Upon reading the line “Avada Kedavra!” on page 596 (HBP27), and after the ensuing shock eased, I asked my copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
It was not until feverishly reading a few lines in the next chapter that my vindictive desire for Harry to slash the Half-Blood Prince to ribbons with the Sectumsempra curse (my new favorite) faded. Those lines read:
“Kill me then,” panted Harry, who felt no fear at all, but only rage and contempt. “Kill me like you killed him, you coward— ”
“DON’T—” screamed Snape, and his face was suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning house behind them— “CALL ME COWARD!”
(HPB28, p. 604)
Two questions formed in my mind. The first: Why did Snape refrain from killing Harry despite his apparent rage at him? The second: How could the cold and emotionless facial expression Snape characteristically wore change so dramatically at the taunt of a mere boy and why did the word “coward” cause Snape so much “pain?”
My mind replied quickly to the first question: Snape knew, as he had screamed at the fleeing Death Eaters, that “Potter belongs to the Dark Lord” (HBP28, p. 603). After considering the second question, my mind likewise readily replied: This rage is an obvious result of Snape’s longtime bullying by Harry’s father and company, the word “coward” being a trigger for this kind of extreme emotion, probably having been used by Harry’s father’s group.
But upon further review of my answers, I concluded the two answers do not mesh. The second answer would mean that in that moment, Snape became crazed at the word “coward,” hurled at him by the son and spitting image of his former tormentor James, yet did not kill Harry, or at least attempt to wound him as he had during his Hogwarts years whenever tormented by James (OP28). Yet Snape could have maimed or wounded Harry, knowing that the wounds could be easily healed, thereby not disobeying Voldemort’s orders to leave Harry to him. The answer to the second question did not mesh with my answer to the first.
My puzzlement about Snape’s restraint mounted as continued to ponder the final scene in Half-Blood Prince between Harry and Snape. Snape’s provocation as Harry chased him from the Hogwarts grounds was extreme. Yet Snape never attempted to kill Harry or inflict more pain than would be caused by a bump on the head (to prevent Harry from reacquiring his wand). When Harry was desperately attempting to fling at Snape Unforgivable Curses and the dark arts curse Sectumsempra (again, the new number one on my list of cool spells), Snape merely blocked them. Methinks if I were being flung spell after forbidden spell, I would lash out at my enemy at the first chance I could get, at least wounding him or her. But Snape merely deprives Harry of his wand, and after even further provocation from Harry mentioned in the above quote, Snape still does not attempt to harm Harry even to the most minor degree. My conclusion:
Snape was holding back.
But why? Despite all that Harry flung at him, Snape still did not retaliate.
Perplexed, I reconsidered the answer to my second question. The answer that the emotion was caused by Snape’s years of bullying is somewhat plausible, but did not seem enough of an explanation for Snape’s holding back. So there must be a deeper reason than bullying, but what is it?
I searched for another example of the kind of emotional pain suffered by Snape at the word “coward” in the first place I could think of—when Snape killed Dumbledore. Surely there must be some connection here:
Snape gazed for a moment at Dumbledore, and there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face.
“Severus . . . please . . .”
Snape raised his wand and pointed it directly at Dumbledore.
(HBP27, p. 596)
At first glance, there is no connection between Snape’s emotions on page 604 and those of 596. Rowling narrates that “there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face,” not “pain.” I took for granted, because Snape was gazing at Dumbledore, that Snape felt the “revulsion and hatred” toward the headmaster. But then I asked myself: Is toward Dumbledore that Snape feels “revulsion and hatred,” or toward the deed Snape knows he is about to do?
To fully understand Snape’s emotions as he killed Dumbledore, we must understand them in the context of Dumbledore’s plans and Snape’s role in those plans. Snape’s role in the Order of the Phoenix, the role Dumbledore perceived Snape to be playing, was to act as a double agent—to acquire the trust and confidence of the Dark Lord and Death Eaters so as to relay the information he received to the Order. It was in his role as double agent that Snape made the Unbreakable Vow to agree to kill Dumbledore should Malfoy fail to do so: Snapewas under the “wide” eyes of Bellatrix, who surely would have told her master if Snape did not agree to kill Dumbledore, thereby compromising his cover as a double agent.
However, protecting his role as double agent came at a price Snape may never have intended to pay: promising to kill Dumbledore. We know at the least that Snape had reservations about making the vow with Narcissa Malfoy:
“And, should it prove necessary . . . if it seems Draco will fail . . .” whispered Narcissa (Snape’s hand twitched within hers, but he did not turn 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
(HBP2, p. 36, emphasis added)
The twitch and pause before Snape agreed to Narcissa’s terms were signs of hesitation, of reservation—even though agreement was necessary to protect Snape’s position as a double agent. This pause and hesitation is copied when Snape is faced with killing Dumbledore, again, to protect his position as double agent. It is therefore reasonable to conclude from this pause that Snape did not wish to make the promise Narcissa required of him—to kill Dumbledore (“the deed that the Dark Lord has ordered Draco to perform”) should Draco fail.
Why didn’t Snape want to kill Dumbledore? Snape did not want to kill Dumbledore because Dumbledore believed in him, believed that Snape had truly changed his allegiance from Voldemort to the Order of the Phoenix. As Dumbledore explained to Harry, “You have no idea of the remorse Professor Snape felt when he realized how Lord Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy, Harry. I believe it is to be the greatest regret of his life and the reason that he returned” (HBP25). I would even go so far as to say Snape loved Dumbledore, in the way one loves a dear friend who has forgiven a great misdeed.
