Ruminations on a Hat:
Until the events recorded in Order of the Phoenix, one of the more persistent fanon misconceptions regarding Neville Longbottom was that it must have been only by some fluke that he ended up in Gryffindor. There was an equally persistent determination to misread both his character, and the priorities of Hufflepuff House in order to claim that Hufflepuff “should” have been his proper place. Some very ingenious and unnecessary backbends have been indulged in to explain Neville’s presence in Gryffindor.
Other unreflective people who have bought wholesale the myth of the ever-glorious (and apparently terminally butch) Gryffindor House have even raised the question of what such “girly” girls as Miss Brown and Miss Patil are doing there.
What I suspect is that the people who raise such questions were being carried away by Gryffindor House’s own image of itself (a legend in its own mind). This is not difficult, as Gryffindor seems to be the Gilderoy Lockhart of the Houses — and I strongly suspect that Mr Lockhart was an alumnus of it, too.
As to Misses Brown & Patil; I suspect there is probably a fine, long-established tradition of heedless Gryffindor airheads that Lavender at least fits right into. Why else would those fans who have not bought the package of “ever-glorious Gryffindor” be so disparaging toward the Gryffs, as they have been presented in canon in general? There are certain kinds of foolhardiness and something that usually ends up counting as a “form” of bravery that just seem to go hand in hand. Hagrid seems to have it in abundance.
We have at least seen that Brown & Patil aren’t actually cowards at any rate. They may squeal like little piggies with or without good reason but we don’t often see them running for cover, and Parvati, at least seems magically quite competent.
Nor do either of these girls timidly avoid behavior which they know will get them into trouble if they are caught.
At midpoint of the series most of their poor showing had been because we had only seen them thorough the Harry filter, and Harry, still mostly sees females through the Weasley-patented “Macho Dude” lens. Only Hermione has consistently been able to make herself visible as an individual through that lens, and she first showed up through it only by a fluke when she covered for them by lying about the Troll in the bathroom incident. Luna later showed up through the lens by virtue of sheer weirdness, but kept falling off the radar. Ginny finally managed to make herself visible by acting the vicious little bitch to all and sundry. One, with difficulty, resists drawing comparisons to her distant cousin, Bellatrix. (Harry Potter certainly does not seem to bring out the best in the people around him.)
The proposal has been raised on certain lists that it may actually be “glorious Gryffindor” which truly serves as the “default” House rather than “humble Hufflepuff”, and that reading is not at all a bad one.
But I would still say that it is just not that simple.
• • • •
It is certainly true that Neville Longbottom (unlike Miss Brown and Miss Patil) does not display your “typical” Gryffindor manner. Neville seems to be curiously lacking in the characteristic Gryffindor thirst for attention and public admiration.
But these persistent misreadings insofar as they regard Neville are very far from the mark. There was really no other fitting place at Hogwarts for somebody like Neville but Gryffindor. Gryffindor was not his “best” default placement, it was his only default placement.
And post-DHs it is obvious that his placement there was not by default at all.
My own reading of the matter is that any “default” placements at Hogwarts are probably judged on a one-to-one basis on the part of the Hat and the student under examination may end up being sent anywhere. Despite Helga’s stated willingness to train any child that needed it, if modern Hogwarts has anything like a “catch-all” House it is certainly not Hufflepuff, whose requirements demand a degree of willing self-effacement that is really not all that common in adolescents.
For that matter, Helga *herself* didn’t just adopt the students that caught none of the other three founders’ attention. I’m sure that when she was given any say in the matter, Helga, like Godric, Rowena and Salazar would have actively selected her students, and Helga didn’t select for duffers. If modern Hufflepuff is at all to the pattern, Helga was very carefully selecting for “team players” and “team builders” from whom her collection of defaults could learn by example. Neville, amiably off inside his own head, is not even close to being Hufflepuff material. The off-in-their-own-little-world types, like Neville, do much better when thrown to the lions than to the badgers, who tend to regard non-participation in peer activities in the light of a mortal sin.
What is more; regardless of how the Founders may have selected their students during their own lives, when it came to “programing” the Hat, we have already seen what appears to be some indication that the Founders’ personal preferences were forced to undertake a certain degree of translation, and to recalibrate to select from a broader interpretation of each Founder’s underlying priorities.
Every Founder was alert to spotting the exceptional students of their own day. But, even among wizards, the majority of children are not particularly exceptional. Or, not at as early an age as 11. When it came time to develop a “selection engine” to be installed in an inanimate object, it was ultimately necessary to distill each House Founder’s selection criteria through a definition of what each House actually taught its students about the way to get on in life. And — from that — to attempt to reverse-engineer the willingness and ability to absorb these particular “lessons” into something that would show up as a subject’s overriding personal goal in a form that would be identifiable even by the definitions of a pre-teen child of yet unformed taste and immature personality.
• • • •
Before any child could be assigned to any House, it must be clear to the selection “engine” what it is that the child wants from life, and how well his desire matches up to the four Houses’ individual lessons. The surface interpretation that the Sorting Hat is a personality identifier falls apart immediately upon any sort of close examination. After all, it is obvious to any reader that all of the children in any of the Houses are not all of the same personality type.
Clearly what is being Sorted is not the sort of person you are, but the sort of qualities you value, and the kind of things you want.
The results in both Helga and Salazar’s cases came out looking very different from the conscious judgement that either of those Founders had actually used themselves. And even Godric and Rowena’s priorities underwent a considerable degree of redefinition. I rather imagine that all four of the Founders came out of the Hat project feeling a little bemused.
In Slytherin’s case the result of this refining process seems to have been particularly inconsistent with his alleged personal preferences. Unless Rowling is playing some form of double-bluff with us. She is at her most conspicuously self-contradictory best when she is laying out the values of Slytherin House. For example:
Slytherin is presumably the “house of the pureblood”. We have been told repeatedly that Salazar himself preferred to teach only those students whose families came from the longest tradition of magical ability. However, it took until Harry’s fifth year before the Sorting Hat ever bothered to mention that criterion when it sang about the qualities that it used to sort the new First years. Or at least mention it in our hearing.
