The Story We Know – But from Snape’s Perspective
by Lorrie Kim
You know what I always wanted to read? The Harry Potter series – from Snape’s point of view. What was going through his mind the whole time? Did the story look different from his perspective?
Severus Snape and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Severus Snape and the Chamber of Secrets
Severus Snape and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Severus Snape and the Goblet of Fire
Severus Snape and the Order of the Phoenix
Severus Snape and the Half-Blood Prince
Severus Snape and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
Severus Snape and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Severus Snape and the Cursed Child
Those are the chapter titles in my book Snape: The Definitive Analysis of Hogwarts’s Mysterious Potions Master, published today, October 18, 2022, by Media Lab Books.
How did this guy go from being a bitter 31-year-old who picks on abused orphans to a master spy who became the right-hand man of both generals on opposing sides of a war? What was in his heart the whole time? Why does it matter what was in his heart if he was such a petty, vindictive teacher throughout his career? And how did the author create a character so ambiguous that readers can take in the exact same words and yet come away with wildly different interpretations of whether Snape was good, evil, both, or neither? The bravest man or the least redeemable? As a fictional creation, Severus Snape is a towering achievement, a gift to English literature, a flashpoint for fierce and endless debates. He is written to be ambiguous but never neutral, in essence or in effect. Mentioning Snape in a gathering of Potter fans is like throwing a lit firecracker into a cauldron.
I wrote an earlier version of this book in 2016. Within months after publication, three events made it clear that I would have to write an updated, expanded edition:
- Publication of the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
- Release of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film
- Election of Trump to the United States presidency
The publicity campaign for Cursed Child urged readers and viewers to “Keep the Secrets.” One such secret was that Snape, or a posthumous form of him, appears in the play with a major development in character: With the war finished, he no longer has to hide his true loyalties or his Occlumency methods, at least from Scorpius Malfoy. The Snape of Cursed Child speaks single truths instead of ambivalent double meanings. The 2022 edition of my book includes a chapter about this change. The living Snape was a mystery to Harry, Draco, and the reader, but this Snape explains himself and his methods to Draco’s child in clear language.
One of the greatest achievements of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the depiction of Harry’s disillusionment as he learns that Dumbledore once championed global hate crimes. Harry learns why Dumbledore believed in Snape’s remorse and even why Snape was able to embrace remorse sooner than Dumbledore did – because he had Dumbledore as an inexorable mentor. The seven-book series left some uncertainty among readers about whether Dumbledore’s early crimes could be considered as bad as Snape’s, but the Fantastic Beasts movies clarify the connections between their stories. What they show about Dumbledore’s background enriches any rereading of the Dumbledore-Snape relationship. The 2022 edition of my book expands upon how Dumbledore was able to turn the course of Snape’s life around before he caused as much harm as Dumbledore did – just as Snape, in turn, was able to help Draco.
For me, and perhaps for some other US readers, some events of the Trump era brought aspects of Snape’s story more vividly to life. For example, when Trump turned on his former fixer, Michael Cohen, Cohen changed allegiance and devoted his life to doing what he could to bring down Trump. Even the way he describes the public perception of himself sounds like Snape: “villain or savior, depending on your point of view” (Cohen, Disloyal 16). When the Trump administration attacked critical race theory and banned federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity training, it was a real-time demonstration of Voldemort’s aims in undermining the teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts. When Trump’s theft of classified documents was connected to the alarming rise in the number of US spies who have been captured or killed since early 2021, I thought of Snape shaking as he pulled Harry out of the Pensieve and ended the Occlumency lessons. Compromising a spy’s secrets can be fatal to the spy and devastating to the spy’s mission. When putting together the 2022 edition of my book, I understood these points with greater immediacy than I did in 2016.
In the Harry Potter series, Snape is the character whose growth we track. With Harry, Snape, and Voldemort, we get the question “What do you do when you’re born, through no fault of your own, into a life where you don’t get enough love? How do you become an adult?” Harry starts out blameless and ends up realistically flawed but still true to himself; that was his challenge. Voldemort doesn’t change much. He nearly dies the first time he fails to kill Harry, and he dies doing the same thing, years later.
Snape changes. He goes from vengeful and oppressive to self-sacrificing and protective. Every step is difficult for him and uncredited by nature of his double agency. If he succeeds, he will draw more hatred to himself, not more love. Even so, he knows who he is on the inside. He shows us that you don’t have to be beautiful, good, or even innocent to do the right thing. Anyone can choose to do the right thing – or if you can’t do it, to want to do it. That is a freedom and a birthright.
Choosing this course and staying with it requires Snape to be brave in at least two different ways. One is that he remained at the site of his greatest regrets, resolutely focused on the damage he had done and his mission to correct as much of it as he could, despite being vilified and unable to defend himself. The other way is smaller – tender and raw – and I think it’s familiar to many of us. After years of seeing protection and adoration lavished on others, knowing himself to be unpleasant and perhaps unlovable, he summons the nerve to ask Dumbledore, twice, “What about me?” In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he asks Dumbledore if he remembers that the Marauders tried to kill him. When Dumbledore orders him to kill to protect Draco’s soul, he asks Dumbledore, “And my soul?” Is Snape’s soul too dirty to save?
Both times, he gets an inconclusive answer from Dumbledore: “My memory is as good as it ever was” (PoA 391). “You alone know whether it will harm your soul” (DH 683). Not a reassurance… but not a rejection either. Not all of us will know regrets as great as Snape’s, but most of us, I think, can understand that pleading “What about me?” to a parent figure who seems to love other people more – that is brave.
Posthumously, Snape is vindicated, called heroic, and we are told, given a portrait. This isn’t for Snape’s sake. He’s dead, and he’s fictional. It’s the author showing us, the readers, how even those of us who have done harm can choose to do good. We are not worthless, even after we have harmed others; there are things we know how to do, people we know how to reach, that innocent people cannot. That’s the importance of this character. The good in Snape’s story doesn’t make sense without full mindfulness of his earlier crimes. We don’t forget them. They enable us to see the staggering difficulty and the magnificence of this character’s achievement.
Cohen, Michael. Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump. Skyhorse, 2020.