Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Problem of Slytherin: A Discourse

The Harry Potter series is an extensive fantasy journey about a boy fulfilling his destiny and vanquishing evil. There are two main poles of morality throughout the series. Harry Potter typifies concepts of goodness while the villainous Voldemort personifies evil. Surrounding these two poles are figures and ideas that usually occupy a morally grey space. Rowling threads these morally grey ideas throughout the story, but chooses to leave them unaddressed at the end of the seven book series by writing those characters with morally grey ideas into one dimensional villains. Her oversimplification of complex issues leaves the reader unsatisfied because she fails to follow through the multidimensional view of ethics that were expressed through the Sorting Hat songs and comments spoken by the characters themselves. Because Harry's role as hero fails to address concepts not typified by archetypal good and evil, it becomes clear that in order for Rowling to follow through the ideas she presented earlier in the series, Harry Potter needs an anti-hero.

Throughout the novel, readers are allowed glimpses into the mores of the Houses through the House Songs, sung by the Sorting Hat at the beginning of the school year. The Sorting Hat is a magical character within the story, created by the wizards and witches who founded Hogwarts. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Sorting Hat sings one of the more important songs throughout the series, warning the Houses that “Hogwarts is in danger/From external, deadly foes/And we must unite inside her/Or we'll crumble from within” (206). Earlier in the song, the Hat addresses the history of Hogwarts, detailing how the founders were once united in friendship before “discord crept among us/Feeding on our faults and fears” (205). The Hat implies that they were weakened, perhaps corrupted, by fear and their own character flaws because they were no longer united in friendship. This conflict can be seen in Harry Potter's day because the Houses are still splintered, competing against each other instead of working together. This is mostly seen in the conflict between Gryffindor and Slytherin, but, to a smaller extent, the students are all in conflict with each other in order to win points for their respective houses. However, during the final battle at the end of the The Deathly Hallows, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff are united against the Death Eaters. Only Slytherin gleefully follows the Death Eaters, delightfully torturing their fellow classmates. Their absence is conspicuously noted when Harry saw that “[t]he silver and green of Slytherin alone were absent (“Deathly Hallows” 577) in the room of Requirement, which was being used by Dumbledore's Army as a sanctuary from the Death Eaters. However, this splintering is fully realized when, as Hogwarts prepared to fight Voldemort, every single Slytherin “troop[ed] out on the other side of the Hall,” leaving “[t]he Slytherin table...completely deserted” (“Deathly Hallows” 610). Rowling effectively ostracizes Slytherin from the rest of Hogwarts, failing to address the Hat sorting song which urged for their unification. This would not matter so much if there were consequences with that decision, but there are not. Good still triumphs over evil and Slytherin is still exiled from the fold. Rowling also fails to address the Hat's observations that their conflict fed on their “faults and fears” (“Order of the Phoenix” 205). There is no shadow of those faults or those fears in the denouement of the series. By choosing to end the series the way she does, Rowling is inconsistent with her own foreshadowings, as well as remaining untrue to the characteristics of Slytherin as detailed by the Sorting Hat.

The songs about Slytherin state that “those cunning folk use any means/To achieve their ends” (“Sorcerer's Stone “118), that “power-hungry Slytherin/Loved those of great ambition,” (“Goblet of Fire” 177), and that “Slytherin/Took only pure-blood wizards/Of great cunning” (“Order of the Phoenix” 205). However, throughout the novel, Slytherins rarely portray these qualities. Instead they are obtuse, one dimensional, and all of them mindlessly racist against those who are not full blooded wizards. Rowling equates the thirst for power with racial genocide, completely ignoring that there are other kinds of power besides that of bloody dictatorship. According to Rowling, ambition becomes synonymous with heinous evil, when ambition can be used for good ends, evil ends, or morally grey ends. Ultimately, at the end of the series, Rowling equates being a Slytherin to becoming a Death Eater, or at the very least a lackey of Voldemort when they “[came] and join[ed] me [Voldemort], like the rest of the Slytherins” (“Deathly Hallows” 641), a stark difference between the other three houses who unanimously decided to fight against Voldemort.

Rowling's mistake with Slytherin is that she lacks the necessary subtlety to address their qualities, which do not typify either goodness or evilness but something in between. It is because of their moral greyness, as depicted in the House songs, that Slytherins lend themselves to becoming antiheroes, who do not typify characteristics that are considered to be good or heroic. Comparing the Slytherin qualities depicted in the house songs, one can easily see that Slytherins are not evil, villainous, mini-Voldemorts, but people who do not fit the traditional societal mores of goodness. Rowling admitted this in an interview when someone asked if she thought Snape was a hero and she replied, “Yes, I do; though a very flawed hero. An anti-hero, perhaps” (Leaky-Cauldron). With that quote, she mistakenly implies that flawed characters, or more unpleasant characters, can be considered anti-heroes instead of heroes.

