When J.K. Rowling's publishers announced that the final book in the Harry Potter series would hit stores this July, the agonizing began in earnest. Would she kill him? Could she kill him? Was there any point in reading if she did?
No, not Harry Potter.
For a surprisingly large number of Potter fans, mostly adult ones, the fate of the intrepid boy wizard - you know, the one the books are ostensibly about - isn't nearly as interesting as what will happen to his ex-professor. The double-crossing Death Eater. Murderer of the beloved Headmaster Dumbledore. Greasy-haired, yellow-toothed, cuttingly sarcastic and, in the words of his creator, "deeply horrible."
So why on earth do people love him? Why are apparently otherwise sane adults obsessing about him to the point that they run Snape Web sites, write Snape fan fiction, buy Snape paraphernalia (or make it themselves, because there really isn't much of it out there) and craft essays with the care they might give to a doctoral thesis to prove that the murder is a clever diversion, and he's actually good?
Well, I know why. I got sucked into this vortex years ago. (Handmade Slytherin House scarf? Naturally. Long black coat that billows in a satisfyingly Snape-like manner? Check. Husband who dressed up as Snape for Halloween, complete with $258 frock coat? Yeah, my fault.)
If you think I'm perhaps a lone weirdo, consider: "Severus Snape" on Google returns more than a half-million hits. A single blog-hosting site - LiveJournal.com - counts 390 communities and more than 400 users listing him as an interest, roughly the same number that list Harry Potter. He has songs written in his honor. YouTube videos. A monthly podcast. MySpace pages, for heaven's sake ("Severus Snape has 3,370 friends").
Even the bookstore chain Borders has chosen an all-Snape method of marketing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, including the choice of pro- or anti-Snape bumper stickers when you reserve the book. (Pro is winning.)
When popular Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron (the-leaky-caul dron.org) asked fans to vote for their favorite character last fall, Snape beat out everyone except Harry and his clever friend, Hermione Granger. And this was, of course, after Snape killed Dumbledore and disappeared into the night, presumably en route to the evil wizard Voldemort, the dark lord who appears to be trying to take over the world.
Melissa Anelli, the webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron who appreciates Snape as a character but doesn't like him the least bit, sums up the phenomenon: "It's sort of scary."
Rowling doesn't seem to understand the attraction. At the 2004 Edinburgh International Book Festival in her Scottish hometown, she asked her audience a bit plaintively, "Why do you love him?"
"It's bad-boy syndrome, isn't it?" she guessed.
The Rickman factor
Oh, sure, there's a school of thought that blames all the Snape love on hormones and Alan Rickman, the actor with the seductive voice who plays him in the movies - the fifth of which, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is due in theaters in July. Rickman comes with a fan base, and whoever decided to put him in that repressively buttoned-up Victorian get-up seemed to understand how that would affect adult women. We do seem to be Snape's biggest fans.
But give us a little credit. Imperfect characters are compelling. Both men and women like the heroic-but-dark Batman. And the sardonic House of the eponymous television series. And Lex Luthor, at least the way he's portrayed on TV's Smallville, where - for a while - he had yet to cross the line into irredeemable villainy.
Such antiheroes are both ambiguous and familiar. They have the potential to be mirrors, Rorschach inkblots for us to ponder and therefore better understand ourselves.
"In a world that has known concentration camps ... and all sorts of horrors, the notion of the hero seems anachronistic," said Victor Brombert, a professor emeritus at Princeton University who wrote In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature. "It no longer corresponds to our needs."
Snape, in any case, had some readers at hello.
"I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death," he says to his new students in the first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and we thought, cool. A closet poet, our Snape, and frequently funny in an awful, I-can't-believe-he-said-that way. People identify with this thirtysomething man stuck in a hated job, who never gets credit for his good efforts, who is irritable and quick to judge and deeply human.
"We know what it is to be lonely, angry, and unappreciated - to struggle to get through the day, surrounded by idiots," a fan named Hologhost wrote on the fan site MuggleNet.com, adding: "I think we want Snape to succeed."
