Power, Choice, and Love – Preamble to The Harry Potter Re-Read

I think I originally published this post in 2016 or 2017. I’m hoping to get started again on this re-read, but it may not get into full speed until the summer. 

Regarding the re-read… I considered going through the series backwards, but in looking at the “Dark Lord Ascending” chapter, I decided it might be too dark a place to start. So let’s start back at the beginning.

Main themes this time around: Power, Choice, Love.

Since I’m assuming that you’ve read the series, I won’t be including spoiler warnings, except for the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which, as the official “eighth story in the Harry Potter series” will be treated here as canon).

I don’t want to get dragged this time into side-issues like “Is Snape good or bad?” so here are my assumptions, which I believe are backed by canon:

  • Snape was a Death Eater in his youth.
  • By the time we meet him, Snape’s loyalty is to Lily’s memory, to Albus Dumbledore, and later to the Order of the Phoenix.
  • Snape consistently behaves like a jerk to Harry.
  • One of the alt-Timelines in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (CC) has Snape protecting Ron and Hermione and dying an unabashedly heroic and selfless death – an outcome that was canonically possible for Snape, apparently, by the time of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, when the timelines diverged.
  • Harry says to his son Albus Severus at the end of CC that the men he was named after were “great men, with huge flaws, and you know what – those flaws almost made them greater.”

So, these are my assumptions about Snape: He was a deeply flawed man who possessed elements of greatness. You can hate him if you like because of his past and his treatment of Harry, but I am not going to debate his loyalties or his ultimate greatness. I intend to assume them.

Well, that’s enough preamble. I’ll be back a bit later with something to say about “The Boy Who Lived.” :)

January 2, 2010 – My First Snape Post

It happened about a week after I arrived, but on January 2, 2010, CoS Staff re-opened the sub-forum where members could post canon-based character analysis.

Wow. A whole sub-forum dedicated to serious character discussion!

At any rate, here is my first post written for the sub-forum where I spent a good part of my CoS experience…
before the place devolved into a never-ending battleground between warring factions

Originally Posted by TGW
The way she sent him to his death cheerfully and willingly (in the Forest) somehow makes me think that if Lily would understand why Snape needed to be harsh to Harry most of the time. Snape was in a war and so was Harry. Snape was behaving with the knowledge that Voldemort was coming back. Snape’s job to protect Harry and his usefulness depended upon his act being perfect. He needed his distance from Harry so that Voldemort could not ask him to misuse that trust.Lily could say that Snape was harsh and that he could/should have been sweeter to Harry if his love for her was true. Though that would IMO make her very shallow and superficial. I hope Lily would understand that Snape’s role as a spy would need him to be necessarily different to protect himself and others.

This is also my take. Harry was born in the middle of a war. He would also be destined to become the focal point in the second war that Dumbledore and Snape knew was coming. It made no sense at all in such a context for Snape to treat Harry or any of the Gryffindors kindly in his class. The Gryffindors did potions with the Slytherins, and there were three children of Death Eaters in the class. If Snape had been fair, news would quickly have gotten back to the Death Eaters, and Snape’s own role as a spy would have been compromised. We know for a fact that Dumbledore wanted Snape to play his role convincingly.

Not only that, but Harry needs to be toughened up in order to survive. Everything Snape does – including expressing frustration with Harry’s lack of seriousness – could be read as helping Harry develop survival skills – you know, like a drill sergeant.

Snape is a very skilled, and not a terribly patient, man. He does have some serious issues with Harry, as seen in the memories of his conversations with Dumbledore. But I think “hate” is way too strong a word. He finds the boy very frustrating and often infuriating. But he never wavers in doing his duty by him.

Originally Posted by TGW
He did see Harry in a better light. That was why he passed on the message to Harry (about his walk in the Forest) and gave his very personal memories IMO.

For me, the key is the personal memories. Why would such an intensely proud and private man give such personal memories to a boy he truly hated? In the end, he gave Harry the greatest gift anybody could give him – memories of his mother. And Harry appears to recognize this as a gift. Snape did not just give Harry Dumbledore’s orders for meeting Voldemort. He gave him what was truly in his own heart.

Another key is the Silver Doe in the Forest of Dean. This is a sort of spectral embodiment of Snape’s soul. And Harry recognizes it as benign, not knowing who it belongs to. It may have taken the same form as Lily’s Patronus, but it is Snape’s Patronus, not Lily’s. His soul has has been repaired from whatever damage he did to it by becoming a Death Eater.

