The Book Club

The King Lear of the Kid’s Section

Dear Judith,

My wish has been granted. With the ending of this book–which I’ll try mightily not to ruin–Rowling lays her cards on the table. In the last 90 pages of Goblet of Fire, we learn more about Voldemort than we have in the thousands of preceding ones. We leave with a pretty good idea of why he went wrong, what he really wants (it isn’t just Harry), and which of the darkish characters we’ve met are actually his henchmen. And now that we know the stakes, the series really begins to feel like the epic it’s meant to be.

I enjoyed your reading of Voldemort as an Edmund. It made see me Lear everywhere: Rowling is obsessed with false accusation and vindication (see: Harry, Sirius, Hagrid), traitors (Pettigrew), and mercenaries (those who appease Voldemort when he’s in power and abandon him when he’s not). And Goblet of Fire’s most important subplot is about a son who betrays his father. The father goes mad as a result, and–as if the reference needed to be any clearer–is found wandering outdoors and muttering incomprehensively to himself.

There’s also some Lear-worthy twinning afoot. Harry and Voldemort are unmistakably doubles and perhaps even brothers of a sort: Their wands are siblings, and by the end of Goblet of Fire, they share some of the same blood. Those passages you quote give us even more to go on: Harry and Voldemort are both are of mixed muggle/wizard lineage, and both were painfully rejected by muggle relatives who were creeped out about having wizard kin. They were each raised as orphans and re-introduced to the wizarding world at Hogwarts.

Here the free will theme, which has been threaded throughout the series, takes on some real grandeur. The similarities between Harry and Voldemort’s backgrounds only serve to emphasize their different choices. For example, Harry doesn’t use his newfound powers to take revenge on the Dursleys, the muggle oppressors who have lied to, starved, and neglected him for eleven years. Instead, he allies himself with Hermione Granger, daughter of two muggle parents, and Ron Weasley, son of an unabashed muggleophile. (I’d like to pause to salute Rowling here. Until now, Mr. Weasley’s fond tinkering with cars, telephones, and other muggle artifacts has seemed like nothing more than a minor, inspired bit of clowning. By the end of Vol. 4, it’s storytelling genius. And proof that she really did plot out the entire series before she began writing the first book.)

Voldemort has the opposite response to his abuse at muggle hands. As we’ve been hinted for a few volumes now, Voldemort and his groupies are the racists and eugenicists of the magical world. They consider muggles inferior at best and dragon-bait at worst. (Rowling, who has a Dickensian penchant for using names–Snape, Sirius, Moody, Flitwick–as shorthand, has given two of Voldemort’s supporters Germanic ones. I hope she shows some restraint here–it would be awful to see her cross the line from fantasy to allegory.) All of us readers are muggles, of course, so the implicit message–which might be really scary for kids–is that Voldemort wants us dead too.

This faction begins to terrorize muggles at the start of Goblet of Fire. Call me bloodthirsty, but I’m looking forward to more attacks in future volumes–they’ll bring the muggle and wizarding worlds into closer contact, which is bound to be fun. Small portions are already integrated–I’m thinking of Hermione’s parents, who benignly see her off to school each year and send her sweets in the mail–and we’ve been told that mixing with muggles has somehow helped wizards survive over the years. In fact, since wizards are human too, and both factions can breed reproductive offspring, what Voldemort and company might eventually be fighting is the integration of the magical and non-magical worlds. Any chance, do you think? And should they merge? The entire Ministry of Magic would split over the question, and as a reader, I’d be torn too: We’d lose the delight of a parallel universe, but the mutual discovery would be delicious.

To be sure, Voldemort’s agenda is undoubtedly more ambitious than a simple anti-muggle campaign. He also seeks general control, revenge, and as he confesses at the end of this book, one of the classic baddie prizes, which I won’t reveal here. But now we know that racial purity is definitely one of his main goals. Judith, a question for you: Yesterday you said that you found this theme over-earnest and Manichean. After finishing the book, do you still?

Two predictions to share before I sign off. Our colleague June Thomas rightly points out that Hermione’s campaign on behalf of the house-elves remains unresolved in this volume–to be picked up in a later installment, I hope. And this astute post, by one Jack Cerf, offers a convincing analysis of what drives Lord Voldemort, and who else he might lure into his clutches.

Until next year,