Weekly Archive
February 3, 2002 - February 9, 2002

RE: Where's the Canon? (Part One) -- Canonical "suggestion" and plausibility

  "BOOM. They knocked again. Dudley jerked awake.
  'Where's the cannon?' he said stupidly."

    —PS, Ch 4

Hello, all. Quite some time ago now, Rebecca began her last sally in our discussion about Snape's attitudes towards his old Slytherin classmates with a preamble regarding the nature of canon. Because issues of canonical purity have come to suffuse this exchange, and because I find them interesting in and of themselves, I'd like to take a bit of time here to examine the relationship between authorial fiat and reader desire: the space that lies between the two, the nature of the speculation that takes place within that space.

If theory gives you the screaming heebies, then you may want to give this one a miss, frankly. I am no po-mo warrior, but I do occasionally indulge myself in a few ugly little habits, like using the word 'privilege' as a verb. If that sort of thing upsets you, then please feel free to skip on ahead: I've extracted the parts of this discussion that did not, IMO, center on questions of canonical purity, and I'll be addressing those separately, in a different (and relatively theory-free) post later on.

This got long. It got quite long. I've therefore broken it up into two parts. Only part two has Snapestuff in it, sorry. This part does have a bit of Draco, though, for those who like that sort of thing.


So. In message 33930, Rebecca wrote:

I'd like to make a brief preamble distinguishing between an interpretation based on canonical evidence and one based on ones own experience, imagination, influence from other writers and real world probability. Now if anyone tries to write a fanfic, which was Elkins original example, they must draw on all these things.

I would argue that all readers both can and must draw on all of these things. To do so is intrinsic to the very act of reading a text. Fiction in particular relies upon the reader's ability to make sense of the story through extrapolation from real life, and through inferences drawn from that extrapolation. Should the reader fail to do this, or should her inferences diverge too widely from what the author had anticipated (as might happen, for example, due to vast cultural differences between reader and author), then the story is likely to fall flat: it will not make sense to the reader, or it will fail to engage on any real emotional level.

(Yes. This is painfully basic. But please bear with me: I really am trying to go somewhere with this.)

Non-canonical sources such as the reader's real life experience, imagination, and understanding of probability, politics, and literary or genre convention are not the enemies of Authorial Intent. They are very important vehicles of Authorial Intent.

But the Author does not get to steer those vehicles.

We do.

And We Are Legion.

This is relevant because, as the endless quality of some of the debates here demonstrate (just how many students are there at Hogwarts, anyway?), canon itself is often ambiguous or self-contradictory, open to many equally-plausible interpretations; on many issues, it is simply silent. When this happens, then readers must turn to non-canonical considerations—themselves often ambiguous or self-contradictory—to decide which of competing potential canonical 'truths' they wish to privilege. Because there are so many non-canonical factors open for consideration, however, and because many of these are intensely personal, no two readers are likely to construct 'canonical suggestion' in precisely the same way. Some disagreement over what is in fact suggested or implied by the text is unavoidable.

It is, I believe, this very quality of fiction—the fact that it not only invites, but actively demands that the reader insert his own experiences into the text—that makes the act of reading fiction so highly engaging, and so deeply immersive. Fiction demands a great deal of active participation from the reader. It is intensely personal. The hazy indeterminate space which lies between What the Author Tells Us and That Which Canon Does Not Prohibit is the space in which the story lives and breathes. It is the space in which not only fanfic, but also reader speculation—such as gets discussed on this list—and to some extent reader engagement itself resides.

Canonical "suggestion" lives within this space.

But so do reader imagination...and reader desire.

Rebecca wrote:

But I'm trying to make a distinction between the way a reader imagines things ought to be (and here everyone can and should make their own interpretations) and what is actually suggested by the text (which we can still disagree on, but there's a difference).

Rebecca, while I understand (or believe that I do) the distinction that you're describing here, I also think that the situation is far more complicated than the above sentence might suggest. There is in fact a vast grey area lying between What The Author Tells Us and What We Would Like To Imagine, and many gradations of canonical 'purity' within that space. Canonical suggestion—"what is actually suggested by the text"—is itself, as you acknowledge, open to debate; it is so precisely because it is formulated through recourse to all of those non-canonical factors you mentioned earlier: extrapolation from experience, real world probability, literary convention, and so forth. Unlike canonical evidence (the actual words of the author), canonical suggestion is a matter of nuance and assumption and inference: it is inherently 'impure.'

That said, however, I think that we would both agree that there is such a thing as 'canonical purity,' and that some interpretations adhere to it far more strictly than others. Even on subjects about which canon is silent, we generally do recognize certain theories as more 'plausible'—by which we mean, 'more likely to be what the author intended'—than others. We recognize the existence of a thing called 'Spirit of Canon,' a spirit which can be either respected or violated. Because the Spirit of the Canon is a thing of nuance and inference and tone, it may be difficult to define in precise terms, but we believe in it nonetheless. It's a lot like pornography that way—we may not know exactly what it is, but we recognize it when we see it. ;-)

Within the vast grey realm of canonical possibility there lies a spectrum of what we might call 'canonical plausibility.' Some speculations are so strongly implied by the text that they hardly require any defense at all ("Dumbledore Is NOT Evil!"). At the most plausible end of this spectrum we might place those notions so overwhelmingly suggested by the text that they may often be mistaken for absolute canonical truth—until, that is, some crazed L.O.O.N steps in to clear up the misapprehension ("The Lestranges were two of younger Crouch's three co-defendents in the Pensieve scene of GoF").

Some theories, on the other hand, militate so strongly against what we perceive as the Spirit of Canon that while they can be defended (and often are, often by means of extensive citation), to do so requires both rugged determination and, one might argue, a healthy dose of perversity—or at the very least, of eccentricity ("Dumbledore Is In League With Voldemort!" "Snape and Sirius Are Actually Blood-Relations!"). At the far end of the spectrum on this side lie 'subversive readings,' readings whose proponents know full well that they are not Authorial Intent, and never will be canon, but which because they are not yet explicitly prohibited by the text are still "permissable" and may therefore be legitimately espoused. Subversive readings are those which deliberately and self-consciously violate the Spirit, if not the Letter, of Canon.

Readers might choose to privilege a subversive reading for any number of different reasons: political bias, aesthetic preference, philosophical protest, playful humor, or plain old-fashioned perversity. In most cases, though, the decision to espouse a subversive reading reflects some degree of dissatisfaction with one or more aspects of a work which otherwise holds great appeal. Subversive readings are usually a symptom of a deep reader ambivalence about the text as a whole.

Of course, true subversion is a matter of intent. For a reading to classify technically as a 'subversive reading,' its proponent must believe himself to be in deliberate opposition to the Spirit of Canon. It is therefore impossible to prove that someone else's speculation is truly subversive—particularly as an important part of the "game" of defending a subversive reading is the assumption of a painfully earnest and sincere tone ("No, really, this MUST be what's really going on in these books—just look at all the PROOF I've found!"). So, for example, while I strongly suspect that Eric Oppen's "Frank Longbottom Was Judge Dredd On Acid!" speculation was intentionally subversive, I cannot know this for sure. He may have been proposing what in his own mind he considered an "implausible" suggestion, rather than a deliberately subversive one.

I can, however, give with full confidence as an example of a subversive reading a post I wrote a week or two ago (but never sent out) with the subject line "Defending Avery," in which I embarked on a passionate defense of one of Rowling's most severely misunderstood and consistently maligned minor characters to date: Snape's old classmate, the unfortunate Mr. Avery. In that message, I objected strenuously to Rebecca's characerization of this poor man as a "grovelling toady" and outlined all of the ways in which the canonical evidence actually strongly suggests that Avery Is Not All That Bad A Fellow, Really.

And I did a fair job of it too, I think. (Hey, there's quite a case to be made for Avery, you know...) But the point here is that of course I don't really believe that JKR intended, or anticipated, or expected, or at all wanted us to read the text that way. Nor do I believe for a moment that Rowling's Avery, should he appear in later books, will bear any resemblance to the rather likeable figure I painted in that post. It is perfectly clear to me that we're meant to read JKR's Avery as...well, as a grovelling toady, actually.

However, the canon can be read to suggest otherwise. There is plenty of evidence to support such a reading, and nothing in the text proper that strictly opposes it. I was therefore not violating any of the accepted rules of engagement in my interpretation: I was, in short, not "cheating." But I was deliberately misreading the cues of canonical suggestion, and doing so with purely provocative intent. (I had at the time just been accused of extending unreasonable benefit of the doubt to criminals and other Very Bad Men; the post was my original response to that accusation, a rather aggressive "I'm going to commit the murder I was imprisoned for" tactic. It occurred to me only after writing the thing that it was likely an unduly inflammatory response, which was the reason that in the end, I never sent it out.)

"Defending Avery" was a truly subversive reading, a deliberate violation of the Spirit of Canon. It is quite possible, however, that someone else could make the exact same case for Avery with no subversive intent: they could merely have read the cues of canonical suggestion in a highly idiosyncratic manner and thus come to view what I consider virtually canonically impossible as the Author's Real Intent. People read very differently, and sometimes they can come to very different conclusions regarding the true nature of the Spirit of Canon.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of deliberately subversive readings, though (I'll return to them later), I think that for the most part readers are capable of differentiating between their own desires and the suggestions of the text. Statements such as "I would certainly like it if JKR redeemed Draco...but I don't really think that's ever going to happen," or "I don't really think that Snape is supposed to be a vampire...but it sure is fun to speculate!" attest to this understanding, as do the occasional explicit rejections of canonical statement of fact. ("I don't care what canon states, I always imagine McGonagall's animagus form as an orange marmalade, and I intend to continue to do so, no matter how many times the text tells me otherwise!") Generally speaking, readers do know when they are choosing to ignore or override textual suggestion.

