Did Snape Really Have a Life-Debt to James?

by Carol Grizzard (Shewoman)

(All citations are from the U.S. hardback editions except for Chamber and Prisoner, which are from the U.S. paperbacks.)

At the end of Philosopher’’s/Sorcerer’’s Stone, Dumbledore explains to Harry why Snape protected him that year. Harry points out that he’’s been told Snape hated James and Dumbledore confirms it, adding,

“And then your father did something Snape could never forgive.”“What?”

“He saved his life.”


“Yes…” said Dumbledore dreamily. “Funny, the way people’’s minds work, isn’’t it? Professor Snape couldn’’t bear being in your father’’s debt…I do believe he worked so hard to protect you this year because he felt that would make him and your father even. Then he could go back to hating your father’’s memory in peace.”

Harry tried to understand this but it made his head pound, so he stopped.
-pg. 300, “The Man With Two Faces”

We are introduced to the formal concept of life-debts in Prisoner of Azkaban. This is another end-of-the-year conversation between Dumbledore and Harry. Harry is despondent because Peter got away and Sirius wasn’’t publicly vindicated.

“But — I stopped Sirius and Professor Lupin from killing Pettigrew! That makes it my fault if Voldemort comes back!”“It does not,” said Dumbledore quietly. “…The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed…Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt…When one wizard saves another wizard’’s life, it creates a certain bond between them…and I’’m much mistaken if Voldemort wants his servant in the debt of Harry Potter…”

“I don’’t want a connection with Pettigrew!” said Harry.

“This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry. But trust me…the time may come when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrew’’s life.”
-pp. 425-27, “Owl Post Again”

Notice the difference in these two conversations. In both, the word “debt” is used. In the first, Dumbledore says that James saved Snape’’s life but presents Snape’’s “debt” to him as being subjective, existing in Snape’’s mind and rooted in his tumultuous emotions, something that he has chosen to act on under no outer compulsion. There is no mention of magic being involved or of anyone else (including Dumbledore) seeing it as an actual debt…just Snape’’s determination to be “even” with his dead-for-ten-years nemesis. (Does anyone but me wonder how many psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors it would take to make Snape well-adjusted?)

But in the Wormtail conversation, no reference is made to Wormtail’’s state of mind or any burdens he might or might not be placing upon himself. Here the debt is magical: Dumbledore clearly believes that it exists in the real world and not just in Wormtail’’s mind, regardless of whether Wormtail wants it, believes it, accepts it, or acts on it.

If Snape had the sort of debt to James that Wormtail does to Harry, I can’t think why Dumbledore wouldn’t have explained about life-debts two years earlier than he did instead of presenting Snape’s debt as a lesser thing, something Snape has chosen to take upon himself. It doesn’’t have frightening implications, like the Prophecy (which Dumbledore was aggressively not telling Harry about at that time), nor is the explanation in Prisoner so complicated that Harry couldn’’t have understood it in Stone.

Life-debts are, however, apparently a bit more complicated than Dumbledore let on in Prisoner. There he said, ““When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them,”” but in Part 3 of Rowling’’s interview with Emerson and Melissa in July of 2005, when asked if Ginny had a life-debt to Harry, she said,

“No, not really. Wormtail is different. You know, part of me would just love to explain the whole thing to you, plot of book seven, you know, I honestly would.”

Sure she would.

Why doesn’’t Ginny owe a life-debt to Harry? Harry risked his life to save her and would have died if Fawkes had not intervened (Chamber of Secrets, “The Heir of Slytherin,” pp. 306-22). A year ago, on the CoS Forums’ Secrets/Divination Studies, there was a thread on “All the Life-Debts.” This question came up quite often on that thread, and a general (but not universal) conclusion was that a life-debt occurs when a witch or wizard saves someone they wouldn’’t be expected to — an enemy, for example. But saving a friend or relative wouldn’’t create a life-debt because to do so would be automatic, even if it required great bravery. Thus the Weasleys and Harry’’s other friends don’’t owe him life-debts. This discussion has also come up on the many versions of “Snape Loved Lily” threads and others I haven’t read or don’’t remember. Harry’’s saving Wormtail and James’ saving Snape would both still seem to fall into the “life-debt” category, but there’’s still the fact that Dumbledore doesn’’t explain Snape’s “debt” as anything like the impenetrable magical debt Wormtail owes Harry but rather as a self-assumed task. It seems clear to me that Dumbledore does not think that these are the same kind of debt — and if he doesn’’t, then they aren’’t. Snape’’s obligation to James has meaning to him and influences his actions…but it’’s not a life-debt.

