Trigger warning for child abuse. Again.
Chapter Seven: The Sorting Hat
Yes, I am utter nightmare fuel despite not being described like this in the book. And no, I don’t know why I’m
the chapter art when I have fuck-all to do with the story and don’t show up until the final page of this chapter.
The door opens to show a tall dark-haired witch wearing emerald green, which is a surprise in itself given the obsession with colour symbolism throughout the series. Harry thinks she looks very stern and isn’t someone to cross. She doesn’t bother telling the children who she is, but Hagrid greets her as Professor McGonagall, whom we have previously met as the utterly clueless and possibly memory-charmed cat-shifter in the first chapter. Let’s hope she’s improved a bit in the last ten years.
She lets them into an entrance hall that is apparently big enough to get the entire Dursley house in, so big that the ceiling is literally not visible. I’m going to assume this is Harry’s brain defaulting to hyperbole, because otherwise the freaking lobby of this weird castle is bigger than the actual Great Hall we’re going to see shortly. That said, the ceiling probably isn’t visible because there don’t seem to be any windows, it’s night, and for some reason the magic school still uses flaming torches as lighting. It’s probably very dark and smoky. In fact most of the castle seems to be early-medieval, with stone flagged floors and torches and tapestries and so on, and yet in this insanely huge entrance hall we have a giant marble staircase that’s obviously from a much later period.
McGonagall leads the students to a small room at one side. This room appears to serve no purpose whatsoever except to be somewhere she can infodump at the new firsties, which she can’t possibly do in the entrance hall because reasons. Still, it’s a huge castle that doesn’t actually hold that many people, so I’m sure they’ve got a lot of useless rooms. She tells them there’s going to be a huge feast soon but they have to be sorted into their houses first, and gives us a very nice explanation of how the house system is meant to function. Key phrase, ‘meant to’. The sorting (I refuse to capitalise it) is very important, she explains, because your house will be like your family; classes and dormitories are arranged by house and you hang out in your house common room. The four houses are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin, and each has a noble history and has produced outstanding witches and wizards. If you do well you earn points for your house, and if you mess up you lose points, and at the end of the year the house with the most points gets a shiny trophy which is apparently a great honour.
This all sounds great, but let’s face it, it’s pretty much just a way to arrange schedules and dormitories, and to encourage competition so points can be bribes to make the kids behave. They could just as easily scrap this chapter and split the kids up alphabetically. The houses honestly don’t matter in the end, except that everyone hates Slytherin. And yet every adult in the series continues to be obsessed with the concept of house culture for basically their entire lives, and there’s just no reason this should be a thing. Mitchell and I had a long discussion trying to work out what Rowling was going for here, because the closest analogy we could think of between us were American fraternities and sororities, which don’t exist in Britain. Yes, we have school houses, but at my school they were separate from our actual classes and had no purpose except to make us compete against one another a couple of times a year at various stupid events that none of us cared about.
Hogwarts is a boarding school. These kids are cut off from their families for most of the year. The houses should matter, especially for the first years, but they don’t. We only know Percy is a prefect because everyone makes fun of him for it; we’ve no idea who the female prefect is, or any of the prefects from other houses, and Harry will certainly never go to any of the prefects for help or advice or just someone to hang out with throughout his school career. He will also never go to his Head of House for anything personal, nor will said Head of House ever be shown to give a shit about any of the students. The house system should be a support network, but it’s not, outside of various fanon headcanons. It’s a shame, and makes me wonder why any fan would want to go to Hogwarts – this is a scary and lonely place for young kids, particularly Muggleborns.
A bit of bonus info about the houses that we won’t learn in the books for a while. Gryffindor’s symbol is a lion and their colours are red and gold. Slytherin’s symbol is a snake and their colours are green and silver. Ravenclaw’s symbol is an eagle and their colours are blue and bronze. Hufflepuff’s symbol is a badger and their colours are yellow and black.
First, why isn’t Ravenclaw’s symbol an actual raven? Just… what. Particularly since they’re the smart house, and ravens are one of the cleverest birds on the planet, whereas eagles and other raptors are pretty stupid and have proportionally small brains for their size.
Badgers and snakes are both cool animals, so I have no issue there, though ‘snake’ is pretty generic given how many very distinct types there are. And Hufflepuff’s name doesn’t actually match its totem animal; I would expect it to be the Big Bad Wolf or something, though I suspect Rowling didn’t want another house to have a really cool popular animal like a wolf so it couldn’t compete with her favourite.
As for lions… well, they’ve been used as symbols of bravery and power for centuries, but that’s basically just because they look pretty. Lions are arseholes. And cowards, and bullies. In the last decade or two naturalists have found out that people have had lions and hyenas mixed up for centuries; it’s lions who are the scavengers and killstealers, and hyenas who are the hunters. You are far more likely to get a pride of lions attacking hyenas to steal their food than the other way around, though only when they outnumber their victims. Lions also randomly attack other carnivores in the area just in case they might be competition later, plus there’s the whole thing with the males killing any cubs they didn’t personally father. Males will also steal food from their own lionesses just because they can.
The Lion King will always be on my list of favourite films, same with Born Free, but seriously, lions are nasty animals. And thus perfect symbols for Gryffindor, frankly, though this was clearly unintentional. Rowling really should have chosen a less pretty but nicer and braver totem animal. Badgers are pretty brave, not much will take on a badger, though they’re not flashy which is presumably why she gave them to Hufflepuff instead. Or just gone with a griffin to keep the name.
