The badger rampant

I love Hufflepuff House.  I have a whole rant about it every time I run into a Harry Potter discussion that includes people complaining about Hufflepuff being the ‘all the rest’ house, the house that takes the kids who aren’t brave enough, smart enough, cunning enough to get into the flashier cliques.  It quite explicitly isn’t.  Take the Sorting Hat’s songs:

You might belong Hufflepuff
Where they are just and loyal
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

For Hufflepuff, hard workers were
Most worthy of admission;

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot,
And treat them just the same.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Helga Hufflepuff vowed not to show favouritism.  The other founders each had a virtue they prized best: essentially, they were being honest about which students they would give preferential treatment, while Hufflepuff wanted to see how everyone would work on an even playing field.

Consider Hermione: the book-devouring brainiac who knows everything and concludes that anything (coughdivinationcough) that can’t be achieved with sufficient study is a thing that is not relevant.  She doesn’t end up in Ravenclaw, despite seemingly being a perfect fit – and we find out why at the end of Philosopher’s Stone, when she informs Harry that deep down she believes that ‘books and cleverness’ aren’t as important as bravery.  Hermione isn’t a Gryffindor for her courage (which is considerable), but because she believes courage is more important than any other virtue.  Effectively, she chose to be in Gryffindor, just the same as we see Harry do.  From this, I conclude that one way or another, everyone chooses their house: the Sorting Hat puts you in the house that you believe is best, where you will be saturated in encouragement to aspire to ever-greater heights of the trait you most believe in.

What this means is that every single person in Hufflepuff, regardless of their brains or heart or silver tongue, believes that the virtues they were born with are less important than the work they are willing to put in.  Talent matters less than dedication; excellence is not a characteristic but a habit; anyone can be their own kind of extraordinary.  Granny Weatherwax would have been a Hufflepuff.  Hufflepuff is hardcore.

This is the sort of thing I think about when I think about talent.  We celebrate exceptional people – the greatest athletes, the most powerful artists, the most beautiful bodies.  There’s been some push back against that last one, and certainly these days there are plenty of folks who will be right on-side if one speaks out against unrealistic beauty standards, unhealthy body images, and the general privileging of people other people like to look at.  I tend to agree, especially since it’s so easy to see the harm that these things do to us.

But this isn’t about beauty standards; this is about the other houses.  This is about the inexplicable talent that infuses a rare few earthlings and hurls us out to the far ends of the bell curve.  This is about Meitner, Preis, Sir Terry, this is about anyone you’ve ever learned of and thought: if I could do half what you’ve done, I would be extraordinary beyond my dreams.

In my case, it’s Pratchett who’s most relevant to my ambitions.  The finest compliments I have ever received on my work have been people telling me it reminded them of Pratchett, and when it comes to advice on writing I try to take his above all else.  (Which means I should really find a good biography of Victorian accountants, I guess.)  I can’t imagine how many people want to be him – not just the wealth and fame, but to have that mind, with such brilliant beautiful twists that produces such prose.

Most people will never come close, of course.  He’s a rarity, with talent that can’t be copied and to all appearances can’t be learned.  But it is learned: he had to learn it.  No one is born as great as they are going to be.  No amount of talent can replace study and practice – the saying among writers is that everyone starts out with ten thousand bad pages inside them, and the trick to becoming a good writer is to get those ten thousand pages out of your system as soon as possible.

It’s true for everything else, too.  And we (humanity and everyone else on Earth) do need talented people – we need people with the vision to invent and reinvent – but the talent alone doesn’t get us anywhere on its own.  What we need most is for people to take their talent as far as they can.  And maybe we never really know what kind of talent we’ve got until we see how far it goes, so it’s still down to the work.

But no one talks about the work.  We’ll talk about geniuses, natural leaders, people who have a gift for the game, but we skip over the work that it takes to make use of talent.  We’ve built some kind of cultural mythology that celebrates talent to the point where we pretend it’s all that matters.  This is the sort of thing that feeds aristocracy and castes.  I start feeling like a conspiracy theorist, but part of me honestly thinks this is about keeping people down – about celebrating talent so much that the vast average-talent majority don’t imagine they’ve got any potential to waste.

