Sunday, September 2, 2007

What determines who is a hero?

If you haven't found the interesting discussions over at Sword of Gryffindor, you've really been missing out. Travis's latest pubcast is concerning whether Severus Snape can be considered a hero.

Now for Snape--please forgive the extreme length, but I'm one of those who find him to be the most enigmatic of all the characters. (A shape shifter, as Travis defines in his PubCast #34, might be the most appropriate explanation for who Snape is--ever changing, always a problem for the hero, etc.)

No, I don't want to be like him, and I certainly hope I never even meet anyone like him, nor would I have wanted him as a teacher. I am as appalled as Rowling when young girls or women talk of wanting to marry Snape--makes me shudder to think of it. He is not a nice man, no matter how you view him, and he wasn't about to change for anyone, especially since we learn that he wouldn't change (his choice of thuggish friends), even for Lily.

As an adult, Snape doesn't even seem to have friends among his colleagues. They show him respect, but friendship? Hardly. Other than his unique friendship with Dumbledore, and as we found out in Deathly Hallows, his childhood friendship with Lily, Snape led a very solilary life--and probably would have done even if he hadn't turned spy.

I expected to learn more about Snape's life with his parents, but I was absolutely OK with not getting that in this story. Rowling had given us the hints that Snape was from an abusive home, that he was bullied by his peers and that he was a loner. The piece that was missing was that he did have one friend, and apparently it was a real friendship, marred as friendships sometimes are, by the choices that he made.

A side note here--Travis at SoG, quoted from MacDonald. I don't have the quote, but it is something to the effect that, as readers we get out of a story different things, because we bring our own individual experiences to the story and the characters; we may even find something in a story or a particular character that the author did not intend. As individual readers, we sometimes get something completely different out of a story because of our own experiences. And perhaps that's the reason I feel some empathy for Snape. (No, I don't have greasy hair, a sallow skin and a hooked nose and Death Eaters for former friends.) I did, however, have a friend who was, to put it plainly, just odd. Not abused in any way, rather she probably had too many advantages, most of which she did not appreciate. But she was always like a square peg trying to fit into a smaller round hole. We were very different, but for some reason we were best friends for three or four years, and then she made a choice that ended the friendship. The situation was different for Snape, of course, as he loved Lily; whether or not Lily felt the same was never quite clear, but implied. But she at least seemed to love him as a friend. When she told him she couldn't abide his choice of friends, I knew how that felt (even though for Snape it was love, and for me it was a friendship) because I had felt that same disappointment of feeling betrayed by my friend's choice. (She stole my boyfriend, actually--not a good thing for a best friend to do. Turning Death Eater might have been easier for me to accept-- er, well, maybe not.)

My point is that I think we do find ourselves identifying more with some characters than with others. In the beginning of the books, I identified very much with Harry; (again, there was no abuse in my life, only love and a caring family) but I was adopted and didn't know anything about my birth parents. That's where that character identification stopped for me, except that my adoptive dad died when I was ten--so I did somewhat understand how Harry felt about not having parents.

However, the time that Harry spent in front of the Mirror of Erised brought tears to my eyes, as I thought of what I would see. It would be my mother, who had died in 1996, three years before I started reading Harry Potter. And then hearing later that it was Jo's favorite chapter, for much the same reason as mine, resonates incredibly with my own feelings and understanding of what it feels like to be without parents. I miss my mother still, and like Jo, would like just five more minutes with her, or a bit of time looking into the Mirror of Erised.

There are other things in all the books that are particularly poignant to me and that I seem to understand differently than some readers who are younger who have not experienced the death of parents or grand parents. Especially the thestrals--that was another moment when I felt so close to Luna and Neville and Harry, having seen someone die when I was a child. It was my grandfather. Apart from my parents, he was my favorite person in the world, and I was the one who found him when he was dying. So whenever I think of thestrals, I think of that late afternoon fifty years ago.

I know that many readers had problems with the manner in which Snape died, even those who expected that he would. Part of the problem IMO, is that some are too tied to their own theories, especially those who read or write a lot of fan fiction. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with fanfic--I've enjoyed some of it. But when it changes the way a reader understands the author's story and characters, then the fanfic has been damaging. I think that's where some of the dissatisfaction arises, with the cruel way Snape was killed, and that it needn't have happened at all. There was no glory, no heroic sort of scene, and after Harry and Snape looked into each others' eyes--a scene which I found so very powerful, Harry and Ron and Hermione rushed off, leaving this fallen hero alone, in a place that held the unpleasant memories of his childhood enemies.

While I get their point, I think they have missed the bigger point with Snape's death, as well as with the deaths of Sirius in OP, and of Remus and Tonks, and even Fred. In the middle of a war, particularly a civil war being fought on the grounds of their school (the stand-in for their homes), not every death is going to have the honor and significance of Dumbledore's or Dobby's deaths. War is ugly; it is not fair; it is not a respector of the worth of a person's life. And war does not stop and wait while we properly mourn for our beloved and fallen friends and families.

