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The Great Snape Debate
Authors: Amy Berner, Orson Scott Card, Joyce Millman
Genre:Nonfiction Literary Analysis/Predictions
Published:April 2007

The Great Snape Debate

Description from Borders website:

The Harry Potter books are supposed to be about Harry Potter. So why can't we stop talking about Severus Snape?

Love him or love to hate him, Snape has become the pivotal character in the Harry Potter series. There are plenty of reasons to believe he killed Dumbledore at the end of Half-Blood Prince at Dumbledore's behest -- but plenty of reasons not to, too. So is Snape on Harry's side, or is he on Voldemort's? Is he bad to the bone, or just a little misunderstood?

Only after Deathly Hallows will we know for sure . . . but we can make some educated guesses now.

Designed as a flip book, half the book provides the case for Snape's innocence and when flipped over, the other half provides the case for Snape's Guilt. In The Great Snape Debate, you'll get all the facts on our favorite Potions Master so you can decide for yourself.

Review by Travis Prinzi of
(Copied with permission)

This is a review of the Borders special release, The Great Snape Debate (available in Borders and Waldenbooks stores), by Amy Berner, Orson Scott Card, and Joyce Millman. The book is divided into two sections, each arguing the opposite point of view about Snape.

I began with “The Case for Snape’s Guilt.” Composed of 5 chapters, 4 by Amy Berner, 1 by Joyce Millman, it presents the Evil Snape argument. It’s important to note that the authors did not collaborate in an effort to put together one cohesive argument. Each chapter is a separate essay, and while they are structured to form a start to finish argument, each chapter represents the individual author’s work.

As far as overall strengths go, we can start by noting some excellent Rowling quotes employed in the case against Snape, particularly in the first chapter (Berner). Rowling is quoted in 2004 as being completely baffled that anyone likes Snape (p. 2); as calling him a “deeply horrible person” in 2000 (p. 25); and, though the quote is not specifically related to Snape, as attempting to write “shades of evil” into the story.

In an interesting section, Berner argues that Evil Snape is a far more interesting storyline than Good Snape, pointing out, as some have here at SoG, that there really would be no surprise in a Good Snape turnout (pp. 25-26). For the Evil Snape argument, Berner believes that Snape would be a great villain, whereas Voldemort is in the background and almost caricature-like. Snape, then, is sort of like Voldemort’s “Saruman” - the one we expect we can rely on, because the wise old wizard trusts him, who is ultimately self-serving and evil (p. 27).

My favorite chapter of this half of the book, and easily its strongest, is Joyce Millman’s chapter on “Snape the Villain.” Drawing parallels between Snape and Milton’s Satan (p. 36), Gothic villains of the Romantic era (p. 37), and “sympathetic,” “charismatic” villains of more recently literature (p. 38) help to set a literary context and precedent for Evil Snape.

Perhaps one of the more helpful insights offered in the case against Snape is the observation that “Snape’s shame is the key to his personality” (p. 41). While Harry, Snape, and Voldemort all had lousy upbringings, Millman argues that comparing Harry and Voldemort is not helpful, since Voldemort seems almost genetically programmed toward evil, whereas Snape is presented differently and as a much more authentic counterpart to Harry. There are weaknesses to this argument, but the basic insight - that we have in Snape a very clear example of someone who made bad choices as a result of a difficult life - is helpful to the discussion.

Despite its strengths, there are a few glaring weaknesses in the Guilty Snape half of the book. Though Rowling’s attempt at “shades of evil” is adequately covered later on, Berner notes in the first chapter that “those who follow Voldemort are evil, and those who fight against him are good” (p. 3). This kind of simplistic definition of evil doesn’t even make it through the rest of her own chapter. Thankfully she remedies the problem later in what is her best argument (that Snape fits well as another “shade of evil”), but one wonders why the overly-simplistic definition of evil is used to introduced the argument against Snape.

