If you haven’t gotten sorted on Pottermore yet, do so. Then come back. I’ll wait.
If you haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books yet, do so. Then come back. I’ll wait…but I’m furious.
Okay, if you’ve gotten this far, I can assume you at least think you know all there is to know about the Hogwarts Houses. Let me dismantle that a bit for you.
Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor were founded centuries ago by fallible wizards who thought that separating people into boxes based on their abilities and interests was a great way to raise children. But, as with all things humans create, the houses eventually wrested control from their creators and formed their own communities, their own identities, that were only loosely based around the ideals of their founders. Looking at the characters throughout the series that represent their houses, I have tried to tease out the modern culture of the houses, stripping away the vestigial elements that the founders planned, but that did not hold true for all of the members of the houses.
(Caveat: I waxed eloquence a little bit on this, so I’ve tried to make this extremely long post easily navigable. However, I, of course, think you should read it all, and in order.)
The thing that most makes Ravenclaws Ravenclaws is their intelligence. That seems obvious. But intelligence doesn’t seem to have a universal definition: the things Luna Lovegood knows are not things that are going to help her get any O.W.L.s, and Sybill Trelawney doesn’t strike me as a genius. Meanwhile, Hermione Granger is widely considered the cleverest witch of her age, but the sorting hat chose not put her in Ravenclaw. Why? Let’s look deeper.
Ravenclaws are smart, yes, and the kind of smart that garners creativity. But they are also individualistic. They have a bit of camaraderie with each other, but when you’re a bunch of kids living in a dorm together, that happens pretty much regardless. Ravenclaws are in their own heads most of the time, trying to find the truth, the best truth, the rightest answer. If they think they’ve found it, they don’t feel the need for teamwork. Luna Lovegood had friends, once people stopped caring how weird her theories were, and she loved her friends, but there’s no evidence she sought out relationships with her other Ravenclaws: she wouldn’t compromise her own individuality just to have close friendships with others.
Ravenclaws aren’t as exclusive as Slytherins: they value that intelligence and creativity so much more than Slytherin does that they don’t care who has it. But, as evidenced by Luna’s treatment in her own house, Ravenclaws aren’t accepting. They’re tolerant. They won’t go out of their way to be friendly or caring or inclusive, but they won’t waste their energy on keeping anyone out who deserves to be there.
At their best, Ravenclaws are like Filius Flitwick, very smart people who want to share what they’ve learned with others and use their knowledge in the pursuit of good. But because of their focus on the mind and on the individual, they can be prone to be insensitive to others’ pain and can see living beings as pawns in a game of their own design, like Roweena Ravenclaw herself saw the Bloody Baron. They can also be pretentious, and blinded by their own acumen to the value of other people.
Gryffindors are known for their courage. This courage is paramount for them, and comes in different forms at different times: they have the courage to break the rules in order to throw an excellent party, the courage to start a business when they’re only teenagers, the courage to stand up to oppressive authorities, and the courage to risk their own lives for what they think is right. But what links Collin Creevey with Bill Weasley? What was it about 11-year-old Neville Longbottom that got him into Gryffindor, long before he found it within himself to lead a revolution? Gryffindors’ courage comes from somewhere. They aren’t just adrenaline junkies, though some of them may seem like it. Gryffindors have ideals, they’re proud. They’re proud of themselves, of their friends, of their families, of their abilities. Not always pompous, but at the heart of things, they’re confident.
As readers of Harry Potter, we know the most about Gryffindors. We’ve seen how their bravado can lead to recklessness, to acting before thinking, and to hurting people in the process. We’ve seen how they can become dogmatic and prejudiced in their pride and confidence, believing beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are in the right and that the world is a binary of us and them. Often their heroics get them in trouble and pull them out of the fight at an inopportune time. But, like with Hermione, a good brain goes a long way for Gryffindor.
