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02 September 2006 @ 10:37 pm
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.
 
 
 
polymorphously on September 2nd, 2006 11:59 pm (UTC)
I'm a bit confused, but I'd really like to understand your point of view, as I'm working on my own essay about what Snape's hatred for Harry and Neville might actually be about. I don't think it's as simple as a grudge against James. If you remember that Snape excells at Legilmancy and Harry lies to his face almost constantly, then Snape has some clearcut reasons for disliking Harry himself, and it may be Harry's behavior, not his looks, that reminds him so forcefully of James.

To whom would Snape make the Vow to protect Neville or his family?
polymorphously on September 3rd, 2006 12:07 am (UTC)
Ok, reading your essay again, I get that you are saying Snape and James worked out a Unbreakable Vow that Snape protect the Potters and the Longbottoms in exchange for his life-debt to James.

But you say it yourself: James died. Why would James dying to protect his son nullify the vow? Also, it was my understanding that James was immediately killed by Voldemort, and not given any choice or chance in the matter.
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 3rd, 2006 10:46 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading.

Why would James dying to protect his son nullify the vow?

It's the debt that may have been nullified by James. Not on his death, but because he agreed somehow to exchange its nullification for an Unbreakable Vow from Snape to protect his family.

it was my understanding that James was immediately killed by Voldemort, and not given any choice or chance in the matter.

I think you've got mixed up with Lily's choice here for the reason why Voldemort's Killing Curse failed on Harry. The way James died has nothing to do with him replacing the debt for an Unbreakable Vow with Snape. In fact, if James had died, the Vow would still be in place today.

It was the very real threat that Snape would now have been a factor in James's death because Snape had told Voldemort the prophecy, and nothing to do with James's actual death or method of death, that caused the exchange.

For one thing, James would have had to have been alive to exchange Snape's debt for a UV.
polymorphously on September 3rd, 2006 11:12 am (UTC)
It's the debt that may have been nullified by James. Not on his death, but because he agreed somehow to exchange its nullification for an Unbreakable Vow from Snape to protect his family.

Yes, I understand. but if you make a vow to protect someone, and they die, haven't you broken the vow?

I think you've got mixed up with Lily's choice here for the reason why Voldemort's Killing Curse failed on Harry.

No, I'm not mixing them up, I'm pointing out that Lily had a choice, but James did not.

The way James died has nothing to do with him replacing the debt for an Unbreakable Vow with Snape. In fact, if James had died, the Vow would still be in place today.

Right, but... are you saying the UV did not include protecting James?
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 3rd, 2006 11:18 am (UTC)
In HBP, Snape agrees with Narcissa to protect Draco "to the best of [his] ability". As I said in the essay, since no one knew who the true Secret Keeper to the Potters' Fidelius Charm, then how could Snape have reasonably been expected to protect the Potters at that time? Clearly, this was an unfortunate mistake on James's part not to trust Dumbledore (and hence Snape) with the truth.

But I still think that Snape tried his best, and as with Draco, he was never expected to do more than his best. He just was unable to do that at that time because James was being too secretive and distrustful.
theenginedrivertheenginedriver on September 3rd, 2006 01:03 am (UTC)
I agree with all of your observations about Snape's hatred of Neville and Harry, but I think that you're starting with a faulty assumption -- the fact of the matter is, we don't know exactly what a life debt to someone entails. The only time we hear it called by that name is in the case of Peter Pettigrew (when Harry saves him from Sirius and Remus in PoA), and then it isn't capitalised -- a good clue in the Potterverse that it is not a specific magical vow/act.

The next question becomes, what exactly is a life debt if that is not true?

I always understood that Snape protected Harry because he felt that he owed James for saving his life from Remus after Sirius told him how to get into the Whomping Willow -- but you're right to point out that, in light of HBP, we have new evidence that Snape owes James for a lot more than saving him from a childhood prank.

Snape's hatred of James, Sirius, Remus, and even Peter (as we see him in the beginning of HBP) has always struck me as immature, completely irrational -- there seems to be no real reason for it except bullying in school, and that's not enough to justify Snape's betrayal of the Potters to Voldemort and still have him be a three-dimensional character. There is still something missing from what we know about the relationships between people during the first war. Lily may be the crucial element ... though I have no idea how, I don't believe that Snape loved her or anything like that, but she's the one person from that time period that we really have not learned anything about.

