The Burrow: The Sorting Hat’s Ideology

by Tammy Nezol

In a recent chat for world book day, Rowling addresses a question about the Sorting Hat.

Arianna: Can we believe everything the sorting hat says?
JK Rowling replies -> The Sorting Hat is certainly sincere

(World Book Day Online Chat Transcript, March 4, 2004)

It is not surprising that Rowling refused to give a direct yes or no for an answer, but it is informative. According to Webster’s Dictionary, sincere is defined as follows:

Sincere: 1. Free of deceit or hypocrisy. 2. Genuine; real.

In other words, all that Rowling actually told us was that the hat believed what it was saying and in no way planned to deceive those at Hogwarts. Something I doubt many of us have ever questioned. However, believing you are telling the truth and actually speaking the truth are two different things. As old and sincere as the sorting hat is, it is possible that it has gotten a thing or two wrong before. The question is: what is Rowling not telling us about what the Sorting Hat says? Should we take everything it says at face value?

As far as I can see, there are four different ways of interpreting this information. First, Rowling didn’t want to give anything away. An answer of yes or no would have answered too many questions. For instance, a definite yes would have confirmed that Percy and Wormtail were both placed in the right house. Is that information Rowling would want us to know already?

While not disregarding the above as possible, I want to examine the other three aspects to this answer. Therefore, from this point forward I will assume that the hat has made at least one mistake and/or the information he has provided has some flaw. The first possibility is that the hat is wrong in the history that it reveals through its songs. The second possibility is that the hat is wrong in the advice that it has provided. The final possibility is that it has made some mistake in the sorting process. Let’s examine each of these in more detail.

The first possibility I find to be the most unlikely of the three. The Sorting Hat was created for the very history that it revealed. If anyone has a right to say what happened back in the beginning, it would be the Sorting Hat. Even if the hat’s view has been skewed by individual perspective, it’s hard to believe that any historical information it has relayed could be a drastic enough difference for Rowling to affect the present matters.

The second possibility is that the hat is wrong in the advice that it has given to Hogwarts. This is one of the more compelling possibilities. In Book Five, the hat made it clear that it believed the divisions among the houses would bring about Hogwarts fall. It warns that the houses must unite against the external foes. But what if the hat is wrong? What if unification is the exact opposite of what the houses need? Dumbledore warned Cornelius in both Books Three and Four that to ally with dark creatures, such as dementors, was dangerous and wrong. Would an alliance with Slytherin be just as dangerous? While there may be some characters in Slytherin that safe unification can happen with, are there those that would only undermine an allegiance? How would each house know that the other could be trusted? Could unification actually bring about more dissension?

When Harry, Ron, and Hermione started Dumbledore’s Army, we were able to see the beginnings of unification. Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Gryffindor were all learning to combat evil together. Where was Slytherin? Many Slytherins were part of the Inquisitorial Squad which helped to break up Dumbledore’s Army. The question is whether or not Slytherin will ever change enough for an alliance? Perhaps Harry did have it right when he said that he would not unite if it meant making friends with Draco Malfoy. (Book Five, Page 209) Such a friendship would be dangerous and possibly lethal. Let’s not forget that many of the Slytherin student’s parents are Death Eaters. This might be a chance to undermine Voldemort’s operation, but it might also be a chance for Voldemort to damage the resistance.

To assume that everyone in all the houses will somehow forget all of their troubles and qualms and suddenly join up together is to assume too much. Dumbledore’s Army was first foiled by a Ravenclaw girl, Marietta Edgecombe. Seamus Finnigan had his share of blows at Harry in the beginning of Book Five. Who can be trusted? The truth is that the hat can only be right to a certain extent. An alliance within Hogwarts will have to be careful on who it accepts as members. Unification may be the only thing to hold everything together, but unification could also be the very thing that makes everything crumble. Through the Sorting Hat, Rowling tells us many absolutes and ideals. What she’s not telling us is how these aspects can fail.

Something that is worth mentioning here is that Slytherin and Gryffindor used to be good friends before the birth of the four houses. This suggests that hope exists for their unification. Or are there, as Dumbledore says about Snape, some wounds that are too deep to heal?

Personally, I’m not sure this is what Rowling means. While unification must come about carefully, I do believe the hat is right to say unification is necessary, even if not entirely safe. Although Dumbledore’s Army was broken up, it was because of Dumbledore’s Army that the children were able to fight well at the Ministry of Magic. If Dumbledore’s Army continues in Book Six the real question will be on whether or not to invite Slytherins, and which ones.

The last possibility, and the one to which I give the most credit, is that the Sorting hat made a mistake in the sorting process. The fact is that the sorting hat may be able to see all the potential that a brain holds, but it cannot see into the future. Pettigrew was a Gryffindor, as was Percy. Hermione was placed in Gryffindor instead of Ravenclaw. Could the hat have been wrong with one of these choices?

I believe that none of us are who we were when we were eleven. Every year of our lives is another year of wisdom and knowledge. Another year of choices that brings us to new places. Potential is one thing, choices are another. Someone who was sorted into Ravenclaw when they were eleven may think more like a Hufflepuff when they are fifteen. It’s all about whom they chose to be. By telling us where the hat would place an eleven-year-old, Rowling is not telling us where the hat would place the same eighteen-year-old.

Also, what about the people that the Sorting Hat takes a while to decide for? Harry notices that Seamus Finnigan took some time before sorted into Gryffindor, and Finnigan did show some interesting choices in Book Five. Before he was willing to see the truth and believe his friend, he had to hear everything. (Book Five, Page 583, US Edition) Admittedly, it was a hard thing to believe people on, but combined with the fact that the Sorting Hat took a while deciding where to place him, we might wonder where else the Sorting Hat was considering putting him.

If the Sorting Hat did make a mistake, perhaps it was with a Slytherin. Perhaps there is someone out there that starts out giving into their father’s ideology, but eventually switches sides. On this note, it is interesting that Rowling has a Slytherin named Montague. For those who don’t recognize the name, Montague is Romeo’s last name from Romeo and Juliet. Their two families, or houses, were divided by an ancient grudge that ended only with the title characters’ deaths. In the Harry Potter books, Montague was a member of the Inquisitorial Squad. In fact, he is the one that Fred and George put in the vanishing cabinet. After he is found in a toilet, we are told:

To cap matters, Montague had still not recovered from his sojourn in the toilet. He remained confused and disoriented…
Book Five, Page 678, US Edition

Could his experiences have changed his future choices? He is not mentioned as being a member of the inquisitorial squad again.

Just to clarify, I’m not trying to say that all Slytherins are bad. I’m just saying that caution should be exercised when dealing with them. Montague could still be a Slytherin and a uniter, but his experiences could also have changed which parts of his personality he emphasizes.

I wonder if saying that the hat is wrong is using too harsh a phrase. A warning not to believe the hat entirely may just be a caution that we shouldn’t completely accept the hat’s choices as our destinies. Ron once commented that there wasn’t a bad witch or wizard that didn’t come from Slytherin, but the truth is that Pettigrew was not from Slytherin and did go bad. Just because people have tendencies in one direction doesn’t mean that this will define who they are forever. Likewise, just because the hat believes that unification is necessary, doesn’t mean that one should not exercise caution in forming such a union.

It will be interesting to see which paths the books take. Rowling uses the Sorting Hat to tell us the general state of things and people, but there are still some questions left unanswered and room for change. For now, I believe that one would be smart to heed the hat’s warnings, just not to take its every word at absolute truth.