Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince By J.K. Rowling (Reread)

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Listening Library, 2005. 18 hours, 31 minutes. Library copy.

Returning to Hogwarts for his sixth year, Harry Potter is horrified to learn that Severus Snape, potions master and a Death Eater that Harry’s beloved headmaster claims to trust with his life, has now taken over the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. Harry is convinced Snape’s true allegiances lie with Voldemort rather than with the Order of the Phoenix and, as such, is  playing Dumbledore for a fool, but Dumbledore dismisses these accusations at every turn and asks Harry to please concentrate on retrieving an important memory from the new potions teacher, Horace Slughorn.

This particular memory is the last one Dumbledore needs to finally confirm his understanding of how Voldemort has managed to evade death for the past sixteen years. Slughorn has refused to relinquish to him over the years, but Dumbledore believes Slughorn will give it to Harry in order to “collect” Harry for the club of chosen students that Slughorn is so proud of. Helping Harry in his effort to win over Slughorn is the Half-Blood Prince, a moniker self-assigned to the owner of an old, well-scribbled in potions textbook that ends up in Harry’s possession.

The book, of course, strains Harry’s relationship with his friends. Ginny and Hermione are both concerned about Harry following instructions from a book based on what happened to Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets, and Hermione is bent out of shape because the Half-Blood Prince’s notes are giving Harry such a large leg up over her in class performance. Ron, for his part, is upset because he thinks Harry slipped him a potion he won with the Half-Blood Prince’s help in order to correct Ron’s abysmal Quidditch performance.

More importantly, though, the book and the unfamiliar spells written in the margins help Harry evade the teenage girls trying to slip him love potions, complete an important quest for Dumbledore, and fight the vile Draco Malfoy, whom Harry becomes convinced has joined the Death Eaters over the summer and is now a plant for them at Hogwarts now that Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic have been chased out.

One of the reasons why I love rereading novels (and bemoan how I don’t do more of it since beginning this blog) is how I become focused on a different aspect of the story with each reading. In my 2011 write-up of this novel, I discussed how I felt like this book — the sixth in the series — served as a bridge between the fifth and seventh novels with the information gleamed about Voldemort’s past setting up how Harry would need to kill him in the seventh novel.

This time, I was largely focused on the budding romances between Ron and Hermione and, most especially, between Harry and Ginny. In the midst of all the death and destruction and the rise of the Death Eaters as lead by Voldemort, these four characters are still engaged in the very human activity of falling in love. Something that Dumbledore was quick to point out was completely missing from Voldemort’s life to Harry as the two explored memories related to Voldemort’s life before, during, and after his seven years at Hogwarts.

Harry refers to his growing attraction to Ginny as “the beast” throughout the novel. The moniker certainly makes sense given what acting upon these feelings could do to his friendship with Ron — the person Harry Potter cares about most, as we learn in Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire — and because Harry has largely lost all those who love him by this point in is life. Yet I find it a curious choice given the much more horrific things Harry has faced during his last five years at Hogwarts. Falling in love certainly seems easier than facing Voldemort and his followers over and over again, but maybe that was part of the point? Letting yourself be vulnerable — and, therefore, human — instead of being forced to be vulnerable is the true mark of bravery?

Despite my fixation on the romances introduced in this book, exploring the pasts of both Snape and Voldemort continues to be my favorite aspect of this novel. Rowling manages the rather impossible task of humanizing a villain casting Harry’s world into shades of gray rather than the stark black and white that was introduced in the first book.

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