Severus Snape is perhaps the most divisive character in the entire wizarding world. Was he really the bravest man Harry ever met? Or was he a villain who took out his feelings of frustration and resentment on an innocent child? What would’ve happened if Severus Snape and Lily Potter had fallen in love?
Snape’s entire arc as a character is driven by just one thing: his love for Lily Evans. She was his childhood friend, then his only friend at Hogwarts. But she never returned his romantic feelings, and the affection he felt for her curdled into something dark and vindictive. Desperate for acceptance after Lily chose James Potter over him, Snape joined the Death Eaters and the rest is, well, wizarding history.
In the end. Snape’s love for Lily prompted him to do both terrible, selfish things as well as acts of great bravery and personal sacrifice. How much of their story do you remember? And do you think Snape was ultimately a hero, a villain, or something else?
Childhood in Cokeworth
January 9, 1960: Severus Snape is born. His father was Tobias Snape, a muggle, and his mother was Eileen Prince. We, of course, know that his mother’s last name gave rise to the nickname “The Half-Blood Prince.”
In the same village that same month, a girl named Lily Evans was born. Lily’s parents and sister, Petunia, were all Muggles. When she was nine years old, she met a little boy with the unusual name of Severus. He told her something that would change her life:
“You are a witch. I’ve been watching you for a while. But there’s nothing wrong with that. My mum’s one, and I’m a wizard.”–Severus Snape to Lily Evans, chapter 33 of The Deathly Hallows
They remained friends until they arrived at Hogwarts, where—once again—everything would change.
Arriving at Hogwarts
September 1st, 1971: Snape and Lily both arrive at Hogwarts for their first year. Snape is sorted into Slytherin, while Lily is sent to Gryffindor. Even though they were in different houses, their friendship continued.
Petunia had become jealous and spiteful when her sister received an invitation to attend Hogwarts, and their relationship never recovered. Severus was the only person Lily knew from home—and after her relationship with Petunia soured, he was all too eager to step into the role of her best friend.
Although they seemed terribly mismatched at first glance—the vivacious redheaded witch and the moody, greasy-haired wizard—Snape had fallen hopelessly in love with Lily. But, as we all know, his feelings would never be requited. Instead, Lily married the ringleader of the bullies that tormented Snape during his years at Hogwarts.
Sirius Almost Gets Snape Killed
1976 is the year that the Marauders step up their torment of Snape. Unable to curb his curiosity about what the other boys were up to, he is determined to find out what’s going on when Remus Lupin disappears once a month. Sirius callously suggests that Snape should follow Lupin if he wants to know.
Of course, following Lupin through the passage under the Whomping Willow and into the Shrieking Shack would have been a fatal prank. Not only would Lupin almost certainly attack Snape—who was not an Animagus like the Marauders—but it would have resulted in Lupin being expelled from Hogwarts. Or worse.
James Potter prevents Snape from following Lupin, but that hardly endeared the teenagers to each other. In fact, their worst confrontation at school was just around the corner.
Snape’s Worst Memory
While facing the intense pressure of their O.W.L. exams during their fifth year at Hogwarts, the Marauders wanted to blow off some steam. They turn their attention to Snape, using a combination of spells to disarm him and make him fall down. Snape tries to fight back, but James is relentless. He fills Snape’s mouth with magical soup bubbles so that Snape can’t hurl any more hexes at them. That’s the moment that Lily arrives to see what her housemates are doing.
“You think you’re funny … But you’re just an arrogant, bullying toerag, Potter. Leave him alone.”–Lily Evans to James Potter, chapter 28 of Order of the Phoenix
Snape, enraged, slashes at James with a spell that is presumably Sectumsempra, the vicious combat spell that Harry would later discover in The Half-Blood Prince. James retaliates with a levitation spell that holds Snape upside down in the air, utterly humiliating the Slytherin outcast as his robe falls over his head. Lily forces James to let him down, but instead of being grateful to his childhood friend, Snape turns on her.
