Severus Snape and the Chosen Ones: What If Voldemort Chose the Longbottoms?
by hpboy13 & Sophia Jenkins
It is a question as old as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: “What if Voldemort had attacked Neville instead of Harry?” Ever since Dumbledore said that the prophecy could have been referring to Neville, Harry Potter fans have pondered this intriguing hypothetical.
For instance, the question was raised on Alohomora! Episode 275. It was answered very eloquently by commenter Sooooo, who explained that we’d have a dead Neville on our hands: The key part of what saved Harry from Voldemort was Lily being given a choice by Voldemort (at Snape’s request) to stand aside. Alice Longbottom would not have been afforded the same opportunity.
It really all comes back to that choice given to Lily by Voldemort – were it not for that choice, Voldemort would remain undefeated.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The fandom has been led astray because Dumbledore’s words were less than forthright. The fandom embraced (too enthusiastically) Dumbledore’s assertion that the prophecy could have referred to Neville or Harry.
Sybill’s prophecy could have applied to two wizard boys, both born at the end of July that year, both of whom had parents in the Order of the Phoenix, both sets of parents having narrowly escaped Voldemort three times. One, of course, was you. The other was Neville Longbottom.” (OotP 842)
Note the use of “could have applied” versus “could apply.” Dumbledore is speaking from his perspective upon hearing the prophecy: that given the information he had at the time, it was reasonable to think Neville or Harry may be the Chosen One. He is saying this from a subjective perspective, not an objective truth. Even when the prophecy was issued, it could not have applied to Neville for reasons we’ll be exploring. But Dumbledore thought it could have.
When Dumbledore is explaining everything about the prophecy to Harry, he has to talk around Snape’s involvement in the whole affair. He does this by attributing Snape’s actions to “the eavesdropper” (OotP 843). But the omission of Snape’s identity presents another complication: Dumbledore cannot reveal the details of why Voldemort planned to spare Lily and therefore has to understate the significance of that in shaping Harry’s destiny.
He does this by attributing Harry’s role as the Chosen One solely to Voldemort’s (seemingly arbitrary) choice between the two boys.
‘I am afraid,’ said Dumbledore slowly, looking as though every word cost him a great effort, ‘that there is no doubt that it is you. […] You are forgetting the next part of the prophecy, the final identifying feature of the boy who could vanquish Voldemort…. Voldemort himself would ‘mark him as his equal.’ And so he did, Harry. He chose you, not Neville. He gave you the scar that has proved both blessing and curse.’” (OotP 842)
That is not quite the whole truth, but to determine just how truthful it is, we will undertake to see what would have happened if Voldemort had chosen differently between the two boys.
There are two schools of thought regarding how things could have played out if Voldemort had chosen Neville – and in neither of them does Neville become the Chosen One. What we know for certain is that Neville Longbottom would have died in infancy, and then who’d be chopping off Nagini’s head at pivotal moments? But what happens after Voldemort eliminates the threat of the Longbottoms?
A more deterministic possibility is that Voldemort would then have attacked Harry, and things would play out largely the same, with Lily sacrificing herself and Harry surviving as the Chosen One. In her excellent comment, Sooooo says much the same:
Likely, I think he would’ve then gone after the Potters to erase any other potential threat and we might be back to pretty much the same story we know, only with 4 boys in Harry’s dorm, not 5.
It’s true: Possibly Voldemort attacks the Potters after the Longbottoms, just to make doubly triply super-sure that he has neutralized any and all threats to his immortal happy ending. If he broaches the topic with Snape, Snape asks for mercy for Lily, and we are back on track for the regular time line.
BUT! But things could have played out very differently indeed after he killed the Longbottoms, and it all comes back to Severus Snape.
There are four historical inflection points in the war against Voldemort that are centered on Snape:
1. Snape hears the first part of Trelawney’s first prophecy and reports it to Voldemort, setting everything in motion.
2. Snape asks Voldemort to spare Lily Potter.
3. Snape asks Dumbledore to protect the Potters, pledging his allegiance as a spy.
4. Snape reveals to Harry that he must sacrifice himself at the end of the war.
There are myriad other significant events in which Snape is involved, and many of them would have far-reaching effects. But these four events are the ones that completely change the course of the war.
The first event – Snape overhearing the prophecy and setting Voldemort and Harry on a fateful collision course – is so fundamental to how the events in the prophecy play out that Snape’s presence cannot be extricated from the existence of the prophecy itself. Prophecies, as discussed in the editorial “Clairvoyance or Coincidence: What Makes a Prophecy Real?”, are formed not because they are inevitable descriptors of the future but rather because they are the probable future outcome based on the confluence of events occurring at the moment that they are told. Without Snape’s presence in the Hog’s Head, listening to Dumbledore’s interview of Trelawney, Harry could not have become the Chosen One, and there would have been no prophecy.
The last event, about the importance of Harry’s sacrifice, was covered in the recent editorial titled “The Boy Must Die: Severus Snape’s Biggest Contribution to the War.”
But the middle two… These are the events that are in jeopardy if Voldemort attacks the Longbottoms first.
