Tuesday, April 16, 2024

And Everything Keeps Getting Worse

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”

In my last post about my experiences rereading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, one of the primary things I criticised about the book was the way it was paced. Earlier on, I had also expressed a dislike of the book’s atmosphere, and after having finished the last bit of it, my disappointment with the penultimate book of the series because of those two aspects has only grown.

Key Issue II: Atmosphere

Essentially, the pacing issue is that it feels as if for big stretches of the book, nothing important happens and then everything happens all at once. Due to this, it also feels as if the main conflicts of the book – Harry figuring out what Draco is doing and the search for the Horcruxes – either stagnate or are resolved so quickly that the resolution feels unearned. Ultimately, almost nothing happens before Christmas except Katie Bell being attacked, Ron fighting with Ginny and Hermione and Harry becoming suspicious about Draco and being shown some of the memories Dumbledore has obtained about Voldemort. This leads to the last few chapters feeling slightly overcrowded. This applies especially to Professor Trelawney revealing that Snape overheard the prophecy and told Voldemort about it, a revelation that seems to be drowned out by everything that happens around it.

In my opinion, this problem with timing compounds what I’d call the atmospheric issues of the book. In the first post about the sixth book, I stated that I enjoyed JKR’s portrayal of a world at war and that is still true about the chapters until Harry arrives at Hogwarts, but once the story moves back to the school, it starts to feel as if it is just another school year. Of course, Voldemort and the threat he presents are still a topic, but they are no more present than in the previous books. There is no sense of Harry – or the rest of the Wizarding population – being in danger which, considering that Voldemort is actually back and openly at war, is extremely odd. Because of that, the attack on Hogwarts and Dumbledore’s death feel like they are entirely out of left field.

The frustrating thing is that the situation in Half-Blood Prince is one that theoretically seems relatable to me. Voldemort’s return and the Wizarding World being at (civil) war with him is something unthinkable and scary, but everyday life still has to go on. The general political move towards the extreme right and, in many instances, white supremacist, isolationist and fascist lines of thinking and argument are somewhere between disconcerting and alarming, but that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t live and enjoy my life. It’s a weird feeling: as if there’s something important that I’m not allowed to forget but that I still occasionally don’t remember for days and that occasionally becomes almost all I think about.

So not actually finding this point of relating, not recognising how Harry thinks and acts and how the overall state of the Wizarding World is presented and mirrors the real world and my own emotional situation throws me off and makes me irritated with Half-Blood Prince. I know that I could – and, in my opinion – should find these points of resemblance between how Harry feels and perceives the world around him and how I do, but for most of the book, they genuinely aren’t there. There is no sense of danger, there is barely any sense of worry about the people outside of Hogwarts or general anxiety about the state of the Wizarding World. Except for small moments like Ron asking Hermione if anyone they know has died or bigger, but rarer moments like Katie Bell and Ron being attacked, it seems like nothing is amiss at all.

Key Issue III: Telling

Another factor that contributes to the atmospheric issues, in my opinion, is that JKR moved away from showing us things and instead started telling us about them. There are two instances where that is especially noticeable.

One of them is Ron’s behaviour. I already mentioned that he asks Hermione if anyone they know has died when she gets the Daily Prophet. This is something he supposedly does every morning. However, we don’t see him doing this every morning; instead, we get this:

Hermione pressed her lips together, looking angry and disapproving, but was distracted by a third owl landing in front of her carrying that day’s copy of the Daily Prophet. She unfolded it hastily and scanned the front page.
Anyone we know dead?’ asked Ron in a determinedly casual voice; he posed the same question every time Hermione opened her paper.

This is the first time Ron actually asks this question.

This would have worked a lot better if JKR had written three or four scenes where the Trio sat at breakfast, Hermione had gotten the Daily Prophet, and Ron asked if anyone they knew had died before one of them commented on how he did this every time the paper arrived.

The same issue applies to how JKR talks about parents trying to take their children from Hogwarts and students finding out that their loved ones have been harmed. Harry tells us that there have been multiple incidents of both, but again, we don’t actually see these incidents – despite it being ridiculously easy to show them. And having students be asked out of class because someone died or being escorted out of the school by their parents multiple times over the course of the novel would have strengthened the impression that something was fundamentally wrong.

Reckless Endangerment

Something else that is fundamentally wrong is Dumbledore’s plan of letting himself be killed by Draco and Snape because he is dying anyway. Others have already pointed this out in the comments section on previous pieces about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince but it bears repeating: Dumbledore’s “plan” is to just let Draco do what he is doing but having Snape keep an eye on it, with the intent to minimise the damage Draco does, until Draco succeeds and kills Dumbledore or proves unable to kill him so that Snape has to take Draco’s place.

Art by annazeng

The main issue with this plan is that it essentially backfires because Draco doesn’t trust Snape anymore and doesn’t confide anything about his plans to him. Thus, Snape can’t minimise the damage Draco does. This should have been obvious when Katie Bell is hospitalized after coming into contact with the cursed necklace that Draco tried to send Dumbledore, making him change his approach, but Dumbledore doesn’t do that and instead just puts more pressure on Snape. Of course, there is no way this can work, and it doesn’t: shortly after, Ron is poisoned and it’s literally nothing but dumb luck that he survives. But even then, Dumbledore doesn’t change his approach in any way.

