This post will annoy Snape fans

It’s always amusing when a character changes (and sometimes, for the better) in the transition from book to film. This holds for Arwen from The Lord of the Rings, Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada and Robb in A Game of Thrones. Actors bring with them an interpretation that you as a reader had never considered, and often do more than their fair bit in cementing a character’s popularity within the fandom.

But what happens when an actor’s rendition of a character is so good, so much classier than how he is presented onscreen (in-book, if you will) that he ends up eclipsing the ‘canonical’ version?

Severus_SnapeI’ve never been a fan of Severus Snape. I was in no hurry to find out which side his ‘true allegiance’ lay with, I didn’t particularly care why he had switched sides at all, and I didn’t think the grand revelations at the close were all that grand. Nor do I think the fact that he was in ‘love’ with Lily Evans excuses any of his behavior. Consequently, I find the popular urge to view him as some kind of martyr or tragic hero rather perplexing.

In the books, Severus Snape is a nasty, greasy, rather out-of-control bully. In the films however, Alan Rickman transformed him into a smooth-talking, dour presence. A lot of Snape’s more manic and truly alarming moments are smoothed over by Rickman’s portrayal. One example I can recall is in Prisoner of Azkaban, where Snape gets truly alarming when presented with the Marauder’s Map. He rages at Harry, ‘baring’ his teeth at him and even acting extremely rude to Lupin when he is summoned. In the movie, Rickman played a far more in-control character, drawling his questions at Harry rather than biting them off in a rage.

I will accept that a great deal of the ‘tragic romantic hero’ tag is due to Rickman’s depiction of the character. Indeed, I think Rowling herself allowed his portrayal to influence Snape’s presentation in the later books. From a yellow-toothed, greasy haired professor he becomes something of a suave intellectual, most notably in the scene in Half-Blood Prince where he serves the aristocratic Narcissa Malfoy elf-made wine and discourses smoothly with Bellatrix on the nuances of his double-agent role. The precariously held together Snape from Prisoner of Azkaban, whose hatred of Lupin was so obvious to Harry, seems to have undergone a sea change here.

And, superficial as it is, Rickman’s handsomeness no doubt played a role in people warming to him. In the books, Snape is far from good-looking after all.

Now, to examine a claim that Harry makes at the close of Deathly Hallows, that Snape was ‘the bravest man [he] knew’. I think this was a completely uncalled for statement, one that has little evidence supporting it in the books and, to be completely honest, paints a far more heroic picture of Snape than he really deserves.

I’ve always found it’s easier to go over things point-wise. It makes the otherwise hard-to-navigate skeins of emotion so much easier to decipher. So here, let’s examine Snape’s achievements, whatever we know of them, and see whether or not Harry’s naming a son after him (and not, say, Hagrid or Remus or even Arthur Weasley) is justified at all.

1)       Snape was a double-agent for the entirety of the Second War, and for about one year of the First (give or take six months). He made this switch from Voldemort’s side not because of principles but because he was sort of blackmailed into it by Dumbledore. When he begs the Headmaster to keep Lily safe, Dumbledore asks him point blank what he will ‘give [him] in return’. In response to this, Snape rather dramatically declares, ‘Anything!’ Note that the spying role was, therefore, something that was extracted out of him by a master manipulator rather than something he came up with and offered on his own.

2)      Now let’s examine that role. What exactly did Snape’s spying accomplish? From what I can see, it did a hell of a lot more to further Voldemort’s cause than the Order’s. He fails to suitably control the Carrows in Hogwarts, allowing them to go ahead and use Cruciatus and other torture on the students. He gives Voldemort the correct date for the removal of Harry from Privet Drive, countering Yaxley’s (mis)information that he will be moved on the thirtieth of July, the day before Harry turns seventeen. Snape, at the meeting in Malfoy Manor described in the first chapter (The Dark Lord Ascending) says that he will be moved ‘the Saturday next’, a much closer date. And since ‘days’ pass at the Burrow before Harry’s birthday, we can assume that he was indeed moved well before the 30th and that, therefore, Snape probably was the one who gave Voldemort the correct information.

3)      Speaking of which, where on earth did he get this info from? Mundungus?

4)      Snape apparently did ‘all’ he did because of his love for Lily. He makes this obvious in that memorable scene where he conjures a doe Patronus and intones, heart-wrenchingly, ‘Always’. But, I have to ask, what was this ‘all’? Did he help the Order make any moves that completely foiled a Death Eater plan? Did he give Dumbledore vital information that brought about the defeat of Voldemort? From what I can see, it was the Horcruxes that played the real role in ending the Dark Lord’s reign, and Snape did not contribute to any of those famous memories.

