The big question Harry Potter fans have been asking is whether the title character lives or dies in the final book. That answer may be determined by the answer to a question asked no less often: Is Severus Snape good or evil?
The subject of Snape’s loyalty has been hotly debated by both characters and readers. Other characters are more beloved, but none are more controversial.
In Snape, J.K. Rowling has created one of the great characters of modern children's literature. Not only is he the most complex figure in the series, but Rowling has given him abilities that allow him to take on any story arc without contradicting himself. Add to this the fact that he’s played in the movies by the legendary Alan Rickman, willing and able to turn the smallest word or gesture into something sinister, and it’s no wonder that his role has been so fascinating.
The battle lines between Potter’s Order of the Phoenix and Voldemort’s Death Eaters have been clearly drawn. Most of the wizarding world rests securely on one side or the other. Snape, however, is outwardly loyal to both, but trusted entirely by neither. He could be a double agent, a triple agent, or simply an opportunist. But who he really is, and what motivates him, will determine much of how the last chapter of the Harry Potter saga plays out.
Which side is he on?
When the last book left off, Snape had fled Hogwarts with the rest of the Death Eaters, having apparently just killed the heroic Aldus Dumbledore with an unforgivable curse. The fact that there’s still an argument about Snape's place in the moral universe after that is a testament to his complex character.
Alone among the major characters, Snape's motivations are entirely unclear even now. He has powerful friends and suspicious enemies, with Harry Potter entering the seventh book firmly in the latter camp. It’s entirely possible that Snape killed Dumbledore in the name of good, and also possible that he’s been helping Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the name of evil.
Snape is considered as an expert on Occlumency, the art of protecting one’s mind from being invaded by outside influence. He’s also skilled at Legilimency, the ability to determine the thoughts of another. In layman’s terms, he can both read minds and keep his own from being invaded. By using these skills to disguise his true loyalties, he’s been able to trick Dumbledore, Voldemort, and perhaps both.
The fact that he’s earned the trust and patronage of these two great wizards has allowed him to survive in a setting where so many mistrust him. Any questioning of his motivations throughout the series have been met with the same general argument: Dumbledore/Voldemort trusts him, so shouldn’t you? One of them, at least, has been critically wrong in granting that trust.
Holding a grudge
And whether or not he is ultimately on Harry’s side or not, it’s clear that Snape has a personal dislike for the child of one of his former tormentors. Snape sees the sins of Harry’s father, James, whenever he looks at the younger Potter. Because those sins tended to involve Snape being embarrassed and ridiculed, he’s withering in his criticisms and quick to pass out demerits at the slightest provocation. Since readers view most of the books through Harry’s viewpoint, it’s no wonder that he’s not a very sympathetic person.
From Snape’s perspective, he may be treating Harry with an extreme form of tough love to prepare him to survive what awaits him outside of Hogwarts. Plenty of real-world parents have brutal relationships with their children while still having the offspring’s best interests at heart.
But that's a very charitable interpretation of the facts. Snape and Harry plain don’t like each other, as evidenced by the fiasco that was their private lessons in “Order of the Phoenix.” If Snape is in fact helping Harry, he’s doing so out of duty, not pleasure.
That’s no surprise, since Snape is not one to put on a happy face when dealing with someone he dislikes or can’t respect. He’s not willing or able to forget personal grudges. Part of the mistrust Harry feels about Snape has been engendered by the fact that the two years Sirius Black spent out of Azkaban before being (apparently) killed were spent with Sirius and Snape renewing their old Hogwarts rivalry.
Snape has never been shy about his loathing for Harry’s father, or the crew of friends James Potter hung out with at Hogwarts. That has little to do with their current loyalties; he treats Peter Pettigrew, who joined the Death Eaters and ultimately betrayed the Potters to Voldemort, with similar disdain.
Playing both sides?
Countless essays have been written to justify both positions, but the essentials can be boiled down to a couple of sentences.
Snape is good: He’s had every chance to kill Harry during his six years in Hogwarts and hasn’t done so, and instead he’s helped Harry stay alive through his lessons and his active participation in fighting dark forces. Dumbledore trusted him and they must have had a prearranged agreement that Snape was to slay the Hogwarts Headmaster if provoked.
Snape is evil: He’s a Death Eater, he has a longstanding grudge against Harry’s father, he’s been nothing but nasty to the boy since his arrival, and he’s generally an unpleasant fellow to be around. Oh, and by the way, he killed Dumbledore!
Each side has its fervent admirers, but there’s a third possibility as well: that Snape is on neither side, but has been serving his own interests throughout.
Every time Snape has a chance to fully commit to one side or the other, he pulls back just enough to leave things in doubt. He claims to take orders from Dumbledore and Voldemort, but sits outside the traditional hierarchy in both groups and doesn’t seem to respect anyone else enough to be anything more than civil in their presence.
Moreover, Snape has a knack for doing just enough to win trust and engender suspicion at the same time. Without his warning to the Order of the Phoenix about Harry's predicament at the Ministry of Magic in the series’ fifth book, the Hogwarts friends might have been overwhelmed and killed. But Snape’s delay in sending help likely contributed to the death of Sirius Black.
On the other hand, Snape swears an unbreakable oath to Narcissa Malfoy in the sixth book, after answering invasive questions from a skeptical Bellatrix Lastrange questioning his loyalty, and then follows that up by killing Dumbledore. But his answers to Bellatrix are generally a fancy way of saying “Voldemort trusts me, so you should too.” And he fails to kill Harry when he has the chance at the end of “Half-Blood Prince.” The fact remains that Snape has been Harry’s teacher for six years, with greater access to his person than anyone else with the Dark Mark, and has never tried to kill him or deliver him to Voldemort. When Harry has been in grave danger in Hogwarts, it’s been at the hands of other characters.
Love for Lily?
One object of speculation over the Internet has been the relationship between Snape and Harry’s parents. There was no love lost between Snape and James Potter’s group of friends, and it’s doubtful he shed a tear when Sirius was killed.
But what about Harry's mother, Lily? Could a failed relationship or an unrequited love, and lingering guilt that he may have contributed to her death, be a source of conflict to Snape now?
For six books, Snape has been whatever the reader wants him to be. There’s evidence of his goodness, and evidence that he’s evil. Finally, with the release of the final book in the series, Rowling has final say.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.