Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Shameless Conformity: My Thoughts on Harry Potter, Dumbledore, Snape, and What It Means to Be "Dumbledore's Man"

With everyone making Harry Potter predictions, and since there's only a short amount of time left to do so before book seven arrives, I thought I'd add my voice to the multitudes throwing their thoughts around left and right. My opinion is no better than anyone else's, and I am not a dedicated student of Rowling's like the remarkable and Potter-prolific Baby Blue. While I love the series to death, I have only read the first five books twice and book six once. I still have problems keeping the minor characters straight and have no interest in exploring every mystery out there. But here's yet another take another take on Harry, Dumbledore, Snape, and what it means for Harry to become "Dumbledore's man."

In book 6, once we get past the opening chapter (which I wager Rowling added late in the composition of the book, since even if you cut the chapter, you still feel like you're reading the opening lines of a book in the early paragraphs of chapter 2), we get Rowling's most concise commentary on the character of Snape that we've seen in any of the books. The commentary is only two words long, and it's the chapter title: "Spinner's End." Who's the "spinner"? Snape. What is happening? He's going to stop his spinning. When does he do so? When he submits to the unbreakable vow.

This is so simple that it almost seems as if it should be rejected offhand. But Rowling's titles are always significant, and, surprisingly, I've met a good number of readers who haven't thought about that chapter title.

What does this tell us about Snape? He's been tacking back and forth for ages -- probably throughout all six books -- about which side he's on. Now, thanks to the unbreakable vow, he has decided for Voldemort. But what would have caused him to make this choice?

Here, I think, too many readers -- whatever they believe about Snape -- look too much to this chapter for the answer of why he submits to the vow. Others construct a scenario from looking at what happens near the end of the novel and then working backwards in their theorizing. Both approaches, I believe, are mistaken.

For the answer, I think we must go back to book 5. Remember that Rowling has said before that a major theme in the books is tolerance. Personally, I believe that tolerance is Rowling's second most important theme. The first is death -- or, more specifically, the idea that death is just the beginning of a new adventure (as Dumbledore says to Harry near the beginning of book 1 in what I take to be the thesis statement of the whole series). Still, tolerance is right up there.

And in book 5, we read a striking story of intolerance: of the shameful treatment that Snape received at the hands of James Potter et al. Even by bullying standards, what Snape undergoes is awful. Any incident like that can deeply wound a person for life. Such a person tends to keep such memories private, being overcome by shame. The revelation of such an incident may well anger a person. And in book 5, that incident is revealed to the son of the bully primarily responsible for Snape's shame. Snape is furious with Harry for having seen the would-be-defense-against-dark-arts-instructor's pain. And why should he not be?

Snape's woundedness, then, turns out to be the lynchpin on which the events of the plot of book 6 turns. I can only compare Snape's fury at finding out that his past has been revealed to Harry to one other scene in classic fantasy literature: the scene when Smeagol, petting Frodo, is called "a sneak" by Sam in The Lord of the Rings. It is that accusation that submerges Smeagol and allows Gollum to come to dominate the tortured creature leading Frodo and Sam into Mordor. That's when Gollum decides to take the hobbits to Shelob's lair -- an act of treachery.

Did I just make a comparison with The Lord of the Rings? There's another one in chapter 2 of book 6. At one point, Snape calls for Pettigrew, who is seen to be listening in to the conversation between Snape and his guests. For those who have read Tolkien, it's hard not to associate Pettigrew at this point -- and even earlier in the series -- with Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. Wormtongue served the evil wizard Saruman and was compared with a snake by the good wizard Gandalf. Similarly, Rowling portrays Pettigrew as a rat, beginning as far back as book 3. Now we see him as an unwilling servant to someone stronger than he is: Snape. And that means Snape is a type of Saruman. (Yes, Snape can be compared with both Saruman and Gollum. Rowling's correspondences -- or are they homages? -- are not one-to-one.)

So accepting for now the idea that Snape has, indeed, chosen evil over good (don't worry, protesters, I'll return to objections later), let's take a look at Dumbledore and the circumstances that lead up to his death. (Yes, friends, he really is dead.)

We know that Dumbledore is gravely wounded -- and arguably his death is assured -- by drinking the potion in the goblet on the island in the lake. Here comes into play much Christian symbolism. Dumbledore's drinking of the bitter, death-enhancing liquid is nothing less than an allusion to Christ drinking of the cup in the garden of Gethsemane. It is an incredibly painful ordeal that Dumbledore must pass through in order to complete his mission. And his mission, at this time in life, is to go on that next great adventure, and pass through death.

And so he arrives back at Hogwarts lame and undoubtedly dying. So when Snape sees the shockingly frail headmaster of Hogwarts, the now-defense-against-the-dark-arts teacher is looking on something ugly to behold. Dumbledore in the past had a certain regality about him most of the time, and when necessary he could be a fierce, fearsome warrior. But now he's someone undoubtedly who most people would turn away from at the sight of his marred visage. And this detail in itself echoes biblical descriptions of the messiah, Jesus Christ, who at his crucifixion, it was prophesied centuries earlier, was someone hideous to behold.

