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…
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
- Unscrupulousness in his actions
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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).