In Defense of Horace Slughorn
I’d like to take a moment to tell you about the single most admirable, powerful, and wise character in the Harry Potter universe. In this brilliant series about bitchy teens, dangerously neglectful teachers, abusive parents, and obsessed lovers there is one character who stands above the rest. For skill, for hope and understanding, and even for bravery. That character is Horace Eugene Flaccus Slughorn.
It is easy to overlook Slughorn in the way it is easy to overlook all great teachers and mentors. It is easy to pay attention to those posturing on the pedestal, and difficult to remember who put them there in the first place. Easy to remember the Olympian, nearly impossible to remember the coaches.
“But what about Dumbledore?”, you cry. Surely when it comes to Hogwarts teachers everyone is second to Albus Dumbledore and you…would be wrong.
Slughorn attends Hogwarts around the same time as Dumbledore. Despite coming from a pure-blood family in the late 1800’s, against his parent’s wishes, Slughorn befriends several half blood and muggle born students, instilling in him a life long appreciation of talent and dedication regardless of birth. By comparison, it is around this age when Dumbledore murders his sister in a fight with his gay lover (J.K. said it so so will I) about just how violent the race war they are planning should be.
Slughorn starts teaching the same year that Dumbledore does, but while Dumbledore focuses on his own power and fame Slughorn mentors hundreds of students over decades. While Horrace can list his students and mentees, surrounds himself with their pictures and affections throughout the series– all anyone ever says about Albus Dumbledore is how powerful he is, how great he is, how important he is. It would be about as useful to have the Mona Lisa as an art teacher.
“Well sure.” the naysayers will nay. “But he was only concerned with his ‘slug club’, his favorite students– what kind of great teacher is that?” To this I answer, all great teachers. All great teachers have their favorites, they’ll tell you if you ask but unlike Dumbledore (or for that matter every other Hogwarts teacher) Horace Slughorn favors students not by their race (yes, the houses are a race…don’t get me started), their birth, or whether they have a piece of his enemy’s souls trapped inside them that would allow him to groom them for a suicide mission, but for their talent. Regardless of blood, wealth or family, Horace Slughorn chose his favorites on merit and merit alone.
And lest the lingering favoritism he displays still perturbs you, ask yourself this. Did Horace Slughorn ever throw an end the year prize-giving ceremony for one group of 11 through 17 year olds only to swap it out (complete with color changing banners) at the last moment? Because Dumbledore did. Horace did not reward Arthur Weasley for his fruitless perusal of muggle studies when he could have been manipulating the ether like a god, nor did he include Weasley’s son Ron son (who neither excelled at, nor cared about school) based solely on his famous friends– but he also never pretended 11 year old children were going to win a prize only to give an extra special reward to children he liked better.
‘But he’s a coward!” the last dregs of Dumbledore’s army cry. He ran when Voldemort came back! He hid and was reluctant to join the Hogwarts staff. Well sure.The school had lost teachers to murder, madness, public humiliation, murder again, and centaur attack–among other delights– in the years leading up to his tenure. Not exactly a position I’d be eager to fill either and yet he does step forward, and why? Out of deranged loyalty to the woman he stalked and got murdered, like Severus Snape? No. Due to his plan to send a child on a suicide mission that would make a jihadi blush? No. Because of the students. Because he sees in Harry that which is most important to him, not his own personal glory, fame, and success, but the ability to help others be great.
And let’s talk brass tacks. Who fakes an escape to Hogsmeade only to bring back reinforcements? Slughorn. Who pretends to lose his wand only to “find” it and take out several death eaters? Slughorn. And while Dumbledore is mouldering in his grave due to a suicide mission that, while an attempt to ingratiate his spy to his nemesis, does not matter or work and, in fact, only succeeds in handing over the world’s most powerful wand to his enemy, who is the last person to fight Voldemort before harry? Horace Slughorn.
Which brings me to my final point. The troubling fact that Horace Slughorn taught Tom Riddle about the horcruxes. And while, firstly, according to Rowling in “Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists.” Riddle already knew how to make Horcruxes– Slughorn didn’t know that. And while this is undoubtedly Horace Slughorn’s biggest mistake, it comes, like all tragic heroes, from his greatest strength.
Dumbledore never trusts Tom Riddle, the orphan whose combination of power and mental illness would drive him to evil. In Rowling’s own words “Dumbledore would have warned his colleague Slughorn against allowing himself to be used by the boy. Slughorn, secure in his own judgement (which had been vindicated so many times), brushed off such warnings as paranoia on Dumbledore’s part, believing the Transfiguration teacher to have taken an unaccountable dislike to Tom from the moment he had fetched the boy from the orphanage in which he had been brought up.”
