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“Better be…
Gryffindor!”
Almost everybody wants to be
a Gryffindor...

but how many of us would be?
What does being a Gryffindor
really mean,

and how would that translate
in our world?

Hogwarts' four houses embody
different fundamental human qualities at play

in the Harry Potter stories.
To put it simply,
Gryffindor represents bravery,

Hufflepuff loyalty,
Ravenclaw wisdom,

and Slytherin cunning.
The series isn't exactly subtle
about who we're supposed to root for.

“Excellent.
Ten points to Gryffindor!”
Pretty much all of our heroes are Gryffindors.
And J.K.
Rowling frames Gryffindor
as the best house, which tells us that courage

and other Gryffindor qualities
are the heart of the story she's trying

to tell.
Because in this series, being a good,
strong person ultimately comes down

to moral courage --
“If Voldemort's raising an army,
then I want to fight!”

it's the daring to always do the right thing.
“To Mr. Harry Potter...
for pure nerve and outstanding courage.”

So let's look at what it takes
to be a Gryffindor --

and how the house's deeper identity
is reflected in its colors, animal,

and the wizards and witches
who are sorted into it.

“Welcome to Gryffindor.”
Before we go on,
we want to talk a little bit

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Every student at Hogwarts
is “sorted” into a house

shortly after they arrive...
it's like a reading of who
the students are at their cores.

“Plenty of courage I see.
Not a bad mind, either.
There's talent, oh yes…
And a thirst… to prove yourself.”
The definitiveness of this sorting
makes it seem at first like

the students are organized
according to the innate qualities

they're born with --
“Hah!
Another Weasley.
I know just what to do with you…”
but the story eventually teaches us
“It is not our abilities
that show what we truly are.

It is our choices.”
The Sorting Hat is really
trying to ascertain a person's will --

it listens to what students
are feeling and thinking,

and it considers their deepest desires.
Famous, special Harry could
easily have excelled in Slytherin,

but he begs the hat not to put him there.
Then he worries that he's only in Gryffindor
because he pleaded with the hat.

“Sir, the Sorting Hat was right.
I should be in Slytherin.”
And Harry's not the only Gryffindor
who on the surface seems like a better fit

for another house…
Hermione comes across
as a brainy Ravenclaw,

and we know from the books
that the hat considered putting her there.

If genes or upbringing
were the main things,

then Sirius Black would have been
in Slytherin like his many ancestors.

Loyal and fair Ron and Neville
could be Hufflepuffs.

In the books, Neville even asks the hat
to sort him into Hufflepuff,

because he doesn't think
he has what it takes to be a Gryffindor.

But the hat can see that deep down,
he wants to be a brave person,

like his parents.
“I'm quite proud to be their son.”
So the sorting is combination
of what the students want

and what the hat knows
they're capable of.

All these Gryffindors have very different
personalities and talents,

but what they share is the will to be brave,
the choice to do the right thing,

and the determination to earn
that great Gryffindor reputation.

Over time we're most impressed
by the character who overcome

their non-Gryffindor natural instincts
to give into fears or do what's easy,

“You'll get Gryffindor into trouble again.
I'll fight you.”
and instead prove what it means
to be a Gryffindor.

“Why spiders?
Why couldn't it be 'follow the butterflies'?”
So, if you really want
to be a Gryffindor,

then you would be --
“If it really means that much to you,
you can choose Gryffindor.”

but you'd have to really want it enough,
for the right reasons.

Not just because you like
the idea or sound of Gryffindor

or because it's considered
the best house by most Potterheads--

but because you desire to be
a heroic, moral person so much

that you can overcome
all the other instincts

that might keep you
from being truly brave at heart.

Gryffindor's house element is fire --
Gryffindors have a strong inner flame.

Their house colors, scarlet and gold,
visually match fire.

Like Gryffindors, these colors
are bold and unequivocal.