Originally Posted by TGW

All I can see from this was that Snape did not answer Dumbledore’s query; instead he changed the subject to tell Dumbledore that he loved Lily and also to show off his Patronus, which would help us connect with the Sliver Doe. This says nothing positive or negative about his feelings for Harry IMO.

Even if it is to be read in the most negative light, it says nothing about where Snape stands a year later, after he has taken on the horrifying final mission Dumbledore has given him. I think the text shows Snape’s motives being progressively purified. The final mission is not one that can be undertaken strictly for love of Lily. It has to be taken on in order to defeat evil. And in the process, we see Snape embrace good. What else can account for the fact that in the Battle Over Little Whinging, Snape nearly blows his cover simply in order to save the life of one of the Marauders? That is a completely selfless act… and one that makes him even more hated because of the damage accidentally done to George.

The following is speculation, but it seems likely to me that Snape’s constant exposure to Voldemort and the Death Eaters makes him more committed than ever to doing the right thing for its own sake. He has developed a strong enough moral compass in his years at Hogwarts to see Voldemort and his former Death Eater friends the way Lily saw them – as the evil that they truly are. The evidence in the text indicates (to me, at least) that Snape is determined to do what he can to bring Voldemort down, even after he knows that Lily’s son must allow Voldemort to kill him in order to make that happen. Even in dying, Snape’s first thought is toward completing the mission.

Originally Posted by TGWI don’t think Snape hurt Harry. Angered him, made Harry hate him, made Harry wish for his death (in HBP) but I don’t think Harry was hurt by Snape. And I also don’t think Snape left it to Dumbledore to counter anything. He IMO took it upon himself to set right all the misunderstanding Harry had through the memories. I think Harry understood.

Exactly. And another dimension to the memories… We see a definite progression in how Snape regards Harry.

At first, he’s just a thing to be exchanged for the life of the mother. Then he’s the boy who survived when Lily Evans died… but who Snape vows to protect regardless. Throughout the memories, Snape keeps on and on about James Potter’s son. But in the last conversation before Dumbledore’s death, he refers to Harry as Lily Potter‘s son.

Note the distinction here. Not only has he shifted from thinking of Harry as James’ son, he has also shifted from thinking of Lily by her maiden name. He now calls her “Potter.” He has fully acknowledged that she was James’ wife and that Harry was her son.

Note also that when he first hears of Lily’s death, he cannot bear to think of her eyes in Harry’s face. But in his last few seconds of life, he requests to look at Lily’s eyes in Harry’s face. It would have no power if we didn’t know that Snape had refused so strongly to see Lily in Harry. In that case, we could read it (as the Snape naysayers do) as just an obsessive desire to look into Lily’s eyes.

But knowing that Snape initially could not bear to think of Lily’s eyes in Harry’s face, we can see rather that Snape here is seeing Harry as he is… not as what he expects to see. (to paraphrase Dumbledore). And he is acknowledging – to Harry – that he recognizes Harry’s full identity. And this, of course, is underscored by the fact that he gives Harry memories of his mother.

An Ounce of Logic

“Brilliant,” said Hermione. “This isn’t magic – it’s logic – a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.”

Snape’s logic puzzle guards the chamber where the Mirror of Erised guards the Stone. And curiously, it is his task, not that of the Deputy Headmistress, that stands right next to Dumbledore’s – perhaps giving an early hint of the extent to which Albus Dumbledore trusts Severus Snape.

Additionally, the logic puzzle wins Hermione’s admiration… and for the first time in the text, we get a hint that there might be more to Snape than what is circumscribed by Harry’s feelings.

But Hermione is also partially wrong. There is magic involved in the task… just not in the solution to the puzzle.

More Magic Than Advertised

The Trio is trapped in a chamber – between purple flame on one side and black flame on the other. The flames, obviously, were conjured by a spell Snape cast.

There are 7 bottles, 5 of which contain wine or poison – concoctions that can be created by Muggles. However, the 2 bottles that will actually get the drinker through the magically-conjured flames contain potions that could only have been brewed by persons with magic powers.

Rowling herself makes this clear in the following Q&A:

Q: Can Muggles brew potions if they follow the exact instructions and they have all the ingredients?

Rowling: Well, I’d have to say no, because there is always … there is a magical component to the potion, not just the ingredients. So, at some point you’re going to have to use a wand. I [have] been asked what would happen if a Muggle picked up a magic wand in my world. And the answer would probably be something accidental … possibly quite violent. Because a wand, in my world, is merely a vehicle — a vessel for what lies inside the person.


But, you’re right. Potions seems, on the face of it, to be the most Muggle-friendly subject. But there does come a point where you need to do more than stir.

