Masterful by Logospilgrim

Masterful:  Severus Snape, A Jar of Cockroaches, and Me by Logospilgrim, published January 28, 2020.  Order from Lulu.com, $18.50.  Also available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Stories change according to who’s doing the reading.

The character of Snape is certainly not for everybody.  Is he irredeemable?  Brave?  Irrelevant?  A source of strength?

As Logospilgrim says in her new book, Masterful, “Those who approach him will interpret his story based on how they’re writing and interpreting their own story.”

Logospilgrim is not trying to persuade anybody to see Snape differently.  In this searing meditation, she is only demonstrating how this process worked for her:  how recognizing the self in a fictional character can anchor people through traumatic upheavals.  As Logospilgrim notes, Snape was able to leave behind his father, who shouted at his mother, as well as fight the influence of a later father figure, Voldemort, who killed another mother.  Identifying with the character of Snape strengthened Logospilgrim as she freed herself from the influences of a violent father and repressive religions.

When we first meet Snape in Sorcerer’s Stone, we are told that his eyes “made you think of dark tunnels.”

Logospilgrim asks:

Who knows what drives Severus Snape, the man who doesn’t wear his heart upon his sleeve, and at the same time, does?

Those who have gone through dark tunnels.

We know what’s on the other side, the uneven side, the third side.

We are the third side.

The third side is home to those who have known or caused damage and then, taking a second chance, consciously fought the damage and walked away changed.

Snape is on the third side.  He betrayed the Potters to Voldemort and then changed allegiance, and after that, he was able to reverse Dark Magic.

Dumbledore is on the third side.  He colluded with fascism and then fought it, and after that, he was able to reverse Dark Magic.

Harry is on the third side.  He cast Unforgivables, he gave his life for others, and he returned for others, giving him mastery of the Elder Wand.

Draco, too, is on the third side.  He passed through the barrier that required a Dark Mark with intent to kill Dumbledore, and under Snape’s guidance, he passed back out through that barrier again, giving him, too, mastery of the Elder Wand.

Most people won’t ever need to be on the third side.  Not everyone has occasion to know damage so intimately, and of those, not everyone is able to become a changed person and walk away.  It’s not necessarily better to have this knowledge; life is certainly less traumatic if you’ve never been in a position to need it.  But those who haven’t been through it may not know to trust those who have.

In Half-Blood Prince, after overhearing Dumbledore charging Harry with the task of getting a guilty memory from Slughorn that has caused enormous damage, the portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black says:

“I can’t see why the boy should be able to do it better than you, Dumbledore.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to, Phineas,” replied Dumbledore, and Fawkes gave another low, musical cry.

The cry of the phoenix heralds second chances.  Dumbledore is acknowledging that Phineas Nigellus Black doesn’t understand because he has never caused and then regretted as much damage as Dumbledore has.

Logospilgrim, noting the lack of trust that many feel toward Snape, observes, “The one who changes is immoral.”  Snape would have been easier to comprehend if he’d remained either for or against the Death Eaters, rather than both and then neither.  Dumbledore, too, comes in for a great deal of mistrust from readers because his changes make him difficult to know.

Harry, though, knew and trusted both, once he returned to life and joined the third side himself.  He honored this knowledge when he named a child after Albus and Severus.

Logospilgrim says of Snape, “Who else would have the strength to withstand the hatred that would rain down on him” after Dumbledore trusted Snape to kill him?  If you have ever endured hatred while fighting to protect yourself or others, Snape might be a useful character for you.  You might recognize yourself in Logospilgrim’s book.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women: In praise of genre fiction

Warning:  Spoilers for the film.

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women speaks from the exact moment that some of us are in, American female-identified writers 150 years after Louisa May Alcott struck it rich with this book. With a deliberate hand, Gerwig amplifies or inserts elements she considers important, and outright changes what does not serve her vision.

To understand this version, it works best to know that, like Jo March, Louisa May Alcott wrote pseudonymous thrillers to support her parents and sisters.  These lurid “sensation stories” are well-crafted, fun, and readable, even today.  They were basically genre fiction, unrepentantly trashy, and would have been considered low-status for that reason, even if written by a man.  As a woman writer, Alcott kept them her secret in a way that feels a bit similar to contemporary fandom writers putting their expertly written dark or kinky fic on Archive of Our Own, heavily tagged and protected by a pseudonym from judgmental employers or family.

Unlike fanfic, though, Alcott’s stories were written for money.  Her Transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott, was worse than useless at providing for his wife and daughters.  The stories were an outlet for Alcott’s preferred style of writing, adventurous rather than moralizing.  Possibly, the need to compensate for her father’s failures helped to overcome whatever qualms Alcott may have felt about writing unladylike pulp that would certainly not have appealed to family friends such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

In the book Little Women, Jo’s friend Professor Bhaer disapproves of her stories, she stops writing them, and she feels more wholesome after, grateful for his moral guidance.  In this film, Jo also stops writing, but she rejects Bhaer’s disapproval — an original change by Gerwig.  The film shows that Jo had made the stories “spicier” at the urging of her publisher, who maintained that “spice” would sell:  she was writing to market.  At the end of the film, when Jo brings her manuscript of Little Women to the same publisher, he tells her that the heroine must marry because romance sells, and “the right ending is the one that sells.”  But he’s reluctant to publish her story for young readers in the first place; he wants more sensation stories, believing that’s what sells.

The joke ends up being on him:  Little Women becomes, of course, a titanic bestseller.

Famously, Alcott didn’t enjoy writing Little Women or other stories for girls and resented being pushed into writing sequels by a clamoring public.  She didn’t mask this sentiment, either; at the end of her sequel Jo’s Boys, she demolished the fourth wall with an earthquake in which she declared that the ground opened up and swallowed all the characters.  Then, with a resigned tone, she amended that ending to tell the reader that every character knew perfect happiness for the rest of their lives.  That was the ending that would sell.  The whole purpose was to sell.

Greta Gerwig’s film is arguing that for Louisa May Alcott, who didn’t want to marry off Jo or write books for girls at all, Little Women was exactly the kind of mercenary, morally suspect commercial fiction that Professor Bhaer judged Jo March for writing.

This is not to put down Alcott’s classic, which conveys simple truths with undeniably good writing.  This is to elevate sensational commercial and genre fiction to the same level as Little Women.  And, even more delightfully, to grant to the genre of YA, young adult fiction, the same respect in the publishing world as thrillers written for men.  After all, it sells.

I didn’t like, at first, that Gerwig’s Professor Bhaer is youngish and good-looking instead of older, clumsy, and rumpled, as he is in the book.  But when I understood where the movie was going with this character, I appreciated the change:  he looks the part of the romantic interest to everyone but Jo, who is confused when everyone expects her to be swooning for him.  Then, as writer Jo compromises with her publisher and agrees to write a romantic ending for her heroine, the film dramatizes her proposed edit with an imagined, sped-up lovers’ scene between Jo and Professor Bhaer that hits all the romantic tropes — and here, again, the movie does something I didn’t expect.  It refuses to mock this contrived ending.  The swelling romantic music never tips over into irony.  The movie lets you enjoy the romance.  If you wanted this ending for Jo, the movie will not shame you.

Gerwig’s Laurie breaks with tradition in a different way:  at last, a film Laurie as real as the book original.  Mercurial, beautiful and odd-looking at once, charming to balance his irresponsible streak.  In perhaps the most of-the-moment decision of all, this film simultaneously introduces no hint that Jo might be a lesbian and leaves the path completely clear for viewers inclined to take that direction.  She wants to marry Meg, but that’s not new; that’s canon.  When she rejects her adored Laurie as a lover, she cries out that she can’t make herself feel that way and she doesn’t know why.  In the ensuing beat of silence, I could imagine the succinct judgments of countless queer people I know:  “Gay.”  If this resonates with you, check out Malinda Lo’s take on gay Jo.

In this and many other ways, Gerwig’s film reminds us:  Little Women is fiction.  It was fiction based on what the author thought would sell at the time.  If we want to, we can change it; Alcott would, if she were alive, so she could sell us the story again.  The right ending is the one that sells.  So if your Amy was in love with Laurie from the beginning, let it be so.  If your Marmee can tell Papa she is angry with him to his face, well, it’s back in style for women to acknowledge anger aloud.  If love-starved Laurie entering the March home looks like Harry Potter’s first trip to the Burrow, go ahead and write that crossover.

Jo March got the idea to write sensation stories after seeing some by a “Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury.”  What a fantastic name for a muse and foremother.  If you, too, are someone who writes both YA and scandalous stories published under pseudonyms, give a cheer for Northbury, Jo March, and Louisa May Alcott, and may your writing sell as well as theirs.

A Permanent Scar from J.K. Rowling

This author taught us that hateful speech can be an Unforgivable.  The targets of Unforgivables must defend themselves, if possible, but do not owe the caster forgiveness.  Forgiveness would not remedy the caster’s harm.  The only hope for the caster is to undergo remorse.

On the morning of December 19, 2019, J.K. Rowling broke a long Twitter silence to post support for someone who actively promoted anti-trans harassment in the workplace.

Many fans instantly recoiled.  Within hours, longtime Potter fans posted reactions ranging from the Harry Potter Alliance’s dedication to “a better, safer, more loving world for trans people” to recommendations of works by trans and nonbinary authors to the Potter Puppet Pals‘ succinct “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”

Some fans felt so sickened that they knew they would have to withdraw from Harry Potter fandom.  Some said they had separated the fandom from the author long ago and planned to remain active in HP fan communities and activities, although this tweet outraged and grieved them.  Some mentioned the phrase “death of the author,” drawing on Roland Barthes’ critical theory to argue that the Harry Potter stories now belong completely to the readers; the author had forfeited ownership because she was violating the very ideals of acceptance that formed the core of her bestselling stories.

