Immortal love

LOTR The Two Towers 024Valentine’s Day is coming. For some reason, it’s become cool to hate on it, and diss it as a ‘commercial holiday’, because you know, every holiday is so pure and untouched by the reigning force of capitalism (Christmas and Diwali being prime examples). I’ve even seen people calling out the ‘fallacy’ of celebrating it as a day of ‘love’, pointing out that the eponymous St. Valentine was martyred on this day, and hence, we should probably mark it with sadness rather than bursts of hearts and chocolate. I disagree with such folk; as Taylor Swift said, and as St. Valentine would probably agree, the best way to show the ‘haters’ who ‘gonna hate’ is to just shake it off and shove your happiness in their face, proving that nothing’s going to keep your happiness down.

I’ve realised that it’s become cool to hate on the concept of romantic love in general. Or to be cynical about it at least. The pop culture aimed at people over the age of 18 seems full of mixed messages: on the one hand, you’ve got romantic comedies, that promise that no matter how klutzy and socially awkward you might be, you will find true love; on the other, there are the Girls style shows that indicate that from rooms, people will come and go, but you should concentrate on being Michelangelo. ‘True love’, many things tell us, does not really exist; there are people who help you grow or achieve things, but you cannot rely on them to be around forever, nor do they magically solve all your problems, the way a Disney prince once did.

I’m of the latter school of thought. I don’t think there is ‘one’ single soul mate for anyone, and that romantic love is largely a matter of timing. It’s about being in the right place, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind to recognise what you feel, what the other person feels, not to mention a host of other factors that ultimately dictate whether or not a relationship unfolds. In fact, the idea of having just ‘one’ person terrifies me because it automatically lessens your chances of happiness; what if you mess it up, or miss that person altogether? Would you never be happy?

snape and lily

Despite my  reservations about such a thing playing out in real life (happiness= one ‘true’ soul mate), I can see why it holds such appeal in fiction. ‘I like the idea,’ a friend told me, when I expressed some dislike for Snape’s unstinting love for Lily. ‘Doesn’t it seem so special to be loved in that way, like no one else can ever compare?’ Sure, it’s all right if the person is fictional, but as I noted in this post, unrequited love is very poetic, but it is extremely painful in reality.

I think, in some ways, the fascination for the immortals, for vampires and Elves and other such beings, is tied up in this desire to feel ‘special’. Okay, let me try and explain this: people diss Twilight for a number of reasons, and yes, I’m one of those who does not consider it spectacular literature, but I can see why so many people love it. I can see why men and women think it would be amazing to be loved like Edward loves Bella, stalking and vampirish urges and all. The idea that someone who has literally lived for hundreds of years, seen thousands of people, picks you, of all humanity, to love—now THAT would make anyone feel special. The same idea applies to Arwen and Aragorn. Here’s an Elf who has lived thousands of years. She has seen many, many specimens pass through her life, more than a few of whom must have been drop dead gorgeous, accomplished, wise Elves, maybe even a few men. And yet, it was Aragorn, at that point a not-so-well-washed, uncrowned Ranger from the north, for whom she gave up her immortality, and made the ultimate sacrifice.

aragorn_arwen_love_story

In every romantic relationship, I would think, there’s that need to feel special, to feel like though there may have been people before you, and may be others after you in your significant others’ life,  you are somehow different. To be chosen by someone like Edward, or Arwen, or a billion other vampires who go after their mortal prey for reasons other than culinary denotes that you have something more than all those others they have met before. Something does separate you from the herd of humanity, and someone special, who knows what they’re on about (having seen a hell of a lot of the world) has noticed that in you and decided to love or desire you for it.

Okay Twilight fans, now I sort of get what you’re on about. Doesn’t mean I think your ship is a better one than Cersei/Jaime, and that’s saying something.

Coming to terms with Snape

snape poster

Is the Gryffindor scarf a sly allusion to the person he’s really protecting?

I have a poster of Snape on my desk. He stands there, poised for combat, wand raised to fight off someone—whether Death Eater or member of the Order, it’s not clear—set against a broken window pane, the view outside indicative of chaos and fire and dark streaks of ‘evil’ Apparition.

