Note: Dear good people, do not do what I did. Do not throw out everything you prepared for writing a 20-minute talk on the day before the talk is scheduled because you’ve just realized that there’s something you really have to write about, so you have to scrap everything and start over. That was not a pleasant 24 hours. I do not recommend that experience and hope not to repeat it.
At any rate, here is what I ended up delivering at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College on October 19, 2018.
Welcome to the talk that I titled weeks ago, optimistically, “‘And my soul, Dumbledore? The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship.”
My name is Lorrie Kim. I’ve been writing about the Harry Potter series for over ten years, including a book called Snape: A Definitive Reading that goes through the series from Snape’s point of view. In July, I read my friend Irvin Khaytman’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, which examines Dumbledore’s character through the series. I thought I was ready to talk about Snape’s relationship with Dumbledore.
Yesterday, I threw out what I had already prepared and wrote these rough comments, based on words in Deathly Hallows that I first read eleven years and countless rereads ago but did not fully notice until Tuesday, something that had been sitting in plain sight until I was ready to understand its import and start making fresh connections.
And this is the magic that keeps me coming back to Harry Potter analysis. There’s something new every time. I hope you can forgive the rawness of these thoughts and accept, in lieu of polish, the excitement that comes of new ideas whenever we gather to discuss this story that still has fresh surprises for us.
This is the passage I read afresh on Tuesday. We’re back in Grimmauld Place, tears dripping from the ends of our noses as we read the second page of Lily’s letter:
could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally! Lots of love, Lily.
In 2016, I wrote about that passage: “At last, we see what was on the missing second page. Not much. She couldn’t believe that a good man like Dumbledore could have been friends with the evil Grindelwald. And then – oh. Her love. That’s what was on the second page.” I went on to discuss this scene as the moment that Snape, who has just split his soul by killing his mentor, reintegrates it by experiencing remorse for destroying the family life of a one-year-old child– the one time in this series that Rowling shows us a character undergoing this excruciating process that is so painful it could destroy you.
I still stand by my 2016 reading that we were witnessing remorse.
I do not still stand by my words, “Not much.” Because on Tuesday, it occurred to me that this moment is the first time Snape learns that Dumbledore, whose soul seemed surely more pure than Snape’s ugly, Dark-Marked soul, had once been Grindelwald’s friend.
Every crisis of faith that Harry goes through in Deathly Hallows regarding Dumbledore, Snape went through, too, during the same time, on even less information and assurance than Harry.
Remember Harry’s reaction upon reading Elphias Doge’s eulogy of Dumbledore in the Daily Prophet, which was published a few days after Snape went to Grimmauld Place?
He had never thought to ask Dumbledore about his past. No doubt it would have felt strange, impertinent even, but after all, it had been common knowledge that Dumbledore had taken part in that legendary duel with Grindelwald, and Harry had not thought to ask Dumbledore what that had been like.
And then remember Harry’s “revulsion and fury” when he read Rita Skeeter’s hints that Dumbledore “dabbled in the Dark Arts himself as a youth,” and it had to do with Grindelwald. Harry’s growing fears about Dumbledore as he camped in the wilderness, no Horcruxes in sight, and then the shock as he read Skeeter’s biography and the incontrovertible proof, in Dumbledore’s own young adult hand, that he had once been Grindelwald’s partner, ardent and fully invested, in plotting fascism.
Snape went through those realizations, too, at the same time.
This was Harry’s agony as he learned of Dumbledore’s past:
“Look what he asked from me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don’t expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I’m doing, trust me even though I don’t trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!”
We get few glimpses into Snape’s thoughts during his final year, but sometimes it’s not difficult to hazard a guess.
Parts of Snape’s situation were different from Harry’s. He didn’t have any confidants; he had to process this information alone. He had far less reason than Harry to believe that Dumbledore had loved him. He didn’t hear Aberforth’s account of the story.
Unlike Harry, who responded to Hermione’s attempt to minimize Dumbledore’s friendship with Grindelwald as “a few months one summer when they were both really young” by retorting, “They were the same age as we are now. And here we are, risking our lives to fight the Dark Arts,” the news about Dumbledore’s past, his former fascism and the death of Ariana, changed Snape’s perception of Dumbledore in a way that made Snape less alone, not more.
This news put several things about Dumbledore in a different light where Snape was concerned. His testimony to the Wizengamot that Snape “is now no more a Death Eater than I am.” His unwavering conviction, in the face of skepticism, that Snape’s change of heart was genuine and not an act. His gratitude when Snape was able to halt the damage to his hand from the ring Horcrux: “I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, to have you.” His insistence on Snape, and only Snape, to counter Dark Magic at Hogwarts: as long as Dumbledore had Snape, he was not alone as someone who understood how to cast Dark Magic and therefore how to fight it, understood both its appeal and how to resist it.
