General impression: best book yet. Can't wait for the next one.
Random observation. I really liked that Harry's failure to learn occlumency still has consequences. It wasn't a one-off thing for the last book. I hope Harry focuses on remedying this failing. The fact that he is able to resist the Imperious Curse (as seen in GoF) suggests that he should be able to control his thoughts better, if he applies himself. Also, he made good progress against Snape, when he applied himself, in OotP.
Interest new wrinkle: Malfoy also has the capacity to love, despite everything bad about him. His concern is not merley for himself. He fears for the lives of his parents as well. This, more than his inability to murder in cold blood, makes him worth saving.
Anyway, because time is very short, I will jump right to the big question: Is Dumbledore really dead? If so, did Snape do for him? And if so, does that make Snape evil?
I have decided the evidence is very, very murky right now. The plainest interpretation is that Snape killed Dumbledore, either because of the unbreakable vow or because he was always working for Voldemort or because Dumbledore asked him to (presumably to save Malfoy from doing it). But here are my problems with the straightforward interpretation of events.
The curious thing the phoenix did in the fight.
But the phoenix did nothing in the fight?
Yes, and that is the curious thing.
We know that Fawkes will come when summoned by Dumbledore or one loyal to him in their gravest need. We saw Fawkes take a death curse for Harry and heal Harry's wounds in CoS. Yet Dumbledore does not summon him for help when he is ill from the after effects of the potion, nor does he summon him to protect him from Snape's death spell. Even if Dumbledore initially didn't summon Fawkes so that Dumbledore could persuade Malfoy to come to the right side of the Force without any distraction or interruption, that game was over as soon as the gang of four broke in. Dumbledore could easily have summoned Fawkes at that point, and had no reason not to do so. So why didn't he?
The Felix Felicitis.
We know that Ginny, Hermoine and Ron took the Felix and that it protected them from injury. Given how it worked with Harry, they should have had no problem stopping Malfoy and Snape. Felix doesn't just give luck on things you want, it gives you luck even on things tangentially related to you. When Harry used the Felix, it did more than help him get the memory from Slughorn. It set in motion the circumstances in which Ginny broke up with Dean and in which Ron broke up with Lavender, two things that made his life much easier generally.
But Ron, Hermoine and Ginny seemed to have peculiar luck. Yes, they escaped uninjured. But they also missed getting Malfoy and the Death Eaters before they got to Dumbledore. Why couldn't Ron and Ginny get a "lucky shot" and hit Malfoy and the Death Eaters in the dark? Shouldn't they have been as successful as Harry was in silently refilling the mead? Why didn't Hermoine decide to follow Snape despite his instruction to stay with Flitwick? Shouldn't the Felicitus have "guided" her to follow after him the way it "guided" Harry to head for Aragog's burial and take the scenic route which "happened" to bring him across the path of Slughorn?
Indeed, it would appear that the odd contrivance of circumstances allowed Malfoy to reach Dumbledore alone, and again allowed Snape to come stampeding into the room just in time to stop Malfoy (or any of the others) from killing Dumbledore.
Why was this lucky? Was it because Dumbledore needed to die by Snape's hand to benefit Ginny, Hermoine and Ron in the long run? Because any other possible combination of events would have been worse? Or because somehow this combination of events made it possible for Malfoy to be redeemed and somehow saved Dumbledore and/or Snape?
Counter argument: The Felix potion doesn't make everything come out alright for everyone. Look at Bill's injury. Perhaps this was the "luckiest" outcome from the view of those who drank, even if it had a bad result.
When I was discussing this on Sunday with Esther Chaya, she suggested that the remaining half dose of potion divided by three might not have been as "lucky" as Harry's whole half dose. But the book suggests that the size of the portion effects duration, not potency. And the potion was still working after Dumbledore was killed, given how Ginny dodged all the death curses.
Other factors that don't add up
a) Why does Dumbledore insist on getting Snape and only Snape on their return. True, Snape is apparently an extraordinarily talented wizard, who was creating his own spells while still a student. Perhaps Madam Pomfrey's healing powers are rather limited against dark magic as opposed to natural injuries. Certainly she seems to have the skill level of a gifted school nurse, rather than a brilliant healer. So perhaps that explains it . . .
b) Dumbledore does not beg until he sees Snape. Even assuming that in Dumbledore's weakened state he resorts to begging (which the behavior with the potion indicates he might do in panic, but see below), Snape was not at that time threatening Dumbledore. It is only after Dumbledore pleads with Snape that Snape aims his wand and intones the death spell.
