The Magical Turducken Of Severus Snape

Presenting a Dungeons & Dragons character alignment for a very complicated character.

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“Kill me then," panted Harry, who felt no fear at all, but only rage and contempt.

"Kill me like you killed him, you coward -"

"DON'T -" screamed Snape, and his face was suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning house behind them - "CALL ME COWARD!"
-- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

In any great story, there’s often a supporting character who is neither a hero(ine) nor a villain(ness), whom the reader can’t quite figure out, whose words and actions are frequently clear, but whose inner workings and true motivations often necessarily remain -- intriguingly, beguilingly, infuriatingly -- opaque. In the world of Harry Potter (also known as the Potterverse, depending on how much of an enthusiast you are), that character is Severus Snape. In spite of an impressive familiarity with and love of the Potterverse, wrapping my head around Professor Snape has been unexpectedly difficult. Somehow, even after the final revelation of his life and secrets in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Snape remains something of an enigma.

Obviously, I’m not alone in this. In the course of my research for this piece, I decided to try and determine Snape’s Dungeons & Dragons character alignment, the truest measure of a man. I took a poll among my Twitter followers, and while most believe that Snape is a True Neutral character, I received a vast range of responses, each assessment made with compelling arguments in support of that person’s determination. Nobody agreed. Nobody was right. But, nobody was wrong. After sifting through replies and exchanges for ten hours, I concluded wearily that Snape is most likely unclassifiable. Not because he is, but because I had to go to bed.

The central problem confounding an understanding of Severus Snape is his three-dimensional, contradictory humanity. For nearly two decades, Snape was a triple agent, and a ruthlessly effective one at that. Snape played each facet of his threefold identity masterfully: the former Death Eater, chastened and teaching at Hogwart’s; the secretly unreformed and loyal Death Eater who immediately re-enlists himself into the active service of the fully regenerated Lord Voldemort; and, finally, the heartbroken penitent who loved Lily Potter since their shared magical childhood, and who literally threw himself at the feet of Albus Dumbledore to secretly help the orphaned son sired by his former bully. At each point, in each book and film, readers and filmgoers believed that the persona presented was the authentic one. So, who was right? Which one of these men is the real Severus Snape? In order to arrive at a satisfactory answer, we have to stop thinking of Snape as a person, and start unpacking him as a layered concept; a complicated, magical, literary...well, turducken.

LAYER: Turkey Snape

ALIGNMENT: True Neutral

“Ah, yes,” he said softly, “Harry Potter. Our new – celebrity.”
Draco Malfoy and his friends Crabbe and Goyle sniggered behind their hands. Snape finished calling the names and looked up at the class. His eyes were black like Hagrid’s, but they had none of Hagrid’s warmth. They were cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels.

This is the Snape we first meet. Imperious, brooding, contemptuous, his pallid face perpetually expressionless and somehow always the barest lift of his lip away from a sneer, Professor Severus Snape is a nervous young witch or wizard’s basic nightmare. Rendered in all eight films to absolute perfection by the late, great Alan Rickman, Snape is intimidation personified. Truer to his name than perhaps any other character in the Potterverse, Severus is, indeed, severe. Every inch, every cell of Snape seems as though it is either specifically designed for or intentionally manipulated to magnify his scariness: his imposing height; his movements, brisk but dramatic and often punctuated by the dismissive swish of his ever-present black cape; his deep, slightly nasal monotone voice that still manages to perfectly deliver his cruel and biting wit. When he is first introduced in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Snape is seated at the faculty table in the Great Hall, the only person who seems unimpressed at everything unfolding before him, his dark, piercing eyes fixed upon the famed and celebrated but tiny and uncertain 11-year-old Harry: unsmiling, unwelcoming, unreadable. This foreshadowing, heavy-handed as it is, firmly establishes Snape as young Harry’s nemesis, and possibly Voldemort’s proxy. Even though he’s just a kid -- and a maltreated and orphaned one at that -- Snape doesn’t afford Harry or any student outside of Slytherin House space to be a child, and make mistakes. As we see in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix during Harry’s emergency Legilimency and Occlumency lessons, Snape’s dramatic expressions of scorn and contempt toward Harry are at least partially unfeigned. What Snape views as arrogance in Harry is inherited from his father, James, who had a definite cruel streak, as evidenced by Snape’s memories of being tortured and humiliated by Harry’s father and his friends for sport.

