Author’s Note: This article contains in-depth discussion of and spoilers for the Harry Potter series in its entirety.
A monster franchise like Harry Potter will always have fans arguing about something. With such a deep and intricately thought-out universe, there are debates about almost every aspect of the series: whether or not the movies were good adaptations, if Dumbledore was right to withhold information from Harry, whether Harry himself is a Mary Sue character.
But one of the more polarizing arguments I’ve seen in both the casual and hardcore fan bases (and everyone in between) is whether Severus Snape is a petty asshole or a brave hero.
The recent death of Alan Rickman has gotten a lot of people talking about Snape and Rickman’s portrayal of him in the movies. His acting as Snape is as far as I can tell universally agreed to be absolutely brilliant, and to me is easily the most consistent bright spot throughout the whole film series.
This may be because of what J.K. Rowling revealed to Rickman about the character early on in filming. She told him about the twist at the end of Deathly Hallows: that Snape has always been working for Dumbledore because of his love for Harry’s mother.
This truly does seem to have informed Rickman’s portrayal of Snape — for example, in the Prisoner of Azkaban movie when he shields Harry, Ron, and Hermione from Lupin’s werewolf form, a detail which is distinctly absent from the book. On the surface it seems like it is simply a case of teacherly instincts kicking in, but it may be a hint at Snape’s true motivation to protect the human embodiment of Lily’s sacrifice.
Snape’s love for Lily is what causes him to side with Dumbledore rather than Voldemort, but does that make him a hero? It’s a fact that without Snape’s double (triple?) agency against Voldemort, everyone would pretty much have been royally screwed. He leads Harry to the Sword of Gryffindor, protects Harry on multiple occasions, and makes the ultimate sacrifice that ultimately leads to Voldemort’s demise (Voldemort killing Snape leads him to believe that he is the true owner of the Elder Wand, which he isn’t).
Snape’s love for Lily is what causes him to side with Dumbledore rather than Voldemort, but does that make him a hero?But he doesn’t do this out of nobility or selflessness. He does it for his lost love.
Maybe it’s revenge against the man who killed her, maybe he wants to protect the legacy she left behind, or maybe it’s both. Regardless of his true motives, he was brave and he did sacrifice himself for what turned out to be the greater good.
But here’s the other side of the coin: Maybe Snape is nothing more than a bitter mean-spirited man whose friend-zone complex only happened to coincide with the right thing to do. Even if he did turn out to be a “good guy,” Snape spent the better part of the series giving Harry and his friends crap for no discernable reason.
He accuses them of stealing and other wrongdoing with no evidence, sabotages their grades, and blatantly insults them. He goes so far as to say that when Hermione’s teeth are being extended by a hex cast by Malfoy that he “sees no difference.” He often punishes Gryffindors for no reason, while rewarding Slytherins for the same thing.
Based on this, Snape is just a cynical old bully. He has it out for Harry because he didn’t like his father and dislikes Gryffindors in general out of some sense of rivalry. He calls Hermione an insufferable know-it-all, despite the fact that he’s a much more insufferable know-it-all.
Maybe Snape is nothing more than a bitter mean-spirited man whose friend-zone complex only happened to coincide with the right thing to do.It’s almost hard to believe that these traits all lie in the same person, but they do. This, I find, is commonly ignored when the Snape debate comes up. People who say he’s a hero ignore his garbage personality and the way he treats his own students, and people who say he’s an asshole ignore the fact that he played a huge hand in bringing down Voldemort, which is what the ultimate goal of the series always has been.
Snape is not one or the other; he’s an ambivalent character. He represents both good and evil, and to say that he’s just a hero or just a bully seems like a vast oversimplification.
Take another ambivalent character as an example: Albus Dumbledore. For most of the series Dumbledore is a wise, grandfatherly character to Harry, but it turns out he’s been using Harry as living bait for Voldemort for years. For Harry’s entire school career, he’s manipulated by Dumbledore so that he could ultimately bring down Voldemort. A noble goal? Yes, absolutely, but this manipulation puts Harry in harm’s way multiple times and causes him incalculable emotional trauma.
Dumbledore did the wrong thing for the right reasons; Snape did the right thing for the wrong reasons. The two characters are parallel to each other in this way and in Harry’s perception of them. Harry goes through the years thinking that Snape is a terrible person and that Dumbledore is infallible, only to have these perceptions turned on their head at the end of the series. He finds that both people are more complicated than he thought. Snape is brave, and Dumbledore is manipulative.
Snape is more than a label. He’s the themes of Harry Potter condensed into one character. He’s bravery vs. cowardice, love vs. hate, and good vs. evil all in one person. He’s a truly complex character, and I think the point Rowling was trying to get across with him is that love triumphs over hate.
Snape’s love for Lily is more powerful than his hatred of James. Even if he has a rotten personality (to put it kindly), he still sides with good, with love. In the famous quote when Dumbledore asks him, “after all this time?” he responds, “Always.” It doesn’t just mean that he’s always loved Lily, but also that his hatred of James has faded. It’s obviously not gone, as evidenced by his treatment of Harry, but it’s not as strong as it once was.
Even nearly 10 years later, I still don’t agree with Harry naming his child after Dumbledore and Snape, but I get it. It’s a show of forgiveness. Harry understands that they both made sacrifices and contributed to Voldemort’s downfall. It’s a way of saying that he forgives them for the things they did wrong. The consistent thread between all these characters is love; when Snape says “always” he doesn’t just mean Lily — he means love. Love is always.
Joel Wallick is currently pursuing a degree in film studies at Bowling Green State University with a minor in creative writing. He has been gaming since early childhood, beginning with Pokemon Silver. Follow him on Twitter @SuperNerdJoel.