The question of Snape’s loyalties is currently the most intriguing and befuddling debate among Harry Potter readers, and it has been looked upon from several angles. I believe there is reason to study Snape’s enigma from one more angle – the fact of his being a servant and spy for two very different masters, Dumbledore and Voldemort. I believe much can be learned of Snape’s loyalties by analyzing the nature of these two masters and Snape’s relationship with each of them. By studying Snape’s behavior on both sides, one can try to determine where Snape’s true loyalties might lie.
Dumbledore and Voldemort are very different types of leaders. Voldemort controls his Death Eaters through ruthless tyranny and fear. Failure is harshly punished. But he fears his followers as well. He seems to expect them to lie to him and prides himself on being able to detect this dishonesty through Legilimency: he nearly always knows when he is being lied to.
Dumbledore, on the other hand, relied on mutual trust and respect, rather than mutual fear as the basis for his leadership. Many fear that Dumbledore was too trusting for his own good, even dangerously reckless. Snape said of him, “you overlook Dumbledore’s greatest weakness: he has to believe the best of people.” 1
But was this indeed a weakness? Or was it his greatest strength? Dumbledore’s trust, though absolute once given, was never given carelessly. Before granting someone his trust, Dumbledore demanded complete trust in return, as his habit of keeping his followers in the dark on important matters clearly demonstrated. His steadfast refusal to tell Harry – or anyone else – his reasons for trusting Snape are a case in point. He expected his followers to have faith in him and he in turn had faith in them. As Dumbledore’s follower, you either carried out your orders, or lost your master’s trust.
But Voldemort knows that most of his followers are serving him out of fear and in the hopes of furthering their own interests, and this creates an inherently unstable group. In a system where followers serve based on fear rather than trust, the slightest perceived weakness can cause them to turn on the leader and abandon him. As Dumbledore told Harry: “Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!” 2 We see this also when Snape explains to Bellatrix why he prevented Quirrell from retrieving the stone, he said: “[Voldemort] was in a pitiable condition, very weak, sharing the body of a mediocre wizard. He did not dare reveal himself to a former ally if that ally might turn him over to Dumbledore or the Ministry.” 3 Notice how weak and alone Voldemort seems in this description. He cannot and does not trust any of his followers in his weakened state.
Because Voldemort rules by fear and can’t trust his followers, he cannot threaten to withdraw his trust if they are disobedient. He can only threaten torture or death. However, while this can ensure obedience to a point, it does not guarantee loyalty. Without trust, Voldemort is forced to value usefulness over faithfulness. A good example of this would be his growing coolness towards Bellatrix, contrary to the high regard in which he holds Snape. Though Bellatrix rails against this, Snape correctly points out: “if he had not forgiven we who lost faith at that time, he would have very few followers left.” 4
What blinds Voldemort to the danger in this situation is his own arrogance. Voldemort fails to understand that the more force he uses and the more fear he causes, the more force is likely to be used against him in return. He prides himself on being the best Legilimens ever to walk the earth. He fails to see that there will always be a stronger Occlumens; a loophole through which to escape his strike, an Achilles heel by which to bring about his end. He is so arrogant and smug in his power, he cannot believe himself to be vulnerable.
Dumbledore’s advantage over Voldemort was that he acknowledged his own mortality and imperfection and was able to use it to his advantage. He didn’t wish to nourish his own ego with illusions of greatness by trying to be more than human. Dumbledore took pride in being human; therefore death wasn’t a threat to him. He was motivated by love for others, and by being so, left a mark stronger and more eternal than any Horcrux – as Harry said, “He will only be gone from this school when none here are loyal to him.” 5
Voldemort is motivated by fear and selfishness and only a deluded few are truly loyal to him. This fact makes him less immortal than any of his fellow men – death to him is more final, for he leaves no one behind. He is victim of the illusion that he can gain enough power to protect himself from anything that may come, but the truth is, there will always be a Dumbledore to discover his secrets, a Harry to hunt down his Horcruxes.
How well has Snape served his two masters? Well enough that each believed him to be loyal. We have ample evidence of how Snape served Dumbledore. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it is clear that Dumbledore knew of the plot to steal the Stone and of Harry’s attempt to prevent this. Dumbledore let The Boy Who Lived fight his battle. That same boy wisely observed:
I think he sort of wanted to give me a chance... I reckon he had a pretty good idea we were going to try, and instead of stopping us, he just taught us enough to help. I don’t think it was an accident he let me find out how the Mirror worked. It’s almost like he thought I had the right to fight Voldemort if I could...6
And indeed, Dumbledore praised Harry at the end for his success – “You did do the thing properly, didn’t you?” 7 Is it credible to imagine that Dumbledore didn’t know what Snape was up to all this time? Hardly. Instead it seems reasonable to believe that Snape was acting on Dumbledore’s orders or at least with Dumbledore’s knowledge in protecting Harry and watching Quirrell.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Snape brews the Wolfsbane Potion for Lupin even though he distrusts the man.8 And he again protects Harry, this time from Sirius Black whom he believed to be a murderer. Hidden under the invisibility cloak, Snape could have easily waited for Black to kill Harry before intervening, but he didn’t.9
Likewise, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore recites to Harry all of the steps Snape took to try and prevent the disaster at the Department of Mysteries.10 Snape needn’t have acted as he did. He could have simply pretended that he didn’t understand Harry’s cryptic warning in Umbridge’s office and walked away, leaving Harry to go to his death.11 This event is particularly important because it illustrates how Snape served Dumbledore even when Dumbledore wasn’t around to give him orders. His loyalty was constant and unwavering.
