‘Never – Never Tell’

In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 5

(continued from Part 4)

By forcing Dumbledore to give him his word that he will “never – never tell,” Snape ensures that he will be mistrusted, even hated, by the same people who will gain most from his protection of Harry Potter. Let’s look at a few passages that illustrate the consequences of this secret.

At the end of Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone:

“Quirrell said he [Snape] hates me because he hated my father. Is that true?”

“Well, they did rather detest each other. Not unlike yourself and Mr. Malfoy. And then your father did something Snape could never forgive.”

“What?”

“He saved his life.”

What?

“Yes…” said Dumbledore dreamily. “Funny, the way people’s minds work, isn’t it? Professor Snape couldn’t bear being in your father’s debt… I do believe he worked so hard to protect you this year because he felt that would make him and your father even. Then he could go back to hating your father’s memory in peace…”

Dumbledore has to know this is a lie, that Severus Snape feels no debt whatsoever to James Potter because he believes that James was only trying to avoid being expelled for his role in Sirius’ prank. But because he’s given his word, Dumbledore can’t tell Harry the real reason Snape has been trying to protect him. And the lie actually does damage to Harry’s future interactions with the Potions Master. When Harry reveals to Severus that he knows Snape is in his father’s debt, it just intensifies the row already brewing between them.

In the “Pensieve” chapter in Goblet of Fire, Harry sees in Dumbledore’s memories the fact that Snape had once been a Death Eater. After Dumbledore assures Harry that Snape has never again been accused of “any Dark activity,” the Headmaster finds himself once again bound by the conditions of his agreement with Snape:

“What made you think he’d really stopped supporting Voldemort, professor?”

Dumbledore held Harry’s gaze for a few seconds, and then said:

“That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.”

In fact, the matter is so much between Professors Snape and Dumbledore that when Harry tells Remus Lupin that he had overheard Snape question Malfoy, Lupin’s only defense for Snape is to pass the question of trust off on Dumbledore:

“It’s Dumbledore’s business. Dumbledore trusts Severus, and that ought to be enough for all of us.”

Lupin has no idea why Dumbledore trusts Snape. He just knows that he does.

In Half-Blood Prince, when Harry finds out that Snape was the eavesdropper who heard part of Trelawney’s prophesy, the best explanation that Dumbledore can come up with is:

“You have no idea of the remorse Professor Snape felt when he realized how Lord Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy, Harry. I believe it to be the greatest regret of his life and the reason that he returned – “

“But he’s a very good Occlumens, isn’t he, sir?” said Harry, whose voice was shaking with the effort of keeping it steady. “And isn’t Voldemort convinced that Snape’s on his side, even now? Professor… how can you be sure Snape’s on our side?”

Dumbledore did not speak for a moment; he looked as though he was trying to make up his mind about something. At last he said, “I am sure. I trust Severus Snape completely.”

A few hours after this conversation, Dumbledore will die from Severus Snape’s killing curse. Is he trying to decide whether or not to let Harry in on the secret Snape made him swear to keep? Or perhaps to let Harry know that he has arranged for Snape to kill him? We will never know. What we do know is that Snape’s secret has reverbations far beyond even Dumbledore. After Dumbledore’s death, the other members of the Order absorb the information that one of their own killed the Headmaster:

“Snape,” repeated McGonnagall faintly, falling into the chair. “We all wondered… but he trusted… always… Snape… I can’t believe it.”

“Snape was a highly accomplished Occlumens,” said Lupin, his voice uncharacteristically harsh. “We always knew that.”

“But Dumbledore swore he was on our side!” whispered Tonks. “I always thought Dumbledore must know something about Snape that we didn’t…”

“He always hinted that he had an ironclad reason for trusting Snape,” muttered Professor McGonnagall, now dabbing the corners of her leaking eyes with a tartan-edged handkerchief. “I mean… with Snape’s history… of course people were bound to wonder… but Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine… Wouldn’t hear a word against him!”

Well, Dumbledore did have an ironclad reason to trust Snape. And Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine. But because Snape’s role is as a spy, the secret of how and why he turned away from Voldemort is probably best kept… well, secret. A few trusted people like McGonnagall could possibly have been let in, had Snape allowed it. But Snape himself chose the path of absolute secrecy.

And that fact alone should be enough to quiet down those Snape partisans who bemoan the fact that the Potions Master got so little recognition and reward from his colleagues.

But, of course, it won’t.

‘Help Me Protect Lily’s Son’

In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 4

(continued from Part 3)

Let’s pick up with the scene:

“I wish… I wish I were dead…”

“And what use would that be to anyone?” said Dumbledore coldly. “If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.”

Snape seemed to peer through a haze of pain, and Dumbledore’s words appeared to take a long time to reach him.

“What – what do you mean?”

“You know how and why she died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lily’s son.”

Dumbledore throws cold ice on Snape’s despair, then nudges him toward a course of action that can lead toward redemption. The despair of wishing for death is the wrong kind of remorse. Repentance (feeling the wrong done, turning away from it, and pursuing good) is the right kind. In becoming a protector of Lily’s son, Snape would be actively turning away from evil toward good.