Sometimes, though, disagreements arise over where along the spectrum of plausibility certain speculations or conjectures truly lie. This does not, IMO, happen simply because some readers are inept (although surely some are), or because some people have a tin ear when it comes to nuance and tone (although some undoubtedly do). Rather, it seems to me that when such disagreements arise, it is usually because different readers have chosen to focus on different aspects of canonical suggestion—and because many of these aspects are in direct (and often strident!) contradiction.

This situation is even further complicated in the case of the HP books because as the series progresses, the tone of the books has been growing steadily darker and the moral universe they present ever more complex and ambiguous. As a result, the 'Spirit of Canon' may itself be seen to be in a state of flux: as the series progresses, some of the rules seem to be changing. After reading only the first two books, for example, Rebecca's statement that "JKR's Slytherin is the House of Bad Guys" would seem incontrovertable. By the end of PoA it seems less so, and by the end of GoF, less so still. This aspect of the series weakens our sense of surety about what truly is or is not permissable to imagine about future developments: what once seemed improbable may come to seem not only plausible, but even strongly indicated; the formerly subversive may come to be reinterpreted as merely highly unlikely.

(Or it may even become canonical fact! Just after PoA came out, a friend and I entertained ourselves for a couple of days by racking up canonical "proofs" for the notion that Snape really had once been one of Voldemort's supporters, see, but that he'd since...well, recanted, sort of. Although we both loved this theory, neither of us believed for a moment that it was really Authorial Intent. We knew full well that such a plot development would be grossly out-of-character for Rowling's irritatingly morally simplistic universe. *vbg* No, this was a purely subversive reading that we were defending partly to amuse ourselves, but mainly to annoy the hell out of a mutual friend -- one who is often weirdly humorless about "heretical" interpretations of the books that she very much likes.)

(Needless to say, we were both thrilled with GoF. But the point here is that when an interpretation that you had assumed to be utterly opposed to the Spirit of Canon is revealed to be Authorial Intent only one novel later, that can leave you with some lingering doubts about your own ability to correctly interpret canonical suggestion.)

In the absence of direct canonical evidence, readers must look outside of canon proper for ways to construct a kind of model representing the Canonical Spirit, and this process is unlikely to be undertaken in the same way by every reader. We all believe in a Spirit of Canon, yes. But our respective images of what that Spirit of Canon looks like are not necessarily at all the same.

As an example of this phenomenon, let's take the (rather contentious) statement: "By the end of Book Seven, Draco Malfoy will have found redemption, if only in death."

The general consensus about this statement seems to be that it is canonically implausible, yet still well within the range of possibility (i.e., it is not necessarily a subversive reading.) There is, however, no very firm consensus on this particular issue. Whenever it gets raised here, you can easily find people arguing strenuously for its allocation to all points along the spectrum of plausibility, including its most extreme ends. "It is a virtual certainty that Draco will act in the service of Good before the end of the series: all indications point to that outcome; at this point it is practically a canonical inevitability" has its small group of adherents. So, however, does "Malfoy will never be redeemed in canon: the very notion is heretical and can only be defended as a deliberately subversive reading!"

The people who argue both of these extreme positions aren't coming to their vastly differing conclusions on the basis of nothing more than their own desires or personal neuroses (lingering resentment of schoolyard bullies, for example, or romantic preference for frail young blonds). Such factors might certainly play some role, but for the most part I think that the adherents of both of these extreme positions are looking at 'legitimate' sources of canonical suggestion. The problem is that while they're looking at the same types of sources, they're coming up with completely different answers.

The most vehement opponents of Redeemable Draco, for example, may be looking for clues to Authorial Intent to literary convention ("Draco is Harry's literary mirror: just as Harry both has and will be tempted by Evil, yet choose to turn to Good, so Draco will be given the opportunity to turn to Good, yet choose an Evil path"), or to genre convention ("This is a boy's coming-of-age story set in a fantasy universe; in such stories, the hero must be given opportunity to triumph over an adversary of roughly equivalent age and experience; Draco is the character who fills that function in these books").

They may also be gaining their impressions from certain conventions and shorthands that JKR has already exhibited a fondness for in the books to date ("Slytherin Is the House of Evil," "Children Resemble Their Parents," "History Repeats Itself Through the Generations," "Blondes Are Bad News"), or drawing analogies with other literary works that bear some relation to the HP books ("Draco Malfoy is the cowardly bully of a boarding school tale. He's the Flashman, for heaven's sake! And just as that character never got one whit of authorial sympathy [until another writer came along to make him the star of his own deliberately subversive text], so only through a subversive reading could Draco be painted in a sympathetic light—JKR herself will never do so.")

Assumptions about the author's personal philosophy, drawn either from observations of the work so far ("JKR has proven herself unsentimental about both the supposed innocence of youth and about the nature of evil; she will therefore not balk at sending even a character so young straight to the Dark Side"), or from statements the author has made in interview ("JKR herself has said that she wishes to depict Evil as truly bad: in order to do this, she will have to show the corruption of youth, and it would weaken her thematic point to provide such an antagonist with any last-minute redemption") may also play their part in their understanding of What Canon Actually Implies.

Finally, people who take this position may be drawing on their own understandings of real-life experience and real-world probability to reach their conclusions. ("People's predilections usually are visible by the age of 14," "It is rare for children to overcome beliefs instilled in them by their parents," "It just wouldn't be realistic if all of Harry's peers turned out to be Good Down Deep Inside").

And as for those who maintain that canon overwhelmingly suggests a redemption scenario for Draco?

Well, they're looking at exactly the same things.

They, too, are looking to literary convention ("Draco's literary double is Severus Snape: just as Snape managed to turn away from his evil path, so will Draco") and to genre convention ("This is the sort of story which must end with a decisivee victory for the forces of Good; only if Evil is abandoned by some of its former adherents can this victory be in any way satisfying, and Draco is the obvious character to serve such a function").

They, too, are drawing conclusions based on certain habits or tendencies that the author has revealed in the books to date (The most likely suspect is never the real culprit; Characters often surprise you; The lines of conflict are never drawn quite where you expect them to be; As the series progresses, the books grow increasingly morally ambiguous, so by Book Seven Draco cannot remain the one-dimensional character he has been to date). Also like their opponents, they are likely drawing comparisons with analogous characters in other fictional works ("Draco Malfoy is an envious, proud, disdainful aristocrat. He's Elidyr, for heaven's sake! And just as Elidyr gives his life to atone for his wrongs, so will Draco make the same decision.")

Redeemable Draco's most devoted supporters are also likely to be making some assumptions about the author's personal philosophy, based either on knowledge of her life experiences ("JKR used to work as a schoolteacher, so she knows that children often grow out of their cruelty," "JKR used to work for Amnesty International, so she's been immersed in a tradition of redemption narratives"), or from the moral precepts that she has chosen to emphasize most strongly in her work to date ("Don't Prejudge Others," "It Is Never Too Late For Redemption," "It Is Our Choices, Not Our Heritage, That Define Who We Are").

Finally, also like their opponents, these people are likely drawing off of their understanding of real-life experience and real-world probability to reach their conclusions ("The people who parrot their parents' beliefs most vehemently in early adolescence are those most likely to rebel later in their teen years," "You can't really tell anything about someone from the way they behave at the age of 14," "Adolescents tend to express cruel and callous opinions that they don't necessarily really believe as a way of covering for their own fears and insecurities.")

Now, neither of these groups of people is exactly ignoring canon. Nor are they going about interpreting canonical suggestion in an utterly wrong-headed fashion. Every single one of the above statements represents, IMO, a perfectly legitimate step in the effort to construct a model of the 'Spirit of Canon' from which future plot developments may be predicted. But these two groups of people have chosen to focus on completely different aspects of canonical suggestion while resolutely ignoring other aspects: they have therefore reached diametrically opposed—if equally extreme—conclusions.

In other words, people don't always disagree because they fail to read the signs. Sometimes they disagree because the signpost bears far too many signs—all of them pointing in different directions.

When we talk about certain readings being more strongly suggested than others, then, we can run into difficulties, because the aspects of canon that I choose to privilege might not be the same as the ones that you do. "Harry is the Heir of Gryffyndor" is another good example of this phenomenon—and a far simpler and less contentious one than Redeemable Draco. To some, the speculation that Harry might be Godric Gryffyndor's heir seems highly plausible: genre convention supports it, as do certain canonical plot events and their implications. Others, however, argue (with equal validity, IMO) that this theory is canonically IMplausible, or even downright anti-canonical ("That would totally violate the spirit of the canon!") because the work to date has placed such a strong thematic emphasis on the primacy of choice over blood in the affairs of men.

In fact, both "Blood Will Tell" and "Choice Over Blood" are strongly suggested by the text, despite the fact that these two statements are contradictory. This is one of the major 'fault lines' of the books: one of the areas where the work strikes readers as thematically inconsistent, and which therefore causes a high degree of reader anxiety.

Which brings us back to the issue of reader subversion.