Rachael Stiegel, 27, a Houston patent agent, loves that he's a gray character in the black-and-white world of children's fiction. Last year, she started a podcast called Snapecast, which now has about 5,000 listeners from more than 60 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"If you took Snape out of the Harry Potter equation, I don't think the books would have as many adult fans," she said. "He adds the element of complexity that makes the books fascinating to older readers."
Then there's what Anelli calls the "dark, tortured soul seeking redemption" mystique. A mercilessly bullied child prodigy who apparently joined Voldemort in a fit of teenage spite, Snape recognized his monumental mistake and turned spy for Dumbledore - or at least that was the story pre-murder, and it's the one that Snape fans still ardently want to believe. We know (hope, pray) there's more to the story.
The party line goes something like this: Dumbledore, already near death and surrounded by some of Voldemort's worst minions, sent a mental message to his spy to do it! Now Snape is a mole in Voldemort's camp, perfectly positioned to help save the day!
We trust with the fervor of converts that he, as much as Harry himself, will emerge as Dumbledore's man when the book - which its American publisher says will set a U.S. first-printing record of 12 million copies - is finally in our hands.
"Our theory," said author Salman Rushdie, who rose to speak for us all at a reading Rowling gave in New York last summer, "is that Snape is, in fact, still a good guy."
And we really don't want him to redeem himself through death. If he can atone for his errors and live on, then - well - there's hope for all of us.
Alas: This is not how such tales usually go.
"He's the sort of character who ... ends up dying sacrificially to prove his goodness," said James Krasner, an associate professor whose specialty at the University of New Hampshire is Victorian literature, and who, more importantly, has $25 riding on his belief that Snape "obviously" killed Dumbledore on Dumbledore's orders. (His teenage son took the bet.)
Of Rowling, Krasner said: "She's very good at surprising you but also fulfilling the basic outline about how these sorts of stories work."
Fans have started at least two online petitions begging Rowling not to do away with Snape. Neither well-publicized, the pair nevertheless together have more than 1,000 signatures. They sound quite desperate, as if Snape were truly real - and as if his fate is a foregone conclusion.
Stiegel thinks so. Snapecast has started doing pieces on the stages of grief. (Next month - anger.)
Beverly Wood, 40, a teacher and project manager in Green Bay, Wis., who is an administrator for Snape fan site BewitchedMind .net, is wavering between acceptance and denial.
"Maybe she'll leave it ambiguous, ... like he escapes the battle wounded, and we don't know whether he lives or dies," a hopeful Wood said, which just shows how low our hopes are.
Still, there was that tantalizing hint from the author in an interview last year. About how, despite her carefully plotted plans for what would happen and who would die, "one character got a reprieve."
It could be him, right?
Best of luck, professor.
For more about Severus Snape, go to baltimoresun.com/snape.
Five reasons to believe Snape is good (if not nice)
1. Headmaster Dumbledore's death isn't all it seems to be. After he pleads, "Severus ... ," there is a moment of silence, an opportunity for the two -- both skilled in the Potter books' version of mind-reading -- to have a private chat. Snape fans think Dumbledore orders him to go through with it. At this point, the headmaster is already in dire straits, poisoned by a potion of Voldemort's that -- in what seems like a deliberate parallel -- Dumbledore made Harry force-feed him.
2. We still don't have reliable information about why Snape offered to spy on Voldemort, "at great personal risk," in Dumbledore's words. In the Potter books, what you don't know is significant.
3. As he fled Hogwarts, Snape could have killed or kidnapped Harry. Instead, he stopped a Death Eater from torturing the teen.
4. The summer before these traumatic events, Snape saves Dumbledore from a potentially life-threatening injury. Why bother if he wanted the headmaster dead?
5. What's the more interesting plot for the final Harry Potter book: Yeah, Snape is still bad? Or -- surprise, Harry, the man you want to kill is on your side?
[ Jamie Smith Hopkins]