So now, post HBP, we know.
Or at any rate, by the end of HBP we knew enough to be able to make some rather more educated guesses. In point of fact, what we now knew was still heavily outweighed by what we didn’t know.
Upon the whole, I did rather better than average on this particular issue. I didn’t get it altogether right, either — but I did at least pick up on Snape’s “commoner” background, even before OotP came out, and I did also at least pose the question of whether he was really the pureblood that most of fandom was determined to paint him.
I didn’t guess that he was a literal halfblood however.
The wizarding world is a very small society. In such societies, particularly in the kind of subset of such a society which is obsessed with their bloodlines, everybody tends to be related to just about everybody else. And we saw ample evidence of that once Rowling released the Black family tapestry sketch. It should be noted that nowhere on that sketch is anyone named Prince. Or Snape.
(Or, for that matter, anyone named Dumbledore.)
Snape, if he had been a pureblood from the same general social group as Malfoy, would probably be some degree of cousin either to Lucius or Narcissa, and quite possibly both of them. However, the glimpses we got in Phoenix, and what we had seen of Snape’s conduct (his conduct, not his articulation) since the beginning of the series did not at all support the typical fanon reading of his hereditary social status within the wizarding world, i.e., that he was “Snape, of Snape Manor”, regardless of whether he was a pureblood or otherwise.
We’d had a number of suggestions in canon that Severus might be from a very different social stratum than the Malfoys. Starting all the way back in PS/SS.
Permit me to direct your attention to the end of the Gryffindor/Hufflepuff match — the game that Harry brought to a premature end after about five minutes. As soon as Snape, who had volunteered to referee that match, landed his broom we watched him spit bitterly (and publicly) upon the ground. Somehow, I cannot square that little demonstration with a wizard who was brought up according to the sort of standards of behavior to which the Malfoy brat was being held. Not unless he hadn’t yet outgrown a severe case of adolescent rebellion and was still acting out from that sort of “I’m rough, tough and baaaaad” pose. Which might serve as a very good starting point for getting a handle on Sirius Black, but does not really match up to anything else we had seen from Severus Snape, who goes in much more for buttoned-up formality under most circumstances.
A degree of formality which is not really all that much associated with the true aristocracy.
From the clues that we did get in canon, it was very difficult to make the total add up to the traditional fanon interpretation of Aristocratic!Snape. The man spits in public. This is not “couth”. And, as sharp as he does certainly appear to be, he didn’t seem to be what you could really call an “intellectual”. He was undeniably “street smart”, we now also know that he was probably “book smart” as well (despite Rowling’s last-ditch effort in DHs to retroactively paint him as terminally clueless), and he is extremely good with words, but outside of his own fields — where he is definitely, but definitely, on top of things — he doesn’t really seem to have chalked up that astronomically high an accuracy rating. (Kappas, a specifically Japanese breed of water demon are not either “more usually found in Mongolia”. He may know his Dark Arts, but he doesn’t necessarily know his Dark Creatures.) Nor do we get any impression of his having any notable appreciation for art, or literature, or any of the usual trappings of “culture”.
And his method of “scoring off” of people is not at all in the sort of drawlingly “superior” style of a Draco Malfoy, but is more pointedly snide and spiteful. We never once heard canon Snape drawl. He sneers. He purrs. He murmurs. He does not drawl. For the most part, for all his uptight mannerisms, he behaves like a churl. And for the most part is treated as one. We never saw another adult behave toward Snape in a manner which would suggest that he could claim the sort of leverage that comes from a background of wealth and privilege. This really does not add up to the chances of his being Lucius Malfoy’s second cousin on his mother’s side.
What his behavior looked and sounded most like to me was something much closer to the (Crabbe & Goyle?) hereditary “retainer” class of (almost) pureblood minion, than to that of the Lords of the Manor. Traditional minions do also come in that scrawny, shifty, clever — and vicious with it — mode, as well as in that of the more obvious muscle-bound thug. For that matter, Snape’s “thin, sallow, greasy” physical description is very much in the style of the visual tags that are not infrequently applied to this slightly rarer variety of traditional “henchman”. The “tough, wily street kid” is the usual form that this one takes in other genres, such as gangster stories. Or the thin, usually oily, sharply-dressed, but dead-eyed — fellow with the shiv, who lurks in shadows or lies in wait in the dark of the alley. (Yes, that kind of “family man”.)
• • • •
It was also extremely easy to speculate that Severus was not the first Potions expert in his family. Which may still be the case, although we’ve been given no clear indication of it, and probably never will. I thought that he might very well have come from a long line of professional Herbalists and Apothecaries. In which case there could very well be a long history of shopkeepers in his background.
Well, in that regard, I was completely wrong. His mother’s family may have been accounted as purebloods (or were they? Just because Harry assumes it doesn’t make it true), but they seem to have been complete nonentities, and they don’t appear to have been shopkeepers, either. In fact, they also don’t even seem to have lived in one of the wizarding enclaves, or even in one of the traditionally mixed wizard/Muggle villages, but in a defunct Muggle mill town.
But then, by now over half of the wizarding population probably doesn’t live in the secluded enclaves. Those are few, and small, and only seem to be actually occupied by the artisans or shopkeepers who ply their trades there. And it has begun to seem that most wizards actually live out in the world among Muggles, even if they do live separately from them, and try to associate with them as little as possible. (Which makes a complete pig’s breakfast of Rowling’s whole running joke of wizards who still have no concept of how to act or dress around Muggles.)
Which also leads us back to the matter of there being several different sorts of pureblood. We know that in every generation there are fewer of the hard-liners who refuse to opt out, and marry a Muggle-born or choose a partner of mixed ancestry, instead remaining determined to intermarry within the same ever-narrowing range of families that they still regard as being “eligible”, or to remain unwed.
