The Potions Master:
After HBP, I discounted some of the earlier conclusions this piece had been pointing at, but I decided to hedge my bets a little longer and not completely excise them. Actually, most of the rest of it still plays fairly well. And, frankly, I am so thoroughly unconvinced by anything in DHs that I cannot see any reason why I should dispense with a perfectly sound theory on its account.
(If you want your audience to accept your story, Ms Rowling, you need to make it convincing, not just yours. We won’t believe just any old thing simply because you say it. Especially considering the number of times you’ve lied to us. Deliberately or otherwise.)
By now, any number of people discussing the Potions master have cited Snape’s introductory speech about there being no foolish wand-waving or silly incantations in HIS class. And, to be sure, while I believe Rowling may have shown us Molly stirring her cook pots with her wand at one point (or, more likely, charming something into them), we never once in canon saw Snape or anyone else using their wand to stir a cauldron while brewing a Potion. Despite whatever rabbits Rowling may have chosen to pull out of her hat in an interview. By this time we ought to know better than to fully accept anything Rowling tells us in an interview.
She did attempt to backpedal in one of her interviews and claim someone might use their wand to stir a potion, as an example when attempting to assure the readers that yes, brewing potions is magic, not cooking. But she still never showed anyone do it.
It’s obvious that magic must be used in Potions-brewing or even Muggles could produce potions. And that is highly unlikely. I suspect that if you gave a Muggle a collection of ingredients and a cauldron and told him to set to it, all he would end up with is a lumpy, probably toxic mess. Rowling confirms this on her official site. Wizards are not Muggles.
But one wouldn’t be stirring a potion with a wand. Brewing a potion requires specific ingredients and a specific environment. A potion that requires a pewter cauldron is not going to come out the same if you brew it in an iron one. Wands are much too individual to be allowed in contact with potions. They are made of all different sorts of woods and are cored with different magical materials. You aren’t going to tell someone to stir a potion with their wand when you have no idea of what that wand is made of.
Instead, you use a stirring rod, which is a piece of standard equipment of known qualities. And if you need to channel magic into your potion (and you do) you channel it through that. And it is harder to channel magic through a stirring rod — which has no magical core, and may be made of glass or metal — than it is to channel it through a wand, which does.
It is both more difficult and harder to control than channeling magic through a wand. The peculiar results that students (and not just Neville) seem to get in potions class is ample evidence of that.
I tend to regard Snape’s opening speech to the first-years more in the nature of throwing out a challenge that although they will hardly believe that this is magic — since there is no “foolish wand-waving” involved, it is still magic for all of that, and magic that they probably haven’t the wit or the skills to master (Nnyah!). I have no doubt whatsoever that Potions brewing requires the very active use of magic in order to work at all.
Magic, and ritual. The construction and assembly of a potion is the closest thing to formalized, ceremonial “magick” as Rowling ever gets. In fact, it is interesting to note that the only glimpse of an out-and-out magical “ritual” we HAVE seen in the whole series was structured around the assembly and deployment of a potion. Probably a Dark potion, at that. Assuming that there is such a thing in Rowling’s world view as a Dark potion.
Potion brewing seems to inherently be an extremely formal, highly structured branch of magic — which undoubtedly extends all the way down to the cellular level. Certainly in the way that Professor Snape approaches it. This same kind of formal, ritualistic structuring seems to seep over into other parts of Snape’s demeanor as well. It certainly is a large part of what makes his mannerisms so different from everyone else’s. (Public spitting on the Quidditch pitch, notwithstanding.) Horace Slughorn’s is a far more informal style. But of course he has been doing it for much longer.
It was this buttoned-up formality which had so many fans assuming that of course Snape was something on the order of Lord Snape of Snape Manor for so many years. Whereas, when you really consider the matter, it is far more likely that his particular variety of uptight, petty insistence upon the meticulous observation of every scrap of acquired dignity to which he is entitled is far more characteristic of the arriviste who has managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps to well above the social class in which he was raised. I suspect that without the added intimidation factor it would have merely come across as terminally pompous. In fact, something reminiscent of Percy Weasley.
Such ingrained formality also probably colors many of Snape’s perceptions of the world around him. Being forced to watch an ever-changing parade of adolescents slogging away over their cauldrons in a thoroughly slovenly manner with not a clue about proper deportment or respect for the process probably infuriates him.
Horace Slughorn, as I say, is far more casual and easy-going.
And, as he will inform you, much better-connected.
In addition to all that, the kind of accidents that can happen in a Potions class, and the potential frequency of those accidents would tend to support the reading that a Potions lab is a situation where you’ve got a room full of young witches and wizards with still developing magic all trying to focus and direct magical energies wandlessly. Or trying to channel magic through something that is not a wand.
Which is likely to be bloody dangerous any way you try to slice it! You definitely want a sharp observer with good reflexes and a cool head in charge.
Ergo: the “good Professor’s” customary watchfulness is a job requirement.
And, so long as we’re on the subject: that textbook. (Yes, I know. I’ve spent far too much time on that textbook.)
Borage’s ‘Advanced Potion-Making’ appears to be Slughorn’s specifically “NEWT-level” text, just as the title would lead the reader to conclude. Slughorn, in his first class session, refers to the sort of differences his students will find in 6th year work from that of their lower grades, and it is unlikely that he would be making that statement if he had been using the same textbook for any year earlier.
So, it stands to reason that that book was not being used in Snape’s classes prior to 6th year. We don’t know about Snape’s required texts. From what we could see of Snape’s methods, he put his instructions on the board, and we rarely saw him refer to a textbook. We also never saw him teach Potions at NEWT-level.