However, though Snape is a Slytherin, Rowling was more correct when she said that he was a hero, instead of an antihero. Even though Rowling writes the text in third person, the voice is Harry's point of view. Harry, because he does not know the whole story, is an unreliable narrator. Throughout the texts, readers glimpse Harry's narrow perception of Snape, a perception which is ultimately flawed and negative. As the story ends and the readers learn Snape's true nature and function throughout the story, readers are able to more objectively judge Snape than Harry can.

It is logical to assume that Harry, as the archetypal hero of the series, sets the base line for what can be considered heroic. It is important to consider that Harry Potter himself is a flawed character. For example, Harry suffers jealousy when Ron is chosen as prefect (“Order of the Phoenix” 166), he uses his new found spells against people whom he considers his inferior, such as when he made it impossible for the caretaker to speak (“Half-Blood Prince” 238), and he has a superiority complex, as evidenced when he didn't want Neville and Luna helping him rescue Sirius, not because they would be in danger, but because they were not the people he would have chosen if he could (“Order of the Phoenix” 761). However, it is important to remember that even though he is a flawed and somewhat multidimensional character, he still functions as the hero throughout the story.

Snape, who in many ways is similar to Harry Potter, cannot be an antihero because he does not fit the definition of an antihero, a character “who lacks traditional heroic qualities such as courage, physical prowess, and fortitude” (Gale). One of his greatest flaws throughout the entire work is not treating Harry as if He Were the Boy Who Lived but as Harry Potter, son of James Potter, the boy who cruelly and incessantly tortured and teased him throughout his time at Hogwarts. This makes Snape a flawed character, much as Harry Potter is a flawed character, but it does not make him an anti-hero. According to Jessica Morrell in an excerpt from her book Bullies Bastards & Bitches, heroes are “motivated by virtues, morals, a higher calling, pure intentions, and love for a specific person or humanity” (Morrell). Though not much is known of Snape's personal morals, the reader does know that Snape repented of his Death Eater ways when Lily, Harry's mother, was murdered. This implies that all of Snape's actions throughout Harry's time at Hogwarts was fueled by Snape's “love for a specific person,” a quality found in heroes, but not anti-heroes.

Snape is everything that an anti-hero is not, according to the definition given above. Snape is very courageous as Dumbledore admitted when he said, “'You are a braver man by far than Igor Karkaroff. You know, I sometimes think we sort too soon...'” (Rowling, “Deathly Hallows” 680), perhaps implying that Snape should have been sorted in Gryffindor, a more heroic house to be sure. He faced Voldemort continuously as he spied upon his inner circle, reporting dutifully back to Dumbledore even though it endangered his life. In the context of Harry Potter, physical prowess can be equated to magical skill. Throughout the books, Rowling reveals that Snape is a powerful wizard, as evidenced by his superb potions, his spell crafting, and his skill in occlumency. Snape also possesses great fortitude because he withstood the scorn of his peers and the Death Eaters that doubted him.

Finally, both Harry Potter and Snape sacrifice themselves at the end of Deathly Hallows. It is also important to realize that Snape did not redeem himself with this sacrifice, but that he was redeemed in Harry's eyes as his true allegiances were revealed, and Harry fully understood that Snape had been a fellow hero during the course of Harry's years at Hogwarts. Though Harry devoted himself to destroying Voldemort because of his love for humanity, Snape devoted himself to doing the right thing because of his love for Lily, which are distinctly heroic attributes.

If Rowling wished to have an anti-hero within her universe, Draco Malfoy would have been the better choice. Unlike Snape, Draco is not distinctly heroic. His magical prowess is rivaled by Harry. Draco is also less courageous than Harry Potter, evidenced by the fact that he is constantly accompanied by his two goons whenever he confronts Harry. Unlike Snape, Draco is not “motivated by virtues, morals, a higher calling, pure intentions, and love for a specific person or humanity” (Morrell). Draco does not personify traditional or socially constructed goodness. Other characteristics of an anti-hero include “easily identified imperfections; be made understandable by the story events, meaning that the reader will come to know his motivations and likely will be privy to his inner demons” (Morrell), all of which Draco personifies. His imperfections are his philosophy of racism and his cruelty towards those who are weaker than he. Throughout the story, but especially in the sixth novel, readers begin to develop sympathy for Draco. As the story unfolds, readers understand that, unlike Harry, Draco is surrounded by parents who love him enough to care what and how he thinks, thereby indoctrinating him into their racist philosophies. Readers later learn that Voldemort threatened his parents in order to force Draco to murder Dumbledore as punishment for his parents' mistakes (Rowling, “Deathly Hallows” 682), encouraging further sympathy for Draco. These are anti-heroic qualities and, when he tries to summon the courage to murder Dumbledore, Draco is on the cusp of assuming the role of anti-hero when Harry observes “his [Draco's] wand hand still trembling. Harry thought he saw it drop by a fraction” (“Half-blood Prince” 592).

