Severus Snape: Not Voldemort’s Man
by Anthony Goldstein
Much has been written and speculated about Severus Snape, and that’s as it should be. It seems to me that J.K. Rowling has taken no small pains to ensure that Snape remains enigmatic to the last.
I dont want to go over well-trodden ground too much, but I will note the fact that the major Snape-related events in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince are at least susceptible to multiple interpretations. The very volume of quality debate, I think, proves this point. Whether you assume that Snapes loyalties lie with Voldemort, with Dumbledore, or with neither, you can form a logical and consistent explanation of his chat at Spinner’s End, his various actions during the bulk of the book, and of course the climactic scenes on the Astronomy Tower and immediately afterward.
Eliminating a Possibility
There have been good arguments on all sides of the debate, but what we really need is a rock-solid contradiction: something that eliminates at least one possibility about Snape, thus narrowing the field. I think I’ve found one, and it demonstrates that Snape is not loyal to Voldemort.
As any logician can tell you, if you assume that something is true and that assumption leads to a contradiction, the assumption has just been proven false. So let’s assume that Snape is loyal to Voldemort, and with that assumption in mind, take a look at Chapter 2 of HBP, Spinner’s End.
First of all, I assert that what Snape says in this chapter is his official story to the Death Eaters — and also to Voldemort. How do we know that this is the case, since we see him talking to Narcissa and Bellatrix, not Voldemort himself? Because he invites them to pass the story along:
You can carry my words back to the others who whisper behind my back, and carry false tales of my treachery to the Dark Lord!
-HBP, pg. 26
If this weren’t Snapes official story to Voldemort, his invitation to tell all of the Death Eaters would be risking a lie being brought to Voldemort’s attention. That could prove fatal for someone so recently brought back into the fold after being thought a traitor. So what we hear Snape say in this chapter may as well have been said to Voldemort, and since were assuming that Snape is loyal to Voldemort, it must therefore also be true.
Which leads to the contradiction. In the process of explaining why he didn’t kill Harry, Snape explains a little about how he perceived Harry at first, and how that perception changed:
But there was more to it than that. I should remind you that when Potter first arrived at Hogwarts there were still many stories circulating about him, rumors that he himself was a great Dark wizard, which was how he had survived the Dark Lord’s attack. Indeed, many of the Dark Lord’s old followers thought Potter might be a standard around which we could all rally once more. I was curious, I admit it, and not at all inclined to murder him the moment he set foot in the castle…Of course, it became apparent to me very quickly that he had no extraordinary talent at all.
-HBP, pp. 30-31
But we know, as no Death Eater could, that this isn’t true. If we hark back to the very first book, we see that Snape never for a moment gave Harry the benefit of the doubt. Snape never, in other words, had the time to question whether Harry was a great Dark wizard, then reject that possibility.
The very, very first time we hear of Professor Snape is just after Harry has been sorted into Gryffindor:
Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.
It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.
“Ouch!” Harry clapped a hand to his head.
“What is it?” asked Percy.
The pain had gone as quickly as it had come. Harder to shake off was the feeling Harry had gotten from the teacher’s look — a feeling that he didn’t like Harry at all.
-SS, pg. 126
Snape has had nothing but a glance at Harry across the Great Hall, and already he hates him. Are we to suppose that he can tell by looking whether Harry is a Dark wizard or not? No, I think rather that he never believed Harry could have been that; in other words, never believed what he told Narcissa and Bellatrix he believed.
Of course, this initial scene might just have been Harry’s misinterpretation of Snape’s look. After all, Snape was talking to Quirrell (possessed by Voldemort, leading to Harry’s scar-ache). But in the very next chapter, we again see Snape taking an anti-Harry position before having a chance to evaluate him:
Snape, like Flitwick, started the class by taking the roll call, and like Flitwick, he paused at Harry’s name.
“Ah, yes,” he said softly, ”Harry Potter. Our new — celebrity.”
…[Snape gives his opening speech on bottling fame, brewing glory, and stoppering death.]
“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
“Powdered root of what to an infusion of what?”
Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.
“I don’t know, sir,” said Harry.
Snape’s lips curled into a sneer.
“Tut, tut — fame clearly isn’t everything.”
-SS, pp. 136-137
One could argue that, even after the celebrity dig, the question about asphodel and wormwood was the evaluation Snape needed. But I think that argument to be fairly weak for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m sure that Tom Riddle himself, asked the same question on his second day at Hogwarts, would not have had the right answer at hand.
This is Snape simply being nasty to Harry, not evaluating him. And so, we must conclude that Snape is not loyal to Voldemort. If he were, then his statement made at Spinner’s End about his initial impressions of Harry would be true. Looking at their first meetings, however, those statements cannot be true. Whatever else he is, Snape is not Voldemort’s man, through and through.
But is He Dumbledore’s?
Of course, just because Snape isn’t loyal to Voldemort doesn’t mean that he is loyal to Dumbledore. It’s entirely possible — even likely, in my opinion — that he’s loyal to neither. And yet, I don’t think we can wholly eliminate the possibility that he is in fact loyal to Dumbledore. Here, however, we will be leaving the firm foundation of fact and journeying into thickets of wildest guesswork (with apologies to Dumbledore).
