My Duty Forbids It: The Historical Context of Professor Snape

One of the first things that struck me about the character of Professor Severus Snape as portrayed by Alan Rickman in the Harry Potter film series was how in sync it tended to be with the militaristic teaching styles of real British boarding schools well into the second half of the 20th century. He made a perfect stereotypical black-cloaked, pale-faced, long-nosed schoolmaster, who did not suffer fools lightly, took no “cheek” from his students, and would not wear his emotions on his sleeve. When I found out J.K. Rowling did base him on her real-life chemistry teacher, the whole mystery solved itself.

As a history buff, the familiarity of such a character, who could not help but remind me of a favorite black-clad, stern-faced music teacher of mine from days of yore, was a welcome relief in a sea of mystery and magic which my Potterhead friends insisted I needed to experience. Oddly enough, just watching him menacingly walking down the lines of his students, with eyes keen to pick up anything other than all due concentration on his lecture and their notes, made me feel a certain amount of safety and security that the rest of the Wizarding World seemed to lack.

In true British fashion, Snape is portrayed as having a “stiff upper lip”, and while he certainly goes hard on his students, he also goes hard on himself when it came to accomplishing what he saw as his duty. Indeed, while he was unquestionably a flawed and bitter man, with grudges and prejudices running deep (also in sync with the fierce house rivalries and class divides prevalent in British schooling and society throughout history), he is also profoundly courageous with a keen sense of obligation to others to whom he is bound in one form or another.

He may be infamous for verbally snarking his students, snatching their house points, and giving them long detention sentences for seemingly insignificant infractions (especially if they came from House Gryffindor), but you also get the feeling you would  have to walk over his dead body to inflict any real harm on those in his charge. Harsh and petty though he may be, at the end of the day he’s the one you want to have on your side. He’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of others who are entrusted to him to protect, expecting very little in return. This is not a matter of frivolous affection, but dead-set duty, and very much in keeping with British military traditions.

A panoply of historical figures with a similar attitude come to mind, such as Major John Pitcairn, Sir John Moore, General Simon Frazer, the Duke of Wellington and many more who displayed this mixture of tough disciplinarian execution and verbal contempt for their soldiers (“the animals”, “the scum of the earth”, “dirty contemptible dogs” – you name it; they said it!). At the same time, they showed outstanding bravery on a personal level and a self-sacrificial duty to those under their command. The stories are numerous, and could easily make very fine cinematic dramas in their own right.

One story that particularly stuck me involves General Simon Frazer, one of the main British commanding officers at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, who continued to rally his crumbling lines of defense, even when he had become a conspicuous target for American marksmen who were instructed to aim for his red coat. When his aide begged him to dismount from his horse, Frazer, realizing that his mere presence steadied the scattering men, famously replied, “My duty forbids it.” He was subsequently mortally wounded and died the next day.

Another story involves Sir John Moore, one of the most famous British land generals to participate in the Napoleonic Wars. He had always been a strong disciplinarian and taught his men never to cry out if wounded for fear of disrupting the other soldiers. He put his word into practice when a cannon ball tore open his shoulder as he led his men at the Battle of Corunna in 1809. He did not utter a sound, even during the excruciating surgery without the comfort of anesthesia. He was tough on his men, but also tough on himself.

This type of leadership carried with it responsibility and a sizable risk factor, but it was meant to mark out a gentleman, the extent to which duty was of value to him, and how he could lead other men. Yet a strange sense of bonding sometimes developed between officer and soldier, to the point that when the officer was killed, the entire regiment, or even the whole army, experienced something of an emotional breakdown, even if they’d never much cared for the guy before that moment. He came to symbolize the central point, the synthesis of their efforts, and the one who, in spite of everything, would get them through the worst of it.

They were hardcore, no-nonsense men whose lives and deaths reflected a level of duty that left a mark on those who served with them. And, connecting back to Professor Snape, they were the products of the same traditional schooling system that was meant to pound young boys into men and prepare them to serve and possibly die for king and country. On top of this, it was not unheard of for teachers and professors to raise companies of volunteers and double in a military capacity during wartime, especially when a threat to the homeland was impending. Snape fits neatly into this role.

