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At the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as Harry is upset that he prevented Sirius and Lupin from killing Peter Pettigrew and then Pettigrew escaped, Dumbledore told Harry:
“You did a very noble thing, in saving Pettigrew’s life. Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt … When one Wizard saves another Wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them … and I’m much mistaken if Voldemort wants his servant in the debt of Harry Potter.”PoA pg. 426/311
When Harry protests that he doesn’t want a bond with the Wizard who murdered his parents, Dumbledore says:
“This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry.”PoA pg. 427/311
This was mentioned in the third book, we’ve had dealings with Peter Pettigrew since, and the life debt still hasn’t been paid off, so it would seem this might be very important in book 7. If this life debt plays an important part in the final book, it makes one wonder if there are there any other life debts in the Harry Potter story that will affect what happens in book 7? I think there are.
At the end of the very first book, Dumbledore mentions another life debt:
“Your father did something Snape could never forgive. He saved his life. Funny, the way people’s minds work, isn’t it? Professor Snape couldn’t bear being in your father’s debt…”SS/PS pg. 300/217
Notice he uses the actual word “debt”, in the same way he later described Pettigrew’s life debt in Prisoner of Azkaban.
In fact, in Prisoner of Azkaban, the book that sets up Pettigrew’s life debt with Harry, we learn more about Snape’s debt with James. While Snape is interrogating Harry for being in Hogsmeade when he shouldn’t have been, Harry lets it slip that he knows Snape hates his dad because he saved his life, and Snape tells him:
“And did the headmaster tell you the circumstances in which your father saved my life? … Your saintly father and his friends played a highly amusing joke on me that would have resulted in my death if your father hadn’t gotten cold feet at the last minute. There was nothing brave about what he did. He was saving his own skin as much as mine. Had their joke succeeded, he would have been expelled from Hogwarts.”PoA pg. 285/210
Later in the same book, we learn a little more about the incident from Lupin in the Shrieking Shack, in the very place the original incident occurred:
“Severus was very interested in where I went every month. Snape had seen me crossing the grounds with Madam Pomfrey one evening she led me towards the Whomping Willow to transform. Sirius thought it would be – er – amusing, to tell Snape all he had to do was prod the knot on the tree-trunk with a long stick, and he’d be able to go in after me. Well, of course, Snape tried it – if he’d got as far as this house, he’d have met a fully grown werewolf – but your father, who’d heard what Sirius had done, went after Snape and pulled him back, at great risk to his life…PoA pg. 357/261
So, it would seem that Snape owes somewhat of a life debt to James. I say somewhat because the debt might be mitigated by the fact that, depending on who’s point of view you hear the story from, James was saving his own skin as much as Snape’s.
If, as many Harry Potter fans believe, that unpaid life debts are inherited, this means that Snape now owes a life debt to Harry, albeit a partial one. But perhaps it might not have stayed partial for long.
We also know, as we learned in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, that it was Snape who partially overheard Sybill Trelawney make the prophecy. (HBP pg. 545/509) But, we then find out from Dumbledore that Snape did not know it was Harry the prophecy pertained to:
“Professor Snape made a terrible mistake. He was still in Lord Voldemort’s employ on the night he heard the first half of Professor Trelawney’s prophecy. Naturally, he hastened to tell his master what he had heard, for it concerned his master most deeply. But he did not know – had no way of knowing – which boy Voldemort would hunt from then onwards, or that the parents he would destroy in his murderous quest for power were people that Professor Snape knew, that they were your mother and father … You have no idea of the remorse Professor Snape felt when he realized how Lord Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy, Harry.”HBP pg. 549/512
So, while it would seem that Snape owes Harry another life debt for being responsible for the death of his parents, this too is mitigated by the fact that Snape didn’t know it would be Lily and James who would be killed. But, if the two partial life debts that Snape owes Harry are added up, it’s possible that Snape now owes Harry a full life debt.
Isn’t it curious that at the very beginning of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the person who we know for sure owes Harry a life debt, Pettigrew, and the person who we now suspect owes Harry another life debt, Snape, happen to be both living at Snape’s place in Spinner’s End?
And isn’t it curious that in Spinner’s End, we learn about something that’s most likely very closely related to life debts, the Unbreakable Vow?
If you think about it, life debts and Unbreakable vows are very similar, because they both result in a very strong magical bond being created between two Wizards. The difference between them is that a life debt is a bond between two Wizards that is created involuntarily, as the result of some other actions. But an Unbreakable Vow is voluntary, a bond created between two Wizards by their mutual agreement.
In Spinner’s End we witness the creation of the Unbreakable Vow between Snape and Narcissa Malfoy. We know that, by the terms of the Unbreakable Vow, Snape must watch over Draco, protect him from harm, and “carry out the deed that the Dark Lord has ordered Draco to perform” if it seems Draco will fail (HBP pg. 36/41), although it’s not really stated in this chapter exactly what that task might be.
But is it possible that there are other Unbreakable Vows that are responsible for the actions of characters in the Harry Potter story? After my discussions on the subject with fans at the Mischief Managed Harry Potter conference in San Antonio, I believe there are.
All throughout the story, Dumbledore keeps repeating to everyone that he trusts Snape, when everyone can see no logical reason why he should. After the fall of Voldemort, Dumbledore stood up for Snape and testified in his behalf at the Wizengamot, preventing Snape from being sent to Azkaban. Dumbledore even allowed Snape to become a teacher at Hogwarts.
Is it possible that after Voldemort’s downfall, Snape made an Unbreakable Vow with Dumbledore? This would explain why Dumbledore trusts Snape when no one else does. Dumbledore knows Snape is no longer a death eater, yet pretends to be one so he can be a spy for Dumbledore, because in their Unbreakable Vow, Snape pledged to do so.
And what if the terms of Snape’s Unbreakable Vow with Dumbledore also includes watching over Harry? That would explain why Snape continues to do so, even after he saved Harry’s life during the Quidditch match in Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone. If it was a life debt that was causing Snape to protect Harry, it would be logical to assume that debt would have been paid off when Snape saved Harry’s life by counter-jinxing Quirrel’s broom jinx. But, Snape has carried on protecting Harry even after this.
Are life debts and Unbreakable Vows magically related? Who else in the Harry Potter books could owe Harry a life debt? Who else in the Harry Potter books might be working, for good or evil, as the result of an Unbreakable Vow?