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Essays

Dumbledore vivens Snapeque bonamicus

by Denis Howarth


Two Modest Predictions

Dumbledore vivens . . .

And Now Another: Dumbledore the Fraud

Snape the Accessory

The Unbreakable Vow Unbroken

. . . Snapeque bonamicus

The “Buddy” Plot

Understanding Snape

Harry the Adult

The Proud and the Prejudiced

Modest Conclusions

Severe Spoiler Warning: This essay presumes that its readers have read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. If you have not, and would like to be surprised by it, you are advised to postpone reading this. Moreover, if you are the kind of person who looks forward to being thoroughly caught off guard by what could happen in Book Seven, you might also want to give this essay a miss.




Two Modest Predictions



After I had read the first three Harry Potter books, I made two modest predictions about the outcome of the series. They were few and modest, because J.K. Rowling was evidently an author who delights in tricks and is good at fooling the reader’s expectations, but these events seemed certain. First, that Hermione Granger will be Head Girl. Second, that upon his graduation from Hogwarts, Harry Potter will be appointed as tenured Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts.

The first prediction is a no-brainer, or perhaps more appropriately a brainer. No special confirmation is needed, because everything about Hermione’s academic record confirms it, but Book Six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, did drive the point home by showing that she obtained the highest possible mark in ten out of her eleven O-Levels (the Muggle term for O.W.L.) (HBP5). Incidentally, I do not know who will be Head Boy in the seventh year. There is no reason it should be Ron, whose marks are as mediocre as Harry’s. It may be somebody like Ernie Macmillan.

The second prediction was emphatically supported in Book Five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry conducted his own course in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and showed himself to be a talented teacher (OP18, 21, 27). He immediately mastered every aspect of the job, including course planning, establishing his authority, discipline, evaluating students, coaching, getting his satisfaction from his students’ progress. The prediction was even more shoutingly supported in Book Six, where we learn that upon his own graduation from Hogwarts Tom Riddle had applied for, and had been denied, that very job (HBP20). What was denied to Voldemort will be granted to Harry. We have been reminded that in the wizarding world a person is adult at seventeen, there is WEB LINKno university or graduate school to attend, and there is no bar to assuming such a teaching post except defects in knowledge, competence, character, or maturity. Voldemort had sufficient knowledge, but no teaching competence, a bad character, and as a childishly selfish soul, which he is still, no maturity. Harry in contrast has already the competence and character, by the end of Book Seven he will know more than anyone about defending against Voldemort, which is the highest test of knowledge, and he will have taken the last steps into maturity, from child to adult.

The joke the author is playing on Harry is to keep him entirely unaware of what his vocation is going to be. Significantly, starting the Dark Arts class was not even his idea. It was a suggestion by WEB LINKHermione, who is often a stand-in for Rowling and the only foreground character who can figure out where the plot is going. Harry will never for a moment consider the possibility of a teaching career. He thinks he wants to be a policeman (the Muggle term for an Auror). Yet we are being reminded at every turn that Hogwarts is his favourite building in all the world (his second favourite being the Weasleys’ home) and the place where he first was happy, and that his role model is Albus Dumbledore. His modesty is such that he will never envisage the possibility of spending his life where he most wants to spend his life. He will not apply for the post, and when it is offered to him it will come as a complete surprise. The offer will come from the Headmaster, and who that will be we shall get to in a moment.

Dumbledore vivens . . .


And Now Another: Dumbledore the Fraud

When Book Six was published, in July 2005, I read the news story about it, and made my third modest prediction. It was six months later that I actually read the book, and as I read I knew what to watch out for. My expectation was supported.

