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Hiroko Masuike  /  AP file
Kids and adults alike can't wait to discover what lurks within the pages of the latest Harry Potter book.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/16/2005 11:57:21 AM ET 2005-07-16T15:57:21

It’s been a long two-year wait for fans of the Harry Potter novels for J.K. Rowling to finish the next installment — a wait made a little easier by the best film adaptation so far, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." But at last, on July 16, copies of "Harry Potter And The Half-BloodPrince" will fly off bookstore shelves so fast it will seem like readers have cast summoning spells. (“Accio book!”)

Since there’s one more volume left in the seven-book series, it’s too soon to expect resolution to many of Rowling’s as-yet-unanswered questions. In fact, it’s likely that Harry will be in worse trouble than ever at the end of this book, the better to create a cliffhanger leading into the as-yet-untitled final story. But here are a few mysteries, some important and some trivial, that I hope Rowling will explore in "Prince."

Note: There are technically no spoilers here, since at press time, the book was not yet published, but if you prefer to stay away from any speculation and remain totally unspoiled, stop reading now.

What happened to Norbert the dragon?
Harry’s friend Hagrid, the huge, bearded Care Of Magical Creatures teacher at Hogwarts, is well-known for his penchant for taking in extremely dangerous animals as pets. In the first book, he gets hold of a dragon egg through extralegal means (though, as always, he means well), and soon enough it hatches a baby Norwegian Ridgeback dragon he names Norbert. The creature is eventually discovered and, despite Hagrid’s protests, sent off to Ron’s older brother Charlie, a professional dragon-keeper in Romania.

Although Norbert has hardly been mentioned again, Rowling left him just offstage, and he could return to the storyline with next to no difficulty. One can easily imagine how useful a tame full-grown dragon would be to Harry in his fight against Voldemort — especially one who might still think that Hagrid is its mother. And speaking of Hagrid, he’s still got his “little” brother Grawp — a 16-foot-tall giant — hidden out in the Forbidden Forest near Hogwarts.

Will Ron and Hermione finally become a couple?
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Although the feelings between Harry’s two best friends have never yet officially expanded beyond mere friendship, there’s been enough misunderstanding (usually on Ron’s part) and veiled hints (usually on Hermione’s) for the careful reader to suspect that these two might have greater things in store for them. It’s worth noting, however, that on her Web site, Rowling herself claims to “chuckle” at the idea of a Ron/Hermione relationship — but she also says “I can’t believe some of you haven’t worked this one out yet.”

Another relationship I’d like to hear more about is the one between Hagrid and Olympe Maxime, the half-giant headmistress from Hogwarts rival school Beauxbatons. And is there anything between Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall besides a close professional association? Of course, there’s also the biggest relationship question of them all…

Will Harry ever get a girlfriend?
Harry’s longstanding attraction to fellow Hogwarts student Cho Chang blossomed into romance in "Phoenix," but it didn’t last — Cho was jealous of Harry’s friendship with Hermione, and Harry wasn’t as sympathetic as he probably should have been to her continuing grief over her previous boyfriend, Cedric Diggory, killed by Voldemort in the previous book. It seems quite unlikely that Rowling doesn’t have a love interest in mind for the main character of her series. But who will it be? The most likely theory is … well, we’ll get to that in the next paragraph.

When will we get to know the rest of the Weasley family?
We've barely seen Ron’s oldest brothers, Bill and Charlie. Charlie, as previously mentioned, is in Romania with Hagrid’s dragon Norbert, so I’m hoping that the two of them might show up together sometimes in the next two novels. Bill, the eldest, has a desk job at Gringotts, the wizard bank, but that’s actually a cover for his work with Dumbledore’s anti-Voldemort group, the Order of the Phoenix.

Ron’s straitlaced brother Percy’s love of rules and order is leading him further up the ladder at the Ministry of Magic, and further into an embrace of officious authoritarianism that just might bring him dangerously close to the fascist philosophy of Voldemort.

And there’s also another Weasley we’ve already met, but who Rowling has kept as a fairly minor player so far: Ron’s little sister, Ginny. She was the nexus of a major plotline in book two "Chamber of Secrets," both embarrassing Harry with her schoolgirl crush on him and becoming the target of one of Voldemort’s plots by becoming possessed by his enchanted diary. She virtually disappeared for two and a half novels, but returned in the last section of "Phoenix" as a very intriguing character — smart, direct, uniquely able to understand Harry’s relationship with Voldemort, and to snap Harry out of the self-pity that dogged him throughout the book. And it’s clearly implied in the book’s final pages that Ron, at least, would be very much in favor of her dating Harry, if she chose to.

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Will Harry rid himself of the giant chip on his shoulder?
Harry spent much of the time in "Phoenix" moping, lashing out at his friends and generally acting moody and confused — in other words, just like a typical 15-year-old. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a nice touch on Rowling’s part for her hero to be flawed that way; it’s realistic, and adds depth to his character. He’d be boring without his flaws, but it’s time for Harry to start growing up.

Who will be the next Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher?
No other subject at Hogwarts has been so rough on its instructors as Defense Against the Dark Arts. None so far have lasted more than a year. Harry himself unofficially took over the post in the last book, but with Dumbledore back in charge, a real teacher will almost certainly be appointed — and assuming Rowling doesn’t plan to bring in a new character again, it’s probably about time to accede to Severus Snape’s longstanding desires and give the job to him.

