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Wishing you could spend some more time getting to know the Dark Lord? Well, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the book for you. Book 6 lets us get to know Voldemort inside and out. By visiting memories to learn about Voldemort's family, birth, childhood, and adolescence, we witness several pivotal points in his life that transform Tom Riddle into Lord Voldemort. At first Harry doesn't understand why it is important for him to learn about Voldemort's past, but over time he realizes that Dumbledore is arming him with the tools and information needed to figure out exactly what makes Voldemort tick and how to destroy him. Along the way, we uncover some heart-wrenching facts about Voldemort's upbringing and about the suffering that marked his entrance into the world. As a result, the evil man becomes more complex.
The first Voldemort-related memory that Harry and Dumbledore visit is of Voldemort's mother, Merope Gaunt. Merope grew up in a small, run-down cottage along with her father, Marvolo, and her brother, Morfin.
We come to find that Merope is a woman greatly abused by her father and brother. The Gaunts pride themselves on being pureblood wizards and descendants of Salazar Slytherin, but their poverty is overwhelming. The squalor and misery of Merope's life at home compels her to use her magic to bewitch a wealthy, handsome Muggle, Tom Riddle, with whom she falls in love.
After they conceive a child, Merope decides she loves her baby's father too much to keep him under the influence of her magic. She releases him from her spell, and he immediately abandons her. Merope gives birth to her baby, Tom Riddle, Jr. (the future Lord Voldemort) at an orphanage and dies shortly after.
One might say that Merope dies of a broken heart. It's important to note that Merope probably could have used her magic to save herself, but she didn't. Her grief is so huge that she'd rather die than continue living and be a mother to her son. So the one person who is supposed to love Tom unconditionally, his mother, essentially abandons him. It is this sadness that marks Tom's entrance into the world.
Knowing the way he came into the world, is it any wonder that Tom grows into an odd and twisted little boy? Mrs. Cole, the woman who runs the orphanage where he grows up, helps us fill in the blanks and understand how Tom evolves in his early years at the orphanage:
"He was a funny baby too. He hardly ever cried, you know. And then, when he got a little older, he was…odd."
"Odd in what way?" asked Dumbledore gently.
"He scares the other children."
"You mean he's a bully?" asked Dumbledore.
"I think he must be," said Mrs. Cole, frowning slightly, "but it's very hard to catch him at it. There have been incidents….Nasty things…" (13.78-89)
Mrs. Cole goes on to describe the death of a rabbit and an incident in which Tom and two other children at the orphanage went into a cave during a summer outing, after which the two children were never the same again. Tom terrorizes those around him. It comes naturally to him. He seems to have an innate urge to hurt and dominate others.
Yet Tom knows that his behavior is "bad." When Dumbledore comes to offer him a position at Hogwarts, Tom immediately assumes that Dumbledore is a doctor coming to haul him away to an insane asylum for the way he has behaved:
"You can't kid me! The asylum, that's where you're from, isn't it? 'Professor,' yes, of course – well, I'm not going, see? That old cat's the one who should be in the asylum. I never did anything to little Amy Benson or Dennis Bishop, and you can ask them, they'll tell you!" (13.114)
This interaction tells us two things. First, it shows that Tom doesn't trust people – he's automatically suspicious of Dumbledore. Second, he definitely knows he's performed some messed up magic on Amy and Dennis. Unlike many other young wizards who accidentally perform magic that hurts people (think of Harry in Book 1), Tom consciously performs hurtful magic. In his excitement at learning he's a wizard, Tom accidentally reveals a bit too much information to Dumbledore:
"I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to." (13.125)
Dumbledore even finds that Tom has collected small objects – "trophies" or "souvenirs" – with which to remember how he terrorized his victims. This is a behavior that he continues as an adult, as we'll see.
