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The Triumph of Severus Snape

The death of Severus Snape in Deathly Hallows was not unexpected but was untimely, unpleasant, and somehow unsatisfying. It seemed to leave important issues unresolved, both for Snape himself and for the reader trying to understand this perplexing character and what moved him. His death was brutal, right down to the tiny moment when he believed he might be reprieved. It was a miserable end to what remained a miserable life. It was shocking, it was unjust. It robbed us of the revelatory confrontation between Snape and Harry that the story seemed to demand. Rather than illuminate Snape’s life it cast it into shadow. What sort of life must it have been to deserve a death like this?

No life could deserve a death like this. It was, though, the sort of death that Voldemort was quite used to inflicting on those who came within his reach - Peter Pettigrew and Charity Burbage come to mind - and it was the sort of death that Snape had witnessed and knew he faced as a follower of Voldemort. The horror and injustice of Snape’s death should not be allowed to obscure our understanding of his life. He may not have confronted Harry in person but he told him what he wanted him to know through the memories he gave him. When we unite these memories with everything we have seen of Snape throughout the story we can understand that Snape’s life was not unfulfilled, and that though he died in pain he died in triumph. The project which was the purpose of his life was at its conclusion, and through it he had transformed himself - not from villain to hero, but from loser to winner.

Snape, hatred, and revenge.
Throughout the books Snape was defined by hatred. He hated other people - even children. He was without compassion, and blind to his own and others’ humanity. He never had a good word for anyone. He was contemptuous, spiteful and petty. He picked on Harry, was prejudiced against Hermione, and tormented Neville. He spat venom at Sirius, and nurtured his loathing of James, dead for ten years and more. He even sniggered at Filch’s distress when he thought his cat was dead, and bitched at Tonks over her love for Lupin! The books led us to understand that Snape’s hatred of others was related to being picked on at school by James and Sirius. We learnt much about this in the course of PoA and from the pensieve memories that Harry observed in OotP. The pensieve also showed that Snape’s family was an unhappy one, and that his life with his parents neither compensated for nor equipped him to deal with the attentions of James and Sirius. But the memories that Snape gave Harry in DH - finally - showed that, though he certainly hated James and Sirius on their own account and Harry for being James’s son, above and beyond this Snape’s hatred stemmed from his love for Lily. He turned his anguish at losing Lily into hatred for those he held responsible for her death. He hated Harry for being the boy in the prophecy, James for being Harry’s father, Sirius for betraying the secret of Lily’s location, Voldemort for killing Lily, and Dumbledore for not protecting her. He was even able to hate Neville for not being the boy in the prophecy.

Did Snape hate himself for his part in Lily‘s death? Did he feel any responsibility? One would tend to answer, “Of course!” because how could he not? - It was he who had told Voldemort of the prophecy that put Lily’s life at risk. And why else would he have agreed to protect Harry? But his memories in DH do not bear this out, nor do his words and actions in the rest of the story. Snape was an unhappy man but his hatred was for others not himself , and the terrible anguish he suffered was solely at losing Lily. Why then did he agree to protect her child, whom he hated? For Snape it was a way of keeping Lily in his life, but more than that it would help him obtain revenge for her death.

Snape, love, and Lily.
From the memories given to Harry we know that Snape loved Lily before ever he spoke to her. She embodied the beauty of magic for him - this is what his memory of her on the swing showed us. She was muggleborn, didn’t know she was a witch, yet magic was part of her nature, and she could perform magic naturally and with grace. One might even say that she was his vision of what his life would be once he was able to leave Spinner’s End for Hogwarts. But Snape wasn’t moved by the beauty of magic alone, he was moved by its power too, and perhaps more so. At Hogwarts it was Slytherin for him, an interest in the Dark Arts, and an admiration of Voldemort. Life at the school was not all it had promised to be for Snape, once he had met James and Sirius on the Hogwarts Express and seen Lily sorted into Gryffindor. Lily did not share or understand Snape’s fascination with Voldemort and the Dark Arts. Snape did not understand that he would have to make a choice between them and Lily, that he could not have both. Finally, Lily gave up on Snape: “You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine”, she said. In fact Snape hadn’t chosen at all, he had failed to choose. So Snape lost Lily, and left the way open for James, his enemy, to win her.

When Lily’s life was threatened by Voldemort, Snape - an adult by then - was still unable unequivocally to choose Lily. He did not act on his own behalf for her, rather he went to Dumbledore for help. Having inadvertently handed Lily’s life over to one powerful wizard, he then quite deliberately handed it over to another. Snape’s memory of his interview with Dumbledore on the wild heath was illuminating as much for what Snape did not say as for what he did say. There was no indication in his words or actions that his anguish about the threat to Lily caused him to question Voldemort’s aims and methods, or question his own desires, beliefs and actions - examine his conscience, if you like. He was not concerned about the fate of Lily’s husband and child. He did not think about the effect of their deaths on Lily herself were she to survive. He showed no qualms about murder generally, even the murder of a child. It was the death of Lily and only the death of Lily that was unbearable to him. It hardly seemed that it was Lily he was concerned about, but himself - Lily’s death would be his loss not hers. No wonder Dumbledore could say, “You disgust me.” Snape grudgingly accepted the protection of James and Harry as the price that had to be paid for Lily’s life, but was taken aback to discover that in fact Dumbledore required him to pay more. Snape realised - and said - he’d pay “Anything” for Lily’s life, and so made himself the servant of Dumbledore as well as of Voldemort.

