Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Spinner's End
Two cloaked figures Apparate beside a dark, dirty river in a run-down mill town. Narcissa Malfoy and her sister, Bellatrix Lestrange, head for a dilapidated brick row house on Spinner's End. While walking, Bellatrix is apparently trying to dissuade Narcissa from doing something. At the house, they are greeted by Severus Snape, who assures them that they are alone, except for Wormtail (Peter Pettigrew). Snape orders Wormtail to fetch drinks for himself and his guests. Wormtail complies while protesting that he is not Snape's servant. Narcissa says she believes only Snape can help her, but before she can continue, Snape points his wand at a concealed door and sends Wormtail, who is listening from behind, scurrying. Bellatrix, distrusting Snape, interrogates him about where (and with whom) his true loyalties lie. Before responding, Snape asks in turn: does Bellatrix really think that the Dark Lord had not asked him those same questions? Does she think he would be sitting there, talking to her if he hadn't been able to provide The Dark Lord with satisfactory answers? Does she think he could have fooled the Dark Lord, possibly the greatest Legilimens in the world?
Snape then addresses Bellatrix's concerns: when the Dark Lord fell, he was at Hogwarts, where Voldemort had ordered him to spy on Dumbledore. He did not hunt for the Dark Lord after his fall for the same reason many other Death Eaters failed to: he believed the Dark Lord was finished. Bellatrix retorts that she searched for him, prompting Snape to sarcastically remark how "useful" she was in Azkaban prison, while he collected sixteen years' worth of information on Dumbledore for Voldemort. Snape continues that he did not knowingly stand between the Dark Lord and the Philosopher's Stone; he thought Quirrell wanted it for himself and he acted to prevent that. He failed to respond to the Dark Lord's summons when Voldemort returned so that Dumbledore would continue to believe Snape was still his ally, rather than Voldemort's. Bellatrix claims she is Voldemort's most trusted lieutenant and would know of any information Snape passed to him. Snape asks if she still retains this status after the Ministry fiasco. When she is unable to answer, he continues: on the Dark Lord's orders, he stayed away from that battle to protect his position at Hogwarts. The information Snape supplied made Emmeline Vance and Sirius Black's deaths possible, and the Dark Lord was satisfied with his information. Snape has not killed Harry Potter because it was only Dumbledore who was keeping Snape effective as a spy and out of Azkaban. Killing Potter would have lost him that protection, and he would be unable to help Voldemort. It is Dumbledore's continued trust in him that makes him so useful to the Dark Lord.
With Bellatrix's worries seemingly appeased, Narcissa explains her visit. Voldemort has assigned her son Draco a difficult and probably deadly task. Narcissa wants Snape to protect him. Snape replies that Narcissa telling him about this mission is against Voldemort's orders; however, as he already knows about this, there is little harm done by her disclosing this to him. However, he is powerless to interfere with Voldemort's orders, nor will he try. Narcissa believes Draco was assigned this task as revenge for her husband Lucius' failure at the Ministry. Snape admits that the Dark Lord is angry at Lucius. Snape is finally persuaded to swear an 'Unbreakable Vow' to protect Draco and complete his mission should he fail.
This chapter starts off with something of a shock: two avowed Death Eaters visiting Severus Snape. Events to date seem to have polarized readers into two camps: those believing Harry's view of events, and his view that Snape is a Death Eater, and opposing them, those who believe Dumbledore's steadfast championing of Snape. The latter camp points at Dumbledore's track record, showing that in the first five books Dumbledore has been right far more often than he has been wrong in his guesses and conclusions. This chapter deals that understanding a large blow.
Perhaps a key part of this is Snape's being sent on an unexplained mission in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In this chapter, we learn that his mission was to rejoin Voldemort and pledge his allegiance. Snape says that his return to Voldemort was delayed to reassure Dumbledore that he was still working on Dumbledore's side, rather than Voldemort's, and that Voldemort is satisfied with his reasoning and pledge. There is no indication as yet whether this return was done purely at Dumbledore's bidding, or whether Snape would have gone to swear allegiance to Voldemort without Dumbledore's orders. At any rate, we can now see that when Voldemort, on his return, spoke of his faithful servant at Hogwarts, he was not referring to Snape but to Barty Crouch, and the one he fears has left him forever would most likely have been Snape, as the one who had run away would have been Karkaroff.
