The Yew Wand
Ah, wand lore – that most curious of sciences that gives us all such a headache. While we all ponder the mastery of the Elder Wand (Newt? Tina? Grindelwald?), I thought it’d be rewarding to examine the path of another very significant wand: Voldemort’s wand. And once I went down the rabbit hole, some fascinating things came up.
Before we begin, there is a key bit of info that Jo dropped in 2007’s Bloomsbury Live Chat: When asked how Voldemort got his wand back, she said, “Wormtail, desperate to curry favour, salvaged it from the place it had fallen and carried it to him.” So from 1981 until Voldy’s resurrection in 1995, Pettigrew owned Voldemort’s wand.
As far as inspiring this essay, credit must be given to one of my favorite writers from MuggleNet’s heyday, Brandon Ford of the Underground Lake. (I’ve been rereading his column, and it’s a sheer joy.) In The Underground Lake #2 (written in 2004!), Brandon posits:
Peter Pettigrew is a mystery, wrapped up in a riddle, inside an enigma. A point that has always bothered me is when Sirius cornered Pettigrew that Wednesday and Pettigrew blew up the street. McGonagall describes Pettigrew as “hopeless at dueling (Prisoner of Azkaban, 208)” and “was never quite in [James and Sirius’] league talent-wise (PoA, 207).” So how did he blow up a street and kill twelve people? How did someone described as being so inept murder [Cedric Diggory] with Avada Kedavra, a spell that needs “a powerful bit of magic behind it (Goblet of Fire, 217)”? The answer is with Voldemort’s wand.
I take my hat off to Brandon here (or I would if I were not afraid of showering him in spiders). It’s a brilliant point – that someone consistently described as talentless performed such impressive magic. To my knowledge, Pettigrew’s blown-up street is the only instance in the books of multiple deaths occurring from one spell.
However, Brandon was limited by only the first five books being out at the time he was writing. There was no control experiment to back up his hypothesis: We had only ever seen Wormtail wielding Voldemort’s wand because he was entirely MIA in Order of the Phoenix. However, we have since had two more books in which we do see Wormtail where he’s no longer in possession Voldemort’s wand.
And the results are in: After Wormtail relinquishes Voldemort’s wand, he never performs a single spell in the books again. He appears in three scenes: “Spinner’s End” (HBP chapter 2), “Dark Lord Ascending” (DH chapter 1), and, crucially, “Malfoy Manor” (DH chapter 23). We do not see him perform magic in any of them, though we know Ollivander made him a new wand which he was holding at Malfoy Manor. So the theory is correct: Wormtail’s magical abilities stemmed from using Voldemort’s formidable wand.
This is an interesting inversion of the norm. Ollivander claims that one “will never get such good results with another wizard’s wand” (SS 84). Much of Deathly Hallows rests on the notion that using a wand you haven’t mastered will make it difficult to do magic properly (and Pettigrew was not the master of Voldemort’s wand when he performed all that magic). So through some combination of Wormtail’s magical ability being so abysmal and Voldemort’s wand being so disproportionately powerful, Wormtail actually does better magic with a wand not his own.
This also helps put the power of the Elder Wand in perspective. After forty years of partnering with Voldemort, his wand has grown so powerful as to make a formidable wizard out of Peter Pettigrew. Imagine the power wielded by a wand that’s been in use for centuries by the most powerful Dark wizards! (Even aside from that, the wand has a century of work by Dumbledore and Grindelwald under its belt.)
So now that we know Voldemort’s wand is extremely powerful in its own right, it’s time to track it through the books.
A Not-So-Curious Choice
According to the rules of wand lore, when one wizard defeats another, that wizard masters the wand. While the question of what constitutes “defeat” is a murky one, the series opens with a very unequivocal defeat: That of baby Harry over Voldemort¹. Which means… Harry was the master of Voldemort’s wand from the age of one year old.
Fast forward ten years and Harry finds himself in Ollivander’s wand shop, looking for a wand to choose him. As we all know, the twin of Voldemort’s wand ends up choosing him, which Ollivander finds “Curious … how very curious …” (SS 85). Ollivander seems to assume this is the kind of capital-F Fate that one finds in high fantasy with too much frequency. But there are actually two very good reasons for the phoenix feather wand to choose Harry.
First, Harry actually contains a piece of Voldemort’s soul inside him. If the phoenix-and-yew wand felt a kinship with Tom Riddle, it logically follows that its twin would also choose Tom Riddle as its wizard. The phoenix-and-holly wand must have sensed the presence of its original master inside Harry and made the same choice as its twin.
