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In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series

Posted on Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 at 1:17 am

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Sady Doyle

It’s the end of an era. The entertainment which has stretched across books, movies, and countless marketing tie-ins, which has captivated children and adults for well over a decade and which has, for better or worse, managed to become the defining myth for an entire generation, is winding to its close. I speak, of course, of the Hermione Granger series, by Joanne Rowling.

So, before she goes away for good, let us sing the praises of Hermione. A generation could not have asked for a better role model. Looking back over the series — from Hermione Granger and the Philosopher’s Stone through to Hermione Granger and the Deathly Hallows — the startling thing about it is how original it is. It’s what inspires your respect for Rowling: She could only have written the Hermione Granger by refusing to take the easy way out.

For starters, she gave us a female lead. As difficult as it is to imagine, Rowling was pressured to revise her initial drafts to make the lead wizard male. “More universal,” they said. “Nobody’s going to follow a female character for 4,000 pages,” they said. “Girls don’t buy books,” they said, “and boys won’t buy books about them.” But Rowling proved them wrong. She was even asked to hide her own gender, and to publish her books under a pen name, so that children wouldn’t run screaming at the thought of reading something by a lady. But Joanne Rowling never bowed to the forces of crass commercialism. She will forever be “Joanne Rowling,” and the Hermione Granger series will always be Hermione’s show.

And what a show it is. In Hermione, Joanne Rowling undermines all of the cliches that we have come to expect in our mythic heroes. It’s easy to imagine Hermione’s origin story as some warmed-over Star Wars claptrap, with tragically missing parents and unsatisfying parental substitutes and a realization that she belongs to a hidden order, with wondrous (and unsettlingly genetic) gifts. But, no: Hermione’s normal parents are her normal parents. She just so happens to be gifted. Being special, Rowling tells us, isn’t about where you come from; it’s about what you can do, if you put your mind to it. And what Hermione can do, when she puts her mind to it, is magic.

Ditto for the whole “Chosen One” thing. Look: I’ve enjoyed stories that relied on a “Chosen One” mythology to convince us that the hero is worth our time. I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as anyone. But it’s hard to deny that “Chosen Ones” are lazy writing. Why is this person the hero? Because everyone says he’s the hero. Why does everyone say he’s the hero? Because everyone says so, shut up, there’s magic.

Hermione is not Chosen. That’s the best thing about her. Hermione is a hero because she decides to be a hero; she’s brave, she’s principled, she works hard, and she never apologizes for the fact that her goal is to be very, extremely good at this whole “wizard” deal. Just as Hermione’s origins are nothing special, we’re left with the impression that her much-vaunted intelligence might not be anything special, on its own. But Hermione is never comfortable with relying on her “gifts” to get by. There’s no prophecy assuring her importance; the only way for Hermione to have the life she wants is to work for it. So Hermione Granger, generation-defining role model, works her adorable British ass off for seven straight books in a row. Although she deals with the slings and arrows of any coming-of-age tale — being told that she’s “bossy,” stuck-up, boring, “annoying,” etc — she’s too strong to let that stop her. In Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban, she actually masters the forces of space and time just so that she can have more hours in the day to learn.

And it pays off. Hermione saves the day, over and over; in every book, there is a moment where her classmates need to be saved, and they need a plan that is going to save them, and they inevitably turn to Hermione, “the brightest witch of her age.” Hermione always comes through; she has the plans, she saves them all. That’s why her name is on the cover of every book.

As the series developed, its politics did, too. Dumbledore, memorably, falls in love with a younger man in the third installment. Other female characters were introduced, and developed beyond stereotype; we learned to value McGonagall as much as Dumbledore, to stop slagging Lavender Brown off as clingy and gross because she actually wanted her boyfriend to like her, to see the Patil sisters and Luna as something other than flaky, intuitive, girly idiots. Unbelievably, even Ginny Weasley got an actual personality. Hermione was not an exceptionalist, the one girl in the world worth liking; she didn’t need to be surrounded by female stereotypes in order to stand out as a compelling female character. And Hermione, in her defining moment, became an activist for the enfranchisement of house-elves.