McGonagall tells the kids that the Sorting Ceremony will take place soon in front of the entire school, then walks out and leaves them all to panic. Harry asks Ron how they’re sorted, and Ron doesn’t actually know; he thinks it’s some sort of test, and Fred told him it hurts a lot but he thinks he was joking.
Ron comes from a long line of Hogwarts graduates and has five older brothers who’ve all gone through this, but he has no idea how they’re sorted. As it turns out, nor does anyone else. Not even Hermione, who will confirm on the next page that she’s pretty much memorised at least one book about the school. For some reason it’s kept a complete secret from every single child. One, there is no reason for this except to make sure they’re all absolutely terrified at this moment. Two, how on earth is this enforced? You can’t expect me to believe that every single parent, remembering their own fear at what is essentially just a hazing ritual, will make sure their own children have to go through it as well. I have to conclude that part of the ceremony involves some sort of magical compulsion that means you can’t tell anyone else about it.
Anyway, Ron’s comment sparks a bit of a panic since none of the kids have any idea what’s going to happen to them. Harry’s freaking out along with everyone else, to the point where his heartbeat is disrupted because he’s just that terrified – he doesn’t know any magic yet, what are they expecting him to do? Everyone else looks scared too and none of them are talking except Hermione, who’s whispering very fast to herself about all the spells she’s tried to learn and trying to work out which one she’ll need. Based on what we actually see the kids learning during their first year – or at all, come to that – I can’t see any of them being remotely useful, Hermione.
Harry seems to be on the edge of a full anxiety attack. He’s apparently never been so scared in his life, not even when taking terrible school reports home to the supposedly abusive Dursleys, and he’s thinking that at any moment McGonagall’s going to come back and ‘lead him to his doom’. And you can’t blame him, melodramatic though this seems; the kids must all be terrified. And exhausted, too, given that for some reason all this has to take place at night when they’ve spent all day travelling with no proper food and the sugar high from all the sweets must have worn off by now.
At this point half a dozen ghosts drift casually through the wall and scare the shit out of them all.
Seriously, Hogwarts is a terrible, frightening place run by sadists.
The kids don’t get much time to adjust to learning that ghosts are real – Harry himself has zero thoughts on the matter, as usual – but the ghosts themselves are polite and friendly enough, and we meet Hufflepuff’s personal ghost, a monk called the Fat Friar. They’re only onscreen for a couple of paragraphs before McGonagall comes back to make sure they’re all properly freaked out and leads them into the Great Hall for the ceremony.
Side note: there is not (and will never be) any reason given for these ghosts’ presence in Hogwarts. I can only assume Rowling liked the “haunted castle” aesthetic/trope, and decided to write them in without really thinking about it. We’ll learn backstories for some of the ghosts later, and these backstories are almost completely unconnected to Hogwarts (I think the only exception is the Grey Lady being a relative of Ravenclaw, which was shoehorned in in Deathly Hallows so she could infodump plot) – I think the majority of the ghosts didn’t even die in Hogwarts, FFS, so they can’t even be justified as haunting their location of death. Why are they here? Moreover, why are they affiliated with Hogwarts houses?
The Great Hall is indeed great – there are four long tables where all the other students are sitting, and a long table across the far end where the teachers are sitting, and it’s lit by thousands of candles hovering in mid air above the tables. I approve of the general wizardliness of this, but in reality this just means melted wax is constantly dripping into your food and scalding your arms. The firsties are dragged up next to the staff table so everyone can stare at them properly, including a lot of the ghosts who are now sitting among the kids, and Harry looks up so he can’t see everyone watching and sees that the ceiling is black and full of stars. Hermione tells him it’s enchanted to look like the sky outside, she read it in a book called Hogwarts: A History, which unaccountably did not mention the sorting. She seems to be the only person who’s ever bothered to read this book.
McGonagall puts a small stool in front of them, and places a patched and dirty pointed hat on it (I have no idea why it’s dirty). Harry is understandably very confused by this, and starts wondering if maybe they have to pull a rabbit out of it or something, which is actually a really good reaction that helps to underscore the fact that he knows nothing about magic. It would be better if he’d questioned literally anything that’s happened up until now, though. Really, Harry, you’ve casually accepted invisible doors in walls, self-driving boats and ghosts just in the past day, and that’s ignoring everything you saw with Hagrid; a hat should not be the thing that finally confuses you, no matter how scared and exhausted you are.
A rip opens in the hat, and it sings a song.
To be fair, I quite like the hat. It’s appropriately pointy and magic-shaped, and it sings. It would be a very cool bit of background detail. I just don’t think it should be treated as a super-important artefact and later plot coupon that everyone is staring at reverently and treats as the fountain of all wisdom. And the song isn’t bad, at least at first; it sings about what an awesome hat it is, and it’s a bit gimmicky and cutesy but it fits the children’s-book theme and even the rhyming is actually quite good. Then the hat tries to infodump, and ends up being both scary and racist.
