Here She Come A-Slytherin

I recently saw a post on Tumblr pointing out something about the Harry Potter books that I hadn’t really thought about before but is pretty weird. Slytherin is full of rich kids, yet their dormitories are in a dank, slimy dungeon with eerie green light.

Do you really think a high society type like Lucius Malfoy would want his son living in that environment? It was suggested that J.K. Rowling was basically combining two sorts of distasteful into one, lumping racist old money conservatives in with the stereotypical evil wizard who makes a point of demonstrating how nasty and scary he is.

I’m not sure these sorts of people would really want to hang out. They might ally themselves with each other sometimes, like how some poor people vote Republican, but they probably wouldn’t live together. Sure, some of the rich Slytherins might be well-to-do goths like the Addams Family, but that’s a tidy sort of creepiness. For that matter, I’m not sure families like the Malfoys and the Blacks would consider themselves dark wizards. They’d call themselves Moral Crusaders for Family Values or something. This just adds to the fact that Slytherin comes across as rather ill-defined.

It’s certainly possible to be ambitious and put your own safety first without caring about bloodlines. Perhaps Rowling’s idea here was that, in order to get ahead, ambitious people would pretend to buy into the pure-blood prejudice even if they really didn’t. And obviously some of them are hypocrites, like Adolf…I mean, Voldemort. I would think there would be exceptions, however, who have progressive values but ALSO ambition and a strong sense of self-preservation. And that’s not even getting into the people who don’t have any Slytherin values but would think living in a dungeon was pretty cool. I guess that ties in with the flaw of sorting everyone by personality into a mere four houses. When there are so few choices, there are obviously going to be a lot of exceptions to the general descriptions. I’m really not so keen on the division at all, because who really needs more manufactured conflict? The Sorting Hat encourages the houses at Hogwarts to work together, yet continues to create divisions between them. That bit of haberdashery certainly provides some mixed messages.

The system is common in British Commonwealth boarding schools and in fiction about them, so I suppose Rowling wasn’t necessarily endorsing it so much as going along with what people expect (although it was a little weird for us Americans). I thought it was rather telling, however, that the only one in the series to speak out against it was the Dark Lord himself.

Dumbledore mentions “a certain disdain for the rules” as another Slytherin trait, and one that Harry Potter definitely demonstrates. Based on what else we know about Slytherin, I would think a more accurate description would be that they think they’re above the rules, but insist on everyone else following them. This doesn’t appear to be the case for Harry.

I’ve noticed that the rule-breaking is often cited as a reason why conservatives aren’t so keen on the series, because apparently the only acceptable form of going against the rules is not paying taxes. It’s kind of an odd attitude to have, because Rowling frequently puts her characters in situations where following the rules would result in Voldemort winning. It’s something I’ve noticed about conservative attitudes in general, in that they’re big on respecting authority and obeying the law, but are always making exceptions when they don’t like the authority or the law. I think the real lesson with regards to the Potter series is that authority figures, even good ones, can make mistakes. It doesn’t mean you should never listen to them, but it does mean a certain level of skepticism is a good thing, especially when they’re prone to keeping important secrets from you for no apparent reason. Dumbledore is routinely presented as someone who encourages rule-breaking in certain situations, but because of his position isn’t able to come right out and admit it. The pros and cons of his approach to various situations are largely those of mystical mentors in general. It’s all very well to encourage your proteges to figure things out themselves, but it might be ill-advised to keep up this method when someone’s life hangs in the balance.

I’m kind of getting off the original Hogwarts Express track here, but I see a general theme of Rowling’s fondness for tropes (particularly of wizard and school stories) conflicting somewhat with the messages she was trying to impart.

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4 Responses to Here She Come A-Slytherin

  1. Bryan Babel says:

    When you think about it, each House is affected by its own besetting fault (Gryffindor a species of bull-headed wrath, Ravenclaw a sort of sniffy pride, Hufflepuff a kind of easy-going sloth); there are at least three members of Slytherin that I know that qualify as good (if not particularly pleasant) people, and one was definitely poor.

    As for rule breaking, consider the following dicta:

    “Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time
    “When you break rules, break ’em good and hard.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters

    • Nathan says:

      It’s strange that Hufflepuff seems to be described as both hard-working AND lazy. Maybe they’re supposed to be like the stereotypical blue-collars workers who do hard work at their jobs but then come home and veg out in front of the TV. And Snape was definitely poor, although at least when he was young he apparently wanted to get in good with the rich kids.

      • Hufflepuff are probably all EnneaType 9s like me– we’ll do whatever work you put in front of us, we just won’t go out of our WAY to do work. No ambition, no drive, just enough to keep things running smoothly…!

      • Nathan says:

        I guess I’m kind of like that myself, actually. I’ll do pretty much any work I’m asked to do, but I never seek it out.

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