“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Voldemort and the Nature of Evil

Another fascinating theme in Harry Potter is evil – specifically, evil as personified in Lord Voldemort. In The Half-Blood Prince, Harry is able to view certain memories that people have of Tom Riddle in his earlier days. This journey into the Dark Lord’s past is quite fascinating, and through it we can learn a good deal about the nature of evil – in the real world as well as in fiction.

Tom Riddle was abandoned by his father before he was born, and his mother died in childbirth. He was raised in an orphanage. When Harry views Dumbledore’s memory of first meeting Tom, he finds that Tom was always alone. He did not have friends, nor did he care for others. Throughout his life, Tom Riddle hardened himself to any relationship. Dumbledore tells Harry, “you will hear many of his Death Eaters claiming that they are in his confidence, that they alone are close to him, even understand him. They are deluded. Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one” (HBP 277). It may be that a similar prideful retreat into oneself and separation from others (from relationship, community) may well have been a contributing factor to Satan’s turning to evil, and I would imagine that his character would be, in ways, similar to that of Lord Voldemort. C. S. Lewis’ portrayal of hell in The Great Divorce is also similar – people in hell grow in their selfishness and pride indefinitely, pushing others away until those who are in hell are lightyears away from the nearest other person in hell.

Harry also learns that Tom Riddle did not accept help from others, and was proud of his self-sufficiency and uniqueness, of how special he was. He had a “contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary…he wished to be different, separate, notorious” (HBP 277). It was for this reason that he abandoned the ordinary name of Tom. Again, it seems to me that this is a general characteristic of evil, and that Satan, before his fall, would have realized his “specialness” and sought to set himself apart. Tolkien’s portrayal of the fall of Melkor in The Silmarillion bears similarities to this quality of Tom Riddle, and to his preference for being alone:

“But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar, for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren. He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Like Melkor, Voldemort sought knowledge and discovery. He set out to make his own path, “freeing” himself from morality, from love, from death – cutting himself off from the true nature of reality. He sought immortality just as Melkor sought the Secret Fire, but the Fire is with Ilúvatar, as are the secrets of death. In short, Voldemort’s pride put him on a very wrong path – a path directly away from truth.

Tom Riddle’s ability to use magic developed at a startlingly very early age, and he used this ability to control and gain power over others.* The desire for power was always strong in him. Voldemort boasts of “the immensity of my power” (GoF 648) and declares “there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it” (PS ch. 16). His turn to evil caused him to lose sight of all that is good – light and love and friendship – and therefore to lose all understanding of the distinction between good and evil. Only power, only the self, now matters. One wonders if Satan’s view of good and evil is similar to this.

When Tom Riddle came to Hogwarts, he distinguished himself as the most gifted student the school had ever seen, just as, in the above quotation, Melkor was “given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge.” Corruption of greater ability, skill, and power results in a greater fall, and greater evil. During his time at Hogwarts, Riddle’s quest for immortality began, and he killed his father, whom he despised for abandoning him: “I revenged myself upon him, that fool who gave me his name, Tom Riddle” (GoF 646). After leaving Hogwarts, Riddle “sank so deeply into the Dark Arts, consorted with the very worst of our kind, underwent so many dangerous, magical transformations, that when he resurfaced as Lord Voldemort, he was barely recognizable” (CS 417). We will see later how, in making his horcruxes, Voldemort destroyed his own humanity; Hagrid wonders “if he had enough human left in him to die” (PS ch. 15).

*We see a prime example of this drive to own, to possess, to dominate, in Voldemort’s greed for collecting objects he sees as rightfully his own (and using them as horcruxes).

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