But Snape objects:

“He does not need protection. The Dark Lord has gone -“

There are a couple of possible, seemingly contradictory, readings for this line:

  1. Snape is looking for an excuse to take no action. He would rather wallow in despair, realize his wish for death, maybe even return to the Dark Arts. He’s rebuffing Dumbledore.
  2. When Dumbledore mentioned a “way forward,” Snape desperately hoped it were true. But the Dark Mark has disappeared. The Dark Lord has gone. There is no way forward. All hope is lost.

Regardless of Snape’s intentions, Dumbledore does not let him off the hook:

“The Dark Lord will return, and Harry Potter will be in terrible danger when he does.

This is the crucial moment, the moment of decision.

“There was a long pause, and slowly Snape regained control of himself, mastered his own breathing. At last, he said, “Very well. Very well. But never – never tell, Dumbledore! This must be between us! Swear it! I cannot bear… especially Potter’s son… I want your word!”

“My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?” Dumbledore sighed, looking down into Snape’s ferocious, anguished face. “If you insist…”

Snape makes no more objections. He agrees. But in the moments it takes for him to master himself, we can see that this truly is an agonizing choice. Snape is seemingly weighing his options, considering what this course of action will cost versus what it might gain him.

On the one hand, he does want to find a way forward, more than he wishes to die. On the other hand, he is deeply ashamed of what he must do (help James Potter’s son). This is why he places such an unusual condition on on Dumbledore. The condition (“never – never tell”) indicates that Snape’s earlier objection may actually have been a combination of the two seemingly contradictory impulses mentioned above – i.e. an excuse to take no action combined with a desperate wish that there is yet hope for him.

“Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine.”

-Minerva McGonnagall

In Deathly Hallows, Rowling shows that remorse is the precondition necessary for repairing a soul that has been ripped. In the economy of redemption, repentance is the precondition necessary for conversion and salvation. In the Potterverse, it’s hard to determine exactly where remorse ends and repentance begins. It’s possible that Rowling interchanges the terms.

But in traditional terms, remorse means to feel and regret the wrong done while repentance means to turn from evil to good. Though Rowling does not present this process in explicitly Christian terms, Snape’s path is clearly a path of repentance, leading potentially toward redemption. In more narrow Catholic terms, the repentance is embodied in the very tough penance he lives out in order to right the wrong he has done.

However, the condition Snape places on Dumbledore is equally significant. There is a lot of “woe is Severus” discussion on the Web, blaming Dumbledore and others for never recognizing Snape and never giving him the emotional gratification that he supposedly craved. In actuality, Snape himself forced Dumbledore to promise never to reveal the “best” of Severus. Snape made the choice to labor in secret, without public recognition or emotional reward.

(continued in Part 5)

‘And What Use Would That Be to Anyone?’

In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 3

(continued from Part 2)

Now that we’ve discussed Dumbledore’s handling of Snape’s first steps away from Voldemort, let’s take a look at the first part of the dialogue that seals the deal:

“Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?”

“DON’T!” bellowed Snape. “Gone… dead…”

“Is this remorse, Severus?”

“I wish… I wish I were dead…”

“And what use would that be to anyone?” said Dumbledore coldly.

There is, naturally, endless commentary on this scene. But let’s talk about the scene itself first. Dumbledore, as we saw in Part 2, prods Snape with Lily’s eyes to put a human face on this child that Snape regards only as the thing that lived when Lily died. Despite Dumbledore’s efforts, Snape cannot see through to the child who carries Lily’s eyes forward in life. He can reach only the materialist’s narrow, literal perspective that Lily’s own eyes are now “Gone… dead…”

Snape’s deeply emotional response, though, opens the door to Dumbledore’s next question: “Is this remorse, Severus?” – again raising the stakes. Remorse, as we surely know if we have read Deathly Hallows, opens up the possibility of redemption. Harry charitably gives Voldemort the opportunity to “try for some remorse” before his fatal final duel because remorse – or, a sense of guilt for the wrongs one has done – is the one thing that can keep Voldemort from damnation. (Apparently, seeing the unwanted piece of Voldemort’s damned soul in King’s Cross makes Harry actually care about Voldemort’s redemption.)

When Dumbledore asks Snape if he feels remorse, he essentially asks if he understands and feels the wrong he has done. It’s an important question because Snape did not approach Dumbledore out of remorse. He approached him out of fear, and only because his actions had created a grave threat for the woman he loves. Now that Snape’s fears have been realized and Dumbledore’s protection proved fallible, Snape’s initial “Anything” is no longer binding. He can continue the spiritual suicide he began when he became a Death Eater, or he can try for some remorse. It’s ultimately a question about the state of Snape’s soul.

