I enjoy comparing and contrasting individuals who have identified each other as enemies. I find that kind of analysis interesting because more often than not, the two people are cut from the same cloth. Their similarities outweigh their differences. Usually, the hostility turns on on this one point of contention that either or both parties finds irreconcilable to peaceful cohabitation. In my head, I see the two walking down the road of Life together until they reach a fork in the road and diverge from there. I like figuring out where that fork appeared and which prior experiences dictated the path each individual ultimately chose.
Naturally, with all of my re-readings of Harry Potter, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Voldemort in this capacity, but not in juxtaposition to Harry. Until recently, I never held Voldemort and Harry in equal status despite the fact that we know that, by acting on the prophecy, Voldemort marked Harry as his equal. No, in the grand scheme of the plot, I saw Harry as the pawn in a war between Dumbledore and Voldemort, staying true to the allegorical nature of the story. Dumbledore is light. Voldemort is darkness. Both men are extremely talented and ambitious wizards, but whereas Voldemort is propelled forward solely by his solipsistic interpretation of the world, Dumbledore understands that there are forces in the world that surpass mankind’s understanding and humbles himself in that truth. Dumbledore best articulated between the two in the sixth book:
“That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
Sketching Voldemort in this light, I am unable to identify with him. I see myself most in Dumbledore who is has the same intellectual gifts, but doesn’t value those gifts above all others. Dumbledore has an active spiritual and emotional life, which tempers his self-centered urges. Voldemort does not have those self-imposed limitations, so his ambitions remain unchecked. I was content with not seeing any of myself reflected in Voldemort; it’s always a good thing when one does not self-identify with the villain. But recently, I began looking at Voldemort with new eyes recently and realized that he and I were more alike than I previously acknowledged.
Harry Potter audio books got me through this past fall. I would listen on the bus to work, on my evening walks around town, and just before I went to sleep. Once, I went to a party and after a couple of hours, a rough wave of loneliness crashed over my body and left me feeling cold. I made an abrupt exit from the party, returned to my home, put on some pajamas and socks, got under the covers, and listened to Harry Potter until I felt the warmth.
Listening to the sixth book, I found myself paying much more attention to Voldemort’s backstory than I had when I read the book. He reminded me of Harry, but there was one key difference and I tried to figure out what it was. One day at work, I tried to organize my thoughts. I made a Venn diagram to compare and contrast Harry, Voldemort, and Dumbledore. Then, I took Dumbledore out of the equation.
Before I was able to put my finger on the key difference, I had to bring Ron into the picture. Ron, Harry’s best friend, is a thorn in my side. I do not like him. Only within the past year, have I felt anything akin to kindness or sympathy for his character. He vexes me because he represents what I hate most in people. Ron has everything, everything that Harry does not have. He has a family who loves him unconditionally. He has done nothing to earn that love except be born to incredible parents. He has the most valuable possession and yet, he finds time and energy to be jealous of Harry and frequently acts on that jealousy. When he does, I always want to scream, “Dude, don’t you see how unimportant the admiration Harry receives is?” At least once a book, the entire school, sometimes the whole country, turns against him and meanwhile, Ron is never deprived of love no matter what he does.
What Ron failed to see is that admiration is such a poor substitute for love. Admiration favors the strong and the talented, but it is fickle and demands that the recipient consistently be reaching new heights. There is no rest for the admired. Meanwhile, people who are loved unconditionally can just sit around, inhaling and exhaling, and nothing will change for them. I’ve spent most of my life chasing love, but the best I could procure was admiration. I took it, hoping that in time, it would grow into love, but in my experience, it doesn’t work out that way.
After I got into college, relatives that I had not seen or heard from in years were suddenly present, making an effort. My dad was disgusted that I took their affections in stride. “They are bandwagon!” he would yell. It frustrated him that I seemed oblivious to the fact that my newfound popularity was solely a result of being accepted into Harvard. But that was not the case. No one was more aware than me. I just didn’t feel like it was worth making a commotion about. It was not as if I needed this people’s attention. Yes, when I was a child, I would have given the world for a number of those people to take an interest in me and what was going on in our house, but now, I was grown and on my way to a place far away. What did it matter?
That said, I did appreciate when these “bandwagon” people were transparent about their motivations. At my college graduation, I turned to a cousin who I had only seen a handful of times in my life and said, “Thank you for coming,” to which she replied, “Are you kidding? You put us on the map.” I broke out into a grin. Yes, ma’am. Let us be honest about why you are here!
