The North Tower #21: Who Is You-Know-Who?
One of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in HP is a man with many names. Voldemort, He-who-must-not-be-named, Tom Marvolo Riddle, the Dark Lord and You-know-who, to mention some. “Where did he come from? Who is he? Why is he evil? Will he die at the end?” are some of the questions that we readers ask ourselves. In this article, I’ll attempt an analysis of our favourite arch-villain. For an analysis Harry – Voldemort, see NT 19.
We know that he was born to a muggle father and a witch mother, some 70 years ago in a place called Little Hangleton. His father -Tom Riddle Sr. – abandoned his pregnant wife when he found out that she was a witch; she died in childbirth, living just long enough to give her son his name: Tom Marvolo Riddle (Marvolo after her father). Tom grew up and lived in an orphanage until he started Hogwarts. At school, he was in Slytherin House and did extremely well. (According to Dumbledore, he was probably the most brilliant student ever to pass through the school.) He was handsome and became Head Boy in his seventh year. He also began to explore the Dark Arts, finding the Chamber of Secrets in his fifth year and framing Hagrid for it. After graduation, he went back to Little Hangleton and killed his father and his grandparents. Then he “sank deeply into the Dark Arts,” tried to achieve immortality and created a band of followers (the Death Eaters). He was now Lord Voldemort.
The central thing to Voldemort’s character is the lack of love. No one has ever loved him (not that we know of at least). He never knew his parents. His mother died to give him life (not unlike Lily) but her only parting gift was a name he would come to hate: that of his father. His father abandoned him and turned his back on magic in general, which might very well be the reason that Voldemort is so cruel to muggles. He hates them in the way they represent his disloyal father, his (probably miserable) childhood at the orphanage and himself. The way some Jews got fake ID’s and joined the SS during WWII, Voldemort tries to distance himself from the muggle part of himself by showing extreme cruelty towards muggles in general. In OotP, we learn that the Death Eaters aren’t even aware of the fact that he’s not a pure-blood (or at least some of them).
The lack of love goes through all his relationships. He doesn’t have a biological family, and those whom he calls his “real family” (GoF) don’t actually love him. They aren’t even his friends, his equals. They are his servants, beneath him. They stay with him because of different reasons, like fear (Wormtail), lust for power and sadistic pleasures (Lucius Malfoy, McNair) or adoration of the evil he represents (Bellatrix), not because they genuinely like him. And he knows it. He knows even more now, since his fall and rebirth, that the majority of his “friends” are just opportunistic reprobates who don’t even care if he’s alive or dead. Even the ones who did sacrifice themselves for him (the ones who went to Azkaban) aren’t motivated by love. They worship his power, not his person. They love what he gives them, not who he is. They don’t even know who he is. Nobody does. He’s surrounded by followers but completely alone.
In my opinion, Voldemort personifies the old saying “if you can’t have love, have fear; if you can’t be famous, be infamous.” The worst thing in the world is when no one notices you, when you have no relations with other people. Voldemort never had love, so he settled for fear and hatred. He never was famous, so he made himself infamous. He chose the dark path, hoping it would lead him to glory…
Okay, that was the basics; let’s move on to something much more interesting: Voldemort’s different names and what they might entail.
As Shakespeare put it, what’s in a name? And why has JKR given Voldemort so many of them. The only other characters having more than one name (and I’m not counting middle names) in the series are the Marauders. Sure, people might be called different things every once in a while – e.g. “Potty,” “Weasel King,” “Snivellus” – but theses are temporary insults rather than fixed names. Let’s take a look at Voldemort’s different names and at who uses them.
Tom (Riddle) – This is his given name, which he also used at Hogwarts. Harry used it in the Chamber of Secrets, before he knew who Tom was, but there is only one person who uses it to address the “present” (i.e. in OotP, the newly restored) Voldemort, and that’s Dumbledore.
(Lord) Voldemort – This is the name Tom created for himself and the one he uses for himself. I find it interesting how Voldemort often speaks of himself in the third person: it’s “you thought you could escape Lord Voldemort” and “you have Lord Voldemort’s gratitude,” using the name rather than a pronoun (me/my). Very few other people use the name “Voldemort,” which people in general are to scared to pronounce (I have a very nice parallel regarding this that I’ll soon get to), and among those there are only people who oppose him: Harry, Dumbledore, Lupin, Sirius and Hermione.