So potions are part of magic. They are not created by mechanically brewing the right ingredients in the right proportions. They involve the use of a wand. And even if a Muggle were to put the same ingredients into a cauldron in the right proportions at the right temperature for the right amount of time, the end result would still not be the right potion.

The task, then, does involve more magic than Hermione lets on. Magic flames guard the doors, and magical potions get the drinker through those doors. But a maze of non-magical logic guards the potions that conquer the flames.

The Logic Puzzle

Snape’s logic puzzle is solvable. In fact, we’ve been discussing the solution in the Comments to the previous post.

Mad, one of the commenters, has pointed out an elaborate solution at the Harry Potter Lexicon. Iggy and I have discussed our solutions, and I have written up the details of my solution on a page here called “Solving Snape’s Logic Puzzle.” (If you take that link now, you can skip down this page to A Slytherin Task? when you return).

The poster at HPL, Iggy, and I all arrived at the same solution, by the way. But before we discuss the solution, let’s first take a look at the puzzle itself!

Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,
One among us seven will let you move ahead,
Another will transport the drinker back instead,
Two among our number hold only nettle wine,
Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here forevermore,
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine’s left side;
Second, different are those who stand at either end,
But if you would move onward, neither is your friend;
Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,
Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;
Fourth, the second left and the second on the right
Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight.

Okay, my eyes glaze over with bad verse (and sorry, but whatever else he is, Severus Snape is not a master versifier).

But when I finally managed to get my eyes in focus, here’s what I took away from the first half of the poem: one bottle will move you ahead (line 3), one will send you back (line 4), two hold nettle wine (line 5), three hold poison (line 6). Or, as Hermione sums it up quite succinctly:

“Seven bottles: three are poison; two are wine; one will get us safely through the black fire, and one will get us back through the purple.”

And, of course, if you don’t make a choice, you’re stuck in the chamber forever between the purple flame and the black. Nice.

Now, let’s look at the clues that help Hermione make her choice.

  1. There is always poison to the left of nettle wine (lines 9-10)
  2. The bottles on either end of the line contain different contents, but neither will move you forward (lines 11-12)
  3. The smallest and largest bottles do not contain poison (lines 13-14)
  4. The second from the left and the second from the right are housed in different-sized bottles, but they hold the same contents (lines 15-16)

I’m going to cut to the chase and offer my solution right now:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Poison Wine x y Poison Wine Backward

If you want to see how I arrived at this solution (and why there are still unsolved variables in the sequence), you can go to the solution in “Solving Snape’s Logic Puzzle.”

A Slytherin Task?

Severus Snape is, of course, the Slytherin Head of House.

We don’t learn until CoS that Slytherin is associated with Pureblood Supremacy… and we don’t learn until HBP that Snape is not a Pureblood… but the Half-Blood son of a Muggle father. In DH, we also learn that the Muggle slum of Spinner’s End is not merely where Snape sets up shop during the summer. It is the place where he grew up. So where did he acquire his capacity for logic?

If most Wizards, as Hermione suggests, don’t have “an ounce of logic,” then Snape most likely acquired his logic before he got to Hogwarts – and most likely as a result of his Muggle background. While logical capabilities and great mental discipline should be crucial for the more scientific aspects of potions-making, most Wizards aren’t any better at potions than they are at logic. In fact, Snape suggests that most students in his class will “hardly believe” that potions are magic.

So potions is probably not what gave him his logic. Logic is more likely what allowed him to excel at potions. (Perhaps he was educated by Jesuits before he came to Hogwarts!)

The traits associated with Slytherin are ambition, cunning, determination, and resourcefulness. So we can expect that in creating the task, Snape would draw on whatever resources were at his disposal, whether they came from the Wizarding World or from the Muggle world.

He draws on his ability to cast spells that conjure flames. He draws on his ability to brew potions that get the drinker through the flames. And he draws on his logical ability to create a puzzle that would snag many Wizards.

Additionally, cunning is at the core of the task. Poison “slyly” hides inside the line. The largest bottle must contain wine (not the potion that moves the drinker “backwards”), while the smallest bottle contains the potion that moves the drinker forward. And of course, using logic to defeat Wizards would be quite nearly the definition of cunning.

Ambition? Snape is the youngest Head of House. He is 32 years old at the conclusion to PS/SS, and he has a strong rivalry with Minerva McGonnagall – his own former Transfiguration Professor and the Gryffindor Head of House. I can imagine Snape designing his task not only to protect the Stone but also to compete with hers.

