Today in “Shedding Light” we will analyze Severus Snape’s role through the end of Half-Blood Prince, addressing the simple question, “is Snape evil?”. Naturally this means this analysis contains a profound and unforgiving amount of spoilers. Please feel free to check out our interview sections, or various non-spoiler boards if you don’t want to know. For the rest, we will dive into our pensieve of evidence provided through six books.
This analysis of Snape will rely heavily on JK Rowling’s use of authority figures, and also address a wholly proper counterpoint caused by problematic placements within the Defense Against the Dark Arts position over the course of six books.
JK’s use of Authority
JK Rowling’s use of authority figures is clearly illustrated as early as book three, the Prisoner of Azkaban, by setting up the various forms of authority in Harry’s world (government, press, and education), then firmly knocking down each element one by one until only the third, education, stands as an institution that Harry can still by and large, trust and respect as he finishes his perilous journey.
The government in the wizarding world is generally seen as ‘interfering’ or incompetent at best. Our first introduction to wizarding government is through the inept and bumbling Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, in Prisoner of Azkaban. The escape of Sirius Black sets off a spectacular chain of events, including the troubles of the Quidditch World Cup, the Azkaban breakout, and the downfall of Fudge’s efforts as Minister. As illustrated swiftly in Half -Blood Prince, there has been one very busy summer of havoc caused by Death Eaters, so newly-installed Minister Scrimgeour hasn’t got an easier time coming in.
“The Brockdale Bridge didn’t wear out. That wasn’t really a hurricane. Those murders were not the work of Muggles…” (Half-Blood Prince, p10)
As for Muggle government, it is not so subtly pointed out that various ‘odd happenings’, ‘scandals’ and even natural disasters are more often the result of botched wizard affairs than anything rooted in the Muggle world in the sixth book, yet even though they suffer as well from such things, the Muggle government is holding things together precariously – but still better than their wizard counterparts.
The press is generally a favorite target of JK Rowling as well. The press is generally seen as untrustworthy and meddlesome in day to day affairs.The introduction of Rita Skeeter in Goblet of Fire sets this up neatly, with blatant errors and misinformation starting right off from the report of the Quidditch World Cup. By the time the reader reaches book six, the only press worthy of trust and reliable sorts of information are independent efforts like the Quibbler. After all, it is abundantly clear that the Daily Prophet reports what the Ministry of Magic wants them to say, and does not deviate from this path in the slightest.
Rita stared at the both for a moment then let out a great whoop of laughter.
“The Quibbler!” she said, cackling. “You think people will take him seriously if he’s published in the Quibbler?”
“Some people won’t,” said Hermione in a level voice. “But the Daily Prophet’s version of the Azkaban breakout had some gaping holes in it. I think a lot of people will be wondering whether there isn’t a better explaination of what happened, and if there’s an alternative story available… I think they might be rather keen to read it.” (Order of the Phoenix, Ch 25)
This notion is again reinforced in Half-Blood Prince, as Harry’s first encounter with Luna Lovegood demonstrates.
“Quibbler still going strong, then?” asked Harry.
“Oh yes, circulation’s well up,” said Luna happily. (Half-Blood Prince, p137)
Harry’s interview for the Quibbler did more than cause good business for the periodical, it also firmly established them as a reliable enough source of information that is completely outside of the Ministry of Magic’s domain.
This leaves Hogwarts, the educational realm of the wizarding world. Set up as a standard – not perfect, but to be respected and trusted. In fact, by the time we reach Half-Blood Prince, all the layers of society have been peeled away, leaving one firm, but not perfect or unshakeable foundation – Hogwarts.
Trust and Respect
Professor McGonagall has been Professor Dumbledore’s adept Assistant Headmistress for the longest time, and as such she commands trust and respect from all those who surround her. After all, Dumbledore said it best:
“Please do not suggest I do not take the safety of my students seriously, Harry.” (Half-Blood Prince, p550)
We can naturally infer he was referring to McGonagall and the other staff. Professor Sprout is also a noteworthy example. Herbology Professor Sprout is knowledgeable, yet often credited in too-minor ways for important things. After all, it was her Mandrakes that saved many students during Chamber of Secrets.
JK Rowling also reinforces this perception many times over through the series, perhaps not so directly as she points out the faults of the government and press, but subtly so.
Counterpoint: The trouble with Defense Against the Dark Arts
But what about teachers like Lockhart, Quirrell, and Umbridge? By now, it is no secret that the Defense Against the Dark Arts position is cursed, something that was suspected for a long time until it was merely cleared up from Dumbledore as to the nature of the curse. Are these teachers worthy of respect and can they be considered trustworthy?
“You see, we have never been able to keep a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher for longer than a year since I refused the post to Lord Voldemort.” (- Professor Albus Dumbledore, Half-Blood Prince, p446)
Quirrell was possessed by Voldemort. While that alone would be sufficient to provide Quirrell a “get out of Azkaban free” card, due to the fact toting around Voldemort for the better part of a year is bad enough, by and large he was a respected teacher during his time, enough so that the end of the Sorcerer’s Stone provides a bit of a surprise when all is revealed in the final chapters. After all – “who would suspect p-p-poor, st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell?” Harry certainly did not, although a sharp reader or two might have.
