“In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series” was all over my social-media @-replies a few weeks ago. Again. This has happened often, in the four years since I wrote the piece. Freelance writers crank out lots of posts; most of them, you publish, then forget. But “Hermione,” I remember; it was the culmination of a long-held fantasy, my chance to re-write Harry Potter the way I thought it should have been, with the series’ great hero in the spotlight, and that dopey kid with the glasses kicked off the stage.
And “Hermione Granger” keeps coming back. When I wrote it, I thought I was venting. But the reception — it took off on Reddit and social media; it wound up breaking this site’s traffic record; years later, people still bring it up — seems to indicate that my fantasy was shared by more people than I knew. And why not? Hermione is so great. Hermione is so much more competent than anyone she knows, including not only Harry and Ron, but most of the adults. Hermione so obviously comes up with all of the heroic plans; she is obviously the one who saves the day; she clearly deserves to be the one with her name on the cover. If “Hermione Granger” means anything to me, it’s as a reminder that there is value in stating the obvious.
But to understand why the post landed, I think, you have to understand the structure of Harry Potter itself. Its biggest failures stem from the same source as its greatest successes. It’s said that good writers borrow and great writers steal. And (let’s pause while I find the most charitable way to say this) by that definition, J.K. Rowling is a great writer.
Less charitably, Harry Potter is cobbled together from dozens of very identifiable sources: Everything from Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books to Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (LeGuin’s Ged even has a scar that hurts whenever his enemy is nearby) to, most damningly of all, the original Star Wars trilogy, whose central plotline, conflicts and characters Rowling recreates nearly note-for-note over the course of her seven books. The similarities have been mapped out dozens of times (Luke and Harry are both raised by an aunt and uncle, told they’ve inherited magical powers from their deceased real parents, tutored in these magic powers by a wise old bearded man, forced to watch him slain before their eyes by the living embodiment of the Dark Side who is also a former student, etcetera) so there’s no need to rehearse them all. But it’s not over-stating the case to point out that Harry, Ron, Hermione and Voldemort are essentially Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Darth Vader with the trademarks filed off, the family trees changed, and Han’s IQ dropped by several dozen points.
And yet: It works. Both Star Wars and Harry Potter are faithful retellings of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” which Campbell would tell you is the basic structure of any great story, and most religions. It’s the structure of growing up: You leave home, acquire new skills, face off against the previous generation and overthrow its authority (the previous generation tends not to like this, hence all the murderous patriarchs and teachers) and return home, having become an adult. You can complain about unoriginality, but the fact is, by using these elements — like the story of Jesus, Moses, or the Buddha — Harry Potter became the defining myth of its generation, just as Star Wars was the defining myth of the generation directly before it. Both are stories you have to know, simply to understand how people of a certain age see the world.
Effective as it is, the structure has problems, which are easier to spot in the twenty-first century than they would have been in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie was released, or (for that matter) in 1949, when Campbell advanced the theory. For one thing, it is the Hero’s journey, and only his. He can have helpers, but one person has to be the star. For another, as Campbell initially outlined it, and as most of his followers have continued to insist, the Hero is male. It’s not that you can’t use a female lead — Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer give it a shot — but the theory was created to center a male perspective. Third: The Hero? The star of the show? He is almost never the most interesting character.
Ask 100 Star Wars fans who their favorite character is, and none of them will say “Luke Skywalker.” They like sexy, rebellious Han Solo, or fiery Leia, or Yoda, or even Boba Fett. Never whiny, dull Luke. Similarly, Buffy on Buffy could seem like dead air, compared to the more vital, unique characters around her. The reason for this is simple: The one, defining feature of the Hero is that (paradoxically) he’s not special. He’s always an ordinary guy who falls ass-backward into adventure, because Destiny wants it that way. Harry Potter fits this to a T.
The problem (I would argue) is that, in having Harry fall into Special status, Rowling winds up making him seem wildly over-privileged in comparison to his talents. Most of these heroes wind up finding that there’s something special about them — some magical heritage or Chosen One status — but they usually also have some fight they must win before they can reap the rewards of their Specialness. Luke has to overthrow an Empire. Buffy has to graduate Muggle high school. But by the time we’re a quarter of a way through the first book, Harry Potter is wealthy, famous, popular, a star athlete, a Chosen One, receives some fairly blatant favoritism from the school’s Headmaster (those poor Ravenclaw kids, working their magical little asses off, unaware that success comes down to which teenagers Dumbledore feels like hanging out with) and, last but not least, has fucking superpowers. He gets all of it, all at once.