So just what does the Hat do? Look into the kids’ heads to see if it can find a genealogy chart? I tend to doubt that. And if it does, why has it never come out and said so before?
I suspect that if wizarding background is used as a sorting criterion at all it takes a distant last place in priority. Particularly since the Hat is known to have sorted at least one Muggle-raised halfblood who could have known no more about the wizarding world than Harry did when he first arrived, into Slytherin House. It took Tom Riddle to the end of his 4th year before he finally traced his mother’s family. Not much of a chance of the Hat Sorting him by the knowledge of his illustrious wizarding heritage.
And how often do we remember that the Hat long predates the establishment of any sort of magically hidden wizarding world?
• • • •
Never mind. There is more confusion to come. The whole problem of defining the “quintessential Slytherin” obviously cannot be served by an examination of bloodlines alone. It is much more complex than that.
Slytherin is also said to be the “Dark Arts” house. Well, that’s okay too. No particular contradiction there, either. In fact it tends to support my own contention that the Dark Arts are a largely-obsolete wizarding tradition which has been superseded by the safer methods of modern day wizardry. Consequently, it would usually be only those families with the longest established wizarding traditions who still tend to gravitate toward them.
More recent implications in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, however, suggest that Rowling, and indeed the wizarding world itself draws NO well-defined distinction between “Dark” and “Light” magic. That, in fact, Harry and his friends may have been learning Dark magic right along with everything else with the full approval of their instructors. Ms Rowling also now appears to have never had any intention of clearing this issue up. Which leaves us with a distinct impression that “Dark” magic is whatever she and the Ministry of Magic happen to disapprove of in a given week. Apparently you are just supposed to instinctively “know” whether a given spell is Dark or Light; on alternate Tuesdays.
And, then, Rowling goes on and tells us that the primary criterion the Hat uses for sorting these kids is “ambition”. Ambition? WTF?! Explain to me, please, what ambition has to do with either the Dark Arts specifically OR with being of pureblooded ancestry? In particular, what possible effect can ambition have on one’s ancestry?
It would seem to me that any effect that being a pureblood might have upon one’s ambition would most likely be to lessen it. If you have already “arrived,” at the pinnacle of existence just by being born into the proper family, what more is necessary? A sense of entitlement is not ambition. (“Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”) And it is this indolent sense of entitlement that shines right through what we’ve been shown of the current members of the House’s behavior.
“Ambition” seems to be diametrically opposed to the kind of “Slytherin manner” demonstrated by Malfoy and his goons. Now, the statement that Percy Weasley is ambitious I can accept with alacrity. No question about that. But Draco? I don’t get it. What is Rowling thinking?
And not being satisfied with that, Rowling has managed to further muddy the waters by confusing the issue even further over the course of the series by further conflating the Slytherin “ambition” with the willingness to use any means to hand in order to “win”. For, from where we have been standing the students of Hogwarts who seem to be the most obsessed with the idea of “winning” are the Gryffindors!
It is enough to make one wonder whether Slytherin himself was already gone from the school by the time the Hat was “programed”, and the other three cobbled the sorting criteria for his House together in committee. That would hardly have made it any more contradictory.
Or, alternately, to make one wonder whether something has gone a bit screwy with the Hat.
Hold that thought.
• • • •
Since the release of HBP, we have finally been given a clear indication of why the Slytherin House of today is so throughly screwed up. It’s clearly still suffering from the Riddle effect. Tom Riddle waltzed into Slytherin House nearly 60 years ago, and proceeded to enthrall not just everyone in his own year, but everyone in the adjacent years, reel in kids from a 2-3 years ahead of him, and serve as a role model for everyone who came afterwards. As well as to pretty throughly bamboozle the staff.
Not all of those other Slytherin kids at that time were Death Eater material, any more than all Slytherin kids are Death Eater material now. But it seems to have never occurred to them to oppose him. And there were enough of them who were of the proper temperament for him to chose to cultivate, and to ensure that they and their descendants would be the dominant faction in that House for generations to come. Slytherin House today is not what it was in 1937, before Riddle was Sorted there. And he, and his followers, and their descendants are not a true portrait of what the House typically produced prior to that date.
And I began to think that the fact that this distortion was still in operation as late as the 1990s could well be a clue to a possible discovery slated for Book 7
Well, no such luck. Nevertheless, it was a fun theory while it lasted. It lives over in the 7th Son collection now. But I’ll give it a bit of a reprise.
• • • •
Now that we’d met Slughorn, it’s become even more obvious that Tom Riddle waltzed in and stole his House right out from under him.
He intended to do it literally, too. How long do you think Slughorn would have continued to be Head of Slytherin if Dippett had given Tom the DADA position when he first asked for it at the age of 18?
For that matter, how long would Albus have survived as Deputy Head?
Or survived at all?
But there are more ways to skin a cat than swinging it around by the tail. Dippitt listened to Albus in ’45, and sent Tom off to get some experience in the field. By the time Tom risked his return to the Wizarding World (his appearance was deteriorating beyond the point that he could readily continue to move openly among the Muggles), he discovered that he had tarried too long, and that Dumbledore was now Headmaster. There was no way that Albus Dumbledore would have permitted Tom Riddle to run at large in his school.
But Tom had made important plans for the school. It held a crucial role in his design to dominate the wizarding world by subverting its young. And he wasn’t prepared to give those plans up. I think that he was forced to make alternate arrangements.
Potterverse axiom #1: whenever anything has been shown to have taken place over the course of the series. It is exponentially more likely than not to be shown to have happened again.
In Goblet of Fire Barty Crouch Jr allegedly hoodwinked a powerful magical object; Confunding it into forgetting that only three schools compete in the TriWizard Tournament, to enable it to select Harry’s name, which was entered as that of a student of a bogus fourth school. Or at any rate that is how he claimed the ruse must have been accomplished.
I thought we may have another powerful magical object suffering under a Confundus, or other misdirecting charm.
