Here is my first essay about the Potterverse. Is Snape really as cruel as he seems to be in a key scene of HBP?
In chapter eight of Half-Blood Prince - “Snape Victorious” - we witness one of what I’ve been calling Snape’s unadulterated death eater moments. These are very brief, but horrifying, moments of gratuitous cruelty to characters who are in distress, and there are only three that I can think of in the entire series: the attempt to poison Neville Longbottom’s toad during a potions class; the nasty remark about Hermione’s teeth, and the comment Snape makes about Tonks’s Patronus form. There is no excuse at all for the attacks on the two children (and Trevor the toad), but a few essays I read recently encouraged me to look again at the Patronus scene and question what Snape was really doing in this conversation.
Before citing the text, I would like to clarify exactly what a Patronus signifies in the Harry Potter books. A Patronus is a sort of spirit guardian, a form of white magic based on happy memories. It can protect against certain enemies, particularly the dementors, who suck all happiness from their victims, and Dumbledore has also taught all the members of the order of the phoenix to use their Patronuses as messengers. A Patronus takes the form of an animal. The type of animal reveals something about the person - for example, Ron’s terrier points to his loyalty as a friend, and Harry’s stag to his connection with (and longing for?) his father. People do not choose the form of their Patronuses and cannot alter them at will, but, when Tonks discovers Harry outside the gates of Hogwarts and sends a Patronus which Snape intercepts, the boy discovers that a person’s Patronus form can change::
“And incidentally.” said Snape, standing back to allow Harry to pass him, “I was
interested to see your new Patronus.”
He shut the gates in her face with a loud clang and tapped the chains with his wand again,
so that they slithered, clinking, back into place.
“I think you were better off with the old one,” said Snape, the malice in his voice
unmistakable. “The new one looks weak.” (Half-Blood Prince, first American edition, p 160)
What is going on here? Harry notes shock and anger in Tonks’s face; she is clearly wounded by Snape’s comment. The reader (at least this reader!) is also shocked, and inclined to be both angry at Snape and puzzled by his cruelty to a young woman who has never done him any harm. But is he simply being cruel?
A Harry Potter fan who is also a fan of Snape and Slytherin house has analyzed every scene with Snape in it, commenting on possible motivations. (Her comments can be found at the whysnape website.) This young woman, in her analysis of the disastrous occlumency lessons in the fifth book, points out that Snape is essentially a soldier, with a soldier’s flaws and virtues. Harry does not understand this mindset at all; he is a typically rebellious modern teenager. So, when the two are working one on one, there is a serious failure to communicate. Snape expects prompt obedience; he does not typically give praise or encouragement because he considers (rightly) that he is preparing his students for battle. The children get praised only when they have exceeded his expectations, and his expectations are very high. Snape also expects Harry to be able to put his emotions aside to focus on the subject - that, after all, is the point of this tutoring. Harry, on the other hand, cannot manage to learn anything if his emotions are not engaged. Finally, Snape is harder on Harry than on almost any of the other students because he knows Harry will have to face Voldemort. In a way, then, Severus Snape’s harshness toward Harry is a sign of concern, or at least might be interpreted as such.
It’s also clear to anyone who looks objectively at his actions throughout the books that Snape is very loyal to the few people he trusts, and intensely protective. This may be most obvious in his favoritism toward Slytherin house, but he has also taken risks to protect Harry, whom he doesn’t like. Snape actually risks his life for Harry at least twice: once when he enters the shrieking shack to save Harry and his friends from Lupin and Black, and later when he goes alone into the forbidden forest in an attempt to bring Harry and Hermione back to safety. He is also the one professor we most often see patrolling the corridors at night, and the grounds when students (Ron and Harry, for example) are missing. In essence, then, whatever else he may be, Snape is a warrior/guardian.
What does this mean for the Patronus scene? First, we should realize that, though he is protective of everyone he feels obligated to guard, Snape is naturally most protective of ‘his kids’ - the students in Slytherin house. Do we know that Nymphadora Tonks, a few years ago, was not one of those students? Her mother is Andromeda Black, sister of Narcissa (Black) Malfoy and Bellatrix (Black) Lestrange. It is typical for entire families to be sorted into the same house, and professor Slughorn implies that Sirius was the only Black not in Slytherin. If Andromeda Black was in Slytherin house when Snape was a young boy, it seems likely that her daughter would have been in that same house when he was a young man. In that case, Snape was not only her teacher, but also her housemaster.
