In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 2
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.
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.