Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The cupboard child

One of the M. S. Corley designs
for the Potter books--see more here.
In which a mid-list writer and mother of three explains to the bestselling J. K. Rowling why she is wrong to go around disturbing the laws of books and re-marrying her hapless characters in retrospect . . . and why she was right in the first place.

Dear J. K. Rowling,

I happen to be rather weak on popular culture except where it intersects with one of my three children. The Potter books intersected with all three. I have listened to Harry Potter on CD and tape with three children in the car. I have watched the movies. And I have read the entire series aloud 1.5 times to my youngest because he wanted me to read until he fell asleep but then the next night would beg me to backbackback up to the point where he could clearly remember. This backing-up business was sometimes a bit of a trial, but I did it out of maternal love and possibly a smidge of desperation. Sleep is good.

So I have a piece of helpful news for you, fellow writer, now that you've violated the integrity of the books and declared that you really should have married Hermione to Harry. You are in luck because I happen to know that you are wrong.

Oh, I see exactly what you mean. Sure, Ron and Hermione might not appear like a workable choice at first glance. They were, as John Granger says, a fit pair for "the quarreling couple" of alchemy. In real life, if they jumped over the broomstick together, they might break up in a few years. They might never have made it to marriage because once they got over the intensity of mutual attraction, there might not have been enough beyond shared experience to hold them together. Most teens do, in fact, break up in our world and even in that weird reflection-world of wizardry.

Yes, marrying Hermione to Ron looks at first like a bit of a mistake. I expect some people would say that Hermione would be better off with a clever Ravenclaw boy who wouldn't stop her from becoming headmistress of Hogwarts, say. What's in favor of them as a couple? Well, be sure to remember that Ron is brighter, more funny, and quicker to help in the books than in the movies, and that major shared experience and mutual understanding are no small things. But that's not why they end up together.

No doubt Harry + Hermione is a fetching idea--world's most famous wizard and the brightest witch of the age! That wedding sounds just about right for a romantic daydream. No doubt it might have crossed their quick, imaginative minds . . . and no doubt there would be that odd bond between them that comes from could-have-been combined with the sharing of major experiences.

But a Harry and Hermione marriage is not what happened.

What happens in a book happens in a closed world and doesn't change. You married off Ron and Hermione. You linked up Harry and Ginny. That's done.

Why did you do it? I'll tell you.

Remember how Lupin says Harry's instincts are good and nearly always right? Why are you mistrusting him at this late juncture? In fact, Harry gains infinitely more by choosing Ginevra Weasley over Hermione Granger.

Ginny brings with her the bright, abundant dowry of the things he always wanted in life and never had. He gains a wide wizarding family, full of people he already admires and loves--and even the requisite family priss-pot, somebody about whom everybody else can complain. What does Hermione offer in the way of family? A pair of nice . . . dentists. A future that means a tiny nuclear group. In the expansive Weasley clan, Harry will be an uncle many times over as well as a father. There, he has a second pair of parents who already care about him. He has big brothers. He possesses a resonant history with them all, and he is attached to the memory of their dead. We can even say that Harry becomes a kind of fraternal twin to make up for the dead Weasley twin, Fred, for he and Ron are the same age and share boyish passion for broomsticks and quidditch. His best friend becomes his brother.

Now then, what about Hermione, his other best friend? (Let's note here that the books press onward toward the restoration of Harry's broken world, and that Hermione and others help in that restoration. If you accept that idea, you accept that the thrust of story is not about Hermione--it's not even about romance or who ends up with whom.) In the context of a Harry-Ginny union, having Hermione marry Ron becomes an added bonus for Harry--she too becomes his family when she marries Ron and becomes his sister. In this way, Harry becomes related to all the living people he loves most. And this is the only way they can all be related, the only way that nobody is left out of the circle of Harry's deepest loves.

You see? Harry wins. He takes home all the toys. The cupboard child who was last is now first.

