As a teacher I have the summers off and since the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I have spent one month prior to each book release looking for what I know to be the biggest revelation of the Harry Potter series. I re-read all the books for it, I lose sleep at night contemplating it, and I research it as if it were a cure for cancer. It consumes my mind. When my husband and I were sitting down for dinner and he asked me how my day was, I turned to him and said “I just can’t figure out if Snape is good or evil.” And instead of rolling his eyes, or mocking my unashamed affection for these books, he said “I think he is bad.” My husband, Muggle to the core, actually has an opinion about the most ambiguous character in the entire Harry Potter story. And why shouldn’t he? Some would argue that Harry Potter is the best book series that the world has ever seen (at least, it looks that way by its book sales). There are millions out there who have formulated an opinion about Severus Snape – so, is he good or is he bad?
Suddenly it all came to me, after serious moments of mental toil, sweat and even tears, the most pivotal Harry Potter moment of my life – the discovery of the Golden Ticket! The absolute proof that Severus Snape is good! And not only good, my friends, but possibly the greatest “good guy” literature has ever seen! There, hidden among the hundreds of pages of the Harry Potter plot line, the Golden Ticket laid undiscovered: the reasons why Severus Snape is so unique and mysterious, and why we should pay attention to everything he says and does. In the end, we will see that he is Professor Snape – good guy extraordinaire!
As I invite you to share in the rewards of the Golden Ticket, you will be amazed by the lengths that J.K. Rowling has gone to dazzle us with detailed back story, irony and murky associations to prove the fact that there is no other character, outside of Harry, that she has spent more time developing than Severus Snape. That reason alone is why we are going to see Snape, sneaky little Snivelly, as the biggest character twist in Harry Potter history!
For the Greater Good
It is easy to see that Ms. Rowling spends a great deal of time showing us the many facets of Severus Snape. She includes a litany of details surrounding his true allegiance, which results in many readers debating and discussing his behavior. There is so much information on Snape that there is plenty of fuel for both arguments, and yet his motives are still unclear. Why can’t we distinguish his exact loyalty? Why is it so difficult to tell whether he is good or bad? Because the truth is, he is both. I would argue that Snape is a category all his own: there is good, there is bad, and there is Snape. The fact that is very rarely discussed is that Snape had to become bad so that everyone who is bad would see that he is still Lord Voldemort’s man. Because of Snape’s black past Dumbledore used him for the greater good. So really, he is a good guy because he is a bad guy.
But why the mystery? Why is it necessary to have a love-hate relationship with Severus Snape? Why not lump him in with the good guys and call it a day? Because Snape’s duality will serve a distinct purpose in the end; he has to maintain his evil behavior to be helpful. That is why Ms. Rowling gives us such a complex account of Professor Snape’s character. Why else would she bother if he were a simple, two-dimensional villain? We do not have in-depth flashbacks about Lucius Malfoy, there are no lengthy theories about Wormtail’s loyalty, we never question that Bellatrix is pure evil, and that is because they are the real bad guys.
The mountain of details regarding Snape’s true motives begins when Harry makes his way to Hogwarts for the first time. Rowling instantly paints Snape as a bad guy when she connects him to You-Know-Who:
“I don’t suppose Ravenclaw would be too bad, but imagine if they put me in Slytherin.”
“That’s the house Vol-, I mean, You-Know-Who was in?”
“Yeah,” said Ron. He flopped back into his seat, looking depressed.1
“Snape’s head of Slytherin House. They say he always favors them—we’ll be able to see if it’s true.” 2
Soon after Harry’s first introduction to Snape, he quickly becomes Harry’s least favorite teacher. From then on, Harry is forced to deal with the ghastly Potions Master every time he enters the school dungeons. Snape abuses his teaching authority by teasing and torturing Harry and his friends. He deducts unfair amounts of house points from Gryffindor students with mirthful glee. He gives detentions for no reason, and he ridicules Hermione just because she knows all the answers to his questions. He treats Neville with absolute contempt and insults Ron nearly as much as Harry. He even tries to get Harry expelled on the slightest offenses. All of these actions solidify a deep hatred in Harry and those around him.
