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Related: Was Snape really prejudiced?

In a pair of tweets dated 2015-11-28 (1 2), J.K. Rowling said the following about Snape:

Snape didn't die for 'ideals'. He died in an attempt to expiate his own guilt. He could have broken cover at any time to save himself, but he chose not to tell Voldemort that the latter was making a fatal error in targeting Harry. Snape's silence ensured Harry's victory.

What does J.K. Rowling mean about Snape in this quote? Did Snape not have any ideals, or did he have ideals that he quashed as he fought with the Order against Voldemort? Was he prejudiced until the very end?

Please help me to decode the meaning of J.K. Rowling's quote. I really, really want to fully understand it.

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    She should leave it alone. First Hermoine and Harry speculation now this. – Athena Widget Nov 29 '15 at 2:13
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    JKR's comments there are quite confusing. You perhaps need to read it as, 'he didn't die merely for ideals...'. Note that indeed JKR's final sentence there ("Snape's silence ensured victory...") is simply literally precisely and exactly the same as typing "Snape died for ideals". So the FIRST sentence there ("Snape did NOT die for ideals") exhibits a let us say complexity of understanding. – Fattie Nov 30 '15 at 3:05
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    @JoeBlow I don't entirely agree with your reasoning (though I think I agree with your conclusion). "Snape's silence ensured victory..." is not equivalent to "Snape died for ideals", because the latter implies intent. His silence may have been instrumental in the victory without him caring one whit about the victory itself - it may have been a byproduct of some other motivation. – scubbo Nov 30 '15 at 14:55
  • Hi Scubb. Yes - by all means. But I think the point is, the sort of distinction you are making there is extremely subtle, and the (extremely plain, bold as it were) statements taken as such, "Snape didn't die for 'ideals'." and indeed "Snape's silence ensured Harry's victory." are, indeed, just plain "confusing". It doesn't add up. – Fattie Nov 30 '15 at 15:01
  • @AthenaWidget -- I don't mind her giving us information that isn't in the books, as long as it makes sense. This quote doesn't make sense to me yet, but that could be due to the character restrictions of Twitter (Which is why I asked this question.). – Slytherincess Dec 2 '15 at 18:36
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Let's take this bit by bit.

Snape didn't die for 'ideals'.

To your first question, I think saying that Snape didn't die for his ideals doesn't preclude Snape from having ideals. Many, many people with upstanding ideals die for perfectly mundane reasons. Snape showed extraordinary devotion to the Order's cause in his own fashion, but it's simply a fact that he didn't die carrying out that mission. He could have been a fully devoted Death Eater, and Voldemort would have killed just the same (remember, that's exactly what he thought Snape was).

Did he have ideals? That's heavily debated. Even while chastising paintings for saying "Mudblood," fighting the Dark Arts, and working to save innocents, he bullied and terrified innocents, treated a brilliant Muggle-born cruelly for no discernible reason. The simple answer is that Snape, like nearly all people, is complicated and a hypocrite.

He died in an attempt to expiate his own guilt. He could have broken cover at any time to save himself, but he chose not to tell Voldemort that the latter was making a fatal error in targeting Harry. Snape's silence ensured Harry's victory.

Here, Rowling is referring to the moment of Snape's death. As you'll recall, Snape was murdered when Voldemort decided it would allow him to claim the Elder Wand and defeat Harry Potter.

Snape, at the moment of his death, could have easily saved his own life by simply telling Voldemort that attacking Harry Potter was what Dumbledore hoped for, since it would destroy part of his soul. Voldemort would have then realized that killing Snape would have accomplished nothing long-term. But Snape remained silent, and by doing so, Snape ensured Harry's victory.

Far be it from me to question Rowling... but I don't agree with her logic here. If Snape had actually revealed to Voldemort that he had held back evidence that could have led to Voldemort's downfall, no way he would be allowed to live. So I think the notion that Snape had a Lily-like moment where he could have chosen to save himself was extremely unlikely.

He died in an attempt to expiate his own guilt.

This might sound as though Snape held back the information because he felt guilty for Lily and wanted to save Harry. But if that's the case, I have no idea what Rowling's getting at. If you'll recall, Snape honestly thought that Harry had to die at this point, and he was holding back information that would have stopped Voldemort from attacking him.

I think the answer to all your questions lie in another tweet from Rowling today:

Snape is all grey. You can't make him a saint: he was vindictive & bullying. You can't make him a devil: he died to save the wizarding world

So while Snape is acting on his guilt that he failed to protect Lily from Voldemort, I don't think Harry had anything to do with it. By helping to ensure Voldemort's death, he's protecting the entire world from the monster he once helped to kill Lily.

