Lord Voldemort vs. Tom Riddle: Through the Pensieve
I will try not to gush, but book 6 might be my favorite book of the series. In my opinion, OotP is the most beautifully written; it is complex and subtle and ambitious beyond the other books. PoA, in turn, I think has the best story; the characters, from the Marauders to Trelawney; the creatures, like Dementors and boggarts; and even the spells, such as the Patronus, are by far the most fascinating in the series. And GoF still remains to me the zenith of the masterful construction that the HP books are known for: the mystery, the slew of new characters introduced, and the several layers of plot are in no place more seamlessly woven together. But HBP stands apart because it truly is a theorist’s dream come true. We are positively drenched in backstory. The plot does not develop in the halls of Hogwarts so much as deep within the Pensieve, and for an obsessed fan, going backwards through time is as captivating as moving forwards.
In HBP, the mystery is in the memories. We have always known Lord Voldemort as a somewhat one-dimensional evil genius, but HBP unlocks the far more complicated character of Tom Riddle. Dumbledore’s collection of memories on Tom Riddle is part of his lifes work, and one of his final acts is to impart this wisdom to Harry. Some of this knowledge is practical, such as potential manifestations and locations of Horcruxes. However, the majority of this knowledge is highly abstract. More than just providing explicit instructions (something Dumbledore rarely does) he is telling Harry everything he knows about Tom Riddle because therein lies the key to destroying Lord Voldemort.
Lord Voldemort, through all of his transformations, is now barely a man. Tom Riddle, however, embodies the human, and thus the fallible, side of him. Therefore, I wanted to coalesce several of the facts we learn about Tom Riddle in HBP that we did not know before. How has becoming an authority on Tom Riddle potentially helped Harry in his fight against Lord Voldemort?
1. Tom Riddle collected certain objects.
“…the young Tom Riddle liked to collect trophies. You saw the box of stolen articles he had hidden in his room. These were taken from victims of his bullying behavior, souvenirs, if you will, of particularly unpleasant bits of magic.”
In the quote above, the two words used to describe Riddles artifacts are “trophies” and “souvenirs.” This immediately struck me as a reference to serial killers, many of whom are known to keep mementos of their crimes, as these mementos are in fact actually labeled either “trophies” or “souvenirs” by experts. A souvenir can be clothing, jewelry, or other personal items taken from victims. Notorious serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer kept photos of their victims — Dahmer even held on to body parts — and George Russell Jr. kept rings from two of his female victims.
I did some preliminary research on the motivation behind this behavior. Apparently, collecting “souvenirs” indicates that the killer takes a sadistic pleasure in violence, and keeping a memento enables him to repeatedly relive and enjoy the memories of the crime. Moreover, these objects are often kept out of pride, hence the term “trophy.” When Ted Bundy was asked why he took pictures of his victims, he said, “when you work hard to do something right, you don’t want to forget it.”
Knowing that Riddle was proud of his crimes is hardly good news, but it’s certainly useful. Dumbledore searches for the cave because it is a monument to one of Riddle’s first acts of sadism. Moreover, the notion of “reliving” the memories of the crime, aside from just being creepy, made me think of what exactly happened to Dumbledore when he drank the green liquid in the cave. His almost childish moans of “I know I did wrong, oh, please make it stop and I’ll never, never again” (pg. 572), coupled with his sobbing and obedience to Harry suggested to me, upon first reading at least, that the green liquid was making Dumbledore experience what happened to the young children in the cave. Riddle’s souvenirs not only indicate where Voldemort hid the Horcruxes, but also what Harry might expect to face in destroying them.
2. Tom Riddle was never punished for his behavior.
Despite my comparing him to sociopathic killers, the Pensieve actually provides some rationalization for Tom Riddle’s behavior. Instead of being punished for using magic to bully other children in the orphanage, Tom is taken from the orphanage to Hogwarts, and thus rewarded for his behavior. This positive reinforcement for aggression may have permanently conditioned him to believe that inspiring fear in others has rewards. Incidentally, Tom’s Dark powers continued to garner him positive feedback at Hogwarts, where he naturally attracted the devotion of weaker people who sought his protection. By choosing Tom as a favorite student, Professor Slughorn also demonstrated the benefits associated with using others for ones disposal: “I have excellent contacts at the Ministry” [said Slughorn].
