Is Snape good or bad? Until J.K. Rowling finally blesses us all with Book Seven, it might be easier to tell whether the chicken or the egg came first. In fact, the terms “good” and “bad” pose problems. Not all mean people are evil, just as not all nice people are good; Sirius Black advises Harry that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” (The Order of the Phoenix 302) A character as complex and mysterious as Severus Snape cannot be labeled simply as ”good” or “bad”. He has a nasty personality, but that alone is not enough to convict him. He has done many awful things, yet he also has done things for good. How does one come to any conclusion about him? How can anyone who has such a nasty, unpleasant attitude be “good?”
One explanation is that the “good” label itself is a misnomer. Snape is not now, nor has he ever been, likely to become a “good” person; nevertheless, he does not have to be pleasant and cheerful, showering everyone with daisy petals and lollipops, or behave like a normal, civil adult in order to do the right thing. He will prove to skeptics that Dumbledore was right to trust him. As Dumbledore so famously said, “It is our choices […] that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (The Chamber of Secrets 333) Snape will justify the faith Dumbledore placed in him, when Snape makes the choice to help the forces of good overcome the most evil wizard of the age. Snape is not a “good” man, but he will prove that Dumbledore was right to trust him by acting on behalf of the “good” side when it really counts.
Snape as Anti-Hero
The books themselves offer interesting pieces of support to the theory that Snape is Dumbledore’s man. From a literary standpoint, while Harry is the Everyman hero, Snape displays many characteristics of the traditional anti-hero, more specifically the Byronic hero, rather than the villain. The Byronic hero is a type of anti-hero that originated during literature’s Romantic period. He is typically characterized by an antisocial and mercurial attitude. He is usually dark, intelligent, passionate to the point of being oversensitive, and imperious (“Characteristics of the Byronic hero”). With that in mind, what purpose would a “bad” Snape serve in Book Seven? We already have a villain, the worst one imaginable, in Lord Voldemort.
Another interesting theory considers the structure of the Harry Potter books as a literary cycle. When one compares the apparent symmetrical nature of the series, using The Goblet of Fire as the central, stand-alone element, one can draw some interesting parallels between the individual books. The similarities between The Chamber of Secrets and The Half-Blood Prince, between The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Order of the Phoenix follow this kind of cyclical pattern, and lead to speculation about the similarities that may arise between The Philosopher’s Stone and Book Seven. For example, in The Philosopher’s Stone Harry believes that Snape is a traitor, but discovers that he was wrong. This inspires some fans to predict that because Harry will believe beyond a doubt that Snape is a traitor at the beginning of Book Seven, that Snape will prove conclusively he is loyal to Dumbledore at the end.
Severus and Eileen: the Significance of Love
At the end of her interview with Melissa and Emerson, J.K. Rowling says that Snape “has [been loved], which in some ways makes him more culpable even than Voldemort, who never has” (Anelli, “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part Three”). Snape is “more culpable” for the horrible things he has done than Voldemort, because Snape has been loved. Who loved Snape? While we cannot know for certain and there are many possibilities, the most logical candidate is Eileen Prince, Snape’s mother.
As readers, seldom are we witness to the childhood and formative experiences of characters, least of all Hogwarts professors. However, we have had a glimpse of what we must presume are meaningful events in the life of Severus Snape. The importance of the mother-son relationship is repeated consistently throughout the Harry Potter series, most frequently with the description of Harry having his mother’s eyes (The Philosopher’s Stone 208). From the very first book, we learn that Lily Potter’s willing sacrifice was what saved son Harry from Voldemort’s Killing Curse.Then, in The Half-Blood Prince, we are shown Tom Riddle’s relationship with his mother, Merope Riddle; in stark contrast to the loving bond between Harry and Lily it was, in fact, nonexistent. So, we have a contrast: Harry and Lily, who shared a strong bond of love, and Tom and Merope, who shared nothing but genes.
