In his sixth year Harry managed to generate a glowing reputation at Potions in the eyes of Slughorn by following Severus Snape's hints and tips as recorded in Snape's old Potions textbook.

For the rest of the week's Potions lessons Harry continued to follow the Half-Blood Prince's instructions wherever they deviated from Libatius Borage's, with the result that by their fourth lesson Slughorn was raving about Harry's abilities, saying that he had rarely taught anyone so talented.
(Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 10, The House of Gaunt).

Snape was an old student of Slughorn's and so Slughorn could easily compare the two Potions prodigies. At the Christmas party Slughorn states that Harry was not only Snape's equal but his better.

"I don't think I've ever known such a natural at Potions!" said Slughorn, regarding Harry with a fond, if bloodshot eye. "Instinctive, you know - like his mother!"
(Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 15, The Unbreakable Vow).

Slughorn even boasts about Harry to Snape.

"Stop sulking and come and join us, Severus!" hiccoughed Slughorn happily. "I was just talking about Harry's exceptional potion-making! Some credit must go to you, of course, you taught him for five years!"
Trapped, with Slughorn's arm around his shoulders, Snape looked down his hooked nose at Harry, his black eyes narrowed.
"Funny, I never had the impression I managed to teach Potter anything at all."
"Well, then, it's natural ability!" shouted Slughorn. "You should have seen what he gave me, first lesson, the Draught of Living Death - never had a student produce finer on a first attempt, I don't think even you, Severus -
(Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 15, The Unbreakable Vow).

Even Snape is surpassed by Harry in Slughorn's opinion. Yet how could this be when Harry was copying Snape's instructions? Harry wasn't all that good at Potions. He only managed to impress Slughorn because he had Snape's book of cheat codes.

Was Harry able to actually perform better in Potions than Snape? How could he recreate Snape's 'recipes' better than Snape could?

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    The focus might be "on a first attempt".
    – Bergi
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 11:07
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    Snape wrote down solutions and results, so Harry was able to skip the phase of his initial failures. Snape had to acquire his experience, Harry didn't.
    – Petersaber
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 12:27
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    Also, Snape was a "smartest guy in the room" type, and Harry had that potential... Slughorn certainly did not, so he was an amateur trying to compare two much more qualified people. It would be like Wesley Mouch prognosticating an opinion of whether Dagny Taggert or Hank Reardon was the better industrialist. Who really cares what Wesley Mouch thinks? Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 17:12
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    Apart from any political reasons for Slughorn to pick Harry over Snape, the latter's adult lifetime is an awfully lenghty period for making comparisons. Slughorn may simply be mis-remembering or exaggerating - hence 'I don't think' in the text. Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 18:09
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    @Harper, Slughorn wasn't an 'amateur'. He was a very talented potion maker. He was DEFINITELY better than Harry at potions, who we know wasn't very good at it. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 13:52

7 Answers 7


Well, as you pointed out, Harry used Snape's old textbook, which had a lot of Snape's 'cheatcodes' inside. What must be remembered is that Snape actually had the original textbook with the faulty recipes. And obviously since his dad was a Muggle, he wasn't raised with much background on Potions. So it wasn't like he took one look at the Potions recipe and immediately knew what was wrong with it, and how to change it to make it work.

Snape had a lot of skill in Potions, which was the reason only he (probably) could identify errors in the recipe, and then tweak it. But this must have been after some trial and error. Many times it's mentioned in the book that there were a lot of crossing-outs and that the handwriting was very small and cramped. So Snape tried the original recipes, found out what was wrong, and then re-did them using his own modifications.

But, Harry didn't do that. He immediately got the modified textbook. So he skipped all of Snape's trial and error, and went straight to the correct solutions. While Snape took at least a few trials to realise that 'crushing the bean with the flat side of the knife is a better way to release the juice than cutting', Harry went straight to crushing, following Snape's annotations. Same thing with the Sectumsempra spell. Snape tried a few variations, crossed out those which didn't work and ended up with the final Sectumsempra spell. But Harry just used the final spell straight away.