I suspected that Tom Riddle had nobbled the Sorting Hat.
For that matter, I thought we may have watched him do it, when he came to ask Albus for the DADA position. The Hat sits on a shelf behind Albus’s desk. Harry thought he saw Voldemort go for his concealed wand at one point during the interview.
At first we all thought that he was jinxing the DADA position. For that matter; until Rowling pooh-poohed the idea, I seriously thought that he may have been turning the Hat into a Horcrux (a theory which no longer works with how I now believe a Horcrux is created, but that was then).
Well, Rowling publicly called a halt to the Sorting Hat Horcrux theory in her Christmas day update of her official site in 2005. The Sorting Hat is definitely not a Horcrux.
But, it took another six weeks before it finally sunk in that she never said that the Sorting Hat had definitely not been tampered with.
(For the record, it still may have been. We’ve never been told it wasn’t.)
And I also suspected that by the end of Book 6 out of 7, we probably already had all the puzzle pieces we needed to figure it out.
In fact, we’d had some of those pieces for a Long Time now.
And we had done nothing but complain about them.
• • • •
Readers have been carping and creebing for years about the depiction of Slytherin House and it’s alumni. Ever since about Book 2. (We mostly just accepted it in Book 1. Despite Hagrid’s grumblings on the subject, Harry saw very little of Slytherin House in book 1. Just Malfoy and his goons, and the Quidditch team. And Snape who went out of his way to be combative.)
We have, since that point, been told outright that people tagged along after Riddle for a pretty wide variety of personal reasons.
With that in mind, doesn’t it begin to look just a bit suspicious that despite a wide variety of reasons to cluster around young Tom Riddle, such a large percentage of Voldemort’s “future followers” have been Sorted into only one House?
In my own case I have been grousing for years that Malfoy’s assumption of “entitlement” hasn’t anything to do with ambition. Not by my reckoning.
It finally caught up to me that this might not just be sloppy writing; it could be a CLUE.
Or it certainly ought to be.
Tom isn’t a bit like Harry. Harry just rolls with the punches, Tom makes plans. Grandiose, complex, elaborate plans. Even back when he was Harry’s age he made plans. The only thing those two really seem to have in common is dark hair, Parseltongue (which in Harry’s case was laid on) and an attachment to Hogwarts.
Oh, and they both are descended from the Peverill brothers, which may not be all that unusual by this time. And they both look just like their fathers. But they are hardly the only boys in the Potterverse to do that.
But in this case, I think that I may have slightly overestimated young Tom Riddle’s degree of wickedness. I have since conceded that when he first asked Dippett for the DADA position he may indeed have wanted no more than to forever remain at Hogwarts.
Oh, well, yes, he eventually wanted to be Headmaster, too. And he fully intended to become so as soon as he could manage it. But at that point he may have had no definite plans related to World Domination.™ He was a sociopath, a murderer at least three times over, had at the very least orchestrated the death of a fellow student, and we have been led to believe had already performed the ultimate evil of creating a Horcrux as well, but there was still some innocence left to him. He certainly had the intention of making everyone fear him, but World Domination was a bee that only got into his bonnet once he left school and saw how few wizards there really are. While he was still at Hogwarts, his Ultima Thule was to stay there.
While I am inclined to think that Albus was probably correct that Tom eventually would have chosen to move on, Albus might just as easily have been mistaken. The Headmaster of Hogwarts is a position of considerable power in the wizarding world, after all. Tom wanted it. He intended that Hogwarts Castle should be his.
And in any case; it’s pretty clear that, at Harry’s age, Tom Riddle had no intention of ever leaving the school. He wanted to stay there forever.
We need to ask ourselves the same question that Albus asked Riddle. Why did he travel so far on a nasty winter night to ask for a teaching position that he didn’t really want, and could have no expectation of being given?
And for that matter, why did he jinx the DADA position? What did he accomplish by that apart from petty spite?
• • • •
As to the first question; For several months I thought his original intention may have been to kill Dumbledore that very night and create a Horcrux from his death. And that he’d gotten cold feet.
It’s still a possibility. He had been away for quite some time, hadn’t he? And for that matter, he shows a definite pattern of liking to have other people do his dirty work. So far as we know, at that point he had never yet killed a wizard face-to-face, had he? He’d killed three Muggles. He’d caused the deaths of two witches, by indirect means, but we don’t know of any point that he had stood up in front of a witch or wizard and tried to kill them in a fair fight.
But by the time DHs came out I was no longer so sure. Tom had a reason to set up that interview. He had something to accomplish by that meeting. And murdering Albus Dumbledore would have been an awfully chancy thing to try to carry off. Even if the Horcrux-creation spell does typically destroy the body of its victim (as it did his own body in Godric’s Hollow) leaving no trace of the death. And simple hit-and-run killings are not really that much in Tom Riddle’s style. If he intended to murder Albus Dumbledore he would have spun some kind of a long-range, Byzantine plot about it. (Well, he did, didn’t he?)
He also must have known he wasn’t going to get that teaching position.
So what did the interview accomplish? What did he get from that interview that he would probably not have been able to get without it?
Well, that’s an easy question to answer:
He got access to Hogwarts.
• • • •
For some as yet undisclosed reason, he needed access to Hogwarts. He had something planned that he had to get set up at the school.
So he had to make some kind of arrangement that would enable him to accomplish what he intended to accomplish (i.e., setting a trap; hiding a Horcrux; setting the school up as his recruiting base, whatever) at long-distance.
So why should he curse the DADA position?
How about as a diversion?
He couldn’t count on Albus not noticing a twitch of his hand toward his wand, so he needed to give Albus some other reason to account for it. He slung the Diadem into the Room of Hidden Things on the way to or from the main staircase, and cursed the DADA position (or maybe just the classroom) on his way down the stairs to the Entrance Hall, but that is not necessarily what we saw him do in Albus’s office. What we don’t know is whether Albus really bought the story of the curse being the purpose of that visit or not. Although he claimed to.
