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‘Some good in the world’

Years after finishing Deathly Hallows for the first time, this conversation still wends through my mind:

‘Are you planning to follow a career in Magical Law, Miss Granger?” asked Scrimgeour.

‘No, I’m not,’ retorted Hermione. ‘I’m hoping to do some good in the world!’

hermione

Before the atrocity known as The Cursed Child came out, Hermione’s plans and career was a rather emotional topic of conversation for me. I remember a particularly charged exchange with a friend, wherein I asked ‘How on earth did Hermione survive after school?’ I was going through a bit of a rough patch in ‘the real world’, having found it not as hospitable and accommodating as I might have hoped. ‘Merit’, hard work, perseverance—none of that seemed to count here. It didn’t matter that I worked well, I thought; the road to whatever I wanted was long and hard and filled with obstacles, and some people had the power to get over them more easily than I did.

‘Hermione would never have been happy outside of school,’ I remember saying. ‘She was too good at it.’

Hermione was and is my model of what kind of student, nay, the kind of person I want to be. She’s intelligent, compassionate, and incredibly intuitive. She’s able to grasp concepts, really get at the fundamentals, in a way that not many other wizards seem to; she’s loyal and not afraid to get her hands dirty, or put in the time to get a job done. As I mentioned in this post, she’s incredibly brave as well, taking on a world she knows nothing about, with no safety net in place to catch her, for the sake of her best friend, love and the ‘rightness’ of her cause.

Such a person, I was sure, would inevitably be let down by the world outside of her school. She was too smart, too fair-minded, to want to thrive in a world of nepotism and red tape, ridiculous rules and drudgery. Unlike the far more officious Percy, who seemed to worship authority almost for its own sake, Hermione was not afraid to question and call out things she found wrong. It may have begun in Divination class, when she scoffed at Trelawney’s predictions of doom, but it was certainly in full force by Order of the Phoenix, when she not only helped start the DA under Umbridge’s nose, but uttered the now-infamous line: ‘I mean, it’s sort of exciting, isn’t it? Breaking the rules.’

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So when she talked back to Scrimgeour in Deathly Hallows, and scoffed at his question of her entering the law, it made a lot of sense. Of course Hermione would have no time for wizarding law, which kept house elves in slavery and endorsed segregation between ‘beasts’ and ‘beings’. She’d seen the law misused enough in just six years of being part of the magical world: Hagrid being carted off to Azkaban as a ‘preventative’ measure, Sirius’s lack of trial, and the exoneration of Lucius Malfoy being key examples. Not to mention, she had literally rebelled against the Ministry in school. Why on earth would she ever decide to go into that hellhole, when she had the whole world open before her? Surely she’d go onto some illustrious research career, I thought, and change lives, curing dragon pox, Neville’s parents, and rehabilitating house elves and other ‘marginal’ elements of wizarding society on the side.

Among the more ridiculous elements of Cursed Child was this, I thought—the revelation of what Hermione actually did after school. We don’t know how it happened, but somehow, she ended up not only running for Minister of Magic, but winning the position. That she won was not the confusing thing; it was her deciding to do it at all.

I tried to expunge it from my memory, like most of Cursed Child. Hermione would never have sold her soul and gone into politics! I told myself. She saw how corrupt it all was. She knew, even after Voldemort was gone, that the Ministry did not change overnight. Of the trio, Hermione was always the most grounded, the least likely to proceed on feelings and idealism alone. She weighed and measured every decision, at least when she felt she had the luxury to. Defeating Voldemort, of course, was a little beyond the scope of the normal, and so she’d thrown her arms up and gone along with Harry’s lack of a plan, while furiously preparing for any eventuality that might result (see: her beaded bag).

downloadBut then, as they say, life happened. I realized it was actually totally of a piece with Hermione’s logic for her to go into the belly of the beast. Hermione was careful, yes, but she never shrunk back from a challenge. Hermione did not rush blindly forth on the strength of feelings alone, sure, but she also never agreed or submitted to anything, or anyone, she felt was wrong. Hermione was smart and capable and scornful of those who believed they were better than her, simply because they were richer or prettier or had ‘purer blood’, but she was also willing, and more than ready, to work with those she respected and cared for, and had never, ever abandoned a friend, or a person, in need.

Surely this Hermione, someone who had saved the wizarding world with her smarts and talent, who’d started a society that was the butt of her friends’ jokes and championed a cause few would support—this Hermione, when she saw the problems of the world she’d chosen to defend, would roll up her sleeves, flick out her wand, and get down to solving them. And what better place to do it from, than the heart of power?

