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Defined by Their Choices:
Comparing Sirius Black and Severus Snape
By HawthorneAndPhoenix

Introduction

I am a fan of Severus Snape. He’s a fascinating, complex individual, or as Jo once said, “a gift of a character.” 1 When I discuss the Harry Potter series on a message board or in a chat, chances are that the discussion somehow involves Snape. And I’m not alone in my Snape fixation. He’s a favorite topic of conversation with Harry Potter fans everywhere.

However, there is one sentiment common among many of Snape’s admirers that is perhaps even more difficult to understand than their fascination with such a snarky, nasty character. A surprising number of the Half-Blood Prince’s supporters harbor a vehement loathing for the Marauders, and especially for Sirius Black. Now, Sirius has never intrigued me in the same way Snape has, but I have always enjoyed him as a character. He is certainly an imperfect person, but then, so is Snape. So I am often baffled by this condemnation of the former by fans of the latter.

This essay will make comparisons between the lives, actions and characters of Severus Snape and Sirius Black. The similarities and parallels between the two are, at times, quite striking. Nevertheless, it will be clear to even the most ardent Snape fan that there is a reason that the wizarding world would laud Sirius as a “good guy” while decrying Severus as a “bad guy.” The reason may be easily summed up in one word: choices.

 

Abuse and Alienation

Snape fans frequently identify with their beloved Potions Master because they claim to sympathize with his allegedly difficult childhood. In truth, we cannot know exactly how difficult it was; the short glimpses of Snape's childhood to which Harry is exposed during one of their Occlumency lessons could have any number of plausible explanations, not all of which must be miserable or tragic. Considering the choices Snape made later in his life, however, it is reasonable to conclude that his childhood was at the least an unhappy one. So it is easy to understand why some Snape fans might sympathize with a person who in all likelihood had a bleak and possibly abusive youth.

Perhaps these Snape fans are forgetting, then, that Sirius’s childhood may very well have been just as unhappy and difficult. We know that Sirius did not get along with his parents. Even at the young age of eleven years old, Sirius made the choice not to follow what seems to have been the Black family tradition of joining Slytherin House, whether that choice was made consciously (like Harry) or not. Sirius was summarily disinherited from his family, and although this probably suited him just fine, the emotional scars could be no less significant. Sirius’s childhood was potentially as bleak and abusive as Snape’s. Snape fans may point out that although he and Sirius may have shared a dejected family life, Sirius at least found refuge during the school year with his circle of friends. This is quite possible. It is also, however, a matter of choice. Sirius created a surrogate family out of people he chose as his friends. However introverted and sullen young Snape may have been, if he did not endeavor to cultivate any friendships, that was his choice to make.

 

Juvenile Delinquents

Sirius’s immaturity is often painfully obvious through both his words and his actions. Molly Weasley goes so far as to accuse him of trying to use Harry as a substitute for James Potter when she says, “Sometimes, the way you talk about him, it’s as though you think you've got your best friend back!” 2 One of the most glaring examples of this is when Sirius tells Harry, “You’re less like your father than I thought. The risk would've been what made it fun for James. […] I’ll write to tell you a time I can make it back into the fire, then, shall I? If you can stand to risk it?” 3 Harry’s concern is Sirius’s safety and freedom; it is Harry who is acting responsibly here while Sirius continues to behave like a reckless, immature teenager. But one does not have to dig very deeply to discover the cause of Sirius’s stunted emotional development. In Azkaban, he suffered the constant deluge of his most horrible memories day in and day out for twelve years. Most prisoners “go mad within weeks.” 4 One must presume that Sirius could not have escaped completely whole and unscathed.

Snape is also immature. This is evident on several occasions, most especially during his infamous fits of temper. One compelling example happens in the Shrieking Shack. Even in the face of evidence that Sirius may not be guilty of the crimes for which he spent twelve years in Azkaban, Snape refuses to listen. He prefers to hand Sirius (and perhaps even Lupin) over to the dementors, who Snape knows have been given leave to perform their Kiss on Sirius at will. Snape’s desire for revenge against Sirius is quite understandable; Sirius’s boyhood idiocy could have cost Snape his life if James had not intervened. We are not privy to the details of how the events surrounding the Whomping Willow incident took place, nor how they were resolved. It is clear that both Snape and Sirius emerged from the experience with deep and lasting grudges. But Snape is prepared to watch Sirius suffer a fate worse than death, even going so far as to threaten to kill Sirius, because he is either unable or unwilling to get over his childhood grudge. We know why Sirius has remained emotionally immature. What is Snape's excuse?

 

Biggest Mistakes

Those Snape fans who hate Sirius are quick to point out Sirius’s “highly amusing joke” 5 as proof of his despicable character. Sometime during their sixth year at Hogwarts, Sirius told Snape how he could get into the Whomping Willow passage to the Shrieking Shack, where Remus Lupin was enduring the full moon’s effects on his lycanthropy. This inexcusable offense could have resulted in anything from Snape getting seriously injured or infected with lycanthropy, to Snape’s death. Quite apart from that, Sirius had obviously given no consideration to how his actions would affect Remus. If Sirius had stopped to think instead of acting like a malicious, impulsive fool, he would’ve realized what a tremendous toll his actions would have had on his friend. It was a horrible, ugly thing for Sirius to do, and although we don’t know how Sirius was punished for his actions by Dumbledore, we do know that Fate punished him for them tenfold. One wonders what Snape did to incur Sirius’s wrath. True, by all accounts, they had always been enemies. But it seems only logical to the savvy reader that Snape must have done or said something to Sirius that the Gryffindor felt deserved more retaliation than the usual public depantsing.

