It wasn’t until I passed through college and into the portals of post-graduation that I realized how demonized ‘ambition’ was in Rowling’s universe. An entire house is set up for those whose overarching trait is their desire to ‘get somewhere’ in life, who will use ‘any means’ to achieve their ‘ends’ (I’m quoting the Sorting Hat here). And that house is that one which produces all the ‘bad wizards’, if Hagrid is to be believed: ‘There wasn’t a wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin’.
Rowling is not the first author to equate ambition and cunning with the snake. The equation was set up way back in Genesis, where Eve was tempted to ‘disobedience’ by the wily serpent. Milton elaborated further in Paradise Lost, where ambition became the reason Satan fell from Heaven in the first place. ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ has become one of the most out-of-context quoted lines in literature, and Satan and his bastard court in Pandemonium are the greatest exemplars of Pride and of course, burning ambition.
It seems only expected that most fantasy authors take their cue from this trope, as Tolkien, Lewis and Jordan (whose Lanfear is certainly a Satanic figure) have done. Samit Basu problematized the easy acceptance of ambition=recipe for Dark Evil Overlord in his Gameworld Trilogy, as has Martin. Rowling, however, has more or less accepted the premise of ambition=unscrupulousness=snake in her world, and it’s this that I’ll be examining in the following post.
First off, it’s strange that an entire house is devoted to kids who are ‘ambitious’. Are we saying that the other brave, intelligent and loyal kids are not? Or are these just the kids who were not any of the other things (besides being pureblood-crazed) and hence were labeled ‘ambitious’? What resources are they supposed to use in their quest to prove their ambition, if not bravery, intelligence or loyalty?
Oh, wait. I forgot that the Sorting Hat already gave me that answer: cunning.
So Slytherin is the House for all those who are ready to slime their way up the professional ladder, using old money connections, family networks and other suitably ‘cunning’ means. It makes sense, then, that the one weapon that Snape excels at using is Occlumency, which relies on mentally lying to someone who is reading the person’s mind. It demands intelligence and bravery to hold up, yes, but more than anything, it requires smoke-screening and deft sleight-of-hand with thoughts and emotions, something that a cunning, slippery Slytherin would know how to do.
I think Rowling realized she needed an easy punching bag full of bullies and obnoxious, over-privileged kids and decided that the snake would be a fitting mascot for the House they belonged to. And what trait can you link to a snake? The Ravenclaws have already snapped up intelligence so that leaves the Satanic staple: ambition.
Now let’s look at those in the Potterverse who are ambitious. There’s the classic Slytherin, Tom Riddle, who uses his good looks, intelligence and native skill with spells and research to make himself near-immortal. His career prospects as an Evil Dark Overlord are dampened by a Prophecy, of course, and it’s an everyman with an extraordinary capacity for ‘love’ that brings him down, not someone, say, as driven or career-oriented as Hermione Granger. Though she does contribute a great amount to the downfall of Voldemort, it’s Harry who walks away with the lion’s share of the praise, as is, in the context, fitting.
Then there’s Percy Weasley, the one red-head who makes noticeable, nerdy effort to better his situation and climb the power ladder at the Ministry of Magic. Percy sticks out like a sore thumb in the Weasley clan because, unlike his brothers and sister, he thinks his dad’s desire to settle down in the back-end of the Ministry is a mistake, one that he himself will not make. This, of course, makes him a thoroughly unpleasant character in Rowling’s hands. Instead of complicating his presentation, she makes him out to be a pedant and a bore, one whose academic and extra curricular achievements are outclassed by his need to read books on the lives of Hogwarts prefects, whose ability to run an entire Department one year out of school is eclipsed by his inability to tell that his superior, who was largely absent for most his tenure, was under an expertly-cast Unforgivable curse. Percy gets no slack even in Book 5, where he is made to sympathize with Dolores Umbridge and instigate Ron to turn away from Harry. It is telling that the one Weasley to ever question his family’s blind adoration of Dumbledore gets ‘schooled’ and made to beg forgiveness, while the rest of his emotionally immature siblings sit around claiming credit for who put the most parsnips in his hair.
Even if Percy makes some wrong choices (and I’m not saying he doesn’t), he comes back and apologizes for them, unlike Sirius or James who are never made to say, on screen, that they are sorry for their treatment of those less fortunate than themselves. But we are made to understand implicity that Sirius and James are good people, unlike the boring Percy. They are glamorous and ride motorbikes and play sports; all Percy does is work hard, be responsible and strive for a ‘boring’, influential position in the Ministry.
With her research- and book-honed intelligence, Hermione possesses a skill-set similar to Percy, but her ability to make the correct decisions (unlike Percy and even the young Dumbledore) sets her apart in the category of ambitious characters. You can’t deny that Hermione is ambitious, that she’s aiming to do the best she can in school, better than anyone else in her year. Even after Hogwarts, we are told that she joined the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, campaigning and overturning many restrictive laws used against House Elves, Goblins and other magical beings. If changing the world, one law at a time, doesn’t show ambition, I don’t know what does.
Because of her insistence on using it to define the ‘evil’, snakey House, Rowling has perpetuated the Western literary tradition of seeing ambition as a negative quality, with characters like Hermione being the exception rather than the rule. Never is it stated straight out that Harry is ambitious, or Neville, or Ron. All of them are fairly laid-back characters, content to react rather than act, except in the last book, where Neville steps up and takes on the hero’s burden. In this matter, Rowling differs considerably from Jordan who questions the accepted legacy of ambition=disaster in characters such as Egwene al’Vere and Elayne Trakand. While their world too harbors megalomaniacs, there is a clear distinction between those who strive to reach the top to do good and those who covet power for its own sake.
Perhaps if Rowling had had more Hermione type characters, driven, focused individuals who were shown to possess traits other than the unscrupulousness that defines Voldemort and his ilk, I would not be so uncomfortable with the portrayal of ambitious people. The fact remains however that Hermione is a sole voice of reason among her fellows, who all too often seem to forget that there are more ‘important things’ like ‘friendship, bravery’. Perhaps I too am being unfair in expecting her to shuck centuries of literary weight from the symbol of the serpent and set it gleaming in a new, positive light. We are bowed down by the canon’s weight, as Bloom would argue, and even the best of us cannot hope to carve new meanings for our devices with just seven books to stand against the ceaseless batterings of Literary Convention.