However, Rowling doesn’t stop there. She continues to make it very clear that other people think Snape is horrible too. It is soon revealed that Sirius, the one person in Harry’s life that was the closest to his parents, has a long and hate-filled past with Snape that began when they were students together at Hogwarts. Later, Harry sees one of Snape’s memories with the use of a Pensieve. It reveals that both Harry’s parents had confrontations with Snape as well:
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” Lily shouted. She had her own wand out now. James and Sirius eyed it warily.
“Ah Evans, don’t make me hex you,” said James earnestly.
“Take the curse off him, then!”
“There you go,” he said, as Snape struggled to his feet again, “you’re lucky Evans was here, Snivellus—”
“I don’t need help from filthy little Mudbloods like her!”
Lily blinked. “Fine,” she said coolly. “I won’t bother in future. And I’d wash your pants if I were you, Snivellus.”
“Apologize to Evans!” James roared at Snape, his wand pointed threateningly at him.
“I don’t want you to make him apologize,” Lily shouted, rounding on James. “You are as bad as he is….” 3
Over and over again it is proven how nasty Snape is, and how other people struggle to deal with him. It is almost incomprehensible that he is good. That is why it comes as a total shock when it is revealed to Harry that Snape is a member of the Order of the Phoenix, and completely trusted by Dumbledore!
The part of the story that has yet to be told is why Snape has to be so nasty, and the answer is Legilimency.
“The Dark Lord is highly skilled at Legilimency—”
“What’s that? Sir?”
“It is the ability to extract feelings and memories from another person’s mind.” 4
Snape knew that the Dark Lord was going to have a look inside his head for proof that he was still a devoted follower. The conversation between Voldemort and Snape was not transcribed, but I am certain that it sounded a lot like the conversation Snape had with the evil Bellatrix in the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
“Where were you when the Dark Lord fell? Why did you never make any attempt to find him when he vanished? What have you been doing all these years that you’ve lived in Dumbledore’s pocket? Why did you stop the Dark Lord procuring the Sorcerer’s Stone? Why did you not return at once when the Dark Lord was reborn? Where were you a few weeks ago when we battled to retrieve the prophecy for the Dark Lord? And why, Snape, is Harry Potter still alive, when you have had him at your mercy for five years?” 5
Snape needed to have solid answers to all of these questions, and the Dark Lord would probe even further into his feelings and actions. Could it be proven that Snape’s behavior was in total alignment with what he told Voldemort? Yes. In the years prior to Snape returning to Voldemort, it was widely known that he was a dark and foreboding loner who skulked around Hogwarts pining for the Defense Against the Dark Arts job. It was equally noted that the only people he did show any preference to were former Death Eaters and their children. Voldemort saw that even though Snape was accepted by those in Dumbledore’s inner circle, it was with great trepidation that they trusted him. There is evidence of this when Professor McGonagall and Sirius recant, “I mean … with Snape’s history … of course people were bound to wonder … but Dumbledore told me explicitly that Snape’s repentance was absolutely genuine…. Wouldn’t hear a word against him!” 6 “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.” 7
Voldemort could also see that the long-time childhood grudge that Snape had for James Potter lived on in his mistreatment of Harry. The Dark Lord would see all Snape’s memories with Harry and their equal hate for one another. One glance into that area of Snape’s life and Voldemort would know all about the odium that oozed out of Snape like a stench. Then Voldemort could completely trust Severus Snape as a loyal and abiding Death Eater. This is why Snape had to not only pretend to be bad but to become bad. His feelings and memories needed to convince Lord Voldemort that he had the heart of a dedicated Death Eater. Snape needed to be mean, he had to be cruel, his adoration for dark magic had to circulate all the way to the ears of the Dark Lord; his tainted reputation needed to stay intact as further proof to the Dark Lord that he hadn’t changed. That is why Snape had to stay as vicious as the Dark Lord required, with as much collateral damage as possible to prove it.
Snape’s Dualistic World
It is a terrible irony to be an unstated ally while being such an unlovable person. Being perfectly vicious to students and adults alike would cause Snape to want to, in fact need to, do something good from time to time just to feel human. It is in these revealing moments where J.K. Rowling gives us delicate clues to further prove Snape’s goodness.
