No real-world figure has reminded me of Snape more strongly than Michael Cohen, the former fixer for ex-President Trump. When he described himself as “villain or savior, depending on your point of view,” and discussed his efforts to expose the crimes he once helped to commit, I had to see if there was more to the comparison. Check out my article for Mugglenet.
Through plot and literary strategies, the Harry Potter series pays tribute to several themes from To Kill a Mockingbird, which J.K. Rowling recommended as one of her top 10 books for young readers. Marvolo Gaunt and Bob Ewell impose their racism and abuse on their daughters, with catastrophic consequences. The scapegoating of Tom Robinson has echoes in the targeting of Harry. Dumbledore, Atticus, and Heck Tate sometimes flout the law for the sake of justice. Empathy overcomes evil, whether by turning away a mob or lowering a Death Eater’s wand. And like Harper Lee, Rowling uses the naïve perspectives of a trio of children to convey her beautifully brutal story.
Presented at the Harry Potter Conference, Chestnut Hill College, October 16, 2015.
In 2006, a year after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published, JK Rowling listed her top 10 books for schoolchildren. She included To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the 1961 novel about a trio of children who survive attempted murder in an atmosphere of hate crimes and oppression.
The beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird and the end of Harry Potter are the same story. Do you remember the last paragraph of the Epilogue?
“The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.”
Here are excerpts from the first two paragraphs of To Kill a Mockingbird.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury…
“When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading up to his accident. I maintained that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”
Scout, the narrator, traced the beginning to their attacker: why would someone try to kill an innocent child? Jem traced it to the friend who helped forge their bond with the neighbor who saved them: how did this child survive? What is the story of this scar?
The summer Dill came to them, Jem Finch was 10, Scout was five, and Dill was six. Scout and Jem’s mother had died when Scout was two; they lived with their father, Atticus. Dill, unwanted by his mother and stepfather, spent summers with his friends.
“Boo” was a name for Arthur Radley, their reclusive neighbor whose father was too proud to let him serve prison time for a minor infraction when he was 18 and kept him locked up at home for decades.
“Nobody knew what form of intimidation Mr. Radley employed to keep Boo out of sight, but Jem figured that Mr. Radley kept him chained to the bed most of the time. Atticus said no, it wasn’t that sort of thing, that there were other ways of making people into ghosts.” This is hauntingly similar to Barty Crouch, Jr. explaining: “The Imperius Curse… I was under my father’s control. I was forced to wear an Invisibility Cloak day and night.”
After 15 years of house arrest, Boo once paused in his scrapbooking to assault his father: “As Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his parent’s leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities.” Mr. Radley refused psychiatric help for Boo and locked him up again; “From the day Mr. Radley took Arthur home, people said the house died.” Neighborhood superstitions built up around Boo and the Radley House, similar to the fears in Little Hangleton around Frank Bryce and the Riddle House.
Dill, Scout, and Jem harbor fears about the Radley House but also long for contact with Boo. By tiny signs, we see that Boo appreciates their overtures: the scrapbook-maker crafts gifts for them, hand-carved soap dolls and a box patchworked in foil gum wrappers, before his brother notices and cuts off his communication with the kids.
We see signs of a different kind of abuse in the home of Bob Ewell, the man who tried to kill Jem and Scout. He and his children, all white, live in squalor except for “one corner of the yard” with “six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums,” tenderly cared for by his oldest child, 19-year-old Mayella. Harper Lee creates a vivid portrait of Mayella Ewell’s inner life, showing her pride in treating her siblings to ice cream, her sexual desire independent of her father’s abuse, and her response to Tom Robinson, a black neighbor.
The Gaunt household in Half-Blood Prince is a profoundly respectful tribute to Lee’s portrayal of the Ewells. Here are a few of the parallels:
The abused young women, Merope and Mayella, pine for men outside their impoverished worlds: Tom Riddle is beautiful, Tom Robinson a courteous young man who has a loving home with wife and children.
Their mothers are dead. They do all the housework. Their violent fathers are obsessed with race purity, a doctrine that requires policing the sexual activity and even desire of daughters. It is unclear how Mayella and Merope are supposed to make patriarchally approved matches and racially pure babies when their homes welcome no visitors, they don’t seem to be allowed friends, and their only neighbors are of a supposedly inferior race.
In Rowling’s series for young readers, she stops short of naming incest. Even Lee’s adult novel restricts explicit confirmation of incest to a single painful sentence. Tom Robinson, the black man Mayella kissed and then accused of rape, testifies that Mayella told him she’s never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”
But both stories show the uneasy connections between the crime of incestuous assault, such as Bob Ewell committed, and the mindset that only people from a narrowly defined group are good enough to marry. Both Maycomb and pure-blood magical Britain have limited populations: in Maycomb, “the same families married the same families until the members of the community looked faintly alike,” and according to Sirius Black, “The pure-blood families are all interrelated.… If you’re only going to let your sons and daughters marry pure-bloods your choice is very limited, there are hardly any of us left.”
Rowling uses a single masterful stroke of storytelling when describing the Gaunt hovel to create a creeping sense of unease in the reader and show, rather than explain, Merope’s lack of status. In a literal sense: What is Merope’s place in this family?
“The house seemed to contain three tiny rooms. Two doors led off the main room, which served as kitchen and living room combined.” A main room and two doors. So, where did Merope sleep?
Lee carefully leads the reader to wonder if Mayella has borne any children: “Nobody was quite sure how many children were on the place. Some people said six, others said nine…” On the stand, we learn that Mayella is nineteen years old with seven siblings, her mother has been dead a long time, and she sent all seven siblings into town for ice cream. So the siblings are all old enough to walk, and she has the house to herself to ask Tom Robinson in, no babies left behind for her to watch. Perhaps this means none of the children are hers. Perhaps it means she gave birth very young, but not recently. The author gets the reader to know how it feels to worry about Mayella.
Like the witch Merope Gaunt using magic to coerce Muggle Tom Riddle and destroy his life, white Mayella Ewell kisses Tom Robinson, a black man in 1930s Alabama, and entraps him with her racial privilege, putting him in a situation where he cannot say no, cannot say yes, cannot do anything without incriminating himself. After her father sees her kiss a black man and beats her, she falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape. Those words are Dark Magic. She has cast an Unforgivable: a fatal curse against which there is no defense possible.
Why does Mayella falsely accuse Tom Robinson? For the same reasons that Voldemort wanted to kill Harry: to hurt the person who made her feel. Because he was kind, saw her as a person and not trash, and this sympathy turned out to be too much for her, too much of a contrast to the rest of her life. She had told him about her father’s assaults. He knew Bob Ewell saw her desire and beat her for it. Her shame was beyond bearing. Just as Voldemort’s identification with baby Harry led to his feeling near-fatal empathy for Harry and therefore remorse – in magical terms, a rebounding curse – Mayella’s knowledge of Tom Robinson’s pity led to near-fatal shame.
Voldemort’s words to his Death Eaters in Goblet of Fire about the aftermath of the rebounding curse could apply to Mayella as well:
“Only one power remained to me. I could possess the bodies of others.”
“I wanted the blood of the one who had stripped me of power …”
Voldemort cannot bear how he was stripped of power by his mother’s death and the lack of her protection. The same is true of Mayella; the same may have been true of Merope. They cannot bring back the dead to punish them for this catastrophic abandonment; they can only scapegoat the living. The sight of Harry receiving a mother’s protection; the sympathy from a man who has all the family love Mayella never did; this is unendurable.
“…I am going to prove my power by killing him, here and now, in front of you all … and you will be left in no doubt which of us is the stronger.”
That’s why Mayella wanted to kill an innocent man. But what about the jury? The twelve Depression-era white male farmers?
The solicitor, Mr. Gilmer, questioned Tom Robinson.
“Why were you so anxious to do that woman’s chores?”
“You did all this chopping and work from sheer goodness, boy?”
“Tried to help her, I says.”
Mr. Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury. “You’re a mighty good fellow, it seems – did all this for not one penny?”
“Yes, suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ‘em—“
“You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?”
Tom Robinson lost the case then. His sympathy shamed the jurors so that they all had to put him from them, as Mayella Ewell did. Everyone had suspected what was happening to Mayella, but this one man was the only one to reach out to her, and he helped her for not one penny: chivalry. Like Harry’s saving-people-thing, it was a form of goodness that hurt some people to see in a way they could not bear to understand.
Tom Robinson died trying to escape from prison the following day. He had no faith in his white lawyer’s talk of an appeal. After the trial he’d just been through, he might well have felt as Dumbledore did when asking Snape to kill him:
“I confess I should prefer a quick, painless exit to the protracted and messy affair it will be if, for instance, Greyback is involved… Or dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it.”
In most ways, Snape’s story is not to be found in To Kill a Mockingbird. Guilt and redemption do not figure heavily among Lee’s themes, and adults in Harry Potter are generally portrayed as more internally flawed than Maycomb’s adults as observed by a child. Snape, of course, is nothing but a mass of internal flaws, a perfect brew of self-control and regret. He committed an unforgivable sin when he was 19. He pledged his extraordinary talents to genocide. Until a year before his death, he never cast Dark Magic again.
Perhaps the most satisfying scene in To Kill a Mockingbird is Atticus Finch putting a rabid dog out of its misery and protecting all of Maycomb, black and white, with a single shot. We certainly see echoes of this episode in Harry Potter: Dumbledore wants Snape to kill him before Greyback turns him into a werewolf who will bite his own students. Like the dog, Dumbledore has a terminal illness. Like Snape, Atticus does not want to deploy a lethal skill he forswore when he was 19 years old.
We know he was around 19 then because this chapter opens with “Atticus was feeble; he was nearly fifty” and he says pleadingly to Sheriff Tate, who wants him to shoot, “I haven’t shot a gun in thirty years.”
Why not? Why did One-Shot Finch never speak of his ability? The neighbor, Miss Maudie, speculates, “Markmanship’s a gift of God, a talent… I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.”
This restraint makes Atticus a Master of Death, the same way Harry imagines about Dumbledore in the King’s Cross chapter of Deathly Hallows: “I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it. I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it.”
But it also makes Atticus like Snape, who was legendary with his Dark hexes before he renounced them. Sheriff Tate says, “You haven’t forgot much, Mr. Finch. They say it never leaves you.”
It never leaves you. This is what makes Snape different from any other pacifist wizard who abhors Dark Magic: he will always know how to cast those spells. That’s why he knows how to reverse them. That’s why Dumbledore can count on him to cast Avada Kedavra, the spell that doesn’t work unless you mean it.
Scout, awed by her father’s restraint when baited by their vicious neighbor Mrs. Dubose, gives him a compliment that will sound familiar to anyone who has read the Deathly Hallows Epilogue: “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
Atticus, though, thinks Mrs. Dubose is “the bravest person I ever knew” – with weeks to live, she broke her addiction to painkillers. He wants his children to learn the same lesson that Harry learns from Dumbledore about walking in the forest to duel with Voldemort:
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Atticus’s sister, Aunt Alexandra, would have put her faith in the man with a gun rather than her brother’s way. After Scout, Jem, and Dill break up a lynch mob, she said they disgraced the family.
“Atticus said he was right glad his disgraces had come along, but Aunty said, ‘Nonsense, Mr. Underwood was there all the time.’” Reassuring as it is to find that Mr. Underwood, the misanthropic journalist, was ready to fire a double-barreled shotgun at the mob, one wonders how well a show of force would have defused the conflict compared to the change of heart effected by the children.
Eight-year-old Scout Finch dispersing a lynch mob by asking a man to say hello to his child is an unforgettable instance of love working in the way Dumbledore trains Harry to see. Love – empathy – gratitude – grief – all of those oxytocin-based emotions of human connection work against the mental process of dehumanization that is a major element of cruelty and murder. These emotions are solvents. Walter Cunningham avoids eye contact with Scout when she talks about how his child, also named Walter, came over for dinner. She persists, confused.
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch.…I go to school with Walter…. He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”
Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod.
And with that nod, he’s done. She’s invoked the ancient blood magic; he’s thought about his child and the oxytocin is flowing in his blood, the chemical of parental love that is also the chemical of empathy, the opposite of the lynch mob instinct. We know about nods in Harry Potter fandom. Draco nods to Harry when they bring their children to school.
This is a magic that works whether you believe in it or not. This is how Wormtail dies. The moment Harry invokes Wormtail’s life debt – the moment Wormtail remembers his gratitude and relief – the silver hand from Voldemort detects the oxytocin in his blood. This is how Voldemort dies. He casts Avada Kedavra at Harry, but for that curse to work, you have to mean it, and Harry Potter is different – Harry Potter makes Voldemort feel – Harry Potter is the one person with whom Voldemort has ever felt a connection, those countless threads of golden light, and the memory of this connection dissolves his intent.
Empathy is a terrible power. It got Tom Robinson killed. But it is a source of hope in both stories. Atticus says:
“A mob’s always made up of people… you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute. That was enough.”