Because Riddle’s powers, which he used mainly to bully, led to his removal from the orphanage, it is rational for him to interpret fear as positive and continue to seek it from other people. Voldemort must thrive off of the wizarding world’s terror in even saying his name. Perhaps he was terrified of Dumbledore not only because Dumbledore was a powerful wizard, but also because Dumbledore alone was not scared of him. If fear makes Voldemort stronger, lack of fear when facing him might consequently make him weaker.
3. Tom Riddle had a miserable childhood.
Before HBP, Tom might only have been appealing to Armando Dippet’s sympathy in CoS by playing up being an orphan. But in HBP we learn that he legitimately had it bad — even Harry expresses some amount of pity for the sad state of the orphanage. There is something almost pathetic about Riddle’s devotion to Hogwarts, and how he seeks objects that are representative of its history, because the school is indeed the only sense of belonging he ever knew: “Hogwarts was where he had been happiest, the first and only place he had felt at home,” [said Dumbledore].
Sure, expecting Harry to feel sorry for Voldemort now may be a pipe dream, but Harry does know this much: his mother did everything in her power to protect him while Riddle’s mother did not. These two events ended up shaping their destinies. By telling Harry this, Dumbledore has given him at least a small shred of empathy for Riddle.
Harry sat stunned for a moment at the idea of someone having their soul sucked out through their mouth. But then he thought of Black.
“He deserves it,” he said suddenly.
“You think so?” said Lupin lightly. “Do you really think anyone deserves that?” -Harry/Lupin, PoA
Like Lupin, Harry actually can not help but hesitate when passing such severe judgement; he won’t kill Sirius when he thinks he betrayed his parents, he won’t let Pettigrew die, and he doesn’t have enough power to Crucio Bellatrix after she kills his godfather. Im not saying that Harry will want to save Voldemort or anything, but feeling empathy for Riddle may cause him to explore other avenues for vanquishing Voldemort — the “other ways of destroying a man [than death]” that Dumbledore so cryptically refers to in OotP.
4. Tom Riddle was excessively curious.
Riddle comes across eerily like Harry. One of my favorite scenes in HBP is when Harry asks Slughorn nervously, “Sir, I wondered what you know about…about Horcruxes?” Harry quotes Tom verbatim; they even stutter at the same place. More than both just being orphans, they share an overwhelming sense of curiosity.
“Curiosity is not a sin,” he said. “But we should exercise caution with our curiosity…yes, indeed.”
Neither Harry nor Riddle seems to set much store by this advice. Tom was entranced by his abilities even before the age of eleven; he was so curious about his powers that he never stopped to examine their consequences. Similarly, Harry recklessly attempts all of the Half-Blood Prince’s spells, including Sectumsempra — with its ominous “For Enemies” note — just to explore the extent of his capabilities. Later, when Professor Slughorn says to Riddle: “I’d like to know where you get your information boy; more knowledgeable than half the staff you are,” it is an echo of Hagrid’s comment to the trio in GoF: “Never known kids like you three fer knowing moren yeh oughta.”
I am positive that it was a major intention of Dumbledore to show the similarities between Harry and Tom Riddle through the Pensieve. If I had to guess why, it would be that Voldemort’s ability to see himself in Harry is his greatest weapon against him. Voldemort can always determine how best to tempt Harry, such as in OotP, when he knows that Harry will be lured by visions of the corridor in the DoM. By learning that Riddle suffered from the same weakness of curiosity, Harry may realize that he can think the way Voldemort thinks as well, and thus figure out how best to tempt him in turn.
5. Tom Riddle believed magic could have saved his mother’s life.
“My mother can’t have been magic, or she wouldn’t have died.”
