Spoiler alert: If you have not yet read or viewed the Harry Potter series, I recommend that you do. I reveal numerous plot twists in this blog.
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED J.K. Rowling’s writing on a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I was chaperoning a group of yearbook students attending a journalism camp at a college campus there. Somewhere along the way, someone handed me a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I must have been bored because I picked it up and read it.
After gulping it down, I asked for the second. My students later teased me — they found me reading that book and two others in the series in various places on campus: lying beside the fountain, sitting by myself at dinner, my face buried in the book, turning the pages easily and quickly.
I didn’t care. I couldn’t stop.
Harry’s primary antagonist, Voldemort — his power growing dark and malevolent — is resurrected by inches across the course of the series, growing ever more frightening. Harry and his close disciples…I mean, friends…continue to do battle, but the task becomes more and more impossible.
Because Rowling tells a story and doesn’t just hack out an allegory, I couldn’t have told you that Harry is a Christ figure. I did recognize The Hero’s Journey. But that wasn’t the point. Rowling created a world that feels intimately familiar, the world of a school with its imperfect adults trying to teach Harry, who is an average student at best.
I knew that world. I recognized the bullies. I saw the obstacles for what they were: metaphors for reaching adulthood. It was dark humor. No one really got hurt. Magic cured whatever hurt them.
And always, there was God…I mean, Dumbledore…in his long white robes, watching over Harry.
UNTIL HARRY POTTER and the Goblet of Fire, that is.
That’s when the story turns dark. Harry loses a classmate. The boy’s death is real. The murder transports Harry to a graveyard, where Harry is forced to collaborate in an unspeakable, blasphemous act — the negation of Christ’s resurrection.
And Voldemort comes back to life, grim and terrible.
For me, it was also when things got truly interesting. It was when Rowling unleashes the Darkness howling within her.
For the first time, things got painful as I began to lose real friends. In future volumes, Harry also loses Dobby, the House Elf he frees from slavery. Dobby has become Harry’s protector, someone who guards Harry sometimes too zealously (birthday cake, anyone?). His love is pure, devoted, zealous — he’s the kind of friend you don’t easily leave behind.
I stood on the beach with Harry and helped him dig his dear friend’s grave, refusing to use magic for such a painful task. I raged against the Evil personified by Bellatrix.
But what really sent me over the edge was Snape.
SNAPE FOOLED ME every time. Or rather, I should say, Rowling did. I learned while watching the blu ray version of the series that during the shooting of the first film, Rowling had pulled the actor Alan Rickman aside, letting him know the true arc of his character’s journey.
For an actor of Rickman’s talents, I can imagine this hooked him completely. And his final moments paid off his entire character arc. In fact, they are what made me decide to teach Harry Potter to my high school students.
I’d been wanting to teach the Harry Potter series for some time, but just didn’t see how. The series is too long. And then when preparing for my National Boards, I realized that our nation’s best teachers show students how to read film.
And the filmed version of The Prisoner of Azkaban is riveting.
The robes were quite effective when I donned them during our school’s Harry Potter Night in the fall. Having volunteered as Potions Master, I decided to serve up Butterbeer (you can try it out here) to our guests that night.
Inspired by Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Snape, I designed the lesson as a lab: I would brew the concoction in front of them, all the while pontificating. That was the plan, anyway.
When my first class of middle-school students arrived, I growled out my lines in a Rickman-esque display of Professor Snape, ordering students about, happily insulting them, Snape-like. My students — true aficionados of all things Rowling — reacted with gales of giggles.
Not quite the reaction I desired.
And when the upper-class students arrived, I shifted to an intellectual discussion of the long-term impacts of bullying. I asked them if Harry’s entire school experience wasn’t shaped by his father’s decision a generation before to bully Snape.
My students leaped in, building insights on my proposition.
The butterbeer was a smash hit — disgustingly sweet. The real problem with my performance was the issue of credibility. No Gryffindor should be a Potions Master, my students told me.
But my students’ strong reaction to the bullying theme stayed with me.
WHAT DREW ME back to Rowling, years after I first read the Harry Potter series, was her commencement address to Harvard students on June 5, 2008 — in which she traces her encounter with evil as a young woman while working for Amnesty in London. The messages she had to peruse from victims of despotic governments in Africa reshaped her view of the world and helped her create her great morality tale.