And the incapacitating pain of empathy is the answer to the mystery of what robbed Voldemort of his powers the night he attacked baby Harry:
“…he had killed the boy, and yet he was the boy…”
Is this enough to fight the enormity of racism? It didn’t save Tom Robinson. After the trial, Jem says to Atticus:
“Then go up to Montgomery and change the law.”
“You’d be surprised how hard that’d be.”
But Atticus Finch, man of the law, is also the man who tells his first-grader, “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases.”
Dumbledore, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, knows the limits of the law and human change. He orders Hermione and Harry to abuse Hermione’s Ministry-issue Time-Turner to rescue innocent beings, violating wizarding law, the laws of time and space, and the sworn oath of Minerva McGonagall. Why? He tells the kids, “…I have no power to make other men see the truth, or to overrule the Minister of Magic….”
Was it right that Sheriff Tate covered up the way Bob Ewell died?
Was it right that Molly Weasley killed Bellatrix with a curse? It wasn’t Avada Kedavra – it was a curse empowered by protective love, designed to stop a murderer of children – but it’s unsettling, isn’t it?
Molly took it on herself; she ordered Hermione, Luna, and Ginny out of her way so she could take down Bellatrix. She was willing to take a chance on reintegrating her soul after using her domestic magic to kill one person in order to prevent harm to many others. We saw Snape take on the same burden when Dumbledore asked him to commit murder, saying, “You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation.”
It’s a hard call. But maybe Boo Radley killing Bob Ewell was a Forgivable. He used a kitchen knife, a domestic tool like his scrapbooking scissors of years ago. Right – somebody in the Radley household must do the cooking. He sees Bob Ewell attacking children. He knows what Bob Ewell did to Mayella. He is himself a survivor of parental abuse – he knows how this feels. He uses the same spell that Molly Weasley used: “You will never touch our children again.”
Boo Radley left his house to protect endangered children: empathy. He was an adult, taking the fight on himself because it was too much for children: chivalry. And because of this magic, once Jem Finch’s broken arm healed, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.
The folks at Swish and Flick podcast invited me on to talk about “Spinner’s End,” the second chapter of Half-Blood Prince, in which Snape thoroughly routs the suspicious (and correct) Bellatrix with his superior wits while she, with her heart on her sleeve for her Dark Lord, hands him weapons to use against her. This was so much fun to record! We’ll continue with part 2 in August 2021.
Transcription by firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to Swish & Flick, an all-Potter podcast.
T: Hello, and welcome to episode 204 of Swick & Flick. I’m Tiffany.
M: I’m Megan
K: I’m Katie
S: I’m Sarah
T: And this episode is sponsored by Kelly Jackson. Thank you, Kelly! So today we have a special guest host with us. We would like to give a warm butterbeer welcome to Lorrie Kim, the talented author of the book “Snape: A Definitive Reading”. Welcome to the podcast, Lorrie.
Lorrie Kim: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to talk Snape. Thank you for having me.
T: Absolutely! Thank you for agreeing to this! We’ve been talking to you on Twitter for a while now, DMing, emailing, trying to get this set up, so I’m really happy that this is finally happening for all of us.
M: Me, too.
T: Okay, so once again we will be covering chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Spinner’s End. That’s right, friends: we are covering it again, and this time we are going over our own notes from the chapter as well as Lorrie’s writing on the chapter and current thoughts. We are using Snape: A Definitive Reading, pulling from the author as well as our own brains and I’m really really excited.
M: I am, too. I think we all need a good little breakdown on Snape, you know?
T: To find out if you really love him?
M: I don’t love him. I appreciate his character. I say this endlessly, and you guys still are on my back about it.
K: Well, those are your words.
*Megan talks Weekly Prophet News & Podcast promo (00:02:09-00:07:30)*
T: Okay, I feel like I should be reined in on this one.
T: I don’t know.
K: Why? Let it go.
T: I’m tired.
K: Maybe you can do a subdued one.
T: Like Snape. How does he talk?
K: Just channel your inner Alan Rickman.
T: “Miss Beatrix, give us the re-re-re-re-recap.” I tried really hard.
K: I have to look at her. That’s how it goes. Now that I’m terrified… alright, we did actually just finish up talking about Chapter 2: Spinners End on our chapter episodes. Snape answered more of Bellatrix”s questions, Narcissa asked him to help Draco with his mission from Voldemort, and Bellatrix is shocked when Snape asked her to act as bonder for their Unbreakable Vow.
Sarah: So the summary that I totally wrote. We’re diving deep into talking about this chapter again, but really focusing on Snape and his Snapiness.
T: We’re ready for it. Okay, Lorrie, let’s learn about you! I’m interested because I don’t know these things about you yet. Your Potter Profile, so your Hogwarts house is up first.
T: I figured. I figured.
M: Anybody who writes an in-depth book on a character is definitely a Ravenclaw.
T: I felt that. I felt that in my soul. Were you sorted that way, or is that a house of choice?
L: Both. A lot of times people assume I’m Slytherin because they think anyone who likes a Slytherin character could only be a Slytherin. I might have thought that way a little more before I had a kid that I raised as a Slytherin, but the whole misunderstood Slytherin thing is important to me.
T: Megan understands.
M: I do.
K:Yeah. I love Slytherin, but I’m a Hufflepuff.
M: It is, oddly, a good combination.
T: We found that out a lot, actually. All right, do you know your Ilvermorny house?
L: I got sorted, and then I realized Ilvermorny doesn’t mean anything to me because I get the feeling of houses from knowing the characters and understanding. In Ilvermorny, we don’t live Ilvermorny. You get assigned one, and it’s just the label.
T: Yeah, nothing has happened with that. We’ve talked about it a number of times. The information on that on WizardingWorld.com really isn’t there anymore, so we’re wondering are you scrapping it? Are you revamping it? Are you writing stories about it? Are there going to be novels? Because there was a history and a story with it.
S: There’s been a lot of push back from that, though.
L: My understanding about the Ilvermorny stuff, because there was enormous push back and it was so overwhelming and legitimate, I think the author probably agreed. But because the information is Warner Bros. property, it’s not like the author can say, “Okay, I retract it, take it down,” so I thought, all right, from a PR perspective, I bet they’re just going to quietly let it lapse and hope that nobody remembers because it was a fiasco. It was impossible to salvage. But it’s not a solo property like fiction is, so she can’t just say, “Alright, you’re right. Forget it.”
T: Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s a good point. Well, let’s move on to your wand.
L: I hope to be chosen someday by a cherry wood wand with a unicorn core. I took it so seriously. Every time I’ve looked at wands, I haven’t felt chosen, so I can’t have one.
T: Did you get it on WizardingWorld.com, or Pottermore whenever Pottermore was first? Did you get your wands that way?
L: I did and I don’t remember what it was. I guess I didn’t connect with it, so I looked at every single wand core and every single wand wood.
T: Yeah. The Ollivander writings? He’s difficult to read. When you’re reading about his writing about the different woods.
L: He is, to my mind, the quintessential Ravenclaw. I thought that it was obvious before she came out and said that he’s a Ravenclaw. This knowledge being more important than whether it’s used for good or evil? Total Ravenclaw.
T: Absolutely. Do you have a patronus?
L: Pottermore tells me it’s a dolphin. I am fine with that.
K: Me, too! You can join my pod.
T: Oh, I get it.
K: A group of dolphins is a pod. This is a podcast.
M: Katie’s always on point with dad jokes because it’s her personality.
K: Maybe it’s a Dolphin patronus thing you guys don’t understand.
T: Maybe I don’t. Okay, this last one, as brief as possible: if you want to give us an overview, an introductory sentence on your feelings about Severus Snape.
L: Well, I do love him. He is my strength character. He has gotten me through. Any time I absolutely have to do something that I loathe with all of my being and I could choose not to do it but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, or it just has to be done, he has brought me strength.
T: Okay. I like that.
K: Alright. I’ve not heard of that before.
M: I’ve not heard of that either. I think that that’s a really good point, and my brain automatically goes to the end of Goblet in the hospital wing when Dumbledore is speaking with him and basically says, “You know what you have to do. Go on.” That was the moment where his life was changed, from different choices that he made, when Lily died and he took on his role as a double agent. But he had to go back to that life, back to that role again, and that’s pretty devastating.
K: Takes a lot of strength.
L: I can’t be brief. I have to say one other thing that I love about him the most. He reminds me… he’s proof you don’t have to be a good person to keep trying. Anyone has the right to keep trying. If you’re bad inside, whether you really are or other people think you are or whether you feel like you’re bad, you have not disqualified yourself from life. You can still be useful, you can still live up to your own standards, even if nobody else thinks anything of you. That has been helpful to me.
T: That’s a really good point.
K: I think Lorrie and Jess need to meet. Can you imagine
M: Our friend Jess is… She loves Snape.
K: She loves Snape and defends him, much like I’m sure you will, and I just really want to see your brains meet.
M: That would be amazing.
T: All right.
S: She is the first person who ever told me about this book. Just saying.
T: Jess is?
S: Yep. Jess told me about Snape: A Definitive Reading. She’s like, “I know you say you don’t like Snape. You have to read this book.”
T: Well, honestly, Lorrie, what I really enjoyed about your book is that you don’t shy away from the “bad things” that people say that he does. You lay them out, like his treatment of, say, Hermione. You don’t skate around the fact that he speaks to her in a way that’s not appropriate, and that’s what I really enjoyed about your writing. You talk about him as he is. To sum that up, I enjoy what I have read so far.
L: The thing I noticed about the Snape character when I was reading the series before it was finished was that every time you thought he couldn’t get worse or have a harder life, or that his position couldn’t get more impossible, it just kept loading on more and more and more. I thought, “Okay, that’s the point of this character.” If you’re going to have somebody do something good that’s really hard for them, they can’t just be a more or less okay guy, you know? Every time you think, “Oh, surely now he’s going to become the good person that we all want people to be.” No, no he’s not. It’s hard for him, and the contrast is there are people who are born good and life comes super easy to them. I thought Lily Evans is portrayed as one of those people. I bet she did not have acne and she didn’t do anything. For some people, it’s easy to be good, and for some people, it is so hard. If they want to do something that’s not evil, it’s just uphill all the time, and I thought, “It is not correct to interpret this character without noting all of the ways in which his natural personality is not great.” And then he still makes himself do stuff because he’s decided that it’s right, even though it would be easier for him in every way to just say forget it.
M: You’re so right. He’s working an uphill battle every single day. I loved it. You talk about his natural personality, how you’re born, who you are, and then given his outside circumstances, with the way that he grew up in his parentage and all of that and how his school years went, that just loads on even more.
L: Yeah. His school years… I don’t have any patience for looking too deeply into how hard of a life he had as excusing him for becoming a Death Eater because in life and in this series, there are people with way worse backgrounds and they did not become Death Eaters. He had no business becoming a Death Eater. What was he thinking? It tells you how a person feels, but it doesn’t determine your course.
T: Sarah, what were you going to say?
S: No, I just really loved the beginning of this chapter, talking about the parallels. I’d never thought about that and this is why… one reason why we do the podcast is because we’re bringing different perspectives from each of us talking about the books, and then even getting someone else’s perspective of how there’s such a parallel at the beginning, when he first told Voldemort about the prophecy and all of those things to know. He wanted to choose Lily and all those things, and now he’s choosing to help Draco and that whole correlation. I never thought of that and I was just like, “Where’s my pen? I need to mark my book up! This is so good.” I’d never thought about… because it’s all the same people. It was so good.
T: Yeah, I’ve been texting them. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh!” I love when Sarah said, “Different brains getting together and just figuring things out.”
S: He’s just trying to do the right thing, and it’s one of those things where the world doesn’t know and he’s not really doing it for them. He’s like, “Just let them think what they want. I know, at the end of the day, I’m just trying to choose the right thing.” The better thing.
L: Actually, he does wish the world would know. That’s what makes him brave, because it totally galls him. In a natural human way and also in an immature way, he wishes that he could get credit for everything, and the fact that he accepts this job knowing–
T: The only person that can give him that credit is Harry.
L: Well, Dumbledore, but he’s got to kill Dumbledore.
T: He’s dead, so…
L: That’s the thing that’s brave, because humans are not built to be seen as bad when we know that’s wrong and that we’re good inside. The human response, that is… you know if somebody thinks bad of you and they’re wrong, how your voice comes out as this wimpy little crying whine? That’s sort of his everyday, and he has to take it.
K: Well said.
T: There, we said it. But we’re not playing bingo today. I’m starting on page 165 of Snape: A Definitive Reading with Lorrie Kim. I am heading down to the Spinner’s End portion. I like how you discuss Spinner’s End and how you broke that down, because I feel like I made a similar comparison to you but you went so much more and I’m so glad you did because I learned a few things along the way. Spinner’s End is a former mill town, and then I was like, “Well, what if some of our listeners don’t know what mills are?” They’re these large-looking wheels and they use kinetic energy, moving bodies of water in order to drive machinery and generate electricity. So what the internet is telling me… it’s literally called sciencing.com. Mills could be used to grind grains into flour, for example. They were used in ancient Greece, and I actually know of one that is still working today by my hometown. They use it to make ice cream.
