A Woman and a Snake: Did Lord Voldemort really Know Nothing of Love?
Summary: It seems to be a widely accepted fact that Lord Voldemort is utterly incapable of love. I disagree with that assessment. I examine Voldemort’s circumstances and his character to try and see the truth: was he really just plain evil, and if so, what drove him to become so?
“That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped”. DH p. 709
That is Dumbledore’s opinion of Lord Voldemort, and it is one of the times when, I think, our favorite headmaster might be wrong. Let’s examine the character of Lord Voldemort closely.
I think many agree that had Merope Gaunt survived, her son would be a very different person, a better person. Therefore, we must conclude that he was not born inherently evil. He must have become so.
Voldemort had come from the Gaunt and the Riddle families. He inherited his good looks from his father, a man who was not a nice person by any means. Arrogant and selfish; no one had half a good word to say about him after his death, nor about his parents: “Elderly Mr. and Mrs. Riddle had been rich, snobbish, and rude, and their grown-up son, Tom, had been, if anything, worse” (GOF p. 2). Now, the Gaunts, due to their inbreeding – “..the last of the Gaunts, a very ancient Wizarding family noted for a vein of instability and violence that flourished through the generations due to their habit of marrying their own cousins” (HBP p. 212), had a streak of violence, cruelty, mental instability, and lack of morals in the family. Might not Voldemort have inherited this instability from the Gaunts, just as he inherited his looks from Tom Riddle? Entirely possible. His genetics didn’t look too promising.
Now, to examine the circumstances of his birth. He was born in an orphanage, and his mother died within the hour. In other words, the only person who would have loved him unconditionally was taken from him by death, and, due to his father’s abandonment, he was left entirely without any social support network. The orphanage workers considered him a strange child, and is it hard to imagine just how little affection (never mind love) they might have given him: “He was a funny baby too. He hardly ever cried, you know. And then, when he got a little older, he was… odd”. HBP p. 267)
Thus, the first formative influence in Voldemort’s life was an utter lack of love and a crushing sense of abandonment. Is this not where his fear of death came from? The one person who would have loved him, the one person who would have changed his life completely, was taken from him by Death. As a child, he quite possibly was not able to understand that death was a part, and natural conclusion, of life. He only knew that his mother’s unwillingness or inability to live had cost him everything. (“..the woman whom, you will remember, he had thought could not be a witch if she had succumbed to the shameful human weakness of death”. HBP p. 363; “My mother can’t have been magic, or she wouldn’t have died”, HBP p. 275)
By the time Dumbledore arrived at the orphanage, he saw a cruel, but lonely child. Voldemort was tormenting other children, but was he really a bully just because he could be? Isn’t a bully just a victim of bullying who takes out his pain on others? Is it really that hard to imagine a younger Voldemort, perhaps just starting to exhibit signs of magic – (“And then, when he got a little older, he was… odd”. HBP p. 267; “He scares the other children” HBP p. 267) – having the same experience as Ariana Dumbledore? Loads of children, limited adult supervision… I would be surprised if this kind of thing didn’t happen. But, unlike Ariana, he gave back better (or far worse) than he got.
So, at the age of 11, Voldemort was a cruel, lonely, problem child. But evil? Not by a long shot. Not yet. Even his veneer of deceitful likability was not in place yet. So how do we get from a problem child to a person who, by age 16, killed 4 people, framed a (relatively) innocent person for Azkaban, and made a Horcrux or two? The answer is Hogwarts.
Like all fans, at one time I dreamed of getting a letter from Hogwarts. But as I grew up, and studied pedagogies in college, I began to see a glaring flaw in magical education. Hogwarts puts a huge emphasis on magic and outward discipline, but do the students get any moral instruction? Beyond reprimands for bad behavior and detentions, none. A large group of children, away from parents for 10 months of the year, with very limited adult supervision (or such useless teachers as Snape or Umbridge), and no moral instruction? I am surprised that so many Hogwarts students turn out to be productive members of society. And Slytherins, self-serving and cunning, seem to be in particular danger.
Now take Voldemort, a problem child that he was, with all his shortcomings, and put him in an environment with zero moral instruction and an emphasis on outward discipline. Would he not learn “do as you will, just don’t get caught”? (“..never detected in open wrongdoing, although their seven years at Hogwarts were marked by a number of nasty incidents to which they were never satisfactorily linked” HBP p. 362) Consider Dumbledore, who alone saw through Tom Riddle’s shell of likability, yet did nothing more than observe.
