A Psychological Deconstruction of Voldemort (from Harry Potter)
Episode 285 of the With Joe Wehbe Podcast is one of my all time favourites. It’s a psychological deconstruction of the Lord Voldemort character, the villain from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter Series (fyi, the episode is available on Youtube, or any of the usual podcast players like Spotify or Apple Podcasts).
Today I’m doing a written deconstruction of Lord Voldemort given how insightful I find this character to be — I think this character paints a clear picture of just how and why things can go so wrong with human beings in our world.
We’ll ask questions like:
- Why can people go so dark?
- What does it take to become that way?
- How much does this particular far-out, totally corrupt character, relate to our lives and the everyday ‘real’ world?
Beware — spoilers are on their way!
The tension — how alike, yet unalike, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort are.
If you’re unfamiliar with or rusty on Harry Potter, one of the key tensions in the book is how similar the hero, Harry, and the villainous Voldemort are. Both are orphans, raised by uncaring ‘Muggles’ (non-Magical people), who find they have extraordinary gifts, and both find a true home at Hogwarts, the magic school.
The question throughout the books is, will Harry end up like Voldemort? Why, or why not? Both search for a sense of completion, the way most of us do, in seeking to understand themselves, their parents, and also by finding themselves in things. Both seem to build a story about who they are, especially through their teenage years, and again, this seems like the same thing we all do.
Power vs. Love?
It might be trite to say the difference comes down to love… Harry chooses the path of love, and Voldemort chooses the path of power. But is that too simple? Throughout the books Voldemort is scorning the idea of love, but maybe our everyday world is not dissimilar? Love is so often seen as a mushy thing, a bit too cute, naive even… besides, how do we know Voldemort isn’t desperately searching for love? Not the sort of love you, I, or a Harry understands, but what do you see in his hunt for glory? Immortality? Adoration? His desire to be the greatest, and have an army of loyal followers who cater to his every whim?
I think Voldemort scorns love the way I scorned ‘the Gold Certificate’, which was an award given at my high school to people who put commendable effort into their studies. I never got one, so I’d usually insist to people that they weren’t worth much. It makes me wonder… maybe Voldemort’s reaction is a defensive one, a kicking out at the mention of the thing he wants most of all.
Maybe it hurts him so badly, he can’t even admit to himself that it’s what he really wants.
It seems so stupid, so foolish and futile, doesn’t it? But I wonder, how common is this idea of love in our world? How subtle are its hiding places? Does this confused search for love continue even in the lives of people who already have all the symbols of love?
This is not the only time we see this idea of love pursued in the books… one of the other times we see it pursued is in Voldemort’s mother.
Voldemort’s Lineage and Mother — Merope Gaunt
How people become susceptible to radicalisation.
Voldemort, born Tom Riddle (Jnr), grows up not knowing who his parents are. After showing incredible ability at school, he figures he must have incredible parents. He searches for signs of his father but finds nothing… disappointed, he looks into his mother’s lineage and finds there the very thing he hoped to find. It’s not so much confirmation bias as it is fuel to a dangerous fire. I imagine this realisation is like magical heroin to the desperate, seeking soul, to the young man who though brilliant and achieved, is lost. He’s given something to cling to.
The more desperate the person, the more desperately they seek a satisfactory story about who they are in the world. I remember here the teenage Joe Wehbe who dreamed of being a big-time Hollywood Director and star. I think of the many subtle addictions in our world — religion, personal development, spiritual education, intellectualisation, status signaling, self-help, philosophy, workaholism, attachment to success — we can abuse anything that promises to give us a more favorable story about who we are, or often, who we’re becoming.
More on Voldemort’s Mother and Father.
Voldemort’s mother was a ‘Gaunt’, part of a long and proud line in the wizarding world whose ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, was one of four co-founders of Hogwarts (the famous wizarding school).
I think I know what this is like — I recently found out I have some link in my heritage to a Maltese prince. When my father, brothers and I found out, we didn’t shut up about it for two days. It drove my mother insane… I guess you’d call this feeding the ego. So how did a young, insecure, and brilliant Tom Riddle deal with this?
Going deeper into his backstory, he’s disappointed when he stumbles on the truth about his father. Tom Riddle Senior turns out to be a Muggle, a non-wizarding sort, a handsome man who would ride by introverted Merope’s house, where her unkind father ruled over her. She used a love potion on Tom Riddle Senior to make him marry her — but eventually grew dissatisfied with the illusion. She wanted Riddle to love her freely and of his own will — many would say this is the only real kind of love, the sort that doesn’t come from illusion, grandeur, fantasy, or anything other than pure seeing of what already is.
Unfortunately, Mr. Riddle is a little horrified by the fact this lady has had him under her spell, so he flees, leaving Merope heartbroken and pregnant. She takes her newborn son to an orphanage and dies shortly after birth. This is what I mean about the sort of ‘love’ or power Voldemort seeks in the world, what looks to be the ‘wrong kind,’ the kind that can never be satisfied because it is never real. When I say it’s not real, I mean it’s so steeped in illusion about what will feed our soul that it can’t sustain itself from the natural order of things, so it keeps starving and starving.
