Potter Matures in 6th Book
by Ari Armstrong, August 4, 2005
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the Potter series, is an extraordinary book, and J. K. Rowling is an extraordinary craftsman.
I still felt, about 170 pages into the 652-page work, that Rowling was still introducing the story. And 500 pages in I felt like I was safely reaching the end of a "bridge" work -- something that filled the gap between the dramatic fifth book and the finale. There are the budding romances, the old rivalries, the back-story of the arch-villain. But that last hundred pages is quite shocking, and all the story lines collide. (For those who have been living in a cave next to Grawp's, Harry Potter is a young wizard who attends school at Hogwarts under headmaster Albus Dumbledore. An evil wizard named Lord Voldemort is trying to rise to power -- and kill Harry.)
So the notion of the book as a "bridge" must be amended. It is a bridge in a more important sense -- a bridge between childhood and adulthood. Harry has already grown up considerably by the end of Book 5. But 6 leaves us with a sense that childhood truly is over.
I think I can safely pull a few passages from the book without ruining the surprise. Harry contemplates that he "must abandon forever the illusion... that the shelter of a parent's arms meant that nothing could hurt him." So Harry accepts not only the responsibility of adulthood, but the challenge: "It was important, Dumbledore said, to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated."
Though the modern left mocks the very term "evil," Rowling takes the phenomenon quite seriously. My take is that the left is so tickled that (some of) the Christians hate Potter, and the left is so ideologically lost these days, that it simply cannot rise even to the consideration of a criticism. It's all well and good and a bit too easy to make fun of Dubya for using that inconvenient word, but Rowling is a much more powerful witch. (Dumbledore's gentle explanation comes to mind: "I think it unlikely that your powers will register compared to mine.")
Of course, Rowling's treatment of evil is tied to a particular set of fictional characters, and so it is for that reason abstract relative to the concerns that we face in our lives today. And yet it is central to her books -- and the key to understanding why those books are so important to our culture.
Obviously Rowling has enormous influence with today's youth. One source claims that 2.3 billion books sold in 2004. Well, Potter 6 was printed in 10.8 million copies for its initial run. 6.9 million copies sold in the U.S. within the first 24 hours.
So what is Rowling's message? Here's a hint. Dumbledore tells Harry: "You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!" Harry has good friends and treats people decently. Voldemort has only followers and servants and seeks only control over others. Harry loves Dumbledore and strives to live up to his worthy example; Voldemort hates Dumbledore and tries to defeat him. Harry's primary concern is the well-being of his loved ones; Voldemort's obsession is immortality and possessions, even when he has to kill to get them.
Potter 6 contains some important political messages. Dumbledore tells Harry, "Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!" Quite a "childrens' book!"For me, the best scene is when Potter is approached by the new Minister of Magic. The entire scene is a delight, but one line in particular suggests that Rowling is well aware of the relevance of her work to the modern world. Potter tells the Minister: "Either we've got Fudge [the previous Minister], pretending everything's lovely while people get murdered right under his nose, or we've got you, chucking the wrong people into jail and trying to pretend you've got 'the Chosen One' working for you!"
There's something subtler going on in these books, beyond the ethics and politics. Consider that the children carry with them constantly their wands, with which they are capable of seriously injuring -- or even killing -- their fellow wizards, not to mention regular people, or Muggles. The very idea of a "child" is different in Rowling's world than it usually is in ours. At Hogwarts, children are not coddled or infantilized or forcibly drugged; neither are they dumbed down or left to roam as wild gangs.
Consider this scene from Potter 6. One professor invites two sixteen-year-old students into his office. Now, the professor is not a model instructor, though he is a competent teacher. Here's what the professor says to the students: "I've got butterbear, I've got wine, I've got one last bottle of this oak-matured mead... Why don't we open it now and celebrate [one student's] birthday? Nothing like a fine spirit to chase away the pangs of disappointed love..."
Can you imagine a teacher saying something like that in today's world? First, the teacher would be fired. Second, the teacher would be convicted of a crime. Because in our world, people under 18 -- and (in the U.S.) even under 21 when it comes to beverages -- are often infantilized. At Hogwarts, children are treated as basically autonomous and trained to grow into self-responsible adults.
I couldn't be more thrilled that millions of children are reading Rowling's books. If you know a young person (or an older person) who has not yet met Harry Potter, by all means buy him or her the set!
Because Rowling urges her readers to fight for their values. She takes her own advice, and the result is the Potter collection. And her fight is impressive indeed.