Earlier today, J.K. Rowling got everyone’s knickers in a twist when the news broke that, in an interview conducted by Emma Watson (the actress who played Hermione in the Harry Potter movies) for Wonderland, Rowling said that Hermione should have married Harry instead of Ron. (See the story on Hypable.)
With that one statement, Rowling torpedoes not only the one love relationship in the series that she took time and care to really set up (Ron/Hermione), but sinks Harry/Ginny as well. I’ve always felt that the epilogue was forced onto the books. She says she wrote the epilogue first and kept it as a beacon to guide her through the whole series, knowing that the Jane Austen-esque double wedding was waiting at the end.
One of the reasons this particular announcement is causing so much uproar, though, I feel, is that the romantic elements of the Harry Potter books were among the weakest and most ripe for criticism. Reasons below.
For one, I never found Harry/Ginny convincing — perhaps because the majority of their relationship takes place off the page. It begins officially when Harry kisses Ginny at the very end of a chapter, after she’s won the Quidditch match, and the next chapter begins a few weeks later and is the chapter WHERE HE BREAK UP WITH HER in order to go be heroic. So all the actual time they would have spent as boyfriend and girlfriend, the reader never sees. The epilogue is like that, too. How everyone got over their PTSD from the war and then somehow came to the conclusion that marrying their high school sweetheart was actually a great idea? We never see that either. As such the epilogue feels cheap, not earned, and didn’t convince me it was a “fit.” I felt that by the time the seventh book of the series had rolled around, the characters had grown and changed significantly. That’s what characters do, if fiction is convincing. That means maybe they change and grow AWAY from the pin you stuck in the map before you started writing.
Because when you write, it’s a journey. You sell the map to the publisher: that’s your proposal. But then you have to actually go and sojourn through Mirkwood, climb Everest, etc. No matter how good the map is, there are things you won’t know about until you get to them. Rowling’s interviews since the series ended have always contained various bombshells, some more sensical than others. Dumbledore is gay? She considered killing off Ron? And those are just a few.
So this latest revelation that now she thinks she should have put Harry and Hermione together, spoken to the living embodiment of Hermione in the pop culture sphere… I find I just can’t take it that seriously. On the one hand, hooray, I would love to take it as a sign that the Epilogue, which I felt was so, so flawed, perhaps isn’t what it was cracked up to be after all. On the other hand, though, it’s not news that writers are even more changeable than characters, and at some point all that matters is what actually made it to the page.
Speaking as a writer myself, I can say one puts a lot of things into books for a lot of reasons. Sometimes you know the reasons. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you figure out the reasons later.
Sometimes you decide that if you wrote the book NOW, you’d do it differently.
Except that NOW you’re not the person you were THEN, and you can only write a book based on who you are at the moment, with the thoughts and feelings and judgments of the time. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS. You are taking a moment in time, a moment in your subconscious, and engraving it in reality where others can see it.
Of course your subconscious can be wrong. And decisions you made for very rational reasons (which can include extra-textual considerations like marketability, genre fit, pleasing your editor’s tastes, etc…) can turn out later to be missteps. Some become albatrosses around the series’ neck.
It’s all right. Writers are human. We can regret the relationship decisions we made for their characters as much as many humans regret the relationship choices they make in their real lives. The thing that I find notable about this is that I find ALL Rowling’s relationship choices to be suspect: All the Hogwarts staff are tragically single? Every single one? Really? (Pottermore has only added to that.) And between the epilogue and other interviews she has given, it appears that everyone, secondary characters included, ends up with someone from their high school clique. Really? I find that all to be evidence of a very limited imagination when it comes to romance. This isn’t a huge problem exactly because the Harry Potter books are NOT romances. They’re a fantasy struggle of good versus evil. Parental love is far more important in the books than romantic love–which is perfectly appropriate for a book about an orphan that begins when he’s ten years old.
Nowadays, though, Rowling has been stretching her wings into literary satire (The Casual Vacancy) and crime fiction (as Robert Galbraith). Perhaps now she’s beginning to see how romance might have figured in the latter books of the series, or at least in the leap to the epilogue “nineteen years later.” (I’ve always wondered, why nineteen? Judging by the age of the kids, that means everyone had 6-7 years of therapy after the war before they got back together? Clearly that’s when the torrid Draco/Harry affair would have taken place… Ahem.)
At any rate, as I said, I felt the characters had grown and changed by the time the seventh book rolled around, and maybe they should have been given a chance to continue on those trajectories, instead of being pinned by a predestiny that Rowling had dreamed up before she herself had been through the journey. Because the JK Rowling of today is not the JK Rowling who was writing Goblet of Fire. And the JK Rowling who was writing Deathly Hallows wasn’t even the same person as the one writing Goblet of Fire. You change, you grow. You can only be the writer that you are at the moment you are writing. And once the book leaves your hands, the WRITING lives on as a testament to that moment, to those thoughts, to those feelings.
Anyone who tries to claim things a writer says later are as important or “canonical” as what lands in the book is simply wrong. We have to go by what ended up on the actual pages exactly BECAUSE writers can change their minds and their feelings, as Rowling’s have. Unless it ends up on the page, it’s even wilder speculation when it comes from the writer than it is when a fan speculates! What gets on the page is the tip of the iceberg of the writer’s imagination. That 10% you can see? You can also think of it as the cream that rises to the top. The rest is fascinating to think about, but it could be dreck. That’s why it didn’t end up on the page in the first place, sometimes.
I know there were many fans in the early days of Harry Potter fandom who were rooting for a Harry/Hermione relationship. Maybe they were picking up on the mixed signals JKR was putting into the books because of her own ambiguous feelings. But if we’re going to talk about mixed signals, well, we Harry/Draco shippers have a whole lot of evidence to present on that score…
Ahem. Revere J.K. Rowling for her achievement: these books are something far more significant and more subtle than anyone could have dreamed when “a kids series about a boy wizard” began to be published lo these many years ago. But don’t revere her opinions on what didn’t make it to the page. Consider them as curiosities, as something to tweak your critical faculties. But don’t take them as law. There is far too much going on in a writer’s head (and heart), and the reasons things end up on the page really do vary, with wish fulfillment, revenge, political agenda, favoritism, reactions to criticism, artistic ambition, and sleep-deprivation ALL playing a part. She’s not the person now that she was then, and the person she is now is not the writer who wrote those books.
The books exist. We must take them as they are. And so should J.K. Rowling.
P.S. Jo, please just go write a romance if that’s what you want. I guarantee lots of people will want to read it!