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A Reader's Guide to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Chapter Six:
The Sorting Hat The Sorting Hat, PS7, by Mary GrandPré

On this page:

Synopsis by William Silvester
Notes and links by Steve Vander Ark and Michele L. Worley

US hardcover edition: pages 113 - 130
UK hardcover edition: pages 85 - 97
UK paperback edition: pages 125 - 143
Timeframe: 1 September, 1991

In which Professor McGonagall tells the first-years a bit about the school and they are sorted into houses by the Sorting Hat. Then Dumbledore welcomes them, they have a feast and find their dormitory for their first night at Hogwarts.


Interesting facts and notes about the text of this chapter:

The Sorting Hat is the first of several key magical items we will encounter that serves as a tool for revealing character. But as we and Harry will learn only at the end of the next book, the most important aspect of the Sorting Hat is not what it says about a student itself, but how that student chooses to react to the Sorting.

We meet many, though not all, the Hogwarts students in Harry's year in this chapter.

A tall, black-haired witch in emerald-green robes stood there. She had a very stern face and Harry's first thought was that this was not someone to cross.

Harry is introduced to McGongall, and his first impression is very accurate. She is definitely NOT someone to cross. She will hand out punishments without hesitation when warranted, even to her own house. However, when Umbridge tried to bully her, she was utterly disdainful. McGonagall is Dumbledore's second in command at Hogwarts; she fills in for him when he's away and becomes temporary head when he is removed from his position in book two and five, and when he dies at the end of book six.

You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory, and spend free time in your house common room.

In the films, we see the students studying together in the Great Hall. This allows for the drama of interaction between houses during these times, but it is definitely not canon. The dormitories for Gryffindor house are located in one of the towers of the castle. Harry's year ends up on the top floor of that tower.

 

he'd somehow turned his teacher's wig blue.

Yet another example of unfocused, wandless, untrained magic. One wonders how many such incidents there are in Muggle elementary schools as Muggle-born magical children unknowingly cast spells when they get upset. It's interesting that Harry aimed his spell at a wig. This was undoubtedly an aspect of this teacher's appearance that caught his eye as a small boy, something that looked unusual or notable. And what incident with that teacher prompted little Harry Potter to be so upset with the woman? Were teachers oppressing him because of the messages they received from the Dursleys? What a sad life he led before his eleventh birthday...

 

About twenty ghosts had just streamed through the back wall

So there are more ghosts at Hogwarts than the four house ghosts. We've never heard about any of the others, as far as we know. Perhaps some of the attendees mentioned at the Deathday party were other Hogwarts ghosts.

 

haven't we given Peeves all the chances he deserves? He gives us all a bad name and you know, he's not really even a ghost

He is part of the group of ghosts, however, and somewhat under their authority. We learn in book four that the ghosts hold a ghosts' council when there are important matters for them to discuss. Peeves, as it turns out, is one of the topics they discuss quite regularly.

What is Peeves if he isn't a ghost? He's a "poltergeist," which according to folklore is a manifestation of emotions (usually adolescent emotions) which throws things around.

"Hope to see you in Hufflepuff!" said the Friar. "My old house, you know."

How interesting that the Fat Friar is, in fact, a man of the church...and a Hufflepuff. There is apparently no inherent conflict in Rowling's worldview between religion--specifically the Christian religion--and magic.

Rowling informed us on her website that the house ghost was a member of that house in life.

they walked out of the chamber, back across the hall, and through a pair of double doors into the Great Hall.

That is, the antechamber in which the students have been waiting is on the opposite side of the Entrance Hall from the double doors forming the main entrance to the Great Hall.

 

Harry had never even imagined such a strange and splendid place. It was lit by thousands and thousands of candles which were floating in the air over four long tables, where the rest of the students were sitting.

According to Rowling in interviews, she had a lot of input on how the various locations look in the films. "It was the most bizarre experience when I walked onto the set of the Great Hall; it really was like walking into my own brain (WBD)". the Great Hall, lit by floating candles - PS/f

 

"It's bewitched to look like the sky outside. I read about it in Hogwarts, A History."

