Severus Snape: A Portrait in Subtlety

by D.W. Hill (

Copyright 2005, revised for MuggleNet 2007

Murdering a Friend: Rowling lays the groundwork for considering it a real option.

Ever since finishing my first read of HBP in July 2005, I have spent many hours thinking about and researching the character of Severus Snape. Though I have read many fine articles on MuggleNet – some of which have addressed some of my points – I feel that a comprehensive article examining the many overlooked clues is in order. Near the beginning of Harry’s first Occlumency lesson, we read:

‘“You have no subtlety, Potter,’” said Snape, his dark eyes glittering, “’You do not understand fine distinctions.”’
(OotP 530)

This statement, in addition to being a jab at Harry, is a window into the author’’s mind, a glimpse at the delicate, understated way she reveals and conceals clues. Here are my assumptions and prejudices. Extraordinary as the magical world may seem to us, internally it is quite ordinary. Witches and wizards have differing abilities, struggle to learn, mess things up, and even aim poorly. They have the same range of emotions as the non-magical world. In addition, Rowling rarely pulls anything out of her hat; her mysteries and subplots have tracks that can be clearly followed when the books are re-read. I also believe that Rowling’’s fondness for word puzzles extends to her use of specific words and similarities in descriptions. As an example, I knew that Snape was the HBP as soon as I read the description of the handwriting on his old textbook:

…he saw something scribbled along the bottom of the back cover in the same, small, cramped handwriting as the instructions that won him his bottle of Felix Felicis……
(HBP 193)

It was almost identical to the description of Snape’’s writing as a teenager on his Defense Against the Dark Arts OWL when Harry looked over his shoulder in the Pensieve:

… …his writing was minuscule and cramped.
(OotP 641)

I’’m not bragging. Nothing like this ever happened before, and I cannot pretend that I didn’t’t start doubting myself when I learned that the book was 50 years old. Also, I connected RAB immediately with Sirius’’s brother, but I read right past the reference to the broken Vanishing Cabinet in the Room of Requirement when Harry went in to hide the Prince’’s old book (HBP 526).

My conclusion is that the series gives overwhelming evidence that Snape is definitely not Voldemort’s man; so far, he has consistently acted like Dumbledore’’s man, even in situations where he would not have needed to. My heart says he will continue to be Dumbledore’’s man, but this essay will stick with what I can firmly demonstrate.

Snape’’s murder of Dumbledore was the most devastating thing I ever experienced while reading a book – and I have a degree in English literature, so I have read a few. To me, Severus Snape represents all the unhappy, tormented, and unpopular kids who have or will have strayed from the paths of their better natures. Aside from Harry himself and Lord Voldemort, we know more about the early life of Snape than any other character.

Throughout the series, Rowling has given us glimpses into Snape’’s past, which suggests troubles beyond the bullying inflicted upon him by Harry’’s father and godfather. During an Occlumency lesson, we see the unhappy memories which Harry extracts from Snape’’s mind:

– Snape as a little boy crying in the corner as his parents argue, a kid trying to mount a bucking broomstick while being laughed at, and a teenager sitting alone in a darkened bedroom shooting down flies with his wand.
(OotP 592)

More disturbing than these are the questions raised by Sirius’’s recollections of Snape from school and Rowling’’s description of Snape the teenager.

Snape’’s always been fascinated by the dark arts. He was famous for it at school. Slimy, oily greasy-haired kid he was. …Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year. And, he was part of a gang of Slytherins, who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters.
(GoF 531)

Where had a boy of eleven at the oldest learned the Dark Arts? Surely, it was not from his muggle father, or his mother, whose claim to fame was that she was the president of the Hogwarts Gobstone club. Was Voldemort, like Greyback, recruiting children? What coercions were Snape and his family enduring?

In the Pensieve, as Harry sees the 15-year-old Snape leaving the Great Hall after the Defense Against the Dark Arts OWL, shortly before his humiliation by James and Sirius.

Snape the teenager had a stringy, pallid look about him, like a plant kept in the dark.
(OotP 640)

Round-shouldered yet angular he walked in a twitchy manner that recalled a spider, his oily hair swinging about his face.
(OotP 643)

Though the oily hair and pallid skin are consistent with Rowling’s descriptions of Snape the adult, the depiction of him as walking “in a twitchy manner” is a departure from the many references to Snape as prowling or swooping around like an overgrown bat. Why was he walking like that? Did he have a medical condition? Had he been injured? Rowling’’s mother died at forty-five as a result of the most aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis. In the summer 2002 edition of Inside MS, published by the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Scotland, she writes, ““Her deterioration was slow at first. There were bad spells when her walking became jerky and her general coordination suffered.” …” Rowling’’s portrayals of Snape’’s walk as “twitchy and her mother’’s walk as “jerky” are too similar to be coincidental. I am not suggesting that Snape has MS, but I doubt that Rowling could write a description like that as an off-the-cuff, meaningless page-filler – not that that is ever her style. It does, however, strongly suggest that something else was going on.

These factors coupled with the ubiquitous descriptions of Snape’’s lack of attention to personal hygiene and the fact that – Sirius’’s statement that Snape hung out with future Death Eaters notwithstanding – we never see him hanging out with anyone, present Severus Snape as the picture of an “at-risk” boy, if there ever was one. With Snape’’s murder of Dumbledore, one of the very few who ever cared for him, Rowling seems to have abandoned the opportunity to show that such people can be redeemed, that Dumbledore was right in his assertions that love is the strongest magic, and that Dumbledore’’s followers in the Order of the Phoenix, who distrusted Snape, were, nonetheless, justified in trusting Dumbledore’’s judgment. Some seem to feel that being wrong about Snape is almost essential for Dumbledore’’s statements that he makes mistakes – huge ones – to be true. In fact, Dumbledore has made plenty of mistakes without Snape’’s betrayal: believing Sirius could have betrayed the Potters, trusting Mundungus Fletcher, trusting Fudge to refrain from bringing Dementors into the castle, insisting that Sirius stay cooped up at Grimmauld Place, keeping the truth about the prophecy from Harry, giving Harry a sugar-coated explanation of how James Potter had saved Snape’’s life and making Snape teach Harry Occlumency.