S: Can they also be in water to get energy?
M: They use water, yeah. They’re always in water.
T: So Spinner’s End, former mill town. According to you, Lorrie, you said ‘spinner’ refers to the now defunct muggle industry in a working class part of town, and ‘end’ reinforces the decline with evidence shown in the streets in the house’s broken windows and such. I really enjoyed that, because it drives that wedge further between someone like Bellatrix entering the streets and Snape, who she already loves to hate. I love that.
L: Well, it was meant to be a cotton town, I think? Cotton mill? Which is an industry that died out in English towns in the early 20th century. For US listeners the comparison would be Flint, Michigan, that used to be like a thriving auto industry town and then just became more and more poor and full of people who used to have a living and then didn’t. What happens when that whole industry goes away? It’s supposed to be desolation. The whole time that we’ve seen for five books until now, we’ve seen Snape with the Death Eaters, who are incredibly snobbish and they put down poor people and non-pure bloods, and he never says anything. But this gives us an idea of what he’s been thinking while they’ve just been yammering on in front of him.
T: You’re absolutely right. Like I said earlier, I think that this is a great way for the author to bring attention to and draw the divide between the status of Snape and the status of the Malfoy family, Lestrange family, and Black family as well. Because the Black family had some cash, too. Bellatrix even draws attention to this in the chapter and she views herself in such a way, don’t you think? Girlfriend has a lot to say for being in jail the past 14 years.
M: She was just being so loyal to her man.
T: So loyal.
M: Sitting in jail.
T: You go on to say ‘spinner’ also evokes the Fates — never drew that comparison in my own head — who spin, measure, and cut the threads of human life spans.
S: Like in Hercules!
T: It makes me think of Dumbledore.
S: I go to Hercules, you go to Dumbledore.
T: No, no! I went to Hercules because don’t they share an eye? Yes. But no, it just made me think of the measure of his life. Snape literally said, “Maybe a year.” Who knows. So the Fates, and I don’t know how to say this… does anybody know how to say it?
K: They only had one eye; they shared it.
M: Oh, Katherine.
T: The Moirai are the group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Allotter, and Atropos the Inflexible. In the older myths, they were daughters of Nyx, but later they were more often portrayed as the offspring of Zeus and Themis. Anyways, I’m not going to read the rest of that, but I just thought that that was pretty cool. I got that from GreekMythology.com
S: I literally just keep picturing the scene where Meg is dying and they’re getting ready to cut the thread of life in Hercules. It’s going in slow motion.
M: I love that we can–
S: She was dead, Megan. She was dying.
M: This is true.
K: I love that we can draw all… everything you’ve listed so far makes sense. It’s multiple different things that you could draw from it. Maybe it’s all of them, maybe it’s just whatever fits for you. It’s just really cool.
T: Yep, I love it. And this next thing — also didn’t know — you also said that spinner could also evoke the phrase ‘the distaff side’, which means having to do with a feminine side of life. Had no clue what you were talking about, so I was like, “Let me look up that term because I don’t know.” According to FreeDictionary.com…
S: I love the websites we find.
T: … the female side or branch of a family compared to spear side, which would be masculine. Also, a stick used for holding yarn when spinning. Yes. I just thought that that was super, super interesting. You said that this would be a good place to find stories about mothers. Absolutely! Lily, Narcissa. I love that.
L: And his own mother.
T: And his own mom. How did you come up with that?
L: I am a fiber artist. I knit and crochet, and I quilt. The other thing is that I’m about the same age as the author, so we probably read all the same books on folklore and mythology because I definitely can see a difference in how I understand the author’s sources, compared to people who are a generation older or younger than I am. All these references make sense because they’re all drawing from the same Greek mythology, especially the Fates spinning, measuring and cutting the thread. There’s a trio nature to that that’s similar to Deathly Hallows. There’s something about Snape that’s very feminine witchy; there’s patriarchal knowledge, and then there’s Snape who looks like a witch. He’s got the hooked nose. He’s not very manly. Sirius and James laugh at him all the time. He’s just not very manly. He does potions like a witch. This is a strange thing to think, but he’s not patriarchal at all; he’s actually quite matriarchal. The title of the book, as we see, is him identifying with his maternal line. The book completely emphasizes that if we only cared about mothers and matrilineage the same way we care about paternal line, then all of these mysteries would not have been mysteries — if we knew Tom Riddle’s mother’s family’s names, if we knew Snape’s mother’s name.
T: You’re blowing my mind. I love this so much.
L: That’s what Hermione keeps saying. It could be a girl. Even though she’s not accurate about Snape being a girl, she’s right that you have to go looking at the mother’s line. You have to do research, because it’s written out of the records unless you know where to look. That’s where we go looking for Merope. The way that Snape’s calling himself the Half-Blood Prince, it’s not a mystery. By this time in the series, we have noticed that people talk about James’s friends, but we never hear anyone talk about Lily’s friends. She puts in those Easter eggs like, “But Snape hated my mother and father,” and nobody corrects him, and then we find out that the key to Voldemort is his mother, and the key to Snape is his mother, so it’s all set up to say the key to Harry is going to be his mother.
Tiffany, Megan: Oh, my gosh.
T: That is so good. I am so happy you’re here! Okay, so I wanted to read this last little part because this is the part that I enjoyed the most from this section. Lorrie, you write, “Snape has been characterized as a spy and a spider throughout. At Spinners End, Narcissa and Bellatrix are seeking him at the center of his web. Finally, ‘spinner’ suggests a male version of ‘spinster’, Snape’s single state as he approaches middle age.” Why didn’t I think of that? That is perfect. That is absolutely perfect, and that’s the part that I was like, “Absolutely.” “Spinner’s End is not hidden like other places in the Wizarding World, like Hogwarts per se and Grimmauld Place. There’s nothing magical that keeps Muggles away and,” according to you, Lorrie, “as far as we can see there’s no siblings or parents. As far as the reader is concerned, Snape is the sole owner of this home and probably likely inherited.”
L: Yeah. I can’t imagine that it’s not. It’s really funny how you can tell. He didn’t even swap out the furniture that’s falling apart. He doesn’t care.
T: I wonder how often he went there before Voldemort’s return. Is this used like Grimmauld Place was used for the headquarters for the Order if the Phoenix? Is this now secondary headquarters, if you will?
L: There’s no evidence either way.
T: It seems like… I feel like he wouldn’t want to go back.
L: Well, actually if you’re going to say he did go back, the evidence is the books.
S: I would say that he probably goes during summer. He probably volunteers to stay for Christmas, stays for their little spring Easter holiday that they get, and just goes back for summer. Their summer breaks are really short, so it’s probably just not used except for like 2 months a year.
T: It makes me think of Harry and Voldemort and that Hogwarts was their home.
S: Like we were just saying, you can see whenever we’re talking about the descriptions of the room and the house that it is definitely neglected, but we don’t really know if the feeling of neglect or emptiness in the house is because Snape doesn’t usually live there or because he’s just come from Hogwarts for the summer. What will you mean by that? Has he literally not been there for years and this just happens that he’s come back now because Voldemort’s back, or is this just how the house is, like we were saying, and he doesn’t change anything out and he’s just there two months a year so it’s whatever? I kind of feel it’s the latter. I feel like he has come back year after year, but just for the summer months. That’s my opinion.
M: Why would you really change anything?
L: I tend to agree.
S: Yeah, it’s two months. What does he really care about what the furniture looks like?
T: Grimmauld Place was never… until Molly got there. Because no one was there except Kreacher.
L: We see so much about Snape in this chapter just from the description of his house. I get the strong feeling that he doesn’t care about anything as long as he has his books. Snape does not spend money. He does not like material things; he doesn’t fantasize about a Firebolt or the Elder Wand. There’s no thing he wants. He doesn’t care. He spends his money on books. That’s all he cares about. Why should he care if the furniture is falling apart, as long as he can read. Then I thought, “Oh, the elf-made wine is dusty.” So yeah, I think you’re right. He does come back in the summers. I think he had that a while ago and he’s kept it there and never touched it. The description of how neglected it is, I think it’s supposed to set up a parallel to the beginning of Goblet of Fire, when Voldemort comes to the neglected Riddle House because that’s all full of dust. Then you see a contrast because Voldemort owns that house, but he never grew up there. He decided he deserved it more than the people who live there, so he killed them and took it over. Snape really grew up here, and Voldemort hides where he’s from. He hid a horcrux in the Gaunt hovel. Snape does not hide anything. This is where he’s from. If you want Snape, you can just go knock on his door and he’ll be right there. That’s a contrast that I think… it’s like, well, if you need Snape, you have to get dirty to get there, and it tells you how much of an advantage he has because he’s coming from so much. He understands the rich Death Eaters that he’s with, and he understands a lot of other kinds of people, too.
S:I think that it also makes him be a more believable spy, because he really doesn’t hide much of who he is.
M: He’s a pretty open book aside from double agent.
S: And we know that Voldemort is surrounded by a lot of people who are very wealthy, so you would think that that might be something that Snape wants to hide from him but he doesn’t. I think that that is just another thing that shows he really is putting his whole self into this double agent… I mean, otherwise, he would be dead in like a day, right? He’s clearly super talented and knows what he’s doing, and is willing to be an open book to make sure that things happen how they’re supposed to happen. We talked about this a couple minutes ago, but we talk about how… was the furniture just family property, or the books, were they family property? Did he acquire them as an adult? I suppose it’s a mixture of both. I’m sure that this is a very long growing collection, and a lot of them are from when he was younger; maybe even some of his mom’s books and also new ones that he has acquired. But the age/state of the furniture tells us that this sitting room is basically the exact same as it has been since Snape’s childhood. He doesn’t seem to be the type to do interior decorating, in my opinion, unless it’s adding more books to the collection and maybe some more bottles of weird potion ingredients. I think that he comes home in the summer, and that’s partially why it feels neglected. This is when Narcissa and Bellatrix ask if they’re alone, and then we learn at this point Wormtail is there and there’s a wall of books with a hidden door and passageway. Just want to say that was a dream of mine to have something like that in my home.
M: It’s like the ultimate!
S: Yeah, I want a hidden passageway that’s hidden by a whole bookshelf. How cool would that be?
T: Do you think that’s always been there, or is that a Snape creation? Is that his interior design?
S: I don’t know.
L: I imagined, when I first read that… I got chills because what we know about him in book 5, when we saw his memories of crying and adults are shouting, is that he was in a house of conflict. The one thing we know about Snape is that he always loved reading and learning. The whole phenomenon of being a child escaping domestic turbulence by escaping into your memories and your mind with books? I thought that was one of the author’s really poetic, architectural ways to capture that feeling. I think a lot of people who read this series know that feeling.
S: I kind of envisioned that always being there as his place to go.
T: It makes me wonder if he went there while his parents were fighting, and that was the place that he escaped with his books.
M: I agree.
S: But most importantly, what on Earth is Wormtail doing here?
T: We need to really talk about this.
S: We’ve talked about it a little, but I think that we just scratched the surface.
T: And I think that I agree with one of your points, but I’m going to let you start, Lorrie. Why is he there?
L: Yeah, I wondered for a long time: what is he doing here? First of all, helping Snape with what?
L: If you were Snape, would you let Wormtail help with anything? But we do see Wormtail making his completely pathetic little attempts at spying, which are laughable. The thing about Wormtail is that all the characters laugh at him, but the author laughs at him. The author HATES this character. Of course, his attempts to spy are completely doomed. Voldemort has told him to do that. He said, “Why do I have to go to Spinner’s End? Why are you banishing me?” and Voldemort would insult him and say, “Well, now I have real Death Eaters. I don’t need you.”
T: “You’re annoying. Thanks for bringing my body back to life in a certain way. Goodbye.”
L: “I will now bite the hand that fed me. But if you want an assignment, sure. You can spy on Snape and see what he’s up to.” Someone like Voldemort always does that: he always sets his followers up against each other. That’s how he stays ahead of them, so he’s doing that. But I thought, “Okay, why else is Wormtail there?” It took me a long time to figure this out. Oh, and later on in this book, Harry mentions this, too: that it was Snape and Wormtail who sold out his parents. It’s setting up a contrast that these two people did that; one of them regrets it, wishes he could go back in time and make a different choice, and now he has the opportunity to save somebody’s kid. Make a different choice and maybe he can change something through that and he’s putting himself through unbelievable rigors. The other one never regretted anything, is not worth the time of any of these people. Even disgusting people, like Bellatrix is like, “No. You’re disgusting. Go away.” Especially before the series was finished, one of the theories about Snape was, “Oh, he’s not loyal to Voldemort or to Dumbledore. He’s only in it for himself. All he does is try to do whatever is to his own advantage,” which always puzzled me, because the things he does are so onerous. Why would anybody do them if they weren’t trying to believe in something? Wormtail as the contrast is like, no. If you want to see somebody who really is motivated by that reason alone, that’s what that looks like, not like Snape. Wormtail doesn’t believe in anything, as far as I can tell, except just keeping himself alive in some miserable way.
