"I Trust Severus Snape"
-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 549
By Michele Nanjo
“DON’T… CALL ME COWARD!”
But it is in “Flight of the Prince” at the end of Half-Blood Prince that we finally find the most convincing evidence for where Snape’s loyalties lie.
This entire scene between Snape and Harry is magnificently crafted and provides fundamental insight into Snape’s loyalties because his behavior in this chapter doesn’t make sense for a Death Eater who has just pulled off the accomplishment of a lifetime by killing Albus Dumbledore. This is Snape, who delights in provoking Harry. Shouldn’t he be gloating about how he deceived them all; taunting Harry about what a useless old fool Dumbledore was? And yet, he doesn’t.
Snape won’t even fight Harry. Instead, he simply defends himself, turning aside the boy’s curses. He sneers at Harry’s ineptitude, insisting that he will never be an effective duelist “until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed.”9 Useful advice. He even protects Harry from the Death Eater who tries to torture him. Of course, Snape has a ready reason for this—Voldemort wants Harry left alone—but just like the rest of Snape’s explanations, this isn’t particularly convincing.
Barty Crouch Jr. intended to kill Harry at the end of The Goblet of Fire, convinced that Voldemort would reward him for doing so. Even if Voldemort’s priorities have changed, there is no reason why Snape and the other Death Eaters couldn’t have a little fun with Harry who endured torture and humiliation in the graveyard at the end of The Goblet of Fire without suffering any permanent harm. Then again, why doesn’t Snape simply take Harry to Voldemort—the final prize to present to his lord? It is inconceivable that Voldemort would have been displeased.
But the real moment of revelation comes with Snape’s anguished, “DON’T … CALL ME COWARD!”10
Whenever Snape loses control, it always gives us insight into his true character. Snape works very hard to keep his emotions buried; but for all that he lauds emotional control, he regularly loses it with Harry who has an uncanny ability to provoke him. We have seen Snape beside himself with anger at the boy on several occasions, but this moment is different. Snape doesn’t shout at Harry in anger, but in pain.
It is important to note that Harry calls Snape a coward twice in “Flight of the Prince.” The first time, Harry’s frustrated, “Fight back, you cowardly—” when Snape will do nothing but block his curses, elicits the usual sneering from Snape. “Coward, did you call me, Potter? Your father would never attack me unless it was four on one, what would you call him, I wonder?”11 Snape isn’t bothered by this in the least. But the second time is different.
When Harry attempts to use Levicorpus against him, Snape becomes incensed. “And you’d turn my inventions on me, like your filthy father, would you?” To which Harry replies, “Kill me then. Kill me like you killed him, you coward—”12
There is a debate in fandom as to whom Harry is referring to here. Objectively, it should be Dumbledore, however, Harry has only learned a few hours previously that Snape was responsible for Voldemort killing his parents, and given the context, it’s probable that he’s referring to James. James is certainly on Snape’s mind, given that he’s just mentioned the man, and he surely hasn’t forgotten the part he played in the death of his old rival. Does Snape consider himself a coward for not doing more to save James and Lily—or Dumbledore?
Regardless of which death has piqued his conscience, Harry has hit a fatal weakness in Snape’s emotional control, which buckles to give us a glimpse of the seething, terrifying feelings that lay behind it. Snape’s face is “suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning house behind them—”13
Snape’s pain is unbearable to the point that he is demented—nearly mad—from it. He is in agony just like Fang and the comparison is no coincidence. The flames blazing in the background, tormenting the dog, symbolize the flames of the private hell in which Snape is trapped, suffering his own torment.
There is simply no credible explanation for why a loyal Death Eater would react this way. But if we believe Dumbledore that betraying James and Lily to Voldemort was the greatest regret of Snape’s life then his reaction makes perfect sense, because it is the reaction of a man tortured by guilt.
But he killed Dumbledore! This is the crucial fact which argues that Snape must be evil. How else could he use an Unforgivable Curse to kill the best, most beloved wizard in the world? Saving his own life and even Draco’s is not a sufficient reason. He should have died rather than betray the man who trusted him.
This is a fair point and no discussion of Snape’s loyalties can dismiss it. But there is another possible explanation for Snape’s actions: He killed Dumbledore, but he didn’t betray him.
Snape’s position on the tower was untenable. For all intents and purposes, Dumbledore was already dead. The idea that Snape could have overpowered four Death Eaters is simply not plausible. Of course, he could have chosen to try anyway and sacrificed his life, but he would have also been sacrificing Draco, something Dumbledore was clearly unwilling to do. Dumbledore had worked assiduously all year to save the boy even at the risk of letting other students be hurt and nearly killed. It was not Snape’s place to foil those efforts. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Dumbledore would have thanked his trusted and valuable spy for throwing his own life away for nothing.
