Wednesday, August 03, 2005

'>Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling

by William S. Kowinski

You’ve heard of it, perhaps?

This, the sixth book in the series continues the admirable pattern of developing the character of Harry (as well as the other important young characters) as they grow older, while developing the overall story of how the wizarding world deals with its resurgent dark side. Moreover, Rowling has performed the sly and difficult feat of never giving Harry more than he could handle at a given age, but always enough to test his mettle. But there's plenty for those of us lost in Bushworld to learn about our evil empire.

In previous books, Harry was believable as a boy of the stated age and is generally so in this one, though some might argue he and his friends are a little behind the curve in gender relationships and Harry has otherwise achieved a remarkable maturity at 16. But all of this is well within the believable range and also within the traditional mythic framework. It took considerable skill to add just the right amount, progression and tone of the romance that was needed to make the characters credible at this age, and have it say something about the characters, yet not throw the story off balance. Pleasing all the ages that read these books now, including adults, is a feat in itself. Rowling's skills admirably keep pace with her saga.

It is somewhat unusual, and more than a little risky, for a child hero to get older book by book---it would drive niche marketers crazy. But of course, they would have put a stop to this series long ago.

If you haven’t read this one, the following discussion might say too much, and if you have, it may say too little. But there are some relevant points that can be made without too much danger either way.

In announcing the new reign of terror by the evil wizard Voldemort, this book begins with an unpremeditated but inevitable whiff of the contemporary geopolitical atmosphere, but terrorism has been part of the UK experience and consciousness for some decades now, so the metaphor is a natural one. Still, an opening chapter dramatizes the crossover of darkness from the wizarding world to the Muggle (non-magical) world, and Rowling has hinted it won’t be the last such relationship.

Within the wizarding world, there've been such Muggle-familiar acts of official and cultural denial, craven media, petty tyrants, slick politicians and maddening bureaucracy, which this time expands to the imprisoning and probable torture of an innocent for political symbolism. Harry will have none of it.

There’s a through-line of philosophy about choice in the series that becomes most significant here, though it ends up with the inevitability of destiny. It’s not too surprising that Macbeth is Rowling’s favorite Shakespeare play. Yet the book (if not Harry, yet) unashamedly promotes the power of love as the ultimate defense against the dark arts.

Along with Harry’s coming of age, there are complications in the polarized battle of good and evil. Beyond betrayal, there are flaws in the best of the wizards, and one turns out to be fatal. (“Immense brainpower doesn’t protect you from emotional mistakes,” Rowling commented on this.) Harry was especially hot tempered in the previous book, so we're prepared to discount his obstinate judgments, but it turns out he is feeling some things pretty clearly. He's developing intuition, and by the end of this adventure, his rational evaluation of people and his own actions is clear and sure.

Yet even apart from his famous scar, Harry, too, is flawed. He is intellectually lazy and his righteousness borders on self-righteousness and vengeance. But that’s about right for a mythic hero, especially at a pentultimate stage. Though he doesn’t actually do much in this book (he witnesses a lot, which is worse), he’s just about to go into action in the last act of this story, which is to be concluded in book seven.

At our house, we read this aloud to each other, alternating chapters, as we have all the books. The murder most foul fell to me, and I did not react well. It surely has something to do with the fact that I am closer to the age of the mentors than the young heroes. But I more or less knew it was coming, if only because---as Rowling herself has said---in this genre, the hero usually must go on alone, or at least with his contemporaries.

There was plenty of misdirection to maintain suspense, so it was a satisfying story, as usual. In a recent interview (which I’ll describe below) Rowling mentions Dorothy L. Sayer, the mystery writer, and Jane Austen. She’s learned well from both, as well as from other discernable influences, be they direct or not: Tolkien, Dickens, E. Nesbit (in the first books in this series especially) and the Beatles. (As I recall, George was her favorite, though Harry seems more like John, and of course in the movies, looks like him.)

Part of what made these books fun to read aloud was the wit in the dialogue and the names. The villains have villainous sounding names: Mal-foy is malicious, the house of Slytherin is sly and slithering snake-like, and just try and say Severus Snape with a happy smile. The evil nemesis is Voldemort, a name with death in it, and depending on the language, it could meant the vault (tomb) or face or mask or denial of death.

But the really interesting choice was to make the names of the heroes so ordinary. What could be more anonymous than Harry Potter. Ron Weasley, maybe. And the name of the magical school---Hogwarts---is a kind of juvenile joke. Even the greatest wizard and Hogwart’s headmaster is Dumbledore: literally an old name for bumblebee, though both “dumb” and “humble” are in it.

There is a definite working class hero aspect to all this (the Beatles again) and the wizard students are unostentaciously multicultural. But there is also a strong theme of class consciousness and racial purity as part of the villainy, and the appropriate and very realistic hypocrisy that goes along with it.

This one was a little harder to read aloud, though, because of the emotional content. Yet that might be better insulation than reading it silently, because the last third of the book has more horror to it, the deeper you sink into it. The lake in the cave scene was as horrifying as any I know, though I’m not given to the horror genre. Rowling usually manages to end on a high note, and as the last chapter started I found myself wondering how she was going to do it this time. She found a way.

If you’ve had your head in a bucket for the last few weeks, you might have missed the launching of this book, and all the sales records it broke in the UK and US. (A fact I came upon in passing—the Braille edition was ready the same day as the worldwide publication date, so nobody was left out.)

As part of the launch in Rowling’s home country of Scotland, she was interviewed by various children and teens who’d won contests on the merits of their Potter knowledge, and by the editors of two of the leading Potter websites (all the previous references to Rowling’s comments come from these interviews, which can be accessed from Rowling’s own site.)

Rowling, who seems to be a witty, smart and good person (in an earlier interview she said she told her accountant, I read in the paper I’m richer than the Queen. You must be embezzling quite a lot) and appears to be having some well-deserved fun exploring the Harry world of the web. Though she posts comments only on her own site, she has been known to show up disguised in a chat room---where she says she was “treated with utter contempt” as a newbie who didn’t know anything---and she’s entered at least one contest. She likes all the theorizing, though she discourages unfruitful speculation and is bothered by things like the girls who are too fascinated with the evil boy Malfoy.

So what can we expect in book seven? No more Quidditch, but more backstory on Dumbledore (the “gleam of triumph” in his eye at the end of book 4 will turn out to be “enormously significant,” as apparently will much more from that book), and on Harry’s parents and how they were killed. Dolores Umbridge, the simpering villain of book five and exactly the kind of character Dickens would have created if he wrote now, and with the same name---will be back as well.

As for when, despite the rumors of writing block and other distractions, Rowling described writing the first six books almost continuously. She is taking some nurturing time for her new infant as well as some breathing space, and expects to work on book seven in earnest starting the first of next year. And yes, this will be the last in this series. Though she did say she might do a kind of encyclopedia of her magical world, since she spent so much time working out the details of it, and hasn’t used it all. She actually did profiles of all forty students in Harry’s class, for instance, before she started the first book.

She knows basically what’s going to happen in book seven, and has known for a long time. Somebody almost guessed, she said some years ago, but nobody got it exactly right. She’s set an enormous set of tasks for Harry, and her task will be not to let its seriousness sink the charm that made this series so popular. But her subject, she says, is evil. That’s also been part of the fascination and the power of the series.

And despite the schedule she’s set for herself, she’s written some of the seventh book already, including the final chapter. And the last word.

Which is: scar.

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