from Totally Fushed, October 2007
‘Always,’ Severus Snape says, as the glow of his Patronus fades out of sight, and Albus Dumbledore looks at him with teary eyes. Snape always loved Lily Potter, Harry’s mother – long after she left their friendship for a relationship with Harry’s father, long after she died at the wand of Snape’s one-time master, Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort. It was this unrequited love that made Snape what he becomes: the true, great hero of the Harry Potter books.
Key to the success of JK Rowling’s global sensation has been her characterisation; and key to her characterisation has been her refusal to paint people in black and white. Of course, the line between good and evil is clear: there is the Dark Lord versus the silver-bearded, all-kind, all-powerful God figure. But even these two archetypes have ambiguous histories, and occasions in the novels when we wonder who they truly are. One thinks of Chamber of Secrets, in which Tom Riddle is revealed as a lonely if brilliant boy, with magic as the single thing he can cling to; or one could think of the last book, Deathly Hallows, which spends much of its time plundering everything we’ve known about Dumbledore up to now. The point is that Rowling gives us people who are real, who have pasts and good things about them and bad, and whose motives she continually makes us question. In this respect, Severus Snape is the personification of the Potter series itself: JK toys with our emotions for him as often as she toys with us with her broader plot twists.
But Snape is also the embodiment of what is the ultimate theme of Rowling’s books: the power of love. Love saves, it redeems, it gives the world its colours for us. And love is an end in itself – whether it is an experience shared between people, or a feeling held only by one. Lily’s love for her son alone protects him from the Killing Curse. Voldemort’s inability to understand love as a magic greater than all his power is his undoing. Similarly, Snape’s unending love for someone who never felt the same allows him to be the best of himself. Though Snape remains profoundly unlikeable in many respects – bitter, cruel, viciously sarcastic – he is also the character who walks the finest line of sacrifice: between right-hand man to Voldemort and trusted spy for Dumbledore. Snape endures the hatred of his fellow teachers at Hogwarts, and the pain of watching a thousand terrible things happen under his hooked nose, all to be true to his love for the lady, to the best part of his soul. He goes as deep into darkness as it’s possible to go, without ever losing the light of his love.
And this is why Snape is the most remarkable hero in the Harry Potter novels. Dumbledore once told Harry that it is our choices, far more than our abilities, that define us. Though his love was also the greatest pain of his life, Snape chose to honour it, and saves everybody. Dumbledore may have been the only one You-Know-Who ever feared, and Harry may have been the only one who could ever defeat the Dark Lord. But Snape’s path was not set out by dreams of a better world or by prophecy. He just knew the meaning of ‘Always’.