It is also possible that Severus likes and is grateful to Andromeda. We know that, at present, he despises both Sirius Black and Bellatrix Lestrange; we also know he seems to be very loyal to Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy. We don’t know how he feels about the other Black cousins - Regulus, Sirius’s younger brother, and Andromeda, the middle sister. Both of them were certainly in school with him, though not in the same year, and both of them may have been his friends. If that were true, he would feel even more obligated to protect Nymphadora Tonks, Andromeda’s only daughter.
Even if these speculations prove to be untrue, Tonks was Snape’s student and is now his colleague - a junior member of the Order of the Phoenix, to which he also belongs. And - as I said before -Snape has been protective of Harry, whom he dislikes intensely. He would not have to like Tonks in order to try to guard her from danger.
The question then becomes: If Severus Snape is actually being protective in this scene, what is he trying to protect Nymphadora from? When Harry sees the new Patronus, he simply gets an impression of a large animal with four legs, and he thinks Tonks might be mourning for her dead cousin Sirius, who could transform into a large dog. It’s a reasonable guess, but it’s wrong; in fact, Tonks’s Patronus has changed because she is in love with Remus Lupin, the werewolf. Presumably the Patronus is now either a wolf or a werewolf.
Severus Snape dislikes Remus Lupin quite as much as he does Sirius Black, and with good reason. When they were schoolboys, Sirius tricked Severus into going into the den where Lupin was about to transform, hoping to frighten him. If James Potter had not rescued him, Lupin might have killed Severus, or seriously injured him. There is no indication that either James or Remus knew about Sirius’s vicious trick beforehand, but Severus cannot believe they are innocent. Whatever his failings, he cannot accept that a person could use a friend as a murder weapon without informing that friend in advance. In his mind, Lupin is therefore as guilty as Black.
What is more, Severus is correct in inferring that Remus is weak. This is difficult to admit, because Remus Lupin is a likable and, in many ways, admirable character. Nevertheless, he is far from perfect. As a teenager, he did not intervene to rescue Severus from James’s and Sirius’s bullying, even though he was a prefect. Both Neville Longbottom, who stood up to Harry, Hermione and Ron because of their rule breaking, and Hermione, who stood up to the Weasley twins, have shown far more moral courage than we have seen from Lupin. One could argue that Remus was a boy at the time, but he showed exactly the same moral weakness as a young man in Prisoner of Azkaban when he failed to inform the headmaster that Sirius Black was an animagus, capable of transforming into a dog, who also knew every secret passage into the school. Lupin believed at the time that his former friend was a mass murderer. By neglecting to tell Dumbledore what he knew, Lupin was potentially endangering every person in the school, particularly Harry. Lupin is too eager to have people like him; he cannot tolerate censure from those he himself likes and respects, and this leads him to neglect his clear duties. This is a failing Severus Snape can neither understand nor tolerate.
If we look again at the Patronus scene with these ideas in mind, it becomes clear what Snape is trying to communicate. He is warning Tonks about Lupin, whom he considers morally weak - so much so that he might actually endanger her. No strong-willed young woman likes to have her relationships criticized, not even by close friends or family members, so it’s hardly surprising that Tonks reacts with shock and anger. I’m sure any girl would react the same way if faced with harsh criticism of the man she had fallen in love with. Snape’s manner - as is typical for him - is particularly unfortunate; he makes his malice toward Lupin quite clear while his concern for his former student is masked. As a result, Tonks is unlikely to hear the message he intends to send. Harry certainly doesn’t. All the same, the message is there. Snape is once again, as he so often does, acting as a guardian. And what is most disquieting, on reflection, is that he might well be right; Lupin, in spite of his good qualities and good intentions, might actually be a danger to Tonks. As with so many other questions Half-Blood Prince raises, we will have to wait and see.
Mary Johnson, December, 2005/Jan 2006
Note: The essays that particularly inspired me to look again at this scene were Pharnabazus’s comparison of George Weasley and George Wickham, which got me wondering who the Darcy character might be (http://www.livejournal.com/users/pharnabazus/4468.html), June Diamanti’s “Supposing the sorting Hart Wanted to Put Snape in Gryffindor?”” which analyzes this character’s exceptional courage (http://www.livejournal.com/community/hp_essays/40977.html), Lady Claudia’s analysis of Snape as a warrior in the occlumency lessons (http://whysnape.tripod.com/book5b.htm#firstlesson), and a mugglenet editorial suggesting that the potions master’s patronus might actually be a griffin - a griffin is a mythical guardian noted both for its fierceness and for its loyalty to the few who can manage to tame it. (http://www.mugglenet.com/editorials/editorials/edit-elissa.shtml)