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.

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18 thoughts on “Growing up Potter: Those Slippery Slytherins

  1. I didn’t pay much attention to the movies, but didn’t McGonagall in the book allow the Slytherins to leave Hogwarts? *scratches head* – I’ll have to read it again. The Sorting always has been problematic, but i think it’s interesting that the Sorting Hat is the first to point this out (in it’s song in book 5 – “though condemned am I to split you, still I worry that it’s wrong”) followed by Hermione voicing the same concerns about house rivalry. It suggests the problem lies at the very foundation of Hogwarts, and possibly of the Wizarding world – we are never told whether Beaxbatons and Durmstrang, for example, also have something like this. Also, at another time it has been indicated that the Hat picks up ideas from the Headmaster (I’m not sure to what extent it thinks independently) which leads me to believe that Dumbledore wasn’t as complacent about Sorting as we might think.
    Great post, though! You know a story has done its job when it keeps you thinking 🙂

    • In the books, McGonagall asks Slughorn to ‘escort Miss Parkinson and the rest of Slytherin house’ out of the school, not giving them any real choice in the matter. In the movies she tells them to go to the dungeons. Hence the specification.
      Yes, Hermione and the Hat do voice concerns, but despite the voicing of these concerns, nothing seems to have changed NINETEEN YEARS after the war. This is the disturbing bit- why, if the wizarding world has healed, is one fourth of its denizens still regarded as ‘dark’? Unless ‘All was well’ is meant to be ironic, it’s disturbing that Rowling would end her series with that line, especially when she’s highlighted that discrimination and presumption about other wizards based on background and history still exists.

      • Earlier in the book (a few pages) she says that it’s time for Slytherin to choose their side, and Horace Slughorn does stay behind. Most of Slytherin would have been underage, leaving only the seventh years and some sixth years with the option of staying (which some obviously do since Malfoy and the others are still on campus later in the book). It could have been made much clearer, but I don’t see McGonagall not allowing an of-age student of any House to stay and fight. Her main characteristics are Quiddtich fan and insanely fair.

        I absolutely *hate* the movie version of that scene (and the deleted scene). It paints all of the Slytherins with one brush and puts McGonagall in a very poor light. I wish it had been handled much, much better. (And addressing that there were children as young as eleven present would have been nice, too.)

        This is one of my issues with the Epilogue. Rowling doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of the fact that things can change over time. (Just look at her treatment of history and their history class.) I think her point in the whole Albus-and-Slytherin thing was to highlight how perspectives had changed, and she failed miserably.

        That said, things aren’t going to change that quickly. While it seems like at least Draco and Harry (I believe the nod is to show Draco’s lack of Harry-hatred) have moved past the House hatred, I doubt everyone will have. It’s going to take time, time that Rowling didn’t allow herself in a 7-page epilogue.

        (I always thought that the “All was well” line was referring solely to the fact that Voldemort was most definitely dead. I don’t know if anyone would think that all of the Wizarding World’s problems were solved.)

  2. This is a great post. I rarely see people taking sides for Slytherin like that.
    I really disliked the Slytherin bashing, both in the books and in the movies. Especially when it comes to the final battle, I have to say that I thought that Pansy Parkinson was rather reasonable: The “chosen one” has been missing for almost a year, nobody knows what he has been up to and then he shows up in the middle of the night, the dark lord stands in front of the door and demands him or he will kill everybody in the school. Of course you’re supposed to be on Harry’s side, but I couldn’t help but thinking that delivering Harry to save the other pupils’ heads would have been a reasonable decision. After all, most Hogwarts students really had no idea what was going on between Harry and Voldemort. But instead, Slytherin house is pretty much ordered to leave.
    You also made some great points about Slytherin and its reputation after the war. That’s all rather sad… :/
    And the more I think about the sorting, the more problematic it seems to me.
    Do you happen to remember the title of that fanfiction you mentioned?