Dumbledore’’s overriding purpose throughout the series is to find a way to destroy Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard who ever existed. Any defense of Severus Snape must start with evidence that Snape’’s murder of Dumbledore advances this goal. Appalling as it might be to consider the possibility that murdering a friend could be justified, Rowling herself lays the groundwork for this perspective in the fifth and sixth books. In the lobby of the Ministry of Magic, when Voldemort is possessing Harry in the hope that Dumbledore will kill Harry to get rid of Voldemort, Harry silently pleads that Dumbledore will do so.

‘Let the pain stop,’ thought Harry, ‘let him kill us, end it Dumbledore…’
(OotP 816)

In Dumbledore’’s office before leaving for the cave, Harry promised to obey him, even if he, Dumbledore, ordered Harry to leave him and save his own life.

‘If I tell you to leave me and save yourself, you will do as I tell you?’
(HBP 551)

Thus, we know that Harry has already experienced a situation in which he desired to be killed by a friend and Dumbledore could foresee the possibility of an occasion where he would prefer his own death to the alternative.

Is it so far-fetched to suggest that Dumbledore, who is portrayed throughout the series as a loving, courageous, polite, and intelligent man, could envision many such situations? For instance, he is clearly devoted to his students and both Harry and Draco Malfoy were on the Astronomy tower when Dumbledore was killed. Consider the situation in the moments before Dumbledore’s murder. By the time Snape arrived, the three Death Eaters and the enraged werewolf Greyback were growing impatient with Draco’’s inability to follow Voldemort’’s order to kill Dumbledore. At least one of them was already pointing his wand at Dumbledore. With Dumbledore sick and wandless and Harry immobilized under the Invisibility Cloak, Snape would have had to take on the four by himself. It seems unlikely that he could have pulled this off without one of them attacking him, Dumbledore, or Draco. Furthermore, Harry, though invisible, would not have been safe from spells that went astray as they so often do, including on that very evening. Since Draco clearly noticed that there were two brooms on the tower, it seems safe to assume that Snape would have also. Furthermore, since he knows about the Invisibility Cloak, having used it himself in ‘Azkaban, he may have guessed that Harry had to be there. If Dumbledore had lived, Voldemort would have killed Draco and his mother. Also, if Snape had not stepped in and killed Dumbledore, he, Snape, would have died because of the Unbreakable Vow he made with Narcissa Malfoy.


Snape’’s Part in Dumbledore’’s Plan: The Only One with All the Skills

Dumbledore has, I believe, an even greater reason for placing the lives of Severus Snape and Harry above his own. They are both crucial to his plan to defeat Lord Voldemort. By the end of Half-Blood Prince, Harry knows that, before he can vanquish the Dark Lord once and for all, he must find and destroy as many as four Horcruxes. It is unlikely that any of them will be less dangerous or less difficult to find or destroy than the three with which Harry is already familiar. In each case, the destruction of the Horcrux as well as the survival of those who came in contact with it depended on powerful magic and at least one other person. Harry almost dies trying to save Ginny Weasley from Tom Riddle’’s diary, Voldemort’’s first Horcrux, in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He only managed it with the help of Dumbledore’’s Phoenix and Gryffindor’’s magical sword. After Harry retrieves the real memory from Slughorn, Dumbledore credits his own “prodigious skill and Professor Snape’’s timely action when I returned to Hogwarts desperately injured” (HBP 503) for saving him from the curse that was on Slytherin’’s ring and limiting its effects to his right hand. On the night he died, Dumbledore takes Harry with him to find another Horcrux. He needs Harry’’s help both to get to the locket and to get back to Hogwarts. Though Harry did destroy Riddle’’s diary, he did so with the poisonous fang of Slytherin’’s monster, which he had killed with Gryffindor’’s sword. Also, the diary was designed to fall into innocent hands and did not have the same protections as the ring and the locket. Harry was not with Dumbledore when he destroyed the ring and Dumbledore never told him how he did it. The locket they retrieved on the night Dumbledore died was a fake, left in Voldemort’’s hiding place by the person who took Slytherin’’s real locket. Thus, Harry does not know how to destroy a real Horcrux and can only speculate about how it might be done.

It is inconceivable that Dumbledore, who has thought so long and carefully about the destruction of Voldemort, would not have made provisions for the likelihood that it would not occur in his lifetime. It is unfathomable that he would expect Harry, Ron, and Hermione to tackle such Dark Magic without assistance.

No character other than Snape has been shown to have all of the skills that will be necessary to destroy Voldemort. Harry has seen evidence of Snape’’s extraordinary talents as a healer, potion-maker, and fighter. Extremely ill from drinking the poison potion on the night he died, Dumbledore insists that it is Snape whom he needs not Madam Pomfrey. Also, he credits Snape with saving Katie Bell’’s life as well as his own, and Harry witnessed firsthand his healing of Draco Malfoy from the curse Harry so unwisely used against him. Though Harry did not know that Snape was the Half-Blood Prince until after Dumbledore’’s death, he came to respect Snape and rely on his judgment as a potion-maker by using his old textbook.

Harry’’s unsuccessful attempts to duel with Snape, after Dumbledore’’s death, are only the latest examples of Snape’’s skills with a wand. During the first Quidditch match in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Snape protects Harry from Professor Quirrell, who, while he was secretly being possessed by Voldemort, was trying to kill Harry. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry sees evidence of his powers in the first and only meeting of the dueling club. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, though he – like the rest of the Wizarding World – is mistaken about Sirius Black, Snape shows his bravery in his attempt to save Harry from Black, which meant he would have to enter the tunnel to the Shrieking Shack where he was almost killed as a 16-year-old, knowing that it was the full moon and Lupin had not taken his potion.

