In Defense of Slytherin: A Different Kind of Courage

by Desdemona Black

There are, as Dumbledore wisely tells us at the end of SS, many kinds of courage. Gryffindor courage is often flashy and laudably heroic –— it’’s the kind of courage that gets noticed, that wins people awards, the kind of courage that the crowd applauds. But I would argue that Gryffindor doesn’’t have a monopoly on courage and that other kinds of courage can be found elsewhere; specifically (for the purposes of this editorial) in Slytherin House.

Gryffindor and Slytherin were best friends [““For were there such friends anywhere / As Slytherin and Gryffindor?”” (OotP, U.S. hardcover, pg. 204)] and I see their relationship as that of two brothers, who despite their differences and eventual estrangement, at heart valued many of the same things. Both men, along with Rowena Ravenclaw, only wanted certain kinds of students. And while Slytherin preferred students of a certain birth, preference based on other traits, inherited or learned like intelligence, or deeds of bravery seems hardly more fair. I think Helga Hufflepuff, who wanted to ““teach the lot, / and treat them just the same”” (OotP, U.S. hardcover, pg. 205) is the only Hogwarts founder completely without guilt (but that is a subject for another day).

Is it so hard to believe, then, that in addition to cunning and ambition (traits not absent, by the way, from Gryffindor House, think of Percy Weasley, or even Hermione), courage may be a trait of the best Slytherins? Not the flashy, bold courage of Gryffindor, but a quieter kind of courage that seldom gets recognized: The courage to face the past, and accept responsibility for one’’s own actions, even when the actions in question were a result of ignorance or victimization, and the consequences for accepting them and making restitution place the person in far more precarious circumstances than he or she may deserve. It’’s a courage that involves admitting to a mistake. It is that courage to face the consequences of our own actions — especially the actions that we’re not proud of — that is seldom recognized and rarely ever praised. But it is profoundly human and it has created some of, I argue, the most empathetic characters in all of children’’s literature (and some might argue in literature in general).

I am not trying to argue that all Slytherins are fundamentally good people; in fact, we know that there are quite a few nasty people with virtually no redeeming characteristics who called Slytherin home while they were at Hogwarts. What I am arguing is that, at its best, Slytherin House has provided us with some of the most compelling, moving, and ultimately real characters in the series. Many of those Slytherins have faced some of the most difficult situations in the series, and having to choose between what is right and what is easy, they have made choices that demonstrate a different kind of courage.

Horace Slughorn

One of our most obvious examples of this kind of courage is our Professor Slughorn. While Harry couldn’’t commit to liking Horace Slughorn after their first meeting, I admit I liked him immediately. He certainly does demonstrate a Slytherinesque preference for certain kinds of students, and despite his protestations obviously believes ancestry counts for something [see his comments to Tom Riddle (HBP U.K. hardcover, pg. 463)]. Nonetheless, with all his flaws, anyone who could be so taken with Lily Evans couldn’’t be all bad. To the students Professor Slughorn is friendly with, he is an excellent teacher. While ignoring his less-gifted pupils is (somewhat) deplorable, anyone who has ever taught anything knows this is all too easy to do. And Horace’s constant encouragement of his gifted pupils, his willingness to help them network (although it comes with certain benefits to him), and his genuine affection for them, all helped me to develop a soft spot for the former head of Slytherin House.

However, as has been observed before, the primary reason Dumbledore brought him out of retirement isn’’t for his reputation as an educator. It’’s that memory Dumbledore wants, and Slughorn is so annoyingly incompliant. It’s as Phineas Nigellus would say, “”We Slytherins are brave, yes, but not stupid. For instance, given the choice, we will always choose to save our own necks”” (OotP, U.S. hardcover, pg. 495). And Phineas is half right; Slughorn does have the typical Slytherin self-preservation instinct. Slughorn realizes that turning over the full contents of that memory of a slightly indiscreet conversation he had with a young man he believed to be a gifted student could be potentially fatal to him. And yet, Phineas is also wrong –— Slughorn doesn’’t choose to save his own neck. He chooses (under the influence of mead, and with a little prodding from Harry’’s Felix Felicis, true) to be brave like Lily Evans. It’’s not the kind of courage that he’’ll probably get any credit for when all is said and done and Voldemort is defeated, because it involves admitting that he (unwittingly) helped Voldemort to power, but it is courage all the same.