Dark Lord – This is the name his followers use and the one which was used in the two prophecies. Snape still uses it, not daring to speak the name of “Voldemort,” which is also interesting, as he’s supposedly left the dark side.
You-Know-Who and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named – These are used by people in general.
Okay, so here’s what I’ve observed.
The names can be used to draw a parallel between Voldemort and God (Old Testament). In the Hebrew original texts, two words are used to designate God: “Elohim”, which means “God” (or literally, it means “Gods” as it’s in the plural) and “YHWH,” which you’re not allowed to pronounce. When Jews read the Torah (their holy scriptures, which corresponds to the Christian Old Testament), they are to substitute “YHWH” with “Adonaï,” which means “Lord.” To actually pronounce “YHWH,” including the vowels (because in Hebrew, you only write the consonants and insert the appropriate vowels as you speak) is a Jewish sin, a bad one (remember the stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian :-)). Traditionally, the name is pronounced only once a year, by the High Priest in the holiest part of the Temple in Jerusalem. (At least, this was the way it was done in biblical times; I don’t know if it has been modified since. So if you’re Jewish and reading this and I’m saying things wrong, feel free to send me an e-mail.) Most Christian Bibles follow this rule too, using “The Lord” instead of “YHWH” in the translations. Man is thus not allowed to pronounce God’s name (cf. the Death Eaters, who say “Lord” or “Dark Lord,” NEVER “Voldemort”). This is probably because of old beliefs that if you knew somebody’s real name, you could gain power over him/her through magic. This is true in Egyptian mythology, for example, and seems to have been pretty widespread in the Middle East. The other way of gaining power over a person or a God through magic was by possessing their picture, ergo the second commandment (“You shall not make idols ”).
So, man is not allowed to pronounce God’s name. God himself on the other hand does this quite a bit, AND has a fondness of speaking of himself in the third person. Let’s take a look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) for example: “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished he who takes his name in vain,” “The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord, your God,” “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth.” Of course, there are also loads of examples where God speaks in the first person, which is also true for Voldemort. Their ways of talking about themselves are very similar, and I find this intriguing. Let’s look further…
Something really hit me when I re-read GoF and OotP this week: the scene in the graveyard and the scene in the Hall of Prophecies. In the graveyard, Voldemort says, “Listen to me, reliving family history… (he said quietly.) ‘Why, I am growing quite sentimental… but look Harry! My true family returns….'” The word “true” is in italics (i.e. emphasised), and it’s ambiguous whether it’s Voldemort or JKR doing the emphasising (possibly both). So, who is Voldemort’s true family? His Death Eaters, of course; a small number of faithful followers who follow him and who do his bidding. In OotP, we learn that Voldemort had many other followers, people who supported him without being DEs (e.g. the Black family).
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” and stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father, is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Jesus’ true family are those who follow him (and the will of God), Voldemort’s true family are those who follow him. Also, the parallel between Jesus and Voldemort in the graveyard can be established in many other ways: Voldemort is restored to his body, “resurrected” you might even say. Sure, he was never truly dead, but then you could argue that Jesus wasn’t either since per definition, a god is immortal. Plus, with the whole Trinity thing, it’d be hard to say that Jesus was 100% dead, as the Father and Holy Spirit supposedly were still alive to perform the miracles at the crucifixion.
Further, the DEs approach Voldemort with the same wonder and disbelief as Jesus’ disciples when THEY first saw their master resurrected (note also how the DEs and the Disciples all use “Master” and “Lord” when they address their masters).
Luke 24:37 – “But [the disciples] were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.”
Matthew 28:17 – “When they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted.”
Matthew 28:9 – “They approached, embraced his feet and did him homage.”GoF, p.561: “And [the DEs] moved forwards… slowly, cautiously, as though they could hardly believe their eyes. Voldemort stood in silence, waiting for them. Then one of the Death Eaters fell to his knees, crawled towards Voldemort, and kissed the hem of his black robes. ‘Master… Master…’ he murmured. The Death Eaters behind him did the same; each of them approaching Voldemort on his knees, and kissing his robes, before backing away and standing up, forming a silent circle.”
