Harry Potter and The Boy Who Loved

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 debuted in the U.S. on July 15; its midnight release broke the previous 12 am box-office record, and its early reviewers seem entranced by the boy wizard’s final spell. The film possesses many strengths—stark vistas of Hogwarts that illustrate the severity of the war and the gravity gained during the series’ momentum; charming romances blossoming between Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, and (to my immense satisfaction) Neville and Luna; and striking special effects that captured Rowling’s descriptions as only movie-magic can. Potter fans and fanatics will find plenty to love in this finale—action and ethical dilemmas and romance—that trump Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (i.e., “Harry, Ron, and Hermione Go Camping”) in grandiose style.

I’ve been captivated by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson for the last decade, and this final installment (directed by David Yates) provides emotional closure within the context of stunning visuals, snappy dialogue, and a perfect balance between saving wizard-kind and still caring about individual people. I loved the series before, but resisted its classification as an epic. Somehow, I always felt it lacked the necessary momentum. Not anymore. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 firmly ensconces The Boy Who Enchanted Us as truly epic.

Part of the shift for me came from the representation of Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape. Without them, the film is tense, joyous, a gritty battle with a victory that seems both well-earned and inevitable. What Malfoy (played by Tom Felton) and Snape (played by Alan Rickman) do is illustrate the ambivalent humanity, the unrecognized and un-lauded sacrifice that defines both repentance and agape love. In the seventh book, Rowling depicts the Malfoy family huddled together after the Battle of Hogwarts; they are anxious, unsure of their place, but undisturbed within the crowd. The film uses its visual stage to give audiences a different image. Set against a bleak backdrop, the castle crumbling in ruins, the champions of Hogwarts face off against the conquering Death Eaters toting Harry’s presumably-dead body. Voldemort, depicted to creepy perfection by Ralph Fiennes, jeers at his opponents and invites them to join the victors. Lucius Malfoy calls to the reluctant and immobile Draco. Narcissa Malfoy gently beckons her son. Draco responds, crosses the gulf between armies, and is welcomed and swallowed by the fold of Death Eaters.

This is not our first glimpse of Draco’s growing uncertainty about his allegiance; earlier, in the Room of Requirement, Harry confronts Draco (referencing Harry’s captivity at Malfoy manor): “Why didn’t you tell her, Bellatrix, you knew it was me? You didn’t say anything.” Draco fails to respond, and conversation is soon consumed by the fiendfyre from which Harry rescues his Slytherin rival. Nearly engulfed by the fire, then lost in the crowd of Death Eaters, Draco Malfoy seems a little lost. While the book reinforces this point by placing the Malfoys amidst the bustling crowd at the battle’s conclusion, the film draws out both the Malfoy family and the theme of repentance. As Harry springs to life and the battle resumes, individuals collapse into the throng of battle; out of the back of the pack of Death Eaters, though, we see the Malfoys walking away. Narcissa, her arm around Draco, leads them—never looking back. Lucius, more reluctant, follows with backward glances, but all three proceed across the expanse, striding across the narrow bridge that leads them over the chasm and away from their allegiance to Voldemort.

The family is isolated; the image is lonely. They forfeit their glamour, their affiliation with a winning team, and their communities. Yet what they seem to salvage on that slender expanse of bridge is priceless. They turn away, literally, illustrating not confusion in a crowd but decisive repentance. It’s not the same kind of victory as Harry the hero or even Neville, who comes of age as a Gryffindor and a man in this film. But we always loved boys like Harry and Neville, always trusted their goodness, always knew they were boys with everything to gain—and we wanted their success. Not so with Draco—that pampered, power-hungry, prat. We wanted him to fail, to lose. In that scene on the bridge, the little family escaping into an unknown and war-ravaged landscape, Draco and his parents lose what we always wanted them to lose—and gain a hope, an eternity that only comes with repentance.

Snape’s end is both more gruesome and more poignant. Voldemort commends Snape for being “a good and faithful servant” (eerily echoing the words of Christ); then, the Dark Lord slashes Snape’s throat and unleashes the deadly serpent Nagini—whose brutal blows reverberate through the theater. Harry rushes to Snape’s side and collects the memories as the Potions Master commands. Instead of the vapory reminiscences usually employed to depict this magical memory transfer, Harry gathers Snape’s tears. The shimmering, pearlescent teardrops on Snape’s face illustrate a critical point: Snape’s sacrifice, his self-condemnation, his duplicity are not intellectual but heartfelt. Voldemort follows up his praise with the taunt “but only I can live forever.” We viewers know the joke’s on Tom Riddle here, yet the scene runs deeper still. Snape knows too, has borne the burden of alienation, contempt, and anxiety for sixteen years, knowing all along that he was living only to die. Snape lives and dies for unrequited love, the truly good and sincerely faithful servant motivated not by dark magic but by agape love.