So the times that Dumbledore had annoyed Snape by idealizing Harry Potter as pure of heart, he was comparing Harry favorably not to Snape but to himself. We readers knew this, but Snape, always jealous of Dumbledore’s affection for Potters father and son, had not, until he learned of Dumbledore’s past.
Most of all, Snape’s understanding of Dumbledore’s guilt about his past gave new significance to the harshest words that Dumbledore speaks to anybody: “You disgust me.” The moment that Dumbledore judges Snape, who sees nothing wrong with begging for Lily’s life in exchange for the lives of her husband and child, is a judgment that comes not from moral superiority but from recognition. And that resonates with a familiar theme in J.K. Rowling’s writing: the sentiment, “You cannot despise me more than I despise myself.” Even her kindest characters speak with venom when feeling defensive and self-loathing.
Undeniably, Snape caused some real harm in his role as a teacher, but he achieved something worthwhile as well: he continued to be available to Draco with guidance and protection, no matter how harshly Draco rejected his help, how much Snape’s heart sank as he watched Draco join Voldemort, how many crimes Draco committed, either eagerly or under duress. He remained ready to assist if Draco was ready for a second chance, as Dumbledore had done for him. With Snape, Draco knew: there was nothing disgusting Draco could do that Snape had not already done. Snape was able to maintain that connection, that trust, by signaling: I know everything you have done, and I am still here.
Knowing that Dumbledore, too, had once seen nothing wrong with letting people die for what he wanted, would have given Snape a different understanding of the harsh words, “You disgust me.” Dumbledore shared not only Snape’s self-loathing but his unresolved shame. He knew everything Snape had done, and he remained with Snape to the end of his life.
Snape could recognize, then, some equality between himself and Dumbledore. We can hear it in the way the two men talk to each other in the Prince’s Tale chapter when nobody else is around: they are sardonic, angry and familiar and even immature. We’ve seen Snape that way before, but never Dumbledore — except with Snape. Dumbledore would not call any man but Snape by insults as intemperate and gratuitous as “a basket that spends so much time dangling on the arm of Lord Voldemort.” Albus! Unfair!
In her subtle way, Rowling lets us see that when Dumbledore asks Snape to kill him in Draco’s stead because “That boy’s soul is not yet so damaged,” Snape might have thought, at first, that this was one more instance of Dumbledore valuing someone, anyone, over Snape. With that history, I think it was a brave thing for Snape to ask – although, granted, it was certain that nobody else would speak up for him – “And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?”
As always, whenever Snape craved trust and affection from Dumbledore, Dumbledore’s response was not comforting, not reassuring – but not nothing, either, even if Dumbledore’s responses to Snape generally come with more work and stern reminders to choose what is right over what is easy.
“’You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation,” said Dumbledore.
Let us be clear what Dumbledore is saying, according to the rules of magic laid out in this world. Killing splits the soul, even when done by request, out of love – the killer has to mean an Unforgivable Curse or it won’t work – and the way to reintegrate a split soul is to feel remorse, the near-fatally painful magic that Dumbledore checks periodically to see if Snape has been able to manage. Up to this point, Snape never has. If he accepts Dumbledore’s requests, to kill him and then protect the students of Hogwarts against the Carrows, he commits to feeling remorse and surviving it.
After Dumbledore makes his request, “his blue eyes pierced Snape as they had frequently pierced Harry, as though the soul they discussed was visible to him” – Dumbledore is performing Legilimency, and Snape is not blocking him. “At last Snape gave another curt nod.” Snape has had time to think about it. He has made a choice. He agrees to cross back over into evil, cast an Unforgivable Curse, and then return.
No one else in either the Order of the Phoenix – that is, the order that believes in second chances – or among the Death Eaters shares Dumbledore’s and Snape’s double status of having embraced evil and then fought against it. This innocence is why Sirius, in Goblet of Fire, tells Harry, “There’s still the fact that Dumbledore trusts Snape, and I know Dumbledore trusts where a lot of other people wouldn’t, but I just can’t see him letting Snape teach at Hogwarts if he’d ever worked for Voldemort.” After Snape kills Dumbledore, Tonks says, “But Dumbledore swore he was on our side! I always thought Dumbledore must know something about Snape that we didn’t….” and McGonagall says, “He always hinted that he had an ironclad reason for trusting Snape. I mean… with Snape’s history… of course people were bound to wonder… but Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine…. Wouldn’t hear a word against him!” These people don’t have the experience to recognize, as Dumbledore recognized in Snape, what it looks like to embrace and then renounce evil.
Hermione tells an agonized Harry: “He changed, Harry, he changed! It’s as simple as that! Maybe he did believe these things when he was seventeen, but the whole of the rest of his life was devoted to fighting the Dark Arts! Dumbledore was the one who stopped Grindelwald, the one who always voted for Muggle protection and Muggle-born rights, who fought You-Know-Who from the start […] and who died trying to bring him down!”
