And why Severus Snape's death-scene lacks all of them.
For a lot of the people who read The Deathly Hallows, Snape's death was the least of their worries.
At the time, we didn't even know he was on the side of good. As we open up The Prince's Tale, we're still reeling from the deaths of Lupin, Tonks and Fred Weasley. And then, by the end of the chapter, we find out that the hero of all seven books has to sacrifice his life in order to ensure Voldemort's downfall. Does that leave room for Severus Snape?
With The Prince's Tale, we're given a strange, wistful, childhood love story a bizarre eddy in the flow of the narrative. It starts in the muggle world. It centres around characters we've never been encouraged to sympathize with in fact, it justifies the actions of two of the story's (many) villains: Severus Snape and Petunia Dursley. The action slows down, and becomes poignant achingly sad, as opposed to just unremittingly horrific. And then we're given a quiet, personal, domestic tragedy a tragedy of misunderstandings and unspoken words (and one dreadful spoken word) the kind of tragedy that any Gryffindor would be ashamed of.
Given the change of pace, and the seeming-irrelevance of the story recounted in The Prince's Tale, you could understand it if some readers were frustrated by the chapter if they saw it as an unnecessary digression, and couldn't wait to get back to the duels and action scenes.
The major implication of The Prince's Tale quite rightly for Harry was the fact that he had to sacrifice himself to kill Voldemort. Did J.K. Rowling intend for her readers to feel the same? Were we supposed to be more concerned with Harry's predicament? Was The Prince's Tale just tragic scenery? And if it was, why has it caught the imagination of so many fan-artists and fan-fiction writers? In short, why won't Severus Snape stay dead?
This essay will be a very belated attempt to answer those questions. It will discuss how The Prince's Tale works both with the main story and against it. It will talk about why Snape's death was so dramatically unsatisfying, and why everyone wants to re-write it (either by giving him a scene in heaven, a miraculous escape, or a reconciliation with Harry or Dumbledore).
It won't be as scholarly as an academic essay, or as entertaining as a book-review, but, if you love Severus Snape, hopefully you'll be able to identify with some parts of it (enough to bear with me when I inevitably bore you!)
So, to start with, permit me to gush about the strange whirlpool in the middle of the action that is The Prince's Tale.
There's a scene just like it in Othello. After Othello vows to kill his young wife, Desdemona, you get a bizarrely quiet scene where she's getting undressed for bed the bed in which the audience knows Othello is planning to strangle her and talking to her maid-servant, Emilia. Neither of them have any idea what is going to happen. They're reminiscing, telling old stories, and talking about men.
The scene is terrifying for all its quietness, because the audience knows how this calm is going to be shattered. But it's not terrifying in the same way as the previous scenes, where Othello has been ranting and raving and plotting revenge. It's a change of pace that allows us to get our breath back before the grand finale, but it still tugs at our heartstrings in a major way.
It keeps the tension going, to have an interlude of calm. If you bombard your audience with killings (as Rowling did before The Prince's Tale), they're going to become desensitized.
(Only J.K. Rowling, the cruel mistress of beautiful stories, would be worried about her young, impressionable readers getting desensitized to the violence. Only J.K. Rowling would be sharpening her knives when any other children's author would be trying to soften the blow. It's a compliment, in a way: she doesn't underestimate our capacity to deal with horror just like her complicated plots are a refusal to underestimate her readers' intelligence. I can't help but feel that, in my case, she should have done, because the ending of the Deathly Hallows left me feeling both traumatized and bewildered).
There was a prelude to The Prince's Tale, although it didn't capture the imaginations of Harry Potter fans in anything like the same way.
Just a few chapters before The Prince's Tale, we're given another mini tragedy: the confession of another character who criticized the good guys, lost a loved one, and spent the rest of his life blighted by grief: Aberforth Dumbledore. Aberforth's confession prepares the ground for The Prince's Tale, but there isn't much fan-art about Aberforth (perhaps it's because he's not as visually interesting as Snape, and there's still the unexplained business with the goats).
