Severus Snape vs. Lord Voldemort

by Laurel

Abstract: In the “Harry Potter” series, Snape serves as a character foil for Voldemort, and vice versa. They have much in common–including appearance, childhood experiences, talent, intelligence, interest in the Dark Arts, and antagonistic role in the story–save for one critical difference. It is Snape’s capacity for love, which lies at the very core of his character, that prevents him from following in Voldemort’s footsteps and that ultimately ensures the downfall of his former master. In this essay, I explore how making a comparison between Snape and Voldemort proves Dumbledore’s conviction that love is the most powerful of all magic.

If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.
(SS, p. 299)

Severus Snape could have been the next Lord Voldemort. He was on the same path as Tom Riddle from the moment of his birth, and his interests and abilities developed in a similar direction. An 11-year-old Harry Potter even attributed the first time he felt his scar hurt – in the Great Hall on his first day at Hogwarts – to the piercing stare of his new Potions professor. Even though this sensation would later be explained by Harry’s link with Voldemort, this first experience of the connection underlines how similarly Snape and Voldemort are portrayed throughout the series.

Snape was born into a family similar to that of Tom Riddle; his father was a Muggle and his mother was a pureblood witch. Snape’s father detested magic, and Riddle’s left his magic wife and unborn son when he recovered his free will. Both men’s childhoods were effectively loveless; Riddle spent his first eleven years in an orphanage and Snape lived in a rather rundown side of town with parents who were constantly arguing, leaving little time for their son. Before Tom Riddle developed his snakelike appearance, he had dark hair, dark eyes, and pale skin, just like Severus Snape. Just as Voldemort was compared to a snake, Snape too was associated with an animal; he was often described as looking bat-like. In intelligence and magical ability, while Voldemort was Snape’s superior, Snape was still far more talented than almost all of the wizarding population. With the exceptions of Lord Voldemort and Albus Dumbledore, it can be argued that Severus Snape was the most powerful wizard in Britain at the time, considering his skills at dueling, spell creation, potions, his mastery of the dark arts, and sheer logic. Snape was even able to successfully use Occlumency against Voldemort, considered to be one of the most accomplished Legillmens in history, to prevent his master from suspecting his true loyalties.

Both men additionally showed a marked affinity for the dark arts from a very young age; Tom Riddle used his powers at the orphanage for sinister purposes and later studied the subject far beyond the Hogwarts curriculum during his school years, and Severus Snape was said to have known more curses as a first-year student than most wizards or witches knew in their seventh year. As adults, Voldemort explored the bounds of Dark magic beyond the extent that it had ever been studied before, and Snape’s love for the field was illustrated by his well-known ambition to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. This passion also led them to pursue the same goals as adults, with Snape joining Voldemort’s Death Eaters in their quest to seize control of the Ministry of Magic and establish a pureblood society.

In a literary sense, Snape and Voldemort often play the same role – that of the villain – throughout the series. Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s mortal enemy and the human manifestation of evil, is the main antagonist, as the story culminates in a battle between the two. Severus Snape’s purpose changes from year to year and his allegiance is always more ambiguous, but he is usually the more immediate enemy and the one who foils Harry’s plans. In the first book, before Dumbledore gives Harry any information about Snape’s loyalties, Harry believes that his Potions professor tried to kill him during a Quidditch match and that Snape is trying to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. Snape is always Harry’s nemesis within Hogwarts, while Voldemort is the outside enemy; when Harry is concentrating on school and the major events in his life take place on school grounds, it is Snape who catches him sneaking out of his dormitory at night or who gives him detention for talking back in class. Harry and Snape harbor a mutual hatred, and because at this point Harry does not know the reason for Snape’s dislike for him, he hates him all the more for his seemingly unjustified resentment. In later years, though Dumbledore assures Harry that Snape is on their side, Harry remains suspicious when he overhears Snape trying to help Draco Malfoy with a mission given to him by Voldemort. Right after Snape kills Dumbledore, Harry’s desire to kill Snape even rivals his need to finish Voldemort. Snape is the constant opponent that Harry faces throughout his Hogwarts career, and in the absence of more dangerous foes such as Voldemort, Snape is his main adversary. Snape and Voldemort both serve as the antagonists of the story, albeit at different points in the series.

Severus Snape has mastered the art of disguise. His proficiency at hiding his true self is represented by his skill at Occlumency and his role as a spy for Dumbledore, but it is not just the tactical secrets that he conceals. His entire exterior, the part of him that is virtually all the reader sees from chapter one of Sorcerer’s Stone until chapter thirty-three of Deathly Hallows, covers a core that is drastically different than Voldemort’s. The shallow level of Snape’s personality and experience is what makes the similarity between him and Lord Voldemort obvious, but when their deep personalities are examined, they are almost polar opposites. The protectiveness that both men have for their true selves is the last characteristic that they share, for beyond this exist only parallels; Voldemort tells no one of the Horcruxes he has created, and Snape confides only in Dumbledore about his love for Lily Evans, though he does this only after she is killed. Voldemort’s Horcruxes tether him to life, preventing his death by means of the most horrific form of dark magic. Snape, too, is kept alive only by his continuing love for Lily. When she is murdered and he goes to Dumbledore, Snape sincerely wishes that he were dead, too, because the reason for his life has been lost. Only when Dumbledore shows him that the best way to channel his love is to protect Lily’s son does Severus regain the will to live.

