Fandom, we need to talk about Slytherin.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the issue of Slytherin and indeed any issue pertaining the Harry Potter sorting system has been talked to death. Fandom, you have given us everything from wonderfully detailed sorting systems to ruminations on the nature of choice to hardcore Slytherin apologia. And that’s cool! One of best aspects of fandom is its ability to make us see the original creation in ways that we previously couldn’t have imagined.
But there is a common perception among fans that there’s a big ole flaw right at the heart of the series. The flaw is that most of the Slytherins we see are evil despite the fact that Sorting happens when wizards are eleven years old. I’ve been guilty of seeing this as a flaw myself.
Oh, I would say, as I discussed Harry Potter sorting in an effort to put off studying for that French final, it’s just so unfair that these kids get sorted into Slytherin seemingly with little choice in the matter and then get stereotyped as evil by everyone. They don’t get much of a chance. Rowling really screwed this aspect of the books up. If only the Houses had somehow united near the end of the series! It could have shown fans that these kids aren’t practically predestined to be evil based on their House. This is a relatively normal view in the Harry Potter fandom and not just among Slytherin apologists – even many people who think Slytherin is pretty irredeemably evil seem to subscribe to some version of it.
But no, Fandom. No.
Look, on one level it is true that it’s unfair that many eleven-year-old kids get Sorted into Slytherin and then end up turning to the dark side. After all, even if they choose Slytherin, they might not grasp the full implications of their choice at such a young age. I don’t object to the idea that Sorting is unfair – in fact, I wholeheartedly support it. What I object to is the notion that this unfairness is somehow problematic, points to a flaw in the books, or shows that J.K. Rowling just doesn’t understand what the heck she’s doing.
And I’m not coming at this problem as some sort overeager Harry Potter fan who can’t grasp that her precious books might have a flaw in them. In many ways I’m more critical of the books than much of the Harry Potter fandom. I just happen to think that Rowling didn’t screw this one up as badly as many people seem to assume. Fandom, we’ve been looking at the Slytherin problem from the wrong perspective. Any discussion about Slytheirn must acknowledge that the House was built on a foundation of bigotry and exclusion – and that a strong strain of those same exclusionary tendencies still runs through it at the time of the books.
Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the Harry Potter books and movies.
Slytherin’s History of Bigotry
The foundation of bigotry is spelled out for us explicitly in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Professor Binns describes a disagreement between the Hogwarts founders over access to magical education:
“For a few years, the founders worked in harmony together, seeking out youngsters who showed signs of magic and bringing them to the castle to be educated. But then disagreement sprang up between them. A rift began to grow between Slytherin and the others. Slytherin wished to be more selective about the students admitted to Hogwarts. He believed that magical learning should be kept within all-magic families. He disliked taking students of muggle parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy. After a while, there was a serious argument on the subject between Slytherin and Gryffindor and Slytherin left the school.”
In case we somehow missed the point, the Sorting Hat song in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gives us a slightly different version of the same story:
“Together we will build and teach”
The four good friends decided.
And never did they dream that they
Might someday be divided.
For were there such friends anywhere
As Slytherin and Gryffindor?
Unless it was the second pair
Of Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw,
So how could it have gone so wrong?
How could such friendships fail?
Why, I was there, so I can tell
The whole sad, sorry tale.
Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
Intelligence is surest”
Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name.”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”
These differences caused little strife
When first they came to light.
For each of the four founders had
A house in which they might
Take only those they wanted, so,
For instance, Slytherin
Took only pureblood wizards
Of great cunning just like him.
There are a couple of things worth noting about these passages. Firstly, Slytherin House is set up from the beginning as exclusionary, elite, and openly bigoted against students from non-magical backgrounds. Despite the fact that the other founders disagreed with Slytherin, he was not the one being oppressed or excluded here – he was the one doing the excluding. He was doing so because he believed that some types of wizards were superior to others. He wanted to be “more selective” about which students were allowed into Hogwarts. He believed that magical education should be limited to students from magical families and that students with muggle parents were untrustworthy.