It’s striking, don’t you think?
To this, you could add that the disciples of Jesus were baptised with fire (and the Holy Spirit, see Matthew 3:11 for an example) and the disciples of Voldemort have the Dark Mark burned into their skin. Also, did you notice how many DEs were present at the DoM in OotP? That’s right: twelve (p. 689), like the twelve disciples of Jesus.
Okay, I presented my parallels. Let’s just get one thing straight: I am NOT saying that Voldemort is a symbol for Jesus or God. I repeat, I DO NOT think that JKR is using Voldemort to symbolise Jesus or God. So please, don’t send me e-mails saying I did. That was the disclaimer; now let’s go on with it. 🙂
Voldemort has things in common with both God and Jesus (even though, according to the Trinity, they’re the same being), but so have two other characters: Dumbledore and Harry. Dumbledore looks like the traditional “Father” – very old and with long white hair and beard (cf. Daniel 7:9). He’s also extremely powerful and can be very scary when he’s angry (GoF, p. 590: “There was no benign smile upon Dumbledore’s face, no twinkle in the eyes behind the spectacles. There was a cold fury in every line of the ancient face; a sense of power radiated from Dumbledore as though he was giving off burning heat.”) It’s also interesting to note that both Dumbledore and Voldemort are expert Legilimens and know what people think and feel. Harry’s often amazed at Dumbledore’s ability to “see right through him” for example.
Harry, on the other hand, has a pretty easily detected messianic value: it’s been foretold by a prophecy that he will be the one to vanquish the Dark Lord. Let’s stop here for a second to note two things: 1) The prophecies also use the term “Dark Lord” to refer to Voldemort, in the same way as the biblical prophets use “Lord” to refer to YHWH 2) There’s a parallel between Jesus and Harry, but also between Jesus and Voldemort (and, according to what I said in NT 19, between Lily and Jesus). Further, there’s a parallel between God and Dumbledore and God and Voldemort. How does this work out? Just wait; it’ll get even more complicated
The thing is that the trio Dumbledore-Harry-Voldemort doesn’t only resemble the God-Jesus side of the coin, but also the opposing side, i.e. Satan and anti-Christ. Voldemort has many names, as does Jesus, as does God and as does Satan (Satan is the Hebrew word for “Accuser,” by the way) The Bible’s all nice and mixed up when it comes to these figures. There’s the story of Lucifer (“Bringer of light”), who was one of the highest angels but who was thrown out of Heaven when he didn’t want to bow down to God’s newest creation – Man – because he thought himself, who had been made from fire, superior to Adam, who’d been made of clay. (cf. Tom Riddle, the most brilliant student Hogwarts has ever seen and whose hatred for muggles lead him down the dark path). The image of the Fallen Angel has then been mixed with the Accuser (e.g. the book of Job), Beelzebub, a bunch of demons, the serpent in the garden of Eden, Leviathan the dragon, etc., and *swoosh* we have our contemporary Devil. This kind of fusion is quite common in the Bible. One good example is Mary Magdalene, who’s been fashioned from several different women in the gospels. Another is actually God himself, when you go into the history of the Bible and put the texts in their historical, religious and political context. (There are loads of books on this, it’s not something I made up; so don’t go killing the messenger. Also note that I’m here talking of the Bible as a literary work, the actual text, not as the concretisation of the word of God, so I’m not blaspheming or attacking anyone.)
Next thing: Harry and the Anti-Christ. Revelations 13
“(The beast I saw was like a leopard, but it had feet like a bear’s, and its mouth was like the mouth of a lion.) To it the Dragon gave its own power and throne, along with great authority. I saw that one of [the Beast’s] heads seemed to have been mortally wounded, but this mortal wound was healed. Fascinated, the whole world followed after the Beast.”