Tom's desire to make others suffer also shows how disconnected he is from other people. He seems to have no empathy or ability to understand his peers. He is clearly a loner, either having been ostracized as a result of his powers, or using his powers to separate himself from others. He desperately wants to be unique and dominate his peers. When Dumbledore meets Tom in the orphanage, we find that Tom doesn't like his name because it's not unique – "there are a lot of Toms" (13.165), he says. From this Dumbledore gathers:
"[…] there he showed contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary. Even then, he wished to be different, separate, notorious. He shed his name, as you know, within a few short years of that conversation and created the mask of 'Lord Voldemort' behind which he has been hidden for so long." (13.187)
When Tom learns from Dumbledore that he is a wizard, the boy can barely contain his ecstasy at finding out he's "special":
His legs were trembling. He stumbled forward and sat down on the bed again, staring at his hands, his head bowed as though in prayer.
"I knew I was different," he whispered to his own quivering fingers. "I knew I was special. Always, I knew there was something." (13.126-127)
Here, we see Tom's excitement surface in the form of his trembling legs. We understand, perhaps, the extent to which Tom wants to be different and more powerful than his peers. Yet this revelation only reinforces his loner identity. He also trusts no one; he has no human connections.
Yet it isn't only his peers that he wants to be separate from: he also rejects help from Dumbledore. Tom asserts his independence immediately, saying to Dumbledore, "I don't need you. […] I'm used to doing things for myself, I go round London on my own all the time. How do you get to this Diagon Alley – sir?" (13.161).
Despite his bad beginnings and all of the warning signs that Dumbledore sees, he decides to offer Tom a second chance. Though he's determined to keep an eye on the boy, Dumbledore chooses not to reveal Tom's vicious behavior to the other Hogwarts teachers. Dumbledore wishes to give Tom an opportunity to reform himself and start fresh without biasing anyone against the boy.
When Tom enters Hogwarts, he appears to be a model student. He is handsome, charming, well-liked by teachers, academically accomplished, and he even becomes a prefect and Head Boy. The professors are taken in by his act, but Dumbledore isn't convinced.
Tom uses his Academy-Award-winning performance as the upstanding citizen to mask many horrific acts. We know from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that Tom opens the Chamber of Secrets while a teenager at Hogwarts, which leads to the death of one student. From the memories Dumbledore has procured of Tom, we also know that when Tom is 16, the same age as Harry in Book 6, Tom murders his father, Tom Riddle, Sr., and his father's parents. In addition, Tom takes steps toward performing really evil magic – as opposed to what Dumbledore calls "usual evil" – by questioning Slughorn about Horcruxes. He also begins gathering a group of devoted followers:
"As he moved up the school, he gathered about him a group of dedicated friends; I call them that, for want of a better term, although as I have already indicated, Riddle undoubtedly felt no affection for any of them. This group had a kind of dark glamour within the castle. They were a motley collection; a mixture of the weak seeking protection, the ambitious seeking some shared glory, and the thuggish gravitating toward a leader who could show them more refined forms of cruelty. In other words, they were the forerunners of the Death Eaters, and indeed some of them became the first Death Eaters after leaving Hogwarts." (17.116)
So it would seem that even as a young man Tom has plans to become a Dark Lord. Does Dumbledore make the right decision in not warning the staff against him? Is it possible that Dumbledore could have changed Tom's life path, or was Tom's movement toward becoming Voldemort inevitable from the time he was born?
As Dumbledore tells Harry, Tom charmed everyone around him to the point where all had huge expectations for him:
"Nearly everyone expected spectacular things from Tom Riddle, prefect, Head Boy, winner of the Award for Special Services to the School. I know that several teachers, Professor Slughorn amongst them, suggested that he join the Ministry of Magic, offered to set up appointments, put him in touch with useful contacts. He refused all offers. The next thing the staff knew, Voldemort was working at Borgin and Burkes." (10.63)
But Borgin and Burkes isn't his first choice for a job after school. Tom actually hopes to be a teacher at Hogwarts. He certainly considers Hogwarts to be his first and only home, but he also wants to be near all of the ancient magic locked away within Hogwarts's walls. He wants to have influence over little witches and wizards-in-training. But being only 18, he doesn't get the job and ends up at Borgin and Burkes, a store specializing in fine magical objects.
