Novel * J.K. Rowling * Oh, Snap * 2005
We’re almost there. Although somehow things just keep getting worse and worse and the atmosphere of these stories become more and more oppressive with each subsequent chapter and by the time we get to the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the wizarding apocalypse is underway. Coming between Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows, Half-Blood Prince acts as a bridge from the official return of Voldemort and the desperate final battle we all know is coming. It’s a shorter book, which is a bit of a relief considering for a while there it just seemed like these things were just going to continue ballooning in size until the last book was like a thousand pages long. Rowling reeled herself in, and this book loses none of its power for its leanness. Nearly all of the characters have come into their own, flaws and all. Harry, now sixteen, has at left most of his angst behind but still finds ways to be an obnoxious teenager. Yet for all that, this book is mostly remembered for one thing, and one thing only.
Before we get to that thing, other stuff happens in this book. I enjoy the continuation of using the first chapter to explore other viewpoints, even if it’s a brief detour. In this case, we get a rare Muggle perspective, as the Prime Minister is shown fretting about how difficult his job is and how the whole magical terrorism thing isn’t really helping. Meanwhile, Half-Blood Prince is the one with Horace Slughorn and the Slug Club, Fred and George’s dope joke shop, the return of Fleur “Phlegm” Delacour, The Unbreakable Vow, Draco exacting some revenge, Felix Felicis, Ron Weasly getting some action, Luna Lovegood continuing being perfect, Ginny, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, and where we are introduced to Horcruxes and why they pose a problem. There’s a lot going on here, but of course when this came out all anyone wanted to talk about was the ending, which I’m going to do now.
Since spoiling this novel has become a meme at this point, I figured we may as well discuss the nature of this particular spoiler, but also the term in general. The idea is, if you learn about a particular plot point ahead of time, the entire work is then ruined. I hate this idea, even if I understand the desire to experience a story fresh. The reason I hate it is relatively simple: it implies that the only worthwhile thing a good story does is surprise. The thought that “oh, well now that I know this certain thing happens, the rest of the story is pointless” is abhorrent, as someone who loves storytelling of any kind. That said, I do understand where this comes from. If you’re invested in a story, especially something like Harry Potter which has been coming in installments and is something people have spent years reading and relating to, you want to enjoy that newest story alone. I was certainly caught up with the series by the time the last books came out, and I bought the thing on day one and had them finished in a day or two. And the unexpected thing at the end of Half-Blood Prince is a real nutbutter, and I’m glad I was able to experience it without knowing that it was coming. It was cool.
That said, I’ve re-read these books many times, and I seem to enjoy them more with each reading, despite knowing exactly what’s going to happen. You can only rely on the unexpected once. If you need hot new surprising experiences every time you read a book, or watch a show or movie, then I feel sorry for your attention span, I guess. Now, if someone had told me the end of this particular book before I had finished reading it, I would have been irritated. But it’s not like I would have stopped reading it. It’s one thing to say “yo, Snape kills Dumbledore” and quite another to read how and why that ending came about. Rowling is an incredibly gifted craftsman and world-builder, and the way in which the story reaches this conclusion is of paramount importance. The ending of Half-Blood Prince isn’t a twist at all, but rather the logical payoff of five previous books setting expectations. What makes the climactic scene of this novel special is all the groundwork Rowling has laid out before we get to the pivotal scene at the end.
Rowling enjoys herself a good red herring fake-out. With the ending of Half-Blood Prince, she pretty much outdoes herself because she has five other books to lean on when it comes to setting our expectations. We know that Snape isn’t a bad guy. He’s a dick, obviously, but he’s not evil. We know this, because he’s been used as a red herring before and it has been explained not only to Harry, but to us. The same goes for Draco Malfoy. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but despite his father it’s been made fairly clear that the boy isn’t evil. So when Harry is immediately suspicious of Draco, his friends, who are by now tired of Harry’s obsessive nature, roll their eyes and try to change the subject. We as readers are also meant to be exasperated with Harry’s obsession with Draco, and I can’t be the only one who actively enjoyed Draco getting the drop on Harry for once. He just stomps on Harry’s stupid snooping face and it was like, yes, thank you, kick some sense into this idiot’s head please. Alas, it doesn’t work.
