Potter is to Luke as Snape is to Anakin

*I wrote this the week after I watched Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince in the theater. I didn’t post it immediately, and I can’t remember if I ever did. I don’t think I did. Well, you’ll gain insight into three things while reading this: I’m a dork, I think waaaaaaaaaay too much about things, and everything can be related to Star Wars.

I watched Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince over the weekend and I can’t judge it properly. I’ve read the last two books in the Harry Potter series, and this is the first of the films I’ve watched after reading the novel. My expectations for the film were elevated as a result. Prior to this film, I had always thought that the series had done an adequate job in telling a story written in several hundred pages in the span of two hours or so. Now, though, I’m not sure about it. I suppose you can’t really call out the differences if you don’t know what they are. And I suppose you can’t tell what’s missing if you have no idea what’s supposed to be there in the first place.

That said, this latest movie was a disappointment, I think because I couldn’t possibly be pleased after having devoured the novel. In fact, I’m worried that I’ve ruined the last two movies (the last novel split in half) for myself by reading it. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what won’t disappoint me – Emma Watson and Bonnie Wright. 

I’ve always been a fan of Alan Rickman. He’s made the best faces and uttered the best deadpan lines as a villain for a long time. Of the handful of times he’s been a hero (Galaxy Quest, Dogma), he’s been passably entertaining, but he always shines as a heartless asshole bent on stealing money (Die Hard), quashing the hopes of the general public (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), or a middle-aged man thinking about having an affair (Love Actually). That is why I am looking forward to performance in the last two Harry Potter films. I was originally drawn to the character of Severus Snape because Alan Rickman was cast to play him in the very first film of the series. After having read the last two novels, though, my interest in the character transcends the actor who plays him.

1The story (the trajectory of which closely mirrors that of Anakin Skywalker) of Severus Snape is filled with awkwardness, tragedy, internal conflict, and redemption. Throughout the series, Rowling has set up Snape as something of a know-it-all, not in the “wise ass” sense, rather as one of the more well-rounded wizards that have been introduced to the series. Despite the fact that Snape is overshadowed by the title character (an inferior wizard who bears a striking resemblance to Luke Skywalker, in that when it comes down to it, he is little more than a pawn in the grand scheme of things), Dumbledore (the greatest Wizard of his age), and the Voldemort (the Dark Lord is capable of some nasty stuff), Snape is implied to be a solid, if not masterful wizard himself.

Even now that the series has been completed, it is still unclear how skilled a wizard Snape was. To be sure, he was near the center of just about every controversy and meaningful event. If we consider Snape on his own merit and isolated from the 3 wizards mentioned above, he begins to look quite impressive. He is unparalleled in the field of potions (his old text book is essentially Potions for Dummies), he is capable of occulumency (Order of the Phoenix). He created his own spells/curses and was thoughtful enough to create the counters for them (Half-Blood Prince). He could transfigure into a bat (The Deathly Hallows). He created counter curses on the fly (pun intended) when Harry was being messed with by Quirrel during a quiddich match (Sorcerer’s Stone). In fact, it could be argued that other than Harry Potter and Tom Riddle, no other character’s wizardry has been highlighted so well as Severus Snape.

In addition to these acts, the other support for Snape’s greatness is the manner in which Dumbledore regarded him. Dumbledore was the mastermind behind every plot to foil Voldemort. Aside from himself, he had only two agents who knew (with varying degrees of access to these plans) of them and carried out specific missions for him: Harry and Snape. Let’s focus on Snape. There are at least two occasions during which Dumbledore appeared to need Snape’s expertise: when Dumbledore’s hand became cursed (Snape quarantined the curse to just the hand for as long as he could) and when Harry and Dumbledore returned from the cave with the faux horcrux. In fact, it must have been somewhat shocking for Harry when he asked if there was anything he could do and Dumbledore replied (and I’m paraphrasing) that only Snape could help him and that Harry was to summon him and speak to no one else. Of all the other professors and skilled wizards at his beck and call, Dumbledore turned to Snape, not McGonagall, even, who appeared early on to be his closest ally. In fact, the other wizards – McGonagall included – appeared to trust Snape only because Dumbledore vouched for him, which illustrates two things: how much stroke Dumbledore had and how deeply he trusted Snape. Lastly, it was Dumbledore’s original intention for the Elder Wand to fall into Snape’s hands. This planning implies the utmost trust in Snape’s dedication to their shared cause as well as Dumbledore’s instinct that Snape would actually be able to wield the powerful wand with some degree of expertise.