Snape’s wish for death is clearly a sign of remorse, but the wrong kind of remorse. It is self-pitying, inwardly focused, suicidal remorse. It is the absence of all hope, the remorse of Judas – who threw back the 30 pieces of silver, then went and hung himself. It is the kind of remorse that kills. Its name is despair, and in the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that despair is the most grievous of all sins:

If, however, despair be compared to the other two sins [unbelief and hatred of God] from our point of view, then despair is more dangerous, since hope withdraws us from evils and induces us to seek for good things, so that when hope is given up, men rush headlong into sin, and are drawn away from good works. Wherefore a gloss on Prov. 24:10, “If thou lose hope being weary in the day of distress, thy strength shall be diminished,” says: “Nothing is more hateful than despair, for the man that has it loses his constancy both in the every day toils of this life, and, what is worse, in the battle of faith.” And Isidore says (De Sum. Bono ii, 14): “To commit a crime is to kill the soul, but to despair is to fall into hell.”

Much has been made of the coldness of Dumbledore’s reply, but the coldness is actually a measured response to what Snape has just revealed. Snape has moved from intense grief to despair, and Dumbledore tries to bring him back from despair to a sense of purpose. He refuses to let Snape wallow in suicidal self-pity, and begins to deliver the message that Snape’s life can still have value and worth. All is not hopeless.

Much has also been made, naturally, of Dumbledore’s “What use would [your death] be to anyone?” Is Dumbledore, as some propose, thinking only of how he can use Snape, and how Snape can be useful to him? Or is he perhaps saying that death would not be of any use to Snape himself? If Snape dies now, he would have lived a short, pathetic life with no chance to offset the wrong he has done. And if he dies from suicidal despair, he will have no chance for redemption. Dying now would truly would be of no use to anyone, least of all to Severus Snape.

(continued in Part 4)

‘He Has Her Eyes, Precisely Her Eyes’

In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

In Part 1, we looked at Dumbledore’s dealings with Severus Snape when Snape wished to exchange the life of the mother for the lives of the father and the son. Let’s continue with another scene from “The Prince’s Tale”:

The hilltop faded and Harry stood in Dumbledore’s office, and something was making a terrible sound, like a wounded animal. Snape was slumped forward in a chair and Dumbledore was standing over him, looking grim. After a moment or two, Snape raised his face, and he looked like a man who had lived a hundred years of misery since leaving the wild hilltop.

“I thought… you were going… to keep her… safe…”

“She and James put their faith in the wrong person,” said Dumbledore. “Rather like you, Severus. Weren’t you hoping that Lord Voldemort would spare her?”

This scene probably takes place about a day after the opening of the first book. Dumbledore has already delivered Harry to the Dursleys, and has presumably joined in the celebrations following Voldemort’s fall. But for Severus Snape, there can be no celebration.

This is a delicate moment in Snape’s story. The consequences he tried to escape by turning to Dumbledore in the first place have now hit him full in the face. He is already at Hogwarts, already a spy, already starting to turn his life around. But now disaster strikes. Lily is dead. He sounds like a wounded animal, and Dumbledore looks grim. If Dumbledore mishandles the scene now unfolding in his office, Snape can be lost forever.

But Dumbledore knows his man. When Snape tries to blame Dumbledore for not protecting Lily sufficiently, Dumbledore – correctly – throws it right back at him, making Lily’s death a question of choices, not his personal omnipotence or lack thereof.

As always, our choices define us. James and Lily made a bad choice. Severus made a bad choice. At the point where those two sets of bad choices intersect, Lily Evans died.

The scene continues:

Snape’s breathing was shallow.

“Her boy survives,” said Dumbledore.

With a tiny jerk of the head, Snape seemed to flick off an irksome fly.

“Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?”

“DON’T!” bellowed Snape. “Gone… dead…”

Oh boy, this is where some Snape partisans really lose it. In the alternate Potterverse they’ve constructed, Dumbledore is callously taunting Snape so that he can find a way to make him “useful” to Dumbledore. In the comments to the Snapedom essay “You Have Used Me: Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore, Betrayal and Trust,” bohemianspirit writes that “one of the worst examples” of Dumbledore’s “callous disregard for human feeling” is the “horrible, horrible way he taunted Severus with, “Remember Lily’s eyes, Severus?”

In that corner of the Potterverse, Dumbledore is a master manipulator who has zero concern for any other person, just so long as he gets what he wants. He manipulates Severus into doing his will, manipulates Potter into doing his will, and it matters little to him what damage he causes in the process.

It’s a view that listens only to Aberforth’s bitterness (and Snape’s complaint that Dumbledore used him) – and listens not at all to Dumbledore in King’s Cross. In short, Dumbledore is a bit of a sociopath. Any tears he may have shed or self-doubts he may have expressed over his failings are irrelevant, as are any conclusions Harry ultimately draws. Dumbledore, in these fans’ view, is only about lies and manipulation.

But “callous disregard” is not the only way to read the exchange. As Katie Sullivan writes:

[Dumbledore and Snape] both had felt the temptation of the Dark Arts; Snape followed that path much farther than Dumbledore did before realizing the terrible price such magic exacts, but they both were, in a sense, recovering addicts. I think that, as much as Snape’s deep love for Lily, was the reason for Dumbledore’s unwavering trust in him.

Bingo!

Listen to the language Snape uses to answer Bellatrix in the “Spinner’s End” chapter of Half-Blood Prince:

Bellatrix: While I endured the dementors, you remained at Hogwarts, comfortably playing Dumbledore’s pet!

