July 4, 2011

Harry Potter Query: First Years

Warning: this post may not be thrilling to you if you are not interested in/curious about Harry Potter minutia.

I'm busy rereading Harry Potter, and moving rather slowly. I have no particular deadline in mind, but thought it would be a good time to get reacquainted with the books. It has been a while. I used to reread each book as the next came out, resulting in my reading the first Harry Potters many times more than I read the later ones. I anticipate a few "No way!" moments when I get down the line, but for now I'm meandering through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

It's an interesting read, especially considering how many things J. K. Rowling brought back in later books. I'm sure there have been interviews on this, but did she really plot out every book that carefully, in advance? It seems just a little insane -- certainly I'm nowhere near that as a writer.

Anyway, here's one question that just occurred to me as I was reading the bit about Harry and company being sorted into their respective Houses. (I'm hoping that another rabid fan out there may be able to answer/clarify this point...) The narrative states that when Harry and his Gryffindor crew hop up to the dormitory for the first time, there is a room with five beds in it, one for each of the boys. I assume that this means there were only five male Gryffindor first years that year: Harry, Ron, Seamus, Neville, and Dean.

Carrying this further (based on the number of brooms present at the first flying lesson: twenty, for the Gryffindor and Slytherin first years combined), there are a: exactly five female first years per House, and b: exactly ten first years total per House. This comes out (assuming a 100% retention rate) to seventy students per House, two hundred and eighty students in the entire school.

Was this obvious to everyone else? Was I just being silly when I was thinking that we only focused on a few Hogwarts students per year, and there were many more who simply weren't that important? (Because this means that each student is much more important than I previously gave them credit for...)

Anyway, that's not my actual question. My question is, then: If the five and ten student quotas are set, then doesn't that mean the Sorting Hat has two tasks? First, to sort the students into their appropriate Houses, and second, to fill the quota? And if the Sorting Hat must fill the quota, then what happens if there are more students appropriate for a certain House than there are spaces? One assumes that the Sorting Hat reads your true nature and places you appropriately, but if there is a quota on how many students are sorted into each House, can this be absolutely true? OR, does this mean that admissions letters are sent to the appropriate batch of students in the first place, and the Sorting Hat is just reaffirming what the professors (or admissions committee, or whatever) knew already about which students will end up in which House?

Of course, the free-wheeling, all-powerful nature of the Sorting Hat is touted from Sorcerer's Stone onward, so it doesn't make much sense that the Sorting Hat is just reaffirming something that's already known. But if the Sorting Hat is really free to choose (and if the students, like Harry, have some say about which is their House), then how can that be reconciled with the strict ten students per year quota that seems to be in place? (This assumption follows from the fact that both Gryffindor and Slytherin have exactly ten students in the first year, five male and five female.)

Anyone have any thoughts? Or am I just taking this way too far? (By the way, Happy Fourth of July and all that.)


  1. You know, I always wondered about this as well. For some reason, I think I remember reading in one of the books that the houses stay equal in numbers--which would suggest some sort of quota. Do we know for sure that Slytherin had 5 males and 5 females or do we just know that there are 10 Slytherins? Also, do we know for certain that there were 5 Gryffindor girls? We only *know* of Hermione, Lavender and Parvati. So, could there actually only be 8 Gryffindors and 12 Slytherins?

    Maybe this will be something JK talks about in Pottermore :)

  2. I remember thinking this too in the early years; I figured that meant 5 boys and 5 girls for each house every year. Of course, Gryffindor ends up a bit smaller when Fred and George leave (although they were almost done anyway) and what about when Myrtle died and Hagrid was kicked out years ago? Is there just an empty place? As to how the Sorting Hat does it, I feel like it's more confirmation since it seems like MOST people end up in the same house as their parents (see Harry, all the Weasleys, Draco). Obviously there are exceptions, Sirius and Muggle-borns, but for the most part, it seems like it can be predicted.

  3. I've wondered this too. I always thought that the letters went out to a set number of candidates each year. I think the sorting hat is both for show (tradition) and to sort appropriately. I'm not sure if there's a status quo for each house or not. Could be that some years, one house ends up with more students than others. My thoughts on the dormitories have the "right" number of beds was the idea that the castle responds immediately to how the hat sorts. There's so many things that happen in the castle that the students never realize.

  4. Oh, Rowling's little mathematical issues regarding Hogwarts are legion. There's also one point when, at a Gryffindor vs. Slytherin Quidditch match, we are told that 3/4 of the stadium is wearing red and gold, but on the other side of the stadium, 200 people are wearing green and silver...which would mean there are about 800 people at Hogwarts (though not necessarily that many students, since staff attend matches as well). Obviously contradicting the easy numbers we have going on here.

    Frankly, I always assumed that Hogwarts would make as many beds in each dormitory as were needed, to make up for any discrepancies in numbers of students between years. One thing I both love and hate about Rowling's universe is how little, after all of this, we really know. On the one hand, I feel like this is important information, and if I had written this series, I would have wanted to incorporate more. But on the other hand...she writes about SO MUCH that I can understand why not everything gets a ton of screen time.

    Regarding the Sorting Hat, I was particularly interested in the implications of some of its later songs, ex. "though condemned I am to split you, still I wonder if it's wrong. / Though I must fulfill my duty and must quarter every year, / still I wonder whether sorting may not bring the end I fear," the end being wizardly infighting and lack of unity (quoted from memory, so any inaccuracies are mine). Now I notice that "quarter" suggests that students MIGHT actually be split neatly into the houses...though it could just be sloppy language for adsorbing them to four different options. But I always wondered whether the Sorting Hat might one day stop sorting, afraid that things had gone too far. Imagine what would happen if Hogwarts suddenly had an incoming group of Houseless first years on its hands... I'm still a little sad that Rowling never took it in this direction.

  5. Yes, I definitely think that the castle could be set up to "create" the appropriate number of beds based on how many people are sorted into each house. My supposition of a strict 5/5/10 ratio per house stems from a: the five male Gryffindors, and b: the twenty brooms equaling two houses, implying a split of ten and ten.

    I went back and read the sorting section, and you're right, Kaitlyn: the only Gryffindor first year girls I find mentioned are Hermione, Lavender, and Parvati. Which means that there certainly could be only eight Gryffindor first years, and by extension, twelve Slytherins. I'll be keeping an eye on the numbers as I read more...

    On the other hand, as Candace mentions, there are mathematical problems throughout, so I'm fairly sure that Rowling would have wanted to keep the math as simple as possible (10 per House, 5 per gender). I'm inclined to believe that we just don't hear about the two other (less important) Gryffindor girls. However, having a strict quota per house does bring up all those issues I mentioned in my post, which I wonder whether Rowling thought about.

  6. @Candace Cunard

    Now that you mention it, a generation of houseless first years would have been very cool to see, especially since so much of the books are made up of the jockeying amongst houses both in personal and in organizational ways (House Cup, Quidditch Cup, etc.). I would read a book about that... Although I would think that this wasn't tackled in the series just because there was TOO MUCH going on in the last few books, what with Umbridge, anarchy at Hogwarts, and the whole academic system collapsing in the last book.

    (Come to think of it, I'd also be very interested in reading a book just after the victory, about how Hogwarts gets put back together, and whatever sorting/academic/organizational changes are made in reflection of recent history. And about the recovery of wizarding society as a whole.)

  7. Okay, "houseless first years" just reminded me of Seventh Tower.