Snape: A Definitive Reading
In this examination of J.K. Rowling’s most enigmatic character, Lorrie Kim shows us how to sort through the illusions and lies to the man who dared to spy on Voldemort and without whom Harry’s story would have turned out very differently. In his final moments, he asks Harry (and the reader) to “Look at me.” This book does just that.
Print Length: 325 pages
Publisher: Story Spring Publishing (July 4, 2016)
Publication Date: July 4, 2016
“This book will really get you thinking deeply about the character of Severus Snape, his motivations, his inner logic. JK Rowling wrote a character who was a double agent, hiding his true feelings and his motivations from the reader and everyone around him. Add to that Harry Potter’s own blindness about the character and the clues and information about Snape are difficult to see in a shallow reading of the Potter books. Lorrie Kim doesn’t give a shallow reading, though. She sifts the text with a sharp analysis and great clarity (and wonderfully clear writing of her own) that proves many of the clues to the puzzle of Severus Snape are in fact sitting in plain sight, and these keys lead us to unlock much more. A worthwhile read for any fan of the Potter series and the mysterious potions master.” – Cecilia Tan, winner of the RT Career Achievement Award in Erotic Fiction, author, and publisher
“As a die-hard Gryffindor, I’ve never been inclined to think much about the Harry Potter series through Snape’s cavernous black eyes. Lorrie Kim won me over immediately with her perspicacious scrutiny of Snape’s character, which is explained but never once excused – a refreshing tonic to typical apologist analyses of the Potions Master. Snape: A Definitive Reading takes you through the looking glass to reveal the sobering underbellies of several Hogwarts residents, not just the eponymous double-agent. A compelling read that had this Gryffindor checking his privilege more than once!” – Jackson Bird, Communications Director of the Harry Potter Alliance and YouTube creator and activist
“Lorrie’s masterful book is a celebration of Severus Snape’s most admirable qualities and of his unabashed humanity. With her usual insight and subtlety, she peels away the layers that compose him, revealing the elements of his complex personality one by one until we get to the glorious, fragile yet resilient heart of his being and motivation.” – Logospilgrim, author of The Severus Snape Paradigm: Outcast, Rebel, Hero and the upcoming Severus Snape and the Art of Being Human, May 2017
Read the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Q&A about Snape and U.S. politics from August 10, 2016
Read Big Blue Marble Bookstore’s interview with Lorrie from July 2016
Hear the Alohomora podcast episode about Act 4 of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from October 2016
Available in print or digital at all these fine online bookstores.
The Harry Potter series may be named after the Boy Who Lived, but if you want to know the story, keep your eyes fixed on Snape. This hook-nosed, greasy-haired, grumpy character is one of J.K. Rowling’s enduring gifts to English literature. He’s the archetypal ill-tempered teacher: acerbic, yet horribly, deliciously funny. When he’s in a scene, you can’t take your eyes off him. Snape is always the story.
In Snape, Rowling created a character of almost perfect ambiguity, a double agent who rose to become the right-hand man of both generals on opposing sides of a war. He’s at once self-controlled and seething with bitterness. Every sentence, every action has at least two possible and contradictory interpretations. The question of Snape’s true loyalties is at the heart of the books’ mysteries. Is it possible, ever, to know what lies underneath his façade?
It is. With a close look at each of the books, everything about Snape becomes knowable.
Is he a classroom bully? Without a doubt. He can be unfair, petty, mocking, prone to blatant favoritism—many of the traits that schoolchildren most loathe. But underneath his scathing surface is someone who cares desperately, enough to devote his adult life to protecting everyone in his world, even those whom he dislikes. And he does this all undercover, pretending to be evil, accepting that he will live and die without the chance to defend himself and clear his name.
Do his accomplishments cancel out the cruel things he’s done? Not at all, and that is part of the power of this character. He is often unlovable, immature, unattractive, not even kind—but he made something of himself. His story tells us that hope and greatness are for everybody, not only for those who have always been good. When we learn all the harm he did in his youth, we learn how to understand without excusing, how to give ourselves and others a second chance.
With all his ugly qualities, what makes this character a favorite with so many readers?
He’s smart. He’s competent. His sarcasm is funny and his bitterness can be bracing. He always knows what to do. He’s always there when you need him. There are things that only Snape can do. A wizard who has done evil and then felt remorse knows how to undo evil magic in a way that those who have always been good cannot know.
He’s hideous, bless him, and sensitive to indignities. He loathes being mocked, especially by children; everyone sees him seething. But in all things, he does as much as he can with what he has and no more. As an adult, he becomes, not attractive, but something. Potent. Magnetic. He commands attention. When he is brave, he is almost beautiful.
He is kind to mothers, even if not to their children. He risks his life to help them. He knows how it feels to be powerless or unwanted. As vicious as he can be, when lives are at stake, there is nothing he won’t do to protect others.