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry learns about Snape’’s extraordinary skills in Legilimency, “the ability to extract feelings and memories from another person’’s mind” (OotP 530), and Occlumency, which “seals the mind against magical intrusion and influence ”(OotP 530). And while we’’re talking about Snape’’s cerebral skills, notice the qualifiers he uses in that first Occlumency lesson. He says, ““The Dark Lord, for instance, almost always knows when somebody is lying to him”” (OotP 530) and that ““Eye contact is often essential to Legilimency”” (OotP 531). Hmm, “almost” always knows and “often” essential?” Sounds to me like a guy who’s been lying to the Dark Lord and who is an even better Legilimens than we think.

If Dumbledore did see Snape as crucial to his plan, he would not have wanted Snape to jeopardize the ultimate goal of destroying Voldemort on the slim chance that Snape would be able to save him without endangering Draco, Harry, or himself. Dumbledore would have also known that, if Snape murdered him – Unbreakable Vow or not – then Snape would be in the best position to learn more about Voldemort’’s Horcruxes. Yes, I believe Dumbledore and Snape have been discussing Horcruxes longer than we have. When Dumbledore says he trusts Severus Snape completely, I believe he means it. And – we might as well get this out of the way now – Dumbledore wouldn’’t participate in an Unbreakable Vow, the wizard equivalent of holding a gun to somebody’’s head.


The Double Agent Unraveled – Part 1: The Big Bluff

So far, however, all I have shown is that Snape’’s murder of Dumbledore is one of those circumstances that would seem to benefit both of his erstwhile masters. When seeking to determine the true allegiance of any double agent, one must discount most of what that person says and does on either side as necessary to maintain that person’’s cover. One must look at the subtleties in what is said and left unsaid, and weigh the value of what is done to determine which side benefits most. The only examples of Snape talking with fellow Death Eaters outside the presence of others are his conversation in his living room with Narcissa Malfoy and her sister Bellatrix Lestrange and his confrontation with Draco Malfoy, which Harry overhears the night of Slughorn’’s Christmas party.

Before looking at these examples, let’’s examine Snape’’s situation at the end of Order of the Phoenix. By the time Harry is caught using the fire in Professor Umbridge’’s office on the afternoon of the day Sirius is killed, Dumbledore has already fled from Hogwarts and Snape has thrown Harry out of his office after catching him in the Pensieve viewing his worst memory. Draco Malfoy and several other Slytherins, who are part of Umbridge’’s Inquisitorial Squad and are guarding Hermione, Ron, Neville, Ginny, and Luna, witness the cryptic exchange between Snape and Harry in the office of the then headmistress. Harry is trying to get a message to Snape that Voldemort has Sirius at the Department of Mysteries.

‘He’’s got Padfoot,’ he shouted, ‘He’’s got Padfoot at the place where it’s hidden.’
(OotP 745)

Dolores Umbridge repeats the name Padfoot and although Snape acts disdainfully uninterested and changes the subject by addressing Crabbe about his hold on Neville, it is quite possible that Draco remembers this exchange. Though he is unlikely to have repeated it to his father, who is arrested later that evening, it is reasonable to assume that his aunt Bellatrix, who falls from grace when she is unable to retrieve the prophecy for Voldemort, would question Draco to see if he knows anything that would explain how the Order of the Phoenix found out about the plan.

On Harry’’s first evening at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, Sirius laments:

Voldemort will know all about me being an animagus by now. Wormtail will have told him, so my big disguise is useless.”
(OotP 82)

Also, at the end of the Christmas holiday, in the kitchen at Grimmauld Place after telling Harry that he will be teaching him Occlumency, Snape argues with Sirius.

‘”Speaking of dogs,’” said Snape softly, ‘Did you know that Lucius Malfoy recognized you last time you risked a little jaunt outside?”’
(OotP 520)

Even if Sirius’’s nickname didn’’t filter down to Bellatrix and Draco, how much of a leap would it be to suspect that Padfoot might be a nickname for a dog? Though Snape could no doubt shrug this off by saying that of course Harry thinks he’’s in the Order, that’’s the point of being a spy, it could explain why Bella still mistrusts him, why she has taught Draco Occlumency and why Draco has turned on his favorite teacher.

Nonetheless, as far as we know, Snape has not done anything big for Voldemort, since telling him about the first half of the prophecy. It was predictable that Voldemort would test Snape and require something big of him just as it was predictable that Voldemort would punish Lucius for destroying the diary and botching the job at the Ministry and predictable that with Lucius safely in Azkaban that that punishment would fall on Draco. Even Narcissa’’s visit is no great leap. Predictability allows for preparation and Dumbledore and Snape had plenty of time to consider all of these options and plan accordingly. Snape and Dumbledore are cunning enough to realize that Voldemort will be going after either Dumbledore or Harry and that without the prophecy, it is more likely that Dumbledore would be first since he provides Harry with some level of protection. In the summer before Harry’’s sixth year, Snape has an unexpected visit from Narcissa Malfoy, who is clearly distressed, and her sister Bellatrix Lestrange, who is just as clearly not happy about being there at all. There is no reason to assume that anything Snape says to either of them is true. This includes his knowledge of the plan and his confession that he had a role in killing Emmeline Vance and Sirius Black. Even if Snape is loyal to Voldemort, the obvious tension between Snape and Bellatrix could be part of a power struggle as they both vie for Voldemort’’s favor. In such a case, truthfulness would not be realistic to assume. Also, remember that we have no information about Emmeline Vance’’s murder allowing for the possibility that her death was staged to help Snape win favors with Voldemort.

Snape’’s actions at Spinner’’s End are consistent with a good bluff. Wormtail’’s interruptions, the sharing of wine, and the discussion with Bellatrix about Snape’’s supposed treachery to the Dark Lord give him time to weigh his options and to pick up any clues – whether through Legilimency or cunning interpretation – about the nature of the visit. The story he gives Bella, whether true or not, is no doubt the same one he gave Voldemort. Therefore, telling it would require no great mental effort, leaving him plenty of energy for Legilimency.

Let’’s examine their visit in light of what we know about Occlumency and Legilimency.

