Tom Riddle, the Accidental Alchemist

by Lorrie Kim

Three times in his life, without intending to, Voldemort produced gold. Three of the times he tried to kill Harry Potter, the magic from Harry’s wand connected with his curse to transform that murderous intent into gold: once into golden light and phoenix song, twice into golden flames.

The first time this happened, at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort’s Killing Curse and Harry’s Disarming Charm collided and reverberated into threads of golden light that resonated with phoenix song. The twin phoenix feather cores in the wands recognized each other and connected. Harry controlled this connection to force Voldemort to see and hear the humanity of his most recent murder victims (GoF 697).

The second time, at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort cast the Killing Curse using Lucius Malfoy’s wand. While Harry was debilitated with pain from his scar, Harry’s wand acted of its own accord to counter the curse with “a spurt of golden fire” that connected to Malfoy’s wand and destroyed it (DH 61).

The third time, in the last act of his life, Voldemort cast the Killing Curse using the Elder Wand. Harry countered again with the Disarming Charm, using the wand that Draco had used to disarm Dumbledore. The two spells collided and burst into “golden flames” before Voldemort’s curse rebounded upon him, and Harry ended up holding both wands (DH 743).

Voldemort hadn’t been trying to produce gold. He sought immortality through the Dark Arts, not through alchemy. His great magical ambition was to render himself unkillable by tearing his soul into pieces and disowning those mutilated pieces, ensuring that they could never reintegrate into a whole soul that could pass into death. He did not seek immortality as alchemists did, through learning to transform base metal into gold by purifying their souls. But he didn’t realize that the experience of emotional connection to another being would be the opposite of his self-mutilation and would overpower his efforts.

In Potterverse, gold often symbolizes interpersonal connection. The wedding between Bill and Fleur was suffused with gold colors, from the bridesmaids’ dresses to the dance floor of molten gold. Gold lines of embroidery connected the names on the Black family tree. Most poignantly, Luna used golden ink to connect the beloved faces she painted on her bedroom ceiling with the repeated word “friends… friends… friends…” (DH 417).

For most of his life, Voldemort did not identify with any other person, preferring to think himself above others: “different, separate, notorious” (HBP 277), “much, much more than a man” (GoF 15). But the part of the prophecy he heard, foretelling that either the Potter or the Longbottom child would be “the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord” (OotP 841), raised the possibility that there would finally be another being who could be in his league for power. This was a life-changing thought for Tom Riddle, who had never before found anyone who could stop his destructiveness. Would this orphan be able to see some aspect of himself mirrored in another, at last? He had to choose which child he thought it would be, which was more thought than he usually gave to other people. He had to picture what type of person could match him and could only imagine someone like himself. As Dumbledore said, Voldemort went with the boy with whom he could identify: “He chose, not the pureblood (which, according to his creed, is the only kind of wizard worth being or knowing), but the half-blood, like himself. He saw himself in you before he had ever seen you” (OotP 842, emphasis added).

Nothing in Voldemort’s experience prepared him to realize that it would be dangerous for him to identify with a victim.

He pointed the wand very carefully into the boy’s face: He wanted to see it happen, the destruction of this one, inexplicable danger. The child began to cry: It had seen that he was not James. He did not like it crying, he had never been able to stomach the small ones whining in the orphanage —
‘Avada Kedavra!’
And then he broke: He was nothing, nothing but pain and terror, and he must hide himself, not here in the rubble of the ruined house, where the child was trapped and screaming, but far away . . . far away. . . .
‘No,’ he moaned.
The snake rustled on the filthy, cluttered floor, and he had killed the boy, and yet he was the boy. . . ” (DH 345)

One of Voldemort’s aims was to get people to know how he felt: by branding them with the Dark Mark so they would feel his calls for help, for example, or by punishing them when he was angry. But in turning baby Harry into someone who knew how baby Tom Riddle felt – in attacking the orphaned baby and witnessing his “pain and terror” – Voldemort got a rare glimpse, a mirror image, of how he himself must have felt at the same age. For the first time, Voldemort had the terrifying and incapacitating experience of a moment of empathy: “He had killed the boy, and yet he was the boy” (DH 345). Knowing that Voldemort’s own deliberate actions had caused this pain could have led Voldemort to experience remorse, an agony that Voldemort might not have survived.