With Snape’s lack of murderous intent established, one can begin to get a glimpse of the depth of Snape’s motive for taking the Unbreakable Vow and leaving Harry unharmed despite the agony of hearing himself called a coward. He wasn’t merely protecting his role as a double agent, he was honoring and affirming his relationship with and loyalty to Dumbledore. Think back to chapter twenty-six, The Cave:
“Why can’t I drink the potion instead?” asked Harry desperately.
“Because I am much older, much cleverer, and much less valuable,” said Dumbledore.
(HBP26, p. 570)
What I believe is that, just as Dumbledore saw Harry as more valuable than himself, Dumbledore saw Snape and Snape’s role as double agent more valuable than himself. Thus Dumbledore, just as he took the potion himself so that Harry could remain unharmed, asked Snape in his plea, “Severus . . . please . . . .” (HBP27, p. 595) not to defend him, but rather to kill him, in order to save Snape’s life and position as double agent. This point is underscored by the narrative flow of the plea: it occurred after Rowling narrated that “Snape gazed for a moment” (HBP27, p. 595) before killing Dumbledore. This structure parallels the structure she used when she wrote that “There was a moment’s silence” before Snape uttered the final words that bound him to the Unbreakable Vow (HBP2, p. 36). Dumbledore’s plan was for Snape to preserve his role as double agent at all costs, even if that meant his own death, a death Dumbledore had prepared others prepared for in case it should occur (for example, at HBP29, p. 629, McGonagall knew that it was Dumbledore’s wish to be “laid to rest here, at Hogwarts”).
Snape’s commitment to following Dumbledore’s plan rested heavily upon Snape’s shoulders. After Snape repented his unwitting betrayal of Lily and James Dumbledore had beleived him and received him with open arms, and Snape did not wish to see Dumbledore dead—certainly not by Snape’s own hands. This explains the quarrel overheard by Hagrid between Snape and Dumbledore (HBP19, pp. 405–406). Snape, I assert, insisted to Dumbledore that he could not continue to follow the plan, could not accept the costs involved, even if it meant Snape had to give his own life (for breaking the Unbreakable Vow) in order to save Dumbldore’s. I believe Dumbledore responded to Snape as he did to Harry when Harrypleaded with Dumbledore in the cave to allow Harry to drink the potion instead of Dumbledore: “You swore, did you not, to follow any command I gave you?” (HBP26, p. 570). Dumbledore responded that Snape had promised to persevere in the plan despite its costs. By overcoming his revulsion and hatred of the act he was about to perform by shouting “Avada Kedavra” on The Lightning-Struck Tower, Snape did heed Dumbledore’s command. Because Snape revered Dumbledore as much or more than did the rest of the Hogwarts faculty, this act required much loyalty, perseverance, and above all, courage.
Here, finally, is the connection between the scene when Snape did not retaliate after Harry called him a coward and the scene when Snape killed Dumbledore, and the answer that best meshes with my original questions. Snape’s “pain” when Harry called him a coward was due to an internal emotional upheaval that he could no longer repress; for he had successfully “steeled himself” when he killed Dumbledore, with “revulsion and hatred” at the act he knew he must do, and, possibly, partially, at Dumbledore, the man who was making him do it. But he could no longer hold down his emotions after the boy whose father harassed him, the boy whose father’s death he feels responsible for, the boy he joined the Order of the Phoenix for, to help him in some way if he could, the boy who at once symbolized his suffering and his redemption, called him a coward. Severus Snape had sacrificed Dumbledore, possibly the only one person who truly understood him, precisely in order not to become a coward.
After the emotion I felt calmed when realizing the gravity of Snape’s situation and the darkness into which he travels at the novel’s end, I thought of one flaw in the theory—the other members of the Order of the Phoenix, or at least those who are involved in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, do not know that, if the theory is correct, Snape was required to kill Dumbledore by the Unbreakable Vow, but mostly by Dumbledore himself, and that Snape is still acting as a double agent. However, though this flaw exists, it does not necessarily mean that my theory is entirely defunct, for the flaw opens many interesting doors for the story in the seventh edition of Harry Potter. Some possibilities which one can explore with the flaw in mind are that one member of the Order yet announced or not involved in this novel has full knowledge of Dumbledore’s plan, that Harry could meet Snape and Snape would try to convince Harry of Dumbledore’s plan (a scene or scenes which undoubtedly would be most interesting . . . and curse-filled), or that Snape could try to contact the Order, divulging the information which he will no doubt receive in the last Harry Potter installment. Other possibilities for Snape’s involvement in book seven include, of course, him being as dastardly and Sectumsempra-worthy as I originally thought him, him being under the Imperius Curse, him being a rogue agent with his own impossibly complicated agenda, or the ever-present possibility that years of smelling bezoars has driven him utterly mad. However, if I had to choose between these other possibilities and my theory, I would choose my theory . . . because I am most definitely not partial to any theory that could exonerate the man who killed Dumbledore, so I believe it is only the strength of my theory that could have overcome my resistance to exonerating Dumbledore’s murderer. For me, Snape, like Harry, is “Dumbledore’s man, through and through.”