For Harry Potter fans the world over, last summer brought with it the pinnacle of excitement in the form of the sixth book in Jo Rowling’s acclaimed series. After reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about it just wasn’t right. I didn’t feel the same satisfaction I had after reading the previous five books. But it wasn’t until after a second reading that I realized what was troubling me. The problem lay in the title of the book. It emphasizes a plot that, as will be discussed, just doesn’t follow the typical criteria of a Harry Potter title.
In all the other books in the Harry Potter series, the title plot is the one established earliest. Dobby’s cryptic warning about the Chamber of Secrets is in Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Harry catches a glimpse of Sirius in his Animagus form in Chapter 3 of Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Percy hints at the Tri-Wizard Tournament in Chapter 5 of Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. And practically half the Order of the Phoenix shows up to retrieve Harry from the Dursleys in Chapter 3 of Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. Based on this criteria alone, the Malfoy plot should have been used as the title of Book 6 because it is established earliest in the book, with Narcissa’s pleas for Snape’s help in Chapter 2. Even Harry’s lessons with Dumbledore would have been a plausible contender here, as that plot is introduced only two chapters later. However, it is the mystery of the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions text that gets the honor of giving the book its title even though this plot isn’t even hinted at until Chapter 9.
Importance within the Book
Within the book itself, the mystery of the Half-Blood Prince doesn’t really seem as if it’s all that important to Harry, particularly when compared to his reaction to Malfoy. Harry has to practically drag himself to a Quidditch match after he sees Malfoy sneaking away from it, and we are told that “Harry, however, had never been less interested in Quidditch; he was rapidly becoming obsessed with Draco Malfoy.” 1 Obsessed with Draco Malfoy. Not obsessed with the Half-Blood Prince. Harry even sends Kreacher and Dobby to tail Malfoy to find out what he is up to, not to find out information on the Half-Blood Prince. He then spends all of his free time trying to get into the Room of Requirement any time Draco is in there. It is clear that Malfoy is Harry’s top priority, and since Harry is the title character, whatever is most important to him ultimately becomes what is most important to the book.
It would be one thing if the Half-Blood Prince were at least someone important to anyone else, but he’s not. Lupin, who went to school with Snape, never even knew Snape had the nickname, and Snape certainly doesn’t seem to have used it once his school days were over. It was just a name he gave himself as a student and happened to write down in his school books.
Importance within the Series
The whole point of the series is the conflict between Harry and Voldemort. From this standpoint, Harry’s lessons with Dumbledore clearly form one of the most important plots in Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince. It is here that Harry learns that he must destroy Voldemort’s Horcruxes before he can defeat the evil wizard. The importance of Slughorn’s memory becomes the most crucial aspect of this plot, and it is stressed several times in the book: First, when Dumbledore expresses great dissatisfaction in Harry for not trying harder to retrieve the memory,2 then when Harry says to a drunken Slughorn, “I am the Chosen One. I have to kill him. I need that memory.” 3 The importance of Slughorn’s memory is summed up best, though, by Hermione: “Harry, you’ve got to get that memory. It’s all about stopping Voldemort, isn’t it? These dreadful things that are happening are all down to him.” 4 The memory is utterly critical to the continuation of Harry’s lessons and ultimately to his ability to defeat Voldemort.
Malfoy’s plot is equally important because it brings about the death of Dumbledore. Dumbledore, as we are repeatedly told throughout the series, is “the only one Voldemort ever feared.” He was Voldemort’s only real obstacle to reaching Harry, and he spared Harry the responsibility of going after Voldemort. With Dumbledore gone, Voldemort can more easily get to Harry, and it is now clearly up to Harry to step up to the challenge of defeating Voldemort. The Half-Blood Prince plot adds more or less nothing to this conflict.
The end of the book is most telling in the importance of each plotline, and the Half-Blood Prince plot falls pretty short. The mystery surrounding his identity is solved when Snape reveals himself: “You dare use my own spells against me, Potter? It was I who invented them—I, the Half-Blood Prince!” 5 And that’s it; the big revelation. Five paragraphs later, Snape and Malfoy run away.
Although it is obvious that Snape will be an important part of Book Seven, there is no sense that it will be as the Half-Blood Prince. This plot has such a sense of finality to it, and although that’s nothing new to a Harry Potter plot, the fact that the reader can’t take anything away from the plot after its ending makes it all the more pointless. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, has quite a definitive ending, but so much is learned through the plot that the reader is satisfied with it ending. The same is true for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The Chamber is never visited again in successive books, but it doesn’t need to be because readers learned everything about it that they needed to know the first time around.
It’s not just the finality of the Half-Blood Prince plot that’s a problem; it’s the fact that it ends with no point being made. The book ends on a very forward note with Harry preparing to go out and hunt down Voldemort’s Horcruxes. But it is the culmination of both Harry’s lessons with Dumbledore and Malfoy’s plan that carry us forward, not the Half-Blood Prince.
Why Half-Blood Prince?
If the Half-Blood Prince plot is the least worthy one of the book, then why-oh-why was it given the honor of the book’s title? It could be argued that the reason for emphasizing the Half-Blood Prince in the title is to draw attention to Snape himself. It’s not about his name, but about drawing attention to his ambiguity and potentially major role in the outcome of the final book. Now, I would be willing to accept this, but readers are slapped in the face with Snape’s ambiguity throughout the entire series. No one but Dumbledore ever seems really sure where he stands in the fight against Voldemort. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the entire second chapter is devoted to the question of Snape’s ambiguity through his interactions with Bellatrix and Narcissa and this continues with Malfoy’s plot. It’s not as if this book was Jo Rowling’s only opportunity to emphasize the question of Snape’s true loyalty. Another plotline is completely unnecessary for this purpose.