By the age of 16, Voldemort had become the person he would be, and it was entirely too late to change that. He might spend the next many years recruiting followers, learning Dark Magic, and creating Horcruxes, but by age 16, he had become a depraved, cruel, amoral person. It is easier to blame him than to examine his circumstances and see that many people shared in the guilt of him transforming into what he was in his journey from an astonishingly lonely, abandoned, unloved child to the monster he had become. (“At the same age as you (Harry) are now, give or take a few months, Tom Riddle was doing all he could to find out how to make himself immortal” HBP p. 499; “..the wizard so determined to evade death that he would be prepared to murder many times, rip his soul repeatedly, so as to store it in many, separately concealed Horcruxes” HBP p. 500)
Is it really right to blame him for letting his deepest fear – the fear of death – run away from him? After all, at 16, the age when his classmates were dreaming of teenage crushes and racing brooms, would he really be mature enough to contemplate the nature of life and death, and the “incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole”? HBP p. 511
Now, let’s examine the case of Voldemort and love. Since he was not born inherently evil, I do not agree that he was born without the ability to feel it. I think his fear of death is a dead giveaway. Death stole from him the only person who loved him, the most sacred connection, the most pure, that between a mother and child, was taken from him before he was an hour old. In many species, the loss of the mother means the death of the young. Humans had learned to prevent the physical death of a child in such circumstances, but did anyone really care to see how he fared emotionally? Not a single person. But did he really lose the desire, the craving for love? I don’t believe it. More likely, this overwhelming craving for love, which really is the thing that makes us human, was too painful for him. His loneliness, his separation from others, looks to me as a reflex to protect himself. He had learned not to want that which he could not have – love, acceptance, care. Wanting this most fundamental thing was too painful, so he learned to not want it, learned to diminish its value until it had none. Not a healthy reaction, but only too understandable.
Now, let’s examine the relationships of the adult Voldemort. The only relationship that even Dumbledore admitted looked like genuine affection was Voldemort’s relationship with Nagini: (“I think he is perhaps as fond of her as he can be of anything: he certainly likes to keep her close, and he seems to have an unusual amount of control over her, even for a Parselmouth” HBP p. 506). He had entrusted her, a living, thinking being, with a piece of his soul – a thing unheard of and not advisable. He seemed to have had great control over her but didn’t seem to use overt magic to use it. It’s possible that since she was a Horcrux, he could control her more, but didn’t he have to have a modicum of trust in her before he entrusted her with the most sacred thing before her being a Horcrux gave him such power over her? And what could Nagini have done to earn that affection and trust, however limited? The one thing that, like love, was out of his reach. Acceptance. Nagini, as an animal, had little opportunity to judge her master, but could she love her master, even in a limited way? Yes, and she did. (And anyway, what did a person entirely devoid of affection want with a pet?) His human companions, as we know, largely feared, despised, and distrusted him. But were any of them truly loyal, had any of them truly accepted him for what he was?
As a matter of fact, one person did. Bellatrix Lestrange. Now, there’s little doubt that she loved Voldemort. But what exactly were his feeling in this matter? We have established that Voldemort, even as the depraved being that he had become, was capable of affection. Isn’t it possible that acceptance might have been too tempting for him to resist when freely given?
Bellatrix, a beautiful, wealthy, pure-blood witch, who had married a rich, pure-blood man, did not want her husband. She wanted Voldemort. A man so far gone down the path of evil, that he was not even human anymore. The man that few could look at without complete disgust and terror. The man who treated even his followers with abject cruelty. Yet she still wanted him. And isn’t love stronger when we love in spite of other opinions? It’s easy to love the likable, the kind, and the beautiful. Her love had no such easy path. That is why, to a person who knew little acceptance, it might have been irresistible.
Let’s examine the evidence. Along with Lucius Malfoy and Severus Snape, Bellatrix was among Voldemort’s top lieutenants, and one of the two he entrusted with Horcruxes. Malfoy had kept one too, but without knowledge of what it was, he had used it for his own ends. He was punished for that, but not killed. The diary Horcrux was intended to be a weapon as well as a safeguard, and its loss, while serious, was not critical (“.. he (Voldemort) was being remarkably blasé about that precious fragment of his soul concealed within it” HBP p. 501). Then came the fiasco of the Battle of the Ministry. Malfoy, as the leader, was held responsible and was punished much more severely: not with pain, or even death, but with the safety of his child. A crushing thing, and one that only a person who knows of the power of love over others could comprehend and devise. By the time of Voldemort’s takeover, Malfoy was reduced to nothing. The things most important to him – social standing and his family – were in so much danger, and he was left entirely unable to protect them.
