“I sometimes think we Sort too soon”

“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.

the golden compass lit

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.

Anne of Green Gables - Miss Stacey

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.


25 responses to ““I sometimes think we Sort too soon”

  1. I was so happy to read this. It’s troubling to think what message the concrete labeling of characters might instill in a young reader; for example, that first impressions are always correct. Your post reminded me of the scene in the 8th Harry Potter movie (it’s been a while since I’ve read the books, so I’ll assume it can be found there, too) where all the Slytherin kids are sent to the dungeons by McGonagall after ONE of them urges everyone to capture Harry (so the Dark Lord won’t kill them all). I remember thinking, “Do ALL the Slytherins necessarily deserve to go to the dungeons? Do they all feel the exact same way about Harry…and about EVERYTHING?” Great post!

    • I haven’t seen the last two Harry Potter movies. In the book McGonagall tells Slughorn that he and any Slytherins may join the other Houses in defending Hogwarts from Voldemort’s invasion (“The time has come for Slytherin House to decide upon its loyalties” p. 484), and warns that “we duel to kill” (484). Pansy Parkinson sees Harry and yells for everyone to grab him (490), the other Houses turn with their wands out, and McGonagall directs the Slytherins to leave (Filch is evacuating the younger students), which they all do, along with most of the Ravenclaws, a number of Hufflepuffs, and half of Gryffindor. This comes across as a hierarchy of sorts among the Houses — interesting to hear how the movie changes things! I agree, the assumption that all people in a given House feel the same about Harry (or anything, really) is silly. As if!

  2. Wonderful post Janet!

    I absolutely love Pullman’s magical world where humans have their daemons – yet it’s tough. When a Daemon settles that’s it, it can’t change anymore and whatever it settles into, to a great extent, defines that characters life! If it’s a dog, they are a servant, a goose, then they are a witch. While it certainly more personal than a Sorting Hat, it’s still problematic. I don’t think the systemic issues with Daemon settling is ever discussed in the novels at all, while Harry Potter more than hints at first impressions being constantly wrong *cough* Snape *cough*.

    No point here. Just total agreement!

    • Thanks, Steph! Yeah, the problem with daemons is that they end up being shorthand for that person’s entire personality, whereas I don’t believe that people (souls) can be so entirely clear-cut. Not without fracturing off and discarding facets of personality/interests and really most of the fascinating potential for change, anyway.

  3. I enjoyed the post as well and as Stephanie said above, I too am in total agreement. I think we do try to shove people into categories and neat little boxes not for their own good but to create a more organized, less chaotic world. However, I think an awareness that categorizations rarely consider the fluidity (I like this word) of human nature and human beings are too complex for simple labels. Lovely post.

  4. Fantastic post. There’s a Chinese saying that says one’s character at 3 will be one’s character until 80.

    I believe people are fluid! As a 20 year-old, I disagree that my personality is fixed! It has changed so much in the last few years, due to my going to university, making new friends, questioning my beliefs etc. that it only makes sense it will continue evolving in the coming years.

    You can see it in my writing. I don’t agree with my writing 1 year ago (nay, 6 months ago), at all!

    • University is wonderful for that! I agree, puberty is too young to claim a fixed character – and three is wayyyyyy too young. My old writings make me laugh and laugh… and then sigh. Rereading things from even a few months ago (notes to friends, comments in the margins of school assignments, sporadic journal entries) is an exercise in examining how much I have changed, mostly without noticing – and still continue to change, and will continue to change with every day that passes.
      Nice to hear from you – keep on writing!

    • Thanks for the link! An interesting and enjoyable read. I particularly appreciated the author’s conclusion, that creation (and selection) of identity calls for intelligence and hard work, and a good dose of courage.

  5. Great post about three of my all-time favorite series! Especially when they’re supposed to be targeted at young adults, we often think of novels and series as characters’ platforms to “search” for their identity or to grow up. It’s important to think about how that works! For these books, it’s not so much about “finding your destiny” or realizing who/what you really are, but deciding what to do and how to be. I think it’s easy to say they focus on “discovery” rather than “formation,” but I think they all, in subtle ways, show that what can look from the outside like discovery *is* formation, based on learning and decision-making.

    As an aside: It is interesting to say that there’s been a recent shift in how literature deals with this–it makes me think back to Dickens and how physiology is sometimes used as a marker of virtue or character. Or Blake, and innocence and experience.

    Even though I want to believe these series are about the formation of fluid identities, there are some examples that make me balk. It’s always made me a bit uncomfortable that, even with everything Dumbledore says about choice, Harry seems to be who he is from birth, and Voldemort seems to be who he is from birth. With Harry, at least, we can see how he might have been different had he made different choices along the way, but Voldemort is revealed to be almost inherently evil….

    • I agree, the Harry Potter books offer contradictory interpretations of people and events – one of the things that makes them so fascinating! (And infuriating, at times.)
      This has opened the door for a lot of interesting fan fiction – not necessarily on Voldemort (he’s pretty much irredeemable from birth, as you say), but on Slytherins, Death Eaters, and other nasty-to-some-varying-degree characters. “A Keen Observer” (https://www.fanfiction.net/s/2489360/1/A-Keen-Observer) for example, is told from Andromeda Black’s perspective and focuses on her and her sisters (Bellatrix and Narcissa) as they grow up during Voldemort’s first rise to power. Stories like this fill in the gaps left by the Gryffindor-centred narrative and create characters who doubt and struggle, with convincing reasons for their actions. I take these stories to indicate fans’ dissatisfaction with blanket statements about the people in each House and their apparent destinies.
      Lovely references – would you care to expand on Dickins and Blake? You’re on to something — which specific characters are you thinking of? I have a picture of Pip, Magwitch, Miss Havisham dancing across my imagination.