Until DHs came out, the internal evidence from the story, made it appear that Snape’s copy of Borage must have left his possession at some time in the Marauder cohort’s 5th year, since Levicorpus, one of Snape’s own homemade hexes managed to escape at some point during that year and enjoy a wide popularity.
We were initially also led to believe that he never got the book back, for if he had, he would have kept it in his own collection, rather than a cupboard in the classroom. At the very least he’d have kept it in his desk. And he’d not have left it behind.
Upon reflection, both of these deductions are almost certainly wrong.
Nor can I imagine Snape storing his own copy of Borage in the classroom cupboard. If he kept it with him at all, he would have kept it in his desk. For that matter, we do not know whether Snape’s own NEWT-level classes even used Borage. On the other hand, the amount of annotation that was added to that particular copy also strongly suggests that the book had certainly been in use, in fact, it had been in heavy use, and that had most probably been during Snape’s 6th year, for the notes in it all seemed to be following Slughorn’s lesson plan. And all of the notes were in what now appears to have been established as Snape’s own teenaged handwriting.
And, fanfiction notwithstanding, there is nothing in canon to suggest that the students have access to the Potions labs for special projects or personal research outside their actual class time. To this point any special projects we have ever heard about have been conducted in the common rooms and the Library. (And, secretly in Myrtle’s loo.)
I will admit that I’m not convinced that all classes require new textbooks every year. Some of the texts probably are listed because the student is expected to need them for general reference over the course of several years. For example: I very much doubt that the copy of ‘1000 Magical Plants and Fungi’ served Harry for only his first year in Herbology. Nor, I think, has Hagrid required a later edition of ‘The Monster Book of Monsters’ every year. And while the Charms texts have been codified into a Standard Book of Spells for each year, it is very likely that some of the other classes use a given text over 2 or three years at a stretch, or even more.
But there is no convincing reason why Severus shouldn’t have had a 6th year text in his 5th year, or even earlier, if he wanted to. Particularly if the book had been his mother’s, as many fans have speculated. He just didn’t use it in his regular classes until 6th year, and he did use it then.
Students do, however, each have their own Potions kits. He could have been brewing various messes in the Slytherin dorm’s bathroom on Sundays ever since his first year. And one has to admit that if it was discovered that he had a 6th year text before he needed one, stealing it would have been all the more attractive in that he couldn’t just borrow a replacement from a classmate. But he does seem to have still had the book in his own possession by the time he actually needed it in class. And if the book was stolen — and there is no proof that it was — we do not know who stole it. But it is most likely to have been one of Snape’s own dorm-mates who did it. From what we saw in the Pensieve he was not widely popular, despite Rowling’s DHs attempt at a retrofit on this issue.
But, by this point, the probability is that the book was never stolen at all. It was only some of the hexes that escaped. And in the wake of DHs we are clearly supposed to assume that Snape taught Levicorpus to Avery or “Mulciber” (i.e., Evan Rosier) and that it got away from them. In Snape’s 5th year.
Before most of the potions annotations were added to the book.
And accepting that supposition to be the case is optional. I’m not going to follow it any further here.
Around the time GoF was published, there was an interview comment made by Rowling to the effect that there are no wizarding universities in her interpretation of the wizarding world. Rowling has never modified, or recanted on that statement.
Wizards are a rare breed she tells us; and we were invited to conclude that the wizarding population of Europe is probably not large enough to support a university yet. If this is the case, then any form of advanced training would probably be a matter of either some form of independent study or it is accomplished within a formal Master/Apprentice program, possibly under the oversight of a traditional Guild.
Rowling has remained silent on this issue, but I suspect that as well as such a postulation fits with what we have seen throughout our time in the wizarding world, Ms Rowling does not envision anything of the sort. Instead, she has already shown us that those fields which require advanced training first hire prospective young workers out of Hogwarts, and then send them through a training program on the job.
Still, an advanced study of Potions, with its extensive physical component and its dependence upon wandless control would certainly appear to be the sort of field which might require at least some such form of post-Hogwarts training.
In the absence of a university course, it would stand to reason that the existing magical training ministries or facilities might have some sort of additional responsibility to oversee any such independent study programs. If this is the case, then Snape would have had a built-in reason to have retained contact with Hogwarts after finishing his seventh year. At least during the 2–3 years that one might project for either an independent study “Masters” program or a formal Apprenticeship.
What is far more likely, however, is that like the DMLE or St Mungo’s there is a small number of commercial Potions breweries which hire prospective young workers on the basis of their NEWTs and give them any required advanced training on the job.
We do not yet know from Rowling whether Snape’s “Potions master” position at Hogwarts is merely a fancy way of identifying him as a “schoolmaster,” or teacher, or whether it actually denotes his having earned the equivalent of a Master’s degree in the study of Potions. But the likelihood is that the former is the case. For all that Ms Rowling is regarded as being rather clever, the prevailing attitudes presented over the course of the series are firmly grounded in a thoroughly anti-intellectual camp. Snape’s status as Hogwarts’s Potions “master” almost certainly merely signifies that he was the Potions teacher.
About the only related bit of information that we have directly from canon is that the Auror training program requires a full additional 3 years of post-Hogwarts schooling. Tonks has mentioned in passing that her training included actual classes as well as fieldwork. We also know that Healer training requires an additional post-graduate training program, which is conducted at St Mungo’s.
I have come round to the view that it would play very well in the story arc if Snape got all of the requisite “Exceeds Expectation”, or higher, NEWTs in the study of Charms, Transfiguration, Herbology, Potions, and DADA to have qualified for the Healer training program at St Mungo’s hospital. And, indeed, it is hard to suppose that he wouldn’t have done so, if he did indeed sign up for those classes.
