Fandom: Harry Potter
Prompt: I saw my mother in a different light. We all need to do that. You have to be displaced from what’s comfortable and routine, and then you get to see things with fresh eyes, with new eyes. – Amy Tan (born February 19, 1952), Chinese-American author.
Summary: Just how did a new translation of The Tales of Beedle the Bard by Hermione Granger make it into Muggle bookstores? Minerva McGonagall explains.
Author's Notes I'm afraid this is only tangentially related to the prompt; I hope that's all right.
“Professor McGonagall? Are you busy?”
Of course I was busy. School would start in two weeks, I had three new staff members to train, a considerable portion of the castle was still in rubble, and I had just spent several exhausting days traveling around the country to reassure parents that their children would be well and safe at Hogwarts this year. I hadn’t even had time to unpack my belongings; the Headmistress’s office was filled with boxes.
I came very close to indulging myself in a sarcastic answer, but the temptation vanished when I turned and saw who had spoken.
“Come in, Miss Granger. What can I do for you?”
“I wanted to see if it would be possible for me to come back in September. As a seventh-year student, I mean.”
“Surely,” I said, “you are aware that what you are suggesting is highly irregular? Adult students who have left school before completing their N.E.W.T.s normally pursue a qualification by project, rather than returning to Hogwarts as students-in-residence.”
She fidgeted. “I know. I just thought – well, I haven’t been away from school for long, and I couldn’t find anything in the rules against returning.”
“It is not against the rules. It’s just that very few older students want to live at the school for nine months out of the year. In your case, you will be nearly twenty by the time you finish, and I find it hard to imagine that you will find dormitory life as congenial as when you were eleven.”
She shrugged. “Lots of Muggle university students live in residence halls.”
I considered pointing out that Muggle university students did not normally have to share their living quarters with children or poltergeists, but decided against it. Arguing about this subject would be evading the real issue, although I wasn’t entirely sure what that issue was. “Miss Granger, is there any particular reason why you seem reluctant to attempt a qualification by project?”
“No – of course not – I was just concerned that I might not learn as much as if I were learning from an expert...” She wasn’t meeting my eyes, and I had the impression she was afraid of something.
“Most students learn rather more. The process is extremely rigorous, and very often, the work that results is of publishable quality. I would not recommend it for all students, but as you have already demonstrated exceptional academic ability and ambition, as well as a capacity for independent work –”
Albus Dumbledore’s portrait had been attempting to catch my attention for some minutes. I broke off, distracted by his gesticulations. Oddly, he seemed to be motioning toward the tea kettle.
I made tea. It seemed to be the only way to keep him from knocking the frame until it went crooked, and besides, I had a feeling he was right. He usually was.
“Sit down, Miss Granger. Have some tea.” I remembered that there was a tin of Ginger Newts in one of the desk drawers. “And a biscuit, if you like.”
Albus smiled; clearly, this last gesture was a good idea, in his opinion. Severus Snape, on the other hand, rolled his eyes.
“Now, as I was saying, you strike me as the sort of student who would be ideally suited for a project of this type, and who would learn a great deal more than you could possibly learn in the classroom.”
“Thank you,” she said, still not looking at me. “But ... er ... I’m still not sure it’s what I want to do.”
She nibbled around the edges of the Ginger Newt, biting the legs off neatly, then the tail. It was a child’s habit, and it spoke volumes.
“You were happy here, weren’t you?”
She looked up, startled. “Oh, yes! I hated to leave before the last year, it was only – we had more important things to do.”
“I know.” I took a sip of tea, measuring what to say next. “I have always regretted that we could not protect you – or the other children who came to us – from the storms of the world. Hogwarts is an imperfect shelter, but it is something, and you have had to face more outside its walls than anyone should. I understand the temptation to go back into the shelter and hide from the next storm – I feel it myself, sometimes. But there isn’t any going back. You have grown up in the last year, and we have very little left to teach you.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She finished her biscuit and reached for a second one. I realized that I had still not hit the mark: she was stalling for time, trying to think up another excuse.
“Is something else worrying you?” I asked.
Slowly, haltingly, she began to explain. I had been half right: she was afraid of something, but not in the way I had thought. She was afraid of failure, of getting things wrong; or more precisely, of not knowing whether she had got them right or wrong. She was, in short, hungry for a world where the answers were in the back of the book.
