Harry Potter and the Great Character Debate
What makes a character a character? Characters need to have free will. They need to be able to make their own decisions, without needing instructions from outside forces.
There are many objects in stories that move or take actions. Some can even speak. Cars. Telephones. Computers. Basically anything that has programming/technology of some sort falls into this group. But unless these objects can decide what to do on their own, they are not characters.
The Sorting Hat is the Harry Potter version of a machine. Instead of programming, it was bewitched with certain instructions so that it is able to perform a task. Everything that the Sorting Hat does is based on the magic of the four founders of Hogwarts. The Sorting Hat knows how to act in the specific setting of the Sorting Ceremony, but doesn’t act in other situations where real characters would know how to respond.
Therefore, the Sorting Hat is NOT a character.
The Sorting Hat: A History
The Sorting Hat is old, as old as Hogwarts itself. In its song from the Goblet of Fire, it explains its story. It describes the four founders of Hogwarts and how they had been manually sorting their students when Hogwarts was new. The founders soon realized that they would have to figure out a way to sort students after they were gone. Then it sings this:
‘Twas Gryffindor who found the way,
He whipped my off his head
The founders put some brains in me
So I could choose instead!
(Goblet of Fire, Chapter 12)
The Sorting Hat was a regular old hat, until the founders changed it. Gryffindor’s hat was enchanted, turning it into what we know today. It became a tool to do what they would not be able to. The founders taught it everything it knows. They taught it how to sort, how to sing, how to read minds (Legilmency). They taught it everything it needs to know to do its job and nothing else.
Into the Chamber
The Sorting Hat does not know how to handle any situations outside of the Sorting Ceremony. In the Chamber of Secrets, Fawkes flies in, Sorting Hat in tow. Fawkes drops the Hat on the floor of the chamber. And it does nothing.
Patched, frayed, and dirty, the hat lay motionless at Harry’s feet.
(Chamber of Secrets, Chapter 17)
If the hat was a character, it would have realized that Hogwarts (and Harry) was in danger. It would have reacted in some way. However, this was not a scenario that the founders could have predicted. They did not bewitch it to know how to act when it’s in the Chamber of Secrets with a Basilisk. So it lays there like the object that it is.
Characters can make decisions on their own and know how to do more than what they’re told. The Sorting Hat never goes rogue. It does what it’s supposed to do and that’s it.
For I’m a Thinking Cap!
Merriam-Webster defines ‘sentient’ as…
responsive to or conscious of sense impressions sentient beings
finely sensitive in perception or feeling
We will not argue that the Hat isn’t sentient. It has ‘brains’ that were put in it by the founders when it was first made. It knows when it’s on someone’s head. It’s (at least somewhat) aware of what’s going on at the school, as evidenced in its song from Order of the Phoenix.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
The warning history shows,
For our Hogwarts is in danger
From external, deadly foes
And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
Let the Sorting now begin.
(Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 11)
This song is beyond what the Hat normally sings about. It usually gives a short history of Hogwarts and describes the traits the houses. But here, it goes on to give advice. It knew that Lord Voldemort was back and that uniting would be important to defeat him. It likely heard this information in Dumbledore’s office, where it spends its time outside of the Sorting Ceremony.
When the founders first made the Hat, they gave it the ability and desire to sort students accurately into houses. Along with this desire came the desire to keep Hogwarts open and safe. No Hogwarts = No Sorting. The Sorting Hat gave advice to stick together, but this advice was really just its way of making sure that it would still have its job.
Harry’s Magical World
The Sorting Hat is a magical object. It isn’t a human or an animal or a plant or anything else. It’s an object that was bewitched it to give it abilities.
There are other magical objects in the Harry Potter series that share some of the abilities that the Sorting Hat has.
Wizard’s Chess pieces can speak to a wizard. They know the rules of chess and give advice about how to best play the game. The Mirror of Erised can do Legilmency, looking into wizards’ minds to be able to show them their deepest desires.
What makes the Sorting Hat different than any other magical object? It is bewitched with abilities, just like any other magical object. Sure, it’s intelligent and sophisticated. It’s arguably the most sophisticated magical object in the series. But that’s all it is, a magical object.
If we start some magical objects as characters, where do we draw the line? What really differentiates the Sorting Hat from the Moving Staircases, Howlers, or The Golden Snitch?
The Sorting Hat has a very particular set of skills. Skills that it acquired over 1,000 years ago. It has the skills that it needs to do its job. It can speak, so that it can announce houses. Not only can it talk, it can sing, and does so to start off the Sorting Ceremony. When on someone’s head, it can perform Legilmency and can speak to you, so that it can decide which house you belong in. It’s aware of what’s going on around it, when it affects the houses and would affect its ability to do its job.
Everything it does is related to sorting houses because that’s all that the founders wanted it to be able to do. A character is able to react in any situation they’re put in. The Sorting Hat cannot do this. When it’s not in the Sorting Ceremony, when it’s not on someone’s head, it doesn’t do anything. It’s a magical object, created with a purpose. Outside of that purpose, it is incapable. The Sorting Hat is not a character, simply a magical object.
Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the discussion below.