Title Severus Snape and the Great Mysteries: Love, Forgiveness and Redemption in Harry Potter
Genre Essay, gen, about 9,775 words
Warnings and credits G rated. Thanks to all whom I credited below, particularly Jodel, logospilgrim, and John Granger. Thanks also to beyond_pale, Swythyv, Professor_mum and all you other brilliant livejournallers out there.
The essay follows the cut:
Severus Snape and the Great Mysteries:
Love, Forgiveness and Redemption in Harry Potter
".....the only way to love a person is....by listening to them and...believing in the god... in
them. For by doing this, you keep the god ... alive.."
(Brenda Ueland, "If You Want to Write", second edition, page 6)
"...people become trustworthy only by being trusted...when our trust is betrayed the only
response that is not destructive is to trust again...."
(Madeleine L'Engle, "The Young Unicorns," first U.S. edition, page 144)
"...I remember hating you for loving me...."
(Berlin, "The Metro")
Like millions of children and adults around the world, I have been following J.K.
Rowling's Harry Potter series with considerable pleasure. She is an energetic and
inventive author whose humor and social commentary have at times reminded me of
Charles Dickens. I have appreciated her skill in plotting and her deft characterizations; all
the same, I've tended to see - and read - her books as light entertainment. So I was
shocked at how deeply upset I was at the conclusion of Harry Potter and the Half- Blood
Prince. It seemed to me that, with one stroke, Rowling had taken a series that had begun
to develop some moral, social and psychological complexity and turned it into a black
and white cartoon.
That stroke, of course, was the murder of headmaster Albus Dumbledore by Severus
Snape. Professor Snape has been Harry's antagonist from the first book. In every story so
far, the boy has suspected the Professor of aiding Voldemort, and in every story, he has
been wrong. Yet now, suddenly, Snape is (it seems) proven evil. When I said this to a
friend, she responded, "But sometimes the children are right. I just thought the child was
right and the old person was wrong." I told her I hadn't thought of it that way, and it was
a good point; children and teenagers can indeed be right when their elders are mistaken.
However, I added, "Albus Dumbledore is the clearest exemplar in the series of true
Christian values. The implication is that he dies because he's made a mistake in
judgment, but what he's really done is act according to those values. And I don't want
them to be mistaken. I don't want him to be wrong!"
As John Granger points out on his website, Dumbledore is considered unusual in the
wizarding world because he is without prejudice, and he welcomes outcasts and even
repentant sinners. To Dumbledore, it does not matter what your race, sex, background, or
even species are provided you choose to live your life well. He has hope that every
person, even the most flawed, will make that choice. By believing in the good in each
person, the headmaster encourages growth; what's more, he gives his students and staff -
notably Harry and Snape - room to make their own choices. In all this, Dumbledore is
like the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Throughout the series, when he has
acted on these values, he has been correct. Dumbledore trusted the half-giant Rubeus
Hagrid and found him a job, and, eventually, a teaching position. Hagrid, gentle and
loyal, is one of the most beloved characters in the series; who would say Dumbledore was
wrong to trust him? The headmaster also trusted the werewolf Remus Lupin, who was a
very capable teacher and a fine person in spite of his (very dangerous) disability.
Dumbledore, too, was one of the very few people who understood Hermione's campaign
against the enslavement of house-elves, and as a result he has supported Dobby the
house-elf in his quest for independence and dignity, giving him a job with wages and
More surprisingly, (for she is often incompetent and sometimes malicious) he has given the
divination teacher Sybill Trelawney the safe haven she desperately needs, and will not
allow her to be thrown out of her home - Hogwarts- even when a government employee
tries to fire her. But the most surprising of Dumbledore's projects is Severus Snape.
If Dumbledore is the father in the parable, Snape is the prodigal son. This is one of the
things that made the murder scene so hard to read - when the young man killed the old
one, it felt to me like a parricide. For 15 years - almost Snape's entire adult life -
Dumbledore has given Snape employment, shelter, and, most of all, his complete trust.
He has done so in spite of Snape's former crimes; as a teenager, Snape joined the Death
Eaters and served Lord Voldemort. This is the worst thing anyone in the wizarding world
can do. In spite of this history, Dumbledore often states bluntly his trust of Severus
Snape. It is because of Dumbledore's trust that Snape's fellow members of the Order of
the Phoenix - the secret society allied against Voldemort - also trust him, though they do
not like him.
Indeed, Snape is difficult to like, even though he has some admirable qualities. In the
classroom, he is sharp-tongued and harsh, especially toward Harry, Hermione, and
Neville Longbottom. His treatment of Neville, in particular, seems almost unforgivable to
me. Toward a child who has already been traumatized, Snape is unfailingly cutting and
critical, and it is hard to imagine any valid reason for such behavior. Neville is nearly
crushed by it; in the third book, we discover that Snape is his boggart - his worst fear.
That he nevertheless manages to learn says more about Neville's innate strength of
character than it does about Professor Snape's skill as a teacher.
In spite of this, the potions master does have some skill. He is a powerful wizard, very
talented not only in potions, but also in the Dark Arts, and, presumably, defense against
them. He is also a master of two obscure and difficult branches of magic, occlumency
and legilemency. In muggle terms, he can both close his mind to outside interference, and
read the thoughts of others; the only other wizards who we know for sure can do both
these things are Voldemort and his antagonist, Albus Dumbledore. That Snape shares
these abilities with both the Dark Lord and the White Wizard may be significant. Both
within and outside the classroom, he is observant, quick-witted and articulate; he would
seem to be a natural chess player, unlike Ron Weasley, the intuitive, down-to-earth boy
whose skill at this game doesn't seem to fit his character. Finally, in spite of Harry's
accusation, Professor Snape does not lack courage. No matter whose side he is ultimately
on, he has been a double agent for several years. To attempt to spy on one of the most
powerful wizards of his era in order to aid the other is not the act of a coward.