It’s not just that Draco’s desperate attempts to kill Dumbledore when he feels like his original plan can’t succeed put others in danger, his actual main plan also does because he literally lets Death Eaters into the school. Dumbledore seems to be expecting something like this, because he asks members of the Order of the Phoenix to patrol the school, but considering that he only asks three people to come, he doesn’t seem to take the threat that Draco poses seriously – even after he has already almost killed two people. Dumbledore doesn’t just put his students and staff in danger – which is bad enough, considering that ensuring their safety should be his paramount concern – but also his allies, who trust his judgment above all else. What Dumbledore does is reckless endangerment and also very stupid.

The worst thing, though, is that this is never acknowledged at all. For most of the seventh book, Harry and everyone else thinks that Dumbledore was simply tricked and perfidiously murdered, and when it’s revealed that he wasn’t, there simply doesn’t seem to be any time or space to acknowledge how terrible Dumbledore’s plan actually was.

And more Double Standards

What is also barely acknowledged is how horrible Harry using the Sectumsempra curse on Malfoy actually is. Yes, Harry is punished for it by Snape, gets detention for the rest of the year misses the most critical Quidditch game of the year and has to give up the Prince’s book. But even that is framed as something that we’re ultimately supposed to feel sorry for him for, especially once he starts dating Ginny.

Art by beastlyworlds

The only person in Harry’s circle of friends who’s appropriately disapproving of Harry using a dark curse that does significant bodily harm to another person is Hermione. However, Hermione has been portrayed as uptight, overly serious and prone to overreacting all throughout the series, and Ron and Ginny especially defend Harry’s actions because Draco wanted to use an Unforgivable Curse and was quickly healed by Snape.

Harry also explicitly says that he feels bad and that he wishes that he hadn’t used the curse because it’s not a curse he’d ever use if he had known what it did, but apart from a niggling feeling of guilt that is mentioned once, he doesn’t actually feel bad about what he did over the course of the book. There are other things to be concerned about, after all, like the fact that he’s missing Quidditch, the time he could be spending with Ginny and how annoying it is to copy Filch’s old files by hand as punishment.

He also doesn’t question the Prince based on the fact that he apparently found a curse like Sectumsempra quite useful, he even defends him to Hermione by pointing out that it’s not like the Half-Blood Prince actually recommended using the curse. Harry feels more guilt about having trusted the Prince when it turns out that he is Snape than he does after he has massively injured Draco Malfoy.

Sympathy for a bullying Student

Draco Malfoy is, by the way, one of the most interesting aspects of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In my halfway piece, I stated that for most of the novels, many characters are more like tropes or archetypes than like characters. With regards to Draco, I’d say this applies until the beginning of the sixth book: Draco does little more than appearing occasionally to fire off snarky one-liners while being a pureblood supremacist ass and sometimes help other antagonists like Umbridge. He’s more of a stock character than an actual character.

This applies to Half-Blood Prince, too: for most of the book, Draco doesn’t have any sort of inner life or emotions. He, too, is more like a puzzle that Harry has to solve to proceed to the next plot point than like an actual character. That changes, however, when Harry catches Draco having a panic attack in the bathroom after Katie Bell has returned because it adds a level of depth to his character that was lacking before. It shows that he is more than a henchman with a mission, like the Carrow twins or Crabbe and Goyle. His conflict and inner turmoil become even more obvious when he is trying to kill Dumbledore.

What I find very interesting is also how JKR manages to make Draco seem more sympathetic than in the previous books. In my opinion, it’s the combination of two and a half things: For one, Draco having a panic attack, actually struggling with his task and being scared comes entirely out of left field because he’s previously been presented as incredibly eager to support Voldemort and even happy about his assignment. Secondly, the fact that Sectumsempra is so utterly brutal as a curse that it’s really hard not to feel for the person who gets hurt by it, even though that person was just about to use the Cruciatus curse.

I find the question of sympathy for Draco Malfoy really interesting, on a Doylist level, by the way, because it touches on the real-life question of how to engage with people like him. He’s fundamentally the fictional equivalent of a white supremacist or a neo-nazi because that’s who the Death Eaters are inspired by. He’s also a cruel, mean bully. Those two reasons are, in my opinion, reasonably good ones for hating him.

At the same time, Draco is a 16 year old boy who was raised in the fictional equivalent of a white supremacist household, with a deeply held belief that he is better than everybody else and a sense of entitlement because of his pure blood and his family name. It’s not exactly a surprise that he turned out the way he did. At the same time, that doesn’t mean he isn’t responsible for his actions, despite being only 16 – other teenagers who grew up in similar circumstances still chose different paths, after all.

But that doesn’t really answer the question of how to get him and people like him away from their mindsets. Weirdly enough, although Dumbledore’s plan is deeply reckless when it comes to the safety of his students and allies, it seems like the best way of getting Draco to realise that being a Death Eater is actually a terrible idea: waiting for the stress of his mission to take such a massive toll on him that he becomes susceptible for an offer of protection by the Order might actually work.

