House Colors: Black, White, and Grey
This blog post assumes you have read all the books, watched all the films, and have at least read the script for the play “Cursed Child.” The essay is as long enough as it is, and doesn’t take up any extra space explaining exactly what transpired in the pages of canon. It assumes, that like many Potterphiles who would want to pick up this book, that you already know exactly what I’m referring to.
It’s also even more complicated now than when I wrote it years ago, with the realization of Rowling’s Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF; a term used to describe transphobic feminists). I still love the Harry Potter works, the magical world embodied therein, and the millennial-fueled fandom filled with wholesome house-unity and the vision of a modern Hogwarts where muggle-born Ravenclaws magically hack their iPads to share Netflix with their pure blooded classmates; but supporting Rowling personally now is something I just cannot do, even as I celebrate the world she once created.
Each individual must do as they see fit, for not all can separate the work from the author (and no one should ever feel pressured to do so). I wrote this thing years ago, and I desire to share my complicated thoughts here, but please decide for yourself if this is content you wish to read, or if it is a topic you would rather steer clear of.
As a young girl, I loved fantasy. As your typical millennial geek, I grew up with such trappings as Willow, Narnia, Neverending Story, and of course, all the Disney Princess VHS tapes one could stuff into a cabinet. One common thread of these stories was that the distinction between good and evil was clear. The good guys wore your white hats, and the black hats all got their justice in the end. This aligned perfectly with the overtly evangelical Christian paradigm I was raised with.
As I got older, the world became less black-and-white, as it does for many adolescents and twenty-somethings who go through their loss-of-innocence phase. As my understanding of religion, philosophy, and social dynamics became less rigid, I felt the need for my stories to mirror those shades of grey.
Enter Harry Potter.
I got to Harry a little late. By the time I started reading, four books had been published, and the hype for the pending release of the first film was in full swing. By the first sentence, I was hooked, thankyouverymuch.
Like many fantasy-lovers, I was swept away into the world of magic, flying cars, and whimsical wizard schools. Escapism at its finest. We meet Harry when he is at the all-too-familiar impressionable age of youth. He is swept from a world of cruelty to a world of wonder, and he takes this new world at face value. Slytherins are bad, especially his rival Draco and the callous Snape; and Gryffindors are good, especially his besties Ron & Hermione, and the benevolent Dumbledore. It’s easy when you’re as young as Harry to simply trust what everything appears to be, and we as readers follow right along with him.
But as Harry ages, he begins to see the complexity of his new world. The Ministry is not to be trusted, the teachers he thought he could rely upon turn out to be Death Eaters in disguise, but certainly Snape is still bad and Dumbledore is still good, right?
From the Celtic myths of the Mabinogion, and Aesop’s Fables, to Star Trek and Star Wars, fantasy and science fiction have always held up a mirror to the real world through the more approachable lense of the fantastical, so we can more easily digest it. Like all of these great tales, Harry Potter lures us in with something fun and foreign, like a mystical world with a new culture to explore, governed by the rules of magic where the impossible becomes possible. But then, just as we start to feel at home in this new world, just as we begin to know these characters and call them friends, only then are we thrown a curveball, the starry curtain is lifted, and we see that this magical world is just as twisted and messed up as our own.
So much for escapism.
To address this world that appeared so black-and-white at the beginning, then shows us its grey underbelly, let’s look at two of the most important and dynamic adults in Harry’s world: Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore.
I hate Snape. So much. I get sick to my stomach every time someone in the fandom mentions how much they love him. I mean, I love Alan Rickman too, but can we look at Book Snape? I mean, he’s a giant asshole!
Now, I’m a sucker for “the broken hearted bad boy who could have been good if just shown a bit of love.” I adore The Phantom of the Opera, American Horror Story’s Michael Langdon, Smallville’s Lex Luthor, Castlevania’s Dracula and Alucard, and a host of other characters. But I’ve never liked Snape. He turns his cruelty not toward adults, but children. He never outgrew what happened to him as a child, he let it fester, and he became a man of poison. His prejudice is so backward and disgusting, it almost seems Trumpian. And he repeatedly spewed that personal poison onto innocent children.
Why? To keep up a ruse of cruelty so he could more easily play triple agent for Dumbeldore’s grand plan (more on that later)? Because he was utterly broken by something that happened to him as a child, and he was never able to find resolution on it like adults are supposed to do, because the kid who was cruel to him grew up, married the girl he loved (to whom he himself was also cruel to, how’s the guilt there, Severus?), and then died before any resolution could be reached, and not only did he die, but she also died (more paralyzing guilt), and they both died by the hands of the side he chose in the war? (404 Error. Too much guilt. Does not compute.)
Something like that will mess you up big time.
