“I sometimes think we Sort too soon,” Dumbledore says to Severus Snape (Deathly Hallows p. 680). This statement comes in one of the final chapters of the final and seventh book of the series, up until which point characters and readers have assessed themselves and others on the basis of House affiliation. The question of which House you are in asks characters (and readers) to define themselves as predominantly determined by one of four characteristics: ambition, knowledge/wisdom, perseverance/kindness, or courage. The House characters are Sorted into when the first enter Hogwarts at the age of eleven is, to a certain extent, their destiny, at least during their stay at Hogwarts. Fans, not surprisingly, Sort themselves (and their friends) as well, through personal analysis, internet quizzes, and, more recently, on Pottermore.
Which House are you in, and why?
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series posits a world in which character’s souls live outside of their bodies in visible animal form (daemons). Daemons are usually of the opposite sex from the human, much like Jung’s anima/animus, although there are exceptions where a woman has a female daemon or a man has a male daemon (possibly Alternate Oxford’s homosexual characters, although this is just a musing and not researched). Children’s daemons are unfixed in form, meaning that they can shift shape from bird to cat to bear in as many blinks of the eye. When children become adults, however, their daemons become fixed in form, finding their true form, which remains for the rest of their (joint) existence. The daemons of adults are, or can be, more individual and consequently revelatory of their human’s character – Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, does not make nearly as regal a snow leopard as does Lord Asriel’s Stelmaria, nor so alluring and clever a monkey as Mrs. Coulter’s golden long-furred example.
In Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s beloved teacher Miss Stacy advises her pupils to form their natures carefully, for by the time they are twenty their characters will be fixed. People do change, of course, Miss Stacy allows, but the essentials — whether a character is set on good or will, and in habits such as consideration for others, timeliness, and perseverance or, conversely, thoughtlessness, tardiness, and laziness — will remain constant throughout adulthood, except in extreme cases. Better to build good character early, than to strive to overcome the bad habits of years.
This seems to me not an odd sort of continuum. Although in the Anne books people are judged according to their families, the potential for a young person to create, to inculcate and nurture the character (the perspective, inner being, and habits) that they wish to possess is immensely empowering, and the age at which one’s nature is said to be “set” is distinctly within adulthood, for that time; Anne is working as a schoolteacher at approximately seventeen, and Diana marries at (I think) twenty-one.
The Golden Compass books emphasize less the formation of the soul, or true nature, to focus on the discovery of it. Lyra’s adventures of course shape who she is and who she becomes, yet what is said in the text is that over time, one particular form becomes more natural to daemons, until it becomes their only shape; they remain that animal (or bird) forever. This change happens during puberty, and is not explicitly linked with any choice or efforts of the human, although it is a consequence of their decisions (character); guards, for instance, almost always have a large dog, such as a German shepherd, for a daemon.
In Harry Potter, the Sorting Hat seemingly recognizes the dominant trait in an eleven year old child and Sorts her or him accordingly, in a process that rarely takes more than a few seconds, and that is that. The series does argue against this sort of overly simplistic categorization of people — to quote Dumbledore again, “it is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (Chamber of Secrets p. 245) — and the case of Severus Snape (and indeed, many other characters within the books) offers persuasive evidence against the whole practice of Sorting in and of itself. (Helga Hufflepuff was evidently the wisest, or at least the most compassionate, of the Founders.)
The arc of this continuum worries me: it moves from (about a century ago) perceiving character as something that individuals could build, improve, and consciously create, a quality that remained fluid until one was twenty, distinctly adult, to (more recently) perceiving character as innate and able to determine destiny as early as eleven years of age. Character, which once was seen as what one had (which virtues, which vices), becomes more and more what one is, and consequently, implicitly, immutable. This, to me, is a disempowering lie. The trouble with playing with stereotypes is that one can start to believe them. Labels are self-fulfilling prophecies, and dreadfully limiting in scope.
To put it another way, these three books offer means whereby characters (and subsequently, readers) assess themselves and others around them: systems for thinking about people. I think these systems and the worldview from which they spring are worth examining: to think about how we think about people.*
Or so I think :p
* Kind of like Tiffany Aching’s First and Second Thoughts (The Wee Free Men and sequels by Terry Pratchett): First Thoughts are the obvious, ordinary things that everybody thinks. Second Thoughts are observations on First Thoughts (so, thoughts about the way you think, eg. flaws in and reasons for the initial reaction). Tiffany also has Third and Fourth Thoughts, but that’s getting too complicated for me.