Severus Snape: The Unlikely Hero of Harry Potter book 7

By Dave Kopel

Volokh.com. July 19, 2005. Pусский/Russian. Polski/Polish. Français. Español. More by Kopel on Harry Potter.

Don’t read the rest of this article unless you’ve finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The predictions for book 7 will necessarily involve the revelation of some important plot details from book 6.

One of the many virtues of John Granger’s book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter is its emphasis on the importance of characters’ names. In a National Review Online review a couple years ago, I noted Granger’s interesting and plausible theories of the Christian subtext in the names “Gryffindor” and “Harry Potter.” Other character names also have interesting Christian roots. For example. Harry’s devoted and protective owl Hedwig shares a name with a medieval Christian saint, who is the patroness of the Sisters of St. Hedwig, a small charitable order whose “chief aim is the education of orphaned and abandoned children.” A Potter fan website contains a compendium of many character names and their meanings (up through volume 4), and the site, while full of fascinating information, does not exhaust the meanings that can be drawn from the names.

Granger points out that the sibilance of “Severus Snape” makes the reader think of a snake, and the crafty, mistrustful Snape has many snake-like qualities. Also, Severus is an unusually severe teacher. However, I think there is a more significant meaning of the name, which perhaps holds the key to the dénouement of the forthcoming book 7. “Severus” is a variant of “sever”—to cut. If run the two words of his name together, so that the consonants link up, then we hear “sever-uh-ssnape,” very much like “sever a snake.”

In the end, I predict, Snape will sacrifice himself in order to destroy the snakelike Voldemort, whose personal symbol (the Dark Mark) is a snake tongue projecting from a death’s head skull. (The symbol unintentionally teaches the lesson that false speech is a form of death). At a s7urface level, the events of the just-published book 6 seem entirely contrary to my thesis, but looked at from another angle, they confirm it. Let’s begin with chapter 2, “Spinner’s End,” in which Snape makes the Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa Malfoy. The chapter’s title ostensibly refers to the street where Snape lives.

But the chapter is also the beginning of the end of Snape’s life of deceptions and double games, of trying to play both sides of the street. As he explains to Narcissa and Bellatrix, he once “spun” an elaborate “tale of deepest remorse” in order to gain Dumbledore’s protection. (Page 31).When Narcissa asks him for the Unbreakable Vow, Bellatrix sneers that Snape will offer only “The usual empty words, the usual slithering out of action…” (35). But, perhaps for the first time in his life, Snape surrenders himself for another. The consequence of breaking an Unbreakable Vow is death.

Marriage is, in its sanctified state, an unbreakable vow, and the enchantment ceremony is remarkably like a wedding: Snape looks into Narcissa’s tearful eyes, kneels before her, and they clasp hands. In the presence of a Bonder, Snape is asked questions which evoke the rhythm of the wedding vows: “Will you, Severus, watch over my son…” To each question, Snape responds, “I will”—reminiscent of the “I do” of the unbreakable vows in a wedding.

With each “I will,” a tongue of flame coils around their intertwined hands. (36-37). Snape loves Narcissa, I suggest. His beloved is a narcissist, but at the greatest crisis of her life—when her son is mortal peril, and her husband is unable to protect their son, Narcissa risks everything—even betraying the Dark Lord and incurring his terrible wrath—in a desperate attempt to save her Draco. (32).

Because Narcissa and Snape love, they ultimately, not true servants of the Dark Lord.

Months later, Hagrid tells Harry about a recently overheard argument between Dumbledore and Snape: “I jus’ heard Snape sayin’ Dumbledore took too much for granted an’ maybe he—Snape—didn’ wan’ ter do it anymore…Dumbledore told him out he’d agreed to do it an’ that was all there was to it.” (405-06).

In the climactic confrontation between Dumbledore and Draco, on the Astronomy Tower, Dumbledore reveals that he has known all along about Malfoy’s plot to murder him. Yet Dumbledore has not acted against Draco, because Dumbledore still hopes to save him by making Draco prove to himself that he is not a killer, and thereby enticing Malfoy to come over the Right side. (585, 591-92).

