(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.