What is supposed to happen in Book Six is that Dumbledore dies. My assessment, which I expect is shared by many acute readers, is that he does not. Rowling is writing a school story, a mystery, a thriller, and a comic novel. She delights in all these genres and their conventions, and her delight is not to ignore literary conventions but to use them, in fresh and entertaining ways. A school story ends with the student growing into an adult. A mystery includes events that are to be viewed one way by ignorant characters and another way by the knowing author. A thriller ends with the hero defeating the villain. A comic novel, although real sorrow and irreversible death may have been encountered along the way, ends happily, with the principal characters joining hands for the curtain call. One standard plot device in a thriller is that a leading or crucial character fakes his own death, enabling him to go deep undercover and help trick the villain. In a children’s story, however sophisticated, there are some characters who are eligible to be killed and some who are not. Sirius Black is a character of the first kind. (It is almost certain he is irreversibly dead, since WEB LINKthe author spent some time dispelling the possibility of ghostly or psychic reunion; technically, though, it would be easy to bring him back, since people normally pass the veil by having their body disabled for living on this side of it, rather than having their body kicked accidentally through the veil while in a still perfectly healthy state.) Dumbledore is a character of the normally unkillable kind (unless in that sort of tearjerking penultimate scene where the villain is nearly conquered and the dying enabler of his defeat gasps out “go on, do it for me”). I expected, therefore, that Dumbledore’s death would be a fake, but would have to be a totally convincing fake since it would have to convince, primarily, not the readers, but Voldemort.

Snape the Accessory



Here is what actually happens at the end of Book Six. Dumbledore fakes his death, though he has not previously planned the outcome. He is a quick thinker, and he comes up with the plan while he is talking to Draco (HBP27). He already wanted Snape’s assistance to cure him of the effects of the poison (HBP27), and now he needs Snape’s assistance to carry out the plan. His motive is only secondarily to disappear and carry on his part of the fight unknown to Voldemort. His primary motive is to save Draco’s life. Why? Because he is Draco’s headmaster, and is equally responsible for all his students, the partially nasty ones as well as the nice ones. This student Draco has not yet committed a crime deserving capital punishment, and indeed when he has been pushed to the point he has just shown himself reluctant to commit murder. The situation is that Draco has been commissioned by Voldemort to assassinate Dumbledore, and if Draco fails, as he will, Voldemort will kill Draco. So Dumbledore first offers Draco the chance to live by switching sides. Draco refuses. Though he thereby adds stupidity to his immature criminal intent, he still does not deserve death; on the other hand, preserving this nasty boy is not a goal worth committing suicide for. Dumbledore then implements plan number two, which is to communicate to Voldemort that Draco’s commission has succeeded. Dumbledore knows what Snape knows, including that Snape has made a supposed “Unbreakable Vow” to do what Draco fails to do. Dumbledore requests Snape’s assistance, and simultaneously disables Harry’s interference. Snape is an accomplished Legilimens (mind reader) as well as Occlumens (resister to mind reading), so Dumbledore communicates the request mentally, while the witnessing Death Eaters are misunderstanding the situation. Snape understands the request, but is initially shocked, with an expression of revulsion and hatred on his face. When Dumbledore persists, “Severus … please,” Snape cooperates, by knocking Dumbledore off the tower with what appears to be a stunning and killing bolt.

We do know (from what Bellatrix Lestrange says to Harry at the end of Book Five [OP36]) that it is insufficient to say the words of a curse (there Crucio, here Snape’s Avada Kedavra) without murderous intent. Though we do not know whether any wizards can fly without brooms, most may be able to levitate themselves using Levicorpus reflexively, or simply attract some nearby loose object (“Accio”), levitate it (“Wingardium Leviosa”), and grasp it like a parachute — whatever the precise mechanism, there is no doubt that a competent wizard could fall off a tower safely. If stunned insensible, a wizard presumably would fall normally and his body would be smashed. But Dumbledore was not stunned. Some considerable time passed before his body was discovered, plenty of time for Dumbledore to arrange a dummy body, and to replace the real Horcrux locket with a fake locket and forged message. He could not leave the real locket, for fear that somebody other than Harry might get it, and perhaps because finding a Horcrux is one thing and destroying it is another, possibly as dangerous. So he had to take it himself. He had to leave a substitute so that Harry would not, at this point, figure out what had happened, since Harry’s mind and emotions are a leaky sieve. The message in the locket is directed at Voldemort, as a red herring, and it may also direct Harry’s initial efforts to finding a different Horcrux rather than pursuing this one which the message suggests may have been already destroyed.