While there are certainly those whose moral convictions are so strong that they would have sacrificed themselves and Draco rather than kill, the fact that Snape is not one of them says nothing about his allegiance. Regardless of where Snape’s loyalties lie, under the circumstances, killing Dumbledore was the only sensible thing to do. And Slytherins always do the sensible thing.
Some try to claim that the Avada Kedavra requires hatred in order to be effective and point to the look of hate and revulsion on Snape’s face as proof of his evil intent. But this is refuted by canon. We know of instances where the Avada Kedavra has been used without requiring hatred. Peter Pettigrew, for instance, surely harbored no hatred for Cedric Diggory. And the expression on Snape’s face reveals the exact same emotions Harry was feeling when he forced Dumbledore to drink the potion in the cave on Dumbledore’s own orders. Hardly proof of disloyalty. However, the real key to assessing Snape’s actions on the tower is Dumbledore—specifically, his last words, “Severus… please…”14
The first thing to note about Dumbledore’s plea is that he clearly expected Snape to understand it. This is important because the only interpretation of Dumbledore’s words that might have been readily obvious, “Severus… save me… “ could not have been what Dumbledore meant. Unlike Snape, Dumbledore’s character is not an enigma. This man who claimed that “death is but the next great adventure”15 did not fear dying and he would not have begged for his life under any circumstances. In any case, he certainly knew that Snape was incapable of saving his life at that point.
Another possibility is that Dumbledore was simply begging Snape not to turn to the Dark side—a kind of desperate wish uttered aloud without hope of being heeded. But given that Dumbledore’s trust in Snape was absolute, this makes no sense. Why beg someone he trusts completely not to betray him?
The most reasonable conclusion is that Dumbledore was asking Snape to perform some task. But how could he expect Snape to know what this was? Some suggest that they were using Legilimency to communicate, however this is highly unlikely because Legilimency doesn’t work that way. It provides access to another person’s feelings and memories—not thoughts. It is not a means of silent conversation and it would not have helped in this situation.
Instead, Dumbledore has to have been referring to something that was already understood between them; something they had discussed previously. Many fans will point to the argument between them in the forest that Hagrid overheard, but regardless of when and where this conversation took place, Dumbledore and Snape must have discussed the possibility that a situation such as they were faced with on the tower might occur. And Dumbledore has to have made his instructions to Snape—should the situation arise—abundantly clear. There is no other way that Snape could have been expected to understand what Dumbledore was asking of him.
So what would Dumbledore have asked of his trusted spy should his own life be forfeit? There are many possibilities. “Save Draco,” “Help Harry,” “Don’t give up the fight,” etc. But ultimately, given the realities of the situation, these all boil down to the same thing. “Severus, do what you have to do. Kill me.” This was the only option open to Snape that would let him live long enough to accomplish anything else.
But could Dumbledore really have intended to sacrifice his own life knowing that this would leave Harry without his most powerful ally? As the only wizard Voldemort ever feared, surely Dumbledore was far more crucial to Harry’s success than anything Snape might do. This assertion, however, is not borne out by canon.
Rowling has said that Dumbledore had to die because Harry, our hero, has to go on alone16 and the scene at the cave in Half-Blood Prince makes this poignantly clear. Again and again Dumbledore insists that Harry is more important than he is, telling this young man as gently as he can that the time has come for Harry to stand on his own. When they are leaving the cave, Dumbledore’s touching words, “I am not worried, Harry. I am with you”17 are an unmistakable signal that the mantle of leadership has been passed.
Harry no longer needs Dumbledore. But he does need Severus Snape and Dumbledore knew this. Harry unquestionably has a daunting task ahead of him to discover and destroy the remaining Horcruxes. Even for Dumbledore, this was a painstakingly slow and dangerous process. He only managed to track down two of the Horcruxes and was grievously injured both times. He wasn’t going to be able to give Harry the assistance he needs. But Snape can. Far from abandoning Harry, Dumbledore’s last act was to ensure that Harry would have the help he needs most.
Of course, this implies that Snape already knows about the Horcruxes and, in fact, this very thing is hinted at when Dumbledore tells Harry to “Go and wake Severus. Tell him what has happened and bring him to me.”18 Though Dumbledore was adamant that Harry tell none of the other members of the Order of the Phoenix about the Horcruxes, he had not the slightest qualm in sending Harry to Snape—an accomplished Legilimens with a history of reading Harry’s memories—who would have looked into Harry’s mind and known instantly where they had been that night and why.
It was Snape who helped to save Dumbledore’s life when he was injured retrieving Marvolo’s ring. Snape is an expert in the Dark Arts, so if anyone can figure out how to get around or counteract the Dark magic warding the Horcruxes, he can. And having killed Dumbledore, Snape will now be Voldemort’s closest, most trusted adviser. Who better to tease out where Voldemort’s precious artifacts are hidden and what safeguards might be protecting them? No one else could possibly accomplish this as effectively.
