The Virtue and the Viper1

The Heroic Severus Snape

By Anne Arthur

In the short time since I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, my impressions of it have shifted somewhat. My initial enjoyment of the story and relief at the outcome has faded, and I find that I am left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth. It is still a good story, but a certain moral confusion, and especially a lack of generosity in the treatment of some of the characters on the “bad” side, means that it falls short of greatness for me. In Half-Blood Prince, for example, a window is opened up for Draco Malfoy's redemption when he is unable to kill Albus Dumbledore.2 In Deathly Hallows this is kept open, but somewhat grudgingly: Draco is shown as horrified at Voldemort's cruelty,3 as reluctant to betray the Trio to Voldemort,4 and as loyal enough not to abandon Goyle in the burning Room of Requirement,5 but from the first chapter he appears as an abject coward, and, as a crowning insult, it is noted in the epilogue that he is losing his hair.6 Although he is not wholly bad, he is depicted in such a way that it is hard to see him as either admirable or attractive. Horace Slughorn, too, plays a less prominent part in the final battle than the heads of the other houses. His initial response is decidedly unenthusiastic (“I'm not at all sure whether this is wise, Minerva. He is bound to find a way in, you know, and anyone who has tried to delay him will be in most grievous peril”),7 and although he goes with Charlie Weasley to fetch reinforcements, this keeps him out of sight for much of the time.8 He is seen battling Voldemort with McGonagall and Kingsley,9 but is not with the other heads of houses in the jolly throng congratulating Harry afterwards.10 And, most depressing of all, apparently not one single Slytherin cares enough for his or her school to defend it.11 Even before the final confrontation, it is clear from the fact that their house banner does not appear in the Room of Requirement that none of them has joined the resistance against the Carrows.12

The “good” characters, on the other hand, get a different treatment. From what we see of his schooldays, James Potter comes across as the Draco Malfoy of his generation ’ the rich, spoilt, only child, surrounded by an admiring clique, who bullies others just for the fun of it. It is surely significant that his words about being sorted into Slytherin ’ “I think I'd leave, wouldn't you?” ’ exactly mirror Draco's about Hufflepuff in Philosopher's Stone.13 But we are never shown why he changes, or if he regrets his behaviour, and must be content with Sirius's comments that he was simply “a bit of an idiot” and “grew out of it.” 14 Harry and his friends plot to cheat goblins15 and use curses previously described as “unforgiveable” 16 – under pressure of necessity, certainly, but with no real consequences and very little comment. Even Professor McGonagall uses Imperius, quite gratuitously, on Amycus Carrow.17 And in the epilogue, nineteen years later, Ron Weasley is still telling his children that Gryffindor is the only acceptable house, and more or less deliberately fostering a rivalry between his daughter and young Scorpius Malfoy.18 (The faces of the parents and grandparents on both sides when – as I trust will be the case – they eventually marry, will be a study!)

This uneven treatment of “good” and “bad” characters has persisted throughout the series, but I did hope that the last book would see a more balanced approach, and a greater rapprochement between the Hogwarts houses than seems to have taken place. Harry is to some extent an exception to this, and his words to his son on the last page (“then Slytherin house will have gained an excellent student, won't it? It doesn't matter to us” 19) go some way towards bridging the gap, but it is not really quite far enough. Their good effect has been partly undone by remarks made by J.K. Rowling in interviews since the book came out ’ that Snape does not merit a portrait in the Headmaster's office because he “effectively abandoned his post before dying” for example, or that, nineteen years later, although Slytherin “has become diluted” its “dark reputation lingers.” 20 It is exasperating to see potentially complex situations dissolve into an easy assumption that the good guys can do no real wrong, or into an equally facile political correctness that seems to suggest that no one who has ever embraced the wrong opinions should really be acceptable to polite society again. As a result, some potentially very interesting characters are seriously short-changed.

Nowhere is this more the case than with Rowling's apparent attitude to Severus Snape.