With Malfoy patronage to back him would probably have been accepted into the program as well. The possibility that Slughorn may have also had a string to pull must not be overlooked either, although Slughorn certainly takes no credit for doing so, and one would rather expect it of him if he had.
After all, the DEs would have had a clear and present use for a Healer with a specialty in the Dark Arts and curse damage.
And now that we’ve been required to scale up the Marauder cohort’s probable birth year to 1960, we can see that he would have had no more than 3 years between finishing Hogwarts as a student and his return there as a teacher to have completed any training, and if the training program at St Mungo’s is longer than 3 years, he would not have had the chance to have become a fully qualified Healer before Voldemort ordered him into Hogwarts, regardless.
But his having completed up to three years of the training course might certainly explain how Albus could so easily slot him into the Potions master job rather than give him the cursed DADA instructor’s position. Or at least how he could explain having done so to the Board of Governors.
Not to mention that Snape seems to be the first person called in whenever someone appears to have sustained some curse damage beyond the usual level that Madam Pomfrey is expected to deal with.
But we have no clear and present indication whether this was the case.
Another thing that frequently gets mentioned regarding Professor Snape, is the “Harry filter”. And the Harry filter is definitely skewing our perception of Severus Snape’s performance on the job. Because there is absolutely no doubt about it that Severus Snape has had his own axe to grind with Harry Potter from the day that the boy first showed up at the School. Snape’s treatment of Harry is simply appalling. There are no other words for it.
But there may have been a compelling reason for it. At least at the outset.
Nor was he altogether alone in the matter. Albus and Snape have certainly been playing good cop/bad cop with Harry ever since the boy got to Hogwarts (although to be strictly accurate it was Hagrid and Snape who were playing that game over Year 1, Hagrid as Dumbledore’s proxy) but how much of it is an act is debatable. It is not even altogether certain that the act is solely for Harry’s benefit. Because it certainly wasn’t for Harry’s benefit in Year 1.
Snape, like Draco Malfoy, starts the series from the vantage point of being a required character “type”. All school stories evidently must include the hero’s playground/classroom rival. All school stories also must include the “nasty teacher” (and usually also the intimidating but sympathetic Head). It is one of Rowling’s crowning achievements that she decided to take this required peripheral stock character and make him central to the entire storyline. Severus Snape has never consented to be stuffed into his nice tidy pigeonhole and be no more than Harry would choose to make of him. As such, from the beginning of the series he has always stood as the gatekeeper to the reading that there is more going on in this series than Harry realizes. (There’s more knows Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows.)
Severus Snape started teaching at the age of 21, before the kids who had known him as a student had finished school, and some of his first students had watched James Potter publicly humiliate him at the end of his 5th year.
His method for taking charge and keeping order was to set himself up as a classroom tyrant and never let the kids get the upper hand. It is an aggressive and adversarial stance, and would amply explain his being the “most hated teacher” in the school, but it is not indiscriminately sadistic.
We’ve seen a sadistic teacher in this series. Her name was Dolores Umbridge.
Severus Snape is no Dolores Umbridge.
He has made a point of being partial, playing favorites, and being deliberately unfair — at least to Harry and his friends — in the classroom. And Albus let him get away with it. This may have nothing to do with Harry, although I seriously doubt that, since in our experience it was usually directed at Harry. But we cannot know for certain since we have never seen Snape take a class that did not include Harry.
Squinting around the edges of the Harry filter we can see that, contrary to expectations, Snape does NOT treat all of his students the way he treats Harry. In 4 cases out of 5 anyone he comes the ugly with in his classroom has generally done something to deserve it. His retaliation may be in excess of the requirements, but it was not unprovoked.
The 5th case is typically Neville, who Snape would probably not even have permitted in his class if it were an elective. Neville’s “duffer” act cuts no ice with Snape, who saw through it early, and it got up his nose from year 1. My own contention regarding Neville is that he spent his first four years at Hogwarts trying to get himself sent down for incompetence, because he didn’t really want to be a wizard at all.
Plus, one has to admit that Snape is the sort of overbearing git who responds to cringing by giving you something to cringe from. Snape and Neville were always going to be a bad combination any way you slice it.
Snape’s blatant favoritism toward the children of his own House, on the other hand, may be a matter of policy which Albus has perhaps reluctantly approved. At that, it has been grossly exaggerated by fanon, but it does at least seem to actually exist in the official text, even if in a somewhat less extreme form.
It has undoubtedly enhanced and maintained Snape’s status and general approval rating among the DEs who escaped prosecution to so blatantly favor their children throughout the decade of Voldemort’s absence. That this was done blatantly may have been to ensure that even the youngest of the DE’s children should be aware of it, and pass the word back to their parents. Which would have facilitated his ease of operating as Dumbledore’s spy upon this group during the years of Voldemort’s absence.
But if you squint between the lines, this approval has not — at least during Harry’s period at Hogwarts — extended to the awarding of House points. Snape has not ever been observed in canon to award House points to anybody. Not even his Slytherins. And while he seldom strips points off his own House (which he does do, but very rarely) he assigns lines and detentions with a liberal hand.
But I do suspect that in the entire 16 years of Snape’s tenure at Hogwarts his class scapegoat (and I suspect that there usually has been at least one scapegoat in every class) has never been a child from a DE background, regardless of what he may actually think of such children. I originally thought that Albus may have simply been resigned to the imbalance, justifying it to himself by the reflection that the world is not a fair place, and the kids may as well be made aware of it now as later. And that goes double and in spades for the wizarding world.
