In Snape’s memories, Harry – and so the reader – has the opportunity to understand the entire timeline of Severus and Lily’s friendship. They’re both outsiders in their own way. Snape reveals what a tough home life he leads, and as a Muggleborn Lily has been experiencing magic without any reference point for what it is. Until they meet each other. We watch their fledgling friendship blooming, hear Snape’s tiny groan as Lily is sorted into Gryffindor and not Slytherin as he’d hoped, and then watch the difficulties their friendship faces as Snape becomes more involved in the Dark Arts and Lily struggles to understand it. We root for their friendship in spite of it all because their whole pasts are laid in front of us over only a few pages, a few strands of memory.
We can still see – even though Severus and Lily may forget it in their teenage years – that young witch and wizard lying on the leafy ground with a canopy of leaves above their heads. It’s hard not to wish that things had turned out differently for them. That they could have held onto that friendship all the way through their school years instead of drifting apart. And think that perhaps it might have stopped Snape drifting into circles that would only bring him misery and regret. Though, of course, in later life Lily’s doe protects him from that darkness with its silvery light of hope.
By Chapter Thirty-Three we already know what Lord Voldemort is capable of. We’ve already seen him use the Killing Curse without remorse on countless innocents – on Snape himself – and we’ve even seen him directing an attack on Hogwarts, the only place he ever really had a home. In the context of this and as Snape’s story unravels, we understand the pure depth of the love he has for Lily. A love that had him spying on one of the most dangerous and deadly Dark wizards that ever lived. From the moment we see him going to Dumbledore ¬– ‘Don’t kill me!’ – we understand better the high stakes Snape has been gambling with. We understand that from the moment he goes to Dumbledore until the moment of his death he has been living in fear for his life. And it’s all for love. All for Lily. Snape shows us that love is stronger than fear, and that is something overwhelmingly beautiful.
‘After all this time?’ Dumbledore asks as Snape casts his doe Patronus. ‘Always,’ Snape answers. And queue the sobbing and broking hearts! This is, perhaps, the most memorable exchange across the whole Harry Potter series. But why? Perhaps in the doe Patronus we truly understand the depth of Snape’s love for Lily, a love that was never returned in the way he would have hoped. Perhaps it’s because many of us have experienced that pain of loving, and wanting and not being wanted in return (perhaps in a romantic way, perhaps by friends, an estranged parent). Perhaps it is also because throughout the Harry Potter series, Patronuses have always been a symbol of hope. Did Snape still hope that Lily would return his love one day? Or was it just enough for him to hold on to a piece of her, her doe, even though he couldn’t bring her back? Whatever it is, the fact that Lily’s doe protects Snape from the depressive darkness of Dementors is something that simultaneously warms and breaks your heart.
Snape’s memories reveal him as a very complicated person. And it is emotive and somewhat reassuring to see this complexity of character in another human being. People are complicated because they’re made up of so many different experiences. Snape was a lonely, friendless child. He was a victim of bullying. He was a bully himself. He found hope and friendship in Lily Evans. He called her names. He joined Lord Voldemort. He betrayed him. He loved the Dark Arts. He taught Potions. He accidentally betrayed the person he loved most. He saved Harry’s life on a number of occasions. He protected Hogwarts. All these facets of Snape are laid bare for us, and in them we understand how he became what he was, but also in general how people become who they are. They are made up of the lived parts of their lives. As Sirius once put it, ‘the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters’ and Snape is a Death Eater but he has also done good. Perhaps there’s hope in this. Just like in his Patronus.
The truth about the Boy Who Lived at last Away from Snape, this chapter gives the truth about Harry at last. It shows a shrewdness and calculative side of Dumbledore that has stayed hidden until this point, and that in itself is disarming. We get answers to questions Harry has asked over and over. About Malfoy, about Snape, about Voldemort, about Dumbledore, and of course, about himself. There is a catharsis in all the revelations. A catharsis that Harry feels too. To have the truth at last. To finally know how to go on. Perhaps even, how to succeed. Even if that comes to making the ultimate sacrifice for the wizarding world.