T: I think at first he was going for some portion of power with who he hung out with and going and helping Voldemort on his way back, and at this point he’s just trying to hang on.
L: Yeah. There’s no common thread to any of the people that he throws in his lot with, except that he wants to be where he might stay alive the longest. Even Voldemort says so. “Oh, you don’t even believe in me. You’re just here because you think I’ll protect you.”
M: The way he died is so… just justice.
L: That’s intense, yeah.
T: It is intense. It felt like a life debt. Alright, where are we here, kids?
S: I think we touched on everything that was there. I just wanted to say again that like this whole… Okay, for a long time, my thoughts on Wormtail being there, I never for one second, bought that Voldemort told Wormtail to spy on Snape. But thinking about it now, I really like what Lorrie added in to the notes here that said “it’s the author’s trick to direct the reader into looking out for a deeper and more complicated story where Snape is concerned,” and that people like Voldemort like to pin their people against each other. So even though Voldemort may not have truly cared about what Wormtail may or may not report back to him, it was the whole idea of spying, and it would make them go against each other to cause tension and division and trick us into questioning Snape more. I like that.
K: Does Voldemort like drama?
T: Honestly, Voldemort had to be completely sick of him, so he’s like, “Get him off my hands.”
S: “I’m gonna do you a favor, Snape. Here’s Wormtail for some help. I don’t know with what, but there you go.”
M: I’d be like, “Uh, thanks no thanks, bruh.”
S: “Thank you, my Lord.”
K: Yeah, Wormtail sucks. Is it me now?
K: Okay. So now we’re moving on to Snape vs. Bellatrix. We’ve talked a little bit about this, every suspicion that Bellatrix has about Snape. She doesn’t trust him. She says that straight up, “No, I don’t trust you and you know that.” But she’s right, she’s right about everything she thinks about him. But if Snape didn’t have an answer to every single question that she’s going to ask, he’d be dead because obviously Voldemort has asked all of those questions. No matter what she comes up with to challenge him, Snape and Dumbledore have already crafted all the perfect answers. Again, otherwise Snape would not be in this chapter, and Snape is smart.
S: Or alive.
K: Yeah. Snape is smart. I might not like the guy, but he’s very smart. He doesn’t just answer the questions; he turns them on her and points out her weaknesses and uses it to further along his spy cover. She still isn’t convinced after it all, but she does get a pretty thorough verbal beat down, so let’s break down Bellatrix’s weaknesses that Lorrie has laid out for us so nicely. Number one: Bellatrix cannot admit that Voldemort has flaws, so she’s asking all these questions to Snape and Snape fires back, “Again, Voldemort has already asked me this, so it’s either enough for you or you’re saying that I fooled ‘the dark lord, the greatest wizard, the most accomplished legilimens the world’s ever seen.’
T: Oh, but you did.
S: Is he the most accomplished legilimens the world has ever seen, or would that be Snape?
T: That would be Snape.
K: Two: she cannot criticize Lucius in front of Narcissa. We’re going to talk about more of this in the next episode, but just real quick: Bellatrix can’t risk more tension with how Narcissa already is right now. She’s very fragile at the moment, which I think would only come from Bellatrix with this sisterly bond because she didn’t give a crap about anybody except herself. Three: Snape has more to offer Voldemort than Bellatrix. I put, ‘oh snap!’ because it’s true, and she probably hates every second of it. Snape has real practical info about Harry and Dumbledore, and he does point out to her that what he has to offer is “a rather more useful welcome back present than endless reminiscences of how important Azkaban is.” He’s like, “Yeah, you were sitting in jail, big whoop. Look what I can do!” Four: Bellatrix wanted something from Voldemort, but Snape doesn’t. Bellatrix does what she does basically to prove herself to Voldemort. “Oh, I’m so devoted to you.” I really like what Lorrie points out: it feeds Voldemort’s ego, but it doesn’t further his campaign. Yeah, it’s great to have someone, your little crony, talking you up, but she doesn’t offer anything to further his plan. Unlike the actual Death Eaters, Snape doesn’t want anything from him. Lorrie says, “Not favor, not protection, not support for a racist agenda. This gives him greater freedom to focus on exactly what Voldemort wants.” I’m excited to get into this, because I think we’re lucky that Discord isn’t on right now, or they’d explode.
T: 100 percent.
K: So she titled number five as What kind of Slytherin are you, anyway? What are you, Hufflepuffs? Bellatrix criticizes that Snape stayed at Hogwarts instead of going to Azkaban in the name of loyalty to Voldemort. Snape’s like, “Yeah, I stayed because it was convenient to have a comfortable job and I stayed out of jail, so I used it to my advantage.” Here’s our big debate that I’m going to throw in here. I know this is a Snape-focused podcast. However, we all think that Bellatrix should have been placed in Hufflepuff as opposed to Slytherin. Not saying she’s not a Slytherin, but…
S: I kind of feel like she could have been a hat stall, and she went to Slytherin by choice because she would never be seen in Hufflepuff.
K: No, they had to convince me, because I don’t want her in my house. Eew! But it makes sense to me, so I was just wondering what you thought about that. Just quick: just hearing that first thing, what do you think?
T: Yeah. When you wrote that, “What are you, a Hufflepuff?” were you referring to Bellatrix?
L: Yeah. I was referring to Snape laughing at Bellatrix. All the other stuff she’s saying, yeah, a good Voldemort follower should be doing the stuff that she recommends. But this whole, “You weren’t faithful to him, you weren’t loyal to him,” it’s such a weak argument in a Slytherin emotional economy. It’s so funny to Snape. He’s like, “I don’t even have to refute that. Can you hear yourself?” All he does is repeat it back, which I think is hilariously insulting. Like, “Wow, I didn’t even have to do anything for this one, Bellatrix. You just owned yourself.” Because I was so curious. What debate? Is it a ‘Bellatrix is a Hufflepuff’ debate? This is a major part of her personality, so I would have been perfectly fine putting her in Hufflepuff. I think her snobbishness due to class and status and inherited wealth… yeah, she’s very status conscious, which is a more Slytherin trait. One thing she doesn’t have, that is a general Hufflepuff trait, is the belief that we’re all the same inside, humans. Of course, there are Hufflepuffs who don’t live up to that. There are people from other houses who do believe that, but she’s so much into hierarchy and into dehumanizing others and justifying oppression after dehumanizing them. We see her loyal to Narcissa and to Voldemort; meanwhile, we see her be hierarchical and oppressive to everybody else. If she had been put in Hufflepuff, I would not have blinked.
T: One thing that we talked about, and I think that I brought it up, is people were throwing out justice, as far as Hufflepuffs go. Well, justice to one person isn’t the same as justice to another. Just, to her, would have been Muggles under rule, purebloods on top, and that would be a just life for her. We can think about goblins with that, as well. It would be just for them to have the materials that they made back. We talk about the Gryffindor… the tiara that passed under Griphook’s nose and all of this stuff. What’s just to one person isn’t necessarily what’s just to another, and I think that what she thought justice would be in the wizarding world is the world that Voldemort would build. That’s why we argue really hard that yes, she is a Slytherin because I think that she valued the status and the pure bloodness more and was in Slytherin house for different reasons.
S: But also familial. Her family would not have been okay had she been anything but Slytherin.
T: But I think that Hufflepuff would be a very close second.
L: The fact that she’s really into killing members of her own family who aren’t pure of ideology are just more Slytherin than Hufflepuff.
T: Absolutely, which is why I think that she’s in that house. Yeah. so I think maybe we confused some of our listeners, but I think they thought that we thought that she was Hufflepuff rather than her second house.
L: She’s a strong secondary Hufflepuff.
T: I agree.
K: Alright, next point. Thanks for hashing that out with us.
T: Yeah. Lorrie’s on our side, so we win.
K: The next one is Bellatrix is competitive with all of the Death Eaters. Right in here, I think I misinterpreted it wrong, so Lorrie, if you want to take it away, please do. This is the part when she’s asking, “Why didn’t you help Voldemort get the Sorcerer’s Stone? Why were you late to Voldemort’s rebirth party?” Questioning his loyalty, basically.
T: Rebirth party?!
S: I think that’s a legitimate term.
T: I love that! Were there snacks?!
M: Were there party hats?
L: You know what’s funny, but also unbelievably painful and sad? I actually think that is exactly what it is and that’s because of the background, the childhood that Voldemort came from. I think the Death Eaters and these gatherings really were his attempt to have birthday parties. I’m not even kidding. This is totally jumping ahead to Deathly Hallows.
M: Go for it.
L: After the walk through the forest, when Harry is approaching and his hour is almost up, Voldemort’s sitting there with all his Death Eaters saying, “Where’s Harry Potter? I thought Harry Potter was going to be here.”
T: He literally says that!
L: I swear every time I read that, I imagine party hats are on crooked, and the balloons have lost the helium and they’re starting to sink. He doesn’t have friends, and the only way he can have friends is by forcing them. So yeah, I think ‘rebirth party’ is exactly what that was.
T: Oh my God, I love it.
L: Now I don’t remember what we were talking about.
L: Ah, yes. When she says, “Why didn’t you kill Harry during his first year? Why didn’t you join with the Dark Lord when he was in Quirrell’s head?” and Snape says, “Oh, because Quirrell was mediocre.” I think he does that on purpose because Bellatrix loves hearing that other people are beneath her. Again, jumping ahead to Deathly Hallows. We see that at the beginning of Deathly Hallows when they have the Death Eater meeting and Voldemort is putting all of them down, and every time he picks on one all the others laugh and point, even though it’s going to be their turn next. That’s the mood he encourages, and Bellatrix really has that. I think that’s one of the tools that Snape uses against her.
K: God, that makes way more sense than how I thought it was, so thank you. Next point: Bellatrix is losing favor with Voldemort while Snape is gaining. That’s gotta sting for her big time. She challenges just how useful Snape has been, and Snape says, “Well, maybe you don’t know because you and Voldemort aren’t quite so close anymore. He doesn’t really confide in you as much.” She don’t like that.
L: That was mean of him.
S: Yeah. Hit ’em where it hurts.
K: He phrases it in such a way, too. He’s putting it in her head, but also making her think it. Do you know what I mean? It’s manipulative in the best, most sinister way.
L: Well, the thing is he’s been saving that one up. Remember in occlumency lessons when he’s really frantic at Harry and saying, “You’re wearing your heart on your sleeve, you’re handing Voldemort weapons, you’re giving him access to things that you fear.” Bellatrix totally wears her heart on her sleeve for Voldemort, and you know that she’s been staying up nights because she feels… people who hang on somebody like that, every little possible loss of favor, you feel it. She’s been losing sleep over this, and he knows and he’s been waiting. He does that surgical little dig at the thing that’s already been haunting her and eating away at her. We didn’t know until this chapter that she has a bond for Narcissa. That’s new information, but we all knew she had it for Voldemort. She doesn’t even bother to hide it, and Snape is using that against her.
K: It’s a good weapon.
L: I feel hurt for her because it’s so true, and it’s so embarrassing.
T: She’s so obsessively in love with every aspect of Voldemort. Any little thing that happens crushes her.
K: Yeah, and she’s constantly like, “I’m his most loyal, faithful… I’m his number one soldier,” and then she hears this and it’s like, “Are you?”
M: “He’s going to be my baby daddy.”
T: Even at the beginning of Deathly Hallows. The way that Voldemort’s speaking to her about Remus and family, he lifts her up, crushes her and then he gives her a little bit right after, “But we all have to prune the dead branches from our family trees,” or whatever he says. I know he’s horrible, but that’s… and in front of everybody. Just lift you up, crush you, give you a little bit. She’s crying in front of everybody.
L: I don’t mean that as an insult, but it’s deeply unoriginal in that every abuser does this and it’s fail-proof. Which is one of the flaws of human nature, that it’s so easy to hurt people because if you get them into this, they all fall for it. Voldemort has never proven, has never made good on any promises to uplift and honor any of his successful followers, but he lies and pretends that that’s on the table and they all fall for it every time.
T: Especially when the abuser knows exactly what makes you tick. He uses the bloodline essentially. “Your bloodline is disgusting.” He uses that against her, and it’s like, “Okay, honey, you’re Half-Blood.”
