Oh yes, I can hear the groans from a thousand Potterfans: "Nooo! Not another Snape essay! Enough already!" (This is leaving out those whose immediate thoughts were "Oh, is this a wizarding rock band that I haven't heard of?") I can merely say that I can understand this response completely, but bear with me. First of all, this is not a character analysis on the ex-Potions Master everyone loves to hate. This isn't even a "Whose side is Snape really on?" essay ¦ at least, not quite. What I hope, though, is that this essay might create some new thoughts on both of the above-mentioned topics. I have been wondering lately, you see, if the relationship between Snape and the Malfoy family isn't a key to understanding him a little better, where motives and loyalties are concerned. For this reason I wish to do a thorough examination of Snape and his relationship with the Malfoys.
The Background of Snape and the Malfoy Family
The Malfoy family belongs to the increasingly shrinking pure-blood wizarding population. A look at the family tree given by J.K. Rowling1 shows the Malfoys connected with the Blacks, one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most prominent of wizarding families in Britain. But it is not their pure blood or their affluence that makes them infamous among the wizarding world ’ it is their cruelty. They are known to be ruthless, cold, backhanded, and bigoted.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hagrid explains after Draco calls Hermione a Mudblood that "there are some wizards ’ like Malfoy's family ’ who think they're better than everyone else because they're what people call pure-blood." 2 Draco's father, Lucius, has certainly passed his beliefs on to the next generation. We can see in his treatment of Dobby the house-elf how arrogant Lucius is, and how he looks down on Muggles and magical creatures as inferior. One example of this treatment can be found at the end of Chamber of Secrets: Lucius orders Dobby to follow him out of Dumbledore's office after a confrontation. "He wrenched open the door and as the elf came hurrying up to him, he kicked him right through it. They could hear Dobby squealing with pain all the way along the corridor." 3
In this we see a motive for, at least, Lucius Malfoy joining the Death Eaters: he thinks Voldemort has the right idea when it comes to Muggles and non-humans, and shares Voldemort's belief that pure-bloods should have the power in the wizarding world.
Snape's background, on the other hand, is less clear, though what we know of it is quite the opposite of the Malfoys'. We know that he is a half-blood: his father, Tobias Snape, was a Muggle and his mother, Eileen Prince, was a witch. He has always been infatuated with the Dark Arts. Harry learns from Percy, even at his first night at Hogwarts, that Snape "knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts." 4
Sirius confirms in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that "Snape's always been fascinated by the Dark Arts, he was famous for it at school. [¦] Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year and he was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters." 5
We learn here what may have been Snape's motive for joining the Death Eaters. Apart from the fact that he would be able to continue practising the Dark Arts with which he has always been so infatuated, he would enjoy respect that he never got at Hogwarts because his "field of expertise" is useful to Voldemort and makes Snape a trusted member of his organization. From the memories that Harry has witnessed it doesn't seem like he was very popular (to say the least),6 so having a place where he belonged and even was respected must have been very important to him, and having a powerful friend like Lucius on his side must have been a great bonus.
From what we have seen, their backgrounds seem very different, as do their motives for joining the Death Eaters. So, how did Snape and Lucius Malfoy meet in the first place?
According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, Lucius began at Hogwarts in 1965. Five years later, Snape arrived.7 This means that they were in Slytherin together for two years. When even Sirius ’ who didn't know Snape that well ’ knew that Snape was remarkably skilled in the Dark Arts, we can assume that a fellow Slytherin would also notice this. Although there is not much information in canon about their time at Hogwarts together, two years would have provided ample time for Lucius and Snape to have gotten acquainted and formed a strong connection.