(Note: I’m using ‘racist’ here and throughout the spork when I talk about house prejudice because I can’t think of a more fitting term. Classism is something different and there isn’t a suitable word. I am aware they’re not actually different races – though I’m not sure the book is…)
The hat informs everyone that it can read their minds when they wear it, they can’t hide any of their innermost thoughts from it, and so it will psychically judge them and decide where they belong. (No seriously how the fuck does this work? Is the hat possessed? If so, by whom?)
Yes, folks, these children’s futures are going to be determined age eleven by what a talking hat sees in their heads on a night when they’re exhausted and terrified. I think on balance we should be quite glad that what house you’re in doesn’t make any real difference to 75% of the students, because wow is that a fucking stupid system. And also this is the first – but by no means the last – time we’re going to encounter inanimate objects capable of mindreading.
It goes on to explain a bit more about the four houses, which are apparently split by personality. Gryffindors are brave, daring and chivalrous (you keep using that word…). Hufflepuffs are just, hardworking, loyal and patient, and honestly they sound like they should be much more important to the story than they actually are. Ravenclaws are smart, that is their sole character trait – pay attention, Hermione – and Slytherins are cunning and will do anything to achieve their goals. This is the nicest description they’ll ever get.
I’m not even going to bother detailing all the myriad reasons why it’s stupid and unnecessary to divide these kids up based on personality traits, or why such a system won’t fucking work anyway because of all the overlap. Or at least, it wouldn’t work in the real world, but in the Potterverse most people do only have one or two personality traits and can almost all be neatly pigeonholed like this. It’s possible you could do something with the notion that these virtues are the things each house thinks is most important, but Divergent tried that long after this series was over and failed miserably.
Overall, the song works well enough, and it’s a decent source of explanation for the poor bewildered first years. In later books the hat’s going to change its song to talk about current events, though, which is going to confuse the fuck out of the newbies.
The hat stops singing and everyone applauds it instead of muttering for it to hurry up already because they want to eat their dinner and go to bed damnit. Ron whispers that he’s going to kill Fred, who was apparently talking about them having to wrestle a troll, proving that Ron is an incredibly gullible individual because nobody is going to believe that even a school as screwed up as this one would make children do that, and also hark it’s the sound of the Foreshadowing Fairy’s little bells again. Harry thinks that he ought to be relieved that the ‘test’ is just trying on a hat, but he doesn’t want to do it with everyone watching, and he doesn’t feel brave or clever or anything except slightly ill. Another normal reaction, Harry! Have a biscuit.
McGonagall produces a list of first years, at last, and starts reading out their names for them to come and try on the magic hat. I’m half-expecting a couple of names to be greeted by total silence and her having to send Hagrid out to find them lost in the woods or fallen in the lake or still at the station wondering where everyone is, because this is the first time there’s been any attempt to make sure they’re all here. Interestingly, of the first dozen or so names, almost all of them are girls. Each house applauds its new students, which is a nice gesture I suppose but honestly everyone’s essentially clapping over children being assigned to bedrooms. And in a totally unnecessary moment when the first new Slytherin is sorted Harry decides they all look like an unpleasant lot. Give me that biscuit back you little shit.
Some of the names we see here will reappear later, but so will other students whose names aren’t featured here. I quite like that from an atmospheric point of view, but on a worldbuilding level it’s annoying because it means we can’t tell how big the school is and there’s no real reason for Harry not to at least know the names of all his year.
Harry continues to feel sick and self-conscious, flashing back to always being picked last for sports teams at school because nobody wanted Dudley to think they liked him. That’s stupid, because this is a completely different situation; there’s nothing wrong with him feeling sick and self-conscious because of stage fright without unnecessarily shoehorning in more references to his angsty past. He does at least notice that the hat sometimes yells out a house almost immediately and sometimes takes ages to decide, which just reminds me that I really wish we’d had details of any of the other sortings, but it’s just one on a very long list of things Harry will never ask his friends about.
Hermione’s the first character we’ve previously met to be sorted, and she goes to Gryffindor; what a waste. Ron, lovely boy that he is, groans. Once again, Ron, I agree with you but for completely different reasons. Neville goes to Gryffindor too, so at least he’s with a friend, and he runs off still wearing the hat and has to give it back, which is a cute detail. I’m actually surprised none of these kids have tripped and faceplanted, or fainted, or something. We also learn that Neville’s surname is Longbottom, which I’m sure got a lot of sniggers worldwide but is a genuine Yorkshire name – interestingly it’s traditionally lower-class than his family seem to be. Draco goes to Slytherin, complete with various unflattering descriptions, and it’s mentioned as an afterthought that Crabbe and Goyle went there too. Their first names have still not been noted, and I believe won’t appear for several books; they’re called Vincent and Gregory if anyone cares more than the book does.
Then Harry’s name is called, and of course the whole school goes mad, everyone starts whispering about omg is it really him??? I’d like to remind everyone that last chapter Draco said that the entire train was talking about how Harry Potter was there – presumably courtesy of the Weasley twins – so they should already know this. Unless they’re all just delirious from desperately needing food and sleep and can’t physically remember a couple of hours ago.
Mitchell suggested that the entire wizarding world is under some sort of spell – we named it the Pavlov Charm – that compels everyone to turn into brainless babbling fans every time they hear the words Harry Potter. This is depressingly plausible.