I couldn’t forget her remarks, and I wanted to reread the series anyway, so during the first two weeks of our month-long vacation trip to Florida last summer, I once again swallowed the entire series.
My fingers tingled as I turned page after page. When I finished, I explored the Kindle offerings on Amazon, looking for books that would help me dig underneath the obvious themes. That’s when I ran into Lorrie Kim’s Snape: A Definitive Reading.
The text offers a detailed analysis of each book, retold from Snape’s point of view. As far as Kim is concerned, the series should be titled Severus Snape and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Severus Snape and the Chamber of Secrets…you get the idea. In fact, those are Kim’s chapter titles.
“Keep your eye on Snape,” she says. “Snape is where the story is.” As far as Kim is concerned, Snape is the true hero, not Harry Potter.
THERE ARE SIGNIFICANT issues with Kim’s claim.
Snape is a deeply flawed character. As one of my editors pointed out, Snape methodically bullies Harry and his friends across the entire series. He “commits multiple acts of pointless cruelty.” In fact, any act of goodness by Snape is motivated by “his unrequited obsession with a woman who didn’t want him.”
That woman is Harry’s mother Lily, who was brutally murdered because of Snape’s evil choice to join Voldemort’s Death Eaters.
I concede to all of the above. In fact, all of the above is necessary to make my point.
I believe Dumbledore knew exactly what he was doing when he demanded that Snape do penance for his black role in the death of Harry’s parents. It was the only way Snape could find his way back out of the darkness and into the light.
Repentance is a process, not an event.
MOST PEOPLE MISUNDERSTAND the purpose of penance. During the Reformation, Protestants rejected this sacrament because they saw penance as punishment for sins.
“God forgives us our sins the moment we ask,” they said. “Penance is unnecessary.”
But penance was never designed to punish or to earn God’s forgiveness. The sinner does not appease God with penance. Instead, it’s a redemptive tool given to help the sinner repent, to transform their actions and their lives.
The early church father Tertullian believed penance helps stave off despair. A worthy act of penance can become a bridge leading the sinner out of the dark side and into the light.
Knowing this, it’s easy to see the original meeting between Dumbledore and Snape as a confession offered by a sinner desperate for relief but truly unable to see his sin.
“You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you can have what you want?”
Snape said nothing but merely looked up at Dumbledore.
“Hide them all, then,” he croaked. “Keep her — them — safe. Please.”
“And what will you give me in return, Severus?”
“In — in return?” Snape gaped at Dumbledore, and Harry expected him to protest, but after a long moment he said, “Anything.”
And thus begins Snape’s penance.
Cloaked in the darkness he has embraced for his entire life, he cannot see the purpose of his penance. The only thing that has broken through that darkness is his love for Lily. Perhaps it might be more accurately described as an imperfect love, even an obsession. But it’s a start, and Dumbledore recognizes this.
Like God, the Headmaster takes his new penitent where he finds him. Little by little, he moves Snape forward across his eighteen-year journey.
In the beginning, Snape is an unwilling participant, forced to submit to Dumbledore in order to save Lily. Snape’s motives are suspect (it is not unfair to define his feelings toward Lily as creepy and obsessive). His personality is still unredeemed: unhappy, petty, vindictive, even cruel.
But he does choose the path of redemption. And as he learns, that path is never short, especially when the penitent soul is as lost as Snape.
I REMEMBER MY first penance, just before I entered the Roman Catholic church on Easter Sunday, 1993. It was a Saturday evening, and Father Cornelius was my confessor.
It was my first confession, and it was long. I was almost 30, and I took my admission to Holy Mother Church quite seriously. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that I had sins worth confessing.
To my surprise, Fr. Cornelius assigned a very light penance.
“I’d like you to repeat The Lord’s Prayer each morning this week,” he told me.
I looked at him in surprise. He chuckled.
We weren’t actually in a confessional booth — my confessor had just had me come to his study in the parsonage. Outside, birds chirped, and a breeze cooled my bare arms. It was a perfect spring evening in the Ohio Valley. The late afternoon sunshine turned Father Cornelius’ face golden, the wrinkles framing his twinkling eyes.
“You’ve already achieved a penitent state of mind,” he told me, his voice crisp and clear. “Penance isn’t intended to make us suffer. It’s intended to bring us to an understanding of how our sin damages us.”