But the jinx on the DADA position would have become apparent by the end of June, whereas the Sorting Hat wouldn’t be used until the following September. And Albus is a busy man. If Riddle did tamper with the Sorting Hat, he may have slipped that one past Albus.
So. How does this work? Is the Hat aware that it has been tampered with?
Indications to this point suggest that it probably is not. And the tampering was, in this case, a remarkably subtle piece of work for Riddle, whose usual style is generally much more flashy.
I think that whatever it is that Riddle did convinces the Hat to read a desire for power over others as “ambition”.
This would cover most of the bases.
“Power over others” is not a traditional sorting criterion. All four Houses teach their students how to influence others, each one through different techniques. Either through ties of trust and affection, or from acknowledged intellectual superiority, admiration for “worthy”, or daring deeds, or just the sense of sticking with a winner. Crude power over other people in itself is not something that I think any of the Founders considered a worthwhile goal on its own. Their attitudes all seem to have been much more akin to; “if you build it, they will come.”
But Riddle does consider it a worthwhile goal. Power over others is what Tom Riddle is all about.
The truly ambitious would still be Sorted into Slytherin, anyway. Riddle’s tampering doesn’t do anything to make the Hat read only the desire for power over others as ambition.
And from the outside, a desire to put others in your power probably does look like ambition, but it really isn’t the same thing. And while it could perhaps be interpreted as a form of ambition, it isn’t either the purest, or the highest form.
But since Tom meddled with the Hat, quite a number of potential bullies land in Slytherin who might otherwise have landed somewhere else. Not all bullies, by any means. The ones who indulge in bullying chiefly for the attention it attracts, and the admiration of the crowd — rather than for the actual power involved — still usually manage to land in Gryffindor. These are probably also the ones who most quickly outgrow the tendency to bully as they get older. Although not always.
More to the point: a hell of a lot of damaged kids who read “power over others” as the surest form of protection for themselves and control over their own situations (which accounts for a fairly major percentage of the aforementioned bullies, too) now landed in Slytherin who really might have otherwise landed elsewhere.
And those are kids that Voldemort can use.
And, had he got that DADA post, when he first asked Dippett for it, once he had manage to edge Horace Slughorn out of the way as Head of Slytherin they would all have come to him.
Quite a few of them still do. Eventually.
Tom Riddle absolutely didn’t learn the lesson that poor Sluggy tries so hard to teach his kids. Riddle totally misses the whole point of noblesse oblige. But he learned the technique. He saw how it was done. He would have set up his own club.
Well, after all, he did. Didn’t he?
The fact remains that despite anomalies like Pettigrew, and probably a handful of others, a High percentage of all of the Death Eaters who have ever been were originally Slytherins. And enlisting a “hereditary” following by signing up the 2nd and 3rd generations of the same few families does not altogether account for it. And, at that, even though while just about all DEs are ex-Slyths, not all ex-Slyths are even close to being DEs. In fact only a minority of them are.
But, close to forty years of that kind of very slight shift in the priorities for Sorting kids has set its stamp on the character of the House.
The Hat has to go.
Or at least be returned to its original state.
Rowling claimed that the Founders would have some part to play in Book 7.
And the only real way to the Founders is through the Hat.
(ETA: I guess this was another mostly abandoned intention on Rowling’s part, the story of Helena Ravenclaw and the Baron hardly qualifies as tales of the Founders.)
• • • •
But as to the rest of the Founders, and their sorting criteria:
In the case of Helga, the issue is not quite such a blatant contradiction as with Salazar. Helga would teach any child who needed teaching. But, regardless of what she taught her students, the lesson that her House now teaches them is how to work together as a team. Not every child is inherently capable of that kind of cooperation. Nor is that a lesson that all children will agree to learn. (Just try to imagine young Tom Riddle in Hufflepuff. Go on, I dare you.) Clearly the Hat must have some criterion for being confident that the children Sorted into Helga’s House will learn its lessons.
And, really, look at everything everyone says about the ’Puffs when they are trying to be nice, or at least neutral. All of those very particular virtues are exactly the ones that best grease the wheels of cooperative efforts.
Modern-day Hufflepuff is emphatically NOT the house that you get sent to if you lack any distinguishing characteristics. Where that particular misreading is concerned, the problem is one of perception, in that the ’Puffs identify themselves so completely with their “peer group” that to most outsiders’ eyes they all blend together.
It’s a vanishingly small wonder that an arrogant, immature, Slyth-to-the-bone like an 11-year-old Draco Malfoy regarded them with contempt and ill-disguised horror. Or that an immature dyed-in-the-wool Gryff like Ron Weasley dismissed them as a bad joke.
A Hufflepuff back-up team is every hero’s, every statesman’s, every brilliant ivory-tower innovator’s dream. But, by definition, as the hero, the statesman or the innovator, you are not a part of that team — so you have to earn their respect before they will willingly back you up. And if you do manage to enlist such a support group and then overstep yourself with them and turn them against you, they will withdraw that support, and they will bury you.
(You WILL notice that everyone in canon who sneers at the Hufflepuffs is careful to do so behind their backs. The ’Puffs in their standard formation are formidable.)
It has also been noted that if you ever do manage to cut one of the more talented ’Puffs out of the herd and let him carry the banner for the honor of his House, he shines. Cedric Diggory was close to honestly winning the Tri-Wizard Tournament. It’s no wonder that Barty Crouch Jr stepped in to make sure he didn’t. And there are a lot of very talented or very admirable wizards in Hufflepuff. Every tribe has a chieftain, after all.
• • • •
At Neville’s Sorting, however, Gryffindor was the only real possibility. I suspect that the (very long) time it took to get Neville Sorted was not, as in Harry’s case, due to any debate as to which House to send him to, so much as in getting the boy (who I contend didn’t truly want to be a wizard at all) resigned to going into any House. Let’s look at the choices, shall we?
Slytherin? It is to laugh. If ever there was a child with absolutely no wizardly ambition, Neville Longbottom at the age of 11 was that child. Nor does he have any secret hankering for power over others. This choice wasn’t even on the menu.