Who, then, is Severus Snape? A harsh and partial, but often effective teacher; a gifted
wizard; an embittered, sharp-tongued man; very probably, a loyal servant (but we don't
know whose). He is someone who values control and expresses contempt for rule
breakers and those who can't control their emotions. Most of all, he is a young man too
much in the grip of two deadly sins, pride and anger. He cannot forgive James Potter for
the bullying he suffered at James's hands, and takes his anger out on James's innocent
son. He cannot laugh at himself, and therefore cannot tolerate humiliation. He is almost
obsessive in demanding respect from his students and his acquaintances, and he never
seems to relax; he is never unguarded. I would guess that the great virtue Snape needs to
learn, both for his own salvation and (possibly) that of the wizarding world, is not
courage, not loyalty, not obedience (on her website, logospilgrim compares Snape's
obedience to Dumbledore to a monk's obedience to his spiritual master), but humility.
What is humility, and why is it necessary to Severus Snape - and all of us? It is easy to
imagine that humility means abasing yourself, rejecting praise, and not taking any pride
or pleasure in your accomplishments. But this definition is wrong. Humility does not
mean putting yourself down no matter what you have done; on the contrary, that can be a
type of false pride. True humility simply means seeing yourself in proportion - in a right
relation to the universe. Within God's universe, each of us is very tiny - and yet our
capacities for growth, love and joy may be infinite. No single one of us is the center of
the universe, yet every one of us may have an important role to play within it. So, the
truly humble person is honest about his feelings and happy to share his gifts and
accomplishments with others. What humility leads to is neither self-abnegnation nor selfdenial;
rather, it leads to self-forgetfulness. Humility is liberating.
Pride, on the other hand, is a psychic prison. The proud person is constantly both selfaware
and self-defensive; she cannot ever relax enough to simply enjoy her
achievements, never mind celebrating those of other people. Pride of this sort - like
Severus Snape's- also makes it very hard to admit your mistakes and accept correction.
It's possible that a proud person cannot be truly repentant, even when she is remorseful,
because repentance requires focusing on the person(s) one has injured, rather than on
oneself. In other words, humility is necessary for repentance.
This brings me back to Dumbledore and Snape. J.K. Rowling said in a recent interview
that Snape was possibly more culpable than Voldemort, because Voldemort had never
been loved, while Snape had been. Who has loved him? His mother, almost certainly, and
also Albus Dumbledore. When Snape was a very young man, Dumbledore forgave him
and gave him a teaching position. To me, it's clear that Dumbledore's forgiveness and
trust are acts of love - that disinterested sort of love which is called agape. But did Snape
ever accept this love and forgiveness? So far, the answer is not entirely clear.
Forgiveness, like humility, is a wonderfully liberating thing - but only if you are ready
give and receive it freely. If you are trapped by pride, so that you cannot truly repent,
unilateral forgiveness can seem like an assault. This means that Snape could have had
very mixed feelings toward Dumbledore. Though my reading of the books so far is that
Snape was in fact repentant, at least to some degree, and valued the headmaster's trust
very highly, I have to admit other interpretations are possible. This is because Severus
Snape, like Harry and the other characters in the books, and like all of us in the real
world, has free will. When grace is offered him - the grace of forgiveness or of humility
or of love - he has the choice whether or not to accept it. My father often quotes the
English priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, on this subject: "Grace is like milk in a
cow's udder. You have to work at it to receive it." Whether Snape is ready to do this
work and reach for the grace offered him is still an open question. I have to admit that,
given free will, Snape might be simply a bad guy.
But, if Snape is merely a bad guy, why write seven books? What is the point of the
complex structure and symbolism Rowling is so carefully developing? And why does she
emphasize, over and over in every book, Harry's links to Voldemort? Harry himself has
been forced to recognize that, though they are opposites in every way that matters, in
some ways Voldemort might almost be his twin. But he has, so far, refused to recognize
his resemblance to Professor Snape. And Snape and Harry are actually very alike.
These three belong to different generations: Voldemort in his 60s, Snape in his 30s, and
Harry in his teens. But their early lives, as we discover in the fifth and sixth books of the
series, were quite similar. All three spent their first eleven years in the muggle world, and
in loveless (Voldemort) or abusive (Harry and Snape) situations. Voldemort lived in a
London orphanage after his mother's death; Snape and his mother would seem to have
been abused by his muggle father; and, of course, Harry had to endure life at the
Dursleys. Each one of them therefore came to Hogwarts as an outsider. Neither
Voldemort nor Harry knew they could do magic until they were informed after their
eleventh birthdays. Snape had some training in magic (Sirius Black, in a conversation
with Harry, says that Snape knew more curses at eleven than most seventh-years), but
there are indications that he came not only from a muggle background, but from a lowerclass
one. (http://www.redhen-publications.com/FamilySnape.html) This might well have
put him at a double disadvantage socially at Hogwarts. Voldemort and Snape were both
in Slytherin house at school; as for Harry, the sorting hat suggested putting him in
Slytherin until he begged not to be placed there.
