Harry Potter: Severus Snape is the best character by far
JK Rowling put a witty fantasy into the structure of a classic boarding school story
The strange thing about the Harry Potter books is that Harry is, by far, the least interesting character in them. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images
I first encountered Harry Potter when I was 23. It was 1998, and a friend who was working in the children’s section in Waterstone’s lent me a new book she’d read at work. It was set in a magical boarding school, she told me. She’d really liked it and thought I would too. The book was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and my friend was right. I loved it. It wasn’t the first fantasy novel I’d read set in a school – everyone from Jill Murphy to Diana Wynne Jones had got there earlier. But JK Rowling had managed to perfectly fit a thrilling, witty fantasy adventure into the structure of a classic boarding school story, from the event-filled journey at the start of the school year and the assignation of houses, dormitories and teachers, to the dramatic sports matches and end of year farewells.
This delicious and knowing adherence to an old formula went over the heads of virtually all American critics of the books, but those of us who grew up on Malory Towers and the Chalet School knew how satisfying that story structure could be. Pair it with an inventive, fast-paced plot, imaginative use of magic and its rules, and appealing characters, and you had a winner. I quickly got hold of the first book, The Philosopher’s Stone, and devoured it too. Then Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published, and it was even better than the first two – darker, and more interesting.
Any author who can keep that need alive for 10 years and seven books has done something pretty magical
Four more books later, the world of children’s publishing had changed forever and I was slightly less bewitched by Harry and his world. As the series went on, the books got longer and less witty, and although many fans seemed to approve of this, I felt everything from Goblet of Fire onwards could have done with some serious editing. The stretched-out stories highlighted the fact that Rowling’s prose, which had never had the sparkle of Wynne Jones or Philip Reeve, could be seriously clunky.
By the time we hit The Deathly Hallows, much of which seemed to consist of Harry, Ron and Hermione doing not very much in a magic tent, and which ended with what felt like a cheesy piece of fanfic, much of the magic had gone. But not all of it. Although I may have rolled my eyes in frustration at some of the later books, I kept reading them for one simple reason: I cared about this world and I needed to know what happened next. And any author who can keep that need alive for 10 years and seven books has done something pretty magical.
The strange thing about the Harry Potter books is that Harry is, by far, the least interesting character in them. While everyone from the gloriously confident Hermione Granger to the disdainful Severus Snape spring to life on the page, Harry remains an almost blank slate. Maybe it’s because the most lively thing about Rowling’s writing is her dialogue, and Harry’s thoughts are generally conveyed in her relatively flat prose, but he’s a pretty boring hero, especially when compared with the people around him (even when he does get emotional, in The Order of the Phoenix, he basically expresses it by yelling in all caps).
As the books go on, we see the Hogwarts students grow up. Ron becomes more confident, Hermione gets political, and friendships become more complicated when crushes and more serious relationships come into play. (Rowling is particularly good at capturing teenage jealousy and the inability to express one’s feelings.)
But by far the most interesting character of the books is the brilliantly drawn Severus Snape
Neville Longbottom, who begins the series as a comical eejit, eventually becomes heroic (right until the end of The Deathly Hallows I had a cherished theory that Neville would turn out to be the true hero of the books who would ultimately destroy Voldemort).
Adults are allowed to be complex too – Harry’s beloved godfather Sirius becomes increasingly reckless, with tragic results. And illusions can be shattered – a glimpse into the past shows that even Harry’s late father wasn’t always a particularly nice person in his youth.
Rowling is particularly good at creating villains. There’s Voldemort, of course, whose magical fascist progress from Tom Riddle to He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named is chillingly convincing. There’s Umbridge, the simpering epitome of every nasty petty tyrant with a sugary demeanour. And there are Harry’s entertainingly awful relatives, the Dursleys. All of these characters stay pretty terrible from beginning to end of the series.
But by far the most interesting character of the books is the brilliantly drawn Severus Snape. Throughout all the books, he proves to be the most fascinating kind of baddie, the arsehole who isn’t actually evil. He’s not a nice person, but he’s not a wicked one either. In fact (spoiler alert) he’s ultimately a hero. A more interesting one than Harry Potter, too.
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“Kill the spare.” After three books of facing his ghost, his diary and his servant, no first line better sums up why Voldemort is so terrifying – it’s not what he can do, it’s what he can make others do. That line has stayed with me for a very long time.
Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark won the Senior Children’s Book of the Year prize at the 2016 Irish Book Awards. His second book The Forever Court is out now
I’m not hugely into fantasy, so when I first heard about these Harry Potter books – in the early days before there were midnight launches and strict embargos – I shrugged. Then I discovered they were set in a boarding school, and also learned of the wondrous and compassionate know-it-all that is Hermione Granger. I reread the series at least once a year, marvelling at all the tiny clever details woven in there. Also: Ravenclaw. Ravenclaw forever.
Claire Hennessy’s new novel Like Other Girls is published by Hot Key Books
I’ve read and reread the Harry Potter books at different significant points in my life. More recently, I’ve been listening to the brilliant podcast Witch Please and it’s been interesting to revisit that world through a feminist academic lens. There’s something very comforting about the Potterverse. And as a proud Hufflepuff, I enjoy comfort as well as being unafraid of toil.
Deirdre O’Sullivan’s Needlework won the Honour Award for Fiction at the 2017 CBI Awards