Throughout most of the Harry Potter series, I have thought that Severus Snape was loyal to Albus Dumbledore; after all, Dumbledore says “I trust Severus Snape.” 1 And we can always trust Dumbledore, can’t we?
My trust in Dumbledore allowed me to maintain my belief in Snape even after the events of “Spinner’s End” and the murder of Dumbledore. But I had questions: was Snape the “Spinner,” and was “Spinner’s End” referring to the choices made there that would apparently cause him to end his service with Dumbledore? In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore tells Harry “I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being […] rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” 2 Was Snape one of these huge mistakes?
Admitting you are mistaken is very hard to do. In one of my favorite quotes, John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” 3 In continuing to insist that Snape was good, was I working on my proof? Did I need to change my mind?
I had changed my mind previously under more serious circumstances. I used to do research into the John F. Kennedy (JFK) assassination and I find that there are amazing parallels between Harry Potter fans’ attitudes about what happened on top of the “Lightning-Struck Tower” and JFK assassination researchers’ attitudes about the “grassy knoll” in Dallas, Texas. The people who believe that Snape is evil and those who believe that Snape is good are solidly entrenched in their positions. No amount of evidence about the tower will move them. Just as I think that nothing that is written about the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza will change the opinion of a JFK assassination researcher. Any progress will have to come from other areas.
Learning About Reasoning Through a Study of the JFK Assassination
I used to think that it was a conspiracy that killed JFK, but a research paper I did in college changed my thinking. I did not look at the grassy knoll for my answers to what happened, as it was too confusing and if you read the conspiracy books, there were way too many possible players.4 I looked at other events that, if proven, would go a long way toward proving that Lee Harvey Oswald was framed for killing JFK. I looked at the shooting of a Dallas police officer that same day and proved to myself that Lee Harvey Oswald did one of the two murders that he was accused of. It changed how I think about that sad day in history.
It was a college English professor who forced me to change my mind. My vehicle for proving my hypothesis on the Dallas slaying was a term paper my sophomore year of college. My professor forced me to go back and look at the original sources for my information. So most of that great information I had from books on the conspiracy was worthless; I had to find the original sources. I came to find that the authors had, for the most part, twisted the evidence to fit the theory they had, instead of the evidence leading them to the theory. It was almost like they came up with the theory, then cherry picked information that supported their conclusion while ignoring anything that was not favorable to their conclusion. My first draft and final paper had totally different conclusions. I finally concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had murdered a Dallas policeman. To me, the evidence is strong that the only logical reason for killing the police officer would be to escape capture, meaning it was probable he killed JFK.
Years later, I read the book Case Closed by Gerald Posner and saw that a respected journalist shared my position.5 It worked once with JFK, and so I decided once again to see if I could arrive at a conclusion by concentrating on a single incident having to do with Severus Snape.
Determining the Extent of the Time Gap
Even though I would be going back to the pages of the books, I enjoyed the opinions on the Leaky Lounge, as they helped me look at the books in new and different ways. But I needed facts, not opinions, to rid me of my doubts. So in order to find information on Snape, I had to leave the message boards and everyone’s interpretation of evidence and go back to the original sources, the Harry Potter books. To avoid the “Lightning-Struck Tower,” my starting point would be the Department of Mysteries. I had always wondered about the timeline here as it started in the afternoon and ended after sunrise the next day. I will look at Severus Snape’s actions and how they affected events from the time Severus Snape left Delores Umbridge’s office to Albus Dumbledore saying the following:
You see, when you gave Professor Snape that cryptic warning, he realized that you had had a vision of Sirius trapped in the bowels of the Department of Mysteries. He, like you, attempted to contact Sirius at once. I should explain that members of the Order of the Phoenix have more reliable methods of communicating than the fire in Dolores Umbridge’s office. Professor Snape found that Sirius was alive and safe in Grimmauld Place.
