Smart things people are saying about Harry VII

Cousin Bill asks the age-old question: why isn’t Hermione in Ravenclaw? and adds a question I’ve never heard before: why aren’t Fred and George in Slytherin? I’ll try on both. My premise is that the defining house characteristics are not exactly as the sorting hat describes, but have to be gathered from the wider narrative.

Who is put in Ravenclaw? Not necessarily the smartest, but those who love abstractions, the metaphysicians, those who like answering the pseudo-profound puzzles put to them by their porthole; to make a long story short, the same people who study and teach philosophy in universities. “The goddess comes to you with truth in one hand and the search for truth in the other. Which do you choose?” Anyone who enjoys thinking about this kind of thing goes into Ravenclaw. There are, I believe, more of these people in the world than philosophy enrollments suggest (the latter being curbed by practical considerations), but Hermione is unquestionably NOT one of them. I can imagine her standing in front of the guardian of the Ravenclaw porthole saying “rubbish!” in an impatient tone. Of course the Ravenclaws have the reputation of being the smartest. This is true in our world too.

Who is put in Slytherin? Not the most ambitious or most cunning. It’s people who have a massive dose of resentment and a consequent capacity for cruelty. That’s why Fred and George don’t belong there. They have no resentment at all: in this respect, perhaps the critical respect, they’re saints. And it’s also why the sorting hat considers putting Harry there. It has nothing to do with the Voldemort part of him. Harry resents the Durselys, resents his parents, resents Dumbledore–and he is capable of a selfish cruelty that emerges directly from the irrational hatreds that mix with his loves. In fact, Harry is a fairly nasty piece of work. Which is interesting, I think.

Z says, “you can’t have a whole school house of people who are faulty.” But you can. JK’s world is filled with systemic injustice of exactly this kind. Of course an enlightened school board would insist that Slytherin be broken up and its kids put into houses where they might learn to be better. And of course for most of them it would be a good thing: think of a young Snape making his friends in Gryffindor. But there aren’t any enlightened school boards in the magical world. Some things, like attacks on systemic injustice, take a muggle, as we learn from SPEW. Literarily, JK has built in an explanation for the problem. House characters are defined by the personalities of the founders, so the instantiation of injustice begins with Mr. Slytherin.

I haven’t encountered anyone else who’s had the same thoughts about Ravenclaw, though my friend Meg has known for a long time that, though clever, Ravenclaws aren’t publicly engaged. But having had the thoughts about Slytherin, I found myself directed by Cousin Bill to a comment on a fan site that said the same thing at greater length and with substantially more elegance. It’s #168 here: Others took up the theme in subsequent comments, and the discussion as a whole is excellent.

Another major concern among fans is a more general matter. Some people claim, echoing A.S. Byatt, that the books don’t offer a sense of the numinous. Others point out that the epilogue is mundane and unsatisfying. Still others are offended by the fact that Rowling uses dei ex machina in the final scenes of every book. All of this is of a piece, and all of it is dead on. But, then again, who cares? What these people want is a different kind of book, something more like LOTR. HP is nothing like LOTR. The series trips along like a frolicsome lamb. It NEVER got dark; I don’t care what anyone says. No reader every truly cared when someone died, not like they would have for Merry or Pippin. It was a romp from start to finish. Rowling’s single sphere of mastery is fun.


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