For a close reader, the character of Snape is endlessly rewarding. Some mysteries are easily explained; some fizzle out. But the more you read Snape, the more you learn of him, the more thrilling he becomes.
Working for Dumbledore, he learns how to atone. He chooses what is right, never what is easy. He assumes a thankless life that guarantees he will be universally hated, universally mistaken for evil, and resists the human urge to protest his innocence. He withstands these tests, even when people cry out to him at their moment of death, because his commitment is to something greater. He forgoes recognition, forgoes adult love, turns his formidable gifts to pulling off the unspeakable under conditions that are unthinkable—accepting that his achievements will never be known. He will never claim the role of hero. Against all instinct, he wills himself to do what must be done. And we, the readers, are his witnesses. Of his many sacrifices, we see that the costliest was the renunciation of his human right to show his true self. He keeps his truths tightly hidden until his dying breath, when he is finally free to command the books’ hero: “Look at me.”
J.K. Rowling took an enormous risk, gambling the climax of her epic series on her ability to build Snape’s ambiguity to the breaking point and then show us his true self at the end. And what do we see when all is revealed? A vision of love so white-hot that it dazzles. This recognition of Snape is what brings completion to the series. And it brings the story back to Snape again and again.
And the Sorcerer’s Stone
A seething brew of bitterness, spite, and lilting genius: from his first searing look into Harry Potter’s eyes to his last, Severus Snape commands attention. This character is one of J.K. Rowling’s master creations, a deadly man of contradictory extremes who may be profoundly good, profoundly evil, neither, and both. His impenetrable eyes are “cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels.” (HP/SS, 136) In this series about dark tunnels that lead always to revelation, the struggle to discover what—if anything—lies beneath Snape’s façade of perfect ambiguity yields endless rewards for the reader.
Of all the people important to Harry’s first year, Snape is the one he encounters last, a good four-tenths into the novel. By then, he’s met or heard of Hagrid, Dumbledore, Voldemort, Quirrell, Malfoy, the Weasleys, Hermione, and McGonagall. He’s been lulled by the excellent Welcoming Feast, found his place, seen one marvel after another—until this chilling moment.
Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.
It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes—and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead. (HP/SS, 126)
Harry has never felt this pain before.
The pain had gone as quickly as it had come. Harder to shake off was the feeling Harry had gotten from the teacher’s look—a feeling that he didn’t like Harry at all.
“Who’s that teacher talking to Professor Quirrell?” he asked Percy.
“Oh, you know Quirrell already, do you? No wonder he’s looking so nervous, that’s Professor Snape. He teaches Potions, but he doesn’t want to—everyone knows he’s after Quirrell’s job. Knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.” (HP/SS, 126)
Harry, and the reader, learn six things about Snape from this indelible first impression. He is ugly in a way that frightens children. He has some connection with Harry’s childhood trauma. He is close to evil. He’s perennially discontented: “everyone knows” he covets the Defense Against the Dark Arts job. And he doesn’t like Harry Potter.
Snape’s dislike of Harry is one of four elements that remain noteworthy about him through the seven years that Harry knows him. The others are: Snape’s hostility toward other teachers who hold the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, Snape’s reputation, and the mystery of Snape’s true motives. Taken together, a consideration of these four elements yields a good overview of Snape’s life at any point in the story.
After that first eye contact, Harry finds Snape’s hostility even harder to shake off than his damage from Voldemort. Any child would be sensitive to inexplicable dislike from an adult in a position of power. But for an abused, orphaned survivor of violent crime, it is a nightmare come to life, fodder for Harry’s terrifying dream that night about Quirrell’s turban, Malfoy, and Snape. (HP/SS, 130)
The first day of Potions class cements Harry’s understanding: “Snape didn’t dislike Harry—he hated him.” (HP/SS, 136) In all the ensuing mysteries about Snape’s true motives, Snape’s loathing of Harry is one of the few givens, constant and absolute. For seven books, readers may never be certain why Snape does anything, but one thing is for sure: it’s not for love of Harry.
Snape targets Harry for bullying from the first time he calls roll in Potions class.
“Ah, yes,” he said softly, “Harry Potter. Our new—celebrity.”
Draco Malfoy and his friends Crabbe and Goyle sniggered behind their hands. (HP/SS, 136)
Snape, as the Head of Slytherin House, has mocked Harry’s heroic reputation to his first-years already, and they follow his lead to gang up on Harry. By this time in the story, we have seen that the rest of the school hates Slytherin. Hagrid even tells Harry, “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin” (HP/SS, 80), an assertion that goes unrefuted for almost three volumes. Slytherin, under Snape’s leadership, has won the House Championship for the past six years. There is a narrative to be read here about the Slytherin teacher who zealously safeguards the morale of his first-year students, who walk into a school that sees them as villains. But it is obliterated by the appalling spectacle of an adult singling out one child and teaching the other students to mock him.
