Down with the Sun

Sore throats in summer should be illegal. It’s bad enough feeling like a walking oven when staying warm and toasty is the order of the day, let alone when the weather is actively trying to poach you in your own sweat. See, that most wonderful of human inventions, air conditioning isn’t particularly good for sore throats, and it’s so hot outside that opening a window will only cause the temperature inside to go up. Worse still, the consumption of hot liquids do genuinely help with sore throats, and, while I am content to drink buckets of hot tea under air conditioning, doing so without cold air is… uncomfortable.

These might be ideal conditions for lizards, but I am not a lizard. I may, in fact, be the polar opposite of a lizard, as warmer climes make me sluggish. I require a steady flow of cold air in order to function properly, and cutting me off from my supply causes my proverbial gears to grind to a halt.

I have actually got two posts that I’ve very nearly finished, but this accursed combination of an overly warm body and criminally hot/humid weather means that I’m not so much alive as existing through a heat-haze. It’s taking a ton of willpower just to type this, particularly as my nemesis, the Weatherchange Nostril, has returned, and breathing through my mouth borders on self-flagellation at this point.

I want nothing more than to lie down, but that only makes it harder to breathe. I cannot muster enough focus to follow a narrative, so books are out. I need air conditioning or I fear I’ll spontaneously combust, but my throat will resign in protest if I turn it on.

I cannot manage heat at the best of times, and now, more than ever, I refuse to believe that anyone genuinely prefers it either. You are all lying, or deluding yourselves. To what end, I do not know. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go put toothpaste on my upper lip. I can’t find any eucalyptus oil.

Down with the Sun!

[Witty Title About Ad Hominem]

As I haven’t been able to write for a while, I’m going to resort to doing what I always do when I can’t focus very easily: write about WoW. As always, those who have no interest in reading about it are perfectly free not to, but I would appreciate that you stick with me all the way, because what I’m commenting on has a slightly bigger implication than the game itself.

So Mists of Pandaria is finally coming to a close after what will be two years of running time, and, while things aren’t looking grim for the Warcraft universe, subscription numbers have dropped significantly since their all-time high at 12 million during Wrath of the Lich King. The current 6.8 million is nothing to sneeze at and the decline has happened over the course of four years, but it still makes you wonder why – well it makes me wonder at any rate. Looking at the subscription timeline, I believe I have a reason, one that makes me quite sad, but a valid one nonetheless: rose tinted goggles and preconceptions.

Between them, Pandaria and Cataclysm lost roughly the same number of subscribers, 2.8 million and 2.4 million respectively. The most drastic drop came after Pandaria’s release, going from 9.6 million at the last quarter of 2012 to 8.3 million during the first quarter of 2013, but it is interesting to note that the steady decline started right after the 12 million mark, right after Cataclysm’s release. This is understandable, from an endgame and context perspective Cataclysm was rather weak, preferring to tell its story outside of the game than within it. The villain didn’t feel like much of a threat, and the context was provided through endless exposition, rather than showing us our world in peril. True it gave us some remarkable zones, like Vash’jir, which are remembered with fondness, but most players spend their end-game time in the most strenuous areas, not lower level zones.

A cartoonish coral reef
Looks pretty yes? Too bad you only get to see it for a few hours at most

By contrast Pandaria was MMO storytelling at its finest. I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this, but it’s easily comparable to the most popular expansion Wrath of the Lich King in terms of storytelling, and even surpasses it in some respects. Stop. Stop right there. I know the kind of nostalgia associated with World of Warcraft, so I can already feel your mouse moving towards closing the page, or skipping straight to the comments to contend with that point. Allow me to address it here.

Wrath of the Lich King seemed to be what World of Warcraft had been building towards since its conception. It was the long-awaited resolution to the cliff-hanger on which the Real Time Strategy games ended and the players, therefore, carried with them years upon years’ worth of feelings that had intensified over time. Blizzard delivered admirably. Although I rarely got to endgame content in Wrath, I still remember it with a fondness bordering on the overbearing. It’s what finally got me to actually play WoW rather than speculate about it, and the frozen wastes of Northrend had slews of lore, that expanded upon what was already there magnificently.

By contrast Mists of Pandaria was completely new – well almost completely new, but I’ll get to that – the game had to make us feel invested without any prior experience. And it succeeded magnificently – or at least it would have, but bear with me here.