Of course. Why hadn’t I seen it before? I remembered her at eleven, waiting anxiously outside my office door a week before an essay was due, wanting to know whether she was “on the right track.”
“Let me tell you something about scholarship,” I said. “Perhaps it’s best not to think in terms of success or failure. Think of it as a way to learn something you didn’t know before.”
“On one occasion,” Albus’s portrait added cheerfully, “I learned as many as six hundred things that don’t work. I wrote a book about it. Six Hundred Ways Not to Turn a Lamppost Into an Apple Tree.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of that book,” said Hermione, plainly upset at the thought of a book she’d never heard of before.
“Alas, it was never published, as I was unable to find an editor who thought people would want to read about six hundred ways not to turn a lamppost into an apple tree.”
“So it was a failure.”
“No, not at all. Now I know how not to turn a lamppost into an apple tree, and how not to find a publisher. It was one of the most valuable experiences of my life, I can assure you.”
She laughed, a little ruefully. “I suppose I’m being silly.”
“No,” I said. “Original research is messy and unpredictable. It is also, I must say, one of the most rewarding intellectual experiences you are likely to have.”
She swallowed the last of her tea. “All right. I think I’d like to try the project.”
“Well, let’s talk about the practicalities, then. You probably know this already, but a qualification by project involves original research on a topic of the student’s choice. The project must demonstrate proficiency at N.E.W.T. levels or higher in a minimum of three subjects, and constitute a substantial contribution to existing scholarship in at least one of these subjects. Have you any idea what you would like to do?”
“I’ve got an idea, but I’m not sure it would work. That is, I need to go home and check something. Can I come back next week?”
“Of course. You won’t need a proposal until the fifteenth of September.”
I would never have dreamed, in a million years, that the subjects she chose would be Ancient Runes, History of Magic, and Muggle Studies – but Miss Granger had always been full of surprises.
* * *
“A new translation and, er, scholarly edition of The Tales of Beedle the Bard? Isn’t that a bit unusual for a children’s book?”
“It isn’t only for children,” Hermione insisted. “For five hundred years it’s been part of wizarding culture. And Professor Dumbledore thought it was worth paying attention to. I’ve got his copy – look at all these notes!”
I did not ask her how she had acquired a rare early edition of the Tales from Albus’s library. Frankly, it seemed like the sort of thing I would rather not know.
“And I checked the library, and it looks like nobody has ever done a study collecting different versions of the tales – comparing how they’ve changed over the years, you know. Ron says the version of “The Tale of Three Brothers” in the book is different from the one his mother told him, so I was thinking it would be interesting to find out when and why it changed. I could interview older wizards, like Muggle folklorists do.”
“I see. Well, if you can convince the external examiners of the significance of the project, I think you will have a good case that it constitutes N.E.W.T.-level work in Ancient Runes and History of Magic. But ... Muggle Studies? I’m not quite sure I see the relevance.”
“I thought I might compare the tales to Muggle folk tales, and ... perhaps even bring out a translation suitable for Muggles, without most of the footnotes and criticism, of course.”
“I doubt that would be permitted under the Statute of Secrecy.”
“I think it would. I looked up the law, and it says that wizards are allowed to publish tales of magic, as long as they are approved by the Ministry and clearly labeled as works of fiction.”
“Good God,” said a voice from the opposite wall, “why on earth would you want to?”
“Phineas, if you are incapable of saying anything constructive, I’ll thank you not to interfere in my private conferences with students!” I snapped ... although, to be perfectly honest, I had been wondering the same thing myself.
Hermione reddened. “I thought – well, it might be a nice gift to give Muggle-born children and their parents. As a way to start explaining things, you know?”
I felt more at sea than before.
“You see, I’m Muggle-born. Well, of course you know that. I remember when you came to tell my parents I’d been accepted to Hogwarts.”
I remembered, too. She had been an eager, earnest child with a tangle of wiry hair and a great many questions. I had liked her, and her parents too; they were sensible people. One never knows what will happen at these visits – I have had doors barred against me and was even pursued with a pitchfork on one occasion – but sitting and chatting with the Grangers had been a pleasure.
“Well, one of the hardest things, those first few years, was having to explain almost everything about my life at school to my parents. I mean, they understood little things, like exams and being made prefect, but almost everything else was new, and in some ways it was easier not to tell them about a lot of it – especially things that would worry them. I wish now that I’d tried harder...”
“Go on.” I still wasn’t sure I saw where she was going with this.