A Turning Point

The logic puzzle also serves as a bit of a turning point for Snape’s character.

Up to this point, Snape has been presented primarily as the Professor Harry hates and suspects. Yet right here, in the midst of the Trio’s journey into the bowels of Hogwarts to protect the Philosopher’s Stone (from… Snape! [sic]), we learn that the Potions Master is a man of skill and intellect – not just a one-dimensional villain. He is a man whose task Hermione deems “brilliant.”

Snape’s brilliance puts some flesh onto the man… and that flesh subtly begins to humanize him for the audience… just in time for the big reveal that will occur just beyond the black flame.

So what do you think? Where did Snape get his logic? What Slytherin qualities do we see in this task? What do we learn of Snape? What did I miss?

Sudden, Sinister Snape

“Don’t talk to me for a moment,” said Ron when Harry sat down next to him. “I need to concen—” He caught sight of Harry’s face. “What’s the matter with you? You look terrible.”

Speaking quietly so that no one else would hear, Harry told the other two about Snape’s sudden, sinister desire to be a Quidditch referee.

“Don’t play,” said Hermione at once.

“Say you’re ill,” said Ron.

“Pretend to break your leg,” Hermione suggested.

“Really break your leg,” said Ron.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I write the generally accepted fact that Harry Potter is written primarily in 3rd person limited Point of View, and I get polyjuiced and parodied. And now, I have to step right back in to the fray because we are about to enter one of the richest chapters in all of PS/SS for showing how the limited Point of View works to throw the reader off! Sometimes, you just can’t win. But hey, I’m a Gryffindor. It’s in my nature to fly into the face of danger.

Sudden, Sinister Desire

Iggy, who likes to comment here, told me yesterday that Snape’s “sudden, sinister desire to referee Quidditch” is one of her favorite lines in the series. It’s one of mine as well.

The beauty of the line is that it reads as if the narrator is indicating that Snape’s desire to ref is sudden and sinister, when actually Harry only interprets it to be sudden and sinister. How do we know that this is an interpretation? Because we later learn, during Harry’s encounter with the book’s real bad guy, that it is objectively false.

Harry believes that Snape is out to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. He believes that Snape is out to kill him. And so he interprets every action of Snape’s through the lens of those false conceptions. In actuality, Snape is acting as ref in order to protect Harry from another attempt to harm him while he is in the air.

Soon after the announcement that Snape will ref, Harry has new cause for anxiety:

Harry didn’t know whether he was imagining it or not, but he seemed to keep running into Snape wherever he went. At times, he even wondered whether Snape was following him, trying to catch him on his own. Potions lessons were turning into a sort of weekly torture, Snape was so horrible to Harry. Could Snape possibly know they’d found out about the Sorcerer’s Stone? Harry didn’t see how he could – yet he sometimes had the horrible feeling that Snape could read minds.

Again, this passage passes itself off as factual, when the most damning parts are just Harry’s mind at work. Now what can we glean from this passage, when we strip away Harry’s anxiety?

Snape probably is sticking close to him. As we know from the final conversation with Dumbledore at the end of PS/SS (and from TPT in DH), Snape is working to protect Harry Potter. An attempt has already been made on Harry’s life. It makes sense that Snape would shadow Harry, and that Harry would run into his shadow… a lot. But the passage veers off into Harry’s fantasy when Harry starts thinking that Snape is following him in order to catch him on his own – i.e., in order to finish off the murder that Snape [sic] attempted in the previous Quidditch match.

We can also glean that Potions probably is not a pleasant experience for Harry. As we know from one of Snape’s conversations with Dumbledore shortly after Harry arrives at Hogwarts (TPT), Snape thinks Harry is a mediocre student with mediocre magic, and he has a tendency to let Harry know it in Potions class. But the passage veers off into Harry’s fantasy when the boy wonders if Snape’s treatment is tied to Harry’s awareness of the Stone. Probably not. It’s probably just Snape being Snape.

(I’ll leave alone for now the fact that without specific scenes from the Potions classroom, we don’t really know how much Harry may – or may not – be exaggerating the “horrible”-ness of Snape’s treatment, though it is likely that it is at least unpleasant).

Additionally, we can glean that Harry is fairly perceptive about Snape’s Legilimency skills. Snape probably is scanning Harry’s mind at necessary intervals. Snape may or may not know that Harry knows about the Stone, though I tend to think not because of the conversation he later has with Quirrell in the Forest.

Dumbledore’s Come to Watch!

“The whole school’s out there!” said Fred Weasley, peering out of the door. “Even – blimey – Dumbledore’s come to watch!”

