Friday, 16 September 2011

Guest Article: Lou Morgan "Snakes in the Grass"

My guest today is the wonderful Lou Morgan, finally fledged author (novel coming out next year from Solaris, put it in your calenders!) and partner in crime from the madness that was Genre for Japan earlier this year. Lou and I ended up discussing the nature of Slytherin on Twitter, and I was delighted when Lou agreed to frame those ramblings into an article for me.

There are spoilers within for those who haven't read to the end of the Harry Potter series - be warned!

Snakes in the Grass (or: what's Slytherin's problem, anyway?)

'"Better Hufflepuff than Slytherin,' said Hagrid darkly. "There's not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin."' (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)

That, right there, is our introduction to Slytherin: the most infamous of the four Hogwarts houses. More importantly, it's also the first thing Harry Potter hears about Slytherin… the house which at some point has nurtured every one of the enemies he will encounter as he grows up, from Draco Malfoy to Voldemort himself.

Who can blame Harry when he begs the Sorting Hat not to put him into Slytherin - despite the Hat's suggestion that he would do well there?

It's not hard to see that Slytherin is meant to be the Big Bad of the Hogwarts houses. By giving Slytherin a snake as its emblem, Rowling taps straight into a long vein of serpent mythology from the Bible to Disney's Aladdin; from Medusa and the Gorgons of Greek Mythology to Conan Doyle's The Speckled Band, the snake has long been a symbol of… well, let's just say it's not good.

Slytherin doesn't exactly attract a friendly crowd, either. Again, Harry's early impressions (and ours as readers) formed by watching them at the Sorting ceremony are that they "looked like an unpleasant lot." They embody a creeping cold; a chill you can't quite shake - it's no coincidence that the teacher most associated with Slytherin (of whom more later) is described as having eyes which were "cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels." Their common room is a dungeon, and worst of all… they cheat at Quidditch.

They're a bad bunch, made up in our experience of bullies (Millicent Bulstrode), mean girls (Pansy Parkinson) and thugs (Crabbe & Goyle). There's more than a hint of an unsavoury belief system there too: of corruption and prejudice and sheer malice in Slytherin's collective obsession with "pure" blood.

And then there's Draco. A snob, indulged since birth and convinced of his own superiority, Draco is Harry's nemesis at Hogwarts… or is he? Draco may cast himself in that role, but we know better. Harry's true nemesis is a much more frightening figure. As the series progresses, Draco manages to become less threatening, not more. His induction into the Death Eaters and subsequent mission to kill Dumbledore marks him not as a fully-fledged Dark wizard… but as an inexperienced child who has bitten off more than he can chew - something we see Dumbledore comment on to Snape in The Deathly Hallows: "A frightened teenage boy is a danger to others as well as to himself. Offer him help and guidance."

…Which brings us back to Snape himself. The Slytherin house-master, he seems to embody its essence perfectly with his greasy hair, sallow skin and hooked nose - not to mention his hatred of Harry. We aren't surprised to learn that he was once a Death Eater - nor are we shocked by his apparent treachery. That's what Slytherin stands for, after all. Time and time again we are warned not to trust members of this particular house, from the Sorting Hat's song: "Those cunning folk use any means / To achieve their ends", to the portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black, who tells Harry: "when given the choice, we will always choose to save our own necks." So why should Snape's behaviour be any different?

The answer, we learn is simple. Told in flashback through Snape's memories in the closing chapters of the saga, we finally understand that there's a greater power at work in his actions. Love.

"'But this is touching, Severus," said Dumbledore seriously. 'Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?'

'For him?' shouted Snape. 'Expecto Patronum!'

From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe; she landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.

'After all this time?'

'Always,' said Snape."

Just like that, along with Harry, we learn that throughout Snape's life, he has loved Harry's mother, Lily. It this love which redeems him, just as it was Lily's love which saved Harry. Love is the driving force for good in the Harry Potter universe - and for all his faults, even Severus Snape is not immune.

That's the real secret of Slytherin. That all of the scheming, all of the corruption and cynicism and downright evil can be undone. Not easily - it takes huge sacrifice and courage, but the darkness can be overcome. Slytherin's role is to represent not just the greater evils in the world but the lesser ones: every bully we faced at school, every teacher who humiliated us, every tell-tale and tittle-tattle, every petty-minded boss. Slytherin exists to show us that even in the darkest, dankest places we can find hope - hope in Snape's final moments, hope in Dumbledore's determination to save Draco: "'That boy's soul is not yet so damaged,' said Dumbledore, smiling. 'I would not have it ripped apart on my account.'"

Perhaps, if Slytherin had been a different house -more like Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw, the story would have been very different. What if Slytherin was more like Gryffindor? What if they had turned on Umbridge during her tenure at the school? What if, shamed that one of their number suggested handing Harry over to Voldemort, the Slytherins had refused to abandon Hogwarts before the final battle - as so many of the other students did? What if, instead of following Voldemort, they had turned against him? Perhaps if things had gone differently, such great sacrifices would not have been necessary - but conversely, we would not be left with the sense of victory, the sense of hope that the series ends with… hope tinged with loss, undoubtedly, but hope nonetheless.

Thanks so much, Lou! Brilliant article :-)

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the article Lou - thank you very much.

    To throw another line of thought into the Slytherin mix... one of the other characters who is often overlooked - so much so that he was barely more than a throwaway line in the films (which enraged me no end) - is Regulus Black. His story intrigues me. The youngest son of a proud, pure blood house, he would have been under pressure from the moment Sirius was Sorted into Gryffindor.

    I always like to think that at one time, pre-Hogwarts, Sirius and Regulus had a curiously amicable relationship; that before Sirius finally broke off his relationship with his family that he tried to show Regulus that there was another way. But in the end, Regulus was very much alone.

    There's a huge contrast to be drawn between Snape and Regulus and indeed, between Draco and Regulus.

    Snape went through life very much a loner and whilst Regulus was surrounded by friends, the Quidditch team and an undoubtedly dodgy family, his actions at the end of his life were the act of a selfless individual who tried to make reparation for his actions. Another unanswered question: did Regulus perhaps try to talk to his brother about what he had learned? As we know, Sirius was not a nice boy. Not really. Regulus may have tried to get advice, help, guidance... and Sirius, blinded by hatred for his 'Slytherin' family, would have literally and figuratively shoved Regulus aside.

    So Snape and Regulus are both lonely, tragic heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Draco, I think, is very like Regulus as well in that he is pressured and manipulated into a position that he is incapable of handling. The difference is that Regulus was exceptionally brave, whereas Draco was not. Draco's cowardice saved him in the end. But he will have to live with that for the rest of his days. If it makes him a better person... great. It's suggested in the final (awful) chapter of DH that Harry and Draco have at least a passing, mutual respect.

    Oh dear.

    I could wax lyrical about Regulus Black for hours. I desperately wanted more of his story!