Given Dumbledore's complete trust in Snape, why would the appearance of Snape suddenly thrusting himself into the group cause Dumbledore to beg for his life -- something he refused to do with the four Death Eaters who were much more likely to kill him? Wouldn't Dumbledore rather assume that Snape would save him? Was he begging Snape to kill him? Why? To keep Malfoy's hands clean? Perhaps, but Malfoy was clearly not going to "pull the trigger," as Dumbledore himself knew and repeatedly said to Malfoy. Since the "peer pressure" of the four Death Eaters did not persuade Malfoy, it is unlikely he would have suddenly changed his mind with the appearance of Snape. Because it was worth Dumbledore's life for Snape to keep his coiver? But then why would he want Snape to kill him rather than Fenrir or one of the other Death Eaters? And what good is Snape's cover if the rets of the Order of Phoenix believe Snape a traitor?
c) Snape's "look of disgust and hatred." Why? Did he really hate Dumbeldore? Even if he were evil and therefore felt contempt for Dumbledore, would he suddenly feel in a murderous rage? Did Snape hate to find himself caught between convicting loyalties? Did he hate himself for being compelled by the unbreakable vow? Did he hate Voldemort for forcing him to kill Dumbeldore to keep his cover? Or did he hate what Dumbledore was asking him to do -- particularly if unpleasant (see below)?
UPDATE A friend of mine suggests on another list that Snape needed to create the proper mental state to cast a true Avada Kedavra. As stated in both OotP and HBP, a forbidden curse needs not just talent and knowledge, it needs the right mental frame of mind to power it. Snape's expresion could be explained as part of his "psyching himself" to perform the AK at Dumbledore's request.
If the later, does that explain why the insult that throws Snape into a killing rage at Harry is that Snape is a "coward"? (see below). Is Snape really risking his life or otherwise suffering for the forces of good, and therefore this unjustified insult from the son of his former bully/tormentor just too much to bear?
d) Prior to the interruption, Dumbledore explains that they will hide Malfoy and Malfoy's family by faking their deaths. While not proof, it certainly suggests that Dumbeldore has the ability to convincingly "fake" someone's death.
e) Dumbledore's body flies over the wall immediately after the death spell is cast and is out of sight for several minutes. Shades of Holmes at Richenback Falls or Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazadum (or even Sheridan on Zhadum or perhaps Aslan)? Yes, Dumbledore's body is later found, and a wrapped body is sealed in the tomb. But there is plenty of time to effect a substitution.
f) Snape's escape- Snape immediately takes charge of the Death Eaters, ordering a complete disengagement and withdrawal. In the course of this, he is extremely careful to minimize damage to the remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix. Why? Having "blown his cover" by killing Dumbledore, why not take advantage of the elemnt of surprise to kill more members of the Order. Odds are good that he could have tagged McGonnagal or, alternatively, his old nemesis Lupin with a death curse. They would have been totally open and undefending to him, thinking him an ally. Did he panic (influence of the Felicitis, perhaps?)
Certainly, however, he could have killed Hagrid. Instead, he sets fire to Hagrid's house, a delaying tactic guaranteed to minimize loss of life while maximizing confusion and property damage (reparable by magic means). Yes, it might have killed Fang, but if Snape was now firmly on the side of Voldemort, why not kill Hagrid?
Snape is also peculiarly solicitous of Harry. Even if he is obeying Voldemort's orders to save Harry for Voldemort himself (no doubt in fulfillment of the prophecy), why should Snape save Harry from the Cruciotus Curse? Why should Snape rely primarily on defensive spells to keep Harry at bay, given that Snape is using his powers of legillemency to read Harry's mind and block his spells before he can cast them? Only when Harry drives Snape to true rage by repeatedly calling him a coward (an interesting taunt, that, an echo of Snape's taunt at Sirus) does Snape respond with an offensive spell capable of real damage.