Now catch the irony here: Snape himself is someone who has been rejected by people, and who himself has not been easy to look at from time to time (as when he was the recipient of bullying). Snape had a horrible childhood, one that could have made him ineffective for life. And yet, all his life, he has been shown mercy by Dumbledore. And because of that mercy, his life has been better than what it could have been. Oh, it hasn't been easy. Our deepest wounds may take decades to heal or may not be healed in this lifetime. But certainly Dumbledore's employment of, and confidence in, him have made Snape's life easier. That confidence eventually led Dumbledore to give Snape his life dream: the defense-against-the-dark-arts position -- although at a much later time than Snape wanted.

Let's stop and remember here that all of our woundedness never eliminates our need to choose good over evil. Someone who has been abused, as Snape truly was, may garner some of our sympathy, but that sympathy never excuses (or at least never should excuse) evil actions. Snape is still responsible for the choices that he makes.

And now, on the ramparts of Hogwarts, Snape is faced with a huge choice. Dumbledore croaks, "Snape, please." What will Snape do with this moment? Will he help his employer, or harm him? There's no doubt that once part of Snape recognized and appreciated Dumbledore's mercy as much as Smeagol appreciated Frodo's mercy. But that part was buried when Snape submitted to the unbreakable vow, and now only a Gollum who wants to take revenge is left. From Gollum/Snape's point of view, Dumbledore hindered him from getting career advancement. Why didn't Dumbledore give him the position years earlier? Instead, he kept giving the job to people who couldn't stay more than a year! Surely, our Gollum/Snape thinks, he would have done a better job, and stayed to boot!

Some think that Dumbledore here is asking Snape to kill him, or that Dumbledore essentially is already dead from the potion and is asking Snape for a mercy killing. Both ideas are totally out-of-sync with the moral universe that Rowling has constructed for her characters. Death may be a great adventure, but that's not the same as saying that killing is right. Rowling never has given us any indication that killing is ever good; it's always evil. In fact, Harry's character growth at the end of book 5 involves accepting death after Sirius, the only person who has ever been like family to Harry at a heart level, has been murdered.

No, this is one time in life when the formerly strong, powerful Dumbledore is weak. The wizard who continually has shown Snape mercy is now the one asking for mercy. This is the ultimate test of Snape's character, and he fails the test. Why? Because Harry's knowledge of Snape's past drove Snape over the edge and influenced him later to take the unbreakable vow. We must assume that Dumbledore could potentially be saved from the ultimate effects of the potion, but Snape instead chooses to murder Dumbledore.

Harry, of course, is horrified and enraged, a silent and invisible witness to this crime. And so he pursues Snape as far as he can, hoping to kill Snape. But Snape gets away, though not before angrily throwing verbal missives -- and spells -- at Harry.

This is where many readers will object to my thesis. Isn't Snape essentially throwing clues at Harry as to how to defeat the dark lord? And doesn't he keep missing Harry when he easily could have killed his former student?

Maybe, but not for the reasons that others think. Yes, Snape may well have unintentionally given Harry information on how to defeat the dark lord. And he may even hold back his true firepower from Harry intentionally. But if he does do this, he does it not because he's still serving Dumbledore. Rather, he is operating out of pain -- hatred for Harry (for the reasons previously discussed) tempered by something within him that still is sensitive to the evil that he's committed. Snape is not repentant of his actions, but his conscience nonetheless is tortured by what he's done. It's instructive here to note that his strongest words to Harry are "Don't call me coward!" Snape cannot bear the thought of ever being considered such -- it is too painful for him, even though he was not courageous enough to rise above the hatred that he chose in the end.

Many readers undoubtedly will protest that this makes mincemeat of Dumbledore's confidence in Snape. But I fear that too many readers want Dumbledore to be omnipotent, always wise, etc. Rowling never intended him to be so. Instead, we see that Dumbledore has risked all on love and mercy -- and has died for it. To a limited degree, then, Dumbledore is a "Christ figure"; the details do not exactly match, but that has been true of "Christ figures" throughout literary history.

And even Snape's murder of Dumbledore does not mean that the headmaster's confidence was misplaced. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf foresaw that Gollum would have "some part to play in the end" (rough paraphrase from memory). I fully expect that Snape will, in the end, return to the good, unquestionably dying in one heroic act that will cause readers everywhere to cry. Maybe Snape will even save Harry's life.

Now we're left with one question, and the most important one of all: What does it mean, then, for Harry to be "Dumbledore's man"?

Quite simply, it means that even though he has every human reason in the world to take revenge on Snape, Harry must show mercy to the one who murdered Dumbledore. It will be the most difficult challenge that Harry has faced in his life. But if he does not show mercy, he will not be Dumbledore's man. Mercy will be the hallmark of a mature Harry Potter, and the capstone of his character development.

Let's remember here that Harry has not exactly been loving and merciful in the past. He never apologized to Snape for invading Snape's thoughts (and his apology may have moved Snape to the good side). He has run roughshod over many characters, although not to the degree that his father did. He has been arrogant and self-centered many times over. Love and mercy are not easy for Harry. He has upheld his family honor even when one family member's (his father's) sins clearly required reparations.

And just as the ring could only be thrown into Mount Doom once Sam showed mercy to Gollum, so our story cannot end for the good (and it will end for the good) until Harry shows mercy to Snape.

Some say that Harry must die in order to be Dumbledore's man, but I don't think so. Harry certainly will be faced with death, and to a greater degree than in the past. But the story will hinge on a question of mercy. That's what I expect to see in book 7. And if I'm right, we'll have more than a few eucastastrophic themes courtesy of Rowling's pen.