Obligatory Harry Potter Post

(It is apparently Internet Law that these posts have titles of the form “Harry Potter and the [adjective] [noun]”, but that annoys me so I’m not going to do it.)
If I’m going to post about Harry Potter before the new book comes out, I guess I’d better do it now. The truth is that I’ve never been excited enough about the series to stay current with it, and am generally one or two books behind (I still haven’t read the sixth volume). I read the first four while studying at Cambridge, which was a nice combination, and found them to be enjoyable light reading, but nothing extraordinary. So I never got pulled into the cultural phenomenon, and won’t be attending any midnight release parties.
However, there has been one recurring question throughout the series that’s intrigued me, and I was pleased to find (via Brad DeLong) that someone has written a blog post about it:

One of the most contentious questions in the online world of textual interpretation (blogging, fan fiction, and the like) concerns the moral status of Severus Snape, Harry’s “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teacher. Snape is the only character whose moral status has remained unknown through the series: while this greasy-haired teacher appears on the surface to be more evil than good, by the end of the sixth book the reader is still left questioning Snape’s motives and disposition.

Now, I had actually thought (based on spoilers I heard) that this issue was settled in the sixth book, so I am pleased to learn that this is not the case. Throughout the first five books there’s mutual loathing and suspicion between Harry and Snape, and the reader is often meant to think that Snape is behind the villainy-of-the-day, but it always turns out that he’s one of the good guys. This made him one of the more interesting characters in the series, and suggested two possibilities: Rowling could be saving Snape to be a major villain later (which is what I thought had happened in book six), or she could be writing a more interesting story of redemption, in which Snape had truly left behind his dark past with Voldemort.
There’s a passage in Plato’s Republic about how the true test of morality is whether a person can be good even if everyone is convinced he’s evil. That’s the sort of position Snape’s in (if he’s actually good), and so it’s the ultimate test of his rejection of Voldemort. And as the essay I linked above mentions, it’s a point about the transparency of evil. One of the complaints raised against The Lord of the Rings when the movies came out was that good is associated with beauty and evil with ugliness—you can tell who’s evil just by looking. In Harry Potter, it’s not so easy: people you hate, even justifiably (Snape really is kind of an asshole), are not necessarily evil, and may even be on your side.
So, as should be obvious by now, I’m in the “Trust Snape” camp, and I may have to read the last two books just to find out how it goes.

6 thoughts on “Obligatory Harry Potter Post

  1. Mortaine

    It is less nebulous at the end of Book Six, except that…. well, there are mitigating factors that many readers will not catch or will ignore in the face of what appears to be overwhelming evidence against Snape.
    I’m in the “Snape is on the redemption path” camp, too.

  2. Lemming

    I’ve only been following the movies so far, but I’ve been thinking of picking up the books at some point. (I am, however, resigned to the fact that a bit of “Aeris dies” is inevitable before I catch up.)
    Snape has been one of my favorite characters from the movies so far — and that’s beyond my normal Rickman fandom. Maybe it’s this way in the books as well, but in the movie everyone feels like they’re a caricature of their own role, Snape the least so.
    On a side note, I get really tired of the constantly repreating, “Oh ho ho, we couldn’t possibly tell you before the big reveal!”
    Anyway, to weigh in on the original prediction — I expect ya’ll are right, but I’ll make a different statement. My prediction is that, whatever happens with Snape, his motivations will be more interesting than anyone else’s.

  3. Lemming

    Bah, that’s right, strikeout tags don’t work here. The “one of my” and “s” were supposed to be stricken out, leaving, “has been my favorite character”.
    Also, I’m trying to remember who told me the old truism re: RL. People have a strong tendency to gravitate up to or down to the commonly held expectations of them. Think maybe that’s something one of the good teachers involved drilled into me when I became a tutor in high school.

  4. shellock

    i will go on the record as say whatever happen snape is still an ass.
    As far as good or evil. I vote Snape will be redeem as not in leage with the death eaters. But i still think he is evil in his own rigth like a few other charecters. Rowling made a very good comment in book 5 “Wizrads are not broken into good and death eaters” He can be evil without being on Voldermorts side.

  5. Chris L-S

    It’s interesting that I’ve been seeing a lot of “pretty evil” in fiction and the like – think of the worlds of the Core and Parliament in Serenity – they were pretty and clean and controlled by a force that was utterly without conscience.
    What I really like about the Snape conundrum is the simple fact that is IS so unclear. So little fiction these days actually has that kind of ambiguity. I may actually feel disappointed to actually get an answer to the “whose side is he really on?” question.

  6. Mason

    I have thus far been watching the movies. I plan to finish those and then after some time passes start over from the beginning with the books.
    I don’t think Snape will end up being massively evil otherwise, but as to whose side is he on, it may well just be his own. He could be wearing the red robes (or be LE and be on his own side, etc.).
    At the risk of a minor spoiler, I appreciated the Raistlinesque childhood that was briefly glimpsed in movie 5.

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