How art thou Fallen, Severus, son of Spinner’s End

As we’re all battered by a storm, huddled up by our stockpiled supplies, our minds return to the most important questions like: Does Hermione love learning for it’s own sake?  That became a point of contention in the conversation that followed my jeremiad against Hermione and Ron’s relationship.

Hermione is clearly a nerd type.  She’s bookish, bossy, has messy hair, and the glasses are silent, I guess.  But Hermione is a lot more active and ruthless than we might expect her to be if she were just Harry’s exposition pipe.  The means she chooses to identify and punish Marietta Edgecombe for betraying Dumbledore’s Army is cruel (acne spelling out the word ‘SNEAK’) and excessive (presumably she could have just turned Marietta’s face green for a week or something like that, if the goal was to identify the leak).  The curse was strong enough that Marietta was still scarred and hiding her face the next year.  Hermione expressed no regrets.

I had hoped that the later books might do more to explore the cost of Hermione’s cleverness.  Especially because I suspected she might be dangerously similar to Severus Snape.  I was bitterly disappointed to find out that he fell because of a frustrated romantic love, when that story has been told so many times, and there are plenty of other loves that can lead us astray if we mistake them for the highest good.  I was hoping to have a cautionary tale about a less saccharine kind of temptation.

One scholarly temptation I tend to need to watch out for is the love of data as a means to mastery.  It’s easy for me to slide from loving learning the way things work and seeing how all the pieces of physics/a friendship/a security system fit together and feeling and loving the rush of  power that comes with knowing where all the levers are, even if I’m not going to manipulate them yet.

Wanting mastery doesn’t have to be for the purpose of subjugation; a less obviously malign strain of this temptation is the desire to be of use, to be indispensable.  (I stand pretty well indited by Lewis’s treatment of this tendency in The Great Divorce).  The check here is whether Hermione would be delighted if Harry and Ron ever got around to reading Hogwarts, A History or if she’d feel a little threatened, less secure in a friendship where the other two weren’t so obviously dependent on her.

When I read the article on psychopathy and TMS yesterday, I had a flash of envy for the hyperfocused, calloused Special Forces soldier.  I like being someone my friends know to turn to in a crisis and the person that can fix your broken whatsit or help you script an email to someone you like.  People trust me to have the necessary distance to diagnose and repair the problem.  But I have to remind myself that if distance is a strength, it can’t be my only strength.

When we saw a lonely, teenaged Severus Snape through the memory Harry glimpsed  I thought he could be tempted by knowledge as mastery, but he might also have fallen through a too-abstracted intelligence.  Think of the scientist who doesn’t flinch at vivisection, driven on by curiosity.  This would be a kind of knowing that would necessarily have drawn Snape on into the Dark Arts and would set him apart from the more passionate evil of Bellatrix and others in the Death Eaters.

Here, the error mode seems to be knowledge without enlightenment.  This Snape would be contemplating truth unaccompanied by the other two big transcendentals, beauty and goodness.  In Christian thought, these three transcendentals are ontologically one — you cannot experience any of them in isolation.

Now, wouldn’t this quasi-Faustian struggle have been more interesting than a boy who didn’t get over a teenaged crush?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • M. Grégoire

    Claude Frollo’s fall may have been less conventional than that of Snape’s, but it’s hard to imagine how an excessive search for knowlege could lead to his redemption. The story of Snape’s love explains both how he could become a Death Eater, and why he would betray them.

  • Ted Seeber

    JK Rowling is Severus Snape. He fell due to mistrust in unrequited romantic love, just as she fell after her divorce into the safety net of British Welfare. In the end, Snape rose again on his own power; just as Rowling herself was a literary success on her own talent which was allowed to shine through once her material needs were met with freedom.

    And if you believe that, I’ve got a 24 year old AP English Essay on the literary value of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I’d like to publish……

  • keddaw

    Did Dumbledore not fall down that hole, only to be rescued by the tragic death of his sister? Or was it his lust for power that was his problem?

