Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Hero in the Black Hat

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape © Warner Bros Pictures

One of the first things I learned as a child watching Saturday matinee movies was that, in a western, the guys in the black hats were usually up to no good. There were few shades of grey in those films: If a man wore a black hat and rode a black horse, he was bad to the core. (Well, or Zorro, but Zorro was Spanish and from California so he had more fashion sense than other heroes...)

The point is, if somebody looked like a villain, he was. This holds true for most bad guys in fiction as well, so I secretly love it when skilled writers put a black hat on a hero and send him out into the plot to confound us.

One of the best of these, in my opinion, is Severus Snape, who in head-to-toe black with his devious ways fits the matinee mould of a villain so well that the great revelation and shift of perception that comes near the end of the last Harry Potter book hits with the force of a punch in the heart.

It's that moment I lovewhen we're forced to look back through the story and see the events from a different perspective; to see, for the first time, beyond that black hat to the hero beneath.

It's what happens in Mary Stewart's Madam Will You Talk?, when the heroine, Charity, says to the man who's spent half the book stalking her, scaring her, cursing her, that his own son is afraid of him. (Spoilers ahead, if you've not read the book..)

He said, in a curiously flat voice:
"Of me? Are you sure it's of me? Did he say so?"
Then suddenly, I knew. I felt my own eyes widening as his had done, and I sat staring at him like an owl.
"Why" I whispered, "why, I don't believe you killed your friend. I don't believe you ever hurt David in your life. I believe you love him. Don't you? Don't you?"
Richard Byron gave me a queer little twisted smile that hurt. Then he picked up his cigarette again and spoke lightly.
"I love him more than anything else in the world," he said, quite as if it didn't matter.

And just like that, we realize that the way that we've been seeing Richard Byron is all wrong. We have to stop, as does the heroine, and look back at the book's events and try to understand what really happened.

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (a favourite novel of mine, and one that contains another brilliant black-hatted hero in Arthur "Boo" Radley), Atticus says: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Like Harry encountering Snape's cloud of memories, or Scout standing out on the Radley's front porch, we as readers are given a new view of everything, and I admire the talented writers who pull this off well. It's a level of skill I aspire to, one day when I find a hero who doesn't mind wearing the wrong-coloured hat.

They're not thick on the ground, really, heroes in black hats. Can you think of any to add to my list?

Come back Thursday, for Julie's next post.


  1. Brilliant post! I love that part of MADAM, WILL YOU TALK -- one of the reasons it will always be one of my favorites.

    Dorothy Dunnett was a master at the black-hatted good guy -- Lymond seems like a total villain through most of THE GAME OF KINGS, for instance, and Johnson Johnson (my personal favorite of Dunnett's heroes) is often disliked and mistrusted at first by the female narrators of the Dolly books.

  2. Rebecca, I am ashamed to say I've never read the Lymond books (which is terrible, because I know I'll absolutely love them when I do). Looking even more forward to reading them, now!

  3. I love the fact that Snape is vindicated as well - absolutely brilliant! And it's a nice touch that Harry calls his son Albus Severus :)

    Can't think of any black-hatted heroes offhand, but loved your comment about Zorro, LOL!

  4. I think we should nominate Snape as the Heroine Addicts ultimate hero! We all love him (and believe me we don't agree very often).

    Snape is the most complex character in the Potter Universe. Maybe that is what makes him work for us?

    I love MADAM, WILL YOU TALK - Anna introduced it to me.

    I can't think of any other black hatted heroes of the top of my head. Maybe they are going out of fashion?