I first read the Harry Potter books as an adult—I began them when book four was still only available in hardback—so my reaction to them and their characters might be expected to differ from how I responded to those tales that had first begun to grip me when I was younger, such as The Lord of the Rings. Yet, like so many millions of others, I was enthralled by Rowling’s work. When the new volumes were published, I was one of the midnight-pickup pre-buyers, waiting in the bookstores in the wee hours for my copies the day they came out.
Unlike many of my earlier reactions to such sagas of good versus evil, I was not—at first—particularly interested in the bad guy, Lord Voldemort. Based on the first three books, which only showed us Voldemort in fragmented or highly reduced form, he seemed a petty villain to me. Racist and otherwise bigoted, he—if his followers were any indication—was simply a spoiled bully, a reflexive defender of ancient and unearned privilege raging against a more modern, rationalist, and egalitarian way of life, embodied most fully in Dumbledore. I did enjoy the plays on words Rowling made with his name, but he himself didn’t seem very interesting. He didn’t elicit a feeling of overwhelming threat and natural force like Sauron does, and I thought it a bit cheeky for anyone to call him “The Dark Lord,” a title I scarcely felt he merited. He didn’t have the tragic sense of twisted, broken, could-have-been greatness embodied in the likes of Darth Vader and Doctor Doom. And he certainly didn’t have the cool, detached intellect, that sense of an almost alien intelligence, that Hannibal Lecter possesses.
Even when he regained a physical form at the end of book four, and when I met him directly and indirectly throughout book five, I didn’t really get a sense of affection, if that’s the right word, for him as a villain. All the other people in the books more than made up for it, of course, but I was disappointed. Voldemort seemed, at times, no more impressive a baddie than many an antagonist on a TV action drama.
Then, as I really got to know him throughout the last two books, especially book six, my point of view changed. He became truly interesting.
His primary motivation—which he expresses explicitly in book four—is to become immortal, to overcome death. I sympathize. When I was younger, I had that wish, too. I’ve grown well out of it, but it was a powerful thought for a long time, and I immediately grokked Voldemort’s desire; I could see how the fear of death could drive a powerful person astray, destroying any possibility of happiness.
But there’s more—and less—to Voldemort than this.
Most villains in epic tales are characters who could have been good and great—indeed, many had been good and great—but descended, through poor choices, circumstances, and fatal flaws, into evil. Darth Vader, Sauron, Doctor Doom, MacBeth…even Satan in Paradise Lost meets that description.* In LotR, Gandalf says explicitly that no being is evil in the beginning, that even Sauron of Mordor was not so.
I don’t think this statement applies to Voldemort. Voldemort, in this sense, is a very modern fantasy villain, and based on what we learn of the nature of his progenitors, of his behavior as a child, of his inherent detachment from and disdain for other people—a narcissism bordering on solipsism—he is an excellent example of a congenital psychopath.
In Red Dragon, Will Graham says of Hannibal Lecter, “He’s a monster. I think of him as one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time. They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don’t put it on the machines and it dies. Lecter is the same way in his head, but he looks normal and nobody could tell.” I don’t think this statement is accurate about Lecter, but it is accurate about Voldemort.
Because of his family heritage—the Gaunts, his mother’s line, have a long streak of madness that seems to have become more distilled with time—and his early upbringing, without real human warmth from birth on, as well as the clear fact that he is different from all those around him, Voldemort develops no ability to connect with others. He meets many clinical criteria of psychopathy, including shallowness of affect, bullying, cruelty to animals as a child, unresponsiveness to punishment, the use of instrumental violence, glibness, manipulativeness, and lack of deep relationships.
It’s hard to feel pity or angst about Voldemort, or even to see ourselves in him, as we might in some of the other villains I’ve mentioned. He was just born with something missing, and that missing something made his otherwise incredible gifts extremely dangerous. Throughout the books he is, even when surrounded by followers, very much alone. He is probably incapable of ever having been other than alone, and I think Dumbledore is right in recognizing that this is a pitiable state.
It’s questionable whether we can even consider Voldemort “evil” in the way we can consider, say, Darth Vader, or Sauron, or Satan evil. Of course, used simply as an adjective to describe his effects on others, it’s reasonable to use the term to describe him, but it’s a very shallow sense of the word. As Hannibal Lecter points out to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, by this criterion natural disasters are “evil.” When we talk about evil, especially in narrative, we tend to think of something more profound.
If one is born without the capacity to be other than destructive, without empathy or the ability to love, how much can we hold that person morally responsible for what they do? We can recognize them as dangerous, we can realize that they are a threat that can’t be allowed to roam free; we may in fact, ultimately need to imprison or kill them in self-defense. But if Tom Riddle had no power to be anything but Lord Voldemort, in what sense is he an evil person, morally? He is, in effect, himself a natural disaster, and is the first, and most persistent, victim of that disaster.
At the end of the saga, Voldemort’s soul is reduced to a cringing, squalling, immobile, wretched thing, seared and scarred, fundamentally impotent, incapable of anything but pain. This is very much the way he was born, I think, and deep down, it doesn’t seem to me that he was ever in his life able to be otherwise.
*Hannibal Lecter almost can’t be called evil, in any ordinary sense. It might be more accurate simply to say that he is other.