Growing up Potter: Those Slippery Slytherins

Image A few months ago, I sent out a survey to a bunch of friends. It concerned (wait for it) the Harry Potter books and movies, and included the question ‘Who is your favourite character’. The results, when they came back, surprised me. Sirius Black had a large number of takers, as did Hermione Granger. Contrary to the Guardian’s expectations, not a single person chose Severus Snape. And only two people mentioned harbouring a ‘soft spot’ for Harry himself.

For a boy who has won the hearts of children and adults alike, Harry James Potter has few groupies of his own, few people who would declare that he was/is their ‘favourite’ character in the series named after him. A few years ago, I would have, right until (and chiefly because of) The Order of the Phoenix. Thanks to ‘growing up’ alongside of him, I felt especially connected to Harry (as millions of my fellow readers no doubt did), and when he angsted and argued his way through OoTP, I saw my own teenage angst given heroic proportions in this over-burdened fifteen-year-old. Harry was me, only better, because he had a Dark Lord to defeat and he could do magic. All I had, on the other hand, were exams to get past and maybe highschool romances to negotiate, and even those were low on the ground and barely sparking.

So if I was Harry, if most of those who read the books at that age felt they were Harry, that this boy spoke for them and it was his immediacy and utter normality in the face of all that world-shifting magic that made him so appealing, what caused him to lose his lustre? Why does a twenty-three-year-old me find Sirius Black a more compelling character than Harry? Is it simply because Sirius is an ‘adult’, older and therefore more relatable on a purely superficial level? I think the idea of his being an ‘adult’ is important, but not simply in terms of age. Why then did so many choose Hermione Granger, who is a mere ten months older than Harry?

No, I think my waning interest in Harry himself is due largely to the fact that Harry, as a character, ceases to develop after the sixth book. The Harry we meet in Book 5 never grows up. Instead, he becomes encased in a wooden, popular boy facade, one to whom the death of Sirius barely seems to matter, for whom a Slytherin automatically becomes a bad person*, who does nothing to protest the wholesale evacuation of a Hogwarts house based on the frightened actions of one person. This is a Harry who, no longer hidden in the shadows, struts about the halls of Hogwarts, cursing his fellow students with impunity (cough Sectumsempra cough) and when faced with the greatest quest of his life, relies on Hermione to get him out of trouble.

In The Goblet of Fire, Sirius gives Harry a valid piece of advice: ‘The world isn’t divided between good people and Death Eaters’. The Harry of Book 7 seems to have forgotten that. Why else would he not open his Chosen mouth to halt the death march of the Slytherins? And why else does every ‘bad guy’ in the book get judged for his use of Unforgivables, but when Harry casts one it’s considered ‘gallant’?

There is no question that the morals of the Potterverse are, at times, simplistic and skewed, and as you grow older, this becomes more apparent. A friend of mine recently posted this on my Facebook wall, and followed it up with this comment: I remain extremely disturbed that the entirety of House Slytherin was sent to the dungeons (!) at the start of HP7b, and are then never heard from again (!!).Also, when we see Snape being awful to the Hogwarts students in HP6? He could well have been more chilled out about discipline if he’d wanted to; I think that’s just Snape being Snape. He really is that nasty, petty, small and mean, and being irrevocably in (unreciprocated) love with Lily doesn’t excuse that.

If we are going to talk about skewed morals and quick generalizing of characters and their motivations, we should start with the Sorting system. While in the beginning it seems a fairly cool thing to drop a hat on someone and thus decide who their friends are going to be for the next seven years, on closer consideration it seems very, well, fast. Does an eleven-year-old child really have a ‘fixed’ set of traits? The Sorting system, whereby children are judged based on the proportion of ‘bravery’, ‘learning’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘cunning’ they have, cements them into one dormitory and high school clique for the rest of their seven years. The moment the Hat touches their heads, their future is decided. At least in Rowling’s brain, and since she is the god of this universe, that’s a daunting.

The best way to highlight the sheer randomness of the Sorting system is to think of what Harry feels just before he sits down. ‘The hat seemed to be asking rather a lot; Harry didn’t feel brave or quick-witted or any of it at the moment. If only the hat had mentioned a house for people who felt a bit queasy, that would have been the one for him.’

The Sorting, based on Harry’s feelings immediately prior to it and his confession to his son, Albus, in the Epilogue, seems to operate on two distinct principles: 1) the Hat knows its wearer better than the wearer him/herself; 2) the Hat takes into consideration the choice of the child under it. I’m no logician, but I’m not entirely sure these principles are compatible. If the Hat knows better than the wearer what the perfect House for said person would be, why would it take the child’s personal choice into consideration at all, unless the choice happens to be what the Hat itself would have chosen? For instance, if a muggleborn child sat under its brim and asked to be put in Slytherin, despite the hat’s best instincts (if it has any, which, based on its ability to ‘choose’ for each child, is probably the case), would it place her there?

