“The Boy Must Die”: Severus Snape’s Biggest Contribution to the War
When looking at a series of events as complicated as the war against Voldemort, it can be tricky to know which moments are the ones that could materially change history. As part of a much larger project I’m working on, I would like to make a claim: The most crucial thing Severus Snape does in the Second Voldemort War is inform Harry that he must die in order to destroy the Scarcrux that is tethering Voldemort to life.
The Magic at Work
Dumbledore says when issuing the assignment to Snape, “Part of Lord Voldemort lives inside Harry […] And while that fragment of soul, unmissed by Voldemort, remains attached to and protected by Harry, Lord Voldemort cannot die” (DH 686).
There are so many intertwined magical connections between Harry and Voldemort at work that it’s worthwhile to break down what is going on. Readers who have it all straight in their heads already, please offer me patience and accept my sincere admiration in return.
Technically, Harry does not have to die to destroy the Scarcrux; his body (the object the Horcrux resides in) just has to encounter sufficiently destructive magic. Getting hit by the Killing Curse is the most direct way, but if Harry were burned to a crisp by Fiendfyre or bitten by a basilisk when Fawkes wasn’t around, it would serve the same purpose. However, this level of semantics is a bit too high for Dumbledore to convey. I’ll use “killing Harry” as an imperfect shorthand for “hitting Harry with a Killing Curse that may or may not end up killing him but will certainly destroy the Scarcrux,” but let’s just make sure the nuance is understood.
On the subject of “killing” Harry, Dumbledore says, “And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential” (DH 686). Why is it essential? It is essential because of the converse Harry/Voldemort connection, stemming from Lily’s blood in Voldemort’s new body: “He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it! […] He tethered you to life while he lives!” (DH 709). In other words, if Voldemort casts the necessary Killing Curse at Harry, there is a chance that Harry survives the ordeal – as, indeed, happens. If anyone else casts a Killing Curse at Harry, then Harry ends up as dead as all its other targets. Dumbledore deems it essential that Harry has a chance at surviving the Killing Curse – for both strategic and sentimental reasons.
Lastly, an important part of informing Harry that he must die to destroy the Scarcrux is to invoke the magic of a willing sacrifice. Because Harry is faced with a choice and chooses to die for other people, he greatly weakens Voldemort – which would have happened independently of Harry surviving or not. Harry explains, “You won’t be able to kill any of them ever again. […] I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people. […] I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them” (DH 738).
In terms of the larger war effort, this is a preferred-but-not-required element. Dumbledore certainly planned for it and hoped for it, especially as a helpful contingency for Harry’s actual death. But this is not a history-changing part of the plan.
With that in mind, we can pose the question: What if Harry doesn’t ensure the Scarcrux is destroyed before facing Voldemort at the Battle of Hogwarts?
Let us assume that Harry and Voldemort meet on the battlefield at Hogwarts, with the other Horcruxes destroyed and Harry unaware of the Scarcrux. Harry, in true Gryffindor fashion, is determined to fight back: “I’ll make sure I take as many Death Eaters with me as I can, and Voldemort too if I can manage it” (HBP 77). Voldemort is determined to be the one to kill Harry in order to save face – unlike other kills; he won’t delegate it to any human or reptile. And of course, Harry is the master of the Elder Wand, but Voldemort remains unaware of that. So they duel.
There’s a small possibility Harry still gets hit with a Killing Curse, and events play out as before – it’s unclear why the Elder Wand successfully casts a Killing Curse at Harry in “The Forest Again” but flies off toward “the master it would not kill” (DH 743-744) in “The Flaw in the Plan.” When I floated the query to Sophia Jenkins, we puzzled out a working theory: The Elder Wand is quasi-sentient enough to recognize that Harry wants to be hit by the Killing Curse in “The Forest Again” and obliges when Voldemort casts said curse. Later, when Harry no longer wants to be hit by Killing Curses, that is when the Elder Wand “would not kill” him.
Given the theory that the Elder Wand won’t kill Harry unless explicitly fulfilling his wishes, the likelier scenario of this AU Harry/Voldy duel is that their spells collide – exactly as it happened – and Voldemort is hit with a rebounding Killing Curse. Or we can allow for the possibility that Voldemort gets hit with a Killing Curse in some more pedestrian way – but either way, the duel doesn’t go well for Voldemort, considering he’s hamstrung by a disloyal wand.
We would then get a redux end of Vold War I. Voldemort’s body would be destroyed, and he would return to being Vapormort, still tethered to life by the Scarcrux. The wizarding world would be treated to another interbellum period.
