Half Blood Prince is the book that quietly sneaks up on you. It’s a book that I enjoyed the first time I read it (over a whirlwind 24 hour period in Spain), but didn’t think it held a candle to Order of the Phoenix (which I still agree with, however much that gap has decreased) or Goblet of Fire (which I was totally wrong about). It’s the one where Dumbledore dies, we learn all about Voldemort’s past, and everyone falls in love (with the right people, this time).
And all of that is stuff I enjoyed at the time (it was always an experience reading HP after Azkaban), but it’s something that’s grown on me more and more and more as time has gone on. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is a spectacular novel. Not, perhaps, as thematically rich as Order of the Phoenix, nor as masterfully crafted as Deathly Hallows (a masterpiece), but it’s a novel in which our beloved Mrs. Rowling is rolling on all of the cylinders. She’s at her most deft and confident here, and when you’re reading this series the first time it’s easy to not recognize it.
I could go on about the generalities of that, but I have a podcast where I can expound as such. Instead, let’s talk about Snape.
Chapter 9: The Half-Blood Prince
In which Harry tries to convince Hermione that Draco is totally a Death Eater, gets approved for N.E.W.T. Potions, has his first N.E.W.T. Defense Against The Dark Arts class with Snape as Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, attends his first N.E.W.T. Potions lesson with Slughorn, learns about some cool potions, happens to totally score the luckiest loaner book ever, totally wipes the floor with potions, wins Felix Felicis, and realizes the luckiest loaner book ever used to be the property of someone called “The Half Blood Prince.”
Confession time: I have never, ever liked the title to this book.
I remember when it was announced I thought it was sexy enough. And the green cover on the American version was particularly enticing. I remember my best friend Staci and I were completely obsessed before it came out. We would catch bootleg pictures of pallets of the thing, all shrinkwrapped but strikingly green and tall and lust at the second to last chapter in our favourite franchise. I learned early on I would be in Spain upon its release and conspired early to track down a copy in whatever city I was in and read it as fast as possible. I didn’t get it til maybe five hours after its release on the East Coast, at which point my other Harry Potter friend Mallory had IMed me an ominous “Wait until you see who the next Defense Against The Dark Arts Teacher is”.
So she was right about that…
The reason I find myself let down by the title is that it is perhaps TOO sexy. More than perhaps any other title in the series (Prisoner of Azkaban comes close), this book seems to hint at something grandiose and hidden and mysterious and… sexy. It always inspired images of locked towers and a fellow long lost only to return and exact revenge upon those as had wronged him. There are no Princes in the wizarding world. Who is to say that this Prince won’t come back and kick all our asses, or perhaps be somehow instrumental in Voldemort’s slow but inevitable rise to power?
Needless to say, getting to this chapter and reading that The Prince is a name in a book left me a little disappointed, but intrigued. Through the rest of the novel he is present, but hardly a major influence on events. He’s not exactly trapped in the book, is he? He’s not exerting his influence on the events that propel this narrative forward?
Imagine, then, my displeasure at Snape whirling around as he flees the castle immediately after murdering Dumbledore to scream at Harry “You dare use my own spells against me, Potter? It was I who invented them – I, the Half-Blood Prince! And you’d turn my inventions on me, like your filthy father, would you? I don’t think so . . . no.” That’s it? I remember thinking. I was wandering around a city with my nose in a book like that funny girl, that Belle at this point. It’s an odd place to put the reveal, a moment designed to be so shocking it escalates the drama beyond what it is. And let’s remember: Snape says this within pages of Dumbledore’s death. At his hands no less. Few things in the entire series are more shocking than that moment. And here she follows it up with a line shoehorned into a chapter that really didn’t even need it.
Yeah. I was disappointed. Still am. But it’s a minor misstep in an otherwise practically flawless book.
