Seven Reasons Why Snape is a Nasty Teacher

Alan Rickman’s death this last month had many people praising this fine actor, for his contributions as an actor and director, but also for his portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. I’ve always loved Alan Rickman, but I’ve always preferred the Harry Potter books to the movies—not that I didn’t appreciate Rickman as Snape. I doubt anyone could have done it better.
What struck me was how often the discussion turned to the character of Snape himself as a tragic hero. I’ve read similar comments before. But reading another tiresome spate of the same gave me reason to look through the books once again. Snape may very well have vowed to protect Harry from Voldemort, but that doesn’t make him any less a nasty teacher; Snape may have died fulfilling his vow, but that doesn’t erase his treatment of Harry throughout the series.
Some points to get off my chest. First, Snape’s love for Lily Potter always struck me as pathological—certainly more obsessive than romantic. Second, his love for Lily causes him to make a vow to protect Harry, but only for the sake of the dead Lily, not for Harry. Third, Snape singles Harry out for a particular brand of abuse, one he vindictively delights in heaping on the Boy Who Lived. And finally, Alan Rickman, I’m sure, understood that Snape was a nasty character, which is why his portrayal of Snape is so spot on.
Here are seven passages from the books to serve as a reminder of how nasty this character gets. You may find Snape’s love for Lily romantic, but don’t forget he’s a nasty teacher, and he hates Harry.
1.      Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
(First day of Potions class—the first encounter between Harry and Snape.)
“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.
“I don’t know, sir,” said Harry.
Snape’s lips curled into a sneer.
“Tut, tut — fame clearly isn’t everything.”
He ignored Hermione’s hand.
“Let’s try again. Potter, where would you look if I told you to find me a bezoar?”
2.      Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
(In Lockhart’s office, following the petrifaction of Mrs. Norris, the cat.)
“If I might speak, Headmaster,” said Snape from the shadows, and Harry’s sense of foreboding increased; he was sure nothing Snape had to say was going to do him any good.
“Potter and his friends may have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said, a slight sneer curling his mouth as though he doubted it. “But we do have a set of suspicious circum­stances here. Why was he in the upstairs corridor at all? Why wasn’t he at the Halloween feast?”
Harry, Ron and Hermione all launched into an explanation about the deathday party. “… there were hundreds of ghosts, they’ll tell you we were there —”
“But why not join the feast afterward?” said Snape, his black eyes glittering in the candlelight. “Why go up to that corridor?”
Ron and Hermione looked at Harry.
“Because — because —” Harry said, his heart thumping very fast; something told him it would sound very far-fetched if he told them he had been led there by a bodiless voice no one but he could hear, “because we were tired and wanted to go to bed,” he said.
“Without any supper?” said Snape, a triumphant smile flicker­ing across his gaunt face. “I didn’t think ghosts provided food fit for living people at their parties.”
“We weren’t hungry,” said Ron loudly as his stomach gave a huge rumble.
Snape’s nasty smile widened.
“I suggest, Headmaster, that Potter is not being entirely truth­ful,” he said. “It might be a good idea if he were deprived of certain privileges until he is ready to tell us the whole story. I personally feel he should be taken off the Gryffindor Quidditch team until he is ready to be honest.”
3.      Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
(In Snape’s office, after Harry’s second trip to Hogsmeade.)
“So,” he said, straightening up again. “Everyone from the Min­ister of Magic downward has been trying to keep famous Harry Potter safe from Sirius Black. But famous Harry Potter is a law unto himself. Let the ordinary people worry about his safety! Fa­mous Harry Potter goes where he wants to, with no thought for the consequences.”
Harry stayed silent. Snape was trying to provoke him into telling the truth. He wasn’t going to do it. Snape had no proof — yet.
“How extraordinarily like your father you are, Potter,” Snape said suddenly, his eyes glinting. “He too was exceedingly arrogant. A small amount of talent on the Quidditch field made him think he was a cut above the rest of us too. Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers … The resemblance between you is uncanny.”
“My dad didn’t strut,” said Harry, before he could stop himself. “And neither do I.”
“Your father didn’t set much store by rules either,” Snape went on, pressing his advantage, his thin face full of malice. “Rules were for lesser mortals, not Quidditch Cup-winners. His head was so swollen —”
4.      Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
(In the room off the Great Hall, just after Harry’s name comes out of the goblet.)
