Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince, the sixth instalment into the titular series, was a turning point in many ways. While the series had been developing its darker tones as the characters and tone matured, they always coalesced with a feeling that whimsical feeling of magical escapism that made Harry Potter such a universal name. Each instalment brought a new shade of darkness, however, especially following from the return of He-who-must-not-be-named in The Goblet of Fire. Even the Order of the Phoenix still relishes in its fantastical roots, and even though it is marred with Wizard bureaucracy, haunting visions, character deaths, and the aggravatingly-hateable Dolores Umbridge, it still has its own sense of colour and identity. This is what separates The Half Blood Prince from its predecessors.
From the very beginning, there is an unyielding feeling of bleakness that only intensifies as the story goes on, and on until the ultimate climax, which inspired a quite frankly silly amount of controversy even before its release. When I look back to my childhood, I can remember the vivid worlds Rowling built for us (Just a disclaimer, that we will not be discussing the author herself, and the additional controversy surrounding her), and those memories are filled with bright colours and wonders. That is until we get to The Half Blood Prince, that is, when the Wizarding world turns a perpetual grey, as a bleak build-up to the end that we knew was approaching when this book released. Building upon that, it’s easily my favourite in the entire series because of that fact. I loved the mystery, the perpetual gloom that a storm is coming, and the contrast to the genuine humour and fun that is only handed out sparingly as a reward for enduring the darkness, but most of all, I loved the horror elements.
I’ve heard a few people compare this chapter and subsequent film-scene to something more typically fantasy, often The Lord of the Rings, due to its scale; beginning with a mysterious crag of rock in betwixt a roaring crash of waves, then moving slowly to the claustrophobic and dangerous subterranean interior of the cave. That of course is no undue compliment. Each succeed in their own way of putting our Hero up against insurmountable odds, and retreating to a cave filled with unseen terror for a desperate cause to destroy a MacGuffin.
The entire arc of The Half Blood Prince follows Harry trying to uncover the identity of said ‘Half-Blood Prince’, and together with Dumbledore, discovering the truth about Tom Riddle’s transformation into Lord Voldemort. This quest directly intertwines with the introduction of formerly-retired Potions master, Horace Slughorn, who reluctantly agrees to part with his physical memory of Tom Riddle’s inquisition about Horcruxes, and finally, the key to defeating the Dark Lord once and for all.
The tentative tale of mystery is what drives the plot forward; we know the enemy is making machinations against Dumbledore, Harry and the Wizarding world itself, but we aren’t sure what they are until the very finale. Finally, we get a glimpse of a way the heroes can fight back, but before we are even sure about what that includes, Dumbledore whisks Harry off to an adventure, deep in the heart of the sea, with a blackened hand and the faintest idea of a counter-attack.
When the duo reach the cave, it is utterly desolate, almost serene. Dumbledore offers Harry, and by extension, us, reassurance that he is here for a reason, and the two find comfort and strength in one another. Once more, this bleeds through to the audience. We know of Dumbledores immense ability, we know the very imposing threat of Voldemort and what his victory entails, and we have painstakingly followed the plight of Harry up until this point, our central protagonist. Surely, nothing could go wrong in such a cave?
Harry and Dumbledore make their way through hidden pathways until they finally emerge upon a black lagoon, dark and silent, with a small island in the very centre. As they make their way forwards, Harry is sure there are dead things lying still in the water. Of course, he, Dumbledore and the reader are fully aware of what they are. There have been plenty of rumours prior about Voldemort’s usage of Inferi to inspire terror among the community beforehand, yet, they remain still and silent under the surface.
Once they reach the island, there is a fountain of sorts, with a dark and ominous liquid, and a goblet nearby. Dumbledore is clear of the path that must be taken, and warns Harry, that no matter what happens, it is he who must finish drinking the entirety of the strange water. Harry begrudgingly accepts, and watches how the liquid turns his revered Headmaster. At first the course seems clear, but soon the madness takes over, induced by whatever enchanted toxin lies within the basin. He baulks and refuses to drink more, finally begging Harry to kill him and end the ordeal, yet Harry is forced to be persistent, until the drink is finished. Harry and ourselves have never seen Dumbledore in such a state, such vulnerability beneath the venerable Wizard, and the experience leaves both of them, and us, in a similar state of vulnerable anxiousness, poised for the next threat ahead, but wholly unsure of what next lies in store. Then, the Inferi awaken.
