The North Tower #19: Severus Riddle, Harry Snape and Tom Potter
Today, I’ll write about something that I’ve been meaning to write about for a very long time (since my first article, actually). When reading the books it struck me that three of the main characters – Snape, Harry and Tom Riddle – were very similar and very different at the same time. It seems to me that there is something really strange going on, so I thought I’d take a look at it.
When looking back at their respective childhoods, the similarities are striking. We don’t have that much information, but from what we have we can still make out quite a few things:
Harry and Tom grew up as orphans (Tom’s dad was still alive but had abandoned him), Harry with his relatives and Tom in an orphanage. Snape seemingly grew up with his parents, but the way his father screamed at his mother doesn’t make it seem like a very happy home. We know how horribly Harry was treated by the Dursleys, and the fact that Tom asks if he can stay at Hogwarts over the holidays doesn’t make his upbringing seem any nicer. (Traditionally, orphanages aren’t very nice places in English literature, just think “Dickens”….) There is also the very touching scene (when Harry breaks into Snape’s memory) of the teenage Snape, sitting in his room, shooting down flies from the ceiling with his wand, which communicates a great loneliness, similar to how Harry feels when he lies in bed at the Dursleys’ most of the time.
The point that I want to make is that all three of them had really horrible childhoods (or so it seems), that they were very lonely and that all three probably wondered where their place in the world might be.
Secondly, their mothers: both Harry and Tom’s mothers died for their sons, Lily to save Harry from being killed and Tom’s mother when giving birth to him. Both died so that their sons might live. In Snape’s memory, his father was shouting at his cowering mother while he himself lay crying in a corner. Snape’s father thus seems to be of the cruel, abusive kind (similar to Tom’s father, who abandoned his mother when pregnant) and it makes me wonder whether Snape was crying in a corner because his dad was abusing his mom or because his dad had just given him a beating and his mother was now trying to protect him…
The family structure is very similar for all three boys: a “bad” father and a mother sacrificing herself for his son. In Harry’s case, it is of course his foster father that takes on the role as the “bad dad,” not his biological one. I think it would be quite safe to state that all three hated their respective “bad dad” (heck, Tom even killed his and, who knows, Snape might have done the same, even though we haven’t been told anything about that).
What I’m trying to show here is that Tom, Harry and Severus seem to have very similar backgrounds: they have been hated and abused during their entire childhood. Each hates the dominant father figure in his life. Each has a mother who sacrificed herself to help him(again, I must state that when it comes to Snape’s and Tom’s childhoods we have very little to go on, so all this is rather speculative, but bear with me…).
It’s very popular in our society to try and explain evil deeds through pointing at bad things in a person’s past, especially in their childhood. A lot of research has been undertaken on the subject, and it’s pretty established that we tend to become a lot like our parents, especially when it comes to bad habits (a child in an alcoholic family is more likely to become an alcoholic, a child who gets beaten is more likely to beat his children, a child who is bullied is more likely to become a bully, etc. …). So, seeing as Harry, Tom and Severus have so much in common on the family and childhood levels, why have they turned out so very differently?
The person I’m really interested in here is Harry. I personally think that the developments of Snape and Tom are quite logical: they were treated horribly, and so they started to treat other people like that. Normal psychological phenomenon. It’s the usual story: child from a broken/abusive home, harbouring a lot of anger and pain, getting in with the wrong crowd and then it goes downhill from there. I find it sad, not strange.
Harry, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Until he came to Hogwarts, his life was total misery: he was hated by his foster family, bullied in school, abused on an almost daily basis by Dudley and his friends, had not a single friend himself and spent most of his time locked up in a cupboard under the stairs. It’s like he lived in a black pit for ten years, filled with only the darker feelings in life. How then is it that he’s so extremely good-hearted? Then he goes to Hogwarts, where he’s all of a sudden a big celebrity. You would think that a person who’s never experienced kindness or admiration would suck up all the positive energy like a plant that hasn’t been watered for a long time. If he’d let fame go to his head and enjoyed the spotlight placed upon him (like Ron starts to do in OotP), it would have been logical. But no, Harry is modest and humble. He doesn’t want any attention. You could argue, “Well, he just has so little confidence in himself that he just wants to hide from everybody.” Sure, but he realises pretty early on that he’s pretty good at magic, that he’s a fabulous Quidditch player and that he can take on a full grown mountain troll with only a little help from his friends. His talent is validated over and over again (especially at the end of PS/SS when he manages to get through all the obstacles to get to the Stone). And he knows that he’s good. If he truly didn’t believe in himself, he wouldn’t go on all those dangerous missions all the time, now would he? Neville is the typical no-confidence guy, and Harry doesn’t act like him at all. On some level, Harry believes in himself. In spite of this, he’s humble and modest. Why?