“So I thought a children’s book might help. Something that families could share, and that would – would introduce them to wizarding culture.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling at last that I understood. (As it turned out, I didn’t really; it was not until much later that she told me about the extraordinary measures she had taken to protect her family. I am not sure that I fully understand even yet.) “Well, it is an interesting idea. Certainly an original one. I imagine the examiners will have no objection if the Ministry approves.”
“It was Luna’s idea, really.”
I hid a smile. “Why am I not surprised?”
* * *
There remained the question of who was to supervise the project. Professor Babbling, who would have been the obvious choice, had been wounded in the battle and was scarcely able to manage her normal teaching duties. Cuthbert Binns had been a formidable scholar in his day, but unfortunately his day had been over in the reign of Queen Victoria; I doubted that he was familiar with any of the scholarship from the current century, and I would not dream of inflicting him on a young and eager student in any case. And the new Muggle Studies teacher was very green indeed. The position had been exceptionally difficult to fill; I had to turn down applications from half a dozen candidates who proved wholly unsuitable, including Arthur Weasley, which was particularly awkward as he was a personal friend. I settled on Penelope Clearwater. She was a bit young, but at least she hadn’t turned up to her interview in a tuxedo jacket, a salwar kameez, and a baseball cap. I thought she would be quite competent once she had a year or two of experience, but she was not ready to take on an advanced student pursuing an independent project.
It would have to be me. Tasks like this tend to fall to the Headmistress by default, and I am a fair Runicist, even if I cannot match Bathsheda’s erudition. To be quite frank, I was not sorry to take on another student. It would be the first autumn in forty-two years that I had not stood in front of a classroom of my own or coached wide-eyed first years as they struggled to turn matches into needles. Teaching was woven deep into the rhythm of my life, and even in that last terrible year, it had been a comfort. I missed it already, and I thought that working one-on-one with a student of Miss Granger’s ability and zeal would be a pleasure.
It had been a few years since I had supervised an independent project. I had forgotten about the fits of panic, the writer’s block, the way students vanish for weeks on end and then turn up in one’s office and burst into tears. I had also forgotten that Hermione, though an undeniably gifted student, was also an unusually anxious and needy one. It would not, of course, have made a difference in my answer if I had remembered, but I would have thought to set aside more time for our meetings and stock up on Ginger Newts.
* * *
I shall draw a kindly veil over most of Miss Granger’s struggles with her research, as they are unlikely to be of interest to anyone except the two of us. I will, however, sketch one of her more interesting discoveries, which concerned Beedle’s tale of “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.” According to Albus’s notes – I quote – the tale “does not appear to have been modified or much criticized in the hundreds of years since it was first written; the story as I eventually read it in the original runes was almost exactly that which my mother had told me.”
In fact, this proved not to be strictly accurate, as the following excerpts from Hermione’s interviews illustrate:
From “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart,” as told by Molly Weasley, 18 October 1998.
MW: Ooh, what a horrid story ... I never told it to my children, but my brother Gideon used to scare me with it when I was small. I’ll see if I can remember how it goes.
Now, once upon a time there was a beautiful maiden –
HG: A maiden?
MW: Yes, a maiden with golden hair and blue eyes and skin like roses and cream. And she was rich and clever and a very gifted witch, but she was also proud and scornful, and although many men from her own village loved her, she swore that she would marry no one but the finest warlock in the world. And so she traveled far, far from her home to a distant city where some of her relations lived. And there she heard of a wealthy and talented warlock who was as handsome as a prince, but strange and aloof, and it was said he had never loved nor been beloved.
That very night there was a ball at the strange warlock’s house, for unbeknownst to her, he had resolved to marry. She arranged to go to the ball with another of the young maidens from the city, and it so fell out that she danced with the strange warlock. And his hands were cold under his gloves, and it made her flesh creep, yet she saw at once that he was a greater wizard than any she had known, so she swallowed her doubts and permitted him to court her. And her family warned her not to marry him, but –
HG: They did? But in the book it says it was her kinsfolk who tried to promote the marriage.
MW: I’m only telling it as Gideon told me. Now, do stop interrupting or I’ll lose my thread. Oh dear, what comes next?
[The rest of the tale is told from the maiden’s point of view, but roughly parallel to Beedle’s version until the very end.]
