A few weeks prior to the release of the latest Harry Potter book, one of my favorite authors, Orson Scott Card, released an essay entitled “Who is Snape?” In this rather lengthy discourse, he set about to deduce whose side Snape was really on (Card was right) and the literary reasons for this. Being not only a fantasy author but also a professor who teaches the genre to others, he often brings a unique slant to the discussion. In that vein, I would like to now pose my own question, “Did Voldemort really lose?” (and add in a few miscellaneous questions, too).While Card attacked the Snape question from a literary standpoint, I’d prefer to tackle my question from the standpoint of the culture in which we live and who Voldemort represents to all of us.
This series has so enraptured a large subset of our society, many of those who never read anything longer than a street sign or headline, that they have lined up at midnight to purchase a book that would consume their entire weekend. These are many of the same people who can’t stand to sit through an hour of church or in a line at the DMV.
I’m sure that part of this would be that so many people see in themselves, or want to see in themselves, the characteristics which have been imbued in the titular character. Harry’s loyalty, sense of duty and love of his friends are all strings which resonate deep within our population. They are characteristics which are publicly revered by most everyone all of our interconnected friend groups. His stubbornness, difficulty with accepting the possibility of his conclusions being incorrect and his quickness to take a stance based on incomplete or incorrect information would also be characteristics with which most of us share with Harry.
It is these deep resonances that connect us all with Harry, but what about Voldemort? Do we not also share as much with him as we do with the venerable protagonist? Voldemort had a childhood which was imprinted deeply upon his psyche. Those scars, over which he often had no control, helped to shape his life and set his path for the future. Despite having many wise counselors along the way, Dumbledore and the other professors at Hogwarts to name a few, Voldemort disregarded their advice and took a path that he thought would allow him to reach his goals.
And it is those very goals which I think give us the best way to determine if Voldemort really won or lost in the wizarding realm. First, the temporal goals…
- Ruling the wizarding and muggle realms. Voldemort, through the proxy of others, definitely ruled the wizarding realm, and was making inroads into the muggle realm prior to the end of book 7. True, he did not actually accomplish the goal of ruling the muggles and his ruling of the wizards was definitely short lived, but he did rule.
- Immortality. I place this as a temporal role although it could also be listed in the next section of goals. Voldemort had a deep and abiding fear of the future, something that is definitely outside of his direct control. To be immortal is not really a way to conquer this fear, given that time will most likely end, in some manner of speaking, at some time. The sun will run out of fuel, the universe will collapse back on itself, God will return, or whatever you happen to believe will put an end to this existence as we know it. Voldemort may have prolonged his life to the point at which the universe ended, but stepping outside of the universe from which he drew his power is a logically absurd concept. And while he did not live forever (so far as we know, as a theoretical book 8 hasn’t come out yet) in the physical sense, he will achieve a semi-immortality within the wizarding realm. Consider the large list of names that Rowling uses routinely to give a deeper history to her created realm. She goes back to the four founders of Hogwarts and beyond, to tell us of great and infamous wizards of yester-year. Voldemort will be added to those lists, which are nothing more than the collective, social memory of the world in which he lived. No, this was not the way in which he looked for immortality, but he did achieve it in a sense.
And now to two of the more empheral goals of he-who-must-not-be-named…
- Pain. Lots of pain. Torrential downpours of it. Put together a list of the dead, from his first reign of terror all the way through the epilogue and you’ll see that it grows to an enormous length, and that is only the ones we knew about. Voldemort knew much pain in his life, much of it self-inflicted and none of it beyond his ability to channel it into productive measures, yet he chose instead to make everyone as miserable as he was. From the deep well within himself, he spewed forth blackness, malice and hate upon the land, covering some in soot and bringing out the darkness in so many others.
- Revenge. Another partial win for Voldemort. He got a lot of the people who eluded him during his first reign of terror, and even a few who thwarted him during the 7 years of his second life. True, he did not get Harry, at least not in a permanent sense.
The classic definition of winning and losing would be to say that whoever has the most points, win. Obviously, with book 7 ending as Voldemort’s health taking a drastic turn for the dead, Harry would seem to win this point. My only rebuttal to this is that while we saw a body, we saw Harry ‘dead’, too. Voldemort was 'dead’ 16 years prior, too. Everyone knew as much. While Rowling might disagree with me, and at some point may even publicly state he is dead, this is a fictional realm and those who should and are dead, do not always stay that way.
Even if he-whose-name-is-unpronounceable IS dead in the classical, worm-food sense of the word, that doesn’t mean his spirit isn’t floating around the realm, waiting to reattach to some poor, unsuspecting sucker who reads the second volume of his Hogwarts diary. Disbarring the possibility of the rogue soul, he could be reincarnated, impersonated or might have created some magical repository of his own evil self that is just waiting around for some ambitious (read, stupid) Slytherin student to find in another obscure bathroom, snake and all.
If this were the really real world we live in, I’d give the alive v/s dead realm to Harry and the Potters, but given the fictional realm we’re discussing, this subject has to be a draw.
What about institutional legacy? While a large number of the Death Eaters were rounded up at the end of book 7, Rowling was quite specific in not saying they were all taken care of. Besides, just as there could be 1,001 Voldemort knock-offs waiting in the wings, there could be even more who have smaller dreams of conquest and choose to create themselves as neo-Death Eaters, so even were all the classical ones dead, we could still have new ones take their places.
On the other side of the isle, Rowling is also very obvious in that many of the reasons that lead to the creation of a Lord Voldersquat have not been fixed. Just as in the muggle world, there are poor, destitute wizards who cannot feed themselves (darn that law of transmutation!), who have no shelter and even some who are mentally disturbed. Just because you have magic doesn’t mean you’re smarter than a bag of Nargles. Also, the 4 houses of Hogwarts proved time and again how that system was an utter failure. At the end, it was 3 of the houses binding together to fight off the Death Eaters, yet Rowling deliberately puts the house structure back into place even though she had just shown how much better things could be if the students united.
Some would argue my last point, using Harry and Albus Severus’ conversation in the Epilogue. Yes, it is fine to be in any house, but if you took away the houses, and thus their implicit restrictions, the students would probably band together in a better manner. The house structure currently divides the school against itself, a method which I believe repeatedly showed its weaknesses.
Other organizational questions were completely ignored, probably on purpose. No mention was given to if/how the Ministry rebuilt itself after being inundated with Death Eaters. Hogwarts obviously still existed, but what scars exist, both in the building and in the students and faculty? Rowling was mum on these issues, leading me to believe that if a sequel were to ever happen, she’s left plenty of open space in which to wiggle.
Thus, on the institutional scale, I have to give the win to Voldemort. Despite all the weaknesses in Death Eater command and control, greed and evil remained despite the best efforts of good, while good continues to shoot itself in the foot with its own wand.
At the personal level, the three main characters survived with their lives… for now. Sequels do happen and I would be willing to believe that as adults, one of the three could die, although it would take at least 20 years, given the Epilogue. However, many of their friends and family members did not survive. The Death Eater brigade was devastated more heavily, simply because of their fewer numbers when compared with the good guys.
Now I’m left with the tough choice of making a determination as to whether Voldemort really lost. I’ve weighed the options, presented the arguments and now, the winner is… us. It was a great series, one that will likely be read for generations. I see that is a very good thing. As for the wizarding realm itself, we’ll just have to wait for the sequel to find out for sure.