One of the most poignant moments in the entire Harry Potter series occurs as Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest at the end of Deathly Hallows to meet his fate at the hands of Lord Voldemort. Hiding under his cloak of invisibility, he overhears a wounded girl whispering for her mother and telling Ginny that she wants to “go home.”
Harry has seen the memories. He now knows Snape’s loyalties. He knows Dumbledore’s plan. He intends to die. And all he can think is that…
He wanted to shout out to the night, he wanted Ginny to know he was there, he wanted her to know where he was going. He wanted to be stopped, he wanted to be dragged back, to be sent back home…
But he was home. Hogwarts was the first and best home he had ever known. He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here…
I don’t know that there’s any more remarkable statement in the entire series than that final sentence. Something happens in the Pensieve that gives Harry compassion, that helps him identify… not only with Severus Snape, but even with Voldemort himself.
When Harry first discovered that Tom Riddle’s mother died about an hour after giving birth, he was so stunned that Dumbledore asked if he could “possbly be feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort.” Harry denied any empathy.
When Harry dipped his face into the Pensieve to view the memories the hated Potions Master had left him, he did so with a “reckless abandonment,” thinking that “nothing even that Snape had left him could be worse than his own thoughts.”
Yet what is the first thing he sees when he arrives in Snape’s memories? Two girls swinging on a sunny day, and a skinny boy of 9 or 10 spying on them:
…a skinny boy was watching them from behind a clump of bushes. His black hair was overlong and his clothes were so mismatched that it looked deliberate: too short jeans, a shabby, overlarge coat that might have belonged to a grown man, an odd smock-like shirt.
Have we seen any other skinny black-haired boys so deliberately misdressed? Here’s the first view we get of 11-year-old Harry:
Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was.
Harry identifies. Even though young Severus grew up with two parents, Harry learns from the memories that they were always shouting at each other – just the way that Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia (one of the girls on the swingset) were always shouting at him. Could it even be possible that Petunia so associates magic with “that Snape boy” that she intentionally dresses Harry to look as shabbily as Lily’s young Wizard friend?
There’s another moment, too, that may help tie matters together for Harry. As we’ve already seen, when Dumbledore tells Severus that Lily’s son lives, Severus gives…
… a tiny jerk of the head [that] seemed to flick off an irksome fly.
Harry has seen that motion before in the Pensieve, in Dumbledore’s own memory of his first meeting with Tom Riddle. When Dumbledore tells Riddle about the Leaky Cauldron (and thus the entry to Diagon Alley), he instructs Tom:
You will be able to see it, although Muggles around you, the non-magical people, that is – will not. Ask for Tom the barman – easy enough to remember, as he shares your name – ”
Riddle gave an irritable twitch, as though trying to displace an irksome fly.
Two twitches. Two drastically different choices.
Snape, as Harry learns from the memories, takes on his irksome fly: Lily’s living son. He protects the boy, shields him, challenges him, berates him, trains him, even dies horribly to get him the memories needed for his task. It’s not what he wants to do. It’s what he chooses to do because it’s necessary. It is his penance, and ultimately his redemption.
But Riddle seeks to escape the irksome fly: his common humanity. He changes his name, destroys his identity, splits his soul, becomes something other than human, and finds destruction.
Is it possible that these two slight images in the Pensieve help Harry see – really see – the choices, mistakes, sacrifices, even horrors wrought by these men he has hated… and accept the links they forge with him? Harry, Severus, Tom – the abandoned boys – all adopted Hogwarts as home. Two groped toward the light. The other, in trying to escape it, found nothing greater than death.