Aberforth and Severus have some interesting similarities: they're both voices of dissent practical cynics who dare to criticize the good guys, who have their own back-stories and their own agendas. Aberforth chips away at our idea of Dumbledore's heroism, just as Severus chips away at our idea of Harry's. They're both prejudiced, of course; they're both too severe in their criticism. But they're both, in the end, strangely likeable characters. What is the effect of making these anti-heroes likeable? Is Rowling trying to disillusion us about her main heroes? Trying to prevent us from empathizing completely with the so-called good guys?
As we have seen, she uses The Prince's Tale to increase the tension to create a calm before the storm. But it also has the effect of dividing our sympathies. We empathize with somebody who criticized Harry somebody whose adventure is already over, and whose tragic downfall has already occurred. Doesn't that make us estranged from Harry, right at the point when his situation should be tugging on our heartstrings the most? He's just about to go into the forest to sacrifice his life for the greater good, and we're still thinking about Severus Snape. Fiercely opposed as Severus is to being pitied, he might take some satisfaction in the idea that his tragedy distracted us from Harry's.
There are too many tragic heroes in this story, battling for the readers sympathies. Perhaps Rowling realized Snape's subversive potential: perhaps that's why she pretty much neglects to mention him again until the epilogue.
We're not given any time, from this point onwards, to come to terms with Snape's death. The final, beautiful, revelation of his story the realization of why he wanted Harry to look at him before he died happened, for me, about half an hour after finishing the book. Sometimes, it happens days, weeks or even months after a reader has finished the book. It's an example of reading that goes on long after you lift your eyes from the page.
That moment alone explains why I think Rowling is an underrated genius. She's so good with effects. There are so many moments of jaw-dropping realization in her stories. Who says books can't make you start and shudder and gasp like a horror movie?
Harry's journey into the forest, when he's preparing to sacrifice himself, made me cry; The Prince's Tale didn't. And, yet, it's The Prince's Tale I'm still thinking about three years later, whereas my reaction to Harry's self-sacrifice has just become an embarrassing anecdote. If Harry's tragedy is more attention-grabbing in the short term, Snape gets the last laugh (or perhaps it should be the last tear). His story leaves its hooks in you. Even if we got bowled along by the momentum of Harry's adventure, our thoughts still turn back to The Prince's Tale that beautifully subtle and realistic portrayal of a sullen, insecure boy in love.
I'm not saying it's the same for all readers. I know a lot of people (very clever people) who made it through the whole series without sympathizing with Snape once. But there's a certain type of reader for whom Severus Snape is a relief an oasis of cynicism in the fantasy desert.
My last essay discussed Snape as an outsider in the narrative of the Harry Potter books. The fact that he criticized the hero and refused to root for the good guys the fact that he raised his eyebrows at all their noble ideals, even though he risked his life for them makes him a sarcastic commentator on the story somebody who steps outside the action to criticize it, and then dives right in again whenever the situation is desperate.
For all the people who can't quite melt into the story; who can't quite buy the idea of a selfless act or a happy ending, Severus Snape is the perfect tour-guide through the Harry Potter books: coasting along, pointing out flaws, keeping tellingly silent about his own beliefs (except where those beliefs relate to the messy-haired protagonist).
So why does Severus Snape linger in the imagination? Why won't fans accept his death? What is it about that scene in the Shrieking Shack which left us so unsatisfied?
It was unnecessary, but Rowling has never shied away from unnecessary deaths. It was gory, in a way that magical deaths seldom are. The Avada Kedavra curse doesn't even break the skin, but Snape had his arteries severed by a giant snake. Whether it was the snake's venom or the blood-loss that killed him, it was far from conventional. So the horror of it is unusual, even if the pointlessness of it isn't.
