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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House Talk: Hufflepuff

Since the blog has largely been, thus far, a smorgasbord of my opinions on various aspects of fantasy, pop culture and assorted superhero stuff, I thought it might be a change of scene to open up the floor to other fans. In this series, I hope to profile the Hogwarts houses, each in the words of a reader/fan/student who sees themselves as belonging to said house, identifies with its tenets in some fashion, and seeks, through the post, to explain what makes it the fit they most wish to see.

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What is interesting about the Hogwarts houses is how they communicate a certain identity to the larger world, and it amazes me, time and again, how so many people (me included) Sort themselves and hold to their chosen house with such conviction, never minding that this is an imaginary space, and the name really doesn’t correspond to anything in real life. Except it does, evidently. It shapes a person’s view of themselves, and I think it’s fascinating to take a peek into what goes into that sort of self-identification. How much of an impression must these books have made, to have such a powerful effect on how a reader sees herself?

So, presenting the first speaker for the House (I can’t resist bad puns sometimes), Shreya Jindal. Shreya is one of my closest friends, and the first person I met who proudly declared herself a Hufflepuff (you know, before it was cool). She is currently pursuing an M.A.T in English Education at Brown University and apart from being a devoted teacher, she is a fanfiction-ophile, and particularly loves a good Hurt/Comfort fic.

Without further ado, I’ll turn the floor over to her!

hufflepuff_flag_by_kooro_sama-d3x64p7As a proud and self-proclaimed member of the House of Hufflepuff, I occasionally get odd or amused looks, even from the ranks of Harry Potter fans who engage in this kind of discourse on a fairly regular basis. And in truth, I can’t say I blame them, for Hufflepuff has always been the most overlooked, underrated House in the books.

As a teenager, when I first recognized myself as a Hufflepuff, it was with a sense of acceptance as opposed to the kind of pride I have now. I knew I was “unafraid of toil” as well as “loyal” and “patient,” but none of these values seemed particularly glamorous or exciting. I would never have dreamed then that I would one day tattoo a badger on my shoulder, and announce to Facebook and the world at large that I was “Hufflepuff and proud.”

The fact is that I have chosen a lifelong allegiance to the values of Hufflepuff House, and as with all successful Sortings, this was something I chose of my own volition. Part of it was seeing the results of hard work in my own life. Every time I have worked hard for something I truly cared about, I have usually gotten favorable results.

This is not to say, of course, that “hard work pays off” is a universal truth. I am fully aware that some successes are down to luck and others to circumstances, but I do think that people sometimes underestimate how powerful hard work, and equally importantly, being seen to be a hard worker, can be. In the workplace, hard work impresses everyone if it is undertaken with sincerity and genuineness. It is, I think, a secret weapon for those of us who don’t, or can’t, navigate politics in the workplace.

But the real moment when my membership in the House of Hufflepuff became not just a fact, but also a matter of pride, occurred two years after I started teaching. I was re-reading the Harry Potter books for probably the hundredth time, and I came across this quote from the Sorting Hat’s song in The Order of the Phoenix, “Said Hufflepuff, ‘I’ll teach the lot, and treat them just the same.’” In that moment, I instantly recognized in these lines the golden standard for all educators, something we are supposed to aspire to, even if, as human beings, we often fall short of the ideal.

I realized then that besides being a land of adventure and romance, magic and ghosts, Hogwarts was first and foremost, supposed to be a school, and that of all the four Founders, the only one who any sane parent would want to be teaching their kids was Helga Hufflepuff. Ravenclaw wanted the clever ones, Gryffindor wanted the brave ones, and Slytherin wanted the ambitious ones, but Hufflepuff knew she wouldn’t be doing her job right if she didn’t try to educate all of them, regardless of blood, status, or temperament.

From that moment on, I have tried to live by the ideals of House Hufflepuff in my personal as well as my professional life. Today, I wear the badger tattoo on my shoulder with pride, a lifelong reminder of the things that really matter to me both as a Harry Potter fan and a teacher.

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.

Slytherin the Saviour: How Selfishness won the War

slytherin_crest1 In previous posts, I’ve discussed the Sorting of students at Hogwarts and the ramifications their houses have on their futures. I’ve also admitted that my own placement in said Houses has changed over the years, chiefly because my assessment of what’s really important to me (i.e., how I want to be perceived) has shifted. Last but not least, the idea that you can actually choose which House you go into sort of throws into doubt the whole magical and more-knowledgeable-than-thou air of the Sorting Hat in the first place.

Here though, I want to talk about a very specific thing, and that is the importance of the Slytherin trait of self-interest to the winning of the Second Wizarding War.

We all know the basics, right? Gryffindor is the house of the brave, Ravenclaw of the intelligent, Hufflepuff the hardworking and Slytherin the rich, obnoxious and/or bigoted. In the Battle of Hogwarts, the Slytherins were supposedly evacuated en masse, and didn’t stay behind to help defend their school or the ‘right side’. What defines them is their selfishness, their cunning and their penchant for supporting the wrong authority figures. If anyone won the Battle of Hogwarts, it was the selfless Gryffindors and their staunch allies. Slytherin didn’t do anything—besides start the war in the first place.

I don’t want to take away from the sacrifice of the ‘light’ soldiers, but I believe that much of their effort would have been for naught, if two Slytherins hadn’t done what they did to win the war.

First of all—Severus Snape. If he hadn’t passed on those Harry-is-a-Horcrux memories, would Harry have gone out to face death in the manner that he did? Probably not. He might have continued fighting, surprised when the destruction of the known Horcruxes didn’t have the expected effect. He might possibly have killed Voldemort once, but surely the Dark Lord would have sprung back and AK’d him before Harry knew what was happening. Without Snape’s revelations, Harry would not have walked out unarmed and unsupported to face death and end one more of Voldemort’s connections to life.

Second—this gallant sacrifice on Harry’s part would have, once again, been for nothing if Narcissa Malfoy had not, for whatever reason, declared him ‘dead’. While I think Voldemort was an idiot to send Narcissa and not, say, an unreservedly faithful follower like Bellatrix, this was a stroke of luck for Harry. Narcissa’s desire to get back into the castle and get to Draco outweighed any interest she might have had in figuring out what went wrong with the Dark Lord’s curse, and this lie provided her a deadly revenge on the man-snake who had been terrorizing her family all year long.

Again, if Narcissa had not done what she did, I don’t think Harry would have left that clearing alive.

Why did these people act as they did? Certainly there was bravery involved, but what defines both Snape and Narcissa’s behaviour here is self-interest, the domain of Slytherin house. Slytherins fight not for ideals or abstract concepts, apparently, can follow the dictates of their selfish desires to good ends. Snape, a great example of a tenacious Slytherin, joined Dumbledore’s side because of his love of, not freedom or humanity in general, but Lily. His desire to serve against Voldemort was born of a selfish exchange: so long as Lily was safe, he would fight for Dumbledore. Even after she died, it was in her memory that he fought on, as well evidenced by the gravelly ‘Always’.

Narcissa wants to do nothing but get back to her son. Not for her the politics of the war or the questions of right and wrong thrown up by it: what matters is the preservation of those she loves, and all the rest can go to hell.

I think, with the Slytherins, Rowling proved that you don’t always need sweeping ideals or larger-than-life courage to be a hero. Sometimes, devotion to purely selfish interests does do good. As the Sorting Hat said, ‘Those cunning folk use any means/To achieve their ends’. Not all of those ends, nor the means, are evil.

And in some ways, this makes Slytherin house the most realistic of them all.

 

Growing up Potter: A Little Ambition Never Killed Nobody

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.

Image 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.

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.