J.K. Rowling has just given the world news of the first Sorting in the Potter family since 1991; Harry’s son, James Sirius Potter, became a Gryffindor yesterday! Rowling also noted that Teddy Lupin–son of Remus and Tonks, who is currently Head Boy of Hufflepuff House–was disappointed by the hat’s decision.
Teddy’s disappointment was shared by some members of fandom who were hoping that the Potter family would break its House streak with Harry and Ginny’s kids. (Personally, I’m holding out for Albus Severus to get Sorted into Slytherin. And for Lily to be a Hufflepuff.) And while it’s hard to be surprised by the fact that a kid named for James Potter and Sirius Black would be a Gryffindor through and through, that frustration plays into a long fought battle among diehard Potter fans about how the Hogwarts Houses should be viewed, and who might be getting the short end of the stick.
In a rare annotated copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling commented that she wondered if people would have thought differently of Hufflepuff House had she gone with her original instinct and made their mascot a bear rather than a badger. It’s an interesting thought, sure, but probably would have only led to droves of Winnie the Pooh comparisons, with pictures of Hufflepuffs holding their hands to their heads and shouting “Think!” over and over.
While Slytherin and Hufflepuff both have their share of intensely dedicated fans, it’s no secret that among the general Potter-reading population, most would prefer to be a Gryffindor or a Ravenclaw. Why? Do people prefer lions and ravens? Red and blue? Or is it something a little less obvious… perhaps something to do with the attributes awarded to each house, and the values we place on them as a culture?
Life’s not easy for the Hufflepuffs out there. In every sketch, humorous fanfic, and rousing talk over butterbeer at the Harry Potter theme park, they are the butt of all the jokes. Sweet and slow like molasses, that’s what people think. Sure friends, but not particularly talented. Or, as one of those hilarious Second City videos has put it—“I can’t digest lactose; I’m a Hufflepuff!”
And though the jokes are certainly funny, they’re not at all fair. Only last year, Rowling praised her daughter for saying that everyone should want to be a Hufflepuff, and claimed that it was her favorite house too for reasons that the last book makes clear; when the students have a choice about whether or not to fight in the Battle of Hogwarts, the badgers all stay “for a different reason [than the Gryffindors]. They didn’t want to show off, they weren’t being reckless, that’s the essence of Hufflepuff.” So why don’t people get that? Why will Hufflepuff always be a shorthand term to make fun of those deemed dull and useless? Why are Slytherins assumed to be straight-up terrible people?
And what if it’s just a matter of word association?
Let’s talk about the central terminology associated with each Hogwarts House.
- Gryffindors are brave.
- Ravenclaws are intelligent.
- Slytherins are ambitious.
- Hufflepuffs are loyal.
Now, none of these terms are actually bad things to be, but in everyday society we read between the lines and give them other meanings. Bravery is all about heroics. If you’re brave, you self-sacrifice, you’re there to further the common good by helping those in need. You’re one fearless berserker. Intelligence is always valued, even when people want to tear it down out of spite. Smart people are always essential, they are always valuable. If you’re smart, you are meticulous, the person to call upon in a crisis. You have expertise, and that is required in all areas of life.
But ambition often reads like this: You’re selfish. You’re completely focused on your own evolution, and you don’t care who you have to screw over to get to the top. You are looking out for Number One, and all that matters is your position, your station in life. And loyalty reads like this: You’re a follower. A pushover. You find the strongest voice, you latch onto it, and you are there ’til the bitter end whether or not it’s in your best interest. You are a good person to have at someone’s side, but you have no backbone.
It’s not too hard to figure out which of the four options are going to look most appealing to the general population.
What many fail to realize is that the downsides of Gryffindor and Ravenclaw are just as undesirable. Intelligence is great—of course it is—but if that’s your primary characteristic, you might also be cold and detached. Wit is entertaining, but it is often scathing as well. If you’re too logical, you run the risk of being too cautious in your approach to life. Not every Ravenclaw chose to fight Voldemort and his followers in Deathly Hallows because they weighed the options, considered every avenue carefully, and decided what they thought about the possible outcomes. That doesn’t make them bad people by any means, but it can mean that Ravenclaws are liable to pursue logic to the exclusion of compassion.
And here’s a good object lesson for Gryffindors from personal experience… I’m a Gryffindor. I know, it’s boring. I’d sort of rather be a Ravenclaw, or maybe a Slytherin. But every time I do one of those dumb online tests or think about it really hard, I know where I’d end up at Hogwarts. Why’s that, you ask?