“Eye contact is often essential to Legilimency.”
(OotP 531)

Here is his description of how to use Occlumency to block it:

Master yourself! Control your anger, discipline your mind.”
(OotP 536)

Keep in mind how Snape describes Harry’’s failure to do this:

You are allowing me access to memories you fear, handing me weapons.
(OotP 536)

Dark as her sister was fair with heavily lidded eyes and a strong jaw, she did not take her gaze from Snape as she moved to stand behind Narcissa.
(HBP 23)

Narcissa murmured a word of thanks whilst Bellatrix said nothing but continued to glower at Snape. This did not seem to discompose him. On the contrary, he looked rather amused.
(HBP 24)

Narcissa let out a noise that might have been a dry sob and covered her face with her hands. Snape set his glass down upon the table and sat back again, his hands upon the arms of his chair smiling into Bellatrix’’s glowering face.
(HBP 25)

In typical Snape fashion, he goads Bella several times by belittling her imprisonment and rubbing it in that she bungled the job at the Ministry. The emotional responses she has to this taunting on top of her concern about what Narcissa is about to do would, according to Snape’’s comments, make her more vulnerable to having her mind penetrated. Notice what Bellatrix divulges in this passage.

‘My information has been conveyed directly to the Dark Lord,’ said Snape, ‘If he chooses not to share it with you—…’
‘He shares everything with me,”” said Bellatrix, firing up at once, “He calls me his most loyal, his most faithful—-‘

‘Does he,’ said Snape, his voice delicately inflected to suggest his disbelief, ‘Does he still, after the fiasco at the Ministry?’

‘That was not my fault,’ said Bellatrix flushing, ‘The Dark Lord has in the past entrusted me with his most precious …’
(HBP 29)

Knowing what we now know about Voldemort’’s Horcruxes, what precious thing do you think he entrusted to her? Also, throughout the visit, Snape is tight-lipped basing his comments on what is said to him. Narcissa tells him at the door that it is urgent. Snape gets a strong hint that Voldemort is involved early in the conversation, just after Wormtail’’s second interruption:

She took a great shuddering breath and started again, “’Severus, I know I ought not to be here. I have been told to say nothing to anyone, but …-‘
(HBP 25)

Taking advantage of her silence, Snape turned to her sister, “’Now, you came to ask me for help, Narcissa?”’ Narcissa looked up at him, her face eloquent with despair.
“’Yes, Severus, I -… I think you are the only one who can help me. I have nowhere else to turn. Lucius is in jail and,’ she closed her eyes and two large tears seeped from beneath her eyelids, ‘The Dark Lord has forbidden me to speak of it,’” Narcissa continued, her eyes still closed, ‘He wishes none to know of the plan. It is very secret, but …-‘

‘If he has forbidden it, you ought not to speak,’ said Snape at once, ‘The Dark Lord’’s word is law.’

Narcissa gasped as though he had doused her with cold water. Bellatrix looked satisfied for the first time since she had entered the house. ‘There!’ she said triumphantly to her sister, ‘Even Snape says so. You were told not to talk. So, hold your silence.’

But, Snape had gotten to his feet and strode to the small window, peered through the curtains at the deserted street, then closed them again with a jerk. He turned around to face Narcissa frowning.

‘It so happens that I know of the plan,’ he said in a low voice, ‘I am one of the few the Dark Lord has told. Nevertheless, had I not been in on the secret, Narcissa, you would have been guilty of great treachery to the Dark Lord.’

‘I thought you must know about it,’ said Narcissa breathing more freely, ‘He trusts you so, Severus.’

‘You know about the plan?’ said Bellatrix, her fleeting expression of satisfaction replaced by a look of outrage, ‘You know?’

‘Certainly,’ said Snape, ‘But, what help do you require, Narcissa? If you are imagining that I can persuade the Dark Lord to change his mind, I’m afraid there is no hope, none at all.’

‘Severus,’ she whispered, tears sliding down her pale cheeks, ‘My only son.’

‘Draco should be proud,’ said Bellatrix indifferently, ‘The Dark Lord is granting him a great honor, and I will say this for Draco, he isn’t shrinking away from his duty. He seems glad of a chance to prove himself, excited at the prospect.’
(HBP 32-33)

Notice that Snape brings up his knowledge of the plan only after Narcissa refers to it as a plan. Narcissa is the one who mentions her son first and Bella confirms that Voldemort has ordered Draco to do something. Notice too Snape’’s harsh criticism of Narcissa, adding to her emotional distress. Also, Snape’’s trip to the window gives him even more time to collect his thoughts. Though Narcissa’’s eyes are closed during Snape’’s conversation with her sister, she looks directly at him well before making the Unbreakable Vow, giving him ample opportunity to read the identity of Voldemort’’s target in her mind.


The Double Agent Unraveled – Part 2: The Little Lie

In calling into question someone’’s truthfulness, it’s nice to be able to point to at least one inconsistency. Rowling provides us with that luxury. In Snape’’s living room, Bella presents a succinct list of reasons that she and other Death Eaters doubt Snape’’s loyalty to the Dark Lord. Hidden within Snape’’s frank confession that he thought that the Dark Lord was finished and that he, Snape, wanted to stay out of jail, is a curious little lie.

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.
(HBP 30-31)

If he had been curious about Harry, I would have expected Snape to show mild interest in Harry if not out-and-out favoritism. The books, however, tell a different story.

At the Start-of-Term Banquet, Harry had gotten the idea that Professor Snape disliked him. By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’’d been wrong. Snape didn’’t dislike Harry; he hated him.
(SS 136)

Why tell such a lie? Surely, Bella would not condemn Snape for hating Harry from the start. Snape’s willingness to hide this animosity suggests that it might have been nurtured with Dumbledore’’s blessing, in part to protect Snape’’s cover.

