By Reikhart Odinsthrall
Word Count: 1198
Summary: A story about embracing identity.
I am something of a Geek (and probably also a bit of a Nerd in that I know the difference between the two, lol). I watch Dr. Who (I’ve made my own steampunk sonic screwdriver), I can quote from Lord of the Rings, I have an opinion of Star Wars vs Star Trek (neither are as good as Babylon Five), and I am a bit of a Potterhead (if you know what that is, you probably are one).
I am fascinated by the creation of whole new worlds where most problems are solved with determination, courage, and brain power rather than the application of violence. I appreciate writers who challenge the materialistic/consumerist “fact-free” judgmental nature of our society. And I value the legions of fans of all kinds who think about and debate what the author actually meant when a character does or says something, and who invest time and immense creativity in fan art and literature.
And only today, I was challenged about my understanding of a key character in the Harry Potter books, the Sorting Hat. For those who have no idea what I am talking about, the Sorting Hat is a talking hat that helps to sort new students at the Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry into their respective “Houses”: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Each house embodies certain values, such as courage, bravery, nerve, and chivalry for Gryffindor, and ambition, cunning, leadership, and resourcefulness for Slytherin.
Gryffindor is the House of the eponymous hero, Harry Potter, while Slytherin is home to some of his archenemies, including Draco Malfoy and of course Voldemort in his previous “incarnation” as a student at Hogwarts. Supporting the fan base, JK Rowling has also created a website called Pottermore, which supplies further insights and background information not included in the books, and where fans can be “sorted” into one of these four Houses. By and large, few people want to be selected for Slytherin, because that is where the “bad” people go…and I have to admit I was shocked when the sorting hat did just that…dropped me into Slytherin without any hesitation.
And yet, as one having an affinity for Norse gods, maybe that is exactly where I belong? It’s not that I don’t have the qualities represented by the other Houses, it’s that these are the ones I need to recognize and embrace in my own life.
I do need to be more ambitious. Although my ambition isn’t necessarily wholly personal, I have tended to be shy at pushing myself forward. It’s been a huge step starting my blog, for instance, and part of me is still amazed that anyone wants to read what I write. But I also need to be ambitious for justice, for equality, for compassion, for truth.
I also need to recognize the value of cunning, and not see it as underhanded or “undesirable”. Life doesn’t play by the Queensbury rules, and certainly many of my enemies don’t. The Norse took the view that you did whatever it took to win the battle, and this is reflected in some of the stories where Odin and Loki, in particular, use cunning as a first option. The word “cunning” is actually derived from the same root as “kenning” (still used in Scots, as in the song “d’ye ken John Peel”). A kenning is a puzzle word, a way of describing something by another name. A sword is “Odin’s Fire”, a ship “a steed of the sea,” and the sun a “sky shield.” To be a cunning person meant being wise, particularly with hidden wisdom.
And I need to step up to the mark with both leadership and resourcefulness. As I have said elsewhere, I believe our society is in grave danger where division, fear, ignorance, and falsehood are the qualities being promoted by many of our leaders and those in our media. To be a leader is to stand up for those who lack power or a voice, and resourcefulness is needed to bypass the trolls and gatekeepers who believe in a “post-fact” society. And after all, it can’t be all bad as a Slytherin when you are following in the footsteps of Severus Snape.
But, I also think there is a deeper purpose behind JK Rowling’s use of the Sorting Hat, and that is to challenge our tendency to categorize people or to group people into “houses”, and then to approve or disapprove of those people because they belong to those groups.
Some do it with gender, limiting a woman’s education and freedom, thus restricting her opportunities. Others do it with race, ascribing characteristics and assumptions according to skin color. And there are those who believe that all the members of a religious faith are either infidels or potential terrorists.
And yet, we are each of us assigned to those categories by a “Sorting Hat.” None of us remembers choosing to be born male or female, or our skin color, or the faith of our parents. We assume our “category” is great because we belong to it. I had to rethink my attitude to Slytherin because I was “made” a member. There is a psychological concept called “cognitive dissonance” where we do something that conflicts with our sense of who we are. Have you ever blushed or felt embarrassed at a compliment? That’s cognitive dissonance. Have you ever been challenged over an aspect of your behavior, and leaped to your defense? That is also cognitive dissonance.
In the Harry Potter books, Harry and his friends are terrified of being assigned to Slytherin. But at the end, when Harry’s son is on his way to his first term at Hogwarts, Harry tells him that a great hero was a member of that House. And there ARE heroes of all kinds from all different categories. There are warriors for truth and justice, and creative geniuses, and kind and compassionate citizens who support those in need. And yes, there are violent criminals, rapists, and psychopaths in all categories, because the categories are arbitrary and have little or no bearing in themselves on determining how a person acts.
If there is a key lesson from the Harry Potter books, it’s the need to assess each individual, not by some facile (and false) understanding of group or category, but how that person acts as an individual. We are all so much more than our labels, and so is everyone else. If someone starts with a generalization about ANY group, be wary, and if necessary challenge it. If you know you have a category or label you are negative about, a section of society who you feel are to be feared or judged, think about why that is. Is it informed by what others have told you, or a bad experience with one member of that community, or just plain lack of knowledge?
As Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings: “My dear Frodo, Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month and yet, after a hundred years, they can still surprise you.”