Monday, June 26, 2017

Twenty Years of Wizardry

Twenty years ago, Harry Potter's story appeared in black print. A young wizard with a lightning bolt scar and messy black hair takes charge of his destiny, by attending a wizard's school. He would spawn a franchise that would include eight movies tied to the books, a play that did not happen, a theme park, and lots of merchandise. 

My feelings of Harry Potter mainly comprise love. I was a big fan of the series as a kid, nursed a major crush on Daniel Radcliffe, and wrote fanfiction that mercifully never saw the light of day. These days, I only see Harry Potter fic on Tumblr if someone reblogs it, or if a writer I know is compiling a wicked awesome zombie apocalypse fanfiction. 

These days, I feel more divided. While Harry Potter remains a great series, and one that impacted international culture, it also has its flaws. So does the author. It's difficult to reconcile that what you read as a child has different implications when you are an adult. I will be discussing what feels different now that I am an adult, rereading dog-eared and in one case a torn edition of the Prisoner of Azkaban that I bought when I was nine. 

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Entering the Snape Spoiler Zone

Snape is a prime example of these unsettling implications. The grumpy Hogwarts professor bullies Harry and his class, while serving as a double agent to both sides. We later learn that he's on the heroes' side, but doesn't do a good job of showing it. He was originally a Death Eater but defected on learning that his big mouth would get Lily Evans Potter, his childhood crush, killed. JKR on Twitter recently apologized for killing Snape. 

I hate bullies. Let's get that out of the way. Snape is a worse bully than Malfoy, because unlike the latter he has power and wisdom to know better. The slimy Slythern takes out his frustration about his life on children, namely the child of his crush Lily, and another potential chosen one Neville Longbottom. Lily ended their friendship because Snape couldn't renounce bigotry that targeted Lily, and one that would eventually get her killed. Snape refuses to learn from his mistakes when he tells off Hermione Granger, who is as brilliant as Lily and Muggleborn, for always showing off when she means well.

Fanfiction and fanon noticed this gap. When Order of the Phoenix took several years to come out, people wrote fics where Snape got more character development beyond the "bullying professor". A few fics accurately predicted that he had a crush on Lily and begrudged Harry for surviving. Others gave him moments where he didn't harass students for the fun of it. What did we get in canon? Useless Occlumency lessons in book five, and an explanation in book seven.  We had to wait until the last book to get the development we craved.

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The Good Qualities About Snape

Snape's first redeeming quality was his correct observations. He notes that Harry thinks he's above the rules, doesn't apply himself thoroughly, and needs to learn to block his mind to become competent. All of these criticisms apply and play out through each book. Harry obviously doesn't listen because Snape also exaggerates these points, and uses them as an excuse to belittle Harry. 

His second redeeming quality was his actor. The late Alan Rickman also portrayed Snape well. The man was a talented actor, who could portray the Slytherin with measured sympathy. He in fact refused to play the part until JKR told him a few backs about the character. Off-camera, he mentored the child actors, and even asked Rupert Grint to sign a caricature that the latter made.

The third redeeming quality is that Snape kept us guessing. He served an integral part to the overarching plot, but he inspired a driving question: why did Dumbledore trust him? When we learned he was good at blocking his mind, a necessity for spying on anyone, how were we sure he didn't fool the older professor? We didn't know which side he was on for several books, after it was established that he only saved Harry in the first book to satisfy a life debt. Harry and the reader had to tolerate a nasty teacher for six books, and that mystery remained. We finally got an answer. Boy did we have to wait for it.

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The Nonredeemable Qualities: Snape's Entitlement

Snape's crush on Lily is not cute. They grew up together, but that doesn't mean he was entitled to her heart. He ostensibly hated Muggles because his Muggle father was abusive; Lily had a sister that hated her for being the pretty magical one, but she hoped to remain on good terms with Petunia. (Petunia also doesn't get any redeeming moments for her actions, only a deleted line from the film where she expresses regret on having lost her sister.) Lily made a lot of excuses for his racist behavior while they were in school, but eventually his cruelty reached a tipping point. Snape had an option to renounce that bigotry if he valued their friendship but ultimately decided that his little gang was more important. If he hadn't become a Death Eater, Lily wouldn't have become one of Voldemort's many targets; even if we assume another Death Eater had eavesdropped on the prophecy, Snape made a disastrous choice. If he truly cared for Lily, he would have realized that Death Eater bigotry would kill her. But he didn't, until it was too late. 

Snape is also a bully in the classroom. He terrorizes any non-Slytherin and reserves special nastiness for Harry and Neville.This bullying leads to Harry not learning Occlumency from him, and the remaining Hogwarts students committing mutiny when Snape becomes headmaster. What's worse is that no one calls him out on his selfish, mean behavior; while Dumbledore keeps reminding Snape to be kinder, no one else does apart from an impostor teacher that points out the unreasonable grudge. The fact that Moody's impostor pointed this out speaks volumes about how a loyal Death Eater sees the absurdity.  Snape also holds himself accountable to no one, except to Lily's ghost. Even that doesn't carry far; Snape doesn't apply the logic that Lily would hate him further for being nasty to her son. 

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Do Snape's actions throughout the books redeem his bullying moments? To me, no. He had a clear choice to become a better person, and to change his attitude. In fact, he had multiple opportunities before Harry had to go on the lam, but he squanders most of them.

With that said, I don't mind that Harry named his second son after "the bravest man I've ever met". Harry made the choice to forgive Snape and bury his grudges, something the man couldn't do. He couldn't justify Snape's cruelty, or forays into the Dark Arts, but he could acknowledge Snape's courage. For that I commend Harry, though I hope he names one of his kids after Hagrid.

JKR, you let us into your private world for fifteen years and counting. I may not agree with all your choices, but I commend you for trusting us constant readers. Our lives changed as we grew with the Boy Who Lived, and the people who became his new family. Thank you for Harry, and for his legacy.

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