An excerpt from The Hero Doctrine—two stories, fiction and nonfiction, that show how the world can change from one soul’s repentance. The Snape story has been subsequently halved for the final draft, so I wanted to share the original here.
OBVIOUSLY MAJOR SPOILERS. Ahem.
The life of Severus Snape is undeniably tragic, and yet, in the rain of tragedy often blooms a flower of incomparable beauty. His tale begins with loneliness. The only child of constantly bickering parents, young Severus grew up resenting others, insecure about his own identity as a mere half-blooded wizard and poor and largely friendless at that. He lacked, and so his little heart was cold and hateful. But there yet remained room for something good—in his loneliness he found a friend his age, a fellow magic user named Lily. She was kind-hearted and loving and good, the only bright spot in his life and throughout their childhood as best friends he clung to her. Even so, however, he continued to breathe bitterness, maintain an affinity for dark magic, and look down on those born to non-magical parents. This group of people included Lily, but he always made an exception for her in his head.
As we watch them attend the school of magic together, it is palpably clear that despite the dark cloud he dwells in, and despite their outward label as just “best friends,” he is in love with her, and has been since he first started watching her years ago. She is everything to him, but because of his almost compulsive obsession with the dark arts and the prejudice he holds against other muggle-borns that he just can’t suppress, he loses her. She breaks off the friendship and he must watch helplessly as she falls in love with the rich, handsome, popular athlete who always teased and taunted and outright harassed him behind her back throughout their years at school. Those two go off together and get married and start a family and receive the love and adoration of the wizarding world. Severus, his life now lightless, gives in entirely to his fascination with the dark arts and joins Lord Voldemort’s cult of Death Eaters.
He lives this small and pathetic dark life for a while, in the company of people who generally accept him and appreciate him, but who are obviously evil, devoted to the Dark Lord and the rise of the dark order. This is the life he could have continued to lead, and he could have brought about the Dark Lord’s ascension to immortality and great power a destiny but for one single opportunity for change.
Because of information Severus himself unwittingly supplied to his master, Voldemort plans to attack Lily’s house and kill her new son, Harry, along with James and Lily herself. In this moment, Snape finds himself truly torn between two worlds. It is drastic. It is stark. But it gives him a clear choice. Will he choose acceptance and fulfillment in the company of Death Eaters and the approval of his onetime hero Voldemort, despite He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s intention to murder the only woman he ever loved? Or will he sacrifice all that and seek to save Lily’s life, even though she didn’t love him, and has chosen to spend her life with his enemy?
Desperate for hope, Severus seeks the aid of Albus Dumbledore. In this scene we witness the contempt and indignation the wise and good and ordinarily kind Dumbledore has for Severus, the former pupil who chose evil. This moment is great and terrible, and Severus utterly debases himself in supplication for Dumbledore’s help. At first he asks merely for Dumbledore to save Lily, but when chastened by Dumbledore for his selfishness, he begs for all three of their lives, as long as it would save Lily’s as well. Severus then faces his choice when Dumbledore asks him what he will offer in return for his help.
In words reminiscent of the prayer of the father of King Lamoni, Severus hesitates, then whispers, “Anything.” And so anything, everything, is consequently asked. Attempts to save Lily and James prove in vain, but this moment changes Severus Snape forever. No, he does not suddenly become good and kind and loving like Lily. His life was far too full of pain and bitterness for that, especially when dealing with Lily’s son, who cruelly looks almost exactly like James, but with her eyes, so everytime he sees young Harry he remembers James’s victory over him, and how much he lost, how much he could never gain back.
But though his temperament does not change, his life direction does. And this change in trajectory and his subsequent choices have massive rippling effects across the wizarding world.
