Severus Snape, Part 1: The Significance of PS/SS
Hello again folks! Im glad so many of you seemed to like my last article (my inbox has been literally flooded these past weeks, thank you all!), and I thought Id start todays column by acknowledging a mistake I made, which many of you have pointed out. Dumbledore did, in all likelihood, not co-produce the Philosophers Stone. Since Nicolas Flamel is said to be 665 years old in PS/SS, JKR has told us that Dumbledore only is about 150 and the wizard life expectancy probably lies somewhere around 150-200 years, Flamel probably produced the Stone long before he met Dumbledore. I just didnt think of that. Its good to have you guys to point out the stuff I miss.
Todays article (which will most likely turn into a series of three or four) is going to be about Severus Snape Hogwarts Potion master. This is one of my absolute favourite characters (probably even the favourite character) and my research this week has been pure joy, let me tell you. Snapes not only an incredibly ambiguous and intriguing character, hes also an opportunity for JKR to show that shes a very witty woman. Seriously, if you love dry, sarcastic (usually known as British in the rest of the world) humour, youve got to love Snape.
The Potion master is also interesting from another perspective: analysis of the Harry filter. With the possible exception of Draco Malfoy, Snape is the character most hated by Harry, and the picture we get from him is deeply clouded by this dislike. We saw the perfect example in PS/SS, when Harrys faulty conclusions, personal feelings and incomplete facts led most of us to believe, right to the end, that Snape was the bad guy of the book (anyone out there who didnt gasp at the revelation that Quirrell was the real bad guy?). Canon surly doesnt make the task of analysing Snape easy, since theres so much subjective interpretation, so many rumours and so much possible misinformation in the actual books that you can just go crazy. Add to this that Snape has been wildly popular in the worlds of HP commentary, theorising and fan fiction, and the task doesnt become any easier. Then add Alan Richmans (completely wonderful) performance in the movies and everything spins even further out of control. In my analysis, I would like to take a step back and go to the bottom with some of the theories that have been flying about, and some of the things I would want to discuss are:
- What really happened in PS/SS
- Snapes reactions at the end of PoA
- Snapes role in VWI and how he came to be a teacher at Hogwarts.
- The Snape filter
- The scene in the Pensieve (Snapes worst memory)
- Snapes role in VWII
- The Vampire rumours
- The Snape backstory
- What JKR hasnt told us (and needs to tell us before the series end)
All to try to get to the bottom of the main question: Who is Severus Snape?
Id also like to deeply recommend, as usual, the Snape articles over at Red Hen (whos updated the homepage, its a lot easier to navigate on it now, even if it is very slow). They have been a wonderfully interesting read for me and, truth be told, have probably coloured my views of the Potions master quite a bit. Theyre at Redhen.
1) What actually happened in PS/SS?
The thing about the Potterverse is that some theories get circulated so much that they eventually become accepted as truths by the readers. One such theory is the Snape-cant-be-a-double-spy-in-OotP-because-of-his-actions-in-PS-theory. The arguments for this one are basically that since Snape worked against Quirrell and tried to save Harrys life in book 1, Voldemort knows that Snape has abandoned him. This theory goes hand in hand with the one saying that Snape is the Oathbreaker (One, who has left me forever
) in Voldemorts graveyard speech (GoF). Well, lets take a look, shall we?
Exhibit one: the Harry filter.
PS/SS is the ultimate example of how the Harry filter distorts the picture of Snape and misleads the reader. We are invited to believe that Snapes a nasty piece of work (true) and the one whos out to steal the Stone for Voldemort (false). Even when we know that it was Quirrell who was Voldemorts servant all along, we tend not to question the scenes we are presented with, and I think its high time we did.
Harrys first meeting with Professor Snape is in the Great Hall at the welcoming feast. Snape looks at Harry with hatred and Harry feels his scar burn. The reader immediately assumes the two things are related. Theyre not. At closer scrutiny, we see that Snape is looking at Harry past Quirrells turban, under which, Voldemort is hiding. The pain is no doubt caused by Voldemort, not by Snape. (compare the scene in OotP where the scar is hurting in Umbridges presence during detention.)
The second time the pair meets is in class, where Snape humiliates Harry in front of all his classmates. No wonder Harry doesnt like him. Contrary to some fan fiction tradition, Snape really isnt a nice guy. JKR herself has said that Snapes a horrible person. The point is that his not-so-charming personality is used to mislead us, since Harry all the way through book 5 seems incapable of dividing people into anything but black and white. Nice people are good, the others are bad. Snape is not nice, ergo, Snape is bad. Argument closed. The problem is that in Rowlings universe, this simply doesnt seem to hold true. She does have grey-scale characters (e.g. Fudge, or Crouch Sr. Then theres of course the whole philosophical aspect of whats a good person, but Ill discuss that one in a future article or well never get out of here :-))
A classic example of misinformation through the Harry filter is the scene in the Forbidden Forest where Snape is seemingly threatening Quirrell. What we actually hear is:
dont know why you wanted to meet here of all places, Severus (Quirrell, with a terrible stutter.)
