Defeat vs. Vanquish

by Bronte

Three things have stuck in my mind over the last couple of months. Firstly, on reading a fan fic (I can’t remember which, apologies to the author) whereupon hearing Trelawney’’s first prophecy from Harry, Hermione’’s first reaction is to head for the library (no surprise there) to check the possible meanings of “vanquish.”

*Memory refresher #1 – Trelawney’’s prophecy.

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches…born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….” (OotP 741, emphasis mine)

Secondly, on rereading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’’s Stone, I took note of the wording of Dumbledore’’s Chocolate Frog card.

*Memory refresher #2 – Dumbledore’’s Chocolate Frog card.

Albus Dumbledore, currently Headmaster of Hogwarts. Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood and his work on alchemy with his partner Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling.” (SS 77, emphasis mine)

Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald. This was also brought to my attention by an editorial here on MuggleNet, The Long Reach of Dumbledore, that among other things, suggested tongue-in-cheek that Peeves was a transfigured/transformed Grindelwald, accounting for why Dumbledore kept him around.

Thirdly, I recalled the oft-repeated maxim that JKR chooses her words very carefully.

What could the distinction between defeat and vanquish mean? With this in mind, I pulled out my trusty dictionary and looked up both “vanquish” and “defeat” in the Collins Concise Dictionary, 2000 edition.

to defeat or overcome in a battle, contest, etc.
To defeat in argument or debate
To conquer (an emotion)and

Defeat (from old French, to undo or ruin)
to overcome; win a victory over
to thwart or frustrate
(Law) to render null and void

Since both include “to overcome” as the primary definition, I looked that up, too.

to get the better of in a conflict
to render incapable or powerless by laughter, sorrow, exhaustion, etc.
to surmount obstacles, objections, etc.
to be victorious

The first thing that strikes me is that the definition of ‘”to vanquish”’ includes both “‘to defeat”’ and “‘to overcome,” whereas the definition of “‘to defeat”’ only contains “to overcome.” Where could this lead?

To begin with, the common denominator, ‘”to overcome,’” has four possible definitions.

1. to get the better of in a conflict

4. to be victorious
(Both of these essentially meaning to win with the other guy losing, no win-win situations allowed.)2. to render incapable or powerless by laughter, sorrow, exhaustion, etc.
(Rendering powerless sounds especially promising when the opponent, be it Voldemort, Grindelwald, or some other as yet unknown wizard have extremely high levels of magical power. The means, namely ‘by laughter, sorrow, exhaustion’, also sound promising as laughter and sorrow are emotions, as is love. Wow, this could be something significant for Harry: ‘power the Dark Lord knows not’ anyone?)

3. to surmount obstacles, objections, etc.
(This one I’’m not going to talk about, stuff will need to be surmounted before the war is over.)

Next on the list is Dumbledore’s achievement, ‘to defeat,’ which also is included as one of the possible meanings of “‘to vanquish.’” The first meaning is “to overcome” or “to win,” which we have already covered. The general impression in HP fandom seems to be that Dumbledore killed Grindelwald in order to save the wizarding world in 1945. Looking at the second and third possible definitions for defeat, namely:

2. to thwart or frustrate
3. to render null and void

I believe one possibility, consistent with the character of Dumbledore as a trusting giver of second chances, is that he did not murder or kill, but somehow made him magically impotent. This does beg the question of how Dumbledore manages to prevent the passing of copious amounts of Dark Magic knowledge from an impotent Grindelwald to a young apprentice, such as, oh, I don’’t know, Tom Riddle, perhaps.

This brings us to “‘to vanquish,”’ a verb that includes in its definitions both ‘”to defeat”’ and “‘to overcome.’” Removing these two definitions, what distinguishes ‘”to vanquish”’ from its near-synonyms?

3. to conquer (an emotion)

This hearkens back to the fandom interpretation of “power the Dark Lord knows not” as love, although it’s not yet explicitly defined in canon. Although it is to conquer an emotion, not to conquer by emoting, there may yet be significance. In my opinion, the best way to conquer a negative emotion is to conjure the opposing, positive one. This is the theory behind the Patronus Charm: happy memories overcoming the worst Dementors can throw at you, the same theory behind every good vs. evil movie ever made, with the good guys overcoming incredible odds to defeat the bad guys.

I find the most interesting part of the differences is the secondary meaning of defeat. Just how did Dumbledore overcome Grindelwald? Is he, as has been suggested, Peeves bouncing around the castle causing havoc? Has he been stripped of his magical power and is living as a Muggle? Is he an inmate of St. Mungo’s in the Spell Damage Ward with the Longbottoms and Gilderoy Lockhart, retaining no memory of the Dark Arts? Is he trapped inside one of Dumbledore’’s shiny instruments? If so, I hope it’’s not one of the shiny instruments Harry smashed…  wouldn’t want him to escape.

The essential difference between vanquishing and defeating an opponent then seems to be that vanquishing involves overcoming an emotion in the destruction and/or dissolution of the threat, whereas defeat imposes impotence on the defeated. I don’’t think Harry is going to be able to use the same method to defeat Voldemort as Dumbledore used on Grindelwald. It will be more irrevocable than that.

Vanquishing implies a more thorough end, removing both the threat (evil) and the vessel (Voldemort) than a simple defeat. In vanquishing Voldemort Harry will have to do more than remove his power and/or memory. This may not necessarily mean the use of Avada Kedavra, Harry is too merciful to effectively use an Unforgivable, as was seen in the Ministry of Magic. He will have to eliminate him, incapacitate him (perhaps decapitate him with the sword of Godric Gryffindor), perhaps dissolve him into thin air leaving no physical remains of Voldemort.

JKR has proven time and time again that she does not choose her words lightly, so why should we ignore such near-synonyms in something as carefully phrased as Trelawney’s prophecy?