(Continued in part two)


Posted February 06, 2002 at 3:32 pm
Topics: ,
Plain text version


RE: Where's the Canon? (Part Two) -- Fans, Subversion, Snape & the DEs

(continued from part one)

Now, where were we? Ah, yes. Subversive reading.

Subversive reading tends to proliferate wherever there is reader anxiety, or wherever there exists a strong conflict between reader approval and reader discontent. Works which simply offend do not inspire such readings; works which both offend and appeal do. Subversion is a symptom of deep reader ambivalence about the work as a whole; it represents a conflict between the reader's desire to engage fully in the text and his reluctance to do so, a reluctance often based in the feeling that certain aspects of the work are (or may prove to be) unsatisfying, disturbing, exclusionary, or even morally reprehensible. Subversive readings are the visible manifestations of that conflict Rebecca referred to earlier between authorial intent ("what is actually suggested by the text") and reader desire ("the way a reader imagines things ought to be").

Now, to some extent all reader speculation is subversive. Like fanfic, speculation represents a reader's attempt to assume, if only temporarily, the mantle of authorial power; it is therefore an intrinsically subversive act—as, for that matter, is immersive reader engagement itself. In order to engage with the text on an emotional level, we must insert ourselves into that space which lies between Absolute Canonical Fact and That Which Canon Does Not Prohibit; by doing so, we cannot help but impose our own desires upon the text. Some degree of subversion is inevitable whenever we engage deeply with a work of fiction.

When a work of fiction is presented in serialized form, as the HP books are, it even further encourages this subversive aspect of reading. The incomplete nature of the serial offers the reader an additional level of indeterminacy in which to imagine and to speculate—more room to "play," if you will—and also invites readers to trespass on grounds that are normally off-limits. Readers of Shakespeare, for example, may feel free to speculate about Iago's motivations, but they cannot debate the actions he takes within the scope of the play itself: these are already canonically set. Readers of serialized fiction, on the other hand, both can and do speculate about even those things which will eventually become canonical certainty; they are permitted to exercise their imagination over even those aspects of the text which normally fall firmly under the authorial aegis.

This is one of the reasons, I think, that serialized fiction (television shows, comic books, novels presented as parts of longer on-going series, and so forth) tends to attract 'fans,' while completed works are more likely to garner 'appreciators.' The difference between the two lies not only in degree of obsession, but also in style of engagement. 'Fans' read differently than, say, academics do. They immerse themselves into their chosen texts more deeply, more imaginatively, more personally—and far more subversively. Fan readings are often characterized by ambivalence and anxiety.

The serialized format encourages this because it invites readers to don the authorial mantle by entering into a highly active speculative relationship with the text, while simultaneously acknowledging that the mantle's 'rightful owner' may reclaim it at any time and (come the next installment) render the reader's participation in the construction of the text utterly invalid. This is practically a recipe for subversive reading, and fandoms—both of HP and of other works—are characterized by the strange blend of enthusiasm and anxiety that this dynamic inspires. Fan readings and speculations always tend toward the subversive end of the spectrum of canonical plausibility: this is one of the primary characteristics of 'fandom.'

Wherever there is reader anxiety, that is where subversive reading will be most evident. Because there are specific types of things that tend to cause readers unrest (internal contradiction, moral absolutism, rigid stereotyping, seeming exclusion of certain segments of the population, and anything religious or political are some of the Biggies), it is usually not too difficult to anticipate where the "fault lines" of a work might lie.

Some fault lines are common to all fandoms. Sexual preference and activity is one such line: both slash readings and speculation about the "hidden" lives of adult characters are popular across the board, in part because readers are made uneasy by the suspicion that in fiction, as in real life, certain aspects of the characters' lives are being glossed over, hidden from view, or possibly even lied about by the authorial voice. Sympathy For The Devil readings are also universally popular fan responses. Again, this reflects the fan's tendency to view the fictional world as possessing a reality outside of the text itself, combined with the suspicion that the Author May Be Not Quite Truthful, that the "real truth" is likely far more morally complex than the authorial voice is willing to acknowledge.

The fault lines specific to HP fandom fall in rather predictable places. Blood Will Tell vs. Choice Over Blood is one such fault line: internal thematic contradiction always inspires reader unrest. House Slytherin and its role registers consistently high on the Richter Scale as well, partly because it partakes of the Sympathy For the Devil dynamic, but also largely because of the inconsistency factor: adult readers tend to find Slytherin=Evil jarringly inconsistent with the books' generally high level of humanism and moral complexity. Snape and Draco are popular characters for both fan speculation and fanfic in part because they serve to personify reader unease with these aspects of the work (and, in the case of Snape, reader approval at signs of the series' growing movement away from the original source of anxiety and discontent).

::deep breath::

So. To get back to the original topic under discussion, I suppose that my real question regarding Snape's relationship with his 'old Slytherin gang' was this:

Given that canon is silent on this subject; and given that a case can be made for a supposition that Snape actually got on quite well with his old DE accomplices (it is not ruled out by the text, and there are a few places that would seem to support this reading); and given that this is, after all, a fan forum which specializes in borderline-subversive readings; and given that Sympathy For the Devil readings are a popular fan hobby in general; and given that Slytherin=Evil is one of the fault lines along which we tend to see reader speculation venturing into subversive territory in HP fandom in particular; and given that one of the major reasons that Snape is so popular in general is because in many ways he is himself a rather subversive character...

::very deep breath::

Given all of that, then WHY should "Snape really loathed those guys, always did" seem so overwhelmingly prevalent an assumption, while "He kinda liked them, actually" seemed so strikingly underepresented?

Or, to put it another way: "Given that Snape's popularity as a character is itself in some ways subversive—we like him largely because he stands in opposition to those aspects of JKR's work which strike us as annoyingly morally simplistic—why then would we prefer to fall back on those very aspects of the work which we found so unsettling in the first place when we try to imagine Snape's relationship with his old DE colleagues?"

That, at any rate, was what I meant by my original question. Since then, though, a number of people have crawled out from under their rocks to express their support for "Snape liked them," and I've been directed to a number of fanfics based on this hypothesis as well. So it would seem that "Snape liked them" was not, in fact, nearly as neglected a position as I had initially believed.

This discussion now seems to have become focussed on issues of canonical plausibility. That's fine. I'm perfectly happy to discuss that. Just to clarify, though, my original query was really more a question of popularity than plausibility—it was not so much "why do people think that canon suggests that Snape detested his old classmates" as it was "why do people seem to want to believe that Snape must have detested his old classmates"—which is not really at all the same thing.

So. A few Snape issues, looked at both from the point of view of plausibility and popularity.

Rebecca and I were speculating on the degree to which Snape was a loner in his younger days.

I cited as evidence for the notion that he was not always a loner Sirius' comment that he was "part of a gang of Slytherins," adding that: "You don't get identified as 'part of a gang' unless you hang out with the gang's other members on a fairly regular basis." I would also add to this Sirius' use of the word "famous" (rather than, say, "notorious") when he describes young Snape's reputation for curse-work: to my mind this suggests that Snape's facility with curses did indeed make him popular with at least certain segments of the student body—his fellow Slytherins, for example.

I also, in previous posts, suggested that both Snape's evident nervousness around Moody (who, it is strongly implied, killed his old classmate Rosier) and the very depths of his bitterness could support the notion that the ill-fatedness of his old gang came as a real emotional blow—that he had, in other words, continued to hold some affection for them as individuals even after abandoning their once-shared cause.

Rebecca countered by pointing out that Snape's obsession with the Marauders would seem to have been a solitary endeavor. Sirius' prank was directed at Snape personally, not at his entire gang, and no mention is ever made of the rest of the group snooping about after the Marauders or trying to get them expelled.

She also offered alternative, and perfectly reasonable, explanations for his reaction to Moody: Moody is an Auror, after all, and a hard-nosed and erratic paranoid to boot, so no particular personal history is really necessary to explain Snape's reaction to him.

As for the "gang" issue, she wrote:

OTOH hanging out with a gang doesn't necessitate really feeling a part of them, really feeling like a virtual family. It just seems to me that not only does the Snape of the books appear to be an irritable loner, but given the degree to which he seems to act alone and insist on handling things himself, it strikes me that it would be reasonable, based on canon, for someone to imagine that he never felt a part of any group as a youth. I'm just defending the people who would imagine it that way—it seems like one of many possible ways someone would take the canon and extrapolate.

Fair 'nuff.

Viewed from the perspective of canonical "plausibility," I think that they are both reasonably plausible interpretations, myself. I agree that "Snape was always a loner" is a perfectly reasonable extrapolation from canon, and probably a somewhat more plausible one than "Snape was once a social creature."

As to why it should be the more popular interpretation, even among die-hard subversives, however...well, I can think of two possibilities.

The first (which Rebecca herself suggested to me in e-mail) is that those who identify on a personal level with Snape—and who are therefore those most likely to speculate at length about his teenage years—identify with him as he appears in canon. In other words, they identify with him as a loner. Imagining him as always having been a solitary creature thus allows readers to project their identification onto him in his younger days as well.

The second is tied to the next point, the general unpleasantness of Slytherins in general—and the DEs in particular—and the problems this can cause in imagining what Snape could have found to like about them.

Rebecca wrote:

See, if we are to imagine Snape really liking these people, then we have to have some reason to imagine them as likeable.

