There's a lot going down in this story. We have some weighty events and ideas to keep us awake at night. But we also see a more playful side of Hogwarts as we watch Harry and his friends fumble around with things like Apparition lessons, crushes, and parties. This levity balances the darker sides of the story, and we get the sense that the storyteller believes that where there is shadow, there might be light too.
Really stumped this time, Harry found nothing else to say. There did not seem to be any way Malfoy could have brought a dangerous or Dark object into the school. He looked hopefully at Ron, who was sitting with his arms folded, staring over at Lavender Brown.
"Can you think of any way Malfoy–?"
"Oh, drop it, Harry," said Ron.
"Listen, it's not my fault Slughorn invited Hermione and me to his stupid party, neither of us wanted to go, you know!' said Harry, firing up. (15.164)
Notice how the discussion went from Malfoy carrying a Dark object into school to Slughorn's party. We are constantly enveloped in this careful balance between threats of war and teenage growing pains.
Oh, yes, we get our money's worth with this one. Harry Potter gives us the fun of watching Harry and his friends grow up and forge their individual identities, making it a coming-of-age tale. But we also get to follow Harry's on-going quest to understand and to defeat Voldemort, which will continue in the next and last book of the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore's love of adventure ensures that there will be lots of excitement, danger, thrill, and learning to be had. The presence of ghosts, wands, Death Eaters, gnomes, and, well, magic marks this series as belonging to the fantasy genre. While some would argue that these books are meant to be read by young minds, making it children's literature, we would argue that J.K. Rowling serves up juicy themes and ideas that all people wrestle with, regardless of age, background, or belief.
The Half-Blood Prince is a former Hogwarts student who once owned the Potions textbook that Harry adopts during his sixth year at Hogwarts. This textbook proves to be endlessly helpful as it is chock full of notes, tips, and guides about how to make successful potions. Harry spends much of his sixth year trying to understand just who this Half-Blood Prince is, and, in spite of Hermione's protestations, he keeps the book. The Half-Blood Prince helps Harry become the superstar of Potions class, a class he needs to excel at in order to fulfill his lifelong goal of becoming an Auror. However, the Half-Blood Prince also gets Harry into trouble: Harry uses an unknown spell contained in the textbook that turns out to be a dangerous piece of Dark Magic.
Why name the sixth book of the Harry Potter series after the owner of this textbook? Well, we think it has something to do with Hermione's discovery at the end of the story. By means of good sleuthing, Hermione discovers that Professor Snape's mother's maiden name was Eileen Prince, and she was a witch. Snape's father was a Muggle. Harry and Hermione come to the conclusion that Snape is the Half-Blood Prince, considering he is half-blood and he is also a Prince (by virtue of his mother's lineage). Therefore, Harry has been learning Dark Magic from the very professor he hates most. What's worse, the Half-Blood Prince turns out to be Dumbledore's killer. By the end of Book 6 we realize that we know more about Voldemort than we do about Snape. It becomes more and more clear that Harry's impending battle and journey will have much to do with the newest Professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts: Snape.
Well, all we're saying is that you better have a big box of Kleenex on hand when you reach the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Why? Dumbledore dies. We will admit it loud and clear: we were totally shocked by this. We thought, surely, Dumbledore would be around for years and years. He is the most powerful wizard around! He's like Merlin. He's a fountain of knowledge. If he dies, a lot of valuable information does too. But, as much as we hoped that he was only pretending to be dead, by the end of Book 6 we know for certain that Dumbledore is no longer. What's worse, he is killed by Professor Snape and Harry watches the whole thing, unable to do anything to save him.
Many people have criticized this particular ending, believing that it was unnecessary for Dumbledore to die. How do you feel about his death? Would you have ended this book differently? We always knew Dumbledore was a much-loved, powerful wizard, but at his funeral, we see just how loved he is and just how many different kinds of people and creatures he affected. Practically the whole Wizarding world seems to grieve at this loss.