This passage introduces another constant: Snape’s baseless conviction that Harry enjoys the notoriety that comes of his traumas. Nowhere in Sorcerer’s Stone do we see where Snape gets this idea, so the reader, like Harry, experiences it as arbitrary and bewildering.
But then, Snape casts a magic spell.
“You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making,” he began. He spoke in barely more than a whisper, but they caught every word—like Professor McGonagall, Snape had the gift of keeping a class silent without effort. “As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses. . . . I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death—if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.” (HP/SS, 136-7)
With that rapturous ode to magic, this character reveals what is sacred to him. “Subtle science and exact art”: he wants the children to know that mindset and discipline matter in magic. “Foolish wand-waving” is the first indication in the series that Snape’s magical signature is self-sufficiency, magic not dependent on wands or incantations or anything outside the power of the solitary mind.
There are barbs embedded throughout his teaching, petulance and resentment in every sentence: “Foolish.” “I don’t expect you will really understand.” “As big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.” He is insulting children who haven’t even done anything, punishing them for the shortcomings of others. We can’t tell yet if he truly covets the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, but it seems true enough that he’s teaching Potions against his will—he’s being compelled to, and he considers it too good for most of them.
But even the barbs hint at one of Rowling’s more buried themes: the loneliness of the gifted. “Foolish wand-waving” sounds like the retort of a child whose own passions have been denigrated. “I don’t expect you will really understand” conveys the melancholy of long disappointment. “Dunderheads”: a cry of frustration from the prodigy mismatched with students whose minds work very differently. Rather touchingly, despite his rage, he seems unable to give up hope that he can convey a bit of the wonder of magic to these unpromising initiates.
“The beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes.” This is a magical image for what we Muggles would call a flow state, the quietly sustained ecstasy of full absorption in creative activity. It is a state of enjoyment in one’s own powers, a self-sufficient form of vital happiness. Bitterness, loneliness, and hostility fall away. For the rest of the series, when we see Snape endure unspeakable pressures, we can remember that he revealed his secret in this first speech: as long as he could sustain a soft simmer, whether in a cauldron or in his own mind, he had a limitless source of joy.
“The delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins.” Every ghoulishly funny hint of this character’s spookiness comes through in this phrase. He’s talking about blood; is he being sinister? Why “creep”—could he not say “flow”? Is stealth part of the beauty for him? Is he talking about good or about poison? Does he enjoy unnerving people, or does he even realize he’s doing it?
But while she distracts us with this creepy humor, Rowling quietly tucks into this phrase the first hint to foreshadow the eventual grand message of her series. In subsequent volumes, Harry will learn that when his mother died to save him, her sacrifice invoked an “ancient blood magic” that protected Harry, and eventually even Voldemort, against Dark Magic. Snape, too, will learn more about how this magic works—love, the magical term for what we Muggles call oxytocin, the hormone that flows in our blood to increase empathy—and he will come to use that knowledge to stopper death.
But both Harry and Snape are years away from such mastery here. Snape’s first-year Potions speech is about the excitement of promise. It is Rowling’s most real demonstration of magic in this book, casting a spell on the reader—deliberately chosen words that create an intentional change—to transform this classroom bully into a figure of fascination.
Harry and Ron receive Snape’s speech in silence, but it has an incendiary effect on Hermione, establishing the curiously fraught dynamic between Snape and Hermione that could fill a separate book in itself. She is dying to talk to Snape, with an urgency that ramps up in four uncontrollable surges that eventually lift her straight out of her seat. She receives every one of his communications here and always will. And repeatedly, through his attempts to ignore her, Snape telegraphs: I am not speaking to you. You are not the story.
Hermione Granger was on the edge of her seat and looked desperate to start proving that she wasn’t a dunderhead.
“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.
“I don’t know, sir,” said Harry.
Snape’s lips curled into a sneer.
“Tut, tut—fame clearly isn’t everything.” (HP/SS, 137)
Fame isn’t everything? Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that fame means nothing at all to Harry: then what is?
He ignored Hermione’s hand.
“Let’s try again. Potter, where would you look if I told you to find me a bezoar?”
Hermione stretched her hand as high into the air as it would go without her leaving her seat, but Harry didn’t have the faintest idea what a bezoar was. (HP/SS, 137)
Does Snape’s choice of questions mean anything in particular?
He tried not to look at Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle, who were shaking with laughter.
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Thought you wouldn’t open a book before coming, eh, Potter?” Harry forced himself to keep looking straight into those cold eyes.
He had looked through his books at the Dursleys’, but did Snape expect him to remember everything in One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi? (HP/SS, 137-8)
Did Snape, in fact, expect this? No, he couldn’t have; surely, Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle had not memorized their textbooks. Surely, “opening a book” is not the same as memorizing the contents before school even begins. Is Snape inventing reasons to harass this child? Is he, as adults sometimes do, re-engaging in an old fight of which Harry, and the reader, know nothing?
