Friend or Foe? The Genius of Severus Snape’s Double Agency

Feb 16, 2020

Posted by: Dawn Johnson

Fandom, Fans, J.K. Rowling

Within the Harry Potter series, Slytherins are not typically revered by those outside their own house. For good reason, their shrewd, ambitious natures often prevent them from making friends or allies with those who do not share their values and priorities. Outright champions among them are few, and they are far more well known for the infamous villains who’ve come from within their ranks.

Into this tension, J.K. Rowling introduced Severus Snape, one of the most complex characters in literature. Neither hero, nor villain. With mixed motivations throughout, he was a mysterious enigma, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the wizarding world. Both Death Eater and Order member. Prejudiced professor and reluctant protector. Cruel betrayer and loyal right-hand man.

Whatever one’s personal feelings about Severus Snape, there is no denying he was a pivotal character, so let’s remember the genius of his double agency and recall the surprise we all felt when we realized what Rowling had been up to all along, revealing that every move and countermove had to be completely re-interpreted through another lens entirely. Though undeniably flawed, he was not the foe we loved to hate. In fact, he possessed far more bravery and love than we ever imagined.

When we thought Snape was cursing Harry’s broom during his debut Quidditch match, he was actually uttering counter-curses against someone with nefarious intent. He persisted feverishly until interrupted by Hermione in a misunderstanding of epic proportions.


When we thought Snape cared only for Malfoy’s victory in his Defense Against the Dark Art’s duel with Harry or, if not that, disciplinary action for Harry’s careless use of Parseltongue against a student, he may truly have been dismayed and concerned by abilities that indicated an inexplicable dark and powerful connection within Harry.


When we thought Snape was only interested in exposing the friends of his former bully and childhood enemy, he may have, beneath it all, harbored a genuine desire to protect the students from potential harm. Though he still harbored bitter resentment toward Remus and Sirius, and his disdain for the perpetually rash actions of Harry, Ron, and Hermione notwithstanding, it was Snape who positioned himself between the werewolf and the trio when their lives were in danger.


When we thought Snape was secretly colluding with former Death Eater Igor Karkaroff, he was, in fact, keeping an eye on the man’s erratic behavior and maintaining his cover as a fellow servant of the Dark Lord.


When we thought Snape was all too willing to risk Harry’s life and limb to discover the truth behind the unusual circumstances at the Triwizard Tournament, he was actually exercising discernment and taking a measured risk, weighing the possibility of success against the likelihood of failure. Underneath it all, he must have had at least some confidence in Harry’s uncanny ability to rise to the occasion and survive long enough for them to discover the plot.

When we thought Snape too proud to teach Harry Occlumency and too desirous of Harry’s mortification, he was actually fiercely driven to impress upon Harry the importance of mental protections against the Dark Lord, having experienced Voldemort’s acuity as a Legilimens himself. He was remarkably committed to the uncomfortable arrangement, abandoning the tutelage only when Harry had improved enough to penetrate the most painful of Snape’s memories–those which revealed the vulnerability behind his cold exterior.


When we thought Snape would surely give Harry up to Dolores Umbridge and relish both his torture and his downfall, Snape refused to produce the requested Veritaserum and alerted the Order of the Phoenix to Harry’s desperate suspicions about Sirius’ location within the Department of Mysteries.


When we thought Snape’s Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy spelled doom for Harry, we had no idea he intended to carry out Dumbledore’s elaborate plan and spare Draco Malfoy’s innocence.


When we thought Snape was a traitor for urging Harry to remain in the shadows of the Astronomy Tower while responding to Dumbledore’s pleas with the killing curse, his act of murder was actually a deed of great sacrifice, committing himself fully to the Dark Lord’s service and accepting the scorn of the wizarding world.


When we thought Snape was sadistically enjoying his reign over Hogwarts as the newly-instated Headmaster, he was in every way possible attempting to assist Harry on his impossible journey. He painstakingly tracked Harry’s whereabouts, deposited the sword of Gryffindor in a place that would fulfill all the demands of rightfully procuring it, and then used his Patronus to lead Harry to its location.


And when we thought Snape worthy of Harry’s just anger and a horrific end at Voldemort’s hand, we discovered the true depths of his courage and devotion. We learned that he abandoned everything for the love of a girl who did not love him back, a girl he could not save. We learned that his life’s purpose was in proving himself worthy of the endless love he professed, saving the son, for her sake. We learned that in spite of his conflicted feelings toward Harry, feelings that at any given moment could tempt him to cruelty, he did not want Harry to die, but to defeat the Dark Lord once and for all. And he was willing to sacrifice himself so that could happen.

Though we could not say they parted as friends, death lifted the veil of villainy and revealed he was no foe. Re-watch the backstory that brought clarity to all the scenes which preceded it and will always remind us why Harry called Snape the bravest man he ever knew.

This post was originally published as a birthday feature, but it’s well worth remembering the complexities and contributions of Severus Snape year round. Here’s to Slytherin pride, Potter fans!

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.