The Truth about Snape’s Worst Memory?
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Professor Dumbledore becomes aware of a kind of telepathic connection between Harry and Lord Voldemort. To protect Harry and everyone around him, Dumbledore orders Professor Snape to instruct Harry in the art of Occlumency: “the magical defence of the mind against external penetration.” 1 Even though neither teacher nor student is much enthused about the idea of spending any more time in each other’s company than absolutely necessary, Dumbledore’s word is final and the lessons soon commence.
Throughout the Harry Potter series, things have never been quite as they seem when it comes to the Potions Master. After six books, Severus Snape is still shrouded in mystery. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix things are no different: Snape’s behaviour during the Occlumency lessons is highly suspect.
In this essay I will lift out one of the mysterious aspects of the Occlumency lessons for analysis: the memories Snape puts inside the Pensieve at the start of each lesson. In particular, I will try to establish the reason behind this action.
“If Anybody Asks, You Are Taking Remedial Potions” 2
When Harry enters Snape’s office for their first lesson we are told that “Harry’s attention was drawn towards the desk, where a shallow stone basin engraved with runes and symbols lay in a pool of candlelight. Harry recognised it at once – it was Dumbledore’s Pensieve.” 3 Harry knows from a previous encounter with this magical device that the Pensieve is an object that can be used to physically enter a memory outside the mind.4 After a little introductory chat on the topic of Occlumency, Professor Snape proceeds to extract three memories from his head and deposit them into the Pensieve,5 something he continues to do at the start of each lesson.6 At times he stores the Pensieve containing his memories visibly on a shelf behind him, 7 on other occasions he leaves it on his desk during the lesson.8
Snape himself never gives any explanation for why he extracts these memories, but the reader is led to believe that they contain things Snape does not want Harry to see should Harry inadvertently manage to break into Snape’s mind during the lessons. To make sure that the reader is left in no doubt about this, Harry formulates this suspicion in his mind:
He turned around. The light was coming from the Pensieve sitting on Snape’s desk. The silver-white contents were ebbing and swirling within. Snape’s thoughts … things he did not want Harry to see if he broke through Snape’s defences accidentally …
Harry gazed at the Pensieve, curiosity welling inside him … what was it that Snape was so keen to hide from Harry? 9
During the course of the year, the Occlumency lessons are interrupted twice, once when the Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is very publicly being fired by Professor Umbridge,10 and once when Draco Malfoy comes in to inform Snape that a student from Slytherin house, Montague, has been found after having been magically missing for some time.11 On both occasions Snape sweeps out of his office in true Snape style, leaving Harry alone with the Pensieve containing his memories.
The second time Harry is left alone with the Pensieve, curiosity gets the better of him and after minor hesitations he plunges into the memories he suspects Snape of hiding from him. I have no doubt that we are all very aware of what Harry witnessed and it is not the purpose of this essay to go into the significance of these events. In brief, Harry witnesses his teenage father and godfather, James Potter and Sirius Black, pick on, abuse and humiliate a young Severus Snape, for no other apparent reason than that they were bored. The teenage girl that is later to become Harry’s mother, Lily Evans, comes to Severus’s defence, but the ‘stringy, pallid looking’ boy exclaims he does not “need help from filthy little Mudbloods like her.” 12
When the present-day Snape comes back into his office and finds Harry snooping inside his memories, he becomes angry to the point of using physical violence and the Occlumency lessons are cancelled from that day on, leaving Harry with no skill in Occlumency whatsoever.13
“You Have No Subtlety, Potter” 14
At first sight this storyline appears pretty straightforward: Snape does not want Harry to know he was bullied by Harry’s father in school, so he hides his memories from the boy. However, something about this scenario just does not add up – something just doesn’t quite feel right.
Let’s have a closer look at Severus Snape. There are three main characteristics that define the former Potions Master: he is secretive, he is intelligent and he hates Harry Potter.