Ravenclaw? Hardly. The canon Neville of the books is comfortably within normal IQ range, but he doesn’t value cleverness purely for its own sake, and he lacks the ’Claws’ requisite bloody-minded determination to be proven right. Nor has he the sort of mental quickness which is all that would have kept him from being trampled by his housemates in Ravenclaw. Despite the fact that the ’Claws are probably the most determinedly individualist of all the Houses, they can be an overbearing lot with it. In that particular House, above all, it’s everyone for himself. Neville’s “duffer” act would have cut no ice in Ravenclaw. And he altogether lacks the sort of unshakable faith in himself that so effectively armors those odd ducks and misfits in the style of Luna Lovegood.
Hufflepuff? No. Again. We’re in deeply tribal, “group think” territory here. The Hufflepuff’s motto really is; “nobody left behind”, but that only applies if you visibly pitch in and do your part for the rest of your “team”.
The Hufflepuffs generally come in last because they move at the speed of their weakest member — but they always finish the course. And the ’Puffs have zero tolerance for loners or “odd ducks”. They also have a nasty tendency to gang up on outsiders, slackers, or people who are perceived to have deliberately let their side down. [Note: you do NOT want to alienate the Hufflepuffs. There are a lot of them. And they stick together. Far more solidly than the Slytherins, whose alliances are tactical, strategic — and temporary.] For his own sake, it’s a damn good thing that Neville is not in Hufflepuff.
So what real possibility was there ever for Neville, but Gryffindor?
• • • •
My own take on the question of Sorting is that the primary criterion that the Hat uses for sorting the students (who as adolescents, or pre-adolescents have hardly developed “fully-formed” personalities yet) is the child’s own wishes and values.
Though Hermione claims that the subject was raised in her Sorting, observers saw no prolonged period of discussion attempting to convince Hermione Granger that she might be better suited in Ravenclaw (which she probably would have been; she would certainly have been more welcome there, even if not better liked). Having read up on the subject, Hermione had already decided that she wanted to be in Gryffindor, so she was put in Gryffindor. The Hat pointed out an alternate possibility, but it didn’t really care. From the Great Hall’s viewpoint, it took very little time to Sort Hermione Granger.
The Hat would have seen as little reason to put Malfoy anywhere but Slytherin. (Who else would have wanted him, and could you have convinced him to go?) From their comments in Madam Malkin’s shop and on the Hogwarts Express, it is clear that Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger both were mentally shouting their choices to the Hat even as they put it on, and the Hat complied without much argument. It didn’t waste any time in Sorting them. Nor are they the only ones.
Ron and his siblings probably reached Hogwarts hardly able to conceive of landing in any House other than Gryffindor, and there was nothing in their heads to make the Hat ask them “Are you sure about that?” even though Percy would probably have been a good deal happier in Ravenclaw, (Particularly once the twins arrived at Hogwarts) or even in Slytherin, where he would have had an extremely awkward time fitting in, but ultimately would have at least been respected there. It would have been a lot more difficult for the twins to get “at” him had he been in another House. But, no, even Percy was determined upon Gryffindor. And, in the long run, it wasn’t a bad fit, however bad the timing. Percy is one of the classic Gryffindor “types”, he’s just not successful at it. None of his peers admire him.
And in HBP we get it pointed out to us by Slughorn that House affiliations often do run in families. No doubt because the children Sorted approach the process with pre-established House associations. Even Harry, by the time he was Sorted, had picked up enough to be averse to being sent into Slytherin and, if anything, predisposed to Gryffindor.
I think that the real state of affairs is that, by this time, in three-quarters of the cases, the Hat permits the students to Sort themselves. And this is usually done according to a child’s family associations and the Houses’ reputations. It is comparatively rare that a child raised inside the wizarding world approaches the Hat prepared to let the Hat make its decision unprompted.
It is in those cases where the child has no definite expectations that the Hat will step in to discuss the matter with them in any degree of depth as it did with Harry (and probably with Neville). And these are most likely to be the children who are Muggle-born, or Muggle-raised, who have no family House associations to draw from, and probably don’t know the Houses’ reputations. Once the Hat recognizes what the child really deems important, which it seems to do by playing Devil’s Advocate, it sends him to where he is most likely to learn to achieve that goal. Every Sorting song we’ve had to date tends to support this reading.
The students who are determined to “win”, to advance, to reach the top, to make theirs a “great success story”, whatever has to be done, whatever it may cost, even at the expense of public opinion, just so long as they “win” — even if they simply define “winning” as living off of their daddy’s investments, land in Slytherin.
Or so it appears. There may be more to it than we’ve been shown.
Draco Malfoy has been brought up to have no doubt that this is his destiny. Nor is this a difficult aspiration to apply to even such unpromising examples as Crabbe and Goyle. Slytherin teaches its children how to “win”. To gain and to keep the upper hand in their dealings. To work from a position of strength. Regardless of the means, regardless of the cost, either to one’s self — or to anyone else. The really promising and large-minded Slyths it teaches how to win in a way that other people will gladly help them to go on winning. Some Slytherin leaders have probably been exceedingly well-loved, and deservedly so. This doesn’t altogether match my own somewhat more “driven” definition of ambition, but it is easy enough to identify. Even for a Hat.
By the time OotP was out, I had come around to the viewpoint that regardless of Salazar’s own reputed preference for accepting only those students with established family ties to wizarding tradition, the “pureblood thing” has very little to do with a modern Sorting. At least not on the Hat’s part. The main reason that purebloods of a certain type have gravitated so steadily into Slytherin House is because, over the past century or so, purebloods from families with any sort of isolationist or supremacist tendencies are likely to show up at Hogwarts convinced that only Slytherin House is an acceptable destination. They have already pre-Sorted themselves and the Hat lets them get on with it. The Riddle effect has only magnified this tendency.
And even then there is still no guarantee that such children will have any predisposition to gravitate to the Dark Arts.
Nor does that keep the Hat from sending other children from other backgrounds there as well. It was Tom Riddle’s single-minded determination to “win” that sent him to Slytherin House, not his descent from one of the Founders — of which Tom was completely unaware. Or even the fact he was a Parselmouth.