Oh, I thought wed keep this private, students arent supposed to know about the Philosophers Stone after all. (Snape, icy voice)
Quirrell mumbling something, Snape interrupting him.
Have you found out a way to get past that beast of Hagrids yet? (Snape)
but, Severus, I- (Quirrell, with a stutter)
You dont want me as your enemy, Quirrell (Snape, taking a step towards Quirrell)
I dont know what you- (Quirrell, with a stutter)
You know perfectly well what I mean.
Owl hooting, Harry nearly falling out of the tree.
- your little bit of hocus pocus. Im waiting (Snape)
But I dont- (Quirrell, with a stutter)
Very well. Well have another little chat soon, when youve had time to think things over and decided where your loyalties lie. (Snape, who then leaves the clearing.)
I frankly admire this passage, simply because its so manipulative, and I always admired manipulation in a writer. Not only does it lead the reader in the wrong direction as to the plot of Book One, but it continues to mislead people throughout the entire series. I think most confusion springs from the last sentence where your loyalties lie. The average reader first supposes that Snape A) has told Quirrell that hes a Death Eater and B) that hes trying to bully him into leaving Dumbledore and join the dark side. Afterwards, during a second read, when the reader knows that Quirrell is really the servant of Lord Voldemort, the average interpretation turns into C) Snape having told Quirrell that he knows Quirrell is after the Stone because he serves Voldemort and D) that Snape is trying to bully Quirrell to join Dumbledores side. In reality, all these assumptions might very well be wrong.
Lets start with Quirrell. When Harry meets him in the room with the mirror, he doesnt stutter. He knows the game is up, that hes been discovered as the servant of Lord Voldemort, and he lets the act drop. If Quirrell thought that Snape knew that Voldemort was hiding in his turban, why would he stutter during their meeting? If C is true, why would Quirrell keep up the act? Its not like he thinks anybody else will overhear them in the middle of the Forbidden Forest (despite that being the case).
Second thing: Snape isnt stupid. If he knew that Voldemort was in Quirrells turban and he also knew that Quirrell knew that Snape knew (last part very important), he wouldnt have been so stupid as to confront Quirrell outright and say he was on Dumbledores side. Snape survived VWI as a spy and a double agent. Telling Voldemort to his face (or Quirrells face as it might be) that he is loyal to Dumbledore would be friggin suicide and incredibly stupid, since Voldemort would most likely order Quirrell to kill Snape then and there. And Snape isnt stupid.
Your loyalties, it says. Meaning Quirrells loyalties. Nowhere in the conversation are Snapes loyalties mentioned. Snape never says that he works for Dumbledore and he never says that he works for Voldemort either. He simply asks Quirrell where his loyalties lie and says that Quirrell doesnt want him Snape as his enemy. Now, if he was playing the my-master-wouldnt-be-happy-if-you-did-this-card, why would he say you dont want me as your enemy? Dumbledore and Voldemort are both much more powerful than Snape and would make for much better threats. Still he refers to himself. A little odd maybe?
The most important thing to realise is that we A) dont have the context and B) we dont have the conversation in its entirety. What we have is just enough to make us jump to the wrong conclusions along with Harry.
To me, it sounds like Snape is claiming to be on nobodys side, or rather, on his own side. You dont want me as your enemy. Based on Quirrells stutter, I would also guess that Quirrell thinks that Snape doesnt know that Voldemort is actually in his turban and that hes keeping up the Im-just-a-weak-and-scared-teacher-act because of this. I think the most logical explanation to fill in the blanks would be that Snapes pretending not to know about Voldemort and hes pretending to want the Stone for himself (what Death Eater and person with questionable morals wouldnt?!). Hes thus trying to convince Quirrell to help him get the Stone. Quirrell, at the same time, plays his role as the scared professor, choosing not to enlist Snapes help in getting the Stone (also for himself, nothing saying that a DADA professor cant be a little greedy).
Its really logical if you think about it. Imagine that youre Lord Voldemort. You are vapour and have been so for ten years. Your first good chance in a decade to get back in the game is the Philosophers Stone. One of your Death Eaters is after the Stone. You can understand why immortality and unlimited riches. Heck! Youd try to steal it if you were in his shoes. This Death Eater also happens to be a master Occlumens so you cant really look into his mind to see what his motivations are, but you dont really need to because trying to steal the stone makes a whole lot more sense than not trying to do it. If you were to reveal yourself to him in your current fragile state, you dont know what he would do. Youre weak at the moment, he might very well sacrifice you to further his own goals (heck, you would have!). Why would he give the Stone to you when he could take it himself? Best to pretend youre just an intimidated teacher and try to beat him to it. Shouldnt be too hard
If you look at it like this, it really gives it another spin, dont you think? It still fits very well with the overheard conversation, only this time, Snapes seemingly after the Stone for egoistic reasons and is trying to bully Quirrell into helping him get it. The your loyalties would in this case refer to a choice between staying loyal to Dumbledore and being loyal to your own ambitions. Snape probably offered Quirrell a nice deal if he would help him. Its said that Voldemort doesnt understand love, but there is nothing to suggest that he wouldnt understand greed, and, in this scenario, greed would be both the major motivator for Snape and the main temptation presented to Quirrell. Voldemort would understand this. It would make sense. After all, hes built most of his circle on bribery and intimidation.
