Severus Snape and the dangers of sorting too soon

snapeThe eighth chapter of the Harry Potter Conference book, the Ravenclaw Reader, takes the character of Snape as its topic. The substantive paper is by Joshua C Richards, with the response by Amy Sonheim. If Google has not let me down, Richards is a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Sondheim a lecturer at Ouachita Baptist University. Given that these both appear to be relatively conservative Christian institutions (Palm Beach appears to expect faculty to sign a statement of faith) it’s an interesting comment on the now respectable status of Harry Potter in places where he might once have aroused fear and suspicion among conservative Christians.

The other surprise for me in discovering this Christian affiliation after reading the essays, is that I hadn’t particularly detected anything that would lead me to suspect it. In fact, almost the opposite. Richards explores what he calls a “pattern of paternal atonement” in the character of Snape, drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, as that latter channels Freud and Jung. He means by this the coming to terms (reconciliation) with the reality of a father as complex, neither a mythologised ideal father, nor his opposite the “ogre-father”. He sets Snape alongside a range of other potential father-figures in Rowling’s stories, and argues that Snape too is a father-figure with whom Potter reaches reconciliation.

Since my main reaction to Campbell’s work is to want to jump up and down shouting “bollocks”, this does not exactly fill me with joy. I think Richards is absolutely right to notice how Harry’s relationships with a range of adult figures matures to include recognition of flaw and virtue, to see them as they are. Nevertheless it is also the case that Harry’s relationships with his peers grow and mature as well. In other words, he is growing up. Yes, some of the adults are father figures (but why no discussion of Lupin as potentially albeit briefly occupying this role?), but I don’t think that makes Snape one. The Freudian stuff about fathers, turned by Campbell into Jungian archetypes, rather pulls Richards’ helpful inspection of Rowling’s characterisation a bit out of shape.

Sonheim’s response likes the stuff I don’t. But she also uses the portrayal of Snape as reconciled and now heroic “ogre-father”, and Dumbledore revealed as having moral failings, to refute a Marxist critique of Rowling as commercially and culturally safe.

“I sometimes,” sighs Dumbledore, “think we Sort too soon.” (Deathly Hallows p.545) He is talking to Snape about the latter’s bravery. Character development as Rowling portrays it, gives just enough lie to Sorting to raise a critique of the way the school houses are. Mentally, sorting tends to be exactly what we do, especially in childhood, with other people. Growing up is about learning people are rarely as black and white as tabloid journalism. Indeed, one of the more pointed critiques Rowling makes is that in the world of the Daily Prophet, people always wear black or white hats to suit a political agenda, and someone who wore the white stetson of heroism yesterday can wear the black balaclava of criminality today. Rowling’s use of a fairly Chomskyan propaganda model is itself partly an answer to a Marxist critique of commercial safety.

Before summarising these contributions I noted the Christian affiliations of both authors’ institutions. What I think I find surprising then, is the lionization of Campbell’s eclectic and generic approach to world cultures, which turns them into a commercially appealing (think Star Wars and Dan Brown), vaguely spiritual, bourgeois mishmash of middle-American romantic gloop – “follow your bliss“. Walking the way of the cross, or at least entering the Forbidden Forest as a willing sacrifice is a lot harder than that. Surely there are more robust, and indeed more robustly Christian, lenses to alert us to questions of character complexity than the one selected here. The relationship of Harry to the adults in his life is a lot more complex than the Campbell-inspired polarities of Luke and Anakin Skywalker. And it is all the better for that.