Author: Leanne (arionrhod)
Spoilers: Books 1-5
Email: arionrhod (at) gmail.com
Personal website: Caer Arionrhod
He is a greasy git. The ugly, big-nosed, sallow-skinned, crooked-teethed bane of Hogwarts students for over a decade, playing favorites to Slytherins and despising Gryffindors, haunting the dungeons of the castle like an enormous, sneering black bat.
He is an anti-hero. Misunderstood, disliked, even hated as he walks the path of redemption for mistakes made in a youth now long past, bearing a mark of shame and still bound to an evil that endangers him every minute of every day as he desperately tries to help the forces of Light which revile him.
He is genius. A Master of Potions the likes of which hasn't been seen in many years, able to concoct brews of which very few can even dream, using his skill grudgingly to aid ungrateful youngsters and even the people who made his childhood a living hell.
He is all of these things and many more, a man as complex as he is temperamental, as controversial as he is mysterious. Seemingly hated by everyone around him save Albus Dumbledore, he walks an infinitesimally fine line between good and evil, Dark and Light, caring and cruelty. Fans seem to either love him or hate him with an almost insane devotion, producing hundreds of thousands of words of fiction and countless works of art depicting his unmistakable visage, arguing interpretations of each and every word he utters in canon, analyzing every glance, every gesture, every snark and sneer. Whether you love him or hate him, there is pretty much a universal truth surrounding him:
No one is neutral about Severus Snape.
As with all characters in the Harry Potter series, Snape is given to us through the filter of Harry's perceptions, colored with Harry's prejudices, likes and dislikes. He harasses Harry and at the same time protects him, taunts Harry yet also helps him, makes Harry angry and frustrated and yet also makes him think about things in ways that no one, not even Albus Dumbledore, can do. Harry's suspicion of Snape is a driving force in the books, leading Harry to several discoveries through the series so far, serving as both a participant in the action and a catalyst for much of it.
Readers seem to have equally disparate opinions about the Potions Master, either adoring him or hating him, or sometimes a little bit of each. Many people would agree that his treatment of Harry is harsh, bordering on cruel; and yet there is the fact that he has the respect of Albus Dumbledore, and is, by the end of the fifth book, obviously risking his life to keep Harry safe and help defeat Voldemort. There is no question that Severus Snape is a complex, multifaceted character, one who is far deeper than almost anyone else in the entire Potterverse.
So, what makes Snape so incredibly, uniquely Snape? Why do people love him and hate him, or even love to hate him? The answer begins in canon, of course; in the ways that he is presented in the author's words.
He was a thin man with sallow skin, a hooked nose, and greasy, shoulder-length black hair, and at this moment, he was smiling in a way that told Harry he and Ron were in very deep trouble. (CoS5)
Snape-the-teenager had a stringy, pallid look about him, like a plant kept in the dark. His hair was lank and greasy and was flopping onto the table, his hooked nose barely half an inch from the surface of the parchment as he scribbled. (OotP28)
Cruel, sarcastic, and disliked by everybody except the students from his own house (Slytherin), Snape taught Potions. (CoS5)
No matter how you slice him, dice him, or pretty him up, Snape has always been a greasy git.
Strangely enough, this description of him seems to have been translated into "ugly", in a wicked witch sort of way; cackling over a cauldron and brewing up evil potions, slumped shouldered and beady eyed. All that is missing is the mole with hair growing out of it.
And yet... is Snape really ugly? Harry doesn't describe him as such, despite the fact that he hates Snape with a passion. His first thoughts of Snape's looks always focus on the greasy hair, big nose, and the paleness of Snape's skin, but Harry doesn't refer to him as either ugly or unattractive in so many words. His first sight of the Potions Master, in Chapter 7 of the first book, sets this tone: "Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin." Since many men with large noses are in fact quite attractive, greasy hair aside Snape is only as ugly as the reader wishes him to be: if he is a villain in the reader's eyes, he can be seen as a horrid, misshapen monster; to those who think he is an anti-hero, seeking redemption and actually good deep-down, he can be secretly handsome, cultivating his more unattractive aspects as a shield to keep people from getting too close.
But looks aside, there is absolutely no getting around the fact that the man is a git. Deliberately so. In fact, he seems to revel in it, going out of his way to be as unpleasant and sarcastic as possible.