So why doesn’t Snape have a formal life-debt to James? Tempting as it is to make the case that Snape and James enjoyed a close friendship, I’’m going to offer a different solution. James saved Snape from Sirius’’ attempt to kill him. We see in Snape’’s Worst Memory (Order of the Phoenix, “Snape’s Worst Memory,” pp. 641-50) that there is very little love lost between Snape and the Marauders (particularly James). According to Lupin in Prisoner of Azkaban (“Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs,” pp. 356-57), Snape became interested in Lupin’’s monthly disappearances (when Lupin was wolfing it up in the Shrieking Shack). Lupin says that Sirius, aware of Snape’s curiosity, “”…thought it would be––er—–amusing to tell Snape” how to get into the Whomping Willow,” which would give him access to the Shack. When James realized what Sirius had done, he risked his life to catch Snape before he reached the Shack and bring him back to safety. Snape had seen WereLupin by that time but had not been hurt. There are things we don’’t know about this, like exactly when it was (although it was apparently after the Marauders’ OWLS in fifth year), who knew about it afterwards (Dumbledore did; he told Snape to keep Lupin’’s furry little problem a secret), and what punishment, if any, was levied on Sirius.

Snape raises the question of James’’ motivation in saving him when Harry refers to this story in Prisoner of Azkaban (“Snape’’s Grudge,” pg. 285):

““Have you been imagining some act of glorious heroism? Then let me correct you — your saintly father and his friends played a highly amusing joke on me that would have resulted in my death if your father hadn’’t got cold feet at the last moment. There was nothing brave about what he did. He was saving his own skin as much as mine. Had their joke succeeded, he would have been expelled from Hogwarts.””

No one else ever mentioned James being involved in this plot; I think Snape just assumes it (or knows it isn’’t true and says it only to gall Harry). Nonetheless, his suggestion that he himself could have died does have merit. While werewolves don’’t generally hunt human beings, if Snape had blundered into an underground chamber containing a werewolf it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’’t have been maimed at least, and death wasn’’t out of the question. Had either of these things happened, Sirius would certainly have been expelled and Lupin might well have been killed; he was the first (and is still the only) werewolf ever to be a student (or professor) at Hogwarts and I didn’’t notice any werewolves in the Fountain of Magical Brethren in the Ministry of Magic. From our first sight of Lupin in his threadbare robes on the Hogwarts Express in Prisoner, we are given to understand that people of his kind are denied on every level in the wizarding world. In Goblet of Fire, Buckbeak was sentenced to death for far less.

What was James’’ motivation? The futures of two of his friends are at stake (and quite likely the life of one of them). And Lily, in whom James is clearly interested, had already stood up to him over the altercation with Snape in “Snape’’s Worst Memory.” Thus three people with whom James was involved have a connection with this incident. I don’’t believe that James helped plan the attack on Snape, nor do I believe he was saving his own skin; I don’’t think he would have gotten in trouble. Sirius would certainly have cleared him. I believe that James acted heroically.

Red Hen (“The Werewolf Caper”) points out that the tunnel to the Shack is low enough that James couldn’’t have entered it in his stag state; he raced towards a werewolf in the same vulnerable human state as the boy he was trying to save. But I also think that his saving Snape wasn’’t really about Snape at all; it was about Sirius, Lupin, and, perhaps, scoring points with the woman he would eventually marry (although we don’t know if she ever knew about this. I think Lupin might have told her; he was the only one involved who had the right to out himself as a werewolf. And something radically changed her perception of James between Snape’’s Worst Memory in fifth year and her dating James in seventh year; something involving Snape could well be it).

James was basically a good guy and I’’m sure he didn’’t want a fellow student murdered — but, even more, he didn’’t want his best friends to be murderers. Saving Snape was a way of achieving these goals. I believe his complex motives are why Snape doesn’’t have an “official” life-debt towards him. James saved his life, but he did so to save people about whom he cared far more.