Hufflepuffs are probably the least understood of all the houses, but both my mother and my husband are Hufflepuffs, so I feel like an authority on the matter. Hufflepuffs are often, and wrongly, considered to be the leftover house, the house where you get stuck if you’re not brave, smart, or ambitious. But let’s look at some of the few Hufflepuffs we know. Helga Hufflepuff herself believed chiefly in acceptance, not wanting her own biases to prevent any child from receiving an education. Pomona Sprout was a gifted Herbologist, unafraid to get her hands dirty and dedicate herself to her work. Nymphadora Tonks-Lupin was an emotionally intelligent, hard working woman who followed her heart and treated everyone, even aloof children, with respect and love.
To put it succinctly, Hufflepuffs have a foundation of integrity, and build themselves around serving the world and those around them, no matter how much that service might ask of them. They are patient with others, true to their friends (and they have a lot of those), and are keenly aware that you make your place in the world, it doesn’t just find you. Why do we see so little of Hufflepuff in the books? Because there is no scandal there. Justin Finch-Fletchley was afraid for his life when it looked like Harry was attacking him with a snake, and Zacharias Smith was a boob if there ever was one, but that hardly measures up to some of the goings on in the other houses.
Hufflepuffs can work too hard, can be too trusting. They can overextend themselves in their attempt to be all things to all people, and, as Smith demonstrated, they can fall prey to well crafted lies when they don’t do due diligence to the truth. It doesn’t help that they are the most likely to be on the front lines of social change, where the work is the most demanding and the issues are the least black-and-white. The most successful Hufflepuffs will hone their intelligence, but will not favor book-smarts to the deficiency of their common sense. They are practical, and they are people of action.
And now to my own house (oh yeah, there’s some serious bias here, no doubt about it).
Set aside for a moment Harry Potter’s vision of Slytherin: it’s not secret that most Gryffindors up to Harry’s time hated everything that came out of it, so he cannot be considered a reliable source.
There’s no getting around it: Salazar Slytherin was an ignorant, frightened, hoarder of power and access. He wanted only pureblood wizards in his house, and specifically, he wanted cunning purebloods full of ambition and loyalty to each other. But he got Voldemort, a halfblood who, though intelligent and ambitious as they come, couldn’t really be called loyal to anyone but himself. When you ask your followers to be full of both self-preservation and fraternity, as Slytherin did, you’re bound to create some incongruity in your ranks.
Slytherins are intelligent–Crabbe and Goyle are not great examples of this, but Draco was no idiot–but their intelligence plays second fiddle to their drive to accomplish, to make something of themselves. They pull each other up when they can, and they use whatever means necessary to bring their plans to fruition. Sure, most, if not all, of the Slytherins we encounter in the books are ruthless, and arrogant, but is it the case that, with all of them, they are Slytherins because of their arrogance, or they are arrogant because they are Slytherins? That may seem to make inconsequential difference, but if you think about it, every group of people creates its own group identity or culture, and that culture may or may not run deep in the hearts of each individual member.
Think of your family of origin, the group you grew up with: there’s a group identity there, a system with unwritten rules and core beliefs that, as you were growing up, you may have never consciously identified. But as soon as you set foot into another family, even as just a visitor, you realized that those rules were different than other families’ rules. The more time you spent away from your family, the less those rules applied to you; sure, you internalized many of them, but they evolved over time to more match your individual identity, which is decidedly separate from all the other individual identities in your family.
The Hogwarts Houses are like that, as well. Harry Potter himself was invited to join Slytherin, and he was not ruthless or arrogant. He chose Gryffindor instead, but only because Slytherin’s culture at the time, its unwritten rules, didn’t mesh with his personality. But if we had changed the pureblood elitism of Slytherin social norms (and we could have tried) Harry may have gone into Slytherin after all. He is resourceful, loyal to his friends, intelligent enough to see his plans through to the end, and driven to make something of himself.
You’re probably thinking that I’m over here, waving a protest sign that says, “Slytherins are People Too,” and you’re at least a little bit right. The sorting hat has spoken; Pottermore’s quiz is canon, so I cannot escape the mantle of my assigned house. But I refuse to hate muggle-borns and halfbloods, and I aim to explore my own prejudices until they are defeated. So you can’t call me ruthless or arrogant, but you can call me a Slytherin.