“There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Imagine growing up in the Wizarding World with that knowledge hanging over your head. Knowing that if you are sorted into Slytherin House — a house known for bullying and bigotry, for hate groups and violence and terror — you will be viewed as complicit. Whether or not you agree with the worst members of your house, whether or not you condone their actions, in the eyes of your peers, you will be lumped in with them. Forever.
The strange thing about Hogwarts houses, especially considering they are assigned at the ripe old age of eleven, is that they aren’t something you can just decide isn’t for you anymore, like black nail polish or clunky heels. Once you’re assigned to your house, that’s it. You are Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin for the rest of your days.
You know this, even before you’re old enough to receive your Hogwarts letter. You know the weight your House carries.
Imagine being ten years old and listening to your parents talk in hushed voices about how happy they are that your older brother was sorted into Ravenclaw, and how worried they were that he might be in Slytherin. Imagine knowing how the relief in their voices will turn to dread if they discover your darkest secret: that you suspect that you might be Slytherin.
Because the thing is? You’ve always kind of identified with Slytherin House. Not the awful stuff, of course — not the hatred and meanness and anger. But with the tenets of Slytherin house as it was intended: creativity, resourcefulness, ambition, cunning, loyalty.
You hold this list of traits sideways, squint at it a little, turn it upside down. It still doesn’t seem bad. Creativity is good, isn’t it? You’ve always had a vivid imagination. Your parents and teachers have praised you for it. And resourcefulness seems positive. You have a gift for looking at your surroundings and seeing tools. Ambition? You have great dreams, dreams of doing good in the world. That can’t be bad, can it? Cunning… cunning may be bad. It could be viewed as manipulativeness, and that isn’t a trait you wish to embody. But on the other hand, it could be cleverness, the ability to read a situation and use it to your advantage. Sure, that can be bad, but it doesn’t have to be, right? And loyalty is certainly good. It is what makes you a good friend, a good family member. It is you holding the line with the people you love instead of abandoning them when things get hard.
Those traits are all good, aren’t they?
But they are bad. They must be bad. Because Slytherin house is bad.
Imagine being eleven years old, riding the Hogwarts Express for the first time, your stomach full of butterflies. You share a compartment with other children your age, who you hope might become your friends. Inevitably, the conversation turns to Sorting.
“Where do you hope the hat will put you?”
“All my family’s in Gryffindor.”
“My sister’s in Ravenclaw.”
“I think I might be in Hufflepuff.”
An awkward silence.
One kid speaks up, hesitantly. “My mom was in Hufflepuff. She said it was nice.”
The others nod enthusiastically, trying to cover their earlier reactions. “I’m sure it’s very nice.”
“As long as it’s not Slytherin, right?”
The children laugh knowingly, glad to all be on the same side again. Because of course, nobody wants to be in Slytherin.
You decide to take a walk. The butterflies in your stomach have turned into something sharper, their little wings scratching like fingernails. You want so badly to be liked, to fit in. You don’t know that you’re Slytherin, you tell yourself. It’s only a suspicion. You can’t possibly know it for sure until you’re Sorted.
You’re probably not even Slytherin, anyway. You’re probably Ravenclaw, and just thought you were Slytherin. You probably are worried over nothing.
You pass a compartment and hear voices trickle out. “I hope I’m in Slytherin!”
Your stomach flips. You stop walking. You wonder if you should knock on the compartment door. Instead, you press your shoulder to the wall, your ear to the crack of seeping voices. You hold your breath, wondering if maybe these kids are like you.
Then you hear words like mudblood and Death Eater and Dark Lord and the flutter in your stomach turns into a solid lump. These kids aren’t like you. These are the real Slytherins. The ones you’ve heard about. These kids are the reason no one respectable, no one nice, no one like you would ever want to be in Slytherin.
One of them pushes their way out of the compartment, causing you to stumble back. They laugh at the mortified shock on your face. You hurry back to your compartment, to the safety of children who say things like I’m sure it’s very nice, and breathe a sigh of relief that you never said anything about your Slytherin suspicion.
