A friend over at the Barnes and Noble Book Club I’m moderating this month wrote a longish post about the Four Houses, their Four Elements equivalents, and their probable spiritual qualities. I do enjoy thinking about Ravenclaw (Air), Hufflepuff (Earth), Gryffindor (Fire), and Slytherin (Water) along these lines, if I would have never come up with what Oriflamme did. More recently I have been tracking the choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine, and melancholic humors/temperaments in the various characters. Fun stuff.
Most interesting to me is how Ms. Rowling has used these traditionalist conceptions of character and physics to make postmodern points — and has done so from the first book of the series.
I am thinking about Dumbledore’s four word speech to the Four Houses after the sorting in Philosopher’s Stone. He says, “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” and sits down. This talk made enough of an impression on Harry (and Ms. Rowling thought it important enough) that he recalls these words during the eulogy at the Headmaster’s funeral in Prince.
The context of his talk is the Sorting of the ickle firsties into their respective houses. However off-the-wall, Albus seems to be making an important point about the divisions that have just been made and the identities these students are about to take on. In short, each of the four words is a “put-down” that one house would use to describe the “other” (anyone not part of their new house).
“Nitwit:” Ravenclaw is the house of witches and wizards of greater intelligence. As a rule, Rowena’s children will think of those not selected for membership in their select group as “nitwits” or dummies.
“Blubber:” Blubber, in contrast, is a word used on playgrounds in the English speaking world for “fat.” It is disparaging because children use it to be unkind to their peers who are heavier than the average kid and probably less athletic. Gryffindor, the jock or frat house, sees the “other” as less physically bold or courageous, for which condition, an eleven year-old would probably find “blubber” a handy signifier.
“Oddment:” This is a word from the world of sewing and fabrics. An oddment, if memory serves, is the remainder from the bolt of cloth, a remainder not large enough to be usable in making anything significant. Slytherins are lovers of “pure-blood” and, in this, “wholeness” or “integrity.” The “other” to a Slytherin is any witch or wizard born with insufficient purity, an insufficiency that makes them an oddment of less, even no value.
“Tweek:” Hufflepuff is the Hogwarts House for magical folk who were not smart, bold, or pure enough for the three Houses described above. From Malfoy’s comments in Madame Borkin’s in *Stone,” they seem to be the dustbin house, where the nobodies wind up. Cedric’s success in *Goblet* also suggests that glory is something of a stranger to Hufflepuff champions.
I have to doubt this is the Hufflepuff self-understanding. They look at the “other” and see “excess” or “imbalance” not “excellence” and “virtue” they lack. Hufflepuff witches and wizards are down-to-earth, humble (humilis), and real people. The “other” needs to be “tweeked” or adjusted to refine their excess and bring it to the mean, which as Aristotle teaches, is where virtue really lies.
The Headmaster doesn’t make a long speech about what a shame it is that they have been divided and will soon see themselves as better than their friends who have had the misfortune to be sorted into the “other” houses. As a good postmodern linguistics professor, he notes that the Sorting Hat is the vehicle of the metanarrative or Grand Myth that is the *real* evil of their world and throws out his comic marker for those capable of hearing what was not very well hidden in his short speech.
As Harry must act as Quintessence to the Four Houses and Four Magical Brethren and was destined to this role as “The Chosen One,” it is no accident that these words stayed with him. Here’s hoping he can make sense of this lesson in his Deathly Hallows efforts to unite the Magical World against Lord Voldemort.