What about the relationship between Snape and Eileen? We get a glimpse of someone who may be Eileen Prince during one of Harry’s Occlumency lessons in The Order of the Phoenix, when Harry witnesses “a hook-nosed man was shouting at a cowering woman, while a small dark-haired boy cried in a corner….” (The Order of the Phoenix 592) We meet her properly when Hermione discovers the Daily Prophet article about Eileen as the Hogwarts Gobstones Team captain (ibidem). What was Snape’s relationship with his mother, and what effect did it have on him? We can surmise from the memory Harry sees that Snape’s relationship with his parents involved fear and sadness. Did he resent his mother for marrying a muggle? He pays homage to her with his secret nickname (“Half-Blood Prince”), but is that out of affection for his mother, or more to spite his father? Snape uses her old Potions book when he comes to Hogwarts; did Eileen teach her son what she knew of magic? The answers to these questions could reveal a great deal about Snape’s character. They could also give a good indication of Snape’s true loyalty.
Perhaps Eileen had something to do with the reason Dumbledore trusted Snape so implicitly. If Eileen Prince loved her son, Snape most likely returned that love. Dumbledore may have believed that the same power that saved Harry from Voldemort’s wrath also saved Snape from losing his soul to complete darkness. Snape is indeed darker than most, but as Dumbledore’s man, whatever light exists inside him will demand that he take action. The ability to love is Harry’s greatest strength; it is, perhaps, Snape’s only salvation.
Snape’s Bad Choices
Even when Snape demonstrates his choice of truly belonging to the good side, still he will never qualify for sainthood. He has done some deeply despicable things. He is difficult and unpleasant, and he has no qualms about subjecting his students to this attitude. J.K. Rowling herself says that Snape is “a deeply horrible person” (Abel, “Harry Potter Author Works Her Magic”). How could Dumbledore allow such a man to be a Hogwarts teacher? Rowling answered for the headmaster when she said, “Dumbledore believes there are all sorts of lessons in life...horrible teachers like Snape are one of them” (Barnes&Noble/Yahoo chat, 10/20/00). Snape may never win Teacher of the Year; that makes him neither a bad person, nor does it render him incapable of working for a higher purpose, serving the side of light and good.
Snape’s loyalty is a hotly debated topic. There are ample reasons, none as volatile as the events put forth in The Half-Blood Prince. Harry discovers in his fourth year that Snape was once a Death Eater and therefore was once loyal to Voldemort (The Goblet of Fire 590). From the little we know of Snape’s earlier years, it is easy to believe that Voldemort was someone Snape greatly admired. ”Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year,” (The Goblet of Fire 531) according to Sirius Black. He invented the Sectumsempra curse.( The Half Blood Prince 604) He demonstrated (as Harry witnessed during his visit to Snape’s Worst Memory in The Order of the Phoenix) that he has no qualms about using the word “mudblood” in its most derogatory sense. He adopted a nickname that highlighted his wizarding heritage. These small facts, when taken together, are indicative of the reasons Snape might have had to join Voldemort’s Death Eaters in his youth.
What did Snape hope to gain by entering Voldemort’s service? His words and actions throughout the series indicate a desire for power and respect, two attributes that the wizarding community accords the Dark Lord. Snape and Voldemort share similar tactics of intimidation through fear. Mastery of the Dark Arts was the path by which young Severus sought to gain power and respect.(The Order of the Phoenix 670) He continues to admire both the Dark Arts and the power it can offer, even as an adult.
However, power and respect are accorded to Albus Dumbledore also. Moreover, Dumbledore could offer Snape two things that Voldemort could not: unwavering trust and true friendship. Voldemort displays a lack of trust in Snape when he appoints Peter Pettigrew as Snape’s “assistant” at Spinner’s End.(The Half Blood Prince 23) It is likely that Pettigrew is there to act as an informant, detailing Snape’s comings and goings directly to Voldemort. As for friendship, it is highly doubtful that Voldemort is capable of such a thing. Dumbledore surmises as much when he tells Harry, “Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one.” (The Half Blood Prince 277) Snape may be a loner, but there is a significant difference between Snape’s and Voldemort’s emotional development. From the chapter in The Half-Blood Prince entitled “The Secret Riddle,” we see a very disturbing young Tom Riddle who is cold and calculating at eleven years old. We are shown brief memories during an Occlumency lesson of a young Severus in The Order of the Phoenix; they are disturbing also, but for very different reasons. Young Severus demonstrated a variety of “normal” human emotions in those fleeting scenes. How much would the platonic love and trust of a man like Dumbledore affect someone like Snape? According to J.K. Rowling herself (Anelli, “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part Three”), Snape has known love in his life, where Voldemort has not. Love and kindness may be of greater importance to Snape than he has realized; they may prove so important, in fact, that they override Snape’s usual Slytherin sensibilities and ultimately compel him to do the right thing.
