Table of contents
2. Hero types in literature
3. The illusion of Snape as an anti-hero
4. The tragic heroism of Snape’s character
J.K. Rowling is one of the most famous authors of our time and she gained this fame by writing the Harry Potter books. They are about the life of a young wizard that has to defeat the most powerful and dark wizard of all time - Lord Voldemort, as it has been said in a prophecy. And this wizard is Harry Potter. He is a student in Hogwarts, a school for wizardry and witchcraft where he learns to control his magical powers. One of his professors is Severus Snape, the poison master. From the first day on, he is unfriendly and unfair to Harry and his friends. Snape is one of the most ambiguous characters in the Harry Potter series, because it is hard to see through his actions that are contradictory most of the time. In the end, after Snape has died, it is revealed he had been on Harry’s side all along. In the wizarding world he his celebrated as a hero, because he has risked his own life and has spied for Dumbledore to help Harry. The ques- tion is - what kind of literary hero is Severus Snape?
Research already exists on this topic: In her article “Alternative Heroism for the Post- modern Age: J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series” Yiyin Laurie Lee focuses primarily on Harry Potter, but mentions Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort as different hero types in literature as well. In order to add to this research, this paper aims to examine the literary hero type of Severus Snape and claims that he is not an anti-hero as he seems to be at first sight, but a tragic hero.
2. Hero types in literature
In literature, there are several archetypes of heroes, but this paper will only attend to the anti- hero and the tragic hero as these two types are the only relevant ones for the research that is to be made.
An anti-hero is primarily characterized by the fact that he “lacks the qualities of nobility […] expected of” (Oxford A Dictionary of Media and Communication) and “usually possessed by traditional heroes” (Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms). Some of these qualities are, be- sides nobility, “fortitude, courage, honesty, and decency” (Oxford A Dictionary of Media and Communication). As courage and fortitude are closely related they will be considered together. The most extensive concept of the tragic hero in literature was made by Aristotle, so this paper refers solely to his definition and characterization of a tragic hero. The most important aspect in Aristotle’s concept is that a tragic hero “brings about his own downfall” (Taylor 269). The hero himself must be responsible for this downfall and thereby the hero’s own faults lead to his balefulness. Hence, the action that finally leads to his downfall is choice, the hero’s choice. It is about the “origin of action” (Reeves 181), not about the “final cause” of an action (Reeves 181) because one cannot choose what his actions lead to. However, the hero can choose how to act or react in different situations and by making a wrong choice that arises from the hero’s acting upon a fundamental error of judgement “in a phase of personal weakness or blindness or by a crucial mistake” (Taylor 272), he is the one who has to take responsibility for this mistake that ultimately leads to his misfortune and thereby, “he brings about his own downfall” (Taylor 269). Furthermore, in Aristotle’s concept of a tragic hero, the tragic hero is described as “a man like ourselves” (Reeves 183) who “comes across persuasively human” (Taylor 271). These character traits lead to an identification with the tragic hero and evoke pity, fear and sympathy for the hero. In the end, the tragic hero’s fate has to be “out of proportion to any mistake […]” (Curran 201). This means his misfortune has to be worse than deserved.
3. The illusion of an anti-hero
J.K. Rowling dexterously creates the illusion of Severus Snape as an anti-hero throughout the Harry Potter series. Section 2 of this paper explains the constitution of an anti-hero who is described as a character that “lacks the qualities […] expected of a traditional hero” (Oxford A Dictionary of Media and Communication), and Snape seems to perfectly match with this description. It stands to reason to argue that he is an anti-hero, because at first sight he seems to be the incarnation of that type of hero that lacks all the good qualities associated with a traditional hero. When Snape is introduced in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in particular, he is immediately characterized as unfair and verbally aggressive. In the first poison lesson, the subject Snape teaches, Neville Longbottom, a student from Gryffindor like Harry, spills a poison and Snape insults him as an “idiot boy” (Rowling 1997: 148) what shows his verbal aggressiveness. Just seconds later he takes away points from Gryffindor with the justification that Harry has not told Neville that he should not have added a special ingredient (Rowling 1997: 149). However, Harry has not even been working with him and has had no influence on what Neville has done, so Snape’s reaction is completely unfair.
