What Makes Half-Blood Prince So Important?

Between the darker tone and heavier themes of Order of the Phoenix and the all-out epic conclusion to the series in Deathly Hallows, it’s easy to overlook Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It seems lighter, softer, tamer, and far less significant. The movie was rated PG, while all the others from Goblet of Fire onward were PG-13. Its plot spends a great deal of time focusing on teenage romantic drama and day-to-day life at Hogwarts, while Voldemort himself never appears except in flashbacks and in the looming threat of danger that remains in the background until the end. It’s certainly not the most exciting Harry Potter book, and I’ll admit it’s not my personal favorite. But it does have a significant role to play.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence. Not that Harry has ever been totally innocent, at least not in the “sheltered and naïve” sense of the word. But in Order of the Phoenix, he has seen his parents’ killer return from the dead and murder one of his classmates, barely escaped with his own life, and attempted to warn his fellow wizards, only to be mocked, ridiculed, and viewed as either delusional or a liar by almost everyone. He sees the most trusted adults in his life fighting in secret to protect the wizarding world from a threat it won’t acknowledge exists, and at school, he does the same with his friends, forming a Defense Against the Dark Arts study group that grows into a full-blown resistance movement. Meanwhile, his dreams are haunted by that night in the graveyard and by visions of what Voldemort is doing, leading him and his friends into a battle against the Death Eaters where Harry loses one of his father figures and has to withstand being possessed by Voldemort. Harry has certainly endued hardships before, but this is different.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence, and Deathly Hallows is a high-stakes war story. In contrast, Half-Blood Prince is a last chance for Harry and his friends to just be teenagers. The world believes them now; the adults in power are doing their best to defeat Voldemort; Harry has heard the prophecy and knows he will have to face him someday, but that might be years in the future; and in the meantime, he has tests to pass, Quidditch games to win, and a growing crush on Ginny to deal with.

That doesn’t mean it’s filler, though. I would argue that Harry needs the chance to be a teenager before he sets off on his quest to defeat Voldemort. He needs to understand and experience the normal life he’s giving up in order to be the Chosen One. More importantly, he’s fighting to allow others – perhaps not his classmates, who mostly get drawn into the war along with him, but the younger students and the next generation – to live in a safer world where they will be able to live normal lives, and where teenagers will not have to fight in wars against Dark Wizards. Those moments “out of someone else’s life” that he spends with Ginny matter more than they seem to at first. Ron, Hermione, and to an extent all the children of Hogwarts are also given one last peaceful year before the full-fledged war portrayed in Deathly Hallows.

I said that Order of the Phoenix is a loss-of-innocence story, but so is Half-Blood Prince – not for Harry himself, but for Draco Malfoy. Like Harry, Malfoy has never been entirely innocent – he’s a vicious, mean-spirited bully – but in his own way, he’s incredibly sheltered and naïve. He doesn’t seem to have had an independent thought in his life and has never been through any real hardship. In Half-Blood Prince, he’s recruited to work for Voldemort and given a special mission to kill Dumbledore, which does not go according to plan. He becomes increasingly sullen and withdrawn as the year goes on, before finding himself unable to commit murder when the opportunity finally arises. In the same way that Harry transformed from child hero to pariah to resistance leader, Draco goes from playground bully to Death Eater to a conflicted young man incapable of either true good or true evil. Their stories are parallels that come to opposite conclusions, which makes sense since they are foil characters.

Finally, Half-Blood Prince sets the stage for Deathly Hallows. In Harry’s private lessons with Dumbledore, they explore flashback memories of Voldemort’s past, which allow them to figure out what kind of Dark Magic he used to make himself immortal and how to reverse it. His journey in Deathly Hallows revolves mostly around this, ending with the revelation that Harry himself must die in order for Voldemort to die – and, of course, the further twist that he doesn’t die at all. Dumbledore’s death at the end puts Harry in a position of having to face Voldemort alone, without his most powerful protector, while Snape’s actions seem to establish his role as a villain rather than an ambiguous character in Deathly Hallows, thus subtly setting the stage for the revelation of his true loyalty.

