Harry Potter's glasses take on a darker tint

A plot with scary similarity to today's troubled times puts 'Prince' on the edge. It could be Rowling's best yet.

July 24, 2005|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff



By J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine Books. 652 pages.

Timely" is not a word normally associated with Harry Potter novels. In the 2,713 pages of J.K. Rowling's first five volumes, the bywords were escape and nostalgia.

Because even as Rowling transported readers to a parallel universe of young wizards and witches, she also immersed them in a throwback world that was quite literally Old School. From its lessons in fair play and virtue to its age-old headmaster teaching that all you need is love, one could sense both Tom Brown and John Lennon offering reassurance from previous generations.

Yet, in this sixth and penultimate installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the pages open onto a dreary July in which the world at large -- and London in particular -- has become a very dangerous and uncertain place.

Mysterious attacks are occurring almost daily, plotted by a shadowy enemy willing to break all previous rules of engagement. A spooked government adds to the general panic by announcing public warnings, and by offering security measures about as helpful as, say, telling everyone to stock up on duct tape.

Even the prime minister -- no, not Tony Blair -- has been notified to expect the worst.

"The Prime Minister sank, weak-kneed, into the nearest chair," Rowling writes. "The idea of invisible creatures swooping through the towns and countryside, spreading despair and hopelessness in his voters, made him feel quite faint."

As if any further eerie resemblance to current headlines were necessary, Harry Potter and his schoolmates are, as always, preparing to board the Hogwarts Express from their usual platform at Kings Cross, the rail station that only 17 days ago served as the hub of four terrorist bombings.

Rowling didn't plan it this way, of course, although one suspects her subplots and shadings have been influenced by the darkening atmosphere of her times. What else could explain her rendering of a government leaflet that instructs all residents to "Review the security arrangements around your house, making sure that all family members are aware of emergency measures such as Shield and Disillusionment Charms."

There is plenty for Harry to worry about as the book proceeds, and, for a change, many of his elders share his concern. Lord Voldemort, the Hitler-Bin Laden stand-in of the series, has become ever more powerful, and his loyal Death Eaters (think Ninja, al-Qaida and the Waffen SS) seem to finally be taking the upper hand.

Harry's schoolboy foil, Draco Malfoy, may or may not be working for Voldemort in the back corridors of Hogwarts. One student is hexed, another is poisoned. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore is so worried about the dark and downward trend of things that he begins offering Harry extra wizarding lessons in private.

But even as Rowling shoves her once green and pleasant land deeper into eclipse, the book maintains the charm that has marked all its predecessors, and perhaps exceeds them with its suspense.

My initial gut reaction is that this is the best Harry Potter yet. But that may have 1a lot to do with the way the book concludes. Previous endings left us feeling the way Harry usually does after final exams -- sated by events, but resigned to the bittersweet knowledge that he won't be seeing his friends at Hogwarts for quite a while.

The tumultuous conclusion to this volume, on the other hand, leaves us immediately ravenous for the next installment, partly because it offers no assurance that things will ever be the same again. Is edgier better? It's certainly more addictive.

No less an authority on these matters than author Stephen King has declared, "Harry will take his place with Alice, Huck, Frod, and Dorothy."

Certainly that's true for Harry's sales volume. But as compelling as the series has become, Rowling has always tended to draw from stock archetypes for both characters and subplots.

Even her star, Harry himself, often comes across as solid but unspectacular. Special powers or not, he is the very model of conventional bravery and goodness. Unlike Huck on his raft, Harry on his broomstick has never had to question much about what his elders have taught him about good and evil.

As he and his schoolmates have aged, Rowling has laid out the usual conflicts and insecurities of adolescence -- young love, young jealousy, the fear of trying something truly original -- in a standard manner that some will always see as cliched.

We know that Ron and Hermione will spar and then spark. Crabbe and Goyle will remain bullying toadies. It is comforting, if not particularly daring.

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