The North Tower #20: Songs of the Sorting Hat

by Maline

Hi everybody, sorry for the time lapse; my computer decided to break down on me, you know, the way they do. But no matter; I hope it’ll be okay from now on…

It just dawned on me that this is my twentieth article. Wow. I feel like I should have a speech prepared or something, thanking all you wonderful readers, etc., etc. Since I don’t, let’s just go on with the article, shall we? (Although, still a big thanx to all you nice people.)

Just one little comment (this habit of mine of interrupting myself constantly is quite annoying, eh?). I got this from Aberforth, regarding why Bagman ought to be the one too cowardly to return: “Voldemort says in the graveyard ‘one to cowardly to return, he will pay.’ Bagman supposedly ran away from the Goblins because of gambling debts and also owed other people money. Maybe this is a clue?”
I think this is a good point; subtle clues like that are very JKR.

Okay, so today I want to take a closer look at what I think is the most poetic and one of the most interesting aspects of the books – the Sorting Hat’s songs. I feel that there are clues to be found here, especially regarding questions on the different houses, the characters in them and the future structure of JKR’s story as a whole.

So far, we have three songs available to us. I suggest you go here and read them over again before reading the following. All set? Okay, here we go.

What first hit me when I re-read the three songs is the way they focus on different things. Regarding the different houses and what defines them, the structure is one of concentration and modification: we go from a more “round” representation of each house to a more narrow one that’s usually modified, as follows:

Gryffindor: We go from the image of the “perfect knight” in PS/SS: (my italics)

You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring, nerve and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart;

To an isolation of a single trait in GoF:

By Gryffindor, the bravest were
Prized far beyond the rest;

And to a slightly different picture in OotP:

Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name,”While the bravest and the boldest
Went to daring Gryffindor,

What I find interesting here is that “chivalry” in a way has been replaced by “brave deeds to their name,” i.e. by fame. The structure is similar for Slytherin House:


Or perhaps in Slytherin
You’ll make your real friends,
Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends

To become in GoF:

And power-hungry Slytherin
Loved those of great ambition.

And change quite abruptly in OotP:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry is purest.”For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning, just like him,

The general picture of Slytherin is overall a negative one, but in PS/SS we have the term “real friends,” which indicates that Slytherins aren’t pure evil at all: they might be ambitious and deceiving but they have real friends to whom they are probably more or less loyal (take Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson for example, they seem pretty cosy, or Crabbe and Goyle). What I find really interesting is that PS/SS and GoF insist on ambitionwhereas OotP characterises Slytherin House by the importance of being a pure-blood. This is weird indeed since we know full well that pure blood is not a prerequisite – the hat wanted to put Harry in Slyherin, and let’s not forget the House’s most famous member: Tom Riddle, the homicidal half-blood.

This change in determinative traits does not occur in the same way with Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw:

Book Ravenclaw Hufflepuff
PS/SS Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
If you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning
Will always find their kind;
You might belong in Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil.
GoF For Ravenclaw, the cleverest
Would always be the best;
For Hufflepuff, hard workers were
Most worthy of admission;
OotP Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
Intelligence is surest.”
And only those of sharpest mind
Were taught by Ravenclaw
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot,
And treat them just the same.”
Good Hufflepuff, she took the rest
And taught them all she knew,

We can note that the description of Ravenclaw doesn’t change much at all – it’s intelligence that is the most important. For Hufflepuff House, there is not so much a change in the way it is described as a complete deletion of characteristics: “Good Hufflepuff, she took the rest.” I find this very unfair to the Hufflepuffs, just like I find the OotP description of the Slytherins very unfair. Let’s face it; if the Hat really went by the OotP definitions, there would be very few people in Gryffindor, Slytherin and Ravenclaw and very many in Hufflepuff. So, what does this tell us?

