Did Snape Really Have a Life-Debt to James?
An original editorial by Carol Grizzard (Shewoman)
(All citations are from the U.S. hardback editions except for
Prisoner, which are from the U.S. paperbacks.)
At the end of Philosophers/Sorcerers Stone, Dumbledore explains to Harry why Snape protected him that year. Harry points out that hes been told Snape hated James and Dumbledore confirms it, adding,
"And then your father did something Snape could never forgive."
"He saved his life."
"Yes..." said Dumbledore dreamily. "Funny, the way peoples minds work, isnt it? Professor Snape couldnt bear being in your fathers 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 fathers memory in peace."
Harry tried to understand this but it made his head pound, so he stopped.
-pg. 300, "The Man With Two Faces"
We are introduced to the formal concept of life-debts in Prisoner of Azkaban
. This is another end-of-the-year conversation between Dumbledore and Harry. Harry is despondent because Peter got away and Sirius wasnt publicly vindicated.
"But -- I stopped Sirius and Professor Lupin from killing Pettigrew! That makes it my fault if Voldemort comes back!"
"It does not," said Dumbledore quietly. "...The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed...Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt...When one wizard saves another wizards life, it creates a certain bond between them...and Im much mistaken if Voldemort wants his servant in the debt of Harry Potter..."
"I dont want a connection with Pettigrew!" said Harry.
"This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry. But trust me...the time may come when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrews life."
-pp. 425-27, "Owl Post Again"
Notice the difference in these two conversations. In both, the word debt is used. In the first, Dumbledore says that James saved Snapes life but presents Snapes debt to him as being subjective, existing in Snapes mind and rooted in his tumultuous emotions, something that he has chosen to act on under no outer compulsion. There is no mention of magic being involved or of anyone else (including Dumbledore) seeing it as an actual debt...just Snapes determination to be even with his dead-for-ten-years nemesis. (Does anyone but me wonder how many psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors it would take to make Snape well-adjusted?)
But in the Wormtail conversation, no reference is made to Wormtails state of mind or any burdens he might or might not be placing upon himself. Here the debt is magical: Dumbledore clearly believes that it exists in the real world and not just in Wormtails mind, regardless of whether Wormtail wants it, believes it, accepts it, or acts on it.
If Snape had the sort of debt to James that Wormtail does to Harry, I cant think why Dumbledore wouldnt have explained about life-debts two years earlier than he did instead of presenting Snapes debt as a lesser thing, something Snape has chosen to take upon himself. It doesnt have frightening implications, like the Prophecy (which Dumbledore was aggressively not telling Harry about at that time), nor is the explanation in Prisoner so complicated that Harry couldnt have understood it in Stone.
Life-debts are, however, apparently a bit more complicated than Dumbledore let on in Prisoner. There he said When one wizard saves another wizards life, it creates a certain bond between them, but in Part 3 of Rowlings interview with Emerson and Melissa in July of 2005, when asked if Ginny had a life-debt to Harry, she said,
No, not really. Wormtail is different. You know, part of me would just love to explain the whole thing to you, plot of book seven, you know, I honestly would.
Sure she would.
Why doesnt Ginny owe a life-debt to Harry? Harry risked his life to save her and would have died if Fawkes had not intervened (Chamber of Secrets, The Heir of Slytherin, pp. 306-22). A year ago, on the CoS Forums' Secrets/Divination Studies, there was a thread on All the Life-Debts. This question came up quite often on that thread, and a general (but not universal) conclusion was that a life-debt occurs when a witch or wizard saves someone they wouldnt be expected to -- an enemy, for example. But saving a friend or relative wouldnt create a life-debt because to do so would be automatic, even if it required great bravery. Thus the Weasleys and Harrys other friends dont owe him life-debts. This discussion has also come up on the many versions of Snape Loved Lily threads and others I havent read or dont remember. Harrys saving Wormtail and James' saving Snape would both still seem to fall into the life-debt category, but theres still the fact that Dumbledore doesnt explain Snapes debt as anything like the impenetrable magical debt Wormtail owes Harry but rather as a self-assumed task. It seems clear to me that Dumbledore does not think that these are the same kind of debt -- and if he doesnt, then they arent. Snapes obligation to James has meaning to him and influences his actions...but its not a life-debt.
