Pointers to Dante in Harry Potter (B): Green Eyed Lily and Beatrice, Dante’s Griffin, and the Death of Severus Snape


  1. In my ignorance above, I wrote about Dante and Beatrice that:

    Dante’s green-eyed love is for Beatrice Portinari, a young woman with whom he fell in love when he was nine and she eight on first seeing her and whom he only met once nine years later. She is the subject of his La Vita Nuova and his guide in the last cantos of Purgatorio and almost all of Paradiso (with Bernard). His love for Beatrice was unknown to her during her short life, and, as an example of love for a person acting as a stepping stone to spiritual love, knows no historical or literary equal.

    Susan Woolley at Moravian College wrote me this note with a clearer understanding of Dante and Beatrice, which note she has given her permission for me to post here:

    One can see Lily as the instrument of Snape’s salvation, as Beatrice was for Dante. (Although without her direct intervention, as distinct from that of Beatrice, who purposely left Heaven to visit Virgil in Limbo and send him to rescue Dante from the Dark Wood, then took over from Virgil at the summit of Purgatory to be Dante’s guide through all the circles of heaven. Beatrice gave Dante a good scold on top of Mount Purgatory for putting her to so much trouble. I can imagine Lily expressing similar exasperation and forgiveness to Snape on the other side of the veil.)

    Here is one small correction which in no way undermines John’s insight: it seems clear from the Vita Nuova that Dante and Beatrice moved in the same (or at least overlapping) social circles and that he encountered her more than once during their late teens and early twenties, although of course he was constrained by the proprieties between men and women in that society. Several occasions are named specifically: the time she encountered him on the street and greeted him (and she would not have said hello to a stranger on the street, so she must have been acquainted with him already, beyond their first childhood meeting); the devastating time she refused to greet him; and the time she and some other ladies made fun of him at a wedding reception. But I don’t think these were the only occasions on which they met. See section XI:

    “I say when she appeared from any direction, by the hope of her wondrous salutation, no enemy was left to me, but rather a flame of charity possessed me which made me pardon whomsoever had offended me*; and to him who had then asked of me concerning any matter, my answer would have been simply, ‘Love,’ with a countenance clothed in humility. And if she were somewhat nigh to giving her salutation, a spirit of Love, destroying all the other spirits of sense, thrust forth the feeble little spirits of sight and said to them, ‘go and honour your lady,’ and he remained in their place. And whoso had desired to know Love could know him by gazing at the tremour of mine eyes. And when this most gentle lady gave salutation, so far from Love being such a medium as might dull the unbearable beatitude, he seemed rather to become such by surfeit of sweetness, that my body, which was wholly under his rule, many times fell like a heavy lifeless thing. So that it plainly appears that my beatitude lay in her salutation which many times exceeded and overflowed my capacity.” (Temple Classics edition, 1906, rev. 1924; translator not named.)

    I also don’t think Dante’s devotion was unknown to Beatrice; the mockery at the wedding reception seems to have been provoked by his swooning behavior in her presence, and her refusal to greet him may have been connected with his clumsy attempts to conceal the real object of his passion by paying attentions to another lady (or it may have been sheer prudence on her part, since the knowledge that she was the real object was apparently circulating among their acquaintances).

    Barbara Reynolds, by the way, is the author of the note John cited on the White Rose; she did the translation of the last 13 cantos of the Paradiso and all the notes for it, after Dorothy Sayers’s untimely death.Many thanks to Peony Moss for posting the link to rexluscus’s wonderful essay on Snape and his moral development.

    *Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “Charles Williams: A Poet’s Critic,” gives this anecdote: “It is related of Charles Williams that on one occasion he was having his hair cut and at the same time lending a sympathetic ear to the history of the barber’s love-affair. ‘When my girl’s about,’ said the barber, ‘I’m that happy I don’t feel as if I had an enemy in the world — I’d forgive anybody anything.’ — ‘My dear man,’ cried Charles, leaping up and wringing the barber’s hand enthusiastically, ‘my dear man, that’s exactly what Dante said.'”

    Thank you, Susan, for this thoughtful and helpful correction — and welcome to Hogwarts Professor!

  2. John –

    I’m replying so you know that I am reading your Dante posts and enjoying them — but didn’t know what to comment because I’m not that “serious” of a reader! I’ve never read Dante — only recall brief mentions in my high school English classes.

  3. I think you’ve made another strong argument! I’m not familiar with Dante’s work, but the parallels look too strong to be coincidental.

    Lily, I think, clearly parallels Beatrice in the colors as well– we don’t hear about her lips, but she does have red hair– coupled with her green eyes and fair English skin, I’d say we’ve got a mirror to the theological virtues found likewise in Beatrice’s very body.