The one person who knows that the Dark Lord has ordered Malfoy to attempt to kill Dumbledore and is a person who has any contact with Dumbledore is Severus Snape. I believe that Snape revealed the Dark Lord’s plot to Dumbledore. And that Snape also revealed to Dumbledore that Snape had made an Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa. The argument between Dumbledore and Snape had occurred when Snape grew weary in his efforts to protect Draco, and Dumbledore insisted that Snape must keep his vow.

Dumbledore’s knowledge of the third part of Snape’s vow—to kill Dumbledore if Malfoy could not—explains what happened shortly before Dumbledore’s death. Dumbledore wanted to die (I’ll explain why in a little bit), and he knew that Snape was the man who could—and must—perform the deed.

Consider the ambiguity of Dumbledore’s words as Harry and he rush back to Hogwarts: “It is professor Snape whom I need.” (580). This time, Dumbledore is not looking for Snape to heal him, as Snape had done the previous summer, when Dumbledore had returned badly injured from a fierce battle.

When Snape arrives at the Astronomy Tower, he first surveys the scene, but takes no action. Dumbledore is defenseless. But Draco is unable to bring himself to kill Dumbledore. The other Death Eaters on the Tower would be happy to kill Dumbledore, but they are afraid to act, because the Dark Lord has ordered that Draco must be the one to dispatch Dumbledore. As Dumbledore knows, only Snape—who has made the Unbreakable Vow to kill Dumbledore if Draco cannot—will defy the Dark Lord’s orders, and personally kill Dumbledore.

It is then that Dumbledore begs Snape to fulfill his vow: “Severus,” says the headmaster. “For the first time, Dumbledore was pleading.” (595). “Severus…please…”

If Snape were following Dumbledore’s wishes, why were “revulsion and hatred etched” in Snape’s face as a gazed at Dumbledore just before killing him? Firstly, revulsion at having to perform an Unforgivable Curse, the death spell Avada Kedavra. Discussing the killing afterwards, the Hogwarts teachers and pupils agree that they had never believed that Snape, for all his faults, could kill a man. To fulfill the Unbreakable Vow and Dumbledore’s wishes, Snape had act in revolt against his true nature.

As for the “hatred”, Snape knows that a wizard must act with hatred in order to successfully cast an Unforgivable Curse. Hatred comes easily to Snape, and he had all sorts of resentments which he could bring to mind—including, perhaps, hatred of Dumbledore for making Harry Potter into the headmaster’s favorite. And then there is a full reservoir of self-hatred from his miserable childhood, compounded by his many cruelties as an adult.

But my guess is that the primary source of the “revulsion and hatred” is that Snape knows the same things that Dumbledore had learned just a few minutes before, when Dumbledore drank the magic potion--from the basin in the secret lake where Voldemort had hidden a Horcrux. (Note the meaning of “whore/horrible cross”—a perverted version of the soul-saving object which overcomes death.)

Dumbledore suffered agony while drinking the ten goblets of potion. Harry presumed that Dumbledore was simply hallucinating while he drank, but I believe that Dumbledore instead was seeing some terrible truths.

Harry saw Dumbledore become frightened. He moaned “…don’t like…want to stop…I don’t want to…Let me go… Make it stop, make it stop.” (The last phrase echoes the frightened scream “make it stop” of the girl Regan, who is possessed by a demon in The Exorcist.) Dumbledore continued, “I can’t, don’t make me, I don’t want to…”

Then, “It’s all my fault, all my fault…I know I did wrong, oh please make it stop and I’ll never, never again…Don’t hurt them…it’s my fault, hurt me instead…” (The last phrase echoes what the young exorcizing priest Father Karras yelled at the demon: “Take me” The demon immediately left the girl’s body, and inhabited the Karras, who immediately hurled himself out the window to his death—thereby thwarting the demon; he survived just long enough to receive last rites, and die peacefully.)

Dumbledore implored “Make it stop, make it stop, I want to die!”

Then, as just before Harry gave Dumbledore the tenth and final goblet, Dumbledore yelled “Kill me!” “‘This—this one will!’ gasped Harry.” (573).

Dumbledore, I believe, realized that he had made a terrible mistake which had empowered Voldemort, and that only by dying could Dumbledore stop the harm from that mistake. As Dumbledore had told Harry long before, “I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being—forgive me—rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” (197).

What was the mistake? It likely has something to do with the meeting that Voldemort arranged years ago with Dumbledore, ostensibly to apply for a professorship at Hogwarts. Dumbledore was baffled by the meeting, since Voldemort (a/k/a Tom Riddle) plainly knew that there was no chance that Dumbledore would hire him, and Dumbledore knew that Riddle knew.

