From the start of the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling has drawn a lot of parallels between Harry and Tom Riddle. We know they’re both half-blood, both raised as orphans among Muggles, both Parselmouths, both dark-haired... but how far do the similarities go?
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, When Dumbledore went to the orphanage to offer Riddle a position at Hogwarts, he told the matron, Mrs. Cole, “You understand, I’m sure, that we will not be keeping him permanently?...He will have to return here, at the very least, every summer.” 1 (emphasis added)
That language should sound familiar to every Harry Potter fan: “have to return...at the very least, every summer...” It sounds very similar to the arrangement Harry has with the Dursleys! Could it be that Tom Riddle experienced the same kind of protection at the orphanage that Harry received at his aunt’s house?
Returning to the Orphanage
The books say several times that Tom returned to the orphanage each year. But why? He hated the orphanage, and he hated Muggles! Surely he could have found someplace else to go.
In the flashback sequence in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Riddle requests of Headmaster Dippet that he not return to the orphanage that summer, and we read Dippet’s response:
“My dear boy,” said Dippet kindly, “I cannot possibly let you stay at school over the summer. Surely you want to go home for theholidays?”
“No,” said Riddle at once. “I’d much rather stay at Hogwarts than go back to that - to that -”
“You live in a Muggle orphanage during the holidays, I believe?” said Dippet curiously.
“Yes, sir,” said Riddle, reddening slightly. . .
Dippet clicked his tongue sympathetically. “The thing is, Tom,” he sighed, “Special arrangements might have been made for you, but inthe current circumstances…”
“You mean all these attacks, sir?” said Riddle, and Harry’s heart leapt, and he moved closer, scared of missing anything.
“Precisely,” said the headmaster. “My dear boy, you must see how foolish it would be of me to allow you to remain at the castle when term ends. Particularly in light of the recent tragedy ... the death of that poor little girl. You will be safer by far at your orphanage.” 2
When Dippet says “Particularly in light of the recent tragedy” it may imply that letting Riddle stay at Hogwarts would have been foolish anyway, even without the “recent tragedy.” Either way, it is clear that Riddle would not return to the orphanage each year if he had his way. Someone else must have compelled him: maybe it was Dippet, maybe it was Dumbledore, or maybe it was both.
Rowling emphasizes Riddle’s yearly trips to the orphanage once again in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Before showing Harry the memory of Riddle meeting his uncle Morfin, Dumbledore sets the scene:
Finally, after painstaking research, through old books of Wizarding families, [Tom Riddle] discovered the existence of Slytherin’s surviving line. In the summer of his sixteenth year, he left the orphanage to which he returned annually, and set off to find his Gaunt relatives.3
The same year he destroyed his Muggle father and grandparents, he still returned to the orphanage first! Rowling often hides information in plain sight, and in saying that he “returned annually” to the orphanage, she may be drawing a parallel to Harry’s own history.” Otherwise, why would Rowling even add it? Why even mention where Tom had been prior to the Gaunt house?
We know Merope Gaunt refused to use magic to save her life in the orphanage after giving birth to Tom Riddle. Dumbledore and Harry had this discussion in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
.”..near the end of her pregnancy, Merope was alone in London and in desperate need of gold, desperate enough to sell her one and only valuable possession, the locket that was one of Marvolo’s treasured family heirlooms.”
“But she could do magic!” said Harry impatiently. “She could have got food and everything for herself by magic, couldn’t she?”
“Ah,” said Dumbledore, “perhaps she could. But it is my belief — I am guessing again, but I am sure I am right — that when her husband abandoned her, Merope stopped using magic. I do not think that she wanted to be a witch any longer. Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers; that can happen. In any case, as you are about to see, Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life.” 4
Dumbledore seemed sure Merope had stopped using magic, but was unsure of her reasons for doing so. He thought it might be linked to emotional distress, or even a desire to abandon the magical world. But maybe Merope was on the run, or in hiding. It’s not a stretch to believe that Marvolo and Morfin would have rather killed Merope than let her give birth to a mudblood. If so, Merope Gaunt may have hid her baby among Muggles to protect him.
The Ministry can tell, even from a distance, where magic is being used, which is why they thought Harry was doing magic when Dobby destroyed the pudding in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. If the Ministry can do it, others can too. I believe that Merope refused to do magic to avoid being detected. Rather than save her own life with magic, she allowed herself to die to keep her baby from being detected. Without her even knowing it, Merope’s sacrifice might have given Tom a magical protection, as long as he returned to the orphanage each year.
But in Harry’s case, Dumbledore says he “evoked the ancient magic” that protected him in the Dursley’s home. So who could have activated the protection on Riddle’s orphanage? It was certainly not Merope if she had chosen to forsake magic! Who else could have known about a half-blood wizard baby that needed protection?
According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, J. K. Rowling said, “a magical quill at Hogwarts detects the birth of each magical child, then writes his or her name down in a large parchment book. Every year Professor McGonagall checks the book, then uses this information to send out owls to these children as they approach their eleventh birthday.” 5
Since McGonagall was just a child when Tom Riddle was born, someone else would have been in charge of monitoring the large parchment book, and perhaps it was Dumbledore. Like McGonagall, Dumbledore was a transfiguration teacher, and since he eventually became Headmaster, we can guess that he once held the position of Deputy Headmaster. If he was monitoring the parchment book, Dumbledore may have taken notice of a baby born with the infamous Gaunt name in a Muggle orphanage, and investigated the circumstance. Or, with all the other parallels between Harry and Riddle, it’s not unreasonable to think there might have been another prophecy, this one about Tom Riddle...a prophecy that led Dumbledore to protect Riddle by evoking ancient magic.