We fought enemies we’d never conceived of: manifestations of negative emotion that fed on the susceptible and physically assaulted those who could resist. We encountered cultures which, while fairly recent in terms of their conception, felt millennia old and fully formed. I still can’t get over a race of insect people who are capable of genetic engineering, and actually refer to it as such. We were introduced to all this exclusively through gameplay. True it got grating after a few weeks at max-level, when it was mandatory rather than optional, but everything I mentioned began from the moment we set foot on the continent. This is why I say Mists can easily compete with Wrath in terms of storytelling, because it got people invested without any prior experience with the content. The problem is, we were also introduced… to the Pandaren.

A male anthropomorphic panda waving
Yes okay he looks sort of silly now, but it’s not impossible to look past

At first glance the Pandaren seem like nothing more than the joke they were first born from: happy pandas with a predilection for beer and martial-arts. Yet, as silly as the premise sounds, the game makes it work. They have a refreshing joie-de-vivre and innocence to them, counterbalanced by an indefinable sense of gravity and hardness that is quite disconcerting at first. If anything, they are most reminiscent of the Hobbits of Tolkien’s world with a slightly darker touch. But this is why the race really shines. As joking as it may sound, it’s played completely straight, with all the humour feeling like a natural part of these beings’ way of life.

Unfortunately, people can’t seem to look past the Panda part. Even now, I still hear people complaining about the expansion being nothing but Kung-Fu Panda, despite the fact that the Pandaren themselves were victims of the rest of the world’s selfishness and bigotry, rather than the driving force of the expansion. And therein lies the problem: people cannot look past their preconceived notions of what the game is about. Pandas are silly and have no business in a serious game, no matter how many examples to the contrary are presented. Hooray for ad hominem, at least it’s not used with deadly consequences this time.

The game also became considerably more inclusive, supposedly allowing people to get gear that is relatively good with a minimum of effort. This is complete bunk as I’ve covered before, but it did annoy people who believe that only those capable of dedicating a significant chunk of their lives to it should experience all the content, causing a number of them to leave and not come back.

The killing blow came from the mandatory daily quests that plague the endgame. This required players to complete a number of moderately difficult and repetitive tasks every sing day to progress, ensuring that only the most dedicated, or least phased by taking their time, remained. Once they streamlined the process, things went smoother, with the game recuperating some subscribers by the end of 2013, going from, the then all-time-low 7.6 million back up to 7.8 million. The current numbers are due to the fact that a significant group of people have experienced all there is to experience, and are taking a break until the next expansion comes out, more than anything else.

All that being said, the fact that the bias against Pandaren was so prevalent, even well into the expansion, did not help matters at all. Despite the fact that it was unwarranted, and based more on ad hominem attacks and the Cherry Picking fallacy than anything else. Such is the nature of World of Warcraft fans I suppose. Hats off to Blizzard for making something so very worthwhile out of such a silly premise, though.

Sorry About This

Yeah, this week I’ve got nothing. It’s not that I’m out of ideas, it’s just that I’ve gotten used to my style and want to change things, but can’t quite get it right. Also, I have a pressing need to talk out loud rather than write, but nowhere I can try to film/record. I’ll endeavour to be back next week.

A (not at all hostile) Take on Cosplayed Characters

I get bonus points for poignancy this week, because it’s Sand Diego Comic Con time which means only one thing: envy… well envy and cosplay with a bit of relief thrown in because I hate queuing, but mostly envy… and cosplay. I am always astounded by the level of detail that goes into some people’s cosplaying and really enjoy scrolling through the most elaborate and well-made costumes at every convention. Not enough to actively go looking for great lengths of time as I start to turn green, but still. But I have a single, rather large gripe with cosplay… well two if you count the terrible cases of sexism that follows nerd culture everywhere because forced castration is illegal, but I’m not going into that.

As far as I understand it, at its heart cosplay is about bringing characters you love to life, or giving yourself a chance be a member of whatever fictional group takes your fancy (provided they have a distinctive look). I’ve been amazed at what makeup, prosthetics and cardboard can achieve and seen things I thought could only be made possible with computer generated graphics, but… Look there’s no way of me putting this without sounding like an elitist snob initially (and, depending on your views, maybe even after I’ve explained myself), so I’m just going to come out and say it:

Virtually all of it, and certainly all the good stuff I’ve seen, comes from TV, movies, games and comics, visual mediums all. Where’s the book cosplay?

