I might be a tad obsessed with the Harry Potter Series and somehow, I managed to incorporate that into a few research papers in college. I wrote my Senior Communication Thesis on how Lord Voldemort represents societal fears in the 21st Century, and the essay below was for an English elective. Our prompt was to discuss the rhetoric of literally anything in the world (gotta love college, right?) so naturally, I used a bit of research from my Senior Thesis to put a twist on my discussion of the rhetoric of power in the Harry Potter Series.
“There is no good and evil. There is only power and those too weak to seek it.”
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone
Lord Voldemort is the infamous villain of the Harry Potter series (1997 – 2007), written by J.K. Rowling. He is the epitome of a character who is consumed with a thirst for power. He is portrayed as a monster and villain who has become so powerful that few even dare to say his name out loud. Because of this, he is often referred to as “The Dark Lord,” “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” and “You-Know-Who.” His ultimate goal is to achieve immortality that provides him with complete power over witches, wizards, and Muggles (non-magical people). This paper will use a narrative rhetorical analysis to investigate Lord Voldemort’s use of rhetoric; how he uses fear and intimidation to obtain and maintain power and how Rowling uses the character as a tool to exemplify the problems of absolute power.
In order to understand Lord Voldemort as a character, one must first understand the Harry Potter series and his role in it. The series is comprised of seven novels: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2005), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007). In the first novel, Lord Voldemort murders Potter’s parents and attempts to murder him as well but fails. His failure to kill Potter leads to what many in the wizarding community believe is Lord Voldemort’s death; however, Lord Voldemort’s soul remained intact. Even while he is gone, witches and wizards still refuse to speak his name. Throughout Potter’s education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (a seven-year program), Lord Voldemort makes attempts and eventually succeeds in “coming back to life” and thus, power. He gains power steadily through the second half of the series (Rowling, 1997 – 2007). Compagnone (2013) provides a useful paper that begins to decode the texts. Harry and his friends, in their quest to prevent Lord Voldemort from gaining immortality, must solve a series of puzzles before he does. One of the lessons of this series is that it is unnatural to gain immortality and a high degree of power. The Harry Potter series is a page-turning adventure, a battle of good-versus evil. Lord Voldemort’s character emphasizes narcissistic solutions to life’s difficulties (Rosengrant, 2009), which are shown by his actions and quest for power. His idea of problem solving occurs only when he is the beneficiary of the solution.
To further study the fictional world of Harry Potter, it is important to understand the real world as it currently exists. Kuusisto (2009) wrote of conflict resolution, comparing western society to nonviolent leaders and methods. While nonviolent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi built gardens or used riddles to solve conflict, this research found that western societies (e.g. Britain, the United States, France) more commonly use violent methods such as war in order to solve problems. War is often used to exert power over another entity, as violence often intimidates the opponent. However western societies do use nonviolent methods to solve more routine disputes (Kuusisto, 2009). The use of rhetoric for power in the real world is important to keep in mind throughout this paper. Machiavelli asserts in The Prince that violence can be used rhetorically to achieve a goal or keep society in line but does not assert that it should be the only means of achieving and maintaining power. Power is extremely desirable, but in the wrong hands it can be detrimental. Rowling uses Lord Voldemort to show this. Lord Voldemort, like some Western Societies, uses violence to solve disputes; his use of violence is based on his need for power and control. He takes his use of violence to the extreme, as it is his only means of persuasion. Rowling uses this extreme situation to show readers the problem with this type of power. She uses the invocation of fear as a tool to critique violence in the real world through the character, Lord Voldemort. This is further relevant because in the final book of the series, Lord Voldemort and his followers ended up in a final war against Harry Potter and Professor Dumbledore’s supporters, just as many countries go to war in the real world.
