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05 August 2007 @ 11:03 pm
Snape essay  
This is my first essay on this community, based on my frustration with some recent remarks made by J. K. Rowling about the character of Severus Snape, and explains why I think he is such an interesting character, and why he is important to the themes of her books.  (The title, by the way, has been lifted shamelessly from a series of concerts by the early music group Liber UnUsualis.)

Virtue and the Viper: the Heroic Severus Snape.

It is now over a week since I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and my impressions of it have shifted somewhat. My initial enjoyment of the story, and relief at the outcome, have faded, and I find that I am left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth. It is still a good story, but a certain moral confusion, and especially a lack of generosity in the treatment of some of the characters on the 'bad' side, means that for me it falls short of greatness. Is it really necessary, for example, for Draco Malfoy to be such an abject coward, or for it to be pointed out in the epilogue that he is losing his hair? Why does Horace Slughorn play a less prominent part in the final battle than the heads of the other houses, and does it really have to be the case that not one single Slytherin cares enough for his or her school to defend it? The 'good' characters, on the other hand, get a different treatment. James Potter is just assumed to become a loving father and a good man, although we have only ever seen him as the school bully. Harry and his friends plot to cheat goblins and use curses previously described as 'unforgiveable' - under pressure of necessity, certainly, but with no real consequences and very little comment. And Ron Weasley, nineteen years later, is STILL telling his children that Gryffindor is the only acceptable house, and more or less deliberately fostering a rivalry between his daughter and young Scorpius Malfoy. (The faces of the parents (and grandparents) on both sides when - as I trust will be the case - they eventually marry, will be a study!) This uneven treatment of 'good' and 'bad' characters has persisted throughout the series, but I did hope that the last book would see a more balanced approach, and a greater rapprochement between the Hogwarts houses than seems to have taken place. Harry is to some extent an exception to this, and his words to his son on the last page go some way to bridging the gap, but it is not really quite far enough, and their good effect has been partly undone by remarks made by J. K. Rowling in interviews since the book came out. It is exasperating to see potentially complex situations dissolve into an easy assumption that the good guys can do no real wrong, or into an equally facile political correctness that seems to suggest that no-one who has ever embraced the wrong opinions should really be acceptable to polite society again, and some potentially very interesting characters are seriously short-changed in the process.

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? 
 
 
 
boltoniaboltonia on August 6th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
Dante and Beatrice
First, let me say that your disappointments in Rowling's portrayal of Slytherins in DH match mine. Only seeing three house banners in the Room of Requirement left a bad taste in my mouth, and then she didn't allow any of them to show loyalty to their school. Yes, very disappointed in you here, JKR!

I'd like to follow up on your comments about Snape's love for Lily being comparable to Dante for Beatrice. After Order of the Phoenix many fans latched on to the possible Snape/Lily friendship and read a lot more into it than we were given until DH. One person wrote an excellent fan fiction story that has Dumbledore sending Snape to Muggle psychology sessions to deal with his anger. Snape discovers Dante's writings, and his life story helps Snape come to terms with his own hopeless love.

I was delighted to see that, with very little suspension of disbelieve, this story could now fit excellently within canon. I highly recommend this story for any Snape fan.

Therapy by Azazzelo
http://occlumency.sycophanthex.com/viewstory.php?sid=506
Nobody tells me anythingkatiemorris on August 7th, 2007 11:48 am (UTC)
Re: Dante and Beatrice
I so agree with you about the lack of Slytherin good guys. It simply went against everything Rowling had the sorting hat preach down the years - unity is strength. YET. She showed only three house banners, DD whispers to Snape, "perhaps we sort too early" meaning, for God's sake, that nothing good can possibly be expected to come out of Slytherin EVER, and all the Slytherins do a bunk without a single exception. That did annoy me. It was careless writing. However, I loved the book, I really did.
zanesfriendzanesfriend on August 7th, 2007 03:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Dante and Beatrice
All? Slughorn fights for Hogwarts.
Nobody tells me anythingkatiemorris on August 7th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Dante and Beatrice
So he did. My apologies. I was thinking mainly of the pupils as "the house". It was certainly disappointing that all the pupils did a bunk. Slughorn, hmmm, he didn't exactly distinguish himself. I would have liked to see some real unity between all four houses. It was a major surprise that she didn't follow through with the sorting hat's "all pull together and unity within Hogwarts will vanquish evil" thing.
anne_arthur: I knowanne_arthur on August 8th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Dante and Beatrice
Thank you so much for this! I've only had a chance to read the first chapter (my computer keeps crashing for some reason), but it looks like a real treat.