Even though the Harry Potter series focuses primarily on the Wizarding world and on Harry Potter himself, we still get glimpses of the Muggle world as well. Part of what's so engaging about the setting of the Harry Potter series is that it takes our everyday world, the Muggle world, and combines it with the magical and exciting Wizarding world. After reading Harry Potter books, we can't help but wonder if we might stumble onto a strange, magical platform in the train station or happen across a Portkey disguised as an old boot.
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince we see that these two worlds exist together and, occasionally, interact with one another. We watch as tension builds between the two worlds and as Voldemort's war against Muggle-born wizards and witches manifests itself in violent ways in the Muggle world.
Rowling is also able to incorporate and catalogue some pretty universal ideas, moments, and events that affect humans of all backgrounds (Wizard and Muggle alike). She documents so carefully the ways in which Harry and his friends at Hogwarts grow up, struggling with things like love, homework, independence, identity, and social life. Even though they are studying the art of Wizardry and Witchcraft, the Hogwarts students have experiences that are familiar to us readers. Rowling finds a way to seamlessly blend the Wizarding and Muggle worlds and to show us how they rely on one another.
We begin Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in the British Prime Minister's office. It is a nice office: "it was a handsome room, with a fine marble fireplace facing the long sash windows, firmly closed against the unseasonable chill" (1.4). It is here that lots of big decisions are made. In fact, the Prime Minister is waiting for a call from a president from another country when the chapter opens.
On the wall of the office hangs a magical portrait used by the Wizarding world to communicate with the Muggle world. The portrait is of "a froglike little man wearing a long silver wig" (1.8). The fact that the Prime Minister's office is connected to the Wizarding world reveals to us that, on occasion, it is imperative that both worlds work together, and that the two worlds have been working together, perhaps, for hundreds of years. Though the Prime Minister might not like visits from the Wizarding world, he knows they are necessary
The Dursleys' house, found on Number 4 Privet Drive in Surrey, England, is not a place of happiness and comfort for Harry Potter, as we all well know. Harry's Muggle aunt and uncle hate anything having to do with magic, and that seems to include Harry. Harry returns to their house every summer because the house provides him with magical protection while he's still a child, and because he has no other family. However, at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, as Harry finds himself counting down the summer days to his return to Hogwarts, Dumbledore comes to visit the Dursleys. He tells them that in a year's time Harry will no longer need to live with them as he will become an adult at the age of seventeen. Everyone seems to be elated.
In stark contrast to Number 4 Privet Drive is the Weasleys' home, called the Burrow, which is a place of great comfort, love, chaos, and magic. It is located near the village of Ottery St. Catchpole in England and is surrounded by lots of countryside, naughty garden gnomes, and all manner of animals. The house is definitely a bit worse for wear, but it contains the large Weasley family well. When Harry and Dumbledore first approach it in this story, this is what they see:
Harry and Dumbledore approached the back door of the Burrow, which was surrounded by the familiar litter of old Wellington boots and rusty cauldrons; Harry could hear the soft clucking of sleepy chickens coming from a distant shed. (5.1)
Even though this is really the only home Harry has ever known, and even though it is a kind of haven for him, neither it nor its inhabitants are safe from the war at hand or from the possibility of dangerous occurrences. We see this most clearly by the fact that Mrs. Weasley now carries around a magic clock that has a hand for every member of her family and tells her what kind of danger they are in: at the start of Book 6 all of the clock's hands points to "mortal peril."
Diagon Alley is the main thoroughfare, the Times Square, the place to be in the Wizarding community. It is where anyone and everyone goes to get outfitted for school, to do shopping, to eat, to hear what's going on in the world. It is a sign of the times, then, that Diagon Alley is nearly empty at the beginning of Book 6. Dozens of stores have closed, and government-issued documents adorn many storefronts offering instructions on how best to keep safe in a time of war. Consider the following description:
The Leaky Cauldron was, for the first time in Harry's memory, completely empty. Only Tom the landlord, wizened and toothless, remained of the old crowd […]. Diagon Alley had changed. The colorful, glittering window displays of spellbooks, potion ingredients, and cauldrons were lost to view, hidden behind the large Ministry of Magic posters that had been pasted over them. Most of these somber purple posters carried blown-up versions of the security advice on the Ministry pamphlets that had been sent out over the summer, but other bore moving black-and-white photographs of Death Eaters known to be on the loose. Bellatrix Lestrange was sneering from the front of the nearest apothecary. A few windows were boarded up, including those of Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor. On the other hand, a number of shabby-looking stalls had sprung up along the street. The nearest one, which had been erected outside Flourish and Blotts, under a striped, stained awning, had a cardboard sign pinned to its front. (6.41)
Hogwarts is a magical and ancient place of learning where Harry has spent five years (and is beginning his sixth) gaining the tools and knowledge to become a great wizard. The school is headed by the magnanimous wizard Albus Dumbledore, and is filled with a diverse spectrum of teachers (powerful witches and wizards in their own right). In his sixth year, Harry and his friends must begin studying for their final exams, the Nasty Exhausting Wizarding Tests (N.E.W.T.s), which will take place at the end of their seventh year. As a result, they are inundated with heaps of difficult homework and have very little free time.