Snape was still ignoring Hermione’s quivering hand.
“What is the difference, Potter, between monkshood and wolfsbane?”
At this, Hermione stood up, her hand stretching toward the dungeon ceiling.
“I don’t know,” said Harry quietly. “I think Hermione does, though, why don’t you try her?” (HP/SS, 138)
The one student who has memorized their textbooks is the Muggle-born who did not take her place at Hogwarts for granted, the one driven to teach herself all the magic she could, as soon as she could, because to her, magical education is a privilege and a dream come true. Perhaps she reminds Snape of himself at that age, and he is not in the mood for cozy reminiscences or self-awareness. Perhaps he is not ready to be done with long-ago resentment of students who coasted, assuming that they belonged, that the world owed them this privilege and they need not show appreciation. Perhaps these details about Potions were things he had taught himself before entering school.
Snape snaps out the answers to his sudden questions, adding, “And a point will be taken from Gryffindor House for your cheek, Potter.” (HP/SS, 138)
And the stand-off is over. Snape asserts his dominance over his class and Harry loses a point, but it’s only a point. His time with the Dursleys has trained him well: he doesn’t back down, Snape has no reply to his succinct comment about Hermione, and he deflects Snape’s focus back to the class at large, where it belongs. Harry is a formidable opponent. Snape commences teaching more or less normally, no more unpleasant than the average miserable wretch of a teacher.
He was just telling everyone to look at the perfect way Malfoy had stewed his horned slugs when clouds of acid green smoke and a loud hissing filled the dungeon. Neville had somehow managed to melt Seamus’s cauldron into a twisted blob, and their potion was seeping across the stone floor, burning holes in people’s shoes. . . .
“Idiot boy!” snarled Snape, clearing the spilled potion away with one wave of his wand. (HP/SS, 139)
Some elements of this scene are notable, even sound. His praise of Malfoy is delightfully technical: that’s one thing that counts more than fame for him, apparently. At this point, appropriate priorities from this teacher come as a surprise and a relief. He seems to like Malfoy, not just favor him; maybe he’s human. His name-calling of Neville is the beginning of a long and shameful enmity, but it makes pure sense based on his nature as an impatient prodigy who should not be teaching an entry-level class. Many readers have speculated that Snape has complicated reasons for disliking Neville, but given Snape’s intolerance, Neville’s class performance is surely sufficient.
Neville whimpered as boils started to pop up all over his nose.
“Take him up to the hospital wing,” Snape spat at Seamus. Then he rounded on Harry and Ron, who had been working next to Neville.
“You—Potter—why didn’t you tell him not to add the quills? Thought he’d make you look good if he got it wrong, did you? That’s another point you’ve lost for Gryffindor.” (HP/SS, 139)
This display of twistedness assures Snape of a place in the literary pantheon of bad teachers. Improvising unspoken rules, scolding select children for not following them, ascribing absurd motives to children, silencing objections with capriciously applied penalties—in every way, Snape violates the standards of fairness that are especially crucial to children.
This was so unfair that Harry opened his mouth to argue, but Ron kicked him behind their cauldron.
“Don’t push it,” he muttered, “I’ve heard Snape can turn very nasty.” (HP/SS, 139)
Ron and Harry have learned the rules of engagement with Snape, and it’s just the first day.
There must be an alternate universe somewhere in which Severus Snape is put on probation for his classroom behavior. In this universe, he would apologize to his Slytherins for teaching them to bully and find ways to raise Slytherin morale that don’t involve cruelty. He would apologize to Harry. He would apologize to Hermione and learn to call on her fairly. Dumbledore would speak to him about his name-calling of Neville. He may be essential to the larger plan, but that is not how to treat children.
But this is Hogwarts as Rowling created it, and it is also, sometimes, the real world. Some teachers really do run their classrooms by the rule of petty tyranny, and headmasters do not always know or care what goes on in the classroom, and many readers recognize this bullying dynamic from their own experience. We don’t know yet what has made this teacher so despicable. We don’t even know, in the story, that he is only 31 years old. We can only look into his “cold and empty” eyes and wonder, What happened to you?
Harry told Hagrid about Snape’s lesson. Hagrid, like Ron, told Harry not to worry about it, that Snape liked hardly any of the students.
“But he seemed to really hate me.”
“Rubbish!” said Hagrid. “Why should he?”
Yet Harry couldn’t help thinking that Hagrid didn’t quite meet his eyes when he said that. (HP/SS, 141)
Some of the most trusted adults in Harry’s life seem to recognize Snape’s tyranny but permit it to go unchecked. They appear, even, to respect Snape. In typical adult fashion, they seem to know more about Snape than they are willing to divulge to a child, even though it directly affects Harry’s life. Understanding Snape, then, will have something to do with understanding adulthood. Not maturity; goodness knows that Snape has demonstrated less maturity than some of the children he teaches. But perhaps there is something about his story that adults feel would be more than most children could understand, even children who have lost as much innocence as Harry.