One can understand, given the rather condescending wizarding attitude toward house-elves, why the house-elves of Hogwarts do not rate a single mention in "over a thousand pages", but why does the book neglect to describe the Sorting Ceremony in detail? Hermione's anxious attempt to recall all the spells she had memorized before being brought into the Hall clearly suggests that she had no idea what the Sorting might consist of. It's also possible that Hermione hasn't actually read the entire book at this point. Okay, no, she probably has.

 

Professor McGonagall silently placed a four-legged stool in front of the first years.

There are apparently several stools which are used, since the number of legs is not consistent:

Professor Flitwick, who was a tiny little wizard with a shock of white hair, was carrying an ancient hat and a three-legged stool out of the hall. (PA5)

On top of the stool she put a pointed wizard's hat. This hat was patched and frayed and extremely dirty.

As we and Harry will learn from the Sorting Hat's song three years from now (GF12), it is more than a thousand years old.

 

I'll eat myself

This is a line which gets lost in translations, since it's a reference to the slang phrase "I'll eat my hat."

 

There's nothing hidden in your head/The Sorting Hat can't see,

Quite a powerful magic item, this. It can read minds (and according to Rowling, could detect the bit of Voldemort's soul inside of Harry) and in a few moments we find that it can hear specific thoughts and respond, as if in conversation. One wonders, in reference to Arthur's admonition about dangerous magic items, where the Sorting Hat keeps its brain...

 

"For I'm a Thinking Cap!"

Another joke to be lost in translations.

 

"So we've just got to try on the hat!" Ron whispered to Harry. "I'll kill Fred, he was going on about wrestling a troll."

How the elder Weasleys kept something as well-known as the Sorting a secret from Ron for eleven years is hard to imagine. There is nothing in McGonagall's introduction to indicate that the students are expected to keep this ceremony a secret. Since many if not most of the people in the Wizarding World will have gone to Hogwarts and will have sat on that stool, it seems amazing that Ron would never have heard of it. On the other hand, the Weasley family lives in isolation in Devon, with only a few other Wizarding families living in the area. Perhaps they just don't get out much. Perhaps it's the equivalent of a hazing ritual not to tell younger siblings what to expect.

 

"HUFFLEPUFF!" shouted the hat. The table on the right cheered
...

"RAVENCLAW!" The table second from the left clapped
...

"Brown, Lavender" became the first new Gryffindor, and the table on the far left exploded with cheers

We're getting the layout of the house tables here. As we're looking from the head table, Hufflepuff is on the right. That means they're nearest the door. We learn in book four that the doors into the Great Hall do not open at the back of the room, but to the side, since Harry has to walk past three other tables to get to the Gryffindor table. We're told the locations of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor as well, so we can deduce that Slytherin is second from the right, between Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. It's probably intentional that Gryffindor and Slytherin aren't next to each other, and in subsquent books they're moved even farther apart. By the fourth book, they're on opposite sides of the hall.

 

Perhaps it was Harry's imagination, after all he'd heard about Slytherin, but he thought they looked like an unpleasant lot.

Are there any nice Slytherins? This has interested fans for years. Typically, however, they're described in less-than-complimentary terms. Is this just because we're seeing them through Harry's prejudiced point of view or are most of them really hulking, part-troll, pug-faced goons? Only in HBP4, when we meet Professor Slughorn, do we begin to see another side to the ambitious characters selected for Slytherin.

 

Sometimes, Harry noticed, the hat shouted out the house at once, but at others it took a little while to decide. "Finnigan, Seamus," the sandy-haired boy next to Harry in the line, sat on the stool for almost a whole minute before the hat declared him a Gryffindor.

Harry himself seems to take the longest time in the Sorting. As he will learn in his fifth year, other members of his year such as Hermione were also edge cases who could have been Sorted into different Houses than those that the Hat finally declared for them.

 

"Perks, Sally-Anne"

Something happened to poor Sally-Anne over the years. At the end of their fifth year, students were called forward for their practical OWLs in alphabetical order, and her name was skipped. This suggests that she is no longer a student at Hogwarts.

 

Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.
"Not Slytherin, eh?" said the small voice.

As Harry observes to Dumbledore nearly two years later, after his second and third encounters with the Sorting Hat, "It only put me in Gryffindor because I asked not to be put in Slytherin (CS18)." More about this later.

 

And now there were only three people left to be sorted.