    One could also argue that Tom Riddle was a true seeker of knowledge too.

  • Alex Knapp

    First of all, you have to remember that Hermione is a Gryffindor, not a Ravenclaw. That’s proven through the books when she shows herself to be more adventurous than she is a bookworm. For Herminone, knowledge is a tool to be employed. Not an end. She knows, even as a young girl, that there’s more to being a great human being than being smart. ” Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and —”

    Second, you’re reading Snape backwards. His love for Lily isn’t what caused him to fall into the Dark Arts. He was attracted to the Dark Arts since he was a boy – you can see the flashes of his belief in Wizard Superiority in his first meeting with Lily. He was playing around with Death Eaters while Lily still couldn’t stand James. And remember, part of the reason James and his gang were so nasty to Severus is because of Severus being a Death Eater.

    It’s Snape’s love for Lily that SAVED him. When he realized that the path he had traveled with Voldemort meant the death of the person he loved, he rejected the Dark Arts; rejected the Death Eaters; and showed himself to be an incredibly brave and true person. Snape fell because of his desire for the Dark Arts. He was saved by love.

    • Niemand

      you have to remember that Hermione is a Gryffindor, not a Ravenclaw.

      Good point. Hermione seems to be interested in knowledge as a path to power, not for its own sake. She uses her ability to study intensely and learn quickly to gain power and acclaim. I never got the impression that she really liked knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Perhaps that’s why (apart from the needs of the plot) that she was in Gryffindor.

    • Zaire

      I wonder if Snape’s views of superiority stem from closeness to his witch mother in an unstable household?

  • http://animavoluminis.blogspot.com Timothy Davis

    Snape’s character would have been far more fascinating, far more compelling, were it as you outlined above. I think this means you have a greater moral imagination than Ms. Rowling.

    • leahlibresco

      Well, much more fascinating for me. We like reading about people who share our weaknesses, and I’m not known for being romantic.

      • http://animavoluminis.blogspot.com Timothy Davis

        In the same way, Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side would have been much more interesting if it had been a desire for greater power, not the self-contradictory jumble of trying to keep Padme from dying.

        • leahlibresco

          This is why he should have killed the Trade Federationists before he slaughtered the younglings so he would have given into his anger in just-feeling action against people who were already non-human villains. The order in canon is anticlimactic (and not in a good, indictment of the audience not caring about the Trade Federationist way)

        • sherry

          Nerd opinion here: There is nothing about Anakin Skywalker.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        “We like reading about people who share our weaknesses…”

        I’m not sure that’s universally true. Or, at least, even if we all like reading about people who share our weaknesses, I don’t think we like reading about those people exclusively. You’re never interested in watching how people very different from you operate?

        • leahlibresco

          Yes, of course. But I meant it in more of the “other people like me exist!” way.

      • Ted Seeber

        Is that a male/female thing? I don’t particularly like fictional characters that share my weaknesses- I want fictional characters who have OVERCOME my weaknesses and show me how.

        • leahlibresco

          Sure, or who succumb and show you something to avoid.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    > I thought he could be tempted by knowledge as mastery, but he might also have fallen through a too-abstracted intelligence. Think of the scientist who doesn’t flinch at vivisection, driven on by curiosity. This would be a kind of knowing that would necessarily have drawn Snape on into the Dark Arts

    Really? You think every scientist who’s driven by curiosity and doesn’t flinch at vivisection would necessarily be drawn to whatever the real world’s equivalent of the Dark Arts might be? I am very much unconvinced; would you care to try to convince me?

    • Ted Seeber

      Manhattan Project. Go and read the history of a bunch of scientists that followed their curiosity into giving human beings the most destructive weapon ever created up until that point.

      • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

        Proposition 1: “Any scientist who is driven by curiosity and doesn’t flinch at vivisection will necessarily be drawn to the Dark Arts.” Proposition 2: “It has happened that at least once a bunch of scientists created something terrible.” These two seem to me *completely unrelated* propositions. Especially as the scientists working on the Manhattan Project weren’t (so far as I can tell, anyway) doing so just for the sake of curiosity; they were, for good or ill, also trying to win a war.

      • ACN

        This is a laughable mischaracterization of both the Manhattan Project and the historical context (Read: WORLD WAR 2) surrounding it.

  • Doragoon

    From The Imitation of Christ (which I’ve only just today started reading), “Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to appear learned and to be called wise.”

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    I would need to re-read the books to be sure, but I think M. Gregoire and Alex Knapp’s readings are more accurate: love did not drive him to evil, but was what kept him back from it. Social rejection, rather than romantic rejection, quite probably exacerbated the tendencies to the Dark Arts that his curiosity began, sure. But positing a single motivating force is pretty unrealistic; I would think a more satisfying Snape would have been driven by both intellectual and social forces, and this does not seem a far cry from what we already glimpse in the texts. If I were to recommend an improvement, it would have been for Rowling to uncover more of what I think I remember as being already there (that is, social convention might have restrained his research into the Dark Arts had he not been made a social outcast by James et al, while at the same time he was cast out in part because of his growing curiosity about the Dark Arts).
    But I’d need to re-read the last few books in order to really see if that is how Snape was presented.

    Also, for what it’s worth, even if I’m wrong and Snape’s fall and rise are both motivated by love, I really don’t think making the motivation romantic is such a bad idea, at least not if you want to make it interesting for the most people. I don’t think books need to be populist (not at all), but I don’t think that a series of books thoroughly dedicated to being populist is best measured by another standard. (I suppose I should add that while it is perfectly fine not to be interested in romantic plots, feeling contemptuous of romantic plots and those interested in them is a problem. Not that I’m accusing anyone of contempt, but it’s starting to head that way a little bit.)

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      I’ve had another thought. I’m not backing down on my interpretation of Snape’s moticvations–that would require textual evidence–but it would make a lot of sense if Snape was motivated by love. Love–not just romantic love, but love in many facets–is one of the major topics of interest in the Harry Potter books. (I’d say it tops even things like bravery and leadership, which are also well up there.) Until this point, Rowling has represented love in fairly saccharine ways: very rarely does love motivate anyone to do something wrong, or cause harm that is disproportionate to the feeling. Showing that Snape is motivated by love would be a way, in the logic of books 1-6, to partially redeem his character, but in fact showing that love caused some spiritual decay in Snape would be even more effective because it would nuance the theme a bit during the climax. (I also see this nuance in Dumbledore’s backstory: love is a much less benign force when pseudo-Nazi sentiments are involved.)

      • Joan H.

        I think, when you find the time to do it, that you will find much textual support for the idea that Snape is motivated by love throughout the series. Even in the very first book when it’s obvious that Snape can barely stand to be in the same room as Harry — and he says it’s because Harry reminds him so much of James — we eventually learn of the extraordinary lengths Snape goes through to protect Harry, because he is Lily’s son.

        Leah, I’m shocked at your shallow summation of Snape’s relationship with Lily. That was no teenage crush; Lily was perhaps the only true peer and friend he ever had, the only person who didn’t care that he was a half-blood and dirt poor, both of which caused him no end of problems at Slytherin.

        Even though neither Snape nor Hermione pursued knowledge for its own sake (as mentioned: not Ravenclaws), Rowling did not ignore this motivation altogether. I’m pretty sure Grindelwald, and to some extent Dumbledore before the death of his sister and his subsequent “recovery”, both fell into that category.

    • leahlibresco

      Disinterest in character development through romance is one of the reasons my fanfic was lousy.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        Wait wait! That would not make it lousy as fiction; it would only make it lousy as fanfiction, (and only then if you’re reading for shipping purposes).

        • leahlibresco

          I mean my characters were more plot-carry-outers than people.