In the following section, this paper will examine the main qualities associated with a traditional hero, and whether Snape possesses them to prove that he is not an anti-hero, despite his unkindliness and difficult character.
The first character trait that is to be examined is nobility. There are several occasions where Snape acts noble and the first time is also one of the most important moments, because Snape’s true motives get revealed. He saves Harry at his first Quidditch match where Prof. Quirrell, one of Voldemort’s loyal servants, tries to knock Harry off his broom by bewitching him. At first, everybody believes that it was Snape who tried to kill Harry which adds to the illusion of Snape as an anti-hero, but in the end, Quirrell reveals himself as the villain by saying
“I tried to kill you. […] I’d have managed it […] if Snape hadn’t been muttering a counter- course, trying to save you” (Rowling 1997: 311-312) to Harry. This shows that Snape secured Harry’s survival when someone else tried to kill him. And what would be more noble than that?
Another character trait Snape would have had to lack if he is an anti-hero is courage. However, Snape is one of the most courageous and probably the bravest man in the Harry Potter series. In the epilogue, Harry says to his son Severus, whom he has named after Snape, “[…] he was probably the bravest man I ever knew” (Rowling 2007: 619) and thereby imputes this quality to Snape. This statement refers primarily to the fact that Snape has spied at Volde- mort for Dumbledore and has risked his life by pretending to still be a Death Eater, one of Voldemort’s servants, to secure the survival and victory of Harry Potter. In Snape’s memories_ Harry witnesses a scene where Snape says to Dumbledore: “I have spied for you […], put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to keep Lily Potter’s son safe” (Rowling 2007: 561), and that he has “hoodwinked […] the dark lord, […] the most accom- plished legilimens1 the world has ever seen” (Rowling 2005: 23) has been an enormous risk. This does not only show how courageous Snape acts by spying on someone as powerful as Voldemort, but also his nobility. It is highly noble to risk one’s own life to secure the survival of another human being, and to be able to do something like this one has to be very brave.
Moreover, Snape is an honest man, but not the whole time and not to everybody. In order to survive he has to lie to Voldemort and to feed him with wrong information. Anyway, it is more important that he is completely honest to Dumbledore, so he tells him everything about Voldemort’s plans. In addition, as honesty is not always something good, he is also honest to his students. For example, when he insults Neville as an “idiot boy” (Rowling 1997: 148), this is far from adequate behavior, but in fact, it is true, and he is honest towards the boy, because Neville really is incapable and unskillful in poisons.
The only character trait that adds to the illusion of Snape as an anti-hero is decency, because Snape is no decent person at all. As it has been examined before, Snape insults his students, and talking to other humans like this is definitely not decent. However, an anti-hero has to lack more than only one of the qualities associated with a traditional hero, as the theory says that an anti-hero “lacks the qualities […]” (Oxford A Dictionary of Media and Communication) and the important term is that it says “qualities” and not “quality”. So, even though Snape lacks decency he is clearly no anti-hero.
4. The tragic heroism of Snape’s character
Snape’s downfall is his own death at the end of the Harry Potter series. To be coherent with Aristotle’s concept of a tragic hero, he must have brought “about his own downfall” (Taylor 269) and indeed, Snape has been the only person responsible for it. The fatal mistake he made that led to his misfortune has been to join Voldemort and the Death Eaters. As explained in section 2, this wrong choice must have had arisen from the hero’s acting upon a fundamental error of judgement “in a phase of personal weakness or blindness or by a crucial mistake” (Taylor 272). As a matter of fact, Snape has not joined them out of evil intentions or because he has believed in their racist beliefs, but because he has yawned for belongingness and appre- ciation, and this has also been the “origin of action” (Reeves 181). This wish to belong to something has two different reasons. Firstly, Snape has not had a happy childhood (Rowling 2007: 543) and moreover, he has been bullied in Hogwarts (Rowling 2007: 551). However, as a poison master he has been of great use for Voldemort and from him he has got what he has wanted. He has been part of something and appreciated for his talent. Therefore, he has made this wrong choice and has joined the Death Eaters “in a phase of personal weakness” (Taylor 272) what adds to the fact that Snape is a tragic hero. This mistake has been the fundament of Snape’s downfall and has triggered a row of events that has led to it. When he overhears a
1 A legilimens is someone who can easily access the thoughts and memories of other persons by intruding into their brain with a certain spell.