In Defense of Albus Dumbledore, Part 5
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.”
“He saved his life.”
“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.