Reluctantly, I looked at the tweet itself.  Rowling mischaracterized Maya Forstater’s position as “stating that sex is real.”  That is a heck of a way to describe Forstater referring to trans women as “male people” or stating, as “objective reality,” that there are exactly two sexes, which is wrong at the most basic factual level.  Forstater has the right to say what she likes, of course; an employer also has the right not to renew her contract in order to keep her transphobic hostility out of the workplace.

Rowling’s support prioritizes someone’s desire to spew bigotry, without consequences, over the rights of people to be who they are without workplace harassment.

If the author were truly dead, in the Barthesian sense, Rowling’s tweet would not affect a reader’s feelings about the Potter stories.  But for many fans, it does.

Some fans expressed shock at Rowling; others noted, bitterly, that Rowling has always shown signs of anti-trans prejudice.  This highlighted an uncomfortable dynamic:  we’re all more sensitive to some kinds of hostility and oblivious to others, this often has to do with privilege, and discussions about this can get touchy and defensive.  We have to have those discussions anyway.

After Rowling’s transphobic tweet, can you really say “the author is dead” and read, without discomfort, the passage in Prisoner of Azkaban where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him?  “Snape deserved it,” some people argue.  Did he?  He did deserve workplace consequences for bullying a child in ways that had nothing to do with sex and gender.  Did he deserve to be recast into a scenario with transmisogynistic harassment overtones?  Did the children deserve to be taught to channel their outrage into creating such an atmosphere?  Did the reader deserve to be told that this is an appropriate response to abusive teaching?

“Death of the author” would attribute this transmisogynistic harassment entirely to Lupin, the character.  But I can’t shut out information that way.  Rowling’s tweet changes my reading.  It makes me think that it was the author’s prejudices, more than the character, that were responsible for the gratuitous direction that Lupin’s teaching takes.  This is different from, say, the character of Snape ridiculing Neville’s classwork; I read that as the author being intentional and in control, disapproving of the character’s choice.

I wince to think that I might find many such changes in my understanding of the series on my next re-read.

I once left a fandom over irreconcilable differences.  Sixteen years later, it still feels sad.  Leaving a fandom meant losing friends and events that had become part of my life.  All that love and knowledge didn’t go anywhere.  It just sits in me, still.

I don’t want to do that with HP.  I don’t want to be so revolted by the author’s strident prejudice that I have to give up contact with the (very queer) people and events I know only through this fandom.  The author has never been present at those events.  Disinviting her now doesn’t change that.  My connections in the fandom never went through her.  They formed over more than a decade.  Could I disconnect them all, even if I tried?

Could I undo the ten months that my older child spent reading the series, the first novels she ever finished on her own, progressing from finding Sorcerer’s Stone difficult all the way to reading Deathly Hallows to herself?

Could I undo the hours and hours that my kids have spent Sorting themselves and their friends into Houses?  The Sorting panel that my younger child ran at a conference, by herself, when she was only 11?  The wizard rock songs that they grew up singing?

Could I erase my fond memories of getting through labor by imagining that Professor Snape was going to brew me something for the pain?

Could I undo telling my kids that Polyjuice Potion teaches empathy by putting you in someone else’s skin?

My thinking has become entwined with J.K. Rowling’s words, grown around them.  I don’t think I could uproot them all if I tried.  I think in terms of her stories.  When I read of trans teens and young adults who identified with her stories, then were stricken to learn that she advocated a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, the damage she was causing to these readers reminded me of something.

It reminded me of the dead unicorn:  “Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad.”

It is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” very young readers taking in stories of love and acceptance and being formed by them.

What have trans people done to deserve this from Rowling, this completely unprovoked breaking of her social media silence that nobody asked for?

McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone!  Alone, I say!  […]  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…”

That’s what Rowling is defending when she tweets #IStandWithMaya:  the desire to attack someone who has done nothing, just because they exist.

And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.'”  Yes, it’s Rowling who equates the gravity of hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder.

He knew the dangers that faced Muggle-borns.  He knew the philosophy behind that particular slur.  He called her that name.  Rowling must know, has no excuse not to know, the dangers of anti-trans prejudice.

With sorrow and resignation, I have to recognize that with her words denying the reality of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable.

She herself taught us what must be done after an Unforgivable.

Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.”  Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with Rowling’s fat hatred, with the racial tokenism in her stories and the dismissive racism in the Ilvermorny backstory, with the marginalization of any queerness in her books.  The bitter dialogues between fans about how long it takes some of us to acknowledge these things reminds me of Dumbledore in King’s Cross:  “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was?  I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”

I don’t think I closed my eyes, but I drew my own boundaries, uncomfortably.  After all, one does not have to approve of a creator to study their works.  I know what I think of Thomas Jefferson, but I am not giving up my love for the Declaration of Independence, nor my claim to its contents, even though they were definitely not written with my Asian American cis female self in mind.  I draw the line somewhere different in each case, based on how to preserve my own love in life.  BBC Sherlock produced an astonishingly racist episode called “The Blind Banker,” which I decided to ignore while embracing the rest of the series.  When I learned some things about Marion Zimmer Bradley, though, I couldn’t do that.  The Mists of Avalon was formative for me as a teen, the version of the Arthur legends that is canon for me, and I don’t want to give up my memories of loving that mind-opening book.  But if I reread it now — even though the author is, in this case, actually dead — I would see, in her fiction, disturbing traces of the horrifying things I learned about her as an adult.  I decided that I will keep that book, not throw it out, but I will not open it ever again.  Not if I want to preserve both my ecstatic teen reading experience and my adult knowledge of the author.

I don’t want to give up my love.  It was real, and it formed me.

Lily tells Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore.  You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.”

On the day of Rowling’s tweet, in a mailing list email, the Harry Potter Alliance wrote, “We know that trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary, and that affirming and respecting people’s gender is kind, loving, and literally saves lives.  We know, too, that a story and a community this big and this magical belongs to all of us and always will.  To our trans community: we love you, we see you, and we will continue to uplift your voices and stand with you.

With those words, the HP Alliance parted ways with Rowling.  They chose the many trans and nonbinary members of the HP fandom over the author.

According to the story that Rowling taught us:  when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden.  You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may, if that is right for you.  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 true and 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 prejudice has the effect of splitting this story’s soul.  I will look in, periodically, as Dumbledore did with Snape, to see if this author ever shows signs of remorse, as long as I have natural curiosity about it.  If my curiosity fades, that will be okay, but I will not push myself to ignore her or her work as long as I feel interest.  I don’t think it harms my soul to retain, as belonging to myself free and clear, every bit of the love I have ever felt because of this author’s creations or the people I met because of them.  I don’t think it makes the ideals in her stories any less true because she cannot live up to them personally.  It certainly doesn’t make Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts any less rich and compelling, and I will continue to delve into them.  I am as thankful as ever to witness the growth of her oeuvre in real time, the way I always imagined readers felt about serial releases from Charles Dickens.  I am as fascinated as ever that the success of Harry Potter has given the world an international shared text, a common story, which has been especially useful in the past few years as political allegory.

We didn’t ask to be scarred by the words from her prejudiced tweet, but we will have to deal with that wound for as long as Rowling’s work is part of our culture.  According to BuzzFeed News, on the day of the tweet, Rowling’s publicist declined GLAAD’s offer of an off-the-record conversation with members of the trans community.  I doubt this will be the last such offer.  I hope someday she accepts.

ETA:  Many thanks to Lynn Roy for pointing me toward this valuable Twitter thread from ScienceVet about biological sex! 

J.K. Rowling, Giftedness, and the Ghost of Ravenclaw

Notes from a talk delivered at LeakyCon in Boston, MA, USA, on Saturday, October 12, 2019.  A shorter version of this talk was delivered at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA, on Friday, October 18, 2019.  Posted by request.

Good morning.  I’m going to be talking about a few aspects of how the seven-book series deals with the topic of giftedness.  I looked into the education of Hermione, which led to the portrayal of Ravenclaw, and eventually, to aspects of the author herself.  This last part I did cautiously, since I know it’s delicate territory. But what I found added such richness and dimension that I decided to include it, with as much love as I could.

The whole series is about a special school, so there is some equation of magical ability with giftedness.  But we soon find out that there are all kinds among wizards, too. The opening chapter pits Dumbledore’s style of giftedness against Voldemort’s, when McGonagall says Dumbledore is the only one Voldemort was frightened of.  Dumbledore replies, “Voldemort had powers I will never have,” and McGonagall says, “Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.”  Dumbledore deflects that compliment.  Rowling is playing a truly long game of foreshadowing here; we won’t find out why he doesn’t think he deserves it until the end of the seventh book.

Some other gifted people we hear about:  Gellert Grindelwald. Quirrell, of whom Hagrid says, “Brilliant mind. He was fine while he was studyin’ outta books but then he took a year off ter get some first-hand experience. . . . ”  Barty Crouch, Sr., who speaks “over two hundred languages.” According to Sirius, “Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side.”  Snape can Occlude the (self-proclaimed) world’s greatest Legilimens and, as an “imaginative” but “dodgy” teen, surpassed the author of his school textbook as a potioneer. In all of these cases, these people’s extraordinary powers forced them to confront moral issues beyond what most people deal with, and generally speaking, they did not always do well.  Or, as Dumbledore put it, “Being — forgive me — rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.”

Perhaps the purest embodiment of the potential creepiness of genius is Ollivander, who makes Harry shiver when he speaks reverently of Voldemort’s evil powers as “terrible, yes, but great.”  Ollivander is sorry that Voldemort destroyed Harry’s family. But his curiosity about absolute degrees of magical power keeps breaking through and overriding his moral considerations. This is, of course, what you want from someone whose calling is to see the true nature of each customer, without judgment.  But Harry isn’t sure he likes this person.

And in the midst of all these morally ambiguous, gifted adults, we have the education of Hermione Granger, whom Remus Lupin calls, nervously, “the cleverest witch of your age I’ve ever met.”