TL;DR: Since Slughorn didn't know any of the backstory about the modified textbook, etc., all he saw was that while Snape was very good at Potions, and got the recipes right with minimal tries, Harry got them perfectly with only one try every single time. Of course, we readers know Harry was just benefiting off the results of Snape's many experiments.

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    Also, slughorn is a shmoozer, and he wanted Harry to like him, so he could (additionally) be just shmoozing.
    – user88476
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 16:41
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    And for some reason Snape didn't file any bug reports. Another way in which he wasn't very nice. :-) Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 6:49
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    So, in short: He was not comparing Harry now against Snape now, but instead comparing Harry now against Snape back when he was Harry's age. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 10:41
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    @FaheemMitha It could also mean that the instructions were not exactly right on purpose. This way students had to find out what went wrong and had to adjust to get it right. After 5 years it would be normal to add some difficulty to the subject in order to challenge the students who soon would have to develop their own recipes if they wanted to go into potion making.
    – Adwaenyth
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 13:09
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    @Adwaenyth Interesting notion, but it doesn't have any textual support. As far as I know. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 16:08

Slughorn is probably exaggerating. Not that he doesn't recognise talent when he sees it, but it's not the only thing that matters to him. Snape was always an introvert, inaccessible, and in many ways loser-type of student. Not very interesting to Slug.

Whereas Harry Potter was already famous and must have seemed much more “malleable”; he probably just wanted Harry to be better than Snape.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised if Snape had actually deliberately not used many of his own tricks in the potions lessons, so as not to reveal them. Harry OTOH was very keen to use anything possible just to get better grades (he did still have the Auror thing in mind...). But for Snape, his potions skills would have been more important for their own sake than just to get top marks.

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    Certainly in everything we've seen from Snape's classes in previous books, he never seemed to offer much useful assistance that wasn't mentioned in the textbooks. There never seemed to be any dialog that indicated that he ever said something like "the textbook says to do X, but we'll get better results if we do Y". In fact, he seems rather hands off in most of the classes we saw.
    – Kat
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 17:07

The point of this narrative was to

  • have Slughorn very buffonishly make a fool of Snape, to further define Slughorn as a blowhard,
  • get under Snape's skin even more about Potter,
  • shove some serious clues under Snape's nose that Potter was working out of his old textbook,
  • and to arrest any hope in the reader that Potter could continue to hide his use of that book from Snape.

Of course Slughorn's efforts to compare are futile; while he has a level of competence, he is a blowhard, meaning he thinks only of his own opinions and is resistant to new or more accurate information, or subtle things in general. Meanwhile both Snape and Potter are well above him, Snape being the master of the field, a "smartest guy in the room" type, and Potter being well on his way. So Slughorn is in no position to judge either of them.

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    "Snape and Potter are well above him": in what way? Surely not in Potions. Snape may have been a master potion-maker, but so was Slughorn. Harry certainly wasn't. You seem to be suggesting that Slughorn wasn't in a fit position to judge. As an expert in his field who had taught both students he certainly was! Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 22:10
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    @TheDarkLord it's possible I'm presuming "blowhard" means "not all that competent either". I don't recall anything in the books that framed Slughorn as a particularly competent potions master. Outside of his own opinion, of course! If your thesis is that Slughorn must be better than Snape since he taught Snape, that does not actually follow IMO. That is evident by how Snape was experimenting on his own. Students exceed masters all the time. Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 23:15
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    @Harper the books never single out Slughorn's skills, but they also don't suggest in any way he's not competent. The default assumption is that a Hogwarts professor is highly skilled at their subject; it's the exceptions that are mentioned – mostly, Trelawney and all the makeshift DADA teachers. For the other bad teachers, Binns and Hagrid, it's still understood that they themselves understand their subject very well, they just don't do a great job at communicating it. And Slughorn specifically seems at least to be very knowledgeable, though I agree, Snape was better at making potions. Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 10:30
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    Whether or not Slughorn was better or worse than Snape it seems doubtful that he wasn't highly skilled at potions - it's accepted in the narrative that Slughorn makes the difficult potion liquid luck with no special trouble i.e. in the same way that a skilled surgeon performs a relatively routine operation in their field with no undue difficulty. He is also sufficiently passionate about potions to be able to effectively be bribed with the promise of acromantula venom. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 4:36
  • There is also scene with antidote brewing - Slughorn sees Harry's potion sucks. So, despite biases he does understand potions and can judge even Harry. Commented Mar 14 at 13:38

