Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently kicked off the kind of fierce debate only the internet can facilitate when — as part of her annual tradition of apologizing for the death of characters killed during the Battle of Hogwarts — she tweeted that she was sorry for killing off Professor Severus Snape. Despite Rowling’s pleas for fans not to argue over the tweet (which was about as ambitious as a Muggle trying to cast a spell, really), battle lines were drawn almost immediately.
On one side were Potterheads who have forgiven the notoriously unpleasant Potions Master thanks to his posthumously revealed acts of heroism, and on the other were those who still can’t look past what a jerk he was to Harry and his classmates.
To be honest, I’ve never really understood why the issue of Snape’s redemption always seems to become such a talking point, let alone such a huge bone of contention. To me, not only is Snape one of the most fascinating characters in the Harry Potter series, he’s also — glaring personality flaws included — one of the most heroic.
Why Do Some Fans Still Hate Snape?
At face value, it’s extremely easy to despise Snape, even after the revelation that he had been protecting Harry from the evil Lord Voldemort and his Death Eater followers for almost all of the Boy Who Lived’s life.
After all, Snape is petty, vindictive, arrogant and cruel, and worst of all, he’s a bully — and a bully who targets children, at that. Part of me thinks that this last part is what really makes it hard for some people to muster any positive feelings for Snape: He’s in a position of power, and he abuses that position in order to pick on kids.
In one instance, he at least has a REASON for this behavior, even if it is still utterly unacceptable. Snape’s intense loathing of Harry stems both from his hatred of Harry’s father, James, as well as the boy wizard’s very existence serving as a living, breathing reminder that Snape’s unrequited love, Lily, chose James over him.
However, for the most part, Snape’s victims are dealt with atrociously by the professor simply because he can, and it’s his poor treatment of Harry’s classmate Neville Longbottom that seems to strike a particular chord with some fans.
Understandably, I think those who — like Neville — struggled in high school, really relate to the character’s plight with bullies, and this is magnified even further for those who had unpleasant experiences with a teacher similar to Snape.
These fans often argue (and very rightly, too) that Snape — himself the product of an unpleasant upbringing — should actually have been MORE sympathetic to students like Harry (an orphan literally raised in a cupboard) and Neville (son of two severely mentally-impaired parents), rather than making their lives harder.
So yes, on paper, it’s very easy to make a case that Snape really doesn’t deserve to be mourned, and that no amount of behind-the-scenes courage and sacrifice can truly make up for his unkindness in daily life. However, in the end, Harry himself forgave Snape — going so far as to name his youngest son after him — so clearly there’s a lot more to it than the anti-Snape camp would have us believe.
Redemption ≠ Absolution
As Rowling once said, in an interview with Dateline:
“Snape is a complicated man...he was a flawed human being, like all of us. Harry forgives him...Harry really sees the good in Snape ultimately... I wanted there to be redemption.”
For a significant chunk of fans (myself included), by the time we finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (or watching its big screen counterpart), this sense of atonement on Severus’s behalf was deeply felt.
Once we’ve gazed into Snape’s memories, learned of his childhood friendship with (and ultimately unreciprocated crush on) Harry’s mom, and discovered that — despite initially being a loyal, card-carrying follower of You-Know-Who — Hogwarts’ least loved teacher actually dedicated his adult life to ensuring the safety of Lily's son, it’s hard not to decide that the good in him outweighed the bad.
Indeed, Severus is a tragic figure; in many ways the most tragic figure in the entire Harry Potter series. He’s someone possessed of immense talent and (frankly) staggering amounts of courage who might have lived a much happier life if he’d only been able to make better choices earlier in his life.
Unfortunately, Snape’s early screw-ups, which killed his friendship with Lily (not to mention any chances of a romance with her) certainly defined the man he would become — a mostly sour, nasty person who took out his pain and frustrations on those around him, making him easy to dislike.
Yet through it all, he proved himself to be a person capable of Earth-shattering amounts of love and devotion, going so far as to risk certain death on a constant basis to guard a child he (unfairly) hated, solely because he would love that child’s mother — in his own words — “always.”
That’s tremendously noble (and heartbreaking), and it’s Snape’s enduring love towards Lily that ultimately earns him our sympathy and redeems him, even if it does not (and cannot) absolve him of his unkind acts across all seven #HarryPotter novels.
And that’s the thing: redemption doesn’t mean absolution. Snape doesn’t (and shouldn’t) get a free pass to be a jerk. However, at the same time, his enduring commitment to Lily not only saved Harry, but was pivotal in the eventual defeat of Voldemort, proving not only that love truly is the most powerful form of magic, but vindicating him as someone worthy of at least some admiration.
When asked if she thought Snape was a hero, Rowling herself responded:
“Yes, I do; though a very flawed hero. An anti-hero, perhaps. He is not a particularly likeable man in many ways. He remains rather cruel, a bully, riddled with bitterness and insecurity—and yet he loved, and showed loyalty to that love and, ultimately, laid down his life because of it. That's pretty heroic!”
Then there’s the matter of stage show, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which admittedly some fans are treating as non-canon (sorry guys, it is), which makes two additional arguments in Snape’s favor, by showing us an alternate timeline where the bad guys won and Snape didn’t die.
The first thing we learn is that Snape’s heroism on behalf of The Order of the Phoenix would only have continued had he not been killed by Voldemort, and — while still possessing a penchant for pithy put-downs — he would develop into a somewhat nicer person. The second discovery we make is that Snape’s capacity for self-sacrifice — not just on behalf of Lily, but also in defiance of the Dark Lord — is borderline superhuman, as he willingly works to restore a timeline he knows will result in his own premature death.
So yes, to me it’s pretty cut and dried: Snape may have been pricklier than porcupine’s armpit — and he certainly qualifies as both an appalling teacher and unpleasant colleague — but, as Harry would come to realize, his positive qualities make him a character worthy of our pity and respect.
Snape: Love Him And Hate Him
All that said, it’s also important not over-romanticize Snape, and fans who relate to his outsider status, and to him losing out in love to a jock like James Potter, tend to be particularly good at granting him an unconditional pardon for all past wrongs.
Severus was a complicated dude, and for all that he played a crucial role in the good fight, he was still selfish, in a way — after all, he only really joined the side of the angels early on out of his love for Lily, not his concern for the innocent people Voldemort wanted to kill, including James and Harry.
He also should have got over his unjustified spite towards Harry, and his borderline abusive treatment of helpless young witches and wizards like Neville verges on the unforgivable.
So, rather than falling under the banner of “Saint Severus” or “Snape the Sinner,” I think its best to view him as a bit of both – to love him AND hate him, but most of all, to recognise that he was ultimately a hero, and that his death truly was a tragedy that deserves to be mourned (as much as one can lament the death of a fictional character, at any rate…).