That Harry is in Gryffindor, rather than Slytherin, is the first difference you notice
between these three antagonists. There are others, of course, but to me the differences
tend to emphasize some basic similarities between Harry and Severus Snape. I am going
to try to list some of the main points here - both similarities and differences:
|Half blood - witch mother, muggle father||Half blood witch mother, muggle father||Pureblood but mother was muggleborn|
|Never knew parents; has never been loved.||Knew both parents; apparently loved by mother.||Loved by both parents; they died when he was 15 months old|
|A bully and coward; enjoys tormenting others||Bullied by Marauders; may also have been a bully||Bullied by Dudley; also bullies him on at least one occasion|
|Does not have or want friends.||Seems to have had a couple of friends in school*||Two close friends; liked by some others.|
|Albus Dumbledore never trusted him, even as a child.||Dumbledore forgave and trusted him as a young man.||Dumbledore loved him from childhood.|
|Founded the Death Eaters.||Was a Death Eater; then repented and worked against them.||Always fought the Death Eaters, even as a child.|
*(I am guessing Snape had friends because of some of the spells he invented as a teen.
Other fans have pointed out that the 'muffliato' charm, which allows you to talk without
being overheard - for example, when in class with a teacher who might punish you for
talking - is hardly something you would use alone. Hermione objects both to this and to
the 'Levicorpus' hex, but the boys think they are brilliant, and I'm actually with Harry and
Ron here. It's hard to imagine a boy who could invent such spells being entirely
friendless. On the other hand, the 'Sectumsempra' curse Snape invented at the same age is
worthy of Voldemort himself. )
One final thing to note is Snape's nickname. This nickname, the half-blood prince, at first
seems to place him close to Voldemort. As Harry says when he discovers the prince's
identity at the end of the book: "He's just like Voldemort. ..ashamed of his
parentage....gave himself an impressive new name..." ("Half-Blood Prince", page 637.)
This is the obvious interpretation, but there is a twist. Voldemort has completely distorted
the name his mother gave him to create his new name. Snape, in contrast, incorporates his
mother's maiden name in his nickname. Also, Voldemort has so disassociated himself
from all humanity that most people do not even know that his given name was Tom
Riddle. Snape, on the other hand, uses his given name openly; the nickname would seem
to have been completely private. Finally, as both Hermione and Lupin tell Harry, there
are no princes in the wizarding world. And in Death Eater circles and Slytherin house,
there is no future in being a half-blood anything. Thus, Snape's 'impressive new name'
would be impressive only to Muggles. This bitter little pun may actually hint that Snape
is capable of humility; it's as much a joke on himself as an impressive title. So, if you
look deeper, the nickname actually places him a bit closer to Harry - who acknowledges
both his parents and prefers his own name to locutions like 'the chosen one' and 'the boy
who lived' - than it does to Voldemort.
I hope it's clear where I am going with this comparison. It's certainly not comprehensive,
but I think it does show that Snape is literally a central figure - the middle man between
Harry and Voldemort. As a pivot or fulcrum figure, I believe he will play a major role in
the final book. If you look closely, not only at the chart but at incidents in the books, it
also seems clear that, unpleasant man though he is, Snape is closer to Harry than he is to
Voldemort. For one thing, he is a believable human being, as is Harry, while Voldemort
has quite literally turned himself into a monster. One example of their shared humanity
and Voldemort's lack of it is the way the three express anger; another is their sense of
humor, or lack thereof; and the third is their feeling for other people.
I have said that Snape's besetting sins are pride and anger. Does Harry have any such
besetting sins, and if so, what are they? It seems he does - and they are pride and anger.
Voldemort, of course, has the devil's own pride - logically enough, since he is a stand-in
for the devil. I've already discussed to what extent pride is a trap for Snape, and how it
limits his life. But what about Harry? At the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix, he
discovers that both his friends have been made prefects, while he has not. Here is his
"They didn't fight Quirrel with me. They didn't take on Riddle and the basilisk.
They didn't get rid of all those dementors the night Sirius escaped. They weren't in
that graveyard with me, the night Voldemort returned...
And the same feeling of ill usage that had overwhelmed him the night he had
arrived rose again. I've definitely done more, Harry thought indignantly. I've done
more than either of them! ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," first
American edition, p 167)
Harry, however, loves his friends and is basically a fair-minded boy. So he struggles
against these negative feelings and is finally able to congratulate Ron and Hermione
honestly. The gap that had opened between them due to Harry's moment of pride is
bridged. This scene shows that Harry, young as he is, has come considerably further than
Snape in conquering this sin - but it also shows that pride is a real temptation to him.
According to John Granger, another manifestation of Harry's pride, and one which he
hasn't yet managed to examine or conquer, is his tendency to 'go it alone'. Throughout the
books, Harry fails to ask for help from adults even when it would be appropriate. Of
course, this makes the books much more entertaining to children! But I also think it's
potentially a serious character flaw. Finally, as Granger points out, Harry is judgmental.
He is very thoroughly prejudiced against both Snape and Draco Malfoy, and, though this
is understandable enough given the way they first treat him, he never considers that they
might change or grow, or even that his first impressions might be mistaken. Toward those
against whom he is prejudiced, Harry is not forgiving. In this, he is more like the
vindictive Severus Snape than either of them would want to admit.
What about anger? Here, too, both Snape and Harry are far more human than Voldemort,
and here, too, Snape is the 'middle man'. Voldemort's anger is always cold and
controlled, like everything about him. Harry, who has a psychic link with the Dark Lord,
perceives Voldemort's anger most frequently when Voldemort doesn't get what he wants.
The Dark Lord does not care about injustice, human (or animal) suffering or anything
else that makes ordinary human beings angry, and his anger does not seem to be a mask
for either grief or fear. He is simply and totally self-centered.
