Fine Day Sunday

in my opinion, best day of the week

Sluggish

Posted by finedaysunday on March 31, 2013

I didn’t read too much into this at the time, but for several years the Harry Potter series had sort of fumbled the whole moral ambiguity angle. Of course, I never expected the early books to tackle that sort of material in the first place. But with the sixth entry, Half-Blood Prince, something jumped out at me and signaled the coming of an important new approach.

Before we get to that, a bit about how I arrived at that discovery. See, what I still find so unique and compelling about this series is that I, like millions of others, grew up alongside these books. With each new entry, J.K. Rowling honed her craft for telling compelling stories with likeable characters, all the while expanding the boundaries of its universe and enriching the relationships between its inhabitants. I’m an absolute sucker for that degree of care in world-building. But there was one facet of the wizarding world that always bothered me, so much so that I was relieved to find out that I’m not the only one who felt this way.

In Harry Potter’s world, the villains are presented under the all-encompassing umbrella of Slytherin house. If you weren’t a hapless bumbling bully or a stone-cold murderer, chances are you were one of the good guys. The early books do very little to challenge this, and nobody seems surprised when someone who got sorted into Slytherin at age eleven grows up to be a jerk. We’re told that the four founders enchanted the Sorting Hat to distinguish a new student’s personality traits and place them into one of four groups for the duration of their academic career. However, this is rarely presented as anything other than the notion that Hogwarts has three “good” houses, and one “evil” house. This black-and-white approach always seemed so clumsily executed to me, this idea that Slytherins are always depicted as fitting neatly under one of the two “villain” templates I mentioned earlier.

Enter Horace Slughorn.

Slughorn

Introduced in what became one of the most pivotal chapters in the series from my point of view, Slughorn is a former teacher who Professor Dumbledore hopes to persuade to come out of retirement for the upcoming school year. To do this, he enlists the aid of the famous Harry Potter, hoping to play up the “Boy Who Lived”/”Chosen One” angle as an added incentive. Harry and Slughorn strike up a conversation, and the latter casually drops that he was also Head of Slytherin house when he last taught at Hogwarts. Harry is immediately suspicious, and Slughorn warns him against jumping to conclusions.

Horace Slughorn is at the very heart of the events of Half-Blood Prince. Many years earlier, he had played an integral role in Voldemort’s rise to power, and the search for the truth behind those events is one of the story’s major turns. But even before he is introduced, we are already expecting a new teacher to be added to the staff, and that they will probably be out of a job by the end of the book. We’d been trained to be just as suspicious of all new teachers as Harry is of Slytherins. However, the story throws us a curveball and reveals that Slughorn is in fact the former Potions master, and that instead Severus Snape will fill the annually vacant position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Already, our expectations are being toyed with.

This is all merely setup. The real follow-through is Slughorn’s character arc. While we’re all busy waiting for the other shoe to drop on this whole “new teacher = evil” thing, we learn that he is in fact a good person who feels genuine remorse at being unwittingly manipulated into aiding Tom Riddle’s transformation into the most evil wizard of the modern age. We also learn that he is vain, ambitious, materialistic, gluttonous, attracted to power and fame, and possesses an inescapable favouritism towards purebloods.

In other words, he has all of the qualities of an honest-to-goodness Slytherin.

There is a lot going on in Half-Blood Prince to prove that this is a deliberate shift in morality dynamics. This is the book that introduces Cormac McLaggen and Romilda Vane, two minor Gryffindor students who don’t exactly fit the previously established mold of “Gryffindors = unflinchingly good.” The former is selfish and arrogant, while the latter is shallow and inconsiderate. Perhaps the surest sign of all is that, after five books as little more than a running gag, Draco Malfoy is finally given character depth and becomes a human being.

As early as Chamber of Secrets, we’re already diving headlong into subjects like purity of blood and the ugly slurs associated with them. That’s pretty heavy material, and I commend Rowling for giving younger readers enough credit to be able to handle it. Maybe that’s why it’s such a surprise to me now that it took six books before the heroes and villains stopped being so neatly categorized according to their Houses (obviously I’m excluding Snape, who had been morally malleable for much of the story by this point). The more pleasant surprise is that, with each successive book, the stories Rowling tells are able to explore these themes in greater detail and scope than the last. In other words, this series, like Harry himself, is allowed to “grow up” with the reader.

Horace Slughorn stands out to me specifically because he broke the mold. We had been led to be suspicious of Slytherins simply because they were Slytherins, not unlike the students in the other three Houses. I see this as a warning against baseless prejudice, and Slughorn clearly does as well. When he tells Harry that he was Head of Slytherin, then quickly adds “don’t go holding that against me!”, he’s not just talking to Harry. He’s talking to us.

None of this explains how Peter Pettigrew ended up in Gryffindor. I’m going to assume the Sorting Hat was drunk that day.

~ ~ ~

Richard Griffiths

I was very sad to learn that Richard Griffiths passed away this week at the age of 65. Thanks for your delightfully entertaining turn as Uncle Vernon Dursley, and for contributing to some of the best inside jokes among my group of friends (as well as providing the inspiration for the name of this website). Rest in peace.

“Justice.”

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