Just what role will Neville Longbottom play in the resolution of the series?
When introduced in the series, Neville seemed little more than a pathetic, nerdy bit of comic relief — a nervous, overweight and somewhat foolish character henpecked by his grandmother and unlikely to amount to anything. But over the course of time Rowling has revealed both hidden strengths in his character and hidden secrets in his past that make Neville’s journey as a character perhaps the most interesting in the series.

In the last book, we learned that his powerful parents were driven insane by Death Eater followers of Voldemort — one of them, Bellatrix Lestrange, was a cousin of Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black. We also discovered that Neville, rather than Harry, almost became the child who would gain the magical power to defeat Voldemort, and that it was seemingly a chance decision on the villain’s part that sealed all their fates.

As a wizard-in-training, Neville has also grown from uselessness into one of the fastest-learning of Harry’s Defense Against The Dark Arts students, which is partly due to his parents’ lineage, and surely partly due to Neville’s determination to help defeat Lestrange and her brethren once and for all. Neville clearly has a larger part to play in the series, and very possibly a crucial one.

Who — if anyone — will die in this book?
The two main sources of speculation about the plotline of "Half-Blood Prince" have revolved around, first, the question of just who the half-blood prince is, and second, a rumor that a major character was going to be killed off in "Prince." On her Web site, Rowling confirms that death will haunt Hogwarts again (“Yes. Sorry.”), but offers no further information.

I’ve already made my guess based on whose removal I think would hurt Harry the most, since it seems like the series’ dramatic arc will require that at the end of the penultimate book. But because I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone if my guess is right, I’ll keep my speculations to myself. (As for who the prince is, I can’t say I’m not curious, but I’m not too worried that Rowling won’t resolve that question. It’s the title of the book, so she probably won’t forget. She has already revealed that it’s not Harry or Voldemort, however.)

Will Harry or the other characters time-travel again, as they did at the end of "Prisoner Of Azkaban"?
I hope not. Although Rowling used it cleverly to resolve the events of "Azkaban," time travel is the kind of thing that can quickly get in the way of the story, needlessly convoluting things and making it a real drag to figure out what happened when, or whether it really happened at all.

What secrets are yet to be revealed about Harry’s parents, and their generation of Hogwarts students? And just how much does Harry take after James Potter?
One of the great surprises of the series, and which helps make the books such satisfying reads, is Rowling’s ability to go beyond simplistic characterizations and create people who have complex back stories, and make choices in their lives that have real repercussions. Case in point, Harry’s parents: Because they died saving his life as a baby, it was only natural to think of them as selfless, angelic people — but Rowling quickly began dropping hints that Harry’s father James had a wild streak.

James’ best friend Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is mostly a good guy, but is also deeply angry and sometimes hypocritical. And in "Order Of The Phoenix," Rowling showed that James could be callously cruel and arrogant, bullying the teenage Severus Snape for no reason but to satisfy his boredom. Harry himself is also full of both good and bad qualities — while he’s smart, courageous and basically noble, he’s often short-tempered and oblivious to the feelings of others — it’s no accident that he was almost sent into Slytherin House at Hogwarts, where the “bad” wizards come from, because he does have that potential.

But Rowling’s sense of ethics is more nuanced than, say, George Lucas’ simplistic “Dark Side Of The Force,” and Harry has already begun facing his father’s demons and becoming a better person: At the end of "Phoenix," for instance, he chose to be kind to the outcast student Luna Lovegood, thought of as a hopeless weirdo by the rest of the Hogwarts student body, and thus to implicitly reject his father’s bullying ways. One of Rowling’s main themes in the series, I think, is that in life things are often much different than they seem, and that the easy answer is often the wrong answer. Though there’s no shortage of characters like Voldemort’s most fervent Death Eater followers who embrace evildoing with glee and fall into the mode of a cartoonish (not to say two-dimensional) villain, it’s also true that many of the “bad” characters are motivated by honest good intentions.

Are there any new flavors of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans?
Part of what makes Rowling’s world fun to visit are the amusing little details of the wizarding life, like the jellybeanesque candies that come in any taste you can imagine, from blueberry to chocolate to dirt. There’s a huge potential for a lot of clever new magical items in "Prince," since Ron’s mischievous brothers Fred and George have just opened a trinket shop in Diagon Alley. (And in our own Muggle world, Jelly Belly has added to their Bertie Bott's line.)

What is the precise nature of the relationship between Harry and Voldemort?
At the end of the last book, we discover that a prophecy had been made claiming that Harry must either kill Voldemort or be killed by him. Was that, in fact, accurate? What haven’t we been told yet about the connection between the two enemies, whose wands both contain feathers from Dumbledore’s phoenix Fawkes, and who are joined by a magical curse? In the book "Goblet Of Fire," Voldemort regains a corporeal body in part with some of Harry’s blood — is that a possible weakness that could be used to defeat him? And how does Dumbledore fit into all this? We don’t know yet the full story of what happened between Dumbledore and Voldemort in the past.

Will we see more of Harry’s Invisibility Cloak?
I hope not, because that would mean it didn’t work any more!

Christopher Bahn is a writer in Minneapolis

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