By far the book’s weakest section is its dependence on what might be the worst reading of Dumbledore I’ve yet to come across (Berner, pp. 4-10). To be blunt, Berner sounds a whole lot like the Ministry of Magic in Order, describing Dumbledore as an inept fool who believes absurd stories, “cries wolf,” and regularly makes gigantic errors in judgment. He is portrayed as power-hungry, creating a sense of awe about himself for his students because he can’t get respect from the rest of the Wizarding World, which is rightly skeptical of him. Berner even employs a simplistic readings of the text in the argument against Dumbledore, charing him with fault in hiring Lockhart as DADA teacher, whom CoS clearly describes as being the only one who wanted the job (besides Snape, of course).

(Is my love for Dumbledore and need to crusade against anyone who thinks he’s not so great showing?)

Another weakness I find in “the case for Snape’s guilt” is Berner’s belief that an Evil Snape reading necessitates Snape’s being beyond redemption. She argues that Snape just “doesn’t have it in [him] to follow…a path” to redemption (p. 29), and that if Snape is evil, then Snape, not Voldemort, is “the foe that Harry defeats,” the one he will face at the end (p. 30). This gets into matters of opinion, of course, but I have a hard time believing Rowling would put anyone (except Voldemort himself) beyond the realm of redemption.

The Evil Snape argument ends with a description of the problems with Slytherin, and half the chapter (again by Berner) is spent explaining why Umbridge is evil and making the point that you don’t have to be in Slytherin to be evil. One wonders how this advances the argument at all.

This half of the book could have easily been improved with more analysis of Snape’s character and Rowling’s quotes and less time re-telling what happened in the books from an Evil Snape point of view. One example (among many) is the Berner’s assertion that “Snape continues to respectfully refer to Voldemort as his ‘Dark Lord’” (p. 47). While Harry raises the same point against Snape in their occlumency lessons, and it is certainly a point to consider, the subtle use of the word “his” is slightly misleading, since Snape never referred to Voldemort as “my Dark Lord,” but only “the Dark Lord.”

“The Case for Snape’s Guilt” has it strong points, but most of them aren’t points that you couldn’t already find insightfully made even in the comments section on this very website. It’s a quick read, and the strong points are worth the time, but just be prepared for some of the more frustrating aspects that I’ve documented.

In any case, you’ll get a laugh out of some of the comical end-of-chapter vignettes added by Millman.

Note: Each half of the book contains a semi-pointless chapter arguing that the choice of Alan Rickman to play Snape supports the Evil or Good Snape readings. Since this carries no weight with the argument (best to stick to Rowling’s canon, I believe), I’m not even going to review those chapters as part of the assessment of the argument’s strengths and weaknesses. (They are, of course, fun to read if you’re a big Alan Rickman fan like myself.)

“The Case for Snape’s Innocence” is the far better half of the book, in my opinion. Made up of 5 essays that parallel the five from “The Case for Snape’s Guilt,” it presents a fairly thorough examination of the evidence for Good Snape. (The 6th essay, “Who is Snape?” by Orson Scott Card, is really a stand-alone essay, deserving of its own post, which I plan to write subsequent to this one). I cannot possibly cover everything that this part of the book covered. I’ll only address the points of particular interest to me.

Joyce Millman’s essays are particularly strong once again. She links Snape to many other tragic heroes in literature (pp. 33-36), and in one of the stronger sections of this half of the book, argues that Snape fits the “shapeshifter” archetype (pp. 16-18). Millman’s ability to set Snape’s story and “redemptive path” into an overall literary context is the most important part of “The Case for Snape’s Innocence.” Chapter 2, “Snape the Hero,” is brilliant literary analysis, focusing particularly on the consequences of the shame Snape has been forced to bear throughout his life.

