Come with me for a moment. I’d like to tell you about someone.
Can you picture it? He was something of a lonely child. Hated and outcast almost from birth; his father’s people despised his mother’s, and vice versa. An object of derision and fear.
He was sickly, and bookish, and not at all handsome. He had no friends. No life except for the one he created in his imagination. Until she came along, that is.
She changed things. Made him believe there were better things out there.
He was instantly and irrevocably smitten. He would do anything for her.
But she didn’t love him. Not the way he wanted her to. He knew that. She knew that. But it didn’t change anything. He loved her still, and she loved him – in her way – and they were happy. Sort of.
But children have a terrible tendency to grow up. To grow apart. They still cared for one another, but the pressures of their world kept them separated. She went to the places popular people went. She had beauty and charm and friends that took her far, while his books and his skill and his appearance and his lack of social skills – and festering resentment of those who had been born to better – kept him in his basements.
Still, she saw something in him. Something not even he would recognize. Too bad her admirers didn’t. They taunted him, mocked him, bullied him, tortured him almost to his breaking point. The games would only end when she would intervene. And he loved her for it, but he hated her, too. For being the light and love and happiness he felt he could never have. Or maybe he hated himself.
But then someone came to him and told him “You do have a place. Where no one will hurt you, or mock you, or act as though you’re lesser when you absolutely know you’re somehow more special than any of them.” So he went with them. And felt better. For a while.
Until they told him what they were really up to. That their plans would require, among other things, the death of his love. He knew he couldn’t have her. She was happy with her lover, with their child, and no matter how it pained him, he would not damage her happiness for anything.
So he betrayed his “friends.” He begged a man who had no reason at all to trust him, who stood against everything that he thought he believed, to save his love. To save her husband. To save the child. That man asked him “And what will you give me?”
“Anything,” he said.
It didn’t change things. His love still died. His attempts to stop it were fruitless. But the leader of those who had killed her was likewise vanquished, and despite his grief, despite having to hold her cold flesh and shriek his agony and his hate, he knew what had to be done. He helped to hide the child from those who would hurt him. Buried the truth. Watched him from afar, then closer as the child grew older, because both he and his merciless benefactor knew it could – and would – happen all over again if they didn’t hold the vigil.
That child came, and every time he looked at him, he saw his love’s eyes. But he also saw the boy’s father in him. The arrogance, the potential for that bullying nature. He wrestled with it, every day, this visible reminder that his love was gone and her son – the one who should have been his– was all that remained, and so close, so like his father.
He fought for the boy. Hid the boy from danger, protected him when he could, but always had to play a role of indifference or dislike. Knew the boy hated him. Knew the boy was suspicious of him. But he could never tell him that he loved that boy. That sometimes he looked past that veneer of the boy’s father and saw his mother’s kind heart and loving eyes, saw that he was worth the sacrifice his love had made, saw that all hopes for his people were pinned on this one small child and despite his outward coolness, he would do anything for that child.
Then his benefactor told him: “I am to die. And if I must, it must be you who kills me.” He didn’t want to. He begged that the cup be taken from his lips. But it had to be so. And so he murdered that man, the man who had no reason to trust him, who had failed him in saving his love, who had put him through so much over the years that even he was no longer sure who or what he was. And the child saw, and hated him all the more for it.
How heartbreaking, to be cast as the villain again. In the eyes of everyone who had come to trust, to respect, to honor him. But most of all to see his love’s eyes looking out at him from a child’s face with an expression of nothing but contempt and hatred.
But still he carried on. He did his benefactor’s work. He allowed the boy to triumph over him. He allowed his darker master to murder him, and in his last moments he gave the boy the knowledge that he had hidden from him for nearly seventeen years, and begged the boy to look at him once more. Staring into the boy’s eyes, he smiled. “You have her eyes.” And then he went to whatever reward awaits.
Do you know who he is, yet?
Severus Snape. Possibly the most maligned character in the Potterverse, culminating in his assassination of Dumbledore at the end of The Half-Blood Prince. You remember all those buttons as Deathly Hallows approached? Yeah, I was the only one sporting a “Snape is Loyal!” one in my group of friends.