Yet Dumbledore let Riddle into Dumbledore’s own office. Watching a replay of the meeting in Dumbledore’s Pensieve, Harry notices something at the very end of the meeting, which Dumbledore, it seems, did not: “For a second, Harry was on the verge of shouting a pointless warning: He was sure that Voldemort’s hand had twitched toward his pocket and his wand; but the moment had passed, Voldemort had turned away, the door was closing, and he was gone.” (446).

Whatever malignant spell that Voldemort secretly cast on that day—enchanting something in Dumbledore’s own office, or even Dumbledore himself--had consequences which Dumbledore only realized when he drank the potion on the island. The spell may have involved inserting into Hogwarts (in a deep magical disguise) the four followers of Voldemort who were waiting gathered in the town outside Hogwarts. As Dumbledore told Riddle during the interview, it made no sense for Riddle to have been accompanied by the four, if Riddle only wanted to speak with Dumbledore.

In any case, Dumbledore understood, for reasons that are still unclear to us, that he had to die soon in order to save innocents.

Snape’s final scene is consistent with the thesis that Snape is not a true servant of the Dark Lord.

Significantly, Snape protects Harry, in a sense. Snape’s timely spell-casting prevents Harry from uttering an Unforgivable Curse. Snape was not present in the showdown at the Ministry of Magic at the end of book 5, so he may not know that Harry has already cast an Unforgivable Curse. Bellatrix (meaning female warrior, and also the name of the bright star that is Orion’s right shoulder) does know that Harry uttered an Unforgivable Curse, but—given her embarrassment at her own failure in the Ministry—may not have given Snape a blow-by-blow account of every aspect of the battle.

In the showdown with Harry outside the school grounds, Snape’s face is full of hatred, but it’s understandable. Harry attempts to cast a spell on Snape which Snape, as a Hogwarts student, had invented himself. Harry’s father, James Potter, had bullied his fellow student Snape by using a Snape-invented spell against Snape. (This is the Snape memory that Harry watched in Snape’s Pensieve, in book 5.)

If Snape has always been playing a complex double game against Voldemort (or at least working both sides of the street, and keeping his options open, to make sure he can jump to the winning side), why doesn’t Voldemort know? After all, the Dark Lord is, as Snape says in chapter 2, “the most accomplished Legilimens the world has ever seen?” (Like many spells, Regimens is just a Latin variant; in this case, for “read-mind.”)

This answer is easy. Snape is a superb practitioner of Occlumency, which blocks an attempt to read one’s mind. Remember that in book 5, Harry was ordered to take Occlumency lessons from Snape—with the expectation that if Potter learned well (he barely even tried), Potter would be able to prevent Voldemort from reading Harry’s mind, despite the intense mental link between Harry and Voldemort. Indeed, Occlumency, in a metaphorical sense, is the essence of Snape’s character. He is the man of the “unreadable” expression. (35). Ever since book 1, Rowling has been pulling surprises about Snape, so that readers never know for certain what are Snape’s true intentions.

Consider the possibility that Snape may know the full prophecy. In book 5, Dumbledore explains to Harry how job applicant Sybil Trelawny entered a trance, which she does not remember, and uttered the prophecy one night shortly before Harry was born. (427) (Her first name comes from the Greek “Sibylla,” meaning “prophetess.” She shares a last name with Edward John Trelawny, a 19th century English “self-promoting…brilliant story-teller…[who]…was far from truthful.” Professor Trelawny is mostly a self-promoting fraud, but she does get things right sometimes, as in book 6, when the cards keep sending message of impending doom on a tower.)

Trelawny tells Harry that her job interview with Dumbledore was interrupted by the discovery that Snape was eavesdropping. (545). Dumbledore presumes that Snape only told Voldemort the first half of the prophecy. (549) (The first part identifies a baby born July 31—either Harry Potter or Neville Longbottom—as a dangerous foe of Voldemort.) Dumbledore’s presumption is accurate, since Voldemort clearly does not know the second half of the prophecy, and spent all of book 5 in a futile effort to learn it. And Snape plainly told Voldemort the first half of the prophecy, since Voldemort then began planning to kill baby Harry, although he succeeded only in killing Harry’s parents.

