Snape was . . . a huge assh*le. He was cunning, and brilliant, and dynamic, and he was a HUGE assh*le. I love him, yes. He is one of my favorite characters in the Harry Potter series. But I also have never quite understood the ease with which we all went from hating Snape to raising him up on a pedestal that he simply doesn't belong on. Here's the thing: no one belongs on one, Snape least of all.
Severus Snape teaches us the ultimate lesson: that just because we've done bad things, it's never too late to seek and find redemption and forgiveness. His unwavering love for Lily is a testament to the power of the sentiment, to the mountains it can move, and to the lasting effect it can have on one person, and on the world as a whole.
But Snape was also a bully. He was cruel to Harry. He spent most of his childhood and adolescence on a dark path that culminated in his initiation as a Death Eater. Part of why he lost Lily's friendship in the first place is because he sought the company of future Death Eaters at Hogwarts.
In the epic Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Prince's Tale chapter, so much about Snape's past is revealed, and not all of it is pretty. This conversation from Lily and Snape's days at Hogwarts showed their friendship unraveling.
". . . thought we were supposed to be friends?" Snape was saying, "Best friends?"
"We are, Sev, but I don't like some of the people you're hanging round with! I'm sorry, but I detest Avery and Mulciber! Mulciber! What do you see in him, Sev, he's creepy! D'you know what he tried to do to Mary MacDonald the other day?" Lily had reached a pillar and leaned against it, looking up into the thin, sallow face.
"That was nothing," said Snape. "It was a laugh, that's all —"
"It was Dark Magic, and if you think that's funny —"
Harry kept his distance this time . . . He watched as Lily joined the group and went to Snape's defense. Distantly he heard Snape shout at her in his humiliation and his fury, the unforgivable word: "Mudblood."
This moment still makes my stomach turn. Yes, Snape was hurt, and yes we all say and do things that we don't mean in that state. But his deep-seated disrespect for "lesser" people wasn't present only in his moments of frustration; it showed in the countless choices he made as he grew up, and in who he chose to cultivate relationships with — as in, future Death Eaters and Voldemort himself.
He took out his hatred for a grown man (who was long dead) on his son — an 11-year-old boy who was completely innocent. Neville Longbottom's boggart was Snape, for god's sake. He laughed in Hermione's face when she was cursed and openly belittled her intelligence for years. He constantly allied himself with the likes of Slytherin students like Malfoy whose sole purpose was to make others miserable. He sat idly by while Voldemort murdered Professor Burbage for the crime of teaching Muggle Studies. You can't tell me that we can blame all of this on the mere fact that he had it out for James Potter. Nor can you convince me that all of this was to maintain the guise that Snape was indeed still loyal to Voldemort. No, Snape wasn't a terrible person, but he certainly had darkness within him, and without someone like Lily Potter to keep it in check, that fire was fueled further. Snape's hatred of James and his friends coupled with his utterly unrequited love for Lily twisted him into something that, in many ways, was terrible. Even when he knew that Lily's entire family — a baby included — was targeted by Voldemort, he thought only of Lily, and in turn, only of himself:
"You disgust me," said Dumbledore, and Harry had never heard so much contempt in his voice. Snape seemed to shrink a little, "You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?"
Snape said nothing, but merely looked up at Dumbledore.
"Hide them all, then," he croaked. "Keep her — them — safe. Please."
And so Dumbledore did keep Harry safe. And so Snape used his love for Lily as a reason for protecting Harry, and he put everything he had into doing just that. His devotion to this promise is incredibly admirable, and it is this service to her memory that often paints him as a martyr of sorts among fans. But this doesn't mean he was kind. It doesn't mean he did what he did happily, because Harry was, after all, James Potter's son. He begrudgingly, and yes, bravely, upheld his bargain to Dumbledore and to the woman he loved. More than anything, Snape was very brave.
"Karkaroff intends to flee if the Mark burns."
"Does he?" said Dumbledore softly, as Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies came giggling in from the grounds. "And are you tempted to join him?"
"No," said Snape, his black eyes on Fleur's and Roger's retreating figures. "I am not such a coward."
"No," agreed Dumbledore. "You are a braver man by far than Igor Karkaroff. You know, I sometimes think we Sort too soon . . . "
The idea that Hogwarts Sorts too soon is important, because I really believe that a lot of who Snape became is due to where he came from and who he fell in with in Slytherin. Maybe if he'd been in Gryffindor with Lily's goodness to guide him, everything would have been different. But he wasn't, and who he was is due in large part to this. Maybe he never really had the chance to foster the part of him that could love the way he loved Lily. Maybe, like Tom Riddle, Snape is yet another character who proves that had someone given them love they so desperately needed (and deserved), something else entirely would have come to pass.
Whatever his reasons for protecting Harry were, he didn't waver in his task once he agreed to it. Above everything, I think this is what I admire most about him. He did whatever it took to keep Lily's son alive. And in the end, I do believe he cared for Harry. Somewhere along the way, Snape was able to throw off the cloak of cold hatred he had wrapped himself in years before and objectively see that Harry wasn't so much like James after all, at least not in the ways he always expected to find, and therefore saw. The moment I realized that it wasn't only about Lily anymore was when he found out Dumbledore's devastating plan.
"I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter's son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter —"
"But this is touching, Severus," said Dumbledore seriously. "Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?"
"For him?" shouted Snape. "Expecto Patronum!"
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
"After all this time?"
"Always," said Snape.
Stubborn until the bitter end, Snape still couldn't bring himself to admit that what he did was for anyone but Lily. And maybe that's true. Maybe his motives were selfish, and maybe he's an overall sh*tty guy whose attempt at fulfilling a promise in honor of the memory of a woman he loved just happened to, by default, have wonderful results. I don't think so. But maybe it doesn't really matter why he did what he did.
No, I don't think Snape was a great person, but I certainly think Snape did great things. Snape is one of my favorite characters because he was so imperfect. His motives were never pure, he was majorly flawed, he was born and raised in darkness and could have clung to it — and in many ways did. But somewhere deep down he realized — I think in part because of his relationship with Dumbledore — what it truly meant to fight on the side of good. Despite everything he'd been through in his rather bleak life, he was capable of a love so deep, it literally changed the tide of a war. He played his part in saving Harry's life, and in turn, he played his part in saving the wizarding world from something far more terrible than the decades-old grudge of a sad and lonely man.
I think we romanticize Snape, we raise him up on that pedestal — one he can't ever live up to because the stains of his past will always be a part of him. But I love Snape, stains and all, because he epitomizes what these books stand for. The strength of bravery, the reality of failure and the hope of forgiveness, the importance of perseverance, the beauty of unwavering loyalty, the reassurance that light can and will drive out the darkness. And most of all, the monumental power of love. Always, love.