Under His Spell

Undercover good guy or pure evil? Either way, Harry Potter nemesis SEVERUS SNAPE has fans obsessing over his fate in the final book

March 20, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporter

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.

Severus Snape.

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.

Well, yes.

And no.

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."

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