Like the gaze of Rickman, that love penetrates, ensnares, crushes. As we and Harry travel through Snape’s memory, we see the pure and lovely Lily Evans Potter, and Snape, ever the misfit, awestruck at his fortune of simply being in her presence. We watch Snape love Lily—an innocent, ardent love—and we ache with Snape as that love fails to overcome, fails to triumph. Snape remains the boy without a haven, and his heart remains devoted to Lily. We see Snape overcome by remorse, dedicated to salvaging Harry for Lily’s sake. We witness Snape estranged from all humanity save Dumbledore, who alone understands the depth of Snape’s sadness and who only asks the Slytherin headmaster for more sacrifice. This film and Rickman bring to life Snape’s remorse as only a visual medium can. Snape’s grief and repentance run too deep for words, as we see in the scene where Snape visits the Potter’s post-killing curse wreck. Snape clutches Lily’s lifeless body, embracing her, rocking and sobbing an atavistic cry; Harry, the bright-eyed babe, stands bawling in his crib. Harry the orphan, the underdog, is infinitely lovable. Snape, awkward and abrasive, through most of the series, is not even likable.

Harry gets his happy ending. So does Draco. For Snape, the only happiness exists in distant memories, child-like and pure, and that happiness was sacrificed long ago along with Snape’s innocence. For Snape, there is no welcoming embrace, no happy home, no hope for a future in this world. Snape, the unloved, marches eyes-open to his own demise with an agape-love that saved Harry Potter while stealing my breath and my heart. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 concludes its title character’s story with weight and worth. Harry Potter may well be The Boy Who Lived, but Snape reveals himself in this final film as The Boy Who Loved.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Rich

    What a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you.

  • Mei

    Well-written and I agree with all the things you have said
    … but my only thing is that I’m sure the Malfoys ran away because they’re cowards. Even though they had pledged allegiance to Voldermort, I don’t think they could stand being under his rule anymore, and they just didn’t want to risk the lives of their family. I suppose they were just thinking about themselves. (I don’t think this applies to Draco, as such… I think the good in him overshadowed the bad, in the end.)
    So really, personally I don’t think it’s repentance… rather, cowardice. xD

  • Chris Ashton

    This reminds me of a blog post I saw recently on Christian cliches. Although it wasn’t listed, “agape love” must surely be a top ranking Christian cliche. Not only do Christians treat it like a distinct category of love, as if they can clearly distinguish it from other types of love, but they also use it without explanation of the sense that they are using it.

    In any case, seeing it as a particular type of love has long been discredited. D. A. Carson, in his excellent Exegetical Fallacies (p. 31ff) shows that the ubiquitous use of agape is simply irresponsible. Far from being a unique or special type of love, the Greek word it is (more or less) a synonym for phileo, and in fact can also refer to “love” that is a lot less pure. In the Greek OT it is the word used to describe Ammon’s incestuous rape of his half sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:15, LXX).

    Is “agape love” really the way you want to describe what is going on between Snape and Draco?

  • Kathi

    My complimets, very well written – the last sentence is so true…

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Chris Ashton,

    I know this is a late reply to your comment but I didn’t get to see the movie until last night and thus waited to read this article.

    First it should be said that Erin never said there was any “agape” love between Snape and Draco–I am not sure where you got that. The idea of agape love is primarily applied to Snape and his love for Lilly Potter which then produced a complicated devotion to Harry which can certainly be described as self-sacrificial.

    You are correct that the word “agape” in the New Testament does not always refer to self-sacrificial love. That said, the idea of “agape” love is one that goes back centuries and of times “agape” in the NT clearly does refer to something close to the way Christians have understood “agape” love.

    “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

    “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

    So the exegetical fallacy you would like to level at Erin isn’t really fair. Its not fair because she isn’t preaching a sermon and isn’t looking at any particular use of “agape” in any text but rather the idea of “agape” love as it has been understood and discussed for centuries as self-sacrificial love.

    And “self-sacrificial” seems an appropriate way to describe Snape’s devotion to Harry.


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