for Snape: A Definitive Reading
Delivered at MISTI-Con, Laconia, New Hampshire, on Sunday, May 21, 2017
It’s been 10 years since Nagini bit Snape and the fandom still fights about this character. Yet we all read the same books and watched the same movies. It’s not like there are two series of Harry Potter books, one pro-Snape and one anti-Snape; a single set of words created this character. But Rowling crafted him to be almost perfectly ambivalent. Nearly all of his actions have at least two possible, contradictory interpretations. This creates more facets, more interpretations than most characters have. And more ways for readers to identify with him.
Yet Snape does have a true inner self that can be identified and defined. Authors don’t always create characters as mysteries with a definitive solution at their core, but I think that’s how Rowling wrote Snape.
Occasionally, we get unambiguous views of Snape. Times of mortal crisis expose his priorities: His one moment of carelessness, leaving the Pensieve unattended while he runs to care for Montague. His rescue of Draco. His single-minded drive to find Harry Potter when Voldemort is about to kill him. But most of his other moments are trickier to decode.
As someone who came to the series as an adult, the story I always wanted to read was Severus Snape and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Severus Snape and the Chamber of Secrets. Severus Snape and what he was thinking during every bitter moment of those seven years as a supposedly reformed neo-Nazi teaching a scrubby little kid who lost his family because of Snape’s own earlier war crimes. I read the series looking for that story, not the headliner, and I found it. It’s all there. That’s what I put into this book: the Harry Potter series from Professor Snape’s point of view.
Severus Snape and the Sorcerer’s Stone introduces us to a 31-year-old grown man who picks on abused orphans, risks his own safety for people he dislikes, and spits on the ground when he’s feeling bitter.
Severus Snape and the Chamber of Secrets begins to lay down the groundwork of Snape’s covert strategy, executed in conjunction with Dumbledore: he teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts undercover, to evade the curse on the position and establish a façade that will enable him to undermine Voldemort from the inside, when Voldemort inevitably returns. Using the vacuous Gilderoy Lockhart as a decoy, he manages to transmit a basic Disarming Spell to both Harry and Draco, ingraining in them his own practice of non-aggression rather than attack, a tool that will eventually empower these kids to take down the two most powerful wizards of their age using nothing but Expelliarmus and Draco’s wand.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, everybody gets something their heart desires — a godfather, a friend, freedom, and flight — everybody, that is, except for Snape. In Severus Snape and the Prisoner of Azkaban, if you track only what Snape sees, the story gets much darker. The reader learns that Sirius and Lupin don’t want to kill Harry, and Lupin’s lies to Dumbledore have more to do with shame than conspiracy. But Snape is still traumatized by how the Marauders used to treat him, and he is unconscious for some of the explanations that the kids hear. For much of the book, Snape genuinely fears that Lupin and Sirius have a joint plan: to build Harry’s trust in Lupin, lure him outside the castle while Lupin is transformed, and kill him the way they nearly killed Snape when he was a student.
That would explain why Snape is incredulous when Harry, Ron, and Hermione don’t seem grateful to him for saving their hides from Sirius and Remus. As for Snape’s screaming fit in front of Fudge in the Hospital Wing, if you look closely, you can see Dumbledore conveying to Snape that he has the situation under control, and Snape agreeing — resentfully — to let Fudge think that he is unbalanced. A close reading also reveals that Dumbledore was neither angry nor surprised when Snape told the Slytherins about Lupin’s lycanthropy. Dumbledore is disappointed in Lupin, who withheld crucial information and endangered the students, not Snape. By taking it on himself to out Lupin, making it look like an act motivated solely by the hostile “I told you so” urges of a nasty, petty man — not a difficult performance, surely — Snape was distracting people from justified criticism of Dumbledore’s judgment in hiring a werewolf who could not, as it turned out, remain completely safe around Hogwarts students.
Severus Snape and the Goblet of Fire shows Snape undergoing a second adolescence of sorts, his body changing as his Dark Mark intensifies. By the end of the year, he has grown into the adult form of his second chance in life, his double agency.
Severus Snape and the Order of the Phoenix shows a man spread too thin, being all things to all people. A close read of the Occlumency lessons shows that he teaches them in dead earnest, trying to hold back nothing from Harry while guarding against Voldemort, who is watching everything through Harry’s scar.
Severus Snape and the Half-Blood Prince is a Time-Turner-like story of an adult and the memory of his 15-year-old self, the mistakes he made in youth, the damage those mistakes continue to cause, and his painstaking resumption of evil deeds in order to save others from the same costly errors. Snape’s guidance gives Draco something that Dumbledore, Grindelwald, Voldemort, and Snape himself never had: a merciful mentor who can see a young man cross over into actual evil and not give up on him, not fear him, not shame him, still protect him and sing over his wounds, let him know, in essence: “There is nothing ugly in you that I have not already seen. I know all, and I have still come to save you. You cannot disgust me.” He saves Harry from unwittingly causing a death with Dark Magic, assigns Harry a tedious course of punishment and then, once he fulfills the terms, lets him go — ensuring that Harry knows his casting of Sectumsempra was forgivable, forgiven, freeing him to walk away with his soul intact, as well as his right to hate Malfoy in peace. He saves Draco from committing murder by voluntarily splitting his own soul in Draco’s stead, killing the one ally who knows his true self, so that for the final year of his life, nobody and nothing around Snape reflects any knowledge of him except as a man of cold evil.
