So because I’m slacking just a teensy bit on my readings this week, I decided to post an essay I wrote last summer on Severus Snape. He is, in my humble opinion, one of the most complex characters to ever hit the pages of a book. What do you think?
How does a cold, calculating, sarcastic bully soar to the top of the charts as the greatest Harry Potter character of all time? His utter complexity.
Severus Snape, voted recently during the MTV Harry Potter World Cup challenge as the greatest character in the Harry Potter universe, captured millions of hearts once he was finally exposed for the true man he was in the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (DH). While J.K Rowling tried never to reveal too much about Snape, hints were always dropped in various interviews that his character would be one to watch. According to Rowling, she had known from the beginning of the series that Snape would ultimately be the one to bear the heavy burden of playing a double agent to Voldemort while holding allegiance with Dumbledore.
It is a mark of J.K. Rowling’s indescribably talented abilities to create one of the most complex literary characters of all time. The storyline outwardly seemed to revolve directly around Harry Potter, aided by his two best friends as well as guiding lights like Dumbledore. And yet, deep in the shadows lay a sallow, greasy haired man who battled Voldemort with more bravery than even Harry had shown. Snape’s is a story of courage and redemption. Rowling aptly labels him as an anti-hero. A raging war of conflicting emotions lay beneath Snape’s cool and uncaring exterior. Seventeen years of his life, until his death, revolved around holding a deep seated grudge against a boy and yet protecting this same boy with every ounce of wit and fortitude he could muster.
Born a half blood, to muggle father Tobias Snape and a witch mother Eileen Prince, Snape suffered a traumatic childhood. Like Harry and Voldemort, he too led a lonely and friendless life. Not blessed with good looks or social skills, he seemed to be shunned by all children his age. When he began to take notice of Lily Evans (later Lily Potter), he identified that she had the same magical abilities as he did but did not understand them. Jumping at an opportunity to seem superior and gain someone’s trust and friendship, he approaches her and begins to educate her about the wizarding world. His contempt for muggles is shown at an early age by sneering at Petunia, Lily’s sister. In line with that, Petunia’s jealousy grows into contempt for wizardry.
Readers get an insight into Snape’s childhood during Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (OOTP) as Harry unintentionally reverses the Occlumency spell to an extent where he looks into Snape’s memories. A scene is painted of Snape as a young child, cowering in a corner crying while his mother Eileen is being abused by his father. Later memories, like those shown in the Pensieve during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (DH) indicate that Snape was never a fan of his father. He implies to Lily that his father was not a fan of magic. The cruel behavior manifested by Snape during his adult years is a likely reflection of the cruel neglect he received as a child. There are no memories to identify that Snape was close to his mother and it seems he led a secluded familial life. His first and only love seems to be the love he cultivated for Lily at the tender ages of 10 and 11.
As he began his academic career at Hogwarts, it was undeniable that he was very intelligent. However, unlike his fellow students such as Sirius Black or Remus Lupin, he never managed to balance his social and academic skills in order to become popular or well liked. Indeed, he was often bullied by the same, along with James Potter. He began to fall in with the wrong crowd— future death eaters. His love for the dark arts was evident. As Sirius explains to Harry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (GOF), Snape knew more curses and hexes than half of the seventh year students upon arriving at Hogwarts. When Snape begins to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts during Harry’s 6th year, he speaks of the magic with a disturbing tenderness. This innate affinity towards Dark Arts arises from Snape’s longing to hold power over those who bullied him— from his father to the students at Hogwarts. To have the ability to hold someone at his mercy was a tempting thought. His mind was trained to be defensive and vindictive in order to assert himself. It was no wonder then, that he was on the road to becoming another Death Eater. Although he denied it when Lily confronted him about who his friends were and what they were practicing, he not only became one but was one of the Dark Lord’s most trusted servants.
Little is known of Snape’s activity and whereabouts after he completed his seventh year at Hogwarts at age 17. It is clear that he soon became a Death Eater and rose high in Voldemort’s ranks. Voldemort may have identified with Snape on a more personal level as they both shared a hatred for their muggle fathers. It was Snape’s lack of love as a child that led him to be a cruel, sadistic man— quite akin to Voldemort. However, as one of the strongest themes in the Harry Potter series, love also shapes Severus Snape’s entire character. It is his love for Lily that allows him to be strong enough to fool even Voldemort and protect Harry. Snape was one of the few Death Eaters to ever feel true love and indeed the only one in Voldemort’s inner circle who could.
After he established himself as a Death Eater, in 1980 he sought a teaching job at Hogwarts as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. In consequence, he was at Hogs Head one night looking to interview for the position when he overheard a deeply interesting conversation between Professor Dumbledore and a prospective new Divination teacher. Of course, this was the famous conversation where Professor Trelawney made her first legitimate prediction which was later housed in the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic. Here, she prophesied to Dumbledore that, “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…” (OOTP).
Snape, upon hearing this prophecy, immediately left to inform Voldemort of what he had heard, not knowing whose lives he was endangering. This information thrusted him higher in Voldemort’s ranks. When it became known within them that Voldemort had targeted the Potter’s son, Harry, a turning point in Snape’s life had arrived. Horrified at the thought of harm befalling Lily Potter, he makes a desperate appeal to Dumbledore to save the Potters. “Hide them all, then! Keep her— them— safe. Please!” was his plea, to which Dumbledore replies, “And what will you give me in return, Severus?” Snape’s promise, “In— in return? Anything”, marked the beginning of the rest of his life as a double agent (DH).