Snape, revenge, and hatred.
Dumbledore failed to protect Lily, and Voldemort killed her. Snape was destroyed. He’d lost his love and had been betrayed by the power he so admired. He wished to die. What was there to live for? His dreams were dead. Dumbledore offered him a reason to live: protect Lily’s son against Voldemort’s return, of which Dumbledore was certain. Dumbledore put this to Snape as his duty if he really loved Lily. Snape agreed to do it, squirming under the shame of protecting James Potter’s son, and insisting that no-one should know. For Snape there was another and more compelling reason to accept Dumbledore’s offer, another reason to live. If Voldemort was to return then there was the possibility of revenge - against Voldemort, and against Dumbledore too. Snape would protect Harry from Voldemort in honour of Lily and because it would buy him Dumbledore’s protection and support, essential if he was to survive and achieve his revenge. Snape did not articulate any of this in his memory - we are shown only that he considered the offer before accepting it, not what his thoughts were. But we did see him express his desire for revenge on another occasion, in PoA, in the Shrieking Shack with Sirius at his mercy. “Vengeance is very sweet,” he said. “How I hoped I would be the one to catch you.” Keeping Lily’s child alive was revenge in itself, of course, because it thwarted Voldemort. Feigning to serve Dumbledore was revenge too. And every sarcastic comment, every slight, insult, punishment Snape visited on Harry throughout the story, and every petty cruelty he inflicted on Neville was both an expression of Snape’s great love and great hatred, and a small triumph on his journey towards complete revenge for his terrible loss.

Snape never stopped hating. His hatred of Dumbledore was clear enough from the expression on his face as he killed him. He continued to hate Sirius, even after he must have known it was Peter who betrayed Lily to Voldemort. (And whom he now added to his tally of hatred.) After all, it was Sirius who proposed Peter as secret keeper. That Sirius was himself betrayed, that he felt responsible for Lily’s death (and James’s) and suffered for it, and that he endured imprisonment in Azkaban, made no impression on Snape, nor that Sirius died before ever enjoying freedom. Snape felt no compassion for him. Even after Sirius’s death Snape hated him, and in HBP used detention as an opportunity to taunt Harry with his father’s and godfather’s deaths. Snape continued to hate James and to hate Harry. He never witnessed Harry’s bravery or suffering, only his lucky escapes, so he was able to go on dismissing him as mediocre and arrogant, not worth the price Lily paid for him. (Snape wasn’t in the graveyard when Voldemort returned, for example, and Dumbledore sent him away before Harry told the story of what happened.) In his memory of Dumbledore revealing Harry’s fate Snape sneered at the idea that he might care for Harry, and went on to conjure his patronus to show his continuing love for Lily. He contemptuously likened Harry to ‘a pig’ raised for slaughter. (A pig, not a lamb, which would have had a quite different connotation!) Snape’s love for Lily remained, constant and undiminished, to the end, and so did his hatred of everyone he connected with her death. In DH he sobbed over the photograph of Lily he found in Grimmauld Place, and tore Harry and James out of the picture. He took the page of the letter with Lily’s signature and her love, and discarded the page that showed the love was directed to Sirius.

Snape, love, and compassion.
Although he didn’t ever come to love his enemies Snape did discover he could feel some compassion for some others, and though he didn’t ever stop loving Lily, he had another love too. His other love was Hogwarts. Perhaps this had always been the case but it only really began to be evident, in small ways, during OotP, with the school threatened by Umbridge and the Ministry. Snape did not co-operate when Umbridge wished to interrogate Harry, and in the same scene he stopped Crabbe’s throttling of his fellow student, Neville, from going too far. Later, Snape went unhesitatingly to Professor McGonagall’s aid when she returned from St Mungo’s, where she had been recovering from injuries sustained in defence of the school - or of one of its staff, Hagrid. Snape’s memories showed that he promised Dumbledore he would protect the school from Voldemort after Dumbledore‘s death. We saw how, as Headmaster, he was able to curb the cruelty of the Carrows, when he punished Ginny and her friends by sending them to the Forest with Hagrid, which he knew was no punishment at all. And when attacked by McGonagall and Flitwick, Snape was careful to use only defensive spells against them. Harry came to understand that Snape loved Hogwarts, just as he did, and Voldemort did too. On his way to meet Voldemort and his death Harry thought about the school, “Hogwarts was the first and best home he had known. He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here …”