And later:

And I stick to my original point that if one imagines Snape to be contemptuous and dismissive of his old friends, then I suggest that JKR gave them the idea. She is contemptuous and dismissive of most of her DE characters. Even if they have charismatic (Lucius) or intriguing characteristics (Mrs. Lestrange, for sure) they still seem like villain archetypes. . . . So all we have to go on is Mrs. Lestrange, who, however defiant and loyal, still seems like a standard villains, evil-witch type, and Avery who seems to be a groveling toady. My argument is that JKR has portrayed them this way so far, with few or no humanizing, 3D qualities, so it's not out of whack for a fanfic writer or anyone else to imagine that Snape might have found them that way too. Again, it's one of several convincing ways to extrapolate from canon; diverging ways can be convincing too, but I'm defending this one.

That the weight of canonical suggestion rests overwhelmingly on the notion that Snape's old DE colleagues were indeed most unpleasant characters I do not deny for a moment. I would point out, though, that Snape himself, much as we might enjoy him, is really no charmer himself. He's a sadist, for starters: he actively enjoys others' pain and discomfiture. When he can get away with it, he is cruel and abusive to those over whom he holds power, and he really can be the most odious toady as well—his exchange with Fudge at the end of PoA is positively oily. (Until the poor guy snaps, that is, at which point he merely appears deranged.) And this is Redeemed Snape! How much more unpleasant might young DE Snape have been, and what might that say about the qualities that he appreciated or admired in others?

For that matter, with what characters does Snape seem to get along best in canon? Aside from Dumbledore, who is obviously a special case, the character he seems to me to have the most casual and easy relationship with is Filch—not a person I imagine most readers would find particularly likeable. But (snappish comments and that one sadistic smirk over Filch's grief for his petrified cat aside) Snape seems to get along with him all right, actually. Better than he seems to get along with most people, I'd say.

I still maintain that what Snape himself might have found "likeable" is not necessarily what we would find at all endearing or appealing. I also think that in terms of canonical plausibility, JKR herself probably does not imagine Snape to have very pleasant taste in companions. (She seems, overall, to like the character far less than many of her readers do.)

I can, however, readily see why those who identify with Snape might prefer to reject the notion that he could possibly have ever liked such people. They certainly do not, to our way of thinking, seem like terribly likeable individuals.

Although Mrs. Lestrange sure was sexy, wasn't she?

::blinks nervously around room, then retreats behind coffee mug::, yes. Um...never mind.

::clears throat::

The issue of DE likeability is closely related to the last (and, to my mind, most vital) question—that of the perceived emotional inability of Slytherins in general, and DEs in particular, to form anything that we might consider real friendships.

I asked why people seem to find it impossible to imagine the future Death Eaters ever having formed friendships.

Rebecca suggested:

Maybe because JKR has yet to portray a sympathetic Slytherin other than Snape....Let's face it—JKR's Slytherin is the House of Bad Guys. Snape is the only exception so far.

When I then responded by expressing my doubts about the possibility of a full quarter of Britain's wizarding population being composed of murderous sadists or cowardly toadies with little or no redeeming qualities, Rebecca answered:

All I'm saying is that JKR has portrayed them like that so far. Yes, it seems unreasonable and I'm not crazy about it either. Here again, I need to make a distinction between canon and real-world reasonability. In canon the decency deck is stacked against the Slytherin grads.

I agree that right now, this does indeed seem to be the case. Ever since my experience with my "subversive" Snape-the-Recanted-Voldie-Supporter theory, though, I've been decidedly leery about writing off JKR's apparent moral simplicity too quickly. It seems possible to me that the series might continue its forward motion into the realms of moral ambiguity, in which case this aspect of canonical suggestion might well start to shift even further than it already has away from Slyth=Evil. Only time will tell.

For now, though, I certainly agree with you that the text encourages us to read Slyth grads—and particularly Death Eaters—as people who are not capable of true friendship, possibly not even capable of any real form of affection. They're Dark Wizards, they're deeply spiritually corrupt, they are selfish people who at heart can care for nothing but themselves. I agree that as things currently stand, this is indeed the most canonically plausible interpretation.

I still do find myself troubled, however, by the fact that even readers who firmly reject this aspect of canonical suggestion when it comes to other speculations and conjectures seem to fall right back into it when they start speculating about Snape and his old Slytherin gang. This gets back to a question of reader desire, rather than of canonical plausibility. Why do people seem to want to imagine things this way? It strikes me as weirdly inconsistent with the reading habits of the fandom in general, and of Snape fans in particular. Where did all of those subversive tendencies suddenly disappear to? What on earth happened?

It is this, it is this that oppresses my soul.

I still maintain that the most likely answer to the question is simply that people feel the need to paint the other DEs blacker than black, so that Snape's grey can seem lighter in comparison. And frankly, I find that a bit disappointing.

For one thing, if Snape really was always a cut above all of the other DEs—morally, ethically, spiritually, intellectually, or what have you—then to my mind that seriously devalues his eventual defection to the side of Good. It makes it a matter of essentialism, rather than existentialism: he was always better than all the rest of them by his very nature, and so he made a choice that none of the rest of them could ever have made. I find this idea...oh, I don't know. Distasteful, I suppose. Both distasteful and severely disappointing.

Snape is by far my favorite character in the books, and he is so largely because he seems to stand in opposition to what otherwise comes across as a disturbingly essentialist fictional universe.

Yes, yes, I know what Dumbledore says about the importance of individual choice and all of that, but when it comes right down to it, JKR's universe still seems to be strongly essentialist. Children resemble their parents; bad people are either (a) ugly or (b) attractive, but only in a slick, unwholesome, dubious sort of way; and by God, if Daddy was a Death Eater, you're stuck in House Slytherin and surely headed straight down the road to damnation.

Snape appeals because from an essentialist perspective, everything about the man is just completely and utterly wrong. He is unattractive and unwholesome-looking, his office is filled with nasty dead things that smell bad, and he is temperamentally inclined to bitterness and envy and cruelty. He is not, shall we say, exactly one of the Elect.

And yet, he is permitted to have made correct choices, thus breaking out of the mold that the universe otherwise seems to impose on its inhabitants. Snape is really the series' only compelling proof that the existentialist ethos Dumbledore proclaims is at all true.

So while canonical plausibility may indeed weigh against a reading of the Death-Eater-to-be members of Snape's old gang as anything but utterly worthless human specimens, I don't really find that enough of an explanation. Fan speculation is subversive by nature, and it does seem to me that the fan culture as a whole shares my sense of discomfort with the books' essentialist tendencies. Canonical plausibility weighs against Redeemable Draco as well, and yet that is an immensely popular fan reading. Fans are not known for their tendency to balk at subversion.

So I confess to finding the immense popularity of "Snape never really liked his old DE colleagues—how could he have, after all? Unlike him, those guys were really bad!" to be not only profoundly unsatisfying, but also just plain puzzling. I don't deny that it can be readily defended in terms of canonical plausibility, but I can't help but wonder why on earth so many people who seem otherwise perfectly happy to engage in subversion seem to like it so very much.

—Elkins, wondering if she's made things any more clear, or merely muddied the waters with far, far too much verbiage.


RE: Remorse--Dementors--the Crouch Family

Cindy wrote (of Crouch Jr.):

He didn't exactly decline to switch places with his sick mother. No, he was happy to get out of Azkaban (where he was reliving all of his unhappy memories) to live with dear old dad (where he could, uh, relive a lot of unhappy memories).

Well. He was dying at the time.

Of what, though? Remorse? Despair? Pneumonia? Was young Crouch's swift decline due to a delicate physical constitution, or was he unusually sensitive to the effects of the dementors? And if the latter, then why? What memories could such a young man have that would be so terrible that reliving them would drive him to his death bed after only one year in Azkaban?

Being a Death Eater and having helped to torture two people into insanity would certainly provide me with plenty of bad memories, I think, but for this to be the explanation for young Barty's decline, then we would have to assume that he actually felt some remorse, which doesn't seem terribly consistent with his behavior in GoF.

Of course, that was twelve years later. People change.

Perhaps it's just because I'm sick, but I rather like imagining Crouch Sr. pointing one trembling finger at his Imperio'd son and saying: "All right, young man, you just sit there and think about what you've done!"

And the poor kid having no choice but to comply.

The irony, of course, is that after the first five years, it really stopped bothering him all that much. And somewhere around year seven, he started finding it all, well...kinda cool, actually.

And so the teenager who was dying of remorse and despair in Azkaban is transformed into a sociopathic sadist, thanks to dear old Dad and his misplaced notions of parental duty.

But on a related subject...

Devin wrote:

I think of remorse as a rather positive emotion, in its being often the first step to forgive or apologize and as an emotion that is very human and essential. I bet you anything remorse is one of the last things on anyone's mind in Azkaban.

I certainly agree with you that remorse is a useful emotion, but it's hardly a happy one. The dementors are said to drain their victims of happy memories and emotions, not necessarily of beneficial ones. Sirius' knowledge of his own innocence is certainly beneficial to him—it's part of what enables him to keep his sanity—but the dementors can't take it from him because it isn't pleasant.

I'm sure that there's plenty of remorse to go around in Azkaban. Just imagine being forced to relive your worst memories when the worst things that you can remember are also the worst things you've ever done. ::shudder::

But that's one of the things that's always bothered me about the use of dementors as prison guards, actually. Aside from the fact that it is unspeakably cruel, doesn't it also seem that their presence would punish the truly remorseful far more than it would the blase or the sociopathic or the simply uncaring? That just doesn't seem fair, somehow.

