Summary: I am responding to the following question: “Mr. Weasley has said you better not trust something if you can’t see where it keeps its brain… but can the hat be trusted? Is it not indirectly responsible for producing such villains as Lord Voldemort, by placing him in a house where his hostile nature and racist beliefs could flourish?” Many may argue that the Sorting Hat is inherently flawed and thus the Sorting system is flawed; the greatest example being the placement of Tom Riddle into Slytherin where he would flourish and become Voldemort. However, it is not as simple of a matter as that. By examining the four founders and the creation of the Sorting Hat, the Hat’s songs, the nature of Sorting, Lord Voldemort, and several statements by J.K. Rowling herself, we can argue that inherent personality traits, choices, and the nature of Hogwarts’ founders are truly what decide the course of the Sorting and the future of a wizard; not the Sorting Hat. It is not a matter of trusting the Hat, but rather, of trusting each other.
THE FOUNDING OF HOGWARTS AND THE CREATION OF THE HAT
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was founded over one thousand years ago by four spectacular witches and wizards. These four individuals shared the dream of creating a magical school where they could teach others like themselves. This was a worthy and long-lasting endeavor, as Hogwarts still stands after all that time and young wizards are still being educated there. However, the founders, who were four very good friends, disagreed on one aspect of their new school; who should be admitted.
Three of the founders thought there should have been a bias on which potential students were allowed entry. Godric Gryffindor wished to choose only those who would use their magic in acts of bravery and noble deeds; Rowena Ravenclaw wanted only the most intelligent to pursue magical education, as she most likely believed they would be able to absorb more of what they were taught. Then there was Salazar Slytherin, who, while also desiring that his students be resourceful, cunning, and ambitious, wished to only teach those who were of “pure-blood”, or those who did not come from Muggle heritage. And finally, in contrast to this, Helga Hufflepuff believed that in order to best serve the wizarding world, they must take every witch and wizard, regardless of their abilities, and teach them what they could. In order to settle these differences, each founder created their own House (and gave their House their namesake) so that they could take in those students, and only those students, who they themselves thought the most worthy of magical learning. Hufflepuff, of course, took not only hard-workers but whoever was left over when her three friends were done choosing their students.
Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin, and Gryffindor were so adamant in their beliefs, and their faith in the House system, that they decided that after their death, the students must still be divided into Houses. And so Gryffindor contributed his own hat and “the founders put some brains in [it] so [it] could choose instead!” (GOF, 177)
It is also important to note that, while the four founders were once great friends, this did not last forever. While the other three were happy to each take their own students, Salazar Slytherin still believed that pure-bloods were most worthy of attending Hogwarts, and he believed this so strongly that he hatched a Basilisk, created a Chamber of Secrets to contain it, and left the school, claiming that his own heir would come back one day and use the monster and the Chamber to purge the school of unworthy students. Additionally, the Sorting Hat itself tells us, through its song in Order of the Phoenix, that “the Houses that, like pillars four, had once held up our school, now turned upon each other and divided, sought to rule.” The Hat goes on to say that when Slytherin left, the fighting stopped but “He left us quite downhearted, And never since the founders four were whittled down to three, Have the Houses been united as they once were meant to be.” (OotP, 206) It even issues a warning that the students must stand together as was the original intention of the founders.
All of this information is important when considering the argument before us, and for several reasons:
1) The founders adamantly believed in the Sorting system and wished it to continue after their death.
2) The founders put brains into the Hat, but all with the intent that the Hat should choose students for Houses based on exactly who the founders would have chosen. In this way, the Hat is not wrong in its choices, but rather, it is doing precisely what the founders would have done.
3) That, though separate, the founders did not intend the members of the various Houses to be enemies; rather, the Houses are the “four pillars” of the school, meant to support it and make it stronger.
THE SORTING HAT
In the excerpt from the Hat’s song in Order of the Phoenix, we see that the Hat does go further than merely Sorting; it issues a warning that they “must unite inside” to stand against “external, deadly foes” (OotP, 206-207). The hat even questions whether Sorting is really a good idea and wonders if it will bring down the school from the inside out. The Sorting Hat, therefore, knows it could be a mistake; but as an object rather than a person, it adheres to what it is enchanted to do. It takes a look inside each student’s mind and sorts them according to what it finds there. In the end, even when the Hat chooses the students based on their differences, it warns the students that they need to realize that it is their similarities that unite them together as one powerful force.
THE POWER OF CHOICE
The Sorting Hat looks at the qualities of each student, but also takes into consideration what that student wants, with our ultimate example being Harry Potter and his choice of “Not Slytherin!” which then placed him in Gryffindor. The Hat seemed to think Harry would have done brilliantly in Slytherin; in Harry’s mind, it saw “talent”, and “a nice thirst to prove [himself]”, and the Hat had “no doubt” that Slytherin would help Harry “on his way to greatness” (SS/PS, 121). But Harry knew the reputation of Slytherin House and wanted to be anywhere else but there, so the Hat honored that wish.