With potentially rather nasty consequences to the mental or emotional stability and general dispositions of their offspring. From what we have seen of the conduct of the portrait of the late Madam Black and her niece Bellatrix, it would appear that the Blacks are no small distance down the same road that ended in the hovel of the Gaunts. This sort of thing is probably more prevalent the higher you climb up the social ladder into the more exclusive ranks of society. The operative term being “exclusive”, which is to say that what they are all “about” is excluding as many people as they can find an excuse to.
But the majority of the remaining purebloods we meet seem more on the order of the Weasleys. Commonplace families whose pureblood distinction seems almost an accident. Some of these families could probably trace a fair amount of their descent from Muggle-born or halfblood wizards who were discovered and educated and recruited into the wizarding world before the act of wizarding seclusion was adopted, at least if you go back far enough. Rowling has admitted that after some probably arbitrary number of generations such wizards’ descendants are no longer regarded as halfbloods, but as purebloods.
And various branches of even known pureblooded families probably have not remained pureblood throughout the whole of their history, but have periodically lost and then regained this distinction, after the typical 2–4 generations following the last recorded marriage outside to a Muggle, Muggle-born, or halfblood.
• • • •
Which brings us to the Princes.
Do we even know for sure that they were purebloods?
No. We really don’t.
Harry assumes it — because at that point in the story arc he was determined to draw a straight line between Snape and Voldemort, regardless. But just how high has Harry’s accuracy rating been so far? Particularly whenever it applies to Snape.
I’m talking about the story as it stood in the course of the first 6 books, before his “hero’s intuition” had him falling backwards into the correct solution by apparently divine guidance all through the course of DHs, you know. Prior to that, his accuracy rating really wasn’t all that good.
Indeed, if that silly Half-Blood Prince psuedo-subplot of the book bearing his name is anything to go by, the whole point seems to have been to underscore the fact that when the subject is Snape, Harry never gets it right.
And, y’know; I don’t get the impression that — even obsessed by blood purity as some factions within it seem to be — the wizarding world has ever been obsessed enough to have ever taken the trouble to delineate all the different possible degrees of mixed blood in the way that the American south applied way too much time and effort into delineating the different degrees of “color”. “Halfblood” may equate directly to mulatto fairly smoothly, but I doubt that the wizarding world has any specifically descriptive term equivalent to quadroon, or octoroon or all the rest of that particular catalogue.
But, then, of course, halfblood wizards are not regarded as property.
If Harry — who is accounted a halfblood — were to say; “Enough of the wizarding world”, and then leave, marry a nice Muggle girl and produce some magical children, those children would also be regarded as halfbloods, not one-quarter bloods.
While we are at it, I’m not convinced that if Hermione Granger were to get fed up with the wizarding world and do the same, that her children would not be counted halfbloods as well, since their mother is a witch.
It is not impossible that the whole “Half-Blood Prince” moniker was flying a jeering flag that all of the “Princes” are halfbloods. It’s the sort of jeering humor that Snape might well have adopted. But we can’t count on it. We can’t count on anything to do with the “Half-Blood Prince”. We haven’t been given the punch line of that particular joke.
And in fact, we never were given that particular punch line. There was no punch line.
• • • •
Still, I have been saying for years, that the Acts of Enclosure which forced the commons off the land by the thousands, and into the towns and factories could have resulted an upsurge in the births of Muggle-born magical children, as people from districts which shared, in common, an incomplete set of magical traits paired off with people from other districts whose own incomplete set had all the missing bits. Nothing in canon supports Rowling’s assumption that the ability to channel magic is determined by a single gene. Indeed, everything we’re shown flatly contradicts it.
However, I’m no longer sure that the genetics of this hypothesis even still works, but given that we now know that human DNA provides no shortage of places for additional genetic code material to stow away, it might. If nothing else, a higher population density assures that there would be more people in an area who will be carrying the Squib factor, but as soon as that fails to be passed on you’ll get a “Muggle-born” wizard.
The simplest interpretation is that both of the elder Princes originally descended from the Muggle-born magical children of 19th century mill workers. Probably from the period of 1815–1830 or thereabouts. Possibly making them a part of the first crop of Muggle-borns to have been identified by the Hogwarts quill when it went into service. (Which I reckon as having been about 1820 or thereabouts.)
Their original Muggle-born magical forbearers may or may not have married someone who was some distance further from Muggle-born roots, but their descendants managed to do so, to the point that by the time of Eileen’s birth — which was probably, but not certainly, some time in the late 1930s — she and perhaps even her parents were far enough removed from the original mill workers to be accounted as purebloods. But it isn’t by any means certain. And the family appears to have continued to be employed in or around the mill despite the fact that they were wizards and witches. At least until the mill closed.
Or just possibly, not. There is, after all, that house in Spinner’s End to consider.
I was absolutely convinced that the house in Spinner’s End was originaly the Prince house. For that matter, given Rowling’s reluctance to depict anyone of any age in the Potterverse as still possessing living grandparents it still could be.
But whoever originally aquired that house remained in the district, and ultimately purchased it. Which presents us with an additional cultural/historical factor to have to juggle.
That terraced house in which Snape lived is fairly overtly described as having been what was once “worker housing”, built to house the mill’s workers, and only the mill’s workers, and their families (who pretty much were also expected to work at the mill, in return for the privilege of being housed). It wouldn’t have been privately owned. Such developments were usually a part of the mill’s assets, the rents being an additional part of the mill’s income. And such houses were only sold off to the tenants (or anyone who was prepared to buy them, really) after the mill would have closed and the company’s assets liquidated. The house appears to be a classic 2-up, 2-down, back-to-back terraced house, opening directly to the street at the front, with a privy and a wash house in a small yard in back. But most of such housing was only sold off during the 1930s–1950s, when the mills were closing all over Britain. Whoever next owned it would have only acquired it then, which is to say, between the time that Eileen would have been a child, up to the period that she and Tobias would have been setting up housekeeping.