Secondly, while Professor Binns’ recitation of the story makes it sound a little bit like Gryffindor banished Slytherin from Hogwarts as soon as he realized that Slytherin didn’t want to admit Muggle-borns, the Sorting Hat’s song makes it clear that Slytherin stayed at Hogwarts for some time after his views became known. The differences caused “little strife” at first because the other three founders effectively found a compromise with bigotry. Note that I don’t say that they believed in bigotry. But they did compromise with it. Slytherin was their friend and they likely wanted him to remain at Hogwarts for other reasons as well, so they allowed him to set up a House that largely had the purpose of excluding Muggle-borns and half-bloods. He was allowed to create what amounted to an elitist club within Hogwarts.
I would note here that Ravenclaw and Gryffindor also created Houses that were in some sense elitist and exclusionary. This makes Hufflepuff’s “I’ll teach the lot and treat them just the same” seem like a poignant rebuttal to the idea of limiting access to magical education. But unlike Slytherin, both Ravenclaw and Gryffindor based their House membership on perceived merit rather than on the circumstances of a student’s birth. Taking students whose “intelligence is surest” is arguably a reasonable thing for a school to do. Bravery is more perplexing until you remember magic, as it is depicted in the series, is a dangerous thing that could get students killed. Gryffindor and Raveclaw may have preferred certain types of students, but their preferences werebased on the students’ qualities as individuals rather than on who their families were.
Slytherin Is Still Exclusionary at the Time of the Books
All this business about Slytherin’s prejudice against Muggle-borns would just be a strange quirk of the series’ lore if it weren’t for the fact that this very same debate underpins the central conflict of these books. Voldemort is very clearly associated with Slytherin and with Slytherin’s views on Muggles and Muggle-borns. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we learn that Voldemort was in Slytherin House when he was a student, is a descendant of Slytherin, and is literally called “the heir of Slytherin.” We also learn that when Voldemort was a student at Hogwarts, he unleashed a giant freaking snake (basilisk) on fellow students with the apparent intention of purging Muggle-borns from the school. Slytherin had planted the basilisk at Hogwarts in the hopes that someday his heir would come along and use it to remove the unworthy from the school. Yeah. Slytherin was not exactly a nice guy.
Voldemort goes on to launch two different wars on wizarding Britain, using anti-Muggle ideology as the basis for both. The examples of Voldemort and his followers expressing anti-Muggle sentiment are so numerous that they almost don’t need pointing out – so I’m going to just briefly focus on the policies of the Death Eater government in regard to Muggle-borns that we see in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Voldemort and the Death Eaters don’t take full control of the Ministry of Magic until several chapters into Deathly Hallows, but as soon as they are in charge, they began to ruthlessly persecute Muggle-borns. Within a month of taking over the Ministry, the Death Eaters create the Muggle-born Registration Commission in order to compel Muggle-borns to register with the government. This is a scheme to force Muggle-borns to undergo interrogation in order to determine how they came to be in possession of magic. The lie that underpinned this drastic action was the idea that Muggle-borns could only be in possession of magic if they somehow stole it from witches and wizards with purer blood. This echoes Slytherin’s fear that Muggle-borns are “untrustworthy.” The Death Eaters also made attendance at Hogwarts mandatory – an action that at first seems strange, but which is really just a way to find young Muggle-born witches and wizards so they can be hauled to the Ministry for questioning.
The association between Slytherin and pureblood prejudice isn’t limited to Voldemort and the Death Eater movement. It often shows up casually in the attitudes of Slytherin characters. Draco Malfoy is the first person to introduce us to the slur “Mudblood” and nearly every person who uses this slur over the course of the books is from Slytheirn House. Even Horace Slughorn, who is one of the better examples of a “good” Slytherin that Rowling gives us, falls into problematic thinking about Muggle-borns almost from the minute Harry meets him in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
“Your mother was Muggle-born, of course. Couldn’t believe it when I found out. Thought she must have been pureblood, she was so good.”
“One of my best friends is Muggle-born,” said Harry, “and she’s the best in our year.”
“Funny how that sometimes happens, isn’t it?” said Slughorn.
While Slughorn’s delivery isn’t as hostile as many more openly prejudiced characters, the implications here are clear. He wouldn’t normally expect a Muggle-born to be a good witch and any Muggle-born who is gifted at magic is a rare exception.
During Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, we learn that even the Slytherin common room uses “pureblood” as a password to get in. Think about the symbolism of that and what it would communicate to any half-bloods or Muggle-borns in Slytherin. Pure blood is literally a pass into Slytherin House.
Slytherin Mirrors How Bigotry Works In Real Life
Fandom, I realize that it must seem like I’m arguing against my initial point here. Surely, if Slytherin is so clearly associated with pureblood prejudice then that just makes it more appalling that children would be sorted into this House at age eleven without fully grasping what being in Slytherin means. But remember, I’m not arguing against the idea that the Sorting system is unfair. It is unfair. I’m arguing against the idea that this unfairness points to a flaw in the world building – it doesn’t because this is exactly how bigotry works.
I’ll be honest here and say that I’m thinking of ultra-conservative groups in the United States – the type that hate LGBTQIA people and don’t want women to have many rights. Many of these groups are downright terrified of the prospect of their children attending college. This isn’t just because they are afraid their kids might learn about evolution. They are also afraid that their kids might take a women’s studies course and learn about institutional sexism. They are afraid that their kids might befriend a gay person and learn that gay people are just, ya’ know, people and not the bogeymen that they’ve made them out to be. Until attending school, sometimes until college, these children have mostly been surrounded by people who think more or less like their parents. College puts bigoted beliefs under scrutiny.
Hogwarts might serve to challenge the bigoted beliefs of the wizarding world in a similar fashion – but Slytherin dulls much of this effect. Slytherin parents can “protect” their children from associating with Muggle-borns, Muggles, or “blood traitors” while those children are directly under their control. But in an environment like Hogwarts, where kids come from a mix of backgrounds, and where everyone is far from their parents, this becomes much more difficult. Luckily for these parents, Slytherin is around to mitigate the effects of this type of mixing.
Think about it. As soon as the kids enter Hogwarts, they are sorted into a House. For the next seven years, they will eat at a table with members of their own House. They will sleep in a dormitory with members of their own House. They will share a common room with members of their own House. Their initial classes will be with members of their own House (although most classes for the younger students mix two Houses). Anytime a student exhibits positive behavior, their House will be awarded points. At the end of the year, the House with the most points will be awarded the House Cup. Anytime a student exhibits bad behavior, a professor will penalize their House by taking away points.
This type of atmosphere will naturally generate rivalries between students of different Houses while binding students from the same House closer together. Most of the close Hogwarts friendships that we see are between students from the same House. Harry’s two best friends are both Gryffindors and his extended circle of friends is mostly made up of Gryffindors as well. Luna Lovegood is an exception. Draco is shown being friends with Crabbe, Goyle, and Pansy Parkinson – all Slytheirns. We usually see Pavarti Patil hanging out with Lavender Brown, a Gryffindor, rather than with her twin sister Padma, who is a Ravenclaw. We often see Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnigan together – both Gryffindors. The Weasley twins are said to be friends with Lee Jordan – another Gryffindor. The Marauders are presumably all Gryffindors. Lily Evans and Severus Snape are our one example of a Gryffindor-Slytherin friendship and this friendship ultimately dissolves because Snape expresses the very brand of bigotry that I’ve been discussing.
If their children are Sorted into Slytherin, then parents who wish to instill bigoted beliefs in their kids have much less to worry about. Even though the wizarding community at large seems to hold somewhat tolerant beliefs about Muggles and Muggle-borns, Slytherins mostly do not. Therefore, students sorted into Slytherin are less likely to challenge their parents views than students who are sorted into other Houses.
For two in-universe examples of how this might work, I’d like to turn to Sirius Black and Severus Snape. Sirius Black is unique in the series because his parents espouse pureblood bigotry and yet he is opposed to these viewpoints to the point of joining the Order of the Phoenix and fighting against the Death Eaters in the war. Sirius Black is also a Gryffindor whereas most of his family seems to have been Slytherin.