No, there are four. Dean Thomas, Lisa Turpin, Ron Weasley, and Blaise Zabini.

 

"Thomas, Dean," a Black boy even taller than Ron, joined Harry at the Gryffindor table.

The earlier U.K. editions trimmed some of Dean's description at this point, but it was put back for the U.S. edition.

 

"Zabini, Blaise," was made a Slytherin

Fans debated whether Blaise was a boy or a girl for years. Finally, in HBP7, we learn that Zabini is a boy.

 

Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

As we see in later years, Dumbledore's wisdom and humour often take the form of not getting between his young charges and their food with long speeches. Any announcements are generally made after the meal except in very grave circumstances.

 

The dishes in front of him were now piled with food.

This is reminiscent of other famous magical meals in literature. In the Chronicles of Narnia, when Lucy shares a midday meal with the magician Coriakin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), he too has a table that magically arrays itself with tablecloth, plates, and food at a word from him.

 

He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.

In Dawn Treader, Coriakin made a point of giving Lucy food more like that of her own world than any she had had of late.

 

"I haven't eaten for nearly five hundred years," said the ghost.

Earlier editions read "four" hundred years, but this did not tally with Nearly-Headless Nick's 500th Deathday Party the next year (CS8). The later, edited corrections to the text now read "five hundred", so that is the number that is now canon.

 

Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington at your service. Resident ghost of Gryffindor Tower.

By the end of this chapter we will have met three of the four House ghosts; for the fourth, see The Mirror of Erised.

 

Slytherins have got the cup six years in a row!

Note that Nick is referring to the House Cup, not the Quidditch Cup at this point.

 

The Bloody Baron's becoming almost unbearable -- he's the Slytherin ghost.

The Baron is the third of the House ghosts encountered in this chapter (the first was the Fat Friar).

 

Harry looked over at the Slytherin table and saw a horrible ghost sitting there, with blank staring eyes, a gaunt face, and robes stained with silver blood.

We finally learn the story behind the Baron's bloody robes in DH31.

 

the remains of the food faded from the plates, leaving them sparkling clean as before. A moment later the puddings appeared.

It would be interesting to know whether the plates function as Portkeys, which we know from Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix will work within the Hogwarts grounds.

 

"I'm half-and-half," said Seamus. "Me dad's a Muggle. Mum didn't tell him she was a witch 'til after they were married."

That would be a bit of a shock...

 

"Well, my gran brought me up and she's a witch," said Neville

Notice how smoothly Neville subsequently distracts his audience from the question of why his gran is bringing him up and what happened to his parents.

 

"but the family thought I was all-Muggle for ages. My Great Uncle Algie kept trying to catch me off my guard and force some magic out of me -- he pushed me off the end of Blackpool Pier once, I nearly drowned -- but nothing happened until I was eight. Great Uncle Algie came round for dinner, and he was hanging me out of an upstairs window by the ankles when my Great Auntie Enid offered him a meringue and he accidentally let go. But I bounced -- all the way down the garden and into the road. They were all really pleased, Gran was crying, she was so happy. And you should have seen their faces when I got in here -- they thought I might not be magic enough to come, you see. Great Uncle Algie was so pleased he bought me my toad."

But imagine what would have happened if Neville had been a Squib, after all.

 

Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.

Our first sight of Professor Snape. Really, one has to wonder why any D.A.D.A. teacher in those years would have been willing to sit next to Snape, the poisons expert, at dinner, knowing Snape wanted the D.A.D.A. job...

 

It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell's turban straight into Harry's eyes -- and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry's forehead.

A very tidy bit of misdirection. Harry's scar appears on first reading to be reacting to Harry having drawn Snape's attention, but upon subsequent reading Quirrell/Voldemort's presence next to Snape would seem to be the key factor.

 

"Quidditch trials will be held in the second week of the term."

In Harry's fifth year, these were held on a Friday. Fortunately, Harry's first flying lesson will occur on a Thursday, which would explain why a new Gryffindor Seeker had not yet been selected by the time McGonagall first saw Harry fly.

 

the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side

On the right-hand side of what? Of the marble staircase? That seems to make sense, and implies that on each landing there are a number of corridors running in various directions. Of course, only in the film does the marble staircase extend the first floor; this is never stated in the books.

