House Talk: Slytherin

I’ve been a self-Sorted Slytherin for a while now. This might seem odd coming from someone whose favourite characters are mostly Gryffindors, but various things about the House of Snakes has convinced me, over the years, that this is where I truly belong. Here I present my reasons for loving Slytherin, apart, of course, from its beautiful underwater dorms.

Slytherin_by_SherlingtonDunnenWhat’s it mean to be Slytherin?

Before I begin, I should come clean about something. I didn’t always consider myself a Slytherin. In fact, when I first read the books, I told myself that of course I was Gryffindor. There could be no doubt about it. My conviction was based purely on the fact that Harry and his besties were in this House, and I, as the rightful Mrs. Potter, belonged there, by his side.

And obviously I was brave, and ‘chivalrous’, whatever that was.

But now that I think of it, even the reasons I wanted to be in Gryffindor were very, well, Slytherin. I saw the House as a means to an end, a way to fulfill an ambition (ie, declaring myself like Harry and therefore heroic), a means of living up to a desired image in my own head. I didn’t honestly relish the idea of living by a set of ideals that, at the age of 11, I would have been in no position to understand. I am not entirely fond of being thrown into the centre of attention anywhere, and was certainy not at the forefront of social activities during my middle and high school years. In short, I was not really cool enough to be a Gryffindor.

But still, why Slytherin? Why not Ravenclaw, full of smart kids? Wouldn’t I rather be considered a nerd than a slimy megalomaniac?

I think it’s all too easy to forget that when it’s first introduced by the Sorting Hat, the Slytherin quality that is emphasised in ‘cunning’ and a certain kind of ruthlessness—these are the people, the Hat stresses, who use ‘any means to achieve their ends’. It also says, strangely enough, that this is House where you’ll meet your ‘real friends’. A rather odd choice of words for a place we later find out is filled with Death Eaters and bigots, isn’t it?

Slytherin definitely suffers from bad press. Given the thousands of students who have no doubt passed through its watery common room, a few have made themselves so infamous that their actions overshadow any other achievements the House might have made. And because of the pure blood mania, we forget that what really defines Slytherins, from Draco to Snape to Voldemort, is a desire to prove onself, to be tenacious enough to succeed at something that they have set their minds to.

This, really, is what pulls me towards this House, and makes me want to be a part of it. Slytherin has no moral illusions—the things its members want vary from protecting a child to killing just to make a point—but what its members learn is that while ambition and grand dreams are all very well, it takes tremendous work and dedication to pulling them off. Whatfacts-about-severus-snape-severus-snape-391241 gives these people the drive to do those things is not just bravery or loyalty or smarts, it’s tenacity. And coupled with that a quality that none of the other Houses demonstrate as ably: an ability to admit wrong and turn around and start again, with just as much drive as before.

What else would you call Snape’s switching over to Dumbledore’s side? Or Narcissa Malfoy’s near-suicidal declaration that Harry was dead, all evidence to the contrary? Regulus’s suicidal mission to get revenge on the Dark Lord? They show that people change—like a moulting snake, you can cast off an old set of ideals and move on. And sometimes you should, because that’s just how life works.

What Slytherin and its tenets taught me was that you should dream big, but sometimes, you’ll find out that you’ve been incredibly wrong. People make terrible mistakes, but you can always be humble enough to turn around and try to set them right. The energy that you bring to ‘achieving’ your ‘ends’ will be undiminished, no matter what those ‘ends’ are.

I’m not idealistically convinced of the strength of my own morality and convictions, like a Gryffindor. I like glamour and charm way too much to not receive adulation and praise, which disqualifies me from Hufflepuff. I’m not happy just being the smart kid, and don’t see learning as an end in itself, so no airy Ravenclaw towers for me.

But I can choose a goal and bend my ambitions towards it, and if the need arises, change myself or my circumstances to ensure its completed. And if I change my mind and decide to go another way? No one can fault me for it. Slytherin promises its denizens that freedom, and embraces the possibility of change, which makes it, for me, really the most realistic House of them all.