Snape's sharp tongue reduces Neville Longbottom to a quivering wreck, so much so that the boy's boggart takes his form. Harsh words have some students in tears. Snape seems to take a particular delight in tormenting Harry, moving him to anger and then slapping him down by reminding Harry that Snape is an authority figure that he must respect.
Harry states several times through the books that he is certain Snape hates him, and discovers during the course of the books that Snape was the target of harassment by Harry's father and his friends. As a target of similar treatment at the hands of his cousin, Harry finds himself feeling bad for Snape, even sympathetic; and while it doesn't change his dislike of Snape at all, nor excuse Snape's treatment of him, at least by the end of Order of the Phoenix Harry is aware, from experiencing Snape's worst memory, that there truly was more than just one side to the story, and that things were not - and are not - as simple as he had always thought them to be.
Snape and Filch were inside, alone. Snape was holding his robes above his knees. One of his legs was bloody and mangled. Filch was handing Snape bandages. (SS11)
Snape was in the middle of the stands opposite them. He had his eyes fixed on Harry and was muttering nonstop under his breath. (SS11)
Harry leaned farther over the banisters. He was very interested in what Snape was doing for the Order of the Phoenix... (OotP4)
As the series develops, Snape goes from being a deeply suspicious, even potentially villainous character in the first book to being revealed as Dumbledore's trusted spy by the fourth. Yet his sarcasm and continued ill-nature make him anything but a standard hero, often casting even his good deeds in a bad light.
In SS/PS, it is quite doubtful exactly who Snape is working for; he always seems to be in the midst of things, and yet his actions are very easy to misinterpret as evil. Professor Quirrell, the true villain in the book, is overlooked as a non-entity until the climax approaches. But Snape, with his injury at the jaws of Fluffy, and his countercurses during the Quidditch match where Harry was nearly thrown from broom, is an almost laughably logical suspect. Yet when it is later revealed that he was being helpful rather than harmful, it's far too late for it to change how Harry perceives him.
Not that Snape really seems to care about that.
Snape is very much an antihero. For every good thing he does, it appears he has a flaw which counterbalances it, or feels almost compelled to do or say something to keep himself from even possibly being seen in too good a light. This is particularly obvious in Order of the Phoenix, where his heroic actions in risking his life by spying for the Order is almost overshadowed by the fact that Snape gleefully taunts Sirius about Sirius' own inability to do anything "useful" in Snape's opinion.
And yet Snape does go out of his way in GoF to try to do the right thing. He didn't have to step forward and reveal the Dark Mark to Cornelius Fudge, to try to convince the Minister of Voldemort's return. He could have disdained Fudge's stupidity and remained silent, and yet he didn't. He spoke up and drew attention to something that was a direct, deliberate reminder of the mistakes of his past, something that was virtually guaranteed to cast him in a very unfavorable light in the eyes of a many who - politically at least - was in a position of considerable power.
Heroic, yes. Altruistic? Most assuredly not.
"I've been feeling a bit off-color," he said. "This potion is the only thing that helps. I am very lucky to be working alongside Professor Snape; there aren't many wizards who are up to making it." (PoA8)
"Harry, I know you don't like Snape, but he is a superb Occlumens and we all - Sirius included - want you to learn to protect yourself, so work hard, all right?" (OotP24)
These phrases - both spoken, ironically, by Remus Lupin, who Snape seems to hate - are but two examples of the various abilities that Snape manifests during the course of the series.
That Snape is an excellent Potions Master is never in doubt; he is skilled at his art and is well aware of it. He brews the Wolfsbane potion for Remus Lupin, allowing Lupin to keep his mind and not be a danger during the full moon. He knows immediately in SS/PS the exact reason why Neville's Boil potion melts the cauldron. While he is not the most inspiring of Professors, perhaps, never at any point is his skill in his craft ever called into doubt; except, perhaps when Harry thinks Snape is poisoning Lupin, but that is a matter of motivation, and is even a left-handed compliments of a sort, that Snape could poison Lupin without Lupin even knowing.
Snape's abilities aren't limited to potions, however. He apparently is more than skilled enough to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, although Dumbledore - for reasons which are never disclosed - decides that he does not want Snape in that position. There is much speculation about the why of that, given the bad luck that seems to follow the professors in that position. Perhaps the best comment on the subject comes from Sirius Black, who points out that Snape came to Hogwarts knowing more curses and hexes than most Seventh Years. A statement of not only Snape's ability, but an insight into his inner motivations, at least in his youth.
