Harry Potter's Resistance To Romance

{It goes without saying—doesn't it?—that this post is an absolute font of spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.} {Update: I wrote this whole long thing before I found this hilarious post from the Awl.}

At this point it's a cliché, but I was reading Harry Potter before Harry Potter was cool. I spotted a copy in a B. Dalton one day in one of those "meeting a stranger's eye across a crowded room" moments. But I was poor in cash and rich in gift certificates, so later that day I went to the local Barnes and Noble.

They didn't have a copy, and they'd never heard of the book. The person behind the information desk—can you imagine?—had to do a computer search to find the author's name. "It looks like there's two titles," they said. "The Sorcerer's Stone and The Philosopher's Stone."

Looking back, I should have ordered The Philosopher's Stone, which is the British title. Those things go for quite a chunk of change these days.

But I couldn't wait: I borrowed some money from Mom, went to a third bookstore, found the book, and never looked back.

Harry Potter has kind of a thorny relationship with romance. The breadth and intensity of its fandom leads to great populations of what are known as shippers—folks who root for a particular couple in a work of fiction. Just like slash began with Kirk/Spock, shipping started with Mulder/Scully. So on the one hand, J. K. Rowling directs certain characters into relationships with certain other characters; any Hermione/Harry shippers are therefore working against canon when they writes stories or produce fan art in support of a Harry/Hermione romance.

On the other hand, much of the point of the Harry Potter series is that you can't always trust appearances, and small details often end up becoming hugely important in later events. There's a moment early in the first book where Sirius Black's name appears as a throwaway line—but Sirius himself doesn't show up as a character until the third novel. When the books were still being released, there was a sense of the novels as a huge puzzle inviting fans to find solutions—we learn about horcruxes, but perhaps we have seen a few in earlier books? Where does Severus Snape fall on the good/evil continuum? (Ah, the good old days of the "Snape is a vampire" theory.)

Any tiny piece of tenderness, in this world, has the potential to become the basis for a secret history of unrequited love, or a torrid affair carefully hidden from the eyes of average readers. J. K. Rowling doesn't have a problem with fans borrowing her characters to write original works of their own (unlike, say, Diana Gabaldon), though she has stated that since her books are aimed at children it may be rather inappropriate (my phrasing) to write x-rated stories about the characters.

This doesn't stop people, however—I can point you toward quite a few saucy Snape stories.

Artist's depiction of Severus Snape from Rowling's texts, and a totally different image drawn from fan-authored stories about Severus Snape. Guess which one's sexier?

Also—and this spoiler is canon—Dumbledore is gay.

However, as the above picture amply demonstrates, sometimes things go slightly … off-track in the world of fan fiction. Fan writers know their tropes as well as authors do, and when writing a romance with sex scenes it is imperative that the characters involved have something appealing about them. Severus Snape as written by Rowling is unfit to be a romance hero—despite the sexiness of the angst and his tortured soul, the word "greasy" comes up far too frequently—but it does not take many changes to make him a convincingly attractive figure. That there is value in reimagining familiar stories is proved by this sharp list of art inspired by other art—a list that includes Rent and West Side Story and My Fair Lady.

But in my opinion, there are some large obstacles in the way of romance in the Harry Potter world.

The first: our central character is really, really central.

Ginny Weasley's great and all—especially toward the end of the series, wow—but the perspective in the books unquestionably belongs to Harry. Romances are increasingly weighted equally between the points of view of hero and heroine, and to have such a one-sided depiction of the relationship hearkens back to the old Georgette Heyer days where at the end—surprise!—he loves her back! Much as I like Georgette Heyer—and much as I like Harry and Ginny's romance—I tend to prefer getting a glimpse inside the heads of both partners in a relationship.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the ending of the grand plot arc in Harry Potter is never secure.

Even when Rowling was writing the books, she didn't quite know how she was going to end them. At times she thought Harry just might have to die, and she was just about willing to do it. And the fans, obsessive and hungry for every little clue—that detective-story aspect again—knew she hadn't decided about it until about book five or so. Only the very most naive of us thought, There's no way she's going to kill Harry off! Because it was plain that she could.

And in the neverending argument about whether happy endings are vital to the romance genre (witness this thread at Heroes & Heartbreakers), I will always come down on the side of guaranteed happy ending. A series in which it is doubtful your main character will survive the last book is going to be hostile to that main character's chance at a romantic plot. (Though–what would Nicholas Sparks think? … I can't believe I just asked that.)

My point is this: despite the glowing epilogue, despite the happy relationships, despite the fanfiction, despite the insta-attraction that hit me as soon as I saw that purple cover for the very first time—the world of Harry Potter is strangely inimical to romance. (Tonks and Lupin. TONKS AND LUPIN!) At the same time, the books value loyalty, friendship, trust, and courage–all of which I consider essential to a strong romantic relationship. And they talk a lot about love—but it's platonic love, the abstract love of humanity, or the incredible power of self-sacrificing maternal love.

And some days, that feels like kind of a shame.