While the threat of Voldemort is present only in the background, it’s still there, and it casts its shadow over the whole story. Students are pulled out of school by parents who are afraid the school is not safe. Shops in Diagon Alley close down when the shop owners go missing. Bridges mysteriously collapse, morally-lacking opportunists sell bogus protective charms, and thanks to Polyjuice Potion and the Imperius Curse, you can never be quite sure who might not be who they seem. The war against Voldemort is raging in the background, a student is plotting to kill the Headmaster, Harry is learning and preparing to eventually fulfill the prophecy, and by the end it’s clear that he will have to do so sooner rather than later. All of this leads directly into Deathly Hallows, which in turn builds up to the Battle of Hogwarts and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.

 

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The Virtues of Harry Potter: Equality

How could I possibly write this series of posts without talking about equality? One of the biggest common threads running through all seven Harry Potter books is the idea that everyone should be treated equally and given the same opportunities.

It’s there in the story of Hogwarts’ founding, when Helga Hufflepuff insists on accepting all magical children and personally takes it upon herself to teach those rejected by her co-founders. Her vision of Hogwarts as a welcoming and inclusive school persists to the present day, and Dumbledore is known for turning no child away from Hogwarts. He accepts not just those from Muggle families, but even those who are not fully human, such as werewolves and half-giants. This stands in stark contrast to the more selective Durmstrang, which is run by a former Death Eater and accepts only children from old magical families.

It’s there in the portrayal of non-human characters, too. Much time and care is spent telling Lupin’s story: how his parents were sure he would never even be allowed to attend Hogwarts, how he carefully hid his true nature from even his closest friends, and how he struggled to find work as an adult, all because he was a werewolf. While some werewolves, such as Fenrir Greyback, are in fact monsters, so are some humans, such as Voldemort and Bellatrix. Hermione equates the discrimination against werewolves with the oppression of house-elves, and she’s missing a few fine distinctions, but she’s not far off. Magical society tends to view any not-quite-humans, even those that are clearly intelligent and human-like, as their inferiors – and they are relentlessly condemned for doing so.

The themes of equality and inequality cut right through to the novel’s central conflict. Voldemort, although his own father was a muggle, uses the magical community’s distrust of muggle-born wizards to rally supporters to his side. Meanwhile, Harry himself grew up in the muggle world, one of his two best friends is muggle-born, and he constantly stands up against the Death Eaters’ bigoted views. Even the first time he meets Draco Malfoy, he has no patience for his offhand comments that Hogwarts should be only for the old magic families and shouldn’t let “the other sort” in.

He also has no patience for Malfoy’s scornful attitude toward Ron, who at that point he has just begun to become friends with. He doesn’t care about Ron’s hand-me-down clothes and lack of pocket money; he can already tell that Ron is a true friend, and that’s all that matters. The Weasleys have very little in comparison with the Malfoys, but they are happy to adopt Harry as an honorary family member and share with him everything they have.

Snobby, superior attitudes are not tolerated in the world of Harry Potter. Every character, whether magical or muggle, pure-blood or muggle-born, human or non-human, is treated with the respect they deserve by the series’ heroes. That’s not to say they’re Stepford children who are kind and respectful to everyone, but if they dislike certain professors or classmates, it’s because of who they are, not what. The villains, on the other hand, almost all display ignorance and prejudice, sometimes taken to a murderous extreme. It’s clear that the novels have a message to share here, and one that is perennially relevant.

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Loyalty

There’s more than one way to be a hero, and while the boldness and bravery of Gryffindor has its place, Hufflepuff traits are equally worthwhile. In fact, one of the most important Hufflepuff traits – loyalty – is a recurring theme in the books. Every character, regardless of house, has to figure out who and what they’re loyal to and faces conflicts forcing them to choose whether to be loyal or not.

This is not always an easy decision, and the characters don’t always choose right. For instance, the main trio squabble and fight like any normal teenagers, but they always make up and reunite by the end of the book. Even after Ron abandons Harry and Hermione in Deathly Hallows, he quickly regrets it and returns to them as soon as he is able. Dumbledore’s Army is defined by their loyalty to Harry, and Harry, likewise, is always loyal to Dumbledore, even in moments when it’s far from the easy thing to do.

Disloyalty, on the other hand, is one of the failings most strongly condemned in the series. Characters who reveal themselves to be two-faced or untrustworthy rarely get any sympathy. Peter Pettigrew is best known not as a former friend of Harry’s father, but rather, as the man who betrayed the Potters to Voldemort. Marietta Edgecomb’s betrayal of the DA, Percy Weasley’s decision to turn his back on his family, and Grindelwald’s betrayal of Dumbledore are all taken seriously. Only when characters turn away from the dark side is the decision to turn “traitor” portrayed positively, and only when it is grounded in loyalty to someone or something else. Snape changes sides out of loyalty to Lily, and Sirius “betrayed” his family by choosing Gryffindor and later joining the Order, both of which are portrayed positively. However, Igor Karkaroff was only trying to save his own skin when he betrayed the Death Eaters, and it doesn’t earn him any sympathy.

