The Riddle of Voldemort

 


The Dark Wizard Voldemort is the chief villain and opponent of Harry and the overall dramatic arc of the entire Harry Potter series is built on the conflict between them. The first book starts with Voldemort's attempt to kill Harry. In subsequent books Harry must repeatedly confront Voldemort. The story ends with the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. Understanding the character of Voldemort provides important clues to interpreting the meaning of Harry Potter. The character of Voldemort is represented in his name, symbols attached to him, and his actions.

In The Chamber of Secrets it is revealed that Voldemort's original name was Tom Marvolo Riddle and that he is the last surviving heir of the house of Slytherin. His surname Riddle comes from his Muggle father. He rejects that name, kills his father and adopts an anagram of his name, "I am Lord Voldemort." As the personification of evil, to understand Voldemort is to also solve the riddle of evil.

Voldemort is everything that is disgusting in human behavior. He is filled with arrogant pride, prejudiced, self-centered, lying, merciless, and remorseless, caring for no one apart from himself except those who worship him, and those only so long as they serve his needs. Voldemort's character is shown through the words of Professor Quirrell: "Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." Unfortunately for Quirrell, Voldemort "does not forgive mistakes easily" and Voldemort will sacrifice Quirrell to get what he wants. Later, in order to restore his body, Voldemort demands that Pettigrew cut off his own hand to restore. He feeds on the fear of others, as he did with Ginny Weasley through the diary of Tom Riddle. He sought to kill Harry when Harry was only a child, an attempt at destruction of innocence for his own gain. This gives us part of the answer to the riddle of evil. Evil is a parasite that draws life from others, even if it requires killing the host.

There is nothing that the parasite Voldemort will not do to stay alive and gain power, including killing and drinking the blood of a unicorn. The horror of that act is explained to Harry by the centaur Firenze:

Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.

Voldemort is so completely evil that it is hard to grasp what would lead a person to that state. That is part of the riddle to be solved.

For Voldemort, there is nothing worse than death, and he will do whatever he can to escape it. The name Voldemort was invented by Rowling from the French words vol de mort meaning "flight of death." Read abstractly, we can say that the flight of death is the nature of the riddle that must be solved. All of Voldemort's unspeakable acts are for the purpose of gaining power. The power that he seeks is not just over others, but power over death itself. He has discovered a form of magic that he believes will insure his own immortality but, to become immortal he must fracture his soul by committing murder, and then store each piece as a Horcrux. So long as even one of the Horcurxes remains, Voldemort cannot be killed. His body may become weakened, as it was during the first attack on Harry, but since his soul still remains on the earth, so long as some of his physical form remains, he can be physically restored. In The Sorceror's Stone Voldemort is seeking to obtain the elixir of life so that he can be restored to health and also gain immortality. That avenue is removed when Dumbledore and Flamel agree to destroy the Sorcerer's Stone, but Voldemort's body is eventually is restored in part by taking Harry's blood. With his restored body Voldemort returns to his program of tyranny and seems unstoppable. Until all the Horcruxes are located and destroyed, Voldemort cannot be killed. Thus Voldemort protects each Horcrux with curses. Anyone who tries to destroy the Horcrux can become cursed. In other words, evil will destroy anything to reach its goal and likewise will seek to destroy anything that interferes with its desires. Nevertheless, the destruction of the Horcurxes is the task that Harry, Ron and Hermione must undertake. Touching evil is dangerous, yet they must make the attempt. Until that task is accomplished, the conflict cannot be resolved.

Voldemort's desire to avoid death is what drives him to seek immortality, but that alone does not explain why he would resort to the destruction of others in order to achieve that end. His choice of action can only result by so denigrating others that he cannot conceive of them as having any worth. It is, simply put, his own self that Voldemort cares for, not others. For whatever reason, he has no sense or understanding of either compassion or love. In other words, life without love for others ends in despicable evil. This is also part of the answer to the riddle. Evil knows no love and thinks only of itself.

Voldemort puts himself and his desires above all else, he seeks his own immortality and complete dominion over others. He discards the distinction between good and evil, choosing each action solely on the basis of the situation at hand and what can best accomplish his goals. He seeks knowledge and takes action solely for the end of his own apotheosis. In short, Voldemort's desire is to avoid death and become as God. This is the ultimate evil.

