The North Tower #34: Severus Snape, Part 1: The Significance of PS/SS

Hello again folks! I’m 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 I’d start today’s column by acknowledging a mistake I made, which many of you have pointed out. Dumbledore did, in all likelihood, not co-produce the Philosopher’s 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 didn’t think of that. It’s good to have you guys to point out the stuff I miss.

Today’s 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. Snape’s not only an incredibly ambiguous and intriguing character, he’s also an opportunity for JKR to show that she’s a very witty woman. Seriously, if you love dry, sarcastic (usually known as “British” in the rest of the world) humour, you’ve 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 Harry’s 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 didn’t gasp at the revelation that Quirrell was the real bad guy?). Canon surely doesn’t make the task of analysing Snape easy, since there’s 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 doesn’t become any easier. Then add Alan Rickman’s (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:

  1. What really happened in PS/SS
  2. Snape’s reactions at the end of PoA
  3. Snape’s role in VWI and how he came to be a teacher at Hogwarts.
  4. The “Snape filter”
  5. The scene in the Pensieve (“Snape’s worst memory”)
  6. Snape’s role in VWII
  7. The Vampire rumours
  8. The Snape backstory
  9. What JKR hasn’t 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?

I’d also like to deeply recommend, as usual, the Snape articles over at Red Hen (who’s updated the homepage, it’s 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. They’re 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-can’t-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 Harry’s 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 Voldemort’s graveyard speech (GoF). Well, let’s 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 Snape’s a nasty piece of work (true) and the one who’s out to steal the Stone for Voldemort (false). Even when we know that it was Quirrell who was Voldemort’s servant all along, we tend not to question the scenes we are presented with, and I think it’s high time we did.

Harry’s 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. They’re not. At closer scrutiny, we see that Snape is looking at Harry past Quirrell’s 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 Umbridge’s 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 doesn’t like him. Contrary to some fan fiction tradition, Snape really isn’t a nice guy. JKR herself has said that Snape’s 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 Rowling’s universe, this simply doesn’t seem to hold true. She does have grey-scale characters (e.g. Fudge, or Crouch Sr. Then there’s of course the whole philosophical aspect of “what’s a ‘good’ person”, but I’ll discuss that one in a future article or we’ll 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:

“don’t know why you wanted to meet here of all places, Severus” (Quirrell, with a terrible stutter.)

“Oh, I thought we’d keep this private, students aren’t supposed to know about the Philosopher’s Stone after all.” (Snape, icy voice)

Quirrell mumbling something, Snape interrupting him.

“Have you found out a way to get past that beast of Hagrid’s yet?” (Snape)

“but, Severus, I-” (Quirrell, with a stutter)

“You don’t want me as your enemy, Quirrell” (Snape, taking a step towards Quirrell)

“I don’t 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. I’m waiting” (Snape)

“But I don’t-” (Quirrell, with a stutter)

“Very well. We’ll have another little chat soon, when you’ve 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 it’s 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 he’s a Death Eater and B) that he’s 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 Dumbledore’s side. In reality, all these assumptions might very well be wrong.

Let’s start with Quirrell. When Harry meets him in the room with the mirror, he doesn’t stutter. He knows the game is up, that he’s 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? It’s not like he thinks anybody else will overhear them in the middle of the Forbidden Forest (despite that being the case).

Second thing: Snape isn’t stupid. If he knew that Voldemort was in Quirrell’s turban and he also knew that Quirrell knew that Snape knew (last part very important), he wouldn’t have been so stupid as to confront Quirrell outright and say he was on Dumbledore’s side. Snape survived VWI as a spy and a double agent. Telling Voldemort to his face (or Quirrell’s 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 isn’t stupid.

“Your loyalties,” it says. Meaning Quirrell’s loyalties. Nowhere in the conversation are Snape’s 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 doesn’t want him—Snape—as his enemy. Now, if he was playing the “my-master-wouldn’t-be-happy-if-you-did-this”-card, why would he say “you don’t 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) don’t have the context and B) we don’t 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 nobody’s side, or rather, on his own side. “You don’t want me as your enemy.” Based on Quirrell’s stutter, I would also guess that Quirrell thinks that Snape doesn’t know that Voldemort is actually in his turban and that he’s keeping up the “I’m-just-a-weak-and-scared-teacher”-act because of this. I think the most logical explanation to fill in the blanks would be that Snape’s pretending not to know about Voldemort and he’s pretending to want the Stone for himself (what Death Eater and person with questionable morals wouldn’t?!). He’s 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 Snape’s help in getting the Stone (also for himself, nothing saying that a DADA professor can’t be a little greedy).

It’s really logical if you think about it. Imagine that you’re 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 Philosopher’s Stone. One of your Death Eaters is after the Stone. You can understand why—immortality and unlimited riches. Heck! You’d try to steal it if you were in his shoes. This Death Eater also happens to be a master Occlumens so you can’t really look into his mind to see what his motivations are, but you don’t 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 don’t know what he would do. You’re 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 you’re just an intimidated teacher and try to beat him to it. Shouldn’t be too hard… If you look at it like this, it really gives it another spin, don’t you think? It still fits very well with the overheard conversation, only this time, Snape’s 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. It’s said that Voldemort doesn’t understand love, but there is nothing to suggest that he wouldn’t 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, he’s built most of his circle on bribery and intimidation.

Saving Harry

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 doesn’t, however, state that Quirrell suspected that Snape knew that Voldemort was hiding in his turban. Really, if Snape thought (in Voldemort’s 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 boy’s 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 Voldemort’s mind) fake loyalty to Dumbledore, a third. Finally, hexing Potter’s 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. I’d 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 Voldemort’s mind, saving Potter during the special circumstances might very well have served any selfish Death Eater’s agenda, as well as that of a faithful spy, and since he can’t read Snape, he’ll just have to try and make those reasons out for himself.

A delicate double-bluff

My point is that it’s entirely possible that Snape went through the entire year without Voldemort doubting his true loyalties (whatever they are). They’re 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, I’ve made a little list that should clear it out some.

Quirrellmort’s point of view

Snape doesn’t 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… (hehe)

Snape’s still a faithful Death Eater.

Snape’s point of view

I know that Voldemort is in Quirrell’s head (because Dumbledore told me so that I’d be able to protect myself)

I do want the Stone for myself but I’m 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 Snape’s background as a spy (most likely, a double-spy). The thing is that this sort of double-bluff system doesn’t 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: “Snape’s on Voldemort’s side” and Voldermort: “Snape’s 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: “Snape’s on my side” and Voldemort: “Snape’s 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 hess 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, he’ll do fine.

Example: Snape saves Harry’s 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 doesn’t 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 hadn’t tried to stop it, Dumbledore would have started to doubt my loyalties and I wouldn’t 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 he’s 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 we’ll ever know exactly what happened.

Conclusion: Snape didn’t 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 Voldemort’s graveyard speech”-theory is just that—a theory, not absolute truth, and I, for one, don’t believe in it.

See you next time!