Snape has certainly made his share of mistakes as well. His history as a Death Eater is testament to that fact. Those Snape fans who believe that Snape did not want to kill Dumbledore may consider his acceptance of the Unbreakable Vow to be the worst mistake of his life. But before that happened, and according to Dumbledore himself, Snape’s biggest mistake was in passing the prophecy fragment to Voldemort. It is highly unlikely that Snape knew to which families the prophecy would apply at the time he reported it. Dumbledore tells Harry, “You have no idea of the remorse Professor Snape felt when he realized how Lord Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy, Harry. I believe it to be the greatest regret of his life.” 6 This should trouble Snape fans on more than one level. If it is true, it implies that Snape knew that someone would become Voldemort’s victim after he heard the prophecy fragment. Therefore, either Snape did not know or care who that target might be until it was too late, or he had some other person in mind when he gave the prophecy fragment to Voldemort. Neither option speaks well for Snape or the choices he made.

 

Hopelessly Flawed

There is no question that Sirius was a terrible bully. He acknowledges this fact when speaking to Harry about his bullying of Snape. He says, “I’m not proud of it,” and refers to James and himself as “arrogant little berks,” 7 during their school days. Harry witnesses one instance of Sirius’s and his father’s bullying in the “Snape's Worst Memory” chapter of Order of the Phoenix. Knowing just how much Snape suffered at the hands of his schoolyard bullies, his treatment of his students is that much more appalling. Snape doesn’t bully his peers as Sirius did during their time at Hogwarts; his victims are children without the means to defend themselves. Snape has become in his adulthood the very thing he most hated in his childhood.

Another accusation often leveled at Sirius is that it was his fault that the Potters’ Secret-Keeper plan failed. He certainly accepts the blame when he says, “Harry… I as good as killed them. I persuaded Lily and James to change to Peter at the last moment, persuaded them to use him as Secret-Keeper instead of me…. I’m to blame, I know it…. […]And when I saw their house, destroyed, and their bodies… I realized what Peter must have done... what Id done.... 8 Without a doubt, this change in plan was a mistake. But ultimately, however guilty Sirius may feel about his part in the plan’s failure, he is not responsible for what happened to the Potters. Peter Pettigrew alone is responsible for betraying James and Lily, and Voldemort alone is responsible for killing them. The same cannot be said for Snape and the Unbreakable Vow. The debate over whether or not Snape wanted to kill Dumbledore becomes all but irrelevant when compared to the fact that he agreed to do so at the beginning of Half-Blood Prince. Taking Dumbledore’s withered hand and the mysterious potion he drank in the cave into consideration, it is quite possible that, although he dealt the final blow, Snape is not entirely responsible for Dumbledore’s death. Likewise, many Snape fans argue that the Vow has loopholes, or is otherwise invalid. However, given that Snape tells Narcissa and Bellatrix that Voldemort, “intends me to do it in the end, I think,” 9 and that Dumbledore admits to Draco that he knows, “You have been trying, with increasing desperation, to kill me all year,” 10 the obvious conclusion is that Snape knew that Draco’s task was to kill Dumbledore. Snape must have known, or guessed, to what he was agreeing when he took the Unbreakable Vow. He was certainly caught between a rock and a hard place at that moment, but he agreed to carry out Draco’s task at the cost of his own life nonetheless.

As mentioned previously, Sirius is accused of trying to relive the glory days of his friendship with James Potter by using Harry as a replacement. As selfish as this may be on Sirius’s part, there can be no question that he loves his godson. But Snape fans must not forget that Snape is also using Harry for very selfish reasons. His loathing for James Potter has found a convenient target in Harry; a boy who looks exactly like his father. Snape’s reaction to Harry’s appearance, therefore, is perfectly understandable. His reprehensible treatment of Harry, however, is untenable.

 

Conclusion

Two characters with unhappy childhoods, both of whom never really grew up; one who bullied his schoolmates and the other who grew into the worst kind of bully; one wrongfully convicted and punished for betrayal and murder and the other an accused traitor and murderer on the run; one who allowed his adolescent desire for retribution to cloud his judgment and the other whose inability to let go of his boyhood grudges nearly led him to watch an innocent man’s soul get sucked from his body; one who tries to reclaim his youth and chosen family through the son of his best friend and the other who vents his malice and loathing onto the son of his worst enemy. Sirius Black and Severus Snape are more alike than some may be willing to admit. Especially to themselves.

So why, then, is Sirius the “good guy” and Severus the “bad guy” when both of them can be hot-tempered, both have made plenty of mistakes, and both have a knack for being rude and temperamental? Simple: because of the choices they have made. Sirius may not always behave like a mature individual, but he made a very mature decision at a very young age. He chose to stand up to his family and the hatred he lived with every day in his youth. Even after spending almost half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit, he continued to hold onto his beliefs and principles. He died fighting against the forces of evil. For those who believe Snape is Dumbledore’s man, he also made the choice to fight on the side of good. However, Snape’s choice came much later in his life, and he seems to struggle with his decision more and more with each new book. I, along with all my fellow Snape fans, must wait for the final book in the series before I will know for sure which choice Snape will make in the end.

Notes

1. J.K. Rowling, “Edinburgh Book Festival.”

2. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 89.

3. Ibid., 305.

4. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 188.

5. Ibid., 285.

6. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 549.

7. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 670.

8. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 365.

9. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 34.

10. Ibid., 585.

Bibliography

Rowling, J.K. “Edinburgh Book Festival.” 15 August 2004. Transcript, The Leaky Cauldron. http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/2004/0804-ebf.htm (accessed 20 September 2006).

–––. 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.


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