IN CONTRAST, THE penance assigned to Snape by Professor Dumbledore is lifelong: Snape must secretly protect Harry, the son of a classmate (Harry’s father), whom he hated.
Snape hates his classmate for good reason. Popular and handsome, James had ruthlessly bullied Snape in school, almost killing him in a cruel prank when they unleashed a werewolf on him. Such things are not easily forgiven, especially when one has Snape’s razor-sharp memory.
Over a decade after Dumbledore assigns Snape his penance, Harry arrives in his classroom. Rowling makes it clear they look the same. Snape must have received a shock every time he looked at Harry, the mirror image of his archenemy. But Dumbledore’s penance is unyielding: Snape must protect Harry, no matter how difficult that is.
Rowling leverages this secret penance brilliantly. Remember, we don’t know about this bargain between the Headmaster and his Potions Master until the end of the seventh book, Harry’s seventh year. And Dumbledore doesn’t try to control Snape’s pettiness.
He is quite free to be…Snape.
Thus, we are fooled again and again by his petty cruelties, allowing Rowling to fool us into believing that this time, for sure…Snape really is working for Voldemort.
BY THE END of Deathly Hallows, we realize that Snape has been the Headmaster’s secret agent all along. Because Professor Dumbledore doesn’t ask that Snape treat Harry and his friends nicely, Snape is able to stay inside the Death Eaters’ inner circle. Because of Snape’s behavior toward Harry, Voldemort believes Snape has been faithful to him.
Why would anyone believe Snape is secretly working to protect Harry?
Dumbledore has chosen to play the long game. He has known from the first year that Voldemort would return: it’s one of the reasons he assigns Snape his dark penance:
SNAPE: “He does not need protection. The Dark Lord has gone —”
DUMBLEDORE: “The Dark Lord will return, and Harry Potter will be in terrible danger when he does.”
In addition, Dumbledore is willing to let Snape treat Harry with cruelty because he believes Harry needs to toughen up. Although Dumbledore inspires Harry and builds a trusting bond, it is Snape who serves as a true teacher to Harry: he’s the only antagonist Harry faces whose powers are dark enough to give Harry the experience he needs to face down the Dark Lord and win.
It is Snape, after all, who teaches Harry and his friends to confront a werewolf in Azkaban and create dark potions in Half-Blood Prince. It is Snape who teaches Harry to close off his mind from Voldemort. And it is Snape who teaches Harry the Expelliarmus spell that ultimately allows him to whisk the Elder Wand out of Voldemort’s hands.
In Deathly Hallows, we discover that Snape has been Dumbledore’s most powerful lieutenant, helping him track down Voldemort’s Horcruxes and lay the foundation for his eventual destruction.
He lets slip his true feelings in the headmaster’s office when Dumbledore admits Harry must die.
[Snape] stood up. “You have used me.”
“I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter —”
“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?”
“For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum.”
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.
Seven years of penance have taught Snape how to love someone — he ultimately gives his life to save Harry — whom he once hated.
I too am moved to tears whenever I watch that scene. Snape has somehow learned how to love during his penitential journey. On the surface, this looks impossible — many readers refuse to recognize Snape’s transformation.
This is unsurprising. Snape’s willingness to do Dumbledore’s dirty work — enduring the hatred of the son of his true love, being misunderstood by Death Eaters and Dumbledore’s Army alike — is a unique skill.
It takes the character of a skilled double agent to pull this off successfully. If Snape had pulled his punches, if he had chosen to play nice with Harry and his friends, if he had been even a mite less convincing — Voldemort would have won.
I’m not arguing that Snape is a good guy underneath the caustic, cruel teacher we all hate from the first book on. Instead, as Lorrie Kim argues, Snape is a deeply flawed hero. But there’s a reason for that.
CONSIDER THE REAL cause of Snape’s hatred for the world. According to Kim, Snape is traumatized by poverty, domestic abuse, and bullying. James Potter’s behavior toward Snape, especially, is at times vile.
This emerges in Azkaban when Harry breaks into Snape’s memories, only to watch Harry’s own father bullying Snape as a schoolboy. Add to this James and Sirius Black’s plot to expose Snape to a werewolf (Lupin), which almost kills Snape, and you realize it’s not just boyish pranks.