Hermione was on my mind when I read about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the many more like her, young women who are stepping up, around the world, to take charge of a political system that’s historically worked against them. Hermione is on my mind when I read about Reese Witherspoon, or Priyanka Chopra, or other women in the film industry, who, sick of waiting for good parts to be written for them, have opened new streams down which ‘overlooked’ stories can set sail. And Hermione is definitely front and centre when I look at my own female friends, many of whom are doing and will do incredible things, whether that’s braving the courts and corporates, crafting art for a variety of media, or teaching the next generation of Hermiones and Harrys and Rons just how to go about defeating their own Voldemorts.

To them, and to Hermione, salút!

Soaring on the Other wind

The tale of puberty, that difficult, awkward phase of a person’s life, has been told many times. I recall it with alternating flashes of embarrassment and nostalgia. There are some parts of it I think of fondly—the suddenly much more serious friendships, the whispers of crushes and romantic interest—and others I prefer to forget.

Why do I begin with this? I’ve read, somewhere, that the books we read in that phase, or as young teenagers, are the ones that affect us most, that stick with us and mould what becomes of us later on. I don’t know where this was, or even whether it’s scientifically proven, but I’ve often thought of it, and wondered at its validity, especially in my life. It’s true, for me at least, that the books I read in those years, 13 to 17, are the ones that have stayed with me longest, and still feature on my ‘top ten’ lists, even now, more than a decade later.

leguin_ursula_kUrusla le Guin’s books were among those.

I still remember it so clearly. When I hit 13, and my body began its weird, inexplicable morphing towards adulthood, my mother made me start ‘exercising’. This was very strange to me, since I was a fairly active child, attending dance classes and karate classes. True, I spent most of my time between those classes lying around and reading, or walking around and reading, but this emphasis on ‘exercise’ mystified me. She would make me, and my sister, go upstairs to the terrace, and do ‘something’. Skip, I assume. Or run. I’m not sure, mostly because, the moment I reached the terrace, I would pick up my book, and walk around, reading.

It was exercise of a sort, I suppose.

One of the books I picked up was Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet. I was coming to it fresh from The Lord of the Rings, and I knew, already, that I liked fantasy. I was more at home among dragons and Elves and heroic ideals than I was in any other place (like near a skipping rope, obviously). Being a smug little 13 year old, I thought I knew what I was in for, and being a smug little 13 year old, I was surprised.

The world of Earthsea was nothing like Middle Earth. It was dirty, and it was corrupt, and its residents smelled bad and lost control of their bowels. I distinctly remember a description of a princess—a princess—gasping in fear and the narrator commenting on the snot dangling from her nose. I was so scandalized by this; I was coming off fresh from the Arwens and Galadriels, who probably never had to sneeze, let alone leave mucus dangling from their noses.

But I loved it, and most of all, I loved the women in it. Two of them, specifically. I worshipped Tenar, the priestess in her tombs, who turns her back on everything she knows to flee to freedom and the outside world. I loved how she became wise, and venerable, and that I’d been able to watch her do it, in a way I never had with Galadriel. She felt reachable, closer to me than any woman Tolkien had created.

And I adored Tehanu. I’ll always remember The Other Wind for its last scenes, the victory and sheer power that accompanied Tehanu’s departure. I wanted to be her, and it’s with only the smallest bit of embarrassment that I admit wishing I was part dragon, so I too could transform in  a blaze of glory, and sail away from everything on the other wind.

rebecca-guay-the-tombs-of-atuanLe Guin’s world, and her women, were complicated, and messy. They were not an escape from reality. Puberty is a strange time. I remember feeling terrified, of everything, of myself, of inexplicable, hard to name things. Life didn’t seem neat and tidy, the way Tolkien’s world was at the end. There were darknesses in every corner, and I think, at that age, I was just beginning to realize it. At least, I was beginning to realize the dangers that accompanied my existence as a girl, and learning to cultivate a very particular kind of fear.

And strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, le Guin’s fantastical world reflected that darkness. It had at its root a greyness that Tolkien’s didn’t, a reckoning with the fact that many lives are haunted by danger, and dread.  And yet, her heroines managed to overcome it, whether by jumping madly across chasms, trusting to the words of a stranger, or reaching their arms up into the heavens. They struggled and they made mistakes, and they faced horrors, but they won through a hostile world.

