Horcrux hocus-pocus and holy crap

Saturday, 16 July 2005 — 9:52am | Harry Potter, Literature

If you have yet to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, do not read this post.

The paradox there, as you may have noticed, is that you would have to have read this post – a part of the whole, anyway – to receive that warning.

Oh, parts and wholes. I’m finding it a lot easier to commit my thoughts to print (or the digital equivalent thereof) about Book Six compared to Revenge of the Sith, which you’ll notice I still haven’t written about two months on. To this I attribute three reasons. Paramount among these is that with The Half-Blood Prince I don’t feel the obligation to be all that deep, analytical and holistic because I am dealing with a part, and microcosmic parts within that part; gut reactions will suffice. I imagine that it’s going to be a lot more difficult to write about Book Seven once I read it, as conclusions of the significance promised are never isolable. Second is the fact that the ending promises a Book Seven so different from everything that has come before it that the room for speculation has never been wider.

Third is that J.K. Rowling has demonstrated once again what a master storyteller she is. Let me explain.

No, on second thought, I shan’t need to, because you’ve read the book.

The Big Fat Kill in Chapter Twenty-Seven was, to me, a complete shock. It was doubly shocking specifically because it had no business being a surprise at all – and here, I’m not referring to the fact that it’s been on the Internet for three whole weeks, with the fact indistinguishable from jokes and hypotheses to, well, most of us. Besides, having read the book, you know that the real surprise is how it happens, and how it is that the slimy bastard gets away with it right under everyone’s noses when Rowling hands him to us in Chapter Two and even has Wormtail serving him drinks for effect.

So, on to the observations – and there may be more coming.

For the most part, the book reads like its brother by symmetry, The Chamber of Secrets – exposition galore about the younger Riddle, almost all of the action confined to school premises for the first time in awhile, and for some time nothing close to the thrill-a-chapter sucker punches in The Order of the Phoenix. After Books Four and Five, this one feels like an old-school Potter; that is, if you ignore the sudden and tragic offstage demises of numerous previously onstage alumni. The Second War fusses about in the background, and we get chapters and chapters of relationship trouble and mucking about in the Pensieve. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining here, considering that the last few chapters deliver a Goblet-sized payoff that smacks you upside the head and runs you over with a Thestral-drawn chariot – I’m just telling it as it is.

On fate and free will: Dumbledore confirms, and Harry understands, what I always thought since my first reading of Phoenix was pretty clear: the prophecy was a catalyst for a chain of self-fulfilling events, and nothing more. On the other hand, quick as one tends to be in dismissing Divination as a bunch of jokey mumbo-jumbo, you have to wonder about Trelawney’s deck of playing cards.

Between the last book and this one, it only takes a keen eye to infer that the Hog’s Head barkeep is Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth, and I believe Rowling has confirmed as much in public. I don’t think we’ll ever see this explicitly acknowledged within the text itself.

Not that it matters, but Miss Hepzibah “Descended from Hufflepuff” Smith is almost certainly related to Zacharias Smith.

The four remaining Horcruxes: taking it for granted that Nagini’s one – though keeping in mind that after this book, you can hardly say Dumbledore is infallible – and Slytherin’s locket has not been destroyed as promised by this R.A.B. fellow, that leaves Hufflepuff’s little piece of kitchenware and one unknown artefact. That the last piece is unknown, which certifies that its identity will be one of Book Seven’s core mysteries, leads me to think that it can’t be something as (relatively) mundane as Rowena Ravenclaw’s heirloom.

Still nothing about the veil or Sirius’ mirror, and with Wormtail being reduced to serving drinks, I’m beginning to wonder if any of the three have any significant part left to play.

First-years trying out for the Quidditch house team? It’s just short of being an outright contradiction – let’s grant that rules can change from year to year, and technically the rule is that they’re not allowed their own brooms, though who’s to say they can’t use a school one – but it’s glaring.

We still don’t know jack about Lily Evans, aside from her aptitude at Potions. Or, for that matter, her sister Petunia. That smells of business for the next volume.

The Half-Blood Prince scribbles in parentheses that Sectumsempra is non-verbal, but this seems more of a recommendation than an actual restriction on how the spell is to be delivered, as Harry uses it verbally to no ill effect other than letting a certain slimy somebody get away with murder – and his inability to spellcast non-verbally under pressure does him in with all his spells, not just that one.