I also always find myself wondering about that statement that long enough exposure to the dementors renders people "just as soulless and evil as they are." Exposing your prisoners to something like that really doesn't seem like a very wise idea, does it? I mean, just think of the recidivism rate!

<Cindy had to force herself to shake off the mental image of Crouch Sr. imploring, "I do and do and do for you, and this is the thanks I get?">

Nah. That was always more Mrs. Crouch's tactic, surely.

"I give, and I give, and I give..."

—Elkins, now shuddering at a few unhappy memories of her own...

Posted February 07, 2002 at 1:42 am
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RE: In defense of Hermione and Neville

Speculation on whether Hermione or Neville might ever betray Harry and the Cause...

In response to Barb's defense of Hermione, Meglet wrote:

She doesn't have as much insight into herself as she does into others. (A real blind spot with Gilderoy Lockhart, don't you think?)

I also feel the need to jump to Hermione's defense here. Porphyria's already pointed out that the girl was only twelve years old at the time, and also that even many mature and experienced witches were captivated by Lockhart.

To this, I'd also add that Hermione's crush on Lockhart did not affect her behavior in any way that had the slightest bit of bearing on her devotion to Harry and his cause. So she sent him a valentine. She blushed when he praised her in class. She wanted to keep his autograph. Who cares?

When the Trio realize that they need a teacher's signature to get the potions book out of the Restricted Section of the library and come to the conclusion that Lockhart's the only professor dumb enough to sign such a thing for them, Hermione doesn't object at all. She doesn't try to defend Lockhart's intellect—she knows full well, I think, that the man is a moron—or worry that the ploy might get her poor dear Gilderoy in trouble. She doesn't balk at using him.

No, she's the one who actually carries out the plan—and she does so by shamelessly flattering Lockhart, playing up to his ego to distract him from thinking too much about what he's being asked to sign.

Hermione had a little crush on him, sure. But it was hardly a blind crush, and it didn't prevent her from acting against him.

She also has shown a tendency to keep important information to herself (the Time Turner, Lupin being a werewolf).

And that's a bad thing?

Geez, if only Peter had shared that terrible character flaw...

Porphyria wrote:

As to Hermione's keeping secrets, I've always seen this as one of the more extraordinary signs of her strength of character.

Agreed. Why on earth should she have told Ron and Harry about the Time-Turner? There was no reason they needed to know about it, and she had promised McGonagall that she would keep it a secret. And I thought that her keeping Lupin's secret was very noble, myself. She was certainly proud of herself for sussing it out, and I'm sure that some part of her wanted very badly to tell Harry and Ron what she'd discovered—there's more than a touch of frustration in her exasperated noise when she realizes that Harry and Ron still haven't figured it out—but she resists the temptation. Good for her! Why should she have outed poor Lupin?

Me, I think that with just a bit more training, Hermione could kick Imperius' butt. She has extraordinary strength of character.

But as for Neville...

Barb wrote:

It seems that Neville is the best doppelganger for Pettigrew. He's not considered very competant and he's at the fringes of the group.

The text itself encourages us to draw this comparison. In PoA, when Harry is trying to visualize that scene between Peter and Sirius on the crowded street, it is specified that he imagines Pettigrew as looking like Neville.

Of course, Harry doesn't know the true story at the time, and given what he has heard, the connection makes perfect sense. Poor brave-but-badly-overpowered little Peter Pettigrew confronting Sirius Black on the street, only to get blasted to smithereens for his pains, neatly parallels Neville's equally-futile confrontation with the Trio at the end of PS.

But in the end, Harry's analogy is proved flawed: the situation between Pettigrew and Black was not really at all what he had been led to believe, and so the parallel that he was originally drawing between the two situations doesn't hold up.

I, for one, am certainly hoping that the analogy's darker and more sinister alternative implications will prove equally flawed. It would break my heart if Neville went bad. And I don't really think that it's going to happen.

But if I may be permitted to play Devil's Advocate for just a moment here...

Porphyria wrote:

Plus, so far he doesn't seem to be particularly jealous of either Harry or Ron...

GoF, Chapter Eleven ("Aboard the Hogwarts Express"):

Neville listened jealously to the others' conversation as they relived the Cup match.

and then, only two lines later:

'Oh wow,' said Neville enviously as Ron tipped Krum into his pudgy hand.

Heh. No, but I'm just kidding. I don't think that Neville's really at all an envious or a jealous person. On first reading, though, I certainly did notice the use of those adverbs—and so close together, too! They really jumped off the page at me. I remember thinking: "Oh, no. JKR isn't trying to encourage us to think of Neville as a future Pettigrew again, is she?"


A lot of folks have been rooting for Neville to tap into the power he "must" have inherited from his parents, but somehow I'm not completely convinced that would be a good thing...

I agree, although for different reasons. What I think that I dread most about this series is the spectre of Neville "coming into his own" and then immediately becoming some Joe Gryffindor warrior type: going out and kicking DE butt like his Auror father, upholding his family's wretched pride.

Ugh. Gives me the willies, that does. Neville's plenty brave, just the way he is. He's a fourteen-year-old boy who wears fuzzy slippers without shame. You think that doesn't take courage?

He's never once tried to use his parents' plight to leverage the slightest bit of pity or slack out of anyone; he accepts the Trio's social brush-offs without complaint; he doesn't go squealing to the authorities when Draco Malfoy practices curses on him in the hallway; he accepts his punishment for "losing" his list of passwords (a crime he didn't even really commit, as it turns out) unflinchingly; he is always willing to own up to his own flaws, mistakes and weaknesses; and he's capable not only of asking a girl to a ball, but also of accepting rejection with good grace—and then braving rejection a second time by asking someone else the very same day!

I mean, let's face it. Neville's ability to find himself a date for the Yule Ball, his willingness to brave romantic rejection, makes both Ron and Harry look like a couple of utter wusses.

The kid's a trooper. He's got loads of courage. It's just not the sort of courage that his culture values, sadly.

(And I also desperately want to believe that the real reason that Neville took one of Hermione's S.P.E.W badges was not, as Harry thought, because he was browbeaten into it, but because she convinced him that she was right about the House Elves—and because he really is brave.)

Porphyria wrote:

Of course I think Neville will kick butt when he _finds himself_, but I'm sure it will be bad-guy butt.


Oh. I do so hope not. I just don't want Neville to be a butt-kicker. Don't we have enough of those already?

I mean, warrior courage is of course very admirable—and it is also exceptionally valuable, especially in a time of war—but there are other types of bravery. What about the courage of compassion? Or of non-conformism? Or even of principled pacifism?

What I would really like to see Neville do, once he "finds himself," is to serve as an exemplar of some other type of courage. I want him to lead sit-down protests in front of the Ministry of Magic. I want him to be disowned by his grandmother for spearheading the Wizarding World's very first prison-reform movement. I want him to write a treatise lambasting Hogwarts' hoary old House System. I want him to deliberately lose 200 points for Gryffindor as an act of protest against the institution of the House Cup. I want him to adopt an unusual dress style and not care what McGonagall has to say about it. I want him to marry a Muggle.

I mean, I want to see him do something really brave.

But somehow I doubt that any of that will happen.



(who favors a highly subversive reading of PS as the tragedy of Neville's eventual failure to uphold the courageous standards of House Gryffindor by caving in to the idiotic social pressures of his surroundings and his peers...)

(...and who would like very much to believe that the next time some little voice in the back of Neville's head suggests that he launch himself into physical combat with both Crabbe and Goyle for no good reason whatsoever, he will manage to whip up the internal fortitude to answer: "Why, though?...Stupid thing to do, really...No, I don't think I will,, I don't really want to...")

Posted February 07, 2002 at 1:30 pm
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Plain text version


RE: Snape & the DEs, Reprise

More on Snape and his affection (or lack thereof) for the Death Eaters, and other related topics.


"Did Snape Betray His Friends?"

Well, of course he did!

He was passing on information to the enemy. Even if there was no Great Bloody Ambush of the sort that Cindy seems to be slavering for, there can be no question at all that he was betraying his colleagues.

As to whether or not he still considered those colleagues "friends" at the time, though—or, for that matter, whether he ever considered those colleagues "friends"...well! That's the question, now, isn't it.

And Cindy, if it will make you feel any better, I have always firmly believed (on the basis of no canonical evidence whatsoever) that the information Snape passed on to Dumbledore led Evan Rosier straight into the ambush in which he was killed by Alastor Moody.

There now. Does that satisfy a bit of that blood lust?

No? Still thirsty?

Well, then why not add a chaser of Wilkes?

Now me, I prefer to take my Wilkes all over the hands of Frank Longbottom—but I guess that Snape can have some too. Plenty to go around.

I dunno about this throwing every single DE whose name we've ever heard into one massive ambush, though. That's really kind of pushing it, don't you think? I doubt Snape even knew half those guys.


Snape's Old Gang Roll-Call

About Sirius' comment that Snape "was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters," I wrote:

BTW, that "nearly all" is interesting, isn't it?...Who, one wonders, were the abstainers?

Eileen and Rebecca both felt that I had misinterpreted Sirius' comment, and that the six people he mentions (Snape, Rosier, Wilkes, Lestrange, Lestrange, and Avery) were in fact the entirety of the gang. While both of them agreed that they would very much like it for there to have been abstainers, neither of them believed that this was what the author had intended. Rebecca wrote by way of explanation:

I thought "nearly all" meant all but possibly Snape—Sirius isn't sure if Snape actually became a DE when he spoke this.