This is the turning point in Snape’s worst memory. If he had been able to think more clearly, he wouldn’t have told Lily that he didn’t “need help from filthy little Mudbloods like her.” Now, Snape himself isn’t a Pureblood, something that would cause the other Slytherins to look down on him. Clearly, this is a 16-year-old boy lashing out in anger without thought of the consequences.
James casts Levicorpus on Snape again after his outburst, and this time, Lily walks away. This moment, perhaps more than any other, set Snape on the dark path he would eventually take. None of the teenage boys in this scene behave like decent people, and when Harry sees Snape’s memories, he’s horrified. He wonders how his father managed to convince his mother—who clearly dislikes him here—to marry him. Hey, even witches and wizards are awful when they’re teenagers. But not all of them grow up to be Death Eaters.
Their Final Year at Hogwarts and Beyond
During their seventh year at Hogwarts in 1978, Lily and James became Head Boy and Girl. They began dating—something that Snape viewed as a betrayal. He became more involved with the Dark Arts, and the foundation was already laid for him to join Voldemort’s Death Eaters. Lily, James, and the rest of the Marauders, meanwhile, joined the Order of the Phoenix to fight back against Voldemort.
A war was brewing—a clash that mirrored the longstanding rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin writ large. Snape, still bitter about Lily’s failure to return his feelings, pledged himself to Voldemort’s service. In 1980, Snape was spying on Albus Dumbledore at the Hog’s Head tavern. He overheard Sybill Trelawney uttering a real prophecy… but he was discovered before he could hear the whole thing.
Snape delivered the partial prophecy to Voldemort, unwittingly setting into motion the events that would set the stage for the entire series. His decision to tell Voldemort about the prophecy would be another regret in a long, terrible list. But this time, instead of hurting Lily’s feelings, he would get her killed.
20-year-old Snape had no way of knowing that the information he passed to his master would lead to the death of the only person he’d ever loved. But that doesn’t change the fact that Voldemort believed the prophesied child was Harry Potter.
After the Prophecy
Once Snape figured out that the child was Harry, he first begged Voldemort to spare Lily. When that didn’t work, he turned to Dumbledore. Snape asked Dumbledore to meet him, and he explained what he’d done. He begged Dumbledore to do whatever it took to protect Lily, then corrected himself to ask, “Hide them all, then …Keep her—them—safe. Please.” (Chapter 33 of The Deathly Hallows)
Of course, it was too late. After Voldemort slaughtered James and Lily Potter on Halloween of 1980, Snape pledged himself to work as a double agent for the Order of the Phoenix. Dumbledore hired him as the Potions teacher at Hogwarts the following year. When he finally met Harry Potter in 1991, Snape was shocked to see Lily’s eyes looking back at him from a face that closely resembled James Potter.
We all know what happened next. Snape treated Harry with scorn, targeting him for punishment and humiliation every chance he got. It’s easy to see that Snape—who, remember, was emotionally stunted and wracked with guilt—was still lashing out at an innocent person. It’s understandable that Harry and his friends were always convinced Snape was a villain; for all intents and purposes, he was. But Snape also risked everything, including his reputation and his life, to help defeat Voldemort.
Snape was killed by Voldemort during the Battle of Hogwarts on May 2, 1998. Ironically, he died in the Shrieking Shack, the very place that Sirius had tried to lure him when they were teenagers.
In the most poignant symbol of his eternal, unrequited love for Lily, Snape’s Patronus was a doe—just like hers. J.K. Rowling would later reveal that Snape was the only Death Eater who could conjure a Patronus. “A Patronus is used against things that the Death Eaters generally generate, or fight alongside,” she wrote in 2007. “They would not need Patronuses.”
It’s too simplistic to say that if Lily had only returned Snape’s feelings, then he wouldn’t have turned to the dark side. Lily didn’t owe him her affection, and Snape did nothing to earn her regard during their teenage years. James Potter grew up, but in many ways, Snape never did. He never moved past the hurts he experienced as a student at Hogwarts. Instead of trying to heal, he used that pain to fuel his lifelong obsession with atoning for Lily’s death. In the end, he made good on his promise to help protect Harry and defeat Voldemort. But I don’t know that I’d say he was a hero—and I still question the decision for Harry to name his son Albus Severus.