“Dumbledore?” he said, dashing to the door to make sure. Fred was right. There was no mistaking that silver beard.

Harry could have laughed out loud with relief. He was safe. There was simply no way that Snape would dare to try to hurt him if Dumbledore was watching.

Perhaps that was why Snape was looking so angry as the teams marched onto the field, something that Ron noticed, too.

“I’ve never seen Snape look so mean,” he told Hermione.

Well, here’s another wonderful passage, full of misdirection. It is objectively true that Dumbledore is there to watch the match, and it is almost certainly objectively true that Snape has a very sour look on his face. But the passage goes into Harry’s head when Harry starts assuming that Snape would not dare to hurt him with Dumbledore watching, and that Dumbledore’s protective presence might be the reason “Snape was looking so angry.”

As it happens, Dumbledore’s presence does prevent someone from harming Harry. But that person is not Snape. And as it happens, it is highly unlikely that Snape “look[s] so mean” because Dumbledore is preventing him from murdering Harry! (After all, Snape is working in conjunction with Dumbledore to protect Harry.)

So what are some possible reasons for Snape’s anger? Oh, I dunno. How about the fact that Snape made himself unpopular with his fellow professors, who assumed (as the Gryffindor team did) that he wanted to referee the game in order to keep Gryffindor from winning? ( something we learn in the closing chapter of the book). Or how about the fact that he’s having to referee the game in order to protect the Potter kid – who is not exactly his favorite person? Or how about the fact that he’s experiencing the indignity of having to get on a broomstick and referee a Quidditch match?!?

Then, when the game finally does start, Snape finds himself attacked by Weasley bludgers… and the game closes 5 minutes in with Harry streaking straight at Snape, missing him only by inches in his effort to catch the snitch. Not exactly a wonderful day for Severus Snape. No wonder he “spat bitterly on the ground” when he landed! It makes you wonder if he was playing all these potential scenarios over in his head as he angrily entered the field.

The Philosopher’s Stone

“So we were right” [Harry told Ron and Hermione], “it is the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Snape’s trying to force Quirrell to help him get it. He asked if he knew how to get past Fluffy – and he said something about Quirrell’s ‘hocus-pocus’ – I reckon there are other things guarding the stone apart from Fluffy, loads of enchantments, probably, and Quirrell would have done some anti-Dark Arts spell that Snape needs to break through – ”

“So you mean the Stone’s only safe as long as Quirrell stands up to Snape?” said Hermione in alarm.

“It’ll be gone by next Tuesday,” said Ron.

In this lovely pasage, we are not in narrator’s voice. Rather, the narrator reports what Harry tells Ron and Hermione after he overhears Snape and Quirrell in the Forest. But Harry has no context for the conversation and consequently interprets it entirely through his suspicions… and gets its meaning completely backwards!

In actuality, Snape is not trying to find out from Quirrell how to get past Fluffy; he wants to make sure that Quirrell never finds out how to get past the beast. Likewise, Snape is not trying to break Quirrell’s protective spells; he is most likely discussing Quirrell’s previous “hocus-pocus” attempt to get Harry off his broom. And of course, it’s not Quirrell who needs to stand up to Snape; it is Snape who needs to stop Quirrell.

Curiously, Snape’s conversation with Quirrell ends with the comment that Quirrell needs to decide where his “loyalties lie.” We never know exactly how Harry interprets this comment (though we can assume that it’s not favorable to Snape). Regardless of Harry’s interpretation, what Snape is actually asking Quirrell is whether or not he’s loyal to Dumbledore and to the school, just as he (i.e., Snape) is. Despite Harry’s opinion that Snape is a villain out to compromise the DADA professor, Snape is actually 100% loyal to Dumbledore – making this one of the more ironic points in the chapter.

But there is one thing that Harry’s right about. There are enchantments guarding the Stone.

The “Nicolas Flamel” chapter is almost a misdirection overload! But it’s very good for demonstrating how Rowling uses the 3rd person limited to lead the reader astray so that her big “reveal” will be all that more of a revelation. But remember… none of this means that the Point of View leads to a generally untrustworthy, unreliable, and therefore unstable text. What it means is that Harry’s subjectivity can at times be mistaken and that this mistaken subjectivity can at times be presented as fact. This is not a controversial or radical or (Heaven Forfend!) Deconstructive statement. It is simply an easily verifiable truth based on the text.

Harry Potter POV (helpful sources):

Just as Dumbledore does not need a cloak to become invisible, I do not need a reference source to define the Point of View in a literary work for me. 8)
(It’s that Lit. Prof. thing)

For the reader’s convenience, however, I have provided some references that discuss Point of View in the Harry Potter series.
(Hint: It’s a limited 3rd person POV!).

