Potterhead July is hosted by the wonderful Aentee over at Read at Midnight, and it was started as a way to celebrate the upcoming release of Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Aentee came up with several brilliant topics and opened them up to bloggers all over the Internet so we could essentially have a month-long Potter discussion forum thing. While I haven’t had the chance to read as many posts as I would like, the ones that I have encountered were such a delight to read. The topic I went for is Severus Snape: hero or villain? So without further ado, let’s jump right into it.
Fair warning: this topic is brilliant, I have many thoughts, so this is going to be hella long
Black and white do not exist
I don’t think I need to tell anybody that people are not simple creatures; it is virtually impossible to categorize human beings into extreme categories like “good” and “evil,” especially since both virtues are rather subjective. In recent psychological education, emphasis on cultural differences has become rather important: just because your society views something as inherently good does not mean that another society will. And just like in real life, well-written characters are never one thing or another. Perhaps what makes the Harry Potter series such a global phenomenon is how universal the characters are: young boys with traumatic pasts and short-tempers; little girls who love to read- their intelligence and wit bear the burden of so many others’ stupidities, who are also completely insufferable sometimes; boys who are jealous of their “golden-boy” friends but remain loyal, steadfast and brilliant in their own right; friendships that transcend boundaries of class, race and upbringing. Harry Potter means so much to us because we see ourselves in Rowling’s characters. And that’s because the characters are reflective of human beings. Nobody is perfect. Even Voldemort had some “traditionally good” characteristics: was he not an extremely intelligent, ambitious, respectful young boy who came from nothing and worked his way to the top?
But perhaps the most complex characters in the series is Severus Snape, often idolized because of the Ultimate Revelation at the end, or despised because of the torture he inflicted upon the students at Hogwarts. But as with people, I say that it’s not as easy to divide Severus Snape between two camps: his was a person and a tale that was far more complicated than one thing or another.
My First Anti-Hero
Severus Snape is an anti-hero. Anti-heroes, at least with my understanding of them, are characters who do morally ambiguous things, but ultimately do what they do for “the greater good.” Not only is Snape an anti-hero, but he’s the first anti-hero I was exposed to: an element in literature that has now become my absolute favorite. Characterization is of the utmost importance to me, both as a reader and a writer, and anti-heroes are at the top of my ‘tropes’ because they are intriguing, multi-faceted and complicated. They evoke conflicting feelings in readers who constantly finds themselves wondering if they should root for this guy or wish a more sinister fate upon him.
Snape is the perfect anti-hero. We all know by the end that everything he did was out of love for Lily. He wasn’t a Death Eater. He wasn’t Voldemort’s follower, though he used to be. He didn’t kill Dumbledore because he had joined the dark side. Harry and co. had been wrong about him all along- everything he had done was for the good guys. He killed Dumbledore on his orders so he could infiltrate Voldemort’s ranks even further. He risked his life constantly, literally always on the brink of death so he could take Voldemort down. So he could protect Lily’s child. Because Voldemort murdered the woman he loved, and she had died for Harry.
Love is such a defining part of who we are- it’s the first thing we learn. It’s our first emotional bond, it’s what we do to survive in the world. And how is it possible to hate a man who spent his entire life in one of three states:
- loving a girl who saw him as ‘just a friend’
- loving a girl who was married to someone else
- and loving a girl who was dead.
How does someone possibly blame him for being a bitter, angry man who lost everything he ever wanted because his entire self rested on the shoulders of one Lily Evans, who continued to love her long after her body dropped cold to the ground behind a flash of green light.
BUT how do you root for a guy who mentally tormented and bullied children? Who hurled racist remarks as a teenager, who invented gruesome hexes such as Sectemsempra, who joined the Death Eaters and brought about the deaths of God knows how many? Who blatantly rigged house-points system because he had favorites (to be fair, the same can be argued for Dumbledore), who was cruel to Harry and constantly insulted Harry’s dead father. Snape was a grown man who made an eleven-year-old feel like he was hated. He was a grown man who told a fifteen year old that his dead father was a “swine.”
The result is an increasingly conflicted reader who wants to understand but also fails to do so. And there you go- there is the perfect anti-hero right underneath your noses. But while it’s difficult to put yourself in his shoes, we can try. Let’s break it down.
The Downfall of a severely flawed man
Severus was a strange boy, to say the least. He was lonely and grew up in a very unhappy household (it is implied that he was uncared for, and his Muggle father was perhaps even violent.) One day, Snape made a friend: a fiery red-head who needed someone to show her how her abilities worked. Snape found himself with a friend for the first time in his life- this pretty girl who was his age, who looked at him like a person, who didn’t care about anything else. She liked him, and he loved her.