Interesting! It never even occurred to me to read "nearly all" that way. I had just automatically assumed that there were one or two others, whose names he never bothered to mention, who were (or who Sirius believed to be) innocent. But given that this was apparently a highly idiosyncratic way to read the line, I will concede that the six of them probably were the entirety of the gang.

::sigh:: Pity, really. I, too, liked the idea of abstainers.

I must disagree, however, with Eileen, who wrote:

As an aspiring member of L.O.O.N., I must point out that Sirius is proved wrong in his estimation of the gang. After all, he doesn't know Snape became a death-eater, and many of "the Slytherin gang," acquitted, turned out to be Death Eaters after all.

Much as it frightens me to tangle with a future LOONy, I do feel compelled to defend Sirius here. He was not "proved wrong in his estimation of the gang." He freely admits that he doesn't know about Snape, and he quite correctly identifies all of the other five members he mentions as Death Eaters. He isn't wrong about them at all. He's dead right about them.

Not that this is all that great a feat of perspicacity on Sirius' part, of course, since by the time that he's speaking, the only one of them he could possibly have guessed wrong about (other than Snape, about whom he confesses his ignorance) is Avery. All of the others have already been condemned. But Sirius does show proper insight into Avery's character: he's resolutely unimpressed with Avery's acquittal, and as it turns out later, his skepticism was justified.

But about Avery...


Poor Misunderstood Avery

Eileen, again:

Yes, what about Avery?. . . .Re: Avery being so obliging. So, what if Snape feels that several of his friends have joined him in abandoning their wicked ways?


::slow smile::

I suppose I'll take this opportunity to point out that Avery may very well have done just that. For all we know, he may have been leading a blameless—nay, even exemplary!—life these past thirteen years. There is absolutely no evidence in canon to the contrary, and rather a few suggestions to support...


No. Nope, sorry, just can't do it with a straight face. Not today. So I'll just go through the major points in Avery's favor, shall I?

It is possible that although too frightened or too weak-willed to refuse the summons to the graveyard, Avery nonetheless really had, as Eileen put it, "abandoned his wicked ways" in the thirteen years since V's fall. He has, at any rate, certainly kept a low profile. Sirius has no idea what he's been up to, and we have never once heard his name mentioned in connection with any contemporary Dark activity.

And boy, he sure does crack fast when Voldemort starts accusing his DEs of ideological infidelity, doesn't he? I mean, the poor bastard just goes all to pieces. All of the Death Eaters are quite naturally frightened, but Avery would seem to be tottering on the edge of nervous collapse: his reaction to Vold's suggestion that some of his DEs might now owe their true allegiance to Dumbledore is not merely fearful, it is quite literally hysterical.

Which kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it? Just what has Avery been up to these past thirteen years, that he should be in such a nervous state, or that he should so readily identify himself as one of those guilty of ideological compromise?

Something that he thinks Voldemort wouldn't approve of, that's for sure. Something disloyal to the Death Eater cause. Something ideologically unsound. Something...well, dare we even suggest it? Something that we the readers would approve of? Something that might perhaps even be virtuous

And he would seem to respond instinctively to guilt, as well. His behavior is consistent with that of someone well-accustomed to thinking of himself as guilty, someone who has a long personal history with shame.

I also find it interesting that when Sirius is listing all of the members of Snape's old Slytherin gang, he mentions Avery last. You would think, wouldn't you, that the criminally-minded Voldie-supporting Dark Wizard whom you know to still be at large would be the very first name that would leap to your mind? Particularly if you were Sirius, already sufficiently convinced that Dark Dealings Are Afoot that you've come all the way back to Britain to keep an eye on your godson? Sirius did go out of his way to warn Harry about ex-DE Karkaroff, and that was even before he got so worried that he returned. He's in a highly paranoid state of mind. But the possibility that Avery might be a live threat doesn't even seem to occur to him. He does not, for example, say: "Well, there was that son-of-a-bitch Avery, who got off scot-free—he's still at large somewhere, so you want to watch out for him: if you hear anything about him snooping around Hogwarts or anything like that, I want you to let me know about it immediately—and then there were Rosier, and Wilkes..."

Nope. Nope. Doesn't work that way. Avery's the very last member of the gang that Sirius thinks to mention, and his tone when speaking of his acquittal is one of simple disdain. In Sirius' mind, Avery just isn't a threat. He barely even registers on the radar. Which leads me to suspect that Avery was always a bit of a lightweight in the Big Bad Evil department. Maybe he was never all that terrible, as DEs go.

Really. Avery's not all that bad. He's just...high-strung. ("Not half high enough," I can hear Cindy growl somewhere in the background.) Certainly not at all Tough. And far too easily led. But not evil to the core.

(I somehow imagine Avery to have been the Pettigrew of Snape's gang—you know, that weedy little kid who was always hanging around in the background, laughing like a hyena, while Rosier and Wilkes beat up on some smaller boy. But that's just me.)

I could, I suppose, go on now to spin a highly compelling portrait of poor, reformed, guilt-laden, hysteria-prone ex-DE Avery, a man who has spent the last thirteen years of his life desperately trying to atone for past wrongs by volunteering in soup kitchens and patting small puppies on the head and making generous donations to pro-muggle causes, a wizard who despite his high birth and sterling intellect has resolutely avoided the public limelight due to a (quite proper) sense of shame and humility and contrition, a man who has only in the past few years finally begun to emerge from the shadows of his past and regain some degree of self-respect and social confidence...only to have all this absolutely shattered by the return of Voldmort...

I could. But I don't really have the stomach for it anymore, somehow. Maybe because I've already 'fessed up to the fact that I don't really believe for an instant that it's at all what the author intended, which frankly, takes nearly all of the fun out of the game. I'm sure, though, that you can fill in all of those blanks yourself, if you're so inclined.

I do, however, still seem to be able to work up some enthusiasm for my objection to Rebecca's characterization of poor Avery as a "grovelling toady," so...

<Elkins whips out her shiny new S.Y.C.O.P.H.A.N.T.S badge and pins it to her chest with an ill-concealed grimace of self-loathing. Having thus assumed her role as the founder of the Society for Yes-men, Cowards, Ostriches, Passive-Aggressives, Hysterics, Abject Neurotics and Toadying SYCOPHANTS, she prepares to pontificate.>

Now, I do realize that to many people all Grovelling Coward types look exactly alike, but I assure you that we members of S.Y.C.O.P.H.A.N.T.S recognize a great range of diversity within our ranks, and while such distinctions may seem insignificant to others, they matter a great deal to us. So.

Avery is not a toady. Nott is a "Toady." What Avery is is a "Nerveless Hysteric."

When you obsequiously declare yourself to be prostrating yourself at someone's feet—while all the while remaining in a steadfastly upright position—that is being a Toady.

When you literally prostrate yourself at someone's feet, while simultaneously shrieking for forgiveness at the top of your lungs and shaking so violently that even a tightly-bound fourteen-year-old boy with some rather serious problems of his own to contend with can still detect the motion from all the way across a darkened graveyard, on the other hand...

Well, that's not "toadying," precisely. That'

::winces delicately::

That's what we here in S.Y.C.O.P.H.A.N.T.S. prefer to refer to as a "crisis of nerves."

A minor point, perhaps. But one to bear in mind, particularly should you ever find yourself invited to our annual Minions' Ball, where ignoring such niceties can really set off the Whining Neurotics—and that's just no fun for anyone, not even for the Sociopathic Sadists seated at the next table down.

<Nodding with satisfaction at having cleared that matter up, Elkins unpins her S.Y.C.O.P.H.A.N.T.S badge and thrusts it back into her pocket.>


Slytherin/DE Loyalty

Rebecca wrote:

I do concede your description of how the current Slytherin students exhibit loyalty toward each other, maybe they aren't all so bad....But if we are talking about Snape's attitude towards the former DEs, then we only have the adults to go by, and if we are talking about his former schoolmates, then we have even less to go by.

I think that maybe you misunderstood my point in bringing up the Slyth kids' tendency to close ranks. My point there was not so much to argue that the Slyths "aren't all so bad" as it was to point out that there is some canonical evidence to suggest that House Slytherin as a whole places a high value on in-group loyalty. It seems therefore not unreasonable to me to assume that both Voldemort and the DEs (themselves mostly Slytherin grads) would share that aesthetic.

I think that it's clear from the graveyard sequence that Voldemort does place a very high value on loyalty, and as I argued previously, the vast majority of the DEs who faced trial would seem not to have named names to the ministry.

What I was attempting to suggest there was that Snape, as Slytherin and Death Eater, was likely to have himself been instilled with a very strong sense of in-group "my House right or wrong" style loyalty, which must have been the very devil to overcome, and which might well have left behind residue in the form of a lingering sense of attachment to old colleagues and classmates.

Eileen wrote:

It's funny, actually, since one would think that ambition might not be best served by loyalty. On the other hand, if you look at real-life politics...there's a huge loyalty factor.

I think that's because under most circumstances, ambition is well-served by loyalty. Careful alliance-building is a far sounder long-term strategy than indiscriminate backstabbing.

Also, Slytherin would seem to be not only the House o' Ambition, but also the House o' Entitlement. It's the Old Boy network of the Potterverse. Old Boy networks run on the engine of in-group loyalty; it's how they function.