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Harry Potter, the Everyman Hero

Recently, in a letter, I tried to describe what various books mean to me, the relationships I share with them. Of course, most of those described were fantasy books, ranging from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the stupendously weighty (literally) Wheel of Time books. I called The Lord of the Rings my ‘Bible’, the book that I harry sorcererslove and, as much as I might find elements of it jarring or disturbing, would not presume to pull down from its hallowed space. And I called Harry Potter a best friend, a companion found early on whom I tussle with, ignore sometimes, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, adore.

Enough and more has been written about the books, and what they’ve done for readers across the world. Fans have started charities in the name of Harry Potter spells, Emma Watson has channeled Hermione-like spirit and called for change in the name of feminism, and there are probably fans everywhere who try to live by the tenets embodied in the characters: justice, patience, and acceptance. But what does Harry himself, the character, mean to someone who is, now, approaching the not-so-YA age of 26, who has declared on many occasions that Harry is far from her favourite character, and would rather be sorted into his rival house than the one he himself is in?

(I think that last might be wishful thinking though. Honestly I’m more likely to be a moody and tempestuous Gryffindor than a calculating Slytherin. But hey, the Sorting Hat judges us on the basis of what we choose, right?)

Who is Harry Potter? You can get the biographical details easily enough. He’s a fanciable Dark Wizard destroyer, who carried the burden of his destiny from a young age. He is a
harry_potter_-_quidditch_hbp_promo_2social media celebrity in the age before social media celebrities, the sort of boy who might have become the star of a Vine or Youtube video made by other people, against his will. Through this relatively innocent character, Rowling explored a magical world that has delighted a host of us, imparted some lessons about good and evil and inspired a wave of fanfiction, some of which (gods forgive me) builds upon her creation so amazingly well that it’s been hailed as better than the original.

But after the initial rush of reading the series, it’s easy to let Harry himself slide. He is, after all, a stand in for the reader more often than not, a relatively empty canvas upon which you can paint yourself and stand in to better observe the people around him. It’s the other characters—Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, SIRIUS— who command my attention as a reader, who make me want to go back to the books again and again and have consumed a majority of my posts. Harry? He sort of slides into the background.

This is obviously a deliberate move on Rowling’s part, to make it easier for people to step into Harry’s shoes and sympathize with his dilemmas. She allows her readers to make Harry a character of their own, to become a part of themselves in an unconscious manner. You might not love Harry as an individual—and god knows I have enough problems with him—but you can’t utterly detest him either. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to read the books.

And Rowling does a brilliant job of making him so utterly believable. I can’t think of another YA/fantasy (not the GRRM variety!) whose hero is as flawed, and yet heroic as Harry. He’s an average sort of boy—he’s okay with his lessons, but Hermione’s always going to be better. He’s great at Quidditch, but even here, he’s aware that there are some people,
harry-potter_original-new-harry-potter-movie-trilogy-announced-jpeg-42959Viktor Krum and Diggory being examples, who are better and always will be better than him. He’s pleasant looking, but he’s no Bill Weasley, able to pull off long ponytails and dragon fang earrings. He’s funny, but he’ll probably never be known for it. He’s not wise in the same manner as Luna, or as successful on his own as Neville. And he’s certainly not half as conventionally popular as his girlfriends—Cho or Ginny.

Even his bravery, the sort of quiet, steady strength that propels him through his quest, is not flashy, not the hijinks of Sirius or Fred and George. What really sets him apart from his fellows is his faith in himself, and his ability to simply push on and, in spite of everything, to trust people. These are not qualities that are sexy, easy to impart. They’re the reason someone like Frodo isn’t the most attractive character in LOTR. Both of them would be dead meat in the world of Westeros, you know, the character most similar being Sansa Stark, and even she’s changing to cope with the big, bad world.

