“The Prince’s Tale” shows us the progression of the exceedingly complex relationship between Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape. However, there is a gap in “The Prince’s Tale,” accounting for the entirety of Harry’s first five years at Hogwarts after the first week. As we know, just because something is happening off-screen, does not mean that it is not significant. In fact, in that gap we find a fascinating evolution of Snape’s relationship with Dumbledore. To examine this in detail, we must hearken back to a fateful night in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when everyone’s emotions are running very high.
The Matter of Buckbeak
When looking at the climaxes of the Harry Potter books, there is one that I believe has generated more discussion than any other: the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. It takes up a full quarter of the entire book, and is largely viewed as the point where the series grew up. This is also where Jo first introduced us to time travel, something fans have been trying to wrap their heads around ever since. What I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone is that I am most curious about Albus Dumbledore’s perspective on this.
Many essays have been written about Dumbledore’s seeming omniscience in the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. Fans theorized that maybe Dumbledore has a Time-Turner of his own, which allows him to go back in time to tell himself things, which is frankly a big headache for all of us. I do not subscribe to this view of Dumbledore. I think that he is just incredibly clever, and is always thinking many steps ahead.
First, let us look at Buckbeak’s would-be execution. Dumbledore decides to come join Hagrid for Buckbeak’s execution, he “said he wants ter — ter be with [Hagrid].” (PA328) Is Dumbledore already scheming to send Harry and Hermione back in time to rescue Buckbeak? No. I think that Dumbledore firstly really did want to comfort Hagrid, since he is a sort of surrogate father figure for Hagrid. But also, Dumbledore probably thought that if there were a way to save Buckbeak, it would help for him to be onsite.
Once the Ministry officials arrive at Hagrid’s hut, Dumbledore does not do anything at first other than watch the proceedings. But then, in the nick of time, Dumbledore begins stalling for time just as Harry and Hermione are freeing Buckbeak.
“One moment, please, Macnair,” came Dumbledore’s voice. “You need to sign too.” The footsteps stopped. Harry heaved on the rope. Buckbeak snapped his beak and walked a little faster. […] Harry could still hear Dumbledore’s voice talking from within the cabin. (PA401)
Does Dumbledore know what it going on? Not necessarily. He does not need to. He knows that there is a certain trio of students who care very much about Hagrid and who have an Invisibility Cloak. He knows that if there were an attempted rescue of Buckbeak, it would have to happen in the short interval between Macnair seeing Buckbeak tied up and all the paperwork being filled out. Therefore, it’s just good sense to delay things a bit and give any would-be rescuers an additional bit of time. So Dumbledore stalls for a short bit of time, just in case. And what do you know, he was right to do so!
“Where is it?” said the reedy voice of the Committee member. “Where is the beast?”
“It was tied here!” said the executioner furiously. “I saw it! Just here!”
“How extraordinary,” said Dumbledore. There was a note of amusement in his voice.
“Someone untied him!” the executioner was snarling. “We should search the grounds, the forest —”
“Macnair, if Buckbeak has indeed been stolen, do you really think the thief will have led him away on foot?” said Dumbledore, still sounding amused. “Search the skies, if you will…. Hagrid, I could do with a cup of tea. Or a large brandy.” (PA402)
To Harry, and readers who believe in Dumbledore’s omniscience, this certainly looks like Dumbledore knows everything that’s going on. Why else isn’t he surprised? How else would he know to badly advise Macnair to “search the skies”?
Because Dumbledore is exceedingly clever, and a master of deductive reasoning. Like I said, he knows there are three students with an Invisibility Cloak who would very much want to free Buckbeak, and who are the adventurous sort that would attempt to do so. It’s not difficult to deduce that the Trio managed to free Buckbeak in the time that Dumbledore bought them.
Dumbledore is also relying on the Ministry’s stupidity here. In fact, Dumbledore relies on this a lot that evening; he will later deride the idea that “Harry and Hermione are able to be in two places at once” (PA420) in front of the Minister of Magic, assuming correctly that Fudge would not consider the existence of Time-Turners. If one thinks about it, no thief in his right mind would try to fly away on Buckbeak right after stealing him. The execution was to take place “at sunset” (PA325), so one could still see in the twilight. There is almost no chance that a hippogriff could fly fast enough to be out of the field of vision in a minute.