"And now, before we go to bed, let us sing the school song!" cried Dumbledore. Harry noticed that the other teachers' smiles had become rather fixed.

As of HBP, the school song has not yet made another appearance. According to JKR in interviews, Dumbledore only asks that the song be sung on very special occasions, when the mood takes him.

 

Dumbledore gave his wand a little flick, as if he was trying to get a fly off the end, and a long golden ribbon flew out of it, which rose high above the tables and twisted itself, snakelike, into words.

We will see a similar "wand writing" effect during the judges' scoring of the Triwizard Tournament, a little over three years from now.

 

"Everyone pick their favorite tune," said Dumbledore, "and off we go!"

Another example of Dumbledore's whimsical sense of humor. We can assume that the school song does have an official tune.

"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"

The song of the Phoenix is an example of the power of music in Harry's world. It gives Harry hope and strength in his battle with the Basilisk and later in his battle with Voldemort in the graveyard. When Dumbledore dies, the song of the Phoenix fills the air around the castle for some time, eventually dying away forever.

At the very end of the corridor hung a portrait of a very fat woman in a pink silk dress.

As we learn later, the Fat Lady's portrait hangs on the seventh floor, and she is at the end of a corridor because the Gryffindor dormitories form one of the castle's towers.

 

"Caput Draconis," said Percy, and the portrait swung forward to reveal a round hole in the wall.

Latin for "dragon's head", possibly chosen by the Gryffindor prefects to help inspire the members of the House to do better in this year's competition for the House Cup after Slytherin's six-year-long string of victories. The phrase is actually borrowed from a list of magical terms used in "sikidy", a form of geomancy from Madagasgar. Other terms and phrases Rowling borrowed from the list include "Alohomora", "Fortuna Major", and "Alihotsy" (SDNY).

 

the Gryffindor common room, a cozy, round room full of squashy armchairs.

It's round, so it's the base of the tower (as opposed to a room adjacent to the tower). The common room is quite large, since it can hold all the Gryffindor students at once, which is somewhere around 150 people. Besides squashy armchairs, the room contains a number of tables at which students can study.

At the top of a spiral staircase -- they were obviously in one of the towers -- they found their beds at last: five four-posters hung with deep red, velvet curtains.

So the first-year boys' dormitory is on the top floor of the tower this year. Apparently, judging from subsequent returns after summer holidays, the boys keep the same dormitory throughout their stay at Hogwarts. Also note that the number of beds matches the number of first-year Gryffindor boys we've seen so far - Harry, Ron, Neville, Dean, and Seamus - so we now know that there are exactly five Gryffindor boys in Harry's year.

 

Perhaps Harry had eaten a bit too much, because he had a very strange dream.

See Harry's dreams.

 

He was wearing Professor Quirrell's turban, which kept talking to him, telling him he must transfer to Slytherin at once, because it was his destiny.

A nice mixture of Sorting Hat imagery with the turban concealing Voldemort's possession of Quirrell.

 

Harry told the turban he didn't want to be in Slytherin; it got heavier and heavier; he tried to pull it off but it tightened painfully -- and there was Malfoy, laughing at him as he struggled with it -then Malfoy turned into the hook-nosed teacher, Snape, whose laugh became high and cold -- there was a burst of green light and Harry woke, sweating and shaking.

See Harry's dreams.

 

Characters introduced in this chapter:

Characters returning in this chapter:

Characters mentioned in this chapter:

Settings and locations introduced or returning in this chapter:

Settings and locations mentioned in this chapter:

Exceptional character moments:

Spells:

Links and Resources:

Memorable lines:

Strictly British:

Timelines/Calendar:

The entire action of the chapter takes place on the night of 1 September, most of it during the Welcoming Feast and inside the Great Hall.


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Page layout by Lisa Waite Bunker and Steve Vander Ark, banner graphics by Camilla Engelby © 2007.

Primary editor: Steve Vander Ark. Previous editor(s): Steve Vander Ark, Michele Worley.
Synopsis © 2002 William Silvester
original chapter artwork by Mary GrandPré © Warner Bros., used by permission
artwork by Keith Johnson, used with permission

Original page date 8-February 2005; Last page update 23 July 2011 SVA.