Here is a thing I believe about stories: the best have a life of their own. When you are in a story—whether you are reading it or writing it—it will tell you what it wants.
The stories I love best, I love not for their shape or language or craft (though I often admire these books for all these and more qualities) but because I desperately want to live inside them. Its little surprise that many of these books hinge on a departure from the real world: escaping war-torn England in The Chronicles of Narnia, drab Ancelstierre in Sabriel, the unmagical and deeply abusive home of the Dursleys in Harry Potter. Little surprise, too, that I read many of these in my youth, even as I continue to reread them now.
I am not alone in my desire (this flame still lit inside me) to inhabit these worlds, magical because they are different, magical because they have, well, magic. I take little pleasure in relating to you that I have imagined hundreds of scenarios in which I access and live in such places, such books, because—though I know that it’s a pastime I share with so, so many other readers—it is for me a fundamentally private practice. But here and now I will tell you that since I first picked up The Sorcerer’s Stone at age eleven I have dreamed of the wand I’d hold, the house I’d study in, the classes I would take, and, inevitably, the plots I’d (at least slightly) change if just given a chance inside the world of J.K. Rowling’s books.
As I’ve read and reread the seven Harry Potter volumes over the years (the last came out the summer after my junior year in college) the questions I’ve asked of the books have changed, and my own discomforts with different aspects of the novels have shifted. I used to be so perplexed by the House Elves subplot—mostly because the early books make Hermoine’s activism seem so silly and pointless—but I’m starting to read it as a rather sophisticated critique of how systems of power work, of right and wrong ways to practice activism, especially as an ally. I’ve thought about (what I’d perceived as) Ron’s mediocrity, about Harry’s capriciousness, about who Ginny even is anyway, about Dumbledore’s terrible planning, about trauma. (What is the deal with religion in the Wizarding World? How did magic users support or resist European imperialism? Are there other paradigms of magic? Where are all the wizard drugs? How does magical contraception work?) I’ve hashed some of these questions out with friends, but otherwise this exercise has been a solitary one, an individual effort at reconciling myself to the Wizarding World and the Wizarding World to myself.
Though I’ve come to admire Ginny (she makes out with so many people and feels no shame and I love for it) and peel back the layers of Ron’s performance anxieties, I have never been able to stomach Rowling’s epilogue. It is a vision of the future that doesn’t read like Rowling wrote it—it reads like the characters themselves did. It is a high school fantasy of the future, where happiness and stability equals marriage and children, where no one drifts out of sight and few, if any, new faces appear. It is like a dramatization of a game of MASH that Ginny scratched out in the back of a history of magic class. It also is a vision of events that, because they come at the book’s tail end, can be easily excised from my mind. There, none of it happened.
This kind of readerly rewriting is the stuff of fan fiction and yes, so what? Fan fiction in some ways is just a more intense version of intertextuality. What is The Aeneid if not fan fiction? What is The Divine Comedy? (And THEN I get to hang out with MY FAVORITE WRITER for at least TWO THIRDS OF THE SPIRITUAL COSMOS!) Or Paradise Lost for that matter. J.K. Rowling’s codas to her work—embroidering onto the novels details of Dumbledore’s sexuality, McGonagall’s backstory, and now this alternate timeline: a series where Hermoine has a relationship with Harry instead of Ron—are themselves a kind of fan fiction, at least in their insistence that these books are not self-contained, that the truth of a story can be bigger than what’s printed on the page.
Ultimately I am a selfish reader. I don’t like to share stories I love, and especially not from these foundational texts, blueprints of my desire. This I have for a long time jealously guarded: my version of Harry Potter, I tell myself, belongs to me. So, though I understand and appreciate fan fiction as a concept, I have never really waded into its waters. This story has, for a long time, been my own. But Rowling’s announcement has forced us all to take a revising eye to her books—so drastic the change she suggested—and I might as well shake my version out and see if it still fits.