Personally, I know this is a problem for me – I’m smart but lazy, as my grade 12 math teacher so accurately informed my parents.  I was able to coast on natural aptitude for a time, and when I got to the parts of life where everyone had to actually put in effort, I fumbled.  I think I’m getting better at it, but as far as celebrating the great human achievements, I’m resolving to make like Gandhiji and be the change I want to see in the world.  I’m going to try to catch myself if I start admiring someone’s talent, and remind myself that their real achievement was putting in the work that it took to fulfill the potential their talent gave them.

Brains aren’t much without the patience to fill them with knowledge.  Ambition without dedication is daydreams and an overblown sense of entitlement.  People from Maya Angelou to Aristotle have said that courage is the virtue that ensures all others – but it seems to me that, without the drive to keep pushing, no one ever gets a chance to display the rest of their virtues anyway.  The badger is sovereign.  It’s just that no one pays her any attention and she’s too busy to point it out.  The badger has things to do.

9 comments on “The badger rampant

  1. frasersherman says:

    Have you ever read Gladwell’s Outliers? One of his points about success is that while you may need a basic level of talent, if you’ve got that, you may do just as well as someone who has much more, depending on push and luck.

  2. Laiima says:

    I was on vacation for a week, and am only now catching up with Slacktiverse threads that I missed.

    Will, this post is wonderful! I’ve always thought I was more Ravenclaw than anything else, but your post shows me that I’m Hufflepuff instead (despite how I just don’t relate to Granny Weatherwax). I do take after my own grandmother, though, who was quite pragmatic. I love philosophy, but I love even more what you can do with it.

    Btw, I’ve always heard it’s 100,000 pages of junk we (writers) have inside that we need to get past. Which caused me to actually try to estimate how many words I’ve written in my life, to see if maybe I’m in on the good stuff yet. :-/ How is that for ridiculous?

  3. Sixwing says:

    This is a wonderful post. I like badgers quite a bit, myself.*s*
    I think I’ll forward it to my Mom – she likes Hufflepuff, too.

  4. storiteller says:

    I was just thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, even though I haven’t read it yet. It’s on the long, long list.

    In terms of the hard work vs. talent spectrum, I’ve always been on the opposite end. Not that I totally lack talent, but I had a tendency in high school to pick things that I was not naturally gifted at (or even negatively talented). Namely, music and sports. I’d work my ass off just to keep up, but I did because I enjoyed it. In fact, I still have that attitude towards most things. My greatest pride in my career and volunteering is how hard I work to do it well, even though I am using my natural giftings.

    Just a warning though – this attitude can totally backfire if you take it too far. I’m the sort of person who wants to do All The Things and Do Them Well, and there’s just not enough hours in the day. It’s easy to exhaust yourself.

  5. Fireflies says:

    Part of the song from the Order of the Phoenix:
    A House in which they might
    Take only those they wanted, so,
    For instance, Slytherin
    Took only pure-blood wizards
    Of great cunning, just like him,
    And only those of sharpest mind
    Were taught by Ravenclaw
    While the bravest and the boldest
    Went to daring Gryffindor,
    Good Hufflepuff, she took the rest,
    And taught them all she knew,

    Hufflepuff is the “all the rest” house. And from a song you’ve already quoted, the house also had a virtue it valued most – hard work. Now, I don’t think Rowling was particularly consistent here (unless we can guarantee that a person will at least be or value being at least one of brave, smart, sly, hardworking), but Hufflepuff isn’t presented in the books as you’ve presented it here.

    Having your own spin on a story and using that spin in your own imagination is fine – it’s what good stories should do! But if you’re arguing with fans about canon, this argument doesn’t hold weight.

  6. Will Wildman says:

    I think you’re not following things quite to their logical conclusion, Fireflies. It does say Hufflepuff “took the rest”, but “the rest” in this case consists of the students who did not fit with the other houses, and she judged them based on the effort they put into it. In what way does that not exactly match what I’ve described in the main post? What do you think I’ve argued Hufflepuff was or should have been doing that she didn’t?

  7. […] my head, I’d go into Ravenclaw. I like books and learning and intellectual challenges. But if the theory in this post is right, and the Sorting Hat looks not to your own personality traits, but how you value those […]

  8. kristycat says:

    Psst – can I use this in my class? It actually ties in perfectly with our Unit 1 theme! (And I know I’ve got at least one kid who hasn’t read a book in years but loved HP)

  9. Will Wildman says:

    Absolutely! I have no idea how this could be directly applicable to a classroom setting but I 100% support indoctrinating children with my beliefs.

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