As he chooses to rebel against the evil that once claimed his life, he develops an incredibly close friendship with Dumbledore. The wizarding headmaster is Severus’s only confidant, the only one who knows the goodness deep within his heart and the secret of his love for Lily—and the only one who knows just how much pain he’s gone through, and how much he has sacrificed for the sake of that love. From the shadows Severus devotes his life to protecting young Harry, for in spite of how the boy evokes constant painful memories of James, he is Lily’s son, and he does it for her. When Voldemort returns to full strength in blood and horror, Severus puts his life perpetually in danger as a full-time spy, pretending to the Dark Lord that his loyalties had never truly turned to Dumbledore and that he remained a secret Death Eater even after Voldemort was presumed dead. All this, while remaining almost totally alone, friendless apart from Dumbledore.
And then, then he is compelled to kill Dumbledore, murder his only friend, the man who gave him a second chance. This he did at Dumbledore’s request, meant to maintain his role as double agent at Voldemort’s side. Of course, the only person who knew of this arrangement was Dumbledore himself, and so to the world, Severus is a traitor of the vilest kind, and a coward at that. He escapes the wrath of his old colleagues and turns his time entirely over to the Dark Lord; he must dwell in the presence of and work for the very man who murdered his eternal love. Never can he break his mask; all turmoil and anguish must be kept inside; he is even prevented from saving the lives of innocents who have been taken captive, people he knew, because maintaining that mask is so essential to Dumbledore’s very long-term strategy of bringing down Voldemort, a strategy Severus never knew the full extent of. Last of all he dies a violent death in the jaws of a snake, never to see the fulfillment of the plan to which he had devoted his life.
Only after his death does Harry, does anyone, learn all that he had sacrificed for the cause of good. At the end, after learning Severus’s true nature and the incredible choices he has made since his first to try to save the Potters, Harry gives one of his own sons Snape’s name, and tells young Albus Severus that the old potions master was the bravest man he ever knew.
Severus is the character upon whom the entire Harry Potter series rests. Without his courage and without his choices—and without that change of heart midway through his life—Harry would not have survived, not at the beginning, when Voldemort attacked his home and family, and not at the end, when Voldemort laid siege to Hogwarts. And so it would not be inaccurate and certainly not untruthful to say that Voldemort and the Death Eaters were extinguished by an act of repentance.
Now, for the other story, the nonfictional one. You may have heard of this man before, though his name is ironically probably not as well known as Severus Snape. This man was a member of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s, and well known for his business enterprises and silver tongue. He was also a womanizer who cheated on his wife time and time again, and a war profiteer, founding an enamelware factory to capitalize on the conflict of World War II. To save on costs, he employed Jewish laborers to work in his factory, but because their work was forced, they didn’t receive a dime. Once penniless, this man became rich, powerful, and influential, capable of smooth-talking anyone into anything and wealthy enough to bribe officials into ignoring certain of his side-endeavors. Perhaps you’ve heard of this man, or seen the film about him. His name was Oskar Schindler, and in the midst of the hell of the war and the attempted annihilation of an entire race of people, this hero saved the lives of over a thousand Jews in his factories.
Hellish situations like war always bring out either the best or the worst in people. Somewhere along the line, Schindler realized what his country was doing. He realized his part in it, and in an act of repentance, used his considerable resources over the years to rescue Jews from the worst horrors of the Holocaust. He used not just his wealth in this saving effort, but his factory itself, which became a kind of sanctuary where Jewish workers could be protected. He deflected Nazi investigations with flattery and bribes, talking down or paying off Gestapo officers who noticed his behavior. Eventually he went completely broke, having used all of his funds to care for and protect his workers. By the end, because of the turning of his heart, over 1,100 Jews escaped hell on earth and lived to tell the tale. Today there are more than 7,000 descendants of the Schindler Jews.
Both of these stories story demonstrate the potentially unending fruits of true repentance, the vast possible effects brought about by the penitent actions of a single soul. The power and magnitude of the act of repentance, so simple and pure, can reach infinite proportions and reap eternal consequences. And though Snape was a bully to Harry, and Schindler himself remained a womanizer and alcoholic, the changes wrought in them were enough to save the lives of thousands of innocent people, and to this day inspire further good, further heroism, in all who hear their stories.
I believe we, each of us, can do the same. For that is our purpose: to become saviors on Mount Zion. But what’s needed first is change: repentance.
Next week: James, Severus, and Jacob’s Allegory of the Olive Tree