Other anti-hero qualities that Draco exhibits are “can be selfish and essentially bad people who occasionally are good; can be motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, but there is usually a line anti-heroes won’t cross, which sets them apart from villains” (Morrell). Draco has, occasionally, exhibited qualities that can be considered good. He warned Hermione of the Death Eaters in Goblet of Fire (121) and when he refused to identify Harry in the Deathly Hallows (459). The line that Draco refused to cross was when he lowered his wand when about to kill Dumbledore. In contrast, Snape is not an “essentially bad person” because, throughout his time at Hogwarts, he has been a devoted member against Voldemort. Insinuating himself as Dumbledore's spy into Voldemort's close circle of Death Eaters is neither in his self interest nor his self preservation. Therefore, Snape is not occasionally good, but always good, save for his flaw in continuing his grudge against James towards Harry. Anti-heroes can also “embody unattractive traits and behaviors, such as sexist and racist attitudes, and violent reactions when wronged” (Morrell). Draco is proud of his racist attitude against muggles and the muggleborn. However, Snape's attitude toward muggle born and muggles are not as hateful as Draco's. Granted, before Harry Potter's time, he seemed to convey a negative attitude towards the muggle born, but he was able to overcome it, something that is evidenced both by his continued devotion to Lily and when he rebukes Phineas Nigellus not to use the word “Mudblood” (Rowling, “Half-Blood Prince” 689), a derogatory remark about those born to muggle parents. This is a stark difference between Draco's philosophies and Snape's recurrent grudges towards those who wronged him.

When comparing Draco to Harry and Snape, it becomes clear that Draco is vastly different from the two of them. He has no ideals, whereas Snape wishes to redeem himself in Lily's name, while Harry wants to save the entire world from the evil of Voldemort. Draco is weaker both in character and magical skill than either Snape or Harry, fulfilling the requirement that an anti-hero “lacks traditional heroic qualities such as courage, physical prowess, and fortitude” (Gale). Though it could be argued that Snape also has identifiable imperfections, there is a difference between Draco and Snape. Snape is flawed in the same way that Harry is flawed, yet his actions, despite these flaws, are distinctly heroic in function, not anti-heroic. Snape's grudge against Harry, James, and Sirius is distinctly different from Draco's philosophies of racism and cruelty towards others which are reoccurring themes throughout books one through five. Because Draco is weak, because he holds nontraditional values and social mores, because he found the line he would not cross, and because he edged close to redemption, he should be the anti-hero instead of Snape, who is more like a hero than an anti-hero.

There are situations within the Harry Potter series that parallel Harry and Draco in their heroic and almost anti-heroic roles. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry undergoes an identity crisis when he realizes that he is acting like Draco, that he is not acting heroically (166). The juxtaposition Rowling creates in that moment paves the way towards Draco as an anti-hero, a contrast and foil to the obviously heroic Harry Potter. Having Draco as an anti-hero would at least partially redeem Slytherin because he would have completed the unification that Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw experienced, fulfilling not only the foreshadowing of the House song but also keeping Slytherin, as a whole, more in character than the obtuse, uncunning caricatures Rowling depicted instead of true representations of the House songs. If Draco had been allowed to fulfill his role as anti-hero, instead of edging around it throughout the latter half of the series, perhaps he could have fulfilled the other half of the House song which asked the rhetorical question, “For were there such friends/As Slytherin and Gryffindor” (“Order of the Phoenix” 204).

Slytherin's qualities, as enunciated by the Sorting Hat, primes them to be the perfect anti-heroes, not villainous, one dimensional cohorts of Voldemort. Though Rowling suggests that Snape is an anti-hero, he truly possesses more heroic tendencies than anti-heroic characteristics because of his bravery and strength of character. Instead of unfairly co-ercing Slytherin into a primarily villainous role, Rowling should have remained true to the Sorting Hat songs which outlined the characteristics of Slytherins, none of which included a desire to commit mass genocide against a certain population, which Voldemort had intended to do. Unfortunately, Rowling's one dimensional view of Slytherin not only turned them into caricatured loons, but also failed to fulfill the elements of foreshadowing within the text. The Sorting Hat songs which alluded to unification, the friendship of Slytherin and Gryffindor, and Harry's moment where he parallels himself to Draco are completely forgotten in Slytherin's mad stampede to join Voldemort. Sadly, Sirius Black once told Harry that “'the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters'” (“Order of the Phoenix” 302), yet, ultimately, that wise observation remains untrue when Rowling does divide Hogwarts school into good people (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw) and Death Eaters (Slytherin). A way she could have remained consistent to her own writing and fulfilled certain elements of the story that were never once more addressed would have been to allow Draco to fully grow into the role of anti-hero. As an anti-hero, Draco would make Slytherin more multi-dimensional while fulfilling elements of the story that were forgotten towards the end of the series.

Works Cited

"Glossary Of Terms." Gale Cengage Learning. Gale®. Web. 17 Apr. 2010.>.

"J.K. Rowling Web Chat Transcript." The Leaky Cauldron. July-Aug. 2007. Web. 17 Apr. 2010. .

Morrell, Jessica Page. "Defining and Developing Your Anti-Hero." Writer's Digest. Mar.- Apr. 2008. Web. 17 Apr. 2010. .

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2007. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2003. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: A.A. Levine, 1997. Print.

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