Harry tries on the hat, which covers his eyes so he can’t see everyone staring at him. You’d think a hat designed to audit the brains of children would be sized to fit said children, especially since this entire ceremony is clearly not concerned with something as nice as shutting out all the stares. The hat starts talking to him inside his head, telling him that he’s awesome and has all the best qualities from all the houses so it doesn’t know where to put him, and Harry immediately responds with, ‘Not Slytherin… not Slytherin.’
Why, Harry? All you know about them is that Hagrid said they were evil and you don’t like Draco, who until about two minutes ago wasn’t even in Slytherin. The hat insists you’ve got a pretty decent brain, based on no evidence whatsoever, so why haven’t you realised that’s a stupid reason? There’s no reason why you’d care where you went at this point. I could see him asking for Gryffindor since Hermione said she’d heard it was awesome and Ron wanted to be in it, and almost every kid he’s met until this point is in Gryffindor, but there’s no reason why he’d be biased against any particular house at this point except that the book says so.
The hat questions this too, surprisingly, asking if he’s sure because he could be great and Slytherin would help him do it, but when Harry doesn’t change his mind it yells GRYFFINDOR to everyone. And if any reader was remotely surprised by this then they should be deeply ashamed of themselves.
I will say here that I really like that the hat doesn’t know who Harry is. I honestly would not have been surprised if it had greeted him by name and started raving about how amazing he was going to be. This is one of the few times where someone or something genuinely treats Harry as if he’s an ordinary student.
Anyway, Harry tells us he’s so relieved to have been sorted – and not in Slytherin – that he doesn’t notice everyone cheering. He then proceeds to tell us how everyone is cheering, so clearly he did in fact notice. Sitting down next to one of the ghosts, he finally takes a look at the High Table where the teachers are sitting. For some reason Hagrid’s there, even though he’s not a teacher – no reason why the non-teaching staff wouldn’t take their meals with the rest, of course, except there are only four non-teaching staff members at Hogwarts (because Rowling has no idea how schools are run) and Hagrid seems to be the only one who eats with them.
Harry glosses over most of the teachers to focus on Dumbles, who is sitting at the centre of the table on a ‘large gold chair‘. I never noticed the man has a fucking throne before. Good grief. His hair is also the only thing in the room shining as brightly as the ghosts, so apparently he has glow-in-the-dark hair. That’s a bit of a concern. Harry also notices Quirrell, the teacher he and Hagrid met in the pub a couple of chapters ago, who is again described as young – I always forget that he’s meant to be young, but realistically is an eleven year old going to describe any adult as young? Quirrell is also looking peculiar since he’s wearing a large purple turban. The narrative is going to point this out a lot. If Rowling had just said he was wearing a turban and left out the ‘peculiar’ it could have implied that Quirrell was our first adult character of colour, which would have been nice since I’m pretty sure we only get one in the entire series. These are not books that embrace diversity.
(Let’s also note that the turban was not mentioned when we encountered Quirrell previously, which is odd for several reasons in retrospect. Aside from it becoming his sole appearance gimmick, I have to wonder what the back of his head looked like and possibly why nobody noticed anything amiss when he was out in public.)
The last few children are sorted, including Ron, who unsurprisingly gets Gryffindor too. His character would have been far more interesting in any other house, seriously, and Hufflepuff really does seem like a prime sidekick-producing atmosphere that might have ensured he did not end up being a selfish little shithead. Disregarding this wasted opportunity, McGonagall takes the hat away and Harry remembers he’s hungry, as is every other person in the room.
Dumbles stands up, beaming and opening his arms to them and generally looking like an idiot in my opinion, welcoming them all.
“Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!”
He sits down again to general applause and cheering, leaving Harry understandably confused and not sure whether he’s meant to laugh or not. Oh, if only this really was a joke, Harry. He asks Percy if Dumbles is a bit mad, and Percy replies that he’s a genius and the best wizard in the world and, yes, a bit mad. Very reassuring, Percy. Harry doesn’t dwell on this, though, because suddenly a fuckton of food has magically appeared in front of them.
[Mitchell adds: I personally like the ‘a few words’ line, being the kind of person who enjoys awful puns and all. Just ask Loten, she’s been trying to break me of the habit for years. Aside from that, it would also do a good job of setting up Dumbledore as the sort of character who has a sense of humour children can appreciate and is therefore on their side, which would be a good thing in a children’s book… except that in the rest of the series he doesn’t, except for his random sweets fetish, and he most definitely isn’t on their side.]
I’ll spare you the rambling food porn, but everything here is very carb and protein rich and the only vegetables in sight are carrots and peas. Hogwarts is not a place for vegetarians or anyone remotely interested in healthy eating, which is weird given how focused the narrative is on fat-shaming. I’d like to dismiss this as the start-of-term feast being a special treat, but the few times regular meals are mentioned, it’s clear that this is not a one-off experience. I have to conclude that since only a few of the eeeeevil Slytherins are ever described as even slightly overweight, this food is actually mostly some sort of created low-fat mush containing actual vitamins and minerals that has been disguised as more interesting food, because this is not how you raise children. They have all-you-can-eat two-course buffets multiple times every single day and the only exercise any of them get is walking to lessons, save for the small handful who take part in an entirely voluntary sport that is played sitting down. Without magic food half of them would have chronic health problems by the end of the first year and several of them would quite literally die from malnutrition before graduating. Also while Harry eats quite a lot and enjoys it, he once again does not react the way he should do and gorge himself sick and fill his pockets. And amongst the food on offer are mint humbugs (don’t ask) and Yorkshire pudding, both Muggle products.