Hogwarts itself is an enchanted place – ghosts roam the corridors and bathrooms, portraits come alive, secret passageways and rooms abound. The school has accumulated hundreds and hundreds of years' worth of information. The school is comprised of four houses (Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff), and each student is placed within a particular house on their first day of their first year at Hogwarts. Each house has a different personality, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in Gryffindor. For more details, check out The Harry Potter Lexicon, which has great information on the houses.
Harry and his friends spend the most time hanging out in the Gryffindor common room or in their dormitory, eating in the Great Hall, taking class in various classrooms, studying in the library, and playing Quidditch on the Quidditch field. One of the greatest qualities of studying in an enchanted castle is that cool things can happen. Consider the Great Hall (which is like a cafeteria): "the ceiling of the Great Hall was serenely blue and streaked with frail, wispy clouds, just like the squares of sky visible through the high mullioned windows" (9.12).
Sometimes, however, living in an enchanted castle is not so cool. In Book 6, Harry returns to the Room of Requirement, a secret room with no visible door. A person must use the power of thought to ask the room to open itself. Inside are rows upon rows of trinkets, items, things, and watchumacallits that people have stowed away and hidden in there for centuries. Harry believes that Draco Malfoy, his nemesis, is cooking up something evil in the Room of Requirement. He spends much of his sixth year trying to enter the room and catch Draco in the act.
During Harry's private lessons with Dumbledore, he is able to visit a memory of Voldemort's pureblood mother and grandfather's house. The scene is not a happy or pretty one. The Gaunt family lives in poverty and squalor in a small house in the woods that lie next to the large manor house belonging to Tom Riddle, Voldemort's father who is also a Muggle. Check out this description of the Gaunt house:
Despite the cloudless sky, the old trees ahead cast deep, dark, cool shadows and it was a few seconds before Harry's eyes discerned the building half-hidden amongst the tangle of trunks. It seemed to him a very strange location to choose for a house, or else an odd decision to leave the trees growing nearby, blocking all light and the view of the valley below. He wondered whether it was inhabited; its walls were mossy and so many tiles had fallen off the roof that the rafters were visible in places. Nettles grew all around it, their tips reaching the windows, which were tiny and thick with grime. Just as he had concluded that nobody could possibly live there, however, one of the windows was thrown open with a clatter, and a thin trickle of steam or smoke issued from it, as though somebody was cooking. (10.56)
The cave is the place where young Tom Riddle terrorized two fellow orphans way back in the day when he was still living at an orphanage and when he was unaware of his powers or of his wizarding background. Dumbledore guesses rightly that this is just the kind of place (with enough sentimental value) where Voldemort might hide a Horcrux.
After swimming through tumultuous ocean waves, Dumbledore and Harry access a cave hidden by Dark Magic in craggy cliffs. Inside the cave, the Horcrux glows green on a tiny island surrounded by a sea full of dead bodies (Inferi). The cave shows us just how creative Voldemort can get when hiding his Horcruxes – the Dark Lord has a big, dramatic imagination to enhance his dark, violent ways. By entering and seeing the cave, we learn a lot about what the Horcrux means to Voldemort and about the kind of magic he practices. Dumbledore nearly dies drinking the liquid in which the Horcrux is steeped. When Harry tries to get water for Dumbledore from the stony lake, dead bodies begin climbing onto the island, ready to attack and kill both Harry and Dumbledore. The dead bodies are prevented from murdering the two wizards only when Dumbledore casts a ring of fire around the island – the dead bodies can't take the heat and the light and flee.
We also later learn that the cave has been broken into before – someone else has figured out that 1) Voldemort has created Horcruxes, and 2) that he might hide a Horcrux in this particular childhood haunt. The cave is a spooky place holding a shard of Voldemort's soul and guarded by some of the most sophisticated kinds of Dark Magic.