When Harry started to show some temper in OotP I thought, “Finally! That’s really about time!” I was starting to get annoyed with Harry’s almost saint-like behaviour. But then I realised that even then, Harry’s feelings seemed a bit weird. He “feels the snake stir within him,” and most of his anger is basically fear in a different costume (during the summer, not knowing what was happening, fear of death having just witnessed Cedric’s, fear of not being believed and of Voldemort hurting people he loves, etc.). He experiences “bad” feelings in a positive way (i.e., enjoying hurting people) mainly in his Voldemort-related dreams (the snake, the torture of Avery…), and I think that the negative force that’s coming out in Harry in Book Five is first and foremost related to the prophecy (“and neither can live while the other survives”) and only secondly to teen-hormones. Since Voldemort’s rebirth, he and Harry are becoming more and more connected, and it seems to me like the main part of Harry’s negative feelings are really coming from Voldemort. There is something to what Malfoy said in CoS: “Saint Potter, all the Mudbloods’ friend.”. e’s annoyingly perfect and annoyingly good.
It’s explained in the first book that Harry takes an instant dislike to Malfoy because he reminds him of Dudley, and it’s mainly this dislike that makes him beg the Sorting Hat not to put him in Slytherin. If Harry hadn’t met Malfoy before seeing him on the Hogwarts Express, would he then have accepted his friendship, become a Slytherin and gone down the same road as Snape and Tom Riddle? Somehow, I don’t think so; Harry is thoroughly good-hearted and I really wonder why that is.
True, there are some people who’ve grown up under horrible conditions and who’ve just turned the other way and decided to be everything their parents weren’t. Those super-people do exist. They’re not very many though.
All this puts us back to the philosophical dilemma that I evoked in “Chosen”: “are we the roles we play or do we have something deep inside us that is just us, some sort of essence, an unchangeable core?” Do we start our lives as blank sheets and become who we are, or are we the person we’re going to become all along?
Harry is the Chosen One, the one who has to vanquish the Dark Lord. (For those of you who still insist that the One is really Neville, I ask you to read through “Chosen”and “Harry or Neville: Who’s the Real One” before you start sending me owls on this matter.) He has powers “the Dark Lord knows not,” which do not come from Voldemort (unlike, for example, the ability to speak to snakes), since I interpret “knows not” as “doesn’t have himself.” They are Harry’s powers and probably only his as he is the only One.
Where did this power come from then? I believe that it’s Love (for many reasons which I won’t repeat); nobody really knows, so let’s just say it is for the rest of this article, okay? Harry being full of Love would explain why he’s so good-hearted in spite of all the horrible things that have happened to him. I mean, a person pumped full with a positive force should logically be a good person. It would explain his illogical saint-like character.
I see two possibilities: either Harry was born containing this force or it was created in him the moment his mother died to save his life. If he was born with it, this means that he wasn’t at all chosen to be the One at the moment of Voldemort’s attack (see “Chosen”), and it also means that then Neville wasn’t even a potential One. This takes away the importance of choice, which is generally seen as a very important theme in the books. The entire CoS is all about this, how what we choose to do with our lives is so much more important than the talents we’re born with. If Harry was born the One, Voldemort HAD to mark him -he couldn’t have gone to Neville’s house (or he could have, but Neville would simply have been killed)- and then the whole storyline of the two potentials is just a red herring. It seems very contrary to JKR’s style to me.
On the other hand, if the power was created in him through Lily’s sacrifice, it’s a completely different story. I don’t want to go all biblical on you, but the parallel to Jesus sacrificing himself out of love for the people on earth and thereby assuring the forgiveness of their sins is just too blatantly obvious to me. Especially since Voldemort really came for Harry and that Lily wouldn’t have had to die if she hadn’t chosen to save Harry by giving her own life (even though she probably didn’t know what would come of that at the time). We already know that Lily’s sacrifice marked Harry, that it saved him as a baby and that Voldemort couldn’t touch him because of it. We know that this has been labelled “ancient magic” and that Voldemort wasn’t familiar with it. We’ve guessed that the fact that Voldemort, since his rebirth, also has this protection will probably lead to something big at the moment of his destruction. We know that this sacrifice was made out of love, the most powerful version of love – that of a mother for her child. (Anyone else going “relationship God/Jesus as the Father/Mother of all men”?)