Second, at this moment in time, Harry is actually the master of the phoenix-and-yew wand. So the phoenix-and-holly wand recognizes its twin’s master in Harry. While we don’t know how impactful this would be in a wand’s choice of wizard, it’s definitely a factor.
So when Harry grasps the phoenix-and-holly wand, the wand recognizes both its twin’s original choice and its current master. Small wonder, then, that it chooses Harry to be its wizard! It’s not Fate; it’s wand lore! It also drives home Dumbledore’s point that Voldemort and Harry’s destinies were wrapped “together more securely than ever two wizards were joined in history” (DH 711).
Defeats in the Graveyard
Things get very very complicated once Harry is Portkey-ed to the graveyard of Little Hangleton. Going in, Harry is still the master of both phoenix feather wands. But before Priori Incantatem takes place, it seems quite probable that the wands’ allegiances switched. (It’s very weird to think of them as a package deal, but here we are.)
We look to Jo’s own words for clarity, as she spoke on the subject on PotterCast in 2007:
I have been asked a lot of times, well what about Duelling Club and so on? Well, I think it’s clear there that in practice, where there’s no real weight attached to the transference of a wand, where it’s almost all for fun or purely for competition, there’s no enormous significance attached in either wizard’s mind to a wand flying out of someone’s hand. But there are situations in which the emotional state of wizards… where a lot hangs on a duel, that’s something different. That’s about real power and that’s about transference that will have far-reaching effects in some cases. So I think the wand would behave differently then.
First, it’s possible that the things Wormtail did to Harry qualify as defeating him. This is not fun or practice, this is (literally) about both life and death. Wormtail ties Harry up against a headstone (GoF 638), hits him (GoF 639), and cuts him to forcibly take his blood (GoF 642). Harry seems defeated after all that, which would make Pettigrew master of the phoenix wands for a very brief interval.
However, if Wormtail did become master of the wands, he was “defeated” in very short order by Voldemort. Voldemort’s first order of business after being robes: He “pointed [his wand] at Wormtail, who was lifted off the ground and thrown against the headstone where Harry was tied; he fell to the foot of it and lay there, crumpled up and crying” (GoF 644). Again, it’s hard to see what exactly counts as “defeating” in the context of wand lore, and I’d love to ask Jo for further clarification. Pettigew slammed Harry against a headstone, made him bleed, and generally humiliated him; Voldemort did all of those things to Wormtail. If we accept that Pettigrew defeated Harry in this context, we must also accept that Voldemort defeated Pettigrew in turn. This would make Voldemort the master of the phoenix wands.
However, it’s also possible that Pettigrew was never part of the line of succession. Given that he was just carrying out orders, maybe it was Voldemort who “defeated” Harry directly. After all, forcibly taking Harry’s blood to resurrect himself sure seems like Voldemort defeating Harry. This is very much a question for Jo to clarify – whether wands’ allegiance takes into account who’s calling the shots.
Either way, whether or not Wormtail is an intermediate master of the phoenix wands for a hot second, Voldemort ends up as master of both phoenix wands by the time he summons the Death Eaters. And here is where we leave the firm foundation of fact to guess at what happened next.
Restoring the Rightful Owner
Because nothing is made of either Harry or Voldemort having difficulty with their wands after Priori Incantatem, we must assume that mastery of the phoenix wands separated at some point in the graveyard and returned to Harry and Voldemort respectively. When and how this happened, we can only guess.
The issue is that we don’t have reliable information on Harry or Voldemort’s spellcasting in this scene compared to their norm. Harry does not cast a single spell until the disarming charm that activated Priori Incantatem. Voldemort just got his body back and is casting spells properly for the first time in years (not to mention, the action is fast and emotions are heightened). Neither one would really notice if their wand was acting wonky.
Parsing the data we do have, we see that Voldemort casts seven spells before the Killing Curse that activated Priori Incantatem. (OF COURSE it’s seven spells… I shouldn’t even be surprised! Let’s feed that into our matrices of sevens at a later date.)
