Do you feel more cunning than courageous? More loyal than wise? Everyone has doubts about who they are and – in theory – having a wise old hat tell you once and for all sounds like it would bring an end to all of that angst. But what if the doubts still creep in?

In this article, we sort through (get it?) those times the Sorting Hat had some trouble making a decision, as well as focus in on those witches and wizards who didn't always feel that the Sorting Hat had placed them in the right house. And of course, there’re the characters we feel might have better belonged elsewhere... Perhaps when you’ve read this article you might agree with Dumbledore’s words: ‘I sometimes think we Sort too soon...’

Beware! There are about as many spoilers for the Harry Potter books and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in this piece as there are gnomes in the Burrow garden...

"Hmm,’ said a small voice in his ear. ‘Difficult. Very difficult"

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The famous Thinking Cap boasts ‘I’ll eat myself if you can find/ A smarter hat than me’ in its start of term song, and it would never publicly admit to having doubts about its sorting abilities. But sometimes, it takes a suspiciously long time to make a decision.

Minerva McGonagall was one Hogwarts student that presented a dilemma for the Sorting Hat. She was a Hatstall – a student whose sorting takes longer than five minutes – and in her case it was the choice between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw that took the time. Given how quickly she answered the Ravenclaw door-knocker’s riddle, we can see that she would have done well in that wise house. On balance though, we think the Sorting Hat went the right way with Minerva McGonagall: duelling with Snape, sticking up to Umbridge and defending Dumbledore – she’s got a lion heart of pure red and gold.

The line between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw seems to be a bit of a head-scratcher for the Sorting Hat. The same houses were in contention for Hermione Granger, who revealed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that the Sorting Hat ‘seriously considered’ putting her in Ravenclaw. It’s not the biggest surprise if we’re honest – top of her year and arguably one of the brightest witches of her age, we didn’t need the lost Diadem to work out that she would have flourished in Ravenclaw. We’ll never know whether Hermione steered the Sorting Hat away from Ravenclaw or whether she was always heading (get it?) towards Gryffindor, but we’re glad it decided on red and gold in the end – it wouldn’t have been quite the same without our favourite trio plotting in the scarlet common room.

Maybe the Sorting Hat was trying to change Peter Pettigrew’s fate by placing him in Gryffindor rather than Slytherin? Of all the Hogwarts houses, Slytherin boasts the largest number of Death Eaters, after all. A Hatstall like Minerva McGonagall, the Sorting Hat clearly found sorting Wormtail difficult. But we can’t help but feel that this time the Sorting Hat went the wrong way. It seems more cunning than courageous to fake your own death and spend twelve years hiding as a rat. Perhaps the Sorting Hat would argue that fear can overcome anyone, sometimes even a Gryffindor, and that was what had led Peter Pettigrew down the slippery slope and into Lord Voldemort’s service. But we’re not so sure…

"There’s no need to tell me I’m not brave enough to be in Gryffindor"

Neville is suspended by the ears by two Cornish pixies, during Defence Against the Dark Arts

The Sorting Hat never admits that its final decision is wrong, but it does umm and ahhh in students’ ears while it deliberates. And the longer the student is left sitting on the stool, the more likely they are to doubt the Sorting Hat’s eventual decision. In Harry Potter’s case, the Sorting Hat’s indecision stayed with him for years afterwards, despite it respecting his desperate plea of ‘Not Slytherin, not Slytherin’. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, it took Harry pulling the sword of Godric Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat, to allay his concerns that he should have been a Slytherin.

Although the Sorting Hat respected Harry’s choice, it wasn’t so kind to Neville Longbottom; it was determined to place him in Gryffindor, despite him asking for Hufflepuff. Throughout his first year Neville was plagued with doubts, at one point choking out: ‘There’s no need to tell me I’m not brave enough to be in Gryffindor’. We hope that when Dumbledore explained that ‘there are all kinds of courage’ Neville felt more at home. And if he didn’t, we reckon killing a giant snake with Gryffindor’s sword probably did the trick.

