In psychology we talk about things called self-fulfilling prophecies- beliefs and expectations which lead to their own fulfilment. Believing you are a successful person leads to confidence, determination and proactive attempts to find solutions. Believing that you are a failure leads to low levels of effort, a panicky and unfocused mindset and a tendency to quickly give up on things. Whichever one you believe, you end up being right.
So: the things we believe about ourselves often end up coming true simply because we believe them. Perception has a massive impact on reality. Now, with this in mind, picture the following scenario: a group of nervous eleven year olds are lined up in front of hundreds of other children and told by a magic hat that they are about to be judged, based on a reading of their deep inner qualities, and sorted into one of four groups. Based on what this magical hat sees in their heads they will either be proclaimed to be adventure loving heroes, bookish intellectuals, friendly dimwits or utterly deplorable scumbags. And this choice will colour every aspect of their next seven years as they will spend all their time with the people who they were deemed most similar to.
Quite apart from this being rather traumatic for the poor “ickle firsties” on their first visit to Hogwarts Castle in the Harry Potter book series, doesn’t this seem a bit like a self fulfilling prophecy? And no, not the magical kind of prophecy. Telling children that you have looked into their minds and discovered that they are heroes, or nerds, or morons, or scheming murderers, and then putting them with a bunch of like-minded kids to shape the rest of their emotional development? How is that a good idea? In fact I put it to you that the very act of sorting the kids in this way creates the exact characteristics they are “predicted” as having.
I mean take away the “magic” and it’s basically psychological profiling and stereotyping. Oh, you’re from a rich, elitist family? Your parents both have a history of illegal activity? Better put you over here with the other “difficult” kids so we can keep an eye on you. Oh, all your brothers and sisters were good students, and your dad holds a respectable government job? Step this way, my boy, let me introduce you to the other promising young prospects.
A Very Different Harry Potter
To illustrate the full extent of the dangers of this kind of deterministic segregation, let’s play it out with Harry. What would Harry have been like if the Sorting Hat had rejected his pleas and decided he was best suited for Slytherin house? What would telling him he was cut from the same cloth as the monster who murdered his parents have done to his young mind? Let’s examine the consequences this arbitrary choice would’ve had for Harry, and for the whole Wizarding world.
On arriving at Hogwarts all Harry knows about the houses is that all the people he looks up to-Hagrid, Dumbledore, his parents- were Gryffindors, and that “there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one.” So when the sorting hat tells him that Slytherin house will help him on his way to greatness and decides to place him there, it’s definitely a bit of a shock.
Young Harry may well have tried to resist his categorisation as being a scumbag Slytherin, refusing to bond with his housemates and trying to prove that he was a good person, with little success. His fledgling friendship with Ron wouldn’t last long- Ron had been raised in a family of Gryffindors and so would be conditioned to want nothing to do with a Slytherin. Hagrid would try to act like it wasn’t a big deal, and still remain a friend to Harry, perhaps going back on his earlier remarks and telling Harry of all the good people he knows who were Slytherins. But Harry would be able to sense that deep down Hagrid was having a hard time trusting him, and the occasional sideways glance or suspicious question would reveal that Hagrid- along with everyone else- was now thinking that maybe little Harry isn’t as much like his parents as he looks. Any attempts poor Harry makes to prove himself would fall on deaf ears- the sorting had has cast its judgement, and Harry is, deep down, an evil person in the eyes of everyone around him.
To make matters worse, Harry shares a common room with Draco Malfoy, the one person in the school who he has already made an enemy of, and has Severus Snape, a man who openly hates him, as a head of house. And given that Malfoy isn’t the only child of a death eater in the Slytherin common room it’s fair to say that Harry isn’t gonna be held up as the hero he would be seen as by the rest of the school had he been put in a different house. Even if the hat thinks Harry belongs in Slytherin the rest of the house would have no problems letting him know that they disagree.
How would Harry react to this constant suspicion from outside and open dislike from within? Well, what does he do whenever Malfoy antagonises him in the books? He tries to fight, only to have Ron and Hermione pull him back. Without either of them around him his quick temper and his pride are gonna get him into lots of fights, and the Slytherins don’t play nice. And so halfway through a miserable first term, wondering whether his new life is really any better than the one he left behind, little Harry reaches a breaking point and decides he isn’t going to let anyone walk all over him anymore. So he throws himself into his studies, showing a real aptitude for duelling and defence against the dark arts, as he does in the books. So next time Malfoy or some other Slytherin bully picks a fight with Harry, he’s ready for it with a spell of his own- not a Fred and George Weasley approved playground joke jinx but a real curse, something that does some serious damage and gets him in real trouble. But the rest of his class learn not to mess with him and even start to fear “The Boy Who Lived”.