For non-Brits, Yorkshire pudding is a savory batter pudding served with roast dinners: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/About/General/2010/3/8/1268072179512/Three-Yorkshire-puddings–001.jpg
As he’s eating, the ghost sitting next to him comments sadly that it looks good. I’m not sure why the ghosts are even here, this happens every year and they don’t seem to enjoy watching other people eating food they can’t have. Once again demonstrating his absolute brilliance, Harry seems surprised that ghosts don’t eat and that his new undead friend hasn’t eaten anything for five hundred years. Kindly not pointing out how stupid this is, the ghost introduces himself as Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, resident Gryffindor ghost.
Ron interrupts their conversation to say, ‘My brothers told me about you – you’re Nearly Headless Nick!’ Sir Nicholas looks annoyed and says he prefers them to use his actual name. Unfortunately for him, he’s talking to Gryffindors and they don’t give a shit about such things, so he will continue to be stuck with a nickname he dislikes no matter how often he asks them not to use it. This is a form of bullying, and as a constant victim of it because my last name unfortunately lends itself very easily to a predictable nickname, believe me when I tell you it goes from mildly annoying to unbelievably infuriating to genuinely depressing and demoralising very quickly. [Mitchell adds: my name has also been conducive to similar bullying in the past, and I concur with all of this.]
Another firstie named Seamus Finnegan also interrupts the conversation to ask how someone can be nearly headless. Looking very annoyed now, Sir Nicholas answers, ‘Like this‘ and pulls his head to one side to show that he was almost beheaded but they never finished the job, thus horrifying all the kids. Good.
We’ll never find out what happened to Sir Nicholas. Presumably he was a wizard since he’s now haunting Hogwarts, but why he was beheaded – and why he didn’t use magic to avoid it – will never be explained. Nor will we ever learn why the executioner did not remove his head completely after he died, nor why this carried over from his body to his ghost. Yes, historically they did sometimes botch executions and make a very messy job of it – I believe the record took something like thirty axe strokes to kill one victim? – but the whole point of beheading was to display the head prominently somewhere because it was the punishment for treasonous nobles who needed to serve an example afterwards. It makes even less sense next book when we learn a bit more about the founders and learn that this castle was purpose-built as a school and has never been anything else. (I’m concerned that it has dungeons, in that case, let alone lots of ghosts of murdered people.)
Pleased with their reactions – a small act of revenge for the nickname, I assume – Sir Nicholas changes the subject, saying he hopes the newbies will help them win the House Cup this year because Slytherin have won for the past six years in a row. Well, that’s the end of the book sorted; Rowling might as well have included a flashing neon sign. Sir Nicholas adds that the Slytherin ghost, the Bloody Baron, has been unbearable. Harry looks at the Slytherin table to see that the Baron, appropriately bloody as his name suggests, is sitting next to Draco, who doesn’t seem happy about it. Unlike Harry, who thinks that’s hilarious. Seamus asks why the Baron’s covered in blood, and Sir Nicholas says he’s never asked.
When everyone has eaten as much as they can, the food vanishes and is replaced with desserts that they presumably can’t eat. More sweet-fetishism, including things like exotically flavoured ice cream, jelly (Jell-O, for Americans) and doughnuts, which all need enough processing that I’m not convinced wizards would know how to produce them. I’m sure the wizarding world doesn’t have toothpaste, incidentally, so let’s add teeth problems to malnutrition and obesity. The kids continue stuffing themselves – I’d imagine at least a few of them are going to throw up the moment they try to move – and start talking about their families, and this is where we earn our trigger warning for this chapter.
Seamus goes first, mentioning offhandedly that he’s half-and-half and his Muggle father had no idea his mother was a witch until after they were married, which understandably came as a nasty shock. The kids all have a jolly good laugh about this, but one, it’s not remotely funny, and two, this exact scenario happens at least once more in the series with VERY BAD consequences. Like the creation of a psychopathic supervillain.
Ron forgets about himself for two entire seconds to ask about Neville, who tells them he was raised by his witch grandmother but his family thought he was a Muggle for ages. His great-uncle Algie kept trying to force him to do magic by repeatedly trying to murder him in horrible ways. Obviously it’s not described in those terms in the book, but that’s what it is. Great-uncle Algie pushed him off the end of Blackpool pier once and he almost drowned, amongst other things, but nothing worked until he was eight.
Incidentally, what on earth were a family of wizards doing in Blackpool? Blackpool is the quintessential tacky Muggle tourist seaside resort. Every cliché you can think of – low-budget fairgrounds, donkey rides, Kiss Me Quick hats, penny arcades, shops selling sticks of rock and candy floss – is Blackpool. I really don’t see any wizards, particularly an old pureblood family as Neville’s will eventually be revealed to be, going on holiday there. It also has three piers; no idea which one Neville is referring to here.
