Snape and the Question of Good and Evil in Rowlings Harry Potter Series

Bachelor Thesis, 2010
36 Pages, Grade: 2,7



Abbreviations Used

1. Introduction: Contemporary Research and Thesis Statement

2. Definitions of the Terms 'Good' and 'Evil'
2.1 Philosophical Concepts of Good and Evil
2.2 Religious and Sociological Concepts of Good and Evil
2.3 Concepts of Good and Evil as Presented in Epic Fantasy
2.4 The Importance of the Theme of Good and Evil in the Harry Potter Series

3. Severus Snape in the World of Harry Potter
3.1 Outlining Harry Potter
3.2 Severus Snape meets Harry Potter's world
3.3 The Unpleasant Character of Severus Snape
3.4 Severus Snape and Headmaster Albus Dumbledore
3.5 Severus Snape and Tom Riddle Alias Lord Voldemort
3.6 Severus Snape and Protagonist Harry Potter
3.7 Severus Snape and the Concept of Love

4. Conclusion

Woks Cited

Abbreviations Used

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. Introduction: Contemporary Research and Thesis Statement

In most literature discussing fantasy for children and adults, we are informed about the central position of the fight of good and evil, which is the case within the Harry Potter series of author J.K. Rowling as well. It has been argued by academics that good and evil can be separated from each other because of a strong polarity (cf. Cohen 352) and that the description of scenery, architecture and presented figures are also included to represent the fight between both sides. Imagery that is described in relation to the evil side is always assigned to concepts from similar semantic fields, such as for example "chillness" and "blankness". Dark colours serve for the creation of evil figures by which these can be accurately distinguished from figures of the good side (cf. Meißner, "Phantastik der Gegenwart" 127-133; "Phantasie der Kinder" 34).

Altogether, Meißner's explanations to the determination of good and evil correspond to the results of Cohen (35). Nevertheless, a strict division of good and evil is rejected by Nikolajeva, particularly in relation to younger texts: "A diachronical study [...] reveals a tremendous change. [...] The secondary world[1] has also become highly ambivalent, it cannot any longer be described exclusively in terms of good and evil, light and dark."("Magic Code" 116). Cohen in his work achieves rather exact results which he summarizes as follows:

1. Good and evil can be absolute powers seeking to dominate the world
2. Good and evil may be seen as human values and they may be expressed as human love, hate and jealousy
3. Many writers have drawn substantially on Celtic mythology. The figures from this my-thology form the basis for the conflict between the two forces
4. Pride, hate and the lust for power are the three most common expressions of evil in high fantasy
5. Love, faith and courage are the three most common expressions for good in high fantasy
6. While evil is quick to use magic to achieve its goals, good relies more on its inherent morality, strength of purpose and intellectual sagacity (Cohen 351).

Cohen describes good and evil according to his own presentation as correlating to characteristics that do not always stand in a clear semantic opposition of each other. This however is a surprise as he otherwise stresses an unequivocal differentiation.

Hence, "pride, hate and the lust for power" are named as the most common expressions of evil with love as their main opponent. The question arises, whether the other by Cohen as good determined characteristics can exist on the side of evil. If this is true, they do not represent a distinct characteristic and are just partly suited for a more secure identification. Other occurring questions are the existence of differences of good and evil within the text, which at least determine different concepts of good and evil, for instance with ideological and religious content, and why Cohen within his analysis did not include creatures and symbols coming from different mythologies used to create "secondary worlds" in spite of indicating the personification of good and evil (cf. Cohen 160)? It is therefore inevitable to decide within the analysis to which extent single characteristics are exclusively part of one side in relation to mythology and whether distinctive opposing characteristics on the other side do exist. Furthermore, expressions not that frequently used or being clearly outstanding are considered as well in order to include possible individual characteristics of good and evil within the textual analysis.

Within many works of fantasy literature, as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (1954/55) or C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-54) good and evil can be described on a secondary semantic level as a certain quantity of distinctive characteristics. The characteristics of good opposing those of evil so that good and evil are highly sorted, abstract semantic areas and a "black-white-painting" within these texts exists. However, this is not the case in author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, as there is mostly no clear differentiation of good and evil and distinctive characteristics for both sides are few, but many primary characteristics can be determined. It is also most salient that there is sufficient representative symbolism defining a range of characteristics, but only one semantic area confirming evil (the Chamber of Secrets[2] ) exists.

