THE ROAD TO ALWAYS: A HARRY POTTER FAN MEETS AN ANTI-HARRY POTTER FAN-FICTION WRITER
By Wesley Hutchins (alias Earl Chatham)
Word Count: 2,942
Rating: G (suitable for all audiences)
Summary: A behind the scenes look at two friends who have at it over the Harry Potter fan-fiction writing process.
Ever since 2000, I have been a fan of the Harry Potter book and film series, which have become much appreciated throughout the world for their literary and cinematic value. Like many people of my generation, I “grew up” with Harry as his adventures unfolded through the release of each book and subsequent film.
However, over the past year, I have had to reckon with an “anti-HP fan” in form of my very good and blessed friend, Avellina Balestri. She has deeply engaged herself into the art of writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, but instead of merely writing additional sequences within the known canon of the books, she has gone about offering completely alternate stories which not only deviate from the books, but also go quite far in providing a new take on the characters.
As a person who is not much into fan-fiction and has preferred it of a more limited type within what’s known in the books and films, her approach has made me a bit uneasy, and perhaps more so because I appreciate the series for what it is with very few gripes. In contrast, she has little reverence for the books as written and has not been afraid to upbraid convention and various elements to forge her own angle.
The irony of this is that I am responsible for getting her into Harry Potter in the first place!
It was in the fall of 2014, the year of the Scottish independence referendum, which had brought us together as American supporters of maintaining the United Kingdom – an effort which had been successful, with Scotland rejecting independence. During the referendum and afterward, as we got to know each other better, we talked about what made Britain important and special to us, and one of the things I cited – likely more than once – was Harry Potter, and when she informed me that she had not read the books nor watched the films, I was gobsmacked since I had taken it for granted that the vast majority of people in our generation had had at least some encounter with the books and/or films. At that point, I believe I told her about what I liked in HP, particularly with regard to its portrayal of British culture and making me appreciate the UK for what it is today, and subsequently gave a strong recommendation to experience HP for herself.
Nearly two years passed before Avellina got around to watching Harry Potter in August 2016, and even then she only watched the first three films and a couple of scenes from the others on YouTube – including the scene in which Professor Severus Snape meets his fate toward the end of the final movie, which seems to have made a lasting impression on her.
The death of Alan Rickman, the actor who portrayed Snape, earlier that year may have added to the impact. A lot of people associated Rickman with the character and so his passing was like Snape dying a second time, which brought about a profusion of memes, videos, and other tributes to the potions master, whose end revealed him to be a much more complex character than previously thought. After all, for most of the series, Snape had been seen in simple terms as the man who detested Harry, hated his father, favored Slytherin students (and acted petty toward non-Slytherins), associated with the Dark Arts, betrayed and killed Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and was in league with Lord Voldemort.
However, we learn through his memories that Snape was close friends with Harry’s mother Lily. In fact, she was his only true friend (calling him “Sev”) and he loved her, but had to contend with Harry’s father James, who bullied Snape for much of their time at Hogwarts. Snape eventually got deeper into the Dark Arts, which caused dismay on Lily’s part, and they fell out over him calling her a “Mudblood” in a moment of anger. Despite that and her ending up with James, Snape never stopped loving Lily, and when it became clear that Voldemort was going to murder her, James, and baby Harry on information he had provided to Voldemort as one of his Death Eaters, he became a spy for Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix, working against Voldemort in exchange for protection for the Potter family.
When that failed at the death of Lily and James, Snape dedicated the rest of his life to protecting Harry under the auspices of Dumbledore, to whom he had pledged his loyalty. After Voldemort’s return many years later, Snape rejoined the Death Eaters to become a double agent, and it was in this position that he killed Professor Dumbledore and learned of what was likely to be Harry’s ultimate fate. It was then that he revealed to Dumbledore that he had actually come to care for Harry and that he still loved Lily, by casting a patronus charm in the form of a doe, like Lily’s had been. “After all this time?” asked the headmaster. “Always”, said Snape.
This revelation at the end of the series turned Snape overnight into a hero, and that one word alone had probably captured that degree to which Snape was a tortured soul who masked his personal anguish and emotions with a sarcastic and cold exterior. This went on to inspire Avellina, who found Snape to be an interesting and complex character and wanted to write about him.
