After the hearing, Mr. Weasley and Harry return to number twelve, where the Order has prepared a celebratory feast. Sirius is courteous, but he does not seem terribly happy that Harry will be returning to Hogwarts. Hermione suspects that Sirius secretly wanted Harry to live with him at number twelve.
A day before the young wizards are scheduled to return to school, booklists arrive from Hogwarts. Ron and Hermione have both been selected as Gryffindor prefects for the coming year. The entire house is shocked that Harry did not receive the same honor. Mrs. Weasley is delighted with Ron’s achievement and buys him a new broom. Later, Harry becomes increasingly enraged that Dumbledore overlooked him for the prefect position, mentally recounting the many times he has proven himself a better wizard than Ron.
Later, Moody pulls out a photograph of the old Order and shows Harry the former members, explaining the cause of death for each one who had died. Harry sees Neville’s parents and eventually his own. Harry gets upset at the sight of his mother and father. He retreats upstairs, irritated with Moody for showing him the photograph.
Harry has a troubling night’s sleep, dreaming of Mrs. Weasley crying and Ron and Hermione wearing crowns. He wakes up to Ron telling him they’re going to be late for the train to Hogwarts. A guard must accompany Harry. When no one can locate Sturgis Podmore to have him assume his position in the guard, Sirius fills in, transforming himself into a black dog named Padfoot, in direct defiance of Dumbledore’s orders to stay inside . Before boarding the train, Harry, Ron, Hermione, the twins and Ginny are warned by the Order not to send any letters that mention the Order. Ron and Hermione sit in the prefect cabin, and Ginny and Harry run into Neville. The three of them unhappily share a compartment with Luna “Loony” Lovegood, who is reading the wizard tabloid The Quibbler, which her father edits. Eventually, Ron and Hermione join them. Ron tells Harry that Draco Malfoy is now a Slytherin prefect. Malfoy opens their compartment door and threatens Harry, deliberately mentioning dogs, but only Harry and Hermione notice the reference to Sirius. The train arrives at Hogwarts, and the students shuffle out. Harry expects to see Hagrid directing the first-years but instead sees Professor Grubbly-Plank. As Harry approaches the usually horseless carriages that bring the students up the castle, he realizes that they are being pulled by emaciated, winged, horse-like creatures. Harry asks Ron about the horse creatures, but Ron doesn’t see them. Luna tells Harry that she can see them, too, and has been able to since her first year at Hogwarts.
As the first-years arrive, the Sorting Hat, which is responsible for sorting all first-years into one of four houses, bursts into song, warning the students against becoming too internally divisive. Nearly Headless Nick, resident ghost, explains that the Hat gives warnings only when it feels Hogwarts is in danger. After supper, Dumbledore announces that Professor Grubbly-Plank will be teaching Hagrid’s class, Care of Magical Creatures, and that Professor Umbridge, the toadlike woman from Harry’s trial, is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Professor Umbridge interrupts Dumbledore to deliver a long, boring speech of introduction, and Harry confirms his dislike for her. Very few students actually listen to the speech, but Hermione infers that the Ministry will be interfering in Hogwarts business this year. As Harry walks back to the dorms, he notices students pointing, staring, and whispering in his wake.
Taking a turn beneath the Sorting Hat is an essential part of the student experience at Hogwarts. The Hat not only places a student into one of four Houses but also makes a serious and irreversible judgment about his or her character. As the Hat explains in its song, the school’s four founding wizards, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin, each had different intentions for the future of Hogwarts, taking into their Houses only those students who matched their particular set of criteria. Slytherin accepts only ambitious purebloods (“cunning folk use any means / To achieve their ends”); Ravenclaw selects the most intelligent candidates (those who possess “wit and learning”); Gryffindor the bravest (“daring, nerve, and chivalry”); and Hufflepuff the rest (“just and loyal”). This year, the Hat’s song concludes by condemning the House system, which the Hat feels is far too divisive. In times of danger, Hogwarts students must concentrate on developing oneness and strength, not perfecting separatism.
The Sorting Hat’s decision is not always black and white. Both Ron and Harry are contenders for Slytherin—Ron is a pureblood, and on Harry’s first day at Hogwarts, detailed in Book I, the Hat notes that Harry would do very well in Slytherin, but Harry, mumbling under his breath, manages to convince the Hat to place him in Gryffindor. Meanwhile, Hermione seems like the ideal candidate for Ravenclaw, with her stunning intelligence and uncompromising study habits. Still, the Hat places all three friends in Gryffindor, which speaks well to their inherent bravery. Time and time again, Ron, Hermione, and Harry prove they are courageous and strong. Neville Longbottom, who initially seems like an unlikely candidate for Gryffindor, has also proved his worth, displaying unexpected bravery and loyalty. The Hat’s decisions often seem mysterious, but so far, they’ve turned out to be exactly right, a fact that makes the eerie song it sings this time even more ominous.
Most of the inter-House competition is healthy and fair, but the rivarlry between Gryffindor and Slytherin frequently crosses the line into blatant hatred. Their deeply rooted rivalry shines through clearly in their Quidditch matches, which seem to take on more weight than any other match-up. Even the two Houses’ position at the top of the Hogwarts crest (facing each other, poised for battle) seems to suggest a certain innate rivalry. Likewise, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the main Gryffindor representatives, are clearly more offended by Draco Malfoy and his goons, the main Slytherin representatives, than by any other group of students. Harry’s least favorite professor is Snape, Head of House for Slytherin, and he clearly respects and enjoys Professor McGonagall, Head of House for Gryffindor, more than any other faculty member besides Dumbledore. While general competition can be healthy and productive for students, this kind of specific, one-on-one battle breeds danger and discontent.
The internal splintering happening at Hogwarts helps Voldemort in that it breeds tension and malcontent among students and faculty, weakening their defenses against Dark imposters. As Nearly Headless Nick explains, the Sorting Hat warns students about the dangers of the House system only when it feels the school is in danger. The House system is not the only thing that encourages distrust among the students. All summer, the Daily Prophet has been printing unfair and untruthful stories about Harry and Dumbledore, portraying them as foolish and arrogant. Many of the students at Hogwarts regularly read the Prophet and believe what it says, and they treat Harry with distrust and apprehension. His peers and classmates regularly gossip together in the hallways, pointing and whispering about Harry. Like any normal fifteen-year-old boy, Harry is embarrassed and disappointed by all the unwanted attention. That Harry’s classmates do not believe Harry or even Dumbledore, their trusted Headmaster, is disheartening. Already, Hogwarts is displaying strong signs of internal dissolution.