Snape: Not quite. He wouldn’t give me the Defense Against the Dark Arts job, you know. Seemed to think it might, ah, bring about a relapse… tempt me into my old ways.

Snape uses precisely the language of addiction and recovery. If we tease out the analogy for the scene in Dumbledore’s office, Snape is newly recovering from his fall into the Dark Arts, while Dumbledore has had a much, much longer period of recovery. And like a newly recovering addict’s counselor, Dumbledore does not gloss over attitudes that could cause Snape a relapse… or worse, drive him to suicide. Instead, he has the unmitigated gall to call Snape on them! He again uses tough love.

When Dumbledore tells Snape the single piece of good news in this tragedy – that the boy lives – Snape treats the news as if it’s an “irksome fly.” He appears to regard the boy as an usurper, alive while Lily is dead. It is precisely at this point that Dumbledore draws Snape’s attention to the fact that the boy is not an insect to be brushed off. He is a child, Lily’s child. He has precisely her eyes.

Dumbledore is not callously taunting Snape. He’s acting as a conscience, putting a human face on Harry for Snape, a human face that Snape needs to see. Significantly, at the end of his long and perilous journey, Snape finally will acknowledge, in his last breath, that the boy does indeed have Lily’s eyes.

(continued in Part 3)

‘You Disgust Me’

In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 1

At times, drinkingcocoa’s LiveJournal mirrors my own thoughts on Severus Snape. Many of the insights contained in her post “Why Dumbledore delegated the final message to Snape” are exactly the same as mine. But then there’s her insistence that Dumbledore never cared for Snape. And there we differ. Big time.

This is a recurring theme for drinkingcocoa (and I daresay many Snape partisans), so I’m starting a series that examines the Dumbledore/Snape interactions.

First, let’s take a look at one of the complaints:

In a post called “Why I’m not so mad at Dumbledore,” drinkingcocoa writes:

At the Terminus roundtable “I’m Not Dead Yet,” for those of us still in Snape-death denial, moderator Lori A. Franklin asked us if anything in the chapter “The Prince’s Tale” surprised us. My answer was that I was shocked to see that Dumbledore didn’t love Snape. His “You disgust me” may be the harshest thing he says to anyone in the series. Dumbledore talks like that?

Let’s put “Snape-death denial” on hold for this post and look at the other part of the comment. drinkingcocoa is clearly shocked that once upon a time Dumbledore told Snape, on a remote hilltop, just after Snape had indicated his willingness to let James and Harry die if someone would just save Lily: “You disgust me.”

Let’s look at the entire context of the “you disgust me” remark:

“If she means so much to you,” said Dumbledore, “surely Lord Voldemort will spare her? Could you not ask for mercy for the mother, in exchange for the son?”

“I have – I have asked him -“

“You disgust me,” said Dumbledore, and Harry had never heard so much contempt in his voice. Snape seemed to shrink a little. “You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?”

Snape said nothing, but merely looked up at Dumbledore.

“Hide them all, then,” he croaked. “Keep her – them – safe. Please.”

“And what will you give me in return, Severus?”

“In – in return?” Snape gaped at Dumbledore, and Harry expected him to protest, but after a long moment he said, “Anything.”

There’s a name for what Dumbledore does here. It’s called “tough love.” Dumbledore speaks harshly to Snape precisely because he respects him enough to tell him the truth. Dumbledore’s disgust is based on Snape’s behavior, not his person. He does not eternally condemn Snape to the category “disgusting.” Rather, he merely refuses to coddle Snape, refuses to woobify him.

Snape’s proposed exchange of the life of the mother for the lives of the father and son is disgusting. By showing his rightful disgust, Dumbledore brings Snape to what an addict might call “the first in a series of bottoms.” By shining a light into Snape’s darkened soul, Dumbledore helps the young Death Eater catch a glimpse of the depths to which he has sunk, making him willing to plead for the lives of Lily’s entire family, and even add a “Please.”

It’s a start, but Dumbledore wants more: “And what will you give me in return, Severus?”

Why ask for more when everything we know about Dumbledore indicates that he would hardly shirk the responsibility of protecting the Potters, regardless of Snape’s response? Because pushing Snape to make a commitment affords the Death Eater an opportunity to truly turn his life around, to change, to repent, to make restitution, to be redeemed – just as Dumbledore turned his own life around at about the same age.

And the prodding works. It is the barest of beginnings, but when Snape says he’ll do “Anything,” it truly marks the difference between certain damnation and the possibility of redemption. Rather than showing coldness or lack of care, Dumbledore’s rough prodding actually shows the depth of his concern for Snape’s soul.

drinkingcocoa seems to understand this in part. She goes on to write:

I had assumed that Dumbledore loved Snape…, the man whom he utterly trusted, and mentored away from a damned life, and guided through the trickiest of double agencies.

But then she adds:

How fascinating to learn that this was wrong, and that Dumbledore saw Snape only as an unusually valuable indentured servant.

“An unusually valuable indentured servant”? An indentured servant is under contract to perform a service for a period of time. There is no such relationship between Dumbledore and Snape. Snape did not have to go on staff at Hogwarts. He did not have to work so hard to protect Lily’s son. He did not have to spy for Dumbledore. He did not have to work to redeem himself. He did not even have to commit to killing Albus Dumbledore. He always had a choice. He could have slithered away into the darkness and Dumbledore would never have forced him to return to the light.

