Virtue and the Viper: the Heroic Severus Snape.
Nowhere is this more the case than with Rowling's apparent attitude to Severus Snape. Sadistic potions master, repentant Death-Eater, spy, neglected child, bullied schoolboy, high-school genius and unrequited lover of Lily Evans, he is one of the most fascinating and memorable characters in the series. From the very first book, where he is set up as an almost pantomime villain, and is then revealed to have been acting in Harry's interests all along, he emerges as a highly original character in a genre where those adults whose role it is to help the young hero or heroine are usually shown as liking him or her. In a book for children he makes the very adult point that the good guys and the nice guys are not necessarily the same people. Nor does Rowling lose her touch with him in subsequent books. Information about him leaks out, bit by bit. We are never quite sure what to make of him, never lack a Ron Weasley to mutter darkly that 'poisonous toadstools don't change their spots', but his actions - as opposed to his words - are usually benevolent. Even in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, once we have recovered from the shock of Dumbledore's death, we notice that he then acts swiftly to protect Harry and Draco, and to encourage the other Death-Eaters to leave the castle, thus minimising the damage caused. But for all this he never becomes 'nice': there is never a 'Harry, I misjudged you' moment, and Rowling resists the temptation to turn him into everybody's friendly Uncle Severus. When he finally dies, pointlessly, managing at the very last minute to pass on to Harry the information vital to his mission, as well as the story that he, intensely private man that he is, has been keeping to himself for years, we surely echo Harry's tribute to him that he is 'probably the bravest man I ever knew'.
Yet his contribution is deliberately kept muted. For much of the book he does not appear. He dies almost alone, far from the main action. There is no deathbed reconciliation with Harry, and Harry does not seem to register any kind of surprise that Snape loved his mother, or regret that he has misjudged him. He comes to appreciate him later, but at the time he seems to have no reaction to his death at all. And J. K. Rowling is decidedly cool when she speaks of him. He is brave, yes, she will admit that, and he is capable of love, but he is allowed to be heroic only in the most qualified terms, and his unpleasant personality is stressed. This made sense when she was still holding out the possiblity that he might turn out to be a villain, but now it just seems mean-spirited - especially when we consider how important he is to two of the main themes of the series, love and self-sacrifice.
As we finally learn in DH, Severus Snape repents of being a Death-Eater when he unwittingly directs Lord Voldemort's attention against Lily Evans, his former love, and her unborn child. We see Snape's love for Lily develop in the memories that he leaves to Harry: the childhood crush of the boy from the deprived home on the pretty, clever little girl he sees in the local park; the Sorting into different houses at Hogwarts and the subsequent estrangement; the fatal insult under pressure; the desperate grief at his love's death. And we see too how little foundation Snape ever had for his love. Lily Evans clearly liked him - as a friend - but even when they were children there were reservations, and it is very clear that she was never going to feel about him the way he so obviously felt about her. If this is the great love of Severus Snape's life, it is a bleak love indeed. And after her death, we see how it develops. From the desire to save her - and never mind her husband or son - that so arouses Dumbledore's contempt (but even then Snape was brave - he is clearly terrified of what Dumbledore might do to him, and how much standing among the Death-Eaters must he have lost by begging Voldemort to save the life of a Mudblood?) it extends to a promise to protect her son, which Snape keeps faithfully, even though his hatred of James Potter prejudices him fatally against the boy. It extends further, to other pupils, to protecting Hogwarts from the worst ravages of the Carrows, and to Snape's admission that he now watches the deaths only of those of Lord Voldemort's victims whom he cannot save. mary_j_59 in her essay 'Some thoughts on DH' notes that Rowling in her depiction of his childhood relationship with Lily suggests parallels between him and Heathcliff - but Heathcliff, thwarted in his love, turned to hatred and vengeance. Ultimately, the model seems to be not Heathcliff and Cathy, but Dante and Beatrice: the truly enobling love that transcends the beloved and leads the lover towards virtue. And that it took this turn, and on so slender a basis, must surely speak of something fundamentally very good in Severus Snape.
Snape's perseverance in the difficult road his repentance has set him on is no less noteworthy. He has little to encourage him. His beloved is dead. Her son (he thinks) is the disappointing image of his father - arrogant, careless and spoilt. He has clearly inherited a 'difficult' personality from both his parents, and appears to have no close friends, even if he could confide in them. Dumbledore, as we see, makes continual demands on him and gives him minimal support. It is doubtful whether the Death Eaters ever really treated him as one of them - Sirius calls him 'part of a gang' and Lily says that he 'hangs around' with Avery and Mulciber, which hardly sounds very intimate. The nickname written into his potions book surely betrays an ironic awareness that, as a halfblood in an organisation that values only purebloods, he will always be a second-class citizen. There seems to be a warmer relationship with the Malfoys, but even here one suspects that while Lucius Malfoy (more intelligent than the average Death-Eater - not that this is saying much) may be happy to call this clever and able man his friend, he might not feel the same about letting him, say, marry his sister. The Order never really trust him, and in his year as Headmaster of Hogwarts he must be aware that everyone around him despises him absolutely.
And yet he perseveres. For three years he risks death on a daily basis - risks it, ultimately, if what he says about 'only those whom I could not save' is true, above and beyond the call of duty. If there is a character in this series who can provide Harry with an example of doing what is right and not what is easy, then surely that character is Severus Snape. If there is a character who is an example of the transformative power of love, it is Severus Snape. If there is a character who embodies the Christian themes of repentance and redemption, it is Severus Snape. Truly he is a hero. And he is a hero despite, and indeed because of, the fact that he remains a thoroughly unpleasant person. Perhaps he could have done more to make himself nicer. But in the face of what he did do, that pales into insignificance. For those of us who came to Harry Potter as adults, who have had to come to terms with the fact that our more unpleasant personality traits are not going to vanish overnight, and who know too well how it feels for the imperative to love one's neighbour to be more a matter of brute willpower than of any actual inclination, he is at once comfort and inspiration. In a series of children's books whose theme is love, where the other examples of this love are mostly natural and instinctive - friendship, mother love - the dogged, self-sacrificing devotion of this bitter, unpleasant, unhappy, heroic, and fundamentally GOOD man is the vital ingredient that keeps the whole from becoming cloying and saccharine, and lifts it towards a kind of greatness, however flawed.
J. K. Rowling created this. Why can't she see it?