MW: The warlock’s servants meant to bury him in one grave with the maiden, but her family would not hear of it. Weeping and grieving for the girl whose pride had brought her to such a terrible fate, they brought her body back to the village where she was born and buried her there. But in the morning they saw that the grave was empty, and the dirt had been thrown up around it as if a thing with great claws had snatched her out of the grave. Some blamed it on dogs or wolves. But to this day the people in that village say that the warlock had come to claim his own.
From “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart,” as told by Andromeda Tonks, 1 November 1998.
HG: Can you remember who told you this story?
AT: It was Kreacher, I think – my aunt’s house-elf. Yes, it must have been. My parents were not exactly the story-telling sort... Oh dear, I think I had better tell you something of my upbringing. My family had some ... peculiar ideas about blood-purity. I do not agree with them, but I will tell the story exactly as Kreacher told it to me. [Pause.] Well, maybe not exactly. I think it would sound better if I don’t use house-elf grammar.
Now, the warlock in this story – so Kreacher always said – was one of the most illustrious ancestors of the House of Black.
AT: That part might not be precisely canonical.
[The story is similar to Beedle’s version, but has a surprising conclusion.]
AT: ... All the guests looked on in amazement as the warlock took a silver dagger and plunged it into his chest. He seized his heart in his hand, and fell dead as his life’s blood began to gush from it and mingled with the blood from the maiden’s body. But the violent excess of love he felt for her was so great that it did not die with their deaths. In that river of the purest blood the world has ever seen, there were stars; and each star began to grow, and became the children the wizard and the maiden would have had together. They all grew until they were great witches and wizards, and were as beautiful as their parents, most of them dark like the warlock, but one daughter was fair and golden-haired as the maiden he loved. And that was the beginning of the House of Black.
There have always been a few fair-haired Blacks – You’ve met my sister Narcissa and her son, I think?
AT: That much of the story is true. The rest of it is all rubbish. [Pause.] Well, there might be something in the part about violent excess of love.
HG: How long has this version of the story been in your family?
AT: Oh, ages. I think it may be older than Beedle’s version, actually.
HG: Will you tell it to Teddy?
* * *
Hermione turned up in my office one frosty morning in November, looking flustered. She banged a notebook full of interview transcripts on my desk. “Everything I thought I knew about ‘The Wizard’s Hairy Heart’ is wrong! Look at these!”
I skimmed through the transcripts. “These certainly look interesting, but I’m not sure I see...”
She looked distressed. “Professor Dumbledore said the tale hasn’t been modified or changed at all! This doesn’t make sense!”
“Did he?” I looked up, now genuinely interested. “Well, it seems you have made quite an exciting discovery, then. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting with the Board of Governors in half an hour, but I look forward to reading more about this when you write it up.”
“But how can I say Dumbledore was wrong?” It was clear from her tone that she regarded this as something between disrespect and out-and-out sacrilege. “Besides, what will the examiners say?”
“I can assure you that a scholar of Professor Dumbledore’s caliber would not be offended at being caught in an error by one of his students. On the contrary, he would have been thrilled. I imagine the examiners will also be impressed. The gold standard for a project of this type is that it makes a genuine contribution to our body of knowledge.”
“But if there are so many versions of the story – and if Andromeda’s right that the Black family version is older than Beedle’s – how will I know which is the true one?”
I had the one real stroke of inspiration that had hit me since the beginning of the project, or at least the only one that had not involved Ginger Newts. “Perhaps you had better not think in terms of the true version. It seems to me that there are many truths here, at least as many as there are storytellers.”
Hermione digested this for a moment. “Do you mean to say there isn’t any true version?”
“Unless you believe that it is literally possible to survive for years with one’s heart locked in a glass casket, I should think it is self-evident that there is no true version. It is, after all, a work of fiction.”
She buried her face in her hands and rubbed her temples, and I saw that the Board of Governors would have to wait. “Then what’s the point, really?” she asked in a defeated voice. “Have I wasted all this time?”
“No, Hermione. I am no expert on fiction, but I would say that the truth lies in what we bring to it and take from it, rather than the story itself. And the Prewett family’s truths are not necessarily the same as the Dumbledores’, nor the Blacks’. But they are all worth studying.”
She thought about this for a while longer, and brightened. “Thanks, Professor McGonagall. That helps.”
“Call me Minerva. We are colleagues now.” She wouldn’t, of course – it had taken Severus more than a year after he was hired to call me anything at all, and Penelope Clearwater hadn’t managed it yet. But I hoped the invitation would help her think of herself as a scholar among scholars, someone with authority.
