The Marks of a Villain
by Beth Welsh
Snape is not a good guy. His treachery has been written in black and white all through the Harry Potter books and especially in Half-Blood Prince. Even so, some Snape fans are looking for a reprieve. One person I work with actually said, “It’s no excuse, but he did have to kill Dumbledore or die himself.” And then I heard the voice of Sirius in my head, screaming at Wormtail as Wormtail tried to excuse his betrayal of James and Lily as his sole alternative to death at the hands of Voldemort: “Then you should have died! Died rather than betray your friends as we would have done for you!” (PA19). Isn’t that what Harry would have done? Isn’t that what you would have done?
In The Half-Blood Prince, it seems that a similar excuse might have been available to Snape to explain why he killed Dumbledore — perhaps he did have to kill Dumbledore or die himself. The problem with this excuse, however, is that it simply wasn’t true. Let us examine in detail the Unbreakable Vow Snape made to Narcissa at Spinner’s End:
“I will,” said Snape.
This looks like a pretty iron-clad vow, and that Snape in fact has backed himself into a corner and now faces a future in which he must murder Dumbledore or die himself. However, Snape is a talented wizard. This is the man who, as a teenager, was clever enough to break rules in potion making and improve the outcome. Snape is brilliant enough to find any loophole in this vow, if it exists, and exploit it.
There is such a loophole. The language of the vow made it so that Snape could decide between finishing the task and running, or hiding Malfoy and pretending he’s dead. The loophole was created by the phrase “And should it prove necessary . . . .” This language implies that a series of events may have been possible, such that killing Dumbledore was not necessary to protect Draco Malfoy. Dumbledore himself, on the Lightning-Struck Tower, may have shown Snape that Draco could be protected without Dumbledore having to die. Dumbledore gave Malfoy an option, and communicated this option to Malfoy on the Tower using the first-person plural instead of first-person singular: “We can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine” (HPB27, emphasis added). Perhaps Snape was included in Dumbledore’s “we,” and could have participated in Dumbledore’s plan to hide Draco “more completely” than Draco could have imagined. Following this plan would have meant killing or permanently disabling some Death Eaters to silence them, but they would not have been a big loss.
1. Teen Snape was bad.
The scene in The Order of the Phoenix that makes us pity Snape is more complex than most realize. Try to imagine what would make a man like James loathe Snape’s existence. James was open-minded enough to give Lupin the benefit of the doubt when he figured out Lupin’s “furry little problem” (HBP16). To hate Snape’s mere existence, James would have to have seen some pretty revolting behavior. Don’t forget that Sirius also said that “Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in the seventh year . . .” (GF25). James, Sirius and Snape were in the same year but not in the same house. The houses don’t have much interaction. Basically, a first year Snape must have showed his talent for dark arts and I doubt if he simply did a demonstration. We also know that Snape used Levicorpus on others enough times for it to get into vogue (HBP16). The evidence suggests that Snape was a magic bully. The slash to James’s cheek in the Pensieve scene probably was evidence of Snape using Sectumsempra (OP28); however, it was weaker than Harry’s, either because Snape was trying to do it non-verbally and Harry wasn’t or because Harry is more powerful than Snape was at that time.
What kind of a man holds a son accountable for the wrongs done by a father the son never even met? And I’m not just talking about Snape’s acid statements. Harry’s first meeting with Professor Snape is in the Great Hall at the welcoming feast. Snape looks at Harry with hatred (SS7, 8). At that point Harry is a nervous little boy. He had been down-trodden and neglected by his aunt and uncle and was severely ignorant of the magical world. He was, in fact, more ignorant than the average Muggle-born because he didn’t get the envoy visit and didn’t get to discuss his magical background with anyone but Hagrid. That was only one day’s worth of conversations. Why should Snape look at him with hatred? Although Snape did save Harry’s life in SS/PS the reason could be complicated. When Dumbledore told Harry it was because Snape had once been saved by James (SS17), perhaps there was more weight to that than was explained. We know that there has to be a conscious choice made to create a life debt. If James went to round up Snape before he got to Werewolf Lupin, it would make sense that Snape argued, telling James to leave him alone. James would probably have argued that Snape was in danger while Snape insisted that he could take care of himself. If it was a close call (they were close enough for Snape to see Lupin changing) Snape might have actually had a life debt to James. Now we know that Snape ultimately caused James’s death. When a wizard causes the death of someone he has a life debt to, what happens? Perhaps the reason Dumbledore was so ready to believe Snape’s remorse was that Snape had a life debt to James. So does protecting James’s son make up for causing James’s death? Maybe it does. And maybe that is why Snape never attempted to kill Harry.