Draco Malfoy

I’’ve never liked Draco Malfoy. (I was already too old when the films came out to develop a thing for Tom Felton –— besides, I go for the darker, swarthier types.) Until HBP he bore every sign of being a selfish, spoiled little boy. But circumstances have forced Draco to grow up a bit, no? He went from parading around the school with his so-called friends, to going to Moaning Myrtle to pour out his heart. I’’ll have to admit, at that point, I started feeling sorry for Draco. As we know, Voldemort had told him that if he didn’’t kill Dumbledore during his sixth year at Hogwarts, it would mean death for himself, his father and his mother –— people whom Draco seems to genuinely feel for. And, as Harry notes, when confronted with the choice not to kill Dumbledore, it seems –— despite the danger to himself — he would have agreed to do the right thing; he had started to lower his wand. I think in the next book Draco will have more chances to choose between the easy thing and the right thing, we’ll see what he does, but I’’m betting he’’ll muster up the courage to do the right thing.

Regulus Black

Regulus, like his brother, is named for a star. Dear Professor Slughorn is kind enough to confirm for us Regulus’’ house (although Sirius’’ comments on his family tree in OotP left us with little doubt), and from the tone of his conversation with Harry seems to rate Regulus’ ability as on-par with Sirius’:

“The whole Black family had been in my house, but Sirius ended up in Gryffindor! Shame –— he was a talented boy. I got his brother Regulus when he came along, but I’’d have liked the set.”
-HBP, U.K. hardcover, pg. 71

The consumate collector at least considers getting Regulus some consolation for not getting Sirius, who we know was one of the brightest pupils of his age. It seems unlikely that Slughorn would mention Regulus (let alone remember his name —– poor Ron), if Regulus was not someone special too, and particularly unlikely that he’d refer to the pair of them as “a set” if their abilities weren’’t about equal as well.

While Sirius is, appropriately enough, the bright star of Canis Major (big dog), Regulus is the bright star of Leo (the lion). Regulus’’ position within Leo is often referred to as the heart of the lion —– could the heart of the lion be Slytherin? Perish the thought! Proceeding under the theory that R.A.B. is, in fact, Regulus Black (and there are numerous excellent editorials I might refer you to, in addition to Memerson’’s interview and Emerson’’s later clarification regarding the R.A.B. moment of the interview), this Slytherin almost certainly had the heart of a lion —– and that’’s not to say he was incorrectly placed in his house, but rather that the two brothers, Sirius in Gryffindor and Regulus in Slytherin, aren’’t as different as they appear. Here was a Slytherin who saw what had to be done (the defeat of Voldemort) and (most probably) sacrificed himself to see it through. Those cunning folk use any means to achieve their end (SS, U.S. version, pg. 118) emphasis added). Indeed.

Merope Gaunt

While we do not know definitively whether or not Merope Gaunt ever even attended Hogwarts, much less what her house might have been, given her lineage, it seems fair to me to list her with the name of her ancestor. In many ways, one of the most moving characters we’’ve encountered in the series thusfar, to me, is Merope Gaunt.

Plain, and seemingly unremarkable, “Harry “thought he had never seen a more defeated-looking person”” (HBP, U.K. hardcover, pg. 194).— I argue that she is also one of the most emotive. And though she may not have had Lily’’s strength, she also did not have the advantage of Lily’’s childhood. It seems that Jo too must have had a soft spot for Merope, as her name, like the names of Sirius and Regulus, comes from a star. Merope is a star in the Taurus constellation. No one named for a star, I think, could be completely bad — and while Merope lacked the courage of Lily Evans, given her life and circumstances, I think Merope had more strength than we give her credit for.

She was, unquestionably, an abused child —– whether her abuse was of a verbal or physical nature, or the abuse of neglect, is immaterial. Despite the life of abuse, Merope ultimately was capable of love herself, which she demonstrated by releasing Tom Riddle Sr. from any enchantment/potion under which she placed him and (presumably) telling him the truth. While she may, as Dumbledore suggested, merely have been so besotted that she assumed he would love her too, I tend to agree with his other notion –— she could not bear to see the man she loved forced into being with her.