    • Thank you! You’re right, and I didn’t consider that point–that hardly anyone knows the truth of what’s been going down between Harry and Voldemort for years. As far as the Slytherins are concerned, he’s been scraping by on luck and with the help of more ‘talented’ friends–Dumbledore or another authority figure never really sits down and tells all the students about Harry’s encounters and how he IS the Chosen One, it’s all just hearsay and speculation for them. Given these conditions, it seems only natural that a scared kid would stand up and ask that one life be given for the benefit of the many.
      Sadly I don’t remember the particular fic I mentioned (it was a short one), but if you love seeing the more nuanced aspects of Slytherin house, I cannot recommend the Sacrifices Arc by Lightning on the Wave highly enough. She really delves into what ‘being Slytherin’ means and paints an amazing picture of the residents, as well as what Harry could have been in it. Check it out, and again, thanks so much for the really indepth comment!

  3. You know, I think Rowling makes Harry a little characterless on purpose, so that the reader can write themselves into him. He’s like an empty shell you fill in through identification. That’s probably why few people chose him as their favourite character. He’s given less character than the others. Also, I agree about the Slytherin-hating. It was most disturbing.

    • According to me,Snape too has the same problematic portrayal that Slytherin has or even Harry. Snape throughout the series is shown in a deeply one-dimensional light. Some of it may be said to be the short-sightedness of teens but what about the Order and especially his own former schoolmates,Sirius and Remus? Despite Sirius’ advice to Harry, why does he seem to maintain implacable hatred towards Snape? And I also fins it pretty hard to believe that both of them are unknomwing about Snape and Lily being friends until 5th year? Or that Snape tried to apologize to Lily repeatedly? Even James’ and Lily’s change of dynamics is never given a concrete reason. I think it was also partly J.K.R’s dawdling about Snape’s characterisatiob that just led her into giving us a reason for him being good in Book 7. His relationship with Draco and Narcissa is never explained in terms of affection rather than necessity.

      • Sirius and Remus have a history with Snape, and Sirius is shown to be an extremely stubborn character (whom Snape hates back with equal fervor– he did try to get him to be Kissed by a dementor). I never got the impression that they didn’t know that Snape and Lily were friends (they *had* to have known; James practically stalked her for a couple of years) but that they didn’t tell Harry, which is not that unusual of a thought.

        Regarding Snape and Lily’s relationship, it seems to have been a build up of several things throughout the years. Lily would have seen him making friends with people who don’t like “her kind” and might even harass her, while she maintains distance from her fellow Gryffindors who are harassing him. Having Snape himself call her a Mudblood was likely the last straw, and she was done. I don’t think an apology would suffice to fix it.

        We’re told that James… stops being a jerk. As someone who knows a guy who was a completely ass in high school, but turned out to be a very kind man, this is possible, especially with something like a war going on around them. War tends to bring out the best and the worst in people; perhaps it brought out the best in James. They also must have had to spend more time together due to being Head Boy and Girl. Change and time to get to know that he *had* changed are the likely culprits here.

        Of course we’re never really going to get the answers to all of the questions JKR’s text brings up in us. We can only hope that it’ll get addressed in Pottermore or we’ll have a chance to ask her ourselves.

  4. I absolutely *love* your Potter posts. They are so insightful and well-written that I just have to smile. Brilliant.

    There are so many points here that I sort of wish you’d taken each of them and made separate posts (please? It would be so nice to hear your complete thoughts about each of these subjects), but I’ll try to address each one.

    On Harry’s inability to be the favorite character:

    I completely agree with you here. Up through, probably, the fifth book Harry was my favorite character without question. But in the sixth and seventh books I found less to cheer about and more to worry over. I’d wished that he’d grown up a bit more and become more well-rounded instead of… whatever that was. Granted, it’s been a while since I last read the later books, but that was my original impression of him.

    I saw the shift in my friends and internet friends as well. We seemed to have a much bigger percentage of the fandom who liked Harry best through the fourth and fifth books, then there was a sudden drop off and the favorite characters seemed to shift. Neville and Hermione are my favorite canon characters, even if Hermione and I would probably drive each other crazy.