One might argue the example of Peter Pettigrew, and how, though sorted in Gryffindor, he was one of the most cowardly characters in the series, who brought about the destruction of James and Lily Potter. But if you look again at the example of Harry Potter, and the power of choice when it comes to the Sorting, one has to wonder what Pettigrew asked the Hat to do. One can easily imagine him as a cowardly 11-year-old boy who would have wanted to be seen as anything but what he really was; who wished others would look at him as a strong, brave, courageous person. If a student told Godric Gryffindor that he wished to become brave and strong and noble, Gryffindor probably would have seen something to be gained from that, some kind of potential within the student’s desire to be braver, and thus taken them in. The Hat would reflect this choice. Thus Pettigrew’s Sorting was probably not a mistake, but rather, a reflection of what Pettigrew himself desired and what Gryffindor would have done.
With all of this in mind, we can now turn our attention to what some would consider the ultimate mistake of the Sorting Hat; the combination of Tom Riddle and the House of Slytherin.
Tom Riddle as a young boy was no saint. Through Dumbledore’s memories we saw that even at a young age, with an unusual amount of command over his untrained magic, Tom Riddle enjoyed hurting, scaring, and torturing the other children in his orphanage. He was a parselmouth, an ability to speak with snakes that he inherited from Salazar Slytherin himself, as a descendent of him. He was hungry in his thirst to learn whatever magic he could. It is my argument that Salazar Slytherin would have taken one look at Tom Riddle and put him immediately into his House, if not for the fact alone that he was of pure-blood and his own descendent. One could argue that the founders would not necessarily choose a student simply because the student was a relation or descendent, but each founder seemed to certainly believe their House was right in who it admitted, and that Sorting was right, and I believe they would be quick to choose those related to them, believing that they would be most likely to adhere to the House’s requirements. And in any case, Tom Riddle’s qualities and abilities were consummately Slytherin. There is no other House where he would fit properly, and Dumbledore, who brought him to the school, believes in second chances; he believed the boy should be given the chance to learn and curb his former negative behavior, just as any 11-year-old with an entire life-time ahead of them should be given the chance. Voldemort, as Tom would rename himself, was also a sociopath with no concept of love, remorse, or friendship. No Sorting would have curbed him from the choices he made and the ideals he held. If Voldemort had been sorted into Ravenclaw, then he would merely have had more access to Ravenclaws to recruit as Deatheaters, and I’m sure that some would have followed him. Then he would go and recruit any other students that might agree with him. I’m sure it would have been the same had he been placed in any other House. But yes, Slytherin, where many half-bloods and pure-bloods are sorted, and Salazar Slytherin’s ideas about blood purity are parroted, is the ideal House for recruiting those with such beliefs. Voldemort was, essentially, continuing what he considered to be Salazar Slytherin’s work. Because Salazar Slytherin would have picked Voldemort, and vice-versa, so thus the Hat places him there. The Sorting Hat can give warnings because it was present when the founders lived and experienced those times, and residing in Dumbledore’s office it probably does have access to current event information, but it still must do what it is created to do; it is a magical device which has a set given purpose, and it may not be within its means to do otherwise. Even if the Hat, Headmaster Dippet, and Dumbledore had decided to throw Tom Riddle bodily from the front gates of Hogwarts, Riddle would have went off and studied what he thirsted for somewhere else, and Dumbledore would not have been able to keep him under close watch. People will choose to act as their minds, ambitions, natures, and morals (or lack-thereof) demand. Sorting will not stop this, but simply places students into the living and learning community where they are most likely to succeed and feel at home.
The final thing to consider in accordance with Voldemort is the definition of “greatness”. Mr. Ollivander states the following, “After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great.” (SS/PS, 85). The Sorting Hat claimed that Slytherin would help Harry on “the way to greatness”. This definition of greatness is not “goodness”, but rather, having power, influence, and legend, whether of a negative or a positive connotation. But regardless of the fact that Voldemort and Slytherin both have negative reputations, they each would have considered the deeds they were known for to be great feats, done in the name of their “correct” beliefs. There was no other place for Voldemort but in Slytherin, and if he was given no place at Hogwarts, he would have carved his own place elsewhere and it would have eventually come to the same end.
In closing, I would like to add in some statements by J.K. Rowling herself. In an interview with Mugglenet and The Leaky Cauldron in 2005, Jo stated that when the Hat speaks on its own, its voice comes from “the founders themselves”; she also says that the Hat has never been wrong. In the same interview Jo says that the four Houses are four parts of a whole, each House relating roughly to an element (Gryffindor to Fire, Ravenclaw to Air, Hufflepuff to Earth, and Slytherin to Water) and that each is a necessary part of the whole. The Houses were not meant to be fragmented rivals, and the Sorting Hat’s choices are not necessarily wrong since it is meant to choose based on what the founders and the one being Sorted would choose, and that overall it is the wizard that determines his future, whether or not their House helps them along the way.
To this end it is not the Sorting Hat wizards should be worried about trusting; everything comes down to trusting each other. Though not exactly a machine, the Sorting Hat is still only a vessel for the intents of the founders to retain the system they have created; the four pillars upon which the harmony and balance of the school, and the wizarding world, rest.