    In light of Susan’s comments, I’d say there’s even MORE support for the Dante/Beatrice-Snape/Lily connection, given that he feels her rejection so strongly as well, and she rejects him after unacceptable behavior, etc.

    great work!

  4. JohnABaptist says

    I do not read over-much into Dorothy Sayer’s comment, I think she is merely deflecting potential criticism that in Italian *prose* smeraldo [emerald] (singular of smeraldi given in the poem) conventionally refers to the jewel qualities of the stone–hardness, reflectivity, value–while references to the emerald’s distinctive color usually include the additional word verde [green] hence verde smeraldo [emerald green].

    However Dante is not writing prose, he is writing poetry and line 116 of Canto xxxi has no poetic room for “verde”. I believe John is safe in his assumption that Dante relied upon the reader knowing that emeralds are always green.

    Incidentally, in the Commedia’s poetic structure, the other two words that associate by rhyme with smeraldi are caldi [hot and by association red] and saldi [fixed or fixed upon].

    Saldi interestingly enough can be taken as a double entendre as it can also mean “payment” or “settlement”. So the three words might be taken in combination as “green and red payment”. Interestingly, in visible light, green and red in combination create gold.

  5. JohnABaptist says


    In light of my previous post, can we look at this scene again? You quote Rowling above as:

    ‘When the flask [of memories] was filled to the brim, and Snape looked as though there was no blood left in him, his grip on Harry’s robe slackened.

    “Look…at…me….” he whispered.

    The green eyes found the black, but after a second, something in the depths of the dark pair seemed to vanish, leaving them fixed, blank, and empty.’

    Can we imagine for one second what Harry sees and then contrast that to what Snape sees?

    Harry sees Snape lying on the floor with his *black* robe and hair framing his *white* face growing ever paler as the *red* blood flows onto the floor forming a backdrop to his head from which the shining silver *mercurial* memories are flowing into the flask. You might almost call it an alchemical moment.

    But what does Snape see? He sees this pale white face reflected in the black pupils of Harry’s eyes, but the blood red backdrop behind it joins with the brilliant green of Harry’s irises to form a halo of pure gold around his reflected head.

    John, I think your Dante connection here is on extremely safe ground for in the green of Harry/Lily’s eyes and the red of his own shed blood, Snape sees Paradise, and goes joyfully home.

  6. The last few weeks have been terribly busy for me, so I just now read your analysis of the Deathly Hallows/Dante connection. The section on Dante/Beatrice and Snape/Lily was so moving for me. I cried the whole while I was reading it. I’m one of those people who hated the way Snape died. I’m very grateful to you for showing me that his death was poignant and
    profoundly meaningful, not pointless and depressing, as I had originally thought. From Harry’s eyes, to Lily’s eyes, to Christ himself and a glimpse of the Beatific Vision… I’m never going to read that passage the same way again. I’m going to print out a copy of what you wrote and tuck it in chapter 33 of Deathly Hallows. I don’t have to invent my own alternative ending anymore; I can at last be satisfied by a clearer understanding of
    what really happened.

  7. Yes Nzie, the red, green and white colors have Christian significance also, being: faith, hope and charity. I would have to say that theme runs through the books as well.

  8. rosesandthorns says

    Adding to the colors symbolism … book seven has a *golden* spine, with *red* lettering, and *green* boards. (Book one has a *red* spine, with *golden* lettering, and purple or blue boards.) It’s almost like the final book was golden for the philosopher’s stone (echoes back to book one) that was Harry himself, red for the blood that was shed, and green for new life after LV’s defeat.

    Back to the topic … thanks again for the Dante/Beatrice and Snape/Lily connection and your essay here. (I like the idead that Snape’s death ended up being a true “happily ever after” for him “beyond the veil” and redeemed at last in the presense of the green eyes he followed.) I hope you’re working very hard on your HP books! 🙂

  9. If I could just echo what Mary N. said above: thank you, John, for your beautiful (and substantially grounded, it seems to me) literary reading of Snape’s death. I can’t say that I hated his death scene, but it felt rushed somehow, and I always thought I was “missing something.” Your reading in the light of Dante really does shed considerable light over the entire scene as it plays out.

    I only had time to read this whole post at a very fast clip before leaving town for thanksgiving; I printed it out and took it with me on our travels so I could read it aloud (both to let myself enjoy it at a more leisurely pace, and to share it with my husband). When I got to this section, and to the line “they took me to the griffin’s breast” I literally began to cry. That did indeed give me hope and belief that the end of Snape’s earthly journey provided him with a final step into full redemption, and a vision of Snape’s reward that makes sense on every level. Back when many were discussing, pre-DH, what Snape’s patronus might be, I had hoped against hope that it might be a lion or a griffin. I loved what it turned out to be, of course, but I still love the way John’s reading of Snape’s death gives us the glimpse of his inner Gryffindor strength and courage. It even helps shed deeper significance on Dumbledore’s “perhaps we sort too soon” line in DH.

