“But He Will Have Power the Dark Lord Knows Not”
—Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 841
By Pam Nail
Spider-Man climbs walls and swings from webbing that shoots from his wrists. Superman can fly and has enormous amounts of strength as well as X-ray vision. Jean Grey can move things with her mind and read the minds of others. Heroes are often identified by their superpowers, the traits and abilities that separate them from the rest of humankind. Even heroes that do not have inborn powers of their own possess objects that allow them to do things that other people cannot. The power that heroes have typically isolates them from humanity, despite frequent interactions with “normal” people, and this is part of what makes them sympathetic characters.
On the flip side of this tradition sits Harry Potter. Harry was born with magical powers as well, but this does not isolate him at all, as magical ability is quite ordinary in the world he inhabits for most of his journey. What isolates him in J.K. Rowling’s story, ironically, is the thing that makes him the most human—his ability to love. This is not to say that other characters in the story do not have this ability, because they certainly do. However, Harry’s capacity to feel love and compassion for other people is something quite special, and it is the characteristic that makes him the perfect foil for the story’s villain, Lord Voldemort.
From very early on in the Harry Potter series, we get a strong sense of how important love is to Harry’s journey. The death of his mother, Lily—who made the choice to die out of love for her son—provided Harry with an incredibly powerful spell of protection. Not only did this magic result in Voldemort’s killing curse rebounding and destroying his own body, but it also gave Harry protection from Voldemort as he grew up under the roof of the negligent Dursleys. In later books, we see the theme of love emphasized again and again, never more prominently than in the Prophecy that singles Harry out as the one who can vanquish Voldemort.
The concept of love is a very broad one in Rowling’s books. There are several different kinds of love to be found in their pages—filial love, fraternal love, the love of friends for one another, and even romantic love. All of these types of love make up Harry’s elaborate support system and nurture his innate ability to love, not only in those various ways but also in a much more basic sense of compassion for other people, even people he detests. Love is largely seen as something of great value in these books—worth having and worth fighting for—but it has its downsides as well, leading characters to act foolishly and imprudently, and often causing quite a bit of pain. It is seemingly equal parts comfort and suffering, which makes it incredibly true to what love is like in the Muggle world outside the books.
It seems appropriate, then, that love should have such a profound importance to the story and that it is our hero’s superpower, his “greatest strength,”1 as Dumbledore calls it. The emphasis on this power, and how lacking it characterizes Voldemort just as much as having it characterizes Harry, makes it evident that love will not only play a huge role in the final Harry Potter book, but that it is very likely the key to the entire series.
Harry and Voldemort as Opposites
Heroes and villains are often portrayed as opposites in stories. The pattern is most often seen in comic books, where it is something of a cliché for the hero’s greatest strength to be the villain’s greatest weakness, or vice versa. This is certainly true in the Harry Potter books. Dumbledore spells it out at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, after he reveals the substance of the Prophecy and tells Harry about the locked room in the Department of Mysteries: “It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all.”2
Harry and Voldemort are characterized, respectively, by love and the lack of it throughout their lives. Even the circumstances of their births and childhoods follow this dichotomy. Harry was born to two people who loved each other and who gave their lives to keep him safe. Harry’s mother, specifically, died in order to save him. Voldemort, on the other hand, was born not out of love, but from a perversion of love. His mother was hopelessly in love with a man who she essentially drugged in order to get him to marry her, and who abandoned her and their unborn child when he discovered the truth. Voldemort’s mother died, not for love of her son, but from a despair that was stronger than any affection she might have had for her own child.
Harry, despite not growing up in the most loving environment, nevertheless started his adventures in the wizarding world with an ability to feel affection for and take an interest in other people. He takes to Hagrid and Ron almost instantly, and his dislike of Draco Malfoy is decided in their very first meeting by the latter’s disparaging remarks about Hagrid being a “savage” and a “servant,”3 as well as Malfoy’s subsequent insults about Ron on the Hogwarts Express. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince reveals that Voldemort—or Tom Riddle, as he was called then—was quite a different child. Even before he was told he was a wizard, at the tender age of eleven, he had already bullied and terrorized several of the children at the orphanage where he lived.
As Riddle grew, he stayed much the same boy he was when he stole his fellow orphans’ belongings and took several of those children into a dark cave to torture them. He had a circle of companions at Hogwarts, but they were more toadies than actual friends. Riddle’s adolescence and adulthood were characterized by a profound solipsism, and Dumbledore makes a point to tell Harry that “Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one.”4 Harry, in stark contrast, has several true friends, including two best mates who are utterly devoted to him and both of whom he loves very much. He also has a kind of surrogate family in the Weasleys, who offer him the doting, familial affection he was deprived of when his parents were killed and which he does not get from his only blood relatives, the Dursleys. Having these people in his life means a great deal to him, and we can see that as early as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where he wants so much to belong. This is illustrated most eloquently when he looks into a mirror that shows him his most desperate desire; not a wealth of accomplishments, but rather himself surrounded by his family.
We do not know as much about Voldemort’s life and experiences as we do about Harry’s, but J.K. Rowling has said that Voldemort has never loved or cared for anyone. “If he had, he couldn’t possibly be what he is,”5 she explains. This lack of love is the root of his evil nature and what has allowed him to be the kind of person who murders indiscriminately and who focuses what little life he has on dominating others and avoiding his own death.
Rowling has said elsewhere of Harry that while he “is not a good enough wizard yet to even attempt to take on Voldemort as wizard to wizard” he nonetheless escapes Voldemort time and time again “because there is one thing that Voldemort doesn’t understand and that’s the power that keeps Harry going. And we all know what that power is.”6 It is Harry’s pureness of heart that allows him to retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone from the Mirror of Erised, and it is his mother’s love that gives him the protection that helps him fight Quirrell. It is his affection for his friends—Hermione, who has been Petrified, and Ron, whose sister has been taken into the Chamber of Secrets—as well as his loyalty to Dumbledore that enables him to defeat Tom Riddle and the basilisk. It is the memory of his father that inspires him to stand up and face the newly reborn Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the voices of his parents and Voldemort’s other victims that give Harry the strength to outlast Voldemort in the ensuing duel. And it is Harry’s love for Sirius that keeps Voldemort from possessing him longer than a brief moment at the end of Order of the Phoenix. Love has kept Harry going, despite seemingly overwhelming odds, through six books, and it seems certain to keep him going in the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.