Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Reluctant Virtue of Severus Snape – Part 1

On July 21 of this year, the seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series written by J.K. Rowling will be released. This book has the highest expectations of all the series, as fans of the “Boy Who Lived” will demand answers to their many remaining questions, not the least of which is the true allegiance of Severus Snape.

There have been four large groups formed with regard to that question; those who believe Severus Snape is basically evil, those who believe Severus Snape is basically good, those who believe Severus Snape is simply out for himself, and those who admit that they have not decided. No wonder, really. The six books written so far each show scenes and statements which at times indicate evil, at other times indicate goodness, at times indicate selfishness, and anyone who thinks about Rowling’s Potter stories understands that many times the true meaning is not what appears on the surface.

This article simply looks at the available evidence, laying out what we know to give us a few bits of solid indication for guidance. Some of the things I note here, I will have to show in more than one context, as they could serve more than one meaning on their own, but there are some points which may surprise folks if they consider them all together. Hopefully, this will be useful in clearing some of the fog.

The first thing to understand about the Severus Snape contentions, is that we have two distinctly separate periods of time to address; the period before Lord Voldemort returned in bodily fashion at the end of “Goblet of Fire” (GoF), and the period after that. The reason this is so, is because we have two clear evidences that Voldemort did not have allies until his recovery of a body, except for a dismal few. The evidence for that comes from two places – a prophecy by Sibyl Trelawney, and statements by Lord Voldemort himself.

First, the prophecy. We all know that Sibyl Trelawney has a reputation as a self-serving fraud. For instance, she predicted at the Yule dinner once that whoever was the first to rise from the table would be the next person of that group to die, but although Harry and Ron both rose at the same time, it turned out to be Dumbledore (who did not rise at all) who died, at the end of “Half-Blood Prince” (HBP). But on two occasions, Sibyl made predictions which Rowling clearly indicates are true. The first one is a prophecy we actually do not hear completely until the fifth book, but which is treated by the major characters as true, not least because several parts of it appear to have been confirmed. The other prophecy, later in the timeline of the books but which actually appears first, is presented in this way:

From the “Prisoner of Azkaban” (PoA), page 324:

But Professor Trelawney didn’t seem to hear him. Her eyes started to roll. Harry sat there in a panic. She looked as though she was about to have some sort of seizure. He hesitated, thinking of running to the hospital wing – and then Professor Trelawney spoke again, in the same harsh voice, quite unlike her own:


The prophecy went on to predict certain other events for the story which did come to pass, but this first line is the salient one for here, since it means that whether or not they were allied with Voldemort before, they are not his followers at this point. This does not make them good by default of course; in the course of the story we still see individuals who return to Voldemort, and even a few who remain devoted to him but were physically prevented from seeking him (the Lestranges, I mean). But in the context of this discussion, it means that whatever his mind and motives during the first three years of Harry’s years at Hogwarts, Severus Snape was not working for Voldemort during that time. He certainly could have joined Voldemort again after Voldemort summoned his Death Eaters in the graveyard scene in GoF, so this fact does not decide the question of Severus Snape’s loyalty, but it does close a number of doors to decide that question for the purpose of the resolution of the series. The events prior to GoF can shed light on the character of Severus Snape. But they do not speak to his allegiance; only the last three books can do so.

The next witness to this condition of fact is none other than Lord Voldemort himself. When he rose again in power at the end of GoF, Voldemort was not at all happy about how long it took the Death Eaters to get back to him, specifically that except for a single devoted follower who sought him out, a cowardly follower who came back to him after years of hiding, and a few loyal followers locked in prison, his “loyal” followers basically ran off and forgot about him. From GoF, pages 647-8:

”I smell guilt,” he said, “There is a stench of guilt upon the air.”

[ snip]

“I ask myself … why did this band of wizards never come to the aid of their master, to whom they swore eternal loyalty?”


“And I answer myself”, whispered Voldemort, “they must have believed me broken, they thought I was gone.”

That explains a lot, actually. And again, it does not commit Severus Snape to the side of Albus Dumbledore, nor even to himself, except that it does strike, if a small one, against the notion of his loyalty to Lord Voldemort.

So from this we have a separation of sequence, and may sort out the significant events not only by date, but also by what they affect. So far as Severus Snape is concerned, then, I divide our timeline into two sections: Before Voldemort’s Return (BVR), and After Voldemort’s Return (AVR). And since they weigh more strongly, I will first address the AVR events, those described in the last three books. I will discuss those significant events in my next post.

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