The annoying thing is, of course, that Harry is correct in his suspicions. Draco is in fact up to no good. Snape is assisting him. After all the previous fake-outs, the thing Rowling has been hinting at with her not-initially-subtle characterization of Draco and Snape is finally becoming reality. By the end of this novel, we learn that Draco has spent the entire school year trying to devise a way to murder Dumbledore. Snape has been trying to assist him because of the Unbreakable Vow he made with Draco’s mother. Of course, there’s a final detail about all of this that doesn’t really come up much in Half-Blood Prince and strings this aspect of the story out to the very end, and that’s the question of motive. Draco still isn’t evil. He flails at his job because it’s clear that he doesn’t want it. Of course, he almost murders a couple of students by accident due to his incompetence, but he doesn’t really have an alternative. He’s a kid, and by all accounts not terribly smart, and oh, if Draco fails he’s dead. That’s a lot of stress! By the end of the story, his entire motivation is self-preservations, which is perhaps less noble than what Harry Potter and his buddies strive for, but is nonetheless emphatically not evil.
Snape, on the other hand, has some issues. If you’ve read the entire series, you know where this all goes. However, at the end of Half-Blood Prince, it is apparent that Snape has been deceiving Dumbledore this entire time, and he has finally exploited that trust to murder Voldemort’s biggest obstacle to world domination. We don’t really see much of Snape in this book, at least not in person. Of course, the titular Half-Blood Prince is Snape’s teenage name for himself, so he is clearly the most important character here. As it happens, he was a talented, troubled youth. We already know that Snape was not popular, and that Harry’s dad was inexcusably mean to him. The Half-Blood Prince’s Potions textbook is an insight into Snape’s adolescent mind, and it’s troubling and sad. It’s clear that he was exceptionally talented, and you can understand why young Snape would feel the keen injustice of being marginalized in the eyes of others because he was oily and gross (although, I’m not sure why he couldn’t just whip up a magic shampoo that would take care of that). And so he flirted with the Dark Arts, mostly to show all those haters out there that it was a mistake to underestimate his abilities.
It’s no wonder that Harry identifies with the Half-Blood Prince throughout this book. After what’s been happening to him over the years, he’s obviously feeling alienated from the rest of the students. I mean damn, people were accusing him of attempted murder when he was twelve for crying out loud. There hasn’t been a year gone by when he hasn’t been singled out and isolated from the rest of the crowd. Even if he is inevitably redeemed, that suspicion is always there. Now of course Harry, for all his many annoying faults, still has a heart of gold. His best friends are all weirdo outcasts and Harry has embraced them in spite of their oddballness. Snape never had that, and from what information we’re given, most of that is his own fault. Snape is smart enough to recognize it, which is why he lashes out at Harry, who has figured out how to be an alienated weirdo without being a little psycho. Snape holds all that hate and anxiety within himself, because he was never able to bring himself to open up to anyone other than Harry’s mother, Lily. Without her, there is nothing keeping him from delving the depths of darkness, which of course culminates in Dumbledore’s murder.
Even without the benefit of knowing how the final book unfolds, there’s clearly more to Snape’s actions than we are told. I remember reading the ending for the first time and thinking, “oh, I don’t know about that.” I also remember thinking that the final book has a lot of goddamn work to do in order to wrap this all up. There’s a lot in the air at the end of Half-Blood Prince. We only just learn what a Horcrux is toward the end, and how difficult they are to acquire and destroy. The scene in the cave with Harry and Dumbledore is haunting and lonely, and the horror and heroism that happen simultaneously on the shores of that terrible lake are but a shadow of what’s coming. This book at least has the benefit of taking place at Hogwarts, where there is still some vestige of the lighthearted whimsy of the first books remaining. However, it’s made clear at the end of Half-Blood Prince that the final book is going to be something entirely different, and likely dark and horrible.
A Note on the Movie
David Yates knocks it out with all four of his films. They not only look great and fit the tone perfectly, but the adaptations are adequate. By now we know how this works. These movies work best when you’re familiar with the books and can fill in the gaps which are required by the limited space of a film. What stands out about Half-Blood Prince is its sense of humor. There’s more joking around than any of the movies since the extremely silly Prisoner of Azkaban. Obviously the actors have all grown a considerable amount, so they’re better at their jobs and as a result the entire production feels more relatable and real than the previous films. I think that the scene in which Harry takes the Felix Felicis is possibly my favorite scene in the entire series. Harry’s such an affable goof it makes up for a lot of his shortcomings. Like any adaptation, there’s always going to be curious changes made, but it says quite a bit about the quality of the movie that, despite watching this a few days ago, I cannot remember any examples.