Children who want “admiration” or “acclaim,” whether they actually win or not, land in Gryffindor. Misses Brown & Patil, anyone? Hermione? To the Gryffs, simply “winning” is not enough. They want to be admired for winning. Indeed, to be admired even if they don’t win. To a Gryffindor, the glory matters more than the power. If they win they must do so in a manner that ensures that they will be applauded for it; or conversely, they are determined to go out and do something which deserves admiration.
Not love, necessarily. Or even personal liking. A Gryffindor certainly won’t disdain either of those, but in a pinch he will do without, if the admiration is present. Where the Slytherin is content with winning, in itself, the Gryffindor wants it to be acknowledged that he deserved to win.
This tends to constrain most Gryffs to a range of popularly accepted and recognizable styles of “admirable” public behavior. Behavior which is theoretically rewarded according to its deserts.
Although Slytherin certainly has its “drama queen” side, Gryffindor is the true house of the “grand gesture”. Leaving aside the occasional oddballs like Neville, or the professionally humble, like Lupin, one’s public image deeply matters in Gryffindor.
In Gryffindor a gallant failure is to be preferred to a “dishonorable” victory. The Slyths don’t care how they win, or whether they win and are disliked for it. The ’Claws don’t particularly care whether they’re disliked, period. So long as they are acknowledged to be right. (Ravenclaw would have taught Hermione not to bloody care what the likes of a Ron Weasley thought of her.) The ’Puffs would rather be liked even if they finish last.
• • • •
Which is not to say that any individual Gryffindor’s publicly “virtuous” manner necessarily goes beyond skin deep. Applying the general litmus test of looking for a thirst for “admiration”, it is very easy to see that both Ludo Bagman and Gilderoy Lockhart probably Sorted into Gryffindor. And quite possibly Cornelius Fudge landed there as well.
For that matter, once Harry had been told a few bits and pieces of how fine and beloved his parents had been in this strange new world of theirs, it was his clear desire to be found “worthy” of them which tipped him so easily into Gryffindor.
For that matter, Gryffindor is also the House of the faithful sidekick. Sidekicks do not come in mobs. They do not group into teams. They are “one-man dogs” totally devoted to their Leader. And they are pre-eminently valued and admired by those Leaders in return. Yes, Sirius Black, I am looking at you.
For that matter, I really doubt that Peter Pettigrew is the first “lone wolf” subversive to have gone through Hogwarts decked out in scarlet and gold, either.
Gryffindor subversives are a bit of special case. But Pettigrew was pushed into that role. It was certainly not his original intention to become one. He put on the Hat intending to be James Potter’s very best friend, for life. I think that it was already clear that James (who still had yet to be Sorted) did come to Hogwarts with family associations, through his father, for Gryffindor House (assuming that Dorea and Charlus Potter were his parents, his mother was almost certainly a Slytherin). Peter put the Hat on with a rosy view of he and James shoulder-to-shoulder, best friends forever, and the Hat, recognizing that mindset, sent him off to Gryffindor.
The true Gryffindor subversives are mercifully rare. And I suspect that they may usually have their role thrust upon them when something or other has blocked them from their natural position as Leader or Lieutenant. Being balked of one’s chosen position as Leader or Lieutenant will not recalibrate one’s goals into a desire to be a part of a team, like a Hufflepuff. A Lieutenant after all, is above all an officer, not one of the troops.
Nor will being balked of one’s original goal as Leader, or adjunct to the Leader, suddenly imbue one with a value for cleverness for its own sake, like a Ravenclaw.
These shadowy figures would usually have been delighted to be admired publicly as a Leader, or as the trusted Lieutenants of a worthy Leader, or by posterity, but once they retool their priorities, they are just as likely to be satisfied if they are heroes only to themselves. One seriously has to stop and wonder whether Barty Crouch Jr could have possibly been a Gryffindor.
Many times those priorities retool into something very close to the Slytherins’ desire merely to win, although they typically lack the Slytherins’ specific skills for doing so. This tends to make them far better equipped to undermine or to destroy something that already exists than to put something else in its place.
Sometimes such subversives have proved invaluable to their world, when there was an existing injustice to be addressed. Typically they have a cause to which they are dedicated, but sometimes — as with their more outgoing housemates (*cough* Gilderoy Lockhart *cough*) — these causes may turn out to be utterly selfish at their core. In Pettigrew’s case the “cause” is his personal survival. Which brings us to:
There are Gryffindors, of all types, who eventually manage to lower their objectives to a level that makes them extremely dangerous individuals. Pettigrew, for example, was forced into Lone Operator mode, and it was not his natural style. He only managed to sustain it by dispensing with any sort of attempt to uphold any degree of personal honor, and ultimately seemed to be willing to define “victory” by mere “survival” and to be a hero only in his own mind. His complete dismissal of outer appearances was rare even among subversives. This made him a very dangerous and unpredictable man.
By such an example of what happens when a Gryffindor is denied his “proper” role we can easily recognize that both the traditional Slytherin and the traditional Gryffindor House “goals” represent two only slightly contrasting styles of standard “leadership” models.
As is, in it’s own somewhat less well-socialized manner, the following;
• • • •
Those individuals who are determined to be proven “right — at whatever cost” tend to end up in Ravenclaw.
I rather suspect that the Patil twins were squabblers rather than players of the kind of “double act” that Fred and George Weasley perfected. Otherwise they would have both landed in one or the other of their houses rather than being split. I also suspect that a remarkable number of traditional Ravenclaw “leaders” are perfectly satisfied with a following consisting only of themselves. This is the traditional House of the “different drummer”. It is also the traditional House of the poseur (although those do crop up elsewhere). And they occasionally tend to be both aggressive and competitive about it.