Perhaps all that guilt stunted his emotional/social growth? Clearly, the Wizarding World needed therapy.
Still doesn’t excuse being a dick to kids. I’m all for firm and strict leadership, but he got down to pure old torture, and any school district would have had him sacked for less.
Regardless of how tragic his love story was, cruelty like his is always unforgivable.
As much as I utterly hate him as an educator, I acknowledge that he is an interesting and incredibly important character.
My feelings on him are super complicated. With every fandom-fueled conversation with Snape apologists, my views become less and less black-and-white, and more and more grey. Sometimes I can find forgiveness and understanding for him, sometimes I can’t. I pity him. I respect him. I hate him. I have no respect for him. I appreciate the existence of his character. The story needs his character.
In the end, he did a few large important things for good. And I really like his scene in Cursed Child (I know the play gets a bad rap, but at the very least, it does wonderful things for the view of all Slytherins, including Severus Snape). He shows some emotional intelligence in that scene. That there is his true redemption scene, not back in Book Seven where he forces a kid to whom he’s been cruel to all his life (because he looks like a man he hates) to bend down and look at him unblinking (because he has the eyes of a woman he loved).
What a complex character. Operatic. Shakespearean. Like something out of a Roald Dahl book (“Trunchbullian?”) His is a character you are unequivocally supposed to hate. At least in the first books. And then you see the complexity. The backstory. And then there’s the pity. It doesn’t excuse all he’s done. But perhaps it explains a bit of it.
I still don’t know what to think of Snape. I still hate him. But I suppose I can apply a bit of sympathy and grace when looking at his character? The world he lives in isn’t black and white. There is no more morally grey character than Severus Snape.
Or is there?
My world was turned upside down with Book Seven. Albus Dumbledore was my Rock. He was the foundation of joyful whimsy. He was our Obi-Wan, our Aslan. He was the only adult Harry could truly depend on. He was our number one guide to the light. Many of us were heartbroken when we lost him to Snape’s curse in Book Six, and even I conceded that there might be more to Snape than just pure evil, but Dumbledore was pure gold, and his loss was to be mourned, his memory ever to be honored.
But when the truth of his history came out in Book Seven...What happened with his sister? What his own brother thought of him? Dumbledore, the perfect, whimsical, parental god-figure; is seen in a new light when this secret dark past is exposed & we see his methods and his motives, literally raising a young boy for the slaughter, all for The Greater Good.
I thought we learned something from our boyfriend Grindewald. Did we not, Albus? Minerva said you had powers but were too noble to use them. Was she mistaken? Just because you don’t use a curse doesn’t mean that the manipulative game you’re playing with a child’s life is any less unforgivable.
Quite a stain on that Chocolate Frog Card.
I was devastated.
For a long time.
Then I realized that this is exactly the point.
Our heroes aren’t pure light. Our villains aren’t pure darkness. The world doesn’t work like that. Just as I was growing up and needing stories that illustrated that point, Harry was growing up to realize these truths for himself as well. At least I wasn’t alone on this journey. At least I wasn’t mourning the crumbling marble statue of the Ideal Dumbledore alone.
But does Albus play the manipulative long game with a child’s life because he thinks there’s no other choice? Does that excuse what he does? Does it somehow make it worse that he does it with a twinkle in his eye?
At least Snape is honest and up-front about how awful he is. Even then, Severus can do good, even if his motives are selfish and twisted. In comparison, Dumbledore’s motives are completely selfless and for the good of the society. And yet he does unforgivable bad while attempting to do good.
What an interesting foil these two characters are for each other. Are they equal in their wrongness? One more obvious, one more hidden? Is that fair?
Will we ever come to a decision on this as a fandom? I can’t even come to a decision on this as an individual.
I love Rowling’s writing of these characters because her readers grew up just as her main character did. So everything started so black and white, but by the end, you were questioning everything you thought you knew. The Lightning-Struck-Tower did indeed fall. And we, with Harry, are left to pick up the pieces.
Harry’s Wizarding World comes to us packaged in the wonder and whimsy of Whomping Willows and Bertie Botts. Only once we are hooked, are we shown the mirror of our own broken, beautiful world. This seemingly trivial children’s story helped prepare me for a more flexible approach in my every day life. Because I went on this journey with Harry, I see can see people like Dumbledore and Snape every day, and I can accept that there is more to them than what they appear at face value. No one person is either morally back or white. Everyone is a combination of shades of grey, and it is up to each of us to decide what to do with the information we are given. Books like Harry Potter remind us that the world is twisted and grey, and there is both darkness and light in unexpected places, but that there will always be a cause for whimsy and joy. Just take a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. You never know what flavor you are going to get when you pop a seemingly simple pill of sugar into your mouth, but I think we’ll be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?