Bad Attitude, Good Actions
To see examples of Snape’s “good” actions, we must look beyond his curling lip, snide comments and greasy hair. Each book in the Harry Potter series has shown that Snape is more than he initially appears. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Snape kept a protective eye on Harry; heckled Quirrell (whom Snape suspected of wrongdoing from very early on in the year), and tried to save Harry’s life in that fateful Quidditch match. In The Chamber of Secrets, Snape worked with the other Hogwarts teachers to keep the students safe from the unknown Heir of Slytherin and showed signs of genuine concern when he learned a student had been taken into the Chamber. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, he makes the complicated Wolfsbane Potion for Remus Lupin (a man he otherwise detests) and does his best to capture Sirius Black, who was thought by all, including Remus Lupin, to be a dangerous, psychopathic murderer. In The Goblet of Fire, the reader learns that Snape was once a Death Eater and that Dumbledore has an unknown reason for trusting Snape implicitly, despite this knowledge. The Order of the Phoenix shows Snape working for the Order, attempting to teach Harry Occlumency, giving fake Veritaserum to the deplorable Dolores Umbridge, and alerting Order members to Harry’s rescue mission at the Ministry of Magic to “save” Sirius. Finally, in The Half-Blood Prince, Snape saves Dumbledore from succumbing to the effects of the cursed ring and he attempts to cajole Draco into revealing the task given by Voldemort, most likely because he had sworn to protect Draco at the probable cost of his own life. These actions all resulted in the benefit to others, and therefore, qualify as “good.”
It is likely that Snape is the person who provided the initial information that sent the Potters into hiding. This was done to protect them from mortal peril rather than have it befall them. Cornelius Fudge says, “Not many people are aware that the Potters knew You-Know-Who was after them. Dumbledore, who was of course working tirelessly against You-Know-Who, had a number of useful spies. One of them tipped him off, and he alerted James and Lily at once. He advised them to go into hiding.” (Prisoner of Azkaban 204) This seems to indicate that Snape tried to correct the horrible mistake he made in passing the prophecy, or rather, what he had heard of the prophecy, to Voldemort. He certainly demonstrates the same knowledge of the circumstances of the Fidelius Charm that Fudge had, when he tells Harry, “[you’d] have died like your father, too arrogant to believe you might be mistaken in Black,” (Prisoner of Azkaban 361) which is information that Fudge indicates is not widely known. Had Pettigrew not betrayed them, the Potters might still be alive, courtesy of the warning most likely given by Snape.
Another indication of Snape’s true loyalties is the fact that he remained at Hogwarts for so long. If Snape’s raison d’etre is the achievement of great power and respect, it is unlikely that he set out to become a teacher. At Spinner’s End, Snape tells Bellatrix that Voldemort ordered him to apply for a Hogwarts teaching position “because he wished me to spy upon Albus Dumbledore.” (The Half-Blood Prince 26) However, if Snape truly believed that Voldemort was defeated on the night the Potters died (as he tells Bellatrix), why would he remain at Hogwarts for so many years? Dumbledore’s testimony kept him out of Azkaban, but it does not seem to fit an “ambitious” Snape to have remained at Hogwarts for so long after the fact. Once Snape could no longer pretend that he believed Voldemort was gone forever, he still acted as a man loyal to Dumbledore by saving Dumbledore’s life. The headmaster tells Harry that if it had not been for “my own prodigious skill, and for Professor Snape’s timely action when I returned to Hogwarts, desperately injured, I might not have lived to tell the tale.” (The Half-Blood Prince 503) Knowing that Snape believed that, ultimately, Voldemort intended for him to kill Dumbledore, (The Half-Blood Prince 34) what possible reason could a “bad” Snape have had to save his life? It is interesting to note that while Snape tells Bellatrix of Dumbledore’s injury, he neglects to tell her both how Dumbledore received it, and who helped him recover from it. It makes very little sense for Snape to have saved Dumbledore’s life if he intended to kill the Headmaster in the end.
