When Harry and his fellow first-year students have arrived at Hogwarts Castle, Professor McGonagall escorts them to the Great Hall, where, before the entire student body and faculty, the newcomers are to be sorted into the four Hogwarts houses. The Sorting Hat-an animate, singing and talking hat-sings a song outlining the qualities characteristic of each house. Gryffindors are noted for bravery and chivalry; Hufflepuffs, for patience, loyalty, and justice; Ravenclaws, for intelligence and wit; and Slytherins, for cunning and ambition. Harry dreads his turn to wear the Sorting Hat as he watches other students do so. Hermione is sorted into Gryffindor House; Draco Malfoy to Slytherin. As the Hat is dropped over Harry's head, he fervently hopes he will not be sorted into Slytherin as well. To his surprise and discomfort, the Hat tells him that he "could be great . . . and Slytherin will help [him] on the way to greatness." Still, the Hat senses Harry's thoughts, and places him in Gryffindor House, to which the Weasleys belong (including Ron, when it is his turn to be sorted). After the Sorting, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore welcomes the students, who enjoy a lavish start-of-term feast in which food magically appears on their plates. At the High Table, where faculty are dining, Professor Quirrell, wearing his "absurd turban," makes eye contact with Harry, who immediately feels a sharp but passing pain in his scar. After the meal, Dumbledore warns students that the forest on Hogwarts' grounds is forbidden to them. He notes also that "this year, the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death." As Percy tells Harry, Dumbledore is not joking. The students retire to their dormitories; Gryffindors must give a password to the Fat Lady who resides-and speaks from-in a portrait hanging over a round hole in the wall which leads to their dormitory's staircase. That night, Harry has a nightmare in which Professor Quirrell's turban tells him he must transfer to Slytherin, "because it was his destiny."
Whereas Malfoy "sorted" wizarding families into the "right" and "wrong" kinds in the previous chapter, the Sorting Hat in this chapter sorts the Hogwarts students into four different houses. Rowling does not seem to understand this kind of sorting as prejudicial, although it may be "discriminating" in the sense that the Sorting Hat has the ability to discern a person's inner, essential qualities. Readers may well wonder if people-even Hogwarts students-can be so easily pigeonholed. Is Harry's passing observation that the Slytherins look "like an unpleasant lot" justified, or is it a stereotype Harry has uncritically accepted? Note, however, that even the Sorting Hat acknowledges, if not conflicting, at least commingled elements within Harry, suggesting that he would do well in Slytherin House, the House to which Voldemort once belonged. This chapter introduces a further ambiguity: What does it mean to be great? Slytherin House and Gryffindor House represent two different answers to that question; readers must discern-along with Harry- how those approaches to greatness are both similar and different. Series fans will also note that the apparatus behind the magical appearance of food at the feast, while unexplained here, will figure again in both The Chamber of Secrets and The Order of the Phoenix.