Snape and the Malfoys ’ Paths Crossed
Already in Harry's very first Potion lesson we see that Snape favours Draco Malfoy, "whom he seemed to like." 8 Even this early in the series, Snape and Draco are mentioned together. It is not merely a case of Snape favouring his own house. During Harry's second year at Hogwarts, Dumbledore is suspended from his job after Lucius Malfoy bullies his fellow governors into signing the necessary paper. Draco asks Snape to apply for the job as a headmaster, saying: "I expect you'd have Father's vote, sir, if you wanted to apply for the job. I'll tell Father you're the best teacher here, sir ¦" 9
Again we have a connection between Snape and the Malfoy family. Draco expresses his certainty that Snape will have his father's vote, meaning that Lucius is aware of Snape's talents and believes that Snape would do well as headmaster. Draco's informal nomination of Snape, as well as a proposed vote from Lucius, express confidence in the Potions Master and imply a more intimate relationship than mere acquaintances.
During his fourth year, Harry accidentally visits Dumbledore's Pensieve and learns that Snape was once a Death Eater but is now, according to Dumbledore, a spy for the good side, at great personal risk.10 Later that same year, when Harry is involuntarily transported to Voldemort and his Death Eaters, he finds that Lucius Malfoy is a Death Eater as well. Also, a very interesting thing concerning Snape and Lucius Malfoy is how Snape reacts when Harry tells Fudge that Malfoy is a Death Eater: " ˜I saw the Death Eaters! I can give you their names! Lucius Malfoy ’' Snape made a sudden movement, but as Harry looked at him, Snape's eyes flew back to Fudge." 11
What could this sudden reaction mean? Surely, as he was once a Death Eater himself, he cannot be surprised by the fact that Harry names Malfoy as one, and certainly, he cannot be surprised that Malfoy was there with the rest of the Death Eaters. No, he is no doubt aware of the fact that Lucius most likely was present at the graveyard. This sudden move, then, was defensive. He shows concern for his old friend by making a move to possibly defend Lucius or make Harry be quiet, but seems to realize that he shouldn't in present company.
Another thing that has been pointed at is Sirius's remark to Snape when they argue in Grimmauld Place:
"Tell me, how is Lucius Malfoy these days? I expect he's delighted that his lapdog's working at Hogwarts, isn't he?"
"Speaking of dogs' said Snape softly, "did you know that Lucius Malfoy recognised you last time you risked a little jaunt outside?" 12
Snape's reply clearly indicates that he does indeed have regular contact with Lucius Malfoy. It is curious to note that Sirius believes Snape works for Lord Voldemort, yet does not mention him here. Instead, Sirius is clearly implying that he believes Snape works for Lucius just as much as he works for Voldemort. And later in the book, Professor Umbridge makes another curious remark. When Snape says he cannot give her Veritaserum to interrogate Harry after he has tried to contact Sirius from her fireplace, she says to Snape: "You are being deliberately unhelpful! I expected better, Lucius Malfoy always speaks most highly of you!"13
Next we get some inside information from Narcissa Malfoy as she visits Snape in the beginning of book six: "you are, you have always been, Draco's favourite teacher ... you are Lucius's old friend." 14 In this scene we see that Snape and Narcissa are on first name basis, which suggests a close acquaintance and friendship. As Lucius's old friend then, or for some motive only known to himself, Snape agrees to make the Unbreakable Vow to Narcissa, using his own life as collateral. Just to refresh our memories, here are the three promises Snape makes to Narcissa:
1. To watch over Draco as he attempts to fulfil the Dark Lord's wishes,
2. To the best of his ability, to protect Draco from harm,
3. To carry out Draco's ordered deed, should he fail.15
One can speculate why Snape would agree to make such a vow. He certainly makes the Malfoys indebted to him for life, and removes any doubt Bella might have about his loyalty. What I actually find even more interesting is the fact that Narcissa asks him to take that vow. It's obvious that she doesn't do it to test him; she already feels that she can trust him. She clearly feels that he is the only one that can help her now, and, she also clearly feels that they are close enough for her to ask him such a big favour.