It’s an odd choice for a motivational poster, perhaps. Snape is not (as I have made clear) one of my favourite characters in the series. In fact, I still believe that Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the character has made me even the slightest bit more accepting of the man’s flaws, as I might see them. If Rickman hadn’t owned the performance the way he did, I might never have thought of buying a Snape poster, let alone placing it in pride of place on my desk.

Recently, I’ve begun to think about why I refuse to idolise Snape, what it is about him that made me lash out against the rising adulation he receives, what I saw as blindness and willingness to overlook his extremely glaring flaws. I’ve come to a rather alarming conclusion: he terrifies me, more than any other character from the series does.

I think I should explain myself here. Slytherin House, as I made clear in this post, symbolises for me the ability to change your mind and move on, and how ultimately, it is choices rather than blood that defines you. Sure, Slytherin is the blood purists’ house (as made all too clear by its founder, who literally left behind a monster to kill those he believed unworthy of magic), but its residents also, time and again, show they are more than their blood and history, and make choices that ultimately push the series forward along its heroic path.

snape

Yes, Snape makes what is perhaps the biggest decision in the series, because unlike many other ‘big decision makers’ (namely, Lily), he has to live with what he’s chosen—both the good and the bad—every single day. He has to live with the fact that his choices led to the death of his love, and that he must protect the image of the man who ‘stole’ her from him. He chooses to look at the consequence of his mistakes, and rectify them, knowing all the while that he cannot do so. Protecting Harry stems, at first, from a deep sense of remorse, no matter what it becomes later. In many ways, Marvel’s Penance, a superhero who gives himself a literal, iconic ‘penance’ in the form of incredible pain, reminded me of Snape. Every move Penance makes (please ignore the unintentional Police reference), he is reminded of that terrible decision.

(Go read Marvel’s Civil War comics if you want more details.)

So while I absolutely admire Snape’s courage and the sheer intelligence it took to pull off that double agent role (no matter whether he ‘really’ accomplished anything or not…), I am more than a little horrified at the personal toll it took on him. I dislike how much he had to sacrifice in a universe where everyone, even Sirius (in my view the most abused character in the books), gets some measure of happiness. But all of Snape’s chances at it seem to be taken away on a summer’s day, when he made the mistake of calling his best friend a ‘Mudblood’.

I’m not saying that it’s only circumstances that make Snape’s life what it is; indeed, a lot of his misery can be laid at his own feet. While some of his decisions (such as hanging out with the ‘bad crowd’ at Hogwarts, or his cursing Lily) might generously be explained away as an immature, angry response to being mistreated, the later decisions, to be cruel to his students, for instance, is entirely in his hands. Unless it was a means of maintaining cover, I see no reason to bully Neville quite so thoroughly, or to put down Hermione in the fashion that he did time and again.

My reasons for refusing to romanticise Snape, as so many do, is simple: he frightens me.  It frightens me that in this series full of hope and second chances, he doesn’t really get one, personally. His happiness dies the day Lily does, and it terrifies me to think that such a thing might happen to someone, to anyone. Maybe I’m being a coward, and refusing to see life’s darkness for what it is, but I still believe that Rowling’s portrayal of this flawed, heroic man is not a hopeful one. It is a deeply jarring one in this universe full of magic and ultimate victory. It’s a poignant illustration of the fact that not everyone gets a happy ending. Snape’s life is consistently dark, and the snatching away of his one ray of sunshine, while giving him a new mission, does not, in any sense, give him a new hope. He labours on to protect Harry, hating himself, always knowing that no matter what he does, he can never turn back time and bring Lily back. He can never atone enough for what he’s done,as evidenced by the claim, ‘Always.’

snape and lily

And so, sitting on that desk, he is for me a reminder that sometimes, you might choose to do what’s right, and not be rewarded for it. You might not even be liked very much while you’re doing it. It might not make you happy at all. But still, you can retain strength, and keep going, simply because it’s the thing to do.

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.