Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Well, I finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night after my daughter had read it this weekend. We both enjoyed it tremendously and, after speeding through it, like millions across the world are thinking that two years seems way too long to wait for the final volume. I'm not going to write a full book report, but just note several thngs that occurred to me. SPOILER ALERT - if you haven't read the book yet, you may just want to skip the rest of this post.

As an education note - I love the grading system for the OWLS exams. There are three levels each for passing and failing ranging from Outstanding, Exceeds Expectations and Acceptable to Poor, Dreadful, and Troll. I love the idea that there are three levels of failing and would like to incorporate that into Muggle education here. And I bet kids would work harder to avoid earning Trolls.

One thing that always annoyed me with the earlier books is how the kids rarely seem to report to the teachers whenever they find out some evil opponent that they have to face. Instead they sneak around and take care of things themselves. I realize that that is a more appealing plot device to children, but think about it. They are at a school with some of the most powerful wizards in their world, yet they think they can take on the bad guys themselves. My own children always laugh at my teacherly impulses to say that the students should tell the teachers what is going on, but there it is. I'm a teacher and I would like to see more of the teachers in the book. But the books aren't written for teachers, alas. So the kids get to have most of the adventures.

In this book however, Harry does tell various adults what he suspects about Draco Malfoy. Some take him seriously such as Arthur Weasly and others seem dismissive. Finally, Dumbledore and Harry work together. Note what Dumbledore chooses to teach Harry in their separate lessons. Of all the things that he thinks Harry needs to know about fighting Voldemort, knowledge of the enemy seems most important. Not special spells and defensive arts, but psychological knowledge of the enemy. Not understanding in the sense of "if we understand each other, we can all get along" but "we must understand Voldemort in order to defeat him."

I've read some people who don't like the adolescent romances in the book. Well, again, the book is written for adolescents. We adults are just joining in with the fun. And kids like to read about how kids think and interact. And the romances are pretty toned down. There is lots of "snogging" going on but that is about it. No hint of anything more. And couples that are snogging are ridiculed. The deeper relationships between Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny seemed to be based on mutual respect and enjoyment of each other's company. The happy moments that Harry and Ginny spend together show their enjoying just being together. There is little snogging between the couples that truly care about each other. Nice message there.

And the ending. If you are a Snape fan and don't want to believe that he has gone over to the Death Eaters and would kill Dumbledore, read this posting in a Harry Potter chatroom. The author seems to have sossed out what is going on and posits that Dumbledore knew he was dying and so asked or ordered Snape to kill him in that final battle scene. It sounds quite probable to me.

For those who are hoping that Dumbledore is not really dead, there is also this possibility. We don't see Dumbledore die. All we see is his being blasted out of the tower and then later, his broken body is found. We can hold out hope that Dumbledore and Snape had concocted a pretense between them that Snape would seem to have killed Dumbledore and that Dumbledore has gone into hiding, leaving a dead likeness behind him to be buried. Perhaps, he will come back, resurrected if you will, in Book Seven. It is possible, but I suspect not. This is a bildungsroman or coming of age novel. And Harry Potter will have to face his foe on his own without his mentor professor.

Okay, what is there is in this book that ties in real life? Jonathan Last saw several parallels in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to Britain in the 1930s with Dumbledore a Churchillian figure and Minister Fudge a representation of Neville Chamberlain trying to appease the forces of evil. I suspect that J. K. Rowling would like to think of her book as having much more depth than a single one-for-one allegory. Sure, when we talk about battles between good and evil, Hitler and World War II come to mind.

However, for those seeking echoes of today's events, there are some hints there. Voldemort and his supporters seem similar to the Islamofascists who think that the only way to gain strength is by killing innocents. The book opens with stories of bystander Muggles being killed as the good and evil wizards battle each other. Shades of innocent Iraqis being killed by terrorists. The Ministry of Magic doesn't seem any more effective in protecting people than the Department of Homeland Security or whatever the British equivalent is. They put out posters with recommendations on how to protect you and your family that don't seem any more useful than color codes and advice to buy duct tape. Rowling does not have much respect for how the politicians are fighting the war. The description of the new Prime Minister, Rufus Scrimgeour, at first seems reminiscent of Churchill. He is described as an "old lion," which seems a clear reference to Churchill, although there are no physical similarities. But, ultimately, it is clear that Scrimgeour is weak and just seeks the appearance of accomplishing something rather than the substance. Innocent people are arrested and kept in prison just for creating the impression that the government is doing something. Is that a knock on the Patriot Act and people who were rounded up after 9/11? It sure seems like it.

But, ultimately, Rowling seems to endorse the idea that you have to choose to fight evil and tyrants. My daughter noted these words from Dumbledore,
"Don't you se? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victimes, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!"(p. 510)
That could be used by those who supported the war in Iraq to say that we had to fight Saddam Hussein just as Dumbledore had to fight Voldemort. Or those who oppose the war could say that those words indicate that it must be one of the victims who rises up not a foreign country. They could argue that it was up to the Iraqis themselves to rise up. I think Rowling is too clever to make the book seem like an argument for one or another political position and wants her books to stand on their own. Sure there is the battle between good and evil which seems reminiscent of the battle with terror today. But, the great sagas of literature often concern that battle. It is a timeless theme. And it is a sign of the richness of the plotting that everyone can find something that speaks to them in the book.