Harry finds that his workload as a sixth-year is much more strenuous than expected. Even Hermione struggles with the nonverbal magic that is expected in almost every class. Harry’s best subject is Potions, but only because of his textbook’s assistance. Meanwhile, the trio has neglected to visit Hagrid, and he’s giving them the cold shoulder for dropping his class. Hermione is upset about this rift, but Harry assures her they’ll visit him after he holds Quidditch trials this morning.
The trio’s quarrel with Hagrid, one of their oldest friends, springs from the fact that their new responsibilities as sixth-years disrupts their old class schedule and lifestyle. In this sense, it reflects the fact that growing up involves shifting and restructuring one’s friendships.
Harry is puzzled that so many people are trying out this year, but Hermione impatiently informs him that it’s because, after all he endured last year before being proved right about Voldemort, he’s an intriguing and “fanciable” figure. Ron points out that he too has scars from the night at the Ministry, and that he’s as tall as Harry.
Even though Ron fought alongside Harry at the Ministry, he doesn’t enjoy nearly as much celebrity status. As in previous years, one of Ron’s greatest challenges is learning to value himself even though he spends most of his life in Harry’s shadow.
That morning, Hedwig arrives carrying Harry’s new copy of Advanced Potion-Making. Hermione is triumphant that Harry will finally have to return his dog-eared copy, but instead he uses magic to put the new cover on his old book.
Harry’s reckless trust in the Half-Blood Prince’s book shows that, to some extent, he considers himself immune from bad consequences – perhaps because of the many times he’s successfully faced down danger.
In disgust, Hermione turns to the Daily Prophet. Ron asks her casually if anyone they know has died – a question he now poses every day. Hermione reports that there have been three more dementor attacks and, incredibly, the friendly Knight Bus driver Stan Shunpike has been arrested after being heard talking about Death Eaters’ “secret plans” in a pub. Harry feels that Stan, a big talker, was mostly likely trying to impress people by pretending to know more than he did, and wonders why the Ministry is taking this seriously. Hermione posits that they’re probably trying to seem on top of the situation, in order to quell rising terror.
Stan Shunpike’s imprisonment reflects the Ministry’s desire to project a strong and forceful image, even when doing so distracts from more important aspects in the fight against Voldemort. Moreover, imprisoning Stan increases paranoia by encouraging people to believe that harmless neighbors are actually Death Eaters, when this is not the case. This case is one of the largest factors in the erosion of Harry’s trust in the Ministry.
Meanwhile, Hermione points out that Dumbledore has been absent from school much of the week, probably on Order business. The situation is seeming more and more dangerous – just yesterday Hannah Abbot was taken out of Herbology and told of her mother’s murder. As they leave the Great Hall, the trio pass the Patil twins whispering anxiously, but Lavender Brown turns to give Ron a smile. Hermione looks displeased for the entire walk to the Quidditch pitch.
The sudden death of Hannah’s mother, along with other murders like that of Amelia Bones at the outset of the novel, show that it’s not just Harry losing trusted authority figures – rather, this new sense of vulnerability and danger is widespread across Hogwarts students and the general Wizarding world.
It seems like half of Gryffindor is trying out for the team, including the swaggering Cormac McLaggen, who is going for Keeper, Ron’s position. Harry quickly weeds out most of the entrants by posing some basic tests. Two hours and “several broken teeth” later, Harry has assembled most of his team, including Ginny, who’s outflown all the other chasers.
Ginny has never been on the Quidditch team before. This new development will place her in close proximity to Harry and force him to grapple more definitively with his feelings for her.
Harry has left the Keeper tryouts for last, hoping that the stadium might empty out and thus pose less pressure for Ron. However, the crowd is even bigger and Ron looks sick. To Harry’s annoyance, Cormac performs well, saving all his goals until he shoots in the wrong direction on the last try. As Ron mounts his broom, Lavender Brown cheers from the stands and Harry feels anxious; however, to his delight Ron saves every penalty. Barely keeping a straight face, he informs Cormac that Ron has won the position. Aggressively, Cormac orders Harry to give him another try, but when Harry stands his ground Cormac stalks off disgruntledly.
Harry clearly believes that character is just as important as raw talent in a Quidditch player: even though Cormac is at least as good as Ron, Harry doesn’t want anyone this arrogant or rude on the team. At the same time, his obvious happiness that Ron has scarped through does show his willingness to prioritize his friends once he’s in a position of power.