Severus Snape and the Deathly Hallows is the story of the bravest man in Potterverse.
Well… “probably” the bravest man. Again, there are two different readings of Snape, and on this point, they actually do come from more than one set of words. In Harry’s words to Albus during the Epilogue, Snape was “probably the bravest man I ever knew.” Steve Kloves’s line in the film version, for which Rowling had a producer credit, omits the word “probably.” In Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, revisiting the Epilogue, Harry includes it again. But when Scorpius goes to an alternate timeline to speak to Snape, he drops it, saying Harry told Albus “you were the bravest man he ever met.”
What is going on with this uncertainty around Snape’s bravery?
The answer may be in Snape’s dying words, “Look…at…me.” Those words changed the story. Until Snape succeeded in delivering the final message to Harry, he had to remain unknowable so that no one would be able to pin down a single, definitive understanding of his character. Within the story, this preserved his ability to evade detection while fighting Voldemort; in our reality, this maintained the mystery of Rowling’s saga until her grand revelation of Snape’s heart. This enigmatic Snape is the one that Harry Potter knew. As a Master of Death, Snape remained invisible, cloaked, until he finished protecting others and chose to meet death as a friend.
But everything about Snape that came after he said to Harry, “Look at me,” and gave him the memories can be viewed as unambiguous. He is no longer dissembling, no longer a double agent or any agent at all. His mission is completed. He can allow his core truths to be seen. This is why the Snape of Cursed Child is shown, unambiguously, to be a hero. He doesn’t have to hide it anymore, and neither do his authors.
By calling this character, posthumously, the bravest man, Rowling is affirming that this is the correct reading of him, more accurate than the many other possible readings of Snape as unredeemed, out for himself, or ambiguous. The wording is an allusion to a character from one of Rowling’s top 10 recommended novels for young readers, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch once protected all of Maycomb, black and white, with a single, reluctant shot to kill a rabid dog; until then, his children had no idea that he was a marksman, since he renounced that degree of power over other living creatures after the age of 19 and only resumed it at the plea of the town sheriff, to save others. The sheriff says, “You haven’t forgot much, Mr. Finch. They say it never leaves you.”
Like Atticus Finch, Snape renounced Dark Magic, but was able to recall it to protect others. Like Atticus, Dumbledore, Draco, and Harry, Snape was “fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it.” Atticus’s child Scout, the narrator, noted her father’s restraint: “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
In Harry Potter’s story, Snape is the character whose growth we track. With Harry, Snape, and Voldemort, we get the question: what do you do when you’re born, through no fault of your own, into a life where you don’t get enough love? How do you become an adult? Harry starts out blameless and ends up realistically flawed but still true to himself; that was his challenge. Voldemort doesn’t change much. He nearly dies of emotion the first time he tries to kill Harry and he actually dies of emotion the last time.
Snape changes. He goes from vengeful and oppressive to self-sacrificing and protective. Every step is difficult for him, and uncredited by nature of his double agency. If he succeeds, he will draw more hatred to himself, not acclaim. Even so, he knows who he is on the inside. He shows us that you don’t have to be beautiful or good or even innocent to do the right thing. Anyone can choose to do the right thing, or if you can’t do it, to want to do it. That is a freedom and a birthright.
For me, there are two main ways that Snape is brave. One is that he remained at the site of his greatest regrets, resolutely focused on the damage he had done and his mission to correct as much of it as he could, despite being vilified and unable to defend himself. The other way is smaller, tender and raw, and I think it’s familiar to many of us. After years of seeing protection and adoration lavished on others, knowing himself to be unpleasant, culpable, and perhaps unlovable, he summons the nerve to ask of Dumbledore, twice: What about me? In Prisoner of Azkaban, he asks Dumbledore if he remembers that the Marauders tried to kill him. When Dumbledore orders him to kill to protect Draco’s soul, he asks Dumbledore, And MY soul? Is Snape’s soul too dirty to save?
Both times, he gets an inconclusive answer from Dumbledore: My memory is as good as it ever was. You alone know whether it will harm your soul. Not a reassurance… but not a rejection, either. Not all of us will know regrets as great as Snape’s, but most of us, I think, can understand that pleading What about me? — to someone who seems to love other people more — that’s brave.
Posthumously, he is vindicated, called heroic, and, we are told, given a portrait. This isn’t for Snape’s sake. He’s dead, and he’s fictional. It’s the author talking to us, the readers, about how even those of us who have done harm can choose to do good, and there are things we know how to do that innocent people don’t. The good in Snape’s story doesn’t make sense without the full recognition of his earlier crimes. We don’t forget them. They enable us to see the magnificence of this character’s achievement.