meant was that Harry, who is human (an everyman), will make mistakes, but that he will make the right moral choices in the end because he is filled with love. Dumbledore understood, that even when Harry was angry with him in his fifth year, there were reasons for Harry's anger; we all have to deal with all of our emotions, not just the positve ones. To deny that we have a full range of emotions, is to deny that we are human, and as human beings, none of us are perfect. Not even Harry. Just as Harry has a pure heart that leads him to accept people and other creatures for who they are and not for their status in the wizarding world, he also had to work through his own faults and short-comings. In Half-Blood Prince, we see Harry coming to terms with who he is, his strengths as well as his weaknesses. That's a step on his journey that is crucial to his fight against the evil of Voldemort.

Dumbledore, early in his adult life, we learn in Deathly Hallows had to understand his own weakness, his desire for power. Harry doesn't have that same desire for power, but he has to learn in HBP that he must stay focused on his true quest and that wanting and seeking revenge will not help him. When he cast the Sectumsempra against Draco, there must have been a moment as he cast that spell, very brief, when Harry felt that he was paying back Draco for the ways Draco had mistreated and humiliated him. But even though he doesn't like Draco later, nor forgive Draco his fascination with the Dark Arts, Harry does see Draco in a new light after that, a light that has the glimmer of forgiveness, and at least of compassion for what became of Draco, who was trapped more by the choices of his family before being trapped by his own choices.

Half-Blood Prince is very much the first half of the end of the story. When viewed in that way, it's much easier to see that Harry had to work through his own imperfections, just as Dumbledore did. One of the tragedies of not coming to terms with our own faults is that we live a life of regret, bitterness and hopelessness, which is what we later learn happened to Severus Snape, the "Prince" to whom Harry owed so much. Just how much, and why, Harry doesn't learn until much later.


Note: I may come back to edit this later, but I wanted to get some of this down before I completely move away from the sixth book.