Another scene of insight is when Harry overhears (er ¦ eavesdrops on) the conversation Snape and Draco have during Slughorn's Christmas party.16 Here we see that Snape consistently addresses Draco Malfoy as "Draco' even though this is a situation where he must be highly frustrated with him. In fact, it is almost as though he is talking to a younger family member of his. Honestly, this might be the most sincere the readers have ever seen Snape. He is utterly worried. Is he worried about Draco, or is it just concern for himself because the Unbreakable Vow binds him with his life? Given the evidence already presented, it is easy to see that he is obviously concerned for his friend, and his friend's son. Snape appears to be a lonely, solitary person in the series and the Malfoy family is actually the only evidence we have of a long-standing bond of friendship. Given that the Malfoys may be his only close friends, he would have all the more reason to be worried about their son fulfilling a task that Voldemort himself has been unable to do. Snape would obviously be worried about himself as well, because his life is explicitly tied to Draco's. Draco, however, staunchly refuses to accept his help and even Harry is astonished to hear how he talks to professor Snape. After the task (if you can call killing the greatest wizard there is a "task") Snape and Draco flee together from Hogwarts and once again, the fate of Snape and the Malfoy family seems intertwined.
Given the evidence, it is obvious that Snape and the Malfoys retain a close relationship that goes beyond their common link to the Death Eaters. Even though it is not specifically stated how they became friends years ago, it is evident that they still maintain this friendship. So, what can we infer about Snape's loyalties, considering his relationship with the Malfoys? Does this evidence about his friendship with the Malfoy family prove that Snape is working for the Death Eaters? Certainly not, though it may be easier for them to keep in touch if he were. He appears to communicate frequently with Lucius, and the two seem to rely on each other to some extent and seem to be well informed of each other's activities. Could Snape, then, be using his ties with the Malfoys to do work for the Order? Odds are against that, as it never seems to be Snape that brings up his relationship with Lucius, deliberately keeping the Order in the dark on his status with the Malfoys. What, then, does this evidence prove? It proves that Snape cares deeply for the Malfoy family, going as far as offering his help by way of an Unbreakable Vow. What can we learn from this about Snape's loyalties, then? It says that, no matter what side he is on, one thing is clear: Snape is very loyal to his friends.
What is even more important, I think, is how all of this will play out in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My final knut here is this: As a friend of Lucius', Snape would certainly feel an obligation to Lucius' wife and child and will most likely help them in Lucius' stead. If he truly wanted to help them, he would do what he could to remove them from the Death Eaters' circle. I wouldn't be surprised if Draco and Narcissa will steer over to the good side, with Snape serving as both a connection to the Order for help, and protection from Voldemort's wrath. He will remain loyal, first and foremost, to his friends.
1. Lexicon, "Most Noble and Ancient House of Black."
2. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 89.
3. Ibid., 147’8.
4. Ibid., Philosopher's Stone, 94.
5. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 460’61.
6. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 569.
7. Lexicon, "Timeline."
8. Rowling, Philosopher's Stone, 103.
9. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 198.
10. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 513.
11. Ibid., 613.
12. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 460.
13. Ibid., 657.
14. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 38.
15. Ibid., 41.
16. Ibid., 302’3.
The Harry Potter Lexicon, s.v. "Which Wizard: The Most Noble and Ancient House of Black." Member of the Floo Network. http://hp-lexicon.org/wizards/blackfamilytree.html.
”””, s.v. "Timeline." Member of the Floo Network. http://www.hp-lexicon.org/timelines/timeline.php.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
”””. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
”””. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
”””. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
”””. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
Within the Harry Potter series, Slytherins are not typically revered by those outside their own house. For good reason, their shrewd, ambitious natures often prevent them from making friends or allies with those who do not share their values and priorities. Outright champions among them are few, and they are far more well known for the infamous villains who’ve come from within their ranks.
Into this tension, J.K. Rowling introduced Severus Snape, one of the most complex characters in literature. Neither hero, nor villain. With mixed motivations throughout, he is a mysterious enigma, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the wizarding world. Both Death Eater and Order member. Prejudiced professor and reluctant protector. Cruel betrayer and loyal right-hand man.