It all starts with “books and cleverness.”

You know the scene I’m talking about, right?  First-year Hermione has just brilliantly gotten Harry through Snape’s logic puzzle that contained deadly poisons and is about to drink down a potion that seals her decision to leave him to a fight that he might not survive.  Hermione tells Harry he’s a great wizard, he mumbles that he’s not as good as she is, and then this 12-year-old girl disavows her gifts: “Me! Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and…”

Did anyone else find that passage painfully self-effacing?  Was anyone else surprised by it?

One of the trickiest things for me about that line was that in this male-centric story, Hermione was the girl sidekick I was identifying with, and hearing her put down her own giftedness  hurt.  I hadn’t seen any evidence to that point that she devalued books and cleverness, when they were clearly such sources of joy for her.  I figured the author was trying to make the point that heroism is attainable for anyone, not just top students. I wondered, though, about putting that message in the mouth of the character who faced hurtful ostracism because books and cleverness were so fundamental to her true self.   

I couldn’t help thinking…  They come to your house when you’re 11 and say, Those things you can do, that no one else can do?  We’ll take you to a special school where everyone else can do them, too. And then Hermione goes there, and… those promises don’t come true.  The children here are just as frustrating as the ones at home. And they laugh at her. I wondered, Where is Hermione’s anger?

I started looking at what this author had provided for Hermione by way of support for this character’s giftedness.  Which felt like a ridiculous way to put it, thinking of the author as responsible for the well-being of a character according to my concerns…but in an incredibly detailed story about the education of children, it is on topic to take note of where the author is directing the reader’s attention.  We’re supposed to notice that Harry needs friends, that Neville comes from an overbearing home, that Ron is self-conscious about money.  What do we do for the girl who arrives at school having memorized the textbooks? The one who Rowling, gifted writer and former Head Girl, acknowledged was based on herself at the same age?

When we look closely, we can catch glimpses of evidence, through moments when Hermione’s life is visible on the periphery of Harry’s story, that the Hogwarts staff recognizes Hermione’s need for an independent study track.

The first hint of this comes in Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry sets Hermione spying on Snape.

“I’m sorry, Harry!” she wailed. “Snape came out and asked me what I was doing, so I said I was waiting for Flitwick, and Snape went to get him, and I’ve only just got away.”

That would have been the last we heard of that, but later, Harry worries that his friends might get expelled for accompanying him through the trapdoor.

“Not if I can help it,” said Hermione grimly. “Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve percent on his exam. They’re not going to throw me out after that.”

It’s a startling moment.  So teachers communicate with her in secret, in a way that they never do with most students.  She’s almost like a peer of theirs in the mature way she keeps quiet about this status; she wasn’t going to say anything about it.  The word “grimly” makes an impact, too. For Hermione, studies are a matter of life or death.

Snape generally ignores Hermione, when he can.  This will be his basic policy toward this student for the whole time he is her teacher, although he pays the price for ignoring her when she exploits that tendency in order to set fire to his robes, steal from his stores, or sneak past him to retrieve Harry’s Invisibility Cloak.  But when we get to the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, we find that he has designed the potions puzzle as a custom-written final exam for her first year.

So he has been paying attention to her, after all.  He’s observed the way her mind works. He foresees that she will be with Harry until the very last stage.  With Hermione in mind, he has brewed the potions, selected bottles, and composed the rhyming verse. This is what it looks like when Snape teaches her, at last.

So Hermione comes upon the puzzle, and wonder of wonders, it relaxes her: “Hermione let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.”  She and Dumbledore share this trait: smiling with genuine happiness when they get to use their brains, even when they’re in mortal danger.  We see Dumbledore do this in the cave when he detects Voldemort’s boat: “‘Oho!’ said Dumbledore happily,” while Harry is staring at corpses.  Hermione “beams” this way, too.

Then she takes a long drink of the potion Snape has brewed for her, shudders, and tells Harry no, it’s not poison – “but it’s like ice.”  It is a chilling message:  she solves the puzzle and the potion tells her that she, with her books and cleverness, is not the protagonist of this story.  She turns around and leaves.  

In her second year, Hermione’s independent study track includes defense against Slytherin’s monster, which is trying to murder Muggle-borns like herself.  She discovers what the monster is and how it travels, she brews Polyjuice Potion and strategizes a covert operation, and when her half-blood and Pureblood friends seem reluctant, she tells them angrily that she is going to continue to fight for Muggle-borns.  She’s attacked for being a minority and this causes her to fall behind on several months of schooling, confirming her worry that Muggle-borns have to work harder for rights that others take for granted.  She needs to make up this time if she’s going to have a chance at survival, as her academic adviser knows. In an almost throwaway line, tucked into a humorous paragraph about choosing classes for third year, we see that “Hermione took nobody’s advice but signed up for everything,” setting the stage for her Time-Turner year.

McGonagall gets Ministry permission to sponsor Hermione’s third-year independent study track, the year she learns how exhausting it is as a minority to take the same time as everyone else to do twice the work.  We even get a grim but funny joke about Hermione missing out on Cheering Charms because she’s sleep-deprived, highlighting the psychological toll it takes. Her independent studies include paralegal work for Buckbeak’s defense and Jane Austen-style sleuthing about Harry’s Firebolt.  In her coursework, though, this is the only year Hermione’s Defense Against the Dark Arts studies suffer because of the teacher Dumbledore has hired for the year.  She’s usually able to work around teachers and keep up on her own, but this year, she fails part of her final exam, which brings me to the topic of Lupin vs. Snape as her teachers.

On two fronts, I have wondered:  where is Hermione’s anger? Where is her anger at the classmates who name-call her but cannot keep up with her, so that she must sit daily through coursework at a pace that is profoundly unsuited to her?  And I’ve wondered, where is her anger at Snape, who ignores her or insults her? Except for that one time he kills Dumbledore, she never seems to hold a grudge against him.

In book 3, while Harry and Ron aren’t talking to Hermione, she lets loose once.  They can’t guess what ails Lupin and she shoves by them and says, “Tuh.” I’ve heard people say Ron and Harry are not particularly observant, but I don’t think that’s it here; nobody else guesses, either.  It’s that Hermione is gifted and remarkably restrained about not expressing frustration with her peers.

And when Snape serves as Lupin’s substitute teacher, and heaps insults on Lupin for teaching the third-years things that he’d expect first-years to know, and calls Hermione an insufferable know-it-all for interrupting his insults with attempts to provide helpful information:  Hermione turns red and cries, but she doesn’t get angry. She even reprimands Ron for calling Snape a bad name.

Perhaps this is because Hermione agrees with Snape.  She’s too nice to say so, and far too community-minded, but she’s on the same page he is — 394, to be exact.  For once, instead of Hermione having to endure learning at the pace of her classmates, a teacher is expecting them to learn at Hermione’s pace.  Of course she’s the only one to do the assignment, and she gets out of it exactly what he intended.  Snape seems like just the kind of gifted person who should not be teaching introductory classes because he was practically born knowing how to do things and thinks most people are somehow faking it for obstinate, mysterious reasons when they have to take actual time to learn new material.  But his teaching style turns out to be so well-suited to this child that it even outweighs his charming personality. I think she might have found it refreshing that someone else thinks a first-year should know this material.

When I looked at Hermione studying under Lupin, I found, to my surprise, that he was a worse teacher for her than Snape.  Unlike Snape, Lupin understands the process of learning and gears his instruction to the general class level, making him a better teacher for the majority.  It would have been one thing if he simply neglected to make provisions for Hermione’s needs as a gifted student, but he does something more damaging: he actively suppresses her learning.  He teaches that exemplary class on boggarts through active practice, the opposite of “books and cleverness” or Umbridge’s policy of reading the theory only, and several students get practical experience in banishing boggarts, but the text draws our attention to the fact that two do not.  Lupin gives Harry and Hermione points for answering questions correctly even though they have not tackled the boggart.  

We get an explanation later about Harry:  Lupin knew Harry would have been bothered by this pointed exclusion, and explained that he was afraid Harry’s boggart would be too frightening for the others to see.  But we never get an explanation for why Hermione doesn’t get a turn, although the author includes Hermione saying aloud that she wishes she had. If we look at the scene, Lupin intercepts the boggart when it approaches Harry, it turns into the moon, then instead of calling on Harry or Hermione, Lupin calls Neville for a second turn.  Did Lupin take instruction time away from the gifted girl, assuming she could afford to lose it, in favor of a student who has special needs of a different sort? If you have gifted students in your life, you know that this is something that does happen: sometimes gifted students don’t even receive the same basic attention given to most of the class, or are expected to give up their own class time to help tutor their peers, and this results in gaps in their own learning.  Hermione outright fails the boggart portion of her final exam that year.

Or did Lupin step in because he was threatened by Hermione’s insight?  Later, in the Shrieking Shack, he asks, “Did you realize that the boggart changed into the moon when it saw me?”  Did he flinch in class at the thought of being seen by this perceptive child, so that he suppressed part of her education due to his own fear?  This is also something that happens to gifted students in real life. It’s counterintuitive, but the only thing we see Hermione learning in Defense Against the Dark Arts that year is not from the kind teacher but from Snape.

Hermione has three independent projects in her fourth year:  S.P.E.W., the Yule Ball, and the fight against tabloid journalists.  For gifted students, especially, the issue of attractiveness can be a loaded one, as Snape can attest.  Once Hermione reigns as the belle of the Yule Ball, at the midpoint of this seven-year timeline, she becomes impervious to taunts about her looks.