When, however, you did not return from your trip into the forest with Dolores Umbridge, Professor Snape grew worried that you still believed Sirius to be a captive of Lord Voldemort’s. He alerted certain Order members at once.6
The first time I read these two paragraphs I believed without question that all of this was true. But is it wise to believe that two paragraphs of character dialogue as written by J.K. Rowling are completely true? I needed to find out. Did he alert the Order at once, or was his warning timed for some sinister purpose?
If it could be proven that Severus Snape did not do all of these things, or purposely did them in a manner that would have allowed Lucius Malfoy’s mission to succeed, then it would be proof of where his loyalty to Dumbledore lies. One thing that cannot be disputed about the warning that Snape gave is, that had Lucius Malfoy’s plan been a success, the Order’s arrival would have been too late to save Harry and the prophecy. Was the timing of the rescue party’s arrival on purpose? Was the warning timed so that Snape could still seem loyal to the Order and yet have help arrive too late? I needed to find out.
J.K. Rowling gave me the idea of looking here when she has Harry ask himself, while flying to London, “How much time had elapsed since he had seen Sirius lying on the Department of Mysteries floor?” 7 It seems to me that if J.K. Rowling has Harry asking himself that question, it is probably something we should work to find out ourselves and see if it is important.
My main question is how long did it take Severus Snape to alert the Order after Harry left Hogwarts to go into the woods with Dolores Umbridge and Hermione? Now I have a few questions for the readers to consider:
- • What time did Harry, Umbridge, and Hermione go into the woods?
- • When did Harry and his five companions leave for London?
- • When did they arrive in London?
- • What time was it when Harry picked up the prophecy?
- • When did the Order arrive and when did Sirius die?
- • When did Harry arrive back in Dumbledore’s office?
- • And finally, the most important question, what is a reasonable amount of time for Severus Snape to wait to call the Order and tell them that Harry was heading for the Department of Mysteries?
What do you think? Keep your answers in mind. I will not be able to give exact numbers, but it will, I believe, lead you to a conclusion. There is quite a bit of action to fit in a short amount of time and I also think it is some of J.K. Rowling’s best writing.
The start time for the events of the evening in question is 5:00 p.m.; Hermione says this time in the classroom when the plan to contact Sirius is hatched.8 Unfortunately, this is the only actual time given to us during the evening and we will have to find other ways to track time along the way. The other clues given to us are in relation to dinner at Hogwarts, sunset, twilight, and sunrise. I will walk through the timeline, trying to match some of these events to times. Most of them will only be able to be matched to a rough estimate that should be adequate for our purposes.
Severus Snape enters the picture when called to Umbridge’s office to provide Veritaserum. Snape informs Umbridge that he has none because he had given it all to her previously.9 I have seen this action used to show that Snape is loyal to Dumbledore because he did not cooperate with Umbridge. But if Snape was loyal to Voldemort, giving Umbridge the potion at this point would have destroyed Voldemort’s plans also. So I consider this to be a neutral event proving nothing except that Snape is not on Umbridge’s side. The times I am using are conservative to give Snape the benefit of the doubt by making the timeline as short as possible.
But in Umbridge’s office, Harry gives Snape the important warning that will later lead to his rescue, “He’s got Padfoot at the place where it’s hidden!” 10 At some point after this, according to Dumbledore, Snape “attempted to contact Sirius at once” through “more reliable methods of communicating than the fire in Dolores Umbridge’s office” and “found that Sirius was alive and safe in Grimmauld Place.” 11 So when Snape contacted the Order did he mention the entire warning including the part where Harry says “place where it’s hidden,” or just that Voldemort has Sirius? We have no way of knowing this information.