This being the case, there is no reason to automatically assume that anyone in either the Snape or the Prince families had actually worked at the mill since well before WWI (if the Potterverse had one. I am no longer convinced it did. Two Muggle world wars 20 years apart aren’t at all compatible with the Grindelwald arc as we now have it).
We do not know for certain whether that house was originally owned by Snape’s own parents or if was the home of his grandparents (on either side), but up to the time DHs came out, I would have said the smart money was on it being his grandparents’ house. His maternal grandparents, that is. If Tobias Snape ever lived there he hadn’t done so for a long time by the time we got a glimpse of it.
But it had pretty clearly been lived in by wizards for quite some time. Severus Snape finished school in 1978, He had returned to Hogwarts as a teacher by 1981, and was living on campus for 10 months of the year after that. “Extreme” theorizing aside, there is no overt reason in canon to assume that both of his parents were dead by the time he finished school, or even now, although we have not been given any reason to meet them, and they certainly are no longer at Spinner’s End. Post-HBP I suspected that he may have been effectively orphaned before he started Hogwarts. As to that, we still do not know one way or the other as to just how or when he lost or misplaced his parents.
Still, there is little to convince us that the current internal arrangements of the house must necessarily have been made by Severus Snape himself in a series of summer projects, rather than some years earlier by his mother. Or even decades earlier by the Princes.
A fan who was at the time going by the name of June Diamanti (later Zoepaleologa) made a very entertaining post on her Lj concerning the possible whereabouts of Spinner’s End, concluding that it was most likely to be in Yorkshire, and roughly based upon Halifax or Hudderfield. You may read the post and the discussion following here:
She makes a good argument, but there is no solid confirmation of it either in the books or in any of Rowling’s statements.
But, by the time DHs was pending release, it had finally occurred to me that if Rowling really intended to tie everything up in a big shiny bow, that mill town would probably turn out to be Great Hangleton. And the original owners of that long-defunct mill, the Riddles.
Tom may have put countless Muggles out of work when the mill closed.
Of course the mill may well have already closed before the murders. Mill closures started a good deal earlier than the summer of ’42. With the Depression in the ’30s, I think. And they continued on all the way up through the ’60s. There were once a lot of mills, all over Britain.
(ETA: Rowling has allegedly since identified the name of the town as Cokeworth.)
The relevant issue would, as I say, be the worker housing. As stated above, those terraced houses were usually only sold off after a mill finally closed. If the mill really was closed around 1943-1950, Eileen might have only just started Hogwarts, and her parents may have taken the house merely because it was available. As wizards, they took no interest in the status of the mill.
And they may have regretted it later, since the move threw their daughter in the way of Tobias Snape.
• • • •
A brief side note here: I am reasonably certain that there is actually not a single word in the official printed canon which would establish either that the Princes were purebloods, or that they disowned their daughter for marrying Tobias Snape. The Princes are not the Blacks.
Both of those assumptions are fanon, not canon. I’m sure they wouldn’t have been happy about it. But someone sent that marriage announcement to the Prophet. I don’t see EIleen doing that herself if she was planning to leave the wizarding world behind.
• • • •
My own observation is that while the fabric of the house is purest Muggle, the internal modifications are clearly wizard. A total lack of electric fixtures (which wizards wouldn’t have bothered to add), and a sitting room completely lined with books, apart from one small window and the entry door (and maybe even the entry door is covered with bookshelves on the inside)? That’s a wizarding setup. No question. And I doubted that this has simply been “Severus’s summer project” for the last 15–18 years, although I dare say he has added any number of books to the current collection.
Consider: Muggles wouldn’t be able to completely cover their doors with bookshelves. Not even if they wanted to. The extra weight load would have had them off their hinges in no time. Plus you need the extra clearance for the — now effectively 5-8 inch thick — door to swing, in either direction, so you couldn’t have fit a door into an apparently unbroken wall of books, regardless of whether it opens in or out. There would have to be at least a couple of inches clearance at the free edge. And more than that on the hinge edge if the door opened into the room. Not to mention the doorknob. (Indeed, there appears to be no doorknob. One must open the door with a spell.) Covering a functional door with bookshelves would involve the use of wizarding space.
There is clearly some sort of magical arrangement to those “concealed” doors, and you will notice that when Snape actually opens one of them he does it with his wand. They were originally perfectly normal Muggle doors to normal Muggle rooms. But they certainly aren’t anything of the sort now. And the fact that there is still no sign of the house having ever been fitted with electricity despite the fact that it was now 1996, and if Tobias Snape stuck around, he would have been living there from at least the 1960s to the end of his life, suggests that either he did not stick around, or this was never his house in the first place.
And Rowling’s attempt to claim that he at least lived there to the early 1970s, when Severus started Hogwarts, is a weak one. Yes it is possible that the Snapes had still not laid on electricity by then. Quite a lot of working class people didn’t until they’d owned those houses for quite a while (and landlords might not have done so for as long as they could still rent the place without doing so). But it would have eventually come to pass that Tobias would have scraped the money together and insisted. That is, if he actually lived there.
The house probably wouldn’t have had electricity laid on in the ’40s or ’50s, and a severe recession hit industrial areas later in the ’70s which might conceivably have delayed any such conversion further, but a mid-century Muggle would have hardly continued to make do without electricity for the better part of 40 years in a Muggle town.
And even though Snape himself might very well not choose to pay to have his electricity reconnected for his 2-month stay over the summer, if the house had ever been fitted with electricity there would now be electric fixtures and switches visible in it. And there aren’t.
• • • •
Which brings us to Tobias Snape. Muggle.
With the image of that intimidating, hook-nosed man and the cowering woman to fuel them, in the interval between books 5 & 6, we saw a lot of fanfics featuring Severus Snape’s abusive father and his poor terrorized and browbeaten mother. Now that we know that Tobias Snape was actually a Muggle, the question has been generally raised as to why a witch would put up with such treatment. Especially from a Muggle.
