What Snape Taught Me

Severus Snape is a household name to any millennial worth their pop-culture salt. Harry Potter was our bread and butter when we were learning to read books without pictures and keep track of more than three characters. We all picked our least favorite teacher and called them “Snape” behind their back, giggling with our friends, our shoulders shaking behind hardbound copies of The Sorcerer’s Stone propped up on our knees. Snape scared us.

As we got older and our bodies and minds complicated and tangled into themselves, the books offered us even more complexities to muddle through. Snape was no longer just a scary teacher. Snape was a grudging mentor, a man with a story and powers to share with our beloved protagonists. He had a dark past. Many of us were learning about our family histories, becoming privy to each other’s secrets. Some of us learned what divorce meant. Some of us had older brothers who drank or dealt drugs. Some of us had witnessed terrible things at a young age, like Harry, and felt like no one else could possibly understand.

Snape had seen violence. Snape had born witness to lies and manipulation, domestic abuse, and isolation. Snape had been raised in a desolate environment surrounded by the dark underbelly of an idyllic culture, grasping at any friendship he could find. Snape had seen and done things most of us could only imagine through his eyes. As more of Snape’s story was written, our young minds realized that Snape was the kind of person who our parents would pull us away from in public. He would live in the house on the street that we were rushed by, told to never play in front of. If our parents knew that Snape was our teacher, they would pull us out of school. Move across the state. Sue the district. An appropriate and arguably healthy suburban response to realizing that a former cult member and murderer is teaching your preteen children.

Despite this, we cried when he died. Even though he killed Dumbledore, even though he tormented Harry and called him terrible names, we had come to love him. As we grew older, we slowly absorbed the weight of the terrible role Snape had to play. He could live neither in the world of white knight courage nor the world of black dark death — he was doomed to be the gray figure that stood in the middle of the scales, tossing stones to even the playing field between two blustering forces. He would receive no glory, no honor, no acclaim from the wizarding world, only the quiet respect of a few newly hatched adults who watched him die and watched the toils of his life unfold. In history books he would be a slithering traitor, or nothing at all.

Snape taught me, taught many of my generational peers, about the grayness of the moral landscape. From Snape, I learned that it can take months and years of your life to truly understand the complexities underlying a person’s character and actions. He evolved to shape my empathy, to cause that special anguish when you love someone that everyone else decries as a monster. There is no good. There is no evil. Simply good and simply evil characters are the ones who are truly fiction. Snape and the rest of the Harry Potter characters lept from their pages and lived inside me and my fellow readers, transcending their paper and ink origins forever.

Snape’s importance in shaping my understanding of morality is certainly why it has been so hard to deal with Alan Rickman’s death. Rickman embodied Snape so well that I stopped being able to remember Snape without Rickman, and vice versa. It feels like a part of my childhood has died.

Alan Rickman was brilliant for so much more than Snape. Galaxy Quest, Sense and Sensibility, Love Actually, and Die Hard are brilliant in their separate regards, and he lived so many lives inside the confines of those film reels. However, he will be my gray Snape, my beloved anti-hero, even beyond death.

Always.

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