          • Lori

            Some of the best fanfics I’ve read actually pair a surviving Snape with an older Hermione. You’re not the only one who thinks they might have a lot in common. It makes more sense to me than Hermione/Ron.

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            Lori: DevianArt fanart (which honestly appeals to me more than fanfic, because I’m more of a lit snob than an art snob…though I’m kind of the last, too) has a lot of this pairing. It does make a certain kind of sense…

            Leah: Ah. I call those characters “plot functions.” Protagonists should not be plot functions. (Northrop Frye observes that heroes of romances tend not to have believable, developed characters, though; they always remain somewhere between two-dimensional and unknowably remote. So this isn’t just an amateur’s mistake.)

          • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

            Romances here =/= love stories. Frye uses romance in the older sense: think Morte D’Artur, hagiographies, fairy tales, The Faerie Queene, The Tempest, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The term has been applied to The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and Robinson Crusoe, too.

  • Mitchell Porter

    “I had a flash of envy for the hyperfocused, calloused Special Forces soldier”

    This is the Leah who I really like and who inspires me the most: wants to be tough, capable, purposeful, superhuman. She sounds exhausting to keep up with, but I’d still want to support her.

  • Rachel K

    I think we see some of this “lust for knowledge leads to the dark side” tendency in Ollivander. He never actually becomes a Death Eater, but does become pretty darn creepy–so interested in what Voldemort might do with the Elder Wand that he almost wants to see it happen.

  • http://www.smidoz.wordpress.com Smidoz

    It sounds like you’re looking for a good old Garden of Eden story. The Faustian idea has been around as long as Judeo-Christian traction. Ev was the first one to give up their union with God, or the goodness of things in order to gain a greater understanding of the world, even if that understanding is in itself to embrace/understand evil.

  • Maiki

    I think there are other characters that suffer that temptation. Tom Riddle, for one, maybe Dumbledore and Grindewald. I think Snape’s love is not what causes him to fall, but what saves him. (which is the point of the book, to be fair, that self-sacrificial love, romantic or otherwise, is salvific). If anything, it is pride and loneliness that causes his downfall.

  • jenesaispas

    I liked finding out that Snape had feelings in the in the end.

  • jenesaispas

    *in that way

  • Zaire

    I feel like Voldemort fell for that and Dumbledore when he was younger. Voldemort had emotional reasons for doing so, but his being gifted and desire to be superior to everyone pushed a lot of his actions (also his well-developed sociopathic tendencies). He wanted the POWER that magic afforded him.
    Now, Dumbledore was similarly gifted and only cared about getting awards for the longest time. He enjoyed the power (he did admit this was his sin) that his talents afforded him, the admiration (feeling needed, if you will). Am I wrong in this? That’s why I don’t think Snape necessarily had to take that route.
    Also, Snape was an abused child. His route to the death eaters was also informed by that. The privileged or authoritative taking advantage of him etc. The love he had for Lily was the one thing that made his redemption possible. Without that not-so-chance meeting, who knows how far into the Death Eater fold Snape would have gone.
    Personally, I think the characters (for the most part) were immensely complex with multiple things informing their actions/choices. Hermione, in my opinion, had a similar issue to Voldemort, one major difference being her moral education and the fact that she had virtues beyond sheer cleverness and skill. She wasn’t a sociopath; but, in the first couple of books, she often uses her knowledge to show off. That’s how I interpreted her constant answering of questions (initially in a haughty manner) etc. She grew up, though. I would wager, by the end of the books and in her latter years, she enjoyed the knowledge in a different manner.

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  • Brian Newman

    Snape is the actual hero in the books. HP consistently acts like a little turd, survives only due to the actions of the people around him, and is disrespectful to his allies. Snape has no allies, goes quite far to help others, and respects people (he’s got whatever the oppoosite of charisma is, but he respects people). HP is the protagonist, but Snape is the hero. Also, HP is the point of view character whose purpose is to shine a light on Snape so that we might better understand him.


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