Immortal love

LOTR The Two Towers 024Valentine’s Day is coming. For some reason, it’s become cool to hate on it, and diss it as a ‘commercial holiday’, because you know, every holiday is so pure and untouched by the reigning force of capitalism (Christmas and Diwali being prime examples). I’ve even seen people calling out the ‘fallacy’ of celebrating it as a day of ‘love’, pointing out that the eponymous St. Valentine was martyred on this day, and hence, we should probably mark it with sadness rather than bursts of hearts and chocolate. I disagree with such folk; as Taylor Swift said, and as St. Valentine would probably agree, the best way to show the ‘haters’ who ‘gonna hate’ is to just shake it off and shove your happiness in their face, proving that nothing’s going to keep your happiness down.

I’ve realised that it’s become cool to hate on the concept of romantic love in general. Or to be cynical about it at least. The pop culture aimed at people over the age of 18 seems full of mixed messages: on the one hand, you’ve got romantic comedies, that promise that no matter how klutzy and socially awkward you might be, you will find true love; on the other, there are the Girls style shows that indicate that from rooms, people will come and go, but you should concentrate on being Michelangelo. ‘True love’, many things tell us, does not really exist; there are people who help you grow or achieve things, but you cannot rely on them to be around forever, nor do they magically solve all your problems, the way a Disney prince once did.

I’m of the latter school of thought. I don’t think there is ‘one’ single soul mate for anyone, and that romantic love is largely a matter of timing. It’s about being in the right place, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind to recognise what you feel, what the other person feels, not to mention a host of other factors that ultimately dictate whether or not a relationship unfolds. In fact, the idea of having just ‘one’ person terrifies me because it automatically lessens your chances of happiness; what if you mess it up, or miss that person altogether? Would you never be happy?

snape and lily

Despite my  reservations about such a thing playing out in real life (happiness= one ‘true’ soul mate), I can see why it holds such appeal in fiction. ‘I like the idea,’ a friend told me, when I expressed some dislike for Snape’s unstinting love for Lily. ‘Doesn’t it seem so special to be loved in that way, like no one else can ever compare?’ Sure, it’s all right if the person is fictional, but as I noted in this post, unrequited love is very poetic, but it is extremely painful in reality.

I think, in some ways, the fascination for the immortals, for vampires and Elves and other such beings, is tied up in this desire to feel ‘special’. Okay, let me try and explain this: people diss Twilight for a number of reasons, and yes, I’m one of those who does not consider it spectacular literature, but I can see why so many people love it. I can see why men and women think it would be amazing to be loved like Edward loves Bella, stalking and vampirish urges and all. The idea that someone who has literally lived for hundreds of years, seen thousands of people, picks you, of all humanity, to love—now THAT would make anyone feel special. The same idea applies to Arwen and Aragorn. Here’s an Elf who has lived thousands of years. She has seen many, many specimens pass through her life, more than a few of whom must have been drop dead gorgeous, accomplished, wise Elves, maybe even a few men. And yet, it was Aragorn, at that point a not-so-well-washed, uncrowned Ranger from the north, for whom she gave up her immortality, and made the ultimate sacrifice.

aragorn_arwen_love_story

In every romantic relationship, I would think, there’s that need to feel special, to feel like though there may have been people before you, and may be others after you in your significant others’ life,  you are somehow different. To be chosen by someone like Edward, or Arwen, or a billion other vampires who go after their mortal prey for reasons other than culinary denotes that you have something more than all those others they have met before. Something does separate you from the herd of humanity, and someone special, who knows what they’re on about (having seen a hell of a lot of the world) has noticed that in you and decided to love or desire you for it.

Okay Twilight fans, now I sort of get what you’re on about. Doesn’t mean I think your ship is a better one than Cersei/Jaime, and that’s saying something.

Ten ways in which reading fantasy screws up your love life

Lo and behold, herein are written the ways in which an overdose of the fantastical can screw up any right thinking, clear headed person. As though the socially accepted form of insanity doesn’t do that well enough anyway.

1) When someone says ‘I can’t be with you’, you automatically assume they are being self-sacrificing and noble and trying to protect you from some darker power.

arwen and aragorn

2) Because of this, you only decide to love them more.

3) You think ‘waiting’ for said person is a wonderful thing and will surely result in a reward, i.e., returned regard.