Anyway, when Neville was eight dear old Great-uncle Algie came to their house for tea and was casually hanging him out of “an upstairs window” by his ankles, as you do, when Great-aunt Enid offered him a cake and he let go, thus dropping his nephew on his head from a great enough height to kill him. He wasn’t using magic to hold him because this was clearly planned and is a serious attempt to plausibly ‘accidentally’ kill the boy. Neville bounced, which is apparently lucky, although given that he would still have landed on his head and broken his neck I don’t see how that saved him, and his family all rejoiced and hopefully stopped trying to kill him. They were also really pleased when he got his Hogwarts letter because nobody thought he was ‘magic enough’ to come, though I bet they weren’t as pleased as Neville was to be getting the fuck away from them.
Nobody comments on this, and the subject changes in the following paragraph. It’s treated as so completely normal that it’s not even worth reacting to. And nobody ever will comment on it. Pay attention, everyone, this is the first of many, many instances where it’s clear that Neville would have made a much more interesting protagonist. The narrative will constantly treat Harry’s upbringing as abuse even though the worst thing that has happened to him to date is being ignored, yet Neville’s relatives repeatedly physically abusing and trying to kill him is unremarkable and perfectly fine. The worst part is that even Neville himself treats it as perfectly fine and he too will never display any signs of being abused, nor will he ever show realistic reactions to anything and will end up being scared of all the wrong things given the way he was raised.
At this point Mitchell and I abandoned our first attempt to spork this chapter and changed the subject to something else, because it was getting too depressing; we’d both forgotten just how bad this part was.
Why is an adult writing books for children telling them that abuse and bullying is either funny or normal and not to be commented on? Why did so many other adults let this be published without questioning it or toning it down?
The answer, at least at this point in the series, is that the horrible violence against children is being phrased in slapstick, cartoonish terms. A child being partially turned into a pig is funny. A child being thrown out of a window and bouncing down the garden is funny.
This works in Roald Dahl’s books, which were clearly the inspiration for a lot of this, because those books take place completely within a bizarre alternate reality where girls like Matilda can have psychic powers, men like Willy Wonka can build magic factories that make sweets that will kill and mutilate children in nasty ways, boys like James can travel around the world on flying fruit with a load of giant talking bugs and boys like George can make magic potions from ordinary household items. (Yes, I like his books.)
[Mitchell adds: Let’s have a brief digression about Roald Dahl, because I think we probably need to. I quite liked his books as a child as well and still remember them fondly, though neither of us have reread them at all recently so that memory is a bit hazy. I suspect that if we returned to them now we’d find a great deal of incredibly problematic content that we’d previously overlooked. I can think of a few examples in general terms: e.g. transphobia in the portrayal of Agatha Trunchbull in Matilda; The Witches being all about an evil cabal of women preying on children; the Oompa Loompas’ Happiness in Slavery combined with the original version of that book’s having had them as a lost African tribe rather than a fantasy race; I’m sure I could think of many more. Yet despite all that, it still feels different to me than the Potter books do; less mean-spirited, somehow, and the overall silliness quotient is higher so it never quite seems the reader is meant to take things seriously. Maybe it’s just that he was better able to keep things consistently cartoonish, and his caricature was obviously intentional?]
In my opinion it doesn’t work in Harry Potter, because the whole point of the Potterverse is that it takes place within our own world. The magic system can somehow do bizarre things that break all the natural laws of our universe, and this is never explained, but these books are still set on our planet and in our society. What happened to poor Dudley isn’t possible, but even if you overlook that as just a silly magic trick and ignore the fact that it’s still an adult doing something scary and painful and illegal to a child that the child cannot possibly avoid, there are no circumstances where anyone can justify throwing an eight year old boy out of a window in our world. You can’t use ‘it’s fantasy’ as an excuse if it’s not a fantasy world.
And it gets much worse later. The abuse in later books stops being cartoony and fantasy and becomes just plain brutal. But it’s still treated as funny and the myriad victims are still not allowed to object. J K Rowling’s attitude towards bullying is by far my biggest issue with her books and you’d better believe we’re going to be discussing this many, many times over the course of the series, assuming we actually make it that far, because it’s one of the worst messages any author can possibly send to young readers.
All right, the soapbox is being put away again, for now.
Back in Hogwarts School of Assault and Battery, Percy is talking to Hermione about lessons, because apparently Hermione isn’t allowed to join in the conversation with the other first years. Given that she’s clearly very enthusiastic about discussing lessons, I suspect she tried to talk to the others and was rebuffed so started talking to the only older student we’ve met so far who’s not an arsehole. They’re talking about Transfiguration, which is the art of turning something into something else.
Let me just say right now that this is an entirely pointless subject that could be covered in five lessons. Lesson one, turning an inanimate object into another inanimate object. Lesson two, turning an inanimate object into a living thing – not actually possible. Lesson three, turning a living thing into an inanimate object – very cruel, do not do it. Lesson four, turning a living thing into another living thing – almost always a very bad idea, do not do it. Lesson five, learning to shapeshift – which for some reason almost nobody ever does.
The fanfic I mentioned in the previous post, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, had a very good take on Transfiguration. It’s either chapter 12 or chapter 15, I think, I forget and I’m honestly too lazy to look for you. Sorry, not sorry. As a canon subject, it’s a complete waste of time, but more on that later.
Harry’s in a food coma by now, understandably, and sleepily looks back at the staff table. Hagrid’s getting drunk, McGonagall and Dumbles are talking, and Quirrell and his turban are talking to another teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose and sallow skin.