After watching that scene, she began writing what would become “Legend of the Lost”, an alternative timeline of events following Snape’s death scene. Here, Snape does not die instantly following the attack by Voldemort and his pet snake Nagini, but lives for a period of time, albeit immobilized. As far as everyone else is concerned, Snape is dead, but Harry returns just about every day to the Shrieking Shack with food and supplies, and during these last days for the professor, they have a heart-to-heart as Harry attempts to get to the bottom of who Snape really is.
Their conversations run the gamut of emotions and they come to blows several times, but by talking things out and getting to know each other on a personal level for the first time, they do come to an understanding. Furthermore, we see Snape’s flashbacks of moments with Lily, including a time when she stopped him from cutting himself, when she invited him over for her Christmas party, and when her father deemed him a risk to her and cut her off from him, which led to a downward spiral of sorts and eventually resulted in the breakdown of their friendship. At the end of it, Harry comes to appreciate and respect Snape not as a wizard or spy or teacher, but simply as a human being. Snarky, petty, embittered, and tough, yes, but with goodness at the core.
It was from this basis that Avellina wrote not only this, but a number of other Snape-centered fan fiction stories, each of them focusing on aspects of his personality and putting him in settings outside of Hogwarts. One is a comedy which features Harry running away from the Dursleys’ and going to Snape’s house, from which they embark on a road trip through the UK to get to Hogwarts. Another is a more poignant look at Snape’s later life in a wheelchair, living with Harry and Hermione, where he forms a bond with their young daughter, who looks like Lily, with red hair and green eyes. Still another focuses on pre-teen Harry spending the Christmas holiday season with Snape at his house, and again understanding Snape’s deeper nature.
As stated before, being a fan of the books and films as they are, Avellina’s wholesale changes and additions to the story were not…entirely welcome. With almost every draft she shared with me, I was chagrined and took issue with the various scenarios, such as Snape driving a car and Dumbledore communicating via cell phone from the Bahamas, having Harry and Hermione as a couple, and generally deviating greatly from the known series canon. There were also the comedic and spoof material which I found blasphemous for Harry Potter, but in all of these things, she would tell me that the point of fan-fiction is to be creative and explore new takes on the stories and characters, sometimes putting them in situations and circumstances contrasting from the actual story.
Perhaps these things would not have been so concerning were it not for how some of the characters were depicted, such as Dumbledore portrayed as something of an aloof and insincere hippie, not wanting to be bothered while sunbathing in the Bahamas. Her defense of such characterizations was that they were based on the characters and simply brought out underlying features and took them to their full, logical extent. I disagreed with this, and in particular reference to Dumbledore, we have had long debates over his actions and the core of his character. Her portrayal of the headmaster as coldly Machiavellian, controlling, manipulative, and only concerned about his personal agenda rather than the wellbeing and needs of others was quite disconcerting. She has spoken of Dumbledore as essentially using Snape as a slave and manipulating him to not veer away from the cause of eventually defeating Voldemort, which in her story included not becoming too attached to Harry because of his eventual fate.
I countered that Dumbledore, whilst far from perfect (as he himself admitted), was a good and decent man who understood the pain of losing a loved one and feeling at least partially responsible for it, as well as having briefly fallen to the sway of dark forces. As such, he could likely empathize with Snape, which is why he saw it fit to give Snape a second chance in order to redeem himself and his life following Lily’s death. Did he want something in return? Yes, but the agenda he pursued was not for his personal and selfish benefit, but to save humanity from potential enslavement under Voldemort. By doing his part, Snape could have helped to create a safer world in which he could have had a better relationship with Harry at the conclusion of the war.
Avellina and I also had numerous conversations about the wizarding world, with her inquiring about its ins and outs, its relation to the Muggle world, the purpose of Hogwarts, what kind of careers people have, and how they function after Hogwarts. For her, as a person who likes to go deep in writing, the wizarding world seemed to be nonsensical and pointless, and as much as I tried to explain why things were the way they were – such as people being born with magical abilities, and having to refine those abilities at Hogwarts – she always came to the conclusion that it didn’t add up and that along with the series as a whole, it seemed filled with holes and contradictions because it was insufficiently developed. The very existence of that world was an issue to her, and I became increasingly consternated as she questioned its morals and felt as though the lines between good and evil were disturbingly blurred.
It was for this reason that she decided to place Snape and the other characters in some situations outside of Hogwarts, and for that matter, outside the wizarding world in general, with its use of magic. The reasoning for that was so they could be seen as normal human beings in normal circumstances, discovering things about themselves and solving problems in the way most people do. It was also for this reason that she gave Snape a more extensive background story rooted in her extensive study and understanding of British and Irish cultural history.