A classic point, for a detective story, is that there was no autopsy. Dumbledore’s supposed body is removed by Hagrid, then is brought to the funeral and magically incinerated and entombed. There is no need to suppose that Hagrid was in on the plot, since he tends to be even leakier with information than Harry. Though Hagrid too probably assumed the corpse was real, the author scrupulously does not say that he carried into the funeral Dumbledore’s body, but that he carried “what Harry knew to be Dumbledore’s body” (HBP30). Incidentally, Hagrid’s initial instinct about the climactic events was right:

“What musta happened was, Dumbledore musta told Snape ter go with them Death Eaters,” Hagrid said confidently. “I suppose he’s gotta keep his cover.” (HBP28).

The final chapter is probably intended as a tearjerker. Although I cry easily where I am supposed to in books or films, having read the plot this way my eyes were dry. The actual plot function of the funeral scene is to convince the entire Who’s Who of the wizarding world that Dumbledore is actually dead, because they were at the funeral and saw the dissolution of his body.

This answers the question, of course, of whether Snape is on the good side or the bad side. Although Rowling tries her darnedest at the end of the book to make it a real issue, her previous material was such as to leave little excuse for it ever arising. Dumbledore has been consistently firm that Snape is on his side. Though Dumbledore has several times accused himself of erring in tactics, he has never demonstrated an error of fact. Snape throughout all six books has consistently demonstrated his probity. He has been unpleasant and unfair to Harry, whom he dislikes fiercely, but has never injured him and has always protected him. In this book, Snape’s parting act is to save Harry, once again, from death. He calls off another Death Eater from killing him (HBP28), with the excuse that Voldemort wants Harry reserved to himself (how many hundred times have you watched the double agent do that?). (It may be true, though, that how to dispose of Harry conclusively is a task that Voldemort considers a wee bit tricky.)

The Unbreakable Vow Unbroken

What, then, of the “Unbreakable Vow”? Did Snape break it? Here is Rowling’s twist on the old literary theme of the person who has three wishes but messes them up by not using the correct words. This is what Narcissa Malfoy got Severus Snape to promise her at the end of chapter 2. First:

“Will you, Severus, watch over my son Draco as he attempts to fulfill the Dark Lord’s wishes?”

“I will,” said Snape.

Snape certainly kept that promise, and so, for that matter, did Dumbledore, and so even did Harry as far as he was able. Second:

“And will you, to the best of your ability, protect him from harm?”

“I will,” said Snape.

That is precisely what Snape and Dumbledore together are doing as they perform their charade, protecting Draco from being killed by Voldemort. (In the chapter 19 conversation overheard though not understood by Hagrid, Snape intimated there might be circumstances in which he would rather die himself, but Dumbledore would not hear of Snape endangering his own life and insisted that he must protect Draco as promised.) Third:

“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.

Now, “the deed” ordered by Voldemort was to kill Dumbledore, not to pretend to kill Dumbledore. Snape has not done “the deed.” But notice the two preceding conditional clauses that Narcissa uttered: (a) “should it prove necessary,” and (b) “if it seems Draco will fail,” and notice that she did not place a logical connective between those clauses. What she meant, and what she should have spoken, was this: “should it prove necessary, where the definition of ‘necessary’ is ‘if it seems Draco will fail.’” Instead she has left Snape (and any objective third party) free to interpret the conditions like this: (i) the conditions are disjunct (not the second a definition of the first), (ii) both conditions must be fulfilled (their implied logical connective is “and”), (iii) the definition of “necessary” is whatever Snape deems to be necessary. Snape’s purposes are good, and are not the purposes of Voldemort and the Death Eaters, so for him “necessary” can mean necessary to improve the condition of the world and assist the destruction of Voldemort. There are therefore no conceivable conditions under which it would be “necessary” to assassinate Dumbledore. The condition of Draco seeming to fail occurred, but the condition of necessity did not. So Snape did not break his Vow.