Eagles are not gentle birds. Professor Flitwick notwithstanding, I seriously doubt that consideration for the feelings of others is a universally held Ravenclaw trait. In fact, given the caliber of what passes for “wit” among adolescents, there is much more likely to be a pronounced tendency among the eaglets to call a spade a bleeding shovel in the harshest manner possible. On any and every opportunity. And the only person whose feelings are routinely considered are one’s own and perhaps that of a close friend.
And such friends are usually not regarded as Lieutenants, but colleagues. Ravenclaws are, of all the Houses, the least wedded to hierarchal social structures. The duration of Ravenclaw associations are also likely to be inherently unstable as well. Neither devoted Lieutenants nor dedicated teams abound in Ravenclaw. Nor do the Slytherin-style specific, and purposeful, patron/client alliances rule there, although they may be occasionally entered into. This does not argue for a high degree of permanence in one’s associations, although since every Ravenclaw is in for a 7-year stint with these particular housemates a “pecking order” usually does manage to emerge. Eventually.
In addition to that; among the worshipers at such a temple to “individuality” as Ravenclaw House constitutes, one can probably also find a sliding scale of styles in “sensibility” from the hair-triggered and thin-skinned all the way to purest rhinohide. This is not an easy combination, and tends to be as volatile as an unsupervised Potions lab.
And, finally; those children whose most deeply-held desire is to “belong” to a group that values them; to have a place that is their own, within their own “tribe” become the Hufflepuffs.
Neville already knows that he belongs to and is valued (it says in the fine print, anyway) by his family. And his family has managed to make this more of a burden than any form of support. He would not have been looking for more of the same when he got to Hogwarts. If anything, what Neville probably wanted most was to be left alone for a change.
As we can see by squinting around the edges, with the apparent exception of Hufflepuff, there is an accepted “loner” style in all of the Hogwarts Houses. But the underlying Sorting criterion of each House still takes precedence. There is no true House that is just for loners. And without that overriding determination to be proven right, and that fundamental admiration for cleverness for its own sake, a tendency to operate as a loner will not send you into Ravenclaw.
Gryffindor was the House most likely to accept Neville exactly as he was, so long as he didn’t rock the boat or try to steal anyone else’s thunder.
Mind you; stealing other people’s thunder is perfectly acceptable behavior in Gryffindor. Expected even. But you have to act like you actually want it, and be willing to fight to keep it. Otherwise you are not playing the game.
But nearly every game readily welcomes spectators.
• • • •
It is seldom taken into account by younger fans that Neville also has a far larger share of purely “social” courage than either Ron OR Harry did up to the end of Book 5. Courage doesn’t always mean that you go looking for dangerous situations to throw yourself into, after all. And, at that, Harry’s dangerous situations were usually forced on him.
Up to the end of GoF, no one had ever chosen to force such a situation onto Neville. But you will notice that it was Neville, who knows his place in the pecking order perfectly well, who was the first of the three of them to speak up, risk rejection, and ask a girl to the Yule Ball. If nothing else, Neville has grocked the purpose of the rules of a formal etiquette in a functioning society.
Unlike just about any of the Weasleys, including Ginny. Or, for that matter, her mother.
It will also be noticed in the above survey, that the goals to “belong” and the goals to “succeed” are not so very widely removed from each other as all that, either, thus closing the circle.
In fact, the signature goals and methods of coping most typically displayed by each of the four Houses usually strikes off some sort of echo or reflection in those of (at least) one of the others — with some critical difference in emphasis and interpretation.
In fact, the signature goals and methods of coping most typically displayed by each of the four Houses usually strikes off some sort of echo or reflection in those of (at least) one of the others — with some critical difference in emphasis and interpretation.
For example; a Slytherin — who is encouraged to make use of any advantage he may find to hand — and who happens to have the requisite background, will shamelessly play the “family” card, without hesitation, in any situation that seems to merit it. A Gryffindor, or a Ravenclaw who typically are inclined to value personal achievements more highly than personal associations will be much less likely to do so. A Hufflepuff, however, who deeply values his “group identity” will play the family card just as readily as any Slytherin. A Slyth without such a background never volunteers family associations in case they be used against him.
A Ravenclaw’s determination to be proven “right” is, if anything, even more ruthless than a Slytherin’s determination to “succeed” and if to attain that goal will — as it often does — cancel out the possibility of worldly success he will still do it. The quintessential Ravenclaw will sacrifice mere success with no more than a passing sigh. (Admittedly he may grouse about it for decades afterward.) Thus the major underlying distinction between the Slyths and the ’Claws.
The archetypal Hufflepuff will routinely sublimate the personal for the communal and be guided by the consensus. The mature Slytherin will (usually discretely) sacrifice the personal as readily as any lawyer if it brings him closer to his goal, and there is something significant to be gained by it. And in the case of many a “true” Slytherin that goal may quite genuinely be for the common good.
A Gryffindor will make such a sacrifice as well, particularly if his public image can be adjusted to showcase it, or if it is openly acknowledged that the sacrifice is a grand gesture made in return for the cooperation of those he seeks to influence. In which case he may make a parade of it. More rarely, he may make the sacrifice privately without fanfare, the admiration which sustains him self-generated, secure in the knowledge that he has done the “right thing”. He usually covers his bases by sharing the knowledge of this act with his Lieutenant, however. (An acknowledged Leader is expected to fully acknowledge such acts on the part of his Lieutenant. Always.)
The Ravenclaw will usually make such a sacrifice only if given absolutely no other choice. (I doubt that either Professor McGonagall or former Professor Snape look forward to teaching Ravenclaws. Once they absorb the initial concepts they argue over each subsequent modifying ramification.)
I have also been long convinced that — given that the Ravenclaws are the most “individualist” of the four Houses — it almost certainly follows that the occasional 4th-7th year ’Claws have been making a byword of themselves for generations for their insistence upon making themselves utterly ridiculous as they try to differentiate themselves from everyone else by playing the “more eccentric than thou” card, or, at the very least, by dressing all in black and stridently demanding to be “taken seriously”.*
(*I am SO pleased with myself. This statement, in its first iteration was made in April 2003, before any of us ever heard of Luna Lovegood. Go me!)
