I remember reading an interview with J.K. Rowling right around the time The Order of the Phoenix came out in which the interviewer asked Rowling if Professor Severus Snape was truly irredeemable. She said he’d done unforgivable things, that some people are just bad and that’s all there is to it, but even then I knew she wasn’t telling the whole truth about one of my favorite characters in the Harry Potter book series.
When we first meet Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone he becomes an instant red herring. Not only does he look the part of evil with his dour expression, greasy black hair and hookish nose, but he’s caught in the great hall upon Harry Potter’s arrival, glaring at the boy as if he’s got sinister plots a-brewing. Of course, he is an early lesson about the danger in making assumptions, but Harry and his friends remain unconvinced about Snape’s innocence even after poor stuttering Professor Quirrel reveals that he’s got YOU KNOW WHO living like a parasite beneath his turban.
Despite learning that not only was Professor Snape innocent of all those things Harry and his friends accused him of in The Sorcerer’s Stone, but he actually helped Harry, Ron and Hermione, there’s just something about Snape that begs both the heroic trio and the reader to dig deeper into his person. Snape is hiding things. He’s got secrets, and because he is so very often cruel to the point of unforgivable, we know there’s something so much more than sour grapes and unexplained bitterness driving Severus Snape’s actions.
We begin to understand a bit more about Snape’s character in The Prisoner of Azkaban, one quote in particular shedding a bit of light on why the potions master seems to have it in for Harry. “How extraordinarily like your father you are, Potter,” Snape said suddenly, his eyes glinting. “He too was exceedingly arrogant. A small amount of talent on the Quidditch field made him think he was a cut above the rest of us too. Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers … The resemblance between you is uncanny” (Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 14). This revealing little tidbit tells the reader that Snape and Harry’s father, James Potter, had a vicious rivalry while they attended Hogwarts together, which is later confirmed when Snape faces off against Professor Lupin and Sirius Black in the shrieking shack. Revealing that Ron’s rat, Scabbers, is really Peter Pettigrew in disguise, Pettigrew turns out to be Voldemort’s trusted servant and setting Pettigrew free reunites the servant with the master. Even though we all know the truth about Sirius Black’s innocence, Snape’s need for vengeance against the group of boys who made his life at Hogwarts a living hell drives him to present Black for imprisonment even though the children keep telling him it was Peter Pettigrew all along. When Black escapes with Buckbeak, Snape’s howls of defeat can be heard echoing through the castle and we are left wondering what on earth happened between young Severus Snape and the Marauders to fill him with so much loathing. His final act of vengeance against the Marauders is revealing to the parents of Hogwarts’ students their Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is a werewolf. Of course, we are led to believe he only did this so he could finally get his hands on the DAtDA position he’s coveted for years, and there is no doubt that was a motivating factor, but Snape is a bitter man and that one act of cruelty probably felt justified by all the wretched things James Potter and Sirius Black did to him (which we don’t learn about until The Order of the Phoenix.)
When Harry Potter’s name unexpectedly flies out of the Goblet of Fire, naming him the fourth Tri-Wizard Champion, there is a lot of speculation on Harry’s part that it was Professor Snape who put it there. Of course, it wasn’t Professor Snape, and we all learn that before the end, but we also discover that the snarky, embittered Professor Snape was, in fact, one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters. When Harry takes this news to Sirius, Black says, “Ever since I found out Snape was teaching here, I’ve wondered why Dumbledore hired him. Snape’s always been fascinated by the Dark Arts, he was famous for it at school. Slimy, oily, greasy-haired kid, he was.” Sirius added, and Harry and Ron grinned at each other. “Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year, and he was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly-all turned out to be Death Eaters” (Rowling, The Goblet of Fire, Chapter 27). But since the beginning of the story, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore stood behind Snape, claiming that he trusts the man, and with good reason. Though he refuses to name that reason when an unconvinced Harry asks the headmaster what made him believe Snape stopped serving the dark lord, he tells him in Chapter 30, “That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.”
As The Order of the Phoenix is reformed in book five of the series, no one is more surprised than Harry to learn that Dumbledore has allowed Snape to be an active member of the Order. What his duties are, no one knows, and since Dumbledore seems to be avoiding Harry at all costs, he’s unable to ask the headmaster why he trusts Snape enough to allow him to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix. Snape seems to take great joy in taunting Sirius Black, whose fugitive status prohibits him from doing much to aid the Order, and after Harry’s mental connection to Voldemort is confirmed when Harry saves Arthur Weasley’s life, Dumbledore sets Snape to the task of teaching Harry how to block the Dark Lord from his mind using Legilimency. Sadly, their history with one another makes this a difficult task, and the unforgiving Professor Snape often taunts Harry, tormenting him with his own private thoughts until an angry Harry turns the tables and reveals Snapes Worst Memory to the reader. Harry sees firsthand just how cruel his own father was to young Snape, how Sirius and James tormented Severus and humiliated him in front of the entire school. This revelation infuriates Snape, and he refuses to continue Harry’s lessons, warning him that he better not ever tell anyone what he saw in Snape’s memory.
While Harry is preoccupied with his father’s cruelties, we as readers learned something very important in that memory that made a few things click. Snape also knew Lily Evans, Harry’s mother, and it was Lily who spared Severus from James Potter’s cruelty that day in Snape’s Worst Memory. Perhaps, we think as readers, it was simply an act of kindness from a good-natured witch, but even then I felt like there was so much more to Snape and Lily than met the eye.