“It’s no one’s fault but Potter’s, Karkaroff,” said Snape softly. His black eyes were alight with malice. “Don’t go blaming Dumbledore for Potter’s determination to break rules. He has been crossing lines ever since he arrived here —”
“Thank you, Severus,” said Dumbledore firmly, and Snape went quiet, though his eyes still glinted malevolently through his curtain of greasy black hair.
5.      Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
(In Snape’s office, after Harry sneeks a look at Snape’s memory in the pensive, which I admit is pretty bad.)
“Having fun?”
Harry felt himself rising into the air. The summer’s day evaporated around him, he was floating upward through icy blackness, Snape’s hand still tight upon his upper arm. Then, with a swooping feeling as though he had turned head over heels in midair, his feet hit the stone floor of Snape’s dungeon, and he was standing again beside the Pen­sieve on Snape’s desk in the shadowy, present-day Potions master’s study.
“So,” said Snape, gripping Harry’s arm so tightly Harry’s hand was starting to feel numb. “So … been enjoying yourself, Potter?”
“N-no …” said Harry, trying to free his arm.
It was scary: Snape’s lips were shaking, his face was white, his teeth were bared.
“Amusing man, your father, wasn’t he?” said Snape, shaking Harry so hard that his glasses slipped down his nose.
“I — didn’t —”
Snape threw Harry from him with all his might. Harry fell hard onto the dungeon floor.
“You will not tell anybody what you saw!” Snape bellowed.
“No,” said Harry, getting to his feet as far from Snape as he could. “No, of course I w —”
“Get out, get out, I don’t want to see you in this office ever again!”
And as Harry hurtled toward the door, a jar of dead cockroaches exploded over his head. He wrenched the door open and flew away up the corridor, stopping only when he had put three floors between himself and Snape. There he leaned against the wall, panting, and rubbing his bruised arm.
6.      Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
(Later, during a potions class. Some petty revenge on the part of Snape.)
Snape, meanwhile, seemed to have decided to act as though Harry were invisible. Harry was, of course, well used to this tactic, as it was one of Uncle Vernon’s favorites, and on the whole was grateful he had to suffer nothing worse. In fact, compared to what he usually had to endure from Snape in the way of taunts and snide remarks, he found the new approach something of an improvement and was pleased to find that when left well alone, he was able to concoct an Invigoration Draught quite easily. At the end of the lesson he scooped some of the potion into a flask, corked it, and took it up to Snape’s desk for mark­ing, feeling that he might at last have scraped an E.
He had just turned away when he heard a smashing noise; Malfoy gave a gleeful yell of laughter. Harry whipped around again. His po­tion sample lay in pieces on the floor, and Snape was watching him with a look of gloating pleasure.
“Whoops,” he said softly. “Another zero, then, Potter …”
Harry was too incensed to speak. He strode back to his cauldron, intending to fill another flask and force Snape to mark it, but saw to his horror that the rest of the contents had vanished.
7.      Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
(Harry’s confrontation with Snape on the Hogwarts grounds, after Snape kills Dumbledore at the top of the astronomy tower.)
Twenty yards apart, he and Harry looked at each other before raising their wands simultaneously.
But Snape parried the curse, knocking Harry backward off his feet before he could complete it; Harry rolled over and scrambled back up again as the huge Death Eater behind him yelled, “Incen­dio!” Harry heard an explosive bang and a dancing orange light spilled over all of them: Hagrid’s house was on fire.
“Fang’s in there, yer evil — !” Hagrid bellowed.
Cruc—” yelled Harry for the second time, aiming for the fig­ure ahead illuminated in the dancing firelight, but Snape blocked the spell again. Harry could see him sneering.
“No Unforgivable Curses from you, Potter!” he shouted over the rushing of the flames, Hagrid’s yells, and the wild yelping of the trapped Fang. “You haven’t got the nerve or the ability —”
Incarc—” Harry roared, but Snape deflected the spell with an almost lazy flick of his arm.
“Fight back!” Harry screamed at him. “Fight back, you cow­ardly —”
“Coward, did you call me, Potter?” shouted Snape. “Your father would never attack me unless it was four on one, what would you call him, I wonder?”
“Blocked again and again and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, Potter!” sneered Snape, deflect­ing the curse once more. “Now come!” he shouted at the huge Death Eater behind Harry. “It is time to be gone, before the Min­istry turns up —”

A Visit to Hobbiton

The green fields, intense blue sky, and forty odd hobbit-holes scattered over the landscape is enough to make you think you’ve arrived in Middle-Earth. Tolkien might have even approved. But as I walked past gardens and little round doors, I had to remind myself this place is Peter Jackson’s vision of a world conceived by one of the twentieth century’s most imaginative minds.