Professor McGonagall seems not only to respect Snape but to actively enjoy working with him. The two of them exhibit a seamless partnership when they, and Quirrell, track the troll to the girls’ bathroom. As though by wordless agreement, Snape handles the troll, McGonagall the students. Snape says nothing, although “Snape gave Harry a swift, piercing look” (HP/SS, 177)–the first, unnamed instance of Legilimency in the series, one of many adult skills the children have never dreamed of.
Why is Snape present at the scene of emergency with McGonagall and Quirrell? It is not because he’s a Head of House, like McGonagall, or Flitwick and Sprout would be there, too. McGonagall is there as Deputy Headmistress. Quirrell is there as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, but he is useless; he whimpers and clutches his heart. This is an early instance of Snape stepping in and performing the duties of the Defense teacher without the title, but on a different level, it functions also as a signal to the reader: Snape is always where the story is.
Harry’s next confrontation with Snape occurs a few days later when a mysteriously limping Snape confiscates a library book from him, citing a rule he may or may not have made up on the spot. Reasoning, “Why should he be afraid of Snape?,” an irritated Harry heads to the staffroom to ask for his book back, on the chance that “Snape wouldn’t refuse if there were other teachers listening.”
He pushed the door ajar and peered inside—and a horrible scene met his eyes.
Snape and Filch were inside, alone. Snape was holding his robes above his knees. One of his legs was bloody and mangled. Filch was handing Snape bandages. (HP/SS, 182)
A horrible scene. Everything about this tableau captures the revulsion that students feel when they learn too much about their teachers: the queasy intimacy. The shabbiness. The indignity of Snape’s undress. This is what happens when we look underneath Snape’s defenses. His shame is too grotesque to look upon.
“Blasted thing,” Snape was saying. “How are you supposed to keep your eyes on all three heads at once?”
Harry tried to shut the door quietly, but—
Snape’s face was twisted with fury as he dropped his robes quickly to hide his leg. Harry gulped.
“I just wondered if I could have my book back.”
“GET OUT! OUT!” (HP/SS, 182-3)
Harry escapes with his life and tells Ron and Hermione he thinks Snape is trying to steal what the three-headed dog is guarding.
Hermione’s eyes were wide.
“No—he wouldn’t,” she said. “I know he’s not very nice, but he wouldn’t try and steal something Dumbledore was keeping safe.” (HP/SS, 183)
With two notable exceptions, this will remain Hermione’s assessment of Snape throughout the series: not nice, but trustworthy. She joins Hagrid and McGonagall in judging Snape to be essentially good and always on Dumbledore’s side.
The first exception occurs during the following day’s Quidditch match when Hermione believes Snape is the one trying to kill Harry by jinxing his broom. She tries to interrupt the jinx by setting Snape’s clothes on fire.
The afternoon’s events certainly seemed to have changed her mind about Snape.
“I know a jinx when I see one, Hagrid, I’ve read all about them! You’ve got to keep eye contact, and Snape wasn’t blinking at all, I saw him!”
“I’m tellin’ yeh, yer wrong!” said Hagrid hotly. “I don’t know why Harry’s broom acted like that, but Snape wouldn’ try an’ kill a student!” (HP/SS, 192-3)
Hermione never again jumps to that kind of half-informed conclusion about Snape; the second exception does not occur until the end of the sixth book and Snape does everything in his power to lead her to it. But perhaps her conscience didn’t bother her overmuch about setting fire to the robes of the teacher who treats her as though she were invisible. The fire didn’t hurt him, after all. We never do learn whether he figures out who set it. Either he truly didn’t see her or he didn’t acknowledge her, but either way, she’s learned a use for invisibility.
For their next Quidditch game, the Gryffindor team gets a nasty surprise: Snape insists on being the referee, although he has never refereed before. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, Harry draws the reasonable conclusion that Snape intends to kill him, or at least to prevent other teams from overtaking Slytherin in the rankings. Certainly, he has been noticing an unwelcome increase in the incidence of Snape in his life.
Harry didn’t know whether he was imagining it or not, but he seemed to keep running into Snape wherever he went. At times, he even wondered whether Snape was following him, trying to catch him on his own. Potions lessons were turning into a sort of weekly torture, Snape was so horrible to Harry. Could Snape possibly know they’d found out about the Sorcerer’s Stone? Harry didn’t see how he could—yet he sometimes had the horrible feeling that Snape could read minds. (HP/SS, 221)
Rowling seeds her writing about Snape with ambiguous motives and contradictory possible interpretations. Snape has stepped up surveillance on Harry: Why? For his own reasons, or on orders? Is he trying to catch Harry on his own or trying to make sure others do not, or both? Would he be horrible to Harry in Potions anyway, or is he under stress and taking it out on Harry? Is Snape performing what we later learn is Legilimency, or does Harry just have a guilty conscience?
