“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

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Voldemort’s Ignorance of Love and Death

As a result of the events in his life, and of his choices, Tom Riddle became evil, and because he became evil, he lost touch with reality. This is a key theme in Harry’s struggle with Voldemort. Over and over, Voldemort shows himself to be ignorant of his enemies, unable to understand all that is good, and for that reason unable to overcome it. Let’s take a closer look at how Voldemort’s descent into darkness blinded him to the true nature of reality.

As a result of his pride and obsession with himself and with everything that made him unique (everything that separated him from others), Voldemort lost touch of things of value beyond himself. His view of reality became narrow, restricted, and he clung to the only thing he valued – his own life (hence his quest to conquer death).1 Consequently, he lost all understanding of the true meaning of death – understanding death requires that one value something beyond one’s own mortal life. Remember Dumbledore’s words, “your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.” One might generalize this to something like, “failure to recognize value beyond your own existence.” Voldemort’s ambition to conquer death is, essentially, his attempt to set himself up as God.2 But Tom Riddle is, in fact, not God, and his attempt to set himself on high is bound to fail because he can neither understand nor escape the truth of what it means to be a mortal human.

Similarly, Voldemort’s refusal to care for anyone but himself caused him to lose all understanding of love. Love is the very essence of reality – it is part of God himself. Voldemort, however, “does not love” (DH ch. 35). It was never something he valued. Although his evil must, to an extent, be attributed to his own choices (choice is another important theme in Harry Potter), Tom Riddle was clearly shaped by his experiences in his rejection of love: “Nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore” (HBP 443-44). Hence his decision to “[revenge] himself upon the father who never wanted him” (HBP 367) – the father who abandoned him and left his mother to die at the hands of the cruel world. It is easy to see why Tom Riddle neither loved nor valued love, but rather, saw it as another shameful human weakness.

Because of this, Voldemort is never able to grasp the depth and power of the sacrificial love shown by Harry and his mother. (He realizes that this is what protected Harry years ago, and yet his later mistakes in dealing with Harry are, as we will see, quite similar, showing that he never learned his lesson, but remained ignorant of love.) Speaking of Harry, Voldemort declares, “I know his weakness, you see, his one great flaw. He will hate watching the others struck down around him, knowing that it is for him that it happens. He will want to stop it at any cost. He will come” (DH ch. 32). Harry did come, and paradoxically, his “weakness” brought to light and triumphed over Voldemort’s weakness: his inability to comprehend the true power of sacrificial love. In a similar way, Voldemort fails to see that his own loyal Death Eater, Severus Snape, is working against him. Not surprisingly, it is Snape’s love for Lily (DH ch. 36), which Voldemort could not have understood, that betrays him. Lastly, when facing difficulties against Harry’s wand, Voldemort assumes it is the wand that is troubling him, not Harry, who wields it (DH ch. 35); he underestimates Harry’s unusual power – his ability to love. Love is “an ancient magic which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated” (OotP 836).

Could it be that Satan (and evil more broadly) is unable to grasp the idea of love? C. S. Lewis portrays evil in this way in The Screwtape Letters; for more thoughts on this, see “A Mind in Darkness” and “The Love of God, Part II.”

As a result of Voldemort’s turning away from love, he not only lost understanding of love, but became unable to endure its presence, just as a nocturnal animal cannot stand the light. In Order of the Phoenix, when Voldemort attempts to possess Harry, “it was pain such as he has never experienced…Lord Voldemort’s soul, maimed as it is, cannot bear close contact with a soul like Harry’s. Like a tongue on frozen steel, like flesh in flames” (DH ch. 33). A very similar event occurs in Philosopher’s Stone, when Voldemort (through Quirrell) “could not touch [Harry]… It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good” (PS ch. 17). And in Deathly Hallows, when Harry finally learns to close his mind to Voldemort’s invasions, it is love (taking the form of grief for Dobby) that drives Voldemort out (DH 387). When love is at work, evil is thrown into confusion, put out of its reckoning. Evil cannot stand good – it is like a creature from the dark forced into the light.

Consumed with hunger for gaining power and control for himself, Voldemort becomes so narrow-minded that he simply loses sight of anything that he cannot fit into his self-centered, power-driven view of the world. In Half-Blood Prince he underestimates the remarkable abilities of tiny house-elves (whom he deems weak, worthless, and beneath his notice) while hiding a horcrux, a mistake that proves fatal. And at the end of Deathly Hallows, Voldemort fails to see that the master of the Elder Wand is not simply whoever manages to wrest it from another by sheer force. One must defeat the previous master in a more subtle way: “the wand chooses the wizard,” not vice versa. After defeating Voldemort, Harry chooses to give up the Elder Wand in order to ensure that the trail of bloodshed it left through wizard history would end – a humble release of power that Voldemort in his blind pride would have thought “weak.”

1 Voldemort’s failure to value anything but himself – his narrow vision of reality – also caused him to fear things that need not be feared – most significantly, death, as we have already seen, but also darkness, and even a human body. This fear, says Dumbledore, reveals his lack of wisdom (HBP 556).
2 Strikingly similar attempts at being God are made by characters in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, which tells a modern-day “tower of Babel” story.

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