There is also Snape's ability in both Legilimency and Occlumency. He appears to have a great deal of skill in both areas; he is a skilled enough Legilimens to seem to be able to break into Harry's mind with very little effort, even though Harry had been able to resist the Imperius, and Snape himself points out that the two abilities are similar. Many times during the books Snape subjects Harry to a "piercing gaze", which, since eye contact is crucial to Legilimency, gives rise to speculation that Snape is skilled enough to read people without even using the spell.
It is at Occlumency, however, that Snape really shows a great deal of ability. He is a stronger Occlumens than Voldemort is a Legilimens, or else he would have been exposed as a spy, either during Voldemort's initial rise, or after his rebirth. Given that Voldemort is a very, very powerful wizard, that is saying a great deal about exactly how powerful Snape is.
Fanon Snape - As Nasty as You Want Him to Be... Or Not
Outside of the bounds of strict canon, Snape is portrayed as everything from the uber-evil minion of Voldemort who is merely biding his time in order to take out both Harry and the Dark Lord, to the tragic, misunderstood hero who projects nastiness as armor against a tragically soft heart. Snape has been linked romantically to virtually every character in canon and many original characters as well, which is a testament not only to his appeal but to his stamina as well. He has been written as the victim of extreme physical, mental, and sexual abuse, as well as the person doling out such horrors.
One of the beauties of Snape from the standpoint of fanfiction is that there is so much about him to work from, and yet little of it is concrete, leaving much open to interpretation by the author. There are as many theories as to why he became a Death Eater in the first place as there are for why he became Dumbledore's spy, while his true, inner motivations remain a mystery in a way that very few others do. This is a rich playground for speculation, and is almost irresistible as a subject.
Romantically Snape has no obvious, completely canon counterpart, but most people seem agreed that anyone that angry has a secret, inner passion just waiting to be released. And boy, do they ever release it, in an almost infinite number of ways. For a greasy git, he certainly doesn't lack for sex in fanfiction.
Snape is a very controversial character, mostly by virtue of his complex, infuriating personality. His true motivations remain a mystery, while his actions are ambiguous and contradictory. Whether the reader loves him, hates him, or loves to hate him, it is a irrefutable fact that Severus Snape is perhaps one of the most popular characters in the entire Potter fandom.
Snark on, Severus. We'll still love you.
The following fictions are mostly gen, and are provided as a way to get to know Snape as a character. I have not read all of these fics, but they are offered as acknowledged as good representations of Snape as a character. There are literally dozens more, I had to truncate the list to keep it reasonable, and there are many fine fics not on this list.
The Potion Master's Life, by Aashby
Out of the Bag, by iibnf (Bernice R.)
First Snow, by Fabula Rasa
Invisible, by FernWithy
First Day, by Nym
Thirst, by Victoria P.
The Man Who Lived, by bethbethbeth
Chaining, by Duinn Fionn
Games of Skill and Chance, by snowballjane
Harry Potter and the Polka Dot Plague, by Mariner
Old Dogs, by iibnf (Bernice R.)
A Rock and a Hard Place, by cluegirl
Legilimens, by ildi_bp
Redemption, by Erin Kluk
Another Day of Teaching in the Life of Severus Snape, by Erin Kluk
Severus Snape, Sex God, by chicxulub
Marked, by ani_bester
Snape, the Potions Master at Work, by lizardspots
Dark Potions - links to art, fiction, and reviews
Snape's Profile - links to images and analysis of Snape
I could not have done this essay without the assistance of many, many fine people, particularly those who niffled recs. In particular, the incomparable painless_j, bethbethbeth, amberdiceless and ani_bester, who went above and beyond the call in providing many fine links (not all of which I could use, alas!!!). Thanks also to: nc_kat2002, ellid, samson28, atrata, pitchblackrose, tapedeck, elfflame, gothikmaus, weasleyfan, and lela_d, I appreciate all your recommendations, and I am sorry that I didn't get to use all of them.
Finally, much thanks and love to scribbulus_ink, who not only helped me keep my sanity during this endeavor, looked up some references as I was panicking, and generally provided me with just an incredible amount of encouragement and support, but who also plays the best damned Severus you'd ever hope to meet. Or not. ;) Thanks, McKay. I owe you big time.