Accordingly, Dumbledore and Harry presume that Snape does not know the second half of the prophecy, because they assume that Snape, who at the time was a Death Eater, would have told Voldemort everything that Snape knew. But maybe Dumbledore and Harry are wrong in their presumption. Perhaps Snape was playing a double game even then, and decided to retain some options for himself by keeping the second half of the prophecy to himself. Especially because the prophecy suggests that Voldemort’s side might not be the winning side in the long run.

The first half of the prophecy is:

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches. born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies . and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not”

The second half of the prophecy explains, I suggest, why Harry must die in book 7, so that Voldemort can be destroyed:

and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives. the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies.

“[N]either can live while the other survives.” On the face of it, the statement is absurd. Voldemort and Harry are both alive, and both survive, simultaneously. We tend to think of “live” and “survive” as synonyms. Yet if the two words are synonyms, the prophecy is incorrect.

It could be argued, if a person is not mortal, he is in a sense not truly living. The immortal creatures (that is, creatures which survive endlessly) which we have seen are ghosts and inferni. Each of them survives, yet neither of them lives.

Thus, as long as Harry survives, Voldemort is not mortal. Accordingly, Voldemort is, in a sense, not living. And perhaps, in some as-yet unknown way, Harry is immortal as long as Voldemort survives.

Referring to Godric Gryffindor’s sword, Dumbledore states, “the only known relic of Gryffindor remains safe” from Voldemort’s attempt to implant a Horcrux. (505) Yes, but could there be an unknown relic of the co-founder of Hogwarts? Such as the last living descendant of Godric Gryffindor (just as Voldemort, the Heir of Slytherin, is the last descendant of Salazar Slytherin)?

Harry was born in Godric Hollow. There are numerous reasons, detailed in the book by John Granger, to believe that Harry is the Heir of Gryffindor. His name even sounds like “heir” when Fleur Delacour call him 'Arry with her French accent.

The reason that Harry must die in order that Voldemort may “live” (as a mortal) rather than “survive” (as a deathless immortal) is that the final Horcrux is contained within Harry himself.

At the very end of book 6, Harry announces his plans to return briefly to the Dursleys (pursuant to Dumbledore’s previous instructions), and then to go for the first time in his life to Godric Hollow, the home of his infancy, before setting out on a quest for the Horcruxes. (630-31). The journey to the home where his parents were murdered will be even more significant to his quest than Harry currently realizes.

By returning in the summer of his 16th year to the unhappy home where he was raised, and thereafter to the place where he was born, Harry will recapitulate what Tom Riddle did in the summer of his own 16th year. (363).

“I am sure he was intending to make his final Horcrux with your death,” Dumbledore explained to Harry. (506).

But Voldemort’s death/Horcrux spell on baby Harry went terribly wrong, and blasted Voldemort’s body out of existence. Yet maybe Voldemort did, unbeknownst to himself, create that final Horcrux: in Harry Potter himself. The lightning bolt scar on Harry’s forehead is clearly more than a wound from the attack, since we know it magically links Harry and Voldemort. Could it also be the final Horcrux? And so for Voldemort to be destroyed with finality, Harry himself must die too.

Perhaps there’s some way to destroy only the Horcrux, without killing Harry. But from what we’ve seen so far, in order to destroy a Horcrux, such as the one contained in Tom Riddle’s diary, one must destroy the Horcrux-carrier too. (The Letters of Marque blog by Michigan Law student Heidi Bond contains an extensive discussion of the “Harry has a Horcrux” theory.)

One final mystery: who is the “R.A.B.” who had already swiped the Horcrux from the basin on the island on Lake Voldemort, long before Dumbledore and Harry arrived to attempt to take the Horcrux? As Hermione’s archival research shows, there is no plausible Horcrux-swiper with the initials “R.A.B.” (We don’t know the middle initial of Regulus Black, the deceased younger brother of Harry’s godfather. But I presume that Hermione is such a thorough researcher that she would not have failed to discover the middle initial of such an obvious suspect.)

Remember Dumbledore’s words to Harry, as the two of them successfully returned from their journey through Voldemort’s lake in the cave: “One alone could not have done it…” (577).