Despite the fact that the well-known dynamics of domestic abuse can make such a question irrelevant, the snippet we were given in OotP is no real reason to absolutely conclude that the household was chronically abusive. This was only one memory. The situation may have been memorable specifically because it was atypical.
Of course, during that interval there was also a fairly large segment of fandom which had rejected that image from the get-go, postulating that the bullying hook-nosed man of Snape’s early memory was not Snape’s father, but one of his other relatives. This viewpoint got a great deal of amplification after the revelations of HBP, chiefly because of the question above of why would a witch let herself be bullied by a Muggle?
I have to confess to feeling a bit cross with JK Rowling. With that image of the shouting hook-nosed man she appears to have tap-danced past us with an “idiot plot” device which seems to have been completely unnecessary. It also has the feel of a manufactured clue which has been stripped of the information which it is supposed to be a clue *to*.
Consider: the memory itself is very brief, just a flash, really. Scarcely long enough to do more than to take in the situation and get a glimpse of what the people look like.
And yet Harry does not register that the man is dressed as a Muggle?
Convincingly dressed as a Muggle?
How many wizards has Harry met that can pull that trick off?
Just how dense is he?
Well, obviously, from a meta standpoint Rowling cannot let Harry notice the Muggle clothing and get the clue that such an observation would provide, because that would ruin the psuedo-bombshell she has planned for the next book. Even though the bombshell of Snape being a halfblood appears to have no real impact upon the book in which she deployed it until the story was effectively over. Or even then, apart from justifying her choice of a title.
So why does she show Harry the hook-nosed man at all? Why not show little Severus weeping in his room with the sounds of shouting coming from beyond the door? It would give the same impression of an unhappy household without deliberately falsifying the evidence.
Were we going to meet Tobias Snape in book seven? So Harry needed to be able to recognize him? (ETA: not a chance.)
Or was the man somebody else altogether?
Careless writing, evidently. Nothing regarding this issue was ever given any kind of a follow up. Even in that gawd-awful ‘The Prince’s Tale’ chapter of DHs we never got another glimpse of Tobias Snape.
• • • •
And also, along about this point in the continuing debate I know I was only one of many who raised a general call for a reality check. We did not see the hook-nosed man striking the woman. We saw him shouting at her. And she appeared to be cowering in fear.
Well, she may have been. He was certainly pitching a fit, and there was a very real possibility that he might hit her, even if he didn’t make a habit of it.
But, what if he had a very good reason to shout? And what if she was not cowering in fear so much as cringing from guilt?
What if she had married him without ever telling him that she was a witch?
Apparently thanks to the Ministry’s insistence on never letting Muggles know that magic exists, most witches who get involved with Muggles do not fill their Muggle intendeds in on that little detail, you know. In fact, to all appearances none of them seem to. We’ve already heard of two others who didn’t in the series so far. And from Rowling’s official site we know of at least one wizard who never told his Muggle partner the truth either. And, we’ve never met one either in or out of canon who did tell their partner beforehand. Nondisclosure seems to be the most common (Ministry approved) practice.
What if Tobias only found it out when one of young Severus’s breakthroughs of accidental magic happened when he was around to witness it?
Now, I’d say that a bit of shouting would have been a perfectly excusable response, under those circumstances. However unpleasant that might be for anyone in range of it.
And for little Severus to be weeping in a corner would also be understandable, given that it was something he did that had provoked this scary performance.
That also could have been the last time Severus ever saw his father.
In fact, I thought it probably was.
• • • •
In that regard at any rate, apparently I was wrong. Acto ‘The Prince’s Tale’ Tobias Snape stuck around at least until his son was 9 or 10.
He seems to have taken absolutely no interest in the boy, however. Not even to the point of caring that his kid was out wandering the streets dressed like a freak.
I really do think that Rowling’s premise in this regard requires either more thought or more explanation than she gave it. We would have had a much higher degree of verisimilitude from that direction had Severus’s father not stuck around.
And that would have even been a sketch more to her usual pattern, as well. The leitmotif of absent fathers was already well established by book 5.
In fact, that would certainly have fit the whole established pattern in this series much more closely than a Muggle father settling down and getting over it, the way Mr Finnegan did.
In which case, had Tobias walked out, Eileen would have either soldiered on alone, probably with little time for her son, or packed little Severus and herself up and returned to her parents’ home.
• • • •
That was one of the starting points of my exercise in “extreme theorizing” which is explored in the essay entitled ‘The View from the Martian Canals’. But I will not go deeply into it here. That theory was constructed around the edges of the things that we rather pointedly did not have in canon by the end of HBP.
A number of fans contend that no one with Snape’s nasty disposition can have gotten that way except by being raised in an abusive household. At least an emotionally and verbally abusive one.
And to be sure, we did get a few more glimpses of Snape’s youth and childhood by the end of HBP, and none of them were pleasant. But there was nothing else in any of them to suggest an abusive father. Or, indeed, any kind of a father.
And given that the only other glimpse we’d been given of Eileen, (plain and sullen and cross even when being written up in the newspaper as the Captain of the gobstones team) there was at least some circumstantial support for the suggestion that the unhappy household that produced Snape was in fact the Prince household. Even if the only Prince left in that household by then was Eileen.
And in fact I still am inclined to think so.
Rowling certainly didn’t manage to convince me otherwise.
• • • •
Which brings me to a slight digression regarding Rowling and the raising of her audience’s expectations. In the wake of DHs, it appeared that Ms Rowling might actually regard the construction of her series as a sort of game which she is playing with her readers. For she made a conspicuous practice of laying out possible clues and flagging them as significant — when later it becomes abundantly obvious that she had no intention of ever referring back to any of them again. The whole modus operandi reeks of bait-and-switch.