But it’s Harry’s very averageness that makes him a hero, and makes him so much more of a friend than his compatriots in the Potterverse. He is easy to slip into, to see oneself in, and he provides consolation more often than any other character in the series does. It doens’t matter if you’re not the best, not the smartest or most popular. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re wandering mindlessly through a forest, circling around a goal you’ve told yourself you need to complete, that seems, at the moment, impossible. Harry loses his way spectacularly, and then things fall into place by sheer luck, or coincedence, but they fall into place. Being lost is okay, he seems to show us, you’ll pull through it in the end.

HP7-1-FP-0484 
DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 1,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In my 20s, this last has become increasingly important. It’s been a time of some confusion but, as a very very wise person told me, ‘everything passes’. And as long as I, like Harry, have my Rons, Hermiones, my Siriuses and Dumbledores and Lupins, my Molly Weasleys and Nevilles around, things will be okay. The Dark Lords will be defeated, the woods will end, and all will, eventually, be ‘well’.

The ‘more important things’ AKA Why Hermione is an Exemplary Gryffindor

hermione
Reading the Harry Potter books, it is safe to say, changed my life to an extent that only The Lord of the Rings can claim to match. Since I read the first page of ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ all those years ago, they have become an integral part of me, allowing me to define myself during years where self worth and identity were hard to come by, picking me up when I thought I had hit rock bottom emotionally and mentally. Even now, when I need a quick reminder of how to get past something that seems insurmountable, I turn to Harry Potter and the different kinds of bravery enshrined within its covers.

Two of those I’ve already spoken about here, on this blog: Sirius’s sort of heady, crazed defiance, which pays little heed to personal safety; and Harry’s much more quiet, dedicated sort of bravery, that enables him to keep his nose to the grindstone and shoulder on even when people tell him to just stop already. In this post, I’m going to tackle another kind, and one that has become a sort of fascination for me, precisely because it’s the kind I feel the most in need of/have felt at some point in the past: the sheer gutsiness of Hermione Granger.

Hermione is walking encyclopaedia of knowledge in the Potterverse, and makes that obvious right at our first encounter. She’s read nearly everything she could get her hands on within two months of being notified that she is a witch, and reels off names to a stunned Harry and Ron. She has read everything in advance, and is the only person who seems prepared to answer the questions Snape puts to Harry during that calamitous first Potions class.

Hermione-hermione-granger-33203720-1383-2100This is a consistent character trait, for most of the series. Hermione, the character who comes from a world and background utterly alien to the magical one, knows more than most wizards and witches her age, or even older. She over-prepares for every test, and her worst fear is, literally, failing all her exams.

Rowling described Hermione as ‘terrified’, explaining that this terror at being unprepared, at finding herself caught out without an answer, is what drives her manic need to know it all and know it now. What propels Hermione’s academic brilliance is not only her near-idetic memory and inherent gift for the subjects, is the simple thirst for knowledge. And
she doesn’t grab it all up for the sake of competing and emerging ahead of the others—she does it because she is terrified of what would happen to her if she doesn’t know.

Hermione is, in some senses, the ideal student, and the most organized human being in the Potterverse. She is amazingly rational, tackling problems with a combination of logic and skill. Identify the cause, identify the solution (through methods of deduction that even Holmes would approve of) and then proceed to apply. The results will be flawless as all the books tell you they should be.

What keeps Hermione from being the hero, though, is her lack of spontaneity, and her need to follow a path laid down for her by books. This is best exemplified in the first Potions lesson of Half Blood Prince, where Hemione refuses point blank to listen to

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere...

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere…

Harry’s notes (rather, the ‘Prince’s’ notes) and proceeds doggedly according to the trusted book’s instructions. Her inability to veer from the printed matter results in Harry, for once, beating her at the subject and taking the lead from then on.

Rebelling against these rules—Hermione’s one guide to a completely unfamiliar world—happens rarely, and when it does, Hermione’s rebellion is usually quite spectacular. She slaps Malfoy across the face, helps to break a convict out of death row (pretty much), starts an underground Defence league and then, finally, bunks an entire school year to bring down the most feared Dark Wizard for a century, following a friend who, she finds out along the way, has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing.