Now of course we realize that Albus simply did not care.
Harry, as usual, is a special case.
It was never clear inside canon whether there was an internal reason for why Harry Potter needed to hate Severus Snape. From a meta standpoint obviously Harry must hate Snape for the dramatic purposes of the story. Despite the fact that Snape kept repeatedly saving him from both his external enemies and the consequences of his own recklessness.
But until the end of the series most of us thought that there might be a reason inside the story as well, and if so, it was one to which we did not yet seem to have been given the key. For Snape certainly went out of his way to be hateful to Harry. From the first moment he clapped eyes on him.
And at first glance there is a bit of oddity about his having done so at such an early point in their relationship. If, as he stated in Spinner’s End, there had been a faction of the surviving DEs who postulated that the only way that Harry could have survived Voldemort’s attack and defeated him was by being a powerful Dark wizard in his own right — one who might be brought to spearhead their own cause — one might have expected a little more caution on Snape’s part. If such a theory had ever seemed likely, then for him to immediately attempt to alienate the boy seems both incautious and unreasonable.
Until, that is, you remember that given any closer look at the circumstances, Snape almost certainly knew that he was under very close observation that particular year by Lord Voldemort himself, or, at the very least, by Voldemort’s agent.
Dumbledore could have been under no illusion about what was under Quirrell’s turban. And one would have supposed that he could hardly have omitted to inform Snape of the fact, so Snape could take appropriate measures to protect himself and to maintain his cover.
Rowling, of course, passes the entire matter off almost without examination in the chapter of ‘The Prince’s Tale’. And her brush-off is a highly insulting disservice to the story, its readers, and all of the participants. To imply that Albus never really valued Snape himself is one thing, but to imply that he did not even value Snape’s function as his own spy makes Albus come across as a moron. And even in her determined deconstruction of “saint Albus”, Rowling does not appear to intend to imply that Albus was a moron.
But in any case, to an adult reader attempting to make sense out of what we were shown, Snape’s hateful, intimidating behavior and publicly broadcast contempt for Harry Potter in Year 1 were an essential part of the performance. And I would even go so far as to say that anything that took place in his classroom was calibrated to be done in a manner that it would be spoken of outside that room, ensuring that the story would be certain to get out to where Quirrell would hear of it. Probably from more than one source.
It may not be so much a case of Harry “Hating his Savior” as “Teaching Him to Bite the Hand that Saves Him” (“[Dumbledore’s]Man bites snake?”).
And Snape being under observation that year is yet another one of those utterly elementary solutions once it occurs to you. One of the sort that ought to have been obvious. And yet just somehow wasn’t. I am embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to have figured it out. But since even Rowling appears to have missed it, I don’t feel quite as foolish as I did.
And yet it is obvious. The Quirrell complication was not a minor side issue.
Not that Harry didn’t get some coaching in his “hate Snape” lessons from other sources, of course. Expert coaching, in fact. If Quirrell hadn’t introduced the “He hated your father, too” thread to the situation at the end of PS/SS, don’t you imagine that Harry might have managed to feel at least a bit of gratitude towards Snape for his actions over Year 1 after he discovered that Snape had been doing his best to save him? Or at least felt a bit of embarrassment about his own suspicions of the man? But, noooo, not if Snape had hated his father too...
Not to mention the totally bogus “Snape’s life debt to James Potter” complication that Albus deliberately inserted into the mix. That poisoned the well very nicely.
At this end of the day one seriously has to start wondering whether Snape had managed slip a few reminders of his dealings with Potter pére into his fulminations about Potter fils in Quirrell (and Voldemort)’s hearing over the course of year 1. Because that apparently mutual animosity seems just too carefully planted and tended not to be subject to some closer examination by this time.
It was Harry who often took the offensive after that, and he who made an overriding issue of it. Snape has merely risen to the bait and occasionally taken a poke to keep the pot boiling. Harry, as we have repeatedly seen, has a problem with accepting responsibility for his own actions. Blaming Snape’s loathing for James for the man’s adversarial conduct toward himself, neatly deflects any suggestion that Harry’s own behavior toward Snape is hardly exemplary. To the point of consistently disregarding even the respect for Snape’s authority which is legitimately his due.
And Harry’s hatred of Snape also served as a very helpful protective buffer.
Looked at objectively, isn’t it obvious that the very best, and very surest protection that can be found for Severus Snape, and his ongoing mission over the course of the series was to keep Harry away from him.
Loudly, actively, conspicuously, away from him.
And over the whole course of the series, Albus never once made what could be interpreted as a sincere effort to correct the situation.
In a rational plot line, Albus, after all, had a great deal invested in ensuring Severus Snape’s safety. Almost as much as he has invested in Harry’s.
Even if it turns out that Rowling couldn’t care less about rational plotting.
In CoS Snape, no longer under observation by his Dark Master, remained in the background for most of the book, making only a choice few snide comments, and giving Lockhart a deservedly hard time. (To the entertainment of the rest of the staff, too.) His primary interaction with Harry in year 2 seems to have been some posturing over the Whomping Willow incident — which came to nothing — and to suggest the Serpensortia spell to Malfoy at the dueling club, thereby revealing Harry as a Parselmouth, as (I believe) he intended, with maximum embarrassment and inconvenience to Harry. And probably very much to his own amusement.
That was a mean trick to play on a 12-year old, but we know Snape will carry a grudge until doomsday, and we don’t know to what degree he blamed Harry for his near immolation during the broom hexing incident the previous year.
