It’s frustrating, but probably inevitable in this age of voracious fandom, to see authors’ attempts to tweak, or litigate, or modify their work via interview long after the pages have gone to the printers and the work has wandered out into the world to be read and loved. I, too, have been guilty of enjoying these revelations, though they often raise as many questions as they answer. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s declaration that of course Albus Dumbledore is gay is very nice in retrospect, but I wish she’d had the courage to make her subtext text in the darn novels, given that no one would have said her nay, and it would have made Dumbledore one of the most high-profile gay heroes in the whole canon of fantasy literature. And now Rowling’s done it again: in a leaked interview with Wonderland, she apparently declares that she got one of the central romantic relationships of her series wrong.
“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment,” she reportedly says. “That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”
Cue the tsuris.
I don’t particularly have an OTP in this fight, though it is interesting to me that Rowling apparently regrets what I see as some of the most sensitively written and emotionally well-realized passages in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as an error of judgement. Rather, I’m struck by the whole debate in relationship to an idea that occurred to me as I was rereading Rowling’s series the weekend before Christmas*. For a series of young adult novels, the most childish idea in the series is that everyone ends up with their first love, or ends up alone.
In the former camp fall both Harry’s birth parents, Lily and James, and his surrogate parents, Arthur and Molly Weasley. Rowling doesn’t spend much time on Harry’s aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley, but they’re introduced to us as utterly complementary, and in filling in Petunia’s backstory, Rowling never tells us of any other romance.
The couples who get together once Harry is old enough to be aware of them follow a similar pattern, and Rowling is careful to delineate their prior relationships as crushes distinct from the flowerings of mature love that will become permanent. Bill Weasley is attractive to many witches but attached to none prior to his romance with Fleur Delacour, who eventually becomes his wife. Hermione Granger may attend the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum, but they settle into a friendship and correspondence that’s more placid than sensual. Ron Weasley’s relationship with Lavender Brown is effectively an act of social positioning and a way to take a dig at Hermione rather than a genuine attraction. And however long Harry yearns for Cho Chang, his crush on her begins to wane almost as soon as they actually attempt a date: he can’t connect or relate to her inner person, finding her grief for her ex-boyfriend confounding, and their fleeting physical intimacies seem wan in contrast to the passion Harry eventually feels for Ginny Weasley. Ginny, of course, dates a string of other boys at Hogwarts, but these other relationships don’t affect the pure flame of Ginny’s youthful love for Harry, housed in a separate place in her heart and in the novel’s hierarchy of relationships.
Parental love and the love required to sacrifice for someone else are deeply entwined in Rowling’s magical schema. But first romantic loves seem, at times, to exert a similar potent authority over witches and wizards. We learn that true love can reshape a wizard or witch’s patronus when Tonks’ love for Remus Lupin transforms her magical protector into a wolf. Later, the revelation that Severus Snape’s patronus had retained its shape as a reflection of his enduring love for Lily Potter provided one of the tenderest moments in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And while not all loves go requited, the fact of loving someone sometimes seems like it is a spell in and of itself. Lupin’s behavior in the early months of his marriage to Tonks is less that of a man bewitched into love than a man compelled to give Tonks what she wants (though in keeping with Rowling’s veneration of parenthood, becoming a father restores him to happiness).
And when love’s requirements fail to enlist the object of a witch or wizard’s affection, it’s a force that still compels them–as far as we know, for the rest of their lives. Albus Dumbledore’s affections for Gellert Grindlewald, which Rowling later revealed to be romantic rather than merely friendly or collegial, appear to have been the only such attachment of his adulthood. Rather than falling in love again, Dumbledore appears to have chosen a celibate adulthood dedicated to preserving the integrity of Hogwarts and to advocating for his vision of relations between the wizarding and Muggle worlds. Similarly, Severus Snape, who commits terrible acts in the hope that Lily Potter will eventually love him again, spends the rest of his life after her death doing penance for his role in her murder.
There’s no question that some people do meet the loves of their lives as teenagers. But not everyone does. And Rowling’s refusal to acknowledge that has the effect of freezing a part of all of her characters in their adolescent years, at a moment when their emotions are most intense and their perspective on love is most exalted. That’s a mode of dealing with the world that’s in keeping with epic fantasy, with its absolutist approach to political conflicts. But it also means that there’s something flat at the heart of many of Rowling’s characters, an area in their lives that’s somehow immune from the kind of grand complexities that defines their approach to magic, to technology, to racialized politics, and even to their friendships. Maybe it’s meant to be an act of mercy, a place in the characters’ lives where something is simply a source of joy. But it’s a way of telling love stories that to me, does a small disservice to the characters that Rowling created, who can be selfish, temperamental, close-minded, hysterical, hypocritical, and beautifully silly.
And I suppose that’s why I’ve always liked the idea of Ron and Hermione together: because it didn’t feel inevitable, and because however right they eventually seemed together, I could see the potential for conflicts, the work that was to come. Ron and Hermione don’t even like each other when they meet. They squabble about rule-breaking, and later about Hermione’s cat’s apparent predations on Ron’s pet rat Scabbers (who, to be fair, turns out to be a fugitive dark wizard in disguise). At various points in the series, Ron and Hermione are patently jealous of each other’s light romances, and handle that jealousy badly.
