The Harry Potter franchise has firmly established itself as the story for the modern generation, and will likely end up being passed down from parent to child for generations in one form or another. It’s a classic good versus evil story with morals and character, but it’s hard not to look at that structure and how it influences our perception of a group of people – notably, those from Slytherin house. The following is an attempt to dispel that ugly image from the mainstream perception, and to give them their rightful chance to be determined by who they really are, rather than by the colour of their house.
– Full disclosure I was actually sorted into Gryffindor on Pottermore, so there’s no undue bias here.
Let’s look at how the Harry Potter series frames the houses. First and foremost is Gryffindor, the house belonging to our three main protagonists Harry, Ron and Hermoine. Naturally we’re inclined to support the cause of Gryffindor because it also means our main characters get to succeed. Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw are essentially presented as neutral houses: they’re there and get some development, but are mostly secondary houses next to Gryffindor and the fourth house: Slytherin. These two houses are essentially presented as being in a fierce rivalry at school akin to Celtics/Lakers in the NBA or Carlton/Collingwood in the AFL.
Because of this, Slytherin is going to be presented as antagonistic in order to further our support for Gryffindor. This is only enhanced when Harry’s main school rival, Draco Malfoy, is a Slytherin, and the teacher he is constantly at odds with, Severus Snape, is the head of said house. And then to top of it all off we get Lord Voldermort – the big bad of the series and a card carrying alumni of Syltherin (he even carries the house’s symbol, a snake, around as his pet and secret Horcrux).
“Better Hufflepuff than Slytherin,” said Hagrid darkly. “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one.”
That quote right there is from the very first book in the series, and spoken by Hargid, the lovable half-giant who is constantly helping our three heroes. According to him – and keep in mind this is early in the series, where our knowledge of the world is limited and as such open to influence – every evil wizard is a Slytherin. For the movies, that line belong the Ron Weasley, who is attached to Harry from the start. Now that’s not true, every house has produced its share of bad wizards and witches, but we are learning about this world along with Harry so a comment like that from a trustworthy source is going to affect our understanding.
Is it any wonder then that the vast majority of people view this house as inherently evil? Author JK Rowling certainly went out of her way to paint Slytherin as an evil house from the very first book. But you have to ask, is it any coincidence that JK Rowling would write this way, given that she herself was sorted into Gryffindor through the Pottermore system?
I’m not saying there isn’t precedent here. Obviously many of the major antagonists through the series are connected to Slytherin house, and it’s a simple and easy form of storytelling to paint one side as predominantly good and the other as predominantly bad. But when you’re influencing how young people think and feel – and given how important this series is to a generation of people it absolutely has that influence – this kind of writing could encourage the kind of generalisation that sees us discriminating against people of a certain race or sex or nationality.
Keep this in mind when I remind you of a moment in the first book/movie, that while fairly small in the grand scheme of the series could have dramatically altered the story. When Harry Potter goes up to the Sorting Hat on his first night in Hogwarts, the hat has a hard time determining which house he should belong to:
Sorting Hat: Hmm, difficult. VERY difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There’s talent, oh yes. And a thirst to prove yourself. But where to put you?
Harry: Not Slytherin. Not Slytherin.
Sorting Hat: Not Slytherin, eh? Are you sure? You could be great, you know. It’s all here in your head. And Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, there’s no doubt about that. No?
Harry: Please, please. Anything but Slytherin, anything but Slytherin.
Sorting Hat: Well if you’re sure, better be… GRYFFINDOR!
You could make the argument that the Sorting Hat was leaning towards putting Harry Potter into Slytherin house, and it was only his steadfast wish – based on nothing but initial naïve first impressions – that convinced the Sorting Hat otherwise. And the reason the Sorting Hat thought Slytherin would be good for him was because it could help him become great and prove himself. Ambition. That is the key ingredient of any true Slytherin. Not a penchant for killing, not for bullying, but ambition. Harry was plenty ambitious, even if he did play it off at times.
Imagine if the Sorting Hat had decided to put Harry in Slytherin and how much they might have affected the story. Additional tensions might arise between Harry, Ron and Hermoine, and it’d be harder for them to make amends without the House Common room bringing them together. Things that McGonagall caught Harry doing might have a different reaction if he’s a Slytherin rather than good old Gryffindor. If anything, a Slytherin and two Gryffindors coming together to keep saving the day could have been an important step into easing the tension between houses, rather than just continue to make Slytherin look evil and Gryffindor look good.
For the majority of the books, Slytherin house head Severus Snape is seen as an antagonist. At the end of the sixth book, he goes ahead and kills the beloved headmaster Albus Dumbledore, revealing himself as a member of Voldemorts army. But the truth was he is actually a double agent against the Dark Lord – an act that took incredibly bravery, a traditionally Gryffindor trait, in order to pull off (which was noted by Harry himself once he was older).
The problem is this comes after six books of bias that frames Snape and Slytherin as the bad guys. So even if we concede that Snape is a good guy (who remember was remorselessly bullied by Gryffindor member James Potter in school), we see him as an anomaly rather than the standard. Quality Slytherins like Horace Slughorn, Andromeda Tonk and even the mighty Merlin himself have to be ignored in order to perceive them all as a bunch of Tom Riddles and Malfoys.
And on the subject of Draco. Is he a constant bully and all around prick through the series? Sure he was, but what chance did he really have? He was brought up by Lucius Malfoy, a Death Eater and very loud and vocal proponent of pureblood supremacy. He grew up in exactly the kind of environment that would have snuffed out the righteous qualities in him from a young age in order to groom him into a young follower of Voldemort. Draco might have never met a Weasley before, but he sure knows he has to hate him, because that’s what he was taught to believe by his family.
There were still Slytherins who fought on the side of the protagonists when it came to the final battle, though you wouldn’t believe that if you only watched the movies:
McGonagall: “I would like you please, to lead Miss Parkinson and the rest of Slytherin house from the hall.”
Filch: “And where is it I should be leading them to?”
McGonagall: “The Dungeons would do.”
The book makes this scene a little more ambiguous, as she is asking all who are choosing to leave to do so. It does state that Slytherin table was deserted, but Rowling has later clarified that some did stay and lost their lives fighting against Voldemort (specifically, stating that they and Slughorn had gone off to get reinforcements – a pretty smart thing to do in a massive war). But for those only familiar with the movie, McGonagall instead banishes everyone from Slytherin to the dungeons almost seemingly because of either one member – Pansy Parkinson – or because she doesn’t trust anyone who is a Slytherin.
One final note to show how against Slytherin the story was. At the end of the first book, ex-Gryffindor member and then headmaster of Hogwarts Albus Dumbledore was announcing the winner of the House Cup, which was Slytherin based on points. That was until he started handing out an arbitrary number of points to Harry, Ron and Hermoine. After that was all said and done it wasn’t quite enough. So Dumbledore decided to award Gryffindor student Neville points for his bravery in standing up to his friends who were breaking the rules and subsequently assaulted him with a spell. Those points put Gryffindor ahead of Slytherin and made them the winners of the House Cup. Those friends who attacked him? Harry Ron and Hermoine – so Gryffindor was awarded points because of Gryffindor on Gryffindor violence. Sounds to me like Dumbledore was either very anti-Slytherin, or he had some serious money on his old house winning the Cup at the wizarding equivalent of the bookies.