This leads me to a rather speculative question – would Sirius Black have rejected his parents’ views so firmly and joined the Order of the Phoenix if he had been sorted into Slytherin? I think that the answer is probably no. Sirius’ family is probably the clearest example we have of a pureblood family that avoids exposing its members to opposing viewpoints. Even family members who subscribe to pro-Muggle viewpoints are burned from the family tree and presumably not considered true family members. For many Blacks, this is because they married a Muggle or Muggle-born which could raise “purity” concerns, but for Sirius it seems to be simply because he left the family.
Fan fiction likes to portray Sirius as set against his parents’ pureblood bigotry from childhood. While this is possible, I suppose, there is no real indication of it in the books. The glimpse that we see of eleven-year-old Sirius shows him desiring to be sorted into Gryffindor because of the friendship that he strikes up with James Potter and because of James’ disapproval of Slytherin. Moreover, it is difficult to see how child Sirius might develop pro-Muggle viewpoints if not at Hogwarts. If Mrs. Black’s portrait is supposed to be a somewhat accurate portrayal of the actual Mrs. Black, then it seems that “blood traitors” weren’t even allowed in Sirius’s home. The only example we have of a Black family house-elf seems to be utterly brainwashed into anti-Muggle sentiment. Sirius’ younger brother Regulus stays in the family and he eventually becomes a Death Eater. So where, if not in Gryffindor, does Sirius become the type of person who would fight against Death Eaters?
Most people don’t develop their opinions and values in a vacuum. Sirius’ membership in the Order of the Phoenix makes the most sense when viewed in the context his being in a House that was not Slytherin. When Sirius was sorted into Gryffindor it meant that he became best friends with James Potter, a pureblood who seems to have pro-Muggleborn beliefs. Sirius became good friends with Remus Lupin, a werewolf half-blood. His Head of House was Minerva McGonagall who we know held pro-Muggle-born beliefs. In general, he would have been surrounded by Muggle-borns, half-bloods, and people who his parents would have considered “blood traitors.” Yeah, he may have encountered the occasional pureblood bigot even in Gryffindor, but there is no reason to think this would have been the norm. James Potter was a jerk as a teenager, but there’s no indication that he subscribed to any form of pureblood bigotry.
Would Sirius Black have had similar experiences in Slytherin? Probably not. Remember that nearly every Slytherin who is mentioned in the books exhibits some form of blood prejudice at some point – Slughorn’s bigotry is fairly unconscious and Snape later changes his ways, but they both exhibit negative views of Muggle-borns at some point. Many of the Slytherins that we meet are Death Eaters. Yeah, if we look really hard then we might find a few minor characters like Blaise Zanbini who don’t seem to have clear views either way, but bigotry against Muggle-borns and Muggles runs rampant through the House. If Sirius Black had been sorted into Slytherin then he would have spent his Hogwarts years surrounded by people whose worldview was similar to that of his parents. He might have still had a falling out with his family (they don’t seem to be the easiest people in the world to get along with). He might not have become a Death Eater. But it is doubtful that he would have joined the Order and given his life fighting the Death Eaters.
Let’s contrast Sirius Black with Severus Snape. Snape was a half-blood from a poor/working class Muggle neighborhood who was sorted into Slytherin. Snape joined the Death Eaters although he later worked rather tirelessly for the other side. So the question is: would Snape have become a Death Eater if he hadn’t been sorted into Slytherin? And I think that the answer is likely a no.
Don’t get me wrong here. This is not Snape apologia. Snape is responsible for his actions even if he might have gone a different way if sorted into another House. Snape also has a rather nasty, bullying personality that I don’t think can be attributed entirely to Slytherin. But he was also a half-blood who seems to have spent his childhood among Muggles. Snape’s father was a Muggle and while Snape’s father was abusive, there is no real indication that the child Snape held anti-Muggle beliefs. He befriends Lily Evans, a Muggle-born and when Lily asks him whether it matters that she’s not from a magical family, Snape tells her that it doesn’t. He seems to desire to be sorted into Slytherin, but when James Potter challenges him on this, he says that Gryffindor would be preferable if you’d “rather be brawny than brainy.” This is fairly unique in the series – unlike other Slytherins we see, Snape seems to prefer Slytherin for its association with cunning rather than for its association with blood purity or elitism.
