"I Trust Severus Snape"
-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 549
By Michele Nanjo
“A Schoolboy Grudge…”26
Discovering that Snape had feelings for Lily would also help Harry to understand Snape’s intense, irrational hatred towards James and himself.
When Neville melts his cauldron during Harry’s first Potions lesson in Sorcerer’s Stone, Snape blames Harry. “Thought he’d make you look good if he got it wrong, did you?”27 When we first read this, Snape seems completely irrational. Why on earth should he blame Harry? The answer can be found in “Snape’s Worst Memory.” In that chapter of Order of the Phoenix we learn how arrogant James was in school and how he enjoyed picking on his fellow students. In hindsight then, during that fateful first Potions lesson, Snape seems to be accusing Harry of doing what James would have done. Harry looks so much like his father that Snape believes Harry will behave like him, too. He makes this assumption repeatedly in the series and despises Harry as the reincarnation of his hated rival.
But why does Snape hate James so much? The easy answer is because of the old feud between them and much is made of Snape’s extreme vindictiveness in holding onto this “schoolboy grudge” for so long. No matter how much James may have bullied Snape, he died tragically young. Surely that should be vengeance enough for Snape!
But Snape’s hatred may not be only a result of the old grudge. Rowling is a master at leading her readers astray, and Snape’s grudge may just be her biggest red herring of all. Yes, the boys hated each other in school but it is probably not James’s bullying alone that Snape can’t forgive, or even Sirius’s “trick” in sending him to the Shrieking Shack to face a werewolf when they were sixteen. There must be more to it than that and we get a glimpse of the hidden source of Snape’s hatred in the Shrieking Shack in Prisoner of Azkaban when he snarls at Harry, “You’d have died like your father, too arrogant to believe you might be mistaken in Black”28
This line tells us two things. Snape truly believed that it was Sirius who had betrayed the Potters… and he blames James at least as much for their deaths. If only James hadn’t been so arrogant… if only he’d done the smart thing and let Dumbledore act as Secret Keeper, then he and Lily would still be alive.
This isn’t fair, of course. James never intended to risk the lives of his wife and son. But given Dumbledore’s assertion that endangering the Potters was the “greatest regret of [Snape’s] life”29 and that he turned spy at “great personal risk,”30 it is easy to understand Snape’s bitterness towards James. Is this the wound that goes too deep for healing—the secret fuel that keeps Snape’s hatred burning? It is quite possible that Snape blames James because it helps to relieve his own crushing guilt, much in the same way that Harry blames Snape for Sirius’s death to lighten his own guilt at the end of Order of the Phoenix.
In this, Harry is just as unfair as Snape and the parallel between the two is an important one. Harry and Snape have both chosen to hate one another. Snape’s grudge is unrelenting. For Harry, the crucial moment comes when Draco confronts him in the entrance hall and Snape arrives to stop him from cursing the Slytherin: “…and at the sight of him Harry felt a great rush of hatred beyond anything he felt toward Malfoy… Whatever Dumbledore said, he would never forgive Snape… never…”31
One thing that should be clear from this is that Harry Potter is not simply a tale of good versus evil. Rather, it is a story of love vs. hate, forgiveness vs. blame and mercy vs. vengeance. It is these overarching themes that we must finally examine when we look at Snape’s place in the story.
Tom, Severus and Harry
At its heart, Harry Potter is a tale of three half-blood boys who endured lonely, unhappy childhoods and responded to life’s cruelty by choosing three separate paths—Harry chose the path of Light and love; Tom Riddle the way of Darkness and hate; while Snape has spent his life torn between the two.
Their dismal childhoods are not the only parallel between these characters. Harry’s relationships with Snape and Voldemort have also followed similar paths. He sees each man as a sworn enemy, but significantly, he also sees the similarities between them and himself. Harry has twice felt empathy towards each of his counterparts.
In both Riddle’s diary and the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions text, Harry was presented with a mysterious old book that had, years previously, belonged to a boy Harry didn’t know. In each case, Harry came to feel a kinship with the boy in the book and to regard him as a friend and guide. He was devastated to learn the true identities of these boys whom he had trusted.