So one of the reasons Ron and Hermione’s attraction to each other feels durable and real is that we can see how it grows over the course of the series, and how the characters overcome an initial antipathy. Hermione, who enters the stage as a rule-obsessed busy-body, and who becomes rigid in her definitions of justice and fairness in the matters of Crookshanks and Scabbers, comes to learn that there are higher ideals than the regulations governing the conduct of the Hogwarts’ student body, and more important achievements than being the first to answer any given professor’s question. She also develops an actual sense of fun over the course of the series thanks to her affiliations with Harry and Ron, which makes Hermione a vastly more appealing person than the anxious, newly-minted witch we meet at the beginning of the story.
Ron, by contrast, comes to understand that self-gratification and rebellion for rebellion’s sake are not particularly meaningful ends towards which to orient one’s life. Some of these changes are due to the internal dynamics of his own family: Percy’s self-righteousness fractures the Weasleys’ strong sense of loyalty to each other, while Fred and George come to employ their talents for mischief in the causes of Hogwarts’ integrity and the fight against Voldemort. But they’re also due to Hermione’s influence. Ron comes to admire her academic gifts and her intellectual curiosity, and ultimately to share her concerns, working on issues like the appeal to save the life of a hippogriff. It’s no mistake–and entirely in keeping with the series’ idea that political convictions and political work forge remarkably powerful connections between the people who share them–that Ron and Hermione first kiss when Ron, who initially dismissed Hermione’s concerns for the welfare and labor rights of Hogwarts’ house elves, frets about their fate during the Battle of Hogwarts. For both characters, their investment in each other leads them to overcome some of their clearest weaknesses and flaws of character.
And most of all, I’m puzzled by Rowling’s assertion when it seems so clear in her novels that Ron and Hermione share a formative experience that not even Harry can be admitted to: the act of being Harry Potter’s best friends and closest confederates in his fight against Voldemort.
Ron’s anxieties and senses of inadequacy in this regard are the inspiration for some of Rowling’s best writing across the series. Not all of these fears stem from being the rather more ordinary best friend to someone who is Chosen. Ron is ashamed of his family’s financial limitations, which leave him with broken wands, hand-me-down pets, and ragged dress robes, all of which stand up poorly to Harry’s magical tools, his beloved Hedwig, and his sleek party outfit. The moment in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire when Ron discovers that the gold he used to pay Harry back for the Omniculars Harry purchased for him as a treat at the Quidditch World Cup vanished, and that Harry didn’t notice because he has so much money, is one of the sharpest depictions of the awkwardness of financial inequality in a friendship that I can remember. Their gap in Quidditch skills is another area of friction. And the scene in Deathly Hallows in which Ron, having made tremendous efforts to return to the friends he abandoned, confronts his terror that Harry is more desirable than Ron in every area, whether as a son to Mrs. Weasley or a potential lover to Hermione, is a beautiful illustration of how difficult it is to love someone who constantly eclipses you.
Hermione is less obviously jealous of Harry than Ron is, both because her skills are so evident, and because her goals are so different from Harry’s. But a consistent theme in the novels is the ways in which Hermione’s interests are pushed aside in favor of Harry’s quests, and her priorities are subordinated to their collective mission. Hermione and Ron do much of the research to help Hagrid try to save Buckbeak, while Harry is preoccupied with other concerns. Harry and Ron reluctantly participate in a marginal way in the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, but Hermione has the sole burden of taking the organization and the cause seriously, persisting even when her friends essentially abandon her work out of embarrassment. And when the trio drop out of Hogwarts to find and destroy Voldemort’s Horcruxes, Rowling doesn’t quite acknowledge the particular sacrifice that Hermione, who loves school, is making in comparison to her less academically-inclined friends. But Hermione does put aside the dream of Hogwarts for her friends, and most specifically, for Harry’s mission. It’s no less significant an act for Rowling’s disinclination to dwell on it. And while the novels may not linger on any frustrations or anxieties Hermione feels, there is something touching about the fact that the greatest witch of her age may have her brilliance reduced to a footnote in her friend’s story.
And to me, this is why it’s so sad that Rowling appears to be treating Ron and Hermione’s relationship as a kind of fan service that she was too weak to resist. Love isn’t always immediate, and it doesn’t always come from a place of strength. Sometimes love is strongest between people who have seen each other at their ugliest and most damaged. Lily Evans knew who James Potter was before he decided that he wanted to be a better person, knew him during the time when his callousness and carelessness did real damage. Fleur Delacour knew that her husband’s greatest beauty wasn’t in his unmarked face, but in his person, just as hers wasn’t her physical perfection, but her persistence. Ron knew Hermione when she was a priggish scold and a coward. Hermione knew Ron when his privilege was exposed and his will broke. That they love each other anyway, and that they help each other become heroes, is a truer illustration of the power of love than the idea that it’s magic.
*I have many posts I want to write inspired by this project. Work travel, and the entertainment news cycle, which has been particularly weighty and heartbreaking recently, have intervened. But the posts are not dead, I promise.