Checking Slytherin Pride at the Door
Buckle up for a very nerdy post, but I’m going to draw it back to the real world. I promise.
I’d like to respond to a recent Mugglenet article about Harry Potter. The July 6 article, titled “Five Misrepresentations that Drive Slytherins Crazy” posits that Slytherins are misunderstood as being 1) cowards 2) bullies 3) dark wizards 4) deserving of prejudice and 5) incapable of love and goodness.
One of the things that is terrific about J.K. Rowling’s world is that even as she gives us a sorted, bounded Hogwarts, she also gives us many examples of characters stepping outside of their house characteristics. None of the Hogwarts students are actually as one-dimensional as their houses might suggest. As the article points out, this includes Slytherins like Regulus Black who bravely stands up to Voldemort, Horace Slughorn who resists the Death Eaters, and Severus Snape whose deep love for Lily Evans Potter motivates his choices throughout the story.
All that being said, the Slytherins are undeniably the villains, and it is disingenuous to pretend there is no reason why. While we see examples of bullies in all the other houses (James Potter and Sirius Black in Gryffindor, the overzealous Diggory supporters in Hufflepuff, and the students who hide Luna’s things in Ravenclaw), it is important to remember that the bullying in Slytherin, is in fact categorically different than the others, because Slytherin is founded on the idea of blood purity.
“Said Slytherin, ‘We’ll teach just those / Whose ancestry is purest.’” — Sorting Hat song, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Because Slytherin is the “dark” house, and because that darkness is often glamorized in fandom or merely simplified into a goth aesthetic, it is easy to overlook that Slytherin is the house not just characterized by ambition and cunning, but also literally, canonically founded on principles of racial hierarchy, linked allegorically to Nazism by the author herself.
Like many other fans, I have dressed up as a Death Eater (Bellatrix Lestrange, to be exact) for Halloween or a convention, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is necessarily a lot of harm in that; the wizarding world is fictional and no real muggle-born witches and wizards are being killed and harassed. However, it becomes a problem when fans who identify uncritically with Slytherin house, not to mention with Death Eaters, become increasingly comfortable with the values that underly those characters and costumes. And particularly alarming when they do things like tattoo symbols of blood purity permanently onto their skin. This is equivalent to tattooing a Confederate flag onto your body because you think The Dukes of Hazzard is a cool TV show.
I posit that not only is it completely justified for the characters in the books to be suspicious of the Slytherins whose house and culture are founded on the violent exclusion of those they deem racially inferior, but also that understanding that fact is central to truly understanding the foundation of the wizarding world and the horrifying and friendship-ending compromise that created the four houses of Hogwarts in the first place.
And that finally being aware of places where we (even accidentally) end up cheering for racial hierarchy is of particular importance in a world where the Klan holds open rallies with armed members in public spaces. Despite the fact that the characters are not one-dimensionally evil, above all else, Slytherin house represents the vestigial evil of a world that doesn’t value equality, and we should heed Rowling’s warning about how that cancer grows.