Peering Through the Mist: The Houses of Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

J.K. Rowling has been hyping up this year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
with periodic updates on Pottermore. Due November 18th, the film follows British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and the hijinks that ensue in 1926 New York when magical creatures escape from his briefcase. Rowling’s new series of Pottermore writing focuses on magic in North America, finally expanding the horizons of the Wizarding World beyond Great Britain. While exciting, the installment about Ilvermorny, the American magical school, leaves something to be desired. Hogwarts, A History it is not. ilvermorny

The story of Ilvermorny reads just like that–a story. The school’s foundation is entirely wrapped up in the personal history of a woman named Isolt Sayre. An Irish witch from two pure-blood families, Isolt was abducted and raised by her aunt, Gormlaith Gaunt. If that surname sounds familiar, you’re on to something! The Gaunts were a pureblood wizarding family that descended from Salazar Slytherin, but eventually fell into poverty and obscurity. Merope Gaunt’s obsessive love for a muggle man was the beginning of the end for the family line: the child of that unhealthy union became Lord  Voldemort.

Isolt didn’t buy into Gormlaith’s beliefs about pureblood supremacy, and as soon as she learned enough magic she escaped the oppressive household and began a life on the run. Eventually she took the Mayflower to the New World, but led a pretty nomadic life as she hid from both her past and the non-magical Puritans. That is, until she befriended a creature known as a Pukwudgie, whom she nicknamed William. The two had a series of encounters with magical wildlife, included Wampuses and a Great Horned Serpent.

A less pleasant encounter resulted in Isolt and William saving the lives of two wizard boys, Chadwick and Webster Boot. Soon after, Isolt met a muggle man named James Steward and the four humans formed a family unit. Isolt raised the boys on stories of Hogwarts, which she had never been able to attend. With her aunt Gormlaith still hunting for her, Isolt’s adopted boys would face a similar fate. To make it up to them, she started a school in their home atop Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, and even made wands for them with the help of her husband, James. You can read the full story of Ilvermorny’s founding family here.

Using Hogwarts as a model, The Steward family named their four houses after magical creatures instead of themselves: Great-Horned Serpent, Pukwudgie, Wampus, and Thunderbird.  With the addition of an Ilvermorny sorting quiz to Pottermore, folks have been quick to try and pair off the houses with their Hogwarts equivalent. What I like about the Ilvermorny houses is that they don’t line up exactly with those of Hogwarts.

As seen in the latest Fantastic Beasts trailer: a Thunderbird
The Thunderbird

While Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin, and Gryffindor are defined by what qualities you value (often in relation to other people), the Ilvermorny houses seem more about your approach to life and your own self-definition. For example, I expected to be sorted into Pukwudgie because it seemed most like Hufflepuff: the odd one out with the quirky name, and, based upon the actions of William the Pukwudgie, a seemingly loyal creature. Instead, I got Wampus.

The Wampus is a panther-like creature, chosen by Webster Boot for its strength, speed, and hardy nature. The house of Wampus is said to represent the body of a wizard, and often favors warriors. None of those are terms I would apply to myself. However, looking at it from another angle, I am the kind of person who believes that my actions say more about me than anything else.

There’s a greater feel of unity since the houses each represent a part of a wizard: heart, soul, mind, and body. It’s clearer with the Ilvermorny houses that categorizing people is not black vs. white (or rather red/blue/yellow/green). Longtime HP fans have had over a decade to parse out the intricacies of Hogwarts houses, and it feels like only recently we’ve been able to move away from the “Slytherin = Evil!” type of thinking.

President of the MACUSA
President Picquery of the MACUSA

The equality of the houses is even clearer in the Ilvermorny sorting ceremony. Rather than a singing hat, first-year students stand in an open hall upon the symbol of the Gordian knot. Four enchanted statues of the house mascots are also present, and their reactions signal the student’s sorting. This  means that students are sometimes desired by more than one house and, as in the case of Hogwarts’ hat-stalls, the student can make the final decision. In Fantastic Beasts, Carmen Ejogo plays Seraphina Picquery,  a graduate of Ilvermorny that was sought by all four houses.

So while it’s great that J.K. Rowling has learned to better handle the nuances of identity and house-sorting, there are still some parts of Ilvermorny that fall short. The house descriptions, for instance, are pretty minimalist. We get paragraphs about Isolt Sayre’s journey, and a few scattered sentences about Wampus, Pukwudgie, Thunderbird, and Great-Horned Serpent. And it would be remiss to ignore the recent controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling’s source material for these creatures: check back in tomorrow for Megan’s piece on Ilvermorny and cultural appropriation.

Those of you who’ve taken the Ilvermorny sorting quiz, what did you think of your placement? Share your experience in the comments!
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