‘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. For Snape, this repentance is embodied in the very tough penance he lives out in order to right the wrong he has done. (Whether he succeeds is left up to the reader).

The condition Snape places on Dumbledore, though, 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)

Avada Kedavra

I’m still trying to process what I’ve just read, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Snape’s Avada Kedavra.

Despite the explanation Snape is given, it’s clear that in Dumbledore’s mind, the killing is part of a larger military strategy. Rowling has said that Dumbledore is somewhat Machiavellian, pulling strings. I would say rather that he is a military general, making hard choices in order to win a war that absolutely must be won. And this brings in the whole question of what is morally acceptable under such circumstances.

For starters, let’s dismiss the idea that this is really a mercy killing. It’s not. Would the man who is willing to drink 10 cups of potion in the cave be afraid of pain and humiliation? I don’t think so. Rather, when he finds out he has only one year left regardless of the outcome of Draco’s plan, he decides that the best course of action is not to fight Draco and the Death Eaters but to plan the strategy for his death.

Here, in a nutshell, is Dumbledore’s strategy:

  • to deprive Voldemort of the Elder Wand’s allegiance
  • to make sure that one of the other Death Eaters sent with Draco does not win the Elder Wand
  • to “prove” Snape’s allegiance to Voldemort so that Snape can become headmaster and covertly protect Hogwarts students from the Death Eaters
  • to protect Draco’s soul

Dumbledore merely uses the “just do me a favor and don’t let it be the werewolf or Bellatrix” argument because he thinks it’s the safest way to ensure Snape’s compliance. But he underestimates Snape. Snape is worried about his own soul. He rebels at the prospect of killing Dumbledore as the time comes closer, and “Spare me pain and humiliation” becomes an insufficient argument for doing the deed. Snape would apparently prefer to die himself when the Unbreakable Vow rebounds on him than have to kill Dumbledore.

So what tactic does Dumbledore use to win Snape over? He lets him in on part of the strategy behind the endgame.

Dumbledore can’t reveal the Elder Wand (or the Horcrux) aspects of the strategy to Snape in case Voldemort is somehow able to break through Snape’s mental defenses. But he believes that he can reveal the final plan for Harry.

I don’t believe for a second that Snape goes along with the plan because it will hasten Harry’s death. He’s visibly horrified at the prospect. What I do think happens is that he finally realizes that this war is a lot bigger than Lily, and that he’s not the only soldier being asked to make terrible sacrifices. Even Lily’s son – presumably the Headmaster’s favorite – will be asked to lay down his life when the time comes.

This would seem to be the moment when Snape begins to think strategically, looking at the bigger picture, rather than just be consumed with his own grief. He doesn’t know Dumbledore’s full plan, but he apparently assumes that the Headmaster’s death must be part of it – just as Harry’s death and his own role as a double agent must be part of it. I think in the end he kills Dumbledore because he trusts that it is necessary to do so in order to defeat Voldemort.

Now for the question of Severus Snape’s soul…

I think it’s fairly clear that Snape’s soul does not suffer further damage from killing Dumbledore. I would argue, in fact, that his better self grows stronger over the following year. His soul begins to rebound:

  • When Neville tries to steal the sword of Gryffindor, what punishment does Snape give him? He sends him into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid. No Cruciatus curse. No torture devices from Filch. Just a mildly frightening field trip.
  • When the picture of Phineas Nigellus Black refers to Hermione as a mudblood, it is Snape who rushes to her defense, saying “Do not use that word.”
  • In the battle over Little Whinging, when the Death Eater in front of Snape is about to cast an Avada Kedavra at Lupin, Snape aims a Sectumsempra at the Death Eater’s wand hand. It misses. It hits George in the ear. But it does save Lupin’s life. Snape nearly blows his cover in order to save the life of one of James Potter’s friends.
  • And do you think Snape is not aware that Neville is reorganizing Dumbledore’s Army and using the Room of Requirement to escape the wrath of the Carrows? Of course he knows. Yet he allows it to take place right under the Carrows’ noses.
  • And that Patronus he casts in the Forest of Dean? That powerful corporeal doe that Harry recognizes as benign? Do you think that a man with recent murder on his soul could cast such a thing, given that the Patronus is a reflection of the caster’s soul?

Snape killed Dumbledore, yes, but the text appears to argue that he did not commit murder in doing so. It was not done for selfish reasons or with malice aforethought. Rather, he was a soldier fulfilling a crucial mission that resulted in a death. It was not the death of an enemy, but it was a death by consent that was strategically important in order to win a war with satanic evil. Killing Albus Dumbledore did not rip Snape’s soul.

