‘You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love, or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.’
Valentine’s Day has just flashed past, festooned with hearts and roses and sundry red material. Some people celebrated love while others berated them for it, whether for ‘religious’ reasons or simple desire to look cool and above the whole branded holiday. It got me thinking, however, of a person who, for whatever reason, is immune to and incapable of feeling love and I wondered what he would make of it.
Lord Voldemort has always struck me as a rather unsatisfactory villain. He starts out in Philosopher’s Stone as a terrifying, megalomaniacal figure (‘There is no good and evil’, he teaches Quirrell, ‘There is only power and those too weak to seek it’). In Chamber of Secrets we learn that he was always a sort of Machiavellian character, plotting from the sidelines and covering his tracks with practised ease even as a sixteen-year-old. In Prisoner of Azkaban and Half Blood Prince he doesn’t appear directly on screen, but in both he exerts a pull as a vague suggestion of menace, one who can rip apart friendships and loyalties with insinuations and threats. But the rather terrifying, smooth-talking, sinister figure who calmly lays out and executes a master plan in Order of the Phoenix disappears almost entirely in the shrieking, trigger-happy dictator in Deathly Hallows. What happened to good old Voldemort on the way?
I want to point out the one basic problem I have with Voldemort: he just doesn’t strike me as a convincing character. And for that reason, I cannot see him as a convincing villain. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by reading G. R. R. Martin, whose ‘villains’ are indistinguishable from his ‘good guys’ most of the time, with everyone being liberally painted with shades of grey. But my problem with Voldemort is very specific. It’s not that I don’t agree that his agenda of world domination is terrible (at least in the way he executes it), and yes, since the series is, as a whole, a great deal about accepting and living with the reality of death, he is a despicable coward for going the lengths he does to secure immortality.
But the infamous Prophecy, that marks Harry out as the hero who will defeat him, ascribes Voldemort’s downfall to one particular thing: ‘the power the Dark Lord knows not’. Which is, simply put, love.
My problem is: Voldemort is incapable of love. It’s not that he’s turned his back on it. It’s not that he has felt it and then decided that it was not for him, that it was something he should actively root out of the world and destroy. He is physically, emotionally, psychologically, whatever you want to call it, incapable of it. Since he was conceived under the influence of a Love Potion (we are told), the magic of Love does not extend its tendrils to him.
Now, I have a few quibbles with that theory (which J. K. Rowling stated later was no theory, but fact. Voldemort is constitutionally incapable of love because he was created by an act of love that was not entirely consensual, merely a product of magic). For one thing, does this mean that all babies who were born out of forced coupling (for whatever reason) in the wizarding world are incapable of love? Isn’t this a very easy way to explain Voldemort’s almost dyed-in-the-wool sociopathic tendencies? From the young age of eleven, Tom Riddle seems to be a monster-child and terrorizing his fellow Woolworth’s residents, stealing trinkets to memorialize his misdeeds. Even as a baby, we are told, he didn’t like to be touched, barely cried and in general, behaved rather strangely. Put together with Rowling’s statement about his constitutional incapacity, this behaviour makes sense.
And really, it would be fine if you had a villain who was rather sociopathic and couldn’t help his behaviour, if you didn’t have another very strong moral running through the series:
‘It is our choices, Harry, that define us, rather than our abilities.’
Time and again, Rowling underlines the parallels between Harry and Tom Riddle/Voldemort, from their entry into the world of magic (ushered in as wards of the school, rather than by a parent), the manner in which they view Hogwarts, their shared abilities and finally, linking them with that most intimate of connections: sharing a piece of soul. Dumbledore even points out that one of the many reasons Voldemort probably chose Harry over Neville as his potential vanquisher was because he saw in Harry, the half-blood, a reflection of himself.So in this case, Voldemort exercised his ability to choose, and thus defined Harry’s destiny and his own.
But Harry is who he is because he chooses to be. He chose to be in Gryffindor, he chose to trust Sirius and show mercy to Pettigrew, he chose to face Voldemort at the very end, despite learning of Dumbledore’s grand deception. In fact, even if he hadn’t heard of the Prophecy, he admits to Dumbledore that he would not walk away from the fight against Voldemort, going so far as to say ‘I’d want him finished. And I’d want to be the one to do it.’ The Prophecy doesn’t force his hand. He genuinely wants to fight and put an end to Voldemort.
And Voldemort? It appears he was born a certain way, lacking something that Harry has in such abundance. He never had to consciously make a choice to be a loving person, to care for others, simply because he can’t. In such a scenario, how is it fair to expect him to make the ‘right’ choices? During their stand-off on the Astronomy Tower, Dumbledore mentions to Draco that he once knew a young man who had made ‘all the wrong choices’, implying that Voldemort had the ability to choose otherwise. But he really couldn’t, could he? How was it possible for him to choose a side he simply did not have the ability to understand?
In such a scenario, what is right and wrong?
So in a series, where you highlight the importance of choice and the role it plays in defining a person, and take away the villain’s ability to choose (at least choose in the sphere that ‘counts’ in this universe), are you not weakening your villain considerably? Can he really be anything but a cartoon blow-up?
There’s a very poignant moment in Deathly Hallows where this inability of Voldemort really comes through in a rather bittersweet manner. It happens when he stands outside the Potter cottage, its inhabitants revealed to him by the Fidelius Charm. He looks through the window into the sitting room for a couple of moments, and witnesses the following:
They had not drawn the curtains; he saw them quite clearly in their little sitting room, the tall black-haired man in his glasses, making puffs of coloured smoke erupt from his wand for the amusement of the small black-haired boy in his blue pyjamas. The child was laughing and trying to catch the smoke, to grab it in his small fist…
A door opened and the mother entered, saying words he could not hear, her long dark-red hair falling over her face. Now the father scooped up the son and handed him to the mother. He threw his wand down upon the sofa and stretched, yawning…
It’s the one domestic scene we have of the Potters, describing what seems to be a normal routine for them: James amusing Harry before handing him to Lily to be put to bed. It’s startling because we know what awaits outside the window, how it’s all going to come crashing down in a matter of seconds.
Throughout this little section, where we’re in Voldemort’s head as he relives that fateful night, we have his thoughts on the weaknesses of the humans around him. He considers killing a child, then deems it ‘unnecessary’, he feels ‘calmly euphoric’, he reflects that it is ‘too easy’ to kill James because he comes rushing out without his wand. But his feelings on this scene are curiously absent. There is no thought about the weakness of this happy family, nothing about the silliness of the smoke rings, no word on how triumphant he feels at seeing them exposed, vulnerable. No, Voldemort is curiously expressionless on witnessing this cosy family scene. Almost as though he doesn’t know what to feel.
And I think it was at this point, really, that I felt most sorry for him.