These are just some ramblings that can hopefully help you expand your ideas -- like I said, I think you have some really good things to say, but I think you are starting from a faulty assumption about the nature of the life debt, and also about what debt Snape is repaying to James by protecting Harry despite his personal feelings towards the boy.

I really enjoyed reading the essay (obviously, as it inspired me to write all that) and it definitely made me think. Thanks for writing! Feel free to respond to what I've said.
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 3rd, 2006 11:07 am (UTC)
The only time we hear it called by that name is in the case of Peter Pettigrew (when Harry saves him from Sirius and Remus in PoA), and then it isn't capitalised -- a good clue in the Potterverse that it is not a specific magical vow/act.

We also hear it referred to more directly in PS/SS; when Dumbledore tells Harry that James once saved Snape's life, he qualifies this by saying,

'"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....'

True, it's not capitalised, but then, Dumbledore never states a life debt explicitly -- he never says the term life debt. If life debts are so important as regards leading to the reason for Dumbledore trusting Snape, then if JKR had capitalised this term, I'm sure there'd be a lot more questions about just why and what then it meant. Something perhaps she's saving for Book 7?

Lily may be the crucial element

It could very well be that Snape may have gone to warn Lily of Voldemort's interpretation of it, and this could then have been the time when Snape met up with James to replace the debt with the UV.
mary_j_59mary_j_59 on September 5th, 2006 11:41 pm (UTC)
Childhood prank? I don't think so-
Sorry for jumping in here, but you said one thing that shocked me:

"in light of HBP, we have new evidence that Snape owes James for a lot more than saving him from a childhood prank.

Snape's hatred of James, Sirius, Remus, and even Peter (as we see him in the beginning of HBP) has always struck me as immature, completely irrational -- there seems to be no real reason for it except bullying in school, and that's not enough to justify Snape's betrayal of the Potters to Voldemort ..."

So - from what I can gather, four boys torment one boy mercilessly for seven years. They sexually harrass him and end by attempting to murder him. Why on earth *wouldn't* he hate them? It takes a very, very long time to get over treatment like this, and some people never do. I don't find Snape particularly immature for his resentment of the marauders. I *do* find him immature for his treatment of Harry, but I believe there may be other reasons for that.

I would never define the werewolf caper as a "childhood prank". 16-year-olds are old enough to know the likely consequences of their actions. I also have doubts about James, who hated dark magic, ever accepting an Unbreakable Vow, but more on that below-



Sarahscarah2 on September 3rd, 2006 07:21 am (UTC)
I think that the Unbreakable Vow is unneeded here. Consider the possibility that the life debt operates similarly to the UV, if in fact an ower were to take action leading to the extermination of the owed. Everything else still falls into place.
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 3rd, 2006 10:51 am (UTC)
I think you're assuming that you can get out of a UV by simply killing the person you made the UV to. I doubt they work like that; I highly suspect they are still valid even after either the death of the person you made the Vow to or that of the bonder. Because, if that were so, it would be far too easy for an unscrupulous person to get out of a UV that way.

So, I think the same applies to life debts, particularly as Dumbledore refers to this specific kind of magic as "most impenetrable".

Also, I suspect that you can't harm or otherwise place in danger your creditor (the person you owe your life to), or there would be consequences. And I do suspect that those consequences are the same as those with the UV, that is, the debtor's death.
Sarahscarah2 on September 4th, 2006 01:13 am (UTC)
No, I'm not assuming that. I don't think Snape got out of anything. I think he's still paying for the life debt.

I think if there's anyone that could help him shift/transfer/postpone the consequences at all, it would be Dumbledore, which would explain why that's where he went when he figured out what was going to go down. I don't think Dumbledore could remove the consequences entirely, which is why he's still so screwed, just not dead or whatever. It could be that Dumbledore transplanted the debt onto Harry, which explains why he trusts him, because he has to try not to let Harry die.