But perhaps the plot is meant to be more than this. Snape, as the Half-Blood Prince, could be intended to be compared to Voldemort. Harry’s lessons with Dumbledore are meant to study Voldemort’s history so that Harry can learn how to defeat his arch enemy. It could be argued, then, that Harry’s discovery of Snape’s old Potions book is meant to operate in the same manner and show Snape’s character. This is an extremely plausible notion, except for the fact that through the Potions book, we don’t actually see anything about Snape’s character. Unlike the memories of Voldemort, we do not see what kind of person Snape was when he was younger, or how he progressed into becoming the person he is. All we get are the potions and spells that he altered and created. And unlike Voldemort, whose past is meant to show his weaknesses, Snape’s Potions book shows us his strengths. (Although, as he was the Potions teacher for so long, it’s already been established that he’s good at the subject.)
A more apt comparison is the one Hermione and Ginny make between the Potions book and Tom Riddle’s diary.6 This does seem to mean that Snape is supposed to be compared to Voldemort. But I think we are meant to notice the differences between them, and there are quite a few. First, the diary; it contained a piece of Voldemort’s soul, and was deliberately given to Ginny with the sole purpose of doing harm at Hogwarts. Ginny was, of course, possessed by the diary and forced to open the Chamber of Secrets, which let loose a basilisk on the student population. Not only that, but the bit of Voldemort’s soul made a deliberate attempt to manipulate Harry and gain his trust by showing him the memory of Hagrid. Clearly, the diary was always a genuine threat to anyone who came in contact with it and didn’t know what it truly was.
The Potions book, on the other hand, is nothing like the diary. Harry happened to find it in the back of a cabinet, it contains nothing in it but its original text, and it actually helps Harry. In an argument with Hermione, he says, “Listen, without the Prince I’d never have won the Felix Felicis. I’d never have known how to save Ron from poisoning.” The Felix Felicis is what allows Harry to gain that important memory from Slughorn, and although he really should have remembered about the bezoar, the fact remains that he didn’t, and the book reminded him. Hermione replies that without the book, he wouldn’t have “got a reputation for Potions brilliance that [he] didn’t deserve.” 7 Considering the good that the book did, an unearned reputation isn’t the most relevant criticism. Remember, too, that Harry did get an “E” on his Potions O.W.L., and while he may not be as brilliant as the book allowed him to seem, it’s not as if he doesn’t know anything about the subject. The book also allows Harry to defend himself against Malfoy. Yes, Sectumsempra is a nasty curse, but so is the Unforgivable Cruciatus.
Harry’s whole attitude toward the book signifies best the difference between it and Tom Riddle’s diary. He tells Hermione, “I’m not defending what I did! I wish I hadn’t done it, and not just because I’ve got about a dozen detentions. You know I wouldn’t’ve used a spell like that on Malfoy, but you can’t blame the Prince, he hadn’t written ‘try this out, it’s really good’—he was just making notes for himself, wasn’t he, not for anyone else…” 8
Unlike the diary, the Potions book was not begging to be used with ill-intentions. The fact that Jo Rowling had planned on putting the Half-Blood Prince plotline into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets shows further support for the fact that we are meant to compare and contrast Harry’s reactions to the two books.
It is worth wondering the extent to which we are meant to see the similarities between Harry’s relationship to Voldemort and his relationship to Snape. Yes, he immediately trusts both Tom Riddle’s diary and the Potions book, but does that mean that Snape and Voldemort are meant to be understood as the same type of person? Voldemort is Harry’s enemy; we’ve known this from the beginning of the series. He murdered Harry’s parents, among countless other witches and wizards, and tried to kill Harry as well. The fact that Harry trusted Tom Riddle’s diary so easily has much greater importance because he is such a threat to Harry. Snape, however, is nowhere near the level of “enemy” that Voldemort is. This is supported by Lupin, who says, “You are determined to hate him [Snape], Harry. And I understand; with James as your father, with Sirius as your godfather, you have inherited an old prejudice.” 9
Snape, however, has never actually posed a danger to Harry’s life and well-being. Because we are still unsure of whose side Snape is actually serving, the reasons for this can only be guessed. The fact remains, though, that Voldemort has made repeated attempts on Harry’s life, while Snape has made none; thus, Snape cannot be put in the same enemy category as Voldemort.
What, then, are we to do with these differences between Snape and Voldemort? The fact that J.K. Rowling emphasizes them by titling the book after Snape shows that we are meant to do something with them. Perhaps we are meant to see that Snape will, after all, end up being of help to Harry. Maybe the answer to his ambiguity has been staring us in the face all along in his contrast to Voldemort. Until book seven comes out, we can only speculate as to the true nature of Snape, but by naming book six after his younger self, it is clear that the boy holds a vital key to understanding the man.
1. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 409.
2. Ibid., 428-29.
3. Ibid., 490.
4. Ibid., 473.
5. Ibid., 604.
6. Ibid. pp. 180-81.
7. Ibid., 530.
8. Ibid., 530.
9. Ibid., 333.Bibliography
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999.