Harry, on the other hand, as many fans and critics have remarked, spends the whole of
The Order of the Phoenix in an adolescent snit, shouting at his long- suffering friends at
the slightest provocation. There is nothing controlled about his rage. He also has very
good reason for it; in his case, it is a mask for grief and possibly also fear (he had
watched one of Voldemort's servants kill another schoolboy and was nearly killed
himself, and in addition had to watch Voldemort's rebirth.) Besides, Harry is frustrated
because he knows Voldemort is at large and the government is doing nothing. He feels
helpless and scared for his friends, and he also has many injustices to cope with during
the school year. Summing up, Harry is angry out of concern not just for himself, but for
his friends. He is outraged by the neglect of important issues, by lies directed at him, and
by cruel treatment. His anger reaches its apex at the death of his godfather, Sirius Black -
and, here again, the anger at Black's killer is entirely justified. As Dumbledore says,
Harry would not be human if he didn't feel the way he does. Still, in this book, Harry is a
little too inclined to vent his feelings by lashing out at innocent bystanders. He does need
to direct and control his anger better, and in this he is also like Severus Snape.
Even more than pride, anger seems to be Snape's basic emotion. Where Harry has a much
wider range of emotional states, and is gradually developing empathy and understanding
for others as he grows into his teens, Snape rarely expresses any emotion other than rage.
He shows anger in several ways, however, and for various reasons. Most of the time, it
manifests as impatience and irritability; he is touchy and sarcastic. At times he grows
very angry, and at these times his reactions vary. Most often, his anger is white, quiet and
controlled. He is very scary at these times. On a few occasions, however, Snape shows
red rage; he shouts and throws things and hardly seems to know what he's doing. Snape's
white anger looks like Voldemort's, but its causes are different. Although he sometimes
does go into a rage because he is denied what he wants, what he usually wants in such
cases is respect from his students. He also becomes furious at blatant misbehavior,
especially when it has dangerous results, and he hates people getting away with rule
breaking. In other words, Snape, like Harry, is infuriated by injustice. The two have very
different definitions of injustice, certainly; for Snape, nothing is more infuriating than
Harry and his friends getting away with something. Still, here again, Harry and Snape are
more alike than either would care to admit. Even Harry has to admit to himself on at least
one occasion that Snape's anger at him is justified - more on this later. It's interesting, too,
that if Snape's white rages look like Voldemort's, his red rages look very much like
As to humor, Voldemort doesn't have any. He is sadistic, and the only time he is ever
shown smiling or laughing is when he is torturing someone. Snape, on the other hand,
does have a dry wit, but he tends to use it as a weapon. One could almost laugh aloud at
some of what he says in his classes if one weren't also cringing for his victims - and
'victims' does seem the right word. Hermione remarks about Snape's old textbook that the
half-blood prince seems to her to have a nasty sense of humor. Still, the humor is there.
What Snape cannot seem to do is laugh at himself. As to Harry, he has a normal sense of
humor for a boy his age, laughing at Fred and George's rough practical jokes and their
puns and accepting teasing from his friends, something Snape cannot do. But, like Snape,
Harry can have a sarcastic tongue and use words as weapons. I keep coming back to the
fifth book in the series, in which Harry was almost literally consumed by anger, as Snape
seems to be. At the beginning of this book, Harry is full of sarcasm toward his Muggle
relatives, and he torments his cousin Dudley with words, knowing the bigger boy cannot
retaliate. It's easy to imagine a fifteen-year-old Snape bullying Dudley in the same way,
and for the same reasons - to retaliate for all the bullying Dudley has inflicted, and to
release some of his general rage at the world on a helpless target. I think Harry would be
shocked if he understood how very like Snape he is in this scene.
Finally, what about their feeling for other people? Here again, Voldemort and Harry are
opposites. Voldemort, from an early age, has no regard for others; his only interest in
them is to use them as tools. In contrast, Harry, in spite of the neglect he suffered at the
Dursley's, is miraculously pretty normal socially and emotionally. He is generous, has
good instincts about people, values his friends and willingly risks his life for them. As
Dumbledore remarks several times, this young boy has a great capacity for love. It's a
capacity Voldemort not only lacks, but cannot understand.
And Snape? As I've already said, he is self-protective to a very high degree, so that it may
be almost impossible for him to be open with or to trust other people. However, he does
have one quality which he shares with Harry, and which I don't think many readers have
picked up on. That trait is his intense loyalty.
During an argument at Sirius Black's house, Black says to Snape, "Tell me, how is Lucius
Malfoy these days? I expect he's delighted his lapdog's working at Hogwarts, isn't he?"
("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", first American edition, p. 520.) I don't know
exactly how much older Malfoy is than Snape and Black, but this quote made me think
they were all at school together, with Lucius Malfoy in his sixth or seventh year when the
other two were eleven. C.S. Lewis, in his autobiography "Surprised by Joy", describes the
practice of fagging at English public schools. The smaller boys were supposed to run
errands and do chores for the older ones, while the older boys guided and protected their
fags, as the smaller children were called. Ideally, the relationship was supposed to be like
that of a squire to a knight. In practice, as Lewis describes it, the small boys gained little
or nothing from the relationship, and were sometimes even abused in various ways. There
is, of course, no practice as uncivilized as fagging at Hogwarts (as Hermione would say
indignantly, the house-elves are the fags). Still, I think it is quite possible that Lucius
Malfoy was Snape's mentor and protector in Slytherin house, and that Snape has never
forgotten what he perceived as Malfoy's kindness. Malfoy was obviously no good friend
for a vulnerable and lonely child, and that friendship has led Snape to make bad
decisions, from his favoritism toward Lucius's son Draco, to the unbreakable vow he
makes with Draco's mother, to (worst of all) joining the Death Eaters in the first place.
