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Why I Hate the Pottermore Backstory for Minerva McGonagall

So, I have problems with JKR’s Pottermore biography for Minerva McGonagall.

Not Problems (like I now have with JKR’s TERFiness), but definitely problems. And what else have I got to do during this pandemic, other than obsess over my quibbles with the writings of a children’s book author about a fictional character she made up? (*Whistles while refusing to think about the MS she has to edit, the one short story, or two novellas she has to finish. Shh. Don’t look at me that way.*)

Objection the First: Muggle Upbringing

First, I don’t see Minerva as having been raised in a Muggle home. Not because I don’t think an accomplished, formidable witch could come from a Muggle upbringing, but because of a line from the first film that has always stuck in my craw:

“Albus, do you really think it’s safe, leaving him with these people? I’ve watched them all day. They’re the worst sort of Muggles imaginable. They really are.”

“The worst sort of Muggles imaginable”? That’s a statement dripping with anti-Muggle bias. Why specify that they’re the worst sort of Muggles? Is there something different about Muggle awfulness compared with wizard awfulness? And the worst sort imaginable? I dunno, but it seems to me that a reasonably perceptive person raised among Muggles during the Second World War (or who has lived through two world wars, if we believe the retconned Fantastic Beasts timeline–the RFBT) would have been exposed to the spectrum of awfulness of which Muggles are capable. Or are we supposed to believe that Minerva McGonagall is spectacularly lacking in imagination?

The Dursleys. Worse than this guy?

Now, that objectionable line may not be JKR’s fault, as it comes from the film, which she didn’t write, but presumably she approved it. And subsequently wrote the Pottermore backstory for Minerva that really doesn’t comport with it.

The exchange with Dumbledore in the first novel is less cringey, with Minerva arguing: “You couldn’t find two people who are less like us” and “These people will never understand him!” but I think it still betrays some anti-Muggle bias on her part. “These people” and “not like us” in such a context are almost always a clue that the speaker is a racist, even if they have “lots and lots of Black friends.”

For what it’s worth, I don’t think any of these statements means Minerva is a closet Muggle-hater. I read it that she is simply a witch of her place and time, susceptible, as we all are, to the unconscious biases instilled in us by our parents or guardians and others during our formative experiences.

But probably not brought up in a Muggle home.

Objection the Second: That Dougal McGregor Business

This one is my biggest beef with JKR’s extra-canon info dump about Minerva.

Does Minerva McGonagall strike you as the sort of person who would spend decades pining for her teenaged lover?

I don’t deny that first love can be powerful, with lifelong effects, but most of us manage to move the fuck on. A woman as intelligent and pragmatic as Minerva would Just Get Over Herself, dontcha think? As “handsome, clever, and funny” as young Dougal McGregor may have been, I can’t quite see an ambitious young woman with a decided intellectual bent “losing her head” (as JKR put it) over a teenage boy who has likely spent most of his youth with a plow in his hand and cow manure under his fingernails.

Not that a young man brought up as a farmer can’t be clean, brilliant, fascinating, and well educated–many farmers are–but what sorts of interests would he have in common with Minerva, brought up in a church manse and educated at a magical boarding school? As intellectually challenging as agriculture can be (and it is, make no mistake–there are entire universities dedicated to it), she would probably be as interested in, say, the effect of the season’s barley yields on grades of sheep meat as he would be in the effects of Animagus transformation on a mammal’s reproductive cycle. But maybe it wasn’t an intellectual thing. Maybe he was just dead sexy.

Okay, running with that. Let’s say I buy that she fell for the brilliant, funny, definitely-not-spotty, dead-sexy boy from down the road. When he proposes (after maybe a few weeks of courting), she agrees on the spot to marry him. (Really, Minerva? Not even an “I’d like to think about it” first?) She has second thoughts, breaks both their hearts, then goes off and eats a little too much cranachan, or whatever the Scottish equivalent of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia® is, cries to her squad, and spends a few months having meaningless sex with a small series of completely forgettable men, before getting over him and going on to have a vibrant and fulfilling love life.

Cherry Garcia. Seriously delicious.

Wait … rewind …  that’s what I did would have done.

Instead, we are told, Minerva McGonagall – who is clearly a lot smarter than I ever was–gets out of Dodge, starts a new job, hates it, changes careers, and spends the next, what? thirty years (or much, much longer, per the RFBT) crying over her teenage boyfriend’s letters. Riiiiight.

And a bunch of years later, when things get hot ’n heavy with her old boss, Elphinstone Urquart, she a) can’t allow herself to marry a man she presumably loves until Dougal is dead (just coincidentally “murdered in a random anti-Muggle attack by the Death Eaters,” BTW), or b) marries a man she doesn’t really love because, heck, Dougal’s dead, and she can’t have who she really wants, so why the fuck not?

Just. No.

(Yet, despite these very fair objections, I’ve felt compelled to explore Minerva’s Pottermore backstory in two of my stories, “Heart’s Desire” and “Sufficient Unto the Day.” I can’t help myself.)

Objection the Third: Minerva-Free First Order of the Phoenix

In Short Stories From Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies, JKR tells us Minerva didn’t join the first Order of the Phoenix because it was seen by the Ministry as “a renegade outfit” and “successive Ministers feared Dumbledore’s charisma and magical talent, and were inclined to harbour fears that he wished to succeed them.”

Look, I totally get that Minerva likes following rules–I’m a rule-abiding Ravenclaw myself–but when it comes to fighting the man responsible for the murder (coincidental, remember) of Dougal and his entire family, plus Minerva’s brother Robert? I suspect she might have been persuaded to bend the bloody rules a teensy bit.

And declining to join Dumbledore’s organization because a few addlepated Ministers saw him as a political threat? After she’d allegedly been his friend for three decades (or much longer, per RFBT), I should think she’d trust him a bit more than that. (Although there was that incident later with using Harry Potter as bait during the Triwizard Tournament, so maybe Not Trusting Dumbledore was a sign of Minerva’s clear-headedness.)

Anyway, Minerva was totally in the first Order. Besides, someone had to keep Sirius Black in line when Remus was having his time of the month.

Bonus Objection: Imperio!

Ok. This one isn’t from Pottermore, it’s from Deathly Hallows.

A casual Imperius Curse? Just to take a wand from a post-Crucio-impaired Amycus Carrow? You’re telling me Minerva casts an Unforgivable curse for no good reason? (The same woman who wouldn’t join the Order of the Phoenix because it wasn’t kosher per the Ministry of Magic?) Just because he spat at her? When a simple “Expelliarmus!” would have achieved the same end without requiring Minerva to violate the mind of her opponent?

*Shudders. Shakes like a cat shaking off bathwater*

This must not stand.

If this moment bugged you as much as it did me, the best thing you can do is go read the fic “Fighting the Good Fight” by therealsnape. It offers a plausible explanation for Minerva’s Unforgiveable, and it’s a ripping good story. Seriously, read it.

Now I’m jumping off the Rantmobile to go edit a manuscript. Or watch YouTube videos.

Hitler image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S33882 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
Cherry Garcia image: Hadly Paul Garland/Flickr/CC BY-SA