When arguing with my dad about this issue, I could be calm and mature about the situation, but when he was not around, my resentment and hurt was known to fester and explode into a hailstorm of righteous indignation. I was so jealous of those who I perceived as being unconditionally loved. They were so fortunate and so oblivious to their privilege. I call this type of advantage the “privilege of the chosen.” I so desperately wanted to be chosen. I could not recall a time when love given to me had not either been temporary or tied to more destructive emotions like possessiveness, jealousy, or apathy. I spent most of my adolescence, daydreaming about receiving the type of love that I read about. My fantasies embarrassed me, but they sustained me, so I allowed myself the indulgence.
Listening to people talk about their basic loved ones infuriated me. Once, a peer’s mother was talking to me, extolling the virtues and abilities of her child and I smiled politely, but on the inside, my blood was boiling. All I could think was, “Your child is mediocre, ridiculously mediocre. I not knew people could be so mediocre until I met your child and yet, here you are, bragging as if you are the Virgin Mary, mother of God’s gift to man.” It angered me because I felt I was just as deserving of that kind of praise, if not more so, and did not receive it.
Once, when I returned to Memphis for a holiday, my dad and I were on our way somewhere and he had come to my mother’s house to collect me. We were standing in the driveway when I caught him staring after me with a tender expression. I got really excited about the possibilities of such a look.
In our family, if affection and praise were being lavished on anyone, my dad was the one bestowing it. However, for him to do so would be a matter of his better nature triumphing. At that time, the loving nature was losing far more than it was winning, but the softness in his eyes triggered my optimism. Could it be that a kind mood had struck him?
I smiled and raised my eyebrows as if to say, “Yes?”
He placed his hand on the side of my face and held it there for a moment for speaking. “I remember when you used to be ordinary. Now, everybody thinks you’re so special.”
Ahhh, sucker punch! But you shan’t have the last word, sir. I inhaled, pulled myself up to my full height, and wadded that comment into a tight ball to be unpacked and examined later before lobbing back.
“I was never ordinary.”
My display of cockiness unnerved him. “You hear her?” he called to my stepmother, “She said she was never ordinary!”
Off on a tangent he went for the length of the car ride. I tuned him out and thought about how ridiculous it was that I had to defend my value to the person whose job it was to instill that sense of worth within me.
“Unfair unfair unfair,” is the thought that occurs to me more often than not. Why is love so discriminatory? And by what metric is it using to discriminate? If I could access its rubric, I could figure out how to be that person, but no, it just goes on its merry way, spreading sunshine at random.
My rage about this injustice can lie dormant for long periods of time, but it always flares when I read Harry Potter. I read the sixth book for the first time my senior year of high school and when I was finished, I came to school the next morning, distraught. “Why?” I asked my friend. “Why is that every single time Harry is on the verge of getting the type of family he deserves, that person has to leave him?” One friend, the sage, replied, “Because Harry has to fulfill his destiny and all these people: his parents, Lupin, Sirius, Dumbledore, had to get out of his way, so he could walk into that destiny.” I pondered that statement for a while, but ultimately, was not satisfied. Why did he have to be alone to fulfill his destiny? Why are some people alone, always alone?
This is the tie that binds Voldemort and Harry. They are both alone. Both came of age as orphans, being raised by people who were hostile or at the very least, apathetic to their existence. To survive, they had to go within and become a world unto themselves. They are kindred spirits in many ways.
But what separates them is their response to the isolation. Voldemort is bitter and Harry is not. Harry accepts that he is alone and must often rely on himself, but the realization did not undo him. He doesn’t begrudge his friends the love they have in abundance. He is also quick to forgive when the occasion arises. When Ron abandons him in the fourth book and comes back, choking on his apology, Harry realizes that he doesn’t need to hear the apology and just welcomes him back. In the seventh book, when Ron realizes Dumbledore left him the Deluminator because he foresaw Ron abandoning the group. Harry refuses to accept that cynical interpretation and says, “No. He knew you would always want to come back.”
God! How is Harry capable of loving so well, especially considering how long he was deprived of it as a child? One of Harry’s best moments in a small scene in the seventh book when he wakes up the first morning of their journey to destroy the remaining Horcruxes and notices that Hermione and Ron fell asleep holding hands. Their affection makes him feel sad and lonely. He acknowledges that. And then he lets it go. I am so in awe of that kind of grace. I could not have been so chill. Somehow or another, my sadness and loneliness would have transformed itself into a raging storm that would have razed the very ground on which they lay.
No, I couldn’t identify with Harry in this way. Voldemort’s bitterness was much more familiar to me. But Lord knows I don’t want to live like Voldemort. That is a road that leads to destruction, so I asked myself, “Well, what accounts for their different responses? I came back to the admiration/love dichotomy. Even though Harry was raised by people who were not kind to him, he did experience love in the wizarding world. Besides the attention he received for being famous, he also received a great deal of affection simply because he was the son of a very well-liked witch and wizard. His parents were dead, but they bequeathed him a wealth of goodwill. People did nice things for him all the time, simply because of James and Lily. In many ways, he was coddled those first couple of years (McGonagall bought him his first broom! Way to play favorites, chick) at Hogwarts.
