A Question of Trust; or, The Phoenix’s Cry

by Scott Enderle

Snape: If nothing else, he’s controversial. Weeks after first reading Half-Blood Prince, I returned to find a battle raging on the editorial pages of MuggleNet.

Is he a phoenix or a snake?

Those on both sides of the fence have solid, convincing supporting evidence, but no one can find a clincher; JKR has done her job well. Snape made the Unbreakable Vow — but did he know what he was vowing to do? Dumbledore pleaded with Snape, but what was he pleading for? Was Dumbledore, the man who once said that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” (PS, pg. 320, adult British paperback), really begging for his life? My personal favorite comes from Brianna Woell: If Hermione and Ron had taken Felix Felicis, then why did Ron miss the Death Eaters outside the Room of Requirement? And why did Hermione not recognize that Snape had stunned Flitwick? It must have been luck in disguise. But in the end, I honestly can’t take a stand; there are just as many reasons to detest Snape as to trust him. So I want to ask a slightly different question.

Why did Dumbledore trust Snape?

In some sense, it’s an easier question to answer. We may not agree about Snape, but we might be able to agree about Dumbledore’s motivations. And in the long run, it might even be a more important question to answer.

So why did he?

Many commentators have seemed to accept the conventional wisdom: Dumbledore was too trusting. But I don’t find that assessment satisfying. Dumbledore trusted some strange characters, but he had some extraordinary tools at his disposal. I do not believe that he trusted people without good reason. Indeed, if Legilimency is a skill that must be learned, then wouldn’t naturally suspicious people be more likely to learn it? So it strikes me as a bit lazy to accept, uncritically, the notion that Dumbledore was trusting to a fault.

So I’m going to offer two other possible answers. The first is based on a brief moment in HBP. When Harry returns from Christmas break, he tells Dumbledore about his run-in with Scrimgeour at the Burrow:

“He accused me of being ‘Dumbledore’s man through and through.'”

“How very rude of him.”

“I told him I was.”

Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Behind Harry, Fawkes the phoenix let out a low, soft, musical cry. To Harry’s intense embarrassment, he suddenly realized that Dumbledore’s bright blue eyes looked rather watery, and stared hastily at his own knees. When Dumbledore spoke, however, his voice was quite steady.
“I am very touched, Harry.”

(HBP, pp. 357-358, standard American hardcover)

I believe that this passage holds the key to Dumbledore’s trust. Pay close attention to the order of events: Harry asserts his loyalty to Dumbledore; Dumbledore starts to speak and stops; Fawkes makes a sound; and then Harry notices Dumbledore’s eyes going bleary.

Why did they happen in that order? Why did Dumbledore not get bleary-eyed before Fawkes made the noise? The answer, I think, is because Dumbledore wasn’t only responding to Harry’s words. He was responding to Fawkes.

We already know that phoenixes are exceptionally loyal. When Dumbledore learns that Fawkes aided Harry in the Chamber of Secrets, he says “You must have shown me real loyalty down in the Chamber. Nothing but that could have called Fawkes to you” (CoS, pg. 332, American trade paperback). It seems to me that the sound Fawkes made was a sign that he trusted Harry. He was vouching for Harry’s loyalty. Obviously when a creature as loyal as a phoenix vouches for another’s loyalty, it means a great deal — enough even to draw a few tears from Albus Dumbledore.

Now, after hearing about Snape’s murder on the tower, Lupin says “Snape was a highly accomplished Occlumens…We always knew that” (HBP, pg. 615). The line has red herring written all over it. Dumbledore was sending Snape to the Dark Lord as a double agent; this means that Dumbledore honestly believed that Snape was a powerful enough Occlumens to fool even the Dark Lord. Dumbledore was a powerful wizard, but he was not cocky. I cannot believe that he would have assumed that his own powers of Legilimency were significantly stronger than the Dark Lord’s. And he therefore could not have depended on Legilimency to confirm his trust in Snape. Anyone able to deceive the Dark Lord would probably be able to deceive Dumbledore as well. In fact, I think Dumbledore would have wanted Snape to prove he could fool Dumbledore before letting Snape rejoin the Death Eaters. Dumbledore was not one to lightly risk his friends’ and allies’ lives.