This is not strewing red herrings across the readers’ path. Red herrings lead you somewhere, even though it usually turns out to be a blind alley.
All of these threads ultimately led us nowhere: the Potions book? the Veil? the locked room? hell, the complete reversal of an entire established 5-books worth of the account of Voldemort’s first rise being completely up-ended by the “official” Riddle backstory — which she then totally dismissed in turn, and went back to the original version which she had already disallowed in the very next book. Where was the ultimate payoff for these devices? All of them were flagged as “important” in their presentation. Yet they all turned out to be no more than set dressing. Disposable set-dressing, at that. Use once and discard. Even the official Riddle backstory devolves into nothing more than a piece of shameless padding serving no purpose whatsoever, until she could wrestle it around, sweep it aside and reveal the existence of the Horcruxes. She might just as well have merely been tossing us something to keep us occupied until she got around to writing out the next book.
By this time, I rather suspect she was.
More to the point, she established patterns, and then once the reader had registered them, was aware of them, and was looking for them, she abandoned them and went and did something else. “Ha ha! Fooled you!”
Well, that is certainly within her rights, but she appears to have done it without regard to whether it made for better or a more plausible story, and regardless also of what effect it would have upon the structure of the series as a whole. Or the matter of how quickly we were going to reach a point where we simply stopped believing her.
And this isn’t what she had always done. Any number of times in the first 3–4 books such a pattern would usually come back to bite us.
• • • •
But with HBP she started blatantly breaking patterns. Established patterns.
After 5 books, over the course of which she had appeared incapable of depicting parents who did not love their own children — however they may have felt about other peoples’ children, and regardless of how poor a job they may have been doing at raising theirs — she suddenly introduced us to the Gaunts.
That was a nasty shock.
Of course by doing so she completely blunted the impact of her insistence that the whole problem of Tom Riddle was that he loved no one and that no one had ever loved him. Implying that this was because he did not have parents of his own and was raised in an orphanage. After all, Harry is all right, isn’t he? And he only had his parents for some 15 months.
Well, perhaps this could be the case, but that possibility distracted us from the dungbomb that Rowling smuggled in under her cloak in that by the time we encountered her, Merope Gaunt appears to have been every bit as unloved as her son ever was.
Of course we don’t know at what age she lost her mother, either.
The whole tragedy of Merope Gaunt is a nasty, ugly, cruel little ditty played off in a side hall in the middle of the symphony of Albus Dumbledore, or as the prelude to the overture of Harry Potter. In fact we are now expected to understand that it was the overture to the grand opera that was Tom Riddle.
And, as in the work of a great many composers, various themes get replayed at crucial moments in the finished work. That particular one certainly was.
Go and reread ‘The Prince’s Tale’.
It’s the SAME bloody story.
It’s the story of Merope Gaunt, “lite”. (“Lite” because Severus didn’t do anything to coerce Lily, he just called her an ugly name and she dumped him.)
Harry was drawing his straight line between Snape and the wrong Riddle.
And regardless of any mendacious claptrap Rowling may decide to hand us off-canon about how Lily “might” have one day loved Snape if he had only renounced the Dark Arts, any suggestion along those lines — even from the author — is a total crock.
That association was never going to end any other way than it did.
Rowling’s equally mendacious claptrap about how, yes, Snape was loved — “which makes even him more culpable than Voldemort”, is another crock. He certainly was never loved by Lily Evans, and if he was ever loved by his parents, they seem to have got over it rather quickly. We certainly saw none of it.
And the melody is just as nasty, ugly and cruel as it was the first time we heard it
• • • •
I’ve said for years that once you see something happen in this series it is exponentially more than likely to happen again.
Even the things you really wish wouldn’t.
Merope ought to have served us as a dire warning. She turns out to have been a veritable canary in a coal mine. Somehow once it finally clicks, it throws the whole Lily/James issue into context. Particularly when you factor in Rowling’s smug insistence over young Snape’s “greedy” regard. (Ghod forbid that a child who is starved for some, hell, any kind of human contact should have the gall to appear hungry — unless of course he is also handsome!) I feel sure Rowling would have described poor Merope’s longing looks after Tom Riddle Sr in exactly the same insulting tones.
And if the parallel is as tight as I think it was, Snape didn’t truly love Lily, he worshiped her*. He never thought of her as his equal.
And, apparently, neither did she. She permitted his devotion for just as long as it suited her, and then brushed him off, and never looked back any more than Tom Sr did.
I now wonder whether perhaps Slughorn’s sorrowful statements regarding the power of obsessive love may have been on the order of a coal mine canary as well. He may or may not have taught Merope, and eventually learned the end of her story. But he certainly taught Snape. And Lily. And he’d have had to watch them show up at Hogwarts together, and he’d seen the whole thing play out to its end under his nose. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
Perhaps it’s no wonder he never let out even a peep of that association to Harry.
[* It was Swythyv who made an observation which offers an alternate reading. Although the resulting interpretation is just as tragic, it is, perhaps, not quite so vile. I tend to be allergic to Arthurian themes, so the reference had passed right over my head. She pointed out to me that Snape’s devotion to Lily was a perfect textbook illustration of the medieval concept of the “courtly love” so beloved of troubadours back around the 12th–15th centuries. This was a form of love which was never designed to be consummated. Instead a Knight vowed to serve one Lady in “domnei” and to take her as his inspiration of all that was worthy. Under this interpretation the Pensieve junket was the horrible day in which Snape — a decidedly ill-made Knight — yielded to temptation, denied his Lady, and insulted her name. His eternal penance, even unto death is perfectly in keeping with this particular tradition. Of course it recasts Lily into a sort of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, but that’s pretty traditional, too.]
