Sunday 27 May 2012

The Slytherin Problem


In the previous post I alluded to The Slytherin Problem, which is the question of why Slytherin House exists at Hogwarts.

Why would it be a good thing to have a house to educate (mostly) dark wizards and witches to become expert in magic?

I have seen several feeble and unconvincing reasons for this (including explanations by JK Rowling) - such as that not all Slytherins are evil (e.g. Slughorne) - but these are not at all convincing: Slughorne and the like could have been placed in another House - and there is always Hufflepuff as back-up, who will take any misfits.


No, the real reason for the existence of Slytherin in Hogwarts is the reason for the power of evil in the life as we know it: and thus in the Harry Potter world also.

Evil is strong in the Harry Potter world as it is described, such that there was no possibility of abolishing nor even of reforming Slytherin House.

Throughout the books, wealthy and influential dark wizards like the Malfoys seem to have great power in the wizarding world, including especially the Ministry of Magic bureaucracy and as governors and parents of Hogwarts, and the media (Daily Prophet).


Indeed, the forces of good are, by comparison, restricted to relatively few isolated pockets - those around Dumbeldore and (with reservations) the Auror's office, perhaps.


As usual, Rowling's deep instincts are right, even when her public explanations are not fully coherent: in a world like that of Harry Potter of course there would be a Slytherin House!

And Slytherins would make-up an 'old boys' (and girls) network which had a finger in every pie. 

And, if it was not a House within Hogwarts, then there would have been be a Slytherin School - and it would have been better equipped and higher in status than Hogwarts.


So, the answer to the Slytherin Problem of why it would be a good thing to have a House to educate dark wizards is that Slytherin House was not a good thing but was in fact - in its total effect - an evil thing.

And that is exactly why Slytherin existed.

Slytherin existed because it was evil, and evil was powerful in the wizarding world. 



Ariston said...

A more interesting question is why Rowling portrays Slytherin as almost wholly evil. The "four humors" analogy for the houses of Hogwarts is very powerful, and the issue is that Rowling endorses a very modern picture where cholerics are all essentially evil… despite such temperments being common in the stories of the lives of saints. (CS Lewis alludes to this well in the line that says something like the greatest sinners and greatest saints are cut from the same cloth.) Even Rowling has some intuition of this when the hat nearly sorts Harry into Slytherin (and, I believe, not simply because of his connection to Voldemort) and at the end when his son asks what would happen if he were sorted into that house.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - yes there does seem to be an ambivalence on this issue.

But I don't think the four Houses fit the humoral theory at all well. Not least because Hufflepuff is not really characterized by a personality type, but is just the place where people go who don't fit into the other Houses.

Ariston said...

I think there's still something to it; though—like any analogy—it has its limitations.

I do think that Hufflepuff as phlegmatic works very well for how its characters are portrayed; the fact that Nigel Longbottom is not sorted into it despite his misfit nature is good evidence of this, because we discover (most dramatically in Deathly Hallows that his real self is a sanguine Gryffindor. I think there is a similar issue with cultural portrayals (and modern treatment in organizations) of phlegmatics going on with Hufflepuff House, where they are portrayed as constantly manipulated losers.

George Goerlich said...

Is there anything positive in that their house is under the watch of a good headmaster vs being their own school (with a certainly evil headmaster)?

The Rush Blog said...

I found Rowling's portrayal of judging the students based upon the four houses at Hogwarts a bit unrealistic.