Voldemort’s inner self is easy for all to decipher, as it is just a continuation and intensification of his outer personality. Snape’s core, however, differs immensely from his exterior. There he is more similar to the object of his love, Lily Evans, than to Voldemort, who has never known or understood love. Dumbledore, aware of this fundamental quality in Snape’s nature, this capacity for love, once remarked that perhaps Hogwarts sorted students too soon. He saw that the Sorting Hat focused on the ambition and the infatuation with the Dark Arts that was only Snape’s surface layer, unaware of the decidedly good heart inside that may have placed him in a different house. Without that part of him, unseen by all but Dumbledore, he would not be capable of switching sides between the two Wizarding Wars the way he did. Without a character that can love deeply and ceaselessly, he would not have been able to answer “Anything” (Deathly Hallows p. 678) when asked what he would do to ensure Lily Evans’ safety, without any chance of her acknowledging his sacrifice. This is the essential difference between him and Voldemort, the distinction that ultimately made him more powerful than the Dark Lord; Snape’s ability to love kept him from straying back to the side of evil and enabled Harry Potter to end Tom Riddle’s life.

It was Snape’s ability to understand and to experience what Voldemort could not that caused him to become disillusioned with the Death Eater scheme and to become a powerful ally of the resistance to Voldemort’s reign of terror. He was able to focus on the Dark magic that he was passionate about so long as it did not conflict with his strongest love, that for Lily Evans. When his translation of the prophecy made by Sybil Trelawney resulted in the targeting of Harry Potter and his mother, Lily, his hidden love inevitably took precedence over his relatively shallow zeal for the dark arts. Real character is ultimately determined by core traits, not surface actions and attitudes, and when Snape realized that the woman he loved was in danger his alliance shifted for good. This was where he strayed from the path that Voldemort had taken and the one that he had tentatively been on himself; he chose Lily over power, as it was always in his nature to do, whereas Voldemort, who cares for no one, would never have valued a single human life higher than his own. This choice, Dumbledore would have claimed, defined him far more than his abilities in the Dark Arts.

A valid argument can be made asserting that without Snape, Lord Voldemort would have never been defeated. It was Snape who told him about the prophecy that declared, “Neither can live while the other survives,” prompting Voldemort to seek out Harry Potter and “mark him as his equal,” giving this young boy the power to defeat him. Snape was also the one who told Dumbledore about Voldemort’s knowledge of the prophecy and how he planned to act on it, allowing Dumbledore to formulate a theory of what exactly happened that night in Godric’s Hollow and to think of a plan to bring down Voldemort. Once Harry came to Hogwarts, Snape was the person who, in Dumbledore’s absence, saved Harry’s life during his first Quidditch match. He acted as a spy for Dumbledore, gathering information about Voldemort and his plans that would be instrumental in defeating him.

After Dumbledore’s death, he used his favored position with Voldemort to the advantage of the Order of the Phoenix when he became Headmaster of Hogwarts, where he conversed with Dumbledore’s portraits and received further instructions from it. He was the one who gave Harry Gryffindor’s Sword, which Ron used to destroy a horcrux containing a piece of Voldemort’s soul, an essential step in finishing off Voldemort himself. Even as he died, Snape stayed faithful to his promise to help Harry in any way he could, giving Harry the memories that would explain his love for Lily Evans, allowing that legacy to carry on, and the memories that would tell Harry what he must do to defeat Voldemort once and for all. Snape was the only person that Dumbledore could trust with this vital information, as he was the only person whose mind Voldemort could not penetrate. His was the only mind in which Dumbledore’s last secret was safe.

Without Snape’s unwavering dedication to the plan that would avenge Lily’s death, Voldemort may have never been killed. It is possible that Dumbledore would have been able to come up with an alternative strategy, but since the path he chose relied so much on luck and cooperation between antagonistic people as it was, it is likely that there was no viable alternative. In the sense that he was one of the most critical parts of Dumbledore’s master plan, Snape was more powerful than Voldemort in the end. His love for Lily Evans enabled him to see clearly when Voldemort could not, and his manipulation of events from behind the scenes was more effective than Voldemort’s strong-arm but somewhat predictable actions. Snape’s ability to cooperate gave him and the entire anti-Voldemort movement an edge over their enemies, as they drew additional strength from those around them. Snape called on his love for Lily in all of his endeavors, as shown by his doe patronus that matched hers, whereas Voldemort cared about none of his followers and considered them untrustworthy, especially after the failures of Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange. As a collective group, therefore, the Order of the Phoenix and its supporters were more powerful than Voldemort and his Death Eaters, partly as a result of Severus Snape tipping the balance in favor of Dumbledore’s plans.

J. K. Rowling has called Snape an anti-hero, referring to the juxtaposition of his abrasive and sometimes downright cruel exterior with the deep love inside of him that induces him to fight for good instead of evil. Even though he is horrible to Harry, playing the role of villain in his day-to-day life, Snape is ultimately on Harry’s side. His manners and treatment of Harry reflect the sour personality at his surface and the fact that looking at Harry is a daily reminder of what he lost – both in losing Lily to James and in her death – while his role in the overarching story, the anti-Voldemort struggle, he works on the side of good, reflecting his fundamental capacity for love. In this way, he is a cross between Voldemort and Lily (or Harry), acting like the bad guy while having an essentially good soul.

As a result of the differences between their core characters, Snape and Voldemort are foils for each other; Voldemort’s life illustrates what Snape’s would have been like had he never experienced love like what he felt for Lily, and Snape’s redemption shows what an understanding of love, the one power that Voldemort could never know, would have done for him. Had Voldemort had his own Lily Evans, he may never have gone as far as he did down a path of evil. Likewise, if Snape had never met Lily, his soul might have been as corrupt as Voldemort’s. This example of the ability of love to redeem a person and to keep evil at bay only adds weight to Dumbledore’s belief that love is more powerful than any magic, and that love really can conquer all.