They endured, perhaps with grey in their hair, or burns on their faces. But importantly, they endured, fighting on, or flying into, another day.

the other windAnd I guess that’s what she’s done, enduring in a genre traditionally hostile to women, living life with a grace and fortitude that she infused in her characters. I’d like to think that she crossed that crumbling, horrible wall, and found it waiting on the far side. That Other wind, that swept her up, and took her to lands more fantastic than we, lingering behind, can imagine.

The Fury of a Goddess Scorned

I hate it when blog posts open with the words ‘It’s been so long since I posted.’ For a long time, I thought it was ridiculous to call attention to the gap between one’s posts. ‘It’s okay,’ I wanted to tell those offenders, ‘We get it, you have a life, and the commitments that come with it.’ Now I’m one of those people.

The point of that long paragraph was to say the words without actually saying them. I think I succeeded.

Thor: Ragnarok spoilers are coming at you below.

Anyway, I have so much to write about, I don’t knew where to start. I saw Thor: Ragnarok the day of its release, so I suppose I should lead with that. I liked it, not loved it, and my favourite part was not Loki (Tom Hiddleston is still in my bad books), but Cate Blanchett’s Hela. I walked out of the theatre thinking, ‘Wow, I have so many deep things to say about her and her claims of being written out of history, I can reference imperialism and the sacred feminine and the monstrous feminine and all sorts of other smart things,’ but then because I was lazy and/or consumed by the process of ‘having a life’, someone else got to it first. But I won’t be bitter about it; here’s the article on Tor, which does a fairly good job of laying out Ragnarok’s anti-imperialist stance, so enjoy that and reflect on the idea that someone in the world usually has the same good idea as you, so don’t get distracted but sit down and write it out RIGHT NOW.

hela with hammer

But I do want to dwell on Hela a bit, so bear with me. First of all, Cate Blanchett was great, which was no surprise. Second, Hela’s motivation, while decidedly non-original, seemed, to me, perhaps more weirdly sympathetic and understandable than that of many other Marvel villains. For one thing, the Thor franchise seems to have learned from its mistakes (cough Dark Elves cough) and actually allowed for some development of their big bad here. For another, Hela’s rationale, of coming back to claim her rightful place was, strangely enough, a surprisingly strong rationale. Yes, she had been denied her rightful place. Yes, she had been shamefully cast aside by her father once she had outlasted her value. Yes, she had been too ‘monstrous’ for him to keep by his side, and had to be put away. Odin had used her talents to expand his rule to Asgard’s Nine Realms, but when her ambition ‘grew too much’, and her appetites were beyond what he deemed acceptable, he cast her away, and removed her image and memory from his kingdom. Hela’s face when she realizes that nobody knows who she is is actually heartbreaking, a moment of rare emotion from a character who is otherwise the consummate chilling, angry, sword and spear-casting villain. Hela is actually hurt by Odin’s absolute removal. He keeps the ‘gilded’ image of Asgard, and papers over the memory of her; he has his people worship him and his sons, but burns away any knowledge of his daughter, without whom, it is implied, his rule would have been very different.

I do not support Hela’s agenda at all, let me make that clear. Of course it’s not cool to go around enslaving other worlds simply because you’re good at it. But I also think that it’s no small thing that she’s a goddess who has been slighted. Female anger has traditionally been hidden away, with women who have gone ‘beyond their use’ locked away or simply disposed of—think of all those ‘witches’ who were drowned or burnt, or otherwise inconvenient women who faced brutal ends. Megan GArber’s piece in the Atlantic, ‘All the Angry Ladies,’ is a brilliant illustration of this history. Hela’s anger in a time of cascading revelations regarding sexual misconduct, its arrival near the anniversary of the women’s march, makes it seem timely. Hela is magnificent not only because she’s a literal goddess who can destroy a god’s symbol of phallic power, but because she channels what women have felt for so long: anger at having been put away, silenced, when she was no longer convenient for the patriarch.

So it was with some discomfort that I watched as she was vanquished, left to fight an unending battle with a one-dimensional fire giant while her brothers made an escape. There was no redemption for Hela, and she did not seek any. Her actions through the course of the film were unforgiveable, and she betrays not a shred of pity for the people over whom she rules. But even so, even though she is such an obviously horrible figure, I felt a tiny spark of recognition for her. I wonder whether it’s problematic, my recognition, or whether it’s more problematic that the film quashed her so ruthlessly at the hands of a blonde, buff man and his merry band of misfits. Characterized as angry, and needlessly violent, Hela is a discomfiting figure, but her imprisonment and defeat do not do anything to ease us. If anything, they make her more compelling, and worrisome, in their own way.