In addition, by exploiting his hatred of Harry’’s father, Snape gives Harry a view of himself, his family, and his situation that no one else can provide. In response to Snape’’s attitude toward him, Harry has been forced to develop defensive skills far earlier than he might have otherwise. Snape, though often cruel and always unkind, is nonetheless right about Harry most of the time. In Chamber of Secrets, he is right that Harry knew more about the attack on Filch’’s cat than he was telling the staff, and he is right that it was Harry who threw the firework into Goyle’’s cauldron. In Prisoner of Azkaban, he was right that Harry was leaving the castle illegally, right that Harry was lying to him about the Marauder’’s Map, and right that Harry had helped Black escape. He was also right that Dumbledore had given Harry a sugarcoated version of the circumstances in which Harry’’s father had saved Snape’’s life. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he is right that Harry was wandering around the castle after hours in his Invisibility Cloak. In Order of the Phoenix, he is right that Harry was not taking his Occlumency lessons seriously. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he is right that Harry was lying to him about where he had learned the Sectumsempra spell, which he had recklessly used on Draco without knowing what it did, and he is right that Harry was lying to him about his potions textbook.

The other seemingly candid conversation between Death Eaters is in Chapter 15 of Half-Blood Prince. When Snape confronts Draco Malfoy on the night of Professor Slughorn’’s Christmas party, he tells Draco that he, Draco, is suspected in the attack on Katie Bell. He does not tell Draco, however – and Draco asks him directly – that it was Harry who brought his suspicions about Draco to the staff and that Harry had overheard Draco’’s conversation in Borgin and Burke’s before the term started (HBP 322). We can feel reasonably sure that Snape knew this not only because of Dumbledore’’s trust but also because with Dumbledore absent, McGonagall clearly did not hesitate to take the critically injured Katie Bell or the cursed necklace to Snape and would probably have shared Harry’’s suspicions with him. Also, there are several curiously uncharacteristic Snape moments in the fifth and sixth books which suggest that Snape may be exaggerating his hatred of Harry.

I have been told that you have already shown aptitude at resisting the Imperius Curse.
(OotP 534)

When have we ever heard Snape say anything vaguely complementary to Harry? On the evening when Professor Trelawney is thrown out by Professor Umbridge, Harry, and Snape are having a verbal fight in Occlumency. They hear a woman scream and Snape asks Harry, “if he saw anything unusual on his way down to his office” (OotP 594). When has Snape ever asked Harry a question without sneering? Even more out of place is Snape’’s reaction to Harry’’s use of the Sectumsempra spell on Draco Malfoy. For years Snape has threatened to have Harry expelled for things like wandering around after hours in Sorcerer’s Stone, the flying car incident in Chamber of Secrets, and leaving school without permission in Prisoner of Azkaban. Then, only months after saying to Bellatrix:

I have done my utmost to have him thrown out of Hogwarts, where I believe he scarcely belongs.
(HBP 31)

Yet when Snape catches Harry red-handed, having just used a potentially lethal spell, the matter of expulsion doesn’’t even come up. Since we are told that “…Snape had told the staff precisely what had happened” (HBP 529), we can’’t accuse him of going light on Harry to avoid the possibility that spreading information about that particular Dark spell might just come back to bite him.

Furthermore, there is a host of information suggesting that Snape’’s actions have been far more beneficial to Dumbledore than to Voldemort. In Chapter 30 of Goblet of Fire, before Voldemort’’s return, when Dumbledore is explaining to Harry how the Pensieve works, Harry sees Snape’’s face in the Pensieve and hears him telling Dumbledore that his Dark Mark has been growing stronger all year. In Chapter 36, in the hospital wing on the very night of Voldemort’’s return, knowing that Harry is watching closely, Snape shows his Dark Mark to Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, who was refusing to believe Harry’’s contention that Voldemort was back. In Chapter 37 of Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore tells Harry that Snape told him that Harry was having dreams about the hallway to the Department of Mysteries and that Harry had seen a vision of Voldemort speaking to one of his Death Eaters. Since Snape acquired this knowledge during private Occlumency lessons with Harry, why would he have had to share it with Dumbledore at all? How does Voldemort benefit from Snape telling Dumbledore about Voldemort’’s extreme anger with Lucius Malfoy over the destruction of Riddle’’s diary? How does Voldemort benefit when Snape downplays Harry’’s abilities to Narcissa and Bellatrix?

From Dumbledore’’s comments about his trust in Snape and that it was Snape who treated the injuries he received from the Dark Magic that almost killed him when he found Slytherin’’s ring, it would seem that Snape would have to know that Dumbledore was trying to destroy Voldemort’’s precious Horcruxes. He could have shared this information with Voldemort nearly a year before Dumbledore’’s death. If he had, it is inconceivable that Voldemort would have waited as long as he did for Dumbledore’’s murder or that he would have entrusted the job to a 16-year-old boy.

Also, Snape clearly alerts the Order of the Phoenix he suspects that Harry has gone to the Department of Mysteries. Some argue that Snape does this too late to be of any use. From the perspective of Voldemort’’s original plan, however, it makes no sense for Snape to alert them at all. Voldemort hopes to obtain the prophecy and hopes it will give him the secret to getting rid of Harry. Why invite members of the Order to the battle when the priority is to get rid of Harry? Also, Bella’’s comments in Chapter 2 about that night suggest that she and the other Death Eaters did not expect to see them.

‘And, forgive me, you speak of dangers. You were facing six teenagers, were you not?’
[Bellatrix replies] ‘They were joined, as you very well know, by half of the Order before long.’
(HBP 29)

By the way, her comment “as you very well know,” could be construed as an accusation.