Something else that makes little sense where a “bad” Snape is concerned occurred in The Goblet of Fire. When Harry discovers that the teacher he has known as Mad-Eye Moody for the entire school year is actually Barty Crouch, Jr. in disguise, Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Snape rescue him from the imposter. All three teachers appear in the Foe-Glass, representing the false-Moody’s enemies.( The Goblet of Fire 679) It is unclear if the Foe-Glass reflects only those people the owner considers an enemy (in which case, this incident has no bearing on the question of Snape’s loyalty), or actual enemies (which would be evidence that Snape is a true Death Eater’s enemy).
Dumbledore’s Trust in Snape
Dumbledore, for one, believed that Snape would choose the path of the greater good when it mattered most. Why did Dumbledore trust him so implicitly? J.K. Rowling says, “Snape has given Dumbledore his story and Dumbledore believes it.” (J.K. Rowling’s “World Book Day Chat”) At the end of The Half-Blood Prince, Harry believes he knows the reason. He says, “Snape passed Voldemort the information that made Voldemort hunt down my mum and dad. Then Snape told Dumbledore he hadn’t realized what he was doing, he was really sorry he’d done it, sorry that they were dead.” (The Half-Blood Prince 616) But Harry is incorrect. At Igor Karkaroff’s trial in The Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore testifies that Snape “rejoined our side before Lord Voldemort’s downfall and turned spy for us, at great personal risk,” (The Goblet of Fire 590-591) which was before the Potters died. Snape’s remorse at James’s and Lily’s deaths is therefore not the “story” Dumbledore believed. However, because Occlumency requires a disconnection from one’s emotions to perform effectively, it would have been virtually impossible for Snape to demonstrate remorse in Dumbledore’s presence unless that remorse was sincere. Snape himself admits that he would not have gotten far “all these years, if I had not known how to act,” (The Half-Blood Prince 324) and so it is possible that he could have lied. However, this argument is suspect at best, as we must consider the emotional nature of the subject (which precludes the use of Occlumency) and the fact that Dumbledore himself was a skilled Legilimens. Snape gives Bellatrix this same reason for Dumbledore’s trust when he tells her, “I spun him a tale of deepest remorse when I joined his staff, fresh from my Death Eater days, and he embraced me with open arms.” (The Half-Blood Prince 31) We know, however, that either he is referring to some other tale of remorse, or he is lying (which the careful reader will note, his conversation with Bellatrix and Narcissa is steeped in half-truths).
The one fact that brings the most readers to condemn Snape as evil is the fact that he spoke the Killing Curse that brought about the end of Albus Dumbledore’s life. Murder is always an awful thing; however, in both the Muggle and Wizarding worlds of Harry Potter, the mitigating circumstances behind a murder are crucial for proper judgment of the murderer. For example, Sirius Black and Remus Lupin were about to murder Peter Pettigrew when Harry stopped them. (The Prisoner of Azkaban 375) Barty Crouch, Sr. authorized the Ministry Aurors to use the Killing Curse against Dark Wizards and Witches during the first war against Voldemort; we may surmise that they did use it.( The Goblet of Fire 527) Harry himself admits to Dumbledore that, even without the prophecy, “I’d want him [Voldemort] finished, […and] I’d want to do it.” (The Half-Blood Prince 512) In the worlds of Harry Potter, even “good” people have killed or had the intent to kill. It is not possible to know whether or not Snape did the “right” thing on the Tower without knowing the circumstances that led him to kill Dumbledore.
What are the circumstances behind Dumbledore’s murder? We do not know the entire picture, although we are privy to certain elements. First, we know that Snape and Dumbledore argued earlier in the year. Hagrid tells Harry about the argument, which Hagrid accidentally overheard.