That’s why it’s so frustrating to realise that there is no actual way for Dumbledore to be able to help Draco because he intends to die at Snape’s hands anyway.

… And for a bullying Teacher, too

When I reread this last part of Half-Blood Prince, something surprising happened that had genuinely never happened before: I felt sorry and sympathetic for Snape.

Those of you who’ve been following this Reread Project for a while know that I really immensely dislike Severus Snape, something I’ve stated and explained a couple times. But when I reread his duel with Harry, I actually felt really bad for him. JKR wrote:

‘Kill me, then,’ panted Harry, who felt no feat at all, but only rage and contempt. ‘Kill me like you killed him, you coward –’ ‘DON’T –’ screamed Snape, and his face was suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning house behind them, ‘ – CALL ME COWARD!’

Art by nastyelf

I don’t know why but for some reason, it took me until this Reread Project to emotionally get the terrible situation Snape was in in this scene. He’d just killed the only person that knew about why his allegiance changed, damning himself as a traitor in the eyes of all of his not-fascist allies and thus resigned himself to working for Voldemort, who killed Lily, for an indeterminate amount of time. As if that wasn’t enough – although it certainly could be – the boy he had sworn to protect, who he knew had to die at some point, had just attempted to attack him using a hex he himself invented and that was used on him by his nemesis and bully in the worst moment of his life and then also called him a coward for killing his ally on said allies’ orders. That’s a horrible, horrible situation to be in and it’s no wonder Snape becomes a bit unhinged.

I was genuinely surprised by the fact that I felt sympathetic for him and then I was wondering why this was the first time in my many years of reading the Harry Potter series that I felt this way about him. I think part of it was that Barbara’s article, one of the best ones that I’ve ever read about Snape, actually got me to take a step away from my hatred for Snape and consider his actions with more emotional distance. Another part of it is probably that I’ve never quite put this much time and attention into reading the books, paid attention to the tiny details this much and thought what I read through as much as I’m currently doing. It’s extremely enjoyable.

What is also enjoyable is the genuine affection this is making me feel for JKR’s writing. The fact that I have lost count of how many times I have read the books and still find new things to be excited or annoyed about is very satisfying. I don’t think many book series can do that.

Key Issues VI: Themes

However, despite this enjoyment, there’s another thing that I found weirdly frustrating, and that’s how many issues and themes of the previous books were all but abandoned in it.

One smaller example for that is SPEW and Hermione’s wish to free the house elves. When Dobby and Kreacher appear to tell Harry what they found out while tailing Malfoy, there is a general acknowledgment that Hermione cares about the miserable conditions the house elves are forced to work in – though it’s not framed that way, it’s framed as her overreacting – but nothing more. Although it first became a marginal topic in Goblet of Fire, it continues to be present in Order of the Phoenix, where Hermione is continuously knitting to trick the house elves into freedom. In the sixth book, SPEW has essentially stopped existing.

The bigger and more important example is the portrayal of the flaws of the Ministry of Magic. This is a something that JKR has made an effort to set up: In Chamber of Secrets, we learn that the Ministry is quite likely to throw people into jail with minimal investigation, something that’s proven again in Prisoner of Azkaban. The corruption and nepotism that runs rampant within it are also pointed out multiple times. While this takes a back seat for most of the fourth book, we are reminded of the Ministry’s incompetence and almost evil-ness through the portrayal of Barthy Crouch Sr. and Fudge’s refusal to believe that Voldemort ist back. In Order of the Phoenix, the fact that the Ministry is more of a malignant force than anything else is one of the two central topics of the book.

In Half-Blood Prince, this aspect is put back on the backburner: Except for the arrest of Stan Shunpike, the two confrontations between Harry and Scrimgeour and Harry’s anger at Fudge and Umbridge coming to Dumbledore’s funeral, little is said about the topic. Harry’s encounter with Scrimgeour offer Christmas is ultimately pretty interesting because it shows that Harry is little more than a disposable pawn and poster boy for the Ministry and that the problem doesn’t end with Fudge, but ultimately, the conflict between Harry and Scrimgeour seems to be more about whether Harry’s loyalties lie with Dumbledore or the Ministry. It’s a disappointing conclusion to the exploration of what is an incredibly fundamental flaw of the Wizarding World, mostly because it’s not a conclusion at all.

Ultimately, Half-Blood Prince feels weirdly out of place in relation to the rest of the series. Part of it is the fact that so many overarching plot stands and themes seem to have been abandoned, but there’s also the already mentioned atmosphere. Over the course of the entire series, the novels have gotten progressively darker and more serious, but Half-Blood Prince falls out of this progression. At the end of the book, with Harry and Dumbledore looking for the Horcrux, the duel in Hogwarts and Dumbledore’s death, the stakes are higher than ever, but it’s not enough to counterbalance the otherwise lighter tone of the book. Due to this, Half-Blood Prince feels distinctly out of place and, ultimately, worse than the previous books.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

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