The Look That Launched a Thousand Flames

Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.

It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes – and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.

“Ouch!” Harry clapped a hand to his head.

“What is it?” asked Percy.


The pain had gone as quickly as it had come. Harder to shake off was the feeling Harry had gotten from the teacher’s look – a feeling that he didn’t like Harry at all.

Straight into Harry’s Eyes

This post is one of the scariest of all posts to write, but being a Gryffindor, I will try to ignore the fact that the comments thread could explode into vituperative rants and the entire blogosphere could fly apart into billions of tiny pieces. I will be brave. I must.

The reason this post is so potentially explosive is that the sallow-skinned Professor’s look right here, in this scene, launched a battle that has been raging ever since. Even the fact that this man looks straight into Harry’s eyes could be the spark that ignites the flames that destroy us all! And if you think I’m kidding… just take a look at some of this morning’s discussion (yes, that is me posting as ccollinsmith)!

(A word to first-time-Potter-readers: You can still move away from this page right now, before it becomes highly spoilerific!).

The opinion that Harry forms right here, in this scene, is the one that stays with some fans forever – long after Harry has moved on, gotten over it, and even… gasp!… named his child after this man.

The hook-nosed Professor is, of course, Severus Snape, who will be the seeming villain all throughout PS/SS. In actuality, he is “Mr. Red Herring,” and in this scene he first lays eyes on “Mr. Love-Me-Or-I’ll-Think-You’re-Evil” Harry Potter.

Now, I love Harry. Don’t get me wrong. But in the course of this book, Harry will take Snape’s coldness and spin out of it a wild fantasy of horrific misdeeds – of working to steal the Philosopher’s Stone in order to return Lord Voldemort fully to life.

Now mind you, Harry knows nothing of Snape’s past – nothing of Snape having been one of the Dark Lord’s Death Eaters, nothing of Snape’s role in the deaths of his parents, nothing of Snape’s subsequent deep and abiding loyalty to Albus Dumbledore, nothing of his hard work behind the scenes to protect Harry Potter. All he knows is that Snape appears to hate him, and therefore he must be eeevol!!! Murderously so.

Oh, and of course, Harry also knows that Snape is the head of Slytherin House.

When Snape looks into Harry’s eyes and Harry feels the sharp pain in his scar, Harry concludes that the pain must come from Severus Snape. The logic running through Harry’s mind goes something like this: If Professor Snape looks at me and if I then feel pain, the pain must come from Professor Snape’s look.

That’s called a “post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy” (for anyone keeping score) – or a “post hoc fallacy” for short. What it means is that the person committing the fallacy confuses sequence with cause. That is, if x occurred before y, then x must have caused y. As Hermione will say later in this book, “Most wizards don’t have an ounce of logic.” Harry’s conclusions about Snape in PS/SS illustrate that point quite beautifully.

And how about that look? Severus Snape has never seen Harry before. But he did hear on the day that Harry’s mother died that the boy who lived had her eyes. Also on that day, he swore to protect the boy, in order to honor the mother’s sacrifice. (uh-oh… the “obsession chorus” is about to start!)

Here, Snape finally sees the boy he has vowed to protect, and see if there is something of the mother in him. And of course what he sees is that ZOMG!!! THE BOY HAS HIS FATHER’S FACE!!! It’s a miracle that he didn’t throw his resignation at Albus Dumbledore right there on the spot and fly shrieking from Hogwarts Castle as fast as Gilderoy Lockhart would run if confronted by a monster!

But I’m getting ahead of the story… and Snape is after all no snivelling coward – despite the humiliating nickname Harry’s dad gave him as a boy.

At any rate, Snape begins his relationship with Harry by looking straight into the boy’s eyes, and he will end his life looking straight into this boy’s eyes – thus bookending what Harry Potter will ultimately acknowledge to have been one of the most important relationships in the course of his life.