Another important issue needing further investigation is the concept of love, as the ability to love in context of the Harry Potter series can be identified as one of the major qualities to separate good from evil. Headmaster Dumbledore[3] confirms Harry's advantage in the fight against Voldemort[4] to be his ability to love and the protection he was once given by his mother's love (cf. PS 321). In spite of an invisible connection with Voldemort as well as Harry having been able to see Voldemort's thoughts and ambitions, he never joined the dark side due to his ability to feel love and hence a relation of good and evil to the differently shaped concept of love exists. Clarifying this, good characters are usually described as selfless and tolerant whereas evil characters are often egocentric and racist. In Harry Potter, one main conflict between good and evil is that of an excluding racist attitude versus the attitude of including every witch and wizard into the society, regardless of their Wizarding- or Muggle[5] family descent. As Snape has been on Voldemort's side and thus shown the attitudes of a racist, later being informed about his former ability to love lets us readers experience this figure from a very different aspect. Therefore, it is inevitable to include an investigation of the concept of love related to concepts of good and evil as well as to the figure of Severus Snape.

Hence, the emphasis of this work centres on the analysis of the main characters of the Harry Potter books which are often not classifiable just in terms good or evil but who "arrange themselves" to one side or the other by means of their own decisions as Rowling informs us (CS 358). Figures of higher importance to the story within the series are altogether shown in a more complicated and sometimes contradictory way which I will prove by mainly analysing one teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry[6] , Professor Severus Snape who is extremely ambivalently presented. He works as Potions Master and (at last) becomes teacher of the subject "Defense Against the Dark Arts". The fascinating thing about this character is that he is portrayed in such a way that the reader cannot perceive him as anything but bad from the very first point of being introduced. However, by brilliant use of language, the author manages to fool us all until the last book, where we have to recognize that Snape is not evil to his core but indeed gives Harry the clue to lead the story to a good ending.

Since Snape is most present in the later novels of the Harry Potter series, the analysis will centre mainly on these books. The essay will begin with definitions of good and evil in philosophy, ethics, religion and society, pursued by the concepts of good and evil as presented in epic fantasy and the importance of the theme within the Harry Potter series. Afterwards, the story of the books will be outlined and an examination of Snape himself will establish his position in the novels by discussing what we get to know about his youth and how he is narrated. This will be followed by comparing and contrasting Snape with Dumbledore, Voldemort and Harry. Completing my analysis, the concept of love in relation to the figure of Snape and the concepts of good and evil will be more closely observed. The essay will be finished by summarizing the results of my analysis.

2. Definitions of the Terms 'Good' and 'Evil'

To analyse the importance of good and evil related to the character of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series, it is of vital importance to define what is most commonly seen as being good and what is evil in Western societies. In religion, in ethics and philosophy, the terms good and evil are related to the location of desires, behaviours and sometimes objects on the spectrum of two sides with one side being morally positive or good and the other side being morally negative or evil. While the concept of 'good' is usually accepted to be common knowledge, it is typically associated to terms of life, continuity, happiness and (social) welfare, "used to recommend or express approval"(Encycl. of Phil. 321) . 'Evil' however is usually just described as the opposite or the antithesis of good. Overall, sources claim the definition of the terms to be determined by the context of a situation, be it law and justice, religion or society.[7] The concept of good and evil for any people's understanding is something that forged the evolution of mankind throughout and there is enough historical evidence that especially the religious beliefs of cultures influenced the shape of good and evil to a large extent, one example being the Holy Bible which is the foundation of all Judeo-Christian belief.

2.1 Philosophical Concepts of Good and Evil

Various philosophers characterized evil as something without substance which is just the absence of good. It has been claimed by Immanuel Kant in 1793[8] that evil is an intrinsic characteristic of mankind, thus it is part of us. In Western Philosophy, evil means to ignore life principles which is the breaking of rules that we were once given by God for protective purposes of man or to honour God, or randomly chosen, as some Jewish law. Similar ideas can be found in other cultures and religions. Nowadays, many philosophers limit evil to acts undertaken to cause harm, oppose or destroy good. Some philosophers even have divided evil into moral evil that is caused by some agent, and natural evil that is resulting from natural disaster or diseases.

However, the opinions of philosophers vary, as shows when comparing the arguments of Benedict de Spinoza who said that the difference between good and evil is based on personal inclinations (135) and of Carl Jung who described evil as the "dark side of God"(25). Scientific research however still deals with questions such as evil being a universal or useful term. When looked up in an Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, the term 'good' refers to something "desirable or worthy of choice" (Encycl. of Phil. 321), while 'evil' refers to "serious unjustified harm inflicted on sentient beings"(Encycl. of Phil. 262).

