Wormwood & Wolfsbane: The Snape/Lupin Relationship
My colleague, Sophia Jenkins, recently wrote an article titled “Is Lupin the Only One Who Understands Snape?” Though I disagree with many parts, Sophia raised so many terrific points that after reading through it thrice, I just had to write an essay throwing my two Knuts in.
The Snape/Lupin relationship is one I’ve long found compelling, pretty much ever since I fell in love with the song “Wormwood & Wolfsbane” by Split Seven Ways feat. Nagini. (Seriously, read the lyrics – they’re a masterful analysis of the relationship!) It’s so interesting to consider how there’s so much history and hatred there, yet they rely on and relate to each other.
Part 1: Patronuses
At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we witness one of Snape’s most vitriolic moments when he sees Tonks’s new wolf-shaped Patronus.
‘I think you were better off with the old one,’ said Snape, the malice in his voice unmistakable. ‘The new one looks weak.’” (HBP 160)
Sophia attributes this to how “Lupin reminds Snape of himself” by pushing away the woman he loves.
I disagree with the reading that Snape’s malice was all about Lupin – I think it was entirely because Snape saw himself in Tonks. Think about it: pining for someone you can’t have, to the point where your Patronus changes shape to a four-legged animal reflecting the object of your affection. Snape sees himself in Tonks’s unrequited love.
This is no different from a closeted bully picking on a gay kid… They’re acting out based on their own self-loathing, and to deflect attention from themselves. The text implies that Snape goes to great lengths to hide his Patronus from others. For instance, no one ever says a word about Snape’s Patronus among the Order.
More significantly, in Chapter 21 of Half-Blood Prince, Harry “disagreed with Snape on the best way to tackle Dementors.” The Patronus is presented throughout the series as the objectively best way to fight Dementors, so why would Snape teach his sixth years something different? Only because he doesn’t want to reveal his own Patronus to them. (Credit to Josie Kearns for this idea!) In fact, we are led to believe that Snape does not generally use his Patronus to fight Dementors. The only times we see it, he is making a point with it: proving to Dumbledore he still loves Lily and conveying innocence when leading Harry to the sword of Gryffindor.
This is also an interesting commonality between Snape and Harry: that Dementors would bring up painful memories of Lily in their minds. And both of them take steps to fight off those memories: Harry by casting a Patronus to fend off the Dementors’ effects and Snape by not using a Patronus to fight them off.
Part 2: The Battle of the Seven Potters
The best part of Sophia’s essay was her insight into the Battle of the Seven Potters.
The moment of truth in Snape and Lupin’s relationship comes in a single instant that Harry sees in Snape’s memories. Before Harry is moved to the Burrow, Dumbledore’s portrait tells Snape clearly, ‘Severus, if you are forced to take part in the chase, be sure to act your part convincingly… I am counting upon you’ (DH 688). Snape, however, ignores Dumbledore’s advice. When he sees a Death Eater poised to attack Lupin, he attempts to use Sectumsempra to chop off the man’s hand but misses and cuts off George’s ear instead.
I’ve read those words over a dozen times but had never yet made that connection. I’m very grateful to Sophia for bringing it to my attention!
That said, I disagree with her reading that this was meant to let “Lupin know that he has forgiven him for the past.” I think it was meant to exonerate Snape in Harry’s eyes. Harry has never fully believed Snape’s innocence, even when presented with far less evidence of his guilt than Harry currently has. This was a way of Snape refuting one of the most substantial pieces of evidence that Snape is evil – showing that he did not mean to curse off George’s ear.
From a literary standpoint, this is 100% about Snape and Lupin. One of Snape’s defining characteristics has been his disregard for the Marauders’ lives. We are given a stark example of that earlier in “The Prince’s Tale” when he is willing to have James die as long as Lily is protected. And though this does not come up in “The Prince’s Tale,” readers will recall the climax in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where Snape is willing to have Sirius and Lupin both Kissed by Dementors without a trial or anything.
Snape attempting to save Lupin’s life is evidence of character growth, an eleventh-hour redemption of one of Snape’s worst qualities. It shows that Snape finally recognizes that people’s lives have value, even those of people he hates. “The Prince’s Tale” is littered with these: Snape not only gets a big overarching redemption (he was on Dumbledore’s side), but he also gets several little ones (in addition to this, his refusal of the word “Mudblood”). Not all the information in “The Prince’s Tale” is necessary for the plot, but absolutely every word is necessary in terms of character arcs – Jo was astoundingly economical in her use of words in that chapter.
Part 3: Respect
Sophia believes that Snape and Lupin came to a place of understanding and respect by forgiving each other for their past transgressions. I believe that reading is more optimistic than the text warrants but that there is room for hope.
In Lupin’s case, I take him at his word: He appreciates the Wolfsbane Potion Snape brewed and is willing to let bygones be bygones until the death of Dumbledore.
In Snape’s case, I don’t think we can know if he ever let go of his grudge against Lupin. I assume that in Book 5, any respect Lupin showed Snape was overshadowed by Snape and Sirius’s animosity. But there are several interactions in Half-Blood Prince, which we are regrettably not privy to, that would help shed light on the subject.
First, Snape and Wormtail are living together by Voldemort’s design. Snape treats Wormtail with open contempt, obviously blaming him for Lily’s death. But we don’t know if they ever dredged up the past while living together, whether Wormtail ever managed to convince Snape that Lupin was not an accomplice to the prank that Sirius attempted. But it’s certainly possible.
Second, we don’t know how much, if at all, Snape and Lupin discussed Lupin’s infiltration of the werewolves. Lupin may have gone to Snape for advice, either looking for genuine help or flattering Snape in an attempt at civility. Snape would have appreciated that.
In fact, I think infiltrating the werewolf community would have earned Snape’s respect more than anything else Lupin could have done. Snape knows firsthand what a difficult and thankless task that is and seems miffed that people don’t recognize it as such. So while it may not have led Snape to like Lupin, I do think it led to grudging respect, which is the best that can be hoped for.