Ron, Hermione, and a question of Choice
Corner anyone who’s read the Harry Potter books and ask them to name the predominant theme; chances are, ‘choice’ will come out on top. If they’re a proper fan, they’ll drill down still further, explaining that our choices don’t just reveal who we are; they determine who we are. This deceptively simple idea (which winds up being a chicken-and-egg scenario if you think about it too hard) is conveyed so effectively that you’d be forgiven for thinking that free will is both ubiquitous and all-powerful in the Harry Potter universe. Only it isn’t. JK Rowling, while obviously a champion of willpower and choice, throws her hands up and discards the rulebook whenever it comes to one single element:
That’s why I find it so odd that anybody would worry too much about JK Rowling’s recent statement, in which she admitted that a relationship between Ron and Hermione makes about as much sense as an invisible, carnivorous skeleton-horse that also flies and can understand directions.I’m paraphrasing, of course; her exact words were:
“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfilment. 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.”
Obviously I can’t presume to know JK Rowling’s intentions when she sat down to write. However, I will say this: whatever the impetus, however questionable her motives, JK Rowling made precisely the right decision in pairing such an unlikely couple. Why? Because choice – particularly well-informed, logical, sensible choice – has absolutely nothing to do with love. In the Harry Potter universe, love is the only force that trumps all rational thought, again and again, in a myriad of ways. Consider the following:
You can’t choose who you love
Snape’s undying love for Lily Potter is the most obvious, enduring and powerful example of unrequited love. It’s firm testimony that you cannot choose who you love, no matter how clever you are. Would this supremely intelligent, cold, and prejudiced man choose to love a Muggle-born witch? Would he voluntarily endure the torment of seeing her marry his childhood nemesis? Of course not. Snape doesn’t choose to love Lily Potter; he just does. And even though his adoration is rewarded with nothing but anguish, it never falters.
In another example, Merope’s unrequited love for Tom Riddle was ill-advised, ill-fated, and utterly foolish. Yet love him she did; enough to give him the option to leave her. Ginny’s love for Harry was also a one-way street, at least in the first part of the series, but it didn’t fade with time. Although she tried dating other people, Ginny remained infatuated with Harry until he noticed her. For each of these people, affection for their beloved brought no small amount of pain; but they could not dismiss their feelings.
We all know that Bellatrix was batsh#t crazy and nasty to boot, but she did harbour an undying love for Voldy. There are two interesting things about Bellatrix’s love; firstly, even though it was toxic, obsessive, and unhealthy, it did serve to cast her in a slightly more sympathetic light than the object of her affection (who, after all, was incapable of loving anyone at all). Secondly, I think it’s quite telling that Rowling gave Bellatrix a husband, if only to demonstrate Bellatrix’s complete indifference to him. Voldemort was the true master of Bellatrix’s heart, and nothing – not even marriage – could break her obsession. In other words, she chose to marry Rodolphus Lestrange, but she could not choose to love him.
Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald, while not described in great detail, was exceptionally powerful. It was love that clouded Dumbledore’s vision and prevented him from seeing the dark nature of his beloved, and love that tempted him with dark imaginings. For Dumbledore, a brilliant and consummate wizard, love was the only ‘spell’ strong enough to befuddle his senses and rob him of sensible choice. Had the unthinkable not occurred – had Grindelwald’s actions not resulted in the death of Dumbledore’s sister – there’s no telling how far Dumbledore would have followed Grindelwald on his path to destruction and horror.
It is no coincidence that the bewitching power of this romantic love could only be trumped by one thing: Dumbledore’s love for (and loyalty towards) his sister and brother. Only love can usurp love. Dumbledore’s doomed affair with Grindelwald goes a long way towards explaining why he firmly believes that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and why he never trusted himself enough to love romantically ever again.
Love against your better judgement
Madame Maxime clearly had feelings for Hagrid, but her own weakness and self-denial caused her to reject Hagrid and treat him with great cruelty. Despite his heartbreak and anger, Hagrid didn’t stop loving her. An objective bystander would assert that he should probably have avoided her like the plague, but like everyone else in love, Hagrid had no choice.
In a different example, Remus Lupin tormented himself with the idea that his status as ‘werewolf’ would destroy Tonks’s social standing. Lupin also fretted that any child would be cursed with his own affliction (this idea in particular rendered him ‘deranged’ with despair). Despite all this, and against his better judgement, Lupin married Tonks and fathered her child. Thus a man with no small amount of courage and willpower fought – and lost – against the power of love. This raises the question: did he ever really have a choice?