That much is evident from their conversation during the Yule Ball, when Snape tells Dumbledore that the Dark Mark is growing stronger and Karkaroff plans to flee. Dumbledore asks Snape if he too is tempted to flee, indicating clearly that he has no intention of forcing Snape to remain if Snape wishes to save himself. But Snape is “not such a coward.” And he is no indentured servant either. He voluntarily works toward redeeming himself under the guidance of a very tough spiritual mentor who gives him the opportunity to make free moral choices.

And Dumbledore is uniquely qualified for this role. He knows more about the lure of the Dark Arts than Severus Snape can possibly imagine.

(continued in Part 2)

A Deeply Horrible Person

Wow. I’ve just been reading up on the Potter fanwars that have taken place over the past decade. Apparently, there’s been some serious craziness among various character factions. (I have to admit my favorite bizarro concept, because it’s just so bizarre, is the snapewives.) At any rate, reading up on the fanwars helped me understand something I’ve seen on Snape sites – the hostility to JKR and Dumbledore. Apparently, some people want a woobie. And Snape is not written, or treated, as a woobie.

So, let me talk about where I’m coming from. I did Ph.D. work in literature at UCLA. That doesn’t make my insights better than anybody else’s. (Actually, there’s some great stuff being written out there by people who were probably not insane enough to study for a Ph.D.). I’m mentioning it because one of the first things you learn to do in literary criticism is look at the text, then at the author.

My training – good, bad, or indifferent – taught me that in a good work of fiction the characters take on a life of their own. The text lives and breathes. What matters is what the text says about the characters… because ultimately (in a good book) the text should be able to speak for itself. Consequently, if JKR has a different interpretation than I think the text warrants, I’m not going to waste my time getting angry… but I’m also not going to slavishly bow down to her reading. And that brings us to her comment, made long before Deathly Hallows, that Snape is a “deeply horrible person.”

To my blunt American mind, “deeply horrible” means a character beyond all hope of redemption. Rotten to the core. To her British mind, it may mean something more nuanced. I think, certainly, the text in the first six books supports the possibility that Snape will turn out rotten, and Rowling clearly needed to protect that possible outcome. But the text of Deathly Hallows, with its story of Snape’s true loyalties and sacrifices, does not support the notion that there is nothing redemptive about him. That would be Voldemort.

Snape is instead a deeply flawed person. A deeply horrible teacher. A deeply frustrating and infuriating person. A sometimes horrible person. But he’s not a deeply horrible person. If he were, then he could not have warranted Albus Dumbledore’s trust… and there would be no question of naming a child Albus Severus Potter. Unless, of course, “deeply horrible” is just a more British way of phrasing exactly what I just said about Snape’s character.

Picture of Lily

Hiding out at Number 12 Grimmauld Place, Harry finds in Sirius’ room part of a letter his mother wrote shortly after his first birthday. The final sentences of the first sheet read:

[p. 180-181] Bathilda drops in most days, she’s a fascinating old thing with the most amazing stories about Dumbledore, I’m not sure he’d be pleased if he knew! I don’t know how much to believe, actually, because it seems incredible that Dumbledore…

The second sheet is missing, but Harry finds it in Severus Snape’s memories. After killing Dumbledore, Snape hastened to Grimmauld Place to find what he could of Lily’s before the Order of the Phoenix hexed him out of bounds. Tears dripping from his nose, he reads the rest of the sentence:

[p. 689] …could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!
Lots of love,
Lily

Snape pockets the second page of the letter with Lily’s signature, then takes the photo of Harry’s family enclosed in the letter, rips it in two, and keeps only the picture of Lily.

The scene is simultaneously touching and maddening – reaffirming Snape’s love for Lily and his disdain for her loved ones at the same time. On the one hand, the man who prides himself on being strong enough to shut down emotions can weep his losses. On the other, ripping the photo and tossing the half showing Harry zooming around on his toy broomstick is a callous act… as is pocketing Lily’s part of the photo and her signature on the letter. Snape is depriving Lily’s son of what rightfully belongs to him. It is Snape at his most distraught, and his most selfish, since the terrible events of 1981.

But what’s going on here emotionally? Dumbledore is dead. Snape saw to that. Lily’s son, the boy Snape has protected all these years at great personal peril, has just called him a coward. Aside from some future help from the Headmaster’s portrait, Snape is now on his own. And as we see, he is grieved – so grieved that the memory appears out of order in the Pensieve. The two people who cared about him most are gone, and he’s left to infiltrate the darkness to carry on the battle alone.

And what is in the letter he is reading? Remarks about Dumbledore, the man Snape never wanted to kill – remarks connecting Dumbledore to the Dark Arts and the subservience of Muggles to Wizards, via the Headmaster’s connection to the great Dark Wizard Gellert Grindelwald. And no, Bathilda Bagshot’s mind is not going… at least not yet.