Given that rule breaking and improvisation is really not her thing, it’s a huge huge HUGE deal that Hermione becomes the irreverent, quick thinking witch she does in ‘Deathly Hallows’. What’s perhaps the biggest indication of this change and maturity is the fact that when they finally realize that Harry has no set plan, it’s Ron, the much more impulsive,
badass hermspontaneous character, who walks out on him. Hermione sticks by his side, and doesn’t even give him grief. She keeps her feelings to herself, and shoulders much more of the burden from then on.

The reason I find Hermione so inspiring is, simply put, this: when you’ve been a model student all your life, when you’ve lived your life, clinging desperately to rules and books to anchor you in a wholly new and unfamiliar world, it’s really hard to throw all that aside and just make a go of it on your brains alone. It indicates an extremely high level of maturity and belief not only in your friends, but in yourself. Hermione, by this point, has hermione wandtruly grown up, no longer hiding behind pure logic and reason to guide her. Of course, those remain her greatest weapons, but she finally brings to bear the words she’d uttered all those years ago in the chamber housing Snape’s riddling potions:

‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…’

No one utterly refashions themselves and gets over their inner hurdles the way Hermione does. And for that, she’s a bloody amazing character and one hell of a role model.

Ravenclaw, the Thinking House


hogwarts_crest_by_geijvontaen-d665icxLately, I’ve caught myself wondering a lot about which Hogwarts house I would actually be in. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really impossible to know, and all the computer generated results I get from quizzes designed to answer this question are bogus. Also, if the element of choice is a factor, as Harry’s ending up in Gryffindor seems to indicate, how does it matter which house’s traits suit my eleven year old self’s personality? I would just choose to go where my friends were.

But there was a time in the not so distant past when I seriously thought that, of all the Houses, I would be in Ravenclaw. This House has always sort of fascinated me, for a number of reasons. I’m going to discuss those reasons here.

The Sorting System: As we know, the Sorting Hat divides students into four groups, based on a dominant personality trait. Gryffindor gets the ‘brave’ kids, or those who value courage and daring above everything else; Slytherins are the ‘ambitious’ (or more likely, unscrupulous) ones; Hufflepuffs are hardworking and loyal and the Ravenclaws are ‘intelligent’.

None of these traits is mutually exclusive. There’s nothing that keeps a person from being intelligent, unscrupulous, hardworking and daring—in fact, Harry himself displays all four during his quest to bring down Voldemort. What the Sorting really does is assign children places to sleep for seven years and binds them into cliques and teams; it puts kids with like-minded individuals and then lets feuds and friendships foster.

Slytherin versus Gryffindor: The main players in Hogwarts during Harry’s years all seem to come from these two houses, which are posited as the big two, with Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff functioning as bystanders who support one or the other, usually Gryffindor. The reasons for this are fairly simple: a) Harry and company, the main characters of the series, are all in Gryffindor and their antagonists are in Slytherin, so of course we see more of cos_duel
these houses than any other and b) the personality traits of openness and courage and daring seem naturally opposed to the twisted ambition and cunning and deviousness that Slytherin students typically exemplify. Rowling also lays out an interesting rich vs. poor, entitled vs. hard-working conflict through their encounters, so you have Slytherin Malfoy, who can literally buy his way onto a Quidditch team, and the Weasleys, all of whom get onto the team through sheer talent and have medium-grade brooms.

Gryffindor and Hufflepuff: Since ‘hard working’ is one of the traits that Gryffindor students claim over Slytherins in this dynamic, perhaps it’s only expected that Hufflepuff be the first house to naturally ally with them (in Chamber of Secrets, Justin Finch-Fletchley and his fellow Hufflepuffs are the first students we meet who are neither Slytherin nor Gryffindor). In Deathly Hallows, the Hufflepuffs field the second largest number of students who choose to stay behind and fight against Voldemort. In fact, it’s a Hufflepuff, Ernie Macmillan, who suggests staying behind to fight at all:

..as Harry skirted the walls, scanning the Gryffindor table for Ron and Hermione, Ernie Macmillan stood up at the Hufflepuff table and shouted, ‘And what if we want to stay and fight?’

