It is, I have noticed, not terribly uncommon among the readers of Harry Potter to characterize Severus Snape solely as a hero – on account of his arduous, painful, and extremely important work in defeating Voldemort, and James Potter as merely a lousy, no-good, jerk – on account of his teenage tendency to bully people (especially Snape). I consider this an overly simplistic take on two complex and fascinating characters.
Firstly, if by ‘hero’, you mean someone who was fighting valiantly on the good guys side – who was seeking to bring Voldemort down, taking orders from Dumbledore, working with the Order of the Phoenix, trying to protect Harry Potter, and such things, then James Potter qualifies just as well as Severus Snape. In fact, he qualifies better, since he always was on that side, and Snape switched to the ‘good side’.
But what was Severus Snape? He was wronged yes, abused yes. But he was no innocent victim. He too behaved badly as a school child. And I am not merely referring to the fact that he was clearly every bit as willing to hex James as James was to hex him. (Severus Snape invented the infamous levicorpus. I can’t help but wonder who its first victim was.) I am referring to the fact that he behaved so badly, or at least sought out the company of people who behaved so badly, that Lily, his best friend, seemed to fear that he was getting mixed up in things worse than even the hated James. “Evil, Sev.” she called it. Neither boy, not James, nor Severus, was innocent.
And then let’s fast forward a few years. Where are James and Severus, the men? Severus Snape, once Lily Evan’s close friend, is now a death eater, fighting and spying for Voldemort. It looks like Lily’s concern was justified. And James? The hated James? That stinker, that incomprehensible jerk? James is married to the Lily who once hated him.
The available evidence seems to back up this hypothesis. James’ co-partner in boy-hood crime, the wild and reckless Sirius Black, was not a bad man. He was a good man in a flawed and human way. James’ death was clearly deeply grieved by genuinely decent and good hearted people, (Hagrid and McGonagal for instance). And Harry never suspected the dark blot on his father’s boy-hood until he saw it with his own eyes, for it does not seem that his name generally carried that mark. Severus Snape apparently never saw James as anything except the bully of chapter twenty-eight/book 5 and perhaps it would be asking a lot to expect him to. But that did not seem to be the general impression that the adult James left upon everyone else.
Nor even altogether the boy James. I do not here refer to Sirius’ insistence that “lot’s of people are idiots at fifteen … he was a good person …” which seemed too much like an ashamed but affectionate party uncomfortably attempting to defend a beloved but guilty party. No, I refer to something more specific. Snape liked to scoff at it, sneer at it, pretend it was nothing. But Lily and Dumbledore did not scoff. I mean of course the unfortunate instance in which young Sirius so idiotically told Snape how to get into the Whomping Willow passage. Snape insisted to others that James was only saving his own neck. This was not true. If Snape had been killed by Sirius’ idiocy, Sirius and Remus would probably have been in trouble. But not James, because (for once) he was guiltless. And yet, he risked death at the hands of a friend, to save an enemy. He hated that boy, he was willing to abuse and humiliate him every chance he got … but he was also willing to risk his own life to protect him.
I think that part of the reason that we are left feeling Snape to be solely a hero, and James merely a jerk, is the backlash factor.
James is Harry Potter’s father … the man who everyone always compares to Harry, who died fighting Voldemort, the dead hero, the unknown but beloved father – who is abruptly revealed to have been a very flawed teen, capable of nastiness which utterly shocks his more kind-hearted son. The whole old image is dashed to pieces. We, and Harry, are horrified not just because of what he was, but because we had expected something so different. In the shock of disillusionment, it is easy to forget that the things we knew before were true too, and instead of recognizing him as a complex, flawed human being, capable of evil as well as of good, we find it easy to just reclassify him into the jerk box.
And Snape? For all of Harry’s schooling, Snape is the jerk. He hates Harry, and quickly teaches Harry to hate him. He is rude. He causes inconvenience whenever possible. He is to be avoided, because he always causes trouble. In fact, Harry’s never even sure whether he’s really trustworthy … whether he’s really a traitor and a spy or not. He hates Harry’s godfather. He hates Harry’s favourite professor. He hates Harry’s dead father. He hates Harry. He hates and hates and hates. Then he murders Dumbledore. That is it. Our mind is set. Snape, the traitor, Snape, the death-eater – how did everyone not see it all along! Then … our mental image is stood on its head. The villain we thought we knew is gone. The man we thought was only hate … is revealed to have been acting, for years, for the sake not of power but love. It is a narrow love, but love; a love for which he gave up his ambitions, worked with those he hated, and laboured long in great danger. We discover that nothing was quite as it seemed. That on that fateful night on top of the tower, it was Snape who was the wronged one; Dumbledore caused his own death, and Snape was the unhappy instrument. That so many of the things we blamed him for were done on Dumbledore’s orders. That his very brutality towards George was an accident perpetrated in an attempt to save a man that we hated him for hating. That he, Severus Snape, was the unknown helper in the forest. That protecting Harry for his mother’s sake, has been his highest priority for sixteen years.
And we are shocked. We see for the first time, his heroism, his staunch bravery, his unwavering dedication to many of the same goals as Harry. And we applaud him. We forget that his faults were real too; that he has honestly and truly been cruel to everyone for years, that his love, while deep and unshakable, is narrow, hemmed in by oceans of hatred, that even in his attempt to do good … he still did much wrong. And in our amazement, we move him out of the traitor category, into the hero category.
‘But Snape was a hero!’ you say. Well, so he was, poor man, and it would be a hard heart that could spare him no sympathy … but he was also a jerk. ‘James was a jerk!’ you continue. Regrettably and undeniably he was … but he was also a hero. My intention is not to vilify Severus Snape and praise James Potter, but to point out that the two of them are not so easily classified as is sometimes done, but are complex and multifaceted characters, with strange similarities an well as differences; both worthy of both praise and blame. Both of them were brave … and both of them were bullies. They both hated unreasonably … and they both loved deeply.