Twenty years ago, Bloomsbury published J.K. Rowling’s debut novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first installment in a saga that would span seven Potter books, eight Potter movies, and numerous spinoffs and extensions, in the process becoming one of the defining stories of a generation. Since Dumbledore isn’t here to help us pull any celebratory crackers, we’re marking the occasion by toasting Rowling’s magical creation — and the two decades of euphoria that it’s brought us. We solemnly swear that we are up to no good.
What’s your Hogwarts House?
If you’re here, reading an article about Harry Potter in 2017, it’s extremely likely that you have an answer at the ready. Maybe you got it from the J.K. Rowling–approved Sorting Hat simulation on Pottermore, the official digital platform of the Potterverse, launched in 2012. Maybe you got it from one of the countless fan-generated quizzes that flourished throughout the aughts on #TBT-fodder sites like Quizilla that purported to know your deepest truths from a handful of clicks. (BuzzFeed has since revived the format for a different era of internet.) Or maybe you decided for yourself based on these 16 short lines in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that launched the entire cottage industry:
Compared with the degree of identification those verses spawned, that’s … not a lot to go on, and certainly not enough to fully support the prolific subgenre of fan literature dedicated to the subject. (Says one Quora user regarding the notoriously bland Hufflepuffs: "Hufflepuff might have been used as a way of seeing how other misfits are unjustly seen within society, and may be saying that these supposed ‘oddballs’ have deeper depths and have their own interests, skill sets, and talents." That’s … certainly more than I came up with!) In fact, given that, for the first five books at least, every heroic figure is in Gryffindor, every villain is in Slytherin, and every character in Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff is secondary at best, the classification is pretty reductive, hence this perfect use of Twitter:
In real life, of course, there are no Hufflepuffs or Slytherins, and not just because the Muggle world is sadly bereft of a magical hat that determines the course of our lives for us at the tender age of 11. Outside the pages of a young adult novel, human beings have more than one core personality trait; there’s no reason someone can’t be smart and Machiavellian, or brave and hardworking, and no reason why one of those characteristics has to outweigh the other. (Rowling clearly knows this — Harry nearly got sorted into Slytherin, and Hermione into Ravenclaw.) But that simplicity is precisely the appeal of the House system, and why it’s played such a pivotal role in Potter’s enduring hold on the popular culture. The prospect of all of humanity, including yourself, boiling down to four distinct and easily identifiable types is nearly as escapist as the idea that wizards are real and get around on flying brooms. Harry Potter isn’t alone in providing that conduit to a simpler and more knowable universe, but it’s easily one of the more iconic examples of story as a means of knowing, or even just branding, ourselves.
Of all of Rowling’s inventions, the House system provides the easiest and most inviting entry point. For a child (or young adult, or adult-adult) putting themselves in Harry’s shoes for the first time, it’s a natural progression from envisioning what it might be like to get an owl-borne acceptance letter to envisioning where one might fall on Hogwarts’ arbitrary, four-quadrant graph of the human soul. Many of us encountered Harry Potter at a time in our lives when we were searching for a means to define ourselves, whether by attaching to a sports team or acquiring a poster for a certain boy band. Rowling even presents Houses as a more existential version of this amateur branding; Harry ends up in Gryffindor instead of Slytherin because he wants to, and the Hat acts accordingly. The Sorting question was just another rendition of the tribalism that acts as so many of our identity training wheels — and, thanks to Potter’s near-universal popularity, a widely shared and easily understood one.
The House system is also a welcome door into the text itself. The Wizarding World is, by definition, an exclusive place, unknown to and independent from the humdrum reality that is Muggle life. Harry Potter would wrestle with that separation and its implications much more directly in its later volumes, but early on, the Houses were an intuitive way for nonmagical readers to insert themselves into the books. We may not own a wand, but in our heads, we could self-cast ourselves as the anonymous Hufflepuff in a Potions class, or the Slytherin someone bumps into in a hallway. Magic might not be real, but ambition, intelligence, and diligence are. That much, at least, we had in common with the people on the page.
If an ensemble-centric piece of fiction breaks through the zeitgeist, there is inevitably a corresponding "Which _____ Are You?" quiz somewhere on the internet. (I’d like to think I’m Renata from Big Little Lies, but if I’m being honest with myself, I’m a Jane.) The Sex and the City foursome is nothing if not a gendered, quote-unquote "grown-up" version of the same template; I’ve often joked that, when taken together, a person’s self-identified House and alignment with Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, or Miranda tells you about 80 percent of what you need to know about them. There are more niche, less universal examples — I have friends who could tell you, at length, why cult-TV show turned reviled-M. Night Shyamalan film Avatar: The Last Airbender holds the key to understanding humanity in its four elements. A deeper understanding of ourselves is one of the primary reasons we look to art; of course we find rubrics wherever we look, not just a single set of books.
Yet the Hogwarts Houses continue to reign supreme, possibly because, for my generation, the books and films were one of the last pieces of monoculture before the world splintered into Reddit threads and SoundCloud browsing sessions. "What’s your House?" remains as reliable an icebreaker as "What’s your sign?" or "Who are your guys?" I’ll start: I’m a Ravenclaw. Feel free to sound off in the comments.