Some would explain Dumbledore’s trust of Snape and Snape’s seeming loyalty to him with an Unbreakable Vow between the two. I find this impossible. Voldemort would ensure obedience via a death threat. Dumbledore would never do such a thing. Dumbledore’s strength was that he insisted on true loyalty – such that made his followers willing to die for his cause.
This doesn’t mean that Snape would never disagree with Dumbledore or show his displeasure at what he considered to be a mistake. He could argue vehemently with Dumbledore and many a time spoke his mind, completely fearless of losing Dumbledore’s trust. Unlike the relationship between Voldemort and his Death Eaters, Dumbledore’s relationship with his followers wasn’t based on fear and bribery. Snape wasn’t Dumbledore’s lap-dog, nor was he his slave. He didn’t serve Dumbledore’s personal interests, hoping to get a reward and to gain some power along the way. He didn’t flatter or try to please Dumbledore. Rather, he knew that he had Dumbledore’s complete confidence and therefore nothing to fear.
Snape seems to enjoy Voldemort’s confidence as well. The reason, again, lies in Voldemort’s arrogant confidence in his abilities as a Legilimens. He doesn’t trust Snape as Dumbledore does, but he believes that he can detect any disloyalty. Moreover, Voldemort regards Snape as highly intelligent and therefore – as a true Slytherin – a person whose top priority is to take care of himself. To his twisted mind, selfless equals stupid. Just as he is incapable of understanding of the power of love, the idea that such an intelligent man as Snape might act selflessly for a greater cause must be inconceivable to him.
We know less about how Snape has served Voldemort, though Bellatrix complained that he hasn’t done enough. Nevertheless, it is clear that Snape’s spying was his primary contribution to Voldemort’s cause – at least until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
It can certainly be argued that Snape’s greatest service to Voldemort was killing Dumbledore.12 Voldemort surely believes that this proves where Snape’s loyalties lie. But Snape’s actions are rarely straightforward. Draco’s life was also at stake that night, as was Snape’s own, and it is extremely unlikely that a weak, ill and defenseless Dumbledore could have survived facing four Death Eaters even if Snape had chosen to sacrifice both himself and Draco. Dumbledore would not have wanted Snape to throw away his and Draco’s lives for nothing. He would have wanted Snape to survive in order to fight on, and he would have been willing to sacrifice his own life to make that possible – something Voldemort could not conceive of.
Just how effective was Snape’s spying for each of his masters? In the past, Snape told Voldemort about the prophecy13 and warned Dumbledore that the Potters had been targeted to be killed.14 But what has he done for his masters lately? At Spinner’s End Snape tells Bellatrix: “I had sixteen years of information on Dumbledore to give him when he returned, a rather more useful welcome-back present than endless reminiscences of how unpleasant Azkaban is...” 15 Here again we see that Voldemort values his useful servant, Snape, over his faithful one, Bellatrix. But beyond that, we have little evidence that this information was particularly damaging to Dumbledore or his cause.
There are only two specific instances that Snape mentions where his spying reaped results. One was the information he gave that led to the death of Emmeline Vance. The other when Snape claims to have passed Voldemort information that “helped dispose of Sirius Black.” 16 These are serious claims. I am sure that Dumbledore wouldn’t sanction the passing of information that would cost Order members’ lives, unless it was absolutely necessary. But is Snape being entirely truthful with Bellatrix?
Dumbledore told Harry that Kreacher was the one responsible for Voldemort’s knowledge of Sirius and Harry’s close relationship.17 It is quite possible that Snape confirmed the testimony of the wacky old house-elf, but that is very different from the impression he gives when speaking to Bellatrix. He is taking much more credit than he deserves for Sirius’s undoing and we can suspect that he may also be exaggerating his role in Vance’s death as well.
Perhaps the most important question regarding Snape’s espionage is whether or not he knows about the hunt for the Horcruxes. Snape was something of a confidante to Dumbledore in matters concerning Voldemort, which makes sense given Snape’s role as Dumbledore’s spy. We get hints of this throughout the series. Snape alone of the Order knew any of the contents of the prophecy; he alone knew that Quirrell was after the Philosopher’s Stone and he was the one whom Dumbledore turned to when desperately injured after destroying the ring Horcrux. Most telling, however, was Dumbledore’s request to Harry in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: “ ‘Go and wake Severus,’ said Dumbledore faintly but clearly. ‘Tell him what happened and bring him to me. Do nothing else, speak to nobody else and do not remove your cloak. I shall wait here.’ ” 18 Regardless of why Dumbledore wanted Snape, notice his phrasing – “Tell him what happened.”