5)   Snape’s greatest achievements in the series were to protect Harry during that Quidditch match in his first year (when Quirrell was jinxing him), place the Sword of Gryffindor rather inconveniently in the pool (yes, yes, it had to be retrieved in circumstances that required ‘bravery’, and how was Snape to know that Harry, like a complete idiot, would jump into the water wearing cursed jewelry) and finally, to pass on the memory that Harry had to die in order to defeat Voldemort. These are important acts, sure, but enough to exonerate him for all the crappy things he’d done to Harry and company before the epiphanies in The Prince’s Tale?

I find it extremely odd that people dismiss James as a bully but rarely pay attention to Snape’s own talents in this area. I would put this down to the common tendency to sympathize with the underdog (after all, Snape didn’t have the best childhood while James, we’re fairly sure, was loved and pampered), but the problem is, this particular underdog doesn’t learn from his own past—he inflicts the same sort of injuries on underdogs in his turn. The manner in which he treats Neville, for instance, or Harry and Hermione, is quite disgraceful and it’s a wonder that he remained a teacher at all.

If it weren’t for the fact that Dumbledore wanted to keep an eye on him, I’m pretty sure he would have been sacked.

Now, for that last bit—that Snape was the one who passed on the information about the final Horcrux to Harry. Was, in fact, probably the only person Dumbledore confided this information to. I think that is telling. Dumbledore obviously assumed that:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry this (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

That last point is very, very telling. Obviously Snape, for all his vaunted love for Lily, didn’t care enough about her son for this truth to throw him completely off his game. He even tells Dumbledore this: ‘For him?’ he sneers.snape-and-dumbledore

I find it incredible that Harry, who saw this in a memory, still thinks he should honour a man who blatantly told someone else that he didn’t give a damn about him. I find it alarming that he would excuse Snape’s past behavior based on this one revelation about teenage love. Even this love seems strangely wrong, since Snape is described as looking ‘greedily’ at Lily, a rather disturbing image and not one that really evokes the sense of tragic romance that everyone seems to insist on wreathing around the pair.

You could accuse me of being partisan, I guess. I do love the Marauders, I do  love James and Sirius, so perhaps it’s only natural that I dislike their schoolyard enemy. The thing is, I don’t see why people should pardon Snape all his offences, when they are so quick to call out people like James or Sirius or even Percy for the same things. James and Sirius were bullies—we remember that and we deplore it, but does anyone say the same of Snape? Percy sold out his family and followed his ambition, but then came back in regret—so he remains the most disliked Weasley sibling. Percy, arguably, saw the error of his ways and hence returned to the fold. Snape? Came out of a strange sort of ‘love’ that was ready to accept the death of Lily’s husband and child as a natural price to pay for her.

Snape is interesting, Snape is important in illustrating certain moral dilemmas, and perhaps in a weird way he is admirable (he does remain faithful to an ideal, however twisted that devotion is). But is he worth the blind adulation and ready forgiveness so many people seem to extend him? In my opinion, hell no.

Alan Rickman, I sincerely believe that we owe the deification of this character to you. For that alone, congratulations. It says something about an actor when he can manage to overturn six years of canon with one amazing utterance, Always.





15 thoughts on “This post will annoy Snape fans

  1. I never really noticed or considered that… I have to say, you are very right. Rickman brought Snape into a new light. I still enjoy his character and history in the books though.

  2. I really enjoy reading your blogs. Sometimes, I’m a little self conscious about commenting on them, because I feel like there’s nothing I could say that would offer anything valuable to the conversation.

    I don’t know what I think. I know Snape wasn’t a great guy. I know that even when he did something that could be conceived of as good, it was always done with imperfect motives. But I just can’t see him as all bad. Maybe what Harry said at the end was over the top, but I don’t want to color Snape as completely evil, through and through, either.

    One thing I love about Rowling’s books is that none of the characters are your stereotypical heroes or villains. The heroes are always flawed and do some evil, however small, and the villains (perhaps with the exception of Voldemort, who’s the embodiment of evil) will surprise you from time to time with some stray act of kindness. It’s very true to life, I think.

    • Yes, Snape is a really complicated character. I can sort of understand why so many people like him. What I don’t get is how a lot of people I know excuse him the same things they use to justify disliking James. That was basically the point of this rant! 🙂

      Rowling does have a great way of creating really complex, mixed individuals. I find it amazing that we can sit around, years after these books were concluded, and talk about her characters as though we know them, as though they’re real people. Sometimes it hits me that Sirius, Snape, Harry–they all belong to one contained universe, but because I’ve immersed myself in it so deeply I end up forgetting sometimes that really, they’re characters in the same book! It seems impossible that one book could contain that many well-realized people.