Snape has rejected the Death Eaters, but he cannot quite let go of that early loyalty.
The second person to whom Snape is loyal is, I believe, Albus Dumbledore. I've said
Malfoy might have been Snape's protector and mentor when they were adolescents; we
know for sure that Dumbledore has been Snape's mentor and protector throughout his
adult life. In addition to forgiving Snape for his earlier crimes, Dumbledore has given
him what he most needs to heal - a safe haven, useful work, respect, and most of all, his
complete confidence. It seems to me that Snape greatly values that trust and repays it
with the same sort of loyalty he has given the unworthy Lucius Malfoy. In order to
demonstrate this, I'd like to take a look at the overall structure of the series.
When the Harry Potter series is finished, it will consist of seven books. The fourth book,
"The Goblet of Fire", is therefore the central book in the series, and I think you can
extrapolate something about the central, or middle, man by looking at him in this central
book. How does Snape appear in this volume? What strikes me immediately is that, just
as Minerva McGonagall, the deputy headmistress, is Dumbledore's right-hand woman,
Snape is his right-hand man. The scene in which this is most apparent is the one in which
the three rescue Harry from the Death Eater Barty Crouch Jr. The three break down the
office door together and enter almost simultaneously. Dumbledore is in one of his rare
'white rages', furious at the man who has caused the death of one of his students and is
about to kill another. Once he has made sure Harry is safe, Dumbledore gives instructions
to his staff members, and both Snape and McGonagall obey him instantly and without
question, even though what he asks them to do sounds bizarre. Later, when Harry is in
the hospital wing, both McGonagall and Snape bring the Minister of Magic there, as
Dumbledore has requested. McGonagall is furious; the minister, Fudge, has brought a
dementor into the castle, against the headmaster's orders, and has allowed it to kiss Barty
Crouch Jr. and destroy his soul. Snape and McGonagall tell the story together, with
McGonagall doing most of the talking. The Minister tries to justify himself, saying that
Crouch is no great loss, whereupon Dumbledore responds, "He cannot now be
questioned." ("Goblet of Fire", 703) Thereupon, he tells the Minister that Voldemort has
returned. The minister refuses to believe him, though Dumbledore explains the logic of
the night's events at length. He will not listen and believe even when Harry chimes in.
After Dumbledore has finished speaking, Snape backs him up by showing the physical
evidence for Voldemort's return to Fudge - the dark mark on his forearm. ("Goblet of Fire",
pages 709-710) The potions master literally has the last word in this conversation.
And what a last word it is! He backs up his headmaster against the Prime Minister, and he
does it by openly confessing what he has been and what he has since rejected. The
Minister no more believes Snape than he has believed Dumbledore or Harry, so it seems
to me this speech of Snape's is necessary only to show us something of Snape's character.
What it shows us, in my view, is his loyalty to Dumbledore. If I am right in my
interpretation, here is another strong resemblance to Harry, whose loyalty to Dumbledore
remains unshaken even by the headmaster's death.
I'd now like to go back to how Snape and Harry cope with anger. There is a fascinating
scene in Half- Blood Prince - both horrifying and eerily beautiful - in which Harry
seriously injures Draco Malfoy by using the 'sectumsempra' curse in the half-blood
prince's textbook. Harry is appalled at what he has done and makes no attempt to escape
when Snape enters the bathroom where the boys have been fighting. Here is the
...he knelt over Malfoy, drew his wand, and traced it over the deep wounds
Harry's curse had made, muttering an incantation that sounded almost like a song.
The flow of blood seemed to ease; Snape wiped the residue from Malfoy's face
and repeated his spell. Now the wounds seemed to be knitting. ("Half -Blood
Prince", first American edition, p 523.)
This is a side of Snape we have never seen before, and it shocked me because of the
comparison it brought to mind. Here is a scene from another book:
He sat down on the ground, and taking the dagger-hilt laid it on his knees, and he
sang over it a slow song in a strange tongue. Then setting it aside, he turned to
Frodo and in a soft tone spoke words the others could not catch. ("The Fellowship
of the Ring", Folio society second edition, p 233.)
This scene, of course, is Aragon starting to heal Frodo after he has been stabbed by the
Witch-King's Morgul blade. J.K. Rowling says she has never finished "The Lord of the
Rings", and, at first glance, it is hard to imagine characters more different than the noble,
heroic and patient Aragorn and the irascible, introverted and self-protective Snape. If
there is no direct influence, both authors must have been calling on the same model. In
Aragorn's case, the model is Christ, the Great Physician. And, on his website, John
Granger states that the model Rowling is surely using in this scene is the Great Physician
(http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/home.php?page=docs/BaptismIntoDeath) . I believe Mr. Granger is
right, for the mingled blood and water on the bathroom floor, which Rowling describes as
looking like red flowers, clearly presage a crucifixion. I also believe the foreshadowed
crucifixion is Snape's, and that it begins in the climactic scene on the lightning-struck
Another thing to note about this scene is how just Snape is in his anger. Of course he's
furious - what adult with youngsters in his (or her) care wouldn't be furious if one of them
stabbed and nearly killed another? - essentially what Harry has done. Minerva
McGonagall, Harry's head of house, is equally outraged and backs Snape up to the hilt,
telling Harry she is amazed Snape did not ask for his expulsion. All Harry gets is several
weeks of detention. Granted, Snape being Snape, he can't forbear from making the
detentions as inconvenient as possible for Harry and showing malicious pleasure at
Harry's discomfiture. He has a long way to go before he becomes a truly just and
forgiving person, but no one who looks at this scene objectively could fault his behavior
here. (At other times, for example during the detentions, yes - but not here.)