Though we have known since GoF at least that Voldemort is above all driven to conquer death, we see in HBP that this drive is not so much a desire for immortality as a paralyzing fear of mortality. Specifically, Tom Riddle believes that magic could have saved his mother from death. Here is where Riddle prominently diverges from Harry. Harry is all too aware of the terrible power of magic; Dark Magic led to his parents’ demise, after all, and left him alone in the world. Curious though he was to attempt the Sectumsempra, he is terrified after seeing its result on Draco. Riddle, on the other hand, is consumed by the fear that lack of magic will lead to death. He forgets that too much of anything, even magic, is never a good thing.
Voldemort has tried too hard. He has done too much magic to avoid death — to his cost. Stating this conclusion here may seem redundant, as it is explicitly spelled out in the series. Whatever specific action caused Dumbledore’s gleam of triumph in GoF, it is obvious that Voldemort is weaker because of his various experiments. He drank unicorn’s blood even though he would have merely a “half-life, a cursed life.” He used Pettigrew’s hand even though Pettigrew owed a life debt to Harry. And he has split his soul way above the legal limit. Still, I specifically want to highlight the fact that Harry now knows why Voldemort makes so many mistakes in avoiding death. He behaves too recklessly, even desperately, as those who are afraid often do.
6. Tom Riddle was obsessed with his parentage.
During their first trip into the Pensieve, Dumbledore tells Harry everything he knows about the House of Gaunt, what happened to each member of the doomed family, how Merope used a love potion, and why Riddle Sr. subsequently left her. Why does Harry need to know every single detail about Voldemort’s past? After all, not all of it is relevant to Horcruxes.
I think there is reason to believe that Voldemort knows less about his family than Dumbledore does. Voldemort obviously did not have access to several of the memories. He even makes certain fallacious claims, i.e. that his father abandoned his mother just because he found out she was a witch.
“I, keep the name of a foul, common Muggle, who abandoned me even before I was born, just because he found out his wife was a witch?”
But Dumbledore shows how it was not specifically Riddle Sr. who abused Merope Gaunt; her father and brother abused her far more. Moreover, Riddle Sr. did not just abandon Merope because of her magic; she had, in fact, tricked him into loving her, possibly through use of a love potion.
Before HBP, Dumbledore possibly knew more about Riddle’s past than anyone else. The image of him telling Harry the entire Gaunt saga reminded me more than anything of the use of oral history in certain cultures. In western Africa, a griot was a story-teller who perpetrated the oral tradition of a village or family. Through song and stories, the griot was a living record of history and genealogy. Griots would pass down this history to their successors similar to the way that Dumbledore is passing down his record of Tom Riddle’s history to Harry. Now that Dumbledore is gone, Harry is the only record of Voldemort’s past. And Tom Riddle, as we know, was obsessed with finding out about his past:
“Those whom I could persuade to talk told me that Riddle was obsessed with his parentage.”
Dumbledore knows the reason Harry has been kept alive at so many points is because he has something that Voldemort wants. In GoF, Barty Jr. protects Harry with almost loving care because Voldemort wants his blood. In OotP, the Death Eaters do not touch Harry because he can get the prophecy. Though Voldemort may not realize it yet, Harry may now have something more that Voldemort desires: the only record of his history.
“And it…its got something to do with the prophecy?”
“It has everything to do with the prophecy.”
There are several more potentially relevant facts about Tom Riddle that can aid Harry in his quest, whether they have practical or abstract repercussions. Moreover, there are alternate conclusions that can be drawn from the few facts that I have listed above. Ultimately, I think this is the most profitable line of reasoning to take from HBP, at least while we are all still digesting the novel. Large sections of book 6 are told through memory, as the clues to the end of the series are in the past. Though Harry is not yet sure why, he realizes that his next adventure will take place at Godric’s Hollow, where it all began for him. And concurrently, Voldemort’s demise will be rooted in his own beginnings, as Tom Riddle.