Fifth year is when Hermione’s independent studies most notably place friendship and bravery before books and cleverness.  She asserts, to the shock of Harry and Ron, that resistance and activism are “much more important than homework.” She sets up a guerrilla training camp, recruits an instructor, and demonstrates that censorship doesn’t work but underground journalism does.  Amazing. We get continued evidence that the actual teachers see her almost as a peer when McGonagall talks to Harry about Umbridge’s welcoming speech, on the memorable occasion that she offers him a biscuit. He says something almost insightful and she eyes him “for a moment” and says, “Well, I’m glad you listen to Hermione Granger at any rate.”  Hermione must have discussed the speech privately with McGonagall already.

Sixth year is the year of Snape, and therefore Hermione gets no independent studies or any special notice at all.  We learn that he only accepted “Outstanding” students into his N.E.W.T. Potions class, a piece of information that’s a bit of a relief — if this grumpy prodigy has to be in a classroom at all, he should probably only ever teach students who, like him, don’t need to learn the basics.  Hermione, though, has a miserable, rotten year in which she is trounced by both Harry and some “Half-Blood Prince” person in Potions, gets no House points for mastering nonverbal magic, is wrong about everything to do with Draco, and watches Ron date her roommate. She gets, at most, partial credit for coming close to identifying the Half-Blood Prince.

Seventh year, though, Dumbledore assigns her an independent study in Ancient Runes, and her senior project gets published.

Rowling addresses the issue of Hermione’s giftedness directly when Hermione invents the communication Galleons for the DA.  The others greet the coins with “a blank silence” and Hermione is “rather disconcerted,” feeling a classic sort of confusion familiar to many people who don’t know if they’re coming across as clever, obvious, or simply crazy.

“‘Well — I thought it was a good idea,’ she said uncertainly, ‘but…well, if you don’t want to use them…’”

To Hermione’s relief, Terry Boot, a Ravenclaw, demands to know why she isn’t in Ravenclaw, with her brains.  So the Galleons must have struck the others as a good idea, then. Thank goodness. She explains that the Sorting Hat almost put her there, “but it decided on Gryffindor in the end.”

We can see why Hermione ended up in Gryffindor, but any attempt to understand why someone did or did not get Sorted into Ravenclaw is impeded by the fact that Rowling, the queen of world-building, is uncharacteristically muddled when it comes to this Hogwarts House.

As many of us have noted, Ravenclaw is the most nebulously depicted of the Houses.  Are we blue and bronze, or blue and silver? Are we eagles or ravens? Are there any Ravenclaws in the Order of the Phoenix?  It’s almost as if, when it comes to Ravenclaws, there’s an attitude of, “Who cares?” When it’s time for Harry to hunt Horcruxes, he can rattle off items with precision except for the vague descriptor, “something of Gryffindor’s or Ravenclaw’s.”  The other House artifacts are valuable and treated as such: the ring and locket are treasured, the glowing cup is in a vault, the sword is celebrated, but the tiara is a piece of crap. It’s described as battered and tarnished, shoved amongst mountains of garbage atop the bust of an ugly old warlock in a wig.  

After the books were finished, when Rowling started identifying the Houses of more characters, do you remember the reader outcry against all the villains being Slytherin, and how, at some point, Rowling started to assign questionable or villainous characters to Ravenclaw, instead?  Lockhart, she said, was Ravenclaw; so were Trelawney, Ollivander, and Quirrell. I wonder if she originally meant Quirrell to be a Slytherin; after the Welcoming Feast, Harry dreams that Quirrell tells him to go to Slytherin and the other people in that nightmare — Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort — are all Slytherins.

To me, Ollivander is the quintessential Ravenclaw.  He is intrigued by the possibilities of channeling Voldemort’s power through exceptional wands, but he also tells Harry he is sorry to say that he sold the wand that scarred him.  So it’s not that he’s completely amoral; it’s that he can simultaneously be moral and amoral, which is, I think, more chilling. We can’t be certain whether he’s going to have a conscience or immerse himself in value-free pursuit of pure knowledge.  Maybe this is why the world finds Ravenclaws creepy! The thing is, there’s nothing about being able to appreciate pure knowledge that precludes our having consciences and strong morals. 

But looking at Quirrell, Ollivander, and Lockhart, it’s clear that Rowling’s Ravenclaws come pre-installed with intellectual curiosity, but morals or conscience are optional.  Quirrell says he did once have “ridiculous ideas about good and evil,” but when he met Voldemort, he changed his mind to believe, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. . . .”  

Ollivander says that “the idea of the Dark Lord in possession of the Deathstick is, I must admit . . . formidable,” reminding Harry that he had always been unsure of how much he liked Ollivander:  “Even now, having been tortured and imprisoned by Voldemort, the idea of the Dark wizard in possession of this wand seemed to enthrall him as much as it repulsed him.”

Lacking conscience but still brilliant is how Rowling portrays Voldemort.  Dumbledore tells Harry, “Never forget, though, that while his soul may be damaged beyond repair, his brain and his magical powers remain intact.”  No wonder I get the sense that Rowling mistrusts Ravenclaws.

In a fandom where many readers are especially invested in the concept of the “death of the author,” which holds that stories must be understood without regard to the intentions or life circumstances of the author, it can be fraught to admit to looking to the author’s life and psyche to shed light on how the text came to be the way it is.  I tend to be quiet about doing so, mindful of how important “death of the author” is for some fans who want to retain a connection to the Harry Potter stories while feeling disagreement with the author. But for this topic, I decided to go there and see where it takes me, because in my view, Rowling demonstrates quite vividly that it is illuminating and rewarding to consider the author when engaging deeply with a piece of fiction.  I’m going to talk about a few instances that convinced me.

Most iconically, Rowling packaged the Harry Potter stories with information about herself and her intentions:  it’s part of the story that she was a single mother, humbled to be struggling and dependent on assistance instead of making a splash as a writer, the way she and others always expected of her.  We know her grief over her mother’s death informed all of the series, and that she longed to see and speak to her mother again, as Harry longs for his lost family. She wanted us to know these things, and I know I welcomed the way they enriched my understanding of the books, of her characters who rail against the burden of caregiving and then are ashamed of their ungraciousness.  I am not sorry that this background informs my reading.

Here is some other information about the author that has only deepened my understanding in a way that I welcome.  We know, partly because Rowling’s own father betrayed her by selling information to a tabloid, that she survived domestic violence in her first marriage; we heard her say, in a subsequent interview, that she was replicating family patterns she had learned as a child.  This information made me understand the Fidelius Charm as a magical version of what we Muggles call a “safe house.” We know that Rowling’s mother blossomed in her job working for a chemistry teacher Rowling disliked, who was one of the inspirations for the character of Snape.  This information helped me understand the complex dynamic of someone, in adulthood, revisiting their view of a teacher who had been cruel to them as a child but had been a friend to their mother.  

This background enriched my reading enough that I found it worthwhile to keep looking.  I had wondered why Rowling chose to write James and Lily marrying and becoming parents so young; I stopped wondering when I learned that Rowling’s parents had been that age when she was born.  When I first read in Deathly Hallows that Snape had seen Lily’s joyous ability to fly, I wasn’t sure if Rowling meant that her character actually, literally, flew — until I learned that her mother’s maiden name was Anne Volant, the French word for “flying.”  In a series that is so deliberate about the magic of names, and especially the names of mothers, learning the full name of the author’s mother enriched my understanding in a way that I would never want to give back.

The biggest gut punch came when I learned that Rowling’s father is named Peter James Rowling.  I resisted thinking about that for a while; it was too much. But I could not in any way make myself believe that this author, in particular, gave two major characters the same names as a family member by accident or coincidence.  I had wondered why James Potter was so difficult to find in the stories.  We get unflattering memories of him as a student, and we hear of his goodness as a young man, but when we see him as a father, he’s barely there:  when Voldemort kills him, unlike the complex view we get of Lily’s death, “James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut.” We get a much more vivid portrait of Peter Pettigrew, making me wonder if Rowling wrote different aspects of her view of her own father into these two characters, one despicable, one heroic but elusive.

After making these connections, I couldn’t help wondering if considering the author might also help me gain insight into the portrayal of Ravenclaw House and why it’s so much more nebulous and ambivalent than the other three.  With HP, Cursed Child, and Fantastic Beasts, this author has given us Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff points of view. She hasn’t written a Ravenclaw story. What if it’s Ravenclaw, not Slytherin, that is her shadow House, the House of aspects about herself that frighten her, or that she wants to repress?

We meet the ghosts of Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff houses on Harry’s first night at Hogwarts.  Seven years and literally a million words later, on page 613 of Deathly Hallows, Harry asks Nearly Headless Nick this astonishing question: 

“Who’s the ghost of Ravenclaw Tower?”

I know some people like to rib Harry for times he’s unobservant, but in this case, I’m going to attribute this lacuna to the author, rather than the character.  

Nick points out a “young woman with long hair,” a ghost Harry had “passed several times in the corridor, but to whom he had never spoken,” who raises her eyebrows and drifts away through solid wall when she sees Harry looking at her.  According to Rowling, she had written this ghost into the series twice before, but never identified her, once in Harry’s first year as “the ghost of a tall witch,” once in Harry’s sixth year as “the ghost of a long-haired woman,” with no indication that they were meant to be the Gray Lady, or indeed, even the same ghost both times.  Page 613 of the final book is a supremely odd moment to be introducing a brand-new character, the last one until the Epilogue: Voldemort has begun his attack on Hogwarts, students are streaming out to safety, fighters are taking their stations. Is this really the time to be making introductions and wheedling information out of someone who is elusive, even for a ghost?

But Harry needs to find the Ravenclaw diadem, which Flitwick describes as “long since lost” — “Nobody has seen it in living memory!”

The Gray Lady confesses, with profound shame, that she stole the diadem from her mother because “I sought to make myself cleverer, more important than my mother.  I ran away with it.” I’m not sure Rowling intended this comparison, but we have found, at last, another force so powerful that it survives beyond death, just as love does:  guilt. She’s been so ashamed about something she did centuries ago that she can’t rest in peace. She confesses to Harry that she told Voldemort where to find the diadem: “He was . . . flattering. He seemed to . . . to understand . . . to sympathize. . . .”  Even as a ghost, she craved relief from this guilt.

