This book is Snape’s and Dumbledore’s, and it ends like it began: with an exchange of words that do not mean what they seem to mean, but only exactly what they say. In both cases, the novel invites us to misunderstand Snape’s meaning and intentions, and to a large extent, we don’t really have any choice. The narrative, which is Harry’s, takes the apparent meaning as real, and if we refuse it, it’s from instinct and from faith in the integrity of an underdog.
In the long stretch between Snape’s two damnations, Harry stumbles along damaged and, yes, angry, although less so than in the previous book in the series. If in that book growing up meant that Harry needed to discover and to accept that things would not work out the way he wished regardless of his feelings, in this book, it requires he learn that his enemies are people rather than monsters, a simple, fundamental and difficult lesson. The device Rowlings contrives for permitting this discovery—and for motivating extended, digressive flashbacks—is the pensieve, a bowl for collecting and reviewing memories that immediately became one of my favorite magical objects of all times ever.
I’m writing this post after finishing The Deathly Hallows, and so, I can say without question that the Half-Blood Prince—the book but also the enigmatic off-stage Snapes—has won my heart. Here the dangerous, mysterious adult world that first came knocking on the door of Harry’s childhood in The Goblet of Fire and then came crashing through it in The Order of the Phoenix, takes on a life of its own, independent of the narrative we’ve been reading, and sets Harry’s story into perspective, revealing its purposes and limits. Here, Dumbledore has a story. Snape has a story. Voldemort has a story. And we discover for the first time that the actual tragedy of the series—and yes, the intersecting stories of these men, especially when viewed from the perspective of the boy caught at their crossroads, is indeed tragic—is that the men’s stories cannot be reconciled, cannot be resolved, and so they cannot permit anything like a happy ending to emerge. At most, we can hope for resolution.
This is the hole the final book must get out of without being able to get out of it without failing.