The outpouring of grief following the death of beloved actor Alan Rickman doesn’t surprise me. While I didn’t know Rickman personally, and I cannot speak for his entire fan base, I can tell you this: To me, Alan Rickman was Severus Snape and that is a VERY big deal. (Honorable mention goes to Hans Gruber.)

In order to pay tribute, I have chosen to reflect on the complexity of Snape’s character—a complexity that Rickman understood, and somehow, captured. As the saga of Snape unfolded, we first thought he was mighty shady, and possibly evil. Then we thought he was a jerk, but a jerk fighting on our side. Then we were shocked to find out he was definitely evil before once again realizing he was actually good! And just like that, we cleanly slotted him in the “good guy” category and deemed it reasonable that Harry’s most unfortunately named child, Albus Severus, be named in his honor.

However, our temptation to view good and evil as binaries strips Snape’s character of everything that made him compelling. While undoubtedly Snape acted selflessly and heroically in many ways, especially at the end of his life, he also considered it appropriate to spend years berating an orphan whose life seemed to be an endless stream of tragedy and near death (and actual death) experiences. And the reason for this hostility and verbal abuse? A schoolboy grudge against Harry’s dad—who is DEAD.

Let’s also not forget that as a young man Snape was an actual Death Eater, fully committed to the destruction of muggles and “mudbloods.” Upon hearing the prophecy that Voldemort’s equal was to be born in the summer, Snape enthusiastically reported the news to the Dark Lord, perfectly happy to send an infant to his death. Only after realizing that the baby to be brutally murdered was the child of Lily (Evans) Potter, the love of Snape’s life, did he develop any moral qualms.

All in all, Snape’s primary motivation for protecting Harry and joining the good guys emerged from his love for Lily. On one hand, it is beautiful that love, even unrequited, could transform a man otherwise capable of such evil. On the other, a romantic love is possibly the least altruistic motivation one could possess for turning their life around.

Rickman’s brilliant portrayal of Snape encompasses every conflicted, troubled, petty, and heroic aspect of Snape’s character in a single scene from The Half-Blood Prince. In the scene, Harry confronts Snape after he is ousted from the castle—his face solemn as Harry condemns him for being a traitor. He blocks each spell, refusing to fight back. While Snape eventually proceeds to condescendingly scold Harry for using his own spell, Sectum Sempra, against him, first, he calls the other Death Eaters off, protecting Harry even in this moment. He appears burdened with compassion and frustration as if to say “If only you knew.”

Alan, if only you knew how much you meant to the Harry Potter generation.

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