Lockhart was arguably a decent teacher, just more of a storyteller versus teaching anything practical. One could also claim that until third year, most students are probably not supposed to be exposed to things that could be actually dangerous or difficult – they are still learning how to be wizards. This point is touched on briefly in Goblet of Fire, when Moody points out that fourth year students are only supposed to be taught countercurses according to the Ministry of Magic, but goes ahead and shows them illegal Dark curses regardless of this. Lockhart doesn’t need to be proficient in practical application areas order to get across information that younger students need to know. One can only sympathize for the NEWT and OWL students who had the misfortune to take him in that critical year, however.
This brings us to the most difficult of “teachers”, Dolores Jane Umbridge, fifth year. Professor Umbridge doesn’t count as a “real” teacher, as she was planted there by the Ministry and likely had no idea even how to teach people beyond handing them the book and saying “read this”. Now I am setting myself up for flames and arguements here, but even Umbridge is worthy of some small token of respect (perhaps the sort doled out in minor slivers afforded to those one who cannot help but find some positive quality in even the most bleak of situations and loathsome of people). After all, she walked right into a situation that she knew was going to be difficult and in her own twisted and sadistic way, attempted to make the best of it. While the results were deplorable and apalling, the effort was actually to some degree admirable – especially when the outrageous grabs for power built up so high she could not help but fall from the tower she had attempted to construct over the course of Order of the Phoenix. Although we have no assurance of this fact, we can probably trust she saved her special brand of simpering torture for Harry & Co., and the younger students were actually pretty safe during this time frame.
In conclusion, while none of these Professors are one you would hand your kitten to for safekeeping before taking a week’s vacation, one can at least trust that they kept their dangerous natures limited in scope to Harry and his associated circle (Gryffindors).
The Dumbledore factor
There are two critical keys here. The first is – Dumbledore trusts Snape. Is Dumbledore infallable? Of course not. The end of Order of the Phoenix illustrates this admirably. However, Dumbledore knows he is old, and can make mistakes, the biggest one being protecting Harry too much. Despite this, Dumbledore never once sways from his belief in trusting Severus Snape. Could he have made a mistake? Possibly, but it is even more possible there is more to the equation that we have not been told – in fact it is very likely we will find out just what it is that Dumbledore saw in Snape in book seven. After all, it took an entire book to get from knowing the prophecy to knowing Snape over heard the prophecy- though as always, the clever among us may have already guessed.
“…how can you be sure Snape’s on our side?”
Dumbledore did not speak for a moment; he looked as though he was trying to make up his mind about something. At last he said, “I am sure. I trust Severus Snape completely.” (Half-Blood Prince, p549)
Not once will Professor Dumbledore waver, even in the face of danger. Dumbledore was not afraid to die. He states his views upon death in Sorcerer’s Stone, and clearly was setting Harry up for this inevitable occurrence.
“We must agree to differ on that, Draco. It so happens that I trust Professor Snape -” (Half-Blood Prince, p588)
This is not some complicated plan at work here. Dumbedore is very familiar with the concept of wizard debt, a fact that has yet to fully sink into Harry, and provides the backbone of the second point. As much as Snape might enjoy killing Harry, wizard-debt is serious business. This element of business is so serious that despite multiple opportunities (he is after all, Potions Master, and quite good at it, too), Snape is more intent on saving Harry than he is for killing him, even before Harry is clued in at last to why Professor Snape doesn’t want to kill him.
“But Snape tried to kill me!”
“No, no, no. I tried to kill you… I’d have managed it before then if Snape hadn’t been muttering a countercurse, trying to save you.” (Professor Quirrell, Sorcerer’s Stone, Ch. 17)
Harry wouldn’t have thought it possible that Snape’s dislike for him could increase, but it certainly had. A muscle twitched unpleasantly at the corner of Snape’s thin mouth every time he looked at Harry, and he was constantly flexing his fingers, as though itching to place them around Harry’s throat. (Prisoner of Azkaban, Ch. 22)
The concept of binding elements between wizards is reinforced further by the introduction of the Unbreakable Vow between Narcissa Malfoy and Severus Snape. Not only is it reinforced that despite the deep and abiding hatred Snape has transfered from James Potter to Harry Potter, the simple fact remains that he still “owes Harry one”. If he didn’t, Harry would have been killed by now, and that simply wouldn’t suffice. Snape isn’t saving Harry for the Dark Lord’s sake (although that certainly has a factor in things), he’s saving him to whittle down that life-debt brought upon by the Shrieking Shack incident so many years ago.
It is far too simplistic to say “Dumbledore trusted Snape! So should we!” Instead, making Snape purely evil based on book six would be out of character for JK Rowling. Not an impossible twist, but also not likely due to Rowling’s established pattern of making the education system noble and trustworthy.