A Departure From the Expected
From our very first Hogwarts feast, the most intriguing character in the Potterverse has been Severus Snape. Draco Malfoy gave him a slight run for his money in Half-Blood Prince and set us to speculating whether he will turn to the Order for protection as Dumbledore offered or become fully entrenched in the ranks of the Death Eaters. But ever since Harry received the glare and the scar-pang (actually from Quirrelmort, of course) in Sorcerer’s Stone, we have mistrusted Snape…and not without cause. As each book passes, we learn another little snippet of information about him: the back-story is revealed slowly and each new part seems to throw another, more contrasting, light on Snape.
The debate over whether or not Snape is really good or evil is the second-most hotly debated subject since the publication of HBP, eclipsed only by the mysterious R.A.B. I’m sure I am not alone in saying that the most shocking part of Book Six was not the death of Dumbledore – JKR herself said, in her interview with Emerson and Melissa, “…the hero must go on alone… it’s a question of when and how” – but rather the fact that Snape did it. We’ve been handed evidence from the moment Snape was introduced that he was evil, and yet each time Dumbledore has managed to explain it away. This time, obviously, he cannot do that.
In this, as in so many ways, HBP stepped out of the pattern of the rest of the Potter series. It was a departure. As though to say goodbye, scenes from earlier books were poignantly re-visited, although altered somewhat, at the start of the novel. The trip with Hagrid to Diagon Alley was like a post-apocalyptic revisitation of SS: who else thought of Harry and Draco’s first-ever meeting when they met again in Madam Malkin’s? When Snape collects a tardy Harry and brings him into the feast, we are reminded of the same thing – this time darker, and with Harry all alone – in Chamber of Secrets. The threat of Voldemort hangs over the book, but he is never physically present – just as in Prisoner of Azkaban – the only two books without some sort of physical incarnation of Voldemort. Important plot points are revealed in the Pensieve, as in Goblet of Fire – but this time with permission. And, once more, the eerie cross-over between the magic and Muggle worlds, as a full-grown wizard appears in Privet Drive to collect Harry and take him away.
Each of the first five books follows the same formula: Dursleys, Weasleys, Hogwarts, Adventures, Dénouement with Dumbledore and Dursleys Again.
In HBP we depart from that rhythm, in a way that is subtly jarring for the reader, who has become used to it. I do not mean to suggest a lack of imagination on JKR’s part when I refer to a formula – remember that (among a million other writers) Shakespeare always used the same format for his plays. I simply point out that we have been allowed to assume that this pattern would continue through all seven books. In the first five books, Dumbledore has explained – to Harry and the reader – why things have happened the way they have and, incidentally, explained away Snape’s often harsh and inexplicable actions.
With Dumbledore dead, Harry and all those around him are left to come to their own conclusions – about R.A.B., about the Order, about Snape. Harry knows he must find the Horcruxes and must return at least once to the Dursleys before his 17th birthday. We are left, at the end of Book Six, with the certainty that Book Seven will not follow the ‘Potter Pattern’ in the least – excepting possibly an opening at 4 Privet Drive. There may not be a Hogwarts to return to. No gleaming Hogwarts Express, no pushing match (literal or figurative) with Draco on the train, no feast, no Sorting, no Gryffindor Tower. Harry’s feeling of bleak determination is conveyed to the reader in his despairing optimism in the final paragraph of Book Six.
Certainly, one of the battles he will fight will be against Snape – and we will, perhaps, learn about the ex-Potions Master’s motives and allegiances. But how much are we ever likely to learn? In the excellent “North Tower 19: Severus Riddle, Harry Snape and Tom Potter“, Maline Freden was the first to examine the striking similarities between these three characters. All “half-blood”, all (as we have recently learned) known to others by impressive nicknames – Lord Voldemort, the Half-Blood Prince, the Boy Who Lived or, latterly, the Chosen One. As Dumbledore points out to Harry, choices are the most important factor in determining one’s character. The choices of these three men, who each started their life in a horrible and disadvantaged way and went on to exceptional greatness, shaped who they are and will be in the culmination of the series.
We could all easily bring forth numerous quotes from the books to support either side of the question of Snape’s allegiance, just as we can bring forth as many arguments as we like about the identity of R.A.B. It is my firm belief that these questions will not be answered, right up until the last possible moment in Book Seven, if at all. Another such question is, can Voldemort be killed? Now we have the information about the Horcruxes, that shortens the odds on Mr. Potter somewhat, but if we’ve learned nothing else, we’ve learned that sudden twists are not to be ruled out.
Nothing – no theory, no matter how wild (except, possibly, a Harry/Basilisk union) can be absolutely ruled out. That is what the death of Dumbledore means. Our stability is gone.
What if, in the famous final chapter of Book Seven, after a sweeping victory and all the Horcruxes and Voldemort seemingly destroyed, with our hero and his friends stepping out into the rest of their lives, JKR hits us with something we could never have suspected? An eighth, ninth, or tenth Horcrux, perhaps? In HBP, JKR has shown us that she is not afraid of bringing all that we count upon down around our ears. What if the final sentence reads something along the lines of this: “…When, years later, Harry awoke to a terrible burning in his scar.”???
There are certainly many arguments – both literary and from canon – that support the idea that Voldemort simply can’t be killed. It is the glorious enigma of Harry Potter that makes it so infinitely readable, and re-readable. JKR’s ‘Potter Pattern’ is only structural, not thematic. Even when she has put down her pen and closed the books on it forever we, the fans, will still be coming up with theories of what really happened and what might happen next.