Approximately one thousand years ago, four extraordinary wizards created a safe haven for the young wizards of their day: Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry. For years we have read, watched, and played at Hogwarts; for many it has become a place where dreams and imagination are given sustenance.
We know a fair amount about Hogwarts the school; we know considerably less about the four gifted and creative wizards who became the Founders: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin. (Chamber of Secrets, 150)
The story is familiar to all who have listened to the Sorting Hat and survived the Magical History classes of Professor Binns:
You all know, of course, that Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago”the precise date is uncertain”by the four greatest witches and wizards of the age. They built this castle together, far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution. (Chamber of Secrets, 150)
Professor Binns also tells us the bare bones of the rest of the story:
For a few years, the founders worked in harmony together, seeking out youngsters who showed signs of magic and bringing them to the castle to be educated. But then disagreements sprang up between them. A rift began to grow between Slytherin and the others. Slytherin wished to be more selective about the students admitted to Hogwarts. He believed that magical learning should be kept within all-magic families. He disliked taking students of Muggle parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy. After a while, there was a serious argument on the subject between Slytherin and Gryffindor, and Slytherin left the school.(ibidem)
So much for the historical perspective; the Sorting Hat has a more intimate view of the "Hogwarts Four": (Chamber of Secrets, 317)
A thousand years or more ago
When I was newly sewn,
There lived four wizards of renown,
Whose names are still well-known:
Bold Gryffindor, from wild moor,
Fair Ravenclaw, from glen,
Sweet Hufflepuff, from valley broad,
Shrewd Slytherin, from fen.
They shared a wish, a hope, a dream,
They hatched a daring plan
To educate young sorcerers
Thus HogwartsSchool began.
Each formed their own House,
For each valued different virtues;
By Gryffindor, the bravest were
Prized far beyond the rest;
For Ravenclaw, the cleverest
Would always be the best;
For Hufflepuff, hard workers were
Most worthy of admission;
And power-hungry Slytherin
Loved those of great ambition."
(Goblet of Fire, 176-7)
The Sorting Hat tells the sorry tale of the rift between the four friends:
In times of old when I was new
And Hogwarts barely started
The founders of our noble school
Thought never to be parted:
United by a common goal,
They had the selfsame yearning,
To make the world's best magic school
And pass along their learning.
For were there such friends anywhere
As Slytherin and Gryffindor?
Unless it was the second pair
Of Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw?
So how could it have gone so wrong?
How could such friendships fail?
Said Slytherin, "We'll teach just those
Whose ancestry is purest."
Said Ravenclaw, "We'll teach those whose
Intelligence is surest."
Said Gryffindor, "We'll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name'
Said Hufflepuff, "I'll teach the lot,
And treat them just the same."
So Hogwarts worked in harmony
For several happy years,
But then discord crept among us
Feeding on our faults and fears.
The Houses that, like pillars four,
Had once held up our school,
Now turned upon each other and,
Divided, sought to rule.
And for a while it seemed the school
Must meet an early end,
What with dueling and with fighting
And the clash of friend on friend
And at last there came a morning
When old Slytherin departed
And though the fighting then died out
He left us quite downhearted.
And never since the founders four
Were whittled down to three
Have the Houses been united
As they once were meant to be.
(Order of the Phoenix, 205-7)
So, this is the canon upon which all our speculation and assumptions lie. In the Chamber of Secrets, we learn a bit more about Salazar Slytherin; he was determined to get his way in the end, and was willing to take the long view. Slytherin left behind a secret chamber, in which he left his solution to his difference with Godric Gryffindor: a basilisk. (Chamber of Secrets, 151, 290) The reasons that drove Salazar Slytherin to this terrible deed have been the source of much speculation and disagreement among readers. Why? Why?