As circumstances went, the Potters died and only Harry survived, as a result of his mother’s loving protection. Snape vowed to Dumbledore that he would endeavor to protect Lily’s son and in the late year of 1981, after being refused the Defense Against Dark Arts position, Snape becomes Potions master at Hogwarts. Incidentally, Snape was one of the youngest teachers to ever teach at Hogwarts, beginning when he was 21 years old. The complexities of Snape’s character emerge in 1991, when Harry first attends Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (SS).
Throughout Harry’s student career, readers assume that Snape is nothing but a malicious bully, with a particular dislike for Harry from the beginning because he is the son of James Potter, who made Snape’s school life incredibly difficult. Described as a thin man with a hook nose and famous for his greasy black hair that hung lank about his sallow face, Snape was never portrayed as a likable character. His soft voice was a symbol of danger rather than calm and his determination to get Harry expelled or at least a full time pass to detention was well known. As head of Slytherin, the other houses hated him because of his pointed favoritism to his own house. The Slytherins, in contrast, liked him tremendously. One in particular was Draco Malfoy, whose relationship with Snape could be slightly compared to the one between Harry and Dumbledore. Snape made it clear from the start that Draco was one of his favorite students, in all probability because Lucius Malfoy, Draco’s father, was outwardly a close, influential friend. It is rumored that Lucius Malfoy was a prefect when Snape entered Hogwarts and was, in Malfoy’s own way, kind to young Snape. All this and the affinity of fellow Death Eaters who had escaped the cells of Azkaban to stand together, brought about this preferred treatment of Malfoy’s son. Dumbledore, while aware of this favoritism and bullying nature, never stopped Snape from behaving that way with his students. According to an interview with J.K. Rowling, this was because “Dumbledore believes there are all sorts of lessons in life and horrible teachers are one of them”.
Draco’s bullying nature towards Harry was bypassed and often subtly encouraged by Snape. This seemed to be an outlet for revenge for Snape; as he never won between himself and James, here was a chance for victory through Draco abusing James’ son. When describing Harry, he always saw his father’s characteristics and never once compared him to Lily. This stems from Snape’s anger at James for managing to marry Lily and have a family, everything Snape wanted in his personal life. However, when it came to real danger threatening Harry, Snape always seemed to be always quietly assisting. When Harry finds out that it was actually Snape who had saved him from his cursed broomstick in SS, Dumbledore attributes it to the fact that Snape owed James Potter a favor from their school days and it manifested itself in saving Harry’s life. As per Snapes wishes, Dumbledore never told anyone of Snape’s unending love for Lily. This served as a powerful plot tool for always keeping readers second guessing Snape’s true allegiance.
Finally, in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (HBP), Snape’s fate seemed confirmed when he killed our beloved Dumbledore. His act of making the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy, determination to assist Draco in his assignment of murder and final stroke of violence and subsequent fleeing from Hogwarts all portrayed him as a faithful Death Eater after all. Dumbledore’s trust in Snape was no longer merely questioned by readers and characters alike. Harry’s particular hatred for Snape increased. HBP was also the book where readers get more under Snape’s skin as we find out more about his past and his incredible abilities. His old Potions book, which Harry was so reluctant to part with, was proof that Snape had immense talent with the Dark Arts and Potions. His creative, calculating mind was able to rewrite Potions recipes to create better ones. He even invented his own spells, all of which were dark. Sectumsempra was his signature spell, as he created it and then used it in battle. During the first battle between Death Eaters and the Order in DH, Snape used Sectumsempra on George Weasley, cursing his ear off permanently.
After Voldemort’s rebirth and return became public knowledge, the Ministry of Magic could barely keep the Death Eaters at bay. By the time Dumbledore died, the Ministry had slowly been infiltrated. Within months, Voldemort had complete control which allowed Snape to step in as Headmaster of Hogwarts. While many spent majority of the DH book fearing this decision, it was for the best of the Hogwarts students at large as Snape made it a priority to protect them without giving away his position to Voldemort and fellow Death Eaters. His personality combined the deep routed needs for power along with his bound allegiance to Dumbledore via his love for Lily. This position of Headmaster made him exercise tremendous self-control and stealth.
These events bring us to the one that caused a turn among many a Harry Potter fan. Chapter 33 of DH was entitled “The Prince’s Tale” and it bared Severus Snape’s soul to Harry and the world. The memories that he urged Harry to take and see at his death, revealed that his love for Lily Potter had begun early and never died. While it was an obsessive love, it was also fierce and protective. Thanks to this strong emotion he felt, Harry was able to get far enough in his journey to destroy Voldemort without being destroyed first. His undying devotion to Lily supported his already talented proficiency in Occlumency and Legilimency, allowing him to fool one of the most vicious wizards of all time. Snape’s indelicate past was made up for by his heroic behaviors once he had become Dumbledore’s man.
Snape’s last memory allowed for forgiveness from Harry Potter, Lily’s son, and cleared his name among the rest of the wizarding world. Harry put aside all grudges, something that Snape struggled with but worked against, and admired Snape as one of the bravest men he had ever known. Consequently, he named his second son Albus Severus Potter. And so Snape lived on, in Lily Potter’s own grandson and her son’s deepest gratitude and memories.
To the rest of the fan world, Snape remains one of the best characters ever written. He was a deeply flawed man and yet he managed to act with more emotion and determination than anyone could imagine. That is why we dotted the pages of chapter 33 with our tears and wept during the boat house scene during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. We cried because a flawed man had fallen physically, but rose metaphorically and will remain in highest esteem forevermore.