Ironically, the consequences of Snape’s own youthful attraction to the Dark Arts and Muggle subservience have brought him to this place. Alone. Unloved. Hated. But did Snape ever know Dumbledore’s past any better than Harry did? Did he know that Dumbledore was not inherently more virtuous than he himself? Did he know of Dumbledore’s youthful desire for the Deathly Hallows and for power? Did he know that Dumbledore had been inflamed by the ideas of the most dangerous Dark Wizard of all time, before Voldemort? All of that is doubtful, given that Dumbledore never even told Snape in what way he was tempted by the cursed ring.

So why is Snape weeping? For Lily only? Maybe a little for Dumbledore… and for what he never knew about the Headmaster? For the path he himself must take over the next year (or however long it takes to bring Voldemort down)? Whatever the case, it is refreshing to know that there were times when even Severus Snape wept.

In a more fairy tale rendering, the two halves of the letter and the two halves of the photo might have acted like half lockets to draw their possessors together. But even had he wanted to, Snape could never have openly embraced the boy. That would have compromised the mission he accepted after Lily’s death.

As Ministry of Magic so aptly puts it: “Sometimes consequences define your life with hardship.” Snape all these years later is still reaping consequences manifold.

Picture of Lily

Picture of Lily

Avada Kedavra

I’m still trying to process what I’ve just read, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Snape’s Avada Kedavra.

Despite the explanation Snape is given, it’s clear that in Dumbledore’s mind, the killing is part of a larger military strategy. Rowling has said that Dumbledore is somewhat Machiavellian, pulling strings. I would say rather that he is a military general, making hard choices in order to win a war that absolutely must be won. And this brings in the whole question of what is morally acceptable under such circumstances.

For starters, let’s dismiss the idea that this is really a mercy killing. It’s not. Would the man who is willing to drink 10 cups of potion in the cave be afraid of pain and humiliation? I don’t think so. Rather, when he finds out he has only one year left regardless of the outcome of Draco’s plan, he decides that the best course of action is not to fight Draco and the Death Eaters but to plan the strategy for his death.

Here, in a nutshell, is Dumbledore’s strategy:

  • to deprive Voldemort of the Elder Wand’s allegiance
  • to make sure that one of the other Death Eaters sent with Draco does not win the Elder Wand
  • to “prove” Snape’s allegiance to Voldemort so that Snape can become headmaster and covertly protect Hogwarts students from the Death Eaters
  • to protect Draco’s soul

Dumbledore merely uses the “just do me a favor and don’t let it be the werewolf or Bellatrix” argument because he thinks it’s the safest way to ensure Snape’s compliance. But he underestimates Snape. Snape is worried about his own soul. He rebels at the prospect of killing Dumbledore as the time comes closer, and “Spare me pain and humiliation” becomes an insufficient argument for doing the deed. Snape would apparently prefer to die himself when the Unbreakable Vow rebounds on him than have to kill Dumbledore.

So what tactic does Dumbledore use to win Snape over? He lets him in on part of the strategy behind the endgame.

Dumbledore can’t reveal the Elder Wand (or the Horcrux) aspects of the strategy to Snape in case Voldemort is somehow able to break through Snape’s mental defenses. But he believes that he can reveal the final plan for Harry.

I don’t believe for a second that Snape goes along with the plan because it will hasten Harry’s death. He’s visibly horrified at the prospect. What I do think happens is that he finally realizes that this war is a lot bigger than Lily, and that he’s not the only soldier being asked to make terrible sacrifices. Even Lily’s son – presumably the Headmaster’s favorite – will be asked to lay down his life when the time comes.

This would seem to be the moment when Snape begins to think strategically, looking at the bigger picture, rather than just be consumed with his own grief. He doesn’t know Dumbledore’s full plan, but he apparently assumes that the Headmaster’s death must be part of it – just as Harry’s death and his own role as a double agent must be part of it. I think in the end he kills Dumbledore because he trusts that it is necessary to do so in order to defeat Voldemort.

Now for the question of Severus Snape’s soul…

I think it’s fairly clear that Snape’s soul does not suffer further damage from killing Dumbledore. I would argue, in fact, that his better self grows stronger over the following year. His soul begins to rebound:

  • When Neville tries to steal the sword of Gryffindor, what punishment does Snape give him? He sends him into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid. No Cruciatus curse. No torture devices from Filch. Just a mildly frightening field trip.
  • When the picture of Phineas Nigellus Black refers to Hermione as a mudblood, it is Snape who rushes to her defense, saying “Do not use that word.”
  • In the battle over Little Whinging, when the Death Eater in front of Snape is about to cast an Avada Kedavra at Lupin, Snape aims a Sectumsempra at the Death Eater’s wand hand. It misses. It hits George in the ear. But it does save Lupin’s life. Snape nearly blows his cover in order to save the life of one of James Potter’s friends.
  • And do you think Snape is not aware that Neville is reorganizing Dumbledore’s Army and using the Room of Requirement to escape the wrath of the Carrows? Of course he knows. Yet he allows it to take place right under the Carrows’ noses.
  • And that Patronus he casts in the Forest of Dean? That powerful corporeal doe that Harry recognizes as benign? Do you think that a man with recent murder on his soul could cast such a thing, given that the Patronus is a reflection of the caster’s soul?