Dumbledore was many things, but he was not a stupid man. Further, he was not the starry-eyed optimist that the Death Eaters believed, or Harry feared, him to be. Yes, he was famous for giving people second chances, but not at the cost of blinding himself to the risks. To prove this, we only need look as far as the arrival of Tom Riddle. An alarming young man when Dumbledore first met him, but Dumbledore gave Tom a second chance — the opportunity not to be the sadistic loner he appeared to be. Yet at the same time, Dumbledore was wary:
”Did I know that I had just met the most dangerous Dark wizard of all time?” said Dumbledore. ”No, I had no idea that he was to grow up to be what he is. However, I was certainly intrigued by him. I returned to Hogwarts intending to keep an eye upon him, something I should have done in any case, given that he was alone and friendless, but which, already, I felt I ought to do for others sake as much as his.”
-HBP, pg. 276
“However, if he was frightening or impressing fellow Slytherins with displays of Parseltongue in their common room, no hint of it reached the staff. He showed no sign of outward arrogance or aggression at all. As an unusually talented and very good-looking orphan, he naturally drew attention and sympathy from the staff almost from the moment of his arrival. He seemed polite, quiet, and thirsty for knowledge. Nearly all were most favorably impressed by him.”
“Didn’t you tell them, sir, what he’d been like when you met him at the orphanage?” asked Harry.
”No, I did not. Though he had shown no hint of remorse, it was possible that he felt sorry for how he had behaved before and was resolved to turn over a fresh leaf. I chose to give him that chance.”
Dumbledore paused and looked inquiringly at Harry, who had opened his mouth to speak. Here, again, was Dumbledore’s tendency to trust people in spite of overwhelming evidence that they did not deserve it! But then Harry remembered something…
“But you didn’t really trust him, sir, did you? He told me…the Riddle who came out of that diary said, ’Dumbledore never seemed to like me as much as the other teachers did.'”
”Let us say that I did not take it for granted that he was trustworthy,” said Dumbledore. “I had, as I have already indicated, resolved to keep a close eye upon him, and so I did.”
-HBP, pp. 360-361
Contrast this with Dumbledore’s treatment of Snape. Even after Riddle proved his unworthiness, and even knowing that Snape was an Occlumens capable of fooling Voldemort himself, Dumbledore never expressed less than full confidence in Snape’s loyalty:
“But he’s a very good Occlumens, isnt he, sir?” said Harry, whose voice was shaking with the effort of keeping it steady. ”And isn’t Voldemort convinced that Snapes on his side, even now? Professor…how can you be sure Snape’s on our side?”
Dumbledore did not speak for a moment; he looked as though he was trying to make up his mind about something. At last he said, “I am sure. I trust Severus Snape completely.”
-HBP, pg. 549
Though Dumbledore himself admits his fallibility, I find it unlikely that Dumbledore was that far wrong about this particular thing. The possibility that Snape is lying is not something Dumbledore overlooked, nor is Dumbledore’s optimism overcoming his common sense.
No Excuse for Murder
But the most powerful argument against Snape’s being on Dumbledore’s side, I think, is the simplest: Nobody on Dumbledore’s side — on the good side — would murder someone, not even under (hypothetical) orders.
Ignoring for the moment that we know for a fact that Dumbledore ordered Harry to poison him, and Harry complied (without apparent injury to Harry’s goodness — the distinction between possible death from what was likely but uncertain to be poison and direct killing via the Killing Curse is a fine, but important one), I must ask: What if Snape did not kill Dumbledore? I’m not sure that this is the case — here I’m deepest in the wild guesswork thickets — and I’m not arguing that Dumbledore is alive. But I did notice a couple of important points leading up to Dumbledore’s death that lead me to question whether it was Snape that killed him.
Point One: Just a couple of pages before the murder, and seemingly out of nowhere, we are suddenly introduced to the concept that the Order is prepared to fake someones death:
”[Voldemort] cannot kill you if you are already dead. Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine.”
-HBP, pp. 591-592
Where did this come from? It certainly must be a new trick, since this technique wasn’t used to protect Harry’s parents. We’ve seen only one example of a faked death (Wormtail’s), and that was a rather unique occurrence, not suitable for use by Draco and both his parents (as Dumbledore further promises). Again, I am not saying that Dumbledore is alive, just that the cause of his death may have been faked, and why else would the author bring up the mechanism for a faked death so soon before Dumbledore’s if it weren’t somehow connected?
Point Two: A running theme through HBP has been nonverbal spells, an item barely mentioned before this book. Further, it is a particular point of Snape’s in his DADA lessons. We are reminded of these silent spells shortly before Dumbledore’s death, when he wordlessly immobilized Harry, and shortly after when Snape deftly — and, unlike any other Death Eater, without uttering a single spell — duels with Harry.
While this possibility is never explicitly stated in the book, it is not too great a leap to imagine performing a nonverbal spell while speaking the words of a different spell. In other words, Snape could have been saying “Avada Kedavra!” while in fact performing a different spell entirely. The sound and appearance of a genuine Killing Curse would, of course, be a necessary ingredient in this means of faking death, but one would assume that such a ruse was not beyond the powers of the Half-Blood Prince, who managed to come up with Levicorpus and Sectumsempra while still in school. Meanwhile, Dumbledore does indeed die, but from Voldemort’s potion, not because Snape killed him.
As pointed out above, this is hardly rock-solid proof of Snape’s loyalty to Dumbledore. However, I think it adequately allows for the possibility. Thus, while I’m fairly sure that Snape isn’t loyal to Voldemort, where his true loyalties lie will remain a mystery… at least until Book 7.