As Hermione said, remorse is the only way to reintegrate a split soul after making a Horcrux: “You’ve got to really feel what you’ve done.” However, remorse is so “excruciatingly painful” that “the pain of it can destroy you. I can’t see Voldemort attempting it somehow, can you?” (DH 103). If reintegrating a soul split only once might kill a person, then the agony of trying to integrate a soul split seven times would be beyond endurance.

The problem was, because of the unnatural magic Voldemort had performed, he could not die. He had removed any upper limit to how much pain he could experience, although he had not dulled his sensitivity to suffering. He told his Death Eaters that after the curse rebounded, he felt “pain beyond pain” since he had not been killed, although “the curse should have done it” (GoF 653). In exchange for the Dark Magic power he gained through his Horcruxes, Voldemort had altered himself to sacrifice the safeguard and mercy of a pain threshold that would kill a mortal human.

As Slughorn said, “the soul is supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature” (HBP 498). Still-living fragments would be drawn, by nature, to reintegrate. Harry feels this pull when his scar pain intensifies around Voldemort or one of his Horcruxes. Horcruxes can only remain separate if stored within magical containers powerful enough to prevent the soul fragments from rejoining their sources. Even so, Hermione found in her research that soul fragments enclosed within magical containers “can flit in and out of someone” if they become “too fond of or dependent on the Horcrux” (DH 105).

According to this explanation, then, Voldemort’s obsession with Harry would have increased the natural urge of his soul fragments to reunite into a whole. As Harry destroyed more Horcruxes, Harry’s importance to the ever-diminishing remainder of Voldemort’s soul would have grown only stronger. And the soul fragment in Harry exercised greater pull on Voldemort than the other fragments because Harry was not an intentional Horcrux. Voldemort was unaware that part of his soul resided in Harry and had not performed the spell to encase it safely. Voldemort couldn’t feel it when something happened to the soul fragments encased in Horcruxes, but after he took Harry’s blood, he had to employ Occlumency, or he would be unprotected from Harry’s emotions.

In Goblet of Fire, Voldemort assembled his Death Eaters to witness what he thought would be his ascent to immortality. Instead, they witnessed his loss of control as Voldemort experienced his first emotional connection with another person. His Killing Curse connected with Harry’s Disarming Charm with a golden light that caused both wizards’ hands to seize up around their wands before splintering into “a thousand more beams” that crisscrossed into a golden dome forming “a cage of light.” The two connected phoenix feather cores resonated to emit phoenix song (GoF 663-4).

Voldemort had inadvertently created gold by connecting with Harry.

Once the phoenix song started, the beam of gold between Voldemort and Harry changed, “as though large beads of light were sliding up and down the thread connecting the wands” (GoF 664). Harry, trained by a lifetime of anger against bullies, focused on pushing the beads of light toward Voldemort. When they connected with Voldemort’s wand, the wand emitted the moving, speaking images of Voldemort’s last several victims: Priori Incantatem, in which one wand forces another “to regurgitate spells it has performed – in reverse” (GoF 697).

Newly infused with Lily’s love, strengthened further by the unintended new sensation of connection with another person, strengthened further still by connecting with a piece of his own soul within that person, Voldemort was seeing the consequences of his crimes and hearing the voices of his victims. Even after Harry broke their wand connection, the shades of Voldemort’s victims continued to crowd around and accuse him, giving Harry cover to escape. The shades were coming not from Harry, nor even from the connection between Harry and Voldemort, but from Voldemort’s newly expanded awareness. As Dumbledore said, “He was more afraid than you were that night, Harry” (DH 711). He had no basis for understanding what was happening to him.

This led to the second time that Voldemort inadvertently produced gold.