What does Dumbledore's death mean? Fortunately, Harry's private lessons have enabled Harry to know exactly what Dumbledore has been working on, exactly what he has been working towards. Dumbledore has shared every ounce of information about Voldemort that he knows with Harry. Even though Dumbledore would have been an essential resource as Harry fought to destroy Voldemort, we realize that Harry is perfectly outfitted to carry on where Dumbledore left off. He has everything that he needs. Hundreds of questions fill our minds, but two in particular stand out: did Dumbledore know he was going to die, and why, oh why, did he trust Snape to be a good and honest man?
Yes, indeedy, by the end of Book 6 we are left with lots of questions, lots of sadness, and lots of uncertainty. Fortunately, we do know that there remains one more book in the series to help us put the pieces of the puzzle together, to help us understand more about Dumbledore and his quest. As Harry considers the road ahead, one thing is clear: his greatest power is his ability to love, and his greatest tool is the friendship he has with Ron and Hermione, both of whom swear to support him no matter what. We wait with baited breath for whatever comes next.
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."
(Click the map infographic to download.)
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.
The writing in the Harry Potter series is so magical that you forget you are reading something. Someone put a spell on these words and sentences, because the minute you start reading Harry Potter, you don't see words – you see Harry, Hogwarts, and the actions that unfold. You are enveloped by the story. It's kind of like when your mom made you eat those big vitamins, and you definitely didn't want to eat them, and so she tricked you by sticking one in a piece of cheese one day, and you never even noticed. If you are not a fan of reading and you come across Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, you might be intimidated by the sheer volume of the tome. That's right, we said tome. But once you are five pages in, we promise you'll be hoping it never ends.
The writing is jam-packed with imagination-stirring vocab, vivid descriptions, and clear sentences. It's almost as though Dumbledore were narrating the whole thing. As a matter of fact, we think he'd totally approve of the way this story is told.
In Book 6 we discover some big secrets, the biggest of which might just be that of the Horcrux. A Horcrux is a kind of magic so dark and so horrible that books about it have been removed from the Hogwarts library. A Horcrux is a kind of magic by which one can make oneself immortal by ripping one's soul into pieces and by encasing these pieces in objects. The only way one can rip one's soul into pieces is to kill another person.
Rowling uses the idea of the Horcrux to show just how horrible murder is – not only for the victim, but also the murderer. Killing someone tears the murderer's soul. We learn that Voldemort has torn his soul into seven pieces and created six Horcruxes. Through the Horcruxes we also see that Voldemort is incredibly evil. He has taken magic to a place it has probably never gone before, by making not one, but six Horcruxes. This is unheard of, and proves that he is far worse than any Dark wizard that has come before him.
Through his carefully hidden Horcruxes, Voldemort is able to flee death and to become immortal. The problem is that the more he rips his soul apart, the weaker and more decrepit his soul becomes – which explains the inhuman nature of Voldemort. However, since Voldemort doesn't value the soul, he doesn't realize that, in a way, he is weakening himself. This is another way in which Voldemort is very different from Dumbledore and Harry, who value the soul and the ability to love.
Dumbledore's is in the process of discovering and destroying the six Horcruxes in Book 6. He believes that Tom Riddle's diary, which possessed Ginny Weasley in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was once a Horcrux. He has also finds and destroys the Gaunt family ring, which was also a Horcrux. Harry and Dumbledore capture the third Horcrux, the Slytherin locket, when the venture to the cave of Voldemort's childhood, but Harry later discovers that the locket is a fake, and the real Horcrux has already been stolen by someone with the initials R.A.B. That leaves three more Horcruxes and the last shard of soul which lies in Voldemort himself.