Throughout the series, Snape has shown himself to be a highly reserved and guarded man. He is a master of Occlumency, who despises “fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions […] weak people, in other words.” 15 He has successfully been working both main parties in the Second Wizarding War – the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters – something you cannot do when you’re a blabbermouth.
There is also no doubt that the sallow-faced teacher is highly intelligent. Inventing new spells at fifteen,16 Hogwarts professor from his early twenties,17 the man is obviously bright. He is not impulsive, but organised and calculating. He would not allow himself to slip up easily.
Finally, Snape makes no secret of the fact that he has no love for Harry. From the moment he set foot in Hogwarts for the first time, Harry was never at risk of gaining the Potion Master’s affection. As Harry’s father was Snape’s arch nemesis throughout their school years, Snape would never have warmed to Harry, even if the boy had grown up to have the gentle, balanced temperament of, say, a Draco Malfoy rather than that of a passionate, hot-headed Gryffindor.
Not only does Snape severely dislike Harry, Harry equally despises Snape. He distrusts the Potions Master deeply. From the moment he associated a searing pain in his scar with Snape looking at him at the Sorting Feast his first year,18 Harry has believed Snape was up to no good, even though we now know that the pain was caused by Lord Voldemort, hidden underneath the turban worn by Professor Quirrell.
Yet here we have this highly intelligent, secretive double-agent make a spectacle of extracting his most private memories at the start of each lesson, right in front of the person he considers to be the most nosey student at Hogwarts! He even waits for Harry to come in when the boy is late one night, before he extracts his memories and deposits them into the Pensieve.19 Snape then flaunts the memories on his desk in plain sight, almost taunting Harry with them, and finally leaves Harry alone in his office – on two occasions nonetheless – leaving his student with both a burning desire and the opportunity to sneak a peek. Is this characteristic behaviour of a private, guarded man? Surely Snape knows better than to leave things unguarded in plain sight? This is the man who has been able to fool either Albus Dumbledore or Lord Voldemort for some time, maybe even both; how much harder would it be to successfully hide something from a fifteen year old boy?
It has been argued that Snape was simply in a hurry; he did not think about putting the Pensieve somewhere safe when he left Harry behind in his office.20 Although for some teachers this might be a reasonable explanation, it is a bit hard to believe this about Snape. He could easily have ordered Harry out of his office on either occasion or, in the case of Montague, he could have taken a few extra moments to lock the Pensieve away somewhere safe. For a person like Snape, it is hard to imagine a situation so urgent that he would leave his most sacred, private memories unattended in the presence of the one person he despises the most. On other occasions he handles these memories with great care, “replacing them carefully inside his own head,” 21 and sometimes even straightening the Pensieve to check if the memories are still there.22 Clearly they are very important to him and it seems impossible that he would leave Harry alone in the same room with them if he could help it.
Maybe Snape simply didn’t know that Harry knew what a Pensieve was. A Pensieve is such a powerful magical object that it is not likely there are very many of them. Although Snape is a powerful wizard, he does not appear to own a Pensieve, he borrowed Dumbledore’s. So it is possible that it is such an obscure object that its existence and uses are not common knowledge.23 However, Snape could not know for sure that Harry didn’t know what a Pensieve was; one thing he should know is to never underestimate the enemy. Harry did not know what a Pensieve was when he snooped through Dumbledore’s office in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the Pensieve wasn’t even in plain sight. Yet this didn’t stop him from investigating and sticking his nose in it! Dumbledore is a far more trusting man than Snape, and even Dumbledore put his Pensieve in a cabinet when he had to leave the office. It seems absurd that a calculating man like Snape would have taken this risk if he wanted to keep these memories secret.
One might even argue that by placing his memories in the Pensieve, Snape actually made them more accessible to Harry, rather than hiding them from him. The Pensieve is a viewing device, not really designed for storage. It is known that memories can be safely stored in bottles, and can be placed in bottles directly without ever touching a Pensieve. This was demonstrated by Professor Slughorn in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when he extracted his memory of the fateful conversation he had with Tom Riddle about horcruxes.