Dumbledore even explicitly suggests that Snape’s life probably would have gone differently if he hadn’t been sorted into Slytherin. He tells Snape “sometimes, I think we sort too soon,” a statement which seems to devastate Snape. In Snape’s case, being sorted into Slytherin had a big effect on his future.
Slytherin House Bears the Brunt of Responsibility for Division Between the Houses
So is the Sorting system unfair to children? Sure. But what really gets me is the way that many fans insist that the divisions between the houses are somehow primarily the fault of Gryffindors or the other Houses. I think a lot of this attitude stems from the Sorting Hat’s song in Harry’s fifth year which insists:
And now the Sorting Hat is here
and you all know the score:
I sort you into Houses
because that is what I’m for.
But this year I’ll go further,
listen closely to my song:
though condemned I am to split you
still I worry that it’s wrong,
though I must fulfill my duty
and must quarter every year
still I wonder whether sorting
may not bring the end I fear.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
the warning history shows,
for our Hogwarts is in danger
from external, deadly foes
and we must unite inside her
or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
let the Sorting now begin.
Before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, these lines led many fans to believe that the series would culminate with the four Houses of Hogwarts uniting to defeat Voldemort. That emphatically did not happen. In a scene in the final book that has been widely criticized by fans, Minerva McGonagall sent the Slytherins to the dungeons (where their House is located) during the final battle for Hogwarts.
It’s tempting to see Slytherins as some sort of oppressed minority because the other three Houses are so often pitted against them, but we have to remember that the divisions in Hogwarts have primarily been caused by Slytherin. It has been this way since the days of the Founders. Slytherin was the Founder who didn’t want to include Muggle-borns at Hogwarts. If the books are any indication of broader trends, then members of this House have disproportionately upheld his anti-Muggle-born beliefs. While it’s true that we occasionally see Gryffindors unfairly lumping all Slytherins into one box (such as when Hagrid comments that all wizards who have ever gone bad have been Slytherins), we have to remember that comments like these happen in the context of Slytherin basically running like a bigoted little club within Hogwarts.
Personality Based Sorting Doesn’t Save Slytherin
I should probably mention the “personality” aspect of sorting that is, I think, one of the aspects of the series that fandom most likes to play with. A major factor that goes into deciding which House a student is sorted into is personality. To put it succinctly, Gryffindors are brave, Hufflepuffs are loyal and hard-working, Ravenclaws are intelligent, and Slytherins are ambitious and cunning. Because the books contain the idea that Sorting is at least somewhat based on these facets of personality, many fans have become invested in sorting themselves into particular houses based on this personality sorting system. There are approximately a bazillion Hogwarts sorting quizzes online and Harry Potter merchandise now commonly comes in the different colors and crests associated with the four houses. Heck, from what I’ve seen of late, putting your Hogwarts House in online social profiles has become about as common as listing your Zodiac sign.
I actually think this is a really cool development. Giving fandom something like this where they can both identify themselves as fans of a property and simultaneously proclaim their uniqueness from other fans is the type of little quirk that keeps fandoms alive. But we need to separate Slytherin-as-embraced-by-fans from Slytherin-as-portrayed-in-the-books. Because while the books certainly make a big deal about personality being one factor that goes into sorting, they also make it clear that it isn’t completely about personality. In the second book, we learn that sorting is at least somewhat based on choice. Indeed, Harry himself is in Gryffindor because he chose it. The Sorting Hat continues to maintain that he would have made a good Slytherin. The fact that Slytherin prefers purebloods means that blood purity is also a factor that goes into Sorting, if only for Slytherins. While Snape is a Slytherin half-blood and the books never rule out the possibility that Muggle-borns can be Slytherins, it is also suggested that a Muggle-born Slytherin would be rare. This happens most prominently in the following passage from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
“So you aren’t wanted, then, Vernon? Or are you on that list under a different name? What house were you in at Hogwarts?”
“Slytherin,” said Harry automatically.
“Funny ’ow they all thinks we wants to ’ear that.” leered Scabior out of the shadows. “But none of ’em can tell us where the common room is.”