Because of the huge mistakes both characters make in understanding each other, the tension that rises between them over the course of seven years, and the conclusions Harry ultimately draws about his most hated Professor, we will be keeping a very close watch on the development of the Snape-Harry relationship.

Let the flames begin!

Snowmageddon, Severus, and the “Betrayal” of Snape

Well, I’m back. We did have to put Rusty down yesterday. To celebrate his life, we will be looking for a pair of (boy and girl) kittens to name Severus and Minerva. Don’t worry, though. They won’t be treacly Umbridge kittens!

I’m still not quite up for a bit of “Flight of the Dursley’s” slapstick, but I am starting to recover enough from the Rusty trauma to write about Severus Snape. First, though, check out some pictures – from my house – of this weekend’s DC area Snowpocalypse (click for full-size):

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And now, for some gratuitous Snapey goodness!

Did Severus Snape Betray the Order of the Phoenix?

If you have read this blog before, I’m sure you already know my answer to this question. However, I have recently encountered an argument insisting that since Snape was not reporting to any living member of the Order, the information he passed to Voldemort in “Dark Lord Ascending” was an act of betrayal. Never mind that he was taking orders from Dumbledore’s portrait. To say I was gobsmacked would be an understatement.

Here is the Snape-Betrayal argument, along with my response.

Snape-Betrayal Point 1:

Neither Snape nor Dumbledore’s Portrait is working with or for the Order. Therefore giving information to Voldemort without informing living members of the Order is an act of betrayal.

My response:

  • Headmasters’ portraits have the imprint of the deceased Headmaster’s thoughts and memories.
  • The purpose of the portraits is to provide counsel to future Headmasters, from the “voice” of the deceased Headmaster. They occasionally provide counsel to others.
  • Harry regards Dumbledore’s portrait as having the same authority of wisdom as Dumbledore himself, as we see in Harry’s visits to the Headmaster’s office at the end of DH.
  • Dumbledore founded the Order of the Phoenix, and the Order would not have existed in either war without Dumbledore’s initiative.
  • Snape’s job was to serve as a spy, and Dumbledore was a brilliant Spymaster and wartime Strategist.
  • Both Snape and Dumbledore were accomplished in the arts of Occlumency and Legilimency.
  • There is no evidence in the text indicating that anybody else in the Order is an accomplished Occlumens, Legilimens, Spymaster, or Strategist. Failure in any of these areas would almost certainly have proven catastrophic for the anti-Voldemort forces.
  • Given that the portrait is the imprint of the Headmaster’s thoughts and memories, it is clear that Dumbledore planned before his death to continue to serve as Spymaster for Severus Snape on behalf of the Order of the Phoenix.

Essentially, Dumbledore founded the Order, he clearly planned to continue his work for the Order after death, and it is crucial that he keep his plans secret from the other members of the Order unless there is some other unknown member of the Order who is an accomplished enough Occlumens to withstand a session of Legilimency with Voldemort. (Since there is zero evidence that such an Order member exists, my assumption is that there is no such member).

In other words, Snape is working for the Order in a top secret role. While this would not be possible in the Muggle world, Headmasters’ portraits make it possible in the Wizarding World.

Additionally, if we assume that Severus Snape was wrong to follow orders from a portrait with regard to the Battle over Little Whinging, then we should also assume that he was wrong to get the Sword of Gryffindor to Harry in the Forest of Dean – on the word of two Headmasters’ portraits. And yet, if he had failed to get the sword to Harry at that time, what would the outcome have been with the locket Horcrux? It was already destroying the trio. It is quite likely that Voldemort would have triumphed in the end without Harry receiving the sword at that specific time.

Snape-Betrayal Point 2:

Since Dumbledore is dead, Snape is not working for the Order. He’s only working for (dead) Dumbledore and is not really a double agent.

My Response:

See above. Also, this is clearly not how Harry sees it once he has seen the memories. The portrait is conveying the overall game plan Dumbledore hatched before his death, while he was leader of the Order. Harry regards Snape in retrospect as working for the Order, not independently of it and not against it.