Is Severus Snape a Sociopath?

The LOST Finale just ate my brain! Consequently, at the moment, I’m more equipped to blog on Benjamin Linus than on the “Nicolas Flamel” chapter in PS/SS. So instead of proceeding mechanically with the re-read, how about I answer some simple questions implied by search terms people have used to land on this blog in the past few days?

Search #1: Is Severus Snape a sociopath?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: I am assuming that the person who asked this question knows that Snape kills Dumbledore but does not know how the story ends. But if by some weird chance this person is asking the question after reading the series, I suggest doing a re-read and paying closer attention to what Snape is actually doing… not to how Harry is interpreting it! Seriously!

Severus Snape is a flawed and wounded hero with a tormented past. But he is not a man without conscience. He is a man with a very heightened sense of conscience but no externally manifested affection for Harry Potter. And because Harry is not his favorite person, Harry (who is desperate for affection) always thinks Snape is up to no good. However, Albus Dumbledore has, in fact, essentially made Snape his right-hand man, and trusts him “completely.” And despite appearances to the contrary (i.e. Snape killing Dumbledore), Snape never betrays Dumbledore’s trust.

Being completely trustworthy is not something you would ever be able to say about any sociopath. Hence long answer: Severus Snape is not a sociopath.

Search #2: I open at the close

This is the message Albus Dumbledore inscribed on the first Snitch Harry ever caught in a Quidditch match (against Slytherin, of course). The Snitch responds to the touch of Harry’s lips because Harry caught the Snitch in his mouth, and Snitches respond to the touch of the first person who touched them – i.e. the first person that caught them.

In the broader context of the series, this message is telling Harry that he will be able to access what is hidden in the Snitch (the Resurrection Stone) when the time is right – i.e., when Harry is about to meet Voldemort and sacrifice his life.

Search #3: Silver Doe

The Silver Doe is Severus Snape’s beautiful, light-filled Patronus. It is a partner to Harry’s mother’s Patronus and is an external manifestation of Snape’s light-filled soul. The Patronus is so powerful that Harry recognizes instinctively that it is not a product of Dark Magic and chooses to follow it, despite not knowing who it belongs to and despite the perilous circumstances he’s in. The Patronus leads Harry to the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, which Snape has planted in a frozen pool for Harry to retrieve.

Search #4: Harry Potter – 3 Narrative Techniques

I was sick and tired of the person in the books who wore the glasses was always the brainy one and it really irritated me and I wanted to read about a hero wearing glasses.

It also has a symbolic function, Harry is the eyes on to the books in the sense that it is always Harry’s point of view, so there was also that, you know, facet of him wearing glasses.
J. K. Rowling, 2005

3rd Person Limited: The primary narrative technique used in the Harry Potter series is a close 3rd person point of view (or a 3rd person limited point of view), tied to Harry’s consciousness and perceptions – as Rowling indicates in the quote above. Because Rowling uses this technique throughout over 95% of the series, we rarely know more than Harry knows or see more than Harry sees. Because Harry is sane, however, his perception of other characters’ actions should be taken as accurate. For example, if Harry sees Severus Snape disappearing into the 3rd floor corridor, then the reader can safely assume that Severus Snape literally did go into 3rd floor corridor.

But readers do need to be careful about accepting everything Harry believes to be true. He is often wrong in interpreting motives of characters he dislikes (cf. Snape) – as the ending of PS/SS and as “The Prince’s Tale” demonstrate. The difference here between perceiving actions and interpreting them goes something like this: Severus Snape disappears into the 3rd floor corridor (True) in order to steal the Philosopher’s Stone (False). Since the narrative is coming through Harry’s perception and interpretation, the motive he ascribes to Snape of wishing to steal the Stone is stated in the narrative as if it were fact. But it’s not.

Since we see nearly everything through Harry’s perspective, many readers accept Harry’s interpretations without question. This tendency to accept everything Harry believes to be true is what I will call the “Applied Harry Filter.” The “Applied Harry Filter” does not refer to Harry’s perceptions but to readers’ uncritical acceptance of Harry’s interpretations – even those interpretations that are objectively proven to be false.

I have written more on limited point of view on the CoS Forum. Unfortunately, what I wrote was rather seriously misinterpreted elsewhere on the Forum, where a poster claims that I make the case that we can trust nothing that Harry perceives. It’s like being polyjuiced into a Deconstructionist!