Some interpretations of Harry Potter are based on treating Voldemort as an allegorical Satan. However, that will not work. It is true that he seeks to be like God, is lifted up in pride, and his symbol of a serpent gives the impression of a connection with Satan. As an heir of Slytherin, Voldemort can speak parseltounge, the language of serpents, and the coat of arms for Slytherin is a silver snake on a green field. Voldemort's familiar, and one of the Horcruxes, is the snake Nagini. Voldemort, as Tom Riddle, also controls the Basilisk, a large serpent. Even Voldemort's appearance is that of a snake, with red slitted eyes and a snake-like nose. However, beyond that association with a serpent, there is little to make him a direct symbol of Satan. Voldemort is a mortal being who is seeking knowledge to become immortal and does not have dominion over others. That is not an allegory of Satan, but it is familiar to those who know the Bible. The temptation of Adam and Eve is described in Genesis chapter three:

Now the serpent was more shrewd than any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, Is it really true that God said, "You must not eat from any tree of the orchard?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, or else you will die." The serpent said to the woman, "Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil." (Genesis 3:1-5)

Voldemort cannot easily be made into a literary symbol of Satan, but he is an accurate representation of fallen man. He hears the voice of the serpent and seeks knowledge of good and evil to obtain the ability to be like God. That is the beginning of his downfall into unspeakable evil. Once man steps over the boundaries set by God and seeks to become as God, man descends into evil. He no longer has the connection to a divine guidance that will give him knowledge of good and evil, but seeks to determine good and evil for himself, and eventually discards any notion of good and evil. Lacking the true source of life, fallen man must rely on the blood of animals for life. This is represented in Genesis by God's killing of animals to obtain clothing for Adam and Eve, and the continued sacrifice of animals that man may live. In that fallen condition, there is no depth to which fallen man cannot sink. The end result is a character summed up by Proverbs 6:16-19:

There are six things that the Lord hates, even seven things that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift to run to evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who spreads discord among family members.

There is one other aspect of Voldemort that has to be included. Riddle's first name, Tom, is an abbreviated form of Thomas and means "twin." Voldemort is a symbolic twin of Harry. Both were orphans of mixed blood with the wizard side of ancient and powerful lineage. As the story unfolds we discover there is a link between Voldemort and Harry. The scar on Harry's forehead blinds him with pain when he is near Voldemort. In addition, Harry can sometimes see what Voldemort is doing. Harry eventually discovers the truth. When Voldemort attempted to kill Harry as a boy, a piece of Voldemort's weakened soul fractured and lodged within Harry. Although Harry is a "true Gryffindor" he has similarities to Slytherin that at first confuses the Sorting Hat. The piece of Voldemort inside gives Harry a dual nature, part himself and part Voldemort. When Voldemort restores his body using Harry's blood, Voldemort likewise takes a piece of Harry into himself. Each carries a piece of the other within himself, and their destinies are forever tied together as the prophecy about Harry shows. The linkage between Harry and Voldemort is a key piece of the puzzle that is Voldemort and seeing that link is essential to understanding the conflict that must be resolved in the story. Harry is a seventh Horcrux that Voldemort is not aware of. So long as Harry lives, Voldemort can remain alive as well.

Voldemort does not truly understand this connection, however. He thinks that is to his advantage and seeks to use it to destroy Harry during the confrontation at the end of The Order of the Phoenix. The attempt fails, but proves the connection exists. As Dumbledore explains to Harry,

Voldemort's aim in possessing you, as he demonstrated tonight, would not have been my destruction. It would have been yours. He hoped, when he possessed you briefly a short while ago, that I would sacrifice you in the hope of killing him.

Once again, the evil that Voldemort represents acts as a parasite. It seeks to destroy by possession. Metaphorically, Harry carries a fragment of evil within that by possessing him seeks to destroy. That is the Biblical view of mankind. "No one is righteous, no not one." And, "the wages of sin is death." That is the riddle of evil that man does not want to look at, for it means that each of us is a potential Voldemort. Each has within him the nature of evil in the form of sin and rebellion to God, and that evil can and will kill us given a chance.

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