Does Snape know?
In order for Lily to be given a choice to live, Snape has to ask Voldemort to spare her. We can accept that if Snape knows that Voldemort intends to attack the Potters, he will ask Voldemort to spare her. So the first place where a wrench may be thrown into the Harry-as-Chosen-One time line is if Snape doesn’t get wind of Voldemort’s plans.
To the best of our knowledge, the contents of the prophecy were not common knowledge among the ranks of the Death Eaters. (They seem reasonably well-informed by the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, but that’s only after Voldemort has spent a year pursuing the prophecy with all of his minions in tow.) Jo said on her old website that “the Lestranges were not in on the secret,” and we know that the Lestranges have a higher clearance level than most other Death Eaters. Per Bellatrix, “He shares everything with me! […] The Dark Lord has, in the past, entrusted me with his most precious -” (HBP 29)
Voldemort would not want to spread the knowledge about a potential rival until that rival was neutralized. He may have crowed about it far and wide after the threat was eliminated, but it’s telling that he goes to Godric’s Hollow without an entourage – and this is the man who brought his minions on a job interview!
The other thing we must remark on is that Voldemort marked Harry as his equal with single-minded focus and doesn’t seem to ever give Neville a passing thought. When Voldemort first meets Neville in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, he has to be reminded of Neville’s identity by Bellatrix, who describes him as “the boy who has been giving the Carrows so much trouble! The son of the Aurors, remember?” (DH 731). However, Voldemort’s indifference toward Neville as a potential Chosen One likely comes from the events leading up to this moment that confirm Harry as his prophesied adversary. When Voldemort attacked baby Harry, he couldn’t kill him, and since then, Harry has shown an unparalleled gift for foiling Voldemort and not getting killed. Of course, Harry must be “the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord” in light of that.
In our AU (alternate universe), Voldemort kills the Longbottoms, and nothing extraordinary happens. No Killing Curses rebound, and Voldemort goes about his evil day secure in the knowledge that he eliminated the threat. But just to be sure, just to be thorough and tie up loose ends, he would attack the Potters. However, this attack on the Potters – where they are the “other possibility” rather than the main one – would likely be done with much less fanfare because of the optics involved.
In the true time line, Snape and Wormtail are the only two Death Eaters who were brought into the loop on the Potters’ attack, and that’s because both of them provided crucial information on the subject. But in the AU, where the Longbottoms are the primary target, there is every chance that Voldemort would be even more circumspect in his subsequent attack on the Potters. If he attacks one baby prophesied to be his undoing, that projects strength and invulnerability once he kills it. If he goes around murdering every baby who might grow up to threaten him, that does not project strength – and Voldemort, master propagandist that he is, would recognize that fact.
So the first major decision point after Voldemort kills the Longbottoms is whether to tell Snape he intends to attack the Potters next. If he does not, then Lily is never given a choice, the Potters are killed just like the Longbottoms, and there is no anointed Voldy Slayer to take him down. The prophecy does not come to pass.
Does Snape trust?
Snape finds out Voldemort intends to attack the Potters. He asks Voldemort to spare Lily. He is not convinced that Voldemort will, so he goes to Dumbledore for help.
The question is, what convinced Snape that Voldemort wouldn’t spare Lily? Ironically, Voldemort actually heeded his request and tried to spare Lily. He says to Harry, “Your mother needn’t have died” (SS 294). When Voldemort attacks, he tells Lily to “stand aside” no less than four times and even gives her a “last warning” (DH 344).
We don’t know whether Voldemort said he would honor Snape’s request. If he didn’t, why did he then try to spare her anyway? If he did, then Snape didn’t believe him, which begs the question of why Snape asked. But either way, Snape thinks Lily is still in peril after asking Voldemort for mercy, so he goes to Dumbledore and promises “anything” in exchange for keeping Lily safe (DH 678).
Here, then, is the other inflection point. If Snape didn’t know Lily was being targeted by Voldemort, he would not have gone to Dumbledore and would not have switched sides. So everything that stems from Snape opposing Voldemort – including how Snape both saved and ended Dumbledore’s life in the same year – would no longer happen.
And what would become of Snape? Even assuming that he asks Voldemort to spare Lily and that Voldemort met his temporary downfall from her sacrifice, Snape would be thrown into Azkaban. He would not have Dumbledore vouching for him, pointing out that Snape “rejoined our side before Lord Voldemort’s downfall and turned spy for us, at great personal risk. He is now no more a Death Eater than I am” (GoF 590-591). And Snape does not have the societal connections the Respectables had to keep themselves out of Azkaban – or it must be supposed, the willpower to try while grieving for Lily. He ends up in Azkaban, reliving his worst memory over and over again until the Dementors drive him to an early grave.
The Branching Time Lines
So going back to our AU, where Voldemort attacked Neville first. We now see how this could have played out.
Possibility 1: Voldemort does not tell Snape that he’s going to attack the Potters as well and succeeds in killing them. Snape may then switch allegiances to Dumbledore and become his invaluable spy, determined to exact revenge for Lily, but it’s too late for Harry to vanquish Voldemort.