Snape-Betrayal Point 3:

The only purpose for Snape giving the information to Voldemort was to get himself in good with Voldemort, not to protect the Order or Harry.

My Response:

Actually, that’s exactly what spies do in order to protect those they are protecting. It is a pretend betrayal and the entire purpose is to protect Harry and help defeat Voldemort, over the longterm.

Actually, this entire scenario is parallel to the work of a British double agent during WWII with regard to D-Day. He was told to give the Germans real information that they in turn would not be able to use effectively, in order to establish the credentials of the double agent with the Germans – just as the 7 Potters tactic that Snape passes on to the Order similarly prevents Voldemort from using Snape’s real information effectively but helps establish Snape’s bona fides as a Death Eater.

Snape-Betrayal Point 4:

Dumbledore and Snape had a different agenda than the Order, and it involved callously using the lives of Order members as canon fodder. Dumbledore and Snape should have communicated their plans to the Order and coordinated with the Order.

My Response:

Well canon fodder, sorry, is part of war. This is what war commanders do, and Dumbledore clearly hatched his general game plan while he was indisputably war commander for the anti-Voldemort side. Unfortunately, every member of the Order is expendable if it means the success of the war effort – even Dumbledore and Snape.

And why should Dumbledore and Snape have set up any plans to communicate and coordinate with members of the Order? Spy work is always kept secret. Snape’s mission was too sensitive to reveal to other members of the Order – short of the Order possessing another accomplished Occlumens, Spymaster and Strategist. It was strategically crucial that he appear to be Voldemort’s man. It was strategically crucial that nobody know this because otherwise the secret could have been betrayed, even unwillingly, by somebody who could not stand up to Voldemort’s Legilimency – basically, I think, any other member of the Order.

Snape’s action, in my opinion, is no betrayal. It is crucial for defeating Voldemort in the long strategy.

Okay, short of some new catastrophe beyond the Snowpocalypse, I will finally be back this week with “The Flight of the Dursleys.”

‘The Abandoned Boys’

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.

Snape Static? (with Poll!)

Before moving on to the question of whether or not Severus Snape is a static character, I just thought I’d mention that Jess (the self-styled “last muggle to read Harry Potter”) just wrote a hilarious post on the Horcruxes chapter in Half-Blood Prince. Don’t miss it! Here’s a teaser (framed as a note to Harry from Dumbledore):

Oh gosh, Harry. Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I’m arguably the world’s most powerful wizard who completely sees the big picture in this situation and it took me years to find that one Horcrux. But hey, you’re a pretty good Quidditch player. I’m sure you can figure this out on your own. I’m going to go back to being old now, okay? Awesome! TTYL! KIT” –Dumbledore

And while we’re on the subject of other Harry Potter websites, I’ve been playing around a lot lately on the amazing Chamber of Secrets forums. Lots of people with lots of excellent insights – especially in the Legilimency Studies standing “Snape” thread, version 13. (Snape does seem to attract the most consistent attention).

So a few days ago, I was on the thread, elaborating on what a previous poster had said on the question of whether or not Snape ever actually cared about Harry, and I thought I’d share a few of those thoughts here.

Note: If you are popping in here from Jess’s blog, please stop now if you haven’t read Deathly Hallows! Spoilers ahead!

Here’s the original (much longer) post. The excerpt below is from the final section of the post:

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.

So what do you think? The poll is open… and so is the comments thread!

Oh, by the way, I’m about to embark on a Harry Potter re-read, and I’ll share it right here on the blog. But don’t worry, there will still be occasional outbursts of Snapey goodness. Just so long as I don’t have to squee!


Despises to his last breath: 2 votes
Grows to respect : 7 votes
Cares very deeply: 4 votes
Cares only for Lily: 2 votes
SQUEE!: 1 vote

‘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.”


“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.

‘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)