As it turns out, though, the position at Borgin and Burkes is a great job for a man who likes to collect trophies, trinkets, and powerful magical objects. Through his work, Tom comes into contact with many interesting collectibles, and even murders an elderly witch named Hepzibah Smith in order to steal the Slytherin locket and Hufflepuff cup, which she owns. Here we see Tom's childhood tendency to collect trophies resurface.
After killing Hepzibah Smith, Tom disappears for many years. Dumbledore doesn't encounter him again until many years later when Tom, who now calls himself Voldemort, shows up at Hogwarts asking Dumbledore for a teaching job for the second time. If he hadn't before, Tom has certainly now has passed the point of no return – he has a group of Death Eaters that he leads, he has "experimented" and "pushed the boundaries of magic" (20.169), and even shows physical signs of being less human, including red eyes. Needless to say, Dumbledore does not give Voldemort the job.
If Tom has passed the point of no return, what was the pivotal moment when Tom became Voldemort? That, we think, has something to do with Horcruxes, about which Professor Slughorn gave Tom information when Tom was a student.
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The final memory involving Voldemort that Harry and Dumbledore contend with in Book 6 is a big one. In Slughorn's memory they watch as a teenage Tom learns about Horcruxes, a kind of incredibly Dark Magic that allows its wielder to divide his soul and encase it in a vessel and, thus, evade death.
During his job interview, Voldemort tells Dumbledore that he has "pushed the boundaries of magic further, perhaps, than they have ever been pushed" (20.169). He repeats this sentiment to the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when he tells them he has "gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality" (quoted in Half-Blood Prince 23.92). Dumbledore reflects on Voldemort's statement:
"'Further than anybody.' And I thought I knew what that meant, though the Death Eaters did not. He was referring to his Horcruxes, Horcruxes in the plural, Harry, which I do not believe any other wizard has ever had. Yet, it fitted: Lord Voldemort has seemed to grow less human with the passing years, and the transformation he has undergone seemed to me to be only explicable if his soul was mutilated beyond the realms of what we might call 'usual evil'…" (23.92)
So Tom did create Horcruxes – based on Slughorn's memory it seems Tom was planning on dividing his soul seven times and creating six Horcruxes. The moment when Tom creates Horcruxes is probably the dividing line between Tom and Voldemort – it is the moment when, in Dumbledore's words, he moved past "usual evil."
Why are Horcruxes so bad? Well, to create a Horcrux, one must kill a person – an act that literally forces the killer's soul to rip apart. A Horcrux is made when a fragment of the soul his encased in an object. Voldemort, who has grand notions of himself, likes to make Horcruxes out of valuable magical objects, such as the "trophies" he collected while working at Borgin and Burkes. In creating six Horcruxes, Voldemort pushes the limits of magic in a way that it has never been pushed before, and it is seriously disturbing. (You can read more about the specifics of Horcruxes in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.") The Dark Lord, who has had a desire to be separate from and above others since his childhood, is slowly but surely becoming inhuman. He has achieved a kind of immortality.
Voldemort's obsession with immortality and his fear of death is even reflected in his name. "Voldemort" is a compilation of three French words "vol" (meaning "flight"), "de" (meaning "from"), and "mort" (meaning "death"). Put them all together and what do you get? "Flight from death" – an appropriate name for a wizard who seeks immortality at all costs.
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry resolves to destroy each of Voldemort's six Horcruxes, which are hidden in unknown, personally important locations around the world. Harry's ultimate goal is to destroy Voldemort himself. As Harry begins this quest, he must keep in mind what he has learned from Dumbledore about Voldemort's past and personality.