Parting of the Ways

Like any self-respecting Potterheaded self-improvement bookworm, I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over what my one true Hogwarts house is. In the process, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the Sorting system itself.

My conclusion?

I think I’ve found a way to sort people. But it’s not a quiz, and before I finally tell you, I need to break down what the Sorting system is — and isn’t.

See, I think the way Potter fans sort themselves is different than the Sorting system originally conceived by Rowling. Or at least, the implicit logic of the Sorting is different from its explicit methodology. In fact, between ongoing releases like the Fantastic Beasts movies and continual fan reinterpretation of the houses, I think the Sorting system continues to evolve.

This week, we’ll talk about Rowling’s original system and its flaws.

The Traditional Explanation

While we initially learn about the houses as being full of people with certain traits, both the novels and fans are quick to clarify that values and choices play a big role. People can have traits of multiple houses — like how Harry has traits of Gryffindor and Slytherin and how Hermione has traits of Gryffindor and Ravenclaw — but they’re in Gryffindor because they want to be. They chose to value bravery above all, both in their minds and through their actions.

However, I think this explanation is inconsistent. Why? Because this description fails to recognize that Gryffindor as it originally existed assumed the traits of Hufflepuff house too. And when we try to separate the two while sticking to canon as established in the seven core Harry Potter books and not dismissing Hufflepuff as a useless house, we can’t.

While Rowling somewhat redeemed Hufflepuff (and to a lesser extent, Slytherin), in doing so she splintered the Sorting system to the point where fans have taken it over.

The Definition of Courage

Especially at the beginning of the Harry Potter series, courage is defined not just as nerve and daring but also as moral fiber in the face of opposition. My evidence for this claim is not only all the books but also this 2005 quote from JK Rowling:

“I would want to be in Gryffindor and the reason I would want to be in Gryffindor is because I do prize courage in all its various ramifications. I value it more highly than any other virtue and by that I mean not just physical courage and flashy courage, but moral courage.

“And I wanted to make that point in a very first book with Neville, because Neville doesn’t have that that showy macho type of courage that Harry shows playing quidditch. But at the end, what Neville does at the end of Philosopher’s Stone to stand up to his friends and risk their dislike and approval is hugely courageous so I would want to be in Gryffindor. That is not to say I would be there. I think there is a good bit of Hufflepuff in me.”

Notice that Rowling said she values moral courage above all else but also said that “there’s a good bit of Hufflepuff in me.” What exactly does that mean? Are people with moral courage different from people who value kindness, justice, and inclusion? I don’t see a way that Gryffindor and Hufflepuff, moral courage and love of kindness and justice, can be separated in this way. You can’t separate moral courage from goodness.

In forming her ideas of courage, Rowling presumably drew on the ideas of C.S. Lewis, who deeply influenced her. And his definition of courage is this:

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”

This is a great definition, but it doesn’t work as a way to distinguish Gryffindor and Hufflepuff from each other. If you believe in fairness, then you believe in it all the time, including when doing so is dangerous or difficult. Believing in justice in an unjust world takes courage. If you truly believe in justice, then you are courageous, whether in a quiet or a public way.

The Decimation of Hufflepuff

Justice and kindness are types of love, and when you love something, you defend it. According to an explicit interpretation of the house values and the fan interpretation of Sorting, a true Hufflepuff is also a true Gryffindor.

Perhaps more to the point, the value of bravery, at least according to the early books, assumes the simultaneous existence of Hufflepuff values. The key characters in the Potter series are beloved Gryffindors not just because they’re daring but because they possess the core values of other houses, especially Hufflepuff. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are firm in what’s just. They value friendship, family, goodness, and love.

For Harry, the Sorting Hat considers Gryffindor and Slytherin but makes no mention of Hufflepuff. If Hufflepuff truly represents justice and kindness, then why wouldn’t Hufflepuff be an appropriate choice for Harry too? Why didn’t the Hat consider Hufflepuff?

Because at the beginning of the series, Hufflepuff is a catch-all house. Some fans talk as though readers devalued Hufflepuff on their own, or at least absorbed the prejudices of the Gryffindor and Slytherin characters. Fans don’t always acknowledge that the bias came from the author and the themes of the early books. Rowling apparently didn’t understand that a house that values kindness and justice and a house that values moral courage are ultimately inseparable.

Not convinced yet? Don’t worry. Next week’s blog post is all examples. Stay tuned for Part 2, “Tales for the Wizengamot.”