But the clock really starts when Harry, Hermione, and Umbridge leave the castle during dinner. We know it is during dinner because as they walk by the Great Hall they can hear the “din of loud voices and the clatter of cutlery on plates.” 12
Dinner starts before 5:00 p.m. because, on a previous occasion, Harry was able to eat dinner and still make a 5:00 p.m. detention with Umbridge.13 As for an ending time for dinner, the best reference I can find is from the first Dumbledore’s Army meeting where by the end of dinner everyone knew the time of the meeting, but after dinner, they still had time to go back to the common room and leave from there at 7:30 p.m.14 So they leave the castle sometime before 7:30 p.m. And by the fact that there is a “loud din” from the Great Hall when they leave, I am going to say that it is probably 6:30 p.m. at the latest as it would tend to be quieter as dinner winds down.
As the three of them are walking out to the forest, the sun is “falling toward the tops of the trees in the Forbidden Forest.” 15 That could be an excellent clue for time if you knew the height and distance to the top of the trees by providing a time based on the angle from the horizon to the sun.
We do not get another waypoint until they are on the thestrals. Harry and his companions started their ride when they cleared the trees in the forest and “soared out into a blood red sunset” and then streaked over the Castle.16 They should have been visible at this point to any observers. Scotland in mid-June has sunsets at about 10:05 p.m.17 The time since dinner included the walk into the forest, to Harry this “seemed a long time” as they went “so deep into the forest that the tree canopy blocked out all light.” 18 After the centaurs were gone, Harry thought to himself that “they had wasted so much time.” 19 So it was a long trip into the forest, taking approximately three and a half hours from when Harry and Hermione left the castle.
In order to validate the sunset time we can go back to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and compare the use of sunset there with the real life sunset in Scotland. According to Hagrid, Buckbeak was going to be executed at sunset.20 Hermione and Harry returned via time turner to 8:55 p.m.,21 presumably before sunset. According to the Lexicon, the execution was scheduled for 6 June.22 The world time server has sunrise and sunset times for many cities listed. For Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen the sunset times listed range from 9:53 p.m.23 to 9:57 p.m.24 So in Prisoner of Azkaban, the use of sunrise and sunset is consistent with the real world as that would make execution one hour after Harry and Hermione arrived in the past thus showing J.K. Rowling can use sunset properly in her writing. So I will assume that, as she did with Prisoner of Azkaban, she accurately used the time of sunset in Order of the Phoenix as well.
As they flew on, in addition to light on the horizon, Harry saw that “only the lights of Muggle towns […] gave them any clue how far from the ground they were.” 25 This is a very good description of the border between civil and nautical twilight 26 which occurs in London at 10:10 p.m.27 and in Scotland at 11:17 p.m.28 Since they were en route, at this point it is probably somewhere between the two times.
But still they flew on, the flight to London only takes a little more than a page, but there are numerous items in it to add length. There are eleven ellipses on the page; those are usually used in writing or printing to indicate an omission.29 But there are also other things to indicate that more time is being taken, Harry’s legs became numb, “his mouth was dry and frozen from the rush of cold night air,” and he had “lost all sense of how far they had come.” 30 These are not things that would happen on a short trip.
The other variables are the speed and distance of the trip. While on the thestral “Harry did not think he had ever moved so fast.” 31 The fastest thing he had flown previously was a Firebolt, which “has an acceleration of 150 miles an hour in ten seconds.” 32 To be conservative, I have chosen a top speed for a thestral of 200 mph. This speed is very high, possibly too fast, but it definitely serves as a conservative upper limit given the information provided. As for the distance from Hogwarts to London, we can make some estimates of the distance using Scottish cities. The distance from Edinburgh to London is 336 miles and from Aberdeen to London is 398 miles.33 I will take 400 miles for my estimate, note here that Hogwarts is most likely farther north than both of these cities, so again, my estimate is conservative. If the thestrals traveled at 200 mph it would take two hours to get there (note that if they flew at a more reasonable 100 mph, it would take at least four hours). So this information puts Harry and his friends in London between midnight and a bit after 2:00 a.m.
On Harry’s arrival back in the castle, “There was a cool line of pale green along the horizon: Dawn was approaching” 34 and he was greeted by the portrait Phineas Nigellus who asks him “And what brings you here in the early hours of the morning?” 35 So Harry has arrived at the castle before sunrise and awaits Albus Dumbledore; again J.K. Rowling uses ellipses to show the passage of time. Then after Dumbledore arrives, we have the end of our timeline with the sunrise as the sun is visible over the mountains36 (sunrise in Scotland in June is 4:15 a.m.37).