By far the strongest blow against any belief in Snape's loyalty to Dumbledore, established in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is his agreement with Narcissa Malfoy to make an Unbreakable Vow. Snape, whose fidelity to Voldemort is questioned by many Death Eaters, including Bellatrix Lestrange, must be aware that he can help dispel these doubts by swearing a magically binding oath to protect Draco in his mission for Voldemort, even at peril to his own life. Bellatrix probably remains skeptical, despite Snape's convincing answers to her probing interrogation; indeed, it seems that Snape's true allegiance always remains just vague enough to keep each side guessing. Readers know that Snape has been acting as a double agent, and this situation may be forcing him into taking the vow to maintain his cover. To do otherwise would cast even more suspicion on his supposed loyalties. But with double agents, it is always difficult to know where their true loyalties lie; in fact, Snape may be willing to take this oath because he is truly loyal to Voldemort, and the object of the oath is to complete a mission that Voldemort wanted completed. It is also conceivable that Snape is loyal only to himself, maintaining a tenuous and dangerous position where he can align himself with either winning side. A final possibility is that he is protecting Draco, who he has always seemed to favour, and who is still underaged.
Wormtail's loyalty is far less questionable, as he is fully dependent on Voldemort for his very survival. Unlike Snape, he is unable to align himself in any way to Harry, Dumbledore, and their allies. And while it initially seems that Snape has Wormtail under his constant, watchful eye, Wormtail may be secretly keeping tabs on Snape for Voldemort. Even though it appears that Snape has convinced Voldemort that he is his faithful servant, the Dark Lord may have lingering suspicions about him or seeks to reassure his doubtful followers. However, Voldemort may have discovered that Wormtail owes Harry Potter a life debt, an obligation as magically binding as Snape's Unbreakable Vow, and that could be a severe liability to the Dark Lord. Voldemort is likely having Snape and Wormtail watch each other.
Rowling also sheds light on some Death Eaters' personal relationships, as evidenced when sisters Bellatrix Lestrange and Narcissa Malfoy affectionately refer to each other as "Bella" and "Cissy." This is a contrast to how Harry has viewed most Death Eaters. Until now, Voldemort's followers have generally been portrayed as two-dimensional evil characters who unwaveringly serve Lord Voldemort. Other than the Malfoys, little is known about Death Eaters' family life, social interactions, or what factors, other than "pure-blood" beliefs, motivates them. Bellatrix, in particular, has been portrayed as purely evil, fanatical, and probably unbalanced, even by Death Eater standards, and she may believe Voldemort is doing too little to rid impurities from the Wizarding world. In this chapter, however, she is seen as caring about her sister, Narcissa, wanting to protect her and Draco from Voldemort.
And while Bellatrix generally remains two-dimensional, the cold and haughty Narcissa, desperate to protect her husband and son, displays love, fear, empathy, and sadness—emotions not generally associated with Voldemort's affiliates, but that help develop her into a more fully-rounded character. Narcissa believes Voldemort has tasked Draco with a near-impossible mission (in which he will likely fail and then be killed) only as a means to punish her husband, Lucius Malfoy, for his failure to retrieve the Trelawney prophecy at the Department of Mysteries (in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and also possibly for Voldemort's diary being destroyed (in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), though this is not mentioned explicitly in this chapter. This could ultimately affect Narcissa's loyalty to the Dark Lord and also to her sister. And despite their seeming affection for one another, it should be remembered that both Bellatrix and Narcissa readily disowned their sister, Andromeda, as a blood traitor for marrying the Muggle-born wizard, Ted Tonks. (Nymphadora Tonks is their daughter, and thus niece to Bellatrix and Narcissa.)