In PoA, Harry started casually breaking rules and Snape came down on him like a ton of bricks. The combination of Sirius Black’s invasion of the castle, having to interact with Lupin, Lupin’s passive-aggressive taunts, and Lupin’s eventual relationship with Harry also would not have helped. And, even though I suspect that Occlumency on a high level (of which Snape is quite capable) may be of considerable benefit in resisting the effect of Dementors, the school and the village were nevertheless under siege by the creatures for the entire year, and I very much doubt that it was without collateral effect on everyone’s emotional well-being, either.
Indeed one belatedly wonders if that might have had some input upon the internecine warfare among the trio over the course of the year, as well.
And, by the time we had survived the Shrieking Shack and the escape of Sirius Black I think that we can safely say that Snape had acquired good reason to despise Harry Potter, on Harry’s own account, for years to come.
As to the Occlumency lessons in Year 5; that was a no-win situation. Possibly deliberately so. Made all the worse in that the kid refused to pull his own weight in the fiasco or even try to close his mind. The boy had already been “got at”, and was under the Dark Lord’s influence. Not through his sympathies, or his values, but through his curiosity. And, causing Severus Snape to fail at one of his endeavors is not the way to win brownie points with him, either.
Not that Snape didn’t expect to fail. Harry Potter does not have the sort of mental discipline necessary for competent Occlumency, and both Snape and Albus knew it. The Occlumency lessons may have been serving a covert purpose on another issue altogether. Which is explored over in the main collection, in the essay entitled “The Pensieve Gambit” over in the main Potterverse collection.
What many fans, younger fans in particular fail to grasp is that to personally despise Harry Potter (and for Snape it does appear to be personal, not political) makes you neither an evil, committed DE, nor even a particularly bad person. Although it certainly can make you behave like a wrong-headed twerp.
But, upon the whole, my own reading is that the relationship between Snape and Harry quite necessarily got started off on the wrong foot and only became worse as time went on, with ample contribution from both parties.
But that still does not answer the question of whether there is a reason inside the story for why Harry needed to hate Snape. Although I was beginning to think that there might be one (ETA: no such luck, it was simply a deployment of “instant tension” on Rowling’s part).
Not that Snape wasn’t fairly hateful. He was not at all a nice man. No. There was very good reason why he was one of the most unpopular teachers in the school. He pulled nasty little intimidation tactics on 11-year-olds in the course of sending out the message that you do NOT want to act up in his class. Put one foot out of line in Snape’s hearing or line of sight and it’s detention time. And there was always the possibility that he just might decide to verbally savage you for good measure.
He could also be totally unfair about using any excuse to strip house points off anyone who isn’t in Slytherin, too. With the Slytherins, I suspect that he would not strip a house point unless he is forced to it, (although we did see him do it) but he was probably a demon for detentions. The ex-Slytherin who could not walk out of Hogwarts straight into a job as a Potions ingredients preparer in any Apothecary’s establishment in Great Britain was probably a virtuous little snake indeed. Or “connected”. (Somehow one doubts that Malfoy himself serves a lot of detentions from Snape, although his goons sometimes do.)
And even if you were not Harry Potter, Snape still would glower and glare and loom over your work, and he would murmur and sneer and pull all sorts of petty little intimidation ploys. And if you asked a question he considered stupid he would be blightingly sarcastic, and if you made a mistake he might not merely savage you verbally but mock you in front of everybody as well. But unless you drew his attention with at least some degree of cause, he would not gratuitously attack you. He did not treat everyone the way he treated Harry.
Neville Longbottom is a student who drew his attention.
And then went on drawing his attention. By the end of his first or second term Snape had probably seen through Neville’s “duffer” act, and it enraged him. Snape takes the study of his subjects very, very personally. A student who — by his lights — is deliberately screwing around with them is not to be borne. But Potions is a required class and there is no ridding himself of this creature until after the OWLs are administered at the end of 5th year.
And then he got Longbottom again in DADA the following year.
All together now: “one of these things is not like the other.”
Actually, I don’t think we ever saw Snape come the ugly with Neville in DADA class. By 6th year Neville had passed his own personal Rubicon and decided to buckle down and be a wizard, and to learn how to defend himself. Neville was actually fairly good at DADA by then. Snape must have recognized this, for he really did seem to cut the boy some slack. In addition to — in DH — having assigned him detention with Hagrid of all things, in a situation where he had to be seen to have done something towards maintaining discipline.
Once this observation gets entered into the equation, along with the fact that Neville doesn’t seem to have stopped trying to get himself sent down for incompetence until some point well into his 4th year (exactly when we aren’t sure, Harry wasn’t paying much attention to Neville) all the rest of Snape and Neville’s dealings with one another back in Potions class more or less attains inevitability.
On the other hand, in HBP Snape seems to have been determined to take Harry — who had become accustomed to regarding himself as the king of DADA class over the previous couple of years — down a peg or two. But with Harry, it’s always personal. (And yet you will notice that Harry still didn’t reactivate the DA to work behind Snape’s back, as he had done with Umbridge.)
Hermione had openly opposed Snape in the Shrieking Shack by trying to shove her oar in and play the Voice of Reason. She got herself thundered at, ordered to shut up and called a stupid girl for her pains. None of which was surprising, under the circumstances. But apart than the infamous “I see no difference” comment (which, despicable as it sounded, did allow Snape to take control of a volatile situation) I cannot think of any incident off the top of my head wherein Snape has been shown in canon to be abusing his authority regarding any student other than Harry, Neville or someone who was clearly with Harry, such as Ron, who has also mouthed off at Snape in class, quite deliberately, and had rightfully earned what he got.