But it is possible to fault Harry's. Although the boy is truly shocked and penitent at what
he has done, he really doesn't let Snape see this. When the professor asks him where he
learned such a dark spell, and then demands that he bring him all his schoolbooks,
Harry's first thought is how he can hide the old potions textbook that belonged to the
half-blood prince. It's because of the textbook that he's achieving excellent grades in
potions for the first time in his life, and he has no intention of giving it up. He switches it
for Ron's book. Professor Snape knows very well what Harry has done, and of course it
incenses him further. He says to Harry, "Do you know what I think, Potter?...I think you
are a liar and a cheat..." ("Half-Blood Prince", page 528). This is harsh, but it's absolutely
accurate; Harry is lying, and he has been cheating from the beginning of his advanced
potions class by using shortcuts and annotations he didn't devise. He has essentially been
taking credit for someone else's work - in other words, plagiarising. By failing to bring
the correct textbook, he is also being defiant.
I couldn't help but wonder what might have happened if, for once, Harry had shown
Snape the same sort of prompt obedience Snape typically gives to Dumbledore. What if
he had simply gone and gotten the book and given it to the professor? Snape would of
course have confiscated it - it is his property, and had presumably belonged to his mother
before him, so it might have had some sentimental value for him. And, in any case, he
would not want Harry, whom he dislikes, making use of his (and possibly his mother's)
work. If the boy had then asked for the book back, and if, in doing so, he had made it
clear that he had come to think of the half-blood prince as a friend, a genius, and an
exceptional teacher - how would Snape have reacted? I can't help thinking that, if Harry
had managed to convey to Snape his genuine admiration of the prince, things might have
started to be different between the man and the boy. There might have been an
opportunity, if not for reconciliation, at least for the beginning of détente. It is an
opportunity Harry bungles badly.
But, even if Harry had managed to show Snape some respect and obedience here, it
would not have affected the book's outcome - not given the trap Snape has walked into.
At the beginning of the story, the professor is visited by two Death Eaters, the sisters
Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange. Snape feels loyalty to the Malfoys, who
consider him a family friend. This may be one of his motives in what happens next, but,
as usual with this character, other interpretations are possible. Bellatrix does not trust
Snape, and it is important to him to maintain his standing with Voldemort and his cover
as a spy. When Narcissa presses him, he makes the Unbreakable Vow. Here is its ending:
"And, should it prove necessary...if it seems Draco will fail..." whispered
Narcissa (Snape's hand twitched within hers, but he did not draw it away), will
you carry out the deed that the Dark Lord has ordered Draco to perform?'
There was a moment's silence. Bellatrix watched, her wand upon their clasped
hands, her eyes wide.
"I will," said Snape. ("Half Blood Prince," page 36)
The task Voldemort has given the 16-year-old Draco is, of course, to kill Albus
Dumbledore. Many of us fans have been asking just what happens here, what Snape's
loyalties and motives truly are, and, in particular, what that twitch means. To me, it seems
clear that Snape knows he has lost control - and he is a man who values control. He does
not actually know what Draco has been commanded to do, or, if he does, he does not
want to do it. Now, however, he must do it if Draco cannot, or else die. He is trapped, and
there is no way out except through death.
Harry hears about the Unbreakable Vow when he eavesdrops on a conversation between
Snape and Draco Malfoy. He is angry that Dumbledore considers the conversation of no
importance. We do not know whether Snape has already told Dumbledore about the vow,
but it seems likely to me. It is also clear from this conversation that Snape does not know
exactly what Draco is doing, since he focuses on getting the boy to tell him his plans. He
The next thing being speculated about is the argument Hagrid overhears between
Dumbledore and Snape. Hagrid says, "Well - I jus' heard Snape sayin' Dumbledore took
too much for granted an' maybe he - Snape - din' want to do it anymore - " ("Half Blood
Prince", page 403). Some fans have suggested Snape no longer wants to work as a spy;
others believe Dumbledore at this point knows both about the unbreakable vow and what
Draco's task is, and that the headmaster is insisting Snape go through with it. My own
interpretation is that Snape doesn't want to protect Harry any longer. In any case,
whatever he is trying to get out of, the headmaster insists he keep doing it. We know
from previous books that Snape argues with Dumbledore at times, sometimes
passionately. But we also know that, when it comes to action, he has always obeyed him.
Whatever "it" is, Snape will do it.
This brings us to the terrible climactic scene on the lightning struck tower. Harry and
Dumbledore have just been on a quest for a horcrux - an object into which Voldemort has
placed part of his soul - and Dumbledore, who has insisted throughout the evening that
Harry's life is far more valuable than his own, is near death. In order to retrieve the
necklace which Voldemort has hidden, he has had to drink twelve goblets of a potion
which is clearly poisonous. He has made Harry promise to obey him without question, no
matter what he asks, and to force him to keep drinking. Here is what follows:
"'You. . .you can't stop, Professor,' said Harry. 'You've got to keep drinking,
remember? You told me you had to keep drinking. Here. . .'