K: Jinx, you owe me a Coke. Next point: Bellatrix failed to get the prophecy for Voldemort, which we know was a huge blow for her, so all Snape has to do is just remind her of that. Lorrie says, “While parrying Bellatrix’s accusations, Snape spreads Dumbledore’s misinformation and protects himself as well.” Very smart, very calculated. So far, fail-proof. You’ve done a good job. The last part is we’ll talk about Snape’s self-protections. Snape does want to avoid committing evil, so by staying on Dumbledore’s side he keeps his cover and is still able to be a spy. He says, “By allowing Dumbledore to think that I was only returning to the Dark Lord’s side because I was ordered to, I’ve been able to pass information on Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix ever since.” He does take credit for the Order’s losses. Bellatrix doesn’t think she’s privy anymore to Voldemort’s secrets, so she doesn’t fact-check things that Snape says, like when he says, “Well, my information led to the murder of Emmeline Vance and Sirius Black.” See, he’s already forced her to lose a little bit of faith in herself and make her question how close she is to Voldemort when she wants it so bad.
S: He’s manipulative.
L: I think he’s having fun.
S: For sure.
T: You gotta be manipulative if you’re gonna be in the role that he’s in.
L: She shows up at his house, she’s this powerful, powerful witch, and she’s looking at him like, “I know what you’re up to. I don’t trust you,” and you can see him rubbing his hands. “I think this is gonna be good.”
T: He’s been waiting, I feel like.
K: He’s described as amused this whole time with her.
T: Yeah. It’s like a game.
K: Yeah, definitely. He’s probably been waiting to dish this out.
T: He probably has a little notebook in his cloak pocket and he’s like, “Say this to Bellatrix.”
S: Is it my turn?
T: Yes, indeed.
S: We’re now going to talk about the lies that Snape is going to be using to his advantage. The first one is Dumbledore doesn’t trust Snape with Defense Against the Dark Arts. From Half-Blood Prince: “It seemed to think it might be bringing about a relapse, tempting me into my old ways.” Both Snape and Dumbledore use this as an excuse to cover not having Snape as a teacher because they all know… well, I’m assuming Snape knows that that position is cursed. Dumbledore knows because he admits it later on. They’re going to use it as an excuse, that Snape’s not going to be in that position so that he would only be in it for a year because he needs to be around longer at Hogwarts for that. It’s easy for others to think with Snape’s history to be like, “Okay, that makes sense that he wouldn’t want him in that position, being the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher,” even though that’s what he’s vying for. But Snape’s also really good at potions. That’s the hill I die on, because like he’s significantly… he might not be the nicest person, but he’s at least teaching these students and he’s better at it than Slughorn having those students read out of a book.
L: Alright. This is very topical, but I’m going to derail it a little, and it’s a pretty emotional current subject. I didn’t realize so much until this year what the curse on the Defense Against the Dark Arts position is, and why Snape and Dumbledore go to these great lengths to make sure that Snape can covertly teach real Defense Against the Dark Arts to the students around the edges of the official teachers that are doomed.
T: Did you read the Dumbledore book by Irvin (Khaytman)?
L: Oh, yeah.
T: Oh, my gosh, right? So good.
L: The thing that made me realize what this curse really means and how it operates is the contemporary political struggle around critical race theory. Critical race theory is under fire, and there are people trying to ban it. Not because it’s false, not because people shouldn’t learn it, but because it empowers some people against the ones who are trying to oppress them. Voldemort is forbidding students to have continuity in DADA because he wants to keep them primed to become prey for what he wants to turn them into. Anyone who’s ever been to school or been a teacher knows if you don’t have continuity, the individual teacher can be as good as they want but it’s not the same thing as having an overview, a plan, and communication between the different teachers. If you get a different substitute every month, you are not going to have a continuous, solid understanding of that subject, and that’s what people are trying to do by banning critical race theory. So if you want to learn these things, then you can find librarians, book stores, activist groups, historians, storytellers, your relatives. You can find concerted efforts to compensate for the official education that’s designed to disempower you, to quiet down your natural curiosity, and to make it somehow sinful to be curious, which is exactly the textbook that Umbridge gives out. Not only is it completely useless but it criminalizes your natural self-protective instincts, and you have to go underground in order to get proper Defense education to save your own life. We see throughout the series Snape stepping in when the official DADA Professor is somehow unable to teach and providing the education that he and Dumbledore want the kids to be getting; the real essentials, like Expelliarmus. Not only is he fully aware that it’s cursed, but he knows why Voldemort wants that, why this serves Voldemort’s end. This is part of Snape being an unseen person: if you’re an educator and you want the kids to get the information that’s the truth, especially about themselves, but you don’t want to get called into the principal’s office or fired, you have to find covert ways to get the information out and you cannot be caught. Watching the news these days about critical race theory, I just think they cursed the position. All they want to teach is Umbridge’s textbook. And it’s not that what they’re banning is even all that revolutionary.
T: It’s known facts and it’s…
L: It’s just truth. It’s just human thought.
T: It’s literally the history of our country, and people in the age bracket that are sitting at this table and Sarah… our history lessons were completely whitewashed throughout our learning experience, and up until I left and went to college did I learn about certain things that happened in our country. My face hurts from smiling because everything that you said was so spot-on, especially with drawing to today and critical race theory. It’s literally just the truth of what’s happening, but I absolutely love the point that you made: that it is taking a defense and an offense away from future generations by damaging their Defense Against the Dark Arts education, and they do have to go elsewhere to learn these things. Harry teaching them is the biggest one, the Dueling Club is one, and all of that. They are under the radar, trying to set the students up for success without essentially getting rid of someone who is valuable in that position in the process. I just feel really bad for Remus, because that was always a timed gig for him.
L: I like that he must have gone into that knowing, because it’s not that he was brought on and left to be killed off by the curse. I think he knew he was being called in for a one-year assignment.
T: He resigned before Snape said that he was a werewolf. Was it after or before?
L: Dumbledore permitted him to resign. He was about to be fired — quite justifiably — but Dumbledore let him resign. I’m not a Remus fan.
T: Holy cow! Look at Megan’s face!
M: I thought we were getting along so well! My soul…
L: Remus pisses me off so much.
M: I mean, he has flaws.
L: I love him in Deathly Hallows. I love his freakout, I love the passion that he lets himself feel, how extreme he lets things get so that he almost abandoned his wife and child and how he overcomes that. He rewrites his own story. He was not meant to live and die with that kind of happiness, and he rewrote it. He had it before he died, and I love him for that. But Remus in the previous six books? No, he pisses me off.
S: He can be a very frustrating character. Jinx, you owe me a Coke.
M: Um, he’s my favorite character.
S: But I started saying that first, and then you joined me.
T: Lorrie, I have to know what you think about my favorite character, so give me one or two sentences on whether or not you like Dumbledore.
M: Uh oh. That’s a tough one.
L: Alright, one or two sentences.
T: I know! It’s tough, right?
L: The only tough part about this is the one or two sentences. Okay, let me see. How I see Dumbledore, which is not easy to see and which depends on Fantastic Beasts, is that he’s actually no better than Snape, but he just lived way, way longer to do the atonement part for longer.
M: I can understand that.
L: Because we don’t find out how bad his original past was until the very end, and now with Fantastic Beasts, which I know some people just don’t even bother with, we get into more of the ambiguity. A lot of things make sense when you realize that Dumbledore used to be as bad as Snape, but that was in a different century.
T: True. Snape is very young when he dies. People forget that because of Alan Rickman.
S: I think a lot of people forget that about all of the Marauders in that entire generation.
T: So incredibly young.
L: Also, Snape the character was born old. After one year, he’s already an old man.
T: An old soul, yeah.
L: I love Dumbledore. The difficulty with reading Dumbledore is that I believe sometimes he is portrayed as a character, and sometimes he’s a stand-in for God. When he’s in one mode, it contradicts how he’s written in the other mode. For example, when he takes a baby and gives him to the Dursleys, he’s a stand-in for God. But people read him as a character in a novel and say, “How could he do that? He’s met the Dursleys.” Well, that’s because he’s not acting as a character right now. He’s acting as God. He’s answering the question, “How can such things happen in the world?”
T: That is so interesting
M: I like that a lot.
L: But when he’s crying over Harry and saying, “I have to give Harry ‘the talk’. Should I give it when he’s 11, 12, 13? Maybe when he’s 90, I’ll tell him.”
T: Should I keep him alive long enough to do that?
L: Then he’s a character in fiction, a folklore / novel character, so there are inconsistencies. I think the only way for me to make sense of Dumbledore when I’m reading him is to make sure I know which mode is on, but with both modes I love him.
T: We’ll keep you.
L: Oh, I have to go back with a P.S. about Remus.
K: I’m scared.
L: I had to seriously look into this because I did not understand why so many people love this guy who is pissing me off so much, so I had to go in there saying, “Okay, the conclusion I have reached is that something about him reminds me about the parts of myself that I can’t stand. But what is it?” And it took me a really long time to find out because we don’t like to look at these things about ourselves. I love Snape because he reminds me about the parts of myself that I’m proud of, that I worked hard for, that were not fun at any point. Other people hate Snape; he reminds them of something that they really don’t want to think about and really dislike. But Remus, every time he did anything questionable, I just wanted to kick him. I’m like, “Okay, that’s a really personal response,” and when I finally figured it out, I was like, “Oh, God.” But I would say that I think the author does not feel that way about Remus. I think he does not remind her of her own flaws, so she writes him with a lot of sympathy. She writes his flaws in, but she doesn’t look down on him. The way she writes Snape, she writes his flaws, but she spits on him.
T: Remus is written like a pitiable person.
S: She has come out and said that Remus was one of her favorite characters in the series. She favors him.
L: A lot of her characters are people where they’re harder on themselves than other people are, and when it’s Remus she’s on the side of looking at him sympathetically. When it’s Snape, she’s on the side of when people beat themselves up and they’re like, “No, I’m disgusting and worthless.” I just measure it by how much personal, irrational response is in how I feel about characters. The way that I want to kick this fictional character… It must be me.
S: I think that there was a lot of really fantastic Remus fanfiction that was put out in the early days that made people really fall in love with him.
M: Speaking for yourself.
L: I’m sorry. We were talking about Spinner’s End. Didn’t I warn you guys? I warned you guys, right?
T: But you fit right in!
K: This is what we do. This is an episode to a T. This is normal.
L: So long as I didn’t sell myself as someone who actually can stay on track.
S: We don’t sell ourselves like that. Going back to the next point is talking about how only Voldemort can kill Harry. Bellatrix wants to know why Snape hasn’t killed Harry when he’s had unfettered access to him, and he responds with another jab like, “Well, did you ask Voldemort about it?” Of course she didn’t, because she’s not going to put herself in that position. Snape knows that Voldemort wants the honor of killing Harry himself, and Snape doesn’t know that Harry has to be the one to kill Voldemort himself. As Lorrie writes, “It is in the interest of all of Voldemort’s enemies to encourage this whim,” so Bellatrix needs to hear these things from Voldemort rather than Snape because she’s more likely to believe Voldemort than Snape. But Snape also knows she’s not going to ask him about it because she wouldn’t. She doesn’t want Voldemort viewing her any less anyways, so her coming to him and asking the question, “Why did you do this and why aren’t you questioning why he didn’t kill Harry?” She doesn’t want Voldemort looking at her in a negative way, and Snape is really using that to his advantage with answering these and really telling her lies. It really also works to Snape’s advantage that obviously Voldemort’s not mad at Snape that he didn’t kill Harry because he needed Harry to get back to having a body, so it all worked out. The next lie is about Harry having no talent.
T: This is his favorite.
S: Snape tells Bellatrix that, “It became apparent to me quickly that he had no extraordinary talent at all.” He says that Harry’s accomplishments are really just because of luck and having more talented friends, and that’s basically the nicest thing he’s ever said about Hermione. He’s never going to say that to her face.
L: It’s okay. She doesn’t need it.
S: No, absolutely not. It would be different if it was coming from someone she actually cared about, but from Snape she’d be like whatever, I think. And so I said “A part of that conviction behind his words…” and I was just thinking, is it the fact that Snape really doesn’t like him? Could it be that he wishes that Harry — and I was even thinking James — because of his connection with Lily, if they weren’t as talented, viewing when they were in school together… Obviously Snape is extremely talented. He wrote in that book and did all of those things when he was still in school, making potions better and making up spells and all of these things, but nobody ever saw him in that way because of the way he looks and he doesn’t do Quidditch and he’s a Slytherin and all of those things, where James is the complete opposite. He looks good, he’s a Quidditch guy. They might be slackers, but they’re not stupid. They also are talented, and I didn’t know if there was him having little conviction behind him saying he’s not talented, even though he is saying it. Is he annoyed by that kind of thing? Or might not care, because he’s a grown man.