• • • •
But back at that point in the series there wasn’t anything to point in one direction over the other. It was entirely possible to speculate that Tobias and Eileen may have made up their differences, and could now be living quite comfortably in one of the other terraced houses a couple of streets over, while their son camps out over the summer in his grandparents’ old place, that he inherited from them, and came over for dinner twice a week.
There is no question but that for a working class boy from a mill town, to marry a witch can maximize your standard of living. For that matter, when the recession hit Industrial Britain in the ’70s, when Severus was at Hogwarts, Tobias Snape may very well have found himself unemployed, on the dole, and such magical maximization could have made a real difference between reasonable comfort and mere survival. Severus may simply have later inherited his Prince grandparents’ house and lived there in the summers in order to avoid having to fit his own comings and goings into a very small house with his own parents as a grown man who is pushing 40.
But I tended to doubt it. Although Eileen could yet have turned out to be alive and have a flat of her own elsewhere. (She wouldn’t be much older than 60.) The probability is still greatest that everyone in the Potterverse who doesn’t happen to live with their parents is not necessarily an orphan. Although it sure doesn’t look much like it from this end of the series.
There was always a good deal of reason to suppose that Snape had grown up in the house in Spinners’ End. Or at the very least had spent a great deal of his childhood there. Rowling informs us (although why we should believe her I don’t know. Ghod knows she’s reversed herself often enough by now) that it is only the actual Muggle-born students who are typically sent to Muggle primary schools. Wizarding families educate their children at home, largely for security reasons.
Snape allegedly turned up at Hogwarts at the beginning of his first year rather better educated, magically, than most of his peers (to put it mildly). Although how that claim is supposed to jibe with the parental neglect on display in ‘The Prince’s Tale’ I don’t know. I thought after HBP that it may well have been his grandparents who saw to his early education. Given the economic situation of a defunct mill town in the ’60s, Eileen may have needed to take a job, herself, even if Tobias had stuck around. Particularly if her husband had lost his job, leaving her to take over as breadwinner. And the necessity of her finding some form of employment would be practically a certainty if she had been abandoned by her husband and had returned to her parents’ house.
In the first case young Severus might well have been packed off to his grandparents’ house in the morning, returning to his own home with his mother when she went off shift. And, upon the whole, either one of these possibilities seemed a more likely reading than that she had raised him on her own, on the dole.
I’m not of the opinion that Rowling’s version is any kind of an improvement, because it leaves far too many of our original questions unanswered, raises a whole raft of new ones, and does not altogether account for what she had already told us some books earlier. Although it really isn’t that broadly different in every particular.
• • • •
In any case, the issue raised here that seems to be clearest is that Snape, unlike Tom Riddle or Harry Potter, was wizarding-raised, for the most part. Even if the wizards who raised him were living incognito out among Muggles, in a predominantly Muggle town, well away from others of their own kind. He was brought up understanding wizarding practices and wizarding culture, and by the time he boarded the Hogwarts Express, there was probably nothing in any of his speech or manner to tip anyone off to the fact that he was a halfblood.
Just that he was a common little prole, probably complete with a working-class, regional accent. Which he soon learned to suppress, adopting the speech and mannerisms of the children from better-connected families, of which there was no shortage in Slytherin House.
All of which undoubtedly did him few favors in he eyes of the likes of James Potter and Sirius Black who, already being at the top of the social tree, despised him for his refusal to remain at the bottom. Social-climbers rarely gain the approval of those on the level that they aspire to.
Regarding the “good Professor’s” character; back before we had the whole series to examine, it had seemed possible that within the parameters of my own interpretation of Dark vs. Light magic, there might be a faint chance that Severus Snape could have sustained some faint degree of psychic, or to be more accurate, perceptual damage from unadvisedly early, and inadequately supervised experiments with chaotic magic aka: the Dark Arts. But such an extrapolation is in excess of the requirements, particularly given that the sort of uncontrolled breakthroughs of accidental magic experienced by nearly all magical children are chaotic in nature, anyway. What, from our glimpse into the Pensieve, and later confirmed by Rowling in a far more extensive trip into the Pensieve, seems likely is that what young Severus Snape was starting off with was a poorly-socialized base, to begin with.
We have no data to confirm any supposition that he attended primary school with Lily Evans. Indeed, despite the fact that they were almost exactly the same age, it was Petunia who pointed out who he was. By that time Lily would have been attending school for some 3–4 years already. Indeed, turning the whole issue around and looking at it from another direction, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that nosey Petunia was so high-handed and scornful about identifying him as “that Snape boy” might well have been because the “Snape boy” was known to not be in school. And if he was not in school, then it was assumed that there was something wrong with him. I think that Snape and Lily’s only point of contact was in that playground. He was educated at home, perhaps largly self-educated. He had probably never had to deal with other people his own age until he screwed up his courage to approach Lily Evans in the playground. And we saw about how well that went.
It is not difficult to postulate an intelligent and under-supervised child with access to an extensive library doing some early perceptual damage to himself unwarily. And it certainly does appear that young Snape may have had access to a reasonably extensive arcane library, as well as a somewhat skewed outlook on the world. Although he may have gotten that from his parents. Or, possibly, his grandparents.
Such perceptual damage does not require a library, of course, nor is it necessary for the purposes of interpretation. Precocious magical development and a lack of proper supervision is all that would be required.
Tom Riddle certainly had no access to such a library, and doesn’t appear to have needed one. Nor for that matter did Lily Evans, whose willingness to “use” friends until she made higher status ones is certainly no indication of a warm heart. In fact, from everything we’ve been told in canon so far, if there is anyone else we’ve met who might have sustained some degree of this kind of perceptual damage — whether or not through a history of incidents involving precocious, wandless magic — one of our best candidates is probably Fred Weasley. Possibly George as well. I rather doubt that anyone outside their charmed circle of two ever really quite registered as “real” people to the Weasley twins. They certainly do not treat other people as if they considered them to be “real”.