Albus Severus Potter was a different case entirely. Before he even arrived at Hogwarts he was terrified that he would be Sorted into Slytherin. And then, his worst fear came true. The whispers filled the Great Hall just like they had when his father arrived all those years before. This time though, it was with shock rather than excitement – shock that Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley’s son had been Sorted into Slytherin rather than Gryffindor. Side-note: never let it be said that the Sorting Hat bows to peer pressure or celebrity. We might have expected Albus to struggle with the Sorting Hat’s decision, and he did at first. But it soon turned out that Slytherin was exactly where he was supposed to be.

"And you all know the score:/I sort you into houses/ Because that is what I’m for"

A head shot of Snape looking sideways from the Deathly Hallows Part 2

True. It’s the Sorting Hat’s job to sort, but it’s our job to mull over its decisions. And we too have some doubts.

Let’s start with Gilderoy Lockhart. Apparently little Lockhart had above-average intelligence when he arrived at Hogwarts and as we know he turned out to have a real talent for Memory Charms. But surely a true Ravenclaw wouldn’t have needed to modify the memories of more knowledgeable and daring witches and wizards? And they certainly would have been able to sort out a few pesky Cornish Pixies? Then there’s his ambition for fame, which was evident even at school, where he once created ‘an illuminated projection of his own face which he would send skywards in imitation of the Dark Mark’. We’re sure that made him lots of friends...

With all of this taken into account, we’d dare to say that Lockhart showed far more cunning and ambition than he ever did wit and wisdom. Perhaps Lockhart wouldn’t have felt the need to prove himself so much if he’d ended up in a house better known for these traits, like Slytherin.

We need to talk about Severus Snape. Surely not? We hear you cry. Yes – Snape was Head of Slytherin. Yes – Snape had a burning ambition to be the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Yes – he was king of all things cunning in his role as double agent to both Dumbledore and the Dark Lord. But are these what made up the very core of Severus Snape? Without Lily Evans entering his life we might have said yes. Snape’s love for Lily gave him a defining characteristic of another Hogwarts house: Loyalty. This was his essential driving force, it even infiltrated his magic and showed up in his Patronus. His love for Lily, and his loyalty to her above ambition, above self-preservation, was – as Dumbledore puts it – the best of Snape. Would Hufflepuff have been a better fit?

Don’t misunderstand us, Luna Lovegood is an excellent Ravenclaw. She shared a lot of Luna-style wisdom with Harry during her time at Hogwarts, in particular reminding him that the ones who leave us are never truly lost behind the Veil, as well as demonstrating a gift for logical thinking. We’re not sure we could come up with an answer as to whether the Phoenix or the flame came first under such immense pressure. And it must have taken some seriously impressive magic to make her Gryffindor lion hat roar so realistically. But Luna’s loyalty and kindness – key Hufflepuff traits – really did know no bounds. Luna insisted on coming to the Ministry to help her fellow DA members – it was her idea to ride the Thestrals. And Luna was one of only two members of the DA who were loyal enough to answer the call of the charmed Galleons the night Malfoy let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts.

Where all these doubts take us, we suppose, is to somewhere more certain: we, like the characters in the wizarding world, are all made up of a mixture of cunning, curiosity, courage, kindness and a whole lot more. Perhaps the Sorting Hat shows witches and wizards the traits most dominant in them already, or perhaps the Hat Sorts to encourage traits that thus far have lain dormant? We can never really know, but as Dumbledore sagely said: ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Dumbledore sitting in a chair from the Half Blood Prince

Have you tried our official Sorting Ceremony to discover where you truly belong? It’s available on our new Wizarding World app. Don’t worry if you were previously sorted into a Hogwarts house, you have the choice to keep it if you’re unhappy with the Sorting Hat’s choice, just like Harry.

Don’t forget, you can visit the Harry Potter At Home hub for more chapter readings, as well as articles, crafting activities, quizzes and much more!