By Alan Jacobs
Waiting for Harry
Now, some people would say that Snape has already proved his perfidy by murdering Albus Dumbledore, atop a tower of Hogwarts Castle. But I am among those who believe—and I went on record with this view pretty early on—that Snape killed Dumbledore at Dumbledore's (silent) orders. The case, very briefly: (1) When Snape bursts out onto the battlements, he and Dumbledore just stare at each other for a moment. Which could mean nothing, but the chapter preceding that one and the chapter succeeding it emphasize Snape's extraordinary skill at Legilimency, that is, mind–reading. It would be surprising indeed if Dumbledore did not take advantage of that skill, which he himself also possesses. So I believe that when the two men seem to be just staring, they are in fact conversing. (2) When Dumbledore finally does speak, he says only, "Severus … please … "—at which point Snape raises his wand and pronounces the Killing Curse. Harry thinks that Dumbledore is pleading for his life, but if there is anything at all that we know about Dumbledore, it is that he has no fear of death (about which more later). And he does not say "please don't" but rather just "please." But why would he do this? Why would he order Snape to kill him? Well, that leads us to …
Draco Malfoy. At the beginning of Half–Blood Prince we learn that Lord Voldemort has given Draco a great and dangerous task, one which terrifies his mother Narcissa. Snape tells her that he knows what the Dark Lord has commanded Draco to do, though neither of them ever says what the task is, and I doubt that Snape does know—I think he's faking it. In fact, he's probably guessing that Draco has been asked to kill Harry Potter, which would explain his eagerness to take the Unbreakable Vow to finish the job if Draco fails. Not until we see Dumbledore and Draco on the battlement do we know what Draco has been ordered to do—kill Dumbledore—and I suspect that until that silent conversation with the Headmaster Snape remains in the dark as well.
I am guessing about such matters, of course, but this we know: though Voldemort has a devoted servant at Hogwarts, an immensely powerful wizard, and one in daily contact with Dumbledore, he does not choose that man to assassinate his great enemy, but rather gives the job to an inexperienced and not–especially–talented teenage boy—a boy who, at the moment of decision, cannot summon the will to finish Dumbledore off. Why did Voldemort choose a strategy which he must have known was almost certain to fail? Even if he did not fully trust Snape—especially if he did not trust him—assigning him the task of murdering Dumbledore would have been the best possible test of faithfulness. Did Voldemort, then, primarily desire something other than the death of Dumbledore? Narcissa Malfoy fears so: she thinks that Voldemort is deliberately endangering Draco in order to punish his incompetent father Lucius, who has failed the Dark Lord on several occasions.
If what Voldemort really wanted was to see Dumbledore dead, he could have come up with several more reliable means to get that done than entrusting it to Draco. Yet he was insistent that Draco and Draco only make the attempt. So when Snape returns to the Dark Lord with the news that Dumbledore is dead but by his hand, not Draco's, what will be Voldemort's response? My guess is that his wrath will be great, because his orders were not followed. But why did he give such orders in the first place? At the very least he would, by making Draco a murderer, draw Draco deeper into his world, make Draco more like himself—which is precisely what Dumbledore wants to avoid, thus his lengthy stalling conversation with Draco until Snape's arrival. But surely there must be more to it than that. All we know, though, is that Voldemort wanted Draco to be the murderer, not Snape; Dumbledore wanted Snape to be the murderer, not Draco. So, though the Headmaster loses his life, you could say that he wins that round with the Dark Lord. But what are the consequences of that "win"? How much does it matter? Was it important enough for Dumbledore to give up his own life for it? How could that be?