Still feeling a bit disappointed at the way you restored Harry's world, broken when he was still a baby? Listen, who's going to be the most thrilling choice for Harry? He's not all that bookish, you know. There's not much library paste holding him down. Who's going to fly off with Harry on a wild broomstick ride at midnight and frolic in the treetops? It's not going to be Hermione, who doesn't even like brooms. It'll be tomboy Ginevra, the little red-haired girl who snitched her brothers' broomsticks out of the shed at the Burrow and taught herself to fly. It'll be Ginny Weasley, quidditch star.

So let's quit talking about what might have been--a book is a shaped thing, a microcosm. What happens in it is what happens, and nothing more!

Mischief managed--


  1. You must be bold. Send a copy to Ms. Rowling. Go for it!

  2. Potter got MARRIED?

    What is this? Downton Abbey?

    I have catching up to do, but I'm not sure I'm up for all this. Last time I knew, Harry was 12 or something and everyone was sort of innocent.

    Is there no magic left in the word?

    (R.T. is right!)

  3. R. T.,

    Hah, hah, hah! I expect her email is guarded by dragons and men in suits of diamond mail.

  4. Paul,

    You are funny! Your children were too old for Harry Potter... all grown up (how does that work--you're younger than I am!)

    She sorts them into marriage in the very last chapter of the last book...

  5. Amen, Marly. Everyone has to be brought into the Weasley clan at the end: they hold the lares of JKR's world.

  6. Hi Dale--

    Indeed, they do seem to be the source where the guardians of hearth and home are found!

  7. Marly, thank you for sticking up for the book as the full story, for demanding respect for the microcosm of fiction, and for reminding us all of the unity of the ending as first envisioned. This is not a movie in which you send out multiple endings to see which plays better with the focus group. I am sending this note on to my 20-year-old daughter Miriam, for whom the HP world is sometimes still the place in which she feels most alive.

  8. Ms. B,

    I love a right-thinking high school English teacher! Thanks for reading, and thanks for saying what you liked--best to Miriam. Books should make us feel more alive...

  9. Marley, I am grateful Ms. B showed me your perspective from an author, but I'm also not so sure how right thinking she is, but that's another issue. I have the complete opposite opinion, but appreciate your point of view nonetheless. However, I think the most vital thing to keep in mind is that Ms. Rowling's personal comments might be relevant for the rest of our lives, but it is her books that will undoubtably outlive us all, and that our great-grandchildren can venture into the microcosm that is the identical world in which I spent so much of my childhood.

  10. Hi Miriam--

    Your mother is a wonderful woman, and I'm glad she brought you up to love books!

    Opinions are cheap, being made out of air, and mine is no more to be swallowed than anyone else's. I enjoyed reading yours.

    As for time... Time is an interesting substance, and it will winnow us all, including our books. It often does unexpected things to them, things we who live in the now do not foresee. But perhaps you will be a good prophet! I hope you always enjoy books with such relish.

  11. THIS is most awesome Ms. Marly. I agree. Harry gets everything. Hermoine as a sister, Ron as a brother, a large family and a rolicking good wife.

    I agree, send this to her and see if it gets past the dragons!

  12. Donna,

    Glad you liked...

    I just believe in trying to figure out what the book is doing and ignoring what the writer says (that includes when I am the writer, too.) Or what fans say, for that matter. And she's got a mighty big heap of them!

    I don't imagine she ever sees such things... or if she does, it's just by accident.

  13. Oh, now I MUST read the rest of the HP books! I made it half way years ago and somehow never got back to finishing all of them. Must borrow from granddaughters....

  14. Marja-Leena, hello--

    That's because you weren't made to read them outloud (lots of words in those books!) Actually they get bigger and bigger and bigger as you go on...

    All my children liked them, but one of them seemed to outgrow them quickly.

  15. Well I have read all the Harry Potter books, and we have all the films (movies). And I don't have my children around any more (They're adults). I enjoyed the whole caboosh, but was a little perplexed by the marrying arrangements. Thank you for putting an alternative point of view. Maybe somewhere along the way, I allowed the fiction to become overshadowed by the realities in their lives.