Compating Harry vs Snape as potion masters, we often make two wrong assumptions:

1. Harry is bad at Potions

Snape always tried to undermine Harry's efforts and placate him as an arrogant, pompous fool who is a worthless and lazy student. In return, Harry hates Potions because of Snape. It appears (in book 6) that Snape was wrong about Harry. Given proper instructions (Prince's textbook) and encouragement (Slughorn), we see that Harry can show decent results in that subject.

2. Snape was an exceptional potion maker from birth

Every master has to learn. Including Snape. It is obvious that he was still learning to do stuff while at Hogwarts.

So I think, Harry and Snape could be more or less equal in Potions if we compare them at the same age. And Harry has an advantage of having an instruction book prepared by Snape. So he could outperform Snape, who was still learning how to make potions better than others.

  • 4
    It may be worth noting that Snape was trying to improve the potions; Harry was just trying to meet the requirements of the class. There's no evidence that Harry would be able to improve someone else's less than perfect potion recipe, while Snape obviously could.
    – RDFozz
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 18:09

Better at potions does not necessarily = better final result

Snape's greatness at potions, is his understanding of the art of potion-making. I.e. he intuitively grasps the underlying theory and can figure out what the best way to make a potion is. That means he can write the directions.

But there is clearly more to potion-making than the directions. If there wasn't then everyone's potions would always be exactly identical because they are all following the same textbook.

Clearly, then, other factors affect the potion. It is entirely conceivable that Harry had the advantage over Snape in other areas, so if Harry had Snape's book to give him the best theoretical guide and match him equally to Snape in that area, the result would be that Harry would have the overall advantage and his potions would turn out better than Snape's.

For instance, Harry might have had a better cauldron. He might have had better ingredients. He might have happened to stir the potion better. Etc.

Thus, there is no reason why Snape being "better at potions" should guarantee that his potions would always come out better than Harry's.


Part of it is because of the phrasing: "Never seen a finer potion on his first attempt".
Snape didn't have the modified textbook already. He had to go through the trial and error to learn.

However, this is not to say that Harry was useless at potions unless he cheated. After all, Harry already had Snapes instructions all the years before because he was being taught by Snape.
He only becomes good at it once Snape leaves though. So what changes? What changes is that Harry goes from a toxic learning environment to a healthy one. All other factors are the same, except that Harry is praised for his work and has a fair teacher, rather than a rude, belittling teacher that criticizes every move and who Harry dislikes.
You see similar things in muggle students. A child could love a subject and be talented at it, but if something is wrong with the teacher, then they won't do well.
This is part of what happens with Harry. Harry might actually be an extremely talented potion maker. Harry was, after all, son of Lily Potter, potion extraordinaire, and James Potter, son of famous potion brewer Fleamont Potter. Harry does have a lot of talent in the potions field, and with proper instruction and a good working environment, he really excels at it.

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    I take your point. However, Harry wasn't the only student to have benefited from the change in atmosphere. Others would also have appreciated Slughorn over Snape. Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 9:08

I think the simplest answer is that Slughorn is very biased. Slughorn wants Harry to like him, doesn't like Snape at all, and likely thinks Harry will like him more if he builds him up while tearing Snape down.

  • 1
    It's possible. Have you got any sources to back up your point? Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 9:17

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