In Chamber of Secrets, it appears that Snape gave Malfoy the Serpensortia spell when he whispered in his ear (CS11). That was a very dark spell and could have caused great harm to Harry or many of the other students. Snape is mature enough to realize that actions like this have consequences.
Some of the most powerful evidence is in The Prisoner of Azkaban. It was in this book that I really realized that Snape was a villain. From the moment Snape enters the Shrieking Shack incognito to when he reveals himself, there is enough information discussed for Snape to realize the truth. In those few moments, Lupin tells them about his transformations, the Whomping Willow and Shrieking Shack origins, the Animagus transformations of Prongs and Wormtail, the making of the map, and the “trick” Sirius played on Snape. Once Snape does reveal himself, he refuses to hear their arguments. Snape saw the map and may even have seen Sirius and Peter on it. As smart as he is, Snape could have put two and two together. Yet Snape still intended to let them be soul-sucked by the Dementors. Snape even intended to turn the two over directly to the Dementors, not giving them any chance to defend themselves. JKR describes Snape’s expression as “quite deranged” (PA19). His near sociopathic behavior here is frightening. Yes, he put them on stretchers and took them to the castle, but one hardly makes up for the other.
In The Goblet of Fire when Harry runs for help after Crouch Sr. appears on the edge of the forest (GF28), Snape has to see that Harry has a legitimate reason for needing Dumbledore — he is, after all, a master at Legilimency and could easily have divined what was on Harry’s mind. But Snape’s spite is great and he can deny passage to Harry, so he does. Once again, this has consequences that could have cost a life. Snape is cruel and snide throughout the book, but there is little excuse for this. Snape’s participation in rescuing Harry from Crouch Jr. (GF35) and attempts to convince Fudge of Voldemort’s return (GF36) are probably just attempts to stay in Dumbledore’s good graces.
In Order of the Phoenix, Snape is again cruel and snide throughout. But the worst is at the end, back at Hogwarts after Sirius Black has been killed by Bellatrix Lestrange in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries. He knows that Harry has lost another parent-figure and he sees Harry and Malfoy squaring off, but he does not even have the decency to back off — he is prepared to punish Harry (OP38). This lack of simple compassion exceeds the limits of antagonism. He is blatantly cruel and only McGonagall’s intervention stops it.
Also, don’t forget the big clue JKR left us in Order of the Phoenix. “Can you tell me something, sir?” said Harry, firing up again. “Why do you call Voldemort the Dark Lord, I’ve only ever heard Death Eaters call him that” (OP26).
We do not know what Dumbledore was pleading for on the Lightning-Struck Tower and we know that he and Snape could have had an entire conversation without saying a word through Legilimency. I personally think that Dumbledore was pleading for the lives of his students and not his own. But even if Dumbledore was urging Snape to kill him, Snape still could have disregarded that. Isn’t that what Harry would have done? The pure hatred on Snape’s face as he hit Dumbledore with Avada Kedavra speaks volumes to me about his state of mind.
Dumbledore did not completely trust Snape. If he had, Snape would not have been sleeping, but would have been patrolling the halls with McGonagall and the other members of the Order of the Phoenix while Dumbledore and Harry went after the Horcrux in the cave (HBP29).
And while it is true that Snape could have let Dumbledore die earlier from the injury he suffered to his hand when he destroyed the Horcrux that was Marvolo Gaunt’s ring (HBP23), letting Dumbledore die at that time didn’t serve any of Snape’s purposes. Phineas Nigellus told Harry that Slytherins ultimately did what was best for themselves (OP23). At the moment when Snape had an opportunity to let Dumbledore die, I do not doubt that a living Dumbledore with continued faith in Snape was what Snape deemed to be most advantageous for him.
11. The author in interviews has characterized Snape negatively.
If none of this convinces you, keep in mind some things that JKR herself has said.
“Snape is a very sadistic teacher, loosely based on a teacher I myself had, I have to say. I think children are very aware and we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think that they are, that teachers do sometimes abuse their power and this particular teacher does abuse his power. He’s not a particularly pleasant person at all. However, everyone should keep their eye on Snape, I’ll just say that because there is more to him than meets the eye…”
As a teacher, the “worst, shabbiest thing you can do” is to bully children.
Conversations with J.K. Rowling, p. 21, as noted in Madam Scoop’s Indexes, Interview Summaries Listed by Date, 2000
An author would make her villain do things she considers to be horrible and J.K. Rowling is no exception.
By the time Snape was faced with the decision whether or not
to kill Dumbledore on the Lightning-Struck Tower, he had already been
shown to be evil through his actions up to that point. His choice to
kill Dumbledore instead of take advantage of the loophole in the
Unbreakable Vow he made to Narcissa marks him as a villain.
© 2005 by Beth Welsh