Until Hogwarts happened and Severus found that the distance between the two was growing. On the Hogwarts Express, Snape got into a tense animosity with the golden-boys of the year. James and co. literally hung Severus upside down and revealed his underwear to the whole school. James Potter and Sirius Black were athletic, social, handsome and charismatic. Severus was very quiet and studious. He wasn’t the most attractive, and he was extremely talented when it came to the Dark Arts. Coupled with the fact that he was sorted into Slytherin – a house often stigmatized for producing evil – Snape was often regarded as the signature weirdo. James’s crush on Lily was developing into something more, and Severus’s feelings towards her only increased the tensions. Severus loved a girl because she was his friend, because she liked him for who he was, yet someone who was the complete opposite of Severus was the one she fell in love with. That’s bound to hurt. It’s true that she didn’t owe him anything- and none of it was Lily’s fault. But damn, that’s GOT to hurt. And so begins a strange boy’s downward spiral into real darkness.
After it all, Severus cannot get over this girl. His friendship ends when he says horrible things to her out of spite, but he never stops loving her. He joins the Death Eaters and when he finds out that Voldemort’s going to try and kill Harry, he begs him to spare Lily. Knowing that it wouldn’t work, Snape then pleads for Dumbledore to hide her and her family, to keep her safe. We all know what happens after that.
Ultimately, Snape died loving the woman he had always loved. And it’s a strange kind of irony that the only person present at his death was the only one present when Lily (and Voldemort) died. It’s a strange kind of cruelty that the last face Severus saw was the face of James Potter. But that was alright at the end, because Snape died looking into the eyes of the girl he loved.
Still, his complicated past doesn’t excuse his present
It’s true. It’s true that Snape did not have to be so cruel towards Harry and his friends. He did not need to bully them, and while it’s obviously distasteful that a grown man would hurl insults at children, can we also understand his actions? Perhaps. Harry is known to have looked exactly like his father (except for the eyes… he had his mother’s eyes), a man who Severus blamed for many of his problems. In Severus’s head, had it not been for James’s arrogance, he might’ve had a good time at school. Had it not been for him marrying Lily, Severus might have had a chance with her- she might still be alive. This isn’t true, but I imagine it’s a lot like what it was inside Snape’s head. And here’s a boy, who is a hell of a lot like his father: the “golden-boy” with popularity, with the same disregard for rules and discipline, an athlete who is single-handedly taking down the house Snape overlooks. The hatred is understandable, but not justified.
His death at the end does not justify his actions as a Death Eater. His love for Lily does not justify his actions towards Harry. But it does make us question the concept of good and bad.
The Resulting Spectrum
If there were a spectrum with hero on one end, and villain on the other, Severus would most definitely be near the middle. Not closer to hero, definitely not closer to villain, but in the middle. If I were to make any allowances, I’d say he was a little bit closer to hero than villain, but still closer to the midpoint than one or the other extreme. Because while he was a bitter old man who did some horrible things in his past, his bravery and his love resulted in an outcome that would have been impossible to reach had it not been for his sacrifices, his secrets. Which is why it makes a lot of sense, to me, as a reader that Harry decided to name a child after him.
What did Severus end up with? Nothing. It’s a tragedy; it’s a devastating realization for someone like me who genuinely sympathizes with characters as complicated and lonely as Snape. It’s devastating to realize that Snape’s last wish was only to look into his beloved’s eyes, even if that meant looking into his enemy’s face. It’s tragic to realize that Snape died as the whole world thought him a traitor, a murderer, an evil man. With nothing. With no children, no wife, no friends, no lover. Snape died with nothing.
And Harry – being the kind, lovely human that he was – gave Severus something. Harry realized the extent of Snape’s sacrifices and forgave him. For the cruelty and the bullying. And in the end, he acknowledged Snape’s courage. Harry gave Snape the title that his father and godfather had stripped him of – many, many years ago.
James Potter: “‘Gryffindor, where dwell the brave at heart!’ Like my dad. Got a problem with that?“
Snape: “No. If you’d rather be brawny instead of brainy —“
Sirius Black: “Where are you hoping to go, seeing as you’re neither?“
Because in the end, after all was said and done, Snape became – to the characters, and to many of us – the bravest man we ever knew.
And finally, RIP Alan Rickman
Had it not been for his genius portrayal of one of the most intricate, complicated characters I have ever known, the way I now read characters and literature would never have existed.