There’s a reason authors usually hand out these rewards at the end of a story, not the beginning. When everything a person could want has fallen into your character’s lap, without him having to work for it, he can never complain again without sounding like an entitled brat.
That’s harsh. But it certainly does seem like the universe cannot stop trying to either (a) kill Harry Potter, or (b) do Harry Potter favors. If he wants something, a mysterious benefactor gives him a gift. If he gets in trouble, an adult swoops in to rescue him. If he has to form a brilliant, heroic scheme to save the day, he… Well, we all know who comes up with those schemes, don’t we? We all know that, when Harry Potter is facing certain death, Hermione Granger is always approximately two feet away, telling him exactly what to do. In some ways, Hermione is just one more gift the universe gives Harry. But it’s also why I was able to envision “The Hermione Granger series,” and why so many people agreed: Hermione does not just help the hero. Hermione is the hero, in this Hero’s Journey. She does all the work that a hero is meant to do. Harry just has the Destiny, and gets the credit.
It’s the one place where Rowling’s reliance on traditional structure really hurts her: She stuck to the pattern, and provided us with a white, male, ordinary hero. But she then created a perfect hero — a unique, vivid, once-in-a-lifetime sort of character; the kind of character kids remember for the rest of their lives, or for generations — and made her a girl. And she stuck her on Princess Leia Duty (sidekick, spunky, initially hostile but warms up quickly, gets married to the other sidekick eventually) because there was nowhere else for her to go.
It’s not just that Hermione does the work. It’s that, in a book full of archetypes, she is the liveliest, most human character. Only Snape comes close to being so well-drawn. She is a genius, who her teachers admit is possibly the most brilliant person alive before she’s even graduated high school. She lives with the pain of racism; in fact, Voldemort’s cause is wiping her race (“Mudbloods,” people with non-magical parents) off the face of the earth, giving her a more personal connection to the villain than even Harry. She is compassionate, strong, and principled (she tries to free the enslaved House Elves, which Rowling unaccountably finds ridiculous). She is a model of hard work and triumph over adversity. As I pointed out in the first piece, destiny doesn’t make Hermione special; wealth or parentage don’t make Hermione special; Hermione makes Hermione special. And she is capable of heroic sacrifice. Harry lost his parents, but Hermione lost hers, too: She erased herself from her own parents’ memories to save their lives. Harry Potter is a nice kid, but in a world without magic, he’d just be another affable high-school jock.
Hermione Granger is the stuff of legend.
I’m glad Hermione exists. But I wish I lived in a world where she was the center of the story. The real problem with all these white, male heroes, and their Destinies, and their being treated as “special” without having demonstrated any special qualities, is that in the real world, we have a system that works exactly like that. It’s called sexism, and white privilege. White, straight, cisgender men, from the very day they are born, are told that they have more Specialness, and more meaningful Destinies, than anyone else in this world. And if they can’t get grand outcomes themselves, whole systems swoop in to make sure they land on their feet. (Hell, even Ron does okay, and that guy can barely tie his own shoelaces.) Meanwhile, the Hermiones slug away in the background, doing better, working harder, for half the reward and none of the credit.
Why my fantasy about “The Hermione Granger series” resonated, I think, was the fact that I wrote it as if none of this were true. It’s a dispatch from an alternate universe where Hermione is a generation-defining hero because of course she is; where bright, kind girls who endure racism naturally compel the world’s attention and praise; where an author would never be asked to change her name from “Joanne” to the gender-neutral “J.K.” to sell books. And imagining that world matters, for reasons that are far bigger than Harry Potter.
In the real world, girls of color are less likely to be acclaimed as geniuses and heroines than they are to be thrown across the room for staying in class too long. But that’s not the world most of us want. It’s not the world we would give our children, if we had the choice. And we do. There are very few things more powerful than a great story. If we want more Hermione Grangers — and more Hermione Grangers — then, more than anything, it is time to choose a new myth.