  3. I wouldn’t count on Snape on ever doing anything for Harry. I like Snape, but I understand why he sneered when asked if he did what he did for the boy. After all, Harry was the child of Lily and James… the man who had a life with Lily that he wanted. It was human of him to act that way. Still, doesn’t justify his mean character right? But aren’t everyone mean in one way or another?

    • True, Snape was all too human. I really do appreciate that about Rowling’s characters–she doesn’t try to idealize any of them (except maybe Lily) in any way. Even Dumbledore doesn’t escape her criticism!

  4. Hehe, I am a Snape fan (or rather I’m a fan of the complexity), but I whole-heartedly agree with you. My guess for the Snape adoration is a) Mr. Rickman, for the reasons you named, and b) that people tend to fall for tragic romance, no matter how little sense it makes. People can identify with unrequired love (even if that love is described with “greedy” longing), and a grey-are character’s problems being explained with love for the hero’s mother is prone to earn “Aaaw, the poor man” reactions. I personally deeply dislike the Lily/Snape thing to the point where I would have liked it better if he would have been evil altogether. The unrequited teenage love that haunted him for the rest of his life… uah.
    As for people criticizing James as a bully, but letting Snape off the hook: The thing is that we never really see James act. We see him act as a bully and as a somewhat helpless father who faced Voldemort without a wand, unable to efficiently protect his family. We never see the amazingly good sides that Hagrid, Sirius, Remus, Dumbledore, EVERYBODY keeps talking about. Might be the effect of tell-don’t-show. On the contrast we have Snape’s tragic love. This, plus possibly, once more, Alan Rickman and his incredible performance of the Prince’s Tale scene, probably makes some people forget the bullying and the other problematic traits of this character.

    • I love your comment. So very well thought out. Couldn’t agree with you more–I guess it is because we don’t ‘see’ James being good and brave and only have different people’s word to go on. It might have been interesting to have James saving him be one of the memories that Snape showed to Harry–but Rowling had so completely eradicated the importance of James after Book 6 that I guess it was only to be expected that he remained a spoken of rather than shown character.

      • Na-ah. You can’t use the “we didn’t see XXXX do XXXX, but we know s/he did” argument when you base upon that exact argument half your article (the part stated as “we didn’t see Snape help”, despite his being a spy necessitating this and is therefore a far more valid reason).

  5. Allow me to retort in kind then.

    For Snape’s bravery, we will have to take Harry’s words for it, because he had 19 years since the revelation that Snape was not in fact pro-Voldemort to think this through, and indeed, 8 before he named a son after him. I understand that impressing a teen “I have no control over my life” Harry would be easier than a grown man, a hardened war veteran and cop (already was a rising star in the Auror office), and in those eight years, I believe that if anything, Harry grilled Dumbledore’s portrait for every detail before he would name HIS OWN SON after said person(s).

    JKR mentioned that Dumbledore thought Snape was necessary at Hogwarts, and that is why he taught. I don’t think that Severus Snape seems the type to want to teach children. As someone who had the ability to rewrite the textbooks while studying them, him teaching at Hogwarts would be the equivalent of Albert Einstein teaching middle-school science (or a more modern example would be Terrence Tao teaching teens what passes as algebra on that level). It was a terrible experience for everyone involved.

    As for his role as a spy: Dumbledore was absolutely merciless when it came to his double agent. The only positive thing he said was a backhanded insult of the highest order (“sometimes we sort too soon”). If there had been the slightest problem, he wouldn’t have Snape removed, he’d have him killed (ordered him to tip off the Death Eaters as to Order activity at least once, in which we know Snape without thought acted to protect Lupin, a childhood enemy, against his orders from both Dumbledore and Voldemort).

    The problem with posts like these is simple: You take a load of information and mold it to fit a narrative. Other narratives that could be written: Dumbledore never cared about anyone or anything, just about his well crafted reputation (mountains of evidence much more solid than what you bring here). Remus Lupin was a terrible teacher (let’s have 14 year olds confront their worst fears in public! I don’t care you were gang raped, Draco and his minions need to know this! Also, don’t tell anyone anything about Sirius or the map, having shared secrets with a psychotic mass murderer cannot be worse than him running amuck, etc). Sirius Black was in fact *exactly* like Bellatrix, only he fought for Dumbledore (no one seemed surprised enough to check with Sirius after he was imprisoned for mass homicide and betraying his best friend). Don’t get me started on Molly Weasley, Alastor Moody, and so on.