“Well--I jus’ heard Snape sayin’ Dumbledore took too much for granted an’ maybe he--Snape--didn’ wan’ ter do it anymore--”
“I dunno, Harry, it sounded like Snape was feelin’ a bit overworked, tha’s all--anyway, Dumbledore told him flat out he’d agreed ter do it an’ that was all there was to it. Pretty firm with him. An’ then he said summat abou’ Snape makin’ investigations in his House, in Slytherin…” (The Half-Blood Prince 406)
What was it that Snape agreed to do? The only agreement involving Snape of which the reader is aware is the Unbreakable Vow. If Hagrid heard correctly, the words Dumbledore used indicate that he knew about the Vow. It is plausible that Dumbledore and Snape were discussing the possibility that Snape would be the one forced to kill Dumbledore. It makes sense that Dumbledore would tell Snape that “he’d agreed ter do it,” since killing Dumbledore was the implied task of the Vow. This suggests that Snape and Dumbledore may have had had some kind of plan regarding Snape’s predicament.
When Snape finally arrives on the Tower, we are witness to another exchange between the two men:
The sound frightened Harry beyond anything he had experienced all evening. For the first time, Dumbledore was pleading.
[…] Snape gazed for a moment at Dumbledore, and there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face.
Snape raised his wand and pointed it directly at Dumbledore.
“Avada Kedavra!” (The Half-Blood Prince 595-596)
The big question here is: Why is Dumbledore pleading? Is he pleading to be relieved from extreme physical pain, as some have suggested? That idea has no real support from anything else in Harry Potter canon. A request for euthanasia would be extremely out of character for a man like Albus Dumbledore. Much more in keeping with his character is an act of self-sacrifice.
Dumbledore Was Right: Dissecting the Unbreakable Vow
From the moment Harry and Dumbledore met at the start of the year, Dumbledore began to confide in Harry information crucial to his defeat of Voldemort, much more so than he had ever done before. Did he know when and how he was going to die? Considering Dumbledore’s less-than-enthusiastic opinion of Divination, that is highly unlikely. However, he had sustained a deadly injury from the ring Horcrux, and he admitted to Harry that the potion in the cave was potentially lethal. In retrospect, it is reasonably clear that Dumbledore knew he did not have much longer to live, especially after the events in the cave. Dumbledore also knew that if he did not die, Voldemort would kill Draco for his failure and Snape would die from the Unbreakable Vow. These are two things that Dumbledore would never allow to happen, if he can prevent them. Sacrificing himself so that others can live is exactly the sort of thing that we have come to expect from Dumbledore. If we hypothesize that his death was unavoidable, using his death to further solidify Snape’s position with Voldemort is also something a supremely clever man like Dumbledore would embrace, if given the opportunity. Snape cannot pass information to the Order of the Phoenix; they believe him the worst kind of traitor. However, Snape is in a position of great influence now and will have the ability to assist Harry at a critical time in the future due to Dumbledore’s actions. Dumbledore sacrificed his life for Harry and the greater good; Snape sacrificed his standing in society, his teaching position, and his personal safety in order to repay Dumbledore for his trust and kindness.
If Snape did not want to kill Dumbledore, why did he do it? Again, all is conjecture at this point. The simplest answer is that he did it because he would have died from the Unbreakable Vow otherwise. The question then becomes, why did Snape take the Unbreakable Vow? Those who see only evil in Snape might say he had nothing to lose in vowing to kill Dumbledore, since he tells Narcissa and Bellatrix in the Spinner’s End chapter that he believes Voldemort intended for him [Snape] to “do it in the end.” (The Half-Blood Prince 34) However, there are several reasons why agreeing to take the Vow makes no sense for a “bad” Snape.