Voldemort used Lucius Malfoy’s wand to cast the Killing Curse during the Battle of the Seven Potters. Neither he nor Harry expected what happened next: “As the pain from Harry’s scar forced his eyes shut, his wand acted of its own accord. He felt it drag his hand around like some great magnet, saw a spurt of golden fire through his half-closed eyelids, heard a crack and a scream of fury” (DH 61). Harry told the Order later that he had never heard of such a spell or made gold flames appear before.

Voldemort had hoped using a wand without a phoenix feather core would circumvent the emotional connection between his magic and Harry’s. It didn’t occur to Voldemort that it was too late. He had once seen himself in Harry and then taken Harry’s blood, so he had access to Harry’s feelings. He could no longer attack this individual without feeling like he was attacking a part of himself, regardless of what wand he used. The part of himself in Harry would fight back and compromise his magic. In other words, where Harry was concerned, Voldemort would feel internal conflict when attacking, rather than his usual single-minded purpose. As we all know from Bellatrix Lestrange, Unforgivable Curses only work if you really mean them.

As demonstrated by the diary Horcrux, a fragment of the soul can “act and think for itself” (HBP 500) independently of the rest of the same soul. When Voldemort first suffered the rebounding curse after trying to kill baby Harry, at a moment when Voldemort was unable to fight, the one yearning soul fragment betrayed his human desire for nurturing and sheltered with Harry in the hopes of absorbing some of the protection that Harry’s soul had known. When Voldemort’s magic connected with that soul fragment during the Battle of the Seven Potters, that moment of increased soulfulness for Voldemort, after decades of relentless self-harm and privation, contributed to the manifestation of golden flames. Things like that tend to happen when your soul is so fragmented that you’ve lost track of all the pieces.

By the third and final time Voldemort produced gold, he had barely any of his soul remaining. With the destruction of each Horcrux, Harry had found it easier and easier to look into Voldemort’s mind, and Voldemort had no awareness of Harry’s mental presence at all. When Voldemort cast his last Killing Curse to meet Harry’s Disarming Charm, he and Harry both used wands that Harry had won from Draco. The same two wands had dueled a year earlier when Draco’s Disarming Charm won the Elder Wand for Draco. After that battle, both wands recognized disarmament as more powerful than attack.

By this moment, following Dumbledore’s lead, Harry had destroyed the parts of Voldemort’s soul that had been debased with Dark Magic, leaving only the portion of the soul that remained in its natural state. Harry had done something humble and beautiful for Voldemort: He had restored Voldemort to humanity.

With all the Horcruxes gone, Voldemort would no longer subsist in limitless, bodiless agony if a curse rebounded upon him. When Voldemort chose to cast a final Killing Curse, the curse collided with Harry’s Disarming Charm to produce “golden flames” (DH 743) as it rebounded. With that connection, Harry completed Voldemort’s transformation back to his final, mortal form, finishing the work begun by Regulus Black and recorded in his message:

To the Dark Lord
I know I will be dead long before you read this but I want you to know that it was I who discovered your secret. I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can.
I face death in the hope that when you meet your match, you will be mortal once more.
R.A.B.” (HBP 609)

Voldemort rejected Harry’s offer to try to save his own soul through remorse, a process that would have undoubtedly overwhelmed the unstable sliver of soul he had remaining. But Harry’s labors as an Auror, a wizard who can reverse and destroy Dark Magic, released him from the self-inflicted, unnatural limitlessness of his pain.

For more about how Harry’s Auror work was a version of alchemy, returning Voldemort’s debased soul to mortality, read Lorrie Kim’s chapter “Auror Magic: An Almost Alchemical Process” in The Alchemical Harry Potter: Essays on Transfiguring in J.K. Rowling’s Novels, edited by Anne J. Mamary.


In the Pensieve Papers, Lorrie Kim, author of Snape: A Definitive Reading, delves into the richly emotional writing about the wizarding world, allowing us to reexamine the stories like memories in a Pensieve.
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