Pursuing the wrong kind of love is like eating food that never satisfies your hunger, and slowly poisons you.
It’s the sort of hunger or thirst that works like a virus, devouring the life of everything around it until it collapses, hollowed out, wrought with pain, defeated by itself.
Is the seed of this appetite in Voldemort planted by the mother he never meets?
Voldemort’s Daddy Issues
Tom Riddle Jnr (Voldemort) is horrified by the discovery that his father is a Muggle. To put this in everyday terms, it’s like a young Hitler finding out his father is Jewish.
As we discuss in the episode, young Voldemort seeks out his Muggle Father and kills him. He discards his father’s name and takes up a new name, an anagram of ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ — I Am Lord Voldemort. Even his birthname, ‘Riddle,’ suggests a lot about his character. His identity is a riddle to him, a puzzle he struggles with his entire life.
To me, this murder and name change is a reflection of all human hatred at its core. It’s Voldemort ridding the world of all evidence of what he’s ashamed of in himself. Of course, his father never did anything, but Voldemort punishes his father for his own inner torment. Through my lens, it’s his lack of self-love, lack of self-acceptance. There’s a war inside him — one half of who he is clashes with the half of himself he wants to be — the story his Mother’s ancestory grants him, the story that he is special, magnificent, the descendent of a great wizarding line.
If you ask me, Voldemort does the same thing every world leader, visionary or revolutionary does — he tries to craft the world in his own ideal image. That ideal image is fueled by internal conflict — inside, he wants the pure blood to win over the Muggle — this is what he wants in the outside world too.
Dumb question — why does Voldemort seek this so desperately?
But why does he want this? Because in his world, his wizarding world, there is a culture of pride that values being pure blood. In our societies, this could be substituted for being rich, being successful, being from ‘a good family,’ being from a religious family, being from a non-religious family… anything which in its context denotes status.
Think about it, if you don’t have a sense of yourself, isn’t it common to fill that internal anxiety with external validation? If there’s a way for the world to point to your value, isn’t that desirable, when you have no sense that you’re valuable just as an everyday ordinary person?
This is when I think us humans regress to many of the things that smart people and intellectuals condemn us to — being unquestionably hierarchical, status-seeking creatures.
I don’t deny we have this capacity or wiring in us. What I often see is these tendencies having less influence on us when we know the more magical and simple stuff of life. I think we see this in other characters in this series, like Harry Potter himself. Harry doesn’t seem overly concerned with status, money, power, influence… he’s not immune to their charm, but nowhere near as vulnerable as poor Voldemort.
I think this reflects reality, and it certainly matches my own experiences. The sense of yourself you have when you know love, joy, peace, even laughter, extinguishes a lot of these drives we have to become a bigger and more impressive entity in the world.
The Dictator/Conqueror/Psychopath Link, and the Search for Power ahead of Love.
In the corresponding podcast episode, I reference a Gabor Maté quote on famous conquerors — he notes that Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexander the Great all have things in common:
- They were all short
- They were all from a country that was subsidiary to the one they went on to lead (Stalin was from Georgia, Hitler from Austria, Napoleon from Corsica, and Alexander the Great from Macedonia).
Voldemort is a half-blood (Dad’s Muggle, Mother’s Pure-Blood Witch), yet he demands purity of blood and wants to rule over the Muggles, seeing them as second-class human beings. It reminds me of Hitler’s beloved Aryan idealism, when Hitler himself was neither tall nor blonde.
Apart from looking out for short, ambitious foreigners (cough-cough, I’m a 5’9” Lebanese-Australian), what do we learn from this? I think we have to be careful not to draw strong conclusions. Instead, everything’s a question.
Do the “Voldemort’s” of the world act out dramas that are a total externalisation of internal personal conflicts?
How often is the lust for power, success, attention or whatever else, in some way fueled by this sort of dynamic?
Do we see subtle examples of this in other people? What about in ourselves?
What then is the answer? How do we act towards this sort of metamorphosis of evil? Do we blame people for turning out this way, when they do terrible things? Is there room for compassion and understanding?
What extinguishes this sort of pain in others?
Do you feel bad for Lord Voldemort? How much choice does someone like this in the real world have over who they become?
The With Joe Wehbe Harry Potter Series continues
I think that’s enough to digest for one day! Thanks for reading and I hope you might consider checking out this episode, it really was an enjoyable one to make and it made so much click for me personally. Here’s the episode on Youtube.
There will also be other similar episodes on the With Joe Wehbe Podcast unpacking key ideas from the Harry Potter Books, from episodes 283—288. You can check out the full series as a playlist on Youtube, or go to the episodes on other podcast players here.
Thanks, and keep Opening Doors.
Joe Wehbe, the Doorman