L: I think there’s some of that I agree with and some I take a completely different angle on it. I think Snape definitely hates when annoying people get credit above him. I think he also genuinely believes that Harry does not have exceptional talent in most areas, and I think he’s also predisposed to think that. But even if Harry were just anybody, he would think, “This kid is not great at anything except Defense Against the Dark Arts.” But what I want people to pay attention to is that he never looks down on Harry’s Defense Against the Dark Arts gifts. Even when they’re arguing and he’s teaching him: when Harry does like a good Shield charm even though it knocks Snape off his feet; when Harry looks into his memories; anytime Harry does something good in Defense Against the Dark Arts, the worst thing he (Snape) does is say nothing — which is still a big praise from him — or he actually praises Harry and he’s impressed. He knows that about him, but the tactic that I think he’s using here: I don’t think he is letting his genuine feelings of annoyance come out in front of Bellatrix because he’s so on point during this meeting, and he would never make Bellatrix’s mistake of letting his feelings come out here. Because the title of the book is Half-Blood Prince — so that’s a pointer to Machiavelli, and he and Dumbledore have this Machiavellian approach to how to turn your opponent’s weaknesses against them when you’re trying to defend — he and Dumbledore have a tactic of encouraging the Death Eaters to underestimate Dumbledore and Harry. That goes with him saying, “Harry is nothing. Don’t worry about him.” It sets up this really hilarious, terrible dynamic for Voldemort where Snape is comforting him, saying, “No, my Lord, there’s nothing. There’s nothing special about the boy. Nothing at all.” Voldemort thinks he wants to hear that, and actually what it does is create Voldemort’s self-doubt. “It must be me, then,”
T: Drives him to find the Elder Wand.
L: Which is hilarious, because… Snape says that with legilimency you can’t read people’s minds. You can get a read on their feelings and their images, so it is possible to manipulate and lie. This is Snape’s whole hiding in plain sight thing. Spinner’s End is hiding in plain sight. His lying to Voldemort is hiding in plain sight. He hides his true mission behind the fact that he really doesn’t like Harry. He really dislikes Harry, so this is the thing that Voldemort will never understand. It’s also one of the major points of the whole series: the hard thing to do is to protect and die for people you hate. Anyone can die for someone they love. Some people, some rare heroes, can die for people that they like or care about or their families. Like when Ron is on the broom and saying, “Harry, if we die for them, I’ll kill you.” This is the hardest thing, and Snape really hates Harry, but he is going to do everything in his power to save this kid and genuinely hate him. Voldemort will never ever understand that and Snape can hide behind that, so he lets his genuine dislike for Harry as a person just come out there. These people will never understand.
M: Wild times.
K: That’s crazy accurate. Spot on. Part one.
S: And then the last part in this goes into what Lorrie was just saying, too, with the lie being that Dumbledore believes the best in people. It goes on to say, “Dumbledore’s greatest weakness: he has to believe the best in people.” Again, Snape is using the fact that Bellatrix already doesn’t trust him and that he has a track record of not being the best guy, but they’ve known each other for years. They knew each other when he became a Death Eater. He’s already on a track record, so he’s like, “Dumbledore thinks that I have this gem of goodness in me, so I’m just using that to my advantage.” I said he also probably believes this because I think for Snape, he doesn’t think he is a good guy at all. Which I don’t think that’s even true because if he didn’t have some good in him, he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. Because I think that in what we talked about earlier with him trying to right his wrongs, it was the first time with all of these things happening and now he’s trying to help save another boy when he couldn’t in the beginning help. He chose not to help save the boy and it all went wrong, and now he’s trying to have a redo. It further helps the narrative that he truly is a Death Eater and that he’s on Voldemort’s side because he’s like, “Yeah, there isn’t much good in me, and Dumbledore is choosing to trust me. But joke’s on him. I’m not a good guy, and I’m Voldemort’s dude.”
T: That’s literally the lie that the Order also believes. Literally everybody in the Wizarding World believes that lie except for Snape and Dumbledore.
L: it’s a difficult thing for him to pull off. Snape does not know if he can do this, because it’s everyday a struggle for him to not be an incredible jerk. There’s lots of ways to be a jerk without splitting your soul, and he does all of them. When you know that about yourself, and you already know that there was a time when you actively contributed to genocide, the position Snape is in is hair-raising. If you contributed to somebody dying and you are just sitting there waiting for the next 10 years until their orphan comes into your class to look at your face everyday, it’s hard to live with.
T: Something that I also think about, and I feel like it gets brushed over, is how deep Snape was in living this and the things that he had to essentially just let happen in front of him even being working for the good side is Charity Burbage. I could cry. Charity Burbage is the person who is suspended over the table at Malfoy Manor, and she was a former Muggle Studies teacher at Hogwarts. She’s pleading with him, and Snape has to sit there and he has to let her go.
L: He has to control himself.
T: She’s a martyr. She dies to keep this lie going until Harry can do what he needs to do.
S: How much money would you bet on Voldemort prying into Snape’s mind in that moment? He wasn’t feeling anything. He had to hide all of that.
M: In this instance, too, we have to remember that he has had this conversation with Dumbledore where he’s agreed to kill him, and that is not an easy thing for him to do either, that whole thing, because he doesn’t even agree right away. Then with this whole Unbreakable Vow, doesn’t agree right away; he takes a pause, because he still is grappling with this as well. It’s just adding more coal to the fire of what he has to do, choosing every single day. It’s not easy.
L: I think watching Charity Burbage, to his face, beg for comfort, we know how Snape keeps Voldemort out of his mind. The trick to occlumency is to think about somebody you love that you want to protect, and that will enable you to keep your mind locked and give you the discipline. Even when this woman who says, “We were friends, Severus,” and you know that’s the absolute truth. You know it’s the truth because would this author really give him the easy way out of watching a teacher die that he wasn’t friends with? No, it’s got to be the worst experience ever. Voldemort might have tried to get into his mind, but on the other hand… You know what? Actually, I don’t think Voldemort did, because I think he was enjoying the moment so much that I think he was a little distracted.
T: Taking out somebody who is teaching masses of children to accept Muggles.
L: This thing where he controls all his followers by torturing someone for fun is what makes life worth living. For Voldemort, this is the best fun he could have. I don’t think he’s checking in on Snape at that moment.
K: I guess also by this point Dumbledore’s dead, so Snape has already chosen, in Voldemort’s mind. Snape’s already proven himself fully faithful to Voldemort. But he wrong.
T: Anything else?
L: YES! No.
T: There’s a lot more. Okay, that’s just it for right now.
S: We will continue this conversation
T: We can’t let Lorrie go that easily, no. Next time, we’ll get into Narcissa, the Malfoy family, and their relationship with Snape and the Unbreakable Vow. So let’s go ahead and go over to the Fan Story.
*Fan Story segment (01:37:54-01:42:16)*
M: Tell me a joke. Do you have a joke?
K: I pulled one up on the interwebs because I only took two pictures, yeah. Alright.
S: Katie’s joke book is in Florida.
K: It’s okay. How do Death Eaters freshen their breath?
S: Death Mints.
K: No, with De-mentos.
L: This is like the Coke and Pepsi of Death Eaters in the candy aisle.
S: Eat those with some Diet Coke.
M: Oh, my God. What would happen…
S: I don’t know. They don’t die, I don’t think.
K: What about with pumpkin fizz?
M: Sarah, do you have any jokes to add? You always do.
S: I don’t always, and I don’t.
M: Alright, well make sure that you follow your hosts on social media. Myself and Katie are on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch. I swear to God, guys: us and Tiffany are going to figure out Twitch.
T: We’re gonna stream. It’s going to be fine.
M: We’re gonna do it, but just know our accounts are made. You can go follow us. It’ll happen eventually. You can follow myself and Katie @thepetrasfamily. Tiffany is on Twitter, Instagram, and Twitch @tiffswish_flick. Sarah is on Instagram @ohhhmalley. Lorrie, would you like to tell us your social media information?
L: I’m at LorrieKim.com. That’s where I put information about my Snape book and also whatever random thoughts I’m having. I have to look up what’s my Twitter handle. Sorry. Can we just leave it at LorrieKim.com, because my thing isn’t loading.
T: You’re @_lorriekim_.
L: Thank you!
T: If you type in Lorrie Kim or even if you type in Snape in the search bar, you’re first. Well, we did it. We did part one. Lorrie, thank you so much for coming on, giving your just beautiful beautiful brain that we could borrow for how long has this been? A couple of hours now, so we really appreciate it. I am very much looking forward to part two of this discussion with you.
L: Thank you for letting me talk about this. I could go on.
T: We will!
L: Also, I love other characters, too. I could go on about them, too.
T: Well, this definitely won’t be your last time on this podcast. I see a lot of episodes in our future, for sure.
L: Woohoo!I will even say nice things about Remus, now that I figured out the source of my annoyance.
K: You’re welcome back into the family now.
T: Alright, so that concludes this week’s episode. Thank you so much for listening, and don’t let the Muggles get you down.
*END OF INTERVIEW (01:45:35)*
In a last-minute surprise move, at the end of Deathly Hallows, it turns out that Ron Weasley can open the Chamber of Secrets using Parseltongue. At first read, this seems like an awfully convenient plot point. But is there more to it? I looked into what the series says about Parseltongue acquisition and Ron’s history with it and found answers that are more substantial than I expected. This was a fun one to write for Mugglenet.
Some of you may be familiar with Xandra Robinson-Burns of Heroine Training, who frequently partners with the Granger Leadership Academy and the Harry Potter Alliance. Her current essay, “Life in the UK,” collects her thoughts while studying for her exam to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. I was honored to be mentioned in the essay as having contributed to the parallels she draws between her own experiences and the fictional Hermione’s. All of Xandra’s essays are worth reading, but this one, in particular, strikes me as a tour de force, combining truth-telling with her characteristic graciousness and calm.
Delivered on October 16, 2020 at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA.
On September 25, 2018, Korean actress Claudia Kim was announced in the role of Nagini for Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald. Here is my five-item tweet from the moment I found out:
That was a fun morning. I couldn’t get enough of the coverage: Claudia Kim at a press event, saying happily, “I’m Nagini. I’m blushing!” Or her Instagram story, where she posted a screenshot of innocent little Neville from Chamber of Secrets with the caption, “Neville! Ahhhh!” and a scared-face emoji and a snake emoji. At last, a Korean woman in Potterverse. I had never counted Cho Chang, even though her name might be Korean, because the writing of that character struck me as generic when I read her on the page: she could have been any race. But Nagini, the Maledictus in her human form, would first be brought to life not on the page, but onscreen, with a Korean woman’s experiences informing the actress’s reading of the character, her embodiment and her inflections and her micro-expressions.
And then I saw some of the backlash against the casting and storyline. Claims that it was racist, a “disaster,” to cast a Korean woman as a character who, as some people put it, ended up as maybe the pet, the slave, or even the lover of an evil white man. That the first time a Korean body is represented in the wizarding world, it should not be in a degraded status as a doomed young woman. That this played into stereotypes of Asian women as subservient, or sexualized, or submissive. That this character was not exactly a “strong, independent female character.” I understand many of the criticisms. For example, that the filmmakers should have found another Indonesian actress to play Nagini, who was written as Indonesian, when their first choice withdrew due to pregnancy. Or that Rowling could not be trusted to have a solid understanding of naga mythology. However, whenever I read through this controversy, I find the comments against Claudia Kim’s casting so hurtful, I have to stop. Many of the objections strike me as unintentionally racist, even if they purportedly call out racism.
And this was all before anyone had seen the movie.
When I finally did see the movie, I liked Nagini in it. When I saw her two deleted scenes from the DVD, I loved her.
Let’s go through her scenes.
1. We meet her at the traveling circus, where she’s the featured snake woman, one of the “freaks and underbeings” on exhibit, and Credence cleans the animal cages. The circusmaster, Skender, exploits Nagini and mistreats Credence. They’ve plotted to escape together, although Skender tries to keep them apart. Skender sets up Nagini’s act, telling the audience that she’s “beautiful” and “desirable” but turns into a snake when she sleeps and eventually will be trapped in snake form, and commands her to change shape. Nagini defies him, making him a laughingstock, and makes eye contact with Credence instead. Credence releases caged animals into the crowd, Nagini transforms into a snake and bites Skender, and the two of them escape.
2. Credence has received a tip about his biological mother, so he and Nagini go to look. Nagini recognizes that Credence is too emotional to speak, so she speaks for him. But the whole setup is a trap set by Grindelwald, who has sent an assassin to kill the person about to give Credence clues to his own story, as a deliberate ploy to trigger an Obscurus attack in Credence and observe it. [clip] Nagini senses the camouflaged assassin and tries to fight him, witnesses the Obscurus explosion, then, instead of being afraid, approaches Credence to comfort him afterwards.
3. She alerts Credence that Grindelwald has come to tell Credence to learn his identity at Père Lachaise cemetery. The way she glares at Grindelwald, it’s clear that she recognizes him as an exploiter and manipulator.
4. She goes to Père Lachaise with him and shields him when Yusuf Kama tries to kill him.
5. She accompanies Credence into Grindelwald’s rally. She warns Credence, fearfully, “They’re purebloods. They kill the likes of us for sport.”