The only real advantage to adding the UV into the equation is that we know for a fact what happens when the UV is violated. With the life debt, we don't really know, but I'd guess something unpleasant.
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 4th, 2006 05:41 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure what is that different about Snape now compared to before he gave Voldemort the prophecy. From what we saw in the Pensieve in OotP ("Snape's Worst Memory"), he still seems to have the same personality. He was also working for Voldemort for at least one year prior to handing him the prophecy.

I think we'll have to agree to differ on the possible consequences. IMHO, because Dumbledore referred to life debts as "magic at its deepest" and a "bond", the effects of forfeiting them may be more clear cut and logical than merely 'something unpleasant', such as dying, as with a UV.
Summersummerborn on September 3rd, 2006 12:20 pm (UTC)
I like this theory. Makes for a nice plot bunny.
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 3rd, 2006 01:16 pm (UTC)
Thanks. :) I actually did my own one-shot on this a year ago when I first thought of the idea. But that was a year ago... :/
nyxfixxnyxfixx on September 3rd, 2006 09:17 pm (UTC)
Hi! Just wanted to drop by and let you know that I quite like this theory, and think it is very plausible. I'd evolved a similar idea myself that Snape must have, somehow, made an agreement with James, not DD, to protect James' family.

The various Lily theories do have some appeal, but the problem I have with all of them is why DD has not revealed, in all this time, at least some part of them to Harry, especially when Harry discovered Snape's indirect responsibility for LV's attack on Harry's parents. Sensitivity to Snape's feelings and desire for privacy do not seem to be adequate motivations for DD taking this secret all the way to his grave. When Harry confronted him with his newfound knowledge of Snape's complicity in HBP, all DD need have said is "Harry, while it may be true that Professor Snape despised your father, he certainly had no ill will toward your mother, on the contrary, he was fond of her." This hardly breaches Snape's privacy, and yet would have gone a long way toward calming Harry's suspicions. No, I'd also come to the conclusion that the reason for DD's unwavering trust in Snape must have been something that DD absolutely could not reveal to anyone without completely compromising Snape.

My own original theory was that Snape was at Godric's Hollow himself, and that he, not LV, in the process of attacking the house, is the one who dealt a mortal wound to James, though inadvertantly. Because there was a life debt between them, if James' last words to Snape had been "protect my family" then Snape might have felt compelled, by honor if not by magic, to do his best to comply. The main problem with my theory is that LV has stated flat out that he killed James himself. And, even though LV is a liar, I can't think of a reason why he would lie about this.

Your theory, however, solves this problem, while still adressing the longstanding problems with DD's stubborn secrecy over his trust in Snape, even in the face of being asked again and again. He could hardly reveal to anyone that Snape was magically compelled to protect Harry Potter from infancy without completely destroying Snape's ability to function as a double agent and putting him entirely at Harry's mercy to boot. A secret of this magnitude would be Snape's death warrant.

Your theory also explains why JKR, as an author, had to introduce the concept of the Unbreakable Vow in such detail in HBP, and also neatly allows Snape to be laboring under two UV's, since the two vows could be mutually exclusive - that is - one; Snape must protect Harry Potter, and two; Snape must complete Draco's task. As long as Harry himself did not interfere with Snape's completion of Draco's task on the Tower, Snape could fulfill both vows. Which may explain why DD immobilized Harry on the Tower; he would have been protecting Snape as well as Harry in that instance.

Finally, your theory also goes a long, long way toward explaining Snape's rather profoundly dysfunctional attitude toward Harry, and, to a lesser extent, toward Neville. Yes, Snape's continuing hatred for James would form a part of it, but possibly only the lesser part. But if both boys are living icons of Snape's guilt and his imprisonment in a magical debt to both of them, then it's easy to understand how Snape could hardly bear to look at the boys without thinking of James and how his entire life since 1981 has been constrained and shaped by this debt. It makes Snape's antipathy seem a great deal less petty and childish, really, at least to me.

Anyway, great theory and an interesting post! I've enjoyed reading it and thinking about it!
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 4th, 2006 06:06 pm (UTC)
My own original theory was that Snape was at Godric's Hollow himself, and that he, not LV, in the process of attacking the house, is the one who dealt a mortal wound to James, though inadvertantly. Because there was a life debt between them, if James' last words to Snape had been "protect my family" then Snape might have felt compelled, by honor if not by magic, to do his best to comply.

