It took a long time to understand Severus Snape.

A walk inside Snape’s memories transformed him in Harry’s mind from sniping Potions master to ‘the bravest man he ever knew’. We take a closer look at the chapter from Deathly Hallows that changed everything.

‘The Prince’s Tale’

Professor Snape is dead on Voldemort’s orders, and Harry saw it all. In his dying moments, he told Harry to take his memories and look at him one last time. Voldemort’s voice then sounded through the corridors, challenging Harry to meet him in the Forbidden Forest in an hour. This is the end.

Harry then goes to the headmaster’s office and finds the Pensieve:

The stone Pensieve lay in the cabinet where it had always been: Harry heaved it on to the desk and poured Snape’s memories into the wide basin with its runic markings around the edge. To escape into someone else’s head would be a blessed relief...nothing that even Snape had left him could be worse than his own thoughts.
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

As children, Harry, Ron and Hermione had looked at the sarcastic and strict Professor Snape as something of a pantomime villain – the bitter Potions master, stewing in the dungeons. As adults, they learn Snape is far more complex.

In Deathly Hallows, when Harry approached the Pensieve, he was grief-stricken and broken by battle. He practically fell into Snape’s memories, and discovered a little thin-faced boy who once knew a girl called Lily. Harry’s mother and Snape were childhood friends. Growing up in their tiny Muggle town of Cokeworth, they bonded over their magical powers like other kids do over toys.

Once at Hogwarts the two friends were sorted into different houses, and later Snape fell in with the wrong crowd. Not just the usual teenage reprobates, but future supporters of the most powerful Dark wizard of all time.

In these memories Harry saw Snape’s frantic conferences with Dumbledore about the prophecy and how he begged for some way to keep Lily safe from Voldemort; and later, when her death made him wish for his own. Imagine squeezing out of the grasp of a murderer, and then working directly against him. What a tightrope to walk along.

Snape teaching potions from the Philosopher's Stone
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Why it matters

‘The Prince’s Tale’ is quite the story. We see Snape’s life as a young, neglected boy with (heavily implied) warring parents, his unrequited love for someone who married his school bully, and his stressful life as a double agent.

This pattern is woven through each book – Snape is bad; Snape is good; Snape’s a total git; Snape saved your life over and over. When Snape was tasked with the awful burden of killing Professor Dumbledore, he fulfilled everyone’s narrative perfectly: here was the final proof that Snape was untrustworthy, yet we learn that he had to kill Dumbledore for noble reasons that barely anyone knew about.

Snape’s bravery was staggering. He was always viewed as the cartoon bad guy, yet what he furtively did for Harry along the way was his tragic secret – one nobody would be likely to figure out. Of course, Snape being who he is, he made no habit of being cheery, which didn’t help matters.

It’s almost like Snape created a kind of butterfly effect across all the books. It was Snape who overheard the prophecy that would go on to define Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter’s lives for years afterwards. The prophecy can be seen as the catalyst for everything; it led to the death of Lily, his great love, and Snape spent the entire course of Harry’s (and his own) life trying to make amends. If you think about it, Snape could be seen as the greatest instigator of the story’s events.

Windows to the soul

Snape died looking into Harry’s eyes: the eyes of the boy who survived because the woman he loved died. The eyes of the boy who looked like the spitting image of his father; the man who bullied him, then married the love of his life. Imagine having to look into those eyes in that moment; the eyes that both pained you intensely and yet made you feel love more than anything in the world. Snape’s final moments are perhaps the bravest we saw of any character.

Within Deathly Hallows’ lingering final chapters we understood that Snape lived his life as a tortured double-agent, constantly flickering from the good side to the bad like a broken light, and all in the name of an undying love that cemented his loyalty to Harry and Dumbledore.

Snape calling Lupin into his fire
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Right from the start in Philosopher’s Stone, three naïve children thought that the big meanie Potions professor was the antagonist trying to steal the stone. It is only at the end that we understood that he was the one trying to stop it all: always the silent hero behind the shadows. In ‘The Prince’s Tale’ we unfurl the layers of quite a remarkable man. One whose name would be given, very deservedly, to one of Harry’s future children.

Snape taught us that there are no good men and bad men: that we are born full of foibles and complexities painted in thousands of different shades. Whether we choose to see Snape as that mean professor calling Harry ‘our new celebrity’, or as the chivalrous hero casting a meaningful Patronus, is up to you. But as Dumbledore often likes to say: ‘It is our choices that show who we truly are.’ Snape made some bad choices, and sometimes he was hard on Harry for no good reason. But he did spend much of his life making choices that would go some way to repair the one, truly terrible one.

Snape is bitten by Nagini in the Shrieking Shack.
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Pottermore looks back at the moments that made our favourite characters so memorable. Read about the chapter that made us fall in love with... Draco Malfoy.