Rowling has cited red's connection
to passion and emotion --

and the Gryffindors
are nothing if not passionate

and driven by their emotions.
Gold makes us think of being the best,
as in winning the gold medal

or being the gold standard.
And of course, Gryffindors do think
they're in the best house.

There's also the idea
of having a heart of gold --

and Gryffindors are known
for their strong friendships

and love for one another.
In the first book,
the Sorting Hat defines
the Gryffindor qualities

with the lines:
"You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,

Their daring, nerve, and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart.”

We've already talked some
about daring and nerve,

but chivalry is also an interesting addition.
In modern language,
chivalry tends to be used

in the context of men
being gallant towards women.

But originally this word
had a broader meaning—

it referred to a knightly
code of honor in medieval times.

And we can kind of see that Harry
and his clan are like modern knights.

They hold themselves to
a moral standard and code of conduct

that others don't always see as necessary.
"I think we agree Potter's
actions were heroic.

The question is,
why were they necessary?"

Harry and his creator share
the same birthday, July 31st,

which makes them both Leos,
and that happens to be a fire sign.

So it's almost like much
of the Gryffindor imagery

is originally inspired
by Rowling's own zodiac sign.

Leo is also Latin for lion,
which is the Gryffindors' house animal.

The lion makes us think of leadership,
courage, strength, and nobility.

In the same way, Gryffindors
seem like the leaders of Hogwarts...

like when Hermione,
Harry and their friends

create Dumbledore's Army
to go up against Dolores Umbridge.

A group of lions is called a pride,
and Gryffindors show pride

in the positive sense of the word.
Gryffindors take pride
in the strength of their community

and their shared values.
They know they're most powerful
when they team up and protect each other.

Sometimes, though, Gryffindors
can come across as too proud

in the negative sense of the word, too.
They can be reckless
or act like the rules don't apply to them,

and not everyone finds this so charming.
Gryffindors are even accused of arrogance
--

Harry's father James was guilty of this
in the way he bullied Snape.
“Right.
Who wants to see me
take off Snivelly's trousers?”

The Slytherins tend to see
the Gryffindors as show-offs

who engage in heroic antics for the glory
“Clearly, fame isn't everything.
Is it…
Mr. Potter.”
and who enjoy unfair favoritism at the school.
“Gryffindor wins the House Cup!”
“Yes!”
Another Slytherin criticism of Gryffindors
is that their so-called “bravery”

can look more like stupidity.
“I've always admired your courage, Harry.
But sometimes you can be really thick.”
And to be fair, we can think of times
when Harry's attempts to be brave

make his situation worse.
“Where's Sirius?”
“You know, you really should
learn to tell the difference

between dreams… and reality.”
Despite their flaws, most Gryffindors
eventually learn to channel

their proud or reckless energy
in a positive direction.

Unofficially, the phoenix is another animal
that's connected to Gryffindor.

Dumbledore's phoenix, Fawkes,
embodies the element of fire

and the house's colors.
In The Chamber of Secrets,
Fawkes helps Harry defeat the basilisk,

and this feels explicitly like
the Gryffindor creature

taking down the Slytherin one.
Fawkes' closeness with Dumbledore
also makes it seem like the phoenix

is an animal version of the man himself.
In Order of the Phoenix,
Fawkes helps Dumbledore

avoid being sent to Azkaban.
And when Dumbledore created an organization
to resist Voldemort back in the day,

he put “phoenix” in the name.
The phoenix is known for its ability
to rise from the ashes

“They burst into flame
when it is time for them to die,

and then they are…
reborn from the ashes.”

And symbolically, Gryffindors
have been known to do the same --

look at Harry and Neville,
who became stronger

after the horrors they experienced as children.
The Gryffindor common room
reflects the house spirit:

its defining word would probably be “cozy.”
It's lit up with the warmth of fires,
compared to the cold Slytherin common room.

It's in a tower, just as
the Gryffindors are high-minded,

whereas the Slytherins
are near a dungeon,

not afraid to get into
low-down, dirtier business.

