Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently kicked-off a fierce online debate when – as part of her tradition of apologising for the death of character killed during the Battle of Hogwarts – she tweeted that she was sorry for killing off Professor Severus Snape. Despite Rowling’s pleas for fans not to argue over the tweet (which was about as ambitious as a Muggle trying to cast a spell, really), battle lines were drawn almost immediately.
On one side were those Potterheads who’ve forgiven the notoriously unpleasant Potions Master thanks to his posthumously revealed acts of heroism. And on the other? Those who still can’t look past what a jerk Snape was to Harry and his classmates.
To be honest, I’ve never really understood why Snape’s redemption is such a big bone of contention. Not only is Snape one of the most fascinating characters in the Harry Potter series – he’s also one of the most heroic.
Why do some fans still hate Snape?
On the face of it, it’s easy to despise Snape, even after finding out that he devoted his life to protecting Harry from the evil Lord Voldemort and his Death Eater followers. Snape is petty, vindictive, arrogant and cruel, and worst of all, he’s a bully – and a bully who targets children, at that. Part of me thinks that this last part is what really makes it hard for some people to muster any positive feelings for Snape: he’s in a position of power, and he abuses that position to pick on kids.
In one instance, he at least has a reason for this behaviour, even if it is still utterly unacceptable: Snape’s intense loathing of Harry stems both from his hatred of Harry’s father James, and his unrequited love for Harry’s mother, Lily. But for the most part, Snape targets his victims simply because he can, and his poor treatment of Harry’s classmate Neville Longbottom in particular seems to hit a nerve with some fans.
Notably, those who, like Neville, struggled in high school really relate to the character’s plight with bullies, especially if they also endured unpleasant experiences with a teacher similar to Snape. These fans often argue that Snape – himself the product of an unpleasant upbringing – should actually have been kinder to students like Harry (an orphan literally raised in a cupboard!) and Neville (son of two severely mentally-impaired parents), instead of making their lives harder.
So yes, on paper, it’s very easy to make a case that Snape really doesn’t deserve to be mourned, and that no amount of courage and sacrifice can truly make up for his unkindness in daily life… except that, in the end, Harry himself forgave Snape. Heck, the Boy Who Lived even named his youngest son after Snape – so clearly there’s a lot more to it than the anti-Snape camp would have us believe.
Redemption ≠ absolution
Rowling once said in an interview with Dateline, “Snape is a complicated man…he was a flawed human being, like all of us. Harry forgives him…Harry really sees the good in Snape ultimately… I wanted there to be redemption.“ And for a significant chunk of fans (including me), by the time we finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (or watching its big screen counterpart), this sense of atonement on Severus’ behalf was deeply felt after Rowling granted us access to his memories.
Here, we learned of his childhood friendship and unreciprocated crush on Harry’s mum, and discovered that – despite initially being a loyal follower of You-Know-Who – Hogwarts’ least loved teacher actually dedicated his adult life to ensuring the safety of her son. Once you know this, it’s hard not to decide that the good in Snape outweighed the bad.
Indeed, Severus is a tragic figure, in many ways the most tragic figure in the entire Harry Potter series. He’s someone possessed of immense talent and frankly staggering amounts of courage, who might have lived a much happier life if he’d only he’d made better choices earlier in his life. Snape’s early screw-ups killed his friendship with Lily (not to mention any chances of a romance with her) and defined the man he would become – a sour, nasty person who took out his pain and frustrations on those around him, making him easy to dislike.
Yet through it all, he proved himself capable of tremendous amounts of love, risking certain death on a constant basis to guard a child he hated, out of devotion to the child’s mother – a woman he would love, in his own words, “always”. It’s as noble as it is heart-breaking, and (for most of us) ultimately earns him our sympathy and redeems him, even though it does not (and cannot) absolve him of his many unkind acts across all seven Harry Potter novels.
And that’s the thing: redemption doesn’t mean absolution, and Snape doesn’t (and shouldn’t) get a free pass to be a jerk. At the same time, his unwavering commitment to Lily not only saved Harry, but was pivotal to Voldemort’s defeat, proving that love truly is the most powerful form of magic, and vindicating Snape as someone worthy of at least some admiration.
When asked if she thought Snape was a hero, Rowling herself responded: “Yes, I do; though a very flawed hero. An anti-hero, perhaps. He is not a particularly likeable man in many ways. He remains rather cruel, a bully, riddled with bitterness and insecurity—and yet he loved, and showed loyalty to that love and, ultimately, laid down his life because of it. That’s pretty heroic!“
So yes, to me it’s pretty cut and dried: Snape may have been pricklier than porcupine’s armpit – and he was certainly an appalling teacher and unpleasant colleague – but his positive qualities make him a character worthy of our pity and respect.
Snape: love him and hate him
All that said, it’s also important not over-romanticise Snape. Fans who relate to Snape’s outsider status, and to him losing out in love to a jock like James Potter, tend to be particularly good at granting him an unconditional pardon for all past wrongs, which is a step too far.
Severus was a complicated dude. Sure, he played a crucial role in the fight against Voldemort, his motives were still selfish. Think about it: he only really joined the Order of the Phoenix out of his love for Lily, not his concern for the innocent people Voldemort wanted to kill, including James and Harry. While we’re at it, let’s all agree that Snape also should have gotten over his unjustified spite towards Harry, and his borderline abusive treatment of helpless young witches and wizards like Neville verges on the unforgivable.
So rather than aligning ourselves with either the “Saint Severus” or “Snape the Sinner” camps, its best to view the Potions Master as a bit of both – to love him and hate him. But most of all, we all need to recognise that Snape was ultimately a hero, and that his death truly was a tragedy that deserves to be mourned (as much as one can lament the death of a fictional character, at any rate…).