Slughorn put his hand in his pocket and took out his wand. He put his other hand inside his cloak and took out a small, empty bottle. Still looking into Harry’s eyes, Slughorn touched the tip of his wand to his temple and withdrew it, so that a long, silver thread of memory came away too, clinging to the wand-tip. Longer and longer the memory stretched until it broke and swung, silvery bright, from the wand. Slughorn lowered it into the bottle where it coiled, then spread, swirling like gas.24
In order to hide his memories from Harry, Snape needn’t have borrowed Dumbledore’s Pensieve; he could have simply used one of the many bottles that a Potions Master must surely have in his possession. One could suggest that he intended to view these memories after the lesson, but we know from Harry’s first Occlumency lesson that Snape replaced the memories inside his head before Harry had even left the room!25
Furthermore, Snape had no reason to believe Harry would even be able to break into his mind. Although Snape was trying to break into Harry’s mind by the practice of Legilimency, Harry’s only job was to try and block his attempts. We know Snape doesn’t have a high opinion of Harry’s abilities. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he explains to Bellatrix Black and Narcissa Malfoy that he believes that Harry “has no extraordinary talent at all. […] He is mediocre to the last degree.” 26 So why suddenly overestimate Harry’s abilities and underestimate his curiosity?
It is true that Harry did in fact accidentally manage to break into Snape’s mind by performing a simple shield charm and reflecting the Legilimens spell back at his teacher.27 However, Snape appears genuinely surprised that Harry was able to do this, saying “I don’t remember telling you to use a Shield Charm.” 28 It is possible that he expected his own defences to be diminished while he was practicing Legilimency on Harry. However when Harry did manage to break into Snape’s mind, all he saw were incoherent fragments of random memories; nothing like the detailed, complete information you can see in a Pensieve. So why should Snape have worried?
In sum, what made Snape think his memories would be safer from Harry when placed in a Pensieve – the ultimate device for examining memories in great detail – rather than hidden in his own mind; the mind of one of the greatest Occlumens there ever was? If Snape really wanted to hide these memories from Harry, why did he not extract them in private before the lesson, then store them in a bottle and hide them in a locked cupboard? That would have taken away both Harry’s incentive and his opportunity to intrude. What happened to Snape in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to make him have such an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement?
“Amusing man, your father, wasn’t he?” 29
In all likelihood, Snape’s behaviour in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a mere plot device to give Snape sufficient reason to demand cancellation of the Occlumency lessons. Just as Mike Newell deemed that the whole purpose of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was for Voldemort to get “three drops of Harry’s blood”, 30 one could say that the purpose of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is to get Harry into the Department of Mysteries – something that would not have happened if Harry had learned to practice Occlumency against Voldemort.
A second purpose for the Pensieve storyline would be to show Harry – and the reader with him – a very different side to his father, James, whom he has held in very high esteem all his life. As Harry was orphaned at a very young age he has no active recollection of his parents. It was easy for him to idolise his father, as his opinion was completely based on the rave reviews from others. At some point in his life he would have had to learn that nobody is either completely good or completely bad; that “the world is not split into good people and Death Eaters” 31 – something he definitely learns in his fifth year at Hogwarts.
However, plot device though it may be, this still doesn’t explain Snape’s suspicious behaviour. Even plot devices have to make sense. It may be that Snape has suddenly become uncharacteristically absent-minded and careless. However, one would like to think that a writer of the calibre of J.K. Rowling would stick to the attributes she assigned to her own creations. One could forgive Dumbledore for not telling Harry straight out that he suspected Voldemort might try and trick Harry by sending him those dreams, as Dumbledore himself admitted he was an “old man” 32 who made the mistake of “[caring] more for [Harry’s] happiness than [his] knowing the truth.” 33 Snape, on the other hand, has never previously and never since shown any signs of disorganisation or inattention. So, is there any other way of explaining Snape’s unusual behaviour? I do not claim to have the answer, far from it, but I will discuss some possibilities.