Now, let me be clear: I am not trying to stop anyone from cosplaying anything. I love seeing all the amazing cosplay that’s sparked by whatever medium one chooses and I totally understand wanting to bring a character from the screen to the real world. But that’s the problem. As they are on screen, they are already somewhat in the real world, as in they have been visualised and prostheticised (is that a word? It is now) in real life and what those who cosplay them are doing is emulating that. Again I have no issue with this, dress up in whatever takes your fancy, but I still think it a shame that characters from books are less than underrepresented.

I went looking for some cosplay from books, namely Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, Vin Venture from the Mistborn trilogy and Elantrians from Elantris both by Brandon Sanderson and Rand Al’Thor and Thom Merrilin from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I couldn’t find the last one and I’m sure you’ll all agree that none of the rest of them are anywhere near as lavish as say… this. Those costumes above look like, well, costumes, much more so than the more expensive end of the cosplaying spectrum.

It’s not difficult to guess the reasons why. Very few books get as much hype as movies, series or even comic books. Until the series made him insanely popular, many more people had heard about Batman and Spiderman than Tyrion Lannister. I’d like to think this isn’t because books are inherently less approachable than other mediums, if only because of the horrendously snobbish implications of such an opinion, but I can’t think of anything else – especially considering that 8 hours sounds a lot more palatable than 1500 pages. Either way I’ve never seen anyone gawp at the amount of series or movies someone has watched in quite the same way as the do when it comes to books read, and those who don’t tend to be of a rare disposition to begin with.

Number of personally encountered gawps notwithstanding, there’s still the fact that books are not a visual medium, meaning more effort is required to bring the characters from the page to the real world. It’s the same reason a lot of fan art depicts the movie characters over those in the books, it’s easier to picture them than it is to come up with a face from scratch. So too with costumes.

Then there’s the problem of interpretation. Even if you go through all the trouble of your own take on Oberyn Martell, odds are you won’t be recognised because so many people have either never heard of him (if the books haven’t been made into a series), or have a very different image of him in their head (whether it was planted by the series or not). Series therefore make it easier for people to come to an established image of the character in their head (more on that next week), which means that doing without might lessen the sense of community. I’m not completely sure about that, but it would certainly be interesting to study.

I would also surmise that the SDCC in particular is the convention with the biggest budget, meaning that it would attract people who can afford extravagant costumes for the most realistic interpretations of characters. But as the SDCC is predominantly about movies, series and comics (duh) that is what the majority of people who go want to see and will, therefore, try to emulate in their cosplaying.

Again this is a good thing and the world is a richer place for it, but I can’t help but wish for a few more lavish book characters in there – especially after the fifteenth rendition of the Doctor (and I love Doctor Who). Partly because it would be really interesting to see book characters brought to life, partly because it would generate more interest in books that deserve it (and hopefully lessen the daunting nature of the page), and not at all because, in the books, Qartheen dresses leave the left breast bare. No really. I mean it.

See you all next week.

Proof of No Excuse

There’s no question in my mind, giant radioactive lizards beat any kind of monkey every time. It’s not that monkeys aren’t awesome, they are. It’s just that they never really grabbed me. My point is when I say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is on a completely different plane of existence from Godzilla you know I’m telling the truth. I’ve seen it twice so far and probably wouldn’t say no to a third run. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is my favourite kind of… well any medium really, because, quite apart from being absolutely fantastic in its own right, it gives me a hefty weight to throw at every sub-par, lazy, Godzilla-like artistic stain and yell: “See?! IT CAN BE DONE DAMN YOU!”

I could use any number of things to demonstrate it (like how characters are so fully formed they only need three lines of dialogue and a look to be sympathetic), but as I went with children as my example from Godzilla, let’s do that shall we?

Children, by which I mean human beings under the age of thirteen, do feature in Dawn, but you could be forgiven for wondering where. There are no primary, secondary or even tertiary child characters and the one scene in which they do feature has a lot of other things going on too.