These two houses are natural allies, both housing the more ‘earthy’, friendly sorts of people, those who focus on getting the ‘right’ thing done.

So that means…: Technically, if the world were fair and split along equal lines, the Ravenclaws would ally with the Slytherins. Both houses privilege something which is, to be completely honest, much more easily verifiable than ‘courage’ and ‘loyalty’. You can check a person’s genealogy to ascertain their wizarding ancestry; you can set an exam and see who scores the highest to verify a certain brand of academic intelligence. Both are equally narrow in their choice of students, and cater to elites of different kinds: the preppy kids and the nerds, or, the blue bloods and the Gifted and Talented.

But that definition of ‘Gifted and Talented’ is broad and obscure enough to include both Terry Boot, who recognizes and appreciates a Protean Charm and Luna Lovegood, who is quite brilliant in a slightly less-than-conventionally-academic way.


Quibbler-LunaSuitably airy:
The only Ravenclaw student with any substantial role in the books is Luna Lovegood, who is a bit of an oddity in her own house. She doesn’t seem to have any other close Ravenclaw friends, and her housemates bully her by hiding her things every year. Because she’s such a loner in her own house, we don’t get a good glimpse of how dynamics play out within groups of Ravenclaws, something we are privileged enough to witness with all the other houses.

A better phrase: The Sorting Hat says that Ravenclaw is the place where ‘those of wit and learning/Will always find their kind’. These are the kids who ‘have a ready mind’, who at the tender age of 11 are scouted out as smarter, more academically inclined than their peers. What that really means, I think, is that these kids are more likely to view a problem in a rational, logical manner and find a creative solution, rather than go at it with swords raised (Gryffindors), sneak around it (Slytherins) or bulldoze their way through no matter how long it may take (Hufflepuffs).  The Ravenclaws value the ability to think calmly through a crisis—evidenced by the fact that their password is a riddle. No matter what your emergency, you have to answer the question, not just memorise a random word, to get through.

Curiouser and curiouser: For some reason, when I think of Ravenclaw I think of Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Maybe it’s because Luna vaguely resembles her, but I think it’s also that curious sense of detachment that the house as a whole seems to
give off. The Ravenclaws are supposed to honour logic and reason above all else, to make cold calculations that will lead them to the best means, or most ‘intelligent’ means to achieve an objective. For this, you have to have an open mind, and no sort of personal bias against the different means available. For the ideal Ravenclaw, there should be no question of ‘evil’ and ‘good’—things must look either rational or irrational, and then be worked towards accordingly. Nothing can be accepted or refuted without an effort to prove it.

This makes them, to me, a very safe, neutral sort of house. It seems as though the kids here are the only ones who can really choose who they want to be, or who they want to side with. I wouldn’t be surprised if this with the one house whose alum were split down the middle when it came to Voldemort’s policies, indeed, it seems to me the one house where these policies could have been debated at all.

ravenclaw crestThe traditional Ravenclaw colours of blue and bronze only bolster this idea. Blue, traditionally the colour associated with calm, peace, reason. Bronze, the metal used to forge the scales used by all the students in Hogwarts. Scales for measuring, weighing, balancing.

I think Ravenclaw’s curiously fleeting role in the Harry Potter series is fitting. This is a House whose students are not determined by where they’re from, where they are right now, or what they do in Hogwarts. This is a house whose students think outside of it and beyond it, where they are not slapped with obvious loyalties and allegiances the moment they walk away from the Hat. They’re not all ‘bad’,they’re not all ‘heroes’ and they’re certainly not all expected to be utterly loyal to one another above everything else.

It would be nice to be a Ravenclaw, I think. Unfortunately, given my tendency to let emotions cloud my judgment and to privilege reckless daring and ambition over logic, the probability of my ending up in that beautiful, circular common room is pretty darn low. It’s under the lake or up in the other tower for me.