There is still hope.

                 There is still hope.

4) Even if it doesn’t, literature and the heroes have taught you that unrequited love is the most noble and wonderful thing evah. Just look at all the love Snape got after it was revealed he was crazy about Lily Evans.

5) This is a lie. Unrequited love is a bitch and it would hurt like hell to love like Severus Snape. But you’ve ‘known’ otherwise for so long that it will take you months, maybe even years, to accept that.

snape and lily

‘Always’: Not a word to be uttered lightly.

6) When all your friends tell you that someone is wrong for you, is not giving you what you deserve, you think it’s just because they don’t see the nobility and courage the other person hides so successfully from the rest of the world. Only you are blessed with that vaunted ability because you are not fooled by the mundane world and its standards.

7) Also, fantasy heroes and heroines are always ridiculed at some point in their lives for their beliefs, so you think it’s part of the deal to be considered a complete, blind idiot. At some point, like all those heroes, you’ll have the chance to turn around and say ‘I told you so.’

'Everybody thinks I'm lying. That's okay. I'm used to it.'

‘Everybody thinks I’m lying. That’s okay. I’m used to it.’

8) There is no such thing as bad timing, or coincidence, or, for that matter, all-around unbeatable circumstances. There is only Fate and you, the lone warrior who will defy it in order to be with the one you so desperately love. Bring on the shitstorm, universe!

'I can totes handle this.'

‘I can totes handle this.’

9) The more reasons the person throws at you to stay away, the more drawn you feel to them. Because they are just more demons for you to overcome and prove yourself a worthy champion.

10) Fantasy heroes never give up, you tell yourself. No matter how tough the going gets, no matter how terrible they feel, they don’t ever give up. And neither will you, no matter how much it might kill you to flog yourself on.

'I shall carry on until I collapse and even then I will crawl my way up this damn mountain. You shall not defeat me!'

‘I shall carry on until I collapse and even then I will crawl my way up this damn mountain. You shall not defeat me!’

Ain’t no love like tortured, angsty fantasy love.

 

After all, they lived happily ever after...for a while.

After all, they lived happily ever after…for a while.

The Importance of Being Hermione: Part I

hermione_granger_by_crymson99-d3oobb7I’m finally going to discuss a character I have been rather noticeably reticent about in all my previous entries. She’s amazingly popular, so it’s a little strange that I’ve ignored her for so long. I’ll be breaking this entry into two separate posts, the first dealing with the character herself and the second with the ‘relationship’ that, for me, is the most realistic and relatable of the Harry Potter canon, as well as the larger fantasy canon in general.

Recently, there was a great hullaballoo in the Harry Potter fandom. This was the result of Rowling sitting up and saying (according to selectively quoted portions of an interview with Emma Watson in Wonderland magazine) that the Ron-Hermione relationship was a form of ‘wish fulfillment’ and that perhaps, Harry and Hermione ‘are a better fit’. In the interview, Rowling cast aspersions on the stability of the pair’s marriage but admitted, eventually, that they would probably be ‘alright with a bit of counseling’.

I’ve never been a Harry/Hermione fan, not even when they were stuck in a tent together in the middle of Gods-only-know-where. There are a bunch of reasons for this, including the fact that I never really saw Harry as ‘ending up’ with anyone, really. I sort of assumed he would die at the close of the seventh book; to my mind, that would have been the most poetic ending. Also, given that his greatest desire at the start of the series is to see his family, it might have been nice to have him reunited with them at the close.

But perhaps that’s just me being morbid.

Anyhow, let’s get back to Hermione/Ron and Hermione/Harry. I think Rowling pitting Hermione with Ron was a great decision. Last night, I sat and thought about leading female characters in fantasy I could look upon as potential role models in a romantic relationship (after all, I do take my role models for everything from fantasy fiction, make of that what you will) and realized that very few are of any real use to a twenty-something, or any-something for that matter, urban, educated and relatively independent girl.