Can loyalty be taken to an unhealthy extreme? Yes, and its name is Bellatrix Lestrange. She is unfailingly – and even selflessly – loyal to Voldemort, but it doesn’t make her a better person. She is simply deranged and bloodthirsty and latching onto someone just as evil as her. In a similar way, Chastity Barebone from Fantastic Beasts is fanatically loyal to her mother, unlike her two siblings, and is by far the least sympathetic of the three. Her inability to question the Second Salemers’ cruelty is not in any way a redeeming trait.

In other words, loyalty should not be blind or unquestioning. We should choose our loyalties carefully and make sure the person or cause is deserving. However, loyalty – once given – is a promise that should not be broken lightly.

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Redemption

Last week, I talked about mercy as one of the virtues that shape Harry and Dumbledore’s choices. This week I’m going to talk about the flip side of all those second chances.

We all make mistakes. It’s only human nature to do so. However, there are different ways we can handle a wrong choice. We can refuse to admit we were wrong. We can decide it’s too late to turn back. Or we can acknowledge our mistakes and try our best to make them right. That’s not an easy decision to make, and it’s often harder to come back from a poor choice than it would have been to make the right choice in the first place. Truly attempting to atone for the wrong one has done is something that requires integrity and honor.

When it comes to this, the most obvious example most people probably think of is Snape. After Voldemort kills Lily Potter, Snape realizes he was wrong to become a Death Eater and changes sides. He can never bring himself to let go of his hatred for James (and by extension, Harry) or his surly, unpleasant attitude, but in spite of this, he agrees to help Dumbledore protect Harry, and, when Voldemort returns, to work as a spy for the Order of the Phoenix. I know that a lot of people have very strong opinions one way or another on Snape. My personal feeling is that he’s a bad person who did a lot of good things, or perhaps a good person who did a lot of bad things, and that the distinction between those is so blurry it’s hard to say which. But choosing to turn away from Voldemort was undoubtedly the right choice to make.

Snape is hardly the only example of such a change. I always find myself moved strongly by the story of Regulus Black. Regulus was raised to believe in the twisted ideals Voldemort stood for and joined the Death Eaters when he was sixteen years old. And yet, when he discovered the depths of evil Voldemort was willing to descend to, he dedicated himself to bringing him down. He even gave his own life to do so. He could easily have run and tried to hide, or attempted to bury his conscience and continued working for Voldemort. There was nothing self-serving or easy about Regulus’ choice, and it didn’t benefit him, but he did it anyway. There’s something very honorable about that, despite the bad choices that got him there in the first place.

Slughorn is a milder example. He’s not a bad person and never intentionally worked for Voldemort, but he was one of Tom Riddle’s teachers at Hogwarts and doesn’t like to admit that Tom was part of the Slug Club, his little group of favorites. He’s even more ashamed of a truth Harry and Dumbledore don’t manage to unearth until well into Half-Blood Prince: that he unknowingly played a part in Tom’s transformation into Voldemort. He attempts to conceal this information out of fear until Harry convinces him that the brave thing to do is to share what he knows with them. By the final book, however, Slughorn is finally willing to stand up to Voldemort and gathers reinforcements to help the “good guys” win the Battle of Hogwarts.

Even our heroes end up with regrets that push them to do better. Ron, for instance, makes a huge mistake when he walks out on Harry and Hermione in Deathly Hallows. As he tells them later, he wanted to return almost as soon as he had left – and although finding a way back isn’t easy, he arrives just in time to save Harry’s life and help him retrieve Gryffindor’s sword. The trio’s friendship returns as strong as ever, and they are united as they face the final battle with Voldemort.

And I mentioned Dumbledore last week, but it bears repeating: the fact that Harry’s own mentor figure made mistakes of his own in his youth is at first a world-shattering revelation for Harry, until he learns to accept Dumbledore’s imperfection. The whole situation not only explains why Dumbledore is so willing to offer second chances, but also gives credibility to the idea that they can be worthwhile. The remorse that Dumbledore felt over Ariana’s death led him to turn his intelligence and power toward good and to play a major part in the defeat both the most dangerous Dark Wizards present in his lifetime.