Meanwhile Harry shows the same skill at flying his Gryffindor self did. He probably still rescues Neville’s remembrall- not out of sympathy for Neville, who he has never met, but rather to spite his rival Malfoy- and ends up getting selected for the Slytherin quiddich team and excels there just as much as in the Gryffindor team. Another thing Harry retains is his disregard for rules and authority, but whereas the Gryffindor mindset tempers this into a righteous-rule-breaking-to-help-those-in-need kind of mentality, in the cutthroat Slytherin world Harry quickly learns that breaking the rules earns him respect, and develops a contempt for the teachers who try to rein him in.
So this is the Harry we have: a bitter loner respected and feared by his classmates for his fabled past and for his prowess with wand and broomstick. He burns his bridges with Ron the moment he steps onto the quiddich pitch against Fred and George and he probably never speaks to Hermione, but he might enlist himself a couple of acolytes from the Slytherins, or maybe even steal Crabbe and Goyle from Malfoy when they see that he is tougher then Malfoy is. This badass with a lightning scar quickly earns a fearsome reputation around Hogwarts as a troublemaker and someone you don’t want to pick a fight with, and the teachers look on with dismay and knowingly say to each other “It’s no surprise he ended up in Slytherin. Look how he’s turned out!”
A Very Different Story
How does this version of Harry react to the events of the books? I think the first major point of divergence would come when Harry finds the Mirror of Erised. He still sees his parents and family in the mirror, but finds no comfort in it. All he feels is grief that he has let them down by becoming a Slytherin. How ashamed they must be, he feels. Slowly this grief turns to resentment- resentment that his family abandoned him, anger that they left him with impossibly big shoes to fill, and hatred of the one who caused it. Harry looks in the mirror and sees everything that has been taken from him, and vows he will never let it happen again. Having already been told that, as a Slytherin, he is a power-hungry and unscrupulous person deep down, he decides that the only rational thing to do is make sure he is the most powerful. With enough power, he can save anyone from death.
So Harry embarks on a mission to make himself the most powerful wizard who ever lived, in the hopes he can use the dark in him as a force to protect what he cares about. But the change to his character isn’t so dramatic that he’d want to take the Philosopher’s stone for himself by the end of his first year. He may be a bit of a jerk but he’s not a psychopath, and he’s still got no love for Voldemort. So his propensity for meddling means that he ends up uncovering Quirrell’s attempt on the stone and stopping Voldy’s first bid for resurrection.
Come second year Harry has had an energising summer of terrifying Dudley with the threat of magic and returns to school with that insufferable year 8 swagger than anyone who has worked in a secondary school knows all too well. The final nail in his good reputation comes when he attends Lockhart’s duelling club and is revealed as a parslemouth, something which the rest of Slytherin house revere him for, transitioning him into a kind of anti-hero for the house, but demonising him in the eyes of everyone else. People begin to whisper that maybe the Dark Lord and Harry are connected in more ways than have been let on. Maybe Harry is the heir of Slytherin- the one who is unleashing the horrors of the Chamber of Secrets onto the school.
Whatever people think, Harry still isn’t a murderer, and has nothing to do with the Chamber. He doesn’t care what the rest of the school think- he is well used to being hated and ignored, after all- and even begins to resent his parents, who are constantly held up to him by disapproving teachers as a standard he has totally failed to live up to.
When harry finds Tom Riddle’s diary and begins talking to him he sees that they are incredibly similar in both their circumstances and their motivations. But, he still isn’t a murderer, and Riddle’s attempts to play him end just as they did in the book. So the Chamber is discovered and Voldemort’s plans thwarted. Third year passes without incident- Harry and Ron are not friends so Harry never ends up at the Shreiking Shack on the night Sirius attacks, so maybe Sirius and Lupin kill Scabbers and avenge James’ betrayal, or maybe Snape still arrives to apprehend them and both are sent to rot in Azkaban. Either way Harry has nothing to do with it, and since he and Hagrid are now very distant he has no reason to save Buckbeak the hippogriff either.
Point of No Return
When the Triwizard Tournament rolls around in fourth year Harry jumps at the chance to prove himself and uses his formidable magical prowess and evident affinity for dark magic to comfortably walk his way through the three tasks. At the centre of the maze Harry has no desire to share his victory with a silly Hufflepuff like Cedric, so stuns him and takes the cup himself- inadvertently saving Cedric’s life in the process. Upon being teleported to that graveyard and confronted with the Dark Lord reborn, Harry is overwhelmed by his hatred and gives Voldemort one heck of a fight when they duel. Instead of shooting a disarming spell as he does in the book, Harry summons up enough hatred and dark power to cast a lethal avada kedavra spell of his own, marking the first time he actually intends to kill anyone. Their beams meet just as in the book and Harry gets a glimpse of his parents, who warn him that his rage and lust for power are turning him into the very thing that killed them. Harry is unmoved by their pleas and promises that he will protect himself where they could not, before eventually making good his escape and vowing to bring Voldemort down no matter the cost.
Harry tastes death again in the summer before his fifth year as he is walking home with Dudley and set upon by the dementors. He realises he has no way to fight them- having never been taught the patronus charm by Lupin and not having any happy enough memories to cast it anyway. And so, in a move that reveals just how far the Slytherin mentality has permeated his mind, he sacrifices Dudley- stunning him and leaving him as bait for the Dementors to drain while he escapes. Harry is initially appalled that he could do such a terrible thing, but reminds himself that he is a Slytherin and so of course he is capable of sacrificing the weak for his own ends.
