"I Trust Severus Snape"
-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 549
By Michele Nanjo
When Severus Snape raised his wand and uttered the Avada Kedavra to kill a weakened and wandless Dumbledore atop the Astronomy Tower in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it sent a shockwave throughout Harry Potter fandom. Howls of “traitor” and “murderer” could be heard from fans around the world. But within hours that fury and overwhelming sense of betrayal began to give way to something else—uncertainty. Yes, Snape had killed Dumbledore, but what other choice did he have? His own life and Draco’s were at stake and Dumbledore wouldn’t have survived regardless. The Death Eaters Draco had smuggled into the castle were sure to see to that. Given the choice between killing Dumbledore himself, and sacrificing his and Draco’s lives only to have Dumbledore die anyway, was it any wonder he chose the former?
Thus began the most widespread and contentious debate in the history of Harry Potter fandom. Snape is either the most despicable of traitors who has murdered the man who trusted him and gave him a second chance in life; or he is one of Dumbledore’s most loyal followers, who killed the man in order to keep alive the hope of achieving Dumbledore’s overriding goal of defeating Voldemort.
Jo Rowling has said that the answer to whether Snape is good or evil will have a huge impact on what happens in the final book and it is a testament to her prowess as an author that after six books and the death of Dumbledore, this answer isn’t obvious. But while we cannot be absolutely certain of Snape’s loyalty, if we look at the preponderance of evidence in canon objectively, we can guess which side he’s most likely on and what part he might play in future events. This essay will endeavor to whittle away at the uncertainties surrounding the character, to reveal his true loyalties and most importantly, to shed light on his crucial role in the denouement of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
A Man for Himself
One theory that has attempted to bridge the gap between Snape as Death Eater and Snape as Dumbledore’s man is the notion that Snape is simply out for himself, loyal to neither Voldemort nor Dumbledore. However, while this may be an appealing option, it is not really a viable one. The wizarding world is at war and everyone is on one side or the other. Even a mercenary Snape, looking out only for his own interests would still be aligned with one of the two camps. The only way for Snape to be truly independent would be for him to be opposed to both Voldemort and wizarding society—in effect to aspire to bring down both and become the next Dark Lord himself.
We have no evidence to suggest that Snape harbors such ambitions. Furthermore, the fact that his being good or evil is so important to the plot implies that he is one or the other—not simply out for himself. There is also little place for a rogue Snape in the story. Deathly Hallows must center on Harry’s quest to defeat Voldemort. A Snape bent on world domination would detract from the main conflict while adding nothing.
This isn’t to say that Snape doesn’t have his own reasons for supporting either the Light or Dark side. He surely does, but so does everyone else. Some fight for an ideal, others for personal gain or vengeance. As a Slytherin, Snape’s motivations are likely to be personal. Slytherins do not fight for lofty goals the way Gryffindors do. Harry would be out fighting Voldemort even if he’d never been personally hurt by the evil wizard, simply because it is the right thing to do.
A Slytherin’s motives, by contrast, are self-centered—which isn’t to say selfish. That is an important distinction. A Slytherin can be brave and can sacrifice himself for a cause, but it will be a cause that touches him personally. Bellatrix Lestrange is a prime example of this. She is devoted to Voldemort and longs to be acknowledged as his most loyal follower. She endured Azkaban for him and would willingly sacrifice anything in his service. It’s personal for her and Snape’s loyalty will be just as personal to him. In this respect, he is very much out for himself.
Said and Done
Severus Snape is not a nice man. He is cruel and vindictive, and bullies his students, which is the “shabbiest thing one can do1 according to Jo Rowling who calls Snape “deeply horrible.”2 On top of this, he despises Harry Potter from the moment he lays eyes on the child, simply because of whom the boy’s father is. No, Snape is not nice at all. But is he evil? Horrible as Snape is, this tells us nothing about his loyalties. He hates Harry, but as Quirrell famously informs our hero, “… he never wanted you dead.”3
In the first five books, this seems to be borne out by Snape’s actions. At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we learn that Snape has spent the year trying to protect Harry and the Stone and has saved Harry’s life. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Snape believes that Sirius Black betrayed the Potters to Voldemort and does his best to apprehend the escaped convict. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he accompanies Dumbledore and McGonagall to save Harry from Barty Crouch Jr., who is masquerading as Professor Moody. He tries to convince Fudge that Voldemort has returned by revealing the Dark Mark branded on his own arm. And he returns to Voldemort on Dumbledore’s orders to resume his potentially deadly work as a spy. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Snape continues to spy on the Death Eaters and attempts to teach Harry Occlumency. Finally, he saves Harry’s life once again by alerting the Order of the Phoenix to the fact that Harry has gone to the Ministry.
This would seem to prove that Snape is on the Light side. But during the “Spinner’s End” chapter in Half-Blood Prince, Snape tells Bellatrix Lestrange that he is actually loyal to Voldemort and that most of his actions in the previous books were simply ploys to hide this fact and stay out of Azkaban. These explanations are transparently self-serving, however, and do nothing to convince Bellatrix. We, the readers, aren’t convinced either and are left with a deep suspicion as to Snape’s real allegiance. Like Bella, we’re sure that he’s lying, but we’re not sure whom he’s lying to.