Given his working class background in the mill town of Cokeworth, England, and his mother having the Irish name Eileen, she put those together with the knowledge of Irish migration to British industrial towns and so gave Snape an Irish-Catholic heritage. As a baptized Catholic with knowledge of Catholic teaching and ceremony, as well as a natural thirst for learning which leads him to culturally relevant literature, Snape is able to recall and even recite these things to Harry, which offers him and the reader some insight into Snape’s depth of character once his tough edge is peeled away.
That tough edge, according to her, also partly has its roots in the culture of the British Isles in the form of boarding schools, which had a reputation for tough teachers with a militaristic touch. When I tried to counter that Professor McGonagall was also tough but fair (i.e., the head of Gryffindor House, who didn’t shy from taking points and meting out detentions for students of her house), Avellina insisted that she was still not as old-school in teaching style as Snape. Furthermore, she argued that his personality was also forged in his anti-social behavior, which in turn stemmed from the bullying by James Potter and his miserable upbringing. While I argued that he was mean and cruel to Harry, she insisted that yes, he was known to be bitter, snarky, petty, and such, but he would have been the same without his dislike for Harry; his teaching style and personality would still have been largely the same, because there was already a foundation for it elsewhere. That was simply who he was, but he was not cruel and no more strict than many other British boarding school teachers.
For that matter, she found that he was not much different than one of her homeschool co-op teachers, now known to us as Madame Snape. “The Madame” has therefore figured prominently into our recurring discussions on Harry Potter and other things. According to Avellina, she could be very demanding and had a rough edge to her, but as she came to know “the Madame” on a personal level, she discovered that her teacher was a decent person with a good heart shielded by a tough persona. Avellina believed that her teacher was simply misunderstood by people who didn’t know her or didn’t care to know her, also like Snape, and she has regaled me with tales of the bonding time between them, featuring moments both zany and serious (and said teacher giving Avellina her turtlenecks from time to time).
The point was that having that personal touch can help bring down a person’s defenses and open them up to others, even if only a select few. In the case of Snape and Harry in Avellina’s Christmas story, their bonding over the holiday results in Harry becoming more empathetic toward Snape, and Snape beginning to warm to Harry as he is reminded of Lily’s kindness and begins to view the boy separately from his father.
As Snape recites historic literature, poetry, and religious material in Avellina’s stories, as well as saving a deer and recounting his past, he reveals his underlying humanity. For me, a lot of this is a bit deep and philosophical, especially the Catholic-inspired material (what can I say, I’m Methodist!), but it is interesting once the time is taken to read it and one gets a sense of who Snape is, through Avellina’s interpretation, based on history and her former teacher. Many of her readers commented on how emotional they became – some to the point of crying – as these stories unfolded and Snape emerged as a more sympathetic figure than in the books. The result has been me mocking those readers and (somewhat jokingly) dismissing them as snowflakes, while she lovingly refers to them as her fan-babies or bunnies.
Nevertheless, throughout all of this, I have provided consultation to Avellina as she has written her stories. As her Harry Potter “guru”, I have offered suggestions such as having Harry bring Snape a potion to prolong his life as well as Snape and Harry being visited by Lily to get them talking to each other after they have a blow-up, which according to her really started to get the ball rolling on “Legend of the Lost.” I have also consulted with her on various aspects of Harry Potter and his world, so what is written makes sense within the context of what is known in the books. For example, in her latest story featuring Snape as being in charge of a stage production at Hogwarts, she originally had him meeting Hermione (as the student leader) in the Gryffindor Common Room, and I had to explain how the common areas and dormitories of each house was protected by passwords or riddles only known to the members of that house and that it was therefore unlikely for Snape to enter the Gryffindor Common Room. After some discussion, she took up my suggestion that the meeting take place in the Great Hall where people of all houses could hang out.
In the end, I have always supported Avellina in her Potter fan-fiction endeavors, even if I don’t always appreciate the unorthodox take on the series (and strongly disagree with her assessments of J.K. Rowling, which are none-too-complimentary). What she writes is usually interesting, and the numerous conversations we’ve had are rather stimulating and have likely had some influence on that writing (just as this writing is also influenced by what we’ve discussed). Still, I will continue to insist on her reading all the books and watching all the movies in full. She doesn’t have to become a fan like me, but I do believe that there’s much more that can be helpful in understanding Harry Potter and writing better fan-fiction.
Then again, with her material already pretty popular and well-received, I somehow don’t believe that will happen, at least while she’s still writing.