Hating himself, repulsed by what he was doing, Harry forced the goblet back
toward Dumbledore's mouth and tipped it, so that Dumbledore drank the
remainder of the potion inside." ("Half Blood Prince", page 571)
The two manage to escape the cave where the necklace had been hidden and return to
Hogwarts, but when they do, they see the Dark Mark above the astronomy tower, so they
fly there at once. It is, of course, a trap. Dumbledore tells Harry he must take his
invisibility cloak and fetch professor Snape - no one else. But just as Harry starts to obey,
the trap is sprung; Draco Malfoy, who has succeeded in smuggling a group of Death
Eaters into the castle, arrives at the top of the tower and threatens Dumbledore. Though
nearly too weak to stand, the headmaster greets the boy courteously and without fear, and
almost persuades him that he should turn to the right side and accept asylum. Harry, in
the meantime, has been immobilized by a silent spell of Dumbledore's, and is forced to
watch helplessly. He sees Draco lower his wand, but then some of the Death Eaters
arrive. They sneer at Dumbledore and urge the frightened boy to finish him off, but
Draco is as frozen as Harry. Then Snape arrives:
"'We've got a problem, Snape,' said the lumpy Amycus, whose eyes and wand
were fixed alike upon Dumbledore, 'the boy doesn't seem able-'
But somebody else had spoken Snape's name, quite softly.
'Severus. . .'
The sound frightened Harry beyond anything he had experienced all evening. For
the first time, Dumbledore was pleading.
. . .
Snape gazed for a moment at Dumbledore, and there was revulsion and hatred
etched in the harsh lines of his face.
'Severus . . .please . . .'
Snape raised his wand and pointed it directly at Dumbledore. ("Half-Blood Prince",
Others have pointed out the similarity of the adjectives here. Does Snape hate
Dumbledore, or does he, like Harry when he forced the headmaster to drink the potion,
hate himself for what he is doing? Harry, of course, leaps to the most obvious conclusion;
he knows that Snape must have been serving Voldemort all along. But that is the one
conclusion that is clearly false. If Snape had been a Death Eater all along; if Harry had
been right about him from the first book, Dumbledore would have been dead before the
sixth book even started. For, before the story begins, Dumbledore has already been
mortally wounded; his hand is withered from the injury he sustained when he destroyed
one of the horcruxes, and, as he explains to Harry, only professor Snape's prompt action
saved his life. If Snape were wholeheartedly serving Voldemort and also knew the Dark
Lord wanted Dumbledore dead, all he would have had to do is withhold treatment or
fumble slightly, and the headmaster would not have survived. No one would have
suspected Snape of anything. There are several other possible motivations for Snape's
dreadful action. One, as Sigune points out in one of her essays, is that Snape is a typical
Slytherin. Knowing that he cannot save the headmaster in any case, he does the math and
reckons one dead body is not quite so bad as three. He feels he must kill Dumbledore to
save both Draco and himself. A second point is that Snape may know the headmaster is
already dying, and cannot be saved no matter what he does. A third possibility is that
Dumbledore, who has known about Draco's task and Snape's vow, silently orders the
If Snape were simply and entirely evil, as Harry thinks, I don't believe Harry would be
alive at the end of the sixth book. Yes, Snape has killed Dumbledore, and that is a terrible
thing. But, looking objectively at what happens next, it becomes clear that he is
protecting Harry - and not only Harry, but everyone else in the castle. His first move is to
get all the Death Eaters out of there before they can do any more harm. He does not
attack anyone, and, when the enraged boy who is pursuing him fires curses at him, he
merely blocks them without attempting to strike back. He keeps Harry from using any
unforgivable curses, and, as Granger says, he even seems to be giving him a last quick
lesson in occlumency. (http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/home.php?page=docs/BestNovel)
When another Death Eater attacks the boy, Snape rescues him, saying they must not kill
or injure Harry since the dark lord wants him. Unlike the shrewd and suspicious Bellatrix
Lestrange, this bunch of Death Eaters are a doltish lot and actually listen to Snape and
obey his orders. It doesn't occur to any of them that they could stun Harry, bind him, and
take him to Voldemort. Surely, if he were irredeemably evil, that is exactly what Snape
would do. No one can doubt that he has the ability; he deflects the boy's curses as easily
as if he were swatting flies. Yet, even after Harry reminds him of what he has just done,
shouting that he is a coward and a murderer, Snape doesn't hurt the boy. He - Snape - is
nearly insane with rage (and possibly grief, as well), but he keeps enough control not to
hurt Harry seriously, even then. All he does is to knock him off his feet.
There are, I think, four or five questions readers are fighting with at the end of the book.
What were Snape and Dumbledore arguing about when Hagrid overheard them? What
did Dumbledore mean when he said "Severus...please," at the top of the tower? Why did
he send Harry to get Snape; why did the headmaster want his former potions master so
urgently? And did any unspoken message pass between these two skilled legilemens
before Snape killed Dumbledore? Keeping in mind the picture I've built up of Severus
Snape's character, I think I might be able to answer these questions. I'm not sure about the
overheard argument; there are many plausible answers to this one, but, as I've said before,
I believe Snape may have been protesting Dumbledore's order to guard Harry and keep
him safe. This is a task Snape has been helping perform faithfully since Harry arrived at
the school, but the two honestly despise each other, and I think Snape may have been
trying to beg off. However, there is no evidence for this, and their conversation bears
many other interpretations. As to Dumbledore's command to Harry to fetch Snape the
minute they arrive at the top of the tower, Harry thinks, and I also thought initially, that
the headmaster needs Snape because of his skill in healing and in dealing with poisons.
Now I'm not so sure. I believe the headmaster knew he was dying, and had for awhile
been trying to effect a reconciliation between Harry and Snape. Both of them were dear
to him, and I think he may have wanted to speak to them together before he died.