“Fooled the Dark Lord, the Greatest Wizard, the Most Accomplished Legilimens the World has Ever Seen?” 34
As outlined above, removing his memories from his mind and putting them in the Pensieve was probably not the smartest way of hiding them from Harry. However, is it really Harry he is hiding them from?
In an earlier chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry feels an uncharacteristic surge of hatred for Dumbledore when he catches the headmaster’s eye.35 We later learn that Dumbledore has been avoiding eye contact with Harry for fear that Lord Voldemort would be able to gather information from him through his telepathic connection with Harry.36 Did Dumbledore fear that Voldemort could actually perform Legilimency through Harry’s eyes?
As Snape has been working for Dumbledore’s Order of the Phoenix as well as for Voldemort, it is well possible that he wasn’t trying to hide things from Harry, but from Voldemort! If Voldemort can see through Harry’s eyes into Dumbledore’s mind, he could surely also invade Snape’s. Although this is definitely a possibility, it does make one wonder what was so significant about this memory that he did not want Voldemort to uncover it. Surely it would not have been a bad thing to show the Dark Lord his hatred for members of the Order? Maybe the significance lies with the presence of Lily Evans in the memory. We are still waiting for the relationship between Snape and Lily to be explained, and we are also still in the dark about the exact goings on at Godric’s Hollow that fateful night that Harry should have died with his parents. We do know that Snape was the one who provided Voldemort with the information he needed to go after the Potters, but that sometime before that night Snape supposedly repented and returned to Dumbledore. Did he regret ‘selling out’ Lily? Unfortunately we will have to wait for book 7 for that explanation.
Nevertheless, it is very possible that there was something about the three strands of memory Snape kept depositing in the Pensieve at the start of each Occlumency lesson that he wanted to hide from Voldemort. However, in order to hide his memories from Voldemort, he would have to successfully hide them from Harry. It has already been established in this essay that Snape did not go about this in the most sensible way, and he most definitely did not succeed.
“I trust Severus Snape” 37
Everything the Potions Master did from the start of the first lesson helped lead up to the moment that Harry could not contain his curiosity any longer. He even gave Harry the clear opportunity to snoop on two occasions. It almost seems like Snape wanted Harry to look inside the Pensieve. Was this somehow an elaborate set-up? Could Snape – for some mysterious reason – have actually been inviting, even daring Harry to peek inside his memories?
This is an intriguing notion, but fraught with inconsistencies as well. Two motivations that Snape may have had can be directly derived from the above analysis of the literary purpose of the storyline: Snape wanted to show Harry James’ true nature, or he was looking for a reason to stop the Occlumency lessons. Both are motivations that are in keeping with Snape’s character: knowing how Harry dotes on his parents, pulling James down from his pedestal would really hit Harry where it hurts, and any reason to spend less time with Harry would be a welcome break.
However, is either of those reasons important enough to warrant such humiliation? Snape is immensely proud; he thrives on respect gained through fear and humiliation would cost him this respect. After Harry witnessed the events of ‘Snape’s Worst Memory’, it is clear that in Snape’s own eyes he had just been severely humiliated, even though Harry barely wasted a second thought on this. For Harry, seeing his beloved father as a bully and realizing that Snape at least had some reason for his hatred of James gave Harry a newfound understanding and sympathy for Snape. But just as Harry hated to admit this to himself, neither could Snape imagine this reaction from Harry.