Omniscient Narrator: Omniscient narrator point of view is used in “The Boy Who Lived,” “The Riddle House,” “The Other Minister,” and a couple of Snape-centric chapters – “Spinner’s End” and “The Dark Lord Ascending.” An omniscient narrator provides the reader with information that the lead character is not privy to. JKR’s use of omniscient narrator in the Snape-centric chapters, though, is a great example of misdirection. By choosing to describe these scenes from an omniscient point of view, she shows us Snape acting as a Death Eater while offering us no access to Snape’s thoughts. Because we get no access to Snape’s thoughts, we are unaware that he is actually infiltrating the Death Eaters and working against Voldemort. JKR uses omniscient in these instances to create an impression that is actually the opposite of what is occurring beneath the surface.

Narrative Reliability: Unreliable narrator is not a point of view but is a technique that JKR uses occasionally in what I will call “micro-narrations” (i.e. short first-person trips into having another character tell a story). For instance, in one micro-narration, she has one of Snape’s enemies (Sirius Black) describe Snape as having been quite adept at the Dark Arts before ever arriving at Hogwarts. However, there is no evidence in the text to show that what Sirius says is true. When we actually see Snape’s childhood in “The Prince’s Tale,” there is not only no evidence of an interest in the Dark Arts, there is evidence that he does not want to become the type of person who would ultimately be sent to Azkaban. Sirius’ comments on Snape are not reliable – i.e, they cannot be taken at face value. But this does not mean they are untrue – just unverified by the text and unconfirmed by characters who have more objectivity concerning Snape.

Search #5: Expecto Patronum Significance

“Expecto Patronum” is Latin for “I expect a Protector.” In its most basic sense, it is the spell used to conjure a Patronus and protect a person from the Dementors.

In addition, Expecto Patronum is the name of this blog (which is probably why the user landed on this page). And as a huge fan of LOST, I’m thinking of expanding the blog to include commentary on LOST in light of the Finale.

Thankfully, the name Expecto Patronum can readily cover LOST content as well as Harry Potter content. After all, the Island needs a protector. And the native language of Jacob – the Island protector when Oceanic Flight 815 crashes – is Latin.

It works!

Note: I have reorganized and expanded this post to address some distortions of my points on 3rd person limited that have appeared elsewhere.

Asphodel, Wormwood, Bezoars, and Aconite

“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”

Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.

“I don’t know, sir.” said Harry.

Well, now the fun begins.

I was not involved in Potter fandom during all those years of speculation about Snape’s true nature, his motives, or his loves. I missed the pre-DH Snape Wars. I missed the Sev/Lily ship. I missed it all. So when I read Harry’s first classroom encounter with Professor Snape, it just looked like Snape was singling out and taunting Harry with questions about things the poor kid couldn’t possibly know about.

But that’s not what some people who’ve spent years reading and thinking about this passage have gotten out of it.

First, let me mention the parts I do “get” without any outside assistance:

  • I get that the bezoar foreshadows Slughorn’s accidental poisoning of Ron Weasley, when Harry takes the Half-Blood Prince’s suggestion just to shove a bezoar down his friend’s throat.
  • I get that monkshood/wolfsbane/aconite foreshadows the arrival of Lupin as DADA professor during Harry’s third year.
  • I get that Snape only takes takes single points from Harry on this first encounter – despite Harry’s impression that Snape really hates him. (Admittedly, the second point Snape takes is unfair)
  • And I, of course, get why Hagrid won’t look Harry in the eye when he says that Snape has no reason to hate him.

But then there’s asphodel and wormwood, which – from what I have gathered – is one of the original foundations of the Sev/Lily ship. Here’s what Iggy wrote recently on the CoS Forum about Snape’s asphodel and wormwood question:

There were a few hints or things that made people consider [Sev/Lily]. In Snape’s first Potions class, he talks about the combination of two ingredients, Asphodel and Wormwood. Wormwood is a very bitter root, and Asphodel is a type of lily. Snape says these two create the Draught of Living Death, and in DH, there are a few instances where Snape’s eyes suggest he’s, to use a somewhat melodramatic phrase, dead inside.

Another commenter here, Judith, was kind enough to leave a link in a comments thread to a post she wrote several months before the publication of DH, in which she argues that…

Asphodel symbolically means death, esp. death of someone beloved to the person who offers asphodel. Asphodel is also a lily. Wormwood symbolically means bitter sorrow. So in essence, Snape is asking Harry if he knows what death wrapped in bitter sorrow is. Or put another way, he might be trying to tell Harry that he loved her and that he bitterly regrets Lily’s death.