When the first of the Lord of the Rings films came out in 2001, I was excited but oddly apprehensive. As a Tolkien fan, I wasn’t worried that Peter Jackson was going to destroy the story for me; I was anticipating the release of the film, like millions of others. But mixed with my anticipation was the feeling this book, that for me had always been a private experience, was suddenly going to be there as a film, for anyone to talk about and critique. It was irrational, I know, but it bothered me at the time.
I got over it. The Fellowship was certainly my favourite of the Lord of the Rings films, but I watched and enjoyed them all. The Hobbit films were different. I felt more jaded—why did Peter Jackson need to stretch the story into three films? It struck me as more a commercial than an artistic decision.
While I wasn’t the only one disappointed with The Hobbit films, I’d rather have them than not. And with all of the films now out, it seemed appropriate that I managed to finally visit the film set in New Zealand over Christmas.
2015 was certainly my year for Tolkien related trips. Last August, I had the chance to visit Oxford. My daughter and I drove down from Glasgow, and we stayed at Magdalen College. We visited the Kilns, where C. S. Lewis lived and died, and we drove down North Moore Road, where Tolkien lived with his family. We wandered the college, walked Adison’s Walk, and visited The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings met weekly. Visiting Hobbiton over Christmas was fun, and I was excited to go, but it wasn’t the literary pilgrimage that Oxford was.
We had to drive down to Matamata from just outside Auckland, and we were late for our tour. The people at the I-Site in Matamata were helpful and got us onto the next bus. It’s a walking tour through the village, and I kept missing stuff our guide said because we lingered to look and talk about the hobbit-holes. It was interesting, and I kept reminding myself this was Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton—not that it wasn’t inspired. It was rustic and quaint, detailed and thoughtfully constructed.
On we went, making the walk up the hill, until we stood in front of Bilbo’s gate, hung with the sign, No Admittance Except on Party Business. There we were—in front of Bag End, Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, where the stories began. But the sign identified this as the Bag End of Lord of the Rings—years after Bilbo’s adventures that took him into the east, over the Misty Mountains, where he met Gollum and found the ring; and into Mirkwood, where he fought and killed spiders; and finally, to the Lonely Mountain, where he talked to a dragon.
Our tour guide pressed on. We walked down the hill and found ourselves in the field, with the party tree standing at one end. One addition to the Party field, which I thought very unlike Tolkien, was a Maypole, standing about half way down the field. Tolkien would, of course, been familiar with the Maypole, but he was assiduous in avoiding anything about sex in his books.
The end of the tour brought us to The Green Dragon, the inn where you can sit down, have lunch by the fire as you sip your mug of beer. We lined up outside and got a free glass of ginger beer, then went inside to look around the inn.
There’s a cat that lives in The Green Dragon. My daughter spotted it right away, sleeping near the hearth.
“That cat was here the last time I visited,” she said. “That was three years ago!”
Visiting Hobbiton was a little like watching the commentaries for the Lord of the Rings films. I’d never watched commentaries before, and I learned much about how films were made. Visiting Hobbiton was getting a peek at how Peter Jackson created the films. You can’t, for example, go inside any of the hobbit-holes—not really. One of the doors opens, and you can walk inside, but any of the inside scenes were shot in a studio in Wellington. It was fun to see, but I was strongly reminded that all of this went into creating the illusion of the films.
And there’s the difference, I think. Reading the books is not an illusion. Tolkien himself understood the difference, although he wasn’t referring to his own books when he wrote his essay “On Faerie Stories.”
Tolkien writes:
“The storymaker, as subcreator, makes a secondary world which the listener can enter– Inside what he relates is true.  It accords with the laws of that world; you, therefore, believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken.  The magic, or rather art, has failed.  You are then out in the primary world again, looking at the little abortive secondary world from outside.”
A reader’s willingness to accept a secondary world Tolkien calls secondary belief. The process of subcreation makes his books the experience they are. They are real—for as long as you are willing to accept the reality of that world. This kind of engagement doesn’t work for everyone, but it was certainly my experience as an eleven year-old kid discovering Tolkien’s world for the first time, an experience I have again and again, whenever I read the books.