We note that this is only the fourth chapter of the entire series with a viewpoint character other than Harry. The first was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, before Harry actually reached the Dursley's. The second was in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where we are presented with some of Voldemort's back story and his apparent return. The third was the first chapter of this book, where we were acquainted with the interaction between the Muggle and Wizarding governments, and shown the change of power at the Ministry. Finally, of course, this chapter shows us interaction between four Dark wizards and establishes that Draco has been given a perilous mission, one that he is probably expected to fail, that Snape knows about and will act to complete. These will turn out to be four of only five chapters of the entire series that are not seen directly through Harry's eyes. The student may want to examine how much the story is enhanced by these few glimpses of events occurring outside Harry's direct sphere, and consider whether the important events covered in these chapters could have been shown to us through Harry's eyes. In this analysis, the storyteller's edict to "show, don't tell" would be a useful basis for gauging the value of the digression.
Finally, we will mention in passing that there is little if any information about where this town is. The characteristics of the town, as described, could fit any of hundreds of towns in England, towns where the main industry has proven unprofitable and shut down or moved away, leaving an empty plant and rampant unemployment. At least one fan site has concluded that this town, if it existed, would be near Manchester, supporting this in part with Snape's personality and word choice, which seem on inspection to be similar to those found in people from northern England.
- What might happen if Voldemort learns that Snape has made an Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa?
- What does Narcissa believe is the real reason Voldemort assigned Draco a nearly-impossible task? Is she correct?
- What is Snape's explanation about why he never killed Harry Potter, even though he had many opportunities to do so? Is his explanation plausible? Why?
- Why does Snape make an Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy, a vow that puts his own life at risk? Will he tell Dumbledore about it?
- Considering how much doubt there is about Snape's true loyalties, why does Narcissa choose him to protect Draco?
- Why did Narcissa and Bellatrix disown their sister, Andromeda? Can they trust each other? Explain.
- Why does Bellatrix remain suspicious of Snape? Does he convince her that he is loyal to Voldemort?
- Why do Death Eaters remain loyal to Voldemort, despite his tendency to threaten or eliminate even his most devoted followers or their families?
- Compare and contrast evidence that Snape is loyal to either Dumbledore, Voldemort, or even to no one.
- Why might Peter Pettigrew be at Snape's house? Does Snape trust him? Does Pettigrew suspect Snape might be a traitor? Who might Voldemort trust more?
- Snape claims that he was one of the few people Voldemort had let in on the secret of Draco's mission. It cannot be doubted he is sufficiently high up in Voldemort's circle that this may be so; now, is it? Or is he using a spy technique to pretend to know expecting to be able to distill the actual knowledge out of the ensuing conversation, aided by shrewd guesswork and the one or the other phrase acceptable to Death Eaters on all occasions?
It may be of interest to compare the reason for Dumbledore's belief in Snape's loyalty to the reason for Voldemort's belief. Dumbledore believes in Snape's loyalty because of a promise made to Dumbledore out of love for Lily Evans. Voldemort bases his belief on legilimency, reading Snape's memories, confident that nobody would be able to conceal thoughts from him. Dumbledore is basing his belief on the strength of Snape's character, while Voldemort is assuming an overwhelming strength in his own abilities. It will turn out, as we discover in the final book, that Dumbledore's faith was placed correctly, and that Snape's skill actually was greater than Voldemort's, a thing Voldemort likely could not have believed. Snape comments that Voldemort is "possibly the greatest legilimens that the world has ever known," but one has to wonder if the weasel word "possibly" was put in there only because he knew himself to be the stronger of the two.
As a side note, although it seems that Bellatrix is satisfied by Snape's answers, she could have insisted on him taking Veritaserum (truth serum) before interrogating him. However, she does not, possibly because, as Dumbledore will suggest later, even Veritaserum can be circumvented if it is expected. Though this is nowhere mentioned in the book, it is likely that those who know Occlumency can also cheat Veritaserum, if only by being able to perceive intent to administer the potion. And for that matter, Snape as Potions Master likely has an antidote to Veritaserum brewed, and may have it with him. Dumbledore will not go into detail about the means of subverting Veritaserum; however, Snape is more likely than most wizards to be aware of them. It is likely, though, that Veritaserum would not have helped Bellatrix in this case, if she had asked the questions that we see her asking. Snape's answers are, in every case, the truth, though perhaps not the full truth.