The lesson of the Snape-Dumbledore relationship is learning how this kind of change is possible. Only someone who has managed this sort of change, someone who has the means to overpower others but chooses not to attack, not to dominate, has the greatness to command the allegiance of the Elder Wand from Dumbledore. This is the qualification that Dumbledore had in mind when he planned to pass the Elder Wand to Snape, what Grindelwald meant when he told Voldemort that the wand would never be his, and what Draco and Harry, who learned Expelliarmus from Snape, proved to have within them.
Snape kept the half of the letter that said Dumbledore had once been friends with Grindelwald. It was evidence that the mentor who believed that Snape had it in him to help Harry Potter bring down Voldemort and protect Hogwarts students knew firsthand how much he was asking of Snape, how far he was asking Snape to travel – knew it could be done. Dumbledore’s former evil, establishing the foundations of a fascist ideology, lying to himself about the nature of Grindelwald, betraying the sister in his care, had damaging consequences…and look what Dumbledore became. What he did with his second chance.
During Harry’s sixth year, when Dumbledore told Snape that Harry would have to let Voldemort kill him, Snape accused Dumbledore of using him, letting him believe he was protecting Harry for Lily’s sake when Dumbledore intended to sacrifice Harry to Voldemort. Some readers have wondered if this is an accurate read and Dumbledore did use Snape as a pawn, but I think this turns out to be one of the times that Rowling sets up a supposition that she later disproves, by showing rather than telling.
It is Snape who ends that conversation before Dumbledore can answer his accusation of raising Harry like a pig for slaughter. He stands up abruptly and responds to Dumbledore’s question, “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” by casting a Patronus. It’s a complex moment; Snape is not ready to hear more, doesn’t realize that he’s the one who has shut down the conversation, and his dislike of Harry is as wrong-headed as ever. But the sight of the silver doe is beautiful, too, the sign of a soul that has a wholeness to it, and it brings tears to Dumbledore’s eyes. After all this time, Dumbledore is right to retain faith in Snape; Snape is still striving to fulfill his pledge to Dumbledore, using his love for Lily as a guide: “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.” During this year when Dumbledore is dying of his own incurable folly in grabbing at a Deathly Hallow for his own use, it is a gift to Dumbledore to see that Snape is holding fast.
We see later that Dumbledore did not have an agenda to sacrifice Harry; his aim was to safeguard Harry’s soul, and once the Dumbledore of King’s Cross could affirm to him, “Your soul is whole, and completely your own,” Harry recognized that Dumbledore was at peace: “Harry had never seen the man so utterly, so palpably content.” This Dumbledore acknowledges that Harry has the choice to go back and finish Voldemort or to move on, but he does not seek to influence Harry’s choice; whatever happens with Voldemort, Dumbledore’s work is done.
Similarly, with Snape, we see that Dumbledore’s aim is to help Snape retain the wholeness of his soul and turn his guilt toward good by charging him with undergoing remorse and delivering a final message to Harry. Along with that delivery, Snape was able to return the memories of Lily’s love that rightfully belonged to Harry and acknowledge, at last, how he had destroyed Harry’s family, in a move similar to Slughorn fighting past his shame to give Harry secrets that helped him end Voldemort.
We see, in the Prince’s Tale, that Snape was brusque with the portrait of Dumbledore when he took the sword to the Forest of Dean after Christmas; at the midpoint of the year, when Harry’s faith in Dumbledore was at its lowest, Snape’s was low, as well. By the end of his life, had Snape reconciled some of his feelings toward Dumbledore, as Harry did in the King’s Cross chapter?
When I reread his last moments, I think the answer is yes.
Voldemort tells him that he has violated Dumbledore’s tomb and stolen the Elder Wand. In reaction, “Snape’s face was like a death mask. It was marble white and so still that when he spoke, it was a shock to see that anyone lived behind the blank eyes.”
With the words “death mask” and “marble white,” Rowling is calling back to the image of Dumbledore in his white marble tomb. The blankness of Snape’s face shows that he is Occluding Voldemort as hard as he has ever Occluded in his life, hiding his reaction to the news of this desecration. Together, I think these things show that Snape is grieving for his friend. As we learned from Harry, grief can Occlude: “Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love. . . .”
When Harry runs to Snape’s office to view his memories and the stone gargoyle asks for the password, we learn that he and Snape have been holding the same grief.
“Dumbledore!” said Harry without thinking, because it was he whom he yearned to see, and to his surprise the gargoyle slid aside.
During his year as headmaster, the unguessable word that guarded Snape’s space was a name that kept him as safe as any Fidelius Charm. I know not everyone is at peace with the Dumbledore-Snape relationship. For some, Snape might not have been good enough to be known as Dumbledore’s man. For others, Dumbledore might have been too cold, too secretive, to deserve the role of safeguarding Snape’s true thoughts. But I’m accepting it as the final word on what Snape thought of the man who entrusted him with his death.
I know I still have so many questions. Maybe you do, too. We can puzzle out a few of them together.