by Sacha Zimmerman
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 08.04.05
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling
(Arthur A. Levine Books, 672 pp., $29.99)
Click here to buy this book
As a child, I read the Terry Brooks fantasy novels faster than you can say "Sword of Shannara." I also read The Hobbit, was obsessed with King Arthur's court (I named my two male kittens Sir Gwayne and Lady Gwenivere), dabbled in Dungeons and Dragons, and built the Lego castle (and brought it to school for show-and-tell). I even once sat rapt in front of the movie Mazes and Monsters with the firm belief that role-playing magic games were all the rage at college. I would have loved Harry Potter as a kid.
But life moved on. I went through a note-passing, giggly junior high phase decked head to toe in Espirit; a keg-parties and old-school-rap phase; an obsessed-with-Jim-Morrison's-poetry phase; a Brit-punk Sid Vicious anger phase; an Edible Woman radical vegetarian feminist phase; and a deep Eugene Ionesco phase that I still don't fully understand. Then one uneventful night, while volunteering abroad after college (my save-the-world phase), I was invited to a D&D game. Thinking it might be fun to bask in the fantasy years of my youth, I heartily accepted--only to find myself gaping in horror as grown adults "cast spells" and "explored secret caves" looking for "magic stones." "I think I'm just gonna go hang out with the cool kids in the pub instead," I murmured and slunk out.
It was around this time that I also picked up The Hobbit again. I started zoning out during a particularly detailed passage about Shire life that blended a little too well with my understanding of Smurf life--sexless midgets living in bliss but for fear of tall men in castles. I tried to read Brooks once more, too, but flung the book out of a bus window after realizing that Allanon is a druid and not a twelve-step program. So when Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone burst onto the scene--during my Mary-Tyler-Moore-career-gal phase--I was a tad skeptical. But I loved it. Sure, it was a children's book, but I was less cynical by that point and more willing to romanticize my childhood fascination with castles and witchcraft. I loved the second Harry Potter book, too. I thought the third was just OK. It wasn't that it was worse than the first two--indeed, many would argue that it's better--but by that point I understood Harry Potter well enough to know what to expect.
The Harry Potter series is so formulaic that any hint of suspense had already been eradicated by book three. And so by the sixth novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I am ready to just yadda-yadda my way through the obligatory tease-the-muggles chapter. Every Potter book finds Harry living on Privet Drive just long enough to freak out the Dursleys before heading back to Hogwarts. After a trip to Diagon Alley, then it's off to Platform 9-3/4 with the Weasley clan before the typically illuminating and mischievous journey to school. Of course, then there's the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to contend with, a plot to unravel with the aid of some new possession (a book, a map, an invisibility cloak, a mirror), verbal duels with Draco Malfoy, paranoia about Severus Snape, comic relief with the ghosts and paintings, life-and-death Quidditch matches, new spells that sound like first-year Latin and yet are mysteriously difficult to learn (Studium Magicum in Totem!), a final challenge that often involves three obstacles (Hermione and Ron get to help more that way), and of course the continued hegemony of Gryffindor to maintain.
All of which is perfectly thrilling--for an eight-year-old. But J.K. Rowling is not C.S. Lewis nor Madeline L'Engle, and her novels do not carry into adulthood--unless your idea of excitement is meeting Hagrid's beast du jour. Maybe that's an unfair criticism, since these are children's books after all, right? But those weren't just children at the Harry Potter release parties last month, and I'm pretty sure eight-year-olds aren't reading The New York Times Book Review (much less the op-ed page) for analysis of the latest roman à Hogwarts.
As long as adults are taking whimsy seriously, it's fair to take Rowling the writer seriously. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is teeming with overt social commentary that uses the state of the wizard world as a metaphor for the state of our world. The terrorized wizarding community buys inane safety gadgets, like Decoy Detonators, to bolster their sense of security. The Ministry of Magic buys 500 Shield Hats from a joke shop. Innocent people are arrested in order for the Ministry to appear as though it is doing something meaningful. It feels familiar, yet the decentralized threat from fundamentalist ideology facing the real world doesn't translate to Harry Potter at all. The good wizards and witches of Rowling's series still call evil by one name: Voldemort. The Dark Lord is a fixed, specific threat that ultimately Harry must vanquish. We muggles, however, face a threat that will take generations to repair.
But maybe that's exactly why even adults love Rowling's tedious predictability. Rowling's world, like George W. Bush's world, is one of good versus evil. The threat is identifiable: It can be attacked, and it can be stopped. And so, as you may have heard, this latest Harry Potter novel is "dark," just like our post-9/11 world. But, unlike our world, there is a savior. After all, Harry has a power "that Voldemort has never had"; Harry "can love!" Now Harry is ready for a one-on-one battle with Voldemort, love versus hate. Yawn. I bet that battle begins with Harry leaving the Dursleys (for the last time!) and heading to Hogwarts. I bet he learns some new tricks. I bet he unravels a plot. And I bet Harry wins. (Maleficus Exodus!)
Sacha Zimmerman , former assistant managing editor at TNR, is an associate editor at Reader's Digest.