Mar 12 2013
Okay, a couple of disclaimers… I probably hate pop culture over-analysis more than most of you guys. There’s nothing that irritates me more* than the posts that start off with things like “6 Lord of the Rings Characters Who Actually Suck at Life.” So don’t take this as a simple snark-fest.
It should also be mentioned that this isn’t a dismissal of worth. The first three books are great, and the third and fourth movies in the series rank among the finest fantasy films of all time.
But the thing that makes Harry Potter’s problems particularly difficult to ignore isn’t that they’re kinda silly and easy to make fun of. Rather, it’s that they are a) pervasive for the length of the series and b) totally at odds with one of its core messages. In other words, (see title).
The biggest problem begins with that obnoxious Sorting Hat. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that every last one of the major heroic characters gets sorted into Gryffindor, the “brave” house. Nearly all of the villains get sorted into Slytherin, the “ambition” house.
Already you’ll notice that things are getting a little bit vague, as “ambition” is a substantially more nebulous concept than “hard work” or “cleverness.” Well, that or it simply comes packaged WITH all those other virtues. But the point is our heroes and villains all get lumped in together.
So, not only is bravery implied to be the best of all virtues, but it also apparently trumps intelligence or hard work. Fine, sure. We’ll just go with that. And we’ll also try to ignore the blatant violation of these sortings that occur over and over again through the series.**
I get that this is just a way to make a “hero” house and a “villain” house. Normally I’d write this off as typical fantasy-movie simplicity. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and a host of others do the same thing; they create a group of cartoonish baddies to embody the opposition to our hero. We’re not meant to really question it. Evil is evil.***
The problem with doing this in the Harry Potter universe is the books and movies are obsessively focused on tearing down the walls built by prejudice and groupthink.
This focus comes most obviously front-and-center in the Goblet of Fire novel, wherein Hermione starts up an organization to liberate the historically put-upon House Elves. Despite being a narrative slog at times, the idea isn’t a bad one, and in the end the House Elves wind up being a powerful ally for the main characters.
There are plenty of other passages. The centaurs in the Forbidden Forest despise their classification as a lower form of creature than humans. Voldemort and his contemporaries are obsessed with purifying the wizard race. Over and over again, the books show the heroes confronting and dismantling the notions of thoughtless discrimination.
So why, then, is it just like… totally cool to write off as bad every single person chosen to be in Slytherin House?
I mean, I know WHY. Slytherin students are constantly undermining their classmates, and adults who graduate from the house tend to go on to undermine the rest of the wizarding community. It’s stated as fact that no evil wizard ever walked the earth that WASN’T a member of the house at some point.
Sure, the series humanizes certain individuals in the Slytherin house. Snape, Slughorn, Draco… these are reasonably well-rounded characters by the standards of the series. They aren’t all bad.
I could simply counter that point by adding, “but the vast majority of them are.” But instead I’ll mention the scene in the last movie where the whole house of Slytherin is sent to the dungeons before the final battle, because… well, they’re the Slytherins. It’s also pretty obviously played as a “get up and cheer” moment for the audience. The scene doesn’t play exactly like that in the book, by the way, but J.K. Rowling had veto power over any changes from book to movie. We have to assume the portrayal resonates with the outlook of the series.
The fact of the matter is that for the vast majority of the series, “Slytherin” is short for “bad guy,” or at least “a-hole.”
Oh, and speaking of that dungeon thing… they keep the Slytherins in the dungeon. I mean, come on. No wonder they don’t like anybody else. The rest of the school treats them like crap. Even Headmaster Dumbledore (a former Gryffindor) basically throws the house cup competition to keep them from winning.
And Harry was almost a Slytherin. All he did was ask not to be, based mostly on conjecture shared with him by another eleven-year-old. And yes, I get the point being made about choice and all that, and I even think that particular sentiment is a rather nice one… but if Ron hadn’t told him that he wouldn’t have even known to choose.
That’s just grossly unfair. And, to bring us back to our topic, completely at odds with the moral compass of the story. The Harry Potter series contains a blunt but powerful endorsement of thinking outside the established order and not giving into preconceptions. Villains are revealed to be heroes; servants overthrow their masters; idiot teenagers defeat battle-worn dark wizards. In the end, in Harry Potter, there’s nothing more valuable than understanding and equality.
Unless we’re talking about those nasty Slytherins.
*That’s actually not true at all.
**Like Cedric Diggory, that guy who was basically as brave as Harry? He somehow winds up in Hufflepuff. Neville Longbottom, on the other hand, does not. Of course, the house logic evaporated early in the first book when Hermione was put in Gryffindor, instead of Ravenclaw. Not just because she’s clever, but because she’s regularly described as the actual smartest witch in the school. I assume that the house system is little more than a convenient way for Rowling to engineer or avoid “party-line” conflict on a per-novel basis.
***Well, actually, Star Wars starts tearing this idea apart as early as Empire. By the time the Prequels finish, hardly anything in Lucas’s world is black-and-white. But you guys get where I’m coming from.
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