To be hated by everyone takes its toll even on someone as tough as Severus Snape. Becoming evil, even for a good cause, changes a person. It causes him to think and do things that he wouldn’t normally do. Professor Snape has to make choices to be evil; he has to live the lie everyday and somewhere inside he must hate himself for doing it. It is in these moments where Snape reveals his true colors. The real Snape, and the one I believe we will see come out in Deathly Hallows, wants to protect Harry. We can see this in the very beginning when Snape saves Harry’s life.
“Your friend Miss Granger accidentally knocked me over as she rushed to set fire to Snape at that Quidditch match. She broke my eye contact with you. Another few seconds and I’d have got you off that broom. I’d have managed it before then if Snape hadn’t been muttering a countercurse, trying to save you.” 8
I am sure the Dark Lord would have liked for Harry to have an accident but Snape goes a step further to insure Harry’s safety.
“Snape was trying to save me?”
“Of course,” said Quirrell coolly. “Why do you think he wanted to referee your next match? He was trying to make sure I didn’t do it again.” 9
Some would argue that this situation isn’t one that proves Snape’s goodness, because he owed something of a debt to James, but I would contend that Snape paid that debt when he agreed to be a spy for Dumbledore. Time and time again Snape helps Harry from coming to any kind of harm, like at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Dumbledore comes to Snape’s defense. “It was he too who gave Professor Umbridge fake Veritaserum when she was attempting to force you to tell of Sirius’s whereabouts.” 10 And Dumbledore tells Harry that, when he and his friends did not return from their trip into the forest with Umbridge, Snape was concerned for their safety. “In the meantime he, Professor Snape, intended to search the forest for you.” 11
Even though Snape protects Harry from some things he is still playing a complex double-agent role and his entire world is full with the enormity of that task, so these true color moments are immediately forgotten by the continuance of Snape’s hateful behavior. Snape left his life of malevolence only to remain in darkness for the sake of the greater good. That is why he has to define that his life really does serve a good purpose.
The Secrets Between Snape and Dumbledore
The truth about Snape’s duality hinges on his connection with Albus Dumbledore. If Dumbledore didn’t trust Snape implicitly then we could be certain that Snape is categorically evil. Even though the relationship between this odd couple is a cryptic one, it lends further proof that Snape is good. If Dumbledore didn’t trust Snape there would be no reason to have Snape as a double agent. He would be of no use to Dumbledore or the Order. It is because of these secrets that we have everything we need to accept Snape as good.
Snape and Dumbledore do in fact have a clandestine association. There seems to be things that only the two of them know about. Why does Dumbledore keep secrets with Snape? Why doesn’t he share these mysteries with everyone? This, I think, is probably THE question, the most important part of the riddle (pun intended).
A good example of this was when Dumbledore hid Snape’s knowledge of the prophecy from Harry. “ ‘When did you find out about this?’ he asked at last.”12 It is equally interesting that Dumbledore and Snape had a heated and secretive conversation in the forest that was overheard by Hagrid and then repeated to Harry.
“Well—I jus’ heard Snape sayin’ Dumbledore took too much fer granted an’ maybe he—Snape—didn’ wan’ ter do it anymore—”
“I dunno, Harry, it sounded like Snape was feelin’ a bit overworked, tha’s all—anyway, Dumbledore told him flat out he’d agreed ter do it an’ that was all there was to it. Pretty firm with him.” 13
It is in that argument that the most curious part of their relationship occurred, the secret plan that was never shared with the others, their plan for Snape to kill Dumbledore. What is more interesting than the killing itself is when the killing occurred. I don’t think this murder was because of an order that Voldemort had given, but of a planned reaction to the information Snape had given Dumbledore.
When Voldemort marked Draco Malfoy as Dumbledore’s assassin his mother, Narcissa, went to Snape for help and they made an Unbreakable Vow.
“And should it prove necessary … if it seems Draco will fail …” whispered Narcissa (Snape’s hand twitched within hers, but he did not draw away), will you carry out the deed that the Dark Lord has ordered Draco to perform?”
There was a moment’s silence. Bellatrix watched, her wand upon their clasped hands, her eyes wide.