That is the first thing the film does right. The second is that it gives the kids something to do while they are being filmed. The scene depicts a bunch of people dancing in celebration and the two kids that are filmed are in the thick of things. One is dancing and smiling, his face turned towards the camera. The other is on his dad’s shoulders and high fiving as many people as his tiny little arms can reach.

Lastly, and probably most ingeniously of all, while the camera does focus much of its attention on the kids, it does not do so to the detriment of everyone else. They are part of a larger scene, one you are free to let your attention roam around at your leisure. The only thing that marks them out is that they are slightly distinct from the crowd – one appears in a gap between people, the other is head and shoulders above everyone else. This makes them part of a larger whole and gives their behaviour even more context, and makes you wonder for the slightest moment at what kind of lives they must lead.

Not a single blank-faced, glassy-eyed sprog staring right at the camera while an inaudible, but nevertheless tangible voice bellows “YOU FEEL WORRIED NOW” in a flat expressionless tone, and it’s done in less than half the time.

Sure the kids are just dancing and are only on screen for a few seconds, but they communicate something about themselves in those few seconds. Not perhaps enough to gauge their character, but enough to know that they have a character to be gauged in the first place. At this point, I’m not exactly invested, but I am more than ready to treat these people as people, not as contrivances to tug on my heartstrings, which, funnily enough, actually does tug on my heartstrings… Wow. It’s almost as if actual human beings illicit more empathy than lazy contrivances that have been spawned for the purpose. Who would have thought? (Except for, you know… anyone with a working brain). Yes I am still bitter about Godzilla, thanks for noticing. (All the more so now that I have proof that this kind of thing can be done, damn it).

Why Slytherin? (Part 2)

Okay, okay, I’m late. I’m sorry, it took a lot longer to write than expected, but here you all are:

In my ongoing effort to reconcile the fact that I was sorted into Slytherin on Pottermore (the closest thing to an actual sorting I will ever attain), I am looking into what makes it… well Slytherin. Last week I examined all the things that are usually associated with Hogwarts’s least popular house and… the conclusion’s I’ve drawn from this don’t really make “debunked” the right word, but if nothing else I’ve established that they aren’t core attributes of Slytherin house. This week I try to ascertain what the core attributes actually are.

Problematically, I don’t have many examples to go on. Of all the Slytherins presented in the books only five are examples that we can work with. Of those five only three have enough material to work through properly. Of those three only two do not have external factors that offset their Slytherin nature and I should probably stop abusing this literary device, shouldn’t I? They are, in no particular order: Horace, Phineas, Severus, Tom and Regulus. Merlin was also a Slytherin and, if the wiki is to be believed, a champion of Muggle rights which makes him something of an anomaly, but there really isn’t enough information on him to make any kind of judgement call. The Slytherin welcome message provides some insight as well, but as it is plagued with lesser versions of the issues brought up last week, I’m not sure it’s entirely viable either.

Without further ado then…

Horace Slughorn:

Hogwarts’s Potions Master and head of Slytherin house may not be the most scrupulous of people, but he does not act out of malice or a desire to hurt. Despite the fact that he is dismissive of all but a select few, he is not at all one for violence, as evidenced by his panicked reaction to Ron getting poisoned. He is also not entirely devoid of empathy (although it requires Harry to convince him, he does agree to fix Ron an antidote to a love potion and offers him a birthday drink to make him feel a bit better), nor is he a coward (he is one of the three to face down Voldemort himself during the Battle of Hogwarts).

All that being said, those are not his primary attributes. His primary attributes are the ability to recognise genuine talent, potion making (the subtlest of magical abilities), opportunism, knowing how to ingratiate himself in high society and a taste for finery. He is obviously an accomplished piano player (as he insists on bringing one with him as he runs across the country to escape the Death Eater’s recruitment), or is at the very least capable of enchanting it to make it play for him, but the manner in which he mentions it implies otherwise. All this makes him rather fond of power. Not of wielding it, but definitely of being close to it and having a hand in its workings.

The funny thing is Slughorn’s dealings aren’t always for his own benefit. The most obvious example is Dirk Creswell, muggle-born head of the Goblin Liaison Office, who is respected and even admired by Arthur Weasly, which is in-universe shorthand for a decent man. Goblin-Wizard relations have always been fraught with strife and Slughorn’s choice of Creswell as an ambassador is excellent. Dirk is moderately outcast by the same group who dislike Goblins, an accomplished wizard and a good man, making him a near-perfect ambassador in other words.

