(And this was the obligatory Instant Potter review. Published in the Business Standard on July 18, 2005)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J K Rowling
POUNDS 16.99, 607 pages
Not that I want to rain on everybody’s Potter parade, but now that we’ve reached Book Six, Rowling’s saga has surpassed The Lord of the Rings , Beowulf and The Mabinogion in length. In Books One to Six, we saw Harry Potter grow from maltreated orphan to apprentice wizard to, finally, the magical world’s only hope against the evil Lord Voldemort.
The Potter legend grew; from the baby who was the only living creature in magical history to survive an attack by Voldemort that even his wizard parents, Lily and James, couldn’t withstand, Potter went one-on-one with the Dark Lord and lived to tell the tale. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , the Hogwarts School lost a pupil to the machinations of Voldemort; in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix , Potter lost his godfather, Sirius Black.
The tone of the books grew darker: while none of the pupils at Hogwarts were actually sniffing potions or taking out half the school with their wands, Potterland was no longer the place where Butterbeer, Pensieves and unruly house elves charmed us all. In the nonmagical, Muggle world that we live in, the Potter saga fuelled a thousand hysterical adjectives and reviews, most of them containing the words “millions of copies sold”.
In the sixth book of the series, Potter’s world has lost most of its innocence; Hogwarts has been touched by death; even Albus Dumbledore, the emblematic figure of the white wizard set against Voldemort’s sulky, pouting darkness, has sustained injuries that defy healing. And Harry now has concerns beyond teenage romance and Quidditch matches and the scheming of schoolmates.
In her anxiety to fill in the missing links and prepare the ground for Book Seven (coming to a store near you in the next three years, never fear), Rowling deliberately avoids some threads that might have deepened the story. The fear and suspicion he incurred in the last two books after a series of unfortunate events appears to have vanished without much trace; he is subjected to no more than the irritations of minor celebrity status. The lives of his parents, Lily and James, which seemed promising ground to mine for complexity and ambiguity, are extraneous to this part of the story.
Instead, as the world around Hogwarts is lashed by Voldemort’s forces and the disappearance and deaths of minor characters, Harry and Dumbledore embark on a journey into the psyche of the Lord of Darkness. The mystery surrounding the identity of the Half-Blood Prince (could it be James Potter, or some unknown student?) will be cracked by page 250 by any halfway awake Potter fan, and the slowly unravelling story of Voldemort is disappointing. If you peer deeply into the heart of darkness, what you’ll see is the inability to love: we must stumble through an interminable backstory in order to reach this banal pop psychology insight.
Perhaps in this, though, Rowling has her finger on the pulse of an age where evil has lost its grandeur: the face of evil isn’t terrifying so much as mean, and perhaps what makes Voldemort scary is only that he’s a petty racist with unlimited power at his disposal. We’ve met those before, but forgive me for being disappointed at the absence of sound and fury. When His Darkness and His Lightness do meet, they should at the very least “exchange a glance/ of great politeness”, instead of stooping to clichéd dialogue.
But it’s unfair to compare Rowling to the great epic poets, when the closest comparison is between Harry Potter and another innocent hero pitchforked into events beyond his control: Luke Skywalker. Potter is more complex than Skywalker, and certainly in this book, as he struggles with jealousy, anger, hate and sorrow, he grows up, as we have along with him. Voldemort lacks the tragic intensity of Darth Vader, but as yet another character dies, leaving Potter bereft, and as the shadow of darkness looms over Hogwarts, you know you’ll line up for more.
This is a long, sometimes awkward, often mawkish Pilgrim’s Progress , but it isn’t often that a children’s series starts with such lighthearted summoning of magic and ends by beckoning us into deepening gloom. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince may read like a prequel instead of a continuation, but it demands that we stick around for the ending—and by now, as Harry grows ever more orphaned, we know that happy endings only exist in fairy tales.