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Mercy

At the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore explains to Harry that Voldemort “shows just as little mercy to his followers as his enemies”. This is something that becomes more and more apparent throughout the series. It’s no wonder that such a thing is so repulsive to Dumbledore, the man known – and sometimes ridiculed – for offering second chances. Not only would it never occur to Dumbledore to treat his own allies and supporters in such a merciless fashion, he likewise has more compassion for Voldemort’s own followers than Voldemort himself does.

Nearly everyone has doubts about Dumbledore’s decision to trust Snape – everyone but Dumbledore, that is. And while Dumbledore has knowledge the others don’t (namely, Snape’s true reason for changing sides), he’s also predisposed to believe the best of people. This is not too hard to understand after reading Deathly Hallows: he himself has what Rita Skeeter describes as a “murky past” and realized after the death of his younger sister that what he and Grindelwald had been planning was wrong. He later went on to defeat Grindelwald and become one of the most highly-respected good wizards in the world, but having once found himself in need of a second chance no doubt makes him more sympathetic towards others who have made poor choices.

This tendency of Dumbledore’s is perhaps most obvious in his death scene. While Draco Malfoy claims that Dumbledore is at his mercy, the Headmaster contradicts him: “It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now”. He spends the last few minutes of his life attempting to convince his would-be assassin to change sides. As we find out in Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore is already dying at this point, so he is certainly not doing this in an attempt to save his own life. He simply sees that Draco’s devotion to Voldemort is starting to waver and believes that offering a second chance is the right thing to do.

One of the key ideas in Half-Blood Prince is that murder is an act “against nature” that can damage the soul, with Voldemort as an extreme example of this. This may be why Harry is so reluctant to kill, even when fighting in a war.  His signature spell is expelliarmus, and even on the occasions when he does use a more powerful spell, it is always a non-lethal one. But it goes farther than that. On certain occasions, he even risks his life to save or avoid harming his enemies. He rescues Draco Malfoy from a room filled with fiendfyre, attempts to stop Peter Pettigrew’s silver hand from choking him, and refuses to attack Stan Shunpike, who is under the Imperius Curse. It becomes clear as Deathly Hallows progresses that Harry is not a killer and refuses to become one. Even in his final confrontation with Voldemort, he does not use Avada Kedavra, instead reverting to his signature expelliarmus and letting Voldemort’s own killing curse backfire.

In fact, let’s talk more about that scene. Harry, at that point, is aware of what kind of fate Voldemort will face after death, and he also knows that there is a way to repair some of the damage he’s done to his soul. In their final confrontation, Harry tries his best to convince Voldemort to “try for some remorse”, telling him it is his last chance. It’s not clear whether there really is any chance for Voldemort – Dumbledore is quite clear that he’s gone far beyond “ordinary evil” and that he was cruel and lacking in compassion even as a child – but the fact that Harry feels compelled to try speaks volumes about his attitude. He really is “Dumbledore’s man through and through”, and while his attitude toward second chances might not be quite as idealistic as the former Headmaster’s, he shares his mentor’s belief in their importance.

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Kindness

So many of the main characters are misfits in some way. From Ron with his hand-me-down robes, to the quirky Luna Lovegood and awkward, clumsy Neville Longbottom, to grown-up misfits like Lupin and Hagrid, almost every one of the more sympathetic characters is an outcast in some way. Yet Harry, who arrives in the Wizarding World as a celebrity and could have his pick of anyone in the school as friends, tends to be drawn to these outcasts, and it never even occurs to him to see himself as superior. In fact, at the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, he reassures Luna and Neville that they are cool and points out that none of the popular kids fought by his side the previous year, as they did.

The most unpleasant characters, on the other hand, never miss an opportunity to be mean. From schoolyard bully Draco Malfoy and mean girl Pansy Parkinson, to the slanderous Rita Skeeter, to the self-centered, uncaring Dursleys, cruelty extends far beyond Voldemort or even the Wizarding World. As Sirius tells Harry in Order of the Phoenix, “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”, and while Umbridge may not be the latter, she is also most certainly not the former. In fact, many Harry Potter fans find her as repulsive as Voldemort himself. There isn’t a single villain in the series who isn’t – usually among other more serious crimes – a mean-spirited bully.

