This is a modified version of a panel titled “Snape Celebration! Talk and Trivia” delivered at LeakyCon, Dallas, TX, on August 11, 2018.
Welcome to a celebration of Snape. I love Snape, but I’m going a little dark in this talk.
Here are some of the complicated reasons I celebrate Snape.
He’s not materialistic. Like Dumbledore, Harry, and Draco, and unlike Voldemort, he’s fit to “own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it.” He teaches self-sufficiency: wandless, nonverbal magic, which you need if you’re part of a resistance.
He’s always there when you need him.
He always knows what to do.
His character arc goes toward doing what is right and not what is easy, such as killing the only person remaining in the world who knew the best of him.
The fandom disagrees bitterly over this character, probably more than any other. Yet we all read the same books and watched the same movies. It’s not like there are two series of Harry Potter books, one pro-Snape and one anti-Snape; a single set of words created this character. How was it done? The author wrote this double agent, who rose to become the right-hand man of both generals on opposing sides of a war, as a character of almost perfect ambiguity. Every sentence of his, every action, has at least two possible and contradictory interpretations. This creates vastly more facets and more interpretations than most characters have, and more ways for readers to despise him or identify with him.
With Harry, Snape, and Voldemort, we get the question: What do you do when you’re born, through no fault of your own, into a life where you don’t get enough love? Harry starts out blameless and ends up realistically flawed but still true to himself; that was his challenge. Voldemort doesn’t change much. He nearly dies of emotion the first time he tries to kill Harry and he actually dies of emotion the last time.
Snape changes. He goes from petty and oppressive to self-sacrificing and protective. Every step along the way is difficult for him. It does not come naturally. Harry’s struggle was created by outside evil; it was forced on him as an innocent baby. But what if you’re a person who brought struggle onto yourself by your own actions? Your story doesn’t end after you commit a crime; you have to keep choosing what to do with your life, as Snape did with Dumbledore on the mountaintop after Lily’s death. Not all of us are blameless inside. Some of us have done harm, and we get to read this story, too. You don’t have to feel beautiful or good or even innocent to do the right thing. Anyone can choose to do the right thing, and to know who you really are on the inside, even if others can’t see it.
Who here read Harry Potter for the first time before November 2016? Who here has read it since November 2016? Is there anyone here who read it for the first time after that U.S. election?
When I first read of Snape’s Worst Memory, calling Lily a mudblood, the threat of ethnic cleansing didn’t feel as immediate to me, living in the U.S., as it does now. At the time, I had to think through, intellectually, how frightening it must have been for Lily, knowing what Death Eaters wanted to do to Muggle-borns. It doesn’t feel as hypothetical right now. For the past two years, it’s been much easier to imagine feeling stricken that Voldemort’s followers were gaining power, then discovering that someone who considered themself my friend was attending their rallies, calling me by their hateful rhetoric, or magnanimously refraining from doing so because they considered me some sort of exception. Story elements I had previously read as allegorical now seem, increasingly, to be grimly realistic, moving Harry Potter from fairy tale to nonfiction. The Muggle-born Registration Commission is exactly what has been proposed for some ethnic and religious minorities in the U.S. Incarceration without trial, suppression of the press, and above all, Voldemort’s signature tactic — attacks on children and destruction of the parent-child bond — yes, we have always had these things in the U.S., but not like this.
Do you remember when Snape begs Dumbledore to protect Lily? Dumbledore asks the leading question:
“Could you not ask for mercy for the mother, in exchange for the son?”
“I have — I have asked him —”
“You disgust me,” said Dumbledore, and Harry had never heard so much contempt in his voice. Snape seemed to shrink a little. “You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?”
The first time I read that exchange, I was taken aback. It seemed almost unfair; it’s the harshest thing Dumbledore says in the series to anybody, including people who have committed worse crimes. But now, considering the current crisis of family separation at U.S. borders, the implications of 20-year-old Snape’s oblivious thinking are glaring to me. Family separation is precisely what the Harry Potter series is about. The crime that Rowling did not name — whatever Tom Riddle did to the two other orphans in the cave, so that even though nothing happened, they were never the same after that — is exactly the kind of damage we’re seeing in children after weeks or months of government abuse. Like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and other dystopias, the Harry Potter series has assumed greater relevance in U.S. cultural discourse in the past two years. Snape as a reformed fascist who devotes the second half of his life to bringing down his former ideology gives me one fictional answer to the question: What would it take for people spreading hate to realize what they have done? What would that look like?
I know many in HP fandom dislike Snape and some seem worried, I think, that any sympathetic discussion of this fictional character might lead to excusing his harmful deeds or to having to forgive them. I agree that excusing or minimizing harm is damaging in itself. This is the point of Unforgivables in Potterverse, and Snape calling Lily a mudblood falls into that category — in “The Prince’s Tale,” Rowling refers to it as “the unforgivable word.” Once you commit an Unforgivable, it cannot and should not be forgiven by others. The victim owes you nothing. They can choose to understand, but without excusing, and with no obligation to communicate or forgive. It is your work, if you choose, to reintegrate your soul through remorse.
Snape is the one character in the series whom we witness as he experiences the near-fatal pain of true remorse. Ugly-crying in Sirius Black’s bedroom, reading all the evidence of the love and normal family life that he destroyed for a baby, with the birthday teas and the cat and the ugly vase from relatives and the toy broom from the godfather — he reintegrates his soul, after splitting it with the killing of Dumbledore, by casting the excruciatingly painful magic that Hermione described: “You’ve got to really feel what you’ve done.”
I think that was brave. Most of us, at some point, hurt other people. Really feeling what we’ve done requires courage.
Snape embodies the quality of protectiveness without affection. And I think that’s one of the hardest lessons that Rowling wrote into the series. Of course we rush to save the ones we love, especially the vulnerable. What about people we don’t know? The ones we dislike? The ones who would attack us if they could?
Several characters explore this question. Snape resents having to protect Harry, but he finds it easier to be protective toward Harry after he gains emotional strength from doing the same for Draco, whom he does like. Snape doesn’t just save Draco’s life; he sings shut Draco’s wounds with enormous care. This healing tenderness gives Draco the emotional strength to recognize Dumbledore’s offer to protect his parents as love magic; he lowers his wand. In the Triwizard tournament, Harry rescues Ron and the emotional strength of that relief makes it easier for him to rescue a child he doesn’t know — literally easier, since Ron helps him. Ron and Harry try to drag Wormtail’s silver hand away from his throat. Dumbledore carries Umbridge out of the forest. They help Draco, Crabbe, and Goyle with the Fiendfyre, and Ron yells, “IF WE DIE FOR THEM, I’LL KILL YOU, HARRY!” In the final battle, when a Death Eater threatens Draco, Harry Stuns the Death Eater and then Ron punches Draco from under the Invisibility Cloak. Protectiveness without affection.
This is the point of the redemption scenes in Potterverse stopping short of reconciliation. Snape never does like Harry; Draco and Harry nod at each other on the platform, but they don’t become friends or start dating; Dumbledore never sees Grindelwald again after defeating him in 1945. Protecting our loved ones is instinct; extending protection to those we dislike, or those who attack us, or those we feel guilty about having hurt, requires more. Snape learned to do that before he died — Snape refused to die until he accomplished that — Snape strengthened Harry in his final effort to offer redemption to Voldemort by giving Harry memories of Lily’s love. Not easy, and I think it’s safe to say that Snape, and JK Rowling, didn’t make it look easy. For the greatness of that achievement, I celebrate this character.