Mark Shea has a very interesting article dealing with the Avada Kedavra and the failure of Dumbledore’s strategy. Actually, I would argue that only part of Dumbledore’s strategy fails – the part involving the Elder Wand. The rest of the strategy succeeds, and in fact Dumbledore’s death may even have provided protection for Draco, Severus, and Harry akin to the protection afforded Harry by his mother’s sacrifice, and to the Hogwarts defenders by Harry’s sacrifice.

Severus Snape is killed by a snake, not a curse, so it’s hard to know what effect Dumbledore’s death might have had against the Killing Curse. But the fact that Snape’s soul appears to rebound in his final year tells me that Dumbledore’s death should be viewed as a sacrifice that had some efficacious effect, not an assisted suicide that marred the souls of the two plotters.

And this opens up a whole slew of questions concerning wartime morality and what is and is not justified. It is acceptable to kill the enemy during time of war. But is killing a commanding officer on his orders in the line of duty for strategic reasons ever morally acceptable? And if so, is it morally acceptable to do so with the incomplete and somewhat inaccurate strategic explanation Snape is given? (ie. Save Draco and don’t let me get eaten or crucio’d) – or does the soldier need to understand the “why” of the order? Is this a form of consequentialism? Is Rowling’s thinking muddied and muddled on these issues?

Even if the killing is evil, I think Catholic readers like myself can legitimately believe that Snape does not commit mortal sin in fulfilling Dumbledore’s orders. Why? Because he is not making a free choice to participate in moral evil. He’s trying to do what’s right in confusing circumstances. Snape’s intractable bitterness is ultimately of more concern to the state of his soul. Of course, not being a moral theologian, I am open to correction on this point.

More thought provoking comments, from the Hogwarts Professor site: “Once Again, The Vigilant Christians (TM) Denounce Harry Potter


Forgiveness and the Final Pensieve

Back to last night’s post on Severus Snape. A friend of mine mentioned this morning that while Snape is a heroic character, he is also one that you would hardly want to have tea with! No controversy there, right? (well, except for those Snape haters who want to deny any heroism to this character).

For me, Snapes’ most frustrating characteristic is that he just could not let go of the wrongs done to him in the past and kept taking his resentment out on the (initially) innocent son of his former tormentor and rival. Of course, the anger this creates in Harry gives Snape internal justification for his own continued resentment. But based upon the Final Pensieve, I would argue that Snape got past his bitterness in the end.

Unlike some Snape haters I’ve read, I do not believe that his final act was selfish. He had enough control over his mind, even in his dying moments, to choose which memories to give Harry. The memories he chooses are a gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation. Certainly Harry understands them as such by the time he names his second son after his most hated professor. And it seems presumptuous to assume that Harry got this wrong.

For starters, Snape was not pleading with Harry to understand him or his motivations. Snape is a man who is hardly afraid of being hated or misunderstood. And he wasn’t just giving Harry his marching orders for the showdown with Voldemort. He could have done that without showing Harry all of those embarrassing memories of Lily.

Instead, Snape was finally acknowledging, for the first time to Harry at least, that Harry Potter was Lily’s son too – not just James’s son – and that he himself (Snape) bore a great deal of responsibility for destroying his childhood friendship with Lily. Snape is a proud man who chooses in his last moment to humble himself. With these memories, he acknowledges his own culpability, his own sin. He is finally revealing that he was not just an innocent victim of mean James Potter and the other Marauders.

The key to this reading is that Snape freely gives Harry his worst school memory – the same memory that Harry stole a peak at after an Occlumency lesson. Harry’s unearned look into the Pensieve had egregiously violated Snape’s privacy, infuriating the Potions Master. But Snape seemingly forgives Harry here, not only giving him the complete memory, but revealing to Harry the ultimate consequences of young Snape’s own actions.

Harry already knows that Snape called his mother a mudblood when she rushed to defend him. But Harry had not previously seen Lily confront young Severus with the fact that he was now calling every muggle-born a mudblood. Yes, Harry probably suspected it, given Snape’s Death Eater past, but Snape himself chooses to reveal it to his least favorite pupil. And what does he reveal? That it was young Snape’s corruption by the pure blood ideology – despite being a half-blood like Harry and Dumbledore – that destroyed a long friendship with Harry’s mother.

Yes, you can read “Look at me” as nothing more than the desire to gaze into Lily’s eyes as he dies. Lots of Snape haters do. But given everything Snape shows Harry, it’s more likely IMO that he’s finally acknowledging, to Harry, that Harry is, as Dumbledore told him, his mother’s son. He is not responsible for the sins of his father. He has his mother’s eyes.