With the confirmation of Voldemort’s return after the battle at the Ministry of Magic, Harry’s hatred for Snape has reached an all-time high because Harry believes Snape deliberately betrayed Sirius, and it was that betrayal that got Sirius killed in the battle. No matter what Dumbledore says about Snape, Harry will never believe the man can be trusted, which poses a huge problem in year six, when Harry discovers that Snape has finally been granted the coveted position of Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. In the second chapter of The Half-Blood Prince, we see Snape in action with fellow Death Eater, Bellatrix LeStrange. It is a very one-sided glimpse at the other side of Snape’s dealings, his life as a double-agent playing both sides of the game, and though it seems to confirm Harry’s suspicions all along that Snape is a nasty, rotten, traitorous git, Snape does something in this early chapter of the book that says volumes about who he is as a man: he makes an unbreakable vow with Narcissa Malfoy, promising to making and unbreakable vow with Narcissa Malfoy, in which he promises to look after Draco as he attempts to fulfill the Dark Lord’s wishes and protect him. He also promises that if Draco is unable to do this thing the Dark Lord has asked him to carry out, he will do it for him. Though we can only begin to imagine what this task is, we know it must be huge, and the task itself is cleverly played from beginning to end.
Throughout The Half-Blood Prince Harry finds himself chasing down Draco, who’s obviously up to something sinister. Harry is convinced Draco is a Death Eater now, and that Voldemort has set him to some task. This seems to be confirmed every time Harry overhears Snape and Malfoy, but no one seems to want to believe that Malfoy or Snape are capable of doing whatever it is they’re plotting. As events unfold, and Harry learns about the Horcruxes Voldemort made, he is given further instances in which to suspect Snape is not all he is pretending to be. Unfortunately for Harry, each time he tries to convince Dumbledore that he’s wrong about trusting Snape, Dumbledore gently reaffirms his trust for Severus. When the two of them return from retrieving Voldemort’s horcrux from the caverns, and Dumbledore is dying, he insists that instead of going for the school nurse, Madame Pomfrey, he go and find Professor Snape. Unfortunately, as Harry is heading out to find Professor Snape, Draco marches in ready to carry out the task Lord Voldemort set him to in order to redeem his father. He’s obviously come to kill Professor Dumbledore, but try as he might to convince himself and Dumbledore that he’s not weak, that he can kill, Draco is unable to do it. Harry observes this all from the shadows beneath the stairs, overhears everything, but he’s unable to move because of the spell Dumbledore cast on him. When Snape charges onto the scene, there’s a momentary glimmer of hope that is quickly shattered when Dumbledore says, “Severus, please…” Severus Snape lifts his wand and casts the death curse on the headmaster, sending him tumbling from the top of the astronomy tower and into the courtyard below.
It seems to infuriate Harry how shocked everyone was that Snape was capable of killing the only man who trusted him, but as events unfold in the final book of the series, and we are coming down to the face-off against Lord Voldemort, Harry is given one piece of evidence from Professor Snape himself as he lay dying. Snape withdraws a silver strand of memory before taking his final breath and gives it to Harry, who then takes it back to Hogwarts and climbs the stairs to Dumbledore’s old office, where he drops the memory into the pensieve and discovers that Snape knew and befriended his mother, Lily, before the two children were at Hogwarts together. They head to Hogwarts believing their friendship will hold them together, but when the two are sorted into rivaling houses their bond begins to wane. We see moments over time that put Lily and Severus at odds, and when she calls him a Mudblood after she tries to protect him from James and Sirius in the scene Harry saw in Snape’s memories during his training, Lily cannot forgive him. It is only after Snape has joined Voldemort that we discover what it was that made Dumbledore trust him all those years, even though he seemed absolutely irredeemable. Snape loved Lily with all his heart, and when he learned the Dark Lord was planning to kill her, he turned from Voldemort and went straight to Dumbledore in order to protect her. When asked what he would do to protect her, Snape says, “Anything!”
But even with Snape’s assistance, Dumbledore was not able to protect Lily from Voldemort because James and Lily put their trust in the wrong person: Peter Pettigrew. Completely beside himself with grief over having lost the woman he loved, Snape reluctantly agrees to protect Harry when Voldemort returns, though he makes Dumbledore promise to never tell anyone because Harry is James Potter’s son, his most bitter enemy. On the other hand, Dumbledore reminds him that he is also Lily’s son, and he agrees.
Over the years, Snape did everything in his power to protect Harry, even though the mere sight of him brought him agonizing pain–because he looked so much like the man who stole away the woman he loved, and of course, because he had his mother’s eyes.
Snape sacrificed himself for love, even though he didn’t have to. He spent the years of his life protecting her child because of the love he had for that child’s mother. There were moments when we were led to believe that Snape was evil, corrupted and absolutely unable to be saved, but in those final moments it is learned that of everyone in the story, Snape was, perhaps, the most human of them all. Driven by anger, softened by love, Snape made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave up the only comfort he had in his life: the dark arts, for the woman he loved, and even though his sacrifice did not save her, it did save her son.
There are so many lessons to be learned from Snape, who is truly a rose among thorns. Finally understanding the man who gave up everything so that he could live, Harry named his own son for two of the bravest men he’d ever known: Albus Severus Potter. A true hero’s tribute, if you ask me.
I have so many favorite Severus Snape moments, that to list and explore them all would take several blog posts. I would love to hear some of your favorite Snape moments, including the moment you first realized there was more to the man than his sour disposition and scathing criticisms of the Boy Who Lived.