Could it be that the author identifies with the Gray Lady, hating that she had once thought herself, with her intellectual promise, cleverer and more important than her mother?  At the end of book 7, is the author, like book 1 Hermione, disavowing “books and cleverness” in favor of greater things? I almost think that’s a stretch, but I find it hard to dismiss entirely, especially when we learn that Helena Ravenclaw was attacked by a possessive would-be lover.  The consideration that makes it most difficult for me to dismiss is the intense sense of shame and ambivalence around this part of the story, long past the point in the plot when we expect a whole new development to interrupt the momentum of a thunderous finale.  When Harry hears the Gray Lady’s story, he thinks, “— here at last was a secret he and Voldemort knew, that Dumbledore had never discovered.” The battered, tarnished old diadem is shoved into the cathedral-sized city of unwanted garbage, the collective guilt of centuries; and the Gray Lady stammers and whispers her shame to Harry in bitter and defensive tones, her urge to confess struggling against her cold desire to keep her shame secret; and the author who had regrets about her late mother and had once survived domestic violence showed, I think, enormous ambivalence and reluctance in being unable to finish her cathartic epic without blurting out, at the very last moment, that she had written a faint trace of a long-ago past version of herself into the books, although she had only been able to bring herself to write this ghost twice, nameless and voiceless and nearly invisible.  As if the author, herself, had felt too ashamed to show this part of herself to Dumbledore, but had only been able to confess it to Voldemort and then shoved it into the Room of Requirement like something dark or broken.

Rowling’s saga was almost over.  She was running out of Horcruxes.  Harry, Dumbledore, and Ron had already had the opportunity to destroy a Horcrux and confront something in themselves; another two were reserved for Hermione and Neville. 

Who killed Ravenclaw’s Horcrux?

Maybe if she hurried and dragged a part of herself out of its obscure hiding place, the part she could barely think about and couldn’t even always articulate in fantasy, there was still time for Harry to help her destroy a Horcrux and face something of her own.

Here’s how that Horcrux dies:

“A bloodlike substance, dark and tarry, seemed to be leaking from the diadem. Suddenly Harry felt the thing vibrate violently, then break apart in his hands, and as it did so, he thought he heard the faintest, most distant scream of pain, echoing not from the grounds or the castle, but from the thing that had just fragmented in his fingers.”

I hope this brought Rowling some peace.

Dumbledore takes up the story from here, talking to Harry from the afterlife about the damage he caused by seeking to set his clever self above being a caregiver for his loved ones.

“You cannot despise me more than I despise myself.”

“But I don’t despise you —”

“Then you should…  I resented it, Harry…  I was gifted, I was brilliant.  I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine.  I wanted glory. I loved my parents, I loved my brother and sister, but I was selfish… Trapped and wasted, I thought!  And then, of course, he came…. Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me. Master of death, which we took to mean ‘invincible.’”

After the death of Ariana, Dumbledore refused the post of Minister of Magic:  “I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation.  I was safer at Hogwarts. I think I was a good teacher…”

That’s such an understatement, it’s almost funny.  Of course, Dumbledore was the greatest of teachers.  But it wasn’t the magic he most longed to cast. He didn’t have the internal ability to limit his desire for power, so he had to establish teaching as a form of self-protection, a way to keep himself occupied away from power.  He explained something similar to Harry in his sixth year:

“’You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!’ said Dumbledore loudly. ‘The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s!’”

Dumbledore was remembering his weakness for power when he deflected McGonagall’s praise for being too “noble” to assume the same powers as Voldemort.  Of course, Quirrell was wrong when he said, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”  Harry said as much when Voldemort boasted during the final battle that he had “performed magic that Dumbledore himself never dreamed of.”

“Oh, he dreamed of it,” said Harry, “but he knew more than you, knew enough not to do what you’ve done.”

“You mean he was weak!” screamed Voldemort.  “Too weak to dare, too weak to take what might have been his, what will be mine!”

“No, he was cleverer than you,” said Harry, “a better wizard, a better man.”

Having once permitted his giftedness unchecked rein, having once put no limits and no protections on his ambition for invincible power and then having grieved endlessly for Ariana’s death, as well as the fascism he encouraged in Grindelwald, Dumbledore limited his destructive power by turning his genius to teaching, to spreading love and protection and gifts to others.

I hope Rowling is at peace with the Ravenclaw aspect of herself.  She did, after all, come to reign over the world with her giftedness, but I don’t think she used it to set herself above others.  I think she found ways to build her genius into the warmth of her children’s stories and her work with Lumos and other foundations, spreading love and protection and gifts to others.

Eulogy: J.K. Rowling’s love letter to Europe on NoBrexit Day

The Guardian printed a letter by J.K. Rowling, among others, from A Love Letter to Europe:  An outpouring of love and sadness from our writers, thinkers and artists, published October 31, 2019, the date that Boris Johnson had designated, unsuccessfully, for Brexit.

Rowling’s letter gives us a few more glimpses of the author we know from her writing.  For example, we get another detail confirming her father’s resemblance to the Vernon Dursley school of British manhood, suspicious of all “foreigners” on a micro and macro level.  When he visited her in France during her exchange studies, it was her job to attempt to explain to the French waiters that “bien cuit in his case meant there must be no pink at all in the middle of the steak.”  Oh, dear.

This excerpt brings to mind the clarity and painfully sweet quality of Sirius and Remus in HP, recounting memories of the Marauders from their mid-thirties perspectives:

We all have shining memories of our youth, made poignant because they’re freighted with knowledge of what happened later to companions, and what lay ahead for ourselves. Back then we were allowed to roam freely across Europe in a way that shaped and enriched us, while benefiting from the longest uninterrupted spell of peace this continent has ever known.

Her phrase, “the longest uninterrupted spell of peace this continent has ever known,” is a grief-stricken eulogy for the Pax Europaea, that time after World War II that creates the stage for the Harry Potter stories, a peace that is disintegrating as we watch in distress.  If her wording sounds familiar to HP readers, it may be due to the echoes of Harry’s thoughts when he first saw Dumbledore’s corpse:  “there was still no preparation for seeing him here, spread-eagled, broken: the greatest wizard Harry had ever, or would ever, meet.”

The grief for the end of Britain’s membership in a unified Europe does feel a bit like the death of Dumbledore, the wizard who came to hard-won maturity after a battle in 1945 and influenced the rest of the 20th century with his polyglot, peace-enforcing, always diplomatic worldview.  The end of the age of Dumbledore feels like Ollivander’s description of the Elder Wand’s prominence:  “Yes, it is perfectly possible to trace the wand’s course through history. There are gaps, of course, and long ones, where it vanishes from view, temporarily lost or hidden; but always it resurfaces.”

Goodbye to a flawed, kind, powerful time of goodness.  All right, then.  There’s work to be done and we don’t know yet how this story turns out.

Review and Q&A: Beautiful on the Outside by Adam Rippon

Figure skater Adam Rippon, the first U.S. athlete to medal at a Winter Olympics while being out as gay, has released a memoir called Beautiful on the Outside.  I’ve been following gay issues in figure skating since the 1990s, and once ran a website called Rainbow Ice (1998-2006) that was the first to be dedicated to such issues, so I have been captivated by Rippon’s success.  (Rainbow Ice is still archived online.  It’s like a time capsule of late 1990s terminology and website aesthetics!)

Figure Skaters Online invited me to write a review.  I wrote about how the memoir conveys both Rippon’s exceptional mental discipline and his love for drama.  It’s a good book, and funny; I recommend it.

Rippon came to the Free Library of Philadelphia on October 17, 2019 as part of his book tour.  You can listen to the podcast recording of his appearance, which includes, around the 53-minute mark, a brief exchange that I got to have with him.


Lorrie: So I want to tell you one thing and I want to ask you one thing. 

Adam: Go for it.

Lorrie: In 1998, I started the first website for gay skating issues, and I listed… because people kept saying, “Oh, well, who’s gay in skating?” and I said, “I will tell you!” They thought I was kidding!

Adam: Wow! I really like you already.

Lorrie: [Joking] For ten dollars…

Adam: Ten dollars! Well, I mean, in 1998, ten dollars is like being a millionaire.

Lorrie: Actually, 1998 wouldn’t have gotten me very much money, because I have everybody listed if they were on the record. And then by 2006 I moved on, but I did keep an eye on the Olympics.

Adam: I’m fucking obsessed with you. Keep going.

(laughter)

Lorrie: So 2018, I’m sitting with my two little gay daughters who have on their green and blue mermaid makeup for your costume, and we’re watching you. 20 years. Oh my God, it took 20 years. Thank you, and they thank you. And they’re like… my then 13-year-old is like, “I didn’t know I could love anybody so much!”

Adam: Oh my God, what good taste!

(laughter)

Lorrie: The thing I’m gonna ask you… and before I ask you, I will tell you that you are probably the second white man that I will ever accept this from. What did you mean when you said you were a timid, beautiful, shy Asian girl? Yes. Fair enough, yes, but what did you mean?