Prior to reading “The Case for Snape’s Innocence,” I never gave much attention to Snape-Lily theories. It almost seemed too easy. But aside from the out-of-the-blue Lupin-Tonks subplot, Rowling’s romance has been really easy to guess. And while it’s quite out of the question that Lily ever fell for Snape, I’m not exactly sure how Snape could have not fallen for Lily at some point in their teenage years. (Millman discusses Lily on pp. 22-24).

Millman makes a point (can’t find the page #) that has intrigued me since HBP - that Snape is capable of romantic feelings, even if he doesn’t show it. I agree with the assessment, and have done since I read HBP, that there was something deeper happening in Snape’s kind interaction with Narcissa in “Spinner’s End.” I’m not of the opinion that there’s some sort of “Snape loves Narcissa” thing going on, but I do think that their interaction reveals a capability in Snape to at least care for someone in that way.

In any event, we need to consider just how traumatic an unrequited love for Lily would have been for Snape. Brutally picked on, abused (at least emotionally and verbally, if not physically), and bullied by James, Lily’s defense of him must have been an astounding thing for Snape. Someone finally saw James for the bully he was. Millman makes the point well that, apart from Snape’s “mudblood” comment, which makes sense in the context (Snape trying to save face after being hung upside down and saved by a girl), Snape never insults Lily throughout the entire series. Not once when bullying Harry does he say anything bad about Lily - always about James, but never about Lily. And to have Lily fall for James would have been devastating for a young, teenage Snape. Take all the melodrama you witness from teens about their “love lives,” and put it in the context of someone with as miserable a life as Snape. Trauma. Rejection. One rejection too many, I’d say.

In any event, I’m not going to give the entire argument away. If Good Snape is going to fly, some justification, or at least reasonable explanation, is going to have to be given for Snape’s bullying abuse of students. The essays do a fairly good job of putting Snape’s pedagogy in context, and, while not excusing it, making it seem at least reasonable that Snape could be the bully he is and still wind up on the side of Dumbledore. (I’d argue that “The Case of Snape’s Innocence” is a bad term, as all the authors agree that Snape is not a completely “innocent” person by any stretch.)

The essays also take into account the various nuances and the complexity to Snape’s character, which is exceedingly helpful. Snape doesn’t fit nicely into any camp, and Millman, Berner, and Card all admit to varying possibilities within a Good Snape reading.

As far as weaknesses go, each author pretty much follows the standard “Snape killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore’s orders” argument, which I don’t buy without some serious qualifications. I still have a hard time believing that Dumbledore would command the use of an unforgivable curse. This is why some version of Stoppered Death needs to be added into the theory; otherwise, you get terrible character inconsistency with Dumbledore.

Again, there was the occasional tendency to re-tell the story that we already know, this time from a Good Snape bias. Chapter 3, “The Life of Severus Snape: Maligned and Misunderstood” (Berner) is somewhat guilty of this charge.

You will indeed enjoy, once again, the little vignettes provided by Millman, my favorite of which is a list of songs found on Snape’s iPod (p. 57).

After reading “The Case for Snape’s Guilt,” I did not plan a strong recommendation of the book. The excellent analysis in “The Case for Snape’s Innocence” changes that. I do highly recommend the book, particularly for those who want a good, basic, but nuanced introduction to the Snape debate. I remain disappointed that a more solid case for Evil Snape was not presented. This is the book’s most glaring weakness, and as such, it does fail to some extent in its attempt to present a solid case for either side. I don’t know where each of the authors officially stands on Snape, but I’d be willing to bet (they can correct me in the comments if they read this) that they lean towards Good Snape. The book would have been a better contribution to the debate had each side been written by a true believer of their position (In other words, let an Evil Snape advocate write that half, and a Good Snape advocate the other half) rather than having the same authors contribute to both sides.

It’s a quick read. Millman’s literary analysis and Orson Scott Card’s 20+ page essay are worth the time you’ll spend on it. It’s also a helpful summary to reacquaint yourself with the Snape issue if you’ve gotten to this point in the year and have no idea how you’re going to cram a re-read of the previous 6 books into less than two months.

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