Consider too the argument that Hagrid overhears between Snape and Dumbledore in Chapter 18 of Half-Blood Prince during the week prior to the incident in which Ron is poisoned by the mead that Draco had intended for Dumbledore. Hagrid overhears Snape telling Dumbledore that he, Dumbledore, is taking too much for granted and that maybe he, Snape, doesn’’t want to do it anymore. It is highly unlikely that they were arguing, as Hagrid attempts to suggest, about Dumbledore’’s orders that all Heads of House investigate their own houses in light of the attack on Katie Bell. Perhaps Snape is getting tired of keeping an eye on Draco, which he is doing both for Dumbledore and Draco’’s mother. Certainly, Draco’’s uncharacteristic rejection of Snape’’s help and vicious aspersions on his motives, on the night of Slughorn’’s Christmas party in Chapter 15, could not have lent any joy to the task. It is more likely that Dumbledore, knowing that Voldemort had ordered Draco to murder him and that Draco would not be able to do so, was coming to grips with the likelihood that Snape would have to do it. He may have been reminding Snape of a promise – not unlike the promise that he received from Harry – that Snape made to obey him and attempting to prepare him for the high cost they both would have to pay in order to rid the world of this evil wizard. Also, Snape, clearly unpopular with both the Death Eaters and members of the Order of the Phoenix and now having lost the respect of his favorite student, may have truly been coming unglued. If Dumbledore’’s plan, as I suggest, does include Snape helping Harry, he would be even less inclined to do so after Harry’’s trip into the Pensieve in Chapter 28 of Order of the Phoenix. Snape had hidden the memory of the vicious attack on him by Harry’’s father and godfather and Snape’’s subsequent lashing out at Lily when they all were in school. It was clearly something he did not wish to share with Harry. In any case, if Snape is truly loyal to Voldemort and knowing that Dumbledore’’s murder was imminent, why risk raising suspicions by arguing with Dumbledore at all?


Snape, the Anathema: Conspicuously absent and out of control?

Snape has been curiously and conspicuously absent from several major events throughout the series which would have given him a chance to stand up for Voldemort. Where was Snape at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone? He had been tailing Quirrell all year, knew he was trying to kill Harry, and prevented him from doing so at least once. He knew that Harry, Ron, and Hermione were up to something on the afternoon of the showdown with Quirrell/Voldemort, but he is nowhere to be seen that evening. In Chamber of Secrets, he knows Harry is lying about what he knows about the attacks but doesn’’t seek him out when he learns that Ginny Weasley has been taken into the Chamber of Secrets. In Prisoner of Azkaban, he is under Harry’’s Invisibility Cloak in the Shrieking Shack to hear enough of the conversation to arouse anyone’’s curiosity but manages to remain knocked out long enough to miss witnessing the truth about Wormtail. In each case, Snape’’s presence would have caused him more trouble with Voldemort, if he was truly on Dumbledore’s side. As it is, he can say he didn’’t know that Voldemort was possessing Quirrell, that Voldemort was the Heir of Slytherin, or that Wormtail was working for Voldemort.

In Sorcerer’s Stone, Snape could have read the truth in Quirrell’’s mind. Dumbledore knew that it had been Riddle the first time the Chamber of Secrets was opened. Did Dumbledore order Snape to avoid getting involved? Perhaps, in Prisoner of Azkaban, Snape may have awakened and realized that Pettigrew was the traitor after all. He also realized that he couldn’’t risk being known to have acquired that information. Wandless and knowing that Lupin hadn’’t taken his potion, he could have guessed that getting out of the Shrieking Shack was going to be risky under any circumstances. Remaining “knocked out” may have been the best survival strategy.

Snape’’s reputation as a sadistic, angry man who likes hardly anyone has been well documented. There’’s no doubt that he has reasons to hate Harry’’s father and Sirius and that he has been dreadful to Harry, Neville, Ron, and Hermione in particular. He seems out of control in the Shrieking Shack when he confronts Black and has a full-blown hissy fit in front of the Minister of Magic at the end of Azkaban. He never misses a chance to needle Harry. Anyone who doesn’’t think Snape could be exaggerating his anger should remember what he said to Harry during their first Occlumency lesson:

Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked this easily – weak people, in other words – they stand no chance against his power.
(OotP 536)

With the exception of the heart on the sleeve bit, isn’’t that pretty much a description of Snape? And yet, don’t we know that Snape is in Lupin’’s words “a superb Occlumens.” Isn’’t anyone a little disturbed by the fact that Snape’’s behavior has consistently defied his own descriptions of what is needed to do Occlumency? Those who dismiss anger as an emotion that would compromise a person’’s ability to do Occlumency should notice that it is Harry’’s anger that inspired those remarks from Snape in the first place.

‘“Clear your mind, Potter,’ said Snape’’s cold voice, ‘“Let go of all emotion.’ But Harry’’s anger at Snape continued to pound through his veins like venom. Let go of his anger? He could as easily detach his legs.
(OotP 535)

What about the things he said to Harry when Tonks leaves him at the Hogwarts’ gates in Half-Blood Prince? Isn’’t it a bit lame, bringing up the flying car, accusing Harry of wanting to be seen, and then forbidding him to wear his cloak? As Sirius would say, ““I ask you!””


Harry’’s Faulty Memory, Missing Connections, Hints, and Hopes

In Chapter 29 after Dumbledore’’s murder, members of the Order of the Phoenix assemble in the hospital wing. They lament Dumbledore’’s steadfast trust in Snape and wonder what Snape could have possibly told Dumbledore that would have convinced him so thoroughly that Snape had changed. Harry tells them that he knows. He tells them that it was Snape who gave Voldemort the information which sent him after the Potters. He tells them that Dumbledore said that Snape ““hadn’’t realized what he was doing, that he was really sorry that he’’d done it, sorry that they were dead” (HBP 616). In this, Harry is both misinterpreting Dumbledore and failing to consider two memories that would have shed light on the subject.