Therefore, the logical conclusion is that Buckbeak was led away on foot. Dumbledore realizes this, and banks on the Ministry officials not thinking it through. In their minds, of course a thief would fly away on a stolen flying animal. Dumbledore also realizes that Buckbeak would not be covered by the Invisibility Cloak and is likely still close by. He therefore hurries to get Macnair and company back inside Hagrid’s hut, to give Buckbeak’s saviors more time to get away.
This is such classic Dumbledore! He is certainly having a lot of fun here. In fact, Dumbledore often seems to derive great pleasure in making a mockery of people he dislikes; hold that thought. Dumbledore keeps Fudge and Macnair occupied for the evening, and then all hell starts breaking loose two hours later.
Dumbledore is running around dealing with Sirius and Snape and all the ensuing mayhem. Let us look at what he knows about Buckbeak. He knows that Buckbeak managed to escape. He knows that the Trio are the most likely candidates to be Buckbeak’s rescuers; in fact, who else would do it? But the Trio has made no mention of Buckbeak, the timing does not really line up, and where on earth is Buckbeak now?
Dumbledore is also trying to figure out a way to get Sirius out of Hogwarts safely and quickly. Apparition does not work. There is likely a guard outside Flitwick’s office, so if one were to get to Sirius inconspicuously, it would have to be from the window. There is also no time, so he will have to rely on Hermione’s Time-Turner. Dumbledore puts two and two together the way only he can, and realizes that he has two refugees on his hands, and one of them can fly. He realizes that if the Trio currently in the hospital wing did not rescue Buckbeak, maybe that is because the time-travelling version did. And that is how he comes up with his brilliant plan to have Sirius escape on Buckbeak, and gives Hermione the slightest of nudges: “you will be able to save more than one innocent life tonight.” (PA393)
There is another possibility: that Dumbledore actually sees the time-traveling Harry and Hermione flying on Buckbeak. The timing is such that it could work. We are given that Flitwick’s office is not too far from the West Tower (from where the time-traveling Harry and Hermione run back to the Hospital Wing), that Dumbledore arrives at the Hospital Wing one or two minutes before the time-traveling begins, and that Dumbledore had “just been talking to Sirius Black” (PA390) when he arrives. This means that Dumbledore would be finishing his interview with Sirius moments before Harry and Hermione fly in to rescue him. It is possible that Dumbledore saw Harry and Hermione flying by in one of the windows on the thirteenth floor, but knowing that Harry and Hermione are also in the Hospital Wing, realized that there must be time travel involved in rescuing Buckbeak and Sirius.
Either way, Dumbledore has sent Harry and Hermione off into the past to save the future, and turns around to see Harry breathlessly say, “We did it! Sirius has gone, on Buckbeak….” (PA418) Dumbledore’s plan succeeded! There’s just one loose end…
Dumbledore vs. Snape
Fudge, Snape, and Dumbledore came striding into the ward. Dumbledore alone looked calm. Indeed, he looked as though he was quite enjoying himself. Fudge appeared angry. But Snape was beside himself.
“Calm down, man!” Fudge barked. “You’re talking nonsense!”
“YOU DON’T KNOW POTTER!” shrieked Snape. “HE DID IT, I KNOW HE DID IT —”
“That will do, Severus,” said Dumbledore quietly. “Think about what you are saying. This door has been locked since I left the ward ten minutes ago. Madam Pomfrey, have these students left their beds?”
“Of course not!” said Madam Pomfrey, bristling. “I would have heard them!”
“Well, there you have it, Severus,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Unless you are suggesting that Harry and Hermione are able to be in two places at once, I’m afraid I don’t see any point in troubling them further.”
Snape stood there, seething, staring from Fudge, who looked thoroughly shocked at his behavior, to Dumbledore, whose eyes were twinkling behind his glasses. Snape whirled about, robes swishing behind him, and stormed out of the ward. (PA419-420)
This is a fascinating passage to read, because the interpretation changes completely based on whether you believe Snape knows about Hermione’s Time-Turner. It could really be either one. Remember how Dumbledore relied on the Ministry’s stupidity to help Buckbeak get away? He does this again, banking on Fudge not realizing Hermione might have a Time-Turner. But why risk it?
If Snape knows about Hermione’s Time-Turner, then Dumbledore is sending Snape a discreet message: stop talking now! By mentioning time travel, which is quite obviously the answer Snape is seeking, Dumbledore would be saying to Snape that there is a lot going on Snape doesn’t realize. Dumbledore would be banking on Snape obeying the unspoken command, and to be fair, Snape does desist immediately after this. There is much to recommend this view on the passage, but I am a detractor.