Slughorn is always out to make a quick Galleon and the manner in which he goes about it is definitely on the fringes of ethics, but no one can say that he is unkind. He does genuinely comfort Hagrid when the latter is distraught at his giant spider friend’s death, despite his, Slughorn’s, motive being the very rare and expensive spider venom.

These last two factors preclude selfishness from any list associated with Slughorn as his relationships are symbiotic rather than parasitic.

As temperament doesn’t really have much to do with the qualities of a house (which, with the exception of Hufflepuff, tend to be fairly neutral), we can narrow down Slughorn’s Slytherin attributes to the following:

  • A fondness for power
  • Subtlety
  • Manipulation
  • Opportunism
  • Belonging
  • Unscrupulousness in his actions

 

Severus Snape:

The most famous “good-guy” Slytherin, Snape is highly intelligent, incredibly manipulative, the essence of subtlety, almost-but-not-quite power hungry and loneliness incarnate.

It is obvious that Snape fell for Lily Evans because he was alone in an abusive household and was glad of having someone who accepted him as he was. During the early stages of “The Prince’s Tale,” Snape’s excitement at the prospect of going to Hogwarts is due more to the fact that he might finally belong somewhere rather than the thought of expanding his powers. Snape’s hatred of James Potter is as much a product of jealousy as it is of James’s mockery, because James represents everything that Snape wishes he was and rejects him utterly.

That’s not to say that expanding his powers wasn’t also a draw for Severus. The manner in which Snape reacts to Petunia’s teasing, coupled with the fact that he shreds leaves when thinking about growing into his power, suggests that he has been bullied in the past and wants to be able to make the world pay. Lily obviously had a tempering effect on him, but it wasn’t enough to make him change straight away.

Those are two of the main desires that drew Severus to Slytherin house and kept him amongst the Death Eaters. Lily’s death may have made him “come to his senses,” but in a single line it is obvious that he feels his has gone too far to be redeemed. When talking about the nature of damaged souls with Dumbledore, Snape inquires about his in such a way as to suggest that it is broken beyond repair. This does take a very large toll on his state of being, but it also allows him to act outside of conventional rules as a sort of deep-cover operative who understands that scruples are a luxury he can neither afford nor fully wants.

Snape’s Slytherin qualities are therefore:

  • Extreme Cunning
  • A deep desire to belong
  • A desire, but not a lust for power
  • An understanding that scruples are not something those who wish to make the biggest changes can afford

Regulus Acturus Black:

Very little is known about Sirius’s younger sibling, except that he was a Slytherin, a seeker and kind to House Elves. He is also one of the six people to know about Voldemort’s Horcruxes, knowledge he uses to help bring Voldemort down despite joining his ranks. Newspaper cuttings in his room show that he was as informed as he could have been about the Dark Lord before joining up, but his treatment of Kreacher, and willingness to sacrifice himself to bring about a better future, indicates that he was a good man. This puts him at odds with the standard Death Eater and suggests that he had an ulterior motive for joining: Voldemort’s downfall.

Interestingly enough, Voldemort never suspects a thing. Despite being accomplished at Legilimency (mind reading), he goes so far as to use Regulus’s house elf to hide one of his Horcruxes, never once thinking that Black the younger could use Kreacher as a spy. This definitely makes Regulus cunning, all the more so when one realises that not even his own family suspects anything.

We can never know the full extent of Regulus’s Slytherin qualities and arguments can be made for any number of things. These facts are the safest as there is the most evidence for them, we can therefore conclude that Regulus was:

  • Cunning
  • Subtle
  • Manipulative
  • Unflinching in the face of death

Phineas Nigellus Black:

Even less information exists on Regulus’s great, great grandfather than Regulus himself. But being headmaster of Hogwarts and possessed of gloriously acerbic wit, it is clear that he was both a great wizard and knew himself to be so.