Murderers Who Play Bach

I wrote:

We hear a great deal about Rowling's statement of intent to show how genuinely bad evil is in these books, and I laud that sentiment. But evil is also complicated, and there are times when I find myself wishing that Rowling would run a little further with that particular ball.

To which Rebecca responded:

Again, I'm trying to look at what interpretations have canonical evidence, and I think she's pretty dead set on portraying L.V.'s stance as just plain evil.

I quite agree. But that wasn't precisely what I meant by "evil is complicated." I meant something more along the lines of what Susanna/Pigwidgeon37 was getting at, when she donated that marvellous German saying:

"In my country, a lot of murderers play Bach."

I have no problem with the portrayal of V's stance as Just Plain Evil. How many nice things can you think to say, after all, about genocide and gratuitous torture? I do have some problems, however, with the portrayal of every single one of V's followers as not only "just plain evil," but also as utterly lacking in any redeeming qualities, or likeable characteristics. Leaving aside for the moment the obvious philosophical objections, I also find it just plain boring. Shades of grey make for interesting reading. Noble Heroes vs. Totally Worthless Evil Villains is just kind of a yawn, IMO.

Of course evil is bad. That's tautological. But the nice old guy who lives next door and helps you jump-start your car on cold winter mornings sometimes turns out to have been in the SS, and the person who called the ambulance when you had your stroke and then stayed with you and held your hand until the paramedics arrived turns out to be a Klan member, and the professional torturer goes home at the end of the day and agonizes over his kid's poor math grades. That's what makes evil complicated. And that's also what makes it scary.

And for what it's worth (and to get back to the canon), I do think that Rowling did some very nice work with that in GoF. I liked the crowd of drunken revellers at the QWC, whose numbers grow as they parade their way through the campground indulging in their spot of muggle-torture. Those people weren't all Death Eaters, not by a long shot. I liked the hissing jeering mob at the Pensieve trial. For that matter, I also liked it when the twins hissed at Malcolm Baddock, and I loved it when Harry started fantasizing, in rather explicit detail, about exactly what it might be like to use the Cruciatus Curse on his least-favorite professor. And, naturally, I always like Snape.

Those were the sorts of things I was referring to, when I said that I wished that Rowling would "run a little further with that particular ball." And I actually do think it not unlikely that she will, in future volumes, go even further in that direction, thus making the notion of somewhat more 3D villain characters than we've seen so far not an altogether subversive suggestion. The books have certainly been heading in that direction; by volume six or so, we might even get a few players of Bach who are not (as Snape is) working for the forces of Good.

I certainly hope so, at any rate.


Snape and the Slyth Kids

Eileen suggested that underlying dynamic of the popularity of "Snape always loathed the other members of his old Slytherin gang" might also be the one responsible for the popularity of "Snape doesn't really favor the Slytherins at all — it's all an act."

She wrote:

Could this be connected to people's unwillingness to believe that Snape really favors Draco, or likes Lucius?

More on Lucius later, but as for Draco?

I know that it's an unpopular opinion around here, but I think that Snape really does favor Draco and the Slytherins. Yes, I suppose that it might also be in his best interests as a possible future spy to stay on good terms with all the Slyth kids' DE Daddies, but I don't really believe that's the primary reason he favors them. I think he favors them primarily because Slytherin is his House, and because Snape is loyal to House Slytherin in spite of the fact that an appalling number of its Old Boys went bad during the last big wizarding war.

It's by far the simplest explanation. It seems perfectly in-character to me. And I don't really see very much in canon either to contradict it or to support a different reading.

As for Draco, I do think that Snape genuinely likes him—or at the very least strongly identifies with him. The kid seems to be good at potions, he has a vicious and spiteful sense of humor, he's partial to hexes and curses, he's prone to envy, and he not only hates Harry Potter but has also been trying to get him in trouble or expelled ever since their very first week of classes together. I mean, really. What's not to like? ;-)

And yes, Eileen. I do think that it's the same dynamic at work. I think you hit that one right on the head.

But as for Lucius...


Snape and Lucius, What Snape Knows, and That Sudden Movement

Eileen wrote:

I myself proposed that Snape was the one who supposedly brought Lucius back to the light side, and was astonished that very few people could even conceive of Snape not being on to Lucius, of Snape liking Lucius.

and in another post:

So, what if Snape feels that several of his friends have joined him in abandoning their wicked ways? I've always read that part where he starts at Malfoy's name that way, though I know most people disagree with me, and insist that Snape sees through Malfoy's "conversion" the whole time.

Okay. First things first. "Snape being on to Lucius" and "Snape liking Lucius" are NOT the same thing! This goes all the way back to the point of my original delurk: it is possible to like someone while still recognizing that they are committing evil acts. These are two separate questions.

First question: did Snape ever believe Lucius' claims of innocence? Or if not, had he since come to believe that Lucius had truly reformed?

Sorry, Eileen, but I just can't imagine Snape falling for either one of those notions. He's not a gullible man. Far from it: he is suspicious and misanthropic and sees the worst in everyone, and he also has an excellent sense for when people are lying to him.

Also, as Rebecca pointed out, everyone knows that Lucius Malfoy is guilty as sin. Even Fudge seems to know it, deep in his heart of hearts. If Snape's managed to kid himself about Lucius Malfoy's true nature all this time, he'd have to be a master of self-delusion, and I don't really think that he's that at all.

Lucius Malfoy may be able to pour on the charm when he wants to (at least, I'm assuming that he can, although honestly, we've yet to see him even once behave the least bit charmingly in canon), but he's not exactly subtle, is he? I mean, the man all but walks around with a sign reading "Unrepentant Death Eater" stapled to his forehead.

Rebecca wrote:

While he seems like he'd be wise enough to keep still about his feeling and cunning enough to fool people, I'm not sure I see real evidence of that.

Yes. That is an annoying thing about Lucius as a character, isn't it? Rowling obviously intends for us to read him as clever and conniving and devious and manipulative, but she doesn't actually succeed in portraying him that way at all. The Lucius Malfoy we actually see in canon comes across (to me, at least) as an utter moron who couldn't even dissemble his way out of a parking ticket. He's about as subtle as a brick, and when Voldemort addressed him in the graveyard as "my slippery friend," my first inclination was to snort in derisive laughter. It's a bit...frustrating, that.

So had Snape thought that Lucius Malfoy had reformed? No, I don't think so. I just can't find a way to make myself believe that.

But does Snape like Lucius? I honestly don't know. It's not inconceivable to me that he might on some level like him. Lucius is wealthy and elegant and well-spoken, and he's also quite good-looking, if you go in for those chilly blond aristocratic types. And who knows? Maybe he's also a maestro on the harpsichord. ;-)

Or, as Eileen suggested:

...and if Draco gets his sense of humour and gift of mimicry from his father, [he's] probably a very funny person to be with....And, I'm sure Lucius throws enjoyable parties, at which people say, "Could you do that imitation of Dumbledore?" and all tee-hee-hee away, without meaning any real harm. /me thinks of Fudge.

::spits coffee all over the keyboard::

You know, the image of Cornelius Fudge, one or two past his limit, quietly giggling over his cocktail at some elegant Malfoy soiree, while Lucius perfoems cruel-yet-accurate impersonations of Dumbledore has got to be the most sympathetic thing I have ever imagined about either of those two characters. Ever.

(Although sadly, I suspect that Lucius Malfoy has far too much invested in his own gravitas to entertain his important houseguests in such a clownish fashion. A pity, really.)

As for Snape's Sudden Movement (which is beginning to remind me far too much of That Goddamned Gleam In Dumbledore's Eye), I just can't agree with Rebecca's idea that it was a "gesture of fury." I can't really offer any firm canonical reason for rejecting this interpretation, I can only say that it just didn't look like fury to me. It looked to me like a gesture of shock, or of dismay, or of alarm, or even of warning—but not at all like one of fury.

I also don't like any of the explanations people have come up with for Snape's Sudden Movement that do not link it specifically to the mention of Lucius Malfoy's name. Again, this is purely subjective, a matter of nuance: from the way that the scene was described, I just can't believe the gesture as not being a response to Malfoy's name.

My personal theory on the Sudden Movement is this: Snape knows full well that the instant that Harry speaks Lucius Malfoy's name, he will have destroyed any chance of being believed by the likes of Fudge. Fudge will never accept a tale that implicates such a wealthy and respectable member of society. So the movement is an instinctive gesture of warning—or of interruption, or even of restraint—which is then suppressed almost instantly because (a) Snape can't very well go shutting Harry up under the circumstances, and (b) it's too late anyway: the damaging name has already been spoken, and any hope of gaining Fudge's trust or allegiance has probably been lost.


Well, that's my interpretation of the Sudden Movement, anyway. Any takers?


Snape and Karkaroff

More recently, people have been suggesting that Karkaroff might have served as Snape's DE mentor, either as an older student at Hogwarts, as a member of faculty there, or after Snape had left school. As an extra bonus, some people have thrown in a bit of slashy speculation about the two of them as well.

A couple of people have cited the tone of their exchanges in GoF as proof of some degree of lingering affection: Judy, for example, pointed out that Karkaroff is the only person we have ever seen Snape address by first name in all of canon; and someone else (forgot who, sorry) returned to the idea that Karkaroff's moment of hesitation and stress right before fingering Snape to the ministry in the Pensieve scene really was indicative of inner turmoil, of his deep reluctance to turn in someone who he actually liked. A couple of people have also read a good deal of pity in Snape's tone when he speaks to Karkaroff.