But how else could Snape have convinced Dumbledore of his loyalty? Until Book 6, we knew of no better way (as far as I can find) than Legilimency. But with the above passage, I think JKR has hinted at another way of proving one’s loyalty. I believe that at some point, in some way, Fawkes confirmed that Snape was loyal to Dumbledore. Before continuing, I want to emphasize that this does not necessarily mean that Snape is “good” or kind-hearted in any way. It doesn’t even mean that he’s loyal to Dumbledore — only that Fawkes felt that he was loyal.

There is a second explanation of Dumbledore’s trust that I find nearly as credible. This one is based on an insight from Nathan Coblentz’s “against” editorial. He quotes a morsel from a MuggleNet-JKR interview:

ES: How can someone so –

JKR: Intelligent –

ES: be so blind with regard to certain things?

JKR: Well, there is information on that to come, in seven. But I would say that I think it has been demonstrated, particularly in books five and six that immense brainpower does not protect you from emotional mistakes and I think Dumbledore really exemplifies that. In fact, I would tend to think that being very, very intelligent might create some problems and it has done for Dumbledore, because his wisdom has isolated him, and I think you can see that in the books, because where is his equal, where is his confidante, where is his partner? He has none of those things. He’s always the one who gives, he’s always the one who has the insight and has the knowledge. So I think that, while I ask the reader to accept that McGonagall is a very worthy second in command, she is not an equal. You have a slightly circuitous answer, but I can’t get much closer than that.

Coblentz quotes Rowling as support for his argument that Dumbledore can make serious mistakes, of which trusting Snape is one. But I think this little glimpse into the mind of Dumbledore is interesting because it also suggests, in a roundabout way, a specific reason why Dumbledore might have trusted Snape without an ironclad reason.

We knew, before HBP, that Snape was powerful. But I think HBP makes it clear just how powerful. Here is a wizard who could vastly improve upon potion recipes in a standard textbook. Someone who was regularly inventing new spells before he even left high school. He’s the magical equivalent of a teenager who doodles corrections to the math in a copy of the Feynman Lectures on Physics.

And although Flitwick was reputedly a master duelist, and McGonagall clearly has her own remarkable powers, Rowling doesn’t give them many chances to demonstrate their skills. Snape, on the other hand, gets to show off.

McGonagall is not Dumbledore’s equal. But what if Snape is?

Imagine if Dumbledore trusted Snape not because of Legilimency or Fawkes, but because he needed a peer. Imagine that he deceived himself because of his isolation and loneliness. Imagine that when an intellectual (if not an ethical) equal approached him and asked to teach, he chose to trust him not because it was rational, but because it gave him someone to talk to.

Conveniently, we don’t necessarily have to choose between these two options. When Fawkes confirms Harry’s loyalty, Dumbledore reacts very emotionally. Clearly the issue of loyalty is already an emotional one for Dumbledore. If he felt a need for a peer at Hogwarts, and if he felt that Snape was such a peer, it would only have increased the strength of his reaction to any sign from Fawkes that Snape was trustworthy.

In the end, I personally find this second explanation lacking, mostly because I cannot imagine enjoying the company of Snape even if he were my only intellectual equal. So I’m banking on Fawkes. Paradoxically, this means that Snape’s very repulsiveness makes me want to trust him more.

So the most pressing question for me, more pressing than even “who is R.A.B” and “how evil is Snape,” is, where on earth did Fawkes go? There’s a rather terminal feel to the description of his exit: Harry “knew, without knowing how he knew it, that the phoenix had gone, had left Hogwarts for good, just as Dumbledore had left the school, had left the world…had left Harry” (HBP, pg. 632). But what can I say? I remain convinced that Fawkes has some part to play, even if it is a shocking one.

Other explanations for Dumbledore’s trust may come up in Book 7. And it remains possible — though unlikely, in my opinion — that Dumbledore simply took Snape’s word. But I believe that a phoenix’s trust is the strongest possible proof of a person’s trustworthiness, at least as far as we currently know. And if Dumbledore’s trust was founded on something more than Legilimency and fellow feeling, then I am betting that it was founded on Fawkes.