2.2 Religious and Sociological Concepts of Good and Evil

The problem of evil is essential in any religion. From direct confrontation with evil results suffering and destruction and hence questions of life. Three major religious viewpoints state evil as being ultimately unreal, evil as being the rival principle of good where none can exist without the other which is the position mostly taken by Western cultures, and evil having a personal identity where a being fell from a good status in result of a misuse of free will. The majority of people in Western cultures are of Christian belief and think that God created everything but evil, as is written in the Holy Bible as a statement of the Apostle John: "God is light; in him, there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1,5). According to Christians, evil was created by the angel Lucifer, one of God's cherubs, who rebelled against the hierarchy amongst angels. This is metaphorically stated by a prophet named Ezekiel in the Holy Bible (Ezekiel 28, 15-17).

The sociological concept needed especially thorough research - or so the theme was anticipated, before thinking of the concept of social sciences, which aims to explain processes of our community or culture. When thinking of a community, one can as easily relate back to an individual, whose common sense tells him that certain actions, intentions or decisions are 'wrong' or 'evil' and that particularly people who engage in these actions, intentions or decisions are 'deviant'. But common sense does little to suggest about how and why a particular action, intention or decision is understood as evil - it is always the context that allows for people to judge act or actor(s). Therefore, sociological concepts of good and evil in theory and ethics were just the basis to form human societies.

2.3 Concepts of Good and Evil as Presented in Epic Fantasy

Epic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy with the setting in invented or parallel worlds. This genre originated with writings of William Morris (English), George MacDonald (Scottish) and Lord Dunsany or Edward Plunkett (Irish) and its crisis in the narratives of authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, whose major fantasy was published in the 1950s (cf. Carter 5). In epic fantasy the focus is on themes endangering the world such as the struggle with supernatural, evil forces. The conflict of good against evil is the most popular theme used as a plot device where the sides often are not distinguished by their actual behaviour. In many works of epic fantasy this conflict marks a deep concern with moral issues, in others, the conflict is a struggle for power with wizards behaving irresponsibly whether they are 'good' or 'evil' (cf. LeGuin 274). In some works, evil is not opposed by the unambiguously good but by the morally unreliable or ambiguous character.

The 'evil' forces are often personified by a Dark Lord, who is described as a diabolical figure and may in fact be more of a force than a personality. Effects of his reign are often vast damages made to the landscape as well as his opponents. Besides most usually having magical skills, he often controls huge armies (cf. Grant and Clute 250). A Dark Lord is usually depicted as the person of utmost evil and often commits such atrocities that common people are anxious not to mention their name. The main goal of the narrative is to (in most cases) let the hero triumph over the dark or evil side.

2.4 The Importance of the Theme of Good and Evil in the Harry Potter Series

When reading the complete Harry Potter series for a second time, the first reading not having happened such a long time ago, the reader might assume that he or she will achieve a better understanding of the characters afterwards. However, in most cases we will understand or learn much more details about the figures and thus the figures will become more and more complex. This is particularly the case when the aim of the second reading is academically investigating the text as for a distinction between good and evil. Patrick and Patrick stated: "Harry Potter, more than anything else, is about a struggle between good and evil."(221) The question arises, what we learn about the ethical conception of author J.K. Rowling and whether there is an ethical issue communicated throughout the text at all.

As only indirect hints about Rowling's ethical message exist, the reader can yet assume her ethical frame. The most direct hint Rowling gives us upon the theme of good and evil and how much this means to the storyline is when she explicitly wrote: "It is our choices […] that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (CS 358). We can also assume that Rowling tried to construct a border between good and evil, putting evil of the worst kind in the story shaped by the figure of Lord Voldemort who killed Harry's parents and other innocent people, as well as creating the good embodied by the figures of protagonist Harry Potter from whose angle the story is told and Professor Albus Dumbledore who is Harry's mentor.

The protagonist and his mentor are on the side of good, as both showed courage throughout their life. The reader is informed that Harry especially does this when deciding to follow the Horcruxes[9] and the plan to destroy Lord Voldemort instead of pursuing the Hallows[10] although he is very much tempted. Voldemort's actions are clearly discernible as evil since he has committed the act of murder and has severely maimed his soul by creating the Horcruxes. As is explained above, from evil results suffering and questions of life, which completely fits with one's assessment of Voldemort's actions. Moreover, evil is usually defined as morally or ethically negative, but this definition is difficult to apply as it depends on the context and is rather subjective. Hence it appears that Rowling classifies life and acts of life protection, such as love, bravery and sacrifice, as 'good'.