To Harry’s relief, Dumbledore attends the Quidditch match, as well.
There was simply no way that Snape would dare to try to hurt him if Dumbledore was watching.
Perhaps that was why Snape was looking so angry as the teams marched onto the field, something that Ron noticed, too. (HP/SS, 222)
Snape’s mood worsens during the game. Gryffindor George Weasley hits a Bludger at him, unprovoked. Snape awards Hufflepuff a penalty for that and then, a few minutes later, “another penalty for no reason at all.” (HP/SS, 223)
Bias? Petulance? Or something else?
Harry misses Snape “by inches” when he dives for the Snitch, leaving Snape “white-faced and tight-lipped.” (HP/SS, 224) Harry catches the Snitch and everyone lands amid cheers.
Almost everyone, that is.
Snape spat bitterly on the ground. (HP/SS, 224)
A teacher did what? In front of Dumbledore. In front of his students.
It hurt no one that he spat, but the degree of bitterness is remarkable. Even readers familiar with Snape’s entire story can look back on this scene, way back in Harry’s first year, and be startled to revisit this moment.
But Harry has little time to ponder Snape’s shocking display. Minutes later, he recognizes Snape, hidden under hooded robes, running to a secret meeting with Quirrell in the Forbidden Forest. He overhears Snape threatening Quirrell about the Sorcerer’s Stone: “You don’t want me as your enemy, Quirrell.” (HP/SS, 226)
You don’t want me as your enemy. Occasionally, a sentence about Snape stands out in high relief against all the ambiguity because it is universally true, no matter what a character or reader believes about him. From every angle, this unreadable man is formidable, a terror as an enemy.
Convinced that Snape is going to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry, Ron, and Hermione plot to stop him. Unfortunately for them, they run straight into the good cop-bad cop team of McGonagall and Snape.
“What are you three doing inside?”
It was Professor McGonagall, carrying a large pile of books. (HP/SS, 267)
She drops the books in shock when Harry tells her they think someone will steal the Stone.
“I don’t know how you found out about the Stone, but rest assured, no one can possibly steal it, it’s too well protected.”
“Potter, I know what I’m talking about,” she said shortly. She bent down and gathered up the fallen books. “I suggest you all go back outside and enjoy the sunshine.” (HP/SS, 268)
The kids are plotting to disobey her when . . .
Hermione gasped. Harry and Ron wheeled round.
Snape was standing there.
“Good afternoon,” he said smoothly. (HP/SS, 268)
He never disappoints.
“You shouldn’t be inside on a day like this,” he said, with an odd, twisted smile.
“We were—” Harry began, without any idea what he was going to say.
“You want to be more careful,” said Snape. “Hanging around like this, people will think you’re up to something. And Gryffindor really can’t afford to lose any more points, can it?” (HP/SS, 268-9)
Snape’s “odd, twisted smile” tells the reader that he’s up to something, himself. “You want to be more careful” is a classic teacher’s line to let students know they’re being transparent. In this case, though, it’s also a genuine teaching moment from an experienced adult who knows what these children are fighting. With a couple of subtle clues, Rowling shows that Snape has spoken to McGonagall and come to reinforce her warning with his own. His mention of being “inside” echoes McGonagall’s words, and the taunt about Gryffindor’s points, in addition to the great benefit of annoying the students, recalls McGonagall’s and Snape’s friendly rivalry. (HP/SS, 152)
After Snape leaves, Harry assigns Hermione to keep an eye on Snape, making tactical use of Snape’s tendency to treat Hermione as invisible. This time, though, Hermione reports that it didn’t work: “Snape came out and asked me what I was doing, so I said I was waiting for Flitwick, and Snape went to get him, and I’ve only just got away, I don’t know where Snape went.” (HP/SS, 270) Apparently, Snape is perfectly capable of seeing this child and calling her bluff when it suits him.
When Harry and his friends pass through several enchantments guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone, Snape’s is the last protection before Harry gets to the Mirror of Erised, in which Dumbledore has hidden the Sorcerer’s Stone. It takes very little guidance for young readers to recognize that the protections set by Sprout, Flitwick, McGonagall, Quirrell, and Snape were designed specifically for Harry and his friends to solve. Only Dumbledore’s protection, the Mirror of Erised, was foolproof against theft, which explains why McGonagall was so certain that the Stone was impossible to steal. She was surely aware that she and her colleagues deliberately set all the other challenges at an appropriate level of difficulty for a group of first-year students.