Sadistic potions master, repentant Death Eater, spy, neglected child, bullied schoolboy, high-school genius and unrequited lover of Lily Evans, Severus Snape is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters in the series. From the first moment we see him in Philosopher's Stone, we mistrust him. He appears to make Harry's scar hurt with a single look. Even his appearance is stereotypically “evil” – “greasy black hair, a hooked nose and sallow skin.” 21 All his subsequent actions in this book seem to confirm that he is the villain. When he is finally revealed to have been acting in Harry's interests all along,22 he emerges as a highly original character in a genre where those adults whose role it is to help the young hero or heroine are usually shown as liking him or her. In a book for children he makes the very adult point that the good guys and the nice guys are not necessarily the same people. Nor does Rowling lose her touch with him in subsequent books. Information about him leaks out, bit by bit. We are never quite sure what to make of him, never lack a Ron Weasley to mutter darkly that “poisonous toadstools don't change their spots,” 23 but we come to see that his actions – as opposed to his words – are usually benevolent.

Two examples will illustrate this. When Snape corners Sirius in the Shrieking Shack in Prisoner of Azkaban, he makes wild threats to set the Dementors on him (“All I have to do is call the Dementors once we get out of the Willow. They'll be very pleased to see you, Black ... pleased enough to give you a little kiss, I daresay” 24). But later in the book, when he finally has him unconscious and at his mercy, he simply puts him on a stretcher to take him up to the castle, treating him, in fact, rather better than Sirius did him when he was unconscious.25 And in Order of the Phoenix he stops Crabbe strangling Neville, efficiently and in typically caustic language ’ “if Longbottom suffocates it will mean a lot of tedious paperwork and I am afraid I shall have to mention it on your reference if ever you apply for a job.” 26 Even in Half-Blood Prince, once we have recovered from the shock of Dumbledore's death, we notice that he then acts swiftly to protect Harry and Draco, and to encourage the other Death Eaters to leave the castle, thus minimising the damage caused.27

But for all this he never becomes “nice”: there is never a “Harry, I misjudged you” moment, and Rowling resists the temptation to turn him into everybody's friendly Uncle Severus. It starts to seem that, “huge Jane Austen fan” that she is,28 Rowling is echoing Pride and Prejudice: Snape, like Darcy, is too proud to explain himself (this is finally made clear in chapter thirty-three of Deathly Hallows), and as a result the prejudices aroused by his forbidding manner mean that his actions are constantly misinterpreted.

We have to wait a long time for our prejudices to be corrected. Snape is deliberately kept offstage for much of Deathly Hallows, and when he does appear, his actions are ambiguous at best. It is not until he has died, pointlessly, managing at the very last minute to pass on to Harry the information vital to his mission, as well as the story that he, intensely private man that he is, has been keeping to himself for years, that we finally come to understand him. When we do, we surely echo Harry's tribute to him in the epilogue of Deathly Hallows that he was “probably the bravest man I ever knew.” 29

Yet his contribution is deliberately kept muted. He dies almost alone, far from the main action. There is no deathbed reconciliation with Harry, and Harry does not seem to register any kind of surprise that Snape loved his mother, or regret that he has misjudged him. He comes to appreciate him later, but at the time he seems to have no reaction to his death at all. And J.K. Rowling has been decidedly cool when she has spoken of Snape since the publication. He is brave, yes, she will admit that, and he is capable of love, but he is allowed to be heroic only in the most qualified terms, and his unpleasant personality is stressed. “Yes I do [think Snape is a hero]; though a very flawed hero,” she says in one interview.30 In another she comments “Do I think he's a hero? To a point, I do, but he's not an unequivocally good character. [...] He's bitter. He's ... spiteful. He's a bully. All these things are still true of Snape, even at the end of this book. But was he brave? Yes, immensely. Was he capable of love? Very definitely. So he's ’ he's a very ’ he was a flawed human being, like all of us.” 31 Such comments made sense as a piece of misdirection when she was still holding out the possibility that he might turn out to be a villain, but now what we see appears to be genuine surprise and concern at his popularity. This seems especially strange when we consider how important he is to two of the main themes of the series, love and self-sacrifice.

