Just last week, readers in the UK (and outside it) celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the spirit of Chamber leaving its teenage years behind, I’d like to examine a question that started in Philosopher’s Stone and was answered in Chamber. It deals with the Chamber of Secrets, the legacy of Salazar Slytherin, and to what degree they relate to Harry.
We see a bias of Hogwarts houses as early as Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley. It’s strategic to place Harry in as equal a state of ignorance to the magical world as his readers. For we are allowed the joy of discovering it as he does and find every bit as fascinating as the next. We are also subject to agree with whatever opinions Harry forms. So after Harry’s first interaction with another wizarding kid, Draco Malfoy, Hagrid defines what Harry should or shouldn’t like.
“‘Everyone says Hufflepuff are a lot o’ duffers, but–‘ ‘I bet I’m in Hufflepuff,’ said Harry gloomily. ‘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'” (Stone 80).
Later, on the train, Hermione says, “. . . I hope I’m in Gryffindor, it sounds by far the best; I hear Dumbledore himself was in it, but I suppose Ravenclaw wouldn’t be too bad” (Stone 106). Ron, too, shortly after says, “I don’t know what they’ll say if I’m not” about his parents if he isn’t sorted into Gryffindor like the rest of the Weasleys; “I don’t suppose Ravenclaw would be too bad, but imagine if they put me in Slytherin” (106-107).
Harry is primed into believing some houses are better than others. Each of the mentioned characters comes from a background or familiarity of the magical community and traits of each house. Harry has none of this, only the people he interacts with from which to form an opinion.
This lends me to the conclusion that Harry didn’t walk into Hogwarts in 1991 a ready-made Gryffindor. In fact, he could have been put into any of the houses. The Hat says, “plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There’s talent, oh my goodness, yes–and a nice thirst to prove yourself.” But then, “Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.'” To which the Hat advises, “you could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that” (Stone 121). Yet the people who’ve made a positive impact on him compel him to reject Slytherin. The text even describes him as “walked shakily” and “so relieved to have been chosen and not put in Slytherin” (121). I think he would have been happy with any house. Hell he was happy to have been sorted at all. Harry didn’t ask to be put in Gryffindor, so at what point did he become one?
We arrive at Chamber of Secrets for the fulfillment of this question. Harry suffers through most of the year at school painted as the Heir of Slytherin because he speaks Parseltongue. Most of the school turns against him, Harry himself is unsettled, thinking, “But I’m in Gryffindor. The Sorting Hat wouldn’t have put me in here if I had Slytherin blood. . . . Ah, said a nasty little voice in his brain, but the Sorting Hat wanted to put you in Slytherin, don’t you remember? (Chamber 197)
At the closest we get to Dumbledore telling Harry about Horcruxes, Harry admits, “‘So I should be in Slytherin. The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it–‘ ‘Put you in Gryffindor,’ said Dumbledore calmly. . . . ‘You know why that was. Think.’ ‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin. . . .’ ‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.‘ Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned. ‘If you want proof, Harry, that you belong in Gryffindor, I suggest you look more closely at this. . . . Only a true Gryffindor could have pulled that out of the hat, Harry'” (Chamber 333-334).
This is the part that makes me most proud of Jo. Even in a story where there is a great deal of destiny, prophecy, and the tendency to be black-and-white, polar not grey, it is at the conclusion of the second book twenty years ago readers are content with Harry being a lion. Having qualities of all four houses, it is Harry’s choices that made him a Gryffindor. He did not say “because I asked to be put in Gryffindor.” He had no idea which was the good or bad house. From how others spoke about them, he came to his own decision and seized what he did have control of: not being in Slytherin, the house of Voldemort.
Harry exhibits traits from each of the houses as do all people. He could have been a great Hufflepuff, at the top of his game because of his work ethic at Quidditch. He could have been a Ravenclaw, competing with Hermione for top marks in Defense Against the Dark Arts. He did not inherit or ask to be put into Gryffindor because Hermione said it was the best or because he knew his parents were in it. Because he was brave enough to enter the Chamber of Secrets to rescue Ginny Weasley by himself as a twelve year-old; Harry earned his right to wear the scarlet and gold, earned the ability to pull the sword out of the Hat. If things were different, he would have been able to achieve the same greatness everyone thinks he has should he have dawned the silver and green of Slytherin.
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***This post is part of my Perusing Potter – a series of exploring the known and not-so-known aspects of the Harry Potter Series***
*Feature image credit: Maria-Hideki via DeviantArt