By Alan Jacobs
Waiting for Harry
Not long ago I got a phone call from an editor who had a request: Would I be willing to blog my reading of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for his magazine's website? Write an entry a day, recording my responses, until I had finished?
A flattering and intriguing request, which I had to turn down. For on the early morning of July 21st, I will go to my local Borders, pick up a copy of the book, and then return home, there to read without stopping until I know the fate of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Lord Voldemort. The proposed blog could therefore only have a single entry, which would in effect be a review of the book—and since I have promised John Wilson that I will review Harry's final adventure for Books & Culture, I shouldn't do that for anyone else.
However, I have no hesitation in using this space to record my anticipations of this great event. What am I looking forward to? What do I expect? What do I dread? What do I want desperately to know?
What follows will presume knowledge of the first six books, so those who have not made it so far should perhaps take this opportunity to retreat. And those who have managed altogether to escape being drawn into the Potter vortex will find nothing to entertain them here, so, with a heart full of pity, I bid such folks farewell for now. I should also pre–emptively thank the people with whom I have discussed these matters at some length, especially Russell Arben Fox (whose Great Harry Potter Post appears here) and Michelle Gunderson.
R. A. B. When, in Harry Potter and the Half–Blood Prince, Dumbledore and Harry reach the obscure and well–protected place where Voldemort had hidden a locket containing a portion of his own soul, they find that the locket has already been stolen by someone signing himself R. A. B. Unless J. K. Rowling is throwing us quite a curve, those must be the initials of Regulus Black, the younger brother of Harry's late godfather Sirius Black. Regulus had been a disciple of Lord Voldemort's, and though Sirius did not think much of his brother, there was obviously more to him than met the fraternal eye. But how could he have stolen the locket? Albus Dumbledore, perhaps the most powerful of all living wizards, could reach the locket's hiding place only with Harry's assistance and only by incurring great damage to himself, damage that might have proved fatal to him had Severus Snape not killed him first. A relatively minor wizard like Regulus Black could not possibly have pulled off the locket's theft without extraordinary assistance. It may be that he did nothing of the kind, that R. A. B.'s note is a ruse planted by Voldemort to confuse anyone who sought the locket; but such an elaborate ruse, dependent on such powerful enchantments, seems pointless. So if Regulus did steal the locket, who—or what—helped him? I suspect that a certain ill–tempered house–elf may have been involved, but beyond that I have no guesses.
The Case of Snape. A great deal of speculation in the world of Potter fandom revolves around Severus Snape. Over and over again people ask whether Snape is a committed Death Eater spying on Dumbledore or a committed member of the Order of the Phoenix spying on Voldemort. This is a false dichotomy. Snape is a classic double agent: he is both a Death Eater and a member of the Order. Voldemort knows that Snape has been serving Dumbledore and working for the Order, and yet (to some degree) trusts him; up until the moment of his death, Dumbledore knew that Snape was serving Voldemort and meeting with other Death Eaters, and yet continued to rely on him. Each leader was willing to accept that information went to the other, was willing to pay that price in order to receive information in turn.
(At the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Dumbledore repents of his habits of secrecy: many elements of Harry's own history Dumbledore has withheld from Harry, but he now sees that withholding as "an old man's mistake." He determines to be more open, and indeed in Half–Blood Prince reveals a great deal to Harry, and moreover encourages Harry to be open with his friends Ron and Hermione. But late in the book, when Harry demands to know why Dumbledore trusts Snape, the old man, after a moment of what appears to be internal debate, decides not to tell him. Given all the reasons he obviously has to be skeptical about Snape, whatever has so decisively earned his trust must be remarkable. We'll soon find out what it is.)
To which of his masters is Snape ultimately faithful? As is the case with all double agents, that will be determined by his final act. I believe that in the last book Snape will be confronted with a choice, a choice which will determine his loyalties once and for all. Until that moment even he will not know which side he is truly on. But at that moment, I believe, he will make his most important decision: he will sacrifice his own life to save Harry Potter's. And even this will not answer all the questions about him, for it will be impossible for us to know whether he offers himself because he hates Voledmort and believes in Dumbledore, or because it is the only way for him to even the score with his old much–hated rival James Potter, who once saved Snape's life. As Rebecca West wrote, there's no such thing as an unmixed motive.