So yes, I believe that Severus Snape was a badass. What truly makes his character unique, though, is his ambivalence towards Harry and his involvement in the main storyline from its origin to its end. The root of those conflicting feelings goes back to his own days as a student at Hogwarts. He loved Harry’s mom (so much so that his patronus was the same as hers) and equally hated his father (there’s no way around it – James Potter was a prick to Severus Snape). It didn’t help, I’m sure, that Harry looked exactly like James with the exception of those eyes. On more than one occasion, Snape makes mention (with obvious bitterness) of the way Harry’s behavior reminds him of James’s. In the end, with his dying breath (and we’ll come back to his death later), Snape give Harry a key set of memories and commands him to look at him, that he might look into those eyes that are so much like those of the woman he bore an unrequited love for all those many years.

The meaning of those memories is clear. Snape more or less started this entire story by telling Voldemort the part of the prophecy that he overheard. He immediately regretted his actions once he found out Voldemort intended to kill the Potters, well, at Lily at least. He ran to Dumbledore and begged him to save the lives of the Potter family. In return, Snape swore his undying service to Dumbledore and his cause. As fate would have it, most of Snape’s future duties centered on teaching Harry and keeping him safe as well.

2Severus Snape is Anakin Skywalker – right up until he puts on the Darth Vader armor. Both characters were seduced by the powers of darkness. Dark magic, the dark side, dark lords, it’s all pretty similar. Their tales diverge when it comes to personal accountability. Each character hit a point where unspeakable evils had taken place as a result of their actions. For Snape, it was the death of the woman he loved. For Skywalker, it was… the death of the woman he loved. The difference, though, is that Snape chose to spend the rest of his life trying to atone for his mistake.

I’ve written about Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader at length before (when the second trilogy concluded) so I’ll be brief. Emperor Palpatine told Skywalker that he accidentally killed Padme and he flipped out. But it also assured Palpatine that his Darth Vader had nothing else to live for. So Vader followed the Emperor around the galaxy, hunted Jedi, hunted rebels, killed generals for fun and always uttered the company line “You don’t know the power of the dark side” whenever his actions were called into question. Later, though when he realizes he has a son and that he might be able to save him, well, things become a little harder for Vader. Suddenly, the company line sounds more like personal justification and delusion rather than truth. Eventually, Vader sacrifices himself to save his son and redeems himself to the point where the ghostly version of his younger self visits the Ewok party with Yoda and Obi Wan.

Snape had a choice. He could go on being a death eater since Lily was already dead (his allegiance either way wasn’t going to change that). But he chose to become a double agent. He essentially forfeited his own life. He was an outcast to both sides of the fight – no one in the “good” wizarding community other than Dumbledore really trusted him. All the former Death Eaters, incarcerated or free (Bellatrix hated him with a passion), assumed he had betrayed them. He had no friends. The person he was assigned to watch over hated his guts and he could never tell him why he had to do what he did. Both sides were waiting for him to slip the other way.

But he kept grinding it out. Even after he learned that Dumbledore was walking Harry into certain death. Even after Dumbledore died and it would have been easy to quit – who would have known? Based on his skills, he could have done anything. He could have been a great hero or one of the deadliest villains. But he made a mistake once and it cost him the woman he loved. All he did was spend the rest of his life trying to atone for it. He knew he could die at any moment. He couldn’t be certain of victory, but he kept grinding it out. That’s why I love the character of Severus Snape.

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