Tom Marvolo Riddle:

Voldemort needs no introduction. His exploits and the fact that he was immensely powerful and evil are known to pretty much everyone, sometimes against their will. That being said, there are a couple of things about him that need to be addressed here. Voldemort grew up in a non-magical orphanage and always felt apart from anyone else. It is safe to assume that he came to Hogwarts hoping to find a place he belonged at last. Not necessarily among his peers, he considered himself peerless, but somewhere where he knew he would fit. Voldemort is possessed of many qualities, and one can spend hours looking for them all, I am just going to go with what I think fits my points best:

  • A complete lust for power
  • The desire to lord it over everyone else
  • Manipulation
  • No scruples whatsoever
  • A deep-seated need to belong

Going over all these Slytherins, they all share a number of common attributes irrespective of whether they are used for good or ill:

  • A desire for power in some form or other
  • Intelligence
  • Cunning
  • Acceptance that great deeds often require a disregard for conventional morals
  • A desire to belong

The one thing these all have in common is that they are very easily corruptible. There are few people who, when given an opportunity for great power, would choose to do good with it. Most would just look after themselves, but a fair number would use it to subjugate others and torture people for fun. The Malfoys all demonstrate varying degrees of the above attributes, but according to Pottermore there have been precious few decent Malfoys over the centuries. That is why Slytherin sees so many dark wizards, and that is also why so many Slytherins have such a mean-spirited disposition.

At the same time, these attributes are distinct from the other houses, and, more importantly, if a good person demonstrates these abilities, they tend to soar head and shoulders above anybody else. Just look at Snape, who went from being seen as the second greatest villain to a hero as great as, if not greater than, Harry himself. But all of this ignores one of the key attributes of Slytherin: a desire to belong.

This makes Slytherin a curious parallel to nerd culture. Nerds desire power, are, for the most part, intelligent and try to push socio-cultural norms, especially when it comes to things that they think should be changed. Nerds also have a long history of exclusion, and therefore band together both to protect each other from outside threats, but also to bolster and inspire each other. Knowing the pain of this exclusion, nerds should also be incredibly empathetic, but a lot of them are not. Just look at the fighting game community. Naturally there are differences, namely in why the Slytherins behave like they do (which we covered last week) and a lack of variety, but let’s say that there wasn’t.

This would make Slytherin the best house in Hogwarts, because for every sadistic miscreant looking to make a name for themselves, there would be at least one decent human being with just as much power and more empathy to keep them in check.

This above all is why Slytherin exists, because it has the potential to harbour a group of truly great people most of whom are empathetic as well as powerful, because they know what it’s like to be alone. That the potential is much more easily bent towards evil is more a product of people than it is a product of the house itself.

Slytherin exists, therefore, as an act of good faith that maybe one day it will shed its current associations and grow into something far, far better.

See you all on Saturday (for some non Potter-related verbiage).

Why Slytherin?

It’s been a long while since I did a Harry Potter related post (here’s my last one if you’re interested) and I’ve been feeling in a particularly Potterish mood. Potterish enough to weather the point-and-click nature of Pottermore and start it afresh. And a good thing too, there have been a number of changes since I last logged on and I was glad of a new start. I took the wand (Alder and Dragon heartstring, 12.5 inches, surprisingly swishy) and house tests and found that I was placed in…

Umm… Are you sure?

Now that can’t be right. If anything, I’d think myself a Gryffindor or Hufflepuff, certainly those two founders have my greatest respect. I may have many faults, but I don’t identify in the least with any of Slytherins in the books. I mean yes I am fond of Phineas Nigellus’s wit, but he’s a near-total bastard and not someone I wish to emulate… not entirely at least.

But that’s the thing. The students don’t make the house. The house itself stands for certain principles, that, with the right guidance, the students could embody. Given this, what is the point of Slytherin?

All the students we encounter and a vast majority of the adults are mean-spirited at best and quite literally Voldemort at worst. Granted this comprises a maximum of about fifty people, but there is little-to-no evidence against mean-spiritedness being a core quality of Slytherin house, except, of course, that mean-spiritedness is not a quality to begin with.

So what are the qualities of Slytherin house?

According to the Sorting Hat:
“those cunning folk use any means to achieve their ends,” (Philosopher’s Stone)
Shrewd Slytherin from fen […] Power-hungry Slytherin loved those of great ambition,”
(Goblet of Fire)
“Slytherin took only pure-blood wizards of great cunning just like his,” (Order of the Phoenix)

The thing is the Sorting Hat can’t be trusted. Even if we take account choices affecting the outcome, the fact remains that a lot of people wind up in Slytherin who have no reason to be there.