For me, the problem is that Dumbledore does not know that Snape will obey him. I have written about this scene in one of my earliest pieces, “Snape’s Anger,” and the thesis is that Snape is acting utterly deranged in this scene. Snape is livid, for a host of reasons, and it’s pretty clear Snape has run amok when he starts yelling at the Minister of Magic. I don’t think Dumbledore would trust Snape to be reasonable enough to shut up given a clue from Dumbledore, and would not risk giving Snape the answer to incriminating the Trio, given Snape’s state of mind.
It’s reasonable to expect Snape not to know that Hermione has a Time-Turner. After all, I doubt he would care very much how Hermione maintains her academic schedule, and the only teacher confirmed to know about it is McGonagall. The whole Time-Turner thing seems to be treated on a very need-to-know basis, given that Harry and Ron themselves don’t need to know. This points to Dumbledore: Dumbledore probably realized early on that Harry’s best friend having a Time-Turner might come in handy, and all of Dumbledore’s information concerning Harry and co. is distributed on a need-to-know basis. Snape likely did not need to know, and therefore didn’t. While Snape may have been aware of the existence of Time-Turners in general, Dumbledore banked on Snape not connecting that to the situation at hand.
This echoes Dumbledore’s earlier behavior with the Ministry. Just as he banked on being smarter than the Ministry officials, he is now hoping Snape isn’t as clever as him. And just as Dumbledore was amused when making a mockery of Macnair, he is now “quite enjoying himself” by seeing Snape goaded. And this is because Dumbledore is extremely disappointed in Severus Snape tonight.
Dumbledore was once full of “contempt” for Snape (DH677), but believed that Snape had redeemed himself. Over the last thirteen years, Dumbledore has worked with Snape, taken him into his confidences more than anyone else, and trusted Snape with the all-important task of protecting Harry. At this point, Dumbledore believes that Snape has become a decent person.
Then Snape completely shatters all of that in one night. He shows himself to be cruel, vindictive, and irrational. Snape is willing to sentence an innocent man to have his soul sucked out. Snape appears unconcerned with uncovering the truth, not bothering with finding out about Pettigrew in his haste to fulfill a vendetta. This is the man Dumbledore entrusts Harry’s wellbeing to?Completely unacceptable.
So when Snape continues this pattern of behavior, trying to pin the mess on Harry, Dumbledore does not like Snape at all in that moment. And when Dumbledore does not like someone, he quite enjoys goading them – in fact, I think most of the times we see Dumbledore mentioned as enjoying himself, it’s because he’s taking the mickey out of the Dursleys or various Ministry people. So it is entirely in character for Dumbledore to have some fun at Snape’s expense in this moment.
What is striking is that this move might hurt Dumbledore’s endgame. Dumbledore knows that Voldemort will rise again one day, and when that day comes, Snape would be an invaluable asset. So what possesses Dumbledore to so antagonize Snape?
The answer is Harry, Dumbledore’s big blind spot. Harry is Dumbledore’s weakness; he cares more for Harry’s wellbeing than for the eventualities of war. He says, “What did I care if numbers of nameless and faceless people and creatures were slaughtered in the vague future, if in the here and now you were alive, and well, and happy?” (OP839) Therefore, Dumbledore was willing to antagonize Snape for Harry’s happiness.
Having his godfather around would be the absolute best possible thing for Harry’s happiness. Dumbledore wants to have Sirius around to take care of Harry, to serve as a much-needed father figure. Dumbledore finally has a way of ensuring Harry’s emotional wellbeing, so when Snape threatens that, Dumbledore is absolutely not having it. This is why Dumbledore, rather riskily, sides with Sirius over Snape, and Snape knows this.
The Parting of Ways
This leads to an off-screen estrangement between Dumbledore and Snape. The following morning, Snape “accidentally let slip that [Remus] is a werewolf” at breakfast. (PA423) Snape must surely have calmed down somewhat overnight, so this is a rational act of open defiance against Dumbledore. Snape knows how mad Dumbledore would be if Remus’s secret got out – after all, Snape has been keeping it since he was sixteen. I am guessing that Snape and Dumbledore had a chat sometime between the hospital wing screaming match and breakfast, and that Snape was not satisfied, leading to his outing of Lupin in total disregard of Dumbledore’s orders.