6. She tries to pull Credence back from joining Grindelwald, saying, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.”
7. After Credence and others go over to Grindelwald, she joins Kama, Jacob, Tina, the Scamanders, and the Aurors as they report to Dumbledore at Hogwarts.
Looking at her actual character in the movie, I don’t find her to be without agency at all. She embodies the theme of the Fantastic Beasts series: that the human attempt to divide living creatures into binary categories as either “beasts” or “beings” does a sort of violence that enables othering, exploitation, and dehumanization. That this splitting, whether of the natural world, ethnic groups, individual souls, or the atom, is part of what gave rise to World War II. Yet even in captivity, she defies her captor and becomes one of the few characters in Potterverse to manage their own prison break, which she does by forming a bond of affection with another. They risk trusting each other and pool resources to resist together; neither of them could have escaped alone. She relies on her strengths: yes, she’s caged, but that protects her from the audience touching her. Yes, she’s a Maledictus, but this means she can transform into a snake who can attack her captor. And she’s whole enough to form a bond with someone who’s an Obscurial and can unleash destructive power in order to free them.
The screenplay says of Nagini that she “trusts nobody,” but this is not quite true: she trusts and protects Credence, and we later see hints that she trusts Kama. She doesn’t have that hardened suspicion that comes of blanket mistrust. Instead, as the screenplay also says, “Nagini’s senses are hyperalert. She can smell danger.” Without any need to go into Maledictus lore, we can recognize this hypervigilance as her natural response to being trafficked and exploited. The way Claudia Kim plays this alertness feels culturally familiar to me: she’s always quietly scanning the surroundings, always the first to intuit unspoken dynamics, a skill that Koreans call “nunchi.” I see it in her microexpressions, her stillness, the sweep of her eyes, her readiness to speak a cautionary word or extend a protective hand. This isn’t written into the script; it’s just something the actress brings to the role that makes Nagini read Korean to me.
There are times that Rowling gives characters lines to say that lets us, the readers and viewers, know that this is where the real message is: for example, Dumbledore saying, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” When Credence is leaving Nagini, he says of Grindelwald, “He knows who I am.” And Nagini’s last cry to Credence is, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.” It’s Nagini who delivers the essential message of this series: listen to the truth in each being, no matter how powerless or how much of a freak or under-being they are.
Nagini’s actual role in the movie doesn’t accord with the backlash I encountered before the movie release. She isn’t shown as anyone’s sexualized, submissive follower: that description fits the wealthy white woman, Bellatrix Lestrange, not Nagini. With the darkly funny reference to “milking” Nagini in Goblet of Fire, Rowling cast her as the twisted parody of a mother figure to Voldemort rather than a lover. At the time of Crimes of Grindelwald, Tom Riddle is less than a year old and has lost his mother. We don’t yet know how the two cross paths, but with Nagini’s protectiveness toward the vulnerable, it wouldn’t surprise me if she heard a baby’s cries in Parseltongue and responded.
Nagini has agency. She has a tragic storyline, yes: that makes her like half the characters in this universe, like Sirius losing 12 years to wrongful imprisonment or Regulus sacrificing himself as a teen with no guarantee it would work — and that was in the children’s version of this story. Must the Asian woman character be relentlessly inspirational, even if it’s discordant with the rest of movie? This series is an international story about the prejudices that led to World War II. Is the Asian woman somehow not allowed to have a role?
When critics object that simply casting a Korean actress as Nagini is racist, this is what I really hear:
This role should have gone to a white woman for the comfort of viewers who are uneasy with the images in their own heads of Asian women.
What I hear is: People were happier when there was no Korean woman in Potterverse. They don’t want us if it makes them feel uncomfortable.
All right, let’s hear it: What narrative for a Korean woman in 1927 would these critics suggest? How, exactly, do they want us to be for their approval before we can enter the story? I’ve had the visceral experience of entering the room as the only Asian woman and feeling waves of disapproval, murmurs that my presence has turned something into a disaster for reasons that have nothing to do with my worth or my performance, with nothing I can do to fix it, only that they didn’t want a Korean woman there.
There’s a different Korean narrative brought to mind by the nationality of this casting choice, though, one that I can’t imagine was intended by Rowling and Yates, who created Nagini as Indonesian.
What was going on in Korea in 1927? For one thing, there was no Korea. Korea was brutally colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and that included slavery and trafficking of Korean girls on a massive scale. Japanese schoolteachers were recruited to select victims from Korea’s most established families in a deliberate move to demoralize and destroy the culture, similar to the Lestrange storyline with the Kama family. This issue was silenced for decades and it remains unresolved and a source of diplomatic conflict between Japan and Korea. A few of the survivors are still alive. A lot of them never told their own husbands and children.
I can understand not trusting Rowling and Warner Brothers to portray Korean women during the time before World War II. However. It is a destructive trap to hold that it’s somehow wrong or improper to tell in public the stories of women of color who endured slavery and trafficking. Don’t people who died while enslaved by others deserve to have their stories told? We’re not the only ones that happened to — not even in this movie series — and the survivors and their younger generations continue to pay the cost, like a blood curse. Shame and silence only lead to more damage, with the greatest burden on the people who have suffered most already.
When the Crimes of Grindelwald DVD was released, the two beautiful deleted scenes featuring Nagini deepened her story. I wish the filmmakers had kept them in the film: putting them in the DVD extras means the fullness of this woman of color’s character was relegated to the margins. Credence and Nagini are clearly lovers in these scenes. In one, she encourages him to release his Obscurus peacefully and proves that it can pass through her without harm. In the other, she is ashamed and sorrowful that the skin on her hand is turning scaly, but Credence sees it and kisses it.
Nagini gives Credence the most affection and acceptance he’s ever experienced. He sleeps with his arms around her, but we see she has stayed awake the whole time, forgoing rest because she wants to be with him in human form. She coaches him to control his Obscurus and not be afraid of it, recognizing that it’s a part of him and has its own beauty. The scene is called “Murmuration,” in keeping with the series theme of birds and flight. When she has the Obscurus pass through her, she demonstrates that this integral part of Credence is not destructive in itself, that she accepts it, and that she has the strength to know how Credence feels. Credence reciprocates in the later scene, countering some of her shame and despair about her irreversible loss of humanity, showing his acceptance of her whole self.
Rowling has been working toward the concept of the Maledictus for some time, the blood curse through the female line that strengthens over time. Draco Malfoy’s wife, Astoria, dies of a blood curse in Cursed Child. I hope very much that we get to see more of the middle of Nagini’s story. We know how it ends, and so, to an extent, does she. But from what we’ve seen, it’s in her nature to meet her destiny as Harry Potter did, knowing “the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high.”
Delivered October 16, 2020 at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA.
The way we read Harry Potter in the U.S. changed with the 2016 election. For almost 20 years, many of us were able to fall in love with this series as comfort reading. Monstrous tyrants who rounded up ethnic groups and tortured their own followers could be read as allegorical figures. In 2016, when the protective magic in our system of checks and balances was attacked on so many fronts that we couldn’t keep track, Americans turned to dystopian fiction to help combat the lag created by our inconvenient disbelief: this can’t be happening here. People could use Harry Potter as a common cultural text to warn each other: we’re at that point in the story where we need to form Dumbledore’s Army. In 2016, some people said, dismissively, that you couldn’t compare Trump to Voldemort — at least, “not yet” — revealing that they had an internal meter for which people Trump could threaten, and how many of them, before they would object. Others of us, like Hermione, had reason to recognize what we were seeing, and wondered nervously if our half-privileged and full-privileged friends would stand by us or leave us in the forest.
Checking the news was like Ron Weasley’s question about the Daily Prophet: “Anyone we know?” When Trump proposed a database to register U.S. Muslims, the Muggle-born Registration Commission didn’t seem far-fetched anymore. After his talk of raids by ICE, our own version of Snatchers, hate crimes rose against people of color. Suddenly, it hit differently to remember that Parvati and Padma were among the first students whose parents pulled them out of Hogwarts. It was more frightening to remember that 12-year-old Draco once said, “Bet you five Galleons the next one dies. Pity it wasn’t Granger —“ when we knew that actual children were being taunted with their parents’ deportation by their classmates and teachers.
After Trump’s team spurned transition help in 2017, the New York Times reported, “Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.”
I pictured the Head’s office sealing itself against Umbridge. When we had to learn about Trump’s meetings with Russian officials from Russian news outlets, we knew: “The Ministry has fallen.”
Trump’s eerie absence of empathy recalls Voldemort. The article about Trump calling soldiers killed in action “suckers” and “losers” reported, “Several observers told me that Trump is deeply anxious about dying or being disfigured, and this worry manifests itself as disgust for those who have suffered.” We see the same disgust in Voldemort when he says, “There is nothing worse than death.”
Trump’s fear of appearing weak recalls what Voldemort taught Quirrell: “There is no good or evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” When Trump was asked to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he answered, “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” He sounded like Voldemort jamming the Sorting Hat onto Neville’s head: “There will be no more Houses… Slytherin […] will suffice for everyone.”
Even the mainstream knows that Betsy DeVos is Umbridge.
For the role of Wormtail, though, everyone gets a turn. Bill Barr looks like Peter Pettigrew, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Trump treated Jeff Sessions like Wormtail, belittling him in public. He brought Sean Spicer to the Vatican, then deliberately shut him out of meeting the Pope, which was “all he wanted.”
Spicer lied daily for Trump; Trump still despised him. No matter how well you serve Trump, he might make you cut off your limbs or choke yourself to death.
The clearest Death Eater character in Trump world, though, is his consultant, Roger Stone. He doesn’t even need a turban.
Before 2016, I thought of dementors only as the personification of depression. But when Jeffrey Epstein died in prison, I remembered Fudge bringing a dementor with him to question Barty Crouch, Jr. and the dementor losing control. Fudge didn’t see the problem — “By all accounts, he was no loss!” Dumbledore said, “But he cannot now give testimony.” That was on my mind when Epstein’s partner Ghislaine Maxwell and Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen were put in prison. I’ve thought of it again when police, or unidentified militia, have turned peaceful protests dangerous. Dumbledore warned Fudge that dementors would not remain loyal to the Ministry: “Voldemort can offer them much more scope for their powers and their pleasures than you can!” In light of some of the phone camera footage we’ve seen this summer, I’m more conscious of Dumbledore’s stance that dementors have no business at a school.
The moment that Harry Potter stopped being allegory, and U.S. reality achieved parity with its fictional horrors, was in 2018, when this administration began separating migrant children and infants from their parents at the border. Family separation is what the entire Potter series is about.
Voldemort both caused it and felt it: “He did not like it crying, he had never been able to stomach the small ones whining in the orphanage — ‘Avada Kedavra!’ And then he broke.” I will not play the recording from June 2018 of migrant children at a detention center, crying for their parents. Rowling started her foundation Lumos in 2004 after she had to force herself to look at a news photo of a child in a cage. Voldemort profited from the dark energy generated by the splitting of souls. This administration profits from the splitting of families.
There came moments when our real-life horrors surpassed anything in Harry Potter and it was no longer adequate as an allegory for our times. One came with the 3000 fatalities from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, when in an act of racist genocide, this administration withheld routine emergency aid to our own citizens. Another has come with Trump lying about the Covid-19 pandemic, like Fudge denying the return of Voldemort. Fudge’s deputy, Umbridge, forbids students to learn defensive spells, claiming, “There is nothing waiting out there, Mr. Potter.”
In April, the Department of Health and Human Services drafted a plan to send five reusable masks to every address in the country, but the White House opposed it because “households receiving masks might create concern or panic.” The difference is that Fudge changed his mind when he saw the evidence. Trump already had the evidence about Covid-19. He lied that the virus would just “disappear like magic” in full knowledge. Trump’s disregard for hundreds of thousands of his own people’s lives is far beyond the scope of Voldemort’s evil. With the subsequent ruin of the U.S. economy, our downtowns have become Diagon Alley in Deathly Hallows, with shops boarded up and destitute people pleading, “Where are my children? What has he done with them?”
In May, after the murder of George Floyd, protesters risked injury and even death to fight racist police brutality, like Neville and Seamus resisting the Carrows. In the midst of this global reckoning on race, in June, Rowling drew focus with a lengthy manifesto against “the new trans rights movement,” compounding damage from December 2019, when she tweeted support of an anti-trans activist. Longtime fan groups such as Mugglenet, the Leaky Cauldron, and the Harry Potter Alliance broke ties with Rowling.
Rowling’s groundless statements against trans identity have changed how U.S. fandom relates to Harry Potter. Many fans have attempted, over the years, to proclaim a Barthesian “death of the author,” an intellectual stance that requires constant upkeep when the disobligingly undead author keeps trending on Twitter. Is it realistic, or fair, to keep asserting that the author’s statements have no bearing on the meaning of the text? As one trans friend said to me, pretty much everyone in the trans community is aware of Rowling’s bigotry and now must warily assess every Potter fan they meet to see if that person is okay with it. Can we re-read, without discomfort, the passage where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him? Did the reader deserve to be told that transmisogyny is an appropriate response to abusive teaching? “Death of the author” would attribute this inspiration entirely to Lupin, the character. But the author’s statements intrude on my reading and change it.