The problem is, many, many women in fantasy fiction, whether it be the beautiful Arwen or the feisty Ginny, fall into the familiar trap of waiting-for-Hero-to-finish-Quest. They are almost preternaturally understanding and patient creatures, providing unquestioning support to a Hero whose mission is, we assume, much more important than anything they might get up to or want to get up to. The other category of women, which includes people like Egwene al’Vere from Wheel of Time and Eowyn of Rohan, seem to see romance almost as a weakness, something they do not have time for. In fact, when Eowyn falls in love with Faramir, her emotional change is described as a ‘thaw’, melting her from the self-imposed frost that had previously defined her dealings with men.

My point is, none of the women I could think were shown as having healthy, functioning relationships with their significant others until that significant other had completed whatever divinely or fatefully ordained quest they were on. The other women, who were on quests themselves, acted like the men, refusing to really get ‘into’ a relationship, or fall in love, until they had finished their business. I include Katniss Everdeen in the latter category.

I noted in a previous entry (Ginny Weasley and the Loving Hero Paradox) that this is all too common a theme in epic fantasy, and that perhaps, if there were more novels floating about with female leads, we might see a change.  But if there is anyone who comes close to being in a healthy, somewhat relatable relationship, and still manages to go about saving the world, I honestly think its Hermione Jean Granger.

Cue for the splutters of surprise, confusion and even outrage.

herm and ron

 

It’s self-evident why Hermione is such a popular and important character. Not only is she Harry’s best friend, but she is not a conventionally attractive, popular, sporty girl. She is a swot, a geek, a girl who freaks out at the possibility of getting one question wrong in an exam. Find me another girl like that in popular fiction, I dare you. She’s always got her facts handy, and when she doesn’t, she refuses to let ridicule keep her from running off to her favourite haven: the Library.

Hermione taught me that it was okay to be yourself in high school, a hard lesson to drill into an adolescent girl. I never really saw myself in her though, chiefly because she was much more assertive and independent than I was. Also, I lacked the social consciousness that she had, the drive to do good things for the world. I wanted to do great things, not necessarily good, and there was the difference between us.

What was most relatable about Hermione, however, was her lack of perfection. For all her brains, for all her dedication to the good of the wizarding world, she was not the paragon of girlhood in the Potter books. That was Ginny Weasley, woman who never cries. Hermione gets emotionally overwrought, she acts silly and competitive and does immature things in order to get back at people (Ron, mostly). Unlike in the case of Ginny, Hermione’s particularly vicious jinxes are not held up for admiration; when she sends Charmed canaries whirring at Ron’s head, we’re meant (I believe) to see the act for what it is: vindictive, petty vengeance for his ‘snogging’ Lavender. Harry notes that Hermione’s eyes are ‘wild’, her voice ‘high’ when she does this. Clearly, the girl is not in her usual reasonable and reasoning frame of mind.

Contrast this to Ginny, whose Bat Bogey Hex on Zacharias Smith and deliberate crashing of her broom into the commentator’s box (when he was holding forth) is touted as ‘cool’ and totally okay. Ginny seems to be able to escape authorial and reader judgment, while Hermione, for all her admirable qualities, does not.

This is an important point, and one that I want to take forward into the second half of my post. Harry, for all his imperfections, is very rarely judged negatively by the reader. Even his darker actions, such as casting Unforgiveables, are put down to the influence of the Horcrux he carries within him (this was the explanation Rowling gave in an interview). This lack of accountability that he enjoys makes him somewhat difficult to like in the last two books, I think, which is why both Hermione and Ron, whose faults also glare much more brightly in these volumes, suddenly begin to steal the limelight from their more famous friend. Harry becomes more and more a remote ideal, much like Ginny does. How can you pair a very human girl with this increasingly blank Hero figure?

What Hermione, in all her glorious imperfection, needs is a fellow imperfect being. And that’s where Ron comes in.

 

 

The Selfless Love of Sirius Black

People have stressed this often: the Harry Potter series is all about the power of love and choice. Often, it is about how love dictates choice. The greatest example of that is probably Severus Snape who, we’re led to believe, changed sides from ‘evil’ to ‘good’ because of his love for Lily Evans Potter. You choose who you become, you choose your fight (the difference between being ‘dragged into the arena and walking in with his head held high’ that Harry reflects on), unless, of course, you are Lord Voldemort.

