Books and Cleverness: Hermione Granger and the Glass Ceiling

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Harry Potter books on a shelf with many books of different colors.

We must thank Hermione Granger for the new trio of e-books from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling available for download on September 6. The books are called Short Stories from Hogwarts and provide a user’s manual for poltergeists, politics, heroes and even a guide (although unreliable) to the venerable Hogwarts itself. Without Hermione spending hours reading up on witchcraft and wizardry in the Hogwarts library neither Rowling nor her readers would ever know these books exist.

Of course Harry’s bravery and determination are necessary to take on the evil wizard Voldemort, but Harry was hardly a scholar. It’s a good thing he decided to befriend Hermione early on in the first book. Her “books and cleverness” and tireless research into spells, potions and fantastic beasts made her indispensable to Harry and to the storyline. Without her, the Harry Potter series would be just one slim sad volume in which the hero probably dies at the end.

Passages like the one about Hermione’s cleverness or her desire to ‘do some good in the world’ can and should be discussed and debated as a way to further explore the magical world Rowling created in a more literary way. Hermione Granger Saves the World: Essays on the Feminist Hero of Hogwarts is a collection of essays edited by Christopher Bell that gives fans of Hermione and the Harry Potter books a lot to think about. Each of the diverse essays offers a well-deserved closer look at Hermione as a different type of female heroine.

Hermione Granger Saves the World includes essays that talk about Hermione in a number of ways: as a social activist, as a scholar, as a warrior and as a woman. In her essay, “Hermione Granger: Insufferable Know-It-All or Superhero?” author Christine Klingbiel argues that Hermione is more than just the typical one-dimensional smart girl helping the boys. “Hermione can be considered a new female superhero because … her strength is her magic. Her power is knowledge. Knowledge in the world of Harry Potter is power. It is strength. … In their quest to defeat Voldemort, Hermione is their repository of knowledge. She does the hardest most complex spells and she springs into action. She is a powerful know-it-all and a good fantasy role model for girls.”

She also represents a great leap forward for feminists in fiction. Sarah Margaret Kniesler, in her essay “Unlocking Hermione’s Feminism” points out that Hermione’s presence in the group is “indicative of the feminist movement’s progress; this mixed sex trio who each contribute their individual talents and interests to the escapades are intrinsically different than the same sex detective teams found in popular series like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew that catered to boys and girls respectively over seventy years ago.”

Although some of the essays explore scholarly themes that might require too much heavy lifting for the average reader, most are still worth perusing for their combination of feminism and literary analysis. In each of these essays, the authors discuss the Potter books as something more than a kiddie fantasy series and think critically about the many ways Hermione’s character is a feminist heroine whose role is more than that of girlfriend or cheerleader for the boys. In his essay “From Teenage Witch to Social Activist,” William V. Thompson compiles a short list of the many ways Hermione has contributed to Harry’s success:

“Hermione’s contributions to Harry’s quest to destroy Lord Voldemort are vital, particularly in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) … Moreover, the list of her contributions to the central adventure in each book is notable. She solves Snape’s potions puzzle in The Philosopher’s Stone, (1997) she brews the polyjuice potion in Chamber of Secrets (1998), she uses the time turner to rescue Sirius Black in Prisoner of Azkaban (2001) and she teaches Harry the summoning charm during the first task of the Triwizard tournament in Goblet of Fire (2001) … These examples represent only the most obvious of Hermione’s contributions.”

At a time when most Harry Potter discussions are not much more than memes and lists on popular websites, books like Hermione Granger Saves the World are an important step toward more critical thinking about Rowling’s classic novels.