To Dumbledore, the shaking frightened child, with the powers of a god, afraid of his own mind and the pain it could cause, was evil, unsavable, unworthy. But not to Horace Slughorn. Against all odds, Slughorn believes in him. Supports him. In their only interaction we ever witness arranges for him to have work, tries to sway him from his dark inclinations, and yes, finally gives in when asked to teach…because he is a teacher.
But as I said Slughorn overcomes the darker part of his own nature. His love of power, his cowardice turn to his greatest strength. His love and recognition of talent, of brilliance, in the form of Lily Evans.
Unlike Dumbledore, Horace Slughorn owns his mistake and takes action to fix it, not in the consequenceless realm of the afterlife but in the living world, when admitting your mistakes and atoning for them is hard, when it is brave. When it matters.
First when he let’s go of his secret and admits his mistake to his favorite student. And he does it, not because Harry Potter promises him greatness, not fame, but because he reminds him of what his weakness cost, the life of a favorite student, Lily Evans. Here:
“That’s enough!” said Slughorn suddenly, raising a shaking hand. “Really, my dear boy, enough . . . I’m an old man . . . I don’t need to hear . . . I don’t want to hear . . .” “I forgot,” lied Harry, Felix Felicis leading him on. “You liked her, didn’t you?” “Liked her?” said Slughorn, his eyes brimming with tears once more. “I don’t imagine anyone who met her wouldn’t have liked her. . . . Very brave . . . Very funny . . . It was the most horrible thing. . . .” “But you won’t help her son,” said Harry. “She gave me her life, but you won’t give me a memory.” Hagrid’s rumbling snores filled the cabin. Harry looked steadily into Slughorn’s tear-filled eyes. The Potions master seemed unable to look away. “Don’t say that,” he whispered. “It isn’t a question . . . If it were to help you, of course . . . but no purpose can be served . . .” “It can,” said Harry clearly. “Dumbledore needs information. I need information.” He knew he was safe: Felix was telling him that Slughorn would remember nothing of this in the morning. Looking Slughorn straight in the eye, Harry leaned forward a little. “I am the Chosen One. I have to kill him. I need that memory.” Slughorn turned paler than ever; his shiny forehead gleamed with sweat. “You are the Chosen One?” “Of course I am,” said Harry calmly. “But then . . . my dear boy . . . you’re asking a great deal . . . you’re asking me, in fact, to aid you in your attempt to destroy —” “You don’t want to get rid of the wizard who killed Lily Evans?” “Harry, Harry, of course I do, but —” “You’re scared he’ll find out you helped me?” Slughorn said nothing; he looked terrified. “Be brave like my mother, Professor. . . .” Slughorn raised a pudgy hand and pressed his shaking fingers to his mouth; he looked for a moment like an enormously overgrown baby. “I am not proud . . .” he whispered through his fingers. “I am ashamed of what — of what that memory shows. . . . I think I may have done great damage that day. . . .” “You’d cancel out anything you did by giving me the memory,” said Harry. “It would be a very brave and noble thing to do.” Hagrid twitched in his sleep and snored on. Slughorn and Harry stared at each other over the guttering candle. There was a long, long silence, but Felix Felicis told Harry not to break it, to wait. Then, very slowly, Slughorn put his hand in his pocket and pulled out his wand. He put his other hand inside his cloak and took out a small, empty bottle. Still looking into Harry’s eyes, Slughorn touched the tip of his wand to his temple and withdrew it, so that a long, silver thread of memory came away too, clinging to the wand tip. Longer and longer the memory stretched until it broke and swung, silvery bright, from the wand. Slughorn lowered it into the bottle where it coiled, then spread, swirling like gas. He corked the bottle with a trembling hand and then passed it across the table to Harry. “Thank you very much, Professor.” “You’re a good boy,” said Professor Slughorn, tears trickling down his fat cheeks into his walrus mustache. “And you’ve got her eyes. . . . Just don’t think too badly of me once you’ve seen it. . . .”
Bravery, in the Harry Potter series is often misused. The meme that all of Harry Potter can be summed up as “everyone: Harry no, Harry: Harry yes” is funny because it’s true. Almost every misadventure that takes place in the series happens because someone charges into the unknown for the sake of charging, so that he can be the hero. Snape is brave for reasons that on the slightest examination are reprehensible. Dumbledore isn’t really brave at all. In spite of his god-like abilities he uses his powers like a bemused scientist at an experiment, not as a courageous defender. Unlike every other character’s so called bravery in the series Horace Slughorn faces his greatest fear of all. Himself. A fear that his legacy would be to leave behind something evil, that his love for powerful friends and comforts would make, despite his best effort, the wizarding world a worse one. So when he stands finally against Lord Voldemort he does it once again in Lily’s name. A fat, old, candied-pineapple loving, not particularly powerful wizard faces down his own dark reflection, power for power’s sake, and lives. He embodies the name his creator gave him. The Gaelic “sluagh-ghairm”…war cry