We will find out near Christmas, at the Slug Club Christmas party, that Bellatrix has been teaching Occlumency to her nephew Draco. As such, it is safe to assume that Bellatrix is a Legilimens herself, and so is confident in her ability to detect any falsehood from Snape. Snape's answers are carefully crafted so as not to trigger the ability of a Legilimens to know when he or she is being lied to; he probably also finds Bellatrix' abilities easy to subvert because of his practice with Voldemort.
Readers see Draco cast in a more sympathetic role here when it appears that he is Lord Voldemort's victim as much as his ally, forced to do his bidding under duress and at extreme risk to himself and his family. We will shortly see how a smug Draco initially revels in his own bloated self-importance at being appointed the Dark Lord's task, woefully unaware and unable yet to comprehend the probable consequences to himself and his parents should he fail. Narcissa, however, has correctly determined Voldemort's true intention: to punish Lucius Malfoy through Draco. She is risking her own life by defying Voldemort in an attempt to save her family. This raises the question as to why so many Death Eaters faithfully serve Voldemort, who demands his servants' total obedience and loyalty while offering little reward in return, and who readily eliminates a follower or their family for any reason; even his most devoted and trusted confidants are capriciously expendable, even for the smallest misstep. This flagrant abuse could eventually create enough dissent and discord from within to undermine or destroy Voldemort's power, although, for now, his continued rise seems unabated.
Snape tells Bellatrix that his information led to the death of Emmeline Vance, who as we have seen is a member of the Order of the Phoenix. We will much later find out that Snape actually is working for the Order himself, as a double agent; it is safe to assume that Snape discusses with Dumbledore the information he will give to Voldemort. At the same time, we hear that Snape has only let those people die that he could not save. That strongly suggests that Dumbledore and Snape were somehow forced to give Voldemort information on Vance, and that they could not prevent her death. From this, we can assume that Vance's death was not preventable, Voldemort had already set his sights on her, but Snape had provided some small piece of information that had helped him find her. It is more than likely that Snape and Dumbledore had also provided Vance with the information that would allow her to fight back. While Vance clearly would not want to simply die, it is likely that she would agree to being put in harm's way, if in the battle she would have a chance to take some Death Eaters with her. While this is never confirmed, it is quite possible that, in fact, she did, and that the retreating Death Eaters had carried away and probably concealed their dead, as they tend to.
At the same time as we learn of Snape's true allegiance, we will learn that Snape's Unbreakable Vow, which would require him to kill Dumbledore in the event that Draco was unable to, was for Snape only reinforcement of a promise he had already made. The injury to Dumbledore's hand, which Harry will note in the next chapter, and which Snape here alludes to, is the outward sign of a curse that will take Dumbledore's life within a year. In a conversation that immediately follows Dumbledore receiving that injury, and so plainly occurs before the events in this chapter, Snape has reluctantly agreed to end Dumbledore's life himself, in order to save Draco's soul and spare Dumbledore's dignity.
- Many of Snape's answers to Bellatrix's questions refer back to events in previous books.
- Snape's attempts to prevent Quirrell from retrieving the Philosopher's Stone form a large part of the backdrop to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Harry, not being privy to the entire discussions between them, believes that it is Quirrell who is trying to protect the Stone from Snape.
- Snape did not respond to Voldemort's summons in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Voldemort said he believed that he had "left my service". We find out here that Snape had delayed his return to Voldemort's service deliberately, to make it appear that he remained faithful to Dumbledore. We will find out later that he really was faithful to Dumbledore. The delayed return, risky as it was for Snape, also consolidated Voldemort's belief in Snape's faithfulness.
- We don't know what information Snape provided that aided Sirius Black' death, but we can suppose that it was likely something learned during Harry's Occlumency lessons, possibly information about the dreams of the Ministry corridor.
- Snape and Bellatrix' conversation about the battle at the Ministry, which occurred at the end of the previous book, provides a few side lights on that battle that may be of interest.
- Snape mentions that Dumbledore has suffered an injury over the summer, which Harry will see and comment on in the next chapter of this book. We will find out in the final book how that injury was inflicted, and that as a result Dumbledore has, as of the time of this chapter, at most a year to live. At the same time, we will learn that Dumbledore already knew of the mission assigned to Draco, before he received his injury.