How Snape became Harry Potter’s most unlikely sex symbol

By Alice Vincent | The Telegraph

His appeal isn’t immediately apparent. A sallow-faced, sadistic teacher with lank hair and thin lips, Prof Severus Snape’s sole aim in life, up until book seven in the Harry Potter series, appeared to be the downfall of J K Rowling’s daring young wizard.

Among his many despicable acts, he killed Hogwarts’ kindly headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

But to everyone’s surprise, not least the author herself, Snape has become the most popular character in the Harry Potter universe.

In countries all over the world, from China to Thailand (the books have been translated into 68 languages), readers have become obsessed with the miserable, middle-aged teacher, penning heartfelt tributes to his tortured soul and writing tens of thousands of short stories and novels about their hero online (some of them decidedly X-rated).

On one website alone, there are 47,000 pieces of fiction about Snape, another hosts a staggering 28,000 artistic interpretations, including one brooding picture of the character, as portrayed by Alan Rickman in the films, with the caption: “I think he’s given us all a love potion.”

In America, recently, there was an entire convention dedicated solely to the teacher.

When Bloomsbury conducted a worldwide poll to find fans’ favourite character in 2011, Snape romped home with 13,000 votes. So, the internet is bracing itself for a flood of forthright opinions on Tuesday when the first ever official illustration of Snape appears in a new edition of Rowling’s series opener, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The book, which will also feature drawings of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Prof McGonagall and dozens of others, is being published by Bloomsbury to bring a new readership to the much‑loved series. Jim Kay, the award-winning artist who was given the daunting task of reinterpreting Rowling’s well-known characters, has been commissioned to illustrate all seven books and has been praised by the author for his “moving” creations.

But Kay’s Snape, published here for the first time, looks very different to the Rickman interpretation. Shrouded in darkness, he has a vertiginous hook nose and resembles nothing so much as a goblin. This is actually more faithful to Rowling’s original description of Snape, but it is sure to stir up chatter within the cauldron of Harry Potter fandom.

“Snape fans will have their views, but whatever they make of Jim Kay’s drawing, it won’t put them off,” says Dr Eleanor Spencer-Regan, who teaches at the Department of English Studies at Durham University. “We are interested in his character, not his appearance. We always thought there was more to him than just this mean teacher.”

But one of the key attractions of Snape is his complexity. Although he starts as Potter’s nemesis – a villain in cahoots with Lord Voldemort, the murderer of Harry’s parents – the Potions Master is revealed in the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as a double agent who has been guarding Harry’s life as compensation for the death of the boy’s mother, Lily Evans, the unrequited love of his life. During the climactic Battle of Hogwarts, Snape makes the ultimate sacrifice so that Harry can live.

Rowling spun this tale with gossamer, hooking her 450 million readers on cliffhangers that grew steeper with each passing publication, and it was this, together with the mystery surrounding Snape’s real motives, that made the character so fascinating. It is his questionable loyalty that made Snape a favourite, says Daniel Hahn, editor of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature: “You spend a year thinking he’s entirely different from what he’s proved to be. Whatever Snape does, however much he redeems himself, he’s still going to have that weird hair and that scary voice. Those things are quite potent.”

In fact, fans, especially female ones, started to flesh out Snape through online fiction just two years after he appeared on Rowling’s pages, many of them imagining he had a softer side.

As Laura Jones, intern with fan site Mugglenet, says, “By the end, all Snape fans felt vindicated. He was good – and we knew it all along.”

Their intuition surprised Rowling. She was shocked when, as early as 1999, a fan asked her if Snape would fall in love. “There’s so much I wish I could say,” she managed to reply. “You’ll find out why I’m so stunned if you read book seven.”

Hungry fans clung to theories – many thought he was a vampire, or Harry’s father – and sussed Snape and Lily’s connection (his full name was an anagram of Perseus Evans) years before the big reveal. Now they know, they say they identify with him because they, too, have been bullied, suffer unrequited love, or, in some cases, blame themselves for the death of loved ones.

For Spencer-Regan, Snape is as much of a tragic hero as the Brontës’s Mr Rochester or Heathcliff. As one post online surmises: “He’s a cold, mean and selfish man on the outside, but inside he is a hurt, sad, depressed and lonely little boy.”

Neatly, Rickman was among the first to hear Rowling’s intentions for his on-screen character: the author told him so he could fully commit to the role. Rickman’s casting added fuel to the simmering heat of Snape worship. “He’s the reason a lot of people like him: he’s not made to be extremely unattractive in the films,” Jones explains, “his hair looks like a L’Oreal commercial.” On blogging platform Tumblr, one of the tamer collages reads: “even though Severus Snape and Alan Rickman are old enough to be my grandfather, I want to marry them. I really do.”

Rowling treats the fans well. On Pottermore, the digital Harry Potter platform, she has shed more light about Snape’s grim, deprived childhood and her adolescent chemistry lessons that inspired his draconian potions instruction.

But a trail of breadcrumbs has been scattered throughout her novels, too, and readers continue to learn Snape’s narrative anew. For instance, his first words to Harry: “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?” translate, using the Victorian language of flowers, to “I bitterly regret Lily’s death.” Similarly, Snape is frequently rude about James, the schoolground bully who fathered Harry, but never his wife, Lily.

There is, then, more to be found in this most enchanting of characters. As a fresh version of Snape appears on the page, perhaps a new generation of readers will find themselves under his spell.