The entrance to the Gryffindor common room
is guarded by the unintimidating Fat Lady.

“Ahhh… oh, amazing!
Just with my voice.”
“Fortuna major.”
“Yes, alright.
Go in.”
So Gryffindor offers students
a homey place where they feel

completely comfortable and safe --
and that reflects how the members
of the house act like a family.

They welcome all members
regardless of class background

or social importance,
unlike some other houses.

“Red hair and a hand-me-down robe.
You must be a Weasley.”
So what's in the name “Gryffindor” itself?
The name comes from
the wizard Godric Gryffindor,

one of the four founders of Hogwarts.
A “griffin” is a magical creature
that's part lion and part eagle.

To Christians, this creature
is the perfect symbol for Christ

because the eagle rules the sky
while the lion rules the earth --

so the griffin captures Christ's
hybrid nature as both divine and human.

Gryffindors are hardly gods,
but the griffin could symbolize

the way that Gryffindors strive
to be their most virtuous selves,

to let higher values guide their human lives.
Finally there's the suffix “d'or.”
In French, “d'or” means
of gold or golden --

again making us think
of having a heart of gold.

Godric Gryffindor's greatest legacy
might be going up against Salazar Slytherin

over the issue of whether non-purebloods
should be allowed into Hogwarts.

“Salazar Slytherin wished to be more selective
about the students admitted to Hogwarts.

He believed magical learning
should be kept within all-magic families.

In other words, pure bloods.”
Godric Gryffindor's mission of fighting
evil

seems to live on in his sword,
which makes multiple appearances
throughout the stories

to remind us of Gryffindor values.
“If you want proof of why
you belong in Gryffindor,

then I suggest you look more closely at this.”
In The Chamber of Secrets,
Harry unknowingly uses the sword

to kill the basilisk.
And in The Deathly Hallows,
Hermione realizes that because the sword

is made by goblins,
it has a special quality.

“It only takes in that which makes it stronger.”
So because Harry's used it on the basilisk,
the sword becomes powerful enough

to destroy horcruxes.
This idea of taking in
only that which makes us stronger

also makes us think of the phoenix
and of the way that Gryffindors

do rise up stronger after their traumas.
Even the Gryffindor ghost,
Nearly Headless Nick,

reminds us of this scrappy
Gryffindor fighting spirit --

he's still going strong,
despite being pretty close to decapitated.

All the most famous Gryffindors
have to take down a big enemy:

Godric Gryffindor with Salazar Slytherin,
Dumbledore fights Grindelwald,

and Harry fights Voldemort.
So Gryffindor's greatest legacy --
and what the house is arguably all about --

is this commitment
to standing up against evil.

“Join me… and live.”
“Never!”
So does Gryffindor deserve
its reputation as the best house?

If you separated out the Gryffindor qualities
and evaluated them in our world,

not everyone would say courage
is objectively more important

than intelligence, loyalty, or ambition.
And maybe if you're in a more peaceful period
where there's no big Voldemort to take down,

courage isn't the most important thing.
But the fact is, our society today
probably tends to overvalue

some of these other houses' qualities,
like smarts and worldly success,

and our society doesn't place enough value
on bravery and a strong moral code.

Ultimately Gryffindor doesn't symbolize
inherent or born heroism,

so much as a state of being
we can aspire towards.

We can be Gryffindors
if every day we work hard

to be our most high-minded
and courageous selves.

Remember, all we've got to do
is really want to be Gryffindors

badly enough, and make that happen,
even if we don't get to do it at Hogwarts.

“Good people and Death Eaters—
we've all got both light and dark inside of

us.
What matters is the part we choose to act
on.”

This is Susan Orlean.
Susan is a staff writer at the New Yorker
and a New York Times bestselling author.

You might remember that Meryl Streep
plays her in Adaptation.

And Susan teaches a class
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Harry Potter House Symbolism: Gryffindor

123 Folder Collection
April Lu published on November 27, 2018
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