If anyone in my generation has a nuanced approach to good and evil, it’s thanks to Snape

In a world too easily divided into angels and demons, Professor Snape (as played in the films by Alan Rickman) makes the case for moral ambiguity.

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To my 15-year-old self, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a revelation. Not because of Harry’s triumph (we all got sick of him circa book five, right?) but because of chapter 33, “The Prince’s Tale”. In it, Rowling reveals what we should have known all along:  Severus Snape, Harry’s longtime antagonist, and apparent murderer of Professor Dumbledore, was a double agent all along.

The hints are there from the very first book, which offers a potted version of Deathly Hallows' denouement. Harry hates Snape because he’s mean, rude, judgemental, and works with suspicious chemicals in a dark basement. And yet Snape turns out to be his saviour: perhaps the person most concerned with his safety out of all the jolly characters populating the Hogwarts castle. The first time Harry sees Snape, Percy, Ron’s older brother, points out that he's making Professor Quirrell (who, as it turns out, has Voldemort’s facing lurking under his turban) looks “nervous”. How right he turns out to be.

But of course, we don’t learn the lesson from the first book: we, like Harry, tut at Dumbledore’s mistaken faith in Snape as he meets Bellatrix Lestrange on a hilltop and sends the headmaster tumbling to his death.

The films added visual heft to Rowling’s double-bluff. Snape’s black, Malvolio-esque ensemble (his robes, symbolically are the only costume that doesn’t change throughout the seven films) and black contact lenses served as a reminder of his supposedly  black heart; while Alan Rickman lent the character his trademark blank-eyed, sneering expression and slow, villainous voice. The film’s directors, it seems, believed it too. Rowling filled Rickman in on Snape’s secret history, and so occasionally during filming he reportedly told the director “No, I can’t do that – I know what is going to happen and you don’t”.

The lesson of Snape is that, counter to our childhood – and, more often than not, adulthood – prejudices, the people who are nice to us aren’t always the most good, or most trustworthy. Snape, Harry realises after his first Potions lesson, “hates him”. Yet this has no bearing on the fact that he will repeatedly save his life. Our easy shorthand for evil (dark colours, interest in unusual activities, hatred of niceties) is shown up as meaningless, even dangerous, by Rowling.

Yet even when we reach chapter 33 of the final book, Snape doesn't take off his mask to reveal a kind, large-hearted man. In fact, it's debateable whether his good intentions even stem from some inner goodness. Instead, Rowling uses his love for Harry’s mother as his motivation to protect Harry and help destroy Voldemort – the narrative argues that a single thread of happiness can act as redemption.

Voldemort’s evil is unknowable, unstoppable; but so is Dumbledore’s highminded goodness, which is prepared to send himself and Harry to die in pursuit of a greater good. Snape, meanwhile, is human. He is gnarled and grimacing from his unpleasant interactions with the world, but clutches one truth (his love for Harry’s mother) to him, anyway.

Today, we’re very caught up in the idea that people, especially public figures, are either good or bad. This dichotomy is never more striking than when these public figures die. David Bowie’s alleged sex crimes or supposed Nazi interests are impossible to process in the context of his death because we no longer have a mental slot available for the kind of morally ambiguous genius this would make him. Had he been found guilty of sex crimes before his death, those front pages would have been occupied by something else; the public mourning diluted tenfold. Alan Rickman, to our relief, met his wife at 19 and lived what we can all agree was a wonderful, cultured and "good" life. This made mourning him as a near-saint mercifully easy. 

This isn’t just a kneejerk Twitter phenomenon, either. Slavoj Zizek wrote that the sex attacks in Cologne are simply a reminder of how brutal and terrible people can be. He cites Tarantino’s recent film The Hateful Eight as a comparable moral framework, in which “there are no good guys in the struggle against racism”. “We tend to forget,” he writes, “that there is no redeeming quality in suffering. Being a victim at the bottom of the social ladder does not make you some kind of privileged voice of morality and justice.”

But does it mean morality deserts you altogether? If bad things happen to you or near you, the argument goes, you become bad. But isn’t this thinking a little lazy? Meanwhile, it’s striking that in an age of supposed progressive justice, we still apparently ascribe to the medieval notion that a “bad” action or situation can mark us out for life. The unwanted result is that we ignore the transgressions of the “good” and write large the transgressions of the “bad”.

It becomes easy to generalise, to say “well, these men were in the same situation as other refugees – let’s assume, shall we, that they are all rapists, too?” This logic denies agency, and forgets the fact that the smallest things – a deep respect for women; or an unbreakable loyalty; or a selfish, grimacing, Snape-like love – can effect our actions far more than our situation, or past actions, can. If we believe the world is populated by angels and demons, everyone is predictable. But as even a children’s book character can prove to us, this isn’t true.

Now listen to Barbara discussing Harry Potter on the NS's pop culture podcast:

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.