      • Yes, I was definitely thinking Great Expectations. Also, a little bit Oliver Twist–Oliver is innately good, and you’re supposed to be able to see that on his face. This post made me think of the 18th/19th century preoccupation with whether children are born innocent, or whether they are born evil and have to be trained to be good…I think this is an idea Wordsworth talks about?

        • It’s been quite a while since I read Wordsworth, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you’re right. Some of the Romantics for sure believed that people were naturally good, but living in cities corrupted, whereas the wholesome countryside allowed people to retain their innocence (aka connection to nature) as adults. Lovely to see how the same ideas are considered in generation after generation of writers!

  6. After you pointed this out, the immense popularity of certain YA books seems all the more disturbing. For example, Divergant is pretty much about cliques and deciding which is the one where you “belong”. While when I was younger this theme seemed reassuring, looking back as an adult I can see how messed up that is. An adult writing a book telling kids that classifications of people is important–*the* most important thing–just isn’t a good thing in the long run. I think the strongest characters out there are the ones we cannot define by a list of words pulled from a proverbial hat. But that’s coming from someone who doesn’t have millions of books in print…or anything really.

    • Hm, that last statement is in itself a classification, if you’ll pardon my analysis of your comment; having millions of books in print does not automatically fit one into the category of people-who-know-all, and not having millions of books in print does not automatically relegate one into the category of those-whose-opinions-are-unworthy — although, as I also speak as one who does not have anything in print, perhaps my bias is suspect. More seriously, that’s a wonderful definition of strongest characters. Because really, who among us can ever truthfully be reduced down to a list of words belonging to a certain category? Character traits are not symptoms of deadly diseases. Can you imagine trying to figure out what you have/are in that way? Ha!

      • I apologize. The last statement was not meant to be a statement on ‘knowing’. More rather on the line of ‘although this person wrote like this, they did make money doing this, and I am not’. More to do with opportunity and making money, I guess. In no way do I think that popular YA authors ‘know everything’. XD It was more a sarcastic comment than anything. And we all have bias. It’s unavoidable. The trick is to recognize we have it.

        • Sorry, I wasn’t very clear, either. I was joking, too — but it is amazing how prevalent the assumption that published authors (or anyone well-known) automatically knows better than I/you/jane-on-the-street is, and how difficult it is not to let that attitude creep in. I’m guilty of that error, even though I’ve met a number of authors who are very clear that they are experts primarily on their worlds, not on “the YA audience” or anything other than the worlds in their heads that they work to make as vivid for the reader as they are for themselves.
          Wow. Convoluted sentence! Sorry for that :p

  7. This is a really interesting article, I han’t really thought about it this way. Although you could say that Harry potter is more realistic and hopeful. You get “sorted” at a young age, just like how in life you fall into your a group of friends or a particular subject you like. However, in the northern lights once your deamon has its final form there is no going back. In harry potter this is not always the case, in my opinion the over arching message of the book is that your house in the long run is really un-important and that you are who you make yourself. Snape is a slytherine and is brave, James Potter is a “brave” gryffindoor who spends a long time needlessly bullying people, Remus knows it is wrong but won’t stand up for Snape despite his supposed bravery. Hermione is the cleverest witch of her age, Luna is unbelievably brave, cedric isn’t a “duffer”, Zacharias Smith is pretty mean for a slytherine, Harry himself could have been in Slytherin. This has gone on for longer than i planned so sorry! But I guess in short what I was trying to say was that the true message of HP is that no matter where you start your life being “sorted”, it is what you want to be that makes you the person you are and determines how your story end, which is both a realistic and positive message children can use.

    • As you say, many (maybe even most) characters in Harry Potter display characteristics associated with other Houses, and that the series explicitly and implicitly argues against such casting, and against other forms of discrimination. I still wonder, though, because of the prominence Sorting is given throughout the series, if the overall effect of the books is almost pro-Sorting, even though it also presents arguments against it.
      And never apologize for long comments — it’s a treat to hear other people’s thoughts :)

  8. The thing is, I can see how sorting is needed within the world of Hogwarts. As McGonagall says, “Your house will be like your family.” Remember, this is the only Wizarding school for all of the U.K., and wizards, due to the Statute of Secrecy, are an isolated bunch. Thus, the students need to feel as at home as possible. So they sort the students by common values, in order to help the children feel more comfortable. It’s no guarantee everyone will get along, of course, but I can see why the Founders, and future generations, thought this would be a good way to keep harmony.

    Also, certain models in psychology and cognition believe that we think about the world by categorizing, inherently. We create webs of connected information in our minds, for easy reference in every situation. When we’re younger, still learning, our categorizations aren’t as solid as when we’re older, but never become entirely immutable.

    What I like to take from this is that sorting or categorizing is not inherently bad. It gives us something stable, a foundation to build knowledge on in order to get by in the world. But think of optical illusions – they only work because the part of our brains that processes optical information is misinterpreting based on certain cues (for example, if you look at a backwards mask from a certain angle, you seem to see the nose pointing towards you. That is because the brain assumes that all noses face forwards.) Thus, a system in the brain that works most of the time is still egregiously wrong some of the time. And we have to keep that in mind, or else, yes, we will be stuck in the same ways of thinking about others and about ourselves. That is why we read! As great books teach us, first judgements can be mistaken, or only one part of a complex story. As Hogwarts students leave behind their school colors when they graduate and go out into a larger Wizarding (or even muggle) world, we must be willing to let go of categorizations when they are no longer needed.

  9. Pingback: For Reluctant Readers: Harry Potter | The Book Wars·

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