Although Dumbledore is adamant that no one else should know what has transpired, he urges Harry to inform Snape and it is impossible to imagine that the subject of Horcruxes wouldn’t have come up in any exchange between the two. Even if Harry hadn’t specifically told Snape about finding the Horcrux, one look into Harry’s eyes would likely have given Snape that crucial bit of information. Dumbledore was not the least concerned about Snape gaining this knowledge even though he didn’t want any of his other followers to know this secret. That most likely means that Snape already knew about the Horcrux hunt to some degree. If this is true, then clearly Snape didn’t inform Voldemort of this threat or the Dark Lord would surely have been actively taking steps to stop Harry and Dumbledore from finding his remaining Horcruxes.
Who, of Snape’s two masters, would be more difficult to fool from the point of view of a double-agent: Voldemort or Dumbledore? At first glance, if might appear that Voldemort would be the harder to deceive, but in reality it’s just the opposite. Snape can act as a double-agent very successfully when the one he’s supposed to fool is Voldemort. He can explain away questionable behavior such as not attempting to find Voldemort after his downfall, staying as a teacher at Hogwarts and standing between Voldemort and the Philosopher’s Stone by saying that these failings were actions he took for his own personal interests. This is typical for a Death Eater. Furthermore, he can explain away his relationship with Dumbledore:
“And through all this we are supposed to believe Dumbledore has never suspected you?” asked Bellatrix. “He has no idea of your true allegiance, he trusts you implicitly still?”
“I have played my part well,” said Snape. “And you overlook Dumbledore’s greatest weakness: he has to believe the best of people. I spun him a tale of deepest remorse when I joined his staff, fresh from my Death Eater days, and he embraced me with open arms – though, as I say, never allowing me nearer the Dark Arts than he could help.” 19
I believe that Bellatrix demonstrates Voldemort’s way of thinking for us in this passage. She finds it very far-fetched that Dumbledore trusts Snape “implicitly still.” Snape attempts to appease her disbelief by pointing out that Dumbledore has refused him the Defense Against the Dark Arts position numerous times, implying some wariness on Dumbledore’s part. This is important because the notion that Dumbledore could be completely fearless of his followers is just as inconceivable to Bellatrix and Voldemort as the notion that Snape could be acting on other than selfish motives. Genuine trust is beyond their comprehension.
And yet it is what gave Dumbledore control over his followers. Could Snape have explained away myriad failures by pleading cowardice or self-interest to Dumbledore? Would Dumbledore put up with followers who put their personal interests before their loyalty to him? Would he trust a follower who would give up on his cause when he wasn’t there to keep an eye on them? He would not.
This is why Dumbledore’s system of leadership was inherently stronger than Voldemort’s. Whereas Voldemort can only judge his followers on their dubious actions, Dumbledore trusted the person. He understood the human heart, its strengths and weaknesses, far better than Voldemort.
For this reason, I believe it to be more likely that it was Voldemort who was wrong about Snape; Voldemort who has sown the seeds of his own fall by creating a fearful, traitorous web of followers in which he is unable to distinguish a faithless follower from a downright traitor.
The Contribution of Snape’s Loyalties to the Story
Snape is an amazing character and the solution to the questions raised by this enigmatic man will surely have incredible importance in the final book of the Harry Potter series. If Snape turns out to be evil it would emphasize the theme of human imperfection and show us painfully how the best of us make the worst mistakes. If he turns out to be no one’s man but his own it would stress the notion of balance between good and evil. Lately, I have noticed that many fans tend to prefer this possibility which they think will make for a more complex and believable solution. I, however, don’t see a point in making the distinction between “Voldemort’s man” and “his own man.” I think being Voldemort’s man is quite the same as being your own man – your motives are selfish and what you’re interested in is power. I have established in this essay that Voldemort is weak compared to Dumbledore because he essentially has no servants at all – they’re all in it for personal gain. Quirrell explained it very eloquently – “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” 20
On the other hand, if Snape turns out to be good I believe it would emphasize powerfully some of the most important themes in the series without contradicting in the slightest any of the themes previously mentioned. It would show that trust is a steadier foundation of leadership than fear and it would stress the importance of choices. Snape would be the primary example of redemption, of choosing the right way despite an unfitting background and countenance. Contrary to Harry, who despite parallels with Voldemort is the evil wizard’s ultimate opposite, Snape would be Voldemort’s truer parallel – someone who, without Harry’s support and overwhelming capacity for love, redeemed himself and made the right choice. It would show us that being a bitter, harsh, hurt and friendless person doesn’t mean you can’t choose right over easy.
1. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 36.
2. Ibid., 477.
3. Ibid., 33.
4. Ibid., 32.
5. Ibid., 604.
6. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 219.
7. Ibid., 215.
8. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 352.
9. Ibid., 357.
10. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 830.
11. Ibid., 830-3.
12. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 556.
13. Ibid., 512.
14. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 204.
15. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 32.
16. Ibid., 35.
17. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 831.
18. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 545.
19. Ibid., 36.
20. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 211.Bibliography
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.