If Snape were genuinely in Voldemort's service, why minimize the damage to Harry and the Order?
g) Snape's psychological profile -- an interesting psychological profile of Snape begins to emerge, one inconsistent with his becoming a cold blooded killer. Snape, apparently, had an unhappy childhood. His strongest memory, which Harry penetrates during occlumency lessons, is of his father yelling at his mother and young Snape. [Wizard-Muggle marriages do not seem to go very well. And not surprising. On the muggle side, you find yourself in a world where you are powerless and held in contempt by a significant number of your spouse's family and peers. And you realize just how helpless you are if any of them decide to express this contempt. And you are cut off in a very real way from your muggle friends and relations. How are you going to explain to your family that your spouse is a wizard/witch? On the wizard side, given the strong regulations against informing muggles of magic, one wonders how a wizard or witch courts a muggle _without_ a love potion. Certainly the wizard/witch partner gets all sorts of garbage for "marrying beneath him/her," and faces the stresses of a world in which your spouse cannot do even the simplest things you have done since childhood, or you learn a whole new set of muggle skills and the stress of being ignorant and powerless in the muggle world when you constantly know that you could be doing better.]
Unlike Harry or Voldemort, Hogwarts was not a haven for Snape. To the contrary, he continued to be a lonely and unpopular child, judging by the way the crowd responded when James offered to pull down "Snivelly's" trousers. At the same time, he was clearly a brilliant student and an inventive one. He seems to have had a genuine questing intellect -- whether as a means to fame or for some other reason -- but with an eye on the practical. He also seems to have kept his talent hidden, or perhaps it went unnoticed. Certainly he did not stand out in Slughorn's estimation. Here, however, he may simply have been eclipsed by the more beautiful and vivacious Lilly. Indeed, his outburst against Lilly may well have been pure jealousy against a more popular (and in his opinion, less talented) rival. His choice of the epithet "mudblood" may be odd given his own "half-blood" origin, but seems a fairly common human failing. (If anyone has seen Spike Lee's movie some years back on the conflict in black culture between light skinned and dark skinned African Americans, which is apparently replicated in Latin American culture, one can see that even among those that suffer prejudice, a common reaction is to replicate the caste system with a new "less pure" under caste.) It may also bespeak resentment against his muggle father -- depending on the circumstances of his childhood.
Snape comes off, frankly, like some of the unpopular unsocialized geeks one sees at SF conventions or the SCA. Intelligent, unhappy, no friends, no social skills, and a very touchy and defensive ego. Lacking social skills or friends, he derives a feeling of superiority from bullying those of lesser talent and intellect and generally trying to impress them with his talents and powers (recall his opening speech in SS). Small wonder he should be easy prey for Voldemort to recruit.
But these traits do not make one evil, and, as Dumbledore observed, it is not so easy to kill after all. Like Malfoy, Snape may have discovered that flirting with the dark arts and fantasies of power and revenge are very different from a reality of killing people you know. When confronted with the knowledge that his work for Voldemort would result in the death of someone he knew, he may well have suffered a crisis of conscience similar to that which Malfoy suffered and discovered, oddly enough, that he is not a killer.
Also of note, in the "why would Snape save James Potter of all people" catagory is that James saved Snape's life. Yes, Snape hated him for it, and did not attribute to James anything noble, but he felt enough of a debt even 10 years later to try to save Harry from death (alternatively, that may have been driven by guilt at causing James' and Lilly's death).
None of this suggests someone who would kill Dumbledore.
h) Finally, there is Dumbledore's unshakeable faith in Snape. Yes, Snape was skilled at occlumency. But Dumbledore was also a good judge of character in his own right (consider his estimation of Malfoy) and was one of Snape's teachers (or, alternatively, headmaster of the school). He was familiar with Snape's background and conduct. Ultimately, he may have guessed wrong, betting on Snape's potential for good rather than Snape's actual character (or, in the alternative, he was right about Snape and Snape killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore's orders). But such a monumental mistake with no safeguards seems out of character for Dumbledore (and, frankly, for Rowling).
So, if what appeared to happen didn't happen, what did?
Possibility one- Dumbledore is still alive. In this theory, Snape pretends to cast the death curse with accompanying pyrotechnics and Dumbledore falls artistically over the wall. In the intervening time, a simulacrum of Dumbledore is positioned to supply the "body."
Pros: The elapsed time certainly allows such a substitution. Dumbledore's body vanishes from view for several minutes while the fight rages and before Dumbledore's body is discovered by others.