    For several weeks after DH came out, I spent a good bit of time re-reading a number of Petrarch’s love sonnets to Laura (his Beatrice, if you will) and discovering new life in those poems as I read them in Snape’s imagined voice. It seemed clear to me then, and even clearer to me now that I’ve read John’s essay, that Snape’s character and his life’s journey makes the most sense when read with the courtly love tradition (and especially Dante/Beatrice) in mind.

    I know I’m late to this party…and there are so many other posts on the site I’ve yet to visit, with end of semester crunch fully upon me. But I had to post something here because I am just so grateful for this essay, John!

  10. Thanks so much for adding your comments, Beth! I was beginning to feel like a complete loser for a.) crying when I read the Dante/Snape post, and b.) admitting it publicly on an international internet forum. Thanks for joining me! I love the way you connected the image of Christ as a griffin, which is what Dante saw through Beatrice’s eyes, and Gryffindor; specifically, Dumbledore’s comment to Snape that “perhaps we sort to soon.” Snape was sorted into Slytherin, but he died a Gryffindor at heart, not just because of bravery, but because of his final connection with the same Griffin we see in Dante.

  11. The green-eyed symbolism of Lily’s eyes (Beatrice) and therefore Harry’s eyes as spiritual love of the beloved made me wonder if there must be some significance in HBP of Lily being Slughorn’s favored pupil and Dumbledore’s use of Harry in convincing Slughorn to join the Hogwarts faculty as potions master as well as in getting his correct memory about Tom Riddle’s horcrux making. It is interesting given Mary N.’s post above that Slughorn wished Lily had been in his house.

    The point is made in several instances in HBP of refreshing Slughorn’s memory of Lily’s/Harry’s eye color and Slughorn’s response is guilt and remorse. I’m wondering if there are other places in the series that make use of the beloved’s eyes (through Lily or Harry) to evoke a response. Next time I read all the books again, I will note context and use of Harry’s and Lily’s eyes. It is certainly fascinating and I love John’s Dante articles. As an aside, I was also drawn to the many times the number 3 (third, three, three times, words repeated 3 times, etc.) was used in D-H. I wondered if it could be a pointer to the “third” day as we pondered the Resurrection stone and considered Harry’s willingness to die and his rising again.

    Intuitively, I saw Lily as the beloved through exposure to the work of Charles Williams and Dante. I’m really excited John G. is pursuing the Dante connection and saw a lot of the mythology JKR used through the Commedia. (Cerberus, the “guarding” 3-headed dog in Canto 6 in the 3rd Circle pointer to 3rd Floor(?), the name Alecto in Canto IX, the river Styx as the cave scene in HBP to name a few).

    In seeing the movie OOTP several times, the producers made use of mirrors symbolically if one took the time to notice, with the quote: “Look at me,” said both by Voldemort (to Harry) and Harry (Dumbledore). They also made use of shots of the sun, sunrise/dawn and dark skies in different places trying to bring that symbolism into play certainly.

    The translation I am using for Dante’s Commedia is John Ciardi. I liked what he wrote in the introduction:
    “Throughout the Divine Commedia the sun is a fixed symbol of God as Divine Illumination. In The Purgatorio, for example, the soul can ascend only when the sun is above the horizon (only in the light of God, by the grace of God); once it has set, the soul is powerless to ascend (only God can lead man to God).” To me, the fixed principle in the HP series is the sun, representing Good, Light, God. As we and you have pointed out in discussions here, the importance of color and light (alchemy) in Harry’s transformation, and just looking at the cover picture of D-H seals that importance in dawn’s rising and Harry’s victory. I think a lot of what Michael Ward wrote in Planet Narnia could be attributed to parts of the HP series. The astrological connection was also fascinating not unlike to me the work of Joseph Seiss who wrote about God’s glory written in the stars through primeval astronomy from Virgo to Draco to Leo in his work: “The Gospel in the Stars.” That is a book worthy to read just for the fantastic mythology represented through Christian meanings and in meaning of the star names themselves. It all fits in marvelously (whether the Vatican likes it or not).

  12. Descartes says that the mind and body are two distinct substances, which together constitute one thing, the human being. ,

  13. Descartes was a dualist! Who knew? But he sounds suspiciously here like a chef with a recipe for soul humaan, particularly if he substitutes mind for spirit.

  14. Jack Khoury says

    Why does the actual post not show up, just the comments? Ugh this is killing me

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