The best thing about this development is Rowling’s lack of condescension; it’s easy to take potshots at youthful activism, and a lesser author would have played Hermione’s campaign for nasty comedy. Imagine that abomination; Hermione being the only character to notice that her sparkly, magical world relied on the creation of a goddamn slave race, and all of the supposedly sympathetic characters being like, “no, they like slavery! Stop being such a downer!” Instead, Hermione works with the house-elves to free them early on, and many house-elves become well-developed, central characters.

And there we have it: The defining hero of our age is a girl who saves the day with her egalitarianism, love of learning, hard work, and refusal to give way to peer pressure. It’s hard to think of the Hermione Granger series as anything other than flawless. And yet — as fans constantly point out — there is a very big flaw in the series. You know who I’m talking about; it’s He Who Must Not Be Named, but we spell it H-A-R-R-Y.

The character of Harry Potter is an obnoxious error in the Hermione Granger universe, made more obnoxious by his constant presence. It’s tempting to just write Harry off as a love interest who didn’t quite work out; the popular-yet-brooding jock is hardly an unfamiliar type. And, given that Hermione is constantly having to rescue Harry, he does come across as a sort of male damsel-in-distress.

But, if we look closely, we can see that Harry is a parody of every cliche Rowling avoided with Hermione. Harry is not particularly bright or studious; he’s provided with an endless supply of gifts and favors; he’s the heir to no less than two huge fortunes; he’s privileged above his fellow students, due to his fame for something he didn’t actually do himself; he even seems to take credit for “Dumbledore’s Army,” which Hermione started. Of course this character is obnoxious. It’s only by treating ourselves to the irritation caused by Harry that we can fully appreciate Hermione herself.

Those who doubt Rowling’s satiric intent need look no farther than the scathingly funny epilogue to the final book. In the end, we see Harry married to some girl he met as a teenager, dropping his kids off at school, and reminiscing about his glory days. In the end, Potter is just another jock who peaked in high school. And Hermione? Well. Rowling would never insult Hermione by dropping her into some suburban nightmare of marrying a boy she met before graduation. What we learn about Hermione is what she does for her job. Although we are, thankfully, treated to the hint that she’s been hooking up with Neville Longbottom.

“For truly,” goes the last line, “Neville somehow got really handsome. All was well.” Indeed.

Front page photo: Emma Watson filming for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Editor’s Note: Sady’s responded to the comment thread with a follow-up thread here.

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  1. Ystava:

    > I guess its easier to stand by and critique the motives of some famous persons labor, fortune, and influence than to go out and make your own.

    I didn’t read any judgement of Rowling’s *motives* here … just some gentle mocking of Rowling’s work.

    There wasn’t anything here about Rowling’s ‘riches’, either; merely observations on the paucity of the content she produced.

    Rowling’s ‘influence’ on literature? Rather, regret at Rowling missing the opportunity of bravely writing a series with a heroine who could stand on her own two feet without continual contrived life support from the author’s pen.

    I guess it’s easier to avoid a proper rebuttal of an article – when you don’t have one, Ystava – by instead saying something trite and inconsequential about the author of the article instead, right, Ystava? Committing, in fact, the same error of which you accuse the columnist!

  2. This is brilliant. I agree wholeheartedly. Rowling definitely got stuck in some literary platitudes. Hermione is why I read HP. I am currently rereading the HP series and am struck by Harry’s incompetence and ‘chosen one’ luck. I still love the series though, but would love to read Joanne Rowling’s version of Hermione so much more!!

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  4. This is absolutely brilliant!
    I wouldn’t be quite so hard on Harry, though. He grew as a character, though slowly.
    And even at Harry’s peak, he relied on everyone else to fight and even die.
    And it should be noted that Neville, not Harry, beheaded the basilisk.
    I especially like the last line about Neville getting handsome; kind of a spin on the stereotypical story of the male hero finally falling for the girl, not because of how great she was, but because he finally noticed she’d grown up to be a beautiful woman. And as we all know, looks are a better reason to “live happily ever after” than personality or character.
    Well done!

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