Imagine you are stepping into the Great Hall for the first time. You watch the children from your compartment have the Sorting Hat placed on their heads, one at a time. Gryffindor! Ravenclaw! Hufflepuff! They join their House tables with ear-to-ear grins. They receive claps on the back and happy side-hugs. The butterflies in your stomach have razors for wings.
You watch the child from the compartment you’d eavesdropped on lower themselves onto the stool and have the hat placed on their head. You hear it shout Slytherin!, see the smirk on their face, look at the faces of their classmates at the Slytherin table. You imagine they are all sneering at the rest of Great Hall, thinking terrible thoughts. Perhaps they are.
Your name is called, and your feet propel you forward. You are sweating from every gland in your body. The butterflies in your stomach have given up on blades and have progressed to guns.
The hat is placed on your head. Ravenclaw, you think. I am not Slytherin. I am Ravenclaw. I was never Slytherin. I was always Ravenclaw.
Are you sure, the hat asks. You would do well in Slytherin.
I am Ravenclaw. Your eyes are shut so tightly your head hurts.
“Ravenclaw!” the hat shouts.
Relief, like a rush of cool water on a hot day. You knew it. You were being silly to think you might be Slytherin. You were never in any danger of that. You were always Ravenclaw.
Yes, you still possess many of the traits valued by Slytherin House. Maybe all of them, which is why the Hat thought you’d do well. But that doesn’t mean anything.
Imagine that you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. You are doing well at Hogwarts. You’ve made friends, you love your classes, you are studying for your OWLs. You’ve never forgotten your anxiety about being Sorted, but have chalked that up to youthful ignorance. It was ridiculous to fear being put in Slytherin. Over the past few years, you’ve seen what the kids in Slytherin House are like. Everyone was right — they’re terrible. You’re so glad you’re not in there.
But you were never in danger of being put in Slytherin, of course. Because you’re Ravenclaw. No point in being relieved over something that never had any chance of happening.
Imagine you’ve graduated from Hogwarts. For seven years, you’ve observed some of the inhabitants of Slytherin House bullying the other students, spouting their toxic pureblood supremacist nonsense, urging violence. There are a few quiet Slytherins, of course — muggleborns who didn’t know the about stigma against Slytherin house before they were Sorted. They don’t heckle or insult, but they also never attempt to socialize outside their house, probably because they don’t like the rest of you. You, of course, never attempted to befriend them either, but only because you’re sure they would’ve given you the cold shoulder. After all, muggleborn or not, they’re still Slytherins.
You’ve observed how the students from other houses look at them sideways, narrow their eyes, and slide to the far side of the hallways when they pass. You’ve heard the story of how Slytherin House once won the House Cup, only to have it taken from them at the closing feast in a flurry of last-minute points. You’ve heard how Slytherin House was unceremoniously locked in the dungeons during the Battle of Hogwarts. You assume that these were the right decisions, as you’ve heard Dumbledore was a good Headmaster, and Slytherin House probably deserved it anyway.
By now, you’ve become comfortable enough that you’ve told a couple friends that when you were young, you thought you might be Slytherin. They laughed, of course. Why would someone like you ever be put in Slytherin House?
Imagine you are several years out of Hogwarts, working your first job. You meet someone — a kind Hufflepuff, perhaps, or an outgoing Gryffindor — fall in love, have a child. As your child grows older, their personality emerges. They are kind and clever and funny, and even at a young age, you can tell they will be such a force for good in the world.
This world hasn’t changed much from when you were a child. It’s still a world where three out of four houses are fine — well, Hufflepuff feels like a bit of a concession, to be honest, but it’s still fine — but the fourth isn’t for respectable folk. No one good gets put in Slytherin. You know this to be true. You’ve seen it with your own eyes.
You see so much of yourself in your child. Sometimes it scares you, how similar to you they are. They are creative. Resourceful. Loyal. They dream big, and know how to read situations and use them to their best advantage.
You know what this might mean. You know what you once feared it meant.