. . . Snapeque bonamicus


The “Buddy” Plot

There is another genre that Rowling has been playing with, and that is the buddy movie. In the “buddy” plot, two people initially dislike each other, but they have the same objective, are forced by circumstances to work together, and eventually come to respect each other, or like each other, or fall in love. Harry and Snape are never going to fall in love, and they are never going to like each other in the ordinary sense. But they are due for a big dose of mutual respect. Harry, as the child, has the more to learn, and his learning it will be a major agendum in Book Seven. Snape is adult, and already he understands Harry better than Harry understands him.

At present, Snape and Harry feel genuine hatred towards each other, and that each feels hate shows that each suffers a personality defect. Harry’s hate sprang partly from the fact that Snape is a genuinely dislikeable person, but mostly from his emotionally violent reaction to Snape’s apparent dislike of him. Harry is now so intensely prejudiced that he cannot assess rationally any of Snape’s behaviours (and neither apparently can most readers, since by the author’s intention they are viewing the matter from Harry’s side). Yet already— where “already” is the halfway point of the two-volume conclusion — through his admiration for the intellectual attainments of the Half-Blood Prince, Harry has unwittingly become friends with Snape’s most important and intimate side. He is going to do some thinking about that.

Understanding Snape



Snape’s attitude to Harry is complex. The author has been fobbing us off with the simple-minded explanation that because Snape justly disliked Harry’s father, and because Harry looks like his father, Snape unjustly dislikes Harry. Much more is going on. But let us begin with the admission that Snape is by nature a mean, petty, sadistic bully. (And why not? So are the principal characters in Hollywood action buddy movies.) How he became one is important. At any school, there are a few natural bullies, like Crabbe and Goyle. There are also a few natural targets of bullying. (Among great writers, Rudyard Kipling was such a target, as he recounts indirectly in “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” and Stalky and Co.) Snape was just such a lonely socially inept boy, who gets disliked because of his very looks, though he might actually be brilliant. There are also a larger number of people who may engage in occasional recreational bullying, but who as good people become ashamed and put it behind them. James Potter was one. The true bullies, though, do not put it behind them, and often the targets do not. (Kipling did not, and throughout his artistic life identified himself imaginatively with the strong quelling the wicked, the theme of Hollywood action movies.) Snape reacted by becoming a bully himself, once he was in a position to abuse his authority, but having himself been bullied physically he never bullies physically but uses his mind. And he does have appreciable wit. From an observer’s viewpoint, if you are not on the receiving end of it, Snape’s bullying of Harry Potter is actually funnier than was James Potter’s bullying of Snape.

Under the surface of Snape’s supercilious hostility lies the fact that Harry is crucially important in Snape’s own life, even more personally important to him than to Dumbledore. Snape in his youth, like Draco now, thoughtlessly joined what he perhaps euphemistically thought of as the “dark” side, and found that the consequences of what he had thought a piece of routine villainy involved the destruction of what represented for him the goodness of the world. Whereas Snape’s greatest insult for Harry is “you’re like your father,” his greatest compliment would be “you’re like your mother.” Since Harry is the child of both, Snape actually regards him in both ways. Further, ever since he made his mistake, Snape’s determination to see Voldemort dead has been exactly as strong as Harry’s, and for the exact same reason, to avenge the exact same person.