Severus does certainly appear to qualify as a candidate for this style of maladjustment. His level of mental discipline and strength of will could argue against the likelihood of his being much drawn into chaotic hallucinations, however. Or not on an habitual basis. Such damage in very young children while probably not unknown would remain decidedly rare. And once they undertake proper instruction in modern wizardry, it probably does not usually progress further.
• • • •
And, before the opportunity gets away from us, about that Potions book:
Yes. Again. During the interval after HBP it seemed likely that that potions book was going to drive us all crazy before the series was over. After HBP lot of fans mounted a concerted effort to prove that the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions text had been Snape’s mother’s book originally. In retrospect it isn’t particularly clear what they expected to solve by that.
It’s not impossible. If Eileen was the sort to take care of her books (and all of the writing in that book was his — and how the kids managed to not recognize it when they’d been in his classroom for the past 5 years is another example of an “idiot plot” device) he could have taken to school it with him as a hand-down. And he almost certainly had it with him before 6th year, since some of the spell notes in the margins were for spells which we were told outright to have been deployed at some point in his 5th year.
But he could have also saved up his pocket money and bought it used himself 2–3 years before he needed it for class, during an annual trip to purchase his required school supplies. He would not have been the first student with a favorite subject who wanted a copy of a more advanced text. Particularly if Eileen did not take NEWT-level Potions herself and had no book of her own to hand down to him. We certainly were never told whether Hermione ever found out anything further regarding Eileen Prince and Potions awards, although that was the first place she claimed she intended to check.
But if it was indeed originally Eileen’s book then that would clarify at least one detail. She would not have been at Hogwarts with Riddle’s cohort. Their time may have very briefly overlapped, but they were not contemporaries, and she would have been far too young (and a girl, besides) to have been considered “interesting” to him. She was also a nobody even if it turns out that she was a pureblood, and he wouldn’t have regarded her as collectable. We also don’t even know that she was a Slytherin. My guess would have been Ravenclaw, frankly. Although Severus’s determination to be Sorted into Slytherin does at least suggest a family association with the House.
(James Potter’s disparagement of the House seems excessively rude considering that by the time DHs had been released, we had concluded from the Black Family Tapestry sketch that his own mother was probably a Black — a family which had virtually always Sorted into Slytherin, even if his father had been in Gryffindor. Rowlings abrupt invention of a different pair of Potters to be James’s parents as I am told is posted on Pottermore, long after the closing of canon does not invalidate anything actually written in the books, neither does it invalidate speculations by fans based upon data which we were given to reason from while the series was actually in progress.)
Harry followed Remus’s suggestion and checked the “publication date” on the night of Christmas Eve, 1996, and found that the book was “almost” 50 years old (we will assume that Rowling meant the date of that edition’s printing, otherwise we lose any kind of meaningful context). Or, in other words, it would not have been not published before around 1947, and probably more like 1948–’49. As we know, Tom Riddle finished Hogwarts with the class of ’45.
IF the book was printed in ’47, which is the very earliest it might have been sold. It would not have been available to students until the academic year of 1947-’48.
IF the book was Slughorn’s specified text for 6th year NEWT-level Potions from the time of its first printing, and was not used before 6th year, then if Eileen purchased it for 6th year Potions class in the summer of 1947, she would have finished Hogwarts in the class of 1949. Four years behind Riddle. i.e., The year that he opened the Chamber of Secrets would have been her first year at Hogwarts. If the book was dated much later than 1947, she could have missed him entirely.
But, since Severus Snape was (acto DHs) not born until January of 1960, Eileen could have finished school in any year up to 1958 easily enough. Taking this school-leaving date as a starting point, Eileen could have been born anytime between the Autumn of 1930 and the early part of 1940.
But the book might not have been hers, after all.
And I wouldn’t necessarily count upon her having married directly out of school, either. But since the glimpse of the shouting man and the cowering woman did not identify them as old, middle-aged or notably young, they probably looked around 30. The impression we get is that Severus might have been around 3–5, which would mean that the glimpse we got was probably sometime in the early to middle 1960s, so the dates above all still fit.
• • • •
It is also easy to hypothesize a Prince family history of perfectly legitimate involvement in the Dark Arts to underlay Snape’s long-standing interest in and early familiarity with them. After all, the Dark Arts are not illegal.
There is at least a bit to suggest that, as a Hogwarts professor, Snape’s personal standing was, until the end of HBP, very much in the middle of wizarding society, both socially and economically. Potion brewing is not likely to be an inexpensive discipline considering its requirement of maintaining a broad range of physical equipment and its steady demand for consumable supplies, and I am sure that he maintained his own personal equipment and supplies as well as using those provided by the school.
He also appears to direct more than a passing interest in the cut and presumably the quality of his clothing and personal effects. (Reminding me forcibly of “My Father, the Clotheshorse”.) Snape’s robes may or may not come straight off the ready-made rack, rather than being custom tailored (I suspect that manual customizing is rare in the ww, magical alterations being so much simpler and widely available), and they may not be of the highest possible quality materials, however well he may wear them. These are work robes, after all, but we have yet to be told anything of such matters, and I doubt that we ever will be. Without knowing just how well the teachers at Hogwarts are paid (according to Slughorn, not lavishly, but Sluggy has expensive tastes) we cannot really postulate whether Snape was living up to the last knut of his salary, doing just fine and putting something aside for his old age, or supplementing his salary with private income from unidentified sources. And it is unlikely that Rowling will ever decide to take us there. But the fact remains that socially at least, teaching is inarguably a “profession” rather than merely a “job”.