So why doesnt Snape have a formal life-debt to James? Tempting as it is to make the case that Snape and James enjoyed a close friendship, Im going to offer a different solution. James saved Snape from Sirius attempt to kill him. We see in Snapes Worst Memory (Order of the Phoenix, Snapes Worst Memory, pp. 641-50) that there is very little love lost between Snape and the Marauders (particularly James). According to Lupin in Prisoner of Azkaban (Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, pp. 356-57), Snape became interested in Lupins monthly disappearances (when Lupin was wolfing it up in the Shrieking Shack). Lupin says that Sirius, aware of Snapes curiosity, ...thought it would beeramusing to tell Snape how to get into the Whomping Willow, which would give him access to the Shack. When James realized what Sirius had done, he risked his life to catch Snape before he reached the Shack and bring him back to safety. Snape had seen WereLupin by that time but had not been hurt. There are things we dont know about this, like exactly when it was (although it was apparently after the Marauders OWLS in fifth year), who knew about it afterwards (Dumbledore did; he told Snape to keep Lupins furry little problem a secret), and what punishment, if any, was levied on Sirius.
Snape raises the question of James motivation in saving him when Harry refers to this story in Prisoner of Azkaban (Snapes Grudge, pg. 285):
Have you been imagining some act of glorious heroism? Then let me correct you -- your saintly father and his friends played a highly amusing joke on me that would have resulted in my death if your father hadnt got cold feet at the last moment. There was nothing brave about what he did. He was saving his own skin as much as mine. Had their joke succeeded, he would have been expelled from Hogwarts.
No one else ever mentioned James being involved in this plot; I think Snape just assumes it (or knows it isnt true and says it only to gall Harry). Nonetheless, his suggestion that he himself could have died does have merit. While werewolves dont generally hunt human beings, if Snape had blundered into an underground chamber containing a werewolf its hard to believe that he wouldnt have been maimed at least, and death wasnt out of the question. Had either of these things happened, Sirius would certainly have been expelled and Lupin might well have been killed; he was the first (and is still the only) werewolf ever to be a student (or professor) at Hogwarts and I didnt notice any werewolves in the Fountain of Magical Brethren in the Ministry of Magic. From our first sight of Lupin in his threadbare robes on the Hogwarts Express in Prisoner
, we are given to understand that people of his kind are denied on every level in the wizarding world. In Goblet of Fire
, Buckbeak was sentenced to death for far less.
What was James motivation? The futures of two of his friends are at stake (and quite likely the life of one of them). And Lily, in whom James is clearly interested, had already stood up to him over the altercation with Snape in Snapes Worst Memory. Thus three people with whom James was involved have a connection with this incident. I dont believe that James helped plan the attack on Snape, nor do I believe he was saving his own skin; I dont think he would have gotten in trouble. Sirius would certainly have cleared him. I believe that James acted heroically.
Red Hen (The Werewolf Caper) points out that the tunnel to the Shack is low enough that James couldnt have entered it in his stag state; he raced towards a werewolf in the same vulnerable human state as the boy he was trying to save. But I also think that his saving Snape wasnt really about Snape at all; it was about Sirius, Lupin, and, perhaps, scoring points with the woman he would eventually marry (although we dont know if she ever knew about this. I think Lupin might have told her; he was the only one involved who had the right to out himself as a werewolf. And something radically changed her perception of James between Snapes Worst Memory in fifth year and her dating James in seventh year; something involving Snape could well be it).
James was basically a good guy and Im sure he didnt want a fellow student murdered -- but, even more, he didnt want his best friends to be murderers. Saving Snape was a way of achieving these goals. I believe his complex motives are why Snape doesnt have an official life-debt towards him. James saved his life, but he did so to save people about whom he cared far more.
Posted by: Sara