Snape killed Dumbledore, yes, but the text appears to argue that he did not commit murder in doing so. It was not done for selfish reasons or with malice aforethought. Rather, he was a soldier fulfilling a crucial mission that resulted in a death. It was not the death of an enemy, but it was a death by consent that was strategically important in order to win a war with satanic evil. Killing Albus Dumbledore did not rip Snape’s soul.

Mark Shea has a very interesting article dealing with the Avada Kedavra and the failure of Dumbledore’s strategy. Actually, I would argue that only part of Dumbledore’s strategy fails – the part involving the Elder Wand. The rest of the strategy succeeds, and in fact Dumbledore’s death may even have provided protection for Draco, Severus, and Harry akin to the protection afforded Harry by his mother’s sacrifice, and to the Hogwarts defenders by Harry’s sacrifice.

Severus Snape is killed by a snake, not a curse, so it’s hard to know what effect Dumbledore’s death might have had against the Killing Curse. But the fact that Snape’s soul appears to rebound in his final year tells me that Dumbledore’s death should be viewed as a sacrifice that had some efficacious effect, not an assisted suicide that marred the souls of the two plotters.

And this opens up a whole slew of questions concerning wartime morality and what is and is not justified. It is acceptable to kill the enemy during time of war. But is killing a commanding officer on his orders in the line of duty for strategic reasons ever morally acceptable? And if so, is it morally acceptable to do so with the incomplete and somewhat inaccurate strategic explanation Snape is given? (ie. Save Draco and don’t let me get eaten or crucio’d) – or does the soldier need to understand the “why” of the order? Is this a form of consequentialism? Is Rowling’s thinking muddied and muddled on these issues?

Even if the killing is evil, I think Catholic readers like myself can legitimately believe that Snape does not commit mortal sin in fulfilling Dumbledore’s orders. Why? Because he is not making a free choice to participate in moral evil. He’s trying to do what’s right in confusing circumstances. Snape’s intractable bitterness is ultimately of more concern to the state of his soul. Of course, not being a moral theologian, I am open to correction on this point.

More thought provoking comments, from the Hogwarts Professor site: “Once Again, The Vigilant Christians (TM) Denounce Harry Potter

Thoughts?

Obsession or Courtly Love?

Back to the question of Snape’s Lily “obsession.” I think a lot of people read this through the lense of 21st century mass media understandings of love and obsession. I find it more likely that Rowling is looking at it through certain Medieval understandings of courtly love – particularly the type of courtly love in which the object of affection is completely unattainable, possibly dead (a la Dante’s Beatrice), and is a type of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I haven’t been able to find the actual post, but the suspicions I’m having also seem to have been the topic of a discussion a couple of years ago on John Granger’s blog. (Remember, I’m new to the Potter phenomenon. I have some catching up to do). Anyway, here are my initial thoughts on the subject…

On the night Snape begs Dumbledore to protect Lily, his motivation is utterly selfish. He wants her. He doesn’t care who dies (except her of course). And Dumbledore is rightly disgusted.

But then something happens. Lily dies. And as Snape grieves, Dumbledore drags the former Death Eater to the next level of love. He invokes a love for Lily that transcends romantic involvement, asking Severus if he truly loved her (i.e. if he wasn’t just infatuated over her or lusting over her). He invokes a more pure and more selfless love than the crazy, selfish, murderous “love” that first brought Snape to him.

Snape’s initial embrace of protecting Lily’s son – for the sake of this purer love – is halting and resentful. In fact, he’s still struggling with it on the night he kills Dumbledore and in his grief in the House of Black rips the Potter family picture in two and takes the part with Lily. (Harry, the boy he’s been protecting all these years, did just call him “coward”). Despite his struggles, moving toward a more selfless love does keep Snape from throwing away his own life (he wanted to die, remember, when Lily died?), and it gives him a chance to channel his energies toward the good.

A lot of people seem to assume that the Snape of November 1981 speaks for Snape of of all time – i.e., that he’s a static character who never grows. But I personally don’t think we should read too much into the anguish of a 21 year old man who has just lost the only person who has ever meant anything to him. I also don’t think we should read too much into the anger of a 36-37 year old man who has just learned that Dumbledore has been keeping Lily’s son alive in order to fulfill what the headmaster sees as a necessary sacrifice. Snape ultimately accepts even that mission though, assuming that Dumbledore must know what he’s doing, all without knowing that Lily’s son will become the master of death.

Based on my reading, I think it’s clear that Snape comes to care more about Harry than he dares admit either to himself or Dumbledore. On the night when Snape casts the Avada Kedavra on Dumbledore, he parries all of Harry’s attempts at Unforgivable Curses before Harry can complete them. Even in the heat of battle, he tells Harry not to use Unforgivable Curses – partly taunt, but also partly an attempt to keep Harry’s soul undamaged. Even telling Harry that he, Snape, is the Half-Blood Prince is only partly vanity. The other part is a warning to stay away from dark magic.