Following the timeline of events, we can see that it must have been sometime after Christmas that Dumbledore asked the other teachers to set up their protections, a sort of practical final exam for Harry and friends. By then, McGonagall had the opportunity to observe Ron’s skill at chess, Flitwick had already commented on Harry’s flying (HP/SS, 165), and Quirrell knew the three students could knock out a troll. Sprout’s protection, as writer Clare Moseley has pointed out, indicates that when the teachers planned the protections, they were not sure which friends would end up accompanying Harry: the Devil’s Snare was meant for Neville. (Clare Moseley 2015)
In contrast to the bluntness of Quirrell’s protection and the simplicity of Dumbledore’s, Snape’s is intricately designed to challenge the puzzle solver on several skills, with the charming addition of potentially lethal consequences for incorrect guesses; perhaps they were Snape’s idea of a personal touch. He has brewed potions and poisons. He has presented them in seven bottles, that magic number, to make the allegorical point that the treasure under guard is about human dreams and choices. He has provided limited quantities to indicate that there is a correct strategy to taking the potions: if the potions are wasted, there will be no more. He has tucked the clues into verse form, eight rhyming couplets, to heighten the sense of occasion. (HP/SS, 285)
This is what it looks like when Snape finally calls on Miss Granger. This final clue is written in text and logic, the language of her power.
Hermione let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.
“Brilliant,” said Hermione. “This isn’t magic—it’s logic—a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.”
“But so will we, won’t we?”
“Of course not,” said Hermione. “Everything we need is here on this paper.” (HP/SS, 285-6)
They’re in mortal danger, but she’s relieved. She’s even smiling. She can’t help it. This is the child who understands the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron, needing nothing more than what’s in her own mind. This clue was designed for her alone. He foresaw that she would be here.
Hermione works out which potion was meant for Harry. It brings him to the chamber containing the Mirror of Erised, where Quirrell is already trying to extract the Sorcerer’s Stone. Quirrell confirms to Harry that Snape hasn’t been plotting against Harry after all. With this early plot twist, J.K. Rowling establishes that in the magical world she’s created, it’s always worthwhile to read beyond surface appearances.
“But I thought—Snape—”
“Severus?” Quirrell laughed, and it wasn’t his usual quivering treble, either, but cold and sharp. “Yes, Severus does seem the type, doesn’t he? So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat. Next to him, who would suspect p-p-poor,
st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell?” (HP/SS, 288)
Those looking to decode Rowling’s mysteries see that in her stories, ill temper, even bullying, do not necessarily signify evil.
“But Snape tried to kill me!”
“No, no, no. I tried to kill you. 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.” (HP/SS, 288-9)
Hagrid had been right and Hermione wrong: when trying to understand what Snape is doing and why, it is not enough to “read all about” jinxes. We will see in future volumes that when Hermione makes mistakes, especially regarding any sort of defense against the Dark Arts, she never lets herself forget them. It is easy to imagine her responding this way when she eventually hears about this encounter from Harry. She won’t make this mistake again.
“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. Funny, really . . . he needn’t have bothered. I couldn’t do anything with Dumbledore watching. All the other teachers thought Snape was trying to stop Gryffindor from winning, he did make himself unpopular. . . (HP/SS, 289)
What Quirrell says is not enough to allow the reader to untangle all the complications that went into Snape’s motives when he insisted upon playing Quidditch referee. We don’t have the full picture.
Did Snape really want to referee? Or did someone order him to insist upon it? Did he truly want to stop Quirrell from killing Harry? Or did he have to pretend as much because Dumbledore was watching? Did “all the other teachers” really think he was just trying to stop Gryffindor from winning? It was certainly the most believable explanation about this teacher who has done everything in his power to help his students secure the House Championship for the past six years. Likely, at least some, perhaps all, the other teachers did think he was trying to cheat; it would not have been feasible for Dumbledore to have taken every teacher but Quirrell into his confidence.
Snape was in a position, either voluntarily or under orders, to present a cover story that would attract active dislike from his colleagues. He was unable to defend himself by explaining his true motive, which involves doing work he sometimes dreads in order to protect a boy he can’t stand. For the man who is all about modes of defense, to be unable to defend himself, to be not seen for his true self, must have been almost unbearable.
Does he truly want to prevent Harry’s death? We have the clue that he looked angry before the match and spat upon the ground after: he was not trying to hide from Dumbledore that he loathed the experience, so we can guess that at least he was not actively hoping for Harry’s death and hiding it from his boss, or he would have presented a smoother face. He was “white-faced and tight-lipped” by the end of the game; perhaps he didn’t want to be in the midst of Quidditch play and he looked angry because Dumbledore required him to join the game. Perhaps he just despised the clumsiness of the cover story: if Snape has no prior history of involvement in Quidditch, nobody would believe that he would want to referee unless he were driven by some ulterior motive. Contributing inexorably to the worsening of one’s own reputation cannot be fun for anyone. The themes in the terms of Snape’s employment begin to take shape for the reader.
“But Snape always seemed to hate me so much.”