The fact that sunrise is over the mountains keeps us from getting an exact time as we can not see the actual horizon, but this occurs after Harry has destroyed Albus Dumbledore’s instruments and Phineas has been informed that Sirius is dead. The earliest that Harry could have seen the sun was at 4:15 a.m. Working backward, if they had been talking for 15 minutes, Dumbledore took the full half hour he tells Harry he will take at the Ministry,38 it would put Harry in Dumbledore’s office at about 3:30 a.m. We can also check this by using the “cool line of pale green along the horizon.” This matches the “beginning of morning civil twilight” where “the horizon is clearly defined.”39 Civil twilight begins at 3:05 a.m.40 The “cool line of pale green” would not be there before 3:00 a.m. By working backwards from sunrise to arrival time it has provided us with a time consistent with what would be seen in the real world at 3:30 a.m. and seems to validate this part of the timeline.
Filling in the Rest of the Time Gap
So now we have made a conservative estimate of the beginning and the end of the timeline, starting when Harry and Hermione enter the forest with Umbridge around 6:30 p.m. and ending when Harry arrives at Dumbledore’s office around 3:30 a.m. It is time to fill the middle of the timeline with the following:
- • Entering the Ministry and finding the Department of Mysteries (DOM)
- • Navigating the rooms in the DOM to find the Hall of Prophecies and the lifting up of the prophecy
- • The fight between Harry’s group and the Death Eaters
We still need to account for events between the arrival at the Ministry and Harry’s return to Hogwarts. Depending on the speed of the thestrals they probably entered the Ministry between approximately midnight and 2:00 a.m. We can estimate a more exact time by using the constraint of 4:15 a.m. as Scottish sunrise and estimating how long each event took. To get from the front of the Ministry to the Hall of Prophecies was a trip through numerous rooms, though they only stopped in the veil room; it probably took about 45 minutes.41 From the point Harry picked up the prophecy and then played cat and mouse with the Death Eaters was around another 45 minutes.42 Then the Order showed up, Sirius died, and Dumbledore fought Voldemort – I estimate this took 30 minutes.43 So now we can fill in the timeline completely with the best conservative estimates.
A Summary of the Timing Involved
- • What time did Harry, Umbridge, and Hermione go into the woods? 6:30 p.m.
- • When did they arrive in London? Approximately 1:30 a.m.
- • What time was it when Harry picked up the prophecy? Approximately 2:15 a.m.
- • When did the Order arrive and when did Sirius die? Approximately 3:00 a.m.
- • When did Harry arrive back in Dumbledore’s office? Around 3:30 a.m.
A Theory of Events
I think that Snape’s final warning was given at about the same time as Harry picked up the prophecy. This is because Snape was using a reliable means of communication, the Order could Apparate or use Floo Powder to get to the Ministry, and they knew where they were going in the Ministry as they had been guarding the prophecy.
But more importantly, this makes the shortest possible time between Harry and Hermione leaving the castle and Severus giving his final warning at nearly eight hours. That coupled with the fact that the warning would have come too late to help had Lucius Malfoy’s plan been a success, has always made me suspicious. But if Snape took nearly eight hours between warnings, wouldn’t that have been suspicious to the Order? I was still missing something.
I got an idea from Half-Blood Prince while Snape is talking to Bellatrix and says:
The Dark Lord is satisfied with the information I have passed him on the Order. It led, as perhaps you have guessed, to the recent capture and murder of Emmeline Vance, and it certainly helped dispose of Sirius Black, though I give you full credit for finishing him off.44
The subject of Emmeline Vance has been argued to death on various message boards with no conclusion in sight. But more importantly, in that same sentence, he claims to have provided information that helped to dispose of Sirius Black. Why would he be bragging about giving information that led Sirius to being in the Ministry if Sirius was not supposed to be there?