I find this interesting, because back in the days of this exchange, Rebecca cited Snape's attitude toward Karkaroff as a suggestion that Snape holds no affection for old DE colleagues:

And Snape is contemptuous and dismissive of Karkaroff, there's no love lost there, so you wonder about the other people.

The fact that people can read these exchanges so very differently fascinates me.

Personally, I think both that Snape's attitude toward Karkaroff is contemptuous and dismissive and that this reflects some degree of residual affection. Snape must know, after all, that Karkaroff tried to rat him out. And while it might seem highly irrational for someone who was himself a mole to take such a thing personally, or to harbor any animosity over it, this is Snape. He's not a forgiving person. I'd be willing to bet that he did take it personally.

So really, I'd say that "contemptuous and dismissive" is quite a generous response, under the circumstances. "Utter despite and loathing" would be rather more what I would expect from Snape, all things considered. (And surely the temptation to take the "I quite agree, Igor, you are in a difficult situation. You know, a potion would at least be quick..." approach must have been very nearly overwhelming.)

It also seems to me that Snape's attempts to avoid Karkaroff towards the end of GoF might well be indicative of a certain level of pure and simple discomfort: Karkaroff is, after all, likely doomed to die most unpleasantly in the near future. Not nice to contemplate, even for someone with as strong a stomach as Snape.

So yeah. I figure they probably liked each other well enough at one time, although I can't quite buy the lovers theory, nor the mentor-protege one. Their interactions are more suggestive to my mind of a relatively equal peer-colleague relationship than of either a sexual or a mentor-protege bond. Not that I can defend that, of course. Just my impression.


Snape and Young Crouch

In response to my suggestion that Snape could well have been the one to lead his "Old Slytherin Gang" down the road to damnation in the first place, Eileen suggested the possibility of a mentor-protege relationship between Snape and Young Barty Crouch:

What's more, he could have influenced younger Slytherins to the bad. . . . Supposing that Crouch Jr. was in Slytherin (in a younger year) while Snape was still there, and...had looked up to him...

Oh, ouch.

Well, that would put a whole new spin on that "another old friend" comment, now, wouldn't it?

I'm not sure that I believe it, but if true, then that certainly would pile on the angst, wouldn't it?

O, the humanity.


Posted February 08, 2002 at 2:36 pm
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RE: Pranks--Envy--Ghosts--Library Policies

My favorite subversive, Eric Oppen of "Frank Longbottom Was Judge Dredd On Acid!" fame, wrote:

Somebody above (forgive me for not remembering who; I get this list as a digest) said that she didn't like the Weasley twins, Gred-and-Forge.

That was me. No, I really don't care for the twins at all, although I do appreciate their kindness to Harry. But I can't help it. I simply loathe practical jokes, and pranks, and pranksters.

Well...all except for those named "Eric Oppen," that is.

It occurs to me that they might be prime candidates for the role of Next Evil Overlord. I've never been fond of practical jokers—Remember, Batman's worst and most frequent enemy is called the Joker. Sure, they're popular and well-liked now, but apparently so was Tom (Lord Voldemort)Riddle when he was at Hogwarts.

Ah, and you will notice that both Tom ("I Am Lord Voldemort") Riddle and "Gred-and-Forge" have been known to play word games with their own names.

Coincidence? Oooooh, I don't think so.

I'm not saying that they will turn evil—I'm just saying that the possibility is definitely there...

At this point, I'd call it a well-nigh canonical certainty.

Barb, on the other hand, remains unconvinced:

Plus, if pranks were a sign of basic inner rottenness, it is doubtful that JKR would have related Sirius' youthful indiscretions, which make him look far worse than the twins (Snape could have been killed). And yet, he's just a peach of a guy now.

Indeed, it is quite clear that JKR labors under the sad delusion that practical jokes are ::shudder:: funny. I do believe, in fact, that she's even been suckered into believing that they are fundamentally good-humored. "No harm in it, honest." "It's all in fun." "What's the matter, can't take a joke?"


Of course, we know that in actuality, the practical joke is a particularly vile and passive-aggressive form of sadism which operates by forcing its victims to actively collude in their own degradation by pressuring them to swallow down humiliation with a shaky laugh and a strained smile. We know that prank-pulling is really nothing more than a form of bullying which hides its true malice behind an unconvincing mask of jollity and good-humor. We know that there is really nothing in the least bit amusing or good-natured about the practical joke, that far to the contrary, it is just one of the many means by which the socially popular assert their dominance over their less charismatic peers.

But apparently JKR doesn't. And since she's writing the books, not us, the pranksters get to be the canonical Good Guys.


I know that I, for one, detest practical jokers. My hatred for them runs all the way to my very marrow; I will bitterly resent them until the end of time; I will...

If anything, it's folks who carry grudges to the nth degree that consistently get painted as evil in the HP books, not pranksters.

<Elkins blinks, then looks away from the computer screen, suddenly terribly preoccupied with the apparently difficult task of lighting her cigarette>

Actually, I'd say that it's not so much grudge-holding as envy that is the Grand Sin of the Potterverse. Holding grudges is certainly bad, but envy (itself often one of the underlying reasons for the grudge-holding) seems to me to be the Potterverse's real corrupting force. Its effects on Snape are obvious, but there's also Crouch Jr., whose hatred of the other DEs seems to be primarily motivated by his bitter envy of their relatively suffering-free lives, and Draco Malfoy, whose envy of Harry seems at times to be pushing him to something close to derangement, let alone Darkness. And while Pettigrew has never 'fessed up to envy as a prime motivating factor in his betrayal of the Marauders—preferring to stick closely to the Cowardice Defense—I think that most readers assume that envy played a not-inconsiderable role there, as well.

Envy's the real spiritual killer in the HP books, I think, and I found it interesting that both Ron and Harry spent large portions of GoF—the "turning point" of the series—wrestling with it. Harry's problems with Cedric are really far more envy-based than jealousy-based, IMO, and of course, Ron's difficulties with envy are painfully apparent.

I find myself wondering when Hermione's going to have to stare down envy.



Unc Mark and his niece, who sounds like a wonderfully compassionate and caring individual, were wondering if poor Moaning Myrtle could ever be laid to rest. He queried:

What would Myrtle's unfinished business be?

Why, she has to stop holding grudges, of course! She has to forgive Olive Hornby and all of those other rotten kids for picking on her back when they were students.

Maybe Snape could give her a few pointers there. ::snerk::



On the question of Hermione keeping the Moste Potente Potions book out of the library for months on end, Jake wrote:

Well, maybe the Hogwarts library has a more liberal checkout policy. You can keep the book until another student needs it...

I don't know if this is typical of all British universities, but when I briefly attended the University of Wales, the library allowed books to be kept out for the entire year, provided no other student requested them.

Hogwarts' library probably works the same way.


Posted February 08, 2002 at 3:00 pm
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RE: Where's the Canon (Part One) -- Canonical "suggestion" and plausibility

Cindy asks:

On what basis can we say that a particular idea or theory is or is not supported by canon?

I would say that if someone, when called upon to defend a speculation, can provide absolutely nothing from canon to support their notion, then there is some legitimate cause for complaint that the speculation is not "canon-based."

Canonical suggestion can, however, be very vague—it is often a matter of nuance, or of tone, or of pattern—and that can sometimes blur the distinctions between canon-based and purely imaginative speculation.

How, for example, would one classify all of the current speculation about Snape's backstory? Is it "canon-based" speculation, or is it not?

Well...both. It is, and it isn't.

It is, because the fact that Snape has a backstory—and one that must somehow involve him having first sworn loyalty to Voldemort, then changed his allegiance, and then spent some time spying for Dumbledore before Voldemort's fall—is most certainly canon, and so speculation about the precise details of how or why any of that might have come to pass just seems...fair, somehow.

It isn't, because so many of the arguments people use to defend their reasons for favoring one theory over the other are fundamentally personal, having no basis in canon at all.

It is, because how we respond emotionally to the canon is a part of how we construct a mental image of the Spirit of Canon, against which we then compare speculations to see if they match our understanding of what the canon "feels" like—and thus to see how plausible or improbable we consider them to be. ("I like this theory because it just seems to fit somehow. It just feels right.")

It isn't, because so many of the assumptions on which the theories rely are unsupported by any hard canonical evidence.

It is, because so many of the assumptions on which the theories rely are supported by such "soft" canonical evidence as the behavioral patterns of the work's characters—which is canon.

It isn't, because...

Well, you get the idea.

In the long run, I think that allowing for a fairly loose definition of what is or is not "canonical" speculation is the most beneficial course, partly because to do otherwise would be so inhibiting that it would likely smother many useful (and truly canon-based) discussions, but mainly simply because it is much more fun that way. ;-)

Cindy (hoping that people will continue to spin creative theories because she has fun thinking about them)

I like them, too. I like even the fanciful ones. Hell, sometimes I especially like the fanciful ones.

(But I do find myself now wondering if I can really legitimately respond to that last "Let Us Now Praise Minor Characters" Avery-Works-For-the-Ministry-of-Magic post as I would like to, or if it needs to be taken to OT-Chatter.)


Hey, wait a minute! Cindy, aren't you a List Elf?

—Elkins, now awaiting advice

Posted February 09, 2002 at 12:55 pm
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