As we finally learn in chapter thirty-three of Deathly Hallows, Severus Snape repents of being a Death Eater when he unwittingly directs Lord Voldemort's attention against Lily Evans, his former love, and her unborn child. We see Snape's love for Lily develop in the memories that he leaves to Harry: the childhood crush of the boy from the deprived home on the pretty, clever little girl he sees in the local park; the Sorting into different houses at Hogwarts and the subsequent estrangement; the fatal insult under pressure; the desperate grief at his love's death. And we see too how little foundation Snape ever had for his love. Lily Evans clearly liked him ’ as a friend ’ but even when they were children there were reservations (she is clearly uncomfortable that he is coming between her and her sister, for example), and it seems clear to me that she was never going to feel about him the way he so obviously felt about her. (Although J.K. Rowling has suggested in an interview that Lily “might even have grown to love him romantically” if he had not been so attracted to the Death Eaters, I think that the words “might even” suggest how unlikely a possibility this was.32) If this is the great love of Severus Snape's life, it is a bleak love indeed. And, after he loses her, we see how it develops. From the desire to save her ’ and never mind her husband or son ’ that so arouses Dumbledore's contempt (but even then Snape was brave ’ he is clearly terrified of what Dumbledore might do to him, and how much standing among the Death Eaters must he have lost by begging Voldemort to save the life of a Mudblood?) it extends to a promise to protect her son, which Snape keeps faithfully, even though his hatred of James Potter prejudices him fatally against the boy. It extends further, to other pupils, to protecting Hogwarts from the worst ravages of the Carrows, and to Snape's admission that he now watches the deaths only of those of Lord Voldemort's victims whom he cannot save. In her depiction of his childhood relationship with Lily, Rowling suggests parallels between him and Heathcliff, the “dirty, ragged, black-haired child,” 33 black-eyed and sullen, and his obsessive love of Cathy Earnshaw ’ but Heathcliff, thwarted in his love, turned to hatred and vengeance. Ultimately, the model seems to be not Heathcliff and Cathy, but Dante and Beatrice: the truly ennobling love that transcends the beloved and leads the lover towards virtue. And that it took this turn, and on so slender a basis, must surely speak of something fundamentally very good in Severus Snape.

Snape's reward for this repentance is to be given two difficult and dangerous tasks: to remain with the Death Eaters as a double agent, and to protect Harry. That he performs both faithfully again speaks volumes about his character. He has little to encourage him. His beloved is dead. Her son, he thinks, is the disappointing image of his father – arrogant, careless and spoilt. He has clearly inherited a “difficult” personality from both his parents, and appears to have no close friends, even if he could confide in them. Dumbledore, as we see, makes continual demands on him yet gives him only minimal support.34 It is doubtful whether the Death Eaters ever really treated him as one of them. Sirius calls him “part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters,” 35 and Lily describes him as “hanging around” with Avery and Mulciber:36 neither of these sounds very intimate. (It is also perhaps noteworthy that Avery is included by Sirius in his “gang,” but Mulciber is not, suggesting that there is no very clear consensus about who exactly Snape's friends were.) The nickname of “Half-Blood Prince” written into his potions book surely betrays an ironic awareness that, as a half-blood in an organisation that values only pure-bloods, he will always be a second-class citizen. Chapter two of Half-Blood Prince seems to suggest a warmer relationship with the Malfoys ’ Narcissa calls him “Lucius's old friend,” 37 and she herself has clearly visited his house often enough to find it easily in the maze of little streets by the river ’ but even here one suspects that while Lucius Malfoy (more intelligent than the average Death Eater ’ not that this is saying much) may be happy to call this clever and able man his friend, he might not feel the same about letting him, say, marry his sister. The Order members clearly never really trust him, as can be seen from their readiness to believe that he killed Dumbledore,38 and in his year as Headmaster of Hogwarts he must be aware that everyone around him despises him absolutely.

