The Fire Nation and the problem of Slytherin

*Spoilers below the cut for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Also for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but come on, it was a cultural phenomenon and you’ve had seven years to catch up. Whereas at the time of posting the Korra finale has been out for less than a week.*

So The Legend of Korra is over, and I am filled with love for the finale. I feel like some of the epilogue bits were a little rushed, but I like that Kuvira gets a shot at redemption, I love everything about Varrick and Zhu Li, and even if I’m not really sure about Korrasami, I respect the creators for coming as close to depicting a same-sex relationship as they could get away with on an animated show for children.

But the finale isn’t what I wanted to talk about. What I’ve been thinking about is something else that Korra did very well, and it ties into yet another critique of Harry Potter, namely the four Hogwarts houses.

The Sorting Hat lays out the basics in Sorcerer’s/ Philosopher’s Stone: Gryffindor, “where dwell the brave at heart”; Hufflepuff, “where they are just and loyal”; Ravenclaw, “those of wit and learning”; Slytherin, “those cunning folk.”  Even before the first appearance of the hat, Slytherin gets a bad rap; Hagrid tells Harry that the house has a reputation for turning out Dark witches and wizards. In Chamber of Secrets, we learn that Salazar Slytherin was a proponent of pureblood racism, which is confirmed by the Sorting Hat’s song in Order of the Phoenix.* Not a promising start.

Hagrid’s claim that “there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin” may not be strictly accurate, but it’s not far from the truth. Nearly all the characters on the side of evil whose House affiliation is known are Slytherins. Voldemort, of course. Most of the Death Eaters, including Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange. We do get a non-evil Slytherin in Professor Slughorn, and morally complex Slytherins in Draco and Narcissa Malfoy and Severus Snape. But it’s only with the Slytherin characters that their loyalties are even in question. You don’t see people from any of the other houses queuing up to join the Dark Side. (Give or take Wormtail, who I think must have been a Gryffindor.) And even though Harry comes to respect Snape and reaches an adult detente with Malfoy, he never has a single Slytherin friend.

My point is this: I don’t think Slytherin House is inherently evil, and neither does J. K. Rowling, who says that “Slytherin has turned out more than one hero.” But she didn’t make a very good case for it in the text.

Now let’s turn to the Avatarverse. Avatar: The Last Airbender has four nations based on the four elements, and part of the premise of the series is that the Fire Nation has disrupted the balance of the world by making war on the other three. You see where I’m going with this, right? Sure, Zuko and Iroh get banished and Zuko eventually joins up with the Avatar. But the primary antagonist is still the Fire Nation, as personified by Azula and Ozai.

I think Avatar does somewhat better with the Fire Nation than Rowling does with Slytherin House. For one thing, as mentioned above, Harry never has a Slytherin friend, whereas Zuko gets half a season to bond with the Gaang and establish himself as one of the heroes. For another, Book Three sees the Gaang traveling through the Fire Nation and meeting ordinary citizens who aren’t leaders or soldiers, and who see their share of suffering under the Firelord’s harsh military regime.

But to the extent that the Avatarverse really manages to break down the boundaries between the four nations, it happens in Legend of Korra. Republic City is, more than symbolically, a place where the four nations meet and mix on equal terms. For example, in A:TLA‘s time, biracial characters are rare to nonexistent, whereas Korra almost immediately introduces Mako and Bolin. Not to mention Tenzin and his siblings, and for that matter, Tenzin and Pema’s kids, since Pema can’t have been Air Nation by birth. And the New Air Nation recruits come from all over the world. Korra also doesn’t restrict its villains to a particular nation; the Big Bads of the first two books are both waterbenders, but in Book Three it’s an airbender (leading a team of all four bending types, even) and in Book Four it’s a metal/earthbender.

If I have a point to make here, other than “Legend of Korra is awesome”, it’s this: if J.K. Rowling ever decides to write a sequel series about little Albus Severus Potter, that would be a great time to give Slytherin a shot at not being the House of Evil.

*As an aside, I’ve always thought that Gryffindor’s criterion for choosing students made the least sense. Slytherin was using twisted racist logic, but you can see how it made sense to him that he should only teach pureblood students. Ravenclaw choosing only the cleverest? That’s basically the same policy as any school with an admissions exam. And Hufflepuff was ready to teach anyone–and given that Hogwarts seems to be the only school of magic in Britain, she had a point. But why would you declare that only brave people get to go to your school? They were educating children, not building an army.



When discussing the scarcity of non-Slytherins on the Dark Side, I can’t believe I forgot about this essay from Mugglenet, speculating on the House affiliation of the DADA teachers through Book 5. I did indeed forget about Quirrell, and Pottermore has confirmed that he was a Ravenclaw.  The hypothesis that Crouch Jr. was a Hufflepuff is interesting, though I believe Rowling is on record stating that Hufflepuff has turned out notably fewer Dark wizards than any other House.


Filed under Books, TV

4 responses to “The Fire Nation and the problem of Slytherin

  1. Andrew Clough

    What benighted corners of the internet I’ve been hiding in if I’ve never heard “The Gaang” before.

  2. Albert

    In response to your aside about the criteria of Gryffindor, I figured it might have something to do with bravery in terms of being willing to try something new/do what was seen as the impossible/”rock the system” so to speak. Bravery to speak out against tradition in learning and culture, bravery against bigotry, etc. Basically, Hufflepuffs work hard within the system, Ravenclaws are the best in the system, Slytherin exploit the system, and Gryffindor flips the system upside down if they don’t like it/think it doesn’t work as it is.

    Albus Dumbledore was a Gryffindor, and he was supremely willing to “rock the system, and if the stuff about Harry, Hermione, and Ron reforming the Ministry after Deathly Hallows, they’re doing the same too.

    • The other possibility I’ve thought of is that they want brave people because Hogwarts provides an insanely dangerous education. I mean, forget about the school being regularly attacked by evil wizards, which was an anomaly of Harry’s school years, and look at the actual curriculum. They grow plants that can kill you with sound, learn how to make poisons, and study dangerous animals up close. I’m surprised they don’t have a body count every year as a matter of course.

  3. I think AtLA did better with the Fire Nation from near the beginning. We’ve got Roku, and I think one of the Fire Sages at the early temple helps them. Iroh’s a bit of a buffoon at first, but comes through as a Good Guy by 2nd season at least if not earlier (like at the North Pole — certainly more spiritual than most characters.) Aang had his friend Kuzon, though I forget when he was brought up. Ty Lee seems pretty clearly coerced into bad behavior by Azula.

    So I feel it did a lot better at “Fire Nation has bad leaders but aren’t bad people” than JKR did with Slytherin. We also see bad people who aren’t Fire Nation — Chin the Conqueror, sandbender raiders, Long Feng.

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