Other times, they would be put to work in other military capacities, such as Colin Maclaurin, the mathematics professor from Edinburgh University who doubled as head of the fortifications construction when the city was under siege by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His teen-aged students were promptly snatched from their university halls and made to march to the gates of the city in case of an impending attack. Schoolmasters and professors served a similar purpose as drill sergeants, preparing their charges of good breeding for the very real possibility of “donning the king’s livery” at the tender ages of fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen. Hence, rigorous discipline was must.

Without this historical and cultural background, a character like Snape does not fit half so well within the wider picture. He becomes an anomaly instead of the norm. But for centuries, Snape-like teachers were the norm (please watch documentary clips from British boarding schools into the 1960’s-70’s…and for a classic literature take on it from days of yore, try Tom Brown’s School Days), and thus he would likely have been harsh and militaristic with or without his additional personal issues that Rowling devised (such as lack of toleration for the Golden Boy of Gryffindor-dom). The basis for his teaching style is fully believable, no melodramatic background saga necessary.

In both books and movies, corporal punishment is never used at Hogwarts until the arrival of Professor Umbridge and later the Carrows, but the feel of the surroundings is evocative of an older age in which it might be utilized. While Snape never does anything of this nature beyond a snatch by the scruff of the neck and bonk with a paperback textbook to chattering students, it isn’t a major stretch of the imagination to envision him giving Harry a good switching (especially following his sterling “you don’t have to call me sir” moment!).

But all that having been said, Snape does not show any signs of being a genuine sadist, nor, indeed, were many of the teachers of his martial caliber that preceded him in real history. In fact, in later episodes, he makes a point of purposely giving his students comparatively minor detentions to protect them from torture under the mentally warped Umbridge and the monstrous Carrows. Though imperfect and hard-edged, the man does not seem to be completely without heart.

Indeed, another line in the story has Dumbledore saying: “Don’t be shocked, Severus. How many men and women have you watched die?”

Snape replies, “Lately only those whom I could not save”

This vaguely reminded me of the story of the Duke of Wellington, known as the Iron Duke for his unyielding toughness and stoicism. Indeed, he might be called the poster child for the British stiff upper lip in that department. However, at the end of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, his greatest and most costly victory, he broke down sobbing when the casualty list was read to him. He never completely recovered from his traumatic experience at Waterloo and would often go silent when the name of the place was mentioned, famously remarking, “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.”

Another element of being a professor was the fact that you assumed a title. You earned the right to be addressed as “sir”, to exert authority, and expect obedience. It was the weight of leadership only “gentlemen” were meant to carry. However, if the flashbacks are to be given credence in Harry Potter canon, Severus Snape had an upbringing that was the epitome of “growing up rough.” He was the son of a factory worker in the Midlands of England, an area hit hard by the Industrial Revolution. It was also stripped of its natural resources, particularly its dense forests, so that the wood might be used to build ships for the Royal Navy.

It had a history of being associated with rebel spirit, be it Robin Hood challenging the unjust hunting laws, or the “Cropper Lads” who smashed the factory machinery that had put them out of work. Even the contribution of England’s “heart of oak” through the Midland forests might be said to have helped to take down Napoleon’s tyranny by securing Britain’s primacy on the seas. It was also the area where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up and after which he based his Hobbit Shire. It was also an area scorned for being “common” and “rough”, in contrast to the wealthier and more tranquil southern counties of England that did not have the same history of struggle to shape them.

Snape, therefore, according to the British social scale, would have to deal with the stigma of his background as being of the working class from the Midlands. In addition, with a mother who has the Irish name Eileen, it might be surmised that immigration, which was common to factory towns, was in his bloodline. Going to a school of status, in his position, given the pseudo-Victorian setting that Hogwarts exudes, is a surprise. But bullying from those of “better stock”, or “mouthy-southies”, would be no surprise at all. This, I think, is the best and simplest explanation for James Potter and his cronies beginning the trend of torment against young Severus. It also would go a long way in explaining his need for powerful patronage found in the wealthy Malfoy family.

