Today I will put all other considerations aside, and begin the rereading of the Harry Potter books, in anticipation of the final volume. Tonight I’ll join my friends to screen the fifth film. I’m sure the film will be great in all the ways that the other films have been great—Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Smith—and weak in the ways that all the other films have been weak, insofar as they cannot convey the rich detail of the novels themselves. The films, though, are just the icing on the cake of what this series promises to deliver.
In just over a week now, we will all know who kills Voldemort. I have to say that I am torn between piercing curiosity and a bit of melancholy. I hope that J.K. Rowling as an author rises to the place she has brought her characters, but I have my lingering doubts. I don’t entirely believe that the growth in depth of the books over the course of the series thus far was planned to parallel Harry’s development from child to young adult; I suspect that some of that growth was on the part of the author as well. Nonetheless, the novel we will hold in our eager hands in 10 days will have little in common with the first one we read nearly a decade ago. Names, places, types of flying games: these will all be the same. But the core struggle has shifted—and whether it’s shifted or only just been presented to us in its entirety here at the point of conclusion only the author can know—and the series has become one that awaits an adult conclusion.
As Snape approaches the hour of reckoning, so too, does Rowling. The thousands of pages of teen angst and eager sidekickery will either be redeemed or be for naught in this final volume. There are many reasons that I believe both character and author will find in themselves the ability to do what needs to be done. The largest of these reasons is that the writing of a book gains a momentum of its own, and this series as its been written thus far requires a conclusion worthy of its conflicts. Nothing but redemption will ring true at this point in the narrative, and that alone is enough to justify Snape’s choice: the story demands it. Rowling will write what comes next, because that is what writers do, and it will be as near to or as far from her initial conception of the conclusion as it needs to be in order to do justice to what’s already written. I do believe that Rowling has become an author capable of writing the ending that is required; whether that belief is solely founded on hope, I couldn’t tell you.
What, then, does this narrative require? In Dumbledore‘s world, there are fates worse than death, among them the splintering of the soul that is required for the act of killing another person, even or especially when that person is dead-set on killing you. It is this fate, living on after that action, from which Dumbledore is protecting the young people in his charge. And it is through Snape, the most compelling anti-hero in contemporary fiction, that Dumbledore’s protection runs. For Snape, it is through the commitment to this protection that redemption lies. Snape is not facing redemption in any sort of heavens-opening-up-while-angels-sing way. Snape is holding onto the possibility of a redemption eked out of the ruins of a wondrously horrific life, through daily labor.
When Snape kills Voldemort, he will do so because he has promised Dumbledore that he will protect others from having to attempt that act. Not only because Snape is the only person left alive who is a powerful enough wizard to stand a chance against Voldemort, but because Snape’s soul is already splintered, and he will offer up that splintered soul to keep others from having to learn what it takes to kill another person. This is what Snape is exchanging for Dumbledore’s trust, the coin that is earning a chance for another life: a chance to use the scars from the abuse of his early life in the service of a different end, an alternative to using his power to cause that pain in others.
So, it’s not Harry’s life, or the lives of any of the other characters, that I believe Snape is pledged to protect. It’s Harry’s integrity, for lack of a better word. In that light, I don’t know whether Harry will die. I have friends who believe Harry is the final horcrux and must die, at the hands of Voldemort or of Snape after Voldemort’s death. It’s possible that Harry will confront Voldemort and be killed as simply as Cedric was. Certainly some of the characters will die facing Voldemort; he is simply too powerful a wizard to not exact deaths in any conflict. Whether one of those characters will be Harry remains to be seen.
Here, too, the central conflict is revealed in the end, and it is not between Harry and Voldemort. If it were, Harry’s outcome would be clear at this juncture in the narrative. What is clear instead is that it matters not at all to the narrative whether Harry Potter lives or dies. The series is no longer, if it ever truly was, a story of man against man. It is, and has been for some time, a story of man against himself. And that man is not, as we might have earlier believed, either Harry Potter or Voldemort.
That man is Severus Snape.