That is really good thinking! So does yours actually pre-date HBP? I doff my hat to you. :D

He could hardly reveal to anyone that Snape was magically compelled to protect Harry Potter from infancy without completely destroying Snape's ability to function as a double agent and putting him entirely at Harry's mercy to boot. A secret of this magnitude would be Snape's death warrant.

Plus, Snape and Harry's animosity toward each other was so severe that Snape would never have allowed himself to be at the mercy of Harry this way! Snape always viewed Harry as being like James, calling him "arrogant" and things like that, things that he saw James as being like. So, it isn't much to imagine that Snape would also have assumed that Harry would have taken the news of Snape having an UV to protect him the same way that James might have: to use it against Snape.

why JKR, as an author, had to introduce the concept of the Unbreakable Vow in such detail in HBP

Of course, it could be that UVs were only introduced to facilitate Dumbledore's death, but, since Dumbledore referred to a life debt as a "bond" between two wizards and "magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable", it did make me wonder whether the consequences could be the same.

and also neatly allows Snape to be laboring under two UV's, since the two vows could be mutually exclusive - that is - one; Snape must protect Harry Potter, and two; Snape must complete Draco's task. As long as Harry himself did not interfere with Snape's completion of Draco's task on the Tower, Snape could fulfill both vows. Which may explain why DD immobilized Harry on the Tower; he would have been protecting Snape as well as Harry in that instance.

I never thought of that. Good thinking. :)

Also, perhaps Snape didn't know what Draco's task entailed, and because he thought it might be about Harry, he felt compelled to go through with Narcissa's UV. Of course, since Snape vowed in the last part to go through with Draco's task if Draco couldn't, if he had thought it may have been about Harry, that could also explain why his hand twitched! (Dead if you do, dead if you don't... ) Good thing it wasn't, then. ;)

It makes Snape's antipathy seem a great deal less petty and childish, really, at least to me.

Yeah, I just personally doubt the theory that he harbours resentment after so many years for a dead man -- and a dead woman if the Lily/Snape theorists are right. Snape seems compelled to work for Dumbledore and the Order, and Harry is the foremost person against Voldemort because he has to end him. It makes no sense, then, that Snape would have a petty grudge against Harry yet still be saving him and protecting him and working against Voldemort.

I've enjoyed reading it and thinking about it!

Thanks so much! :D It's great to hear I wasn't the only one to think similarly. :D
mary_j_59mary_j_59 on September 5th, 2006 11:48 pm (UTC)
An unbreakable vow is dark magic, I think-
I said this back on the Barnes and Noble board when I first fell into fandom (October). People were arguing that Dumbledore had made Snape take an Unbreakable Vow, and I said Dumbledore would never do that, because the UV is an evil instrument. It is, IMHO. The reason: you are using someone else as a tool, threatening their life, and denying their free will. Dumbledore would never do this, and neither, I think, would James. After all, why did James supposedly hate Snape? Because Snape was fascinated by the Dark Arts, and James hated them. He would never make use of a spell that was so obviously dark.

A well written essay, though! And I do think Snape feels himself responsible for both Harry's safety and Neville's. I just can't agree that this is because he's being forced to look out for them by a UV.
a beggar enfolded in the purple of emperorspurpleygirl on September 6th, 2006 10:41 am (UTC)
Re: An unbreakable vow is dark magic, I think-
Good point, and I do agree that Dumbledore would never ask/force a UV on anyone on moral grounds (which is, btw, why the theory that Dumbledore forced Snape to kill him this way makes little sense to me).

But, as for James, well, he had his wife and baby son to think about. Their lives were in danger. You do stupid things, desperate things when you're scared for your family's lives.

I do agree that James wouldn't have ever imagined dipping into dark magic (and I also agree that UVs, if not Dark with a capital D, are highly morally questionable and so should be classified as such), but, as I said, James, as a father and husband, would have done anything to help protect his family.

Also, this is Snape, and while James may not have liked asking this of anyone, I suspect his pretty low estimation of Snape's life (his being a DE and the fact that he was the one who had put the Potters in danger through giving the prophecy to Voldemort) may have helped James to decide to go through with one.