But this brash, excessively normal child Harry, when Snape sees him after ten years, irritates Snape. The destined equal of Voldemort, he thinks, ought to have been intellectually precocious and emotionally controlled, like himself, and like the destined adversary. (He ought, you could say, to have been a Slytherin.) Snape’s most frequent criticism of Harry is that he is mediocre, which is true. Harry is a mediocre student, and slow on the uptake (except in a crisis), and filled with emotional dynamite that explodes into temper tantrums. Despite all this, and partly because of it, Dumbledore sees Harry as a remarkable person. That opinion Snape does not understand. His own opinion is that Harry is a deep disappointment, and might not have the stuff that the job is going to take. Snape is a teacher, not a beloved one, but by no means an ineffective one. That is shown many ways, not least by the fact that Harry after taking five hated years of chemistry (the Muggle term for Potions) was brought by Snape up to the standard of a solidly good grade. Snape’s impulse to teach makes him want to drive out Harry’s mediocrity through sarcasm and severity. Of Snape as a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher we learn significantly little in Book Six, except that he begins well, teaching much like Harry himself, that the course is demanding, and that his sarcasm no longer succeeds at humiliating Harry in class, presumably because Harry both begins and finishes the year as the top student. Snape’s greatest approval of Harry was when, during their Occlumency lessons, Harry was momentarily able to snap back at Snape and hurt him (OP26). His greatest disapproval was when Harry, through undisciplined childish discourtesy, intruded on Snape’s reserved emotional memories (OP28). For Snape’s key personality defect is what he himself thinks of as admirable emotional control, but which to others appears as an unhealthy level of reserve, shyness, diffidence. (Diffidence or stand-offishness is often mislabelled as arrogance or pride.)

When Snape is forced, by Dumbledore’s plan, to absent himself from Hogwarts, he tries to cram in a final lesson for Harry. In order to leave the grounds, he has to beat Harry up (no bullying there, just a healthy and fair duelling exercise). Then he sneers at him. “Blocked again, and again, and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, Potter!” (HBP28). Those are his last teaching instructions —  “keep your mouth shut and your mind closed” — and he means them to be taken seriously. It may be months before Snape sees Harry again, and when he does, he may be impressed by the changes in him. The test will be whether Harry is able to beat up Snape. If he can, Snape will be really pleased, as is usual for buddy stories.

Harry the Adult

As to how the changes will come about, since Harry is the protagonist of a school story he will attend school for seven years, and will graduate. But attending the final year will be his free choice. Right now, he thinks that he will leave school so as to fight Voldemort full time, but on reflection he will decide that Hogwarts will be his best base for operation, and the best place to conduct research, to learn both the general subjects that he still needs to know and the specifics of the detection he must do into Voldemort’s biography. This decision he will take at the time of his seventeenth birthday, when he formally passes from child to adult. Children attend school because it is the thing to do and they have nowhere else to go. Adults attend school because there is something they want to learn. With his new self directed attitude to learning, and his new disdain for marks, Harry may surprise himself with an academic spurt, and graduate with more outstanding marks than he achieved in his O-Levels. His seventh year will not be only a depiction of the high school experience, but will contain the essence of the university experience.

In his mature attitude to study, Harry will have several role models. First, among his contemporaries, there are Fred and George Weasley. They left school after six years because they were already independently conducting industrial research and development, as well as becoming experts in marketing, and they correctly saw that they were ready for the business world. Second, there is Snape. By close study of the textbook annotated by the Half-Blood Prince, Harry has come to know Snape’s intellectual character and to respect the kind of mind that does original research. He has learned that textbooks are not to be believed, but are to be confirmed, corrected, and supplemented. Third, and again as a negative model, there is Voldemort, who did his own research, but never because he was interested in knowledge for its own sake. The evil boy fully adopted the modern journalistic attitude to technology, which is that science is interesting only for the sake of the power it can confer. Fourth, there is Dumbledore. He knows a lot that other wizards do not, and he has learned it on his own. Before he goes— really goes — he will want to pass that knowledge on, and he will pass it to his colleague Harry, but that will be after the end of the book.