Adam: I think because I was talking about… well, first of all, thank you for accepting me to your community. Thank you. I feel embraced. What she’s talking about, there’s this moment in my book where I had two girlfriends in my life. What? No. And one of them was this girl that I skated with who was from Korea, and I was saying in the book how we were perfect for each other, because she was… I think when you skate yourself focused on what you’re doing and what you’re trying to get done that you put a lot of… you emotionally stint yourself in a lot of different situations. She never had a boyfriend before, and I had an ex already. And I remember that I wasn’t gonna do anything with her, and I thought for a really long time that the reason I wasn’t gonna do anything was because I was just a really good guy. I was raised as Catholic. Of course I’m not gonna do anything. I’m not a sinner. In the book, she was very… she didn’t have a lot of friends at the rink. She was very focused, she was a very, very good skater. One of the best in the world, so not a lot of people approached to be her friend. We were both training and competing at the time, and we confided in each other and we found each other. In the book, I say she was this ty… “Thai.” She’s Korean! She was this shy, timid Asian girl, and I was like…  and here I was, a perfect match for her, also a shy, timid Asian girl. And I just said it, tongue-in-cheek, that here we are. We’re so similar and we’re both so afraid of taking this next step forward and figuring out who we are. We’re both 19 and 20, but we’re so the same. We’re so just 13-year-olds trying to figure out how do we become normal people in this situation that is so not normal. Unfortunately, I will never be Asian.

Lorrie: We’ll take you!

Adam: Thank you! I’ve tried, but…

 

The transcript of our exchange is courtesy of Deannah Robinson, deannahm03@gmail.com.  Hit her up for your transcription needs!

 

“And my soul, Dumbledore?” The Snape-Dumbledore Relationship

Notes from a talk delivered at LeakyCon in Boston, MA, USA, on Sunday, October 13, 2019.  Posted by request.

Thank you for coming to think about what is, to me, the most difficult relationship to understand in Harry Potter.  There are things about Snape and Dumbledore that I’ve been trying to figure out since July 2007 and I’m still trying to get there.  I see the author’s perspective on this relationship changing, too, as she grows older. When she wrote Deathly Hallows, she was close to Snape’s age of 38 and she wrote Dumbledore as almost godlike.  In the Fantastic Beasts series, she writes Dumbledore as younger than she is now.

In 2016, Rowling wrote that McGonagall added Snape’s portrait to the headmistress’s office after a conversation with Harry.  When I picture that portrait gallery, Snape makes for an arresting addition: the very young protégé hand-selected by the legendary Albus Dumbledore to see Hogwarts through one grim, pivotal year in its history.  I wonder where she put his portrait. Is it next to Dumbledore’s, behind her desk? I wonder how these two portraits interact.

As we learn more about Dumbledore’s backstory, we see how he could be sure Snape’s repentance was real:  because Dumbledore recognized it from his own experience of facing his evil and renouncing it. This is a story that’s become especially urgent in the current political climate, something we can see being emphasized in the Fantastic Beasts films that were released in 2016 and 2018.  Considering that Dumbledore and Snape are both essentially reformed white supremacists who used their knowledge of evil to fight Dark Magic in ways not available to those who have always been pure of heart, I think their stories are worth considering now in a way that wasn’t as topical in the years when Obama was president and Godwin’s Law was still in place.

Dumbledore made significant bequests to Harry, Ron, and Hermione:  a Snitch, a Deluminator, a first edition, the sword of Gryffindor. In a similar spirit, he also left things to Snape:  the Headmaster job, the final message for Harry, and the Elder Wand, though that didn’t work out the way he intended. He left Snape the responsibility for everyone at Hogwarts, a powerful cover story that was years in the making, the private sanctum of the Headmaster’s office, and his personal gratitude for doing whatever it took to agree to kill Dumbledore and then survive a terrifying time without his mentor.

Rowling wrote such complexity into the Dumbledore-Snape relationship that we can see several different interpretations of their dynamic, including one that Snape believed for a time, before Dumbledore died:  that Dumbledore used Snape as a pawn. For a long time, I had difficulty believing that Snape could possibly have drawn strength from the memory of Dumbledore in his final year.  But that is what I think now, and I’ll go through why I think so, starting with the headmaster’s password.

Harry took Snape’s memories to the headmaster’s office and said, “Dumbledore!” without thinking, and the gargoyle let him through.  Until then, Harry and Snape had one shared password of sorts: Lily. When Harry saw Snape’s Patronus, without even knowing whose it was, it felt deeply familiar to him:  both Harry and Snape had been formed by love of the same person. We’ve just seen Harry spend a year struggling to work from Dumbledore’s instructions, sometimes losing faith.  The second shared password points us to the possibility that Snape has been going through the same struggles during the same year, in parallel. 

Remember how Harry raged against Dumbledore in Deathly Hallows?  Snape would have understood the feeling:

“Look what he asked from me, Hermione! Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don’t expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I’m doing, trust me even though I don’t trust you! Never the whole truth! Never!”

Remember Snape telling Dumbledore he might change his mind about killing him? “You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me!”  Dumbledore says, “You gave me your word, Severus.”

He was just as inexorable when Harry asked him in the cave, desperately, “Why can’t I drink the potion instead?”

“Because I am much older, much cleverer, and much less valuable,” said Dumbledore.  “Once and for all, Harry, do I have your word that you will do all in your power to make me keep drinking?”

For both Harry and Snape, when they keep their word to Dumbledore, what they get in return is Dumbledore’s gratitude that they have made him feel less alone, a rare experience for the most powerful wizard of the century at the end of his life.  When Dumbledore was weak from the poison in the cave, he said, “I am not worried, Harry. I am with you.” When Snape saved Dumbledore’s life from the curse in the ring, he said, “I am fortunate, extremely fortunate, that I have you, Severus.”

He asked them to help him in his weakest moments, called for them specifically to be with him through mortal peril and at his death, and they saw that this brought him comfort.  Dumbledore, asking for help for himself. They might have doubted his guidance in their own lives, but where Dumbledore’s needs were concerned, I have to think Harry and Snape must have realized, in time, that this meant Dumbledore loved them.

When Harry meets posthumous Dumbledore at King’s Cross, we see someone at peace:  “Happiness seemed to radiate from Dumbledore like light, like fire:  Harry had never seen the man so utterly, so palpably content.” Dumbledore mentions Voldemort’s obsession with the Elder Wand and says, “Poor Severus,” as though saddened but not self-recriminating, the way he sounds about Grindelwald or Ariana or Sirius.  At least in Harry’s vision, Dumbledore is content with how things have played out. How can he be content when the battle is still going on, Voldemort has not been defeated, and Harry has not yet made a choice to return and finish him off? The Dumbledore of Harry’s vision assures Harry that it’s up to him what to do next; there are no more directives from him.  This tells me something important about Dumbledore:

He cared more about keeping souls whole than winning the war.  It’s possible to read him as wanting to win the war against Voldemort above all things, and manipulating everyone ruthlessly into serving his plan, even if it meant deceiving them about their own lives.  But to me, this reading doesn’t seem right.

I remember feeling aghast, much as Harry did, when I first read in Half-Blood Prince that Dumbledore wanted Harry to agree to follow orders such as force-feeding him poison or saving himself and leaving Dumbledore to die.  I was appalled when Dumbledore said things like “Your blood is worth more than mine.” What? But Dumbledore is consistent in believing that only Harry is essential to win against Voldemort — not himself, not Snape.  It’s Harry’s fight, and his own job as a teacher is to do his flawed best to prepare Harry to fight it.

That goal can’t be dependent on a guaranteed victory in war.  Nobody can control that, especially when planning past their own deaths.  But Dumbledore can put all of his formidable teacher gifts toward guiding his students to take care of their souls.  It looks to me like he wanted that more than he wanted to impose his own posthumous agenda. This is the man who literally told Harry and Snape to kill him and make their own way! 

The contented Dumbledore of King’s Cross said, “Your soul is whole, and completely your own, Harry.”  In Rowling’s universe, as Hermione explains helpfully, “Look, if I picked up a sword right now, Ron, and ran you through with it, I wouldn’t damage your soul at all.”  And the story of Dumbledore’s relationship with Snape is defined by the question:

“And my soul, Dumbledore?  Mine?”

Dumbledore and Snape have two different conversations about Snape’s soul.  The first begins with the not-entirely-reassuring words, “You alone know whether it will harm your soul” to kill Dumbledore.  That’s true, and it’s exactly what they need to consider, but this answer is not comforting

Much of “The Prince’s Tale” documents how Dumbledore tried to nudge Snape toward feeling remorse for the sake of his own soul.  It didn’t take. Year after year, whenever he checked to see if Snape could be honest about remorse for the life he had given Lily Potter’s child, the answer was no – Snape persisted in groundless bias, lying to himself that Harry was spoiled or craved notoriety to distract himself from the unbearable guilt of acknowledging that his long-ago hate crimes had led to Harry’s life as an abused orphan who is the number one target of a mass murderer.  As Hermione said, the pain of remorse can destroy you.

But when Dumbledore needed Snape to kill him, he hit upon the key for getting Snape to care for his own soul:  get Snape to do it for Dumbledore, not for his own sake.  We know that killing someone splits the soul and remorse is the only way to become whole again.  At first, Dumbledore tells Snape to kill him to spare Draco’s soul.  This makes it sound suspiciously like Dumbledore doesn’t think Snape’s soul matters as much.  The bravest man that Harry ever knew has the guts to ask what I think might be one of life’s hardest questions:  What about me?

The answer turns out to be unsparing, which is how we know it’s the right answer for Snape:  “You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation.”  Dumbledore brings up extremely plausible scenarios of what might happen if Death Eaters got their hands on him.  He’s rightly afraid.

So Snape is going to have to reintegrate his soul through remorse, the one thing that’s always been too difficult for him.

While Snape thinks about it, Dumbledore’s “blue eyes pierced Snape as they had frequently pierced Harry, as though the soul they discussed was visible to him.”  That’s a “look at me” moment. Dumbledore asks if Snape will be able to save his death, and the answer depends on both men seeing this tightly Occluded man for his truest self.

We humans can’t always take care of ourselves for our own sakes; it sometimes takes more than we have.  But we can do more than we thought possible when it’s to help someone else, if love is there.  This is not a bug; it’s a feature.  This is what makes love a powerful force.

That first conversation about Snape’s soul takes place after Dumbledore hurt his hand at the beginning of his last summer.  The second time is the following March, and Dumbledore’s answer shows character development that changes the story for me, and I think for them.

