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.

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.