But I think there are traditional consolations narrative funeral rites that J.K. Rowling failed to give us in Snape's case. I think his death is a tragedy hollowed out of all the comforts and resolutions that tragedies usually give us. It's tragic catharsis without any of the catharsis. We're not purged; we're frustrated. We're not cleansed; we're tantalized. We're given glimpses of a story, and a character, that always seems to be out of reach.
So what do you need to make a death in fiction bearable? I'm only going to discuss three things, but there could be hundreds more. And my area of expertise is very limited, so I'm going to confine myself to death-consolations in Shakespearean tragedy.
These are the three things the tragic hero needs to make his death bearable for himself and for the audience: a speech, a reputation, and a chance to close the proceedings. Snape gets these things in some ways, and doesn't get them in others.
It helps, somehow, if characters have a chance to speak their mind before they die. Perhaps it's because there's nothing worse than finding out the truth about a person after it's too late. There are lots of abrupt, unannounced deaths in Harry Potter; Sirius never gets a chance to speak his mind before he dies, but Sirius didn't really need one; he spoke his mind constantly when he was alive. We know how Sirius felt about pretty much everything.
For the more complicated and restrained characters (you can tell I don't like Sirius, can't you?) there's the convention of the death-bed speech. It doesn't have to happen in bed. In fact, in Shakespearian drama, it rarely does. But I call it that because they all know they're about to die, and they see this as a last opportunity to justify their actions.
As Othello is about to kill himself, he insists: 'I have done the state some service, and they know't'. He also tries to sum up his own story, instructing his audience how to remember him.
Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme
(V. ii. 352-5)
It could be argued that the sequence of memories Snape gives to Harry is his version of a self-justifying death-bed speech. It happens after he is dead, and we'll come back to the consequences of that back-to-front order later. But, for a death-bed speech, it's completely devoid of defiance or self-justifying propaganda it's the bare minimum of what Harry needs to know. It's obvious that Snape is loath to confide in him, and so it can't really be regarded as a confession, or a chance to speak his mind. Aberforth's confession was delivered in his own words. Snape's is just a string of images that have to speak for themselves.
The second thing that makes tragic death scenes bearable is the knowledge that they will be remembered. When Hamlet's friend Horatio tries to kill himself, Hamlet persuades him not to, just so that there will be someone left alive to explain things.
What a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story'.
(V. ii. 286-91)
In most tragedies, there is an act of collective remembering after the hero's death. Someone needs to sweep onto the scene of the devastation and eulogize a bit. In Hamlet, it's Fortinbras; in Othello, it's the bewildered Venetian diplomats, Lodovico and Graziano; in Anthony and Cleopatra, it's Octavius Caesar. These characters can be enemies of the hero they can deplore his choices, his cruelty or his stupidity but the point is, they're confirming the idea that he was important; they're ensuring that he gets remembered.
In Snape's case, we get that in a highly abridged form in the epilogue, when Harry says to his son: "You were named for two Headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.'
So far, so good. It's brief, but it does the job. Somebody remembers Severus, and knows that what he did was extraordinary. But it does seem insufficient, doesn't it? For starters, there's the 'probably' 'probably the bravest man I ever knew' but I've known plenty of Snape fans who weren't particularly bothered by that. Harry knew a lot of brave men, after all.
Is it because you get the feeling this little disclaimer is only there to show that Harry has forgiven Snape, and moved on with his life? Does anyone else think this apparent concession to Snape is actually another example of his tragedy being made subservient to Harry's?
But there's something about the epilogue itself that is unsatisfying. The epilogue is bizarre: it shows that life goes on (the orphaned Teddy finds love, Harry forgives Snape, Neville becomes a Herbology Teacher), but it is so haunted by loss. We get the endless repetition of dead people's names. We see Harry talking to his son about dead heroes. We get the continued feud between the Potters and the Malfoys. Life goes on, and yet it doesn't. You recover, but you never forget. That scene on Platform Nine and Three Quarters is a weird, limbo world between happy ending and haunted, traumatized, endless grief.