We’re not done with surprises when it comes to Severus Snape. For one thing, we still don’t know Dumbledore’s unimpeachable reason for trusting him. Harry may have taken it to be Severus’ remorse at letting the prophecy slip, but that struck me as an answer Dumbledore gave in specific reference to Harry’s preceding challenge. I don’t for a moment buy that it’s the whole story. Everything in this book points to a strong conclusion that Snape is evil, but that he acts on an Unbreakable Vow casts a cloud of ambiguity as to his true motives. At the end of the day I think Draco has the measure of him as an eleventh-hour usurper, a Saruman figure if you will – a mere shadow of evil to its fullest but one who joins with it in hopes of its overthrow at his own hands.

To be honest, when I read that breaking an Unbreakable Vow results in death, I was almost expecting Snape to violate it at the critical moment and drop dead on the spot. But what he does instead… beyond how he was bound by contract to comply with the order, I entertain the suspicion that he performs it with Dumbledore’s full consent. We’ve seen our fair share of minibosses all claiming to be Voldemort’s closest pet – Lucius Malfoy (whose role in the story may be over), Barty Crouch, Bellatrix Lestrange – but Snape has now made the most convincing effort yet, and maybe that’s the leg up the good guys need even if they don’t realize it.

The whole Half-Blood Prince debacle and his actions after the Big Fat Kill, though, speak very strongly against him. At the end of the day, Snape the Usurper has a lot more going for it than theories of unfettered obedience to one side or the other. He fears Voldemort, and respects his wishes enough to keep Harry alive, but beyond that, he’s a wild card.

At this point it’s incredible that anybody could still think Severus is anything but a villain who is arguably a more dangerous man than Voldemort himself, but only a book ago almost all evidence was to the contrary, aside from his using the name “the Dark Lord” during Occlumency lessons – the same slip that was a dead giveaway moments before Crouch’s revelation in Book Four.

(For more information on what moles do after they lose the only ones who know theit true allegiance, watch the excellent Hong Kong cop thriller Infernal Affairs.)

R.A.B.: It’s not exactly fair of her to sic a new character on us this late in the game when it comes to something this critical, is it? But here’s what we know: it has to be someone Voldemort would recognize by those initials. He has to refer to Voldemort as the Dark Lord, have a motive for screwing him over with the Horcrux switcheroo and possess the skills to pull it off. Regulus Black’s initials match, but then we’d have to bank on Sirius being wrong about how he was a two-bit good-for-nothing who chickened out.

If it is Regulus, then the Black family connection and the search for lost items of dark power may lead Harry back to Grimmauld Place. And given how his inheritance of the house isn’t an angle that plays out in this book, I fully expect to see it in the next one.

On Dumbledore: well, I suppose there’s the portrait, if Harry somehow makes it back to Hogwarts next year. There’s also the Pensieve, though in the past it’s only been used as temporary storage for temporary examination, and it can only hold so much.

The kiss. Oh, the kiss. I haven’t seen the likes of it since Elliott let the frogs out in E.T.

Speaking of film, notice how from a visual standpoint the BFK at the Astronomy Tower is very similar in staging to the BFK in Revenge of the Sith. I do wonder how it will come off when the movie translation arrives. Cedric Diggory was a swift kick in the pants, I don’t think any of us had any concrete idea what was going on with Snuffles until a chapter or two after his snuffing, but this one was the most iconic and mysterious of them all. When Malfoy appeared on the scene, I was thinking: seriously, the world’s most powerful wizard done in by some punk? No way. At the end of the chapter, I was thinking: seriously, the world’s most powerful wizard done in by some punk? No way. I was wrong the second time.

Before Slughorn starts drinking his face off at Hagrid’s, notice how he mistakenly refers to Ron as Rupert. A slight nod to cinema, mayhaps?

I only have one other thing to say about the sixth movie: I not only hope that Chapter One is included, but that they can somehow hire Tony Blair to do a walk-on cameo as himself. If they can get him on The Simpsons they can certainly get him in the mother country’s pride and joy.

Chapter Two. How very clever. She hands him to us on a platter, has him spout premeditated answers that have seen plenty of ripening, and does it so early that one naturally hears the beckon of incredulous denial. We knew he was a powerful Occlumens. We’d known for two books that Dumbledore can be fooled. And yet… and yet. I’ll admit to being needlessly coy about it all, considering how “Snape kills Dumbledore” is going to be the most popular Google search string by day’s end, but to say it so plainly lends it such finality.

I would have been a lot more prepared for the surprises that The Half-Blood Prince springs on the reader if it were the last book and not the penultimate one. Most of this comes from the expectation that some key events wouldn’t come until much closer to the end. But it’s very clear after this volume that Book Seven has a heck of a lot of ground to cover on its own terms. This one was a backgrounder, setting the stage for a whole book of trials to come.

I think that’s all for now. I don’t think I’ve come across anything too remarkable that wouldn’t be caught by one astute Potter fan or another, considering how many of them are out there, but this meander in the woods was never meant to be a testament to eloquence.


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