Harry, of course, ignorant of not just the wizarding world, but of symbolism, feels the clue-by-four whizz over his head and begins to wonder why Snape appears to be singling him out for abuse.

Snape, of course, feels Harry (whose mother was a Potions prodigy) is being remarkably obtuse and/or possibly spurning his carefully couched condolences.

Additionally, I have discovered this rather extensive blog post on the Asphodel and Wormwood theory.

In essence, what these interpretations tell us is that it’s possible that Snape is not taunting Harry at all, but is rather giving him symbolic information, possibly even condolences on the loss of his mother.

So for those of you who have spent considerably more time in thinking about this passage than I have, I would love to hear your perspectives on Snape’s first interrogation of Harry… and on asphodel and wormwood. What was he really trying to accomplish in this encounter? Was he trying to put Harry in his place? Or was he trying to accomplish something else? Or both?

And with that, we will next turn to Chapter 9, “The Midnight Duel.”

The Poet Master

Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.
– Minerva McGonnagall to 1st year Gryffindors, 1991

You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potions-making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses. . . . I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.
– Severus Snape, to 1st year Gryffindors and Slytherins, 1991

Minerva McGonnagall and Severus Snape are my favorite Heads of House, and their introductions to their first year students are remarkably telling.

McGonnagall’s method of communicating is stern, no-nonsense, straightforward, and to the point. In her opening remarks, there are no introductory phrases, no subordination, no compound sentences. The only coordination she uses serves to connect a couple of adjectives or a couple of verbs.

Lost yet? I hope not because we are about to make a short leap into explication…


Severus Snape, on the other hand, uses a variety of rhetorical devices in his introduction – from complex and periodic sentences to alliteration, assonance, consonance, and even rhythm. The man could be a rhetorician or a poet were he not a Potions Master.

Ironically, when Snape tries to rhyme, it comes out doggerel:

Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,
One among us seven will let you move ahead,
Another will transport the drinker back instead…

But when, unrhymingly, he illustrates his devotion to Potions, something different happens. He begins to use poetic devices far more sophisticated than mere mechanical rhyme.

Notice that in his introduction to Potions, there is a near constant stream of l and s sounds flowing through the passage – a combination of “liquid” and “sibilant” sounds, emulating the liquids being brewed in Potions and the simmering sound of the heat used to brew them.

Snape’s Liquids: learn, subtle, little, will, hardly, believe, really, softly, cauldron, delicate, liquids, bottle, glory, usually

Initial (or nearly-initial) Sibilants (in substantive words): subtle, science, softly, simmering, ensnaring, stopper

Since liquids – literal, not phonetic ones – are the subject of this speech, it is rather appropriate that phonetic liquids fall into varying positions in the words, flowing over Snape’s syllabic boundaries, just as literal liquids flow over physical boundaries. The sibilants, on the other hand, tend to alliterate – i.e. fall at the beginnings of words.

There are also a good number of “stop” sounds in this passage (p, t, k, b, d, g). It may be a bit of a stretch, but thematically, stops phonetically parallel the “stopper” Snape claims he can put in death – one that he literally puts in place to arrest Dumbledore’s inevitable death shortly before HBP begins.

Initial Stops (in substantive words):
b/p words: believe, bewitching, bottle, brew, big, bunch, Potions-making, power
g/k words: glory, cauldron, creep
d/t words: delicate, death, dunderheads, teach

The reason I put certain stops together (such as b/p) is that you use the same shape of your mouth to form the sounds. Try it, and determine what you do differently to make the two consonants in these pairs sound different.


Of course, sound can serve non-sense. Therefore, it is the sense of Snape’s words that matters most. And what he tells his students in this short passage is that Potions-making requires a subtle mind, precision, patience, and some measure of creativity. It is not big, brash, bold. It requires brains, not brawn.

In this mixed Potions class of Gryffindors and Slytherins, it fits less with the Gryffindor sensibility and possibly more with his own Slytherin preferences. But he apparently has little hope even for the Slytherins in his class, lumping Gryffs and Slythies alike into the probable category of “dunderheads.”
(One wonders what he tells his Ravenclaws.)

Essentially, he is saying that much benefit can come to the student who perfects this art/science – as he did (and as Harry’s mother did).

In her book Bring forth the best robes: a spiritual understanding of Severus Snape, Logospilgrim provides a mystical reading of this passage, taking it apart as a poetic description of deep prayer. I don’t expect that Snape is consciously describing prayer. But the worshipful language he uses about Potions-making certainly makes logospilgrim’s interpretation worth checking out.