Those of you haven’t been living under a rock know that the actor Alan Rickman died today. If your social media is like mine, you are seeing many clips and photos from Die Hard, Robin Hood, and Love Actually. Your entire social media day has more than likely been inundated with photos quotes from his portrayal of Severus Snape, perhaps one of the most intricate literary characters ever created. His death has caused me to pause. Not because I remember having nightmares over Die Hard, and not because I remember hating him in Love Actually. I pause because he was a tangible symbol of a character that symbolizes the layers of the human spirit that we often only see at surface level.
I know that when the first books in the series were published, controversy swirled as fast and wide as the Joplin tornado. The magical world that the brilliant J.K. Rowling created was seen by some as evil. I admit, I was a bit late on the Hogwart’s Express. In 1999, as I was recuperating from a serious illness, a friend gave me the first book to help me pass the time. I chose the prescribed pain meds and reruns of 90210 as my time passers, and let the “children’s” book sit on the coffee table. A couple of years later, I was at church in October and heard a sermon that centered on the innocence of Halloween and Harry Potter. The man that resided in the parsonage was a man who personified goodness to me. He was a great preacher, but more importantly, he was an amazing pastor. He had a way of comforting you when you needed it while also gently pointing you in the way you should go. In his sermon he admitted that he read the series and declared that there was nothing evil about it. While I had left the book unopened, it was not because I thought it was evil. However, his homily sparked a desire to at least open the book. I opened it, and I didn’t put it down. In fact, I went directly to the store to buy the second one, and was a crazy person at the store on midnight each time the latest volume was released.
Rowling’s straightforward syntax mixed with her unparalleled imagination have a way of sucking you in and making you feel like you are sitting in a chair in the Great Hall at Hogwart’s waiting for your turn under the Sorting Hat. I don’t have any Harry Potter tattoos, and I don’t celebrate the characters’ birthdays, but I certainly don’t hate on those that do! I get it. If I could keep track of my real life friends’ birthdays, I would probably get in on the celebrations.
As with any good fiction, the series has its protagonists and antagonists. In the early books, when Harry is younger, the good guys and bad guys seem pretty cut and dry. Harry, Dumbledore, Hermoine, and Ron are the good guys. Snape seems to be a rotten, evil professor firmly in the antagonist column with Lord Voldemort. (Yeah, I said it Voldemort!) The movies of the series began rolling out before the final books were published, so it was cool to be a little bit ahead of the game, but still have many questions. The first movie came out on November 16, 2001, 4 days before Molly turned 10. Her birthday party that year and the following, were held at the movie theater. Molly loved the movies! Now, sister girl had no interest in answering my pleads for her to read the books, but she loved the movies.
I remember watching the first couple of movies with her at home and she had no reservations about sharing her detest of Severus Snape. “He’s evil! He’s so mean! I hate him!” As many films do, the first movies only presented characters at the surface level. Although I knew from my reading of the books beyond those couple of movies that there was more to his character, I agreed with her and blasted him right along with her.
At this point, you are probably wondering if I have veered from MollyROCK to a more Siskel and Ebert themed life mission. Don’t worry. It all ties in.
As a literature teacher, I am guilty of having my students list the words, actions, interactions with others, and thoughts that make characters “good” or “bad.” We drill this in to their heads from a young age. Big Bird and Elmo are good. Oscar the Grouch is bad. Do we ever stop and have our kids imagine what their attitude about life would be if they also lived in a trash can? No. If you just saw the first couple of Harry Potter movies, you would see Snape as an angry, vindictive, black soul who wanted Harry Potter to die. How many people do we encounter in our lives that we immediately label as an antagonist?
If i had taken the time and energy to force Molly to read the books, perhaps she would have discovered that the characters that she thought were all good had some bad in them and the characters that were bad had some good in them. If her life hadn’t ended, she would have seen that in the films. As Harry aged, the layers of the characters matured and emerged too. Unfortunately, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1 was released on November 19, 2010. The eve of the 19th birthday that she didn’t get to celebrate. By then, she would have likely had the maturity to realize that the character she despised was putting up walls and smoke screens to protect the character she loved most.
Children learn through fantasy and play. They learn how to have faith in something they can’t see by believing in Santa Claus. They learn Spanish words by a little girl with a talking monkey. They learn to help old ladies cross the street by watching Superman do it. They learn good things from fiction. Unfortunately, they also learn to hate things based on small bits of information. They think that “the bad guys” are bad because they’re bad. They don’t have the cognitive ability to independently search for the reasons why a character is bad. When they see people in their lives who look or act like “bad guys,” they put them in a box too. They think the bullies in their schools are like the bullies on TV, mean for no reason. They can’t imagine that a peer might not have enough food to eat or a bed to sleep in.
Therefore, my friends, it is up to us to help the children in our lives make these connections. I do not think you have to do strict character analyses on each literary work that impacts your child, but you could throw in some questions that make your kid stop and think. We all draw inspiration in the way we dress, talk, walk, and live by fictional characters who inspire us. Children are no different. As adults, we know that when we buy a pair of shoes inspired by something we saw Kim Kardashian wear, we are not endorsing her blatant self-centeredness. We know that the neighbor down the street is in jail for embezzling money, but we also know that the cancer that took his son’s life left him swimming in debt. We can peel back the layers and see the good and bad. One day our kids will be able to do so, but we have to peel the layers and point them out for them until then.
Molly saw Snape as evil because of his actions. She didn’t know the history of and future behind and ahead. She did the same with her own actions. Just like Snape was overtly nasty to Harry so that he could protect him from Voldemort. He couldn’t stand to look at Harry, because he looked just like his mother, Snape’s true love. Molly saw things as black and white in the movies and television she watched, and it translated into how she saw herself. She made a mistake of having unprotected sex. To her, that made her bad. All bad. Another popular literary work tells us that there are fifty shades of gray between black and white. Sorry, E.L. James, there are 50,000 shades.
Don’t have a literature circle with your ten year old discussing Christian Grey, but consider reading the Harry Potter series as a family. (Start now, they’re dense.) It’s heartbreaking to learn that one of the most beloved characters (not going to spoil that one) has some evil in him, but kids need to know that even good people make mistakes. It’s astonishing to relish in the redemption of a hated character. Fiction inspires reality. If you can build a foundation for radical, open, conversation on the marble of fiction, it is sure to turn into fountains of reality.
Alan Rickman, thank you for bringing Severus Snape to life. You emulated my mind’s movie of his walk and his talk. You revealed his secrets in brilliant ways, and you made us all ponder the motives behind the antagonists in our own lives. I hope you don’t have a Severus hair-do in heaven, because Molly would be sure to run. Please scoop my sister and nieces up. Tell her Snape’s real story. Tell her that life isn’t black and white. Make her know that she and those babies are the most perfect shade of gray, and that I won’t give up util the whole world is painted with it. Always.
More than meat loves salt,