Voldemort, on the other hand, received no such special treatment. He came to Hogwarts with the same lack of status with which he left the orphanage. Any goodwill Voldemort engendered to himself was solely on the strength of his own talents, of which he had many. Voldemort learned how to curry people’s affections and mastered the skill. By the time he graduated, there was no one more well-favored than he. Without connections, money, or community, he rose to the top of the heap. While I am sure he was proud of himself, reaching that level also disgusted him. He saw how much work he had put into building his relationships and was repulsed. He pushed people away, so convinced was he of their fickleness and general self-interest. Would they still surround him if he weren’t so talented? No, he concluded and he continues on his path of destruction, refusing to give love a chance to show itself true to him.
But do you see what I did here with this analysis? I am framing their individual choices solely in terms of the structures surrounding them, thereby stripping them of any agency. Within this framework, I can pity Voldemort, and myself, for the times I behaved in emotionally destructive ways. Andrea in her early twenties would have been deeply invested in this narrative. In college, I used to say, “Hey, people knew I was damaged good when they rolled up on me, so if they still chose to come into my world and disappoint me, then they get what they deserve.” So caught up was I in this vindictive mindset that when I took a class on WWII freshman year and my teacher asked if the US was justified in using the atomic bomb, I replied, “They started it by bombing Pearl Harbor. If you push me and I knock you the hell out, I mean, maybe I overreacted, but you shouldn’t have pushed me.” Lord Jesus.
But the reality is, I’m not that woman anymore. I see now that I am more than my environment, and furthermore, my environment was more than the negative; I can choose to take from it that which will strengthen me and let the rest of it go swiftly into that good night. Which is why after I worked my way through that first analysis, I had to tell myself, “No ma’am, try again. What else can you say?”
My second theory focuses more on Harry’s mindset. On the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, they recapped the chapter in the first book where Harry looks in the Mirror of Erised and sees himself pulling the sorcerer’s stone out of his pocket. They used that moment to illustrate the power of his self-love. Harry will always take care of himself. That example reminded me of one my absolute favorite moments in the series. In the third book, Harry is waiting on his dad to rescue him until suddenly, it dawns on him that he has to save himself. And he does.
As my sister pointed out to me, Harry’s self-love doesn’t come at other people’s expense. His self-love is like the divine love Henri Nouwen discusses in Life of the Beloved. Nouwen argues that only when each of us truly believe that we are the God’s chosen beloved can we find fulfillment. He distinguishes being chosen by God from an earthly understanding of being chosen. The latter is usually exclusive. This person being chosen usually means that someone else is not. But, in God’s chosenness, there is room for everyone. Accepting that you are chosen will open your eyes to see how other people are chosen as well.
To simplify his argument, I think about friend groups or pairs, which I divide into two categories. In Friend Group Type A, the nexus of connection is status. One’s presence or absence from the group signifies something to others. People in these types of groups are consumed with public opinion. Friendship is a performance. If two of these friends hung out and had a good time and no one was around to hear about it and envy that interaction, then the interaction did not occur. People in these type of friend groups are always complaining about other people in the group, establishing hierarchies, and trying to cement their own status. Competition replaces genuine goodwill because one can only judge their popularity in relation to others. For one person to feel more “chosen and accepted,” there must be someone who was excluded. Being invited to a party is sweeter when one knows that there were a great deal of people who were not invited.
In Friend Group Type B, the pairs or groups genuinely value each other’s company and derive so much pleasure in being together. No one has to bear witness to their camaraderie for there to be added value. They are not trying to increase their own status in the world by associating with each other nor have they been thrown together by default and are merely waiting for an opportunity to trade up. The love is powerful and it radiates so far out than anyone within reach is warmed by its gaze.
Type B is the kind of relationship that Harry has with himself. His self-love is a mighty force. I remember in high school, a classmate read the first book and when she was finished, she came to me with a disappointed sneer on her face. “I kept waiting to see what his power was and it just turned out to be love.” Granted, she was referring to the protection his mother placed on him, but still, her comment is indicative of society’s opinion of love. It is easy to see it as an inferior creature, but really, love is the foundation of everything and when it is lacking, the entire structure fails. I was talking to my sister for the umpteenth time about Parks & Recreation and said, “It’s…it’s about love, in all its forms.” She laughed and said, “Everything you like, you ultimately say, ‘it’s about love.’” She’s right. Anything that centers around love has my attention. Love is so important, but so difficult to practice well. I’m always looking for lessons and Harry is a good teacher.