We are a millennium away from the people of the Dark Ages, the time of the Founders. The attitudes and philosophies of that world are alien to us. Our world would be frightening to them”and the calendar was about to bring the end of the world¦
Millennium Fever—- a phrase familiar to our world of computers, survivalists, and global communications. The phrase meant a business opportunity for some and anarchy for others in the waning years of the twentieth century. For the people of the tenth century, the millennium meant an imminent Judgment Day, and a date at the Ultimate Court.(Millennium Fever)
Debts were cancelled; crops went unsown or rotted in the fields, pilgrimages to holy sites swelled with petitioners. Those who were outside the cultural and religious norm were to be converted, driven away, or killed. It was not a good time to be endowed with magical power, much less to use it.
In this milieu, Hogwarts was born; due to this resurgence of religious fever, security for budding sorcerers had to be made strong. Hogwarts was hidden, and the problem of those with magical abilities but Muggle relations had to be addressed.
Salazar Slytherin had a draconian solution to this problem: deny admittance to all those who would put Hogwarts, and other students, at risk. The safest and surest students were those whose families were already magical.
Godric Gryffindor wanted the bravest to be admitted; I believe he thought that the bravest students would provide a ready security force, should Hogwarts defenses be compromised.
Rowena Ravenclaw valued the tactical advantage intelligence would bring; should magic be the weapon of defense, a cogent plan would be essential.
Helga Hufflepuff had a different view. Admit those who were loyal to Hogwarts and hard-working, and security would not be a problem. Her students would protect the secret of Hogwarts for the sake of loyalty, rather than fear.
Four different views, one goal: survival.
These views, with the exception of Slytherin's, were not necessarily mutually exclusive. The attributes of the purely magical varied, as did those born out of Muggle or Muggle-magical pairings. If the student population were not limited to the offspring of magical families, all the philosophies of the Founders could be accommodated. The problem, therefore, was how to reconcile the views of Slytherin with those of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff.
I think that Salazar Slytherin went to great lengths to persuade the other Founders that his method was the safest alternative for Hogwarts. When reasoning failed, he appealed to their fears and played upon their faults as people. After all, if Slytherin achieved his goals, any means became acceptable.
Friendship is a precious commodity in the world; it is a measure of the strength of Salazar Slytherin's stance on this issue that friendship with Godric Gryffindor was the price for his zeal. Slytherin left the school in the hands of his onetime collaborators, but not untended, for Salazar had left in place a failsafe—- the Chamber of Secrets, and the basilisk. We know that Slytherin perpetuated his line (Chamber of Secrets, 314), and that he had a reason for so doing. After all, someone had to be able to open the Chamber after he had gone. The elements of the legend were true (Chamber of Secrets, 150-1), but I believe that Salazar Slytherin's motives were not as they have been assumed. Tradition and time have a way of playing "post office" with the truth; what was once a philosophy became a measure of worth. Surely, limiting the student population to magical families had advantages beyond security; a network of well-disposed contacts is a useful tool for the ambitious, but it need not have been the overriding reason for Salazar Slytherin's concern.
Seen in this light, the motives for the placement of the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets takes on a different, less ominous cast; as a weapon against attacking Muggles, the basilisk would have given the members of Hogwarts a devastating answer to the science of the non-magical. The sundering of the Magical World from our own had not yet been completed; attacks against the strange edifice Muggles found in their midst would not have been beyond the realm of possibility.
It is not my intention to "redeem" Salazar Slytherin, but to offer an alternative set of circumstances for the story of the Founders, and to place the beginnings of Hogwarts in an historical context. I believe there is a value in this; human motivations and character development are greatly affected by the historical context of the time.
This is being written before the seventh installment of the Harry Potter story; I am sure that more will be revealed about the Founders and the forces which affected them. Indeed, the author has so stated (Leaky Cauldron interview, part 2).I, too, will be waiting on pins and needles with the rest of the loyal fans of Harry Potter!!
Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz.”The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview
JK Rowling:Part Two.”16 July 2005. The Leaky Cauldron. 04 Jan.2006.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
Strandberg, Todd. “Millennium Fever.” Rapture Ready Index. 05 Sept. 2005. Rapture Ready. 04 Jan. 2006.<http://www.raptureready.com/rap29.html>