He is not talking to people who have no idea of what happened at the Ministry, Bellatrix was there. Narcissa was the wife of the person who planned it and was, according to Dumbledore, the conduit for information between Kreacher and Voldemort;45 I would expect both of them to know what happened at the Ministry and the planning that went into it. It is also made clear that Snape refers very specifically to the information he gave the Dark Lord in these sentences, not his actions. The sentence could easily be rewritten to say “the information I have passed him certainly helped dispose of Sirius Black” with no change to the meaning of the sentence. In talking about information he gave to Voldemort, Snape makes it clear he is referring to more than the fact that he “goaded Sirius about staying in the house.” 46 So again, why is Snape bragging about information that led to Sirius’s death? Perhaps another piece of evidence that Snape was involved in this event on the side of Voldemort.
Though I do not know exactly what Snape’s plan was on the evening of the Ministry of Magic rescue attempt, it seems clear that a time gap of nearly eight hours is not consistent with the behavior of a person working with Albus Dumbledore. “At once” is a short period of time, the length it took Snape to respond to the emergency in question was not immediate. Thus, it is likely that Dumbledore has been misled by Snape somehow and that Snape had some plan that required him to wait this length of time.
Here is my theory: when Harry gave the cryptic warning to Snape, Snape immediately passed on the message, but he passed it on to Voldemort. At this point, Voldemort made a plan to have Snape pass on a warning to the Order when Malfoy had everything under control. But Harry took a long time to get to London and left Snape vulnerable to being found out as a spy.
If Snape gave the warning just after leaving Umbridge’s office, it would leave around an eight-hour time gap and no matter how much Dumbledore trusted Snape, it would look suspicious to Dumbledore. So did Snape give the first warning immediately? Probably not; he must have given the warning later, at a point when he knew where Harry was.
No matter whose side Snape is on, he should have been watching the forest for signs of Harry and Hermione. So why didn’t he report the six thestrals with riders that came out of the forest and flew over the castle? We know that while flying over the forest thestrals are visible from the castle, as Harry had seen one when he sent Hedwig off with a letter one morning.47 So I think they would be hard to miss. I am also making the assumption here that Severus Snape can see thestrals. Even if he could not, the six kids would be visible as they passed over the castle.
At this point, recall this would be approximately 10 p.m., if he gave his first warning to the Order at this time it would cut the gap between messages down to around four hours. This gap could even be made shorter if Snape knew how long it would take the thestrals to get to London, he could have waited to give his first warning at a time that would make his warnings less suspicious.
After Snape sent his first message, he waited for a message from Malfoy telling him to contact the Order. When Harry picked up the prophecy there was a small amount of time while “the others moved in closer around Harry” and “he brushed it free of the clogging dust” before Lucius said anything.48 I think during this time Lucius sent his message to Snape using the Dark Mark the same way that Harry used the galleons to call a D.A. meeting. After this, Snape contacted Sirius and told him the rest of Harry’s message: that Harry was heading for the Department of Mysteries.
It would have been much smarter for Lucius Malfoy to wait until he had Harry under control to pass the message on to Snape but, I for one, do not think you can ever underestimate the arrogance of a Malfoy. He may have assumed at this point that his plan would be successful. His failure to wait, in my opinion, is the major mistake that Lucius made that night and is what ultimately led to his capture and Voldemort’s anger.
I think that the purpose of Snape’s second warning was not to save Harry, but to draw the Order into an ambush. Think of how it would have looked if respected members of the magical community had ambushed all of Dumbledore’s allies: Moody, Tonks, Shacklebolt, and Lupin caught together with the wanted criminal Sirius Black. In fact, they could have had some of the wanted Death Eaters surrender and give testimony of how they were working with the wanted criminal Sirius Black. It would have been a near fatal blow to the Order.