Another major issue which is still completely unclear in canon is just to what extent Professor Snape may share the typical Death Eater attitude toward wizards and witches from Muggle families or those of mixed ancestry. The fact that the term “mudblood” was never heard to pass his lips until OotP, and then only during an incident which took place some 20 years earlier, under what must be admitted to have been circumstances of considerable duress, made this issue a particularly difficult one to draw any firm conclusion about. (In DHs we were finally given to understand that while he was brought up regarding Muggles with a degree of contempt, he did not seem to have any real objection to witches or wizard from Muggle backgrounds until he was Sorted into Slytherin and adopted the local protective coloring. And, unfortunately, its vocabulary.)
All of which, to me, had raised yet another interesting possibility as to his background, before the uncertainty was finally blown away in the course of HBP.
The fact that Snape joined, and was able to join, the Death Eaters at all seems to make it fairly clear that he at least did not give the appearance of finding their stated agenda repellent in itself. And, yes, I did assume that Snape’s early upbringing probably had all of the underpinnings of conventional wizarding bigotry. Particularly if his grandparents were indeed purebloods, even if very “new” ones.
Still, even if they were not, I suspected that he may well have gotten either the “it doesn’t really matter. A clever boy like you, you’ll do all right.” version, or more the “Arr, don’t y’ be expecting the likes of they to be extending the hand o’ friendship t’ the likes o’ you, boy. You’ll be finding out otherwise.”
But by whatever road, certain assumptions would have been bound to have slipped through. He was a sharp little thing. Before he ever boarded the Hogwarts Express he would have known that mentioning his Muggle dad was not a good idea. And if his dad was no longer in the picture it could hardly be wondered at if he identified with his mother’s family.
For one thing; it seemed that he was almost certainly raised in an atmosphere where it was considered acceptable to look down upon the Muggles all around them, or upon wizards or witches who were raised completely outside the wizarding world and, consequently, had no ingrained sense of what he would have been taught to consider the “right” way to regard matters. His grandparents or his mother may well have been the ones who first insisted upon the sort of “more pureblood than thou” stance that he seems to have adopted.
However, apart from the one incident which we saw in the Pensieve junket, which took place when he was 16, virtually every example that we had ever seen of Snape’s frequent attempts to “pull rank” were based upon some factor other than the purity of his bloodline. It was always either his age, or his position, or his knowledge, or his experience or his own personal worth. We never in close to 3300 pages of text ever saw him try to play the “family” card. We never — outside of the Pensieve — saw him openly waving the blood-purity flag in anybody’s face, either.
Which, in retrospect, and, given the widespread acceptance of such bigoted attitudes within the wizarding world, particularly in his own House, began to look rather odd, even as early as GoF.
The fact that he might have been a pureblood (a possibility which was still more assumed than established. Slytherin House had accepted at least one notable halfblood to our certain knowledge) seemed not to be a fact that he regarded as holding sufficient weight for him to attempt to deploy it in his jockeying to maintain a position of dominance, even in direct conflicts with known Muggle-born, mixed blood, or even cross-breed members of the other Houses.
At the time it seemed most likely to me that his restraint on this subject was merely in accordance with school policy as regards the conduct of the staff. We’d heard that sort of bilge from none of the other teachers, either (apart from Hagrid who is one of the worst bigots in canon). But it also began to seem entirely possible that Snape had some more specific reason for not attempting to invoke the advantage of bloodline.
Given that this particular consideration is of such absolute and all-absorbing importance among the ranks of pureblood supremacists suggested to me that it was possible that Snape did not raise this point because he could not raise this point. That, by the criterion of the likes of Malfoy and company, he did not quite qualify as a “real” pureblood, even if the unfortunate mudblood ancestor could be several generations back in history.
It also seemed not impossible that some of Snape’s more recent forbearers were not as exacting over the matter of their bloodlines as their descendants had since become. There could even be a bonafide wizard/Muggle or Pureblood/Muggle-born marriage lurking somewhere in the Snape family woodshed.
I would have estimated at least 3 and more probably something like 4 generations back. Which would chime with my postulation elsewhere that there is some sort of a “4th generation” perception that designates someone as a halfblood in modern wizarding society. Under a 9th generation system, such a documented Muggle connection could even date to the early or pre-Seclusion period. Long enough ago for it not to really matter anywhere except in Slytherin House. But then he was Sorted into Slytherin House.
• • • •
Post-HBP It can be seen that I was certainly on the right track in this reasoning, even though I just as obviously did not come Even Close, as far as guessing the truth.
Post-HBP I suspected that Snape had probably set off to Hogwarts confident in the awareness of being “as good” as any pureblood in either knowledge, power, or skill, but that it would be a mistake to allow anyone to know the truth that his father was actually a Muggle. I also suspected that he would, upon being Sorted into Slytherin, have got a very rude shock. I thought that however much he may have picked up from his family’s unconscious assumptions, the level of disdain held in common for wizards of mixed ancestry in Slytherin House was far higher than he had ever anticipated.
He would also have soon been made very aware that, even though he might have been assumed to be a pureblood by outsiders by default in having been Sorted into Slytherin at all, his own housemates would have been perfectly well aware that there are no Snapes listed in ‘Nature’s Nobility’, or any other wizarding genealogy, and that due to his poverty and lack of illustrious background it was soon made clear to him that he was only being “graciously” allowed to participate in the activities of his better-connected fellows for the sake of his skills and his potential usefulness.
The experience also suggested that the possibility of his having once been picked up by a group of older kids and summarily dropped would have smarted all the more.
His relationship with Lucius Malfoy, such as we had seen it presented to date, strongly supported the possibility of it having grown out of some act of patronage on Malfoy’s part. Possibly in the wake of a prior humiliation at the hands of some other upperclassmen. And for that matter, Snape’s overall prickliness of temperament might well be grounded upon a resentment over the fact that, do what he may, to a lot of the people whose opinions matter in that world, he will never be “quite” good enough to be accounted an equal.
In the event, however, his blood was certainly pure enough to be acceptable to Voldemort. But then, I suspect that the majority of Voldemort’s own followers did not necessarily know for sure that their leader was the son of a witch and a Muggle.