A Poisoned House

I’ve been saying for a while now that the traits that define Slytherin house are not necessarily bad things. They can be taken to horrible extremes, certainly, but they don’t have to be. And yet, I can talk all I want to about ambition as a positive quality, and I can argue that clever plans don’t have to be just for villains, but the fact remains that that’s just not how Slytherin house is portrayed in the books. It doesn’t make sense for roughly ¼ of each incoming class to be destined for evil, and it doesn’t make sense for virtually no dark wizards to crop up in the other houses, but counterexamples from the Harry Potter books themselves are few and far between.

And yet, the reader clearly is supposed to have a more nuanced view, by the end, than simply “Slytherin is evil, Gryffindor is good”. Otherwise, why would Harry tell his son that it doesn’t matter where he’s sorted, even encouraging him by saying that one of Albus Severus’ namesakes was a Slytherin and one of the bravest men Harry ever knew? Regardless of Snape’s true loyalty, if Slytherin was really as horrible as the younger Harry believed, he surely would have encouraged his son to choose a different house, as Harry himself did. Was the sorting hat right, then? Would Harry have done well in Slytherin?

I don’t think so. I think that, given the threats that Harry faces and the challenges he has to overcome, he was far better off in Gryffindor with Ron and Hermione, than in Slytherin, where his classmates might have viewed him with hostility and suspicion, the rest of the school would have distrusted him twice as much, the rumors that he only defeated Voldemort because he himself was a dark wizard would have flourished, and – when Voldemort came back – he would not have had Ron and Hermione, nor the rest of the DA, to help him. Does that mean Salazar Slytherin wouldn’t have wanted Harry in his house, if he were alive? I think he would have. The hat considered putting him there for a reason. But what I’m getting at here is that Slytherin house was poisoned, and it wouldn’t have been the welcoming home that Gryffindor was to Harry.

What I mean when I say “poisoned” is that a certain former Slytherin made the house into something far worse than it had to be, and of course here I’m talking about Voldemort.

When he was at school, Tom Riddle’s first followers were some of his Slytherin classmates. Dumbledore describes them as “the forerunners of the Death Eaters” and the first to become Death Eaters. After he left school and began to build his army, he no doubt started with their connections: friends, siblings, and eventually children. For instance, one of his school friends had the last name Lestrange, and his descendants certainly became Death Eaters. Later on, allegiance to Voldemort was passed down in the families of Harry’s Slytherin classmates, such as the Malfoys. Because families are often put in the same house, and this seems especially the case with the “pure-blood” families Voldemort favored, it would be easy for the poison to spread throughout the house.

Pottermore describes Slytherins as a tight-knit group of “brothers” who “look after [their] own”. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it can lead to a twisted ideology becoming the accepted norm and loyalty to someone like Voldemort being spread quickly, from Voldemort’s original school peers and their families, to the other members of that house. Even people like Snape, whose family had no allegiance to Voldemort, and Barty Crouch Jr., whose father was passionately against the Dark Arts, went on to become Death Eaters. Voldemort initially tried to get a job at Hogwarts because he saw its potential as a place to recruit followers, and while he never managed to find many in the other three houses, by Harry’s time, there is not a single Slytherin student willing to stand against him. On the contrary, most of the ones we meet seem eager to join him. This is not simply a by-product of ambition and cunning. It’s the result of 50 years’ worth of poison.

So what does it mean that Harry can tell his son it’s okay for him to be a Slytherin? It represents the beginning of a healing process. With Voldemort dead, it is finally possible for the poison he left in Slytherin house to be washed away, even if the process is a slow and difficult one.

Why am I saying all this now? If it’s not already obvious, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has gotten me thinking about the epilogue again, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say once that comes out (only 2 days now!) But for now, I’ll leave you with eleven-year-old Albus Potter, who, like his father at the same age, is scared of being put in Slytherin, and is told that he can choose, but that any choice he makes will be okay. I think that’s awfully sweet, and definitely a sign that things have changed in those nineteen years.

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