When In Doubt, Go To The Library: Hermione Granger And The Magic Of Knowledge

A love letter to one of the greats.

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“My best friend’s Muggle-born. She’s the best in our class.” -- Harry Potter

“What, leave Hermione? We wouldn’t last two days without her. Don’t tell her I said that.” -- Ronald Weasley

After Hermione petrifies poor Neville Longbottom in the name of keeping the sorcerer’s stone out of the wrong hands, Ron turns to her and says, “You’re a little bit scary sometimes, do you know that? Brilliant. But scary.”

She is, too. Hermione Jean Granger is compassionate and wise, loyal beyond measure. But she’s also terrifying, because that much knowledge in the hands of any one person is bound to intimidate.

She is blessed with incomparable intelligence, but her heroism is otherwise hard-won. Hermione is that controversial thing in the wizarding world, controversial thanks only to bigots like Voldemort and the Malfoys: a Muggle-born witch. She’s called a Mudblood by the worst of them, a heinous slur that only deepens her resolve to outshine them all with her cleverness. It’s not that she doesn’t feel keenly the pang of this prejudice, telling Harry, “It’s not a term one usually hears in civilized company,” but she never stoops to their level -- except once, perhaps, when she hauls off and slugs the smirk off Draco Malfoy’s face.

Hermione was not born to a powerful wizarding family like Harry, or well-respected Ministry of Magic officials like Ron. Mr. and Mrs. Granger are dentists. Hermione had no access to magical knowledge until her eleventh birthday, when she learned by owl that she would be attending one of the greatest magical schools on Earth. But that didn’t stop her from tackling her new education the way she tackles everything: with determination, tireless effort and indefatigable research.

In many ways, Hermione is the opposite of Harry. She wasn’t chosen to do anything. From his first day on Hogwarts campus, Harry is expected to do great things. Hermione, as a Muggle-born, is doubted -- until she very shortly makes it impossible for anyone to doubt she can do anything. She had an unremarkable childhood and has an unremarkable history. She is remarkable only in her remarkable mind. She forms her own destiny, choosing rather than being chosen.

On her first day at Hogwarts, she proves herself the brightest and best-informed in her class -- a class filled with students who grew up in the wizarding world, surrounded by magic every day of their lives. Hermione had no such luxury, but rather than rely on that excuse (as Harry himself does on more than one occasion), she throws herself into learning everything she can about her new station in a new world. “I read about it in Hogwarts, A History,” she says for the hundredth time to the boys who will become her best friends. “So I went to the library,” she says for the hundredth time. “Because that’s what Hermione does,” Ron tells Harry. Ron, who knows Hermione best. “When in doubt, go to the library.”

It’s a strategy that serves her well. In every book and film, Hermione Granger saves the day countless times thanks to the near-infinite knowledge she has gained through inexhaustible reading and research. Sure, at first she reads to be the best in class -- she’s an appalling teacher’s pet and a cheerful know-it-all, always the first to shoot her hand up in class and earn Gryffindor some house points. But soon that knowledge is in service of something much more significant, though it takes Hermione herself a while to see that anything could be more significant than schoolwork. (“I’m going to bed before one of you comes up with a plan to get us all killed…or worse, expelled.”)

Soon the vast store of knowledge she carries under that frizzy mane will be used to save the wizarding world, and the world at large, from the deadly maneuverings of The Dark Lord. She uses it to support her best friend again and again, taking what she can of his burden as The Chosen One onto her own slender shoulders. Hermione is always the first to solve every mystery, to puzzle their way out of every fix, protecting them with charms, spelling her handbag so it becomes a bottomless resource of any item they might conceivably need on their journey to meet and kill Voldemort.

Of course, it’s not only knowledge that Hermione has at her disposal. It’s also the uncanny ability to apply that knowledge, often at the most crucial moment. When she figures out that the sword of Gryffindor can destroy a Horcrux -- only one of a thousand examples of Hermione summoning the solution to a seemingly impossible problem -- Harry tells her she’s brilliant. “Actually, I’m highly logical, which allows me to look past extraneous detail and perceive clearly that which others overlook.” It’s a classic Hermione response -- humble and superior at once, alarmingly analytical, mildly patronizing. It’s also why she’s such a marvelous force in the war against Voldemort. She isn’t merely stowing away all of those facts to rattle off at parties and in class (although she does that, too) -- it’s a well she dips into at a moment’s notice, in the heat of battle, surveying the means in her reach and rapidly calculating the best way to get herself and those she cares about out of danger.

Her wisdom is matched by her courage. She stands against the worst Dark Magic has to offer with Harry and Ron, facing trolls, giants, colossal arachnids, torture by a deranged Bellatrix Lestrange and the ire of He Who Must Not Be Named. When she, Harry and Ron are trapped beneath Gringotts with a half-blind, imprisoned dragon for whom Hermione cannot help but feel compassion, Ron asks her if she has a plan. “I’ve got something, but it’s mad.” She leaps onto the dragon’s back, spells away his chains and turns to the wide-eyed boys whom she is still able to surprise after seven years of such unhesitant derring-do. “Well, come on then.”

She’s deeply kind. She feels compassion for all creatures: that unhappy dragon, Hagrid’s half-witted giant brother, the house-elves whom everyone else in the wizarding world treats like slaves. In the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it isn’t until Ron shows true concern for Dobby’s kin, suggesting they free the house-elves from Hogwarts’ kitchen, that Hermione throws her arms around his neck and finally kisses him. (In the film, the kiss arises after a particularly dangerous episode in the Chamber of Secrets -- no less romantic, but somewhat less nobly motivated.)

She’s steadfast, never faltering in her support of Harry and Ron or their mutual quest to best Voldemort, even when her two compatriots falter, even when they’re at each other’s throats and she’s forced in the middle. Even when this quest means obliterating her parents’ memories of her, freeing them of the danger that comes with a daughter who fights alongside Harry Potter. Freeing them of their love for her, which can come to nothing good as long as she is hunting Voldemort.

But she isn’t perfect. She’s impossibly bossy and critical. Our first introduction to Hermione has her unfavorably appraising Ron’s spellwork and then telling him with utmost disdain that he has a bit of dirt on his nose. “Did you know? Just there.” She is capable of great petulance, particularly when someone is outshining her in class or when she doesn’t approve of the subject, like Divination. She’s hot-blooded, knocking over the crystal ball in Trelawney’s classroom or attacking Ron with a charm of birds, forcing Harry to hide her wand as a preventative measure when Ron has finally reappeared after abandoning Hermione and Harry to their dreadful task. A perfect character -- one with all of Hermione’s virtues but none of her flaws -- wouldn’t be half so interesting. She wouldn’t be rooted in humanity as Hermione is, a character based on J.K. Rowling at the age of eleven. Bossy, frizzy-haired, brilliant, scary.

Before Harry goes on to face Voldemort by himself for the very first time in The Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione tells him he’s going to be okay. “You’re a great wizard. You really are.” “Not as good as you,” he replies, and she laughs. “Me? Books, cleverness. There are more important things. Friendship, bravery.”

She’s right, naturally. (Hermione Granger is always right.) Friendship and bravery are more important than books and cleverness. But as she stands on the bridge after the battle of Hogwarts, surveying the terrible damage done in a battle between light and dark, holding hands with both her best friend and the boy she loves, we have grown to know her as not only clever, not only brilliant, but the truest, bravest friend a Chosen One or a Weasley could ever have.

Still, if it weren’t for all of those trips to the library, Ron’s right -- they wouldn’t have made it two days without her.