Kathy Nance on the Ouiet Heroism of Snape

Kathy Nance on the Ouiet Heroism of Snape November 17, 2010

The Harry Potter books and movies have been so successful precisely because they transcend religion.

By drawing upon universal themes and archetypes, J.K. Rowling was able to create a world and a story that could be enjoyed regardless of a reader’s religious point of view. It’s the world of the folk tale, populated by characters we’ve all seen in the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, the Child Ballads. Harry, the orphan foundling. Lily Potter, the mother who sacrifices her own life to save her child. Dumbledore, the loving mentor. Voldemort, the evil force/villain to be overcome.

And the initiatory force: at once obstacle, villain and hero. I speak, of course, of the serpentine Severus Snape.

Snape is the character that most interests me. I think he is certainly Rowling’s most sophisticated creation. I love the way that he’s introduced as the one teacher not in awe of Harry’s origin myth. The way that he challenges Harry to learn not only potions, but to look beyond appearances. The complexity of his motives and moral challenges.

Even his name is wonderful: Severus Snape. I defy you to say it without hissing, without a vaudeville villain’s sneer.

And Snape could have been rendered in those simplistic strokes. If he had been, the books would have been much less compelling. It was always clear that some force was out to destroy Harry. And it was always clear that the force had a name: Voldemort.

Snape’s motives and true allegiance remained hidden from Harry and readers until Snape’s death near the end of the final book. Only then do we learn that Snape sacrificed himself for the greater good as surely as his lost love, Lily Potter, did.

For me, Snape’s sad life and quiet heroism make him a more courageous character than Harry. Think of all Snape had to overcome. His parents abused him. His peers rejected him. His bad-ass gang took advantage of him and killed the one woman he ever loved—who’d married someone else. His repentance had to remain a secret. And yet, he had the moral courage to remain true to his mission. As we’d say in my neck of the Pagan woods, he had the strength of Will to continue his Work.

That Harry valued Snape’s character at last is shown in his naming his youngest son in part for Snape, and his calling Snape “probably the bravest man I ever knew.”

As no deity is ever mentioned in Rowling’s fantasy world, I won’t say that Snape was acting within a particular religious framework. I do think his actions speak of a hard-won moral or ethical compass. I can easily visualize him reading and identifying with the Stoic philosophers.

Perhaps I also have a soft spot for Snape because I can see him as a symbol of the way in which Pagans are so often misunderstood by the larger culture. Just reading some of the words conservative Christians have written bashing the Harry Potter series because Harry makes magic-workers seem normal, not evil, brought that home to me yet again.

I can certainly see the appeal of the Snape reaction in the face of such hostility: a haughty sneer. A sarcastic remark. A disdainful swish of the cloak. An elegant retreat to a book-filled lair.

But I’ll be nice. I’ll make an attempt to explain who I am and what I believe and why. I’d like to be understood and appreciated before I’m dead. Although given the choice, I think Snape would have preferred that as well.

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  • Galina

    I like this article. I agree with you about Snape and it was that moral complexity, the enormity of that character’s sacrifice that gave the books depth and meaning for me.

    I think, whether we like it or not, Harry Potter series has become one of the dominant myths of our day….Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” reborn, so to speak.

    I think that’s a good thing. i think we need our heroes, especially the dark and complex ones like Snape, especially now…even our fictional ones.

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  • Jezebel Haddo

    I agree with you on Snape’s heroism, though it’s clear Rowling doesn’t… She thinks he deserved everything that happened to him and hates that so many of us fans prefer him to her chosen protagonist. Even that partial naming of one of Harry’s kids felt shallow to me. The honour was given grudingly, not out of any true admiration. If Harry really had any decency, he wouldn’t have left Snape’s body to rot in the Shrieking Shack. Hell, Harry couldn’t even bother to try to save Snape while he slowly bled to death.