But you know that’s an unfounded fear. Good children like yours don’t get sorted into Slytherin House. It doesn’t matter what the house once stood for. You know the kind of folk who are in there now.
When their Hogwarts letter comes, your child chews their lip. They’re nervous. You ask them what they’re afraid of.
“What if I’m in Slytherin?” they ask in a tiny, trembling voice.
“If you’re in Slytherin, of course we’ll love you anyway,” you say, choosing your words carefully. Anyway is important. It makes it clear that while Slytherin House is less desirable than the others, you will still be loving parents.
But then you make sure to add, “But if you don’t want to be in Slytherin, the hat lets you choose.”
Now imagine it isn’t just your life that looks like this, but the life of every child who is raised to think of Slytherin as the enemy, as the house of mean kids and bullies and terrorists. All throughout the Wizarding World, children are brought up knowing that they can be sorted into any House and be okay — except Slytherin. Every year, slews of cunning, creative, ambitious first-years parade through the Great Hall, sit on the stool, and beg the Hat to place them in any House other than the one they are best suited for.
Except, of course, for the students who have no problems with Slytherin’s reputation. The students whose parents were in Slytherin, or whose families and friends embrace the more unsavory aspects of Slytherin House. The Draco Malfoys, the Pansy Parkinsons, the Crabbes and Goyles. These are the children who allow the Hat to place them in Slytherin House year after year, the children who grow up hated by the rest of their school and, in turn, hating the rest of their school.
According to Wikipedia, a causal loop is “a sequence of events (actions, information, objects, people) in which an event is among the causes of another event, which in turn is among the causes of the first-mentioned event.” It’s typically a time travel theory, but I believe the term can be stretched to apply here.
In the case of Slytherin House, the causal loop is one propelled by fear. Fear of what may happen in the future fueling the choices of the present, and thus bringing that feared future to pass. It’s a wheel that, in the Wizarding World, has been turning for generations, presumably at least since Tom Riddle was a student at Hogwarts, and perhaps even before that. It’s year after year of scared eleven-year-olds pleading to be put in other Houses. It’s decades of Slytherin House being populated by smug, insecure, angry children who need to be loved and nurtured but are instead herded into a literal dungeon to be ignored and disdained.
The story of Harry negotiating with the Hat to be put in Gryffindor instead of Slytherin is presented as triumphant, and his advice to his son that Slytherin would be okay… but you can also ask to be put somewhere else is presented as compassionate. We are supposed to see this course — I am scared of Slytherin House, so I will ask to be Sorted somewhere else — as reasonable, even admirable.
What if it isn’t?
What if the Hat actually put children in the House where they’d be most likely to thrive, no matter which one it was? What if Slytherin House had been populated not only with Draco Malfoys, but with Fred Weasleys, with Sirius Blacks and Nymphadora Tonks, with Harry Potters?
Or — scandal — what if Hogwarts changed their policies and waited to Sort until third or fourth year? “I sometimes think we sort too soon,” Dumbledore muses at one point. Maybe he’s onto something. What if they let each crop of eleven-year-olds just be children for a few years, let them form friendships, let them grow more comfortable in their own skins?
What if the children of Hogwarts were permitted to view each other not in terms of green and silver, or red and gold, but simply as children? As friends, allies, accomplices — and, yes, rivals, but perhaps not on the scale of three-Houses-versus-one. What if children were encouraged to befriend kids whose personalities were different from their own, kids who challenged them and made them broaden their thinking? The brave and the kind and the creative and the inquisitive and the ambitious and the witty and the loyal, all lumped together in one class, one dormitory, one common room.
What if no one’s worth or potential was summarily dismissed by most of their peers and teachers the moment they stepped through the castle doors on their first day of school?
Sure, a few bad apples would still have likely come out of Slytherin House, but perhaps they wouldn’t have poisoned the entire House. After all, Professor Quirrell was a Ravenclaw, Peter Pettigrew was a Gryffindor, yet neither of those Houses were tainted by the terrible actions of one of their members.
Could there have been four Houses united against evil instead of just three?
Could there have never been a war at all?