Now, let’s take Snape. He was really loyal to Dumbledore, but since Voldemort, the most accomplished Legilimens ever, had never suspected this, Snape must not have done a single thing wrong. Ever. Yet what was his fate? When it was to Voldemort’s advantage, he disposed of Snape with barely a word to spare. The one man who never did anything wrong was most useful, and, far as Voldemort knew, the most loyal, dispatched with a flick of a wand. (“You have been a good and faithful servant, and I regret what must happen” DH p. 656; “I regret it”, said Voldemort coldly. DH p. 656)
Bellatrix had been faithful, tried to find Voldemort, and had gone to Azkaban for him. Was any of this truly useful? No. She was just as responsible for the Ministry fiasco as Malfoy, yet what was her punishment? Voldemort did not tolerate failure, and she was the only person he could punish, the rest being in Azkaban, and temporarily out of his reach. Under the circumstances, he called her “Bella” TWICE (“No, Bella, he is not lying…” “Be quiet, Bella”, said Voldemort dangerously, “I shall deal with you in a moment” OOP p. 812), spent crucial seconds saving her, when he could’ve fled and not be seen (“I saw him, Mr Fudge, I swear, it was You-Know-Who, he grabbed a woman and Disapparated!” OOP p. 817), and how exactly did he punish her? A private torture session and a falling out? (“He shares everything with me!” said Bellatrix, firing up at once. “He calls me his most loyal, his most faithful…” “Does he?” said Snape, his voice delicately inflected to suggest his disbelief. “Does he still, after the fiasco at the Ministry?” “That was not my fault!” Said Bellatrix, flushing. “The Dark Lord has, in the past, entrusted me with his most precious…” HBP p. 29) Hardly adequate punishment, if you ask me.
Now, let’s see about Bellatrix’s statement that he shared with her the “most precious”… What? Admittedly, Voldemort loved his secrecy more than the next man, but what secret could he have shared with Bellatrix? Everyone knew about the prophecy’s existence, the importance of Harry’s death, and the Dark Magic (even if not Horcruxes specifically) Voldemort uses to regenerate, the Priory Incantatem, the search for the Elder Wand, etc. What was the private thing he didn’t share with anyone? The knowledge of Horcruxes, maybe?…
Bellatrix was instructed to keep Hufflepuff’s cup in her Gringotts vault – one of the three Horcruxes entrusted to living beings. We saw what Malfoy did with his, and Nagini never betrayed Voldemort. If Bellatrix had never known what she had in her possession, as many believe, then why did she panic so badly when she saw that the Trio had the sword? (“Be quiet! The situation is graver than you can possibly imagine, Cissy! We have a very serious problem!”; “You have no idea of the danger we are in!” DH p. 462) If she only knew these were Founders’ objects, then the sword would be a bit more glamorous to her than a cup, don’t you think? And yet her reaction was “What else did you take? What else have you got?” (DH p. 465) To her, the sword was not NEARLY as important as the cup. She even stated that had Voldemort come at that time, they were all dead (“STOP!” shrieked Bellatrix. “Do not touch it (the Mark), we shall all perish if the Dark Lord comes now!” DH p. 461). Why? The only other person who caused a Horcrux to be destroyed was right there, Lucius Malfoy, standing in front of her very much alive. And didn’t she predict Voldemort’s reaction only TOO accurately? When he learned of the missing cup, he went absolutely mad, and started to kill his own followers indiscriminately (“…and again and again his wand fell, and those who were left were slain, all of them…” DH p. 549). While evil and cruel, Voldemort was not known for such wild abandon. What was much worse than a single Horcrux, a piece of Voldemort’s own soul, mutilated and destroyed? The knowledge of other Horcruxes, and the possibility of someone hunting them. The cup, unlike the diary, would do nothing to reveal its true nature, and for someone to go to such lengths as breaking into Gringotts, just to get to this innocent object, was only possible if someone knew the WHOLE truth. That was what Bellatrix was afraid of. And that is why she knew Voldemort’s reaction beforehand – no matter anyone’s usefulness, loyalty, or affection, when he himself was threatened, nothing else mattered. So, even if Voldemort had not shared this last secret with her, just how much did Bellatrix really know of this matter?
And, last but not least, let’s look at his reaction to her death. “He (Harry) saw McGonagall, Kingsley, and Slughorn blasted backward, flailing and writhing through the air, as Voldemort’s fury at the fall of his last, best lieutenant exploded with the force of a bomb. Voldemort raised his wand and directed it at Molly Weasley”. (DH p. 737) He was dueling three at once, just as Bellatrix did. She was the last of his followers standing, true, but really, why would his anger explode as a bomb and send three accomplished duelists flailing, why the angry scream, an attempt at retaliation when he himself was in danger, when he himself was threatened? Does a loyal and not-too-useful lieutenant, warrant such a reaction from a man such as this? I think not. But the only human who had ever loved him? The only human that was truly, absolutely loyal and accepting? The only one that saw him as worthy of their affection and acceptance, no matter what he had become and how badly he treated her? That deprivation warrants such a reaction. Only that loss can cause him to forget about himself, if only for a second, and while he was in such terrible danger, and try and avenge Bellatrix, a thing he did not think anyone worthy of, not even his mother.
Was Voldemort really incapable of love? Or did this tormented, depraved, unloved, loathed creature try and establish what relationships he could? You decide.
“There’s a room in the Department of Mysteries”, interrupted Dumbledore, “that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save Sirius tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you”.
OOTP p. 844
Love was indeed the power that Voldemort had not, and that had, in the end, destroyed him. But in what way? Did he know nothing of love? Or maybe no one bothered to teach him…