Snape asks Dumbledore, painfully, why he tells Harry secrets that he won’t entrust to Snape, and Dumbledore tries to explain that it’s not a matter of trust.  He can’t tell Snape he’s worried that Voldemort will kill him if he sees, through Legilimency, that Snape has learned about Horcruxes.  He misses the vulnerable jealousy in Snape’s question. Dumbledore is trying to get Snape to understand, instead, that Harry is a safer recipient for secrets because Voldemort will never possess Harry’s mind again:  “Lord Voldemort’s soul, maimed as it is, cannot bear close contact with a soul like Harry’s. Like a tongue on frozen steel, like flesh in flame —”

Is Dumbledore waxing poetic to Snape about the purity of Harry’s soul, again?  He is! Snape, with his world-class Occlumency, tries to get them back on track.

“Souls? We were talking of minds!”

Dumbledore does not take the hint.  He continues:

“In the case of Harry and Lord Voldemort, to speak of one is to speak of the other.  After you have killed me, Severus —“

Snape can’t take it anymore.

“You refuse to tell me everything, yet you expect that small service of me!” snarled Snape, and real anger flared in the thin face now. “You take a great deal for granted, Dumbledore! Perhaps I have changed my mind!”

It finally gets through to Dumbledore, who has been understandably preoccupied.  Snape knows Dumbledore loves pure Harry Potter; he’s asking if Dumbledore has come to love him, too, after Snape has given half his life to faithful service, putting himself in mortal danger for Dumbledore and pulling off feats of spycraft that no one else could.  You can’t plan to split your soul for someone and put yourself back together, alone, without love.

Dumbledore tells Snape to come to his office at the eleventh hour and reveals what he can about the final message to Harry, protecting Snape’s life by closing his eyes tightly while explaining anything that has to do with Horcruxes.  Snape is horrified and accuses Dumbledore of using him and Harry. Dumbledore finds this touching and asks if Snape has grown to care for Harry, and we know the complicated “no” Snape gives in reply:

“For him?  Expecto Patronum!

Dumbledore watches the silver doe fly out his window and his eyes fill with tears, after all this time.  There’s an immediate interpretation, one that’s never fully satisfied me: that Dumbledore is moved to see Snape’s devotion to Lily’s memory.  But there’s an additional one that resonates more for me, and I understand how this one would move Dumbledore to tears.

Snape had said to Dumbledore, “I thought…all these years…that we were protecting him for her.  For Lily.”

We.

All these years.

Dumbledore once tethered Snape to life with the words, “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.  Help me protect Lily’s son.”

It misses the mark, for me, to think that Snape’s demonstration of his doe Patronus indicated only a devotion to Lily’s memory.  I think there’s another answer right in front of us.  Snape once thought his life was worthless and finished, but Dumbledore saw a reason to offer him a second chance at life, if he had really loved Lily and could be guided by that love.  Snape accepted the offer because Dumbledore thought he might have something good left to give, something Snape didn’t see in himself at that time.

To point out the obvious:  Lily is dead. She’s at peace.  There’s nothing new for Snape there.  Dumbledore is the one who has been the inspiration for the second half of Snape’s life, engaging him with life-or-death work that challenges even this intensely gifted man.  This is a charged moment between Snape and Dumbledore. All the dangerous things Snape has done have not been because he has grown to care for the boy, but because he took Dumbledore’s directive to heart and still lives by it, as he demonstrates to Dumbledore with the sight of his luminous Patronus.  Of course Snape wants his extraordinary mentor to look at his soul, see its wholeness, and acknowledge that after all this time, Snape was worth a second chance.

When Harry once said he told Scrimgeour that he’s “Dumbledore’s man, through and through,” Dumbledore’s eyes watered and he could not speak, and Fawkes “let out a low, soft, musical cry.”  I think this exchange between Snape and Dumbledore, too, is a moment when Dumbledore learns that his life’s work of caring for his students’ souls has been worthwhile, despite his very many shortcomings.

Those are two of the three readings that led me to believe that the memory of Dumbledore empowered Snape in his last year:  Snape keeping his soul intact for Dumbledore’s sake rather than for his own, and Snape’s Patronus attesting to his love for Dumbledore as well as Lily.  The third comes during Snape’s memory of the long-lost second page of Lily’s letter, during the wrenching scene when he reintegrates his soul with remorse, leaving a trail for Harry in Sirius Black’s bedroom.

could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald.  I think her mind’s going, personally! Lots of love, Lily.

I thought for years that Lily’s love was the only important thing on that page.

Then I realized that this letter was the first time Snape learned that Dumbledore, whose soul seemed surely more pure than Snape’s ugly, Dark-Marked soul, had once been Grindelwald’s friend.

Every crisis of faith that Harry goes through in Deathly Hallows regarding Dumbledore, Snape went through, too, during the same relentless year.  Harry felt growing fear at Rita Skeeter’s hints that Dumbledore “dabbled in the Dark Arts himself as a youth,” then shock as he read Skeeter’s biography and the incontrovertible proof, in Dumbledore’s own hand, that he had once been Grindelwald’s partner, ardent and fully invested, in plotting fascism.

Snape went through those realizations, too, at the same time.

The news about Dumbledore’s past, his former fascism and the death of Ariana, changed Snape’s perception of Dumbledore in a way that would have made Snape feel less alone, not more.

This put several things about Dumbledore in a different light where Snape was concerned.  His testimony to the Wizengamot that Snape “is now no more a Death Eater than I am.” His unwavering conviction, in the face of skepticism, that Snape’s change of heart was genuine and not an act.  His insistence on Snape, and no one else, to counter Dark Magic at Hogwarts: he recognized Snape as someone who understood how to fight Dark Magic because he knew what it took to cast it and he knew the greater power of wanting to reverse it.

So the times that Dumbledore had annoyed Snape by idealizing Harry Potter as pure of heart, he was comparing Harry favorably not to Snape but to himself.  We readers knew this, but Snape, always jealous of Dumbledore’s regard, had not, until he learned of Dumbledore’s past.

It made sense, too, of one of Snape’s least favorite parts of the cover story that Dumbledore invented for him as a double agent:  that he could not be trusted to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts because he might be tempted back to his old ways. There’s no evidence that Snape felt the slightest pull toward Dark Magic once he pledged himself to Dumbledore.  When Umbridge asked Snape, “Do you have any idea why Dumbledore has consistently refused to appoint you?” he could not bring himself to mouth the lie, managing only to say, “I suggest you ask him.” But we saw in Crimes of Grindelwald where Dumbledore might have gotten the idea for this cover story.  He was once removed from the Defense post and knew, because he still saw Grindelwald in the Mirror of Erised, that he couldn’t be trusted with Dark Magic. 

Most of all, Snape’s understanding of Dumbledore’s guilt about his past gave new significance to the harshest words that Dumbledore speaks to anybody:  “You disgust me.” Dumbledore’s judgement of Snape, who sees nothing wrong with begging for Lily’s life in exchange for the lives of her husband and child, comes not from moral superiority but from recognition. 

Snape was an effective mentor for Draco because they both knew:  there was nothing disgusting Draco could do that Snape had not already done.  Snape was able to maintain that connection, that trust, by signaling: I know what you’ve done, and I am still here.

Knowing that Dumbledore, too, had once seen nothing wrong with letting people die for what he wanted would have given Snape a different understanding of the harsh words, “You disgust me.”  Dumbledore shared not only Snape’s self-loathing but his unresolved shame, and he remained close to Snape to the end of his life. 

Throughout the year that Snape was Headmaster, he kept the half of the letter that said Dumbledore had once been friends with Grindelwald.  It was evidence that the mentor who believed that Snape had it in him to revert all the way back to Dark Magic without harming his soul knew firsthand how much he was asking of Snape – knew it could be done and knew, from his own life, what kind of person a former fascist could become. 

The lesson of the Snape-Dumbledore relationship is learning how to make that happen.  Only someone who has managed this sort of change, someone who has the means to overpower others but knows not to attack, not to dominate, has the greatness to command the allegiance of the Elder Wand from Dumbledore.  This is the qualification that Dumbledore had in mind when he planned to pass the Elder Wand to Snape, what Grindelwald meant when he told Voldemort that the wand would never be his, and what Draco and Harry, who learned Expelliarmus from Snape, proved to have within them.

Voldemort kills Snape for possession of the Elder Wand.  That’s not how it was supposed to go. In King’s Cross, Harry asks:

“If you planned your death with Snape, you meant him to end up with the Elder Wand, didn’t you?”

“I admit that was my intention,” said Dumbledore, “but it did not work as I intended, did it?”

“No,” said Harry. “That bit didn’t work out.”

What did Dumbledore hope would happen, then? We know that in the Final Battle, when Harry and Voldemort cast Expelliarmus and Avada Kedavra at each other, the Elder Wand goes “spinning through the air toward the master it would not kill.” Dumbledore wanted the Elder Wand to recognize the mercy and protectiveness in Snape’s Killing Curse and transfer allegiance to Snape, quietly, without Snape having to lay a hand on it.  He expected Voldemort might violate his tomb and take the wand, but he had hoped that any spell Voldemort cast against Snape with it would fail because the Elder Wand would not kill its master.

Dumbledore also knew he could trust Snape to be the rightful owner of the Elder Wand because with all powerful magical objects, Snape handles them without greed, not for personal gain but to protect others. In his third year, Harry saw that his Invisibility Cloak, one of the Deathly Hallows, worked perfectly for Snape because Snape was using it in the belief that he would protect children from murderers. Dumbledore, in contrast, says he once borrowed the Cloak from Harry’s father “out of vain curiosity, and so it could never have worked for me as it works for you, its true owner.” The sword of Gryffindor cannot be owned but presents itself of its own volition to worthy Gryffindors, yet it permitted Snape to handle it. 