Dumbledore and Harry speculate that the three Horcruxes might be in the form of Hogwarts heirlooms, such as something owned by Helga Hufflepuff or Rowena Ravenclaw. Nagini, Voldemort's snake, may also be a Horcrux. But by the end of Book 6, all Harry has is speculation and guesswork on his side – he will have to figure out where Voldemort might have hidden his remaining four Horcruxes and what form these Horcruxes might be in. Voldemort likes to collect items with historical weight and sentimental value, trophies of his horrific acts and crimes, and so it is imperative that Harry gather all of the knowledge he has of Voldemort and his past.
Schools are places of safety and learning. They are a harbor for young minds away from the troubling world. However, in Harry Potter 6 we watch Hogwarts turned upside down and inside out with tragedy, worry, and danger. A sign of the times, Harry and his friends must learn to adjust to a word in which there is no safe place. Voldemort is gaining so much momentum and force that even Dumbledore's enchantments cannot protect the Hogwarts community.
Interestingly, we come to understand through Book 6 just how powerful Hogwarts is. It is so powerful that Voldemort twice tries to become a teacher there. We all know that knowledge is power, and Hogwarts is a vessel of hundreds and hundreds of years of study, discovery, exploration, and fine-tuning. Some of the best wizards and witches of the world have attended Hogwarts. Voldemort would have been all too pleased to advance his own campaign from the comfy chair of a Hogwarts classroom.
The Half-Blood Prince arms Harry with powerful tips, tools, and ideas that allow Harry to both coast in Potions class and to learn powerful magic. The irony here is that the Half-Blood Prince, we come to find at the end of the story, is most likely Professor Snape himself. The very magic that Harry soaks up and appreciates so dearly comes from the man who kills Dumbledore. Is the textbook planted in Slughorn's classroom? If not, why didn't Snape hold onto it? What exactly does the book teach Harry to do?
Upon Dumbledore's death, Fawkes the phoenix sings and then flies away for good. As you know, a phoenix is a symbol of rebirth – it dies by bursting into flames, but is then reborn from the ashes. Dumbledore was all about giving people second chances – he was ready to give Voldemort a second chance when he returned to Hogwarts ten years after graduating, asking for a teaching job. And he certainly put his trust in Snape when others would not. The Phoenix is a powerful force in the world of Harry Potter for its reminder of the circle of life. Death is a necessary part of life. Even magic cannot combat death. This information stands in strong relief to Voldemort's efforts to conquer death.
Still, we are filled a sudden sadness and emptiness when Fawkes leaves Hogwarts for good after appropriately mourning Dumbledore's death. The silence that follows is a heavy one, and we are left to wonder what comes next once Dumbledore is gone. Who else is there who believes so fully in the good of people, who believes in giving people a second chance? There's a finality to Fawkes's departure that suggests something more than Dumbledore's life has come to an end.
You might want to think about where else we see the phoenix in the Harry Potter series. What other symbolic weight might Fawkes have?
The potion's greatest power is in showing us that our innate abilities are as powerful as magic. When Harry tricks Ron by pretending to pour the potion into his pumpkin juice before a Quidditch game, Ron believes that nothing can go wrong because he is under the influence of a potion. As a result, he plays better than he has ever played before and he wins the game for Gryffindor. When Harry reveals that no luck potion was ever involved, Ron realizes that he was capable of greatness all along. These wizards and witches of Hogwarts must learn both how to use magic and how to get along without it by trusting themselves. Magic is often not the most powerful tool in the shed.
Interestingly, the good luck potion also helps Harry secure the much-needed Horcrux memory from Slughorn. The fact that Harry is only able to retrieve this memory via magic reveals the extent to which humans will go to prevent others from discovering secrets, from having their real selves revealed. Slughorn's self-hatred is so huge that he will stop at nothing to make sure his memory is kept secret. In this case, magic helps undo the damage of human guilt.
Want to dig deep into the meanings behind character names in the Harry Potter series? We absolutely recommend that you do – there's a whole lot to learn. Shmoop recommends that you check out MuggleNet for help with your search.