And for that matter, I am beginning to suspect that the reason the “I see no difference” remark was so shocking to the reader is that it is clearly an unprovoked attack on a non-combatant — which just is not typical — even for Snape.
And we cannot even be altogether certain of just what Snape meant by it. The remark may well have not been directed at Hermione at all, but at Harry and Ron for making a big production over Malfoy having inadvertently hexed Hermione — when Harry himself had just accidentally hexed Goyle!
I am not saying that if one combed though all 4000 pages of canon one could not perhaps find another such incident, but I certainly cannot think of one off the top of my head. There is a rising chance that in most (non-Gryffindor) students’ experience, Snape’s intimidating classroom manner is just a rather more socially inept variant along the same lines as McGonagall’s characteristically stern classroom demeanor. And of the two McGonagall is much harsher on the House points issue. (Plus, while she will snap at you, she doesn’t mock.)
But Snape’s treatment of Harry is still appalling. Fortunately we will never have to endure another classroom with the two of them in it again.
As for the reader: there is no question that the Professor has our attention. With good reason; he is still probably one of the most ambiguous and interesting characters in the entire series. (Hm. Perhaps that’s why Hagrid seems to think so well of him. Hagrid likes “interesting” creatures.) And he has a great number of fans, and many of them would desperately like to believe that he isn’t quite as black as he’s painted by Harry.
Well, there is every chance of that. Harry doesn’t seem to take a lot of notice of how Snape treats everyone else, apart from his favoring of the Slytherins. Even if this doesn’t necessarily make him any “nicer” to be around, by the end of HBP I was still convinced that Snape really was one of the White Hats.
And Rowling ultimately proved me right. At least in the basics.
Here we had a man, who, as a child seems to have endured a family life which appears to have been classically abusive. From what little we saw of his recollections, there was a real possibility of his coming under attack by either emotional, verbal or, quite possibly, but not necessarily, physical means, or all three, at his father’s whim (if the bullying, hook-nosed man in his memory was indeed his father, which is still the most likely reading. If his father stuck around — which we had no way of knowing until practically the end of DHs). We didn’t know whether the glimpse we saw was typical of his upbringing, or if it was a single, memorable incident, but there was at least that one incident and it was memorable.
What is more, acto Rowling’s statements on the subject (if we can believe those), he was probably not sent to a Muggle primary school even if he was brought up in a Muggle town. The social isolation from other children can’t have helped. We’d also been given strong hints that his family’s financial status wasn’t of the sort which would have been likely to hire a string of tutors, so he was probably taught at home by a family member, as was the case with the Weasleys.
My first line of thinking, before we knew that Snape was a literal halfblood, was that since it stands to reason that it isn’t always the mother who teaches the children in a wizarding household, if Severus was taught by his father, what kind of teaching style seems to be the sort by which he is most likely to have been given his lessons at home, given our only glimpse of the man?
And if he was able to learn by those methods, maybe he honestly believed that this the only way that children do learn.
However, now that we know that his father was actually a Muggle, this line of reasoning is clearly off-target, although it may not be altogether wrong. We still know nothing of his mother’s disposition, only that in a photograph taken when she was a teenager, she looked plain, cross, sullen and unhappy. And we were also shown that she was sour-faced and silent when seeing her only child off on the Hogwarts Express. Which does not raise our expectations regarding the child-rearing practices of the Prince family, either. Nor do we know anything about Snape’s maternal grandparents, the Princes, or their opinion of their daughter’s marriage. Although he seems to have inherited what may have been originally their house.
Furthermore; as soon as he ventured beyond that household, his school years were blighted by having — from the outset — become the target of a pair of exceedingly popular bullies, and the authorities were clearly ineffective about keeping the situation within control. Which cumulated in what he remained convinced was an actual murder attempt, followed by a public humiliation of the worst sort.
I do believe that Snape is probably wrong about it being a murder attempt, but from his perspective, by that time he had been under threat of attack for his entire life, or at least his entire time at school, and to murder him would have appeared to be the next logical step for his enemies to have taken. What else was there left for them to accomplish toward his destruction?
Another thing which is overlooked by most readers is that just because these people are wizards does not mean that what they are doing to each other is any different from what you can see happening to some kid across the playground at your local public (Council, for you across the pond) school. Boys do fight. There is a pecking order. And the authorities can be clueless, either willfully or otherwise.
There are literally thousands of Snapes out there. A good half of them, if approached at the age of 18 might have happily signed on with some nasty little hate group which targeted the actual people who had been going out of their way to make their lives a misery for the past 7 years. Particularly if they were brought up in the kind of atmosphere which underscores the idea that bullying people is perfectly all right, it is the victim’s fault for letting it happen. Joining the DEs could have been Snape’s very own personal Columbine.
Or at least that’s what we are supposed to believe.
But the fact is that kids don’t stay 18 forever, and if you leave them alone, they often make a considerable degree of recovery. Human beings really are quite resilient, you know.
But first they have to get to the point that people will leave them alone: when someone in a given classroom develops social “cooties” — which always happens to somebody in a class, usually around the age of 7 or 8 — everyone else knows it, and unless the classes get well and thoroughly remixed year by year, or there is a change of schools, that kid remains the “cootie kid” throughout the entire “educational experience”. Everyone knows who the “cootie kid” is and passes the word to any newcomers. In a school like Hogwarts, there is no escaping this.
Seven uninterrupted years as the cootie kid will warp you. In fact, it doesn’t take anywhere near that long. Treating a kid the way we have been shown that Snape was treated either makes them give up entirely or it makes them savage. (And it doesn’t help if their home environment is dominated by a domestic bully of either the physical, verbal or emotional variety as well. Bullying becomes all they know.) These kids will develop the certain knowledge that there are people out there who are their enemies and that they are at all times at risk of being attacked.