Voldemort (the Dragon, which in Latin (“draco”) also means “snake”) gave his own power (both magical = “power” and worldly = “throne”) to Harry (the Beast, note the double reference to a lion – a leopard is half lion half panther) the night he gave him the wound on his forehead, which should have been fatal but was healed. And the whole wizard world is fascinated…
Okay, so what do we make of all this? First of all, I think it’s important to state that even though all three characters are deified in one way or another by people who admire, idolise, trust and fear them (note that all three are feared at some time or another by somebody), they are essentially human. Okay, so Voldemort a little less because of all the dark transformations, but still. They all have exceptional magical powers. Voldemort and Dumbledore are the most powerful wizards in the world and Harry’s promising to reach their level (remember that he’s already escaped Voldemort four times, won the Triwizard Tournament at 14, produced a Patronus at 13, taught DADA with great success at 15, etc. He’s exceptional.)
Secondly, there’s a strong connection between the three of them. Strange likenesses you might say. The parallels to Jesus, God and Satan (let’s call him that to keep it easy) criss-cross each other, which is indeed very confusing. What is JKR playing at?
This is my interpretation: It seems like “the world is not divided into good people and Death Eaters” is a key sentence to this mystery. If you take a look at the Biblical structure when it comes to the three personas God-Jesus-Satan, you’ll notice that they’re extremely contradictory, too. Maybe the point is that the world isn’t black and white? (And it’s killing me not to know what that “glimmer of triumph” in Dumbledore’s eyes means!)
In addition, in the graveyard scene, the biblical allusion is one of compare-contrast. It’s very similar in structure, but Jesus blesses his disciples, Voldemort demands atonement. Jesus says “Peace;” Voldemort says “I do not forgive, I do not forget.” (Although Jesus also says things in the gospels like, “I have come to bring not peace but the sword” (Matthre 10:34), “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30) and “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthre 13:32), you can find many, many contradictions if you just read through the text.) Personally, I find both characters (Jesus and Voldemort) quite ambiguous and contradictory. I don’t know why JKR has chosen to write her story this way, but I really hope she’ll give a lot of interviews after the seventh book…
Something I’ve come to believe in while writing this though is that Dumbledore won’t die in the series. He won’t die because he’s part of the JKR “Trinity” D-H-V, and they’re all interconnected. Dumbledore is strongly paralleled to God-Father, the “all-knowing” and wise. His pet is a phoenix – a classical symbol of resurrection, which also ties him to Voldemort and Harry, whose wands were made from the same bird. The phoenix is also connected to fire, and the “Ancient One” (Daniel 7:9) sits on a throne of fire. Plus, from a technical point of view, JKR needs Dumbledore to explain the ingenuity of her plot, so she probably won’t kill him. 🙂 Except for that, it’s anyone’s guess.
Okay, that was all for today. If you want to e-mail me, feel free, just one thing: if you’re writing to tell me I’m wrong about something, please check that I’ve actually said what you’re criticising, as it is rather annoying to read long letters yelling at me for saying things I didn’t say in the first place (although it’s quite amusing when people do this and then use my own arguments as theirs to “prove me wrong”). Feel free to criticise, but do it in a correct way. 🙂
Take care you all!
PS. In NT 20, when I wrote “the Slytherins are bad wizards and the Huffelpuff are a bunch of morons (Hagrid)” “(Hagrid)” signifies of course that it was he who said these things, not that he was a Hufflepuff (or Slytherin for that matter). JKR has said that he was in Gryffindor; we all know that.
Also, I’ve received some more support for my Ravenclaw = romance theory:
- Percy’s girlfriend Penelope was in Ravenclaw and blonde Fleur Delacour (love interest of Ron and then of Bill) sat at the Ravenclaw table when at Hogwarts. Thanks guys!
And from Raika:
“I love your analysis of Rowena Ravenclaw’s “glen” as a metaphor for those difficult-to-understand Ravenclaws, who live in what I would call an ‘ivory tower of higher learning.’ You should also note that the name ‘Rowena’ means ‘fair.’ I found the following meanings on www.20000-names.com:
Welsh: Rowena, ‘slender and fair’
Anglo-Saxon: Rowena, ‘white-haired’
Celtic: Rowena, ‘white, comely’
All of these suggest beauty rather than justice or wisdom. I am unsure whether “white-haired” would refer to the hair of a wise old woman or to white-blond hair, though I tend to think the latter fits better with the name’s other meanings.”