Harry’s trips into the Pensieve during his lessons with Dumbledore and in “Snape’s Worst Memory” present a similar situation. Seeing Snape and Tom Riddle as boys, Harry couldn’t help but feel sorry for what they had endured in their youth even though he was not comfortable with these feelings of compassion.
The parallels here are striking and raise the question, will we see a third occasion where Harry feels compassion towards his two adversaries? Given the central role love must play in the denouement of the series, the likely answer is yes.
“It Is My Mercy, and Not Yours, that Matters Now…”
Dumbledore set an excellent example for Harry when he showed mercy to Draco in Half-Blood Prince.32 Dumbledore insisted that love is the power Harry must use to defeat Voldemort, but Harry’s hatred of Snape will subvert his ability to do this. As long as his heart is filled with a thirst for vengeance, he will not be able to muster the love needed to vanquish the Dark Lord. Harry must defeat hate within himself before he can defeat the external embodiment of it. He must stop hating Severus Snape.
This is Snape’s ultimate purpose in the story—to serve as a catalyst for both Harry’s hatred and mercy. Practice, if you will, for Lord Voldemort. How then will Harry learn to let go of his hatred for a man who has wronged him so deeply? By learning to empathize with Snape as he did with the boy being humiliated by James Potter. If our speculation so far is correct, then as Harry uncovers the truth of why Snape killed Dumbledore and of Snape’s relationships with James and Lily, he will learn invaluable lessons about love and hate, humility and arrogance. It won’t happen overnight, but slowly Harry will come to see that Snape’s worst crimes were actually tragic mistakes and that the man’s hatred has hurt himself most of all. Harry’s natural abundance of love will finally lead him to see the goodness in the man just as Dumbledore and Lily did, and despite his insistence to the contrary, he will forgive Snape for his cruelty and his mistakes.
“It Is Our Choices…”
Dumbledore told Harry that it is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.33 Snape has made some dreadful choices in his life, but by far the worst has been allowing himself to be consumed by hatred. That is what burdens his soul. Rowling has told us that Snape has been loved34 which makes this all the worse. He is more culpable than Voldemort for his hatred and cruelty because he should know better. But while knowing love makes Snape’s guilt worse, it also gives him the hope of redemption—a hope Voldemort does not have.35
There is no more important choice than the choice between love and hate. But can Snape renounce hate as he once renounced Voldemort? Even with Harry’s mercy, this seems a tall order. Yet this is what Snape must do if he is to ever find peace. While other characters such as Peter Pettigrew can find redemption through their own actions, Snape needs Harry’s forgiveness in order to forgive himself and to stop hating everyone he considers responsible for James and Lily’s deaths. It is difficult to imagine him accepting Harry’s forgiveness, but given the importance of love in the story, it makes sense.
Just as Tom, Severus and Harry chose three different responses to their miserable childhoods, Snape and Voldemort are surely destined to make different choices when faced with Harry’s mercy. Voldemort, who is beyond salvation, will be destroyed by the love he is incapable of feeling. But love must do more than destroy evil. It must also save.
Rowling has given us a prime candidate for this salvation. Dumbledore has told us that Snape is the Death Eater who returned to the Light side and risked his life for the sake of love. If Dumbledore was right then no matter how much Snape may hate Harry, he cannot help but protect the child Lily died to defend. Indeed, we have seen this again and again in Snape’s schizophrenic behavior towards Harry. No one hates Harry more than Snape, yet few aside from Dumbledore have done as much to protect him.
The key to Snape letting go of his hate and accepting Harry’s forgiveness will be for him to finally stop seeing only James when he looks at Harry. He must look into Harry’s eyes—so like his mother’s—and see Lily in her son as well.
The Spinner’s End
The final question we must ask about Severus Snape is whether or not he will survive the coming showdown between Harry and Voldemort?