Snape does carry the first half of the prophecy to Voldemort and Dumbledore does say, ““You have no idea of the remorse Professor Snape felt when he realized how Lord Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy”” (HBP 549) and he says that he believes it to be the greatest regret of Snape’’s life and the reason he returned. Notice that Dumbledore says Snape’’s remorse was about how Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy not that Harry’s parents had been killed. Snape’’s remorse upon returning to Dumbledore, feigned or not, could not have been over the deaths of Harry’’s parents. On Harry’’s first trip into the Pensieve, he hears Dumbledore testify that Snape returned to their side before Voldemort’’s downfall – in other words, before Harry’’s parents were killed. Harry has also forgotten what he heard Cornelius Fudge say in the Three Broomsticks before Christmas in his third year. Fudge says:

Not many people are aware that the Potter’s knew You-Know-Who was after them. Dumbledore, who was of course working tirelessly against You-Know-Who, had a number of useful spies. One of them tipped him off and he alerted James and Lily at once.
(PoA 204)

Could it have been Snape? Perhaps, Voldemort’’s intent to kill a child, especially Lily’’s child, finally offended Snape’’s sensibilities. Nevertheless, Dumbledore does not say that his trust in Snape is based on Snape’’s remorse. When Harry asks him, after his first trip into the Pensieve, what made him think Snape had really stopped supporting Voldemort, Dumbledore says:

That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.
(GoF 604)

When Harry revisits the subject in his lesson with Dumbledore, after overhearing Snape and Malfoy outside Slughorn’’s Christmas party, we read:

‘I have been tolerant enough to answer that question already,’ said Dumbledore, but he did not sound very tolerant anymore, ‘My answer has not changed.’
(HBP 359)

Rowling emphasizes her sympathy for Snape by having the portrait of former headmaster Phineas Nigellus Black say, “I should think not.”

Also, Rowling loves to use curious little omissions in her writing. We don’’t hear all of Snape’’s conversation with Quirrell in the Forbidden Forest in Sorcerer’s Stone. Similarly, Hagrid doesn’’t hear exactly what Snape and Dumbledore are talking about. Other scenes are alluded to though we don’t get to witness them. In Half-Blood Prince, we learn that Bella has been teaching Draco Occlumency but don’’t get to hear them talking privately. Two other scenes at the end of Half-Blood Prince are similarly missing from our arsenal. What did Dumbledore do on the night he died when he sent Harry back to Gryffindor Tower for his Invisibility Cloak? In the shed at the Burrow after visiting Slughorn, Dumbledore says, “Firstly, I wish you to keep your Invisibility Cloak with you at all times from this moment onward, even within Hogwarts itself just in case. You understand me?” (HBP 79).

We have no evidence that Harry has not followed his wishes. Dumbledore doesn’’t ask him if he has it, but tells him to go get it. Harry uses the opportunity to alert Ron and Hermione about Draco and to give them the Felix Felicis potion. Does Dumbledore use the time to tip off Snape? Dumbledore’’s and Snape’’s offices are on the same side of the Marauder’’s Map. There might be a secret connection between them and if not, there’’s always floo powder.

The other unknown is Flitwick’’s version of what happened to him in Snape’’s office when he went to warn him about the Death Eaters. Neither Madam Pomfrey nor Flitwick weighs in on this. Though Madam Pomfrey is in the room tending to Bill and could have theoretically clarified things, Hermione, who tells the story, is speaking in a manner that Madam Pomfrey may not have been able to hear. There are three references to the way in which she was speaking about what she and Luna experienced outside of Snape’’s office:

…whispered Hermione,

…said Hermione in a high-pitched whisper,


She covered her face in shame and continued to talk into her fingers so that her voice was muffled.

(HBP 619)

We’’re assuming that Hermione is right that Snape stupefied Flitwick. We don’’t have any real proof that Flitwick didn’’t just collapse as Snape tells Hermione and Luna. Furthermore, if Snape did stupefy Flitwick, he could have done so either to eliminate an opponent or to protect a friend.

A rather revealing incident takes place in Chapter 28 of Half-Blood Prince when Harry is chasing Snape through the Hogwarts’ grounds after Dumbledore’’s murder. When Harry’’s Stunning spell misses Snape, Snape turns around and there are several heated exchanges between the two. Amidst the predictable rhetoric (Harry’’s fury at Snape for murdering Dumbledore and Snape’’s typical aspersions on Harry’’s abilities and his father’’s character), there is a peculiar statement. As Snape is blocking Harry’s curses, he says:

Blocked again and again and again, until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed.”
(HBP 603)

This would seem insignificant if not for the fact that casting nonverbal spells was a big part of Harry’’s education in his sixth year and learning how to close his mind to the Dark Lord was the whole point of his Occlumency lessons. Could Snape be trying to give Harry a clue? Consider this. Snape stops the Death Eaters from torturing Harry and tells them to remember their orders. They were to leave Harry:

He belongs to the Dark Lord.
(HBP 603)

Notice that Voldemort does not even want his Death Eaters to stun Harry and bring him to him, though they had an excellent opportunity to do so. Perhaps, Snape suspects that with Dumbledore gone, Voldemort, who still doesn’’t know what that prophecy said, may again try to manipulate Harry’’s thoughts. Surely, Snape knows that Harry is no match for the Death Eaters until he masters nonverbal spells and no match for Voldemort until he masters Occlumency.

Other hints exist in the author’s descriptions of key events.

…there was revulsion and hatred etched in the hard lines of his face.
(HBP 595)

Compare this with the description of Harry earlier on the same evening.

Hating himself, repulsed by what he was doing, Harry forced the goblet back toward Dumbledore’’s mouth.
(HBP 571)

I wonder what expression Harry had on his face. Could it have been all that different from Snape’’s?

Finally, there are little hints that what Harry thinks of him matters to Snape. In Order of the Phoenix, during his Occlumency lesson, Harry is questioning Snape about how they know about Voldemort’’s intentions to do something to Harry that Occlumency could help him with.

‘And, Vo… he realized I was there?’

‘It seems so,’ said Snape coolly.

‘How do you know?’ said Harry urgently, ‘Is this just Professor Dumbledore guessing, or …’

‘I told you,’ said Snape rigid in his chair, his eyes slits, ‘to call me Sir.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ said Harry impatiently, ‘but how do you know?’