Lord Voldemort was an orphan named Tom Riddle before he became the Dark Lord. When he was 11 years old, Professor Dumbledore visited him at the orphanage to take him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In regards to his young, untrained powers, Riddle told Dumbledore: “I can make things move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who are mean to me. I can make them hurt, if I want…” (Rowling, 2005). And he did inflict pain on others in the orphanage, as Dumbledore had been told by the proprietor, who spoke quietly of the child as if she feared him. Even as a child, Lord Voldemort was able to manipulate those around him and had no problem inflicting pain in order to achieve this. He learned at a young age that he could control others through fear and carried that knowledge with him throughout his life. This scene is framed so that the child Tom Riddle is a menacing figure in order to critique power. There is juxtaposition between the child and his words. Children tend to be shown as innocent in texts, and in the Harry Potter series, Harry and his friends are the innocent children in the beginning of the series; however Tom Riddle is nearly as terrifying as a child as he is an adult.
Lord Voldemort, during his career at Hogwarts, was an extremely successful student. His professors adored him and not always because he used fear to manipulate them; he was very intelligent. He was gifted not only academically but also with words and was able to flatter those around him to achieve his goals. He uses this both at Hogwarts and later to organize his initial group of followers, the Death Eaters. This is a critique of how the public should not necessarily believe everything that a person (or politician) says. Initially, people were quick to fall for Lord Voldemort’s ideas because he was so charismatic. Unfortunately, they eventually realized that he was a selfish, power-hungry ruler. Initially at Hogwarts, he used flattery to trick his potions professor into teaching him about a dark art called Horcruxes. Horcruxes are bits of a wizard’s soul, split and preserved in inanimate objects; but in order to create one, the wizard had to murder someone. Lord Voldemort created his first Horcrux when he was sixteen, preserving his teenage self in a diary he kept. Even as a teenager, he had no trouble murdering another for his own benefit. He created a total of eight Horcruxes. It had become his goal to become not just a great sorcerer, but the best sorcerer in the world. To do this, he needed protection from death and his Horcruxes provided him with this.
His next step, after his career at Hogwarts, was to create a new name for himself. The name “Lord Voldemort,” itself is part of the rhetoric of his character. Tom Riddle did not strike him as a name witches and wizards would come to fear. “Surely you didn’t think I was going to keep my filthy Muggle father’s name? No. I fashioned myself a new name, a name I knew wizards everywhere would one day fear to speak, when I become the greatest sorcerer in the world!” (Rowling, 1998) Lord Voldemort told Harry in the Chamber of Secrets. As he waved his wand, the letters in his name, “Tom Marvolo Riddle” swirled into the phrase “I am Lord Voldemort.”
After he became Lord Voldemort, he gathered a group of followers who he called Death Eaters. Some of his followers genuinely believed in what Lord Voldemort “preached,” which was that pure-blood witches and wizards were superior to Muggles and Muggle-borns. He believed that anyone who was not of pure wizard blood should not be allowed to practice magic. His ideas were rash and extreme and there were many witches and wizards who opposed him, even those who were “pure-blood.” To gain more pure-blood followers, Lord Voldemort used fear and violence. He threatened to kill many witches and wizards into becoming Death Eaters. The reason his followers were so loyal was because they were afraid of what he might do to them or their families if they were disloyal. Draco Malfoy experiences this problem in the sixth book. His parents were Death Eaters so he was obligated to become one as well. Malfoy became an asset to Lord Voldemort because he was a student at Hogwarts and Lord Voldemort needed another follower to keep an eye on Professor Dumbledore, who was in many ways, his enemy. Malfoy’s task was to murder Dumbledore but he was not cut out for such a task. Malfoy’s parents made a pact with Professor Snape, that if he could not complete the task, Snape must take over. Malfoy and his parents feared for his safety if he could not kill his Headmaster. In the end, Malfoy failed and Snape was the one who killed Dumbledore.