Dumbledore planned not to tell Snape about the Elder Wand for two reasons: it wouldn’t be safe and it wouldn’t be necessary. He didn’t want Voldemort to learn of Snape’s ownership through Legilimency and kill him. He also knew Snape would be a worthy owner, a Master of Death, whether or not he was conscious of owning a Deathly Hallow. In the “King’s Cross” chapter, the Dumbledore in Harry’s vision says he has found that “perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.”

But the flaw in the plan was that Dumbledore didn’t foresee Draco casting Expelliarmus, choosing the defensive spell Snape ingrained into him rather than the violence his father or Voldemort had groomed him to use.  Dumbledore had never been able to turn either Tom Riddle or Snape away from Dark Magic when they were students, but he lived long enough to see that Snape’s teaching reached Draco.

We can’t go back in time, but if we get a second chance, we can learn from the past and do better.  Dumbledore and Snape had their own history, reaching back to Dumbledore’s mishandling of the murder attempt on Snape as a student, but together, they did better for Draco and Harry.

There’s no way to know what might have happened if Dumbledore had had a mentor’s guidance when he met Grindelwald, or if Dumbledore had reached out to Snape when he was nearly killed rather than compounding his trauma by swearing him to silence and letting the Marauders go unpunished.  It’s not that anyone owed them such connections in order to prevent them from joining fascists – neither of them had any business joining hate movements anyway. But the lack of such connections didn’t help. Twenty years, a hundred years later, both Dumbledore and Snape tried to learn from their mistakes for Draco and Harry. 

Dumbledore’s gag order about the Marauders’ Prank contributed to the estrangement between Snape and Lily.  When Snape tried to warn her against the Marauders, she said, “You’re being really ungrateful. I heard what happened the other night.  You went sneaking down that tunnel by the Whomping Willow, and James Potter saved you from whatever’s down there –” That must have been galling for Snape, to be unable to defend himself and explain what had really happened.  But he kept his word to Dumbledore.

We see Dumbledore doing better for Harry at the beginning of sixth year, surprising him with the advice to tell Ron and Hermione about the contents of the prophecy:  “I think they ought to know. You do them a disservice by not confiding something this important to them. You need your friends, Harry.”

Dumbledore also learned from the “fiasco” of assigning Snape to teach Harry Occlumency instead of doing it himself.  There has to be mutual trust. The hostility between Snape and Harry doomed the lessons and Sirius died for it. The following school year, after Draco took the Dark Mark, Dumbledore charged Snape with keeping an eye on him instead of trying to do it himself.

When Draco nearly died from Sectumsempra, Snape enacted what he had learned from the mishandling of his own near-death.  He healed Draco immediately, “told the staff precisely what had happened,” commanded Harry to hand over his spellbook, and assigned Harry heavy detentions, with McGonagall’s full backing.  His quick action prevented Draco’s wounds from scarring and did something equivalent for Harry. Snape dragged the truth about the spellbook out of Harry, even if Harry denied it and hid the book itself.  It was no longer Harry’s uneasy secret, and as a result, it wouldn’t fester and cause him guilt, the way Slughorn’s secret memory of the Horcrux conversation tormented him. The severe detentions drove home the gravity of what had almost happened, but more importantly, they allowed Harry to serve his penalties and then walk free, lesson learned, with gratitude for the close call.  As Dumbledore said to Ginny at the end of Chamber of Secrets, “There has been no lasting harm done.” 

Through the openness of his actions, Snape turned Harry’s heedless use of Dark Magic into something Forgivable, forgiven.  Snape took the shame out of it for Harry and laid on the accountability. Harry and Draco were still underage at that point, by weeks, and Snape was an adult who took care of them.

Regret and accountability were part of the spell that Snape sang to heal Draco’s wounds.  Only someone who had cast this Dark Magic spell in the past and then regretted it would know how to heal it, and Snape’s magic had the extra power of his grief that his own long-ago inventions were still causing harm, hurting this child whom he had sworn to protect.  Draco has been pushing Snape away all year, yet when he was in danger, Snape’s protective response was absolute: I came as soon as I could.  I’ve got you. I’m here.  It’s in Snape’s nature to be where he’s needed, but in this case, Draco knows that this protection was doubly assured by his mother’s love. 

Snape agreed to Narcissa’s Unbreakable Vow.  He believed Draco was worth dying for, even after knowing every disgusting thing Draco had done as a Death Eater.  He reversed the curse wounds and Draco experienced that magic reversal in his very blood. Snape is the only other person at Hogwarts who can pass through the barrier that requires a Dark Mark and he can take Draco back out with him again.

There was no way that Dumbledore and Snape could have guaranteed that Snape watching over Draco would have the slightest effect.  But with the life debt to Snape in his blood, the first moment in a year that Draco had experienced healing rather than the mounting terror of Voldemort toying with him, Draco breached Dumbledore’s tower with Expelliarmus rather than attack so they could talk, in case Draco heard any cause for hope there other than killing Dumbledore. 

Dumbledore’s plan for the Elder Wand was for ownership to pass untouched to whoever defeated Dumbledore with magic intended to protect others rather than to harm, the only kind of magic powerful enough to command the Elder Wand’s allegiance.  He didn’t foresee that their care for Draco would work so well that given the option, Draco would choose disarmament and confession and hope for a second chance. That Draco did so is a gift to his teachers, whether or not he would eventually go on to renounce Dark Magic.

Draco’s Expelliarmus gave Dumbledore a moment to immobilize Harry so he could invisibly witness the exchange.  Harry saw Draco lower his wand and for the first time, mixed in with despising Draco, he gained a drop of pity that strengthened his understanding of his enemy.  Dumbledore made that happen before he died.

When Harry was about to die, he summoned the memories of his parents, Sirius, and Remus to strengthen him.  When Snape was about to die, he drew strength from thinking of Dumbledore.

In the Shrieking Shack, Voldemort tells Snape that he has violated Dumbledore’s tomb and stolen the Elder Wand.  In reaction, “Snape’s face was like a death mask. It was marble white and so still that when he spoke, it was a shock to see that anyone lived behind the blank eyes.”

With the words “death mask” and “marble white,” Rowling is calling back to the image of Dumbledore in his white marble tomb.  The blankness of Snape’s face shows that he is Occluding Voldemort as hard as he has ever Occluded in his life, hiding his reaction to the news of this desecration.  Together, I think these things show that Snape is grieving for his friend. As we learned from Harry, grief can Occlude: “Just as Voldemort had not been able to possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his thoughts could not penetrate Harry now, while he mourned Dobby. Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of course, would have said that it was love. . . .”

Snape kept himself alive until Harry arrived, ensuring that Harry would be the last thing he ever saw.  Dumbledore did the same thing, keeping himself alive until Snape arrived so that Snape could be the last thing he saw.  Dumbledore didn’t want to die looking at Bellatrix or Fenrir Greyback or frightened little Draco Malfoy. He wanted to look into the eyes of someone who would take care of him and look after everything he worried about, so he could rest in peace.  He asked Snape to be the most important person in his death. Snape agreed, and he kept his word.

I find it moving to imagine their portraits next to each other.  I like to think about their mutual respect, and awe, and gratitude.  I think they would bicker, too, and be sarcastic the way they only ever were with each other.  I like to think of McGonagall working with their portraits behind her, making her even more intimidating.  I think she enjoys their company, silences them when she has to, and she knows, at last, that they’d both always deserved her trust.

 

Review: When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

I didn’t intend to see Snape parallels when I picked up this book, but they’re plentiful.  The narration alternates between a middle-school Korean girl, Sun-hee, and her young adult brother as they live with their parents through Japan’s colonization of Korea during World War II.  The story is set a decade or two after the events of Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, but Japan was already occupying Korea by then, so it does provide some context for anyone who saw Claudia Kim’s Nagini and wondered what life might have been like for a young Korean woman at that time.

Literacy and reading are at the core of this resistance story.  Sun-hee’s uncle goes into hiding and runs an underground printing press.  The Japanese army sends people to search Korean homes for seditious writings, and of course all post is monitored.  Sun-hee’s brother tells her that when he writes her letters, she must learn to read between the lines.  The most thrilling passages of this suspenseful book come when we witness Sun-hee becoming an expert close reader.  It’s a beautiful example of fiction that demonstrates how close reading is one of the most essential skills for survival.

As for the Snapeyness of this book:  Sometimes, what looks like acquiescence or collaboration may not be.  Sometimes, personal friendships can survive bad politics.  Sometimes, people commit themselves to resistance while knowing that they will be thought, in life and even after death, to be collaborators or traitors.  You don’t always have to lose faith in your loved ones.  Sometimes it’s not safe for them to tell you everything they’re doing.

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

This book was thrill after thrill. It gave me something I have not often encountered: ancient Greek mythological stories that were new to me. I did not know what happened after the Odyssey and its strangely unsated ending. As I learned the story in this book bit by bit, I felt elated. I felt rightness and relief, the same as I recall feeling when I first encountered stories of Iphigeneia in Aulis or Helen in Egypt.

It was fun to read this book as a break before heading into the preparatory work for writing the second edition of my Snape book, since there are so many resonances with the Harry Potter stories and Snape in particular. Circe is a potions mistress extraordinaire! And she slowly wears herself into shape with regrets and penances, and comes into her own power.

I enjoyed the different men that this author gave Circe to be her lovers. I loved the ones that she loved.

Even more, I enjoyed reading the account of how taxing it was for Circe to parent an infant and then a gifted child. Even for a witch, solo parenting was a full-time job and she got nothing else done for years! I laughed.

Of all the enchanting moments in this book, my favorite was a gift that one character gives another, fairly early on. I gasped with happiness when I read of it.

I ate the book in a day, but I was glad to find that it kept giving new twists until the very end. I was afraid it would feel too short and I would feel bereft to let it go, but it was so satisfying that I did not.