There’s all sorts of examples of all sorts of love in the Potter books, and all of them are of varying degrees of intensity. Familial love, as most well-evidenced by the Weasleys and (I insist) the Malfoys; romantic love in the form of Ginny and Harry and Remus and Tonks and umpteen other couples; platonic, ‘friendly’ love exemplified by the Golden Trio and a more abstract, universal agape that is the province of Harry in his final stand against Voldemort. I would love to dissect all these examples, but in this post, I’m going to focus on what, to me, seems the most intense, powerful and selfless form of love in the books: the love of Sirius for Harry.

ImageI know this is a bit of an unconventional choice, given that Lily’s ‘sacrifice’ is usually touted as the be-all and end-all of selfless love. While I certainly admire Lily for her willingness to die for her son (with no idea that he would live because of it), I think that she really, honestly, didn’t have a choice. I don’t think Lily ever believed that Voldemort would let her live, despite his commands for her to ‘stand aside’. She had no reason to think that he would show her mercy, given that she has ‘thrice defied’ him and is one of the core members of the Order of the Phoenix. She would have been silly to trust to his words. And even if she had listened and stood aside, she would probably have been unable to live with herself.

Besides, Lily’s is not the only example of a mother’s sacrificial love for her children. In Deathly Hallows, Voldemort kills a family when he is hunting Gregorovitch. We are told the woman ‘spreads her arms’ as though to ‘protect’ the children behind her. Technically, she also dies in the hopes that they may live; perhaps she was expecting them to escape in the fleeting moment of her death. In a manner, she also dies for them, protecting them. Yet, this ‘sacrifice’ accomplishes nothing.

Anyway, we’re quibbling here.

Why do I call Sirius’s love for Harry the most intense and powerful in the series? Let’s consider what we know:

1)      Sirius was in Azkaban for 12 years. Not only was he thrown in here unjustly, refused a trial, but he was also a ‘high security’ prisoner which, I’m assuming, meant that he had more dementors around his cell than most other people in that hellhole.

2)      From what we’ve read of the dementors’ effects on a person, being near one is an awful lot like suffering clinical depression. You are constantly forced to live out the worst experiences of your life, again and again and again, it seems impossible to find the will to live or change what you are hearing, and the only way to combat it is to force yourself to be cheerful. And eat chocolate, which is a known anti-depressant. Sirius, like his fellow prisoners, could be said to have suffered major depressive disorder for nearly twelve years. That is a long, long time.

3)      Sirius kept himself from ‘going mad’–I would assume that means losing touch with reality and ‘retreating into [himself]’  the way many other prisoners do—by holding on to a thought that was ‘not happy’, the knowledge that he was innocent. While this no doubt held as an anchor against the dementors (‘they couldn’t take it away’), it would still not have ensured a healthy mind. Rather than becoming depressive, Sirius became dangerously obsessive, using his hatred of Peter as an anchor on which to rest his sanity. The fact that he muttered ‘He’s at Hogwarts. He’s at Hogwarts’ even in his sleep shows the extent to which he had shored his mental balance upon the idea of revenge.

4)      Sirius conceivably escaped from Azkaban because of this obsession; it gave him the strength to transform and the will to live in a place where nothing else could. His mission is not so much to rejoin the world and become a citizen of it as it is to find and kill Peter for what he did to the Potters. That is why he heads to Hogwarts and breaks into the castle.

5)      In spite of this overriding obsession, in spite of the fact that he stayed mentally grounded in hellish circumstances by basing his entire existence on this one desire, Sirius gives it all up when Harry asks him to.

I want you to consider the magnitude of that sacrifice. For Sirius (and Lupin, to a lesser extent), Peter is the reason their lives fell apart so spectacularly. Twelve whole years of Sirius’s life were defined by what Peter had done, and those twelve years were also, perhaps, made a trifle more bearable by the knowledge of it. And yet, when his godson asks him to give it up, to let him go because his ‘dad wouldn’t have wanted his best friends to become killers’, Sirius lowers his wand.

Honestly, I don’t think I would have had the presence of mind to do that.

Now, let’s consider other instances of Sirius’s regard for his godson. On the first indication that he might be in trouble, Sirius risks life, limb and soul to come back to England (from wherever in the tropical world he is) to watch out for him. He subsists on rats in Hogsmeade in order to be close to him, unarmed with anything except his Animagus ability. His devotion prompts a response from the usually emotionally-obtuse Ron: ‘He must really love you, Harry. Imagine having to live off rats.’

