[T]here was a burst of green light and Harry woke, sweating.
The new students are greeted at the castle door by Professor McGonagall, who tells them they will soon be sorted into their houses. All Hogwarts students live in one of four residences: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin. Each house has its own team for Quidditch, a game that resembles soccer on broomsticks. The houses are in a yearlong competition with one another to acquire the most points, which are earned by success in Quidditch games and lost for student infractions. As the students enter Hogwarts, ghosts appear in the hallway. The students are led to the Great Hall, where the entire school waits for them. They see a pointy hat on a stool. When the students try on the hat, it announces the house in which they are placed. Harry becomes very nervous. He has learned that he does not care for Slytherin house, as the students in it are unpleasant and Voldemort once belonged to Slytherin. Finally, it is Harry’s turn to wear the hat. After a brief mental discussion with the hat in which it tries to suggest Slytherin to him, the hat places Harry in Gryffindor. Harry is pleased to find that he is joined in Gryffindor by Ron and Hermione. Draco Malfoy is placed in Slytherin.
Everyone sits down to a grand feast to begin the year. Harry is overwhelmed by the variety of luscious food served. Sir Nicolas de Mimsy-Porpington, the resident ghost of Gryffindor (popularly known as Nearly Headless Nick because of a botched decapitation), introduces himself to the first-year students and tells them he hopes they will win the house championship this year. Over dessert, the discussion turns to the children’s upbringings. A student named Neville tells how his family thought he was a Muggle until he survived a fall from a window. Harry glances around the room and notices a few of the teachers talking to one another. One of them stares malevolently at Harry, who immediately feels a sharp pain in his forehead scar. Harry finds out that this man is Professor Snape, who teaches Potions. After dessert, Albus Dumbledore, the head of Hogwarts, gets up to make his welcome speech. He adds a few warnings about staying away from the Forbidden Forest and avoiding the third-floor corridor on the right side of the school. Everyone sings the school song and goes off to his or her house.
Harry finds life at Hogwarts unfamiliar and strange. Everyone talks about him, and an adult always seems to be around when he is doing something wrong. Harry finds all the classes interesting, with the exception of the History of Magic. In the first Transfiguration class (where students are taught how to turn one thing into another), only Hermione is able to make any progress at turning a match into a needle. Harry is relieved to see that others are just as lost as he is.
During breakfast the first Friday, Harry’s owl, Hedwig, who delivers mail, arrives with a tea invitation from Hagrid. Later, in his Potions class, Harry discovers that Professor Snape really does not like him, mocking Harry as “our new celebrity” and then humiliating Harry for his ignorance of herbs. Harry brings Ron with him to Hagrid’s shack for tea. Harry and Ron are disconcerted by Hagrid’s huge and fierce-looking dog, Fang, but discover that he is gentle. Hagrid tells Harry that he is overreacting to Snape’s treatment, asserting that Snape would have no reason to hate him. Harry happens to notice an article from the wizard newspaper detailing a break-in that occurred at Gringotts bank in a vault that had been emptied earlier in the day. He realizes that it happened on his birthday, the day he and Hagrid went to Gringotts. Furthermore, he remembers that Hagrid emptied vault seven hundred and thirteen, taking a small package with him as he left. Harry leaves Hagrid’s, his mind filled with questions.
Harry’s experience with the Sorting Hat is an important event in his development at Hogwarts. He dreads putting it on because he fears that the hat will assign him to Slytherin, which he associates with unlikable students. He assumes that the hat has all the power and that the student has no say in his or her own future. But when he puts the hat on, it actually seems to negotiate with Harry, tempting him with Slytherin but willing to accept Harry’s refusal. This interaction is significant, as it shows that while much of Harry’s fate has been decided for him (like his being a wizard), he still has some control over what he makes of his life. The hat says that Harry could be great in Slytherin rather than make a prophecy that he will be great, as if to emphasize that Harry is free to actualize or not to actualize his potential, as he wishes. In letting Harry choose between the dark and suspect Slytherin and the friendlier and nobler Gryffindor, the hat is allowing Harry to choose as well between goodness and wickedness. We feel that while Harry’s fate may have been handed to him, what he does with that fate in his life will be his own achievement and will reflect his own character.
The hat also gives Harry his first real compliment in the story, telling him that he has “plenty of courage. . . [n]ot a bad mind. . . talent. . . and a nice thirst to prove yourself.” What is important here is not just the hat’s positive judgment of Harry, but the fact that Harry hears this positive opinion directly. Even though Harry is famous throughout the wizards’ world, his Muggle family has raised him to think little of himself. All the rumors circulating about Harry’s talents have not yet been verified, so it is hard for Harry to have a clear idea of his abilities. The hat, with its unquestioned authority, gives Harry the first real vote of confidence in which he can fully believe. It also gives him his first hint that he will need to use his powers. The hat’s reference to Harry proving himself hints at his coming struggle with his enemies, foreshadowed by the dark look that Professor Snape gives him and the news about the attempted robbery of vault seven hundred and thirteen.