Friday, July 31, 2009

Harry Potter What If

I'm a big fan of the Harry Potter series. It's entertaining, and it explores some interesting questions. I've been thinking lately though that it would have been more interesting if the Sorting Hat had put Harry in Slytherin. Could Harry have still foiled Voldemort year after year?

The way I imagine it, the only thing necessary to get him in Slytherin would have been for him not to have met Ron on the train the first year. Then he could have become friends with Draco Malfoy instead. Would Malfoy have turned Harry toward evil, or could friendship with Harry have brought out a better side of Malfoy?

I like how J.K. Rowling develops the idea that Harry can't do any of what he does without the support of the people around him. But could he do it with Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson at his side instead of Ron and Hermoine, Professor Snape watching over him instead of Professor McGonagall, and (gasp) Filtch as his inside connection instead of Hagrid?

Granted, none of this would have any appeal if you didn't already know the story as it actually does unfold, but one of the things that bugs me about the story is that, in spite of a few hat tips to the idea that people aren't either all good or all bad, it's not at all hard to tell who's good and who's bad, with the notable exceptions of Snape and, to a lesser extent, Kreacher.

On the other hand, there's a certain way in which precisely this makes Harry's story a fitting model of the Christian life (and I'm guessing this is true of other moral/ethical systems as well), because Harry himself is the one character we see struggling with good and evil. And, as Harry looks out around him, all the other "good" people are pretty uniformly good, and it's generally only in "bad" people that he can see anything bad. It's my experience that life feels like that, though I've long since come to terms with the fact that it's an illusion.

So maybe, just maybe, the story with Harry in Gryffindor can be seen as an allegory for the way life looks from the inside looking out, and a rewriting of the story with Harry in Slytherin could be an allegory for life as it actually is. Which forces me to ask again, would the "good guy" win in that scenario?


Rachel said...

I really like the Harry Potter books, too, especially the whole theme of free will (and how the Sorting fits into that).

Frankly, I think it all goes back to what Dumbledore says in the middle of the series (I think book 5, maybe the beginning of 6). He and Harry are talking about the prophecy, and how it supposedly determines the future. He asks Harry that, even without knowing the prophecy, could he really sit by and let Voldemort do whatever? After everything that happened, over everything Harry stands for? And the answer is no, Harry doesn't HAVE to kill Voldemort, in the sense of predetermination. He has to do it because Voldemort represents everything he's opposed to.

Harry would never have chosen Slytherin (and ambition) over Gryffindor (and courage). He'd worked too hard already just to get there, regardless of Ron.

However IF for whatever reason he HAD been in Slytherin, defeating Voldemort would have been the ultimate victory, something to gain him fame and fortune. I think no matter how you spin it, that's just how it had to go down.

Dr. Rural said...

What a great question! I find it hard to imagine the Sorting Hat putting Harry in Slytherin, if only because ambition and pride are defining Slytherin attributes, and not ones I associate with Harry. (There are moments in the books, however, when I think "these cunning folk use any means to achieve their ends" fits Harry as well as anyone.)

Although I think I agree with your analysis overall, I think there are more characters who are either good-but-flawed or bad-but-perhaps-understandably-so than you suggest. Some examples:

Sirius Black is quite frankly a jerk a lot of the time, but there is no doubt that he is a good guy. Still, his mistreatment of Kreacher is appalling, as Hermione recognizes. I would put James Potter in the same "jerk" category in his youth. Harry's use of the Pensieve really does a lot to show that his father was quite horrible to the young Snape. Ron Weasley is often whiny and self-absorbed, and Luna Lovegood even describes him (correctly) as sometimes unkind.

Professor Slughorn (a Slytherin) is *basically* a good guy, even though he is also fearful, fond of luxury and slightly prejudiced against Muggle-borns. Mundungus Fletcher is a member of the Order of the Phoenix, despite the fact that he's also a thief, and not one presented in any kind of romantic or dashing light.

Regulus Black, a Slytherin, gave his life to fight Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy, another Slytherin, at least demonstrates that she loves her son more than she loves or fears He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Even Petunia Dursley gets humanized a little, as you see her childhood grief that she did not share her sister's extraordinary talent. On the other hand, wasn't Wormtail originally a Gryffindor? (If so, I have to admit, he is the only Gryffindor I can think of who went permanently bad, though I thought for awhile that Percy Weasley might give him a run for the money.) Did any Slytherins fight for Hogwarts in the final battle? I can't remember.

Very thought-provoking. I'm going to have to keep thinking about Harry Potter as a Slytherin.

Andy said...

I admit I was painting with a pretty broad brush. Even so, the very fact that ambition and pride are Slytherin's defining characteristics is sort of symptomatic of what I'm saying about the lack of subtlety. I suppose there are ways of looking at ambition and maybe even pride as virtues, but they're hardly the courage of Gryffindor, the loyalty of Hufflepuff or the intelligence of Ravenclaw.

I suppose if you're writing an allegorical sort of novel you have to draw these lines somewhere, but I guess it's the fact that there are hints of balance in Harry and some of the other characters that makes me expect more.