Image

I don’t picture Oldman when I picture Black, but the sentiment is expressed clearly here.

Sirius pretty much replaces his obsession with revenge with a deep and unconditional love for Harry. His regard for Harry is not really surprising, given his reported love for James and Sirius’s own supremely loyal nature. I think the only point at which Sirius really comes close to breaking is when he is cooped up in Number 12, Grimmauld Place. The house does to him what twelve years in Azkaban did not manage to: drive him slowly but surely around the bend. He resorts to alcoholism, littering his table with Firewhiskey bottles and carrying around a ‘distinctly Mundungus-like whiff’ of spirits.

Even then, his first thought is for Harry. When Harry needs him, Sirius rushes out of the house and barrels into the Ministry, regardless of his personal safety. You could say that this is because of his ‘reckless’ nature, his need to be doing something for the Order. But even if it is, to a certain extent, informed by this need to be in action, Sirius’s rushing out of the house and to Harry’s side is consistent with previous actions. When Harry is in trouble, he will do anything to make sure he gets out of it. Therefore, it’s unfair to pin the onus of that particular action totally on his need to expend energy.

In fact, I believe that Harry’s later insistence on it being Snape’s fault that Sirius risked himself is  a form of self-defense, a walling off of the fact that it was really, ultimately, for Harry’s sake. This defense mechanism is, again, consistent with Harry’s refusal to let other people die ‘for’ him in Deathly Hallows. He knows it’s what happened with Sirius, and the pain of that knowledge ensures that he will do his best not to let it happen again, going (literally) to suicidal lengths to make certain of this.

We know that Sirius’s love for Harry is reciprocated. Even Voldemort knows that ‘the one person’ Harry would literally do anything to save is his godfather. This is what he picks up from Kreacher, from the Malfoys. Sirius is the ‘closest thing’ to a parent that Harry has: he’s the first person Harry thinks to write to when in trouble, he turns to him for reassurance and support in times of moral dilemma (such as when he witnessed Snape’s worst memory), he trusts him within a few hours of meeting him. After his death, Harry is unable to really talk about his passing with anyone, the closest he comes to it being a brief conversation with Luna Lovegood. We know however, from vague references in Half Blood Prince, that Harry is nowhere near close to healed; every time Sirius is brought up in conversation, Harry closes the subject off and casts about for something else. If not, his friends do it for him.

Why I call Sirius’s love selfless is for the reason I’ve underlined again and again in this post: many of the actions he performs for Harry give him absolutely no advantage, nothing in return. He gives up a quest for revenge  (which, as I have pointed out, is no ordinary quest, as far as such things can be ordinary), centres his life around a boy he’s met only a couple of times and then dies for said boy, all to ensure that he remain protected, safe and, most importantly, happy. That last is, really, the only reason I can see Sirius letting Peter live in that one pivotal moment in Azkaban. It would make Harry happy.

There’s a point in the movie-sequence of Lily’s death where she’s standing before the cradle that holds Harry and whispering to him:

 You are so loved, Harry. So loved.

I think Sirius, more than anyone, highlights the truth of those words.

Cersei Lannister and the Perils of Love

Warning: There are spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

For some reason, this morning Cersei Lannister’s words from Season 1 of a Game of Thrones came back to me with a force they never displayed in three viewings of the episode:

All the things men do to show you how much they care.

ImageThere’s something so profoundly sad about the way she says it.

Cersei, the consummate top-bitch that many men (and women) detest, says this during her brief condolence meeting with Catelyn Stark. Bran lies unconscious before them and a depressed Cat is making one of her signature guardian wreaths, beseeching the Mother to take pity upon her son. Cersei, who we know is one of the reasons Bran lies here in such a state, talks of her firstborn son with Robert and his death, of how her husband ‘beat his hands bloody’ on the walls, wailing against the gods. She mentions that when ‘they’ came to take the baby away to the crypt she screamed and cried, but Robert ‘held’ her.

But Robert held me. He held me.

She sounds perfectly genuine about all this, and even her sympathetic ‘I pray to the Mother that she return your son to you,’ seems true to me.