(Though only a very small yay. I had the BEST .gif for this moment, and now I can’t find it.)
As Harry looks at this teacher and Quirrell, he gets a sharp, hot pain in his pony-scar. Percy is a responsible prefect and a nice person and notices that he’s in pain, but Harry says it’s nothing, too busy thinking about how he’s sure this new teacher doesn’t like him. This is unrelated to the pain, you understand, he just thinks the teacher dislikes him based on… well, nothing. I mean, he turns out to be right, because he’s the hero and heroes are never allowed to be wrong about anything, but there’s no actual evidence here.
He asks Percy who the teacher talking to Quirrell is.
‘Oh, you know Quirrell already, do you? No wonder he’s looking so nervous, that’s Professor Snape. He teaches Potions, but he doesn’t want to – everyone knows he’s after Quirrell’s job. Knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.’
Yes. How unreasonable for a Dark Arts expert to want a job teaching about the Dark Arts. (All right, all right, I promise to at least try to be relatively unbiased.) Also, this doesn’t explain why Quirrell would be nervous talking to someone who wants his job, unless he thinks there’s grounds for Snape to actually get the job. Anyway, this is very strongly telegraphing SNAPE IS A BAD GUY to the readers. Honestly, the repeated fakeouts with Snape throughout the series just seem like Rowling hadn’t decided which ending she was going to use and was trying to write both until she made her mind up. [Mitchell adds: at this point I think she might not have come up with the twist about Quirrell yet; the end reveal still works if we assume Harry is an unreliable narrator and this is all filtered through him, but I’m not at all sure it does otherwise, and Rowling never encourages the reader to question Harry’s perspective.]
Finally everyone’s done eating and all the leftover food vanishes. It must be really late by now and all the kids are practically unconscious, so Dumbles decides this is the absolute best time to read out the start-of-term notices. No, you idiot, this should be done tomorrow morning when the Heads of House are giving out timetables and so on.
- The forest in the grounds is forbidden to all students, first of all. So why is it not fenced off? There is literally nothing to stop kids wandering in or unspecified things wandering out.
- Mr Filch the caretaker says that no magic is to be used in the corridors between classes. We’ll be talking about Filch later.
- Quidditch trials will be held next week and anyone interested should contact Madam Hooch. He doesn’t mention this is closed to first years, but as we’ll see later that hardly matters.
- ‘And finally, I must tell you that this year, the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.’
Misplaced comma aside, Harry laughs at this but almost nobody else does. That’s a bad sign, Harry. Imminent death is not a joke in this building. This does work as a culture-shock moment, though, Harry has the same reaction as the readers but that’s not the ‘normal’ reaction for this place where the children seem to accept in all seriousness that parts of their school will kill them. Inevitably, Our Hero is going to be visiting the corridor later, since just like the forest full of monsters it is totally unprotected by any kind of barrier and they can just waltz in. The real question is why he and his minions are the only children who do so.
Percy does find it a bit odd that Dumbles didn’t give them a reason for avoiding the corridor. Er, Percy, he did give a reason – because you’ll die if you go there. That’s a good reason.
Dumbles then announces that they’re going to sing the school song before bed. This is also not a British tradition. I have never encountered a school with its own song, although a lot of the more elite schools tend to be religious and will make you sing hymns occasionally so maybe this is the equivalent. In any case, it’s a very obvious bit of padding to stretch out the end of the chapter, since it will thankfully never appear again. He projects the words in the air by magic and tells everyone to pick whatever tune they like. I’m getting a headache just thinking about the resulting cacophony, and every single member of the faculty would eat broken glass before joining in with this stupid shit.
Already well on the way to full arsehole status, the Weasley twins choose the slowest funeral march they can, because it’s not like everyone wants to get the fuck out of there and go to bed. The question of how two pureblood wizard boys know any funeral marches, ones recognisable to Muggle-raised Harry, is not explained, naturally. We will see one wizard funeral later in the series and I don’t remember any music, but I wasn’t really paying attention.
At long last the children are allowed to go to bed, and Percy leads all the firsties off towards their dormitory. No seriously, who is the other Gryffindor prefect? We will learn eventually that there are always two, a boy and a girl. Hermione is still the only female student we’ve seen apart from some random names at the sorting.
Harry is practically catatonic at this point and can barely walk, he’s so tired, which is unfortunate given how many staircases they have to climb since the Gryffindor dormitories and common room are in one of the castle towers. He barely notices when they walk past paintings who are whispering to each other and pointing at the children (why they would care is also never explained; I really hope they are not also reacting to Harry) or when Percy twice leads them through doors hidden behind sliding panels and hanging tapestries.
Okay. Castles should have secret passages. My school was housed in a stately home, and that had some hidden corridors. They’re awesome. But they’re not for everyday use! They were out of bounds to students completely (not that that ever stopped us, of course) and they never led to anywhere we actually needed to use. These kids have to learn their way around a huge castle, which is going to be difficult enough without hiding some of the doors they need to take.
