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Why I Root for the Villain - Voldemort
By: Marcuse | Part of a Column: Marcuse's Panopticon
Tags: Entertainment, Harry Potter

Marcuse's Panopticon
For a long time now, I've preferred the villainous to the heroic in fiction. For most of my life, I've never questioned why, or thought to examine it. I feel like the time has come to examine the villains of the piece and see why they can be compelling and interesting characters, even when they are outright portrayed as the "bad guys". Our first subject for examination is He Who Must Not Be Named, Voldemort from the Harry Potter series of books.

Well hello there!

On the face of it, Voldemort is an imposing and obviously evil character, to the point of caricature. He dresses in black, resembles a snake (indeed even being fluent in parseltongue), and kills others seemingly on a whim. He tried to kill Harry when he was just a tiny baby, and murdered his parents in the ultimately failed attempt. He uses the forbidden curses. His cadre of wizards are called the "Death Eaters" and their symbol is a skull with a snake for a tongue. This guy isn't winning any prizes for first impressions here. He kills unicorns and drinks their blood for goodness sake!

Talk about two faced.

But wait a moment. Let's look again at him. Where did he come from, who is he, and why did he turn into the figure we see in the Harry Potter series?

Via Dumbledore's pensieve we witness Voldemort's first introduction to the wizarding world. He's an orphan. His father, a victim of coercion in Voldemort's conception, abandoned him and his mother, who promptly died after his birth. This does beg the question of where is Voldemort's Ron? His Hermione? Where are the people that take an angry bereft person and keep them sane? Having nobody else to rely on, he becomes the disturbed child Dumbledore sees at the orphanage. The point here I want to make is that Voldemort has, arguably, the most messed up childhood of any character in a world notable for messed up upbringings. It doesn't excuse what he does, but it does explain who he is in the story.

I've seen my future you know. Who took my nose?

As someone who is alone, and alone for a long time, he naturally comes to the conclusion that he can't rely on anyone else but himself. He spends his time at Hogwarts researching methods for immortality, and to increase his power. It's at this point that his pathological fear of death becomes apparent, and it's really important for the character. the Death Eaters themselves don't have that name because it's spooky and dark, but because they're meant to be the "eaters of death", as in, overcoming death itself. It's an aspirational name

Horcruxes, unicorn blood, hijacking Quirrel's body, the philosopher's stone. That's about four-ish ways to avoid death or prolong your life, within the world of Harry Potter. It's incredible that any wizards ever die, given they also have literally magic medicine. In a world like that, why is attempting to live forever something so taboo still? In any case, the methods Voldemort uses to avoid his destruction after his attempt to kill Harry are universally seen as evil, despite the only method he could use that doesn't involve the slaughter of innocents being withheld by the people who have decided he's evil for what he's doing to stay alive.

The philosopher's stone dammit!

While we're on the point, why does he even try to kill Harry in the first place? He's super evil right, and just slaughters children for laughs. Well, not quite. See, Harry is not just the "boy who lived", he's the predestined killer of "The Dark Lord". So, when he goes after Harry, he's not an evil sadist attacking a family just because, he's trying to kill someone who he has been told with certainty will kill him. I personally find telling someone with a fear of death that strong that they are going to die (in a world with viable immortality) to be particularly cruel. When you factor in the lack of upbringing he received, why is it so shocking that he swept off to do something terrible?

This is something you see again and again. Voldemort's actions in the story are motivated less by his own power and revelling in it, and much much more in reacting to threats to him. Voldemort is never more violent, and never more aggressive than when people are actively trying to murder him.

Reasonable reactions are obviously Voldemort's forte.

It's interesting that the same circumstances don't exactly bring the best out in the heroes either. For all the moralising from the good wizards about how the unforgivable curses are bad and wrong, Harry sure is prepared to use them when the situation demands it. He fires off Avada Kedavra all the time in Deathy Hallows, uses Imperio on the goblin to get into Gringotts, and throws Crucio about, even if he never uses it successfully. It's all very well saying that Voldemort is evil because of these things, but when his opponent is doing the exact same thing it's pushing the story towards moral equivalence.

It's taped to my...what now?

So how does the story make him super duper evil again? Makes him racist. Voldemort is virulently racist against Muggles, and does everything he can to reduce them in favour of "pure blooded" wizards. This makes him totally evil and absolutely the bad guy in the story. Except, of course, that Dumbledore himself harboured similar views for most of his youth. There exists within the wizarding world a sense of superiority about their magic, and the sole actual representation of muggles in the series are the Dursleys, a thoroughly mundane and reprehensible family. The only person who manages to summon any interest or care for muggles is Arthur Weasley, and even then he understands almost nothing about them and is considered an eccentric among other wizards.


But Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic and institutes a police state in service to the persecution of muggles and half-bloods! Sure, but is he overthrowing a perfect government? Hardly, I wouldn't say the existing MoM is really even a passable government. They routinely persecute werewolves, house elves and other magical creatures, only seem to allow dementors to continue to exist on the basis that they literally drive the ministrys enemies into despair and execute non-sentient animals with giant axes because they slightly injured one person once. They drive giants to the edge of society. Gringotts keeps a blinded stunted dragon in the depths of their vaults as living, suffering security. They allow people who use mutilation as a discipline method to work in schools:

Pictured: Reasonable government.

Speaking of children, Voldemort willingly used Malfoy as a pawn in his schemes. What a bastard! That's like recruiting child soldiers! Well, how is that different from what Dumbledore does, regularly, with Harry and his friends? If Voldemort uses Malfoy, Dumbledore uses Harry more often and with less justification.

So let's not be too quick to call Voldemort the most evil person in the Potter universe. If he is the most violent, uncaring person, he's the worst of a bad bunch, and has better reasons for why he does a lot of things than some other characters in the Potter-verse.

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