Slowly crawling and scrambling out of the black, icy water, almost silent, swollen and pale. First a few, which Harry deftly deters, then more, and still more, a veritable swarm of undead monsters that have ceased to be human, controlled in hostile menace by an unseen puppeteer. They claw and drag at Harry, defending the weakened Dumbledore to his last shred of resolve, as he is pulled into the frigid waters, overwhelmed by sheer volume and horror, until at last, Dumbledore reawakens from his dazed state, and sends a roaring phoenix of flame to incinerate the last of the undead creatures. Though they are shaken and weakened, the two survive the threat, and return back to Hogwarts, with the now-appeared Horcrux in tow, and towards uncertain doom.
Why it works, and how we can learn form it
The momentum of the prior book pushes forwards like a locomotive. While previous instalments in the series have a tendency to meander, The Half Blood Prince spends less time comparatively introducing new elements and builds upon what has already been established. We always knew there was something up with Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy, we knew about the powers of potions before Harry gets the potions book and the luck potion, and we knew Hagrids attachment to all beasts, especially Arragog the Acromantula. We heard about the Inferi previously, and Voldemorts usage of all things dark to kill and destroy. Finally, we knew that there had to be a way to defeat the Dark Wizard, who had defied death once before.
The ever-winding trail of Harry’s investigation is what leads us here, and although we know that there will be no easy solution, no reward for Harry’s journey, a part of us dares to believe that maybe it will be that easy. That they might just circumnavigate the inevitable traps that guard the first Horcrux, but we don’t dare to believe what horrors that might amount to.
The succession of stories plays into Harry’s strength born from his increasing vulnerability. Over the series, characters he once bore a reliance on are picked off, which only increase after this chapter, but this is the beginning. Finally, after escaping Voldemort twice, overcoming and evading numerous magical monsters, establishing Dumbledore’s Army, finally this is where we see his true strength, reluctant as it may be. There is a paradigm shift suddenly; as a character we once revered as omniscient and omnipotent is suddenly weakened to the point where he is no longer himself, and our protagonist has to step up to protect them both, not just for the sake of the Wizarding world at large, but for the preservation of himself and his idol. At that point, instinct takes over, the instinct to survive, fight and protect despite the odds, and furthermore, unleash the knowledge and skill he has acquired over the past six books.
While the potion itself is what places our characters into such a predicament, it is of course the Inferi who steal the show. Although we have witnessed Harry battle against many terrifying supernatural beasts thus far; such as the aforementioned Giant Spiders, the spectral Dementors and numerous other fantastical creatures that didn’t make the adaptations, nothing has inspired quite so much horror as the reanimated dead. This is in due part to Rowling’s description of the creatures. Pale, swollen and uncanny, but surprisingly fast and quiet when they emerge. Their numbers seek to overwhelm Harry, pulling him into the water where yet more lie, victims of an untimely death, now forced into servitude by their murderer. Their bony fingers are probing and clawing, and their intent is malice.
Although many people often cite the book’s only interesting bit being the shocking death at the very end and as a set-up for the yet-darker tone of the next book (Or next two movies, if you’re some kind of philistine who thinks the adaptations are better), this chapter always sticks out in mind in how it was such a deviation from the rest of the series as a whole, even to that of The Deathly Hallows. However, it is this deviation that works so well. Harry Potter may have always been a fantasy series, but it encompasses a different scale of fantasy here, and it contrast brilliantly with the previous tones of mystery and levity, before erupting into full blown horror.
That, my friends, is why this stands out as my favourite chapter from my favourite book in the series.
Do you have any lasting memories of chapters that stood out to you in the Harry Potter series? Did this one in particular give you the willies? Or did you prefer the movie version (Just kidding, of course you didn’t)? Let’s talk about it!