Which Voldemort is Scariest?

Unsurprisingly, I was rereading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality on the way back from Bayes Camp (specifically chapters 19 and 20). And, between that and the really bizarre and delightful Olympic opening ceremonies, I ended up wondering whether Canon!Voldemort or HPMOR!Voldemort was scarier.

That’s not the same question as which of them would win in a fight. It’s clearly the HPMOR version. I was wondering which of them would be more terrifying to live in the same world with. When I read Yudkowsky’s fic, the most frightening revelation about his Voldemort occurred at the end of chapter 20. (If you haven’t read the fic, pop off and read up to there, if you have, I’m referring to the thing Quirrelmort did that you probably used to pitch people on the fic).

The revelation I’m referring to (especially paired with the previous chapter) made it clear how terrifying intelligent and creative HPMOR!Voldemort was. Even though the Harry in the fic is fearsomely smart, a bit too ruthless for his own good, and has access to a lot more spheres of knowledge, I finished the chapter wondering how it could ever be possible for Harry to best his teacher.

In contrast, the scariest thing about Canon!Voldemort isn’t an act, it’s a line.

“Kill the spare.”

Canon!Voldemort’s plans and ambitions are a lot more muddled than those of HPMOR!Voldemort. So if your primary goal was self-preservation, you could try to stay out of HPMOR!Voldemort’s way or even be useful to his plans. But this wouldn’t be enough to protect you from Canon!Voldemort, who doesn’t have a clear enough want to stay clear of.

So, is this an endorsement of the crazy Dick Nixon strategy?  Would HPMOR!Voldemort be more frightening if he was more erratic?  Should he be envious of Canon!Voldemort’s irrationality?  Almost certainly not.

HPMOR!Voldemort isn’t optimizing for scariness.  After all, getting caught out in a freak storm is scary and you can’t negotiate with the wind, but trying to be a derecho instead of a Dark Lord seems like setting the bar a little low.  Canon!Voldemort could be playing his cards right, if he just wants painful death to be slightly harder to avoid, but this seems like a pretty boring goal.

The most disappointing part of book seven (apart from the sudden introduction of three more quest objects, when we’d already had five dropped on us at the end of book six), was that Canon!Voldemort’s terror tactics didn’t seem to be in the service of anything very interesting.  The totalitarian Ministry of Magic seems much more aligned with Umbridge’s petty evil than a once in a lifetime figure.

I’m not convinced that HPMOR!Voldemort wants to change the world, instead of just to protect himself from it’s stupidity (it’s possible he doesn’t think it deserves his attention), but if he did, I’d expect that the results would look a lot less like the endgame of every other megalomaniac.  (This goes double for the very ambitious HPMOR!Harry).

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Dianne

    I agree with you about book 7. Despite its length, it felt rushed. Like the author suddenly discovered that she was supposed to actually finish her series and threw in every cool idea she wanted to include in her universe, whether it made any sense or not. IMHO, book 3 was the best of the series: After Rowlings had really gotten her eye in for writing, but before she was so famous that her editors couldn’t actually edit her.

    Silly cross mythos question (that I’ve posed elsewhere): Who would win a fight between Sauron, Voldemort, and Darth Vader? The obvious answer is Vader uses the death star once, maybe twice if Middle Earth isn’t actually earth, and asks what my point was. But consider this: Voldemort is the only true leader among them. Sauron was what’s his name’s chief follower and Vader is obviously the follower of the emperor. I’d say if Voldemort gets a chance to have a conversation with either of them, he wins.

    • deiseach

      Yes, but both Voldermort and Vader are mortals. Even awesome Jedi/Sith mindpowers won’t be enough for Vader, because Sauron is a Maia – an eternal and powerful entity from outside and before the created universe.

      Also, Sauron is a former pupil of Aulë. He would probably appreciate the Death Star as a piece of technology, but when your former mentor is the Smith of the World who created mountains, continents and the vessels of the Sun and Moon, and your former master Morgoth dabbled in both genetic (creating the Orcs and other creatures) and biomechanical engineering (the Dragons), a huge base and energy weapon is nice, but not that big a deal.

      • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

        I second this. And if we’re looking at each villain AND THEIR FLUNKIES (because you would need flunkies to run the Death Star) at the height of their strength, then I think the balrogs and dragons that would play on Sauron’s team might even the odds.

        • Dianne

          Is there any evidence that dragons and balrogs can operate in space? Heck, is there any evidence that there is such a thing as space in the Tolkien mythos?

        • deiseach

          Oh, I forgot to mention – so Voldemort has werewolves on his side? Well, back when Sauron was lieutenant of Morgoth, he was known as Gorthaur the Cruel, Lord of Werewolves, and he commanded Draugluin, Father of Werewolves, and the vampire Thuringwethil as his herald.

          So really, Sauron has Been There and Done That when it comes to magical servants :-)

          Vader might be more of a challenge, given that he mixes technology and magic (yeah, yeah, the midichlorians are supposed to be a ‘scientific’ explanation for Force ability but pfft! come on!)

          Regarding space in the Tolkien mythos, that’s a bit complicated; the earlier, simpler cosmology where there is a flat earth and an overarching dome of sky has a division between Vista (basically, the atmosphere, divided between the lower airs where birds fly and the upper air where clouds form) then Ilmen, the region of the stars created by Varda Elbereth, then Vaiya which is a cold ‘sea’ beneath the earth, which floats upon it, and an equally cold ‘air’ above it – the outermost of the three layers.

          Then after the catastrophe of the sinking of Numenor and the World Made Round, the idea was of the atmosphere surrounding the earth and Menel, the heavenly region of the stars. As he developed and changed his ideas over decades, it became more complex (so that Arda was not just the Earth, but encompasse the Solar System as well), but even in the simple creation myths of the flat world and the sun and moon as fruit and blossom of the Two Trees, there was the notion of the earth enwrapped in air, the stars above that, and the unspecified created universe – and outside of all that, the Timeless Halls of Iluvatar and the Void to which Melkor Morgoth was banished.

          So yes – there is such a thing as space (and the Balrogs, being fallen Maia and coming from outside of Eä, the Created Universe, could operate in it – dragons, though, would be confined to flight in the atmosphere).

          • Dianne

            yeah, yeah, the midichlorians are supposed to be a ‘scientific’ explanation for Force ability but pfft! come on!

            I regard the midichlorians as non-canon. Of course, I regard everything after maybe the first half of TESB as non-canon. But especially the midichlorians.

          • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

            @Dianne – you have an odd notion of “canon”. How do you decide what is “canonical”? Or, to be flippant, what canon do you use in judging a canon?

            And, just because I’m awfully curious: what happened in TESB that you regard “uncanonical”?

          • Dianne

            Question 1: The same definition as is supposed to be used by philistines everywhere for judging what is and is not art: I know it when I see it. Question 2: See above.

            Question 3: It got really, really bad. The whole Vader as Luke’s father thing…meh, at best. I could have done without Yoda too. I kind of like the concept of a wise teacher who is, due to species differences, ridiculous appearing to humans and whose underlying awesomeness only becomes apparent with time and testing, but Yoda’s never became clear. The ewoks…what can I say? Then there’s episode 1. I didn’t bother watching episode 2. Did 3 ever even get made?

          • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

            Interesting. I take “canon” to be whatever the author says it is, because the author has “authority.” Then I take it upon myself to judge the author as a silly nincompoop for not telling the story I want to hear.

            So I would definitely regard midichlorians as “canonical” but also as “stoooopid”. They are not, sadly, mutually exclusive categories in my mind.

            As to the whole Vader-as-Luke’s-father twist, that is what gave the story emotional legs for me. Apart from that, it was just cool special effects that got old pretty quickly. I loved the complexity of attempting to redeem the villain rather than just destroy him.

            Agreed that Yoda’s awesomeness is never revealed – especially not in his acrobatics in TCW. This leads me to believe that he was not as awesome as we’re led to believe. Obi-Wan’s initial awesomeness which is later revealed as fallibility transformed by suffering into wisdom, is much better done.

            Ultimately, