Portrait of a City-soul

ImageWas this the secret of Istanbul – that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward looking monuments and its sublime landscapes, its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves. (Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk.)

How do you talk about a city? How do you contain the sights, sounds, smells, emotions evoked by a sprawling tract of land and all the people it holds within a slim (or not so slim) book, imparting to your reader a definite sense of this place? Even more puzzling, how do you do it for someone who has never seen your city, let alone lived on and walked the streets you have described with such haunting immediacy?

My regard for Orhan Pamuk, winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature (2006) has always been of an abstracted sort. I looked up to him as I look up to any well-known, well-regarded author who hasn’t particularly touched me, but whom the ‘literary world’ applauds for stylistic, political or content-related reasons. The only one of his books I’d read was My Name is Red and I have to admit that it didn’t exactly have me gripped. I would take long breaks, pick up other books, return only when I’d refreshed myself and thought that I could handle the long sentences full of paintings that did not seem, even when described with such verve and enthusiasm, spectacular enough for all the hullabaloo.

I have a very close friend who would probably roast me alive for saying all this. But hey, honesty is the best policy, especially when it comes to literature. Besides, I’m sure Pamuk had enough fans before I got my hands on Istanbul. Now he has one more.

What Istanbul really does is take you on a black-and-white stroll down the streets of Pamuk’s neighbourhood, throw into your line of sight the gleaming Bosphorus with all its drowned secrets, reconstruct, painstakingly but oh so lovingly, the half-ruined histories of a capital steel reeling from its loss of political, cultural and economic significance. Caught in a struggle between a desire to ‘westernise’ and at the same time, to hold on to its rich past, Istanbul seems to drift in a haze its flaneur calls ‘huzun’, a peculiar melancholy that seeps through the streets, the air, the faces of its inhabitants and into the pages of a book, far away from the city-space. It is this huzun that defines the experience of this city, Pamuk notes, a huzun that affected, though they knew not what to call it, the Europeans who have viewed the city, the Turkish writers of old who attempted to rediscover it for themselves, and finally, has infected and affected Pamuk himself. Image

Pamuk maps the city out for us through his years there: from his childhood in Pamuk Apartments through his first experiences in school, in love and finally, his all-important decision to abandon art and Architecture and become a writer. He ensures that we hear voices of as many residents and writers as possible: he discusses his debt to the French writers and painters who brought to life the beautiful, ‘picturesque’ Istanbul that he hunts; he pays homage to the builders of an unfinished, exhausting Turkish encylopaedia; he quotes with great amusement Turkish newspapers and periodicals admonishing the residents of Istanbul, seeking to teach them how to behave on the streets. He also paints loving portraits of his family and their adventures in the city, in society, from his fat grandmother eating breakfast in bed and overseeing the apartment to his final conversation with his world-weary mother wherein he makes his vocational choice.

I read Istanbul with a sort of wonder, amazed that someone could paint their home so lovingly and yet so unforgivingly. Pamuk is not sentimental about Istanbul; he emphasizes its dreariness, its dark alleys and darker history, its schizophrenic desire to emulate and yet remain distinct from the ‘West’. I found myself wishing I could do the same for another city, one which I think is, in many ways, eerily similar to Istanbul. Like the Turkish city, Delhi too has its rich cultural history, has seen many, many conquests and peoples come flooding through its gates. Like Istanbul, Delhi seems to both live with and desire to forget its past, crumbling walls of old forts juxtaposed to shining store fronts of designer boutiques and McDonald’s outlets. Like Istanbul, Delhi has seen its fair share of travellers, of writers and artists attempting to capture its magic. And like Istanbul, no one would call Delhi a ‘happy city’. In India, it bears a dark reputation, for a myriad of reasons, but still, that does not besmirch its position as a centre of learning, art and literature.

If I could recreate the magic Pamuk weaves when he talks about the Bosphorus, use his melancholic music to sing songs of Lodi gardens and the wonders of the Red Fort, I would. But I have a feeling that ‘huzun’ is not mine to steal, to utilize to discuss another city. No, huzun belongs to Istanbul, to its beleaguered people. Delhi needs another mood, another term to encompass the many emotions it evokes. When I find it, I will write that Delhi book.

And I will dedicate it to Orhan Pamuk.

 

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The Importance of Being Hermione: Part II

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(Part I of this post can be found here)

Hermione Granger is not a prize to be won. Hermione doesn’t go to the boy who ‘deserves’ her. Hermione is Ron’s consolation gift for not being the hero. The only reason Hermione doesn’t end up with Harry is because Rowling figured out the ending way before she actually finished the series and hadn’t anticipated how much her characters might change. Hermione and Ron would never have lasted because they were the perfect example of a corny, unrealistic romcom couple. Hermione and Ron is the relationship everyone dreams of in high school but no one gets because, let’s face it, they are just way too different. It was so brave of Rowling to not dump Hermione with the hero; she broke so many conventions!

Disconnected though they are, these are statements I’ve heard being hurled during the Hermione/Ron and Hermione/Harry debates. I’ve made clear which side I am on (in the first part of this post), and in this, the second half, I’m going to try and justify this stance. Mind you, things might get a little icky and personal, so feel free to scoot out of here before they do if that makes you uncomfortable.

Recently, I discussed the Rowling Revelations (this is what I’ve taken to calling her interview with Emma Watson in Wonderland Magazine) with a fellow fantasy fan. He was quite adamant about Hermione being too good for Ron, stating that the only reason I didn’t agree with him was because I wanted Harry for myself and viewed Hermione as potentially greater competition than Ginny. I both agree and disagree with him. Yes, I might have wanted Harry, and yes, being more like Hermione than Ginny in many ways, I might have anticipated greater threat from her (if she wanted him in the first place) simply because I don’t underestimate myself when it comes to making attempts to get what I want. No because, honestly, I do think her relationship with Ron is an important part of what makes her such an appealing character and, ultimately, makes her such a shining beacon of unconventionality and hope in a genre otherwise sadly lacking in strong, relatable female protagonists.

Hermione and Ron have far from the most romantic relationship in the series. Their ‘courting’, such as it is, is limited to half-hearted flirting, some classic comedic misunderstandings and half-spoken confessions. In keeping with their less-than-central status, there are no protestations of ‘Always’ and golden afternoons by the lake or ‘we could have had months, years even’. And yet, despite this, they have long been my favourite couple.

An astute person once told me ‘I suppose that’s a human tendency, to want what we cannot have.’ In real life, I venerate crazy, intense, complicated relationships, which sap energy both emotional and physical. I suppose I have taught myself, based on whatever I’ve seen of fantasy heroes and their love lives, that to be considered ‘great’ and ‘true’, love must be passionate, it must be sacrificial, come under attack from society and, above all, it must hurt. Anakin and Padme, even Rand and Min or Arwen and Aragorn—they all go through so much emotional trauma and societal disapproval and whatnot to be with their loved ones. If I can’t emulate them in the grander aspects (i.e. saving the world), surely I can ape them when it comes to this, a much more achievable category.

But the problem is, in most of these relationships, what we are usually presented is the male perspective. When we do get the girl’s outlook, it’s (arguably) more muted than the boy’s, less loaded with Fate and Destiny and other such heroic terms. True, Arwen is the one making the big decision to give up her immortality, but since Tolkien’s book has privileged Aragorn’s story all along, the shoehorning in of her regret and loneliness comes a little too late to make much of an impact.

This is, perhaps, a casualty of being the hero or central character’s love interest. So if Hermione had gone down that road, gotten with Harry, this would probably have happened to her. She would have been forced to wane a little bit, so that Harry, the more ‘important’ of the pair, shone. Look at what happened to Ginny, if you want proof.

But I think Hermione herself as a character required someone like Ron. Hermione is a very ‘intense’ girl, as Rowling admitted. She’s smart, driven, emotional and, more importantly, she takes things very, very seriously. Hermione seems to view life as something of an exam; she must do well at every turn and those things she is not good at, she often tries to ignore or excise. In fact, Ron and Harry see this part of her and refuse to condone it, encouraging her to play chess (one of the few things she does not do very well) because they think it is good for her ‘to lose’ on occasion.

For someone like Hermione, a personality like Harry’s would have been quite a disastrous match. Harry is, like her, a very intense, focussed sort of character. He takes his quest and heroism seriously, he drives himself to crazy lengths to ensure that things get done in the ‘right’ way, often ignoring other people’s feelings in the process (his confrontation with Remus comes to mind, as well as his break-up with Ginny). Hermione, unlike Ginny, takes Harry’s moods seriously, cowering back when yelled at, leaving him to stew in silence when she does not know what exactly to say to him. Ginny, on the other hand, is capable of simply shrugging off Harry’s tantrums. Unlike Hermione, she doesn’t seem to get very fazed when things don’t go the way she planned, and for someone who is as volatile as Harry gets to be in the second half of the series, this is an ideal trait in a partner.Image

Like Harry, Hermione needs someone who can calm her down, whose ability to live in the moment offsets her own need to plan obsessively. And that, really, is Ron’s forte. Being the most grounded of the trio, in some ways, Ron has an ability to loosen the others up, to distract them from the doom and gloom that surrounds them. This is part of his role as ‘comic relief’, but it also makes his descent into metaphorical ‘darkness’ all the more hard-hitting in Deathly Hallows. Above all things, Ron is loyal and able to put others before himself with an ease born of growing up in a large family. Harry and Hermione do not have this ability to efface themselves. Ron can fade into the background and still be Ron. If Harry or Hermione did it, they would most likely be seen as selling themselves short or only accomplish it with great psychological turmoil.

Especially Hermione. Imagine her not being the best at something, or being applauded for her accomplishments. Nope, not happening.

Rowling admitted that Hermione, being an ‘uptight’ girl, needs someone ‘who takes life, or appears to take life, a little more lightheartedly’. Being such a star herself, she needs someone who can support her, be there for her without being scared of either being eclipsed or distracting her with his own emotional needs.

When I was in high school, my friends would joke that whoever I ended up with would be a glorified errand boy, fetching refills for me while I penned bestselling novels. I protested, of course, saying that I wanted someone with a little more ambition than that. I wanted a fantasy hero (well, don’t we all?), a Harry perhaps, or an Aragorn: someone who had a noble quest to fulfil. I never thought about what their love interests actually went through, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized how very difficult, if not downright impossible, it is to put myself second in a relationship, to agree that, yes, my ‘hero’s’ work is more important than anything I might want to accomplish, at least for the moment. It’s only now that I see how few women there are in fantasy who appear able to do what they want without their significant other creating a big hue and cry about it and making things difficult for them. And I think this sends a very wrong message to young readers everywhere.

You don’t understand how much your reading has affected you until you find yourself adopting those lessons in your life. Not that many people can actually see it happening, not many people realize how much of what they’ve been taught filters into their everyday. I think I was lucky enough to see it, and perhaps it’s not too late for me to shrug off those lessons. Professors have been parroting things about ‘received wisdom’ and ‘gender conventions’ in literature for ages, but honestly, it’s only now that I’m learning just how very ingrained and hard to shake those lessons are.

And that’s why I think Hermione is super important. Hermione and Ron get together in the middle of a war, rather spectacularly flinging their regard for one another in Harry’s face (despite his yelling at them to concentrate on the quest at hand). Hermione and Ron show an impressive ability to work together, combining Ron’s instinctual grasp of magic with her book-learning. Hermione and Ron balance out one another’s weaknesses and strengths. Hermione and Ron do all this without either of them losing their individuality in the process, or being told (explicitly or implicitly) that what one of them wants is not as important as what the other has to do. Both are equally heroic, both will have to work hard to make their relationship last, but both show that yes, you can be fantastical world-savers while being crazily in love and in the field together.

And never, ever forget that it was, really, Hermione who made the first move.

 

 

 

The Golem and the Djinni

I felt like I hadn’t read a very good fantasy book in a long time,  one that presented something that seemed wholly new while at the same time reminding me of others cast in the same mould. At least, that’s what I felt until I picked up Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni.

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What a gorgeous cover

Set in 1899, in a New York which is just recognizable enough to keep its readers comfortable, Wecker’s debut novel explores the relationship between two outsiders in this city of immigrants: a Golem and a Djinni. Chava, the golem, was created to be the wife of her master, Otto Rotfeld, a Polish Jew who plans to emigrate with his newly created wife to the New World.  Fortunately for us, Rotfeld disregards the golem-maker’s advice and wakes his ‘wife’ while still on board the ship. Unfortunately for him, he dies soon afterward, leaving her to fend for herself in America.

More resourceful than your average clay-woman, Chava not only finds a trustworthy mentor and guide, but also stumbles across a being who, like her, is trying to pass off as an average human while being nothing of the kind: a djinni from the Syrian desert.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship, but things go haywire when Yehudah Schaalman, the golem’s creator, shows up in New York, bent on a quest to find the secret to eternal life.

The Golem and the Djinni was a really, really good read. Not only did Wecker conjure up a vivid turn-of-the-century Manhattan, but I loved how she took on the magical and mystical aspects of cultures that have, by and large, been ignored by the mainstream Western fantasy canon. The only other book I’ve read that delved into Jewish lore, for instance, was Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, where there was a golem figure, albeit for a blink-and-you-miss-it duration. Of course, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series spends a lot of time in varied magical cultures, but in the adult canon, there seem to be fewer instances of diversity. Things are changing, yes, but slowly.

What I really loved about the book, though, was Ahmad, the djinni. I really enjoyed following him on his jaunts through nocturnal New York, discovering the world five hundred and more years after being ensconced away in a lamp. Most of all, I loved how, through him, Wecker brought to life ‘Little Syria’, the Arab neighbourhood of the city, and all its residents: Maryam Faddoul, Boutros Arbeely, Mahmoud Saleh.

I think, honestly, that Ahmad shone more brightly than Chava did. Perhaps this is to be expected, considering that he is a being of fire while she one of clay, and that what defines him is passion and spontaneity versus her more ‘modest’ and calm demeanour, but I think Wecker also fell more deeply in love with this character than the other. For one thing, Ahmad has (what seems to me) a far more interesting and layered ‘back story’ than Chava. For another, I think he progresses and achieves more as a character in the course of the book, but we can always debate that after you read it.

Or maybe I just have a soft spot for ‘passionate’ handsome, cursed men. Rule out nothing.

After finishing this book, I’m diving back into Stroud’s series, if only to reacquaint myself with the djinn. I also intend, at some point, to pick up Saladin Ahmad’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, if only because I need to step out of my comfort zone of elves and goblins and try something a little closer to home. And what do you know, maybe by then I, or one of my esteemed peers, would have produced some new, truly epic ‘Indian’ fantasy.

And I don’t mean myth fic, no siree.

What are you waiting for? Go get a copy of Wecker’s book now. I promise you, you won’t regret it!

The Song of Achilles

One of my professors once remarked that writing mythological fiction is a very easy and lazy thing to do. ‘You’re taking a plot that’s already laid out for you,’ she said, ‘and pretending that, by shifting to a different character’s view point, you’re creating something wholly new. What’s so interesting about that?’

By and large, I agree with her. The wave of ‘myth-fic’ seems to be cresting steadily over here in India, with more and more permutations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana coming out every year. The only one of these I’ve read, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni, tells the story of the Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi, princess of Panchal and wife of the Pandava brothers. It was well-written, interesting and even featured tabooed love, but it wasn’t something I would pick up a second time.

I had a similar experience with The Penelopeiad by Margaret Atwood, which narrates the Iliad and the Odyssey in the voice of Penelope, the lonely queen of Ithaca. While the anthropological treatise presented at the close of the slim tome was thought-provoking in and of itself (it stated that the epic chronicled the death of a female-centric Moon Goddess culture and the rise of a patriarchal pantheon), the rest of the novel didn’t succeed to well in holding my attention. Maybe it was Penelope’s voice, which didn’t grab and hold me the way the original Homer (or his translators) did. Maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I expected more of Atwood, one of my favourite writers. Or maybe I just didn’t like the Odyssey and its characters enough to trawl through another version of the same thing.

ImageWhatever it was, it put me off myth fic for a while. This explains my lack of hastiness in picking up Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel, The Song of Achilles. I’ve got great respect for the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction), and have enjoyed many of the books it’s been awarded for. Combine the prize with a focus on Achilles, one of my favourite characters of all time, and you would assume I’d have a winner on my hands.

And that assumption is correct. I don’t know why I dilly-dallied, but now that I’ve finally read Song, I will admit that it has reinstated my faith in myth fic and done justice to its source material. It’s a quick read, the language lyrical enough to echo the cadences of the epic (not that I’ve read it in its original Greek, but I have heard it in snatches). Its strength, however, are its central characters: Achilles and the narrator, Patroclus.

The book takes off with the marriage of Patroclus’s parents. The boy, the only child of their ill-fated marriage, is a disappointment to his stern sire, awkward, slight and shy. His exile and disownment comes, therefore, as somewhat of a relief, and he is sent to Phthia, the home of Prince Achilles and his ‘pious’ father, Peleus. Once here, Patroclus becomes the boon companion of his host’s son, a fact that makes his divine mother, the sea goddess Thetis, very angry.

The relationship between the two boys deepens when Patroclus flees Phthia to join Achilles on Mount Pelion, where he is to be tutored by the centaur Chiron. Here, on the mountain where Thetis cannot ‘see’ them, they proceed to fall, and stay, in love.

The rest of the story is predictable: Achilles is summoned back to Phthia, where he is asked to join the fleet put together by the Mycenean king, Agammemnon. The fleet intends to sail to Troy and avenge the rape of Helen, wife of Menelaus. Despite his mother’s best efforts to keep him from his destiny, Achilles, accompanied by Patroclus, join the band.

Everyone knows what happens next, and you don’t need me to rehash one of the most widely told stories of Western civilization. Miller chooses to focus on relationship between the two men, how it is shaped and pressurized by the weight of Achilles’ fate. Both Achilles and Patroclus know that it is only the continued existence of Hector that stands between them and death. Once Hector dies, Achilles, and therefore Patroclus, cannot be far behind.

Miller creates compelling characters and makes the relationship between the two men something of great beauty. In my opinion, it is Achilles, confident, heroic, no less sensitive than his lover for all his seeming divinity, who steals the show. As should be, perhaps, since we see him through the eyes of ‘the best of the Myrmidons’, Patroclus. Here’s an Achilles who is equally gifted in the musical and the martial arts, who has a wry sense of humour, who laughs easily only when he is with the one he loves the most. He is so much more than a butch hero. As Patroclus says to Thetis as she sits before her (spoiler) son’s tomb:

You are the one who ruined him. Look at how he will be remembered now. Killing Hector, killing Troilus. For things he did cruelly in his grief…

Perhaps such things pass for virtue among gods. But how is there glory in taking a life? We die so easily…Let the stories of him be something more.

I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. ‘Catch,’ he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. ‘If you have to go I will go with you.’ My fears forgotten in the golden harbour of his arms.

The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.

Miller skates delicately over the gore and bloodshed (‘tasteless violence’ as someone memorably put it) of the war, never stinting in her descriptions but managing to infuse them with a sort of poetry that makes reading them irresistible. Whether it be a description of Achilles laying waste to the enemies around him, duelling the river god Scamander, or Apollo delicately plucking Patroclus off the walls of Troy, the images are crisp and clear. And yes, the gods are a part of the narrative. Since they are among the most entertaining characters in the epic, it seems only right that they retain their importance here.

The Song of Achilles is for people who like romance, who like heroes, who enjoy a well told story. It’s for people who know that Achilles is more than a golden-haired Brad Pitt, muttering sullenly about honour in his isolated tent. It’s for people who like the twisted humour of Odysseus and the politics of the Greeks, watching as their power struggles play out in the agora of a protracted siege camp. Most of all, it’s for people who, like me, enjoy a new spin on an old tale, seeing something new in a story you thought, two thousand and more years after its first telling, has nothing more to say.

Read it for the revelations. Read it for Achilles.

The Importance of Being Hermione: Part I

hermione_granger_by_crymson99-d3oobb7I’m finally going to discuss a character I have been rather noticeably reticent about in all my previous entries. She’s amazingly popular, so it’s a little strange that I’ve ignored her for so long. I’ll be breaking this entry into two separate posts, the first dealing with the character herself and the second with the ‘relationship’ that, for me, is the most realistic and relatable of the Harry Potter canon, as well as the larger fantasy canon in general.

Recently, there was a great hullaballoo in the Harry Potter fandom. This was the result of Rowling sitting up and saying (according to selectively quoted portions of an interview with Emma Watson in Wonderland magazine) that the Ron-Hermione relationship was a form of ‘wish fulfillment’ and that perhaps, Harry and Hermione ‘are a better fit’. In the interview, Rowling cast aspersions on the stability of the pair’s marriage but admitted, eventually, that they would probably be ‘alright with a bit of counseling’.

I’ve never been a Harry/Hermione fan, not even when they were stuck in a tent together in the middle of Gods-only-know-where. There are a bunch of reasons for this, including the fact that I never really saw Harry as ‘ending up’ with anyone, really. I sort of assumed he would die at the close of the seventh book; to my mind, that would have been the most poetic ending. Also, given that his greatest desire at the start of the series is to see his family, it might have been nice to have him reunited with them at the close.

But perhaps that’s just me being morbid.

Anyhow, let’s get back to Hermione/Ron and Hermione/Harry. I think Rowling pitting Hermione with Ron was a great decision. Last night, I sat and thought about leading female characters in fantasy I could look upon as potential role models in a romantic relationship (after all, I do take my role models for everything from fantasy fiction, make of that what you will) and realized that very few are of any real use to a twenty-something, or any-something for that matter, urban, educated and relatively independent girl.

The problem is, many, many women in fantasy fiction, whether it be the beautiful Arwen or the feisty Ginny, fall into the familiar trap of waiting-for-Hero-to-finish-Quest. They are almost preternaturally understanding and patient creatures, providing unquestioning support to a Hero whose mission is, we assume, much more important than anything they might get up to or want to get up to. The other category of women, which includes people like Egwene al’Vere from Wheel of Time and Eowyn of Rohan, seem to see romance almost as a weakness, something they do not have time for. In fact, when Eowyn falls in love with Faramir, her emotional change is described as a ‘thaw’, melting her from the self-imposed frost that had previously defined her dealings with men.

My point is, none of the women I could think were shown as having healthy, functioning relationships with their significant others until that significant other had completed whatever divinely or fatefully ordained quest they were on. The other women, who were on quests themselves, acted like the men, refusing to really get ‘into’ a relationship, or fall in love, until they had finished their business. I include Katniss Everdeen in the latter category.

I noted in a previous entry (Ginny Weasley and the Loving Hero Paradox) that this is all too common a theme in epic fantasy, and that perhaps, if there were more novels floating about with female leads, we might see a change.  But if there is anyone who comes close to being in a healthy, somewhat relatable relationship, and still manages to go about saving the world, I honestly think its Hermione Jean Granger.

Cue for the splutters of surprise, confusion and even outrage.

herm and ron

 

It’s self-evident why Hermione is such a popular and important character. Not only is she Harry’s best friend, but she is not a conventionally attractive, popular, sporty girl. She is a swot, a geek, a girl who freaks out at the possibility of getting one question wrong in an exam. Find me another girl like that in popular fiction, I dare you. She’s always got her facts handy, and when she doesn’t, she refuses to let ridicule keep her from running off to her favourite haven: the Library.

Hermione taught me that it was okay to be yourself in high school, a hard lesson to drill into an adolescent girl. I never really saw myself in her though, chiefly because she was much more assertive and independent than I was. Also, I lacked the social consciousness that she had, the drive to do good things for the world. I wanted to do great things, not necessarily good, and there was the difference between us.

What was most relatable about Hermione, however, was her lack of perfection. For all her brains, for all her dedication to the good of the wizarding world, she was not the paragon of girlhood in the Potter books. That was Ginny Weasley, woman who never cries. Hermione gets emotionally overwrought, she acts silly and competitive and does immature things in order to get back at people (Ron, mostly). Unlike in the case of Ginny, Hermione’s particularly vicious jinxes are not held up for admiration; when she sends Charmed canaries whirring at Ron’s head, we’re meant (I believe) to see the act for what it is: vindictive, petty vengeance for his ‘snogging’ Lavender. Harry notes that Hermione’s eyes are ‘wild’, her voice ‘high’ when she does this. Clearly, the girl is not in her usual reasonable and reasoning frame of mind.

Contrast this to Ginny, whose Bat Bogey Hex on Zacharias Smith and deliberate crashing of her broom into the commentator’s box (when he was holding forth) is touted as ‘cool’ and totally okay. Ginny seems to be able to escape authorial and reader judgment, while Hermione, for all her admirable qualities, does not.

This is an important point, and one that I want to take forward into the second half of my post. Harry, for all his imperfections, is very rarely judged negatively by the reader. Even his darker actions, such as casting Unforgiveables, are put down to the influence of the Horcrux he carries within him (this was the explanation Rowling gave in an interview). This lack of accountability that he enjoys makes him somewhat difficult to like in the last two books, I think, which is why both Hermione and Ron, whose faults also glare much more brightly in these volumes, suddenly begin to steal the limelight from their more famous friend. Harry becomes more and more a remote ideal, much like Ginny does. How can you pair a very human girl with this increasingly blank Hero figure?

What Hermione, in all her glorious imperfection, needs is a fellow imperfect being. And that’s where Ron comes in.