Unfortunately, he didn't get the chance. However, when Snape came to the top of the
tower, I think Dumbledore did send him an unspoken message. It was certainly not
"please don't kill me," as Harry thinks - Dumbledore has said many times in the course of
this terrible evening that his life is nowhere near so valuable as Harry's, and he would be
much more concerned about the two boys trapped with him and surrounded by Death
Eaters than about himself. Dumbledore would gladly give up his own life for Harry and
Draco - and also for Snape. So "please kill me," seems a much more likely message. I
think, however, that Dumbledore's last request to Severus Snape is both simpler and more
profound than that. I believe what he tells him is "keep your promise," or perhaps "keep
your promises." And Snape does. He fulfills the Uunbreakable Vow he made to Narcissa
Malfoy by killing the headmaster, because he can see no other way out, but it's clear to
me that he hates to do it, and hates himself for doing it. He keeps his second promise as
well; he protects Harry. Like Harry, Snape is loyal to Dumbledore even after the
headmaster 's death - yes, even after having killed him. It's important to realize that this
sort of loyalty and obedience is an aspect of love. It may be the only aspect this proud
and damaged soul can understand, but understand it he does. He obeys Dumbledore, and
I think he will continue to obey Dumbledore, and protect Harry, until his last breath.
I've always found it impossible to predict what J.K. Rowling will do in this series; she is
so inventive that she's always managed to surprise me. All the same, given the resonances
between Harry and Severus Snape, I feel I can make one prediction. During the final
confrontation between the two in Half Blood Prince, Snape is right to keep Harry from
using any unforgivable curses. Dumbledore has said that Harry's great weapon against
Voldemort is the power of a soul that is pure and whole. Harry must not damage his soul
by attempting to dominate another's, or by torture, or by murder. No matter how
righteous his anger or desperate his need, he must not try to use the enemy's weapons
against him. In the end, I think, Snape and Harry will have to face Voldemort together -
the younger brother and the elder, in obedience to the good old man who was a second
father to both of them. Snape, the former Death Eater, who has killed - perhaps more than
once - will have the task of destroying the Dark Lrd's body. To Harry will fall the far
harder and more dangerous task of destroying - or, still more difficult, transforming -
Voldemort's soul. I also believe Snape will not survive this final encounter.
Of course, that's only my guess. I would love it if Snape managed to achieve his
redemption by saving Harry, but Rowling is writing the story, and she may have other
ideas. It may be that Snape will succumb to despair after his crime and fall into evil; it
may even be that he's simply been a 'bad guy' all along. But, if that proves to be the case,
I'll be very disappointed. Through Albus Dumbledore - who, as I said at the beginning, is
the representative and spokesman for Christian values in these stories - Rowling has
repeatedly emphasized the primacy of love over death. If Snape falls, death will have
conquered love. As the young woman who calls herself logospilgrim remarks:
Again and again in Rowling's universe, the response to death has been faith. Out
of love, out of belief in goodness, characters have been willing to sacrifice
themselves. Dumbledore's death was no accident, no mistake. . .
. . .hatred will not endure. Love is eternal, the only true reality. Lily and James
Potter showed this when they were willing to die out of love for their child,
imitating Love Itself. Dumbledore did the same.
Snape will do the same.
The theme of the Harry Potter series is the triumph of faith and love over fear and
hatred. Harry, who is so similar to Snape in so many ways, will learn that the road
that leads to faith and love is repentance.
(www.logospilgrim.com; "My Thoughts", part 4)
Rowling has also expressed dismay that some readers love Severus Snape, and this
surprises me. Can she not know what she has done with this character? At once both
healer and killer, prodigal son and parricide, Christ figure and devil's disciple, chess
master and pawn, spider and fly in the web, Harry's mirror and his shadow, Snape is by
far the most complex and fascinating character in the books. How could any reader not
love him and long for his redemption? And, with all this symbolic burden, he remains a
character you might recognize (and possibly cross the street to avoid) if you saw him
coming toward you. This is quite a feat.
I sincerely hope Rowling doesn't flatten this fascinating character and ignore the
resonances she seems to have set up with Harry by making Snape a mere villain. Only
time will tell. At this point, though, she has managed to create a central character who
remains double-sided and ambiguous even after the shocking ending of the sixth book in
her seven book series. That is a remarkable achievement, no matter what happens in the
seventh book. We now have to wait two years to find out what she will do with this
character - and with Harry. It is going to be a long couple of years.
List of Sources
L'Engle, Madeleine. The Young Unicorns. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.
Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. London: Collins/Fontana, 1967.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000.
. . .. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2003.
.... Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2005.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: Folio Society, 1998 (second
Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1987
Diamanti, June. June Diamanti's livejournal , July 21, 2005 "So Where is Spinner's End?"
Fredén, Maline. "Severus Riddle, Harry Snape and Tom Potter". March 3, 2004.
Granger, John. "Baptism into a Sacrificial Death: the Christian Keys to Half-Blood
Prince". August, 2005.
. . ."But Obviously Dumbledore is not Jesus". August, 2005.
. . ."The Alchemical Keys to the Last Harry Potter Novel". September, 2005.
. . ." Why 'Half-Blood Prince' is the Best Harry Potter Novel". August, 2005.
Logospilgrim. "My Thoughts, Part 2". July 17, 2005.
. . ."My Thoughts, Part 4". July 21, 2005.
Red Hen Publications. "The Family Snape". October 31, 2005 (revision)
. . ."Loyaulte me Lie". October 31, 2005
Sigune, "That Riddle, Snape"<http://sigune.livejournal.com/3005.html>
Miscellaneous: 'The Metro' is from the Album The Best of Berlin, 1979-1988.
UMG Recordings 1988