Snape had spent the rest of his life, after Lily was killed, full of remorse, and trying to atone for his unintentional betrayal of the only person he ever loved, or who ever loved him. Sirius had found his friends and his god son and should have had some happiness after twelve years of misery and two years in hiding. Remus and Tonks had finally found each other, and had a son to raise (though, looking at the alchemical imagery of the story, I knew they were toast as soon as they had Teddy). And Fred. Fred, at the moment of reconcilliation with his brother Percy, having a laugh, was killed as well.

Senseless deaths? Some think so, from what I've read on a few forums. All of those characters deserved to live and grow old, or they all deserved to have some sort of glorious death--isn't that what happens in the movies? The good guys all come out on the other side, perhaps injured or scarred, but OK, and the bad guys either die or get what's coming to them. Neat and tidy, and totally unrealisitc.

The best thing about Rowling's books is that she's not writing unbelievable stories with glorious deaths, or allowing characters to live because just because we like them; it wouldn't be at all realistic in the middle of a war if there were no deaths of nice people. And for her readers to feel what that means, if they haven't expereinced the loss of a family member or friend to the tragedy of war, Rowling had to kill off some of the characters we loved, or at the very least, that we respected or for whom we felt empathy.

Of course, I wasn't happy that Snape died--I wasn't happy that any of my favorite characters died either. Those deaths, however, make the point of the senselessness of deaths during war time, the randomness, the unfairness, the injustice of it all. The Epilogue shows us the model (young readers especially), that survivors must go on with their lives; they cannot live in a state of mourning forever. But we also must remember those who died and honor them in significant ways, meaningful ways that remind the next and future generations that honorable people died to preserve their freedoms. Harry naming his son after Albus and Severus, and his comments about Severus being the bravest man he ever knew, was better than any elaborate funeral or monument. By that one act and that one comment, Rowling filled in the missing pieces of Snape's death. Harry venerated him during his final battle with Voldemort, in front of all assembled in the Great Hall, and then he let his son (and all of us) know that he had forgiven Snape and understood just how brave he had been.

I think one of the other things that I took away from Deathly Hallows, was that not every hero has to be acting for the noble reasons we expect from heroes. Harry, who was the hero of the story, did act selflessly to save others, throughout the books. Ron and Hermione had their moments, though they were sometimes heroic because of their loyalty to their friend, rather than acting for the greater good.

Neville turned out to be very much like Harry in his actions, and I loved it. It showed that he very well could have been the "Chosen One", another pointer to our choices being more important in defining who we are.

Fred and George were heroic in their own way; Percy came through in the end. Ginny and Luna were heroes as well. Many of the adults were heroes, but some fought for noble reasons and others fought to save their families or their way of life.

Dumbledore, who had always seemed to have the most pure motives of all, turned out to not be our perfect hero, and often told Harry so. Outwardly, he seemed to be doing everything for the good of all, while in reality, it was much more personal, and so very private, for Dumbledore. He fought, not out of the purity of his heart, but because of the choices he'd made because of the darkness of his heart.

That leads us full circle back to Severus Snape. Snape did many heroic things in fighting against the Death Eaters and Voldemort. In some ways, his sacrifices and deeds far surpassed those of any of the other heroes. He fought his battle without ever receiving the recognition that was his due, except from Dumbledore, and posthumously from Harry.

I wish I could remember who said that heroes are ordinary men who do extraordinary things. It's not the obviously brave and strong who are the real heroes, but those who aren't, those who are flawed human beings, who do something in their life that earns them the distinction of being called a hero. And that's how I see Severus Snape--a loner, a man in need of redemption (as we all are), but a man who in the end, made the right choices to fight against evil. Did he do it for the noble reasons that we saw with Harry or with Neville? No. Severus Snape felt the pain of his own guilt, felt true remorse, and he sought forgiveness from the one person he had loved--Lily. He literally gave his life because he loved Lily, and in doing so he found his redemption. The more I think of it, his death was very much like that of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Carton, a character who reminded me of Snape even before I read Half-Blood Prince, acted to save someone he didn't care only because he loved Lucy. And no one knew what he had done at the time of his death. All his imaginings were just that. He could only envision that his name and heroism would be known later. As readers we were left hoping and believing that Carton got the honor and recognition he deserved for his sacrificial death; in Deathly Hallows" we learned that Snape was honored as a hero, in the best possible way.

Let's all raise our glasses to all the heroes of Deathly Hallows, as well as those of the first six Harry Potter books, be they noble and pure of heart like Harry, or the flawed and remorseful heroes--those who are much more like most of us, if we are to be entirely honest.