    You are doing what you accuse Snape fans of doing, only from the opposite side of the argument. Blaming a 9 year old poor kid for looking at something greedily? Ever shown a 9 year old something they desperately want? That’s how they *all* act. I understand that you dislike Snape (that’s kinda the point to him, starting from the egregious amounts of antisemitic stereotypes glued on to him from first view in the books – get that subconscious pitchfork/torch action going). But if we start reducing him to points, either positive or negative, then we’re left with a summary of a reduced characterization of a character, not the character itself.

    Want to write something that might incite further thought? How about Albus Dumbledore’s machiavellian scheming, or Remus finally growing a spine in the last year of his life (seriously, ditching a pregnant Tonks because he was conflicted is basically the lowest thing anyone did in any of the books). You know, things that haven’t been hashed and rehashed for the past decade or so (this discussion ended 2008ish).

    • First off–thanks for your very detailed comment. Honestly, it means something that you would take the time to reply to this post. Reaction was what I wanted and debate is always welcome.

      Okay, I’m going to reply to the points you raised one at a time.

      in those eight years, I believe that if anything, Harry grilled Dumbledore’s portrait for every detail before he would name HIS OWN SON after said person(s). There are two problems with this assumption. First, it IS an assumption, though it may be founded on good premises. If you’re accusing me of assuming things, youll have to admit you’re doing the same. We don’t know for a fact that Harry did any such thing, or that Dumbledore, notorious for holding secrets, shared them with Harry at all. Second, Rowling has rather problematically stated that portraits are more like ‘videos on a loop’ than real people, so according to this bit of canonical (?) evidence, Dumbledore’s portrait should not have been able to divulge such detail about Snape’s life. We have of course seen portraits react and act in ways that contest this assertion, but not, I think, to THIS degree of rehashing the past.

      The problem with posts like these is simple: You take a load of information and mold it to fit a narrative.: I don’t think this is a problem, since this is pretty much exactly what you do in disciplines like Literature or Law. It’s sort of a given. You have a point, you take what you will to prove it, and if the field of ‘evidence’ that you’re scouring is as numinous and open to interpretation as a fictional work, you are definitely going to find lots to fit whatever point you have in mind.

      Sirius Black was in fact *exactly* like Bellatrix, only he fought for Dumbledore (no one seemed surprised enough to check with Sirius after he was imprisoned for mass homicide and betraying his best friend): If you looked through some of my previous posts, you would see that yes, I’ve mentioned that Sirius did have a past and an inheritance weighing against him, which goes a long way towards explaining why he might not have received a trial. I’m not completely blind to the faults of the ‘good’ characters, even the ones I really like, among which Sirius is top dog (pun not intended).

      Want to write something that might incite further thought? How about Albus Dumbledore’s machiavellian scheming, or Remus finally growing a spine in the last year of his life (seriously, ditching a pregnant Tonks because he was conflicted is basically the lowest thing anyone did in any of the books). You know, things that haven’t been hashed and rehashed for the past decade or so (this discussion ended 2008ish).: Again, have you looked at my previous posts? I have NEVER blindly defended a character. I would like to think that I do bring a little more perspective to actions and events in the Potter books, and don’t just rehash popular opinions. And as for a discussion ‘ending’: it’s a BOOK. Discsussions about these things, no matter how old, never end. You might have cemented your opinions on it long ago, but I think it’s ever green and still open to interpretation. Granted, I might not be saying anything that’s new to you, but there are people out there, me included, who have never spoken about these things before and would like the opportunity to be heard/talk about them now. That’s the beauty of art, as some might argue, it’s always around to be looked at anew.

      I do agree with the point you raised about Snape being purposely constructed to be disliked–thanks for pointing that out, I’d never quite considered it. As for ‘reducing’ a character to points, I did that simply because it was easier to present and tabulate my own evidence to substantiate my assertion.

      • First, allow me to apologize, I did not read your blog, rather just stumbled across this article specifically when looking for a JKR quote, and was tempted by the click-bait title 😉

        OK, now civilized discourse in the form of well formulated arguments can continue :). Of course we’re making assumptions: it’s just that mine is that Harry grew up to be a mature and critical adult (which is a safe assumption as he became head auror) and acted reasonably (people tend to be super-careful when their children are involved). As to the portraits, if we go according to canon, the Headmaster Portraits are unique, as the portrait (not painted for headmasters) and Hogwarts itself have years to study the character involved, and in Dumbledore’s case specifically, the portrait had enough knowledge to be actively involved in the war – so we must assume that this includes all Order operations, and more specifically, those involving the only member he was supposed to be in contact with (Snape). The hidden assumption is that if Snape dies, all the information is irrelevant anyways because Harry won’t know he’s a Horcrux and therefore Voldemort wins. So, this assumption is based on canon and strict military logic.