Funny story: I once participated in a theatre workshop where the instructor had given us this really cool exercise—she would give a group of six or seven of us a word, and we had 10 seconds to work out a tableau that imparted that word to the audience. My group was given “Protect.” We only had enough time to decide who in the group would be protected before she called on us to create the tableau. We assembled the picture and froze. “Well,” she said, in a very Professor McGonagall-y sort of way, “isn’t that interesting.”
Using my peripheral vision, I could just make out the scene we had formed. Every other person in the group was working to corral the person who needed protecting away from harm, leading her to some safe haven. But I (alone) had flung myself in front of her, feet planted, arms spread wide to fend off whatever was coming.
You see where I’m going with this, right? Foolhardy. Inclined to grandeur. Big gestures without much forethought. Gryffindors come with their own special set of issues that are every bit as unattractive as Slytherin egocentricity and the Hufflepuffian potential for playing second fiddle to stronger personalities. The problem is, people in the wizarding world clearly have the exact same preconceptions about Hogwarts Houses. New students come in with all sorts of opinions about where they should want to be. Only people from Slytherin families actually want to be in Slytherin. That’s probably mostly true for Hufflepuffs as well, though they would likely be just as pleased to have their kids end up in Ravenclaw or Gryffindor. But there’s a pervading sense that Slytherins are bad news and Hufflepuffs are lame, even among other wizards.
If only there had been someone in those books who could have shifted our perceptions and taught us better—wait, there was. In fact, he had a depressingly abrupt death that you might recall from the end of Goblet of Fire….
Cedric Diggory was supposed to be the lesson in all of this. Instead of inciting irritation and confusion in readers, the reaction to his selection in the Triwizard Tournament should have only ever been, “Of course the Hogwarts Champion is a Hufflepuff.” That was precisely the point. Of course the person who represents everything excellent about Hogwarts—its students, legacy, caliber—would come from Hufflepuff. Some roll their eyes and claim that Diggory was mis-sorted; clearly he’s a Gryffindor. No, he’s not. Being brave and charismatic does not make you a Gryffindor. Gryffindors can also be smart—Hermione is a prime example who was also not mis-sorted—just as Ravenclaws can be cunning, and Slytherins loyal. The houses are not as cut and dry as they seem. Where you are sorted has to do with what is important to you, what parts of your person need to be nurtured as you’re learning and growing.
Cedric Diggory was the Hogwarts Champion and he was pure Hufflepuff, through and through. Just, honest, hardworking and fair. Helpful, capable, and a fierce friend, just as Dumbledore said. It’s not as flashy as Gryffindor swagger, but it’s infinitely more admirable.
On the other hand, Slytherin presents a unique set of issues in perception. That poor house is the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; it’s obviously possible to be ambitious and still be a good person, but you attract a certain type of personality by making it the soul of your snaky crest. What Slytherin seems to need is more students who are constructively ambitious, and the fact that they don’t have them is largely the wizarding world’s fault—in part due to the reputation of the house, but even more because wizarding society is stagnating in the shadows during Harry’s time. If the future generation continues to build and create better relations with the muggle world, it’s possible that new Slytherins will be the architects of that world, so long as they don’t have all that pureblood station propaganda to worry about anymore. Slytherins are not inherently evil at all, but they need more interesting goals to achieve now that the primary one is no longer “Keep Voldemort happy with my family or we’ll all die.”
And why do we continue to think of Gryffindors as the ultimate heroes? They have those knightly complexes, that’s for sure, and we’ve never quite put our admiration for chivalry to rest. The fact that some of those lionhearts may be enacting impressive feats for their own glorification isn’t as important to readers as the fact that they do it. We also have to consider that being so willing to throw yourself into harms way, but being incredibly flawed in how you go about it, is just plain interesting. Gryffindors make good heroes because their hubris gives them imperfections. It’s fun to watch them land hard when they don’t think things through.
What it means is that Hufflepuffs might actually be too good to be interesting protagonists. And Slytherins won’t get invited to the party until they have new points of interest. Instead of the damage of word association propagated by the Sorting Hat and family histories, it would be better to ignore what people say about the founders and the former alumni, and instead focus on what each house has to offer its students. It’s clear that Harry has adopted this policy by his middle age, prompting him to tell his son Albus that being sorted into Slytherin was really entirely okay as long as it made him happy. The houses should be an exercise in celebrating the diversity of the student population, not a dividing line that makes it easier to bully each other.
The generation that battled Voldemort was markedly imperfect, but with a little work they could achieve a future where everyone is proud to be sorted anywhere in Hogwarts at all. We should think on that future, and stop giving Hufflepuffs and Slytherins such an unduly hard time.
Top image from NerdFighters.
House Hugs banner from Tumblr user littletude.
This article originally ran on Tor.com on July 16, 2013.