And so she made what I see as a very brave choice, indeed, especially for Merope Gaunt. She risked losing the one thing she had never had –— love —– and she did. And though she had been mistreated by everyone in her life who should have loved her –— father, brother, husband —– she did not make the choice her son did. Voldemort inherited all of his magical ability through his mother, and whatever else is true of Voldemort he is prodigiously magical. While Dumbledore is right by the memories he retrieved, we do not see Merope’’s powers to their best advantage; she must be a powerfully magical witch. And yet, in the face of being rejected and abandoned, instead of using her magic to seek revenge, she renounced it entirely, perhaps a recognition on her part of what it had done to Tom Riddle, the man she loved, who had never really loved her: a self-imposed punishment that she felt suited her crime.

But, we come to a problem, perhaps a tragic flaw. Lily Evans was willing to die for her son, but Merope Gaunt would not live for hers. She would not lift her wand to save herself, and Tom Marvolo Riddle never had a mother. But consider: she had (almost certainly) never been loved as a child, she had the guilt of magically coercing Tom’’s father into the conception of Tom Jr., and perhaps in her guilt, she felt that losing her life in childbed would be the justice she deserved. Merope might have felt she didn’’t deserve to live, and she certainly didn’’t want to anymore —– what in her life had made living worth it? And yet, remarkable though it seems, she died without any anger or resentment toward the two men she ought to feel most bitter towards: the father of her child, and her own father, the two men who wouldn’’t love her. In what I can only read as a gesture of affection, she named her son after them, murmurs that she hopes her son looks like his father, and dies. This moving and tragic portrait of an utterly defeated woman named for a star demonstrates that there are different kinds of courage — to never lose love even in the face of nothing, but abuse and rejection is a different kind of courage, and a victory in its own right.

Severus Snape

Much has been said about Severus Snape and there are many schools of thought as to whether or not Snape is, as Harry accuses him, a coward. I have always found Severus Snape one of the most complex and compelling characters in the series and have very little to add to the excellent discussion taking place in forums, editorials, and by the likes of such luminaries as our own Lady Lupin (whose “The Psyche of Severus” I highly recommend) to Salman Rushdie. My own reading of Snape parallels Lady Lupin’s so closely, that I will only say that I do not think Snape is a coward —– and I believe that his actions did and do require a certain kind of bravery. I think, with Salman Rushdie, that for whatever Snape’’s misdeeds –— and there most certainly have been some –— there will be, (and if Lady Lupin and I are right, already have been) chances for his redemption. I fear that Snape will have to make an ultimate sacrifice, though. Can I admit I hope he is the character that won a reprieve? After all, what would the world be without Severus Snape?

Would you have returned to Voldemort on the night of his return two hours late? Even if I mustered up the courage, I don’t think I could have played the part –— and that is another strength of Slytherins: “”Those cunning folk use any means / To achieve their ends”” (SS, U.S. paperback, pg. 118). I had a teacher once who told me, ““Sometimes it’’s not enough to do your best; you have to get the job done.”” When I first heard him say that I was outraged: how can you do any better than your best? I’’ve since learned the wisdom there.

There are some jobs that must be done by any means necessary. I think no one understands this better than Severus Snape. When Harry won’’t learn Occlumency, despite his claims that he is trying, Snape retorts:

“”Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked this easily –— weak people, in other words —– they stand no chance against [Voldemort’’s] powers!””
-OotP, U.S. hardback, pg. 536

This is another particular (related) strength of Slytherin; they do not let emotions cloud their judgment. While emotions are certainly a strength, and Harry’’s ability to love will no doubt be essential to his overthrow of Voldemort, they also led to Sirius’’ death. Sirius allowed himself to be provoked by Snape, Harry let his own emotions interfere with his Occlumency, and Dumbledore let his emotions prevent Harry from knowing the information that might have saved Sirius’’ life. It does take a certain kind of courage to do a job no matter what it requires, even if it requires controlling or ignoring feelings that prevent you from doing a job you know you must. At this kind of courage, Slytherins excel.

As I mentioned above, I’’m not suggesting Slytherin House is without its flaws. In fact, the flaws in Slytherin House run deep, but they are profoundly human flaws, flaws we all have. And having the courage to face them and correct them requires a very special kind of courage that all of us do not have. As Dumbledore also said, “”It is our choices…that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities”” (CoS, U.S. paperback, pg. 333). And at least some Slytherins have made choices that demonstrate that they are courageous, albeit in a different kind of way.