Dumbledore, meanwhile, acts even more drastically: he calls in a new right-hand man. No longer willing to rely on Snape, Dumbledore gets in touch with his old friend Alastor Moody over the summer, and asks him to come to Hogwarts as the new DADA teacher. Moody replaces Snape as the wizard Dumbledore can rely on to watch over Harry, and to help out with things. Sirius assumes Dumbledore called Moody in because Dumbledore is “reading the signs,” (GF226), but I fail to see how the Dark Mark is much more worrying than notorious mass murderer Sirius Black coming after Harry the previous year. Moody isn’t called in for extra protection, it’s because Dumbledore no longer relies on Snape.
The rift between Snape and Dumbledore lasts through most of Goblet of Fire, as expounded on brilliantly by John Kearns in “A Very Bad Year for Albus Dumbledore.” The impostor Moody uses this, and plays off of Dumbledore no longer trusting Snape for his own ends. Snape truly reaches the zenith of his unpleasantness in the fourth book, what with the Veritaserum and Rita’s articles and the comment about Hermione’s teeth. In fact, Snape even hinders Harry when Harry tries to get into Dumbledore’s office (GF558). Snape enjoys irking Harry, but he is intelligent enough to realize that if Harry is trying to see Dumbledore, there is a good reason, and that Dumbledore would be unhappy at Snape’s interference. This is another act of deliberate defiance by Snape, a full year after the events of Prisoner of Azkaban. After all, no one holds a grudge quite like Snape.
All this serves to reinforce how angry Dumbledore must have been in Prisoner to risk drawing the ire of Snape. Dumbledore reads people better than almost anyone, and he must know how vindictive Snape can be.
Most of Snape’s conflict with Dumbledore happens off-screen, but we are privy to a few moments that clue us in. The most telling of these is Snape’s showdown with the impostor Moody after Harry’s jaunt to the prefects’ bathroom. “‘Dumbledore happens to trust me!’ said Snape through clenched teeth. ‘I refuse to believe that he gave you orders to search my office!’” (GF472) This certainly sounds like Snape is being defensive about a touchy subject, and illustrates the breakdown of communication between Snape and Dumbledore.
However, once the impostor Moody is unmasked and Voldemort revealed to have risen again, Dumbledore and Snape quickly reconcile. In fact, we witness this reconciliation without realizing it. Snape, in an uncharacteristic move, immediately brushes the grudge aside, and follows Dumbledore’s instructions with nary a snide comment. (GF680) Dumbledore, realizing the point of contention, asks Sirius to come forward in Snape’s presence; this is Dumbledore silently challenging Snape as to whether Snape can put aside his hatred of Sirius. And then Dumbledore says the words Snape has been waiting to hear all year: “I trust you both.” (GF712) It is at this moment that Dumbledore and Snape are reconciled.
Mindful of this, Dumbledore’s instructions to Snape are far politer than those for everyone else. He issues no-nonsense commands to everyone else, but to Snape he says, “Severus, you know what I must ask you to do. If you are ready … if you are prepared …” (GF713) Dumbledore is rarely so delicate in moments of action, so this is noteworthy for showcasing their newly mended relationship.
We see their relationship is back to normal in Order of the Phoenix, because Snape actually accepts Dumbledore’s assignment to teach Harry Occlumency. While the idea of humiliating Harry on a regular basis probably holds some appeal to Snape, spending more time with Harry is not something Snape wants to do. If Dumbledore had asked Snape to teach Harry Occlumency in Goblet of Fire, I don’t believe for a moment that Snape would have agreed to. But now Dumbledore trusts him enough to ask, and Snape attempts to oblige, until his and Harry’s enmity proves too great. This brings us to the next memory of “The Prince’s Tale,” where Dumbledore trusts Snape enough to ask Snape to kill him.
As a sort of epilogue, I’d like to posit that the Sirius Black incident was what Snape thought about when killing Dumbledore. Bellatrix told Harry, “You need to mean [the Unforgivables]!” (OP810) When Snape kills Dumbledore, “there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face.” (HBP595) Snape has reason to hate Dumbledore. I think he called forward all the lingering feelings of resentment after the debacle three years ago, as well as all the anger at what Dumbledore now demanded of him – becoming a pariah among wizards. Snape was more than capable of mustering up enough anger to kill Dumbledore, after all the ups and downs of their relationship over the previous years. So perhaps in some twisted way, Dumbledore’s antagonizing of Snape ended up servicing his grand plans after all.