Title Cedric and Severus
Genre informal essay
Length, Credits, warnings about 1,500 words, rated g. No warnings! Author's note: I wrote this some time ago and am now convinced Severus is not dead. That doesn't really render my conclusions invalid, IMHO. I look forward to comments, though!
When you think about it, the basic plot of GOF seems needlessly complex, if not downright illorgical. Why a triwizard tournament? Why did Barty Crouch Jr wait till the end of the shcool year to bring Harry to Voldemort, when he was actually at the school and teaching Harry, and could have kidnapped the boy at any time? People have pointed to the need for international cooperation; the need to introduce new characters, and so on. My favorite theory was the Red Hen's: she postulated that Voldemort and Crouch Jr. had made a two-way portkey, and that he intended to return to Hogwarts with Harry's body and embark on a killing spree, thus taking over the school. That theory makes sense, but, after DH, it's clearly not what Rowling had in mind. There was, I think, only one reason for the convoluted plot and the tournament.
Rowling needed to kill Cedric Diggory. That is the only justification for the triwizard tournament and the goblet of fire that I can see.
Cedric's death is important to the story for three reasons. First, he is a boy like Harry, and dies right in front of him. This emphasizes Harry's vulnerability, and the danger he is constantly in, in the most direct and graphic way possible. Second, since Cedric's death is unnecessary ("Kill the spare"!), it points out Voldemort's cruelty, even toward children and adolescents, and his utter callousness. But the third reason, for me, is by far the most disquieting. Cedric's death points out a certain nihilism in Rowling's work. Why do I say this? Because Cedric dies precisely because he and Harry are such good kids. It is their fair-mindedness, their willingness to cooperate, that brings Cedric to that graveyard. Had either he or Harry been more selfish and cutthroat, Cedric would almost certainly have survived. His death therefore serves to emphasize the power of evil. Cedric's basic goodness, his sense of fair play, his inborn talent and his capacity for learning, are meaningless in the face of Voldemort's ruthlessness and Peter Pettigrew's selfishness and cruelty. So he dies. It is not, as Dumbledore implies in his speech, that Cedric dies because he just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, Cedric is in that place, at that time, because of some very specific virtues. He dies *because* he is good.
Is Cedric a tragic hero? Of course not! According to what I was taught in school, a tragic hero is a person who may be basically good, but who has one or more flaws. These flaws in character lead to his destruction, and, often enough, to the destruction of innocents around him. Does that describe Cedric? I don't think so.
To clarify what I mean, I would like to look briefly at a representative tragic hero and compare him to a few people in the Potterverse. The hero I would like to examine is Shakespeare's Othello. Othello is a famous and honorable warrior, noted for his skill and bravery, but, as a moor, he is an alien in Venice. Perhaps this leads to a deep inner insecurity, which Shakespeare hints at. In any case, Othello's tragic flaws are obvious. He is hot-tempered and violent, as befits a soldier, and he is also - famously - jealous. Finally, he places his trust in a false friend, Iago, who means only to destroy him. Is there anyone in the Potterverse with Othello's particular combination of flaws and virtues?
There is. In fact, there are two people: James Potter and Sirius Black. Sirius, like Othello, is brave and loyal and a skilfull fighter. But he is impetuous and inclined to violent action, and I detect some jealousy in his constant disregard for his younger brother. James Potter, we are told, is driven to particularly cruel bullying by jealousy. This is behavior that doesn't become him at all, but his jealousy prompts him to act in a way that demeans him, though - unlike Othello - he does nothing actually criminal. James is also a rather impetuous fighter and a glamorous figure in the school. Finally, just as Othello is brought to his destruction by his trust in a false friend, both Sirius and James trust Peter Pettigrew, who betrays the Potters, thus bringing about their deaths, and causes Sirius's imprisonment.
Years later, it is Sirius's mistreatment of his house elf, Kreacher, that allows Death Eaters to use that elf against him. Kreacher gets Sirius out of the way and then lies to Harry, telling him his godfather has gone to the Ministry of Magic and been captured by Death Eaters. In this way, the Death Eaters lure Harry to the Ministry, and Sirius dies while trying to rescue him. Had he simply managed to be kind to Kreacher; had he bothered to ask the elf what had happened to his younger brother, Regulus, Sirius would have earned Kreacher's loyalty; we know this because we see Harry do what Sirius could not, and we see Kreacher's response. But compassion for either Kreacher or Regulus is beyond him. That failure in compassion, as much as anything else, leads to Sirius's death.
James and Sirius are certainly heroes; they die fighting Voldemort, and they are capable of love and sacrifice. But, when you look closely, both young men help to bring about their own deaths because of their own flaws in character. Thus, like Othello, one could define them as tragic heroes.
Is this also true of Severus Snape? He is certainly a flawed character, at least as much so as the other young men. Like Sirius, he is (as I've said elsewhere) frighteningly good at holding grudges. As a youth, he was a racist, and he seems to have a great deal of difficulty letting go of the past and forgiving either others or himself. Finally, he has a bad tendency to displace his pain and rage by lashing out at others - including innocent children. As a result, he is at times both cruel and unjust to children in his care. It's clear that flaws like these could lead to tragedy, and perhaps even to destruction or self-destruction. But do they?
Interestingly, they do not. What causes Snape's destruction is quite different. It is his loyalty and obedience to Dumbledore and his love for Lily that lead him to his death. His conversations with Dumbledore during Harry's 6th year convince me that, by that point, he has repudiated the Death Eaters completely. He maintains the masquerade, and apparently assists Voldemort, only on Dumbledore's orders and to protect the school and its students. His very last act, as I've said elsewhere, is one of obedience to Dumbledore, love for Lily, and help to Harry, all at once. Had he been a worse person - completely selfish and concerned only for his own loved ones, like Lucius Malfoy - he might well have survived. But because he tries faithfully to do the job Dumbledore gave him, he dies.Severus Snape is certainly just as flawed and fallible as James and Sirius. But his flaws do not cause his death. His virtues do. In this, he is much more like Cedric Diggory than he is like Othello.
That is why Severus Snape is not a tragic hero. If he is a hero - and I think he is - he is so without qualifications. As Jodel says at the red hen website, being a hero is an ugly, thankless business. It's not glorious and you often have to do - and suffer - horrible things. A hero is someone who is willing to do and suffer those things in the cause of right. Severus Snape, in the end, gives his youth, his life, and perhaps his very soul, to help Harry to his victory. Who is a hero in this saga, if he is not?
And this is also why I found this book not only dissatisfying, but depressing. In the Potterverse, people are destroyed, not in spite of their virtues, but because of them. This is a profoundly nihilistic message, and Harry's false sacrifice and partial victory are poor weapons indeed to combat it. Rowling may have been aiming for realism - in the real world, after all, good people do die unjustly - but, if that was her intention, it's a bit jarring in the face of all the mythic and fairy tale elements she throws in - for example, Harry's resurrection, wandlore, blood magic, and conversations with ghosts. Fairy tales are satisfying because the good do triumph against impossible odds. Those who read such tales are not looking for realism (though they may well demand believability). They are certainly not looking for nihilism and despair. But that is what I, at least, found in DH.