The one problem I had with this timeline and theory is that a close inspection of the events by Albus Dumbledore would reveal Snape’s treachery. So the question becomes, did Dumbledore ever look closely at Snape’s involvement in this long sad night? I think not. As Minerva McGonagall said in the hospital wing near the end of Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore “wouldn’t hear a word against him!” 49 when talking about Severus Snape. If he would not hear a word against him from his closest associates, why would he bother to investigate him on a night like this?
If Snape were loyal to Dumbledore he would have reported all of the vision as soon as it happened and also reported that he had seen Harry flying over the castle. Because the time between Snape learning of Harry’s vision and the Order showing up at the Ministry was nearly eight hours, I do not believe he is loyal to Dumbledore. If Snape had told the Order the entire message that Harry had given him “at once,” I am sure that someone would have been waiting for Harry at the Ministry, but by just giving them the first piece of the message, the Order had nothing to do but wait.
With the amount of time it took Snape to give the final warning, the timing of that warning, and his taking credit for the death of Sirius, I think there is more than enough evidence, even if my theory is incorrect, to say that Snape’s warning was not for the purpose of saving Harry from Lucius Malfoy, I think that at a minimum it was designed to save Snape’s place in the Order, and at worst was a ploy to lure the Order to the Ministry.
When I started looking at this, it was going to be a short piece using the timeline to defend Snape for the Snape’s loyalty thread, but with every discovery of a new fact, it came to be what you see now. I changed my mind and stopped working on the proof and it became easy to see why J.K. Rowling calls Professor Severus Snape “a deeply horrible person.” 50
1. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 833.
2. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 197.
3. Brainy Quotes, “Galbraith Quotes.”
4. McAdams, “Bogus Evidence.”
5. Posner, Case Closed, 272–9.
6. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 830.
7. Ibid., 766.
8. Ibid., 732.
9. Ibid., 745.
11. Ibid., 830.
12. Ibid., 751.
13. Ibid., 263–4.
14. Ibid., 388.
15. Ibid., 751.
16. Ibid., 765.
17. time and date.com, “Sunrise and sunset in Aberdeen,” http://tinyurl.com/33zdmy. Tinyurl has allowed me to save my exact queries that I used to find sunset and twilight information. For this and subsequent notes, follow the tinyurl link to see the raw data.
18. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 753.
19. Ibid,. 759.
20. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 325.
21. Ibid., 393–5.
22. Lexicon, “Calendar: Prisoner of Azkaban.”
23. time and date.com, “Sunrise and sunset in Edinburgh,” http://tinyurl.com/23wtec.
24. Ibid.,“Sunrise and sunset in Aberdeen,” http://tinyurl.com/2m5sle.
25. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 766.
26. U.S. Naval Observatory. “Rise, Set, and Twilight Definitions,” s.v. “Civil Twilight,” “Nautical Twilight.”
27. time and date.com, “Sunrise and sunset in London,” http://tinyurl.com/ycfd7o.
28. Ibid.,“Sunrise and sunset in Aberdeen,” http://tinyurl.com/33zdmy.
29. Farlex, Free Dictionary, s.v. “ellipses.”
30. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 766.
31. Ibid,. 765.
32. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 51.
33. time and date.com, “Cities located close to London,” http://tinyurl.com/2cl4nk.
34. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 820.
35. Ibid., 821.
36. Ibid., 826.
37. time and date.com, “Sunrise and sunset in Aberdeen,” http://tinyurl.com/33zdmy.
38. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 819.
39. U.S. Naval Observatory. “Rise, Set, and Twilight Definitions,” s.v. “Civil Twilight.”
40. time and date.com, “Sunrise and sunset in Aberdeen,” http://tinyurl.com/33zdmy.
41. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 766–80.
42. Ibid., 781–801.
43. Ibid., 801–19.
44. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 30.
45. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 830.
46. Ibid., 833.
47. Ibid., 282.
48. Ibid., 780.
49. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 616-7.
50. Abel, “Author Works Her Magic,” question 5.Bibliography
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