Well, first we have to look at the different songs in their context. The first one (PS/SS) is the shortest and focuses on two things: the Hat introducing and praising itself and the introduction of the four houses. It’s important to remember that this is the first time at Hogwarts for the reader, who knows virtually nothing about how everything works, including the house system. The description of the houses is thus most elaborate in this book since the reader later on (by the fourth and fifth books) will have formed his own picture of what each house represents.

It seems to me that the first impression of each house (i.e. first description) is the most accurate. All houses have good qualities and all students in one house are not copies of the same person. It seems like the Hat in OotP confirms the prejudices stated already in the beginning of PS/SS: the Slytherins are bad wizards and the Hufflepuffs are a bunch of morons (Hagrid). Which is not true.

The second song puts the emphasis on the creation of Hogwarts and on the four founders:

Bold Gryffindor, from wild moor,
 Ravenclaw, from glen,
 Hufflepuff, from valley broad,
 Slytherin, from fen.

The description of each founder corresponds closely with the descriptions of the houses. Gryffindor brings courage/daring (bold) and adventure/danger (wild moor), Hufflepuff generosity (sweet) and an open mind (valley broad), Slytherin scheming/intelligence (shrewd) and the evasive, snakelike connotations (fen – which signifies “area of low flat wet land, especially in Eastern England). Okay, so that’s all logical, but what’s up with Ravenclaw? Why is she characterised by “fair” (meaning “beautiful” or “blond and pale.” It could also mean “just” but since it’s used in a poetic context about a woman, I find that less probable than the other two) and “glen” (meaning “deep narrow valley in Scotland or Ireland”)? I think there might be a clue here. Let’s interpret “glen” as difficult to reach or inaccessible for a first step. Then let’s add beauty, which also indicates romance. Hmm hmm… who was Harry’s very-difficult-to-understand love interest in Books Four and Five? Cho Chang – from Ravenclaw. Who is Ron’s (and Viktor Krum’s) love interest, whose mind they read quite badly most of the time? Hermione – a Gryffindor, who the Sorting Hat seriously considered putting in Ravenclaw. Who does Ginny date in OotP? Michel Corner – from Ravenclaw, who got cranky and unreasonable because of a Quidditch match. Who is in Ravenclaw, is quite flaky, difficult to understand and has a name that indicates future romance in almost too obvious a way? Luna Lovegood of course… (who is “fair” in the sense that she’s blonde, too).

It seems highly unlikely to me that Luna wouldn’t be the object of somebody’s affections in Books Six and Seven. Whose affections is a bit more sketchy – I’m guessing Harry’s.

The third song talks about the history of Hogwarts with an objective to warn people not to repeat past mistakes. The second song (GoF) talks about the founders’ different opinions but makes the division into houses seem like a good solution to the problem. The third one, on the other hand, points out these differences as the origin of conflict:

The Houses that, like pillars four,
Had once held up our school,
Now turned upon each other and,
Divided, sought to rule.

This song has two key words: division and unity, which oppose each other. This opposition can be seen in the choice of words (“united,” “common,” “selfsame,” “together,” “friends,” “pair”… // “parted,” “differences,” “strife,” “each,” “only,” “split,” “quarter”…) and in the grammatical structures, e.g. the opposition of singular and plural (“the Founders…thought” // “each … had a House”) and the use of superlatives to indicate restriction (“and only those of sharpest mind,” “the bravest and the boldest“…)

The third song means to warn the people at Hogwarts, using the story of the four founders as an example of a conflict that must not be repeated. It’s an excellent clue to what will happen in the coming books, giving the two possible scenarios in these verses:

And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within

It’s perfectly simple: either the houses unite and save Hogwarts from Voldemort’s attack (I’m personally 95% sure that there will be an attack on Hogwarts in either Book 6 or 7) or they lose and Hogwarts will be destroyed. And if they unite, the Slytherins MUST be included.

And never since the founders four
Were whittled down to three
Have the Houses been united
As they once were meant to be.