Many queer and trans Potter fans reported feeling stricken to learn that Rowling supported a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, when her series, with the emphasis on every person finding magic in themselves despite being different, had been central to their coming-out journeys. To find now that Rowling conflates legal recognition of trans people’s genders with “throw[ing] open the doors of bathrooms” to cis men who will assault women reminds me of the “odd, sick, empty feeling” in Harry’s stomach when Percy Weasley told Ron to “sever ties” with Harry: “He had known Percy for four years, had stayed in his house during the summers… yet now, Percy thought him unbalanced and possibly violent.”
The bewildered hurt reported by many fans reminded me of the dead unicorn in the forest. Rowling wrote that it is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” in this case, very young readers who thought they were included in her stories of love and acceptance. What have trans kids done to deserve Rowling grouping them with violent criminals?
McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone! […] On what grounds are you attacking him? He has done nothing, nothing to warrant such —“
Lily says to James of teen Snape, “Leave him ALONE! […] What’s he done to you?”
And James tells her, “It’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean…”
And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.’” It’s Rowling who equates hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder. By attacking the realities of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable. Her fiction taught us that when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden. You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may. But your forgiveness is your own business and does not absolve them. They have damaged or even split their souls, and the only remedy is remorse, their own full recognition of the harm they have caused.
The soul of Rowling’s story is love, acceptance, protection. For me, the author’s anti-trans words have the effect of damaging this story’s soul. Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.” Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with signs of anti-trans prejudice in her books, as well as marginalization of queerness, fatphobia, and issues of race. The bitterness of fans who saw this coming reminds me of Dumbledore saying, “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was? I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”
Some fans have walked away from Harry Potter. As Lily told Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore. You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.” But what about the many fans whose histories are too entwined with Harry Potter to leave the stories behind, even if they disavow the creator? Fan artist Fox Estacado worked with me to create this graphic, free for the personal use of any Potter fan.
A month after Fox released that graphic, I read Troubled Blood, my first new Rowling material since her manifesto. It felt a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic. I remembered why I loved her so deeply, but also how badly she has broken my trust. I found myself scanning for clues: how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction? Where is the author I loved?
In Troubled Blood, after acrimonious divorce proceedings, Robin has one last thing to say to her ex:
“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you. Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”
It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through, this self-protective response to Rowling’s bigotry. That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, when they needed her.
And then, last month, her stories spoke to me again, when Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, published his book, Disloyal. There are parts of Harry Potter lore that the collective fandom is still working through, topics of vigorous engagement that have not been put to rest, and of course, as the author of a book on Snape, I think comprehending Snape’s arc is a major one. Disloyal showed me that I’m not finished thinking about Harry Potter yet.
Some of us thought the Prince’s Tale chapter of Deathly Hallows, in which Harry views Snape’s memories, could have been its own book. Some of us wished Snape could have told Voldemort he’d been fooled. Disloyal is the real-life version. What if, when Voldemort decided to kill his own right-hand man, Snape had survived?
Cohen used to harm people on Trump’s behalf, unbothered by his conscience until Trump betrayed him, the same way that Snape supported Voldemort until someone he loved was the target. Once Cohen finally recognized his wrongdoing, he considered suicide, then chose a second chance to take responsibility for the damage he’s done, naming his new podcast Mea Culpa, dedicating his insider knowledge to blocking Trump’s ambition to be dictator for life. His testimony to Congress sounded like Snape’s story. Rowling said of Snape: “He craved membership of something big and powerful, something impressive.” Cohen testified, “Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating. When you were in his presence, you felt like you were involved in something greater than yourself — that you were somehow changing the world.”
Like Snape, who chose to serve a murderer who dismembered and buried parts of his own soul, Cohen is permanently marked by his association with Trump but therefore also credible: “I know where the skeletons are buried because I was the one who buried them.”
Cohen writes with awe of the late Representative Elijah Cummings, who “understood that the least of us deserve the opportunity to seek penance, redemption and a second chance in life,” “the lone politician I encountered in all my travails who took an interest in me as a human being. […] He even took steps to ensure my security in prison.” Like Dumbledore with Snape, Cummings thought Cohen’s life worth protecting.
Cohen’s first guest on his podcast was Rosie O’Donnell, whom he had once helped Trump harass, who wrote to him and visited him in prison, an act that he said made his soul hurt, the way Hermione says remorse after splitting one’s soul into Horcruxes is supposed to be excruciating. Cohen said, “Her kindness broke me into a million pieces, shattering what was left of my ego and pride. And when I put the pieces back together, I rediscovered the man that I used to be…the man who could look at his wife and children in the eye and not be ashamed.”
That quote resonates with Snape’s final words, “Look…at…me.” I disagree with those who read this as an uncomfortable wish about unrequited love for Lily. I think Snape spent the second half of his life trying to atone enough to be able to look Lily’s son, and Lily, in the eye and not be ashamed.
Cohen wrote, “As you read my story, you will no doubt ask yourself if you like me, or if you would act as I did, and the answer will frequently be no to both of those questions. But permit me to make a point: If you only read stories written by people you like, you will never be able to understand Donald Trump or the current state of the American soul.”
There are some Harry Potter fans who argue that Snape’s original choices were so abhorrent, they disqualify Snape’s atonement from consideration. It is true that Snape only turned against Voldemort because his own loved one was targeted, and would not have cared about baby Harry if he’d been born to anyone else. It is also true that Cohen only turned against Trump because once Cohen’s office was raided by the FBI, Trump stopped returning Cohen’s calls, stopped paying for his lawyers, and expected Cohen to keep lying for Trump and go to prison. But it is also true that this is what makes their knowledge crucial to fights between evil and wholeness. Only someone who has cast Dark Magic and then felt remorse, like Snape or like Dumbledore, knows how to reverse it. Even those of us who have split our souls have the right to try to do good, though the pain of it might kill us.
The words in the Harry Potter books don’t change, but we do. The Potter stories are the shared text of a pre-Trump, pre-Brexit generation. The stories hit differently now. However we engage with Rowling in the future, the Harry Potter books have encoded within them our collective past. It’s been difficult, the past few years, to keep track of the upheaval. But when we reread these books, we remember how we reacted to them in the past, compared to how we react now, and that is how fiction helps us keep the measure of how we’ve changed.
Reading Troubled Blood by J.K. Rowling feels a bit like having dinner with a relative or old friend whose politics have grown hopelessly toxic. You remember why you loved this person so deeply for so long, but you’re more certain than ever that you were right to block them on social media.
The advance reports were correct: there is a storyline that includes damaging anti-trans stereotypes. This shows up frequently in the first part of the book and recurs a few times throughout. The transphobia is bad, but I don’t see any evidence to support the theory that Rowling launched her anti-trans comments starting in Dec 2019 specifically in order to promote this book. She has done more damage and reached more people with her anti-trans tweets and blog post than she will with this book.
If you are boycotting Rowling’s work, you’re not missing much new by skipping this one. The mystery is ultimately forgettable, though fun to read in the moment; the novel might have been improved by cutting out a few characters and maybe 150 of its 900+ pages. If you do decide to read it, there are long stretches of enjoyable content, especially when she writes complex group scenes or milestone interactions between Strike and Robin.
Those stretches are interrupted by the same issues we’ve always seen from this author. People of color are still tokenized, described only by their race while white characters, the default, are described in detail: “the black male nurse called ahead to a frail-looking old lady wearing a sheepskin hat” (p702). The anti-fat hatred is the same as ever, with gratuitous remarks on characters’ sizes. There does seem to be improvement on number of queer characters included, although that is difficult to appreciate considering the frequent mention of men dressed as women in order to commit crimes.
I found myself reading for clues, but not in the usual way of murder mysteries, trying to solve the crime. Instead, I found myself on edge, scanning for anti-trans sentiment, for stereotypes and scapegoating. I was reading for clues about Rowling’s mindset: how is her anti-trans bigotry going to play out in her fiction? Where is the author I loved and long trusted, and what has happened to her mind? Because parts of the lengthy explanation she posted to her website in June 2020 sounded to me like they issued from a mind in crisis.
If you’re looking for Harry Potter in this book, you can find it. There’s a serial killer who dismembers and hides evidence of his crimes, like Voldemort. The father of one victim studies every meaningful connection the killer had in order to uncover possible sites, like Dumbledore researching Tom Riddle’s past for Horcrux locations. In the middle of the book, Cormoran Strike experiences despair and a grueling trek, like the infamous “camping” section in the middle of Deathly Hallows: “And so began days that had the same strange, outside-time quality of their journey” (p517). There’s even a connection to the Fantastic Beasts series, when Strike uses the word “underbeings” (p851), the word that the circusmaster in Crimes of Grindelwald uses for his “freaks.”
In Troubled Blood and her other Cormoran Strike thrillers, Rowling spells out horrors that she only insinuates in her children’s books. The kind of personal trauma that she described in her June 2020 explanation, in tones of extreme distress, is a major part of Robin Ellacott’s story in this novel. She vividly conveys Robin’s memories of sexual assault and the way these mental scars make “casual physical contact with men almost unbearable” at times (p372). In one rather satisfying scene, an unpleasant character triggers Robin’s post-traumatic hypervigilance and gets what he deserves. In one of the most compelling passages of the book, Strike, in slow-motion train wreck mode, obliviously drags Robin into a flashback. Perhaps this is part of what Rowling was trying to communicate in her first-person justifications on her website; I was better able to receive the message here, through her fiction.
There were several moments when I was almost able to forget the major harm Rowling has done in the past year, and I felt something like the glow that her writing used to kindle in me, before my trust in her broke. Few writers capture as poignantly, to me, the insoluble struggle between calling and motherhood: “The problem wasn’t that Robin didn’t think she’d love her child. On the contrary, she thought it likely that she would love that child to the extent that this job, for which she had voluntarily sacrificed a marriage, her safety, her sleep and her financial security, would have to be sacrificed in return” (p253). I have missed being startled by the loveliness of some of her descriptions: “the fields gliding past, bestridden with power pylons, the flat white cloud given a glaucous glow by the dust on the glass” (pp656-7). I enjoyed the author’s conflicted attitude toward astrology in this novel; as always, she is skeptical and disdainful toward anything like fortune-telling, but that doesn’t stop her from expertly assigning birthdays and deeply researched zodiac traits to her fictional characters. I smiled fondly at this familiar trait in a dear old friend before remembering that we’re not friends the same way anymore.
It took until book 5 of this series, but thank goodness, in Troubled Blood, Robin finally separates from her conventional, stifling, small-minded husband, Matthew. I suppose what follows is a bit of a spoiler, so if you’ve read this far and still intend on reading the book, you may want to stop here.
Divorce is another topic that Rowling only insinuates in Harry Potter, but includes in her adult fiction. Through most of this volume, Matthew puts Robin through acrimonious, punishing divorce proceedings. It’s hateful. When they finally reach an agreement, Robin has parting words for him. I had no idea what she was going to say to him.
“I’ll never forget… how you were, when I really needed you. Whatever else… I’ll never forget that part.”
For a fraction of a second, his face worked slightly, like a small boy’s. Then he walked back to her, bent down, and before she knew what was happening, he’d hugged her quickly, then let go as though she was red hot.
“G’luck, Robs,” he said thickly, and walked away for good. (pp680-1)
It may feel a bit like a divorce, what much of Harry Potter fandom has been going through in the past year, this self-protective response to J.K. Rowling’s harsh, sustained, ossifying bigotry toward trans people. That doesn’t mean readers have to forget what she once was to them, for years, when they needed her. Remembering it might be the source of strength that some of the fandom needs in order to say goodbye and walk away.
It took me almost six months, but I finally completed the few last steps on the Button Box quilt I started in March as a fanwork for Linda Sue Park’s Prairie Lotus (read my review here).
By March 12, I had finished piecing the top. All I needed to do was put on a border, sandwich the quilt with a backing, quilt it, and put on a binding. I had planned it as a lap quilt. I said I would post a picture of the quilt here when it was finished.
On March 13, coronavirus lockdown started. Abruptly, all works in progress halted. When I got my wits together enough to start sewing again, it was to make masks. For a while, in April, I was using my quilt fabric stash to make 30 masks or more per day. By June, I had made about 2000 of them.
It’s the first week of virtual school and a modified version of life seems to have resumed. We’ve set up a dedicated study space for the teen, the tween, and a couple of their friends. The teen said the walls looked bare and liked the idea of warming them up with a quilt or two. So the Button Box quilt has become a wall quilt, not a lap quilt. Now the kids have somewhere to rest their eyes when they’re tired of squinting at their onscreen classes. Maybe, almost six months after lockdown started, I’ve started to adjust.