French Literature Source for Severus Character? Polyeucte!

Another great letter! This one for Mary Norman, a French Literature major in school, who suggests that Ms. Rowling almost certainly has read a play, Polyeucte, in her French studies, in which play one hero’s name is Severus. This may be the source and it’s one, of course, that your favorite classicist could never have found. Thank you, Mary Norman!

Folks, keep those cards and letters coming!

Dear John,

I’m a Catholic homeschooling mother of five who absolutely loves Harry Potter, and thoroughly enjoyed your book, “Unlocking Harry Potter.” As a former graduate student in French Literature, I’m painfully familiar with Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, but you actually managed to make these guys interesting! (Not that I agree with their philosophical conclusions — I told a professor once that if I actually believed what these men espoused, i.e., that there is no transcendent meaning to literature or life, I would go throw myself off the nearest bridge.) Thanks for producing a work of serious, yet entertaining literary criticism of Harry Potter. I’ll be anxious to hear what you have to say after Book 7 comes out.

I was dismayed when I read the article on Machiavelli’s Half-Blood Prince, because the arguments there were very compelling, and I really want Snape to be a good guy in the end, even if he doesn’t make his final decision for good until the end of Book 7. Just thinking back to my French Lit. days, I came up with another Severus connection that would kind of fit in with the Snape-loved-Lily theory, and the “bad-or-indifferent-Snape turns good” angle. There’s a seventeenth century play by Corneille called “Polyeucte” (in English, Polyeuctus.) The play is about a Christian martyr, Polyeuctus, who died during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius.

There is an important character in the play named Severus (Severe, in French.) Severus, a Roman soldier, pagan, and favorite of the Emperor, is hopelessly in love with a married woman, Pauline, the wife of Polyeuctus. Severus is offered the opportunity to marry Pauline upon the death of Polyeuctus. In an act of unselfish heroism, Severus instead tries (unsuccessfully) to save Polyeuctus for the sake of Pauline. If memory serves me correctly, I think Pauline winds up being martyred also, and Severus comes over to the good side, accepting the truth of Christianity and vowing to defend Christians from the Emperor. Incidentally, there is a character named Albin in this play; he is the wise, but unheeded confidante of the weak and fearful Governor Felix.

The story of “Polyeucte,” of course, would be obscure to anyone but a French Lit. major, such as JKR! But there are so many possible sources for a name like Severus, and JKR undoubtedly had multiple reasons for choosing that name. I’ll just try not to be too upset if our Potions Master does in fact come down on the dark side. . .

Thanks for all your wonderful insights!

Mary Norman


  1. bubbygirl1972 says

    Oh wow I didn’t know this piece of info. Maybe Severus will turn out to be on the side of the light afterall.


  2. Arabella Figg says

    I find this very compelling. I’ve believed, since early in the series, that Snape loved Lilly, total guy magnet. But I feel Snape turned not just because of the death of Lily.

    In HBP Remus is stunned when Harry reports that Snape turned to DD because of the Potters’ death. Remus says, “But Snape hated James!”

    Yes, Snape hated him, but he also had a life-debt to James (PoA). He seems to have held such honor highly; according to DD, Snape, 11 years later, was able to pay his life-debt to James by saving Harry from Quirrellmort’s attempted Quidditch match murder.

    For the G!Snape theory, this still doesn’t make Snape a good person, but I think it helped make him a better one, one who feels he does owe something to a world that he sees as basically unkind, except for Dumbledore.

    Got to toss kibbles to the kitties….

  3. Coppinger Bailey says


    Thank you very much for sharing this information. I think that as you and others point out, it is a testament to Ms. Rowling’s planning that there are multiple trails of “evidence” regarding the origin of Snape’s name woven into her storytelling. The perfect red herring.

    I have been a proponent of the Machiavelli/Bad Snape side based on my reading of Dumbledore’s interaction with Snape and the fox/vulture/spider imagery associated with his character. And, I still think that he actually did commit murder on the Astronomy Tower, which complicates a real “turn to the good side” scenario. I also have thought that his storyline intersects with the presence of dementors in several ways that foreshadow old Severus getting his soul sucked out. However, when I was a kid reading Agatha Christie, I fell for her red herrings all the time. So I will be the first person to walk up to the mirror a few days after July 21 and gleefully yell, “SUCKER!”

    Travis made an interesting comment about this under John’s “feast of St. Severus” entry:

    “And perhaps it would do a good deal for our prejudices to have a thoroughly unlikable, nasty character like Snape turn out to be a saint! How often are we the Pharisee, happy we are not “like this tax collector,” and how much would a Holy!Snape rattle our preconceived notions of redemption and goodness?”

    I said in my first message to John that my ponderings on Snape’s character are literally what drove me onto the internet in the first place to see what others had to say about him. My first reading was that he was an unrepentant murderer headed for the dementors. When others pointed out the importance of a redemptive arc to Snape’s character, I accepted that but still thought the dementors might get hold of him in the end ala a despairing Judas path. Then someone else mentioned the potential importance of getting rid of dementors altogether in Deathly Hallows because Dumbledore thought they were such vile creatures. Snape’s redemption could be an example of how those who have perhaps strayed the most can still be found. Okay, Voldemort has strayed the MOST, but I think you can see what I mean.

    I think this, again, is the mark of great writing and its effect on different readers. It exposes the prides and prejudices (Jane Austen pun intended) that each reader brings to the page. That’s one reason I am grateful to John for sponsoring this blog, so that those of us who wish to do so have a place to grapple with these ideas. It has meant a great deal to me during this last “interlibrum” phase.