In OotP, we already see a movement towards unity with the DA, and it seems like Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw won’t have much difficulty getting along (despite their Quidditch rivalry). The problem is Slytherin. There has been, ever since the first book, a conflict between the Slytherins and the other houses, mainly Gryffindor. This mirrors the Hat’s description of the early Hogwarts (It’s Gryffindor and Slytherin who are the best of friends and it’s between them that there was a fight which caused Slytherin to leave Hogwarts), but also that of the situation in the school. The main enemies and rivals are Harry-Malfoy, Harry-Snape, McGonagall-Snape, Pansy Parkinson-Hermione and the Gryffindors-the Slytherins.

Take the Quidditch matches for example. The tension is always higher at the Gryffindor-Slytherin match than at the other ones. Take the lessons as another example: most conflicts occur in Potions and in Care of Magical Creatures – where the Gryffindors are teamed with the Slytherins. It’s a completely different story with Herbology with the Hufflepuffs.

The thing is that in OotP, the rift between Slytherin and the other houses seems to grow. There are no Slytherins in the DA and there are only Slytherins in the Inquisitorial Squad. It seems highly unlikely that Harry and Draco Malfoy will be able to restore the bonds of friendship between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Yet I think that this is what must happen, because Harry and Draco are in a way representatives for their houses and, if they decided to bury the hatchet, I think most people would follow their example.

There is yet another thing that I find interesting with regards to the four houses. If you look at the little group Harry-Ron-Hermione-Neville, there is something interesting to note. The Hat considered putting Harry in Slytherin and Hermione in Ravenclaw. Up until OotP, a lot of people were wondering why Neville wasn’t in Hufflepuff, as he seemed to have a lot more in common with that house than with his fellow Gryffindors. Only Ron is an unchallenged Gryffindor, even taking the place of a knight on McGonagall’s chessboard in PS/SS. I would say that now (after Book 5) there is no doubt about why they are all in Gryffindor though; they’ve proven by their courage that they belong in that house.

This proves one main important thing: the characteristics of one house are not limited to it. Hermione is several times described as the cleverest witch in the year, and she’s not in Ravenclaw. Luna shows great courage in OotP and she’s not in Gryffindor. Cedric Diggory is both intelligent and brave and he’s in Hufflepuff. Percy Weasley is incredibly ambitious and still not in Slytherin. The list could go on. So exactly how does the Hat sort people?

There’s nothing hidden in your head
The Sorting Hat can’t see,Now slip me snug about your ears,
I’ve never yet been wrong,
I’ll have a look inside your mind
And tell where you belong!

This would mean that there is something within each person that makes them belong in one house rather than in another, even if that “core” (or whatever you want to call it) isn’t immediately visible to other people. The Sorting Hat is in this sense an extension of the all-knowing writer, who sooner or later must justify its decisions through the actions of the characters defined. What does this mean?

It means that if the Hat is right about the fact that it’s never wrong, this tells us a lot about the characters in each house. Percy, for example, will have to let his bravery surpass his ambition; and since he’s extremely ambitious, he’ll have to do something that shows even greater daring and bravery to justify his place in Gryffindor. It’s the same thing for Wormtail, who’s been an extreme coward during the first five books. Wormtail’s a Gryffindor. JKR has confirmed this (in her latest interview, for example). Up until now, he’s acted like a pure Slytherin, and he’ll have to do something big later on to make up for all that (possibly related to the life-debt he owes Harry?). In the same way, Malfoy or Snape must go with their Slytherin natures. Like Phineas Nigellus puts it: A Slytherin can be brave, but he’s not stupid, and given the choice he will always choose to save himself. Malfoy or Snape will not sacrifice themselves for Harry or any of his friends. In the same way, it’s highly unlikely that a Hufflepuff will in any way betray the “good side,” since they are “just,” “loyal” and “true,” whereas the other three houses are completely capable of betrayal (Marietta in OotP, Wormtail, and Malfoy in PS/SS).

I think I’ll leave it here… feel free to elaborate…

See you next time!