As Harry works at his freely chosen task, he will occasionally encounter unexpected help from an unknown source. That will be Dumbledore. Then, sometime, he will learn about his unexpected ally, who has been operating in the most dangerous position of all. Anybody who may have been supposing that Voldemort actually trusts Snape (or trusts anybody) is an even greater muggins than Narcissa Black (in HBP2). The fake assassination may however have the effect of sufficiently raising Voldemort’s trust level so that he, so to speak, carelessly turns his back on Snape at a crucial moment. When Harry learns what Snape has been doing, he will fully appreciate why Snape screamed, in a rare emotional outburst at a rare moment of stress, “Don’t call me coward!” (HBP28). He did right to be angry, because in fact Snape is one of the two most courageous characters we encounter in the series. The other was Lily Evans Potter.

The Proud and the Prejudiced



In the relation of Harry Potter and Severus Snape, the one misunderstanding, the other refusing to explain, their eventual alliance triggered by a crisis, J.K. Rowling is working yet another of the many recent variations on Pride and Prejudice, with the failings of Darcy and Elizabeth assigned respectively to Snape and Harry. (Jane Austen’s novel appears, as a favourite book of Rowling’s or a specific source, on the top bookshelf of the “Links page on her jkrowling.com website”. With this hint, readers may enjoy looking for lesser parallels to Emma — consider Hermione — and Sense and Sensibility, which appear on the bottom shelf.)

And by the way — Snape does not fall in the category of an unkillable character, the heroes may have to deal at the action climax with the snake Nagini and Voldemort simultaneously, and Snape is not an unsuitable candidate for the tearjerking “go on, do it for me” scene. Also, at the climax there could be a plot choice open to the author, a distinction between trying to defeat Voldemort and trying to save Harry regardless of Voldemort’s defeat. The way is open for Harry and Snape to form the strongest of bonds, without the author having to show them associating afterwards, and the way is open for the sacrifice of love once made by Lily Evans Potter to be matched by another, made by somebody who admired her.

The resolution of the buddy story is, in part, intended to surprise, and for many readers it will. For more experienced readers, who delight like the author in the plot conventions of literature, the resolution is intended to satisfy. But there is also, within the context of a children’s book, a moral lesson to be taught. The book’s juvenile readers must learn, along with Harry, that “good” is not a synonym for “nice.”[*] People are not to be condemned for their unpleasant looks, not even, in the ultimate evaluation, for instances of unpleasant behaviour. Nor is it a fatuous matter of tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. Harry will come to understand Voldemort fully, but will not pardon him. Harry will revere Severus Snape, as he reveres Sirius Black and his own parents, not because he has psycho-analyzed him, but because he has witnessed who he is and what he has chosen to do. With that item of mature wisdom acquired, the graduate Harry will be ready to impart wisdom to others.

Modest Conclusions



It would be foolish, and I make no foolish pretence, to anticipate in detail the course of Book Seven. Suggesting some ways in which the author might work out the themes is nought but instructive speculation, and any of the illustrative details could be mistaken. As one example, the locket so strenuously recovered in Book Six might indeed have been a substitute rather than the true Horcrux; that is unlikely, since Dumbledore was so insistent that the recovery job could not have been done without two wizards, but the author is still free to decide that Regulus A. Black somehow managed the job alone; or the author might use a device of triple substitution. In playing with the plot conventions of faked death and hostile buddies, Rowling is fully capable of inventing variations that no reader has imagined.

My actual predictions are confined to the essentials. As before — Head Girl Granger, and Professor Potter. And now — living Dumbledore, and good buddy Snape.




*Editor’s Note: Remember Sirius Black’s rebuke to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, when they speculate that Dolores Umbridge is “foul enough” to be a Death Eater: “Yes, but the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” (OP14)

Copyright © 2006 Denis Howarth
Edited by Paula Hall
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