“I will,” said Snape.14
I believe that after that Snape told Dumbledore about this plan they intended to use it to their advantage. After all, if Snape was going to kill Dumbledore out of hatred or because he thought it would please the Dark Lord, then he would have done it at the beginning of Half-Blood Prince:
He raised his blackened, burned-looking hand. “The ring, Harry. Marvolo’s ring. And a terrible curse there was upon it too. Had it not been—forgive me the lack of seemly modesty—for my own prodigious skill, and for Professor Snape’s timely action when I returned to Hogwarts, desperately injured, I might not have lived to tell the tale.” 15
It would have been easy enough for Snape to do, killing Dumbledore when no one else was present to see it, but he didn’t. He waited for an opportunity to murder Dumbledore in front of a crowd of very valuable witnesses. That is why Dumbledore told Harry what he did when they returned from the cave:
“Go and wake Severus,” said Dumbledore faintly but clearly. “Tell him what has happened and bring him to me. Do nothing else, speak to nobody else, and do not remove your cloak.” 16
Dumbledore had seen the Dark Mark over the castle, he knew the Death Eaters were there waiting for him. He also knew that Draco Malfoy was dangerously involved. This would be the opportune moment for Snape to fulfill his Unbreakable Vow by killing Dumbledore in front of key Death Eaters and securing his place at Voldemort’s side.
These actions had to be kept secret because Snape had to remain evil. His mission and Dumbledore’s plans are not over yet. Everyone needs to think that Snape is a Death Eater because he is going to save Harry in the end. His dualistic character insures that no one would see it coming, because Lord Voldemort would never predict betrayal coming from the man who murdered Dumbledore. That is why Dumbledore has chosen Snape as Harry’s savior. Not faithful Hagrid, not fearless Moody, not loyal Lupin, but sneaky, slithering, Severus Snape.
Someone needs to be on the inside of the Dark Side because Voldemort always has help. If we follow the pattern of the former books, it can be deduced that in the Deathly Hallows Voldemort will have a trusted helper or helpers. In Sorcerer’s Stone it was Quirrell, in Chamber of Secrets it was the young Tom Riddle, in the Prisoner of Azkaban it was Wormtail, and in Goblet of Fire it was Barty Crouch. Though Voldemort was especially dependent on others before returning to a corporeal state, we can see that even in Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince Voldemort still relies heavily on his Death Eaters. So when the end finally arrives Voldemort will use Snape because after he killed Dumbledore he rose in the ranks to being the most trusted favorite. What Voldemort doesn’t realize is that Snape and Dumbledore had been planning all along how Snape would aid Harry. I believe that Snape is going to be the one to sacrifice his life to save Harry’s. This will be the grand climactic moment when we see Snape reveal himself to Harry as truly good.
A Lifetime Supply of Chocolate: A Summation
What have we learned since our discovery of the Golden Ticket? We have seen that J.K. Rowling is a master story-teller and that her evolution of Severus Snape has been an emotional and puzzling one. Rowling has cloaked this character’s motives in ambiguity so that she can protect her hero, Harry Potter. She has created a life of paradox for Severus Snape, being both hated Death Eater and devoted member of the Order of the Phoenix.
The only question left to ask is do you believe that Severus Snape can be both bad and good? Do you accept the fact that because he is so bad that it makes him incredibly good? It is arduous to try and evaluate such a character by the classic measurement of right and wrong. So I would challenge you to understand him for the contradiction that he is. Do not disregard Snape’s opposing character, refrain from reacting to his indecency and abstain from covering his faults. He is the professor we love to hate, he is the Death Eater in disguise, his hate is Dumbledore’s secret weapon, and Harry’s only hope. He is Severus Snape the unlikely champion.
So, as we count down the days until the release of the seventh book. I stand in line waiting, Golden Ticket in hand, for entrance into the factory of final endings – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows!
1. Rowling, Sorcerer’s Stone, 106–7.
2. Ibid., 135.
3. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 648.
4. Ibid., 530.
5. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 25.
6. Ibid., 616.
7. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 531.
8. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 288–9.
9. Ibid., 289.
10. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 833.
11. Ibid., 830.
12. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 548.
13. Ibid., 405.
14. Ibid., 36.
15. Ibid., 503.
16. Ibid., 583.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1997.