SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve gotten this deep into your life without knowing what happens in Harry Potter, but you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading this right now.
Severus Snape is the best and most complex character in the entire “Harry Potter” series. His arc is so compelling because of how certain we are from the start that he’s a villain, and Harry’s greatest opponent. Yet we realize by the end that he’s one of the greatest heroes in the story, arguably even more of a hero than Harry himself. And once you know how the story winds up, you can go back and find evidence of Snape’s true nature sprinkled all over. That’s not a total surprise, given that his inner turmoil isn’t exactly kept secret throughout the novels. But what is surprising is just how early on in the story you’ll find hints about his heroism.
Snape doesn’t make it out of the saga alive. He’s killed defending Harry from Voldemort, but not before giving his memories – and a lot of truth – to Harry before he peaces out. But if it wasn’t already obvious to you at this point that Snape was a good guy, you really hadn’t been paying attention.
Snape was in love with Harry’s mom, Lily, his entire life. Even after Voldemort murdered her. Fans fetishize the moment Snape utters the word “always,” his answer to Dumbledore’s incredulous question about whether he, Snape, was truly still in love with Lily “after all this time.” It’s the entire reason he protects Harry over and over again.
Dumbledore reveals to Snape at one point that Harry was always meant to die, that his death was necessary for defeating Voldemort. Snape is as shocked as we are to learn this. “Everything was supposed to keep Lily Potter's son safe,” Snape says. “Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter.” Not only is he devoted to protecting Harry, he’s disgusted as the notion of letting Harry die.
Dumbledore left behind the Sword of Gryffindor for Harry to use to destroy horcruxes, but he wasn’t able to actually deliver the sword to him. That was up to Snape. And Snape did it, because he’s on Harry’s side, duh.
Even if Snape doesn’t count as a villain, the series isn’t without a rogues gallery of them. High on that list is Dolores Umbridge, the bureaucratic Defence Against the Dark Arts professor who everyone hates. In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” she demands that Snape give her truth serum to use on Harry. But Snape first gives her a fake potion, and laters lies and says he’s run out of the veritaserum. Because he’s on Harry’s side, get it?
Throughout The Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin is gentle and kind and a clear father figure to Harry. So, of course, Snape appears to hate him, making us hate Snape. But at the end of the book, we learn it was Snape all along who was giving wolfsbane potion to Lupin, preventing the aptly named professor from turning into his werewolf state. Why would Snape do that unless he was the side of good?
In Chamber of Secrets, pompous professor Gilderoy Lockhart isn’t exactly a villain, but he is a huge douchebag. So it’s really satisfying when Snape duels Lockhart in an exhibition for the dueling club, and wipes the floor with him. And Harry starts to realize that, in Snape, perhaps the enemy of his enemy is his friend.
There’s a scene in the first book/movie when, during a Quidditch match, Harry is almost thrown from his broom via sorcery. We see Snape casting a spell, and assume, as Harry does, that he’s the one trying to kill The Boy Who Lived. But we learn in the end that it was Professor Quirrell who was to blame. Snape was using magic to counter Quirrell’s spell. It’s the first time in the whole saga we’re given clear evidence that Snape’s goal is to protect Harry, not destroy him.
But there’s a moment in the first movie that we don’t see in the first book. It’s very brief, and if you blink, you could miss it. But it reveals something about Snape and his motivations before we ever learn anything else about him.
Reddit user Fartikus pointed the moment out. Fartikus wrote, “When Harry's scar started hurting in the beginning of Sorcerer's Stone, Snape noticed this; and looked to the left, right at Professor Quirrel. Right after the ceremony, you see Snape confronting him.”
Reddit user RaynSideways adds, “During this scene Harry is looking in the direction of both Serverus Snape and Quirinus Quirrel. During most of the first Harry Potter book and film, the trio suspects Snape is behind the bad things happening at the school. This was the first time Harry had seen Snape, and Harry's scar hurting at the sight of Snape is a red herring implying that Snape is the villain.”
RaynSideways continues, “What wasn't fully understood at this point in the film was that his scar hurts in the presence of Voldemort. Quirinus Quirrel at this time was acting as a host for Voldemort's disembodied soul--emanating as a face on the back of his head, covered by his turban.”
This is before we know Quirrell tried to kill Harry during the Quidditch match. It’s before we know Quirrell is “hosting” Voldemort. It’s way before we know Snape is Dumbledore’s man, or that he’s acting as a double agent for Voldemort. But it shows us that Snape is so on point in looking out for Harry that he doesn’t miss something fishy between Harry and Quirrell.
Still, fans continue to debate Snape’s light side vs. his dark side. And that argument can never be resolved, because of course he’s neither all good nor all evil. As J.K. Rowling herself has said, Snape is “all grey.”