        I’ll just skip the point of us nitpicking, because both of us are sure we’re right and therefore will continue to attempt to prove so to each other for a while, so instead, I’ll tell you why I think Severus Snape is the one character that takes the HP series from the realm of children’s fiction to classical literature.

        All this discussion has to start with Snape being supposed to be hated. JKR phrased herself very carefully (and maliciously) whenever she touched him. As a nine year old she described him as greedy… something that seems innocuous as children often have a greedy look around something they want badly, but she does this to make the reader look for darker explanations rather than the simple one (I obviously took an example from the most humanizing passage of him from the Prince’s Tale).

        Now, with that in mind, the easiest way to analyze him is via similarities to other characters. The one he resembles most is Sirius Black (obviously), which is why they act so very much alike around each other. Both are damaged, did not grow up, have a temper, are basically prisoners of their own situations (which they created), and really, this list goes on for ages. What enrages me with Sirius is that he’s a terrible role model – he’s the cool pot smoking uncle that eggs you on to do things your parents would disapprove of, not a responsible godparent. He doesn’t have Snape’s excuse of not wanting to teach or disliking children or whatever. On the other hand, he’s really a lot more sociable, and that goes a long way.

        The second most similar character is Luna Lovegood. Natural outcast, disturbing childhood (while no “I use hand-me-downs from the wrong parent” poverty, a somewhat crazy father and watching her mom die fits the bill), intelligent, fierce when pushed, socially inept, etc… but the major difference is in how they cope with the world: Luna Lovegood sees everything on a “forced positive” setting, and Severus Snape chooses to look at the absolute worst. The worst thing about Snape’s death for me is that given a different time and place, they would be the coolest friends ever.

        Other notable similarities are with Hermione and Harry… which brings me to the point of it all. I don’t blame Snape for acting like he does. He’s a jerk, he has zero patience, he will take out his considerable anger on undeserving targets, and so on. This should not come as a surprise to Dumbledore. In essence, Dumbledore kept Snape at Hogwarts because it was the least conductive place on earth for Snape to grow up and move on. Put him in a research lab in the DoM, keep him surrounded by peers around his age, and he’d have a chance to change. At Hogwarts, he’s the youngest on staff by twenty years or so when he joins. It would be impossible for him to develop on a non-intellectual level there.

        The connection to Harry is of course the Patronus: there are only two people in canon who never had their own. For them, what protects them from darkness is a memory of someone dead, perfected by time. As long as that is the case, Dumbledore can build a plan around them. And he did; a plan which would see both dead. The military logic is sound. A commander would rather have 10 soldiers that act exactly according to expectations rather than 10 who will usually exceed them but are otherwise unpredictable. That’s why when Dumbledore is approached by Snape, who went completely desperate and willing to die to keep Lily safe (something he could have assumed the headmaster would do anyways), Dumbledore made sure to kick him on the ground a few times before moving on.

        So my view of things tends to be kept away from interactions with Harry, because they are:

        1) Tainted by Harry’s perspective.
        2) Emotionally complex, and therefore unanalyzable beyond “they can’t stand each other” without missing things.

        As such, Dumbledore suddenly seems machiavellian, Snape and Sirius a combination victimized and emotionally stunted, and Voldemort becomes a lot more interesting.

        My second time reading the books (this time, not as they come out, but rather as an adult from start to finish) made me move from hating Sirius and Snape to them (and Luna) being my absolute favorites… largely because of this perspective.

  6. [“And, superficial as it is, Rickman’s handsomeness no doubt played a role in people warming to him. In the books, Snape is far from good-looking after all.”]

    I never saw Alan Rickman as a “handsome” man. Somewhat good-looking . . . or striking. But handsome? Not to me.

    Also, Rickman’s portrayal of Snape has never changed my opinion of the character. I never demanded that he be “all good” or “all bad”. He was a jerk, in my opinion. And he had a bad habit of bearing a grudge. But you know what? So did Harry. Actually, I cannot think of one character in that series that I can describe as truly admirable. For all of Harry’s virtues, he had plenty of sins or flaws that rubbed me the wrong way. I can say that about many of Rowling’s characters.

    What I enjoyed about Snape – whether in the novels or in the movies – is that I found him fascinating and complex. I would never want to meet someone like him. But . . . I sure enjoyed watching his character unfold.

  7. Pingback: Master Manipulators: Albus Dumbledore – Where the Dog Star Rages

  8. Excellent post!

    I cannot excuse Snape either, I find his obsession for Lily creepy, James earned his love for Lily by changing his ways.

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