  16. Hi Tom--

    Oh, I think Hermione and Ron is odd--definitely. But as I said to somebody on the facebook thread linking to this post, the key to what happens is not about Hermione's satisfaction.

    I just like to ask books why they do what they do rather than telling them that they're doing it wrong... And sometimes the answer then still isn't right to us. But it is the answer the book gives.

    Does that make sense?

    Critics will tell you that the very tail end of The Scarlet Letter is an error, or that the break in Huck Finn is a travesty. But if you ask the book why these things are so, they will give you an internally-accurate answer.

    We may still choose to believe the author's choice a flaw, or not, but it's a good thing to inquire of the book, in my opinion...

  17. I totally buy into your reasoning Marly, and it is a tribute that we all care enough about the characters and the world Rowling created in those books that we are speculating about this.
    I say write to her publisher. I got through to some big writers and got replies and friendships on FB from them too.
    Why not? What do you have to lose?

  18. Hi Robbi--

    Polishing away on a manuscript and glad to see your name pop up!

    I'm curious about the way people keep mentioning this idea about contacting Rowling here and elsewhere. What would it do if she saw such a post? She's deluged with attention... In fact, I wonder if that's not part of the problem--that she has too many opportunities to talk about books that now are in her past. She's a reader of them now like the rest of us, and she is increasingly far away from the impulse that drove the books. But she still has to talk about them as though she still understands them the way she did when she was writing them. And writers never do--we change, we forget, we sometimes disavow.

    And what good would it do for me, to be noticed in such a way? What wild dreams are in people's heads? I don't even get it. She's not going to be my fairy godmother and (poof!) turn me into a bestselling author. Because people don't do things like that. And I don't write that sort of book, do I? I like the sort of book I write or I wouldn't write it, clearly.

    I'm not being critical here. I simply don't quite . . . get it!

    The thing I care most about here is that we not look at books quite this way--that we recognize that a book is a whole. It is a complete, made thing. It's finished. A book has a life and integrity (in varying amounts, of course, according to the skill and heart with which it is made), and one should be very careful about jeopardizing its integrity by comments that are reductive.

    Hope California is treating you right! New York has just given me a cold. Boo!

  19. p.s. Robbi, I should say that the level of attention to the Potter books is astonishing... After a mere fifteen hours, this little post has hundreds of hits already. I hope that level of interest means something good for books and reading in general. Or perhaps it just means that people are still Potterwild...

  20. FYI . . .

  21. Thanks, R. T.--

    Not a very discerning response, I'd say--come on, Washington Post, stir the pot in an interesting way!

  22. Maybe it's just that I enjoy having a conversation with people I don't know, sometimes even more than speaking to those I do know.
    I used to talk to people on the bus when I rode those around, and now that I drive and don't have an occasion to do that and don't teach to rooms full of people I don't know well, I have to find people to talk to somewhere! In any case, I have found it interesting and gratifying to speak to such people on occasion.
    It's not that they can or would do anything for me. I simply want to thank them and let them know that the book had an effect in the world.

  23. Robbi, your comment about conversations and books resonated with me. By coincidence, I recently wrote about conversations and books -- albeit in a slightly different way -- at my blog. Please stop by.

  24. Robbi,

    I don't object to that in the least. It's a lovely thing to do!

  25. Oh, and R. T.--yes, do stop by! He has started a new blog. Books and plays and more...

  26. I haven't read ANY of the books and have only seen one of the movies: the very last one, in which the happy couples appear in a sort of epilogue. So I am the least qualified person to comment, but I did enjoy your explanation of the logic, Marly! One of these days, I will read the books.

  27. Well, that's because you didn't have three children in the right zone of time!

    To me, it make sense. But clearly not to much of the world, including people who are maniacal re-readers of the books.

    I also don't like her messing up John Granger's cleaver alchemical structure!

  28. I should also pause to say thank you for all the twitter favorites and retweets and facebook posts and the mirror sites on tumblr and so on--I love hearing from readers, here or elsewhere.

    Thank you for sending the post over the 1K mark in a mere two days, and drop me a line any time!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.