- Crucio (on Avery) – GoF 648
- Making Pettigrew’s silver hand – GoF 649
- Crucio (on Harry) – GoF 657
- Making Harry bow – GoF 660
- Crucio (on Harry) – GoF 661
- Imperio (on Harry) – GoF 661
- Crucio (dodged by Harry) – GoF 662
Nothing here is all that much use in determining whether Voldemort is performing up to his usual standard. As we’ve established, Voldemort’s wand is an exceptionally powerful tool, regardless of who wields it, and Voldemort is an extraordinarily powerful wizard. We can, therefore, surmise that Cruciatus Curses cast by Voldemort would be incredibly effective regardless… and given that this is Harry’s first time being subject to one, we don’t have any baseline to compare it to. Same goes for making Harry bow – a simple piece of magic that doesn’t need wand mastery behind it.
With the Imperius Curse, we once again don’t have enough context. We know Harry is very adept at throwing it off, and we know that Voldemort probably casts a very powerful Imperius Curse… so we really can’t judge whether the amount of time Harry takes to fight it off is what’s to be expected. (Because of Harry’s aptitude for resisting the Imperius Curse, no one ever tries casting it on him again, so we don’t get a control experiment to compare to this scene.)
The only concrete bit of info we have is Pettigrew’s silver hand. This is an incredibly impressive bit of magic. So while it’s not anything concrete, I’d hazard a guess that Voldemort was still master of the phoenix wands when he created Pettigrew’s hand.
It seems to me there are two options for how Harry became the master of his wand. First, he got it back when Voldemort returned his wand in order to duel him. Voldemort wants to put on a bit of a show for his Death Eaters, so he returns Harry’s wand: “I will give him his chance. He will be allowed to fight, and you will be left in no doubt which of us is the stronger. […] Now untie him, Wormtail, and give him back his wand” (GoF 658).
Perhaps this is a way to voluntarily relinquish mastery of a wand: By returning it to its owner, when one has the upper hand. If wands are sentient enough² to keep track of wizards defeating each other, it’s wholly possible they’re also cognizant of bequests. As Ollivander says, “Subtle laws govern wand ownership” (DH 494). This may also explain why there was no marked change in Ron’s magical ability when he swapped out an inherited wand for one that chose him.
The other possibility is that Priori Incantatem acts as a giant reset button for wands’ allegiances. Certainly, a lot of weird stuff was going on with the wands at the time; it’s plausible that when Priori Incantatem occurs, both wands’ allegiance reverts to whoever is using the wand at the time.
To clarify, there is much talk of Harry’s wand beating Voldemort’s wand during Priori Incantatem. To align with our theories, I think this should be differentiated from Harry defeating Voldemort: It was not really a physical battle between Harry and Voldy; it was a battle of wills between the wizards and a battle between the wands.
Either way, after Harry escapes the graveyard, both he and Voldemort are masters of their own wands, although those wands won’t do battle with each other. The chain of ownership for Voldemort’s wand is Voldy → Harry → Wormtail? → Voldy. For Harry’s wand, it’s Harry → Wormtail? → Voldy → Harry. And it’s fascinating that this is all happening with no one really being the wiser.
This also shows that the two phoenix feather wands, “echo[ing] the relationship between their masters,” were entwined more closely than probably two other wands ever were (DH 711). In addition to sharing a core, they shared a master for fourteen years. Then they connected via Priori Incantatem, where the holly wand overpowered its twin and “imbibed some of the power and qualities” of the yew (DH 711). In addition to this connection, both wands then had masters that contained a bit of their other master: Harry with the Scarcrux, Voldemort with Lily’s blood. There’s definitely enough material here for several theses on wand lore.
To wrap things up, I pose one final question: Whatever happened to Voldemort’s wand? He stops using it when he gets the Elder Wand, but we are given no indication as to what he actually does with it. We know Voldemort is rather fond of powerful magical artifacts, so it’s doubtful he’d just get rid of it. (In fact, I’d bet that if Voldemort were to make another Horcrux, it would’ve been out of this wand.)
But after Voldemort’s defeat, his original wand is unaccounted for. And that is VERY intriguing. (Quite frankly, Voldemort’s wand is a much better vehicle for a sequel than Voldemort’s progeny.) How I’d love to ask Jo about this! Harry decides to bury the Elder Wand with Dumbledore, and leave its power broken. But for all we know, there is now ANOTHER very dangerous wand out there… a wand that worked with Voldemort for half a century and created six Horcruxes… a wand that even made a badass out of Peter Pettigrew…
Fanfic writers, start your quills!
¹ Tom Riddle even uses that exact wording: Harry “managed to defeat” Voldemort (CoS 313). Fudge and Rita Skeeter also refer to Voldemort’s “defeat” (PoA 209 and GoF 611, respectively).
²Or “quasi-sentient,” as Jo said on PotterCast.