When analysing the prophecy, I focused mainly on the criteria of time of birth (end of July), parents (having defied Voldemort three times) and relation to the Dark Lord (marking as equal). I didn’t really go into the fourth criterion “but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not,” assuming that it was tied to the marking (i.e., Voldemort transferring powers to Harry). It can’t possibly be, since the Dark Lord doesn’t have this power himself. He’s a being of no love, in direct opposition to Harry, who is all love. It thus seems reasonable to me that this power (Love) would have been given to Harry through Lily’s sacrifice – a choice she made – which then allowed him to survive the marking process. This would, in my opinion, fit so much better than the theory that Harry was born the One, born containing the force of Love, with regards to JKR’s writing.
Okay, so that’s Harry “figured out.” Now, what about Tom and Snape? Snape’s a difficult case since we don’t know whose side he’s on. Is he evil? Is he good? Is he both? Most probably the last. Snape really strikes me as the most “normal” person of the three. We saw in the Pensieve what Sirius and James did to him in school. Of course he hates them. We got a glimpse of his lonely and miserable childhood. Him being a not-so-very-nice person is completely understandable (which does NOT mean “justifiable,” however! Just because you had it bad in life, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to be nasty to other people).
Over to Tom. Is he truly evil? And more importantly, if he is, was he always like that? He opened the Chamber of Secrets in his fifth year and killed his father and grandparents right after he finished at Hogwarts. I think it’s pretty safe to say that he was already far down the road to becoming Lord Voldemort (a name he already used at school) by then. In “Chosen,” I was toying with the idea that Voldemort might be vanquished but that Tom Riddle might survive. A bit like when Angelus in “Buffy” got his soul back. (I would have loved to give a classier literary example, but I don’t have too much time over to read right now. Just because it’s pop-culture doesn’t mean that it’s bad.) This requires that there is something to turn back to, though – a good Tom. I personally don’t believe in the theory that all children are born sinful and evil so I have to go with the “he-was-a-good-person-who-was-corrupted-by-evil-forces”-theory. JKR has said in an interview that Voldemort is similar to Hitler (which I think most people had already figured out). There are people who see Hitler as an evil-to-the-core monster and others who see him as a man who just went very far in the wrong direction. I think it’s the same deal with Voldemort/Tom – he’s open for interpretation.
However, if JKR wanted to portray Voldemort as a completely evil person, why would she then tell us about Tom Riddle, the incredibly talented, handsome young man with a tragic childhood? Why would Dumbledore insist on calling him “Tom”? Why would she then draw parallels between him and Harry, emphasising the importance of choice (CoS)? My interpretation is that she wants to show the readers how badly things can turn out for a person, rather than just inventing a “big bad” for the hero to fight at the end. I think that there is something else to him than just Voldemort, or at least used to be.
The question is, Is it still there? Is there still a core in Voldemort that is Tom? And if so, what does that mean? Tom began his transformation into Lord Voldemort long before he started to look really frightening and ugly, long before he got a pet snake and started killing a bunch of people. It’s the “argument of the beard” (rhetorical term): when did he stop being Tom? (How many hairs do you need in order to have a beard?) I think it’s safe to assume that it was a gradual change. Is “the real Tom” a frightened five-year-old? A third-year at Hogwarts? Only JKR knows.
As for Harry, he’s beginning to transform into Voldemort as they are growing more and more connected. If he doesn’t take control, Voldemort’s probably going to take him over completely – not through possessing him but through mind control. Harry’s getting darker, and even though he’s filled with Love, he could still turn away from it and turn it into Hate (that tricky matter of choice again). If so, will he still be Harry? Or will Harry die to give birth to Anti-Harry? I’ve given the question of an unchangeable core a good deal of thought, and I honestly don’t know what to think. It seems to me like we always bring certain things with us but that otherwise we become what we pretend to be. Unfortunately, this core seems to be made up of both good and bad, but mainly bad things, like fear and hurt. But this can be treated and removed through time or therapy, and good things like trust can be destroyed. I guess I’ll just have to conclude that it’s impossible for me to conclude on this matter… 🙂
As for the three gentlemen, they represent to me essentially three versions of the same person: he who had nothing to hold him back and who just went too far, he who has something holding him back (that we don’t know what it is yet) and who is standing at the place where the road splits in two, not knowing where to go, and he who was given a great anchor of Love when a baby, is held firmly back by people who love him, but who nevertheless is starting to drift towards the road he mustn’t take…
See you next time,