I also suspect that the Ravenclaws are not necessarily always the top academic achievers (although they are often enough). Rather, they are most typically the sort of people who simply admire the quality of cleverness for its own sake and venerate “individuality” to the point of exaggeration, even if they do not personally posses either great cleverness or great individuality to any exceptional degree, themselves. (It is one’s choices; not one’s abilities...) Although the ’Claws will certainly go to almost any length to make you believe they possess those gifts. Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face has been refined into an art form in Ravenclaw.
Young Severus Snape’s dress and manner (to say nothing of his abilities) would have fit into Ravenclaw very comfortably, but a “real” Ravenclaw would have taken any such pose of intellectual superiority a good deal more to extremes.
And the Ravenclaws are every bit as much the Hufflepuffs’ “opposite number” in that regard as the Gryffindors and the Slytherins. I suspect that the classes that pair those two Houses are every bit as stressful for their instructors as the Gryff/Slyth configurations.
Think about it: Whereas among the Gryffs and the Slyths you have the volatile “fire and ice” confrontations of two different leadership styles ceaselessly butting heads, with the ’Puffs and the ’Claws you are stuck having to endlessly negotiate around or through the “oil and water” barrier where the “prove to us that you are worth respecting” types perpetually run up against the “whaddaya mean no man is an island?” types — who may not care about being disliked, but who demand respect as their due; both types permanently, intractably, and magnificently unintelligible to one another, with mindsets and demeanors that are guaranteed to push each others’ buttons.
Here you have, on one hand, the ’Puffs, who not only close ranks against outsiders but will turn into an opposing army as soon as they decide that you have injured one of their own (when you take on the Hufflepuffs, you take on the whole House) and on the other, you have the ’Claws, who — with a distressing level of frequency — disdain conformity, have fairly high levels of social ineptitude, frequently cruel tongues, no common sense, and not enough experience to recognize when a battle is not worth fighting, let alone starting.
Off of the Quidditch pitch, and quite possibly even on it, trying to get Ravenclaws to “pull together” is rather like herding cats.
The fact that we have never, to date, seen two such potentially volatile Houses as the Gryffs and the ’Claws sharing a classroom may be no accident, and as House heads; Professors Snape and McGonagall may not have the worst of all possible bargains.
[Note: WE have never seen the Gryffs and the ’Claws share a classroom. But they allegedly do. Luna drops this information in passing in HBP. In Ginny and Luna’s year the two houses are combined for Transfiguration, but for Harry’s year this has never been stated, although it may, in fact, be the case.]
The down side of Hufflepuff, of course, is rampant cliquishness and mob rule. I strongly suspect the disciplinary problem that the Hufflepuffs present to the staff of Hogwarts is a pervading tendency to gang up on whoever they decide has offended one of them. Inside the House, this problem is recast as intermittent squabbles between rival subgroups and the determination for each to demand that all onlookers take sides. There is also a nasty underlying tendency among poorly-socialized ’Puffs (oh, yes, those also exist, Zacharias Smith seems a good example, I was amused to note in HBP that if he is not literally the “Heir of Hufflepuff” we are, evidently, supposed to believe him to be at least a descendent) to regard the application of those wonderful, traditional Hufflepuff virtues of fairness, patience, generosity and above all, loyalty as only being owed to one’s own particular “tribe”, and the rest of the world bedamned.
I suspect that there might have been no few Hufflepuffs who would have quite happily chosen to support Voldemort. Or Tom Riddle, anyway. Fortunately for everybody, Tom doesn’t seem to have done a lot of recruiting in that House.
The Gryffs, for their part, play a more or less perpetual game of “follow the leader”, and the “leader” role is the prize for anyone who chooses to grab it and manages to keep it. The Slyths by contrast, are perpetually re-examining and fine-tuning their collection of strategic — and assumed temporary — alliances. Although mutually beneficial Slytherin associations can last for decades, and be deeply valued by all parties.
• • • •
In Potter fandom there is no shortage of Slytherin apologists, so I will not go into the big song and dance on that account here. But I agree with those who contended that unless Rowling introduced at least one or two unequivocally “good” Slytherins by the end of the series, or accounted for the pervasive imbalance of her presentation in some other manner, her whole “vision” becomes morally indefensible. You do not slap a label declaring immature 11-year-olds to be “irredeemably evil” merely because they got Sorted into a particular House. It simply is not true, and it is Not Done.
And Rowling apparently finally got the message, even though she responded with what looks like too little, too late. But that is a matter for another day and another essay.
However, I do tend to think that not enough (dis)credit has been paid openly to Gryffindor House for its tendency to keep turning loose sets of “popular” bullies. And in Gryffindor, they usually do seem to come in pairs. Fred and George Weasley are undoubtedly just the latest in a long tradition of such.
And ghod help you if they happen not to “like” you, because no one else will.
Nobody, whatsoever, would stand up to the Weasley twins on someone’s personal account if the twins decided that they were an assigned target. Not — as in the case of Dudley Dursley and his gang — because everyone else was necessarily afraid of them. Oh no. But because they were so “popular” that their judgement as to “who” was to be treated “how” simply stands.
People who wondered why Neville wasn’t in Hufflepuff overlooked an awful lot. Neville is about as far removed from being a “team player” as you can get. He appears to be that slightly uncommon animal, a Gryffindor loner without being one if its subversives. And, in the end, when it was required of him, he turned out to be a far better and more contentious Leader than Harry ever was. The Hat took a long time placing him. The more typical loners usually tend to gravitate into Ravenclaw, but Ravenclaw would have been a very poor fit for Neville.
He certainly always had enough bravery for Gryffindor (mostly the quiet courage of the variety that endures a bad situation without utterly giving up), but not the confidence required by Ravenclaw. Nor was Neville ever up to the perpetual political jockeying for position of Slytherin. Gryffindor was the best pick of an awkward assortment. For Neville. At age 11, anyway.
Although, mind you, up to the middle of GoF I think he would probably have traded places with Harry in a heartbeat so long as he could have stayed with the Dursleys and attended the local Muggle comprehensive.