So “R.A.B.” might be the initials for a team of three wizards who took the Horcrux locket. Yet the enchanted boat which is necessary to cross from the shore to the island can detect magic, and will only allow a single adult wizard passenger. The boat does not prevent Harry from riding with Dumbledore because Harry is still underage, and thus his powers apparently do not “register” with the boat’s passenger detectors. (564). If so, it would seem impossible that three adult wizards could have ridden the boat. Were at least two of the “R.A.B” trio underage? Or did they just bring brooms so they could fly?

Moreover, whoever took the Horcrux would have needed to first empty the basin by drinking all its potion. So how did the basin get refilled with potion by the time Harry and Dumbledore arrived?

Here’s my theory: R.A.B. refers, in whole or in part, to Severus Snape. When Hermione reports on her archival research about wizards with the initials R.A.B., none of whom seem plausibly to be the Horcrux-taker, she concludes, “No, actually, it’s about…well, Snape.” (636). What she means is that while looking up “R.A.B.,” she ran across a small newspaper article revealing that Snape’s mother had the maiden name “Prince” and she married a muggle; Hermione has discovered why Severus Snape called himself “The Half-blood Prince.” (636-37). But perhaps Hermione has said more than she knows when she says that “R.A.B.” is about Snape.

As a potions genius, Snape might have known a way to neutralize the potion while consuming it. He likewise might have known how to re-fill the basin with fresh potion, after he had emptied it, and taken the Horcrux.

I believe that Harry is correct in his prediction, “if I meet Severus Snape along the way, so much the better for me, so much the worse for him.” (651) But how things work out between Snape and Harry will be immensely more complex than Harry now understands.

I searched the web for “R.A.B.” plus “legends.” What I found was the Croatian Island of Rab and the story of its patron saint, as told in the Golden Legend. Written by Jacobus de Vorgaigne, the Golden Legend is a 15th-century collection of biographies of saints and other pious stories. In its heyday, it was published in every major European language, and was second only to the Bible in popularity. The best-seller offered fascinating stories of magic—in the form of miraculous relics—which reinforced Christian faith.

Here is the story of Rab’s patron:

Once there was a Canaanite named Reprobus, a huge man of “right great stature” who bore “a terrible and fearful” countenance. He decided “that he would seek the greatest prince that was in the world, and him would he serve and obey.” So first Reprobus served the most powerful king in the world. But then he learned that the king was afraid of the devil. So Reprobus left the king and went to find the devil. Upon meeting him, Reprobus “took him for his master and Lord.” Later, Reprobus discovered that the devil was afraid of Christ.

So Reprobus left the devil, and asked a hermit to tell him how to serve Christ. The hermit ordered him to use his great strength to carry travelers across a nearby river. One day, he was carrying a child, “And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead… And when he was escaped with great pain, and passed the water, and set the child aground, he said to the child: Child, thou hast put me in great peril; thou weighest almost as I had all the world upon me, I might bear no greater burden.” The passenger revealed himself as the Christ-child, and gave Reprobus a staff which could perform miracles.

The name of Reprobus (“wicked person”) was changed to Christopher (“Christ-bearer”), the first usage of that name. Christopher and his staff performed many miracles, converted thousands of souls, and, in facing martyrdom bravely, converted still more.

I doubt that J.K. Rowling plans to work the Golden Legend directly into volume 7, but—given her extremely broad knowledge of literature and of the inspiring myths and legends of Europe—it is almost impossible that she doesn’t know the Golden Legend.

In any case, I expect that the final volume of the Harry Potter series will complete the story of Severus Snape as a wicked man who first served ordinary power, then Evil incarnate, and finally—by courageously risking his own life and using his enormous talents—will come face-to-face with the Right, as he is liberated from the burden of his own sins, and liberates many other sinners as well.


More by Kopel on Potter:

A Dementor Short. Mugglewear Casual mars Harry hat trick. Reason Online. June 4, 2004. Review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie.

Deconstructing Rowling. National Review Online. June 20, 2003. Review of The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, which convincingly explicates the work as a series of Christian fiction, in the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis.

Rumors: Quash one, fuel one. While debunking Harry Potter author's Satanist 'quotes,' News promotes drug's 'role' in deaths. Rocky Mountain News/Denver Post. Dec. 2, 2001.

Mugglemania. Harry Potter is the ur-libertarian who just might save civilization. National Review Online. July 22-23, 2000.  

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