Kids who were bullied don’t always grow up into adults who bully, but when they do, they do it big. So it’s really no surprise that, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Snape is revealed to be clumsy-but-tenderhearted Neville Longbottom’s boggart. No, the surprise is that he isn’t more students’ boggarts, as he is quite fond of subjecting his pupils regularly to torments both physical and psychological, and no one, not even Dumbledore, the Headmaster and his boss, ever seems to bother to really rein him in. A running gag throughout most of the story is Snape’s repeatedly frustrated Capricornian* professional ambition. It’s an open secret that Snape, the Potions Master, covets the revolving door position that is the Defense Against The Dark Arts post. There’s a chance that Dumbledore’s patience with Snape’s oversteps arise from guilt that he hasn’t promoted him -- but there’s just as much of a chance that being mean to kids seriously hinders one’s capacity as an educator, so like everything else about Snape, it’s hard to call.

LAYER TWO: Duck Snape

ALIGNMENT: Lawful Evil

Snape smiled.
“Before I answer you – oh yes, Bellatrix, I am going to answer! You can carry my words back to the others who whisper behind my back, and carry false tales of my treachery to the Dark Lord! Before I answer you, I say, let me ask a question in turn. Do you really think that the Dark Lord has not asked me each and every one of those questions? And do you really think that, had I not been able to give satisfactory answers, I would be sitting here talking to you?”

This Snape emerges after the return of Lord Voldemort. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Snape is appointed to ensure that the also-secretly-not-evil Draco Malfoy carries out the murder of Albus Dumbledore, the Junior League Death Eater’s task that the Dark Lord has foisted upon him. Through his expert command of shielding his mind and innermost thoughts through Occlumency, Snape manages to keep his intentions secret from Voldemort, his rabidly loyal first lieutenant, Bellatrix Lestrange, and her sister and fellow Death Eater and possible mind-reader, Narcissa Malfoy. Reunited with Voldemort, who has taken residence at the grand home of the Malfoy family, Snape watches the Dark Lord torture and finally murder Charity Burbridge, the sweet and gentle Head of Muggle Studies at Hogwart’s and Snape’s friend, and feed her corpse to his companion snake, Nagini. And last, but not least by any stretch, this Snape is Dumbledore’s murderer, who goes on to become the Headmaster of Hogwart’s under Voldemort’s bloody regime.

LAYER THREE: Chicken Snape

ALIGNMENT: Neutral Good

Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.

"After all this time?"

"Always," said Snape.

Ask a Harry Potter fan what the saddest moment in the films were, and you'll get a few common answers. Watching Dobby, the adorable and defiantly free house elf, shuddering his last tiny breaths in Harry's arms. Or maybe it was the murder of Sirius Black, James Potter's best friend and Harry's godfather, the closest thing our hero has ever had to a loving family member and his only living connection to his parents. And other fans of the Potterverse would say that the saddest moment in the story arc is the death of the renowned and powerful Dumbledore, apparently felled through the treacherous machinations of none other than his most trusted protégé.

Tucked all the way inside what we have seen, and what we think we know, is Snape’s truest self. He is tortured, deeply misunderstood and alone. Beneath his cold, cruel exterior, Chicken Snape is a roiling sea of passionate emotion. His entire life is both punctuated and reified by profound, unspoken sadness -- and it is that sadness, tempered by his stolid courage and grim determination to stay Dumbledore’s soul-wrenching course, that ultimately defines him.

* J.K. Rowling made both Lord Voldemort (December 31) and Severus Snape (January 9 - the day before my own birthday) Capricorns. She shares a birthday with Harry, while one of her villains shares a birthday with a former paramour of Rowling’s. So, no, the astrological shade isn’t accidental.