    Finally – I do admit to being one in leave of her senses right now (see John’s “Potter reading in the interlibrum” post). My particular version comes not with a leave of absence but with a lack of sleep. I do think we are in a special moment in time, and it will only last one more week. Those of us who love Harry’s story will always love it and go back to it again and again, but it will forever be different after July 21. I tend to savor the transitional moments in life in particular, as they mark a passage from what was to what will be. The present is a present. I can sleep after I finish Deathly Hallows.

    Carpe diem!

  4. Wow. What alot to think about. I am just looking forward to the final book, and then to reading John’s take on it in the final(?) revision of Looking for God in Harry Potter…..

  5. Thanks for all your interesting comments on the Severus/Polyeucte connection! I must admit that my pro-Snape analysis is based at least in part on hope, rather than conviction. The evil!Snape arguments also carry a lot of weight. Still, if I had to put any money down on this, I’d have to bet for good!Snape in the end.

    The St. Severus connection is also interesting. So, he’s famous for bringing someone back from the dead. Putting a stopper in Dumbledore’s death, perhaps? Maybe bringing Harry back from Beyond the Veil in Book 7? We’ll find out soon enough!

  6. Very few folks have made this connection that I’m aware of, but another parallel character to Severus Snape in French literature would be Claude Frollo in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). In case you’re not familiar with the original, he is the archdeacon of Notre Dame who is clearly brilliant (trained in philosophy, medicine, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, etc), is obsessed with alchemy, and he becomes enamored with “The Dark Arts.” He is austere, droll, has great passion just below the surface, and is remarkably compassionate in his own way, but his obsessive love leads to his downfall. I first read the novel in the 8th grade and absolutely loved his character and it was my first introduction to alchemy back in the day. So when I read PS/SS back in 2001, I was thinking, Nicholas Flamel…where have I heard that before? 🙂

  7. This seems a good place to leave a speculation I have entertained since seeing HP&tOoP film on wednesday.

    Assuming JKR has authorial control over the revelations in the plot points of the films as well as the texts, I found it extremely interesting that what seems to be a throw-away line exits Snape’s mouth as he leaves Umbridge’s office. He remarks to Umbridge that he cannot supply veritaserum as she has used it all. He then goes on to specify that the last of it was used upon Cho Chang. THAT IS THE SEEMINGLY THROW-AWAY LINE that literally jumped off the screen into my consciousness. It was emphasized by a panning shot to Hermione who grimacingly acknowledges her error of believing Cho betrayed the DA.

    WHY? Why did Snape in the film make such reference to Cho? Within the context of the film, the mere use of veritaserum was explanation enough. There was no compelling plot need to have Snape say this – especially as there was no on-screen resolution of the mistaken belief of the trio towards Cho.

    I think it was a clue to Snape’s ultimately redeemed character. Having lived with the suspicion of two sides regarding his true motivations and loyalties, Snape made a totally unnecessary but characteristically coverable disclosure that SPARED Cho a life fated to be as his own! That he did so in the context of the need for urgency to communicate with the Order about the situation at the MoM and Padfoot is telling. It is revelatory of the goodness that lies in the heart of Snape. It is – within the context of the fils – a clue given in full view but likkely to be missed because of the drama of the situation in which it occurs.

    But if JKR retains the story arc in its essentials in the films as she surely must, then this may be a major clue. I do not at present recall Snape acting in this manner in any other film – nor in the texts. I have re-read all the published texts again within the last three weeks (okay, I have been prepping for the final book!) and re-viewed all the movies. Snape simply has not done this type of thing elsewhere.

    And ever since M!Snape, I have been reflecting on Severus a great deal. (Yes, I can spell o-b-s-e-s-s-i-v-e).

    And tonight I read this essay and think, I must be right about this…again.

    Snape will be good in the end. Harry will die after achieving reconciliation with Snape which enables him to defeat Voldemort and save the wizarding world.

    Now…there’s the matter that I have misunderstood the Prophecy all along and either Harry or Voldemort will be killed by Neville to complete the death of Voldemort (“by the hand of the other”). If Harry kills Voldemort and his scar is a horcrux, Harry must die to end the Dark Lord. Perhaps Harry dies in the attempt to remove the Horcrux and Neville finishes the Dark Lord? Or, Harry successfully destroys the Horcrux with Neville’s help but is left too weak to fight Voldemort and Neville completes the killing of Voldemort? Does the “other” mean either Harry or Voldemort or mayn’t it mean of the two likely candidates for opposing the Dark Lord the one unmarked by V will bring about his doom?

  8. From Sandra Miesel, my go-to lady on all things Medieval and for Science Fiction:

    A Latin shouldn’t really lecture this way to a Greek but I have this compulsion to share odd facts.

    A huge church dedicated to St. Polyeuctos was built in Constantinople in the 6th C by Anicia Juliana, the last survivor of an ancient and wealthy noble family. (Its ruins were discovered in the late 20th C while building a subway line.) Anyway, she spent her entire fortune on it, which annoyed Justinian who’d hoped to seize her money. It was the first church in Constantinople to feature a large dome and Justinian intended to surpass it with Hagia Sophia. Bits of St. Polyeuctos’ peculiarly decorated stonework (made by imported Persian craftsmen) can still be seen in Venice, brought there after the Fourth Crusade.

    The art history stuff doesn’t mention St. Severus.

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