This would certainly explain why Snape had to survive even at the expense of Dumbledore’s life and it is completely in character for Dumbledore to have made this sacrifice for Harry. But it would also explain why Dumbledore was afraid. Their hope of defeating Voldemort was hanging in the balance that night, entirely dependent upon Snape doing the hardest thing Dumbledore had ever asked of him. While many brave people fighting the noble fight would be willing to lay down their lives, few could do what Snape did and kill someone they care for, especially knowing that they would be vilified for it. When it comes to choosing between what is right and what is easy, it doesn’t get any harder than this. Snape made the right choice.
The evidence suggests that Snape is likely still Dumbledore’s man and is now deep undercover in the enemy camp. If this is true, what might we expect from him in Deathly Hallows?
Snape’s main task will be working towards Voldemort’s downfall. He will now have unparalleled clout among the Death Eaters. Whispers denouncing his loyalty will be a thing of the past—at least for the time being—and Voldemort will trust him above all others. This will put him in a perfect position to discover the identities and locations of the remaining Horcruxes along with information on what protections might be guarding them. He is also ideally placed to assist the forces of good in the final battle.
There is one obvious stumbling block to carrying out this mission, however. No one on the Light side trusts him. Consequently, if he is to aid his once and future allies, he will have to find a sneaky way to do it. Fortunately, Snape is a Slytherin. Also fortunately, Rowling has given him several options for helping Harry without Harry knowing he’s doing it.
One is Draco. After Dumbledore’s entreaties to the boy on the tower—which Harry overheard—it would not be surprising for the Slytherin to turn to the Order of the Phoenix for protection. Snape might use Draco’s position to secretly pass information to the Order.
He might also pass information to Harry directly via some anonymous means. One possibility is Sirius’s mirror, which Rowling has said we will see it again.19 If Harry repairs his own mirror, lying broken at the bottom of his trunk, it is possible that Snape could pass information to him which Harry would see as somehow coming from Sirius himself.
Snape might also use his Patronus to communicate with Harry. Rowling refuses to reveal what Snape’s Patronus is “because it would give too much away,”20 which fuels speculation that this will be important in Deathly Hallows. The Patronus is an extremely secure and trusted means of communication that only members of the Order of the Phoenix know how to use.21 Of course the Order know what Snape’s Patronus is, but it may well have changed—something that can happen in the wake of an emotional shock—and this would render it unrecognizable.
Since Harry has a penchant for trusting anonymous benefactors—such as the Half-Blood Prince—any secret method of communication Snape might use would probably gain his confidence. This would not only allow Snape to pass information to Harry, it would smooth the way for Harry to eventually trust the man. Nothing Snape might say would ever reach Harry in his current mindset. Probably nothing anyone else could say would move him much either. But if Harry spent months relying on an unknown ally for crucial help and that person turned out to be Snape, he would have a hard time ignoring that.
“That Awful Boy…”
There is other information about Snape that may come to light in the course of the seventh book that could prod Harry towards trusting this man. The first, Harry may encounter as early as his return to Privet Drive.
Rowling was once asked if Snape was ever going to fall in love. She sidestepped the question by saying that we would find out in the final book.22 This has naturally spawned intense speculation and the overwhelming consensus among fans is that Snape was in love with Lily.
She is the only person who was willing to stand up for him when he was being humiliated by James in “Snape’s Worst Memory.” Snape calling her a “filthy little Mudblood” in that scene speaks to his humiliation, not his feelings for her, just as Lily calling James an “arrogant, bullying toerag”23 shows her frustration with the boy she liked. What is important is that she tried to help Snape. She was also one of the top Potions students in their year, which strongly suggests that she and Snape might have had reason to work together. And Rowling has said that we’ll find out something important about Lily in Deathly Hallows.
The most tantalizing bit of evidence, however, is Petunia’s comment about Dementors in Order of the Phoenix. “I heard—that awful boy—telling her about them—years ago.” Harry replies, “If you mean my mum and dad, why don’t you use their names?”24 Why indeed? While Rowling has confirmed that Petunia was speaking about Lily, she was very cagey about the incident and didn’t identify the boy Lily was talking to.25 This has generated speculation that the “awful boy” may have been Snape and that Petunia may let this information slip when Harry returns to Privet Drive.
While all of these hints are only circumstantial, it is not unthinkable that Snape might have had feelings for Lily. For one thing, it would explain his extreme remorse over having inadvertently set the Potters up as Voldemort’s victims. Though Lily probably never knew of his feelings and didn’t return them, Snape surely would have still felt loyalty to her and would have been horrified to have endangered her. Although his life-debt to James—incurred when James saved him from meeting Remus as a werewolf due to an ill-conceived “prank” by Sirius—might have played a part in this too, it has to be love that brought Snape back to the Light side given its central theme in the story.
This also fits Snape’s character. Lily appears to be the only person who was ever kind to him in school; the only person who ever looked closely enough at the unattractive, unpleasant boy to see the goodness within. How could he not have loved her for that?