But this background would also greatly affect the personal growth of an ambitious young man struggling to rise above his circumstances against the odds. This might also factor into his hardcore teaching style. He would have to make his authority an unquestioned reality to posh students, who might know about his working class background, and be less likely to take him seriously. So failing to be respected, he at least would want to be feared in order to maintain order. These are the effects of a centuries’ long class system, many aspects of which still haunt Britain today.

In historical language, I am tempted to call Severus Snape “a man of his times”. That having been said, Hogwarts “time” is a bit of an enigma, cross-sectioned between the 1990’s, the Victorian Era, and the Dark Ages, which is one of the many issues I have with Rowling’s world-building. Evidently, the teacher she used as a model for Snape taught in her grade school, circa 1970’s. My own father, educated in Catholic schools in Eastern Coast USA in the 1960’s, has tales to tell of his teachers that make Snape look like a pussycat. This includes nuns banging his head off a blackboard and brothers washing his mouth out with soap. It’s not hard to imagine that most of these “toughies” were themselves tough “toughies” and learned the name of the game from their predecessors from time et memoriam.

But getting back to Snape as a fictional character within a fictional universe, I rather wish that we got to see him as a more “ordinary”, if unpleasant, fixture around Hogwarts, instead of making him have a dark past to explain him being historically accurate in his general comportment. Or if the author had to include a tumultuous back-story, it could have at least been revealed more gradually, as opposed to taking up quite so much space on an excess of hocus-pocus stunts involving an evil wizard dude who refuses to give up the ghost about taking over a high school until a keystone cops chase over a super-wand kills off a sizable chunk of the cast (human, animal, and CGI alike) and bleeps them off the wizarding radar. And I suppose Alan Rickman can almost count as a form of collateral damage…

But when you think about it, being in a class every day, taught by the same person, for over five years, should start to wear down the intrigue on the part of Snape’s students. But for some reason…it never does. This familiarity factor would have been a good thing for all, including the storyline, which felt artificially puffed up on plot twist steroids to maintain the intrigue. But this is just one example of how the wider arc of the series suffered from a lack of stability, which is why I would have much preferred a version of Snape who was just…Snape, a tough, flawed teacher, but one who everyone came to realize was human, and even heroic, in his own way, after all.

That, I think, would have been far more relatable to the majority of us who have had tough teachers who *gasp* weren’t spying for Get Smart’s KAOS, after all! But sometimes it seems that Rowling used her fantasy world to expound upon kiddie fantasies that our least favorite teachers must be in league with dark forces, which, 99% of the time, is incorrect, even if it give us some childish comfort at the time of our travail. Might it not have been more constructive for her to show that toughie teachers are human too, and not through bizarre familial connections and last minute partial redemptions, but just through the recognition that these people are often responsible for dragging us over the finished line of our studies, even during our terrible and tumultuous teens?

And if you happen to be in Snape’s class and haven’t figured out how to survive his methods by the third movie (which, honestly, don’t change much from film to film!), its simple really: he’s not here for fun and games, he’s not a fan of kids (especially if you’re a smart-alack that looks strikingly like your bullying, brattish, girl-friend-stealing dad *spoiler* cough *spoiler*), he has no patience for your fumblings, and your best chance for surviving his monotone lecture sessions is to listen up, do your homework on time, and generally try and be inconspicuous. While he may still make his grudge-carrying, house-favoring tendencies manifest, your self-preservation chances will have at least risen to plausible proportions, as well as your chances to pass the bloody class.

And who knows, maybe over time, you’ll find out that your least favorite professor isn’t an inhumane  minion of a noseless wizard, like I found out with my music teacher, who became like a tough but protective mentor and surrogate aunt, bringing out my talents in a way no one else could. But for record…yeah, maybe don’t talk back to teachers like this…or correct them about page numbers…or get caught wandering the halls after curfew…or invade their super-secret memory stash…or set their clothes on fire…or comment about their nasal dimensions…because life, is precious, right?

Learn some respect, Mistah Pottah, or you’ll wind up just like your fathah!

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