So my contention is that Snape gradually grows, gradually changes. He can’t change much on the outside because that would tip his hand and make it impossible to fulfill his role as a double agent. And yes, he has a lot of pent-up resentment towards James that spills over into his treatment of Harry. But by the time he dies, he is performing his duty for motivations that could not come solely from a twisted inappropriate love.

And note her name. The lily, in the Western tradition, is the symbol of chastity and purity. It is the symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the Blessed Virgin Mary is the ultimate symbol behind the courtly love tradition. The doe Patronus IMO shows how far his soul has been repaired from his days as a Death Eater. The doe is a symbol of gentleness, purity of purpose, walking in the light. It was hers. But it has now become his.

Obsession or Redemption?

Paraphrase: Snape is no hero because he only protected Harry out of devotion to Harry’s mother, with whom he never had a romantic relationship.

(from a friend’s email message)

I think my friend is missing a major point. Lily was apparently the first magic person his own age that Severus ever had any contact with. The excitement in meeting Lily is more than a schoolboy crush. It’s a revelation. Finally, here’s another kid who’s like him. He isn’t just a freak, as his muggle father apparently believed. Here’s a lovely innocent girl who can also do wandless magic.

Severus was a lonely, isolated boy – a boy that Harry ultimately considers (along with himself and Tom Riddle) to be one of the “abandoned boys” who found a home at Hogwarts. For Severus, becoming friends with Lily before he ever went to Hogwarts was a way to escape, however briefly, the hell of his hovel in Spinner’s End. At this point, he’s already angry about his muggle father’s abuse, and he lashes out at Petunia. But there’s a real innocence and excitement in his childhood conversations with Lily.

If he had been sorted into Gryffindor (where Dumbledore hints he probably belonged) rather than into Slytherin (apparently his pure-blood mother’s house), his life would have been quite different, and his relationship with Lily might have grown in a more healthy direction. Instead, he falls under the pernicious influence of Lucius Malfoy, his Slytherin prefect.

Now mind you, I’m not Slytherin-bashing. There’s plenty of evidence that good can come out of Slytherin. Witness Snape himself, whom I maintain is one of the three great redemptive heroes in the story. But in 1971, when Snape entered Hogwarts, the house had become a recruiting ground for Voldemort, and young Severus lost his way.

Paraphrase: Snape’s love for Lily is disturbing, obsessive, pathetic, almost John Hinckley-ish. He should have outgrown his Lily obsession years ago.

(from a friend’s email message)

Again, I think my friend is missing a major point. Snape’s bad choices brought about Lily’s death. How can he outgrow that in a mere 16 years? The information that we learn about Dumbledore in the final book is, I think, crucial to understanding Snape. In fact, it is probably this knowledge of Dumbledore’s past that makes Harry finally able to forgive his former antagonist.

Snape is consumed with a guilt for which he is doing a lifelong penance – just as Dumbledore is. The difference is that Snape never has the opportunity to travel nearly as far on the road of redemption and conversion as Dumbledore does. We never get to see what he could have become had he lived.

What, I wonder, was Dumbledore like 10-16 years after the death of his sister? Was he as outwardly genial then as he appears now, nearly 100 years later? Or was he more outwardly haunted, tormented by what he had done? Different personalities, different manifestations of guilt, perhaps. But it’s highly likely that Dumbledore sees himself and the tragedy of his own error in Snape. It’s not for nothing that he likes to give people second chances.

Snape is the rare – possibly the only – Slytherin who can carry the sword of Gryffindor. He is also, according to Rowling, the only person bearing the Dark Mark who can produce a Patronus. That in itself is a testament to the depth of his repentance. He’s not a nice man. Neither was St. Jerome. But he grows tremendously from the night he first begs Dumbledore to protect Lily, swearing that he will do “anything,” to the night he pours out his blood and finally gives his memories to Harry Potter.

I think there is another, even more crucial, point that my friend is missing. For 15 years, Snape believed that the mission was to protect Lily’s son. But then he learns that the real mission is much bigger. Yet Snape continues with the mission over the next year – thanklessly sacrificing Dumbledore to save Draco, infiltrating deeper into Voldemort’s ranks to become Voldemort’s right-hand man, and doing what he can to protect the students of Hogwarts from the Death Eaters – all while believing that Lily’s son will finally have to die to save the world from Lord Voldemort. He could not deliver the message of sacrifice to Lily’s son simply for love of Lily. He could only do that for something much bigger than his own selfish unrequited love.

Snape produces the doe Patronus for Dumbledore approximately one year before his own death. And he can still produce a Patronus after becoming Voldemort’s hand-picked headmaster. By continuing to produce the Patronus, Snape shows that his soul remains unripped by the horrors his double agent role have forced on him. Frankly, I see his Patronus less as a sign of obsessive love than as a desire to return to the childhood innocence he possessed before becoming so horribly corrupted by the Death Eater ideology. His Patronus is a manifestation of the best of him.

Unlike my friend, I count Snape a true hero and believe that Harry’s final assessment of his character is spot-on. In fact, I would argue that the spilling of Snape’s blood seals his redemption, transforming the surly penitent possibly even into a martyr saint – and if not a saint, then surely one of the holy souls in purgatory… though I doubt Rowling (not being Catholic) would quite agree.