If the Sorting Hat was indeed following Salazar’s original wishes, then no half-blood would be sorted into Slytherin, which would include Snape and even Voldemort. Additionally, Crabbe, Goyle and most of the Slytherin Quidditch team are the living embodiment of everything that isn’t cunning and shrewd (which according to the sorting hat is Slytherin’s second most prized virtue). Outside of Hogwarts, Deatheaters Amycus and Alecto Carrow have no discerning characteristics other than sadism and so much pride in their ancestry there are even hints at an incestuous relationship… not exactly cunning folk by any standard, especially not one as elitist as Salazar Slytherin’s.

This means that they should all have wound up in Hufflepuff, the founder of which, if the Sorting Hat’s account is to be believed said “I’ll teach the lot and treat them just the same” (Order of the Phoenix). But Hufflepuff is more than just a dumping ground for rejects and has its own qualities of quiet unassuming kindness and fair play, best embodied by Cedric Digory. This must mean that Slytherin also has qualities that belie its occupants, especially when you consider the Sorting Hat’s outliers.

The three prominent ones are Zacharias Smith (who’s arrogant, mean, cowardly, and quick to attack verbally and yet was sorted into Hufflepuff), Cormac Mclaggen (who’s arrogant, temperamental, and proud of his ancestry despite being sorted into Gryffindor) and Peter Pettigrew (who becomes progressively more cowardly to the point of selling out his friends going against everything that would place him in Gryffindor). None of these characters have the presence of mind to consciously choose what house they wind up in. If they do make a choice, it would be more a question of family honour, or a desire to be like their family, than desire to be in a house whose qualities they admire.

As the majority of Voldemort’s followers have the same… umm… absence of mind? And few people are so aware of themselves as to know where they don’t want to end up as much as where they do, especially at age 11 (even Ron isn’t like that), it is safe to assume that the majority of Slytherins wind up where they do not because of any particular quality on their part, but because of their upbringing and lack of self-knowledge.

As being surrounded by like-minded people is a key factor in someone’s growth, the Sorting Hat must also sort people by where they would fit in. Years and years of stereotypically Slytherin students being sorted into the house for various reasons can only have compounded the nature of those we meet in The Philosopher’s Stone

This is the only explanation that makes sense, because the alternative is horrifying. Imagine an ordinary school where, somehow, there was a test that would assess the children’s personalities and group them with those of a similar disposition in an attempt to make them grow to the best of their abilities. Now imagine that this school has a sizable collection of racist and moderately mean-spirited students. Three courses of action present themselves:

  1. Kill every racist and mean-spirited student
  2. Keep tabs on every racist and mean-spirited student
  3. Attempt to coax them out of their ways

Assuming you have an ounce of mercy and a notion of ethics, the only real choice is option 3, but how to put that into practice?

Simple, place the racist and mean-spirited students in an environment where they can have their views challenged with experience. What you do NOT do is group them all together so they can reaffirm their views, all the while enhancing their ability to flourish in the wider world. This, however, is what Hogwarts does and, as flawed as some aspects of wizarding society may be, no one is that stupid.

This constitutes proof beyond reasonable doubt that mean-spiritedness is hardly a core attribute of Slytherin house, but merely a by-product of years of parental conditioning. Years of conditioning that have also made it impossible for muggle-born wizards to be members of Slytherin house as they have no chance whatsoever of fitting in.

According to the Slytherin’s welcome message at Pottermore.com: “nowadays you’ll find plenty of people in Slytherin house who have at least one Muggle parent,” which I’ll admit sounds like “I’m not racist plenty of my friends are [insert skin colour of choice here],” but which must also hold a kernel of truth. Add to that the fact that half-bloods were sorted into Slytherin even prior to Voldemort’s attempts at in-breeding wizards out of existence, and Salazar himself must have taken a few under his tutorage otherwise he wouldn’t have had any means to consider them untrustworthy.

All of this means that Slytherin’s qualities are independent of how the majority of the students turned out, but also quite difficult to gage. Doing so will require a look into those six Slytherins who have stood head and shoulders above their fellows either as great wizards, great men or both, which is what I will be doing next time. See you all on Wednesday.