Where Dwell the Brave at Heart: Houses at Hogwarts

August 3, 2010

“The four Houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin.  Each House has its own noble history and each has produced outstanding witches and wizards.  While you are Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your House points, while any rule-breaking will loose House points.”

I’ve been thinking about Hogwarts Houses lately.  I understand the rationale for breaking a large school up into smaller chunks; it’s helpful from an administrative perspective as well as giving the students a slightly less cavernous feeling to the new place when they come.  It builds identity and friendships within each House and, to a certain extent, competition between Houses motivates each to perform at its best.  But in the end I wonder if it doesn’t do a lot more harm than good.  At several points the houses are described as being equal, or at least each good in its own way, but there are actually some fairly clear value judgments made based on house selection and I don’t think they appear merely because we the readers spend all of our time following Gryffindor house.

Why introduce this separation into a group which might otherwise be disposed to be cohesive?  Rowling clearly describes the students, nervous about their entry into the school, gathering together for comfort and safety.  “The crowded in, standing rather closer together than they would usually have done …” and clearly the sense is that they are all first years together, all one group in this moment.  It is literally the next moment that they are conceptually separated as Professor McGonagall enters and begins her introduction to Hogwarts by describing the House system:

“…while you are here your House will be something like your family withink Hogwarts.  You will have classes with the rest of your House, sleep in your house dormitory, and spend free time in your House common room.”

The initiation into Hogwarts school is the Sorting Ceremony and the reason McGonagall has to start with Houses is that the first years can’t enter the Great Hall and be seated until they have a House – the students always sit separated out into their own four tables.  The inviolate nature of that custom is emphasized in one of the later books when Rowling mentions that students are sitting back and forth at each others tables a bit after a dramatic incident.

Its all well and good when you make friend with people in your house (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) and then get to attend classes with them, eat at the same table and hang out together in the evenings.  Similarly it works out well when a family shares enough traits to be sorted together (the Weasleys).  But little Ron has some reason to be nervous before his sorting: aside from the feelings of alumni loyalty for the rest of his life, when would he ever see his brothers if he’d ended up in Hufflepuff?  And Rowling tells us in Chamber of Secrets that families don’t always end up together.  Twins Padma and Parvati Patil go into separate houses.  When do they ever get to see each other?  It seems like ending up in Gryffindor, away from his Slytherin family, was the making of young Sirius Black but how many other families did it estrange with less beneficial results.

Plus, “each has its own noble history” be damned.  Its generally agreed (with at least a grain of truth) that Slytherin will make you evil and Hufflepuff are almost universally dismissed as, according to Hagrid, “a bunch of duffers” and only second to Slytherin in undesirability.  The Sorting hat too does nothing to make the houses sound equally appealing:

In Harry’s first year (and our introduction to the concept) it explains that “daring, nerve and chivalry set Gryffindors apart,” while Hufflepuffs are “patient,” “true and unafraid of toil,”  Ravenclaw is for “those of wit and learning” and finally Slytherin is for the “cunning folk [who will] use any means to achieve their ends.”

Three years later the song gives more information … and seems to confirm the unequality of the houses:

By Gryffindor, the bravest were
Prized far beyond the rest;
For Ravenclaw, the cleverest
Would always be the best;
For Hufflepuff, hard workers were
Most worthy of admission;
And power-hungry Slytherin
Loved those of great ambition.

And the next year:

For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning, just like him,
And only those of sharpest mind
Were taught by Ravenclaw
While the bravest and the boldest
Went to daring Gryffindor,
Good Hufflepuff, she took the rest,
And taught them all she knew,

Jess of the Last Muggle, sums up that song this way very concisely:  “Ravenclaw is really smart and all, but a lot of good those high grades are going to do us when Slytherin tries to kill everybody. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any of you that Gryffindor will probably have to step in and save our asses. And don’t you worry about anything, Hufflepuff. Just keep eating paste and running with safety scissors.”

Hufflepuff always gets short shrift.  I admit I’ve dismissed them myself in the past.  Although actually when it comes right down to it their attributes of loyalty and diligence are some I prize very highly and would like to think I share.  I think its rather unfair the way are regularly dismissed by everyone else, Sorting Hat included.

And when you look at the characters many of them are far more complex than a simple pick-one-out-of-the-four sorting would suggest.

  • Harry himself is a possible Slytherin (although his bravery is pretty indisputable).
  • Hermione is nothing if not hardworking and loyal.  And then on the other hand she’s the top of her year (a fact which MUST annoy the heck out of the Ravenclaws who, one would assume, usually carry that honor.  She’s also not a little ambitious although her muggle origins would prevent her from joining Slytherin.
  • Percy Weasley is both a pure blood and fairly clearly the most ambitious student we cross paths with.  And his craven behavior toward his friends, his former headmaster and his family through four books is only marginally redeemed by an about face at the Battle of Hogwarts (although I’ll admit that once he’d gotten himself into the Ministry in-crowd and things started nosediving into fascism it wouldn’t have been totally easy for him to back away slowly.  Still … that’s classic Slytherin behavior right there!  One can only assume he begged hard for Gryffindor as a first year.
  • Cedric Diggory; sure, he’s loyal and hardworking but is somebody going to tell me he’s not brave.  Go ahead and tell me that.  Perhaps he’s a Hufflepuff because, as the Weasley twins suggest, hes somewhat simple in the head, but I think that’s just House rivalry talking.  He’s a total Hogwarts success story.
  • Luna Lovegood actually seems to make a lot of sense here.  She’s got bravery in buckets (she’s the only non-Gryffindor to go with Harry & Co at the end of Order of the Phoenix, although she’s not the only one in the DA.  Still I have no trouble believing she’s in Ravenclaw based on her philosophical tendencies.  She’s a person who enjoys answering the open ended questions needed to get into Ravenclaw tower every evening.
  • Peter Pettigrew is the opposite of brave; how did he end up in Gryffindor?  He’s not particularly clever so he wouldn’t have been a candidate for Ravenclaw.  His ancestry is unclear, and besides he’s not so much ambitious as a huge fradycat so Slytherin doesn’t seem to answer.  But surely the Sorting Hat’s dismissive “Good Hufflepuff, she took the rest.”  Perhaps he wasn’t hard working enough.  That would actually be the the first example I can think of where a student went into Gryffindor by default and not because bravery superseded all their other notable characteristics.
  • Severus Snape is only a half blood and turns out to be “one of the bravest men” Harry had ever known, risking life, limb and mental stability through years of dangerous spying in honor of the woman he had, however unhelpfully, loved.  Lets see: Daring, check. Nerve, check.  Chivalry, check.  Dumbledore himself seems to suggest this when he tells Snape that perhaps “we sort too soon.”

All in all I’m really not sure the Houses don’t do more harm than good. Singing in Yoda-like inversion, the Sorting Hat itself seems to agree with me at the end of its Order of the Phoenix song:

Though condemned I am to split you
Still I worry that it’s wrong,

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