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    "and was intentionally kept away from the DADA post by Dumbledore over concerns about his affinity for the Dark Arts." There is no evidence this is true. It is also possible that Dumbledore kept Snape away from the DADA post because he knew the post was cursed. – vap78 Nov 29 '15 at 20:33
  • @vap78 -- While I agree with your conclusion, I don't think in canon it is ever stated why Dumbledore failed to give Snape the DADA post. Snape's affinity for the Dark Arts is a common thread among the books, but I don't think we know why Dumbledore kept the post from Snape. – Slytherincess Dec 24 '15 at 20:53
  • I like your answer, but I have a problem with you saying Snape was kept from the DADA post due to his affinity for the Dark Arts. I don't believe this is ever stated in canon (if it is, please do correct me). I LOVE that you have a follow-up tweet. I like this answer a lot. Change up the bit about Snape and I'll give it to you. :) – Slytherincess Dec 24 '15 at 20:56
  • I have accepted this answer -- it's succinct, and I like that you included the additional tweet from J.K. Rowling. Thanks! :) PS - I removed the sentence regarding Snape and the DADA position; you can always do a rollback. – Slytherincess Dec 29 '15 at 18:17
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+200

As interesting a question as this is, I think the only way to be 100% sure is to ask her. I don't Twitter, so I'm not sure how this would work, or how likely it is that an answer would be forthcoming, but anything I, or anyone else says, can only be inference.

But, as we know, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is a truly wonderful reveal where we learn that Severus Snape had loved Lily all along. He does what he does because of his love for her. He carried what he knew of the Prophecy to Voldemort and, because of that, Voldemort went after Lily Potter. Snape has now lost the woman he loved and he feels responsible for it (not unreasonably you might say). So what's he to do? He has nothing left, he wishes he were dead. But what use would that be? All he can do is honour what she died for and, in that way, he can make some small atonement for the part he played in her death.

'Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and colour of Lily Evans's eyes, I am sure?'

'DON'T!' bellowed Snape. 'Gone ... Dead ...'

'Is this remorse, Severus?'

'I wish ... I wish I were dead ...'

'And what use would that be to anyone?' said Dumbledore coldly. 'If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.'

Snape seemed to peer through a haze of pain, and Dumbledore's words appeared to take a long time to reach him.

'What - what do you mean?'

'You know how and why she died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lily's son.'

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - p.544 - Bloomsbury - Chapter 33, The Prince's Tale

'I thought ... all these years ... that we were protecting him for her. For Lily.'

...

'I have spied for you, and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter's son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter -'

'But this is touching, Severus,' said Dumbledore seriously. 'Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?'

'For him?' shouted Snape. 'Expecto patronum!'

From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: she landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office and soared out of the window. 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.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - pp.551-2 - Bloomsbury - Chapter 33, The Prince's Tale

So I'd say it's abundantly clear why Snape took up the role of double agent. But, you might wonder why he would continue with it, when the grand plan became clear to him. Well, what choice does he have? For one thing, I consider him, to the end, a broken man, with his love gone from the world, by (in his mind) his own hand. I do not believe he has anything much in this world, he has no need to save himself.

But might not he wish to save Lily Potter's son, out of love for her? Well, I don't think so. We know he has no love for Harry whatsoever. He is also surely clever enough to realise that Harry cannot be saved, he is not going to run away and hide, he is going to try and take down Voldemort. Why let the death of Lily Potter's son be as vain as hers, when Snape himself could help make it mean something? He could help make it mean the end of the other person whose hand slew Lily Potter - the hand he could not stay.

Ultimately, he died in the hope of undoing the man who killed Lily Potter. He died an ally of her son. By so doing, he could honour her, he could ensure that her death meant something, he could give Harry Potter a fighting chance of achieving what he must always die for. There is no other way. Neither can live while the other survives.

But he did not die in defence of Muggle-borns generally, he did not die for the triumph of good over evil, he did not die for abstract ideals, he died for personal reasons. He died, having lost his love and been a part of that, to obliterate the one who killed her.

Was he prejudiced to the end, though? Well, no, I don't think he was, and I don't think Jo's quote implies otherwise. Just because his motivation in fighting the fight was personal, rather than defence of Muggle-borns generally, does not make him prejudiced. He was a fairly reformed character, witness:

'Don't be shocked, Severus. How many men and women have you watched die?'

'Lately, only those whom I could not save,' said Snape.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - p.551 - Bloomsbury - Chapter 33, The Prince's Tale

And especially:

And now Snape stood again in the Headmaster's study as Phineas Nigellus came hurrying into his portrait.

'Headmaster! They are camping in the Forest of Dean! The Mudblood -'

'Do not use that word!'