Given their past history together, Professor Lupin’s decision to teach the naive Neville how to defeat Boggarts adds a new layer of complexity when Lupin teaches Neville to ridicule Snape in a sexist, homophobic, and transphobic manner, sexually invalidating Professor Snape in front of his students.
Childhood patterns often shape the adult.
It is commonly known that when a child is abused or bullied, that child tends to replicate that pattern when they reach adulthood — unless an intervention takes place. In this situation, there is no intervention for Snape.
And thus the Sins of the Father are literally visited upon the head of Harry Potter.
SNAPE’S PENITENTIAL JOURNEY is necessary to take him past his hatred for Harry’s father, allowing him eventually to save the boy. The dying scene — during which Snape faithfully helps Harry understand his role in the war against Voldemort — also reveals that Snape has fulfilled his penance.
As he breathes his last, Snape makes one last request:
When the flask was full to the brim, and Snape looked as though there was no blood left in him, his grip on Harry’s robes slackened.
“Look … at … me …” he whispered.
I’m aware that many Harry Potter scholars (including both of my editors) believe Snape’s request comes out of his need to see Lily’s eyes once more before he died. I agree with them: after all, we hear again and again that Harry had his mother’s eyes, his father’s looks. But I believe it’s more than that — victims of trauma share a powerful need for their pain to be recognized, their stories to be heard and seen.
I believe Snape’s need to be recognized by Harry prompted his request — it’s probably as close as Snape could get to an admission of love for the boy he had guarded so zealously for 18 years. It’s also a request that would have been impossible without Snape’s penitential journey.
THE SCOPE AND complexity of Snape’s penance is startling. Dumbledore brilliantly assigns Snape the task of double agent, allowing him to spy for him.
It’s difficult to forgive Snape the litany of pointlessly cruel acts against Harry — and especially difficult because he enjoys them so much. Dumbledore, ruthless in his quest to defeat Voldemort, allows this because he knows it is the telling detail that will convince the Dark Lord Snape has always been on his side.
But this also presents an excruciating challenge even for Snape. He must fulfill this mission while also ensuring Harry remains physically safe from his schoolmates and other Death Eaters. This takes meticulous forethought and razor-sharp vigilance. Only someone with Snape’s sadistic nature and brilliance could pull this off.
Dumbledore sees this from the beginning.
Snape also agrees to murder his stern but beloved master in order to set in motion the chain of events that will eternally destroy the Dark Lord. Snape does this with the full knowledge that he will 1) always be hated by the wizarding world; and 2) endure years of torment under the Dementors if he survives the Dark Lord’s fall.
Finally, in the last scene, as he dies, Snape is forced to confess to Harry every relevant memory he has. This he does faithfully, laying bare his greatest sins and deepest humiliations to the son of his most despised enemy.
After 17 years of penance, Snape has learned to repent.
IT IS ROWLING’S exploration of the power of penance — reclaiming a soul as lost as Snape — that makes her one of my great Soul Teachers. It’s a complex power, one that doesn’t offer simple answers. Nor should it. It’s the human heart we’re discussing, after all.
I don’t think Snape ever learns to love Harry — but I do believe his penance allows him to understand why Lily sacrifices herself. Perhaps at the end Snape simply emulates her, setting his hatred for Harry aside.
After all, at the end of the day, his motivations don’t matter, only his actions.
Perhaps this understanding teaches Snape true love. Perhaps it allows him to release his hatred for James, transforming his obsession for Lily (motivated by his desire to recapture their previous relationship) into true sacrificial love.
After all, isn’t sacrifice the defining quality of true love?
And thus, perhaps true love finally crowds out the hatred Snape holds for James Potter. Perhaps Snape’s penance — being forced to sacrifice his life for the son of the man he hated — finally allows him to learn how to forgive.
I know. That’s a lot of perhaps.
Maybe the only thing we truly know about Snape is that his penance permitted him to reject the dark side and turn decisively towards the light.
THERE IS NOTHING glorious about Snape’s death, no happy ending for him.
Yet in his final, humiliating confession to Harry, Snape finds his true redemption. It occurs after his death, discovered in Harry’s last words to his son, who fears to become a Slytherin. In comforting his son, Harry points to Snape’s final sacrifice.
“You were named for…a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”
As a Gryffindor, Harry values bravery above all else.
So it was the finest eulogy he could deliver.