But I will indulge you, J.K. Rowling. Clearly, this was your intention. And as such, it’s our duty to prove why you are right, and why this title is excellent even if it doesn’t quite fulfill on its promise of being impossibly awesome.
The key here is what she actually does do with Snape. And there’s so many directions I can go with this, so let’s go with all of them. Snape is Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher now. First question: why? As in, first question in drama: why now? Why does Dumbledore make Snape Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher? The answer, as far as I can figure it, is because the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher always points at the primary concern with the novel in question. In Chamber of Secrets it was all about fame and legacy. In Prisoner of Azkaban it’s The Marauders and the past resurfacing as old wounds are forced back open. In Goblet of Fire it’s fighting the Death Eaters and how the Death Eaters have infiltrated us and will bring Voldemort back. In Order of the Phoenix, it’s The Ministry of Magic and how our house divided cannot stand.
Here, our worry is Snape. This book is completely obsessed with Voldemort in all his incarnations, and that manifests here with the uncertainty of a potential fox in the hen house. What do we do if Snape is evil? He is close to Dumbledore, possibly the closest after Harry (it is Snape whom Dumbledore calls for after they manage to bail on the cave at the end of the book). But what if he betrays us?
And… okay. That’s interesting. But it’s not enough. At this point, you could totally call it “Harry Potter and Snape”, but that’s dumb and not nearly as sexy.
No. Here’s what I think. I think Snape giving himself a cool alias hints to how sad his life is, and that he’s at Harry’s side from beginning til end of this book is a fantastic way of pulling us in towards Snape. Yes, the mystery does feel a bit half-assed because it’s not a twist upon which the whole book rotates (example: Ginny opened the Chamber of Secrets), it’s a line to show you how hard Harry misjudged his relationship with Snape. He considers The Prince his friend and thusly feels impossibly betrayed when this friend turns out to be this guy he considered was bad all along.
(Apparently, according to my girlfriend, she always knew Snape was on the side of the angels because Fandom Groupthink read all the clues and guessed correctly. I, however, was never part of those discussions (the ones that tell us that Snape loved Lily by the time even this book came around) and so read this entire book as an ultimate betrayal on the part of Severus Snape, and so in that mindset I stayed for two years until, as it turns out, she’s playing us the whole time.)
Look what else, here, though. The Half-Blood Prince is found in a book, not so unlike Riddle and the Diary (Ginny even underlines the distinction for us), showing us that it’s possible for Harry to trust this book like Ginny trusted Riddle. To add insult to injury, the book is, quite frankly, not good enough. Hermione, so good at Potions always, is ultimately let down when she goes by the book, here. She comes close, but it’s not good enough. Part of me has always wondered if this is a sly way for Slughorn to pull out the true adepts. Only a true adept would be able to go above and beyond the call of a standard textbook to create the magical wonders that Potions is. Potions is about creativity, small tweaks, a counterclockwise stir for every seven clockwise.
And now that we have an insufficient book, I’m reminded of the Slinkhardt book. The one that is all theory and has no real value. Books can only take us so far. We need a good teacher to show us the applications of things. You can read all the best books on writing you want. Actually writing is something else.
Perhaps I take this too far, but now that I’m thinking of Slinkhardt I’m thinking of Umbridge and how absolutely god awful a teacher she was and how Rowling made it clear that was the case. And now we have this guy, Snape, in the Defense Against The Dark Arts job. And how does he compare to Umbridge?
(He is, after all, teaching Defense Against The Dark Arts here, and so this chapter is ultimately about him…)
Truth is, Snape is quite a good teacher of magic. He asks them what are nonverbal spells, and then has them practice. And practice. And practice. He coaches, he picks favourites, sure. But he’s definitely one of the better Defense Against The Dark Arts teachers they had as far as I can tell (not that that’s a hard thing).