    The Sorting:

    I have a different set of problems with the Sorting than you seem to, and it’s twofold: nurturing dominant characteristics and friendship.

    I have no problem with the process of the Sorting. I think that the Sorting Hat finds the students’ most dominant characteristics in their noggins, perhaps the one that seems most likely to take hold, and then places them there unless the student has an aversion to the House, or they’re on the edge and they strongly prefer the slightly-less House. I don’t think most students would end up knowing to hate/love Slytherin, and I don’t think *all* Slytherins are crazy blood purists, they just happen to be the noisiest ones.

    (I have an issue with Slytherin himself being just labeled as just a racist without historical context — at the time Muggle may very well have been attempting to kill magical folk and, yes, hello, I’d be a little more hesitant to let in children who were predisposed to hate us all. *End rant*)

    My problem is that they Sort them like this at all. I am a Gryffindor. I am definitely, very much a Gryffindor. My boyfriend is of a similar mind, so we wouldn’t have been separated by House. However, when I look at my friends I have… one Gryffindor. Yes, one. My friends are mostly Ravenclaws and Slytherins with two Hufflepuffs thrown in for flavor. I would never have been as close to any of them if we’d been separated by Houses. (My three closest friends are two Slytherins and a Ravenclaw.)

    It also doesn’t allow the students to nurture other, less dominant aspects of their personalities. While I’m a Gryffindor, I was also top of my class and hate ignorance and stupidity with the fervor of a Ravenclaw, while I have the high aspirations and cunning of a Slytherin. If I’d only been placed with those who were brave and bold, then perhaps I would be less restrained and more apt to say the harsh things that sometimes cross my mind. Teachers should encourage students to get to know people outside of their comfort zone, not just within it.

    (I am given to understand via bf that Houses are a very British thing? I suppose it makes more sense to magic it up in this case. The boarding school I went to — even if I was only a day student — didn’t divy much up by what dormitory you stayed in. You were on your own.)

    I feel bad for the Slytherins in the first book/movie, too. They worked hard for those points in school-related activities while Harry and his friends save the world (not part of school!) and get all these points for unrelated activities. I just realized that that may sound sarcastic, but it really isn’t. I really don’t think it’s fair that all of their hard work was discredited.

    In General:

    I’ve had my canon world supplemented by a lot of well-written and slightly more nuanced fanfiction. (I’m especially fond of “Dumbledore’s Army and the Year of Darkness” and its sequels/side-stories and the “Promises Unbroken” series with a nice helping of one-shots.) Rowling had an intention when she wrote the books and I don’t think she was able to get everything she may have wanted to in, but we have the opportunity to supplement it with our thoughts and works.

    The fan-made fake-documentary (not comedic) called “The Battle of Hogwarts” takes a really good look at what may have changed or not changed post-war. It feels like a documentary and it is very well written and produced. I’d highly recommend watching it.

    (On a side note — Goyle-actor got arrested for growing (and distributing?) pot and was not brought back for the last… few movies, I believe. Either the final two or three. That’s why he’s replaced by Zabini, not for any sort of plot-related reason.)

  5. [“I don’t think an apology would suffice to fix it.”]

    Why not? I heard a story about this Southern white racist who harassed and harmed blacks during the Civil Rights movement, until he began to feel guilty and remorseful over his acts. He tried to set things right by apologizing to as many of his victims he could find. Some of them refused to forgive him. But a good number of others did, including a U.S. congressman.

  6. [“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.”]

    Isn’t this a rather grand opinion to make, based upon a survey you had conducted among your friends?

  7. [” Having Snape himself call her a Mudblood was likely the last straw, and she was done. I don’t think an apology would suffice to fix it.”]

    Why? Why wouldn’t an apology have sufficed? What is the point demanding that some people (or fictional characters) apologize for past bad behavior, when we’re being told that an apology would not have worked . . . or should not be accepted?

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