“Oh, he does,” said Quirrell casually, “heavens, yes. He was at Hogwarts with your father, didn’t you know? They loathed each other. But he never wanted you dead.” (HP/SS, 290)
Snape knew Harry’s father? How could the adults in Harry’s life have kept this information from him? They loathed each other? This brings to mind one of the few details anyone has given Harry about James: McGonagall telling Harry that James, “an excellent Quidditch player himself,” would have been proud of Harry’s skills. (HP/SS, 152)
The reader doesn’t know yet that James, like Harry, had played Seeker. We can’t guess yet that Snape has probably had literal nightmares of Seeker Potter flying at him on an expensive broom. At the moment he spat upon the ground, psychologically speaking, Snape was probably back in his school days as a scrawny teen. He did not want to referee, got no credit for doing so anyway, angered his colleagues, dodged a Bludger attack from George Weasley, and could not defend himself by explaining. The only outlets for his feelings were the second penalty he awarded Hufflepuff “for no reason at all” and his freedom to spit on the ground when it was all over. The one perverse mercy was that it was a phenomenally short game, thanks to Harry’s skill—not a consideration to move Snape to gratitude.
Hagrid was right: Snape never wanted Harry dead. We are meant to take Quirrell’s word on this one. The servant of Voldemort could surely sense Snape’s feelings about this, and he has no reason to lie, since he thinks Harry won’t survive much longer. Another series theme takes shape: the line between hating your enemies and believing they deserve to die.
Dumbledore tells Harry that James and Snape detested each other, but James saved Snape’s life. He didn’t believe Snape deserved to die.
“Professor Snape couldn’t bear being in your father’s debt. . . . I do believe he worked so hard to protect you this year because he felt that would make him and your father even. Then he could go back to hating your father’s memory in peace. . . .”
Harry tried to understand this but it made his head pound, so he stopped. (HP/SS, 300)
Again, we don’t have enough clues to understand what Dumbledore means. Any full reading of the Harry Potter series must include awareness that Rowling published this first installment without any guarantee that she would be able to publish another, let alone her grandiose dream of an entire seven-volume arc. The revelations at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone are designed to be sufficient to close out the story but provocative enough to support subsequent investigation.
But on another level, the reader’s experience of seeing fragmented explanations for Snape’s erratic, unpleasant behavior, the mystery of how trustworthy adults can work with him despite his violations of common decency, is a potent reminder that this is how it feels to be a child in a world run by incomprehensible adults. Why do adults do anything? The literary experience of deciphering Severus Snape is the experience of maturing from childish to adult understanding.
By the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the triumph of three first-years over Voldemort and Quirrell has quite reasonably won the House Cup for Gryffindor.
“Which means,” Dumbledore called over the storm of applause, for even Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were celebrating the downfall of Slytherin, “we need a little change of decoration.”
He clapped his hands. In an instant, the green hangings became scarlet and the silver became gold; the huge Slytherin serpent vanished and a towering Gryffindor lion took its place. (HP/SS, 306)
This decision of Rowling’s has been unpopular with many readers, who object to the cruelty of announcing the last-minute reversal by staging a victory for the Slytherin children and then taking it away publicly, in front of competitors who wish them ill. It could have been done without this dramatic switch. While “even Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were celebrating the downfall of Slytherin,” Draco Malfoy looks “stunned and horrified” (HP/SS, 306), and surely cannot be the only one to feel betrayed that the headmaster is leading three-quarters of the school to cheer against the remaining quarter. Disturbingly, the author presents the scene without any hint of sympathy for the Slytherins. Readers must either join in the cheers—which may not be a stretch for those who have endured bullying from classist, cowardly, cheating bullies like Draco—or, if this disturbs them, they must step back from the story and set themselves in opposition to the author, who has condemned this kind of inter-group hostility so clearly when it comes from Slytherin characters.
In this light, Slytherin’s six-year streak of winning the House Championship comes into focus as a campaign of pride and rebellion. The House Cup simply meant more to Slytherins than it did to other students. Snape had reason to grub for House points. We don’t know yet that he was only 24 years old when the winning streak started, but it has been a remarkable achievement for a very young teacher. With everyone from the fellow students to the headmaster set against his Slytherin charges, we see that his snickering and bullying—still absolutely wrong, still shameful from a teacher—might seem to him, and his students, to be petty retaliation in the overpowering context of a school that will not protect them.
Slytherin would have taken the loss of the House Championship hard under any circumstances, but with the emotional momentum of the last-minute switch and the cheering that ensued, Dumbledore has just guaranteed that Snape will be leading a lengthy, rageful group counseling session in the Slytherin common room. Retaliations will be forthcoming, and Snape will not be able to keep tabs on them all. It would be superhuman of the Slytherins not to take out their resentment of the Gryffindor headmaster on Gryffindor students, especially those who won the extra points. Harry may have defeated his mortal enemy at the end of his first year, but Snape’s enmity is, by far, the greater part of his story.
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