However, the criteria defining both sides are not clearly outlined and the borders are blurred. At the beginning of the series, it seems as if there was a clear distinction between good and evil: Protagonist Harry and mentor Dumbledore are wholly good, while Voldemort and his Death Eaters[11] are wholly evil. Yet, as the narration continues, Rowling complicates the theme, plays with our perceptions of the characters and creates some sort of moral ambiguity as there is good and dark magic, whereas it is often unclear who is responsible for what as well as is not clearly definable who belongs to which side. Particularly the figure of Professor Severus Snape, Potions Master and Head of Slytherin House[12] of Hogwarts School, is the one whose ambiguity is the key to the books' suspense. He is described as an extremely malicious and unpleasant person, and we are always led to expect the worst from him although we have to learn in the end that Snape cannot be said to be wholly evil. The readers have to change their judgement most thoroughly about Snape who is most exclusively positioned between the borders of good and evil.

3. Severus Snape in the World of Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series contains some not clearly definable figures, one of them being the evil antagonist, Professor Severus Snape. He also shows characteristics of an outsider, who is significant in how his primary function relies on his distance to others. Described as an unpleasant, ugly man, Snape is portrayed with constant ambiguity. Seemingly working for both Professor Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix[13] as well as the Dark Lord, he is presented as double agent with uncertain allies. However, when then truth is unveiled at the very end of the series it comes clear that he has been a spy for the good side throughout. Snape has sacrificed his being a likeable person to be able to save Harry, all because of his love for Harry's dead mother Lily, the only friend Snape ever had, as far as we readers know. Hopkins explains that noticing Snape's diversity forces the reader to rethink his own point of view regarding heroism, good and evil (cf. page 32), while Appelbaum adds that the Snape figure helps the reader to be able to distinguish between good and evil: "Snape focuses our attention on these issues by requiring us to debate his allegiances. Snape's moral character determines whether the world is fundamentally good or bad, welcoming of diversity or fascist in its racist ideologies" (84). Chevalier pointed out that Rowling has given us hints of the importance of Snape before the release of the last novel by prompting her readers to "keep an eye on Snape" (412). Snape sometimes even is thought of as being the main figure if not of all of the books, then at least in the later novels of the series (cf. Appelbaum 95; Nikolajeva "Secrets" 239).


[1] Regarding the secondary world, Nikolajeva here is discussing the world invented by the authors either in parallel to or surrounded by the real world.

[2] The Chamber of Secrets is a hidden chamber deep below the castle of the Hogwarts-School, built by one of its four founders and said to hide a horrible monster which will be released if the chamber is opened.

[3] Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is one of the older and a very wise wizard who is the principal (or headmaster) of Hogwarts and develops to becoming Harry's mentor.

[4] According to the definition of epic fantasy, all have in common the fight between good (here presented by the figure of Harry) versus evil which is in case of this series Lord Voldemort, who is as well just referred to as Voldemort or else the Dark Lord.

[5] Rowling gave this name to figures who do not know of and are not able to perform magic.

[6] Hogwarts is a school which young witches and wizards enter at the age of eleven years to be educated in the arts of magic.

[7] As one of these sources, see also However, I will not affirm this page being absolutely trustworthy.

[8] Immanuel Kant: Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft. Part IV: Vom Ursprunge des Bösen in der menschlichen Natur.

[9] With killing people, Voldemort has performed his greatest pieces of magic which enabled him to split his soul into seven pieces which he kept hidden spread around the world as his greatest ear is death.

[10] The Hallows are revealed to be three sacred objects: The Resurrection Stone which allows for the wizard to recall the dead, the unbeatable Elder Wand and an infallible Invisibility Cloak. According to a legend, a witch or wizard who owns all three objects becomes the worlds sovereign over life and death.

[11] In the fantasy world of Harry Potter the Death Eaters comprise of a group of witches and wizards who seek to purify the Wizarding community by eliminating all Muggle-born individuals. This group is led by the dark villain, Lord Voldemort.

[12] Hogwarts is divided into four houses, each bearing the last name of its founders, Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff. While the other houses value things like bravery, courage, intelligence, hard work, creativity, wit and loyalty, Slytherin house, above others, values characteristics as ambition and cunning and most of all pure wizard blood.

[13] The Order of the Phoenix is an organisation which was founded by Albus Dumbledore to fight Lord Voldemort and his followers, the so-called Death Eaters.

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Snape and the Question of Good and Evil in Rowlings Harry Potter Series
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BA Englisch (teacher's degree) Sonja Wendel (Author), 2010, Snape and the Question of Good and Evil in Rowlings Harry Potter Series, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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