And yet he perseveres. For three years he risks death on a daily basis ’ risks it, ultimately, if what he says about “only those whom I could not save” 39 is true, above and beyond the call of duty. If there is a character in this series who can provide Harry with an example of doing what is right and not what is easy, then surely that character is Severus Snape. If there is a character who is an example of the transformative power of love, it is Severus Snape. If there is a character who embodies the Christian themes of repentance and redemption, it is Severus Snape. Truly he is a hero. And he is a hero despite, and indeed because of, the fact that he remains a thoroughly unpleasant person. Perhaps he could have done more to make himself nicer. But in the face of what he did do, that pales into insignificance. For those of us who came to Harry Potter as adults, who have had to come to terms with the fact that our more unpleasant personality traits are not going to vanish overnight, and who know too well how it feels for the imperative to love one's neighbour to be more a matter of brute willpower than of any actual inclination, he is at once comfort and inspiration. In a series of children's books whose theme is love, where the other examples of this love are mostly natural and instinctive – friendship, mother love – the dogged, self-sacrificing devotion of this bitter, unpleasant, unhappy, heroic, and fundamentally good man is the vital ingredient that keeps the whole from becoming cloying and saccharine, and lifts it towards a kind of greatness, however flawed.

Severus Snape is an amazing creation. Both convincingly flawed and heroically able to rise above his flaws without losing them, he comes to life as few fictional characters do. As I have tried to show in this essay, he is vital to the themes of the Harry Potter series, providing another perspective on love, prejudice and sacrifice to compliment those of Harry and the other characters. It seems a pity that Rowling chooses to downplay his contribution for the very same reasons that make his character so unique. For me at least, Deathly Hallows is a weaker book because of it.


1. The title is taken from a series of concerts by the early music group Liber UnUsualis.

2. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 553.

3. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 18, and elsewhere.

4. Ibid., 371’72.

5. Ibid., 509.

6. Ibid., 605.

7. Ibid., 484.

8. Ibid., 588.

9. Ibid., 589.

10. Ibid., 596.

11. Ibid., 491.

12. Ibid., 465.

13. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 538; Philosopher's Stone, 60.

14. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 591, 592.

15. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 409’11.

16. Ibid., 428’431, 477.

17. Ibid., 478.

18. Ibid., 604’5.

19. Ibid., 607.

20. Ibid., "Live Chat."

21. Ibid., Philosopher's Stone, 94.

22. Ibid., 209’10.

23. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 212.

24. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 264.

25. Ibid., 301.

26. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 657.

27. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 557’64.

28. Anelli & Spartz, "TLC/MN interview Part One."

29. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 607.

30. Ibid., "Live Chat."

31. Vieira, "The Final Chapter."

32. Rowling, “Live Chat."

33. Bronte, Wuthering Heights, 45. I am indebted for this point to mary_j_59, "Some thoughts on DH."

34. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 543’53.

35. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 461.

36. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 540.

37. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 38.

38. Ibid. 573’75.

39. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 551.


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, tr. Allen Mandelbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz. "The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part One." The Leaky Cauldron, July 16 2005. /features/interviews/jkr1.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946.

Johnson, Mary (mary_j_59). "Some thoughts on DH." Livejournal entry, July 23 2007.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

”””. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

”””. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.

”””. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

”””. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

”””. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

”””. "J.K. Rowling and the Live Chat.", July 30 2007. Transcript by AccioQuote!

Vieira, Meredith. "Harry Potter: The Final Chapter." Dateline (NBC), July 29 2007. Transcript by AccioQuote!

Comments? Discuss this essay here on the Scribbulus forum.

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.