'- the Granger girl, then, mentioned the place as she opened her bag and I heard her!'

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - p.553 - Bloomsbury - Chapter 33, The Prince's Tale

Now he has no need to chastise his colleague and, in many ways, his comrade. Why else, but that his own prejudice had waned, would he bother pulling up Phineas Nigellus in a private conversation?

It would be my understanding that Severus Snape has been a Death Eater, he has suffered immensely for that, and he dies hoping to destroy them and, I suppose, make up for the death of Lily Potter - and make it worth something.

But this is personal. It's about his life and his love and the death of someone close to him. It's not like Lily's death made him think: God! If I don't do something about this, there will be a hundred more Lilys! Or: Oh! I understand now how wrong killing Muggle-borns is, I am inflamed by a hatred of prejudice and I will fight for its destruction! It's about him.

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    +1 - you used pretty much all the quotes I was going to (I think my conclusion is a mite different from yours but not too far) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Nov 29 '15 at 3:07
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I am not quite sure if I'm merely re-stating Au101's excellent answer in my own words (I surely base mine on pretty much the same quotes :), but the tweet seems to be fairly straightforward:

Snape didn't die for 'ideals'.

This means he wasn't fighting for "love", or to save others (like Harry was explicitly noted to be motivated), or Dumbledore's "greater good". ...

He died in an attempt to expiate his own guilt.

... He was acting for his own personal reasons - specifically, his love for Lily and his guilt at causing her death.

He could have broken cover at any time to save himself, but he chose not to tell Voldemort that the latter was making a fatal error in targeting Harry. Snape's silence ensured Harry's victory.

If he told Voldemort the truth, Voldemort wouldn't have attacked Harry, and wouldn't have destroyed the "Seventh' Horcrux" inside Harry, and consequently, would have remained immortal and won[1].

That may have allowed Snape to stay alive (as Voldemort wouldn't have needed the Elder Wand, for lack of a desire to kill Harry with it) - but it would have gone against his reason to act and to live as he did for the last 17+ years (Ensuring Voldemort's downfall, to avenge Lily).

[1] - we'll leave aside JKR's major plot blunder - if I was Voldmort, I would assuredly have first created a couple dozen new Horcruxes first thing - never mind once I realized my old ones were at risk. THEN go Harry-hunting at leisure. Seriously, what in the name of Merlin's torn unwashed socks were you thinking, Tom?

  • No, I like this, I think it complements my tome nicely and focuses on the tweet itself, whereas I took my leave from Slytherincess's closing remarks ("I really, really want to fully understand it"). You have my +1, but I cannot give it without registering my disagreement with your footnote, but I think that's a question already very much on the site, so I'll not tap out another book in the comments ;) – Au101 Nov 29 '15 at 3:22
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    From the description it appears that he could not have created new ones as each horcrux tore away part of his soul. An attempt to create an eighth horcrux would probably have destroyed him completely as well as destroying the ones that he had previously created. – sabbahillel Nov 29 '15 at 15:19
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    @Adeptus - did Snape actually know that Malfoy "defeated" Dumbledore, for the Wand ownership purposes? I don't think Dumbledore told him that – DVK-on-Ahch-To Nov 30 '15 at 3:26
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    @Adeptus - He only got there later, IIRC. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Nov 30 '15 at 4:24
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    Also, I'm very impressed that Merlin apparently gave even his torn and unwashed socks names. How very methodical! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 30 '15 at 5:40
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I am reminded of the character Londo from the very excellent series Babylon 5.

Londo starts the series longing for power, achieves a small degree of it, and then discovers that the deals he has made in order to gain power will destroy everything he cares for.

He then strives to make things right, using many of the skills and tools that power has taught him, but has only limited success in this. Eventually the evil that he unthinkingly brought about imprisons and destroys him.

Snape's story follows this outline. His pride and greed lead him to the service of Voldemort, and his service in turn brings about the death of the only person he ever cared about. The shock of this loss caused him to undergo what was likely the first genuine self-examination he had ever undertaken.

In his former life he doubtless prided himself with the notion that he would never allow anyone to deceive him, but now he knows that he allowed his own greed to deceive him, a failing that is far and away worse than being deceived by others.

The fantasy of seeing himself as an ubermensch, whose right it was to subjugate others, was shattered, and he saw his power-hungry self as little better than a pig rooting after acorns.

And to ice this cake was the soul-certainty that it took the death of the person he cared about the most to bring him to his senses.

I regard the piece of dialogue

Do not use that word!

to be the most deeply moving point in the whole series. Without this line, Snape is merely arranging for the destruction of the foe who murdered his one true love; but with this line, we see that Snape has truly repented of his old ways and is now bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance.

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