It doesn’t take long before some of them start attacking first. In Snape’s case it looks very much to me as if he had more than ample reason to feel himself under attack for much of the whole first 18 years of his life and fell into the “do unto others before they can do unto you” trap. And everything else has simply built on top of that.
And having your only close friend brush you off — and take your enemies’ side against you will only make it worse
Being given that kind of a foundation in life is going to leave scars. And they probably won’t all ever completely heal. But it does not necessarily turn you into a monster. Particularly if the causes of the damage do eventually stop.
Despite the inconsolable loss of the girl who — for whatever it was worth — had once claimed to be his friend, from the evening of Voldemort’s downfall Snape could reflect that he had outlived the enemy who had tormented him all through school. And that his enemy’s best friend and accomplice was in a living Hell before the next day was out, and could be expected to die there, miserably. (And that even their little toady was dead, too.) We do not know if the shouting hook-nosed man of Snape’s childhood was still alive or even still in the picture by that time or not, but Snape no longer lived in that household in any case. He lived on campus now.
And that was half a lifetime ago.
There are a few key differences between Snape’s experience and that of most Muggles: According to Rowling, the entire British wizarding world is not significantly larger than the High School I went to. Once I went off to college (which was only a bus ride away) I did so with the certain knowledge that I might never come face-to-face with anyone I had ever been in elementary or High School with again. When James Potter and Sirius Black made a spectacle of Severus Snape during OWLs week, every witch and wizard in Britain in their age range would have known about it by the end of the week. And that knowledge would follow them all the days of their lives. The survivors probably still remember it.
What for you or me might be a petty schoolhouse rivalry, of no particular consequence in Real Life, in the wizarding world will probably follow its participants out into adult society and there is always the risk that it will come back to bite them. The wizarding world is small enough and insular enough for that kind of thing to follow you around long after you are out of school.
But then Severus Snape doesn’t seem to have had a whole lot to do with the wizarding world’s “adult society” since that time, does he? He was back at Hogwarts only three years after he finished. At the relatively tender age of 21, teaching at least one class which contained students as old as 18. Trying to intimidate kids who had been there the day that James Potter humiliated him in front of everybody; just in case they may have gotten the idea that he could still be picked on with impunity. (I suspect Quirrell may have been one of those witnesses.) I really don’t think a lot of people have taken account of the fact that Snape returned to Hogwarts as a teacher while there were still kids in attendance who were there the day James Potter humiliated him in front of a sizable percentage of the student body.
Since then, intimidating his students has become a habit, and it does definitely give him control over his classroom. It is not a nice method of teaching, but it works, and it gets results. Umbridge informs us that in general his classes perform in advance of their ages. And we saw for ourselves that nearly 25% of his classes got not merely a “pass” on their Potions OWL but scored an “O”.
Although I think that he may still not be quite as successful a teacher as Horace Slughorn. How many brilliant Potions experts have come out of Snape’s tenure? Or breakthroughs in the field that have been attributed to his teaching?
Snape may manage to challenge his classes, and some students respond quite well to a challenge. But I think he fails to inspire them. I suspect that most of his NEWT students were only taking Potions because they needed a Potions NEWT to qualify for some post-Hogwarts training program.
And he sees no reason to modify his style as the kids get steadily younger and younger in relation to himself. And a reputation that you simply Do Not Act Up in Snape’s class has served everyone very well, including the kids. The wizarding world, and Hogwarts in general, is less tender of its young than we Muggles usually attempt to be. From the PoV of the Ministry and the Board of Governors this was probably not a trouble that ever needed shooting.
Otherwise, he deals with his “peers” only during term breaks, and most of those peers probably do not know about Spinner’s End. As a Head of House he has ample reason to remain on campus during Christmas and Easter break. Which reduces his dealings with the greater wizarding society to the two months of summer break and perhaps the continuing outlet of some sort of professional correspondence.
As to spying; as I have stated elsewhere, he has remained in the game the whole time.
Throughout the period between Voldemort’s fall and his rebirth, Snape served as a conduit of information between Dumbledore and Lucius Malfoy. Small wonder he comes across as smug and pleased with himself. He was sitting very pretty.
I think that one could probably make a pretty fair argument that time alone went a long way toward some degree of healing. He had nearly 13 years wherein no one whatsoever had been attacking him! That is likely to have given him time to regain some sense of balance. One can well imagine that if offered the opportunity today, and the decision were his alone, he would not be signing up with any Dark Lords, thank you very much. And his continuing nasty manner towards children is easily explained by the very reasonable fact that he is all too well aware that children, particularly teenaged children, particularly magical teenaged children are not harmless.
The one point of criticism that one might still reasonably level at him is in his resentment and treatment of Harry Potter — which is obviously quite personal and not necessarily related to the rest of his behavior. Because it is clear that Snape is a very sharp observer of what is going on around him, and yet he still has not added up the evidence and taken note that Harry is simply not a bully in the same style as his father, even if he is another Quidditch star.
Early on, it occurred to me, and probably a lot of other people who were engaged in phrasing it differently, that there could be a rather interesting double-bluff going on regarding Snape’s vicious demeanor vis-a-vis the Hogwarts students. I’m not sure that I actually believe it myself any more, but it does just about read, and it’s mildly amusing. It is not supported by DHs, of course.
Under this reading; it is not ALL an act, but, nevertheless, he IS acting. And it DOES serve a specific purpose. Aside from blowing off steam.