However, just like the previous time, Voldemort would return because he is crafty and resilient. Would anyone know that Voldemort was still alive after the Battle of Hogwarts, or would his eventual return be even more of a shock? How long would his exile last this time? We can’t know, just as Dumbledore didn’t know the first time: “I knew not whether it would be ten, twenty, or fifty years before he returned, but I was sure he would do so” (OotP 835)
Perhaps Voldemort has a whole bag of tricks for returning from being an inch from death, but I doubt it. (Especially because the Sorcerer’s Stone is out of the picture.) It’s probable that Voldemort would once again brew up a Flesh-Blood-and-Bone Potion for his resurrection. However, when the time came, Voldemort would probably use some other enemy’s blood, not Harry’s. It would be much harder to access the blood of middle-aged Auror Harry than that of a 14-year-old.
This would mean that Lily’s sacrifice would no longer live on in Voldemort’s body, tethering Harry to life. What’s unclear is if things would revert to Lily’s protection working the way it did before Voldemort’s first resurrection, when he could not even touch Harry (GoF 652). Would that protection once again protect Harry from Voldemort if Voldemort gets himself a new Harry-free body?
(As an aside: We don’t know if the way a Killing Curse rebounded off baby Harry is replicable. Harry doesn’t seem to think so,1 but Dumbledore never chimes in on the subject, and Voldemort never attempts another Killing Curse aimed at Harry until after he’s juiced with Harry’s blood. If the Lily-derived magical protection against Killing Curses is durable, it certainly makes Dumbledore’s plans to give Harry a trial run in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone more defensible!)
Either way, when Voldemort comes back, he will outsource the murder of Harry Potter. We have precedent for this: When Voldemort didn’t believe he could successfully murder Albus Dumbledore, he delegated that responsibility. At this point, Voldemort would be even warier of trying to murder Harry. He may worry about Lily’s sacrifice magic being in play once more. But even if not, there’s no getting around the fact that two attempts at Avada Kedavra-ing Harry failed spectacularly. At this point, the propagandist value of killing Harry himself would be outweighed by the risks, and the task would fall to someone else.
Since Voldemort cannot be killed due to the Scarcrux, the only way out of the stalemate of a protected Harry and immortal Voldemort would be Harry’s death. Whether it came from old age or at the hands of a Death Eater, it would be the thing that finally made Voldemort mortal. Except when Voldemort regained his mortality in this respect, he would be positioned very differently from the way he is in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
We cannot even hazard a guess as to what wand he would be using, but suffice to say, his greatest opponent would not be its master. Because Harry wouldn’t have willingly sacrificed himself, the rest of society would have no magical protection from Voldemort. (And this isn’t even getting into the possibilities of Voldemort creating more Horcruxes!) In short, “the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord” would be out of the picture, and wizardkind would be hard-pressed to find a champion who could successfully defeat Voldemort without the bajillion magical connections Harry had going for him.
This vicious cycle of Voldemort vaporizing and resurrecting is the reason Dumbledore doesn’t try to kill Voldemort directly – not even when they’re dueling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He comes up with some waffle about how “merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit” (OotP 814) because he cannot tell Voldemort, “I know you’re immortal, and if I hit you with a Killing Curse, we’d just be trapped in this destroyed-and-reborn cycle forever.” Voldemort could have been like an evil serpentine phoenix, never fully dying.
I hope I’ve illustrated just how consequential the destruction of the Scarcrux was to wizarding history – and why it was a centerpiece of so many of Dumbledore’s plans. And that makes Snape’s actions vitally important since he is the one to deliver the information and set things in motion. In future essays, I’ll be diving further into the what-ifs of Snape’s life and the war against Voldemort – in the meantime, I look forward to your comments on how you think the alternative history would have played out if Harry had continued to tether Voldemort to life.
1Harry regularly thinks about dying at Voldemort’s hand, whether in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (“I’ll have to go back to the Dursleys and wait for Voldemort to find me there, it’s only dying a bit later than I would have” ) or in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (“He was going to die like Cedric, those pitiless red eyes were telling him so . . . he was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it. . .” ).
The closest he comes to any optimism on the subject is in Sorcerer’s Stone when entreating Hermione to go back for reinforcements. “’But Harry – what if You-Know-Who’s with him?’ / ‘Well – I was lucky once, wasn’t I?’ said Harry, pointing at his scar. ‘I might get lucky again'” (286). However, in my reading of the scene, it’s Harry offering some brittle comfort to Hermione rather than expressing any actual conviction.
Tellingly, Harry never again refers to hoping for a recurrence of the miracle. Not even after being informed of his mother’s magical protection at the end of the first book. This is in contrast to the twin cores, a magical aberration that Harry explicitly addresses in the narration: “He had lost the protection of the twin cores, and only now that it was gone did he realize how much he had been counting upon it.” (DH 351) The combination of his fatalistic outlook and an absence of any musings on the subject seems, in my opinion, to be firm evidence that Harry doesn’t expect lightning to strike twice.