Let us consider the circumstances surrounding the Vow. After a constant stream of begging and pleading from Narcissa, Snape finally offers to try to help Draco. Does Snape have an honest desire to protect Draco? We cannot be sure, but that seems to be the case. It is at this point that she suggests the Unbreakable Vow. When Snape hesitates, Bellatrix says, “Aren’t you listening, Narcissa? Oh, he’ll try, I’m sure….The usual empty words, the usual slithering out of action…oh, on the Dark Lord’s orders, of course!” (The Half-Blood Prince 35) Indeed, Bellatrix is quite correct. Snape could tell Narcissa that he cannot take the Vow because Voldemort has forbidden them to even discuss the matter; therefore, in agreeing to take the Vow, Snape is in fact going against Voldemort’s instructions. Perhaps Snape consents to take the Vow simply to silence Bellatrix, his most vocal detractor? It is possible, yet he directs his answer to the tearstained face of Narcissa, rather than to Bellatrix. Although we are given hints rather than details of the long history between Snape and the Malfoy family; it is reasonable to conclude that Snape genuinely took pity on Narcissa. She went to Snape against her sister’s warnings and at the risk of Voldemort’s displeasure. This may be an example of a selfless act on Snape’s part, and evidence of his capacity for compassion.
The first two parts of the Vow require Snape to watch over and to protect Draco. Did he know that Narcissa would add the third part before he agreed to take the Vow? The last thing Snape said to Narcissa was that he could try to help Draco. Why does his hand twitch when Narcissa adds the third condition to the Vow? Why does he pause when she is finished? I believe these are indications of Snape’s reluctance to accept the third part of the Vow. By that point, however, he has little choice but to agree. Considering his reaction directly after killing Dumbledore, it is quite possible that agreeing to take the Unbreakable Vow may prove to be the biggest mistake of Snape’s life. Snape will require redemption for making this mistake; he will find his redemption by acting on the side of good when it counts most.
Fittingly, we see more evidence of emotion from Snape in The Half-Blood Prince than any of the previous books. But, while his expressions do not convey as much feeling as his actions in the “Spinner’s End” chapter, his face is extremely expressive in “The Lightning-Struck Tower”. Why was there “revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face” (The Half-Blood Prince 595) just before he performed the Curse? While some believe Snape’s expression merely demonstrates his hatred and revulsion for Dumbledore, that seems far too simplistic an idea for such a complex story. The language in this scene is remarkably similar to the scene in the Cave. ”Hating himself, repulsed by what he was doing, Harry forced the goblet back toward Dumbledore’s mouth and tipped it, so that Dumbledore drank the remainder of the potion inside.” (The Half-Blood Prince 571) Much the same as Harry hated himself for having to cause Dumbledore pain, Snape may have felt self-hatred for the same reason. Snape is an expert Occlumens, and according to J.K. Rowling, “someone who is very capable of compartmentalizing his life and his emotions” best masters Occlumency (Anelli, “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part Two”). I believe that Snape would be able to “mean” for his Killing Curse to work, without wanting Dumbledore dead. If taking Dumbledore’s life was what he wanted to do, why did he look “suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning house” (The Half-Blood Prince 604) afterward? Why the word “pain”? The language does not describe a loyal Death Eater who has just eliminated the only wizard Voldemort ever feared, it describes a man who has just done something against his will. Snape foregoes the opportunity to gloat, especially in front of Harry. It is clear that he is not proud of his actions that night; rather, his deeds on the Tower cause him a great deal of torment. ”Bad” men are not tormented by the bad things they have done (example: Voldemort). Only men who have a conscience suffer with the knowledge that they have taken a life, whatever the reasons behind the act. Snape’s appearance as he flees Hogwarts proves that he is such a man. His conscience will lead him to perform the right action in the end, when such action will make a difference.
In conclusion, it is clear that while the term “good” is not likely to ever apply to Severus Snape’s personal character, he has done many good things, and always when it mattered the most. As Dumbledore said, what it comes down to is choice. Despite all of his mistakes, despite the horrible things he has done, Snape still has one more opportunity to prove his loyalty to Dumbledore and to the side of “good”. When the time comes, Severus Snape will decide against what is easy and choose what is right, as he has done time and time again. He will prove that Harry was wrong to suspect him, and prove that Dumbledore was right to trust him. The Connection radio show host Christopher Lydon suggested during his interview with J.K. Rowling that Snape follows a “redemptive pattern” (Lydon, “Rowling interview transcript”); Ms.Rowling indicated elaboration would spoil future books for the readers. Out of all the characters that are in desperate need of redemption, Snape tops the list. I believe the evidence currently suggests that this redemption shall be forthcoming in Book Seven.
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