The second mystery in PS/SS is the Quidditch match, where Quirrellmort tried to kill Harry and Snape tried to save him. When reading the chapter The Man with Two Faces, one gets the distinct impression that Quirrellmort knew that Snape tried to save Harry and that Snape knew that it was Quirrell who was trying to kill the boy. It doesnt, however, state that Quirrell suspected that Snape knew that Voldemort was hiding in his turban. Really, if Snape thought (in Voldemorts mind) that Quirrell was trying to kill Potter for his own personal reasons, there would have been many reasons to try to stop him. The life debt to the boys father, for one. The importance of making Dumbledore think that everything was normal, and thereby increase the chances of getting to the Stone undetected, another. Proving his (in Voldemorts mind) fake loyalty to Dumbledore, a third. Finally, hexing Potters broom and killing him publicly during a Quidditch match would be plain stupid. The investigation would soon find out who did it. The list of suspects is limited. The witnesses are many. Id personally put this down to Quirrell rather than Voldemort. Perhaps that was even the reason Quirrell needed to be punished (he claims to have been punished several times, not only the time Harry witnessed), who knows? Bottom line is that, in Voldemorts mind, saving Potter during the special circumstances might very well have served any selfish Death Eaters agenda, as well as that of a faithful spy, and since he cant read Snape, hell just have to try and make those reasons out for himself.
A delicate double-bluff
My point is that its entirely possible that Snape went through the entire year without Voldemort doubting his true loyalties (whatever they are). Theyre both Slytherins after all, first loyalty is always to oneself. Voldemort should understand this, even if he might not like it.
Since all this A thinks that B thinks that A thinks
is a bit confusing, Ive made a little list that should clear it out some.
Quirrellmorts point of view
Snape doesnt know that Voldemort is in my head.
Snape wants the Stone for himself.
Snape thinks that I want the Stone for myself too. Oh, the poor young teacher getting corrupted by greed
Snapes still a faithful Death Eater.
Snapes point of view
I know that Voldemort is in Quirrells head (because Dumbledore told me so that Id be able to protect myself)
I do want the Stone for myself but Im not going to get myself killed because of it.
Quirrell wants the Stone for Voldemort.
It all turns into a giant system of I know that he thinks that I think (that he thinks, that I think
) if you choose to see it like this. Very compatible with Snapes background as a spy (most likely, a double-spy). The thing is that this sort of double-bluff system doesnt work if you know, beyond a doubt whose side a person is on AND you know that the enemy side knows the same thing. (e.g. Dumbledore: Snapes on Voldemorts side and Voldermort: Snapes on my side. This is the case with Lucius Malfoy for example.) On the other hand, if the two sides have conflicting knowledge (i.e. Dumbledore: Snapes on my side and Voldemort: Snapes on my side.) systems such as this one can be put into motion. What the person in the middle (Snape) must do, regardless of whose side hes really on (if he has chosen a side), is to make sure to act in a way which can be understood by both sides and refrain from doing a few taboo things. If he can keep to those simple rules, hell do fine.
Example: Snape saves Harrys life during the Quidditch match. Everybody important (i.e. Snape and Quirrell) know that Quirrell knows that Snape knows that he was hexing the broom. For Snape to justify this to Dumbledore will be very easy. The Headmaster doesnt want the boy to die after all. Justifying it to Voldemort would also be quite manageable. Play the spy card for example (i.e. If I hadnt tried to stop it, Dumbledore would have started to doubt my loyalties and I wouldnt be able to successfully continue to spy on him, my Lord
). The main practicality of engaging in double-bluff after all is that you can play the sides against each other. Letting Harry die would have been going against one of the fundamental taboos that hold up the system (Thou shall not kill the students. Dumbledore taboo). Game over. For everyone. Voldemort, if hes as good at subterfuge and lying as Dumbledore claims he is, should understand these basic rules of play regarding the Potions master. This, in turn, makes the most logical conclusions of the broom hexing incident that either Quirrell was acting on his own (stupid) initiative or Voldemort was somehow testing Snape. I doubt well ever know exactly what happened.
Conclusion: Snape didnt do or say anything in PS/SS which made Voldemort lose faith in him as a Death Eater. The whole PS/SS disqualifies Snape as a spy in Book 5 and necessarily makes him the Oathbreaker in Voldemorts graveyard speech-theory is just that a theory, not absolute truth, and I, for one, dont believe in it.
See you next time!
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