‘It is enough that we know,’ said Snape repressively, ‘The important point is that the Dark Lord is now aware that you are gaining access to his thoughts and feelings. He has also deduced that the process is likely to work in reverse. That is to say that he has realized that he might be able to access your thoughts and feelings in return.’
(OotP 533)

Snape’’s comment, ““I told you to call me, Sir.”” is strategically placed. If Snape has really been trying to help Harry all along and if he learned about Voldemort’’s plans to use his connection with Harry to lure him into a trap, I would imagine that he would want a little more respect than Harry has shown him so far. Much has been made of the life debt that Wormtail has to Harry and Snape’’s debt to Harry’’s father. Harry, however, is saved by Snape in the first Quidditch match in Sorceer’s Stone and has never so much as thanked him. Also, in light of what we now know about Snape’’s skills as a healer, I am curious about Harry’’s recovery after struggling with Quirrell/Voldemort at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone. Dumbledore tells Harry that he was unconscious for three days and that the struggle almost killed him. All along, we’’ve assumed that it was Madam Pomfrey who tended to him, perhaps we’ve been wrong.

If Snape wasn’t getting the respect from Harry he thinks he deserves prior to his murder of Dumbledore, he certainly won’’t be getting it any time soon. If Snape didn’’t really want to kill Dumbledore, imagine how he must feel knowing that he did it in front of Harry. Notice the description of Snape in Chapter 28 in his last exchange with Harry.

‘Don’t,’ screamed Snape – his face was suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning building behind them, – ‘Call me coward!’
(HBP 604)

Rowling’’s willingness to depict Snape’’s pain shows a measure of sympathy for him that would seem out of place in light of his murder of Dumbledore and unnecessary if that act had been the final overriding proof of his loyalty to Voldemort.


The Nose Hypothesis: A big reason for hope, or one last, desperate gasp?

Having gathered this evidence, I felt justified in my belief that at the end of his life, Dumbledore was pleading with Snape to take his life, not to save it. Then, a knotty little problem occurred to me. I believe that I have shown that Snape’’s true loyalty is not to Voldemort and that he has so far acted in a way that supports the theory that he is loyal to Dumbledore, but that is a far cry from proving that he will ultimately be loyal to Dumbledore even after Dumbledore’’s death. What if Snape is simply loyal to himself? The articles “Machiavelli’’s Half-Blood Prince” by B.J. Texan, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Antagonist” by Melissa Walker, and “Dumbledore’’s Iron-Clad Reason” by Scott Andrew Walker present chilling and compelling evidence for this perspective. Perhaps, Snape has used Voldemort to get rid of Dumbledore and plans to use Harry to get rid of Voldemort before turning on Harry. Snape certainly does not seem to be bound to either side by any warm and fuzzy relationships. Also, he has plenty of reason to be angry with Dumbledore and Harry, as well as his fellow Death Eaters. It seems more likely, however, if he is, indeed, just out for himself, that his loyalty has changed. He may have been loyal to Dumbledore until Harry’’s arrival at Hogwarts. His old rivalry with Sirius and Harry’’s father, Dumbledore’’s fondness for Harry, and his refusal to tell him the truth about his situation, as well as Dumbledore’’s sugarcoated explanation of the incident in which Snape nearly died, may have, over time, soured Snape on Dumbledore.

There is, however, one final piece of information that does suggest that Snape is on the right side, and it is the very first thing I noticed years ago: the nose hypothesis. There are many characters in the Harry Potter books and, although Rowling always gives us some physical description of her characters, she rarely mentions their noses, but the times she does are rather significant and suggest that the guys with noses which stick out are good and those with smaller, flatter noses are – well – not so good. For the purposes of this essay, I am looking only at the noses of wizards.

The first mention of the old schnoz is in reference to Dumbledore when he comes to Privet Drive to drop off Harry:

… his nose was very long and crooked as though it had been broken at least twice.
(SS. 8)

Ron has:

a long nose…
(SS 93)

Here’’s Harry’’s view of Victor Krum – another good guy, right? – coming up to the castle:

Harry caught a glimpse of a prominent, curved nose and thick, black eyebrows.
(GoF 247)

A comparison lets us know that James Potter’’s nose falls under the good guy category.

It was as though he was looking at himself but with deliberate mistakes. James’’s eyes were hazel, his nose was slightly longer than Harry’’s and there was no scar on his forehead…
(OotP 641)

By this measure, Snape’’s “hooked nose” (SS 126) would put him in the “good guy” category.

Now, let’’s look at the other side of the coin. This is the description of the face of Voldemort sticking out of the back of Quirrell’’s head:

It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils like a snake.
(SS 292)

Whiter than a skull with wide, livid, scarlet eyes and a nose that was flat as a snake’’s with slits for nostrils.
(GoF 643)

Notice how Rowling describes Voldemort’’s most faithful servant, Barty Crouch, Jr. as his Polyjuice Potion wears off near the end of Goblet of Fire, after Dumbledore finds the real Mad-Eye Moody locked in his own trunk:

Then, before Harry’’s very eyes, the face of the man on the floor began to change. The scars were disappearing, the skin was becoming smooth. The mangled nose became whole and started to shrink.
(GoF 682)

Did you catch the comparison between Crouch and Mad-Eye Moody? Even though a large chunk is missing from Moody’’s nose, it is still bigger than Crouch’’s. Though he wasn’’t a Death Eater as far as we know, we also have Ludo Bagman – a crook at the very least – whose nose is “squashed” (GoF 86).

The reference which is most troubling to this theory is the description of Wormtail when he is forced out of his rat disguise:

… something of the rat lingered around his pointed nose and his very small, watery eyes.
(PoA 366)

Hmm, that could be a nose that sticks out – blowing my theory, or else indicating that Wormtail might redeem himself, though I can’t imagine what could make up for killing all those people and bringing Voldemort back – or it could just be a small, pointed nose. After all, rats’’ noses aren’t that big.

Nonetheless, I am hoping that Snape and Harry will come to a meeting of the minds. I hope that Rowling will cast Snape as the broken, flawed, penitent hero who does what is necessary to stop the damage to which he has contributed in spite of how difficult and distasteful it may be to him. I am bracing myself, however, for the possibility that Snape may remain in the wind as the symbol of the continued presence of evil in the world, that he might die saving Harry, or that his actions will remain ambiguous. We will just have to wait for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to find out.