a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperors (purpleygirl) wrote in hp_essays,
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperors

Snape's Life Debt to James and the Handing Over of the Prophecy: Is there a Link?

Dumbledore referred to a life debt as a "bond" and "magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable" (PoA, Ch22).

If then, life debts work something like Unbreakable Vows, what if the debtor (the person who owes his life) either harms or places his creditor in danger?

Would this have any consequences on Snape, who owed his life to James and, after telling Voldemort of the prophecy, placed James in real harm's way?

I think so, and I think this is significant. Because, if life debts do work like Unbreakable Vows, then Snape should then have died when James later died at Voldemort's hand.

But he didn't. So maybe it's easy to dismiss this at this point. Yet I think this is still significant for five reasons (in addition to the important quotations in the first line of this essay):
  1. After so many years Snape still carries a huge grudge against James. He's long-dead. Why?
  2. Snape hates Harry. And when he does, he mostly associates him with James and the hate he still has for him.
  3. Snape also hates Neville. [I’ll come back to this point later.]
  4. Dumbledore referred to Snape handing over the prophecy to Voldemort as the "greatest regret of his life and the reason that he returned" to Dumbledore (HBP, Ch25).
  5. Last but not least, Snape does everything he can to protect Harry, saves his life, never causes him real hurt (even though sometimes he would have loved to, such as after he saw his “worst” memory and at the end of HBP), and he seems to be protecting Neville (see the time in Umbridge's office in OotP when he tells Crabbe to "loosen [his] hold" on Neville). (Although Neville doesn't get into as many scrapes as Harry, so this is not that obvious.)
So why wouldn’t Snape have died? Why did he turn to Dumbledore sometime between him handing the prophecy to Voldemort and the Potters’ deaths?

I think that when Snape realised that he’d put James into danger, he realised he had to do something about the life debt he was under, or risk dying. I don’t think this had anything to do with honour; I think this was a real threat, like the Unbreakable Vow.

My theory is that somehow Snape exchanged the life debt for an Unbreakable Vow with James. This would suit both of them, because:
  • Snape would be guaranteed survival if James did die protecting Harry (which any father would do, and even Snape would have realised this), and
  • James would have acquired, if not his deputy, then certainly a close servant of Voldemort (now that Snape had given Voldemort the prophecy) to protect James's family. (And Dumbledore does say, again in PoA Ch22, “trust me... the time may come when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrew's life.” Why does he say “trust me” here? Perhaps he’s been in a similar situation before with another of Voldemort’s deputies? Such as Snape?)
(I also believe that James would have included the Longbottoms in this, as the other family in danger from Voldemort, thus Snape agreed to protect the Longbottoms as well, which is where my above points 3 and 5 come in.)

Thus, I think James, as his part of the Unbreakable Vow, agreed to annul the life debt that Snape owed him. (For example, Snape could have asked James, “Do you annul the debt I owe you?” and James could then have simply replied (during the Vow) that he did.)

The consequences of forfeiting a life debt might also explain why Wormtail was so afraid of Voldemort going after Harry at the beginning of GoF (even trying to talk him out of it at one point). But although Wormtail didn’t do any lasting harm to Harry in the graveyard later, Wormtail had still set in motion a chain of events (by bringing back Voldemort) that could ultimately lead to Harry’s death. Therefore, Wormtail might have been told by Snape that he’d have to do something about this before it was too late (which is why Wormtail might have been at Spinner’s End in the summer of 5th year).

Also, Wormtail is not Snape; Wormtail is pretty sycophantic and would give up his best friends to Voldemort (which he did – the Potters). Once in the graveyard, I don’t think Wormtail thought very hard about the longer-term consequences now that Voldemort had given him the job of acquiring Harry’s blood.

Of course, Snape would have, as with his Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa in HBP, agreed only to protect them “to the best of [his] ability.” I think it’s reasonable to assume that he tried to protect the Potters (and perhaps even the Longbottoms as well), but, since he, along with Dumbledore, did not know the real Secret Keeper of the Potters' Fidelius Charm, he was unable to protect them in the end.

This would also explain why, even if life debts are passed on to a creditor's descendants, Snape still seemingly got away scot-free when he’d obviously put James in danger by giving the prophecy to Voldemort, albeit unknowingly when he initially did so.

If you owe your life to someone, surely logically that means you forfeit it if you cause, directly or indirectly, your creditor's death? Thus, it doesn't make sense that Snape's life debt could simply be passed down to Harry on James's death, since Snape caused James's death, albeit indirectly. Yet, that is what is apparently cited by Dumbledore in PS/SS (Ch17) as the reason for Snape’s attempt to save Harry’s life that year: “I do believe [Professor Snape] worked so hard to protect you this year because he felt that would make him and your father even.”

But perhaps this was Dumbledore sidestepping the real issue. After all, he admitted himself that he'd put off telling Harry about the prophecy for years because of Harry's age. But more importantly, he apparently doesn’t want to tell Harry the real truth behind why he trusts Snape because that would betray Snape’s confidence. How would Snape feel if Harry knew Snape had to do his best to protect him or die? Especially as Harry had only been at Hogwarts a year at that time. Snape and Harry’s animosity toward one another always seemed to prevent Dumbledore from betraying Snape’s confidence in this way. As with the prophecy, Harry's age apparently again puts Dumbledore off telling him the truth.

Note also, that if Dumbledore was evading the true issue in PS/SS (Ch17) when he told Harry about James saving Snape's life as an explanation for why Snape had saved him from Quirrell, Dumbledore never actually lied about this, merely sidestepped the truth: "I do believe [Professor Snape] worked so hard to protect you this year because he felt that would make him and your father even." [My emphasis.] If Dumbledore knew so much about this kind of magic (see the quotations in the first line of the essay), then why wasn't Dumbledore more certain about Snape's intentions here? Unless the life debt wasn't the real reason for Snape trying to protect Harry?

Furthermore, in HBP, Dumbledore apparently deliberates whether to tell Harry exactly why he trusts Snape so completely. If it really was because of Snape's life debt to James passed on to Harry, then why didn't Dumbledore just tell Harry this, since he had already told Harry about Snape's debt back in Harry's first year? Apparently, then, there is more to Dumbledore's trust -- and is seemingly very important to Snape that Harry not know about it. Perhaps because Snape feared that Harry would react the same way he could imagine James reacting to such an Unbreakable Vow, that is, to use it against Snape?

If all this is so, then, Snape still has to protect Harry to the best of his ability. And perhaps even Neville too. Small wonder he carries such resentment toward them, perhaps?

ETA: Added second and third paragraphs from bottom about the reason for Dumbledore trusting Snape.
Tags: characters:potter family:james, characters:severus snape
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