“It’s in the dungeons.” said Harry clearly. “You enter through the wall. It’s full of skulls and stuff and its under the lake, so the light’s all green.”
There was a short pause.
“Well, well, looks like we really ’ave caught a little Slytherin.” said Scabior.
“Good for you, Vernon, ’cause there ain’t a lot of Mudblood Slytherins.
I’m highlighting all this not to suggest that children who “choose” Slytherin are at fault, but to help us imagine the types of students who commonly get sorted into Slytherin. Getting into Slytherin seems to be some combination of personality, blood purity, and choice. And for some students “choice” would be heavily influenced by family history. We see that members of pureblood families are commonly sorted into the same House as family members. This is the case not only for Slytherin families like the Blacks and Malfoys, but also apparently for Gryffindor families like the Weasleys.
This leaves us with a Slytherin that caters to two types of students: purebloods from old families and kids with ambition and cunning who might or might not be purebloods. This is putting it rather simplistically, of course, and there may be kids who fall outside of either of these descriptions, but I think it is a good basic framework. The problem is that highlighting “ambition” in a house whose members value blood purity will tend to reinforce beliefs in blood purity more than if the defining personality trait of Slytherin were, say, intelligence or bravery.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition in and of itself and ambitious kids surely have the potential to change the world in positive ways. The problem with Slytherin is that ambitious kids get thrown into an environment in which adherence to an ideology of “blood purity” is a good way to get ahead. To put it another way, imagine that an eleven-year-old student with no strong views about blood purity gets sorted into Slytherin. Right away, he or she is placed into an environment in which many House mates are going to subscribe to the whole blood purity thing. Further, because of the competition that Hogwarts fosters between the houses in academics and extra-curricular activities like Quidditch, our ambitious student earns praise by allying with members of his own House to “beat” the other Houses. Finally, the students from other Houses seem to regard Slytherin students with a certain amount of suspicion (as I’ve discussed, this is somewhat deserved).
Our ambitious Slytherin kid encounters an environment in which making friends outside of Slytherin is difficult and in which giving at least lip service to the idea of pureblood superiority is expected by many within Slytherin. I think that, all other things being equal, a kid whose defining characteristic is ambition is more likely to just go along to get ahead than a kid whose defining characteristic was intelligence, fairness, or bravery.
A kid who valued fairness and hard work would be more likely to notice and call out the inherent unfairness of belief in the superiority of pureblood wizards. A kid who valued intelligence might point out the lack of logic in such a belief system. A kid who valued bravery might not be as quick to examine the actual belief system, but if they did examine it and find it wanting, then they’d be more likely to stand up against the injustice of it. But a kid who valued ambition? They’d be more likely to conclude that openly challenging the dominant belief system of their House wasn’t going to get themselves or others anywhere. They’d be more likely to just sort of go along with it and view compliance as practicality. After all, they aren’t all that likely to make something of themselves by challenging the beliefs of the people who surround them.
So we have a picture of Slytherin with basically two types of students (purebloods, particularly those from Slytherin families that are often bigoted and ambitious kids who may or may not be pureblood). Neither type is likely to challenge the dominant belief system. Slytherin students are also less likely to be exposed to other belief systems than they would be if the House system didn’t exist. The existence of Slytherin House therefore serves as a sort of incubator for Anti-Muggle sentiment. This is why we see so many Slytherin bad guys. It’s not that the Sorting Hat decides that eleven-year-old kids are evil. It’s that the Sorting Hat places students into Slytherin based on some combination of blood status, family history, and ambition/cunning – and these criteria ensure that the status quo within the House is reinforced.
So the next time you’re tempted to think that the portrayal of Slytherin in the Harry Potter series is overly simplistic, just remember that there’s more here than first appears. “House unity” may sound well and good, but if you’re a Muggle-born student then it’s got to be difficult to unify with House when many members of that House think that you’re subhuman. The Sorting system and Slytherin House may be unfair to pureblood kids who don’t know any better, but it’s even more unfair to Muggle-born students like Hermione Granger because it creates an environment in which pureblood bigotry can grow and fester. This, unfortunately, is perhaps one of the most realistic things about the Harry Potter series.
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