Harry clashes with Voldemort again in the Department of Mysteries at the end of his fifth year, but with one crucial difference- this Harry hasn’t been teaching his classmates to cast shield charms all year; he’s been training himself to kill. And so he kills Bellatrix Lestrange as she is fleeing from him and maybe takes a couple of other death eaters out during the fight, meaning that Voldemort’s minions are now just as afraid of him as they are of their master, who begins to wonder if marking Harry as his rival might have been a mistake.
In sixth year Dumbledore is one of the few wizards who still places any trust in the violent, rage-filled young boy that Harry has become, and enlists his help in his search for the horcruxes. Upon learning of this dark magic that can shield you from death Harry, who is by now utterly consumed with his murderous desire to kill Voldemort, readily embraces the possibility of creating a horcrux of his own. And the perfect opportunity arises on the night Dumbledore is murdered. Instead of blindly chasing after Snape, Harry pays close attention to who it was that disarmed Dumbledore and took his wand- Draco Malfoy. This version of Harry is very familiar with the story of the Deathly Hallows and the legend of the invincible Elder Wand would be a natural draw to him. So, in the ensuing chaos, Harry tracks Malfoy down and murders him, killing his old rival, taking the Elder Wand, and creating his first horcrux in the process. What item does he use as the housing for the horcrux? The Elder Wand itself- tying his soul to the wand’s power and forever giving himself over to darkness in the process. So in his seventh year he declares war on Voldemort, scouring the world for his remaining horcruxes and unleashing the fury of the Elder Wand on any who stand in his way. The vicious conflict between these two dark wizards cuts a terrible swathe through the wizarding-and muggle- worlds, but eventually Harry is successful, tracking down and destroying the horcruxes through sheer might and malice.
And then we come, at last, to the moment of fate. Harry, fresh from destroying the final horcrux at Hogwarts, discovers that he himself holds a part of Voldemort’s soul in him and that he will have to die in order to defeat him. And so he sets out to meet his nemesis in the forest. As in the books he uses the resurrection stone to summon the ghosts of his parents before his final confrontation. Lilly and James look upon their son and see that he has been fully consumed by hatred, greed, lust for power and a bloody-minded desire for revenge. Harry looks up at the mother he has secretly, achingly, hopelessly, needed to be loved by, and listens as she tells him that she does not recognise the cruel, cold-hearted man he has become. Perhaps Harry takes a moment to reflect on the path he has chosen, thinking about the turning points in his life- being told he was a wizard, being put in Slytherin, seeing his parents in the mirror, leaving Dudley to die, murdering Malfoy, and all the terrible things he has done in the name of revenge. Maybe he even wonders if there could have been another way to defeat Voldemort- one that wouldn’t have involved sacrificing so much of himself, one that his parents could have loved him for. But no, this is who Harry is- he was fated to walk this path all along, and it is far too late to turn back. His mother’s words ringing in his ears he confronts Voldemort, who raises his wand to strike down the boy who he feared would one day be his undoing.
…Except this Harry is no longer a boy. This Harry has killed and created horxuxes of his own. This Harry is the sole owner of all three Deathly Hallows; the Elder Wand he claimed from Malfoy, and the Invisibility Cloak and Resurrection Stone he was given by Dumbledore- who believed in him up until the very end. This Harry is, quite literally, master of death. After Voldemort “kills” him he rises, smiles, and strikes down the dark lord at last, feeling no satisfaction at finally achieving his quest, only an emptiness. In this moment he realises that simply killing Voldemort was never enough, and that to truly be considered the greatest wizard who ever lived he needs to destroy anyone who would stand in his way. Taking charge of the remaining death eaters, Harry proclaims himself the new dark lord and begins his war on Hogwarts and the wizarding world, leaving a sobbing Hagrid chained to a tree in the forest, wondering what went wrong and what could have happened to the naive, sweet boy he met on that tiny island seven years ago.
In the new dark world Harry creates, where strength is everything, where “peace” and “compassion” have no meaning, the name of the Boy Who Lived is spoken only in whispers. His story is passed down by the few surviving wizards still living in freedom as a warning about the perils of giving in to the darkness within, while his nefarious exploits inspire many aspiring dark wizards to follow in his footsteps, dreaming of taking the Deathly Hallows as their own. His exact end is unknown: some say he was betrayed and killed by one of his lieutenants, others say he was brought to justice by death himself who entered the world to reclaim his three treasures, while still others say he lives on, driven mad by guilt, using the resurrection stone to beg forgiveness from the shades of his parents and all those he has killed. However the story ends, the entire wizarding world agrees that Harry Potter was by far the most vile, hated and irredeemably evil wizard to ever walk the earth.
…Man, that got a lot darker than I expected. Just wait till I do the Hufflepuff version.