If this reading had been correct, he also had Dumbledore’s tacit go-ahead for it, although Dumbledore may not have altogether approved of his methods. This particular interpretation does tend to presuppose that Snape was indeed one of the “White Hats”, but I was fairly convinced of that in any case, even before I finally got off the fence.
According to this reading, what Snape was doing was to very deliberately, very conspicuously NOT distance himself from Dark Arts associations. In fact if he was “famous” as a Dark Arts geek while at school, he sees no reason to even try to live it down. In fact, he was rubbing the kids’ noses in it.
Given his basic temperament, and in his position as head of Slytherin House, the chances of his actually managing to live his House’s somewhat spotted reputation down are vanishingly small to begin with. Particularly when a known personal interest in the Dark Arts is factored in. Despite the fact that he personally was never publicly accused of being a Death Eater (or not until Karkaroff’s plea bargain hearing, anyway), even if he behaved the perfect gent — which, with his disposition, would be a strain, he still lived through the Voldemort years, he is associated with people who were Death Eaters, he is a Dark wizard, he is the head of Slytherin’s House, and he is not a nice man.
Rowling defined him in an interview once as “a deeply horrible person”. There would be rumors flying about that he had an ex-DE background regardless of what he did. And it would take next to no effort to confirm those rumors for anyone with the resources to really investigate. Karkaroff’s hearing was not a public one, but I doubt the records were so tightly sealed that no one could get into them. There were too many witnesses and too many of them are still around. To the wizarding world, Severus Snape, Dark wizard, Slytherin, and within the suspect age range, with close associations to Lucius Malfoy — who is known to have been involved with the DEs, even if acquitted — is always going to be a reputed ex-Death Eater from somebody’s point of view. And even more so after Malfoy’s DE associations had been publicly outed beyond question.
It ought to stand to reason that whether Snape was a White Hat or not, Albus took him on staff with the understanding that he would try to do something to discourage other young people from making the same kind of mistakes that he supposedly did. Admittedly, post-DHs this line of argument is no longer so convincing. But, then, the “arcane power” of DHs seems to have been to render anything it touches — however peripherally — into dross.
Still, Snape’s a pragmatic Slytherin, not a social justice-seeking Gryffindor. And even if he had been every bit as much a supporter of Dumbledore’s goals as Dumbledore could have asked, he probably figures that the Slytherin kids with DE connections are already a lost cause. It isn’t their own choices which are going to be exercised. Playing the wise and kindly councilor to dissuade them from taking that particular step isn’t going to do anything but send a message back to their parents which will get him targeted for elimination, and what’s the benefit to anyone in that? He might be able to scare off the ones who might be allowed to refuse with pointed comments that he would imagine that a Dark Lord wouldn’t want half-hearted followers. But that’s about as far as he can go with the hard-core Slyths.
But, by ghod, he can make an impression on the students of the OTHER three houses. And the Slyths can unwittingly give him a hand by helping spread and support the rumors. He intends to send all of those brats a clear, unambiguous message. (“Play to your strengths”.)
If they want to see a Death Eater, he will SHOW them a Death Eater.
And see how well they like it.
Every day of the week for seven years straight those kids are getting an up close and personal demonstration of just what a Death Eater is, with ALL the pettiness, spite, partiality, injustice, treachery, contempt and (at least verbal) cruelty on full display. He may even have made a practice of singling out a couple of scapegoats in every year (one in each of his combined classes) and concentrates on them throughout their entire “educational experience” for the edification of all. Circumstances may have just ensured that Harry would happen to be “lucky”.
You think you want to be a Death Eater someday? You want to have to work with people like me? You want to have to ASSOCIATE with people like me? DEPEND on people like me? If this is the tame virus what must the actual disease be like? Snape doesn’t want the brats to like him. He wants them to LOATHE him. And more to the point, he wants them to REMEMBER him. And, by ghod, he is going to put on a show they can’t forget.
And, maybe, just maybe, down the road if some smooth-tongued supporter comes around trying to recruit rather than just Imperio some promising young Gryff or ’Puff or ’Claw, maybe the impression will have been indelible enough to give them pause before being swept off their feet. And maybe they will even think to pass the word about someone to watch out for. And, who knows, maybe by counter-example he can even reach a few of his Slyths. Most of whom are probably NOT connected to the Dark Lord, after all.
Besides, it won’t hurt the brats to learn to perform demanding and precise work under pressure. They’re going to meet other bastards out in the real world, too. Guaranteed.
So, with all justifications in place, he has effectively given himself a free ticket to play the bastard and act out his every natural frustration to the top of his bent. Right in their faces.
He may even realize that he is being a bully — however well he may dress it up in fine linen (and I think he probably does dress it up in fine linen. He isn’t all THAT self-aware). If he weren’t a bit of a bully at heart he probably wouldn’t have been so quick to sign up with Voldemort in the first place. (Or would he? Was he given a legitimate choice?)
Make no mistake. This Severus Snape ENJOYS terrorizing adolescents. He LIKES tormenting Longbottom. He looked forward to every opportunity to needle Potter — whom he honestly resents, and who can stand to be taken down a peg, in his opinion — and he may have been positively hugging himself with glee on the red-letter day that he actually managed to make that irritating Granger girl cry.
In short, Severus Snape really did like his job.
He was having a ball. The rest of the staff, who at least dimly know something of what was going on, were rather scandalously amused by his antics, and Dumbledore trusted him.
In any case, Rowling was clearly having a ball writing him. And so were we in reading about him. And when somebody does such a good job of entertaining you, things go rather flat when they are not around.