Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J. K. Rowling | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J. K. Rowling

652 pp, Scholastic Books, $29.99





My last name notwithstanding, I have never attended Hogwarts. I have no magic powers, and the only scars I have are on the inside. Thanks for asking.


But I will make a prediction about the sixth installment of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series: Conservatives are going to find something to dislike.


No less a literary critic than Pope Benedict XVI has panned the series already. (The books, he wrote a German author in 2003, offer "subtle seductions which ... deeply distort Christianity in the soul.") And conservatives won't be happy about how Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince begins: with the British prime minister "waiting for a call from the President of a far distant country, ... wondering when the wretched man would telephone."


Indeed, it's hard not to see this book as a metaphor for the War on Terror. Rowling's moral dilemmas don't resonate as deeply or mystically as Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series or the Narnia chronicles. Still, like any good children's writer, she strives to connect with the fears and hopes of her readers, who've been growing up in the ashes of 9/11.


As Half-Blood Prince begins, the nefarious Lord Voldemort is on the march, and his "Death Eaters" are wreaking havoc. The Ministry of Magic sends tips for "protecting your home and family against dark forces." Families are advised to "[r]eview the security arrangements around your house" and bone up on "Shield and Disillusionment Charms." No mention of duct tape, but you get the idea.


As fear spreads, suspected allies of Voldemort are detained indefinitely on flimsy evidence. When an acquaintance of Harry's is jailed, Harry challenges the Minister of Magic himself: "You never get it right, you people, do you? ... [You're] chucking the wrong people into jail and trying to pretend you've got 'the Chosen One' working for you!" I think I read almost those exact words in The Nation.


Early on, Harry experiences these horrors the same way we do: through the media. Harry's friend Ron Weasley approaches the morning paper asking, "Anyone we know dead?" And in the book's final chapters, that question will be answered with an anguished "yes." Rowling warned that a central character would meet an untimely end, yet the death is still surprising and affecting -- in part because Harry is a powerless witness, just as he was when his own parents died.


Unfortunately, the book's real punch doesn't come until the last 150 pages, which is a long time to wait in a 650-page volume. Like an unsuccessful Star Wars flick, Half-Blood Prince feels like connective tissue for the episode to come. Mostly, the action is driven by Harry's discovery of Lord Voldemort's psychological backstory. Much of the rest involves adolescent romances we've seen coming from a long way off. The magic too seems less, well, magical. With the exception of a lucky potion, Harry's powers are either recycled from earlier installments or are tangential to the plot. Even the question posed by the book's marketing campaign -- "Who is the Half-Blood Prince?" -- is incidental.


Still, Rowling always packs in lessons that both kids and adults can ponder, as when Hogwarts schoolmaster Albus Dumbledore tells Harry that "Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress?" (Though the line might have been lifted from a George Bush speech, the president would do well to heed the rest of Dumbledore's counsel: Without love and wisdom to guide us, we risk creating our own worst enemies too.)


Such lessons make it hard to fathom Rowling's Christian skeptics. One of them, the German author with whom Pope Benedict corresponded, argues that "emotional manipulation and intellectual obfuscation" make it hard for Rowling's readers to distinguish between good and evil. Oddly enough, Harry himself might agree; throughout Half-Blood Prince, he is frustrated that his allies still can't recognize the evil of his schoolyard rivals: Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy. After all the torments these two inflict, how can anyone give them the benefit of the doubt?


One suspects Malfoy and Snape will prove more complicated than they seem. But for now, Harry sounds something like Pope Benedict, or President Bush: Defeating the evildoers demands resolve and decisive action -- action unblemished by self-doubt.


Still, the real magic of Rowling's books is this: You sense that Harry, at least, will grow out of it.

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