The Shapeshifter

There are many archetypes in literature, from the Hero to the Shadow, but the one I enjoy the most in the Shapeshifter.

The Shapeshifter’s job is to confuse the Hero. Think of a character of whom the Hero is uncertain where his loyalties lie, the character who we (as readers or viewers) think, “whose side is he/she on?” That’s the Shapeshifter. The Shapeshifter can lie to, trick, and delay the Hero. He is hard to understand because he changes—his story, his appearance (this is common in supernatural stories), or his personality. By his changing, the Shapeshifter can also facilitate change in the Hero. He can make the Hero question himself or his quest. Ultimately, the Shapeshifter’s role is to create tension, conflict, and suspense in a story.

The Shapeshifter can be anyone in the story—the Hero’s friend, a love interest, a magical person like a wizard or shaman, or one of the henchmen for the Ultimate Bad Guy. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad person; he just needs to be someone that keeps the Hero off balance. Sometimes being thrown off balance and not knowing what to do next, or who to trust, can be a good lesson, in fiction as well as life. It can (and often does) make the Hero stronger and more focused about his ultimate task or quest.

My favorite Shapeshifter—Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series.

Snape is the perfect Shapeshifter because we (as readers) and Harry (as the Hero) have no idea what is going on with him, or whose side he is on. He is a confusing character, as the Shapeshifter should be.

We first meet Professor Snape during the feast when the first years are sorted into houses. Harry sees Snape and,

“It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes—and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.”

When asking about this strange teacher, Harry is told, “knows an awful lot about the Dark Arts, Snape.”

This first impression is one of a dark and malignant wizard. Harry’s scar hurt, the scar given him by the evil Lord Voldemort. We immediately think that Snape is evil.

Evil Snape
Evil Snape

This impression is carried on throughout the first book. Snape unexpectedly decides to be a referee for one of Harry’s Quidditch matches and Harry thinks it is “Snape’s sudden, sinister desire.” Harry is later bewitched while playing Quidditch—Hermione and Ron see Snape making intense eye contact with him and think he’s the one working the curse. Starting the fire under him and breaking the eye contact breaks the spell. Snape argues with Professor Quirrell. Snape is attacked by Fluffy. Snape is working with Filch to discover any kids our of bed at night. Snape threatens to expel Harry from school if he’s caught off limits. All of these actions lead us to believe that Snape is bad.

When Harry finally gets to the Sorcerer’s Stone and finds it was Professor Quirrell, and not Snape, who was the bad guy, he is surprised and says so to Quirrell.

Quirrell replies, “yes, Severus does seem the type, doesn’t he? So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat…”

So useful, indeed.

In further books, Harry becomes more and more confused by Snape, and Snape demonstrates his role as a Shapeshifter even more fully. Harry can never get a read on whose side Snape is on. This is mainly based on how Snape treats Harry. Snape is mean and vindictive towards Harry, and so it is reasonable and logical that Harry would distrust Snape and his motives. What confuses him is that Dumbledore completely and utterly trusts Snape. Harry wonders how someone who is so cruel and unfair to him and his friends could be trusted by Dumbledore. Harry trusts Dumbledore completely, Dumbledore trusts Snape completely, but Harry does not trust Snape at all. It is all unsettling to the Hero.

As a Shapeshifter, Snape also plays a role to unsettle the Hero so much that he forces the Hero to change. When Harry first starts at Hogwarts, he has a young person’s hero-worship for his father. It is through Snape that Harry learns the truth; his father could be a vain, arrogant, and cruel bully. Snape’s memories knock Jams Potter off the pedestal on which Harry had raised him. This helps Harry to grow up, an important step for any Hero.

Looks like a fun lesson.
Looks like a fun lesson.

In The Order of the Phoenix, Harry discovers that Snape is a member of the Order of the Phoenix. Even after five years at Hogwarts, Harry is surprised that Snape is working for the good guys. Snape has never let up in bullying and harassing Harry and his friends. No matter how many times Professor Dumbledore assures Harry that Snape is trustworthy, Harry can not believe it because of his personal experiences.

Then Harry gets Occlumency lessons by Snape. This is meant to help Harry, but Snape turns it into sessions of bullying and cruelty. But, it is also the time when Harry learns just how deeply his father wounded Snape, and he understands a little why Snape might hate him too.

The confusion with Severus Snape is not resolved until the final book (and deep into that book as well).

I remember the marketing promotions done by one of the big bookstores for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that involved giving out bumper stickers. One of the bumper stickers said, “Snape is a very bad man,” and the other said “Trust Snape.” Even at this late stage in the series, there was a question about Snape’s loyalty and trustworthiness.

Everything about Snape is cleared up by the end of The Deathly Hallows. Harry discovers just how much Snape sacrificed to help him and Dumbledore—Snape sacrificed his life. If he had ever been found out by Voldemort, he would have been killed for sure. Harry had known for years why Snape hated him, but he never understood why (or how much) Snape helped him. When he takes the memories from Snape as he lie dying, Harry finally learns the extent of Snape’s devotion to Lily and to Dumbledore.

Snape loved Lily Potter
Snape loved Lily Potter

In the end, Harry, despite all of the harsh treatment of him by Snape, names his own son Severus. He tells the boy he was named after the man who, “was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”

Imagine the Harry Potter books without Severus Snape. He provided so much confusion, conflict, and tension…on a regular basis. Voldemort was a shadowy figure at first, and then an elusive one, so Harry did not have to confront him often (it usually just happened at the end of each book). But, Snape was there provoking Harry all the time! Harry never knew what side he was on—even thinking he was still a Death Eater when he saw Snape’s Dark Mark in The Goblet of Fire— and he never believed he could trust Snape. Harry was constantly confused by Snape’s mistreatment of him and Dumbledore’s complete trust in Snape. The Hero’s constant confusion is the sign of a wonderfully created Shapeshifter.

What do you think about Snape as a Shapeshifter? Have any other Shapeshifters you like?

6 thoughts on “The Shapeshifter”

  1. I love Snape- I remember arguing with Audrey and Sierra (who were 12 I think) about him. They were sure after reading book 6 he was evil, but I knew the truth. Then very maturely called them on it after book 7 🙂

  2. Pingback: Fixing the geek archetype chart | Kimberly S Barton

  3. Hell ye, thanks so much for this I danno what I could have done without this helping me with my “Archetypes Project” real pain in the ass, btw, but thanks
    And dont worry Im crediting cites at the end…or whatever, ha♥♥♥

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