And as good as he is at Defense Against The Dark Arts, so good he is at Potions. And so we have Harry more turned off and intrigued by Snape than he’s ever, ever been. He hates Snape more in this book than he does in practically any other (save perhaps the last one?), but this is also the book where he feels closest to him. The camaraderie is palpable. The admiration, abundantly present. And it’s in read this again and again and again that Rowling proves how good she is at providing tension and dramatic conflict. We should conflicted when we learn he’s The Half-Blood Prince. That we do not, speaks to how difficult it is to dramatize a book that is not a Horcrux. But even with that in mind, it’s abundantly clear that this is Rowling at her most wheel-spinny and fantastic and solid.
Hell, it is her most sexy and delicious title after all.
Some quick hits:
- Neville managed to get an O in Herbology. Good for him. It’s just really, really unfortunate that this speaks really poorly to Ron. Ron managed NO Outstandings on his O.W.L.S, and while that doesn’t affect anything, it must be said that at a certain point Rowling does keep kicking him down to make Harry the superior wizard. I mean, for god’s sake. Why not make him good at Charms? Ron coulda gotten an O in Charms. Would that really have destroyed so much? Is Harry’s ego still so fragile that she couldn’t give Ron a bloody O in ANYTHING?
- The more I read these books, the less of a Hagrid fan I am. I can’t say I’m sorry to see how much he isn’t in this book. And yet, I am impossibly sad that the trio totally ditches him and his class. No one who’s so excited about teaching and such quite a good teacher (remember the unicorns that one time?) should be deprived of students to teach.
- Seriously, how hard ARE nonverbal spells? I can only imagine that if you can focus enough to Apparate you can do a nonverbal spell. And once you CAN do a nonverbal spell why isn’t every spell you do nonverbal? Is it because it loses some of its power if it’s nonverbal? It’s certainly faster. And it certainly doesn’t seem as silly as it does when you shout out Latinesque words and silly things come out of your wand.
- Slughorn teaching potions lessons is one of those choices that Rowling knocks out of the park. Not only does it give us a fantastic twist when we learn he is the Potions Master and not the Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, but it gives Dumbledore an excuse to take Slughorn under his protection (for the sake of the Horcrux memory, AND it makes it so that Harry can still continue to train to be an Auror despite not maxing out his O.W.L. in Potions.
- The presence of the Half-Blood Prince book means that there’s not a single year Harry’s at Hogwarts in which he doesn’t take Potions with Snape. Which is one of those little touches I appreciate now that I can look back on the consistent recurrences of the book.
- Also, if Snape only DID take the students who got O’s in their O.W.L., how many students would he ACTUALLY have taken on in his N.E.W.T. classes? Like, three? I love that. It’s private lessons with an impossibly gifted Potions Master and quite an adept teacher. I don’t even know if I’d be good at Potions but I would LOVE to be in that class.
- I really want a short story that’s just composed of Minerva McGonagall and Augusta Longbottom firing underhanded, subtext letters at each other regarding Neville’s education. Augusta still holding the grudge about being bad at Transfiguration and McGonagall sniping back is just too delicious.
- Harry smells Ginny, and for the first time ever I am aware that Harry might have a thing for her. I’m sorry, but that never worked for me. It was all telling and no showing. Ron and Hermione, at least, had years and years of build-up. Harry, all of a sudden, is paired off with the best available candidate she has so late in the game. And tells me so. My problem isn’t even with Ginny (who is, it must be said, quite awesome and ultimately let down by this narrative), it’s with the way the relationship is presented. Alas.
- Some grief counseling: Anyone bothered by Rowling’s comments re: Ron & Hermione would do well to remember that she is not the be-all end-all. While she said she regrets making the decision, the truth is she made it and within the confines of her narrative that is absolutely canon regardless of what she ends up saying. This isn’t Star Wars. She’s not going back and editing it so Greedo shot first. We are all here for you to remind you that Ron & Hermione is still canon no matter what she might think in the end.
- If I were at Hogwarts I would hate a free period. Seriously. Teach me all of the magic. Seriously.