On the birthday of this pivotal character, let’s remember the genius of his double agency and recall the surprise we all felt when we realized what Rowling had been up to all along, revealing that every move and countermove had to be completely re-interpreted through another lens entirely. Though undeniably flawed, he was not the foe we loved to hate. In fact, he possessed far more bravery and love than we ever imagined.
When we thought Snape was cursing Harry’s broom during his debut Quidditch match, he was actually uttering counter-curses against someone with nefarious intent. He persisted feverishly until interrupted by Hermione in a misunderstanding of epic proportions.
When we thought Snape cared only for Malfoy’s victory in his Defense Against the Dark Art’s duel with Harry or, if not that, disciplinary action for Harry’s careless use of Parseltongue against a student, he may truly have been dismayed and concerned by abilities that indicated an inexplicable dark and powerful connection within Harry.
When we thought Snape was only interested in exposing the friends of his former bully and childhood enemy, he may have, beneath it all, harbored a genuine desire to protect the students from potential harm. Though he still harbored bitter resentment toward Remus and Sirius, and his disdain for the perpetually rash actions of Harry, Ron, and Hermione notwithstanding, it was Snape who positioned himself between the werewolf and the trio when their lives were in danger.
When we thought Snape was secretly colluding with former Death Eater Igor Karkaroff, he was, in fact, keeping an eye on the man’s erratic behavior and maintaining his cover as a fellow servant of the Dark Lord.
When we thought Snape was all too willing to risk Harry’s life and limb to discover the truth behind the unusual circumstances at the Triwizard Tournament, he was actually exercising discernment and taking a measured risk, weighing the possibility of success against the likelihood of failure. Underneath it all, he must have had at least some confidence in Harry’s uncanny ability to rise to the occasion and survive long enough for them to discover the plot.
When we thought Snape too proud to teach Harry Occlumency and too desirous of Harry’s mortification, he was actually fiercely driven to impress upon Harry the importance of mental protections against the Dark Lord, having experienced Voldemort’s acuity as a Legilimens himself. He was remarkably committed to the uncomfortable arrangement, abandoning the tutelage only when Harry had improved enough to penetrate the most painful of Snape’s memories–those which revealed the vulnerability behind his cold exterior.
When we thought Snape would surely give Harry up to Dolores Umbridge and relish both his torture and his downfall, Snape refused to produce the requested Veritaserum and alerted the Order of the Phoenix to Harry’s desperate suspicions about Sirius’ location within the Department of Mysteries.
When we thought Snape’s Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy spelled doom for Harry, we had no idea he intended to carry out Dumbledore’s elaborate plan and spare Draco Malfoy’s innocence.
When we thought Snape was a traitor for urging Harry to remain in the shadows of the Astronomy Tower while responding to Dumbledore’s pleas with the killing curse, his act of murder was actually a deed of great sacrifice, committing himself fully to the Dark Lord’s service and accepting the scorn of the wizarding world.
When we thought Snape was sadistically enjoying his reign over Hogwarts as the newly-instated Headmaster, he was in every way possible attempting to assist Harry on his impossible journey. He painstakingly tracked Harry’s whereabouts, deposited the sword of Gryffindor in a place that would fulfill all the demands of rightfully procuring it, and then used his Patronus to lead Harry to its location.
And when we thought Snape worthy of Harry’s just anger and a horrific end at Voldemort’s hand, we discovered the true depths of his courage and devotion. We learned that he abandoned everything for the love of a girl who did not love him back, a girl he could not save. We learned that his life’s purpose was in proving himself worthy of the endless love he professed, saving the son, for her sake. We learned that in spite of his conflicted feelings toward Harry, feelings that at any given moment could tempt him to cruelty, he did not want Harry to die, but to defeat the Dark Lord once and for all. And he was willing to sacrifice himself so that could happen.
Re-watch the backstory that brought clarity to all the scenes which preceded it and will always remind us why Harry called Snape the bravest man he ever knew. Happy Birthday, Severus Snape.