Ron and Hermoine break up sometime after the Battle of Hogwarts. They had loved each other, yes, and grown together too, but they wanted to date other people. They are still so young. It is alright.
Harry goes to therapy. (Are there wizard therapists?) He has needed to go to therapy for a long time. He learns he has trouble confiding in authority figures, or really confiding in anyone other than Ron and Hermoine. He learns these are called “trust issues.” He talks a lot about the cupboard, about Dumbledore, about everyone who has died. He and Ginny last barely a year post-Voldemort—it is not the same now in peacetime. He is not sad about it. They want different things.
Harry tries out a few professions but none with particular success: too overzealous and secretive and resistant to authority to be an auror (which is really just a fancy cop), to apathetic to play Quidditch professionally, too lackadaisical to teach full-time. Still, he’s never really had to worry about money, and Grimmold Place—the whole world, really—has plenty of locked rooms and hidden corridors to still explore. He is surrounded by friends and, eventually, the families they have. There is little he takes pleasure in more than his friend’s children, and is a favorite babysitter, though his charges always seem to get in a few more scrapes with him than without. He dates on and off, mostly Muggle women who barely see his faded scar, women with red hair or green eyes, Lily’s eyes. He gives an (eagerly anticipated) talk once a year at Hogwarts to Defense Against the Dark Arts NEWT students. It’s a quiet life, but not an unhappy one. The weight of the world is off him, and he’s come so far from those cobwebby stairs.
We all know Hermoine is the brightest witch of her age. Her time in her Muggle studies classes (which she caught so much slack for) made her realize how much she has missed in her magical education. She soon reads every Muggle textbook she can get her hands on, and isn’t very far behind when she arrives at whatever Oxbridge college she gets into. (You know she is good at calculus.) She gets involved in on-campus activist groups and comes to grapple with how very large and interwoven and systematic oppressions are. She reads physics, and goes on for her PhD. I cannot even conceive of the sort of magic she does at this level—electron magic? antimatter magic?—but it gets her on a chocolate frog card. Hogwarts begins teaching Muggle science and its magical applications.
Her time moving back and forth between Muggle and magic worlds cements her belief that the latter’s secrecy and isolation feeds the systems of oppression she is most interested in dismantling. Her agenda shifts towards across-the-board integration—magic-users and Muggles, humans and goblins (and centaurs and house elves). The International Statue of Secrecy does not fall in her lifetime, but she begins a movement that ultimately changes the way all sentient creatures on the planet live and work together.
She finds a partner someday—someone very smart and very supportive—but that information doesn’t make it to her trading card. She has a son; Harry is his godfather.
Ron, raised under the shadow of a parade of successful brothers, finds himself bereft of one, and everything—all his ambitions and fears—feel terribly small and petty. Fred and George, as awful as they were, were also the best to him. He joins George at the joke store and they find a measure of peace together. He meets a pretty Muggle and starts a Wizard Chess manufacturing business. He has a large, loud, happy family.
Neville and Luna, who are both so strong and who have suffered so much, find each other after the battle ends and become loopy and wonderful together. You could not find a kinder set of people.
Where do books go after they end? Are characters frozen in stasis the moment the final punctuation mark falls? Does Ishmael drift forever on board the Rachel in the middle of the expansive sea? Does Milkman hang suspended in midair, eternally mid-leap? Will Susan Pevensie never hear of the tragic train accident that took her siblings and parents? For the purpose of the book, I think, the answer is yes, but readers hunger for conclusion and will, without compunction, snap off a frame and paint beyond a story’s initial boundaries. Really the only ending that will satisfy us is death: Cervantes had to kill Don Quixote precisely so no more fan fiction (well, fake sequels) could be written about him. I imagine the epilogue to Harry Potter, as it stands, to be some readers’ perfect vision of the future, but for me it is not nearly messy enough, grand enough, quiet enough. Harry has never, ever been normal—why would he start being so now? But this is my story: you get to imagine your own.