Snape appeared genuinely angry when he found Harry in the Pensieve. This makes no sense if he meant for Harry to sneak a peek. We are generally used to a Snape who is cold, restrained and sarcastic when angry. Although you can often see his anger boiling below the surface, it takes a lot for him to truly let rip. However in this case his “lips were shaking, his face was white, his teeth were bared”: all clear signs of a man on the verge of exploding. And explode he does! He even reaches the point of using physical force against Harry, “gripping Harry’s arm so tightly Harry’s hand was starting to feel numb [...] shaking Harry so hard that his glasses slipped down his nose ... Harry from him with all his might” so that Harry falls hard onto the dungeon floor, and finally throwing a jar of dead cockroaches at him.38
Furthermore, would Snape really try to stop the Occlumency lessons on purpose in such an unlikely manner? Although the ‘official’ Occlumency lessons stopped after the Pensieve incident, at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Snape still appears to be of the opinion that Occlumency is a skill that Harry should learn. While he is fleeing Hogwarts with a livid Harry hot on his heels, Snape shouts at Harry that he thinks Harry should “learn to keep [his] mouth shut and [his] mind closed.” 39 Although the words of the fleeing Half-Blood Prince may be construed in many ways, it is obvious that Snape understands the importance of Occlumency. Whether or not he really was passionate about Harry learning it remains in question. Nevertheless, several months passed between the first lesson and the last. If Snape wanted out of the lessons, surely he could have found an excuse to end them sooner. The hypothetical Pensieve plan seems more like a contingency plan: too much depended on coincidence.
Thus, although Snape probably did not regret the end of the lessons nor Harry discovering James’s wretched behaviour in school, it seems unlikely he intended for these events to be precipitated by Harry snooping in the Pensieve.
As mentioned in the introduction of this essay, everything about Severus Snape is shrouded in mystery. Every storyline concerning him can be interpreted in multiple ways and the Occlumency lessons are no exception. How could Snape be so careless with his private memories? Who was he really hiding them from? Was he trying to hide them in the first place? As with most things concerning our favourite hook-nosed fugitive, we don’t have enough evidence to conclude either way. Whichever way you turn it, this storyline does not quite add up. I would like to think that Snape is smart enough not to leave important things in plain sight and not to underestimate Harry’s curiosity. It is completely out of character for him to drop his guard like that. If this was no more than a plot twist, and Snape really did slip up, I will have to ‘confess myself disappointed.’ I do think there may be more to this scenario than meets the eye, but what it is, I cannot say. Maybe we’ll find out more in book seven or maybe this is an enigma that will never be elucidated.
1. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 458.
2. Ibid. p. 459.
3. Ibid. p. 467.
4. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000. Chapter 30.
5. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 471.
6. Ibid. p. 522.
7. Ibid. p. 471.
8. Ibid. p. 563.
9. Ibid. p. 563.
10. Ibid. pp. 523-524.
11. Ibid. pp. 562-563.
12. Ibid. pp. 564-572.
13. Ibid. p. 572.
14. Ibid. p. 468.
15. Ibid. p. 473.
16. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
17. The Harry Potter Lexicon. “Severus Snape” Timelines. 2000-2006. The Floo Network. 19 July 2007. <http://www.hp-lexicon.org/timelines/timeline_snape.html>
18. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. p. 94.
19. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 562.
20. SeverineSnape. “New Thoughts on Snape’s Memories: Something’s Fishy”. Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century. 24 November 2005. The Leaky Lounge. 23 June 2006. <http://www.leakylounge.com/index.php?showtopic=19316&st=0>
21. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 475.
22. Ibid. p. 522.
23. SeverineSnape. “Thoughts on the Pensieve” Scribbulus Issue 4, 2006. The Leaky Cauldron. 15 June 2006. </#scribbulus:essay:196>
24. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. p. 459.
25. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 475.
26. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. p. 36.
27. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 521.
28. Ibid. p. 522.
29. Ibid. p 572.
30. Sci Fi Wire. “Newell Saw Goblet as a Thriller” 19 September 2005. SciFi.Com 24 july 2006. <http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/handheld/32512.html >
31. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 271.
32. Ibid. pp. 728, 730, 735.
33. Ibid. p. 739.
34. Ibid. p. 31.
35. Ibid. p. 419.
36. Ibid. p. 729.
37. Ibid. p. 734.
38. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. p. 572.
39. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. p. 562.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
SeverineSnape. “New Thoughts on Snape’s Memories: Something’s Fishy.” Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century. 24 November 2005. The Leaky Lounge. 23 June 2006. <http://www.leakylounge.com/index.php?showtopic=19316&st=0>