It’s interesting to note that Dumbledore’s old nemesis, Grindelwald, was vanquished the same year Tom Riddle left Hogwarts and disappeared. Did Riddle have a hand in Grindlewald’s defeat? Perhaps he was seeking to usurp Grindelwald’s power. If so, that might have been the subject of another prophecy—and one more reason why Riddle would need protection. It would also create one more parallel to Harry’s life, if he and Voldemort had both been the subject of prophecies. Surely Grindelwald and his followers would want to destroy a baby destined to aid in Grindlewald’s defeat. That would be ample reason for Dumbledore to protect Riddle. Could Dumbledore’s later obsession with stopping Voldemort have something to do with guilt over preserving his life in the first place? All of this is a stretch, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Whatever the case, it shows there could be any number of reasons why the infant Tom Riddle might have required his mother’s protection, and makes Merope’s actions all the more heroic.
Setting aside the wild Grindelwald theory, it’s more likely that Marvolo Gaunt was the real threat to Merope and her baby. However, before Riddle graduated from Hogwarts, Marvolo was dead, according to uncle Morfin (“Died years ago, didn’t he?”). Did Riddle even need protection at that point? With no lingering threat, why would anyone compel Riddle to return to the orphanage each year?
Despite what Morfin told Riddle about Marvolo having died, Morfin still believed there was a threat. Dumbledore told us that Morfin was quite afraid when he discovered his father’s ring missing:
‘So the Ministry called upon Morfin....And he permitted himself to be led off to Azkaban without a fight. All that disturbed him was the fact that his father’s ring had disappeared. ‘He’ll kill me for l osing it,’ he told his captors over and over again. ‘He’ll kill me for losing his ring.’ And that, apparently, was all he ever said again. He lived out the remainder of his life in Azkaban, lamenting the loss of Marvolo’s last heirloom, and is buried beside the prison, alongside the other poor souls who have expired within its walls.’ 6
If Marvolo was already dead, why would Morfin be afraid he would kill him? Could Marvolo still be alive? Or partially alive?
We’re never told how Tom Riddle learned of the existence of horcruxes, but we know he was an “accomplished legilimens,” 7 and we know that after his encounter with Morfin, Riddle returned to school and asked Slughorn about horcruxes. Perhaps he learned about horcruxes from Morfin’s thoughts. A weak mind like Morfin’s would be an open book to Riddle. It’s possible that Marvolo made the ring a horcrux, and then charged Morfin with protecting it. That would explain why Morfin was so upset about losing the ring, and why he still feared his father. If Marvolo used his horcrux to return from the dead, he certainly wouldn’t have been happy to learn that Morfin had lost it! If Marvolo was completely dead, why would Morfin ever fear him?
Another possibility is that when Morfin said “He’ll kill me” he wasn’t referring to Marvolo at all. The ring may have been someone else’s horcrux, and the Gaunt family had protected it for years, or even generations. Grindelwald was still around at that time, and Rowling told The Leaky Cauldron that Grindelwald would have something to do the remaining plot. Could the ring have been Grindelwald’s horcrux? Or could it have even been Slytherin’s? Whatever the case, Morfin was afraid for his life because he lost it, and that is important. The ring must have had magical significance even before Tom Riddle took it.
Either way, there are many possibilities why Tom Riddle would need continued protection at the orphanage. Marvolo and Morfin may have wanted to exterminate Merope’s mudblood child. If Tom Riddle was prophesied to bring about Grindelwald’s downfall, all of Grindelwald’s followers would want Riddle dead. And after Riddle had stolen Marvolo’s ring, Morfin would go to any length to get it back. Whatever the case, it would be in Tom Riddle’s best interest to return to the orphanage, and take advantage of the protection he received there.
It is obvious that J. K. Rowling intended her readers to see how similar Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort are. But those similarities may go deeper than her readers suspect. Who would be surprised to learn Merope Gaunt’s sacrifice protected Tom Riddle, just as Lily Potter’s sacrifice protected Harry?
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when Riddle found out how Harry survived Voldemort’s killing curse, he wasn’t surprised at all. The protection of a mother’s love was something with which he was familiar:
‘So, your mother died to save you? Yes, that’s a powerful countercharm. I can see now. There is nothing special about you after all. I wondered, you see, Because there are strange likenesses between us, Harry Potter. Even you must have noticed.’ (emphasis added) 8
Throughout the Harry Potter books, Rowling has left strong clues that Tom Riddle was protected by ancient magic at his orphanage, just as Harry is at the Dursleys. When all the connections between Voldemort and Harry are finally known, Rowling will have made a poignant statement about Harry’s character. Harry felt great admiration for his mother’s sacrifice, while Tom Riddle saw his mother as weak. The difference between Harry and Voldemort becomes more clear when readers see that Tom Riddle was incapable of love, even towards his own selfless mother. Harry Potter and Tom Riddle lived parallel lives, but Harry chose the path that leads to love, and that will prove to make all the difference.
1. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005. p.268.
2. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999. pp.243-244.
3. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005. p.363.
4. Ibid. p. 262.
5. Vander Ark, Steve, Magical Devices. The Harry Potter Lexicon. “The Most Complete and Amazing Reference to the Wonderful World of Harry Potter.” 2000-2005. The Harry Potter Lexicon. 15 April 2006. http://www.hp-lexicon.org/magic/devices/devices-q.html.
6. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005. pp.366-367.
7. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003. p.26.
8. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p.317.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003.
The Harry Potter Lexicon. “The Most Complete and Amazing Reference to the Wonderful World of Harry Potter.” 2000-2005. The Harry Potter Lexicon. 9 March 2006. http://www.hp-lexicon.org/magic/devices/devices-q.html.