Snape is an insufferable, sometimes selfish, peevish prick. No doubt about it. He’s broken and flawed in so many ways it’d be impossible to count them all. He often treats Ron, Hermione and Harry like his serfs, coming down twice as hard on them as any other student, and despite his reputation as a harsh taskmaster – and the natural adversarial relationship between his position as Head of House Slytherin and our three heroes’ membership in Gryffindor – often seems to be far more harsh than necessary to the three, Harry in particular.
But there’s a reason. He’s been turned by Dumbledore and Voldemort’s war into a triple agent, forced to bury most of who and what he is by one or the other for the majority of his life. He had to watch the woman he loved marry another man, had to watch his ideals crushed by Voldemort’s manipulative schemes, and had those schemes culminate in her death. He has to serve as protector to someone who stands as a living symbol of Snape’s failures – his failure to be “man enough” for Lily, his failure to protect her, his willing participation in schemes that ultimately led to her death – and has to do it in such a way that the boy – or anyone else around him – doesn’t know the truth. He has to accept that this child, who reminds him so of his lost love, dislikes him at best and actively despises him at worst.
He’s hard on Harry. More than he should be, maybe. But he knows what’s coming, and Snape is a firm believer in “tough love.” Teach him that life’s not fair. Teach him that life hurts. Teach him that things are not always what they seem. But always keep him at arms length. Better for both of them, really.
It’s almost sad. Think about the things they could have done; Snape could have given Harry a marvelous view of his lost mother. They could have bonded over that. Harry was obviously a gifted student – though not necessarily in Snape’s preferred areas – and despite his position as a Gryffindor was willing to look beyond a simple color scheme and see good and value in everyone. The two having a more genuine friendship might have bridged the gap between houses Gryffindor and Slytherin, might have helped allay some of the natural suspicion of the house of cunning and stealthy wisdom. And it might have given Snape a small measure of peace, a feeling that his actions had ultimately led to something good, that Lily’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain… and a chance to be close to her again, even if only in spirit.
But it also would have ruined the books, most likely, so we’ll let it stand.
Despite his harshness, despite the fact that he holds Harry to a higher standard – often to the level of borderline abusive – he does care for Harry. Just imagine how much Snape’s heart was breaking when Harry chased after him at the end of book six, shrieking at him that he’s a murderer, a monster, how could he? But he maintained his calm – mostly, anyway – and made sure that Harry lived through that, leading Harry down the breadcrumb trail that would eventually lead to Voldemort’s end.
Only when he’s dying, when his task is finally done, does he reveal to Harry the truth. And even that is done posthumously.
Never once does Snape rail about his fate. He does what he has to. Never once does he give in to fear, or hatred, or rage. “LIfe isn’t fair!” Harry cries, and Snape tells him “Exactly. That’s something your father knew.” Snape never claims life isn’t fair, doesn’t spend time gnashing his teeth and wailing. He gets the job done, no matter how much it hurts.
The vindication when you reach the point where Harry sees Snape’s memories in the pensive and realizes all the man did for him… indescribable.
There are a lot of heroes in the Harry Potter series. A lot of hard choices, with no right answers. A lot of mistakes made and atonements sought. Dumbledore and his misadventures with dark magic (and his failure to “save” Tom Riddle); Sirius and his treatment of Kreechur. Harry and his problems with judging character. Most of those things help shape the heroes these characters eventually become (often just before their deaths…) But Snape, in my mind, stands above them all. He gives everything to see things through. His love. His reputation. His mentor. His life. And he stands firm the entire time. He doesn’t falter. He knows the cost, and he pays it gladly.
Someone went to the trouble of recutting Snape’s scenes from the Harry Potter films, placing them in chronological order. Admittedly, the mystery of why Snape is the way he is is a central plot point, and Rickman’s performance of the character’s ambiguity is amazing; it still manages to punch you in the feels when Harry witnesses the fallen Potions Master’s memories and realizes what really happened. But if you see it in order, it becomes even more overwhelming. So watch it. And bring tissues.