Hermione the Hero

Something I’ve been considering while I wait for the next Potter book and hope it’s not as lame as the last couple. Hire an editor, Scholastic.

Hermione versus Harry
DMZ, 2005

Hermione should be the hero of the Harry Potter books. That she is not reveals a great deal about our disappointing dependence on certain kinds of myths.

Harry is a natural wizard. He’s the undiscovered future king, born into greatness. He’s the almost super-human savior. His talent and force of will overcome obstacles to his ascent, in spite of his erratic work habits and age-appropriate slacking. He’s prone to failure, stupid action, and occasional and inspiring brilliance. Rules are frequently ignored or broken if they stand between him and whatever he’s stomping off to do that minute.

Hermione is not born into greatness. She’s a fine wizard, it can’t be denied, but these are the products of dutiful study and practice. Her parents were not wizards of reknown, or wizards at all. She is entirely self-made. She faces discrimination, sometimes with patience and reserve and sometimes confronting it directly. She is frequently the master plotter and architect. Harry and Ron have petty fights and act stupid, Hermione is generally mature and often the diplomat. She’s capable of mature, more adult relationships where Harry and Ron might ignore their dates at the dance like normal boys.

Picking between the two of them for a particular task, the choice seems simple:
– For a normal or even a hard task, with preparation time, you’d pick Hermione. She’s steady and reliable. She’s the basketball player who can shoot almost every free throw. Harry’s going to have much less success with that task. He may not know the right spell, he may have skipped out on preparation to practice Quidditch, and there’s a good possibility he didn’t get much sleep the night before because he was off causing trouble.

– For a task of extraordinary difficulty, you’d pick Harry. Faced with the nearly impossible, there’s a chance he might pull it off through talent, will, and luck.

This is ridiculous. On further consideration, you pick Hermione for both. Hermione is likely to know and be able to immediately recall relevant information for any task in front of her, and her wide knowledge of tricks offers her more ways out of the problem. Given her ability to reliably cast those spells, you then want her there to carry it off.

Say an asteroid’s going to hit Hogwarts and only Harry and Hermione are available. Who do you want up on the tower? Harry’s going to try something crazy, like blowing up the asteroid or repelling it, possibly showering the planet in asteroid shards or deflecting the asteroid into the moon and causing crazy tides for the rest of time.

Hermione’s going to come up with some elegant solution like changing the asteroid into something less dense that’s easily movable, or charming it to pass through the Earth as ghost matter, and once she’s come up with it, everyone’s saved, because she’ll pull off the spell.

Why is the initial instinct to put Harry up there, then?

The first is that Hermione’s portrayed as a stickler for rules, that her book knowledge comes with an undue respect for the law. She frequently serves as an artificial voice of concern (“So I suppose you think that’s a reward for breaking the rules?”) to add conflict to scenes and then stomp off. It’s an unsympathetic portrayal. Hermione’s just been introduced to wizarding. She probably fears that this great world she’s been shown, where her talent shines, can be taken away as easily as it was given to her. Harry’s reckless and frequently rebuked for putting himself and others in danger, and by rights should have been tossed out already. But he’s not, because he’s Harry, and he’s special.

When it comes time to do things like “deflect the asteroid”, we don’t always want that person up there. We’re weak, and we want someone strong to protect us, and in many ways we don’t care about the consequences. A sufficently large end justifies all means. This runs through stories forever. A detective, pushed too far, hits back! Take the super-popular 24 as a great example of this. The main character is a law-breaking, torturing killer who accomplishes the impossible.

We want someone to say “No, you can’t try to blow up that asteroid!” and Harry to run past them with a smart quip and evade whoever else is trying to stop them, because we know that’s the kind of guy he is. You don’t want someone who might fret about possible life forms on the asteroid and start a comic-relief organization with a funny acronymn.

This argument fails. Hermione, when she is convinced that something must be done, breaks the rules and expresses little regret about it. When she knows she must help, she does, and does so effectively. In weighing the possible consequences of her actions, she shows a level head in evaluating the law against what may be accomplished outside it. That’s far more valuable than not caring about the effects.

Say the earth-saving charm, whatever it is, requires the caster to at the same time kill someone close to them. Do you still choose Harry, who you’ll know will probably be freaked out and sad and might then get really angry and attempt the task without offing Ron?

Or do you now pick Hermione, who would be shocked and freak out and look for an alternative and then, when none could be found, would off Ron (possibly while crying) and then perform the spell perfectly?

In one of those two choices, Hermione goes through a lot of pain and suffering that her former future husband had to bite it, but she’ll read some self-help books and get some counseling and she’ll be fine. Maybe she gets a taste for it, bumps off Ginny to make it a matched set, and marries Harry herself.

In the other, Hermione doesn’t because she’s dead and so is everyone else because Harry botched the casting.

That’s not the big reason our instinct is to pick Harry, though.

It’s because that’s what Hermione would tell us to do.

“Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and — oh Harry — be careful!”

This is by far the worst moment in any of the books. It doesn’t stick out immeidately — at the time, it seems dramatic and fitting that Harry should be sent on to the final confrontation while Hermione stays behind. But more than anything else, it exists because Hermione is the sidekick and Harry is the hero, so Hermione must defer to him.

Self-made defers to the inherited.
Hard work defers to the lazy.
Intelligence defers to instinct.

Because the hero of the books is Harry, the one who can pull the sword from the stone, he is in the final confrontations. Hermione gets credited with the assist because she doesn’t charge in, and she doesn’t charge in because she has to say things like that in order to get Harry in by himself.

Even if Hemione was not the character chosen to have her name in the title, she is the most interesting and good character the series offers us. She strives to make the most of her talents but doubts. She is afraid but courageous. She is powerful and strives to be charitable. She is ambitious in the service of good. She is a loyal and steady friend in spite of challenges.

Harry offers us a story-time view of royalty, and Hermione is the modern self-made woman. Harry may appeal to traditions of myth, it is Hermione that is the better hero.

3 thoughts on “Hermione the Hero

  1. Ralphie Wiggum

    I never would have thought that the films would catch up with Rowling, but with “Goblet of Fire” moving into post-production, it appears she’ll be cutting it awful close.

  2. Marc & Sarah

    Well, now that you mention it, I’ve always wondered why Rowling herself thinks Harry is so worthy or hero-dom. He does >fly< better than Hermione, and, um, can do certain defense against dark arts spells---better? Or maybe his mom loved him more than hermione's--um, loved her...ugh.

    What moved me to post though was your first line, which suggests you thought GOF & OOTP vastky inferior to the first three books. Wow…I found the writing, plotting, pacing, and characterizations to become truly gripping in the 4th and 5th books. I’ve had to encourage skeptical friends and family to soldier on after they finish #2 by promising things get better in 3 and really start to shine in 4+.

    His Dark Materials, on the other hand…now there’s a one-book wonder.

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