* * *
“I passed! Passed with highest honors!”
“Congratulations,” I said, although there hadn’t been the slightest doubt in my mind of the outcome. “Let me finish reviewing the reports from the N.E.W.T. examiners, and then I shall take you to the Three Broomsticks for a drink. Unless, of course –” I recalled that I was no longer young, and would likely be very dull company after a week of thinking of nothing but examination results “– you already have other plans.”
She shook her head. “That would be great. I owe you a drink. You were a wonderful supervisor.”
“It is traditional for the supervisor to do the buying on such occasions, I believe.”
(Albus made a strangled sound, and I glared at him, lest he tell the story of my own post-viva celebrations. Some things are best not shared with one’s students.)
“Well, you can buy one round, then, and I’ll get the next.”
“That,” I said, “sounds like an excellent compromise.”
I waited until she was on her second glass of pumpkin cider to broach the subject of the advertisement I had seen in Transfiguration Today. “I understand Durmstrang is looking for an Ancient Runes professor. I would be delighted to recommend you for the position. You would need to learn German, of course, but they offer a summer immersion program before classes begin.”
She flushed. “Thanks – that’s awfully kind of you – but I’ve already accepted a job with the Muggle-Born Legal Aid Society. I start next week.”
The Muggle-Born Legal Aid Society was a nonprofit organization that had been founded to help the many people who had been stripped of their possessions and legal identity during the war. It was undeniably a noble cause, but I wondered how much they could afford to pay her, if anything. “I know that you want to do good in the world,” I said, “but you ought to consider that you can do a great deal of good as a teacher and researcher.”
“I might in a few years. I think there’s more important work to be done now.”
“There may not be a job for you in a few years. Openings are rare enough.” I attempted to sketch the pleasures of the academic life for her: the freedom to contemplate, the prospect of creating scholarship that would endure, the power to shape young minds. But she seemed determined to follow the course she had chosen; and perhaps, after all, she was right. I felt bone-weary now, at the end of my first year as Headmistress, and I seemed to spend more time in meetings than with my books or my students.
“I’d better be off. I’m meeting Harry and Ron for dinner.” She finished her cider, gathered up her handbag, and hovered awkwardly at the edge of her bar stool for a moment, as if trying to find the right words for something. Then she cleared her throat. “Thank you, Minerva.”
“Thank you, Hermione.”
* * *
This is not quite the end of the story. The Annotated Beedle the Bard: A New Translation and Scholarly Edition was published three years later, after Hermione conquered her perfectionist streak for long enough to send out the manuscript for review. (Knowing both of them as I do, I am not entirely sure that Ronald Weasley did not send it out for her.) The Muggle edition took much, much longer. The Ministry committee which was supposed to review the text took several years to finish their task, and when they at last recommended publication, it was with certain restrictions that the author found, understandably, difficult to accept.
“They won’t approve my introduction,” said Hermione, “and they want me to take out nearly all of the footnotes, and all of the information about the different variants I collected. They said all the scholarship makes it seem too much like a work of nonfiction. For some reason they approved Professor Dumbledore’s notes, though. It doesn’t make sense.”
“When you’ve dealt with the Ministry as long as I have, you will stop expecting any of their decisions to make sense,” I said. A moment later, I wished I had not spoken so sharply. She was genuinely in distress, and I was touched that she had come to me for advice.
“What should I do? I’m inclined to withdraw the request – I mean, they approve Dumbledore’s notes even when they’re clearly in error, but I can’t do a thing to correct them. I don’t want my name attached to it if it’s not good scholarship. But ...”
“I keep thinking of something you said a long time ago, about how there were as many truths as there were readers. Maybe it’s only right to give these stories to Muggle readers, and let them have a chance to find their own truths. What do you think?”
“I think the hardest part of any work of scholarship is knowing when to let it go. In all senses of the phrase. I’m not sure what sort of letting go would be best in this case, to be honest.”
I looked at her, this young woman who looked so much and so little like the little girl I remembered. The hardest part of dealing with students, I thought, is knowing when to let them go.
“I cannot make that decision for you,” I said at last. “It’s your book, and it ought to be in your hands. I wish the Ministry had the sense to see that, but since this is not a perfect world ... Do what you believe is right, Hermione. I’m afraid that is all I can tell you.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I think that’s all I needed to hear.”