Harry turns to greet the new team and Hermione runs onto the pitch to congratulate Ron. As they walk towards Hagrid’s house, Ron recounts all his saves to Hermione’s increasing amusement. However, when he remarks that Cormac looked like he’d been Confounded on his last shot, Hermione looks pink and embarrassed. When they arrive at the cabin Buckbeak, tethered outside, sinks into a gentle bow. Harry pets him, thinking that he must miss Sirius.
Harry’s thoughts at this moment reflect his own grief for Sirius. It’s a reminder that, even as he’s stepping into new leadership roles as the Quidditch captain, in many ways he’s still a child craving guidance from a parental figure.
Returning from the forest, Hagrid gives the trio an angry glance and slams the door of his cabin. Harry bangs on the door and threatens to blow it open until Hagrid finally opens up. Clearly resentful, he pours them some tea and shrugs off their insistences that they’ve missed him and couldn’t fit his class into their schedules. However, a minute later the giant bursts into tears and confides that his old friend, the giant spider Aragog living in the school’s forest, is sick and dying. Although they feel little sympathy for Aragog, who once tried to kill them, the trio comfort Hagrid and are soon reinstated in his good graces.
Even though Harry and especially Hermione have been very worried about Hagrid’s hurt feelings, this crisis is soon resolved satisfactorily – suggesting that established friendships can persevere despite the pressures of growing up. However, subsequent conflicts among friends – like Ron and Hermione’s imminent quarrel – will take months to resolve, showing that not all issues are so easily handled.
Since Harry has detention with Snape soon, the trio hurry up to the Great Hall for dinner. On the way in they see Cormac, who seems unusually clumsy and stumbles against the doorframe. Pulling Hermione aside, Harry quietly points out that it really does seem as though Cormac had been Confunded this morning. Sheepishly, Hermione admits that she did it, but justifies herself by saying that Cormac is bad-tempered had been insulting Ron and Ginny. Amused, Harry teases Hermione for behaving less properly than, as a prefect, she should.
Usually, it’s Hermione who insists on following rules to the letter (as she does with Harry’s potions textbook). Seeing her violate them so blatantly indicates the strength of her feelings for Ron. At the same time, she’s tactful and restrained in expressing these feelings – unlike Ron, who will cause several fights while trying to come to grips with his feelings.
As soon as he walks into the Great Hall, Harry is waylaid by Professor Slughorn, who genially invites him and Hermione to a special supper in his rooms with a few other “rising stars.” He seems not to notice that Ron is standing next to him. For once, Harry is happy to announce that he has detention with Professor Snape, but Slughorn jets out to “persuade” Severus to rearrange it. Hermione hopes anxiously that she doesn’t have to go alone, while Ron is clearly annoyed at being snubbed.
While Slughorn considers himself a sophisticated man, his invitation and snub violate basic norms of politeness. In moments like this, Slughorn’s obsession with cultivating the friendship of “promising” students emerges not just as a quirk but a pattern of behavior that actively harms others.
After dinner, Hermione reaches for the evening edition of the Daily Prophet. She’s surprised to read that Mr. Weasley’s office has just searched the Malfoy house on the basis of a “confidential tip-off.” Harry reveals that the “tip” came from him, and insists that if nothing was found in the house, Draco must have smuggled it into the school; but Hermione points out that everyone who arrived at the school on time was searched before entrance.
As Hermione’s clear-headed analysis of Harry’s theory shows, he’s acting based on his feelings, rather than on actual evidence that he observes. Although Harry’s suspicions about Draco will prove somewhat correct, it’s important that they stem from his pre-existing bias rather than facts.
Grumpily, Ron tells Harry to drop his obsession with Draco; when Hermione snaps at him that it’s not their fault Slughorn doesn’t like him, he storms off to bed. Just then Demelza Robbins, one of the new Quidditch players arrives with a curt message from Snape telling Harry that he must attend detentions “no matter how many party invitations [he’s] received.”
Many of Ron and Hermione’s quarrels center around Slughorn’s parties. Ron’s frustration stems from the fear that if people like Slughorn don’t value him, Hermione might not either. Hermione is angry that Ron seems to blame her for her scholastic achievements, rather than celebrating them.