Love against the odds
We just saw things from Lupin’s perspective, but Tonks’s love for Lupin was no less powerful or irresistible. Similarly, although everyone assumed that Fleur would no longer love Bill Weasley after his disfigurement, she ferociously asserted her position; her love was real, and not something to be switched off at will.
In the Harry Potter universe, parental love is the most powerful of all, particularly a mother’s love for her child. Nowhere is this more evident than in Lily’s sacrifice. It’s worth pointing out that Voldemort offered to spare Lily’s life in exchange for her son’s, and while this gives the impression of choice, there really was none. We all know that Lily wasn’t tempted, not even for a moment. Lily didn’t choose to save her son; love compelled her to do so, without question and without thought.
If Lily’s death served to demonstrate the strength of a mother’s love, Molly Weasley was the living embodiment of that force. Molly’s role as mother, and the protective love she bore for all seven of her children, was her defining characteristic. When Percy turned his back on his family, and the Weasleys responded with a varied mix of anger, disgust, and rejection, Molly was the only one who simply wanted him back. Despite Percy’s betrayal, she couldn’t stop loving her son.
And then there’s the Malfoy family. Lucius and Narcissa, once-stalwart supporters of the Dark Lord, lost their taste for all things Voldy when they realised the association was placing their son in danger. Their love for Draco trumped their ideology – no mean feat in itself – and by the end of the series, we actually felt a little sympathetic towards the whole rotten family. Like Lily, the Malfoys’ love for their son was tested, and again, there was no choice.
An Inability to Love
All the examples above describe how JK Rowling consistently portrayed love as a force beyond all reason. However, this irrational pursuit of pain and ecstasy is also what makes us human, and it’s no coincidence that those characters who displayed zero capacity for human affection are considered the worst in the entire series.
Obviously Voldemort was the biggest culprit, but consider the giants, widely regarded as terrible brutes, whose distinguishing trait was an inability to love even their children. Rita Skeeter also appeared to have no real human connection, and the delight she gleaned from ridiculing the connections between others made her one of the most contemptible characters of all. Then, of course, we have Dolores Umbridge, who some fans despised even more than the Dark Lord himself.
Rowling makes a point of discussing Love Potions several times, and from several different perspectives. Our first hint of their power comes from Slughorn, who asserts that the love potion Amortentia is the most powerful and dangerous potion in the world. He goes on to clarify that no magic can induce real love; Amortentia really just induces obsession, or a powerful infatuation. This, of course, probably just makes it more dangerous.
Love Potions are used twice in the series; once when Romilda Vane attempts to drug Harry (with disastrous consequences for Ron, who mistakenly ingests the potion), and once when Merope Gaunt – Voldemort’s mother – attempts to secure the affections of Tom Riddle. In both cases, they rob the victim of personal choice.
The interesting thing to note is true love – the kind that develops organically from a real human connection – is considered the greatest and most powerful force in the Harry Potter universe. In contrast, the artificial inducement of such feelings (through the use of Amortentia) is portrayed as unethical, dangerous, and even abhorrent. Only real love has the divine right to compromise personal choice, and it is both revered and feared for its power.
Which brings us to…
The Locked Room
“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all.”
Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
Of course Dumbledore’s talking about love, and given his earlier experiences, it’s easy to see why he regards it with such awe; but Rowling has admitted that Dumbledore often speaks with her voice, and I think this is one such occasion. I find it telling that she writes about love as a force so unfathomable, so resistant to normal avenues of enquiry, that it must be kept in a locked room. Is this because it doesn’t play nice with personal choice? Is it, perhaps, because it cannot fit into a framework of free will? And is this what makes it both wonderful and terrible at the same time?
Back to Ron and Hermione…
JK Rowling is absolutely right: Ron and Hermione really don’t make much sense as a couple. We can easily picture Hermione’s growing impatience as Ron’s thick-headedness and insensitivity persist. We can imagine Ron’s insecurities coming to the fore as Hermione continues to outshine him. We can see the gloss coming off their relationship as the years pass by and the memories of their shared experiences slowly fade. Logically, the progression is pretty clear.
But that’s exactly why Ron and Hermione were the right choice. Their union, which makes no sense and is quite possibly doomed to failure, is consistent with every other pairing that exists in the Harry Potter universe. Should Hermione have chosen someone else, perhaps Harry Potter himself? Probably. But the point is that she couldn’t choose.
I wouldn’t presume to know JK Rowling’s intentions when she wrote the series, but deliberate or not, a clear message comes through: our choices may indeed show what we truly are, but when it comes to love, we have no choice at all.