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 I
'd
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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