Early on in his time at Hogwarts, Harry proves what kind of person he is. When he tells Draco Malfoy that he can tell the “wrong sort” for himself and chooses his brand new friendship with Ron over Malfoy’s sneering superiority, he aligns himself with the misfits and outcasts of Hogwarts. But he is far from the only character to do so. One of the early signs of decency in James and Sirius – even back when they were rebellious schoolboys rather than war heroes – was that they stood by Remus even after finding out he was a werewolf. Dumbledore, as an eleven-year-old boy, was willing to befriend a child with Dragon Pox who nobody else would go near, and the night he died, he insisted on being courteous even to his attackers.

Not all the “good guy” characters in the series are “nice”, of course. Aside from the morally ambiguous types like Snape and Mundungus Fletcher, we meet the gruff, battle-hardened Mad-Eye Moody, the stern Professor McGonagall, and James Potter, whose teenage behavior Harry finds repulsive when he sees him in Snape’s memories. But even these characters have a core of decency. James may have been unkind to Snape, but he also saved his life once and mellowed into a softer person as he matured. McGonagall is stern and no-nonsense, but she is fair to everyone and even stood up for Professor Trelawney, who she’d been critical of before, in the face of Umbridge’s cruelty. And in a time when the Ministry resorted to Death Eater-type tactics, Moody was notable for his refusal to do so. Treating others with respect and decency is an essential part of what makes the Order of the Phoenix so different from the forces they’re fighting against.

Ice Queens and Obscurials

You know who Credence from Fantastic Beasts reminds me of? Elsa from Frozen. Yes, you read that right. What do they have in common? Both are born with magic, and both try to suppress it, with disastrous results.

Of course, there are some major differences. While Elsa has a loving and supportive family who just have no idea how to help her, Credence is the son of a woman whose mission in life is to eradicate magic. Therefore, he suppresses his magic far more than Elsa does, to the point that he himself is not even aware he’s a wizard. While Elsa runs away from home after her powers are revealed, her loving sister finds her and helps her find a way to control them. Newt tries to fulfill a similar role for Credence after he is revealed as the Obscurial. However, Newt has only met one such person before and was not able to save her. Unlike Elsa’s ice magic, Credence’s suppressed powers are a death sentence, and all characters involved are shocked that he has managed to survive to young adulthood as an Obscurial.

It is not enough for Credence to acknowledge his powers or to accept that his mother is wrong about magic. In fact, Grindelwald is easily able to manipulate his desire to be a part of the Wizarding World long before either of them suspects what he is. When he becomes aware of his powers, his bottled-up anger is released, and if anything, the Obscurus in him seems to grow stronger. We’ll see how that plays out in future Fantastic Beasts movies, but if he ever manages to channel that power in a controllable way, it’s clear it won’t be an easy process.

I’m also reminded of Morgana from BBC’s Merlin series. Like Credence, she grew up in an environment that was completely hostile to magic, and she quickly had to come to terms with her magic, which she struggled to control. However, she soon gained control, and from that point on it was really her own anger, rather than her powers, that consumed her and caused her to lash out against others.

If anything, Elsa’s situation is more like Arianna Dumbledore’s. Arianna was fully aware she was a witch, and yet she still suppressed her magic and refused to use it. Her condition is described in a way that has convinced many people, me included, that she may have been an Obscurial. Arianna, like Credence, lived longer than most Obscurials, and I wonder if that might be because she grew up in a family of wizards who did not judge her and had at least some idea of how to help her.

However, being a Disney heroine, Elsa has something that none of the other characters I’ve mentioned have had: a happy ending. With her sister’s help, she is able to gain control of her magic, thaw the winter, and overcome her own fear and anguish.

There’s something about these stories that rings true, even though the magic powers part is fiction. Bottling up emotions never really works the way we intend it to, does it? Someday, that shaken-up bottle of emotion explodes all over everything. But besides that, the hostile environments these characters grew up in left their mark. Isolation and loneliness. Fear. Anger. Learning to hate or be afraid of themselves because of something beyond their control. In Credence’s case, outright physical abuse. Although all the characters I named have harmed or killed people, they all (aside from Morgana) come across as victims rather than villains, and it’s the people that drive them to those extremes that truly look horrible. I think the message, if there is one that we can apply to the real world, is that it’s very easy for hate and fear to breed more hate and fear, so that everyone involved ends up suffering. It’s better to look at others with kindness and understanding, and to love those around us regardless of their differences.