Severus Snape is a fascinating character, who can be analyzed in many different ways. Today I am going to be looking, not at the much discussed relationship between Snape and Lily, but at the connection between Snape and James, particularly in regards to life debts.
From the very first book, Severus Snape is set up as a villain, someone who Harry, Ron, and Hermione immediately suspect in anything that goes wrong in the castle. In this book, however, we also see the first sign that he is not who we expect him to be: he saves Harry’s life. Dumbledore tells Harry that the reason Snape does this is to repay a life debt that was created when James saved Snape during their school years.
Not until the third book, however, do we learn more about this act, and even then our accounts are muddled. According to Snape’s point of view, James was not saving Snape’s life, but merely his own neck, since James would have been expelled if Snape had been killed. If Snape is telling the truth, then he most likely saved Harry not to repay a debt to James, but because he had promised to protect Lily’s son. Dumbledore may have lied to Harry in order to protect Snape and not reveal his secret. Or, however, Dumbledore might have understood this type of life debt more than Snape himself, and wanted Harry to recognize the special type of magic that comes from saving someone’s life.
What exactly is this type of magic? How does it work? Dumbledore tells us nothing except that it is “magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable,” which is a fairly vague description (Owl Post Again, POA). If James saved Snape’s life, no matter the motive, is Snape obligated to repay the favor? Is it possible that he saved Harry against his will, without even fully realizing why? Through my own interpretations, and through those of MuggleNet’s book What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7 (WWHIHP7), however, I think not. Throughout the books we are given a few cases where life debt’s are evidenced. We have the life debt between James and Snape, Harry and Wormtail, and, although not mentioned specifically, Barty Crouch Sr and Barty Crouch Jr, since the former rescued the latter from death in Azkaban. In none of these cases are the life debts straightforward one to one transactions. If there was some sort of magic that forced people to save others lives, then Snape would not have waited until James was dead to repay the debt. As soon as he knew that James was in danger from Voldemort (on his information no less), he would have been obligated to do everything in his power to prevent his death. Similarly, Wormtail has every opportunity to protect Harry from Voldemort in the graveyard in Goblet of Fire, but he does nothing. In the connection between Barty Crouch Jr and Barty Crouch Sr, not only does Barty Crouch Jr not save his father’s life, he actually kills him (WWHIHP7). It appears that the life debt, whether a magical force or not, does not command the person to repay it. Repaying the debt involves some type of choice, some type of remorse or mercy, no matter how small. Wormtail chooses not to choke Harry, and as a result is strangled by his own silver hand. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that the magic of the life debt is taking effect, punishing Wormtail for attempting to kill the person who saved him, and allowing Harry to go free. Another interpretation is that Voldemort suspected this mercy in Pettigrew, and in giving him the silver hand created within it a magic that would destroy Pettigrew if he tried to repay this debt. I am more inclined to believe the latter; I see no evidence that the magic of a life debt would kill the person repaying it. Either way, whatever magic happens afterwards, it is clear that Pettigrew himself made the decision to save Harry, and was in no way forced. Pettigrew is described as being punished for his “hesitation, his moment of pity” (Malfoy Manor, DH). It is my belief that Snape also saved Harry because of a small moment of guilt or regret at never attempting to save James. He probably hid this guilt from himself and from Harry, telling himself that he was only saving Harry for Lily’s sake. He was not obliged to save Harry’s life simply because a life debt existed between him and James, but because he felt indebted to James. In short, it was a choice, the type of choice that people like Voldemort or Barty Crouch Jr would never understand.