Throughout the first half of the series, Lord Voldemort makes failed attempts at returning to power. Because of his Horcruxes, his soul was intact, but he lacked a physical body. Finally, in the fourth book, he returns with the help of a few of his Death Eaters. Potter is tied to Lord Voldemort’s father’s urn in a graveyard and now that Lord Voldemort has his body back and faithful Death Eaters at his side, he plans to kill Potter once and for all: “I’m going to kill you, Harry Potter. I’m going to destroy you. After tonight, no one will ever again question my power. After tonight if they speak of you, they’ll speak of how you begged for death. And I, being a merciful Lord, obliged” (Rowling, 2000). The potential murder of Potter is a show to him because it is something he has waited to do for 13 years. He tells Potter exactly what he plans to do to him, as he has done with many other victims. He knows that murdering Potter will solidify him as the most powerful wizard because when he failed to kill Potter the first time, he was mocked for having been defeated by an infant. Finally, his version of the story of Potter’s murder includes Potter begging for death, to make Lord Voldemort seem “merciful.” This is another act of rhetoric; he uses the notion of mercy to build his persona up. Readers know that Lord Voldemort is not merciful but terrible, so Rowling uses this ironically to remind readers that he is not merciful.
Throughout Lord Voldemort’s rise to power in the second half of the series, he finds ways to slowly infiltrate the wizarding political system, called the Ministry of Magic. This assists him as he takes over the wizarding world in the sixth and seventh books. He recruits followers who are skilled rhetoricians, like himself, but who do not exhort fear as he does. He welcomes amicable politicians, who use dialog to persuade others to like them. He ends up with the Ministry wrapped around his finger, as the Minister of Magic (equitable to our President of the United States) is none other than a Death Eater. The United States has a system of checks and balances in order to prevent a problem like this. With a Death Eater as the Minister of Magic, Lord Voldemort gained control over the Ministry of Magic. Rowling uses this to exemplify the power that one person can gain when they manipulate their way into power and use power for their own benefit. This further shows that societies have a fear of their enemies infiltrating their country through their government. Further, this shows the consequences of the wrong people having power in public office.
Due to the desirability of power, people will often go to any lengths necessary in order to achieve it. This can be done through fame, politics, or simply by having money. Nevertheless power is extremely dangerous. Rowling uses Lord Voldemort to show readers the consequences of going to great lengths to achieve power as well as how dangerous it is once it is achieved. He not only dies at the end of the series but he also dies alone because he does not fully trust anyone, not even the Death Eaters. His followers were never really friends; they were just afraid or manipulated. Harry Potter makes a point before finally defeating Lord Voldemort that he never has and never will know love, which is ultimately what separates the two characters (Rowling, 2007). That final moment shows that Potter, the protagonist of the series, is more desirable than Lord Voldemort. By the end of the series, Potter becomes a leader of his peers and adults and in many ways has power. But he uses power for the benefit of others, not for himself and does not desire it. Rowling uses this to show how power can be used for good in order to demonstrate the negative effects of power. She uses Lord Voldemort to show how the quest for power can consume an individual and how terrible it can be.
Lord Voldemort, antagonist of the Harry Potter series, is a character filled with rhetoric. Just as politicians use rhetoric to obtain positions in office, Lord Voldemort uses rhetoric to gain power and to manipulate others. He uses logos to gain some of his followers but only those who believe in the same ideals as himself. To exhort power over everyone else, Lord Voldemort uses fear. It is not exactly an appeal, but the concept is an appeal to pathos. Lord Voldemort manipulates peoples’ emotions. Through all this, J.K. Rowling offers a critique of absolute powers. She uses the villain of her series to exemplify the problems that arise when one person has too much power. He represents the problems of rhetoric being used for evil instead of to better society.
Compagnone, V. (2013). The puzzling world of Harry Potter. Semiotica, 2013(193), 145-163. doi:10.1515/sem-2013-0009
Kuusisto, R. (2009). Roads and Riddles? Western Major Power Metaphors of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 34(3), 275-297.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 1469 – 1527.
Rosengrant, J. (2009). The deathly hallows: Harry potter and adolescent development. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 57(6), 1401-1423.
Rowling, J.K. (1997) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. United States: Scholastic
Rowling, J.K. (1998) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. United States: Scholastic
Rowling, J.K. (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. United States: Scholastic
Rowling, J.K. (2000) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. United States: Scholastic
Rowling, J.K. (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. United States: Scholastic
Rowling, J.K. (2005) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. United States: Scholastic
Rowling, J.K. (2007) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. United States: Scholastic