Perhaps it was his love of Hogwarts that led Snape to begin to feel compassion for others, and his actions above do speak of compassion. Snape himself made claim to compassion in his memories. Dumbledore, surprised by Snape’s reaction to being told of Harry‘s fate, asked him “How many men and women have you watched die?”, to which Snape replied, “Lately, only those who I could not save.” His memories reveal that he acted to protect Lupin from a Death Eater’s curse in DH, but that ‘could not’ in Snape’s reply carried a lot of weight. For Snape compassion came second to the achievement of his revenge, as is clear from Charity Burbage’s fate: murdered in front of Snape’s eyes and begging for his help. Only once did Snape - perhaps - allow compassion to endanger himself and his revenge, when he swore the Unbreakable Vow to protect Draco. His love for Lily and for Hogwarts was influential in this. Draco was a Hogwarts student, from Snape’s own house. Narcissa’s plight would have reminded Snape forcefully of Lily, and in committing himself unequivocally to Narcissa, without reference to his two masters, he was doing what he had failed to do for Lily. He was also antagonised into action by Bellatrix’s sneering attitude towards him, and proving her wrong would have been a powerful motivation. Killing Dumbledore was not contrary to his aims - but the time had to be right. Still, Dumbledore would not have wanted Snape to risk his life in this way - he needed him - and Voldemort would surely have looked on the vow as treachery. These points and Snape’s care of the distraught Narcissa, suggest that compassion played an important part in his vowing to protect Draco.

Snape, revenge, and Dumbledore.
When Dumbledore asked Snape to kill him, he presented the killing as an act of compassion. It would prevent damage to Draco’s innocent soul, and would spare Dumbledore from suffering at the hands of the likes of Bellatrix or Greyback. But Snape killed Dumbledore for revenge, not out of compassion. It was what he wanted, and the time was right. Dumbledore had told him about the connection between Voldemort and Harry. Snape knew exactly what had to be done now, and didn‘t need the old wizard any more. Voldemort had returned and was in the ascendant, and killing Dumbledore would look like the ultimate proof of Snape‘s loyalty. The intensity of Snape’s hatred as it revealed itself on his face when he killed Dumbledore was shocking, but there was plenty for Snape to hate. Dumbledore had disappointed him monstrously. He had not protected Lily from Voldemort, had not kept his word. He had not acknowledged his failure or his responsibility for Lily’s death; he seemed unaware of it. Snape had served Dumbledore for sixteen years, and been slighted and tricked by him time and again. In his arrogance Dumbledore had asked him to kill him, as though Snape would do whatever Dumbledore wanted. But Snape had never been Dumbledore’s man. He had followed Dumbledore’s instructions for Lily and for himself, and he killed Dumbledore for himself and for his revenge.

Dumbledore can’t not have understood that Snape might have his own reasons for consenting to kill him. As we can understand from what Snape told Bellatrix in Spinner’s End, Dumbledore believed the best of him but could not entirely trust him. When Dumbledore spoke of sparing Draco’s soul Snape asked, “What of my soul?” and Dumbledore batted the question straight back to him. Dumbledore was clear that Snape’s soul was Snape’s responsibility. He had the choice of what he wanted to do and be. After Lily’s death Dumbledore had offered Snape the opportunity of understanding and atonement, and pointed out Lily’s and Harry’s shared humanity - “He has her eyes, precisely her eyes” - but it was entirely up to Snape what he did with the opportunity. There were occasions when Snape could have reflected on himself and his actions. His memories show his dismay when, at the Yule Ball, Dumbledore had praised his bravery and mused, “Sometimes I think we sort too soon.” - Snape’s entire self being questioned in this one statement. And there was the description of him after he had killed Dumbledore, when Harry had just called him a coward, “… his face was suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling, dog stuck in the burning house behind them …”. But Snape did not allow himself to reflect on these instances of doubt. He chose to put his soul aside, as he put everything aside, in favour of his revenge.

The triumph of Severus Snape.
Snape’s death was horrible but his life was not unfulfilled. He never realised his childhood dreams of love and power. He never overcame his hatreds. He never understood these things and never understood himself, but he didn’t want to or acknowledge the need to. He lived and worked and died for what he loved - Lily and Hogwarts - and what he wanted - revenge for the loss of Lily and for his disappointment with power. He protected Lily’s child to adulthood, and in committing himself to Narcissa he succeeded where he had failed for Lily. At the time of his death his revenge was almost complete. He had outlived James, Sirius, Wormtail and Dumbledore - he had killed Dumbledore himself. He had kept Hogwarts safe from Voldemort until Harry’s return. Harry and Voldemort were still alive but there was no doubt that their deaths were imminent: Voldemort’s confidence that Harry would come to him was as strong and true as had been Dumbledore‘s that Voldemort would return. At the last moment - miraculously - Snape was able to give Harry all the information he wanted to give, certain that Harry would follow its lead to his own and Voldemort’s deaths as resolutely as he had followed the doe in the woods to the pool of icy water. (And that a friend would pop up to help if Harry looked like messing it up!) Snape did not need to witness Harry’s and Voldemort’s deaths - he already knew how it would be, Dumbledore had told him - and there was nothing for him to live for after them. Snape left this world looking into Lily’s eyes. His victory was complete.
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