Possibility 2: Snape is informed that Voldemort is going to attack the Potters. Much as in the regular time line, he asks Voldemort to spare Lily. He either believes Voldemort or does not go to Dumbledore for whatever other reason. Perhaps Dumbledore is not as receptive to his overtures (after the Longbottoms are killed, Dumbledore would surely be all in on protecting the Potters even without Snape’s request, since they are his last best hope against Voldemort). After the attack on the Potters, we still get Harry surviving as a potential Chosen One, but Snape dies of grief in Azkaban. The odds that Harry then manages to actually do the Voldy-vanquishing without Snape’s efforts to protect him are much longer than they would be otherwise and seem borderline impossible.
Possibility 2A: In the real time line, neither the Potters nor the Longbottoms appear to have the full-throated protection of the Fidelius Charm until Snape alerts Dumbledore of Voldemort’s intended target. This may be because, not knowing that Snape hadn’t heard the entire prophecy, Dumbledore believed that Voldemort would logically wait until the two boys were older in order to observe which one might “have power the Dark Lord knows not.” However, if the Longbottoms were killed in the AU, Dumbledore would likely put the Potters under the Fidelius Charm as soon as possible, given that they were the only hope he now had for a Voldy Slayer.
If that happened and Snape knew about it, Possibility 2A is that he simply decides not to approach Dumbledore, assuming Dumbledore is already protecting Lily as best he can. Without a trusting partnership established between the two before Voldemort’s destruction, Snape has no reason to believe that Voldemort will ever return, nor would he have any desire to protect Harry Potter. Therefore, even if he’s distraught over Lily’s death, he’s unlikely to go to Dumbledore for assistance in gaining revenge on a Dark Lord whom he believes is dead. Again, Snape will live out the rest of his numbered days in Azkaban.
Possibility 2B: Even if Snape knows about the attack, asks for mercy, and goes to Dumbledore, what if there weren’t enough time in their partnership? Dumbledore and Snape’s meeting on the hilltop happens sometime in the winter of 1980–1981, almost a year before the attack on the Potters. If the attack comes only weeks after Snape’s request, perhaps Dumbledore can’t keep him out of Azkaban or can’t convince him to devote himself to protecting Harry. But there’s no inevitability about Snape becoming Dumbledore’s right-hand wizard for Vold War II.
Possibility 3: Things play out exactly as they did: Snape asks for mercy, switches allegiance to Dumbledore, and Dumbledore gets his Snape/Harry dream team only without Neville in the picture. While this is still possible, it is by no means certain or even probable, considering all the events that have to line up.
“He chose you.”
If one believes the deterministic theory – that events would have played out for Harry regardless of whether Neville was attacked or not – then it really does not make sense for Dumbledore to tell Harry about Neville being an also-ran. The possibility of the prophecy referring to Neville is a moot point. The prophecy never did and never could have referred to Neville because Neville is missing the essential Snape-has-the-hots-for-his-mother ingredient. So why does Dumbledore bring it up?
Because he is trying, at this moment (and always), to drive home the importance of choices, Dumbledore reinforces this at least every other year – in his year-end speeches in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and in his lesson on Horcruxes with Harry. Recall that Harry recognizing the importance of choices will be a critical factor in Dumbledore’s plans. And there is scarcely a more important moment to drive home the point than when discussing a type of magic that has a tenuous relationship to free will.
It should also be noted that this serves as a helpful lesson into Voldemort’s psychology, illustrating his hypocrisy in choosing a half-blood over a pure-blood. Even the language Dumbledore uses is similar, guiding Harry in the analysis: “And notice this, Harry” (OotP 842). In the Tom Riddle 101 lessons in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore regularly says, “Firstly, I hope you noticed…” and “I trust that you also noticed…” (HBP 277). We may consider this bit of Harry and Dumbledore’s discussion in Order of the Phoenix to be Lesson 0 of his Tom Riddle curriculum.
Dumbledore is also being as honest as he can possibly be in this scene, considering the information he still has to conceal (about Snape’s love for Lily). While Dumbledore has no qualms about lying to Harry, the past year had been an abject lesson in the ill effects of concealing information from Harry: Perhaps Dumbledore is attempting to be as forthcoming as he can be.
What he says is that “there is no doubt that it is you” because Voldemort “chose you, not Neville.” This is not to mean that Voldemort could have chosen Neville and that would make Neville the Chosen One. Rather, it means that if Voldemort had not chosen Harry, there very likely would be no Chosen One at all. There’s no doubt the prophecy refers to Harry precisely because of Voldemort’s actions in choosing him, which sets him on the long and winding road to being the one to vanquish the Dark Lord.
Could Dumbledore have conveyed this without bringing up Neville as the also-ran? He probably could have, but it would have been harder to convey the importance of choices if he had been asking Harry to believe “Voldemort was choosing between ‘kill the boy who will be my undoing’ and ‘let a potential vanquisher live in peace.’” By showing that Voldemort was presented with a choice between two boys, and choosing one is what set events in motion, it conveys just how important choices are even when they seem foretold.