While Snape might survive, it’s not likely; the game he’s playing is too dangerous. More than that, it seems hopeless that he could convince the Ministry or public opinion that he isn’t a murderous traitor. Probably the only chance he has to clear his name will be to die fighting Voldemort. And giving his life to protect Harry may be the only way he will consider his debt to the Potters paid.
Snape wouldn’t mind this fate. This man who craves respect above all else would certainly rather die and be lauded as a hero than live only to endure ignominy and scorn. An Order of Merlin, First Class, awarded posthumously is better than none at all. Besides, Snape has no family or any close friends with the possible exception of the Malfoys. He is thoroughly misanthropic, bitter, unhappy and lonely. His life seems to have no purpose beyond righting the old wrong by protecting Harry and working to see Voldemort finished. Once that is done, he will have nothing and Snape deserves more than that. He deserves peace and freedom from the guilt and pain we have glimpsed. He deserves the chance to love and be loved. But he is unlikely to find these things in life.
Harry Potter is a story of sacrifice and redemption. It began with Lily dying to save Harry and will probably end with one or more similarly selfless acts. But if Snape turns out to be one of those who make the ultimate sacrifice to help Harry bring down Voldemort then there is one thing we can be absolutely certain of: Dumbledore will be waiting with open arms to welcome him to the next great adventure.
1. Fraser, Conversations with J.K. Rowling, 21.
2. Abel, “Author Works Her Magic.”
3. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 290.
4.Anelli & Spartz, “TLC/MN interview Part One.”
5. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 26.
6. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 531.
7. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 31.
8. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 833 and Half-Blood Prince, 549.
9. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 603.
10. Ibid., 604.
11. Ibid., 602-3.
12. Ibid., 604.
14. Ibid., 595.
15. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 297.
16. Ibid., Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp.
17. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 578.
18. Ibid., 583.
19. Ibid., Official Site, “Why did Harry forget the mirror?”
20. Ibid., “World Book Day Chat.”
21. Ibid., Official Site, “How DO members communicate with each other?”
22. Ibid., Interview with Christopher Lydon, part 13.
23. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 647.
24. Ibid., 32.
25. Ibid., “ ‘Cub reporter’ press conference.”
26. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 359.
27. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 139.
28. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 361.
29. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 549.
30. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 591.
31. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 851.
32. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 592.
33. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 333.
34. Anelli & Spartz, “TLC/MN interview Part Three.”
35. Rowling, Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp.
Abel, Katy. “Harry Potter Author Works Her Magic.” Family Education (Summer 1999). http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/0999-familyeducation-abel.htm.
Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz. “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part One.” The Leaky Cauldron, 16 July 2005. http://www.leakynews.com/#static:tlcinterviews/jkrhbp1.
———. “The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part Three.” The Leaky Cauldron, 16 July 2005. http://www.leakynews.com/#static:tlcinterviews/jkrhbp3.
Fraser, Lindsey. Conversations with J.K. Rowling. New York: Scholastic Press, 2001. Quoted in “2000 Article Highlights,” Accio Quote. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/list2000.html.J.K. Rowling Official Site. “FAQ: So how DO the members of the Order of the Phoenix communicate with each other?” http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view.cfm?id=99 (accessed 14 November 2006).
———. “FAQ: Why did Harry have to forget the mirror he had been given by Sirius in ‘Order of the Phoenix’?” http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view.cfm?id=22 (accessed 14 November 2006).
Rowling, J.K. An Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp: Readings and questions #1, 1 August 2006. Transcript, Accio Quote. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2006/0801-radiocityreading1.html.
———. “Edinburgh ‘cub reporter’ press conference.” ITV, 16 July 2005. Transcript, Accio Quote. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/0705-edinburgh-ITVcubreporters.htm.
———. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.
———. Interview with Christopher Lydon. The Connection (WBUR Radio), 12 October, 1999. Transcript, Accio Quote. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/1099-connectiontransc2.htm.
———. “JK Rowling’s World Book Day Chat,” 4 March 2004. Transcript, Accio Quote. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2004/0304-wbd.htm.