Only when Snape agrees to take the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa does Bellatrix seem impressed. Even this is ambiguous, however. When he must vow to carry out Draco’s task if the boy seems unable to complete it Snape’s hand twitches—a detail Rowling would not have included if it weren’t significant and which signals his reluctance to do the deed. But does this mean that he doesn’t want to harm Dumbledore or that he simply dreads trying to kill the only wizard Voldemort ever feared?
Dumbledore and Voldemort
One thing is clear at “Spinner’s End”—Snape has obviously deceived at least one of the two greatest wizards of the modern age: Albus Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort. The question is which one? Snape, himself, claims that he was able to fool Dumbledore because Dumbledore’s greatest weakness is that he has to believe the best of everyone. Rowling gives credence to this idea as well, agreeing in an interview that Dumbledore “seems trusting almost to the point of recklessness sometimes.”4 So yes, it is quite reasonable to imagine that Dumbledore might have been deceived.
But what about Voldemort? He knows that few of his Death Eaters are truly loyal since most abandoned him when he lost his powers at Godric’s Hollow. The majority of them are self-serving, and distinguishing the self-serving follower from the genuine traitor is difficult at best. Yet, Voldemort seems confident that he can tell one from the other, as Snape’s rhetorical question to Bella suggests. “You think he is mistaken? Or that I have somehow hoodwinked him? Fooled […] the most accomplished Legilimens the world has ever seen?”5 Voldemort would never countenance the thought that anyone could lie to him. But in Order of the Phoenix Snape tells us that he’s wrong. Those skilled at Occlumency can utter falsehoods in his presence without detection.6 Voldemort can be fooled, too.
The question then becomes, which of these men is most likely to have been tricked? Snape tells both wizards what they want or expect to hear. But though Snape would have had little difficulty making cynical excuses for his behavior to Voldemort while blocking his feelings and memories from detection, it is harder to imagine him spinning a “tale of deepest remorse”7 while doing so. As Snape tells Harry, emotions and Occlumency do not mix so faking such strong feelings convincingly while closing his mind would be exceptionally difficult to pull off—particularly given the audience.
While Dumbledore did indeed see the best in everyone, this never went as far as inventing virtue where none existed. Giving someone a second chance is not the same as trusting blindly. He gave Tom Riddle a chance to change and grow beyond his hate by bringing him to Hogwarts—but he never trusted the boy even when everyone else did.
Voldemort’s weakness is his arrogance. He is too sure of his own abilities and this has tripped him up several times. Since he doesn’t consider that Snape could lie to him he accepts Snape’s explanations for his dubious behavior—explanations Bella knows are too slick and convenient. Voldemort’s supreme confidence in himself blinds him to what Bella sees.
But isn’t accepting a plea of remorse equally naïve? Could that alone have convinced Dumbledore of Snape’s trustworthiness? Yes, because at the heart of remorse lies love. Dumbledore had a keen insight into people and he understood love—something Voldemort will never do. Love binds the soul far more effectively than any Unbreakable Vow, and this may be the real reason Dumbledore trusted Snape.
If we have to choose between Albus Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort as to who is a better judge of character, who has a keener understanding of human nature, and who is less likely to make arrogant mistakes, surely we must pick Dumbledore, hands down.
“I Trust Severus Snape…”8
Despite Dumbledore being an excellent character witness, this is not sufficient to prove Snape’s loyalty. What we have to find is some action or statement by Snape that only makes sense if he is loyal to one side but not the other. Normally, a person’s words and deeds speak for them, but Snape is a masterful spy and careful liar, an expert Occlumens whose survival depends upon concealing his true motives. Because of this, most of what he says and does tells us very little. The excuses he gives to Bellatrix in “Spinner’s End” are worthless precisely because he would have given exactly the same explanations regardless of which side he’s loyal to.
But there is one clue in this chapter that suggests Snape’s true loyalties—not in what the characters say, but in what they don’t say. Of all the things Snape has done that cast doubt on his faithfulness to Voldemort, Bella fails to call him on the most suspicious of all.
Snape sent the Order of the Phoenix to rescue Harry at the Department of Mysteries where they set upon the Death Eaters and foiled Voldemort’s plan to retrieve the prophecy. Some will argue that Snape did this to maintain his cover with Dumbledore, but Dumbledore wasn’t at Hogwarts. It should have been easy for an adept liar such as Snape to let Harry go to his death and later claim that he didn’t know the boy had left Hogwarts. It’s much harder to imagine a convincing excuse Snape might have given Voldemort for thwarting a year’s worth of planning.
This sheds new light on the Unbreakable Vow, too. Why does Snape accept the vow at all? This seems rash, regardless of where Snape’s allegiance lies. Surely it is not something Voldemort would have condoned. The most obvious reason is that Snape desperately wants to convince Bellatrix of his loyalty, but guilt may also play a part.
Though the sisters don’t know it, it is Snape’s own action that has brought Narcissa to him in desperation. Voldemort must be ignorant of Snape’s role in the Ministry debacle as well, because he has blamed it on Lucius and, in punishment, has given Draco the task of killing Dumbledore. So it is Snape’s fault that Narcissa is on her knees before him begging for her son’s life.
This situation undoubtedly strikes an all too familiar chord with Snape. It is not the first time his actions have led Voldemort to set his sights on killing a child. Surely Snape cannot help but remember another mother who was forced to beg for her son’s life because of him. Perhaps this is what sways him. Perhaps he is determined to do what he failed to do fifteen years before—save a mother’s only son from Voldemort.