Reaching the top of yet more stairs, they find a lot of walking sticks floating in mid air, some of which are promptly thrown at Percy. He tells us this is Peeves, a poltergeist, and threatens to get the Bloody Baron; Peeves becomes visible, mercifully looking nothing like the horrific chapter art at the beginning of this post, and laughs at them. Percy threatens him again and he flies off laughing, dropping the walking sticks on Neville’s head. I have no idea where he got the walking sticks, but honestly there’s no actual reason for Peeves to exist except that the sadist school can’t be bothered to get rid of the ghost who vandalises things and occasionally injures passing children. On the one hand it’s nice to see some non-plot-relevant worldbuilding details in the background, but on the other hand this is stupid, and also Peeves features pretty heavily throughout the series – more so than a few actual plot characters. I wonder if he was a ghost plot (no pun intended) who Rowling originally intended to have some sort of purpose later on.
Finally they reach a portrait of a fat woman in a pink dress. Despite getting more dialogue throughout the series than some of the main characters, she will never get a name. She is just the Fat Lady. Though encouragingly she’s not compared to any wildlife. She demands a password and Percy replies with, ‘Caput draconis.’ I have no idea why the password is ‘dragon’s head’, or indeed why there is a password at all. Who the fuck cares if the kids get into each other’s common rooms? It can’t really be a security thing, since their own housemates could rob them if that was going to be an issue and in a normal universe with normal children they would have friends in other houses and would probably give them the passwords so they could hang out in the evenings. Also they could just use a spell that knows who’s in each house, it’s not exactly difficult for someone to hide around the corner and listen to a Gryffindor saying the password. It’s even stupider once you learn in later books that not all the houses have passwords guarding their rooms anyway. I suppose it’s to create some sort of secret inclusive club atmosphere – you are special kids, you get to know the secret code – but really, it’s just their bedrooms, who cares.
The portrait swings aside to show a hole in the wall. Not a doorway, just a hole, and Neville needs a leg up to get in. Good job that the starved, neglected, small and skinny Harry is able to reach it just fine though, eh? The common room itself is just a room full of armchairs, and the girls are sent up one staircase to their dormitory while the boys go up another. There are five beds in Harry’s dormitory, so five first-year boys, though we’ve only met four. Sorry Dean, you don’t get to be a character, you weren’t even mentioned during the sorting. The boys are all far too exhausted to talk and just collapse into bed; Ron mumbles about how great the food is, since clearly that’s the most important thing that’s happened today, and mentions that Scabbers is chewing his sheets for some reason – this is the first time Scabbers has been mentioned since he was violently hurled into a window on the train, by the way; apparently he survived just fine – before Harry passes out.
He has a nightmare, almost inevitably. He’s wearing Quirrell’s turban and it’s talking to him, telling him it’s his destiny to transfer to Slytherin. Harry says no and the turban tightens painfully on his head, and Draco shows up to laugh at him, then turns into Snape, who starts laughing like Voldy in the flashbacks that Harry was way too young to have, and there’s a flash of green light that wakes him up. He then goes back to sleep instantly, because that’s absolutely what happens after nightmares, and he doesn’t remember the dream at all the next morning. End of chapter.
If he doesn’t remember it, don’t include it.
As dream sequences go this one actually sort of works; it could be a real dream, which most authors never manage. And it seems interesting on first readthrough. But once you know how the book ends, you realise Rowling pretty much just dumped her entire plot into this one paragraph. That’s not foreshadowing, that’s just stupid. But oh well, we’re finally at magic school and next chapter we can start learning some magic!
…if only. At least I get to fangirl.
[Mitchell adds: and I shall make no attempt in the slightest to curtail such fangirling. We need a relief from all of the awfulness in this chapter, and I’ve long since accepted that Severus Snape is a third party in our relationship anyway.]
What would I change about this chapter? There are two choices. Option one is to scrap the sorting – given how many of Harry’s year we ever actually see onscreen you could just make the school a bit smaller and put them all in one class, honestly, but if you do need to divide them up for administration purposes then draw lots or split them alphabetically or something. In this version the houses aren’t relevant to anything and are barely mentioned ever again. You’d lose the House Cup and have to create a team system for Quidditch, but really, most people wouldn’t care and it’s never a good idea to run a school encouraging the children to fight with one another over shiny things. This would also stop me screaming in rage at the end of the book, but more on that another time.
Option two is to keep the sorting, magic hat and all, but change the reasoning. Leave it completely vague as to what the hat is looking for. Either explain it in a later book, or just leave it a mystery and let various characters suggest theories over the course of the story. Stop having everyone insist that Slytherin is evil. All four houses are made up of normal children, and all the children we have met so far are spread out over the four instead of putting Draco and his bodyguards in Slytherin, everyone else in Gryffindor and ignoring the other two. (And add some more female students, don’t just list female names.) This option still doesn’t make too much sense, but it’s more fun.
Strip out the terrible backstories.
The rest only needs minor tweaks – don’t act like jerks to Sir Nicholas, eat slightly more sensible food, get rid of the song, go to bed earlier and leave all the administration until tomorrow. Even Peeves can stay, I suppose, though if he’s going to be chapter art he needs to show up earlier in the chapter. The dream sequence is well written, so I’m hesitant to get rid of it completely, but once you know the ending it’s incredibly heavy-handed. Maybe merge it into an unrelated dream so it’s less obvious – Harry’s exhausted and overexcited and has massively overindulged with very rich food he’s not used to eating, all his dreams are going to be pretty weird.
That’s a wrap for this time. Next time, more fangirling, I imagine.