Cons: Why would Dumbledore have to beg Snape to effect such a trick, especially if he trusted Snape? Why would Snape's face be suffused with disgust and hatred at the thought of such a trick? Given that no one can apparate in school or on the grounds, how would Dumbledore, in his weakened state, avoid the consequences of his fall. Perhaps Fawkes caught him? Nothing suggests Fawkes' presence one way or another. Also, if Dumbledore is still alive, why does Fawkes sing his mourning song? Is it another ruse? And how did Harry suddenly break free of Dumbledore's immobilization? Dumbledore would have had to consciously release him, since we know from the opening of the book that an immobilization spell persists until dispelled.
Possibility two-- Dumbledore's soul survives although his physical body perishes. This is not true immortality, like a horcrux or a sorcerer's stone. Nor is it the insubstantial footprint of a wizard, like a ghost. Such a state might allow Dumbledore to still impact the world, unlike a ghost, but be forced to depart it once a designated task was complete. In this scenario, Dumbledore has in fact died, but has found a way to remain on Earth long enough to help Harry finish off Voldemort.
We have seen a similar process before, where one wizard is able tomove his spirit from one body to another, and killing the body would not result in death of the spirit. Voldemort used his link with Harry in OotP to occupy Harry's body -- a process wholly different from the Imperious curse. As Dumbledore explained at the time, Voldemort's actual soul moved into Harry's body, which was why it was forced to flee when Harry experienced emotions Voldemort could not tolerate.
Let us make a speculative leap and tie these threads together. Dumbledore and Snape voluntarily formed a link similar to that shared by Voldemort and Harry.
Pros: This theory accounts for a lot. If there is a link between Snape's soul and Dumbledore's soul, Dumbledore would of course trust Snape completely (I need to search, but I think Dumbledore at one point says he trusts Snape as he trusts himself). Dumbeldore could count on Snape's powers of occlumency (combined with his own) to hide his presence from Voldemort (even Dumbledore, an accomplished legilemens, was unsure when Voldemort was using Harry, and Voldemort was not initially trying to hide from Dumbledore). It also explains why Dumbledore insisted on seeing Snape immediately after they returned when Dumbeldore feared he was close to death. He would need Snape to effect the transfer (assuming the form Dumbledore used was voluntary, rather than a mode of possession). It also potentially explains the argument between Snape and Dumbledore. If Snape and Dumbledore have a connection similar to that of Harry and Voldemort, then Snape would regularly feel the pain of Dumbledore's injuries and Dumbledore's growing concern for his students. Even with occlumency, it would be a growing burden for Snape, who would regret having agreed to it, and Dumbledore telling him bluntly he had no choice (either because the spell was irreversible or because it was the only way to save Harry and defeat Voldemort).
In killing Dumbledore, Snape would have suffered the pain of the curse and be forced to have Dumbledore share his physical body and soul. This would explain the hate and disgust Snape felt, as Snape cannot possible enjoy the thought of carrying Dumbledore around in him. It also explains his killing rage at Harry over being called a coward, as Snape may very well have risked death by killing Dumbledore and risks it again by going back to Voldemort. Also, since Dumbledore is really physically dead, that explains both Harry's release and Fawkes' subsequent song.
Cons: The link between Harry and Voldemort was supposed to be a freak event created by the sacrifice of Lilly for Harry. We have no indication that it can be created voluntarily by non-murderous means. Nor do we have any indication that it would work if the physical body was destroyed. Otherwise, Voldemort could have used the link to enter baby Harry (or 11 year old Harry in SS). OTOH, Voldemort did not appear to know about the link or realize its implications until OotP. Nor have we seen indicators that Snape and Dumbledore share a bond, beyond Dumbledore's repeated insistence that Snape is trustworthy. Much of the theory rests on speculation which, while it would fit the known facts, has little to support it.
I have heard some say that Dumbledore "had" to die because the mentor must inevitably get removed for the hero to fully mature. Well, yes but not quite. The mentor has to be removed from the equation. Dumbledore certainly has, from Harry's perspective. Whether he will emerge again like Gandalf or Obi Wan, or remain dead like Kosh, the conflict is certainly set up for the last book to have Harry stand alone.
UPDATE As I realized when repsonding to Red Axe, we have seen an example of one wizard voluntarily transferring himself to another. Quirell voluntarily absorbed Voldemort's spirit after his physical body was destroyed.
I think that's long enough. More later.