Cersei Lannister is such a wonderfully complex character. More than anyone in that messed-up world of A Song of Ice and Fire, she scares me because she seems so perfectly to figure forth how the world can really mess up a smart, loving woman, drive her to take monstrous and psychotic steps to protect her happiness. She seems to me like a warning sign against so many things: against love, against attachment and, scarily enough, the perils of non-attachment as well.

Tyrion thinks of Cersei as stupid, which she is in many, many ways. She is not half as smart as she gives herself credit for, he says. She grasps at more than she has the ability to hold, a tendency I would say results from her ever-present feeling that she has not been given her due. Because the world (she thinks) underestimates her, she compensates by overestimating her abilities. Because she feels abandoned (first by her mother, then by her husband, father and brother), she makes up for it by lavishing what might be an unhealthy amount of affection on her children, displaying a blindness to their faults (especially Joffrey’s) that leads to terrible decision making and political shortsightedness. She is so very terrified of being left alone that she gallops ahead making friends in the wrong places, trading favours for the illusion of safety and ignoring the advice of those whose only intention is to keep her from losing her head.

In some ways, Cersei reminds me of Voldemort. Like him, she’s acting crazily on the basis of a prophecy made to her in a smoky tent long years before the series opens. She is half convinced of the truth of the prophecy, which states that she will only die after she has seen her three children laid in ‘golden shrouds’ before her. Like Voldemort, one could say that her very desire to ensure that the prophecy does not come to pass is what will lead to its fulfillment. Terrified that Tyrion is the one responsible for Joffrey’s death, she turns against him completely, thus ensuring his cast-iron will to revenge himself upon her. Certain that Margaery plans to steal Tommen from her maternal grasp, she acts like a headless chicken and attempts to drive spokes into the progress of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance. A Storm of Swords, A Feast of Crows and A Dance of Dragons are all littered with examples of Cersei’s mother-headed thinking.

Motherhood is a very powerful motivating force in A Song of Ice and Fire, since it’s the one career path most of its women (the royal ones, that is) can aspire to. You have Catelyn Stark, the idealized home-maker, loyal to her husband and her children, following them across the land as they wage a war that she doesn’t fully agree with. There’s Dany, who, unable to bear children (supposedly), sets herself up as a sort of Universal Mother figure (Mhysa) for the poor and defenceless, compromising on her duties to her ‘true’ offspring: her dragons. There’s also Melisandre, who literally makes magic out of the process of birthing and messes up a major political player’s ambitions (Tyrells, I’m looking at you).

For Cersei though, since her dreams of a happy and loving marriage have been shaken and destroyed not once but twice, every Imageupsurge of affection is directed towards her children. Neither does she seem to have any especially close female friends and, lacking the support of a female coterie, something that Margaery enjoys, her only ‘trusted’ ally is, for a very long time, her twin. Even her connection to Jaime is premised on the idea that he is a lot like her. Her attraction, for sure, is based on that. In fact, Jaime even reflects that Cersei wouldn’t be happy with his beard because he won’t ‘look so much like her’ any more.

Cersei’s relationship with Jaime begs the question: is she capable of loving anyone apart from her children? Her regard for Jaime seems something born of a desire to live through him, rather than any real affection for him. The moment he begins to assert some form of independence, call her out on her bad decisions and contradict her wishes, she seems to lose interest in him. She sees his questioning her as an abject betrayal, a turning away from the family that he has helped to create. Cersei is so terrified of being left alone that she sees hints of it everywhere: even from the father of her children and her ‘other half’.

When you read her, it’s all too easy to sympathize with Cersei. At least for me. As someone who cares heedlessly and passionately, who throws herself into things (sometimes, my friends might say, stupidly), I can see where she’s coming from, how the abject fear and near-certainty she has of being alone has driven her to the bad place she occupies now. I think,  more than anything, Cersei displays what routinely frustrated love can do, how it seeks a safe channel and then will do whatever it takes to defend it. I think Cersei is the road that Voldemort was afraid of (yes, I mix fandoms sometimes), the perfect example of the sheer stupidity and fear that come with being so completely attached to something that you cut ties with everything else.

So yes, ironically enough, I think Cersei Lannister is the perfect embodiment of love, albeit love of a crazy, crazy sort. But then again, what in the Song of Ice and Fire world is not crazy?

A Valentine for Voldemort

‘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.

ImageLord 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.’

harry and voldemortTime 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.