To take another example of what seems, to me, a complicated Sorting: Severus Snape’s. On his first train ride to Hogwarts, Snape talks of how Lily had ‘better be in Slytherin’, implying, of course, that that’s where he’s going. He is visibly and aurally disappointed when Lily gets sent to Gryffindor, but it doesn’t change his own house-result: the hat sends him off to Slytherin, and his future is, Rowling would have us believe, sealed. He falls in with a bad crowd, his latent nastiness swims to the fore, and he loses the regard of the woman he ‘loved’. Later, when he displays the bravery and decency asked of him in his mission to bring down the Dark Lord, his bravery is applauded as something outside of his expected nature, outside of the nature of any ‘slimy’ Slytherin.

The House system would not appal me as much as it does were it not for the fact that it operates disturbingly like the most rigid and unshakeable of cliques in the toughest high school. Once you’re labelled, you’re stuck. Thanks to its ‘dark’ reputation, most of the kids going into Slytherin are members of pureblooded families who hold to certain beliefs, well aware of the expectations the rest of the school has of them. No one who enters the Slytherin common room did not expect to be there—those from different, less bigoted families would have chosen to be elsewhere, and surely the muggleborns, if they stood a chance of getting in at all (if allowed by the Hat) would have heard enough about the House on their journey north.

Where, then, the chance for change? Slytherins are branded from day one, and it’s no wonder they develop an ‘us versus them’ mentality that results in the trademark Quidditch cheating, the bullying of achievers from other houses and the protectionism that comes in the form of cozening from their head of house, Snape. I read a fanfic which glanced briefly at the effect of the sudden turning of tables at the Farewell Feast in Harry’s first year, where the reigning champion, Slytherin, was summarily dethroned by a sudden rush of, what would be to most of the school, unexplained point-awards to Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville. Dumbledore, when doling out these last minute points, does not offer full explanation for them, and Snape, whose POV the fic followed, noted the incomprehension and betrayal on the faces of his students. It was brief, but emotionally hard-hitting enough.

Then again, that’s the power of fanfic, to make you see and feel what you never thought of before.

To my mind, the Sorting perpetrates a vicious cycle, feeding those students from a certain stratum of wizarding society to a house that will, through its need to constantly defend and ‘look out for’ itself, only cement them further in their beliefs that the world at large, constituted by those ‘not like’ them, needs to warred upon. The blacklisting of these students reaches a peak before the Battle of Hogwarts; the film version of the exile of Slytherin House is even more disturbing than its book counterpart. McGonagall sends the students to the ‘dungeons’, and in a deleted scene we see them begging Filch to let them out, when the wall behind them blasts open, debris flying everywhere, the children screaming and running about wildly. The Death Eaters swoop in from the hole and, contrary to Gryffindor expectations, storm through the Slytherins rather than gathering them up in their evil fold.^

I remember how the audience hooted and clapped when Slytherin was denounced and banished, as though they couldn’t see what was happening on screen, as though they couldn’t see what was wrong with it. To have a respected character like McGonagall deliver the smackdown made it even worse, it seemed to validate and give a ‘positive’ sheen to the act. This one scene sort of dampened the whole movie for me, and I couldn’t believe that no one, not Hermione, the woman who fights for the repressed, or Harry, shining saviour, lifted a voice to protest it.

In an interview, Rowling stated that after the war, Hogwarts was rebuilt, but Slytherin house retains its ‘dark reputation’. This is quite obvious, given that nineteen years after the war, Albus Severus (who seems to have lived under a rock his whole life, given that he has to ask why people are ‘staring’ at his family) is terrified of being sorted into the house of snakes. What has Albus Severus heard his whole life, that makes him so terrified? Surely Harry, who hasn’t seemed to have told his children his own story, hasn’t filled his head with anti-Slytherin propaganda?

Unfortunately that would seem to be the case. Unless it was his brother, of course, or his aunt, uncles, grandparents, friends… Considering Albus’ general ignorance (really, how could he NOT be used to people staring at his father?), I would assume it was someone near and dear to him who poisoned him against Slytherin.

And this happening to a child born after those troubled times is just sad. It shows the troubled times, with all their division and strife, are not entirely past.

So all is not well, after all.

I started this post with an entirely different agenda, and wandered on to another track. It would seem I need more than one posting to deal with the  issues and thoughts thrown up by my survey, and this is just the beginning. Next time, I’ll examine the portrayal of ambition and ‘cunning’ in Rowling’s universe, and the implications of this for various characters and groups in the series.

Till then!

*In Harry’s defence, even Dumbledore operates on a similar simplistic basis. The moment Snape, a Slytherin, shows  himself to braver than most men, Dumbledore responds with a ‘Perhaps we sort too soon.’ Because of course ‘Slytherins’ can’t possibly be brave.

^ Except for Draco, who gathers up Crabbe and Zabini. Who knows where the film-world’s Goyle disappeared.