The traditional narrative consolation the collective remembering of dead heroes has gone too far (although somehow not far enough in Snape's case), and swallowed up the happy ending.
Also, the act of collective remembrance can't really work as a consolation if it's an afterthought a nineteen year afterthought, in Snape's case. It can't work if there are chapters and chapters after the hero's death, in which most of the characters seem to forget he ever existed. And this links in with the third thing I think you need to make a death in fiction bearable: timing. The hero's death needs to close the action. The story ends just after he dies to show that it was his story. The ignominy of events just rolling on without him characters forgetting about him is incompatible with tragic dignity.
Snape's body was simply left to cool on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. (Interestingly, a disclaimer about what is going to happen to the hero's body is another convention of Shakespearian tragedy. It's a weirdly physical loose-end that seems to always need tying-up.)
For proper tragic catharsis, you need the hero's death to be the penultimate thing onstage; he needs to die, and then you pan out a little, to follow the shock-waves of his death, through the people he loved and the country he lived in.
But Snape's death doesn't close the action. Events roll on without him in the most undignified fashion. The tragic hero is always fortune's plaything, granted, but he's always the centre of the action he may be powerless, but he is important.
There's too much story after his death. And things happen in the wrong order. All the revelations about Snape happen after he has died. First you have the end, and then, with The Prince's Tale, you go right back to the beginning. The last time we see Snape, he is walking out of Dumbledore's office with grim determination, announcing that he has a plan. Is it any wonder we can't accept his death? He has a plan.
Rowling is an author who doesn't have much time for narrative consolations anyway. For all the richness of her imagination, her vision is bleak. The brief moments of happiness and triumph Harry receives never measure up to the suffering he's made to go through. The ending of The Deathly Hallows is a prime example. The story cuts out four pages after Voldemort's death. She doesn't grant her characters any time to enjoy the happy ending. I wanted to see Harry reunited with Ginny. I wanted to see people congratulating Neville. The happy ending was bought with so many painful moments, I thought we'd at least be allowed to bask in it.
It's as though she thought: 'Alright, I'm writing fantasy. I can deal with the embarrassment of writing fantasy. But nobody is going to accuse me of writing frivolity'.
So: a painful death surrounded by gawping students. Blood everywhere. No confessions. No explanations. He does his job and gives Harry the memories and then seconds before the end a plea. Look at me.
Why did he want to see Lily's eyes as he died? For comfort? For strength? To say goodbye? Did he want to fix her in his mind so that he could find her in the next life? Was she the symbol of all his hope for salvation, and so he wanted to see her eyes to remind himself that all was not lost? We never find out.
There was no reconciliation with Harry well, perhaps that would have been stretching credulity too far. But even cursing Harry with his last breath would have been something. At least then, we would have known what he was thinking. But Snape was careful and committed right up to the end nobody would ever know what he was thinking.
That should in a very unorthodox way be a comfort to us. He died triumphantly undiscovered. It doesn't look like triumph, dying unmourned and enigmatically silent on the floor of the Shrieking Shack, but then Snape had nothing but withering disdain for all the things that looked like triumph. Heroic last stands were too thoughtless, too impractical, too Gryffindor.
We should be consoled by the very lack of standard narrative consolations. Severus refused to take part in the story. He had other priorities, other ideas. He always scorned the story's hero, so why shouldn't he scorn the story's need for resolution? He'd probably scorn our need for resolution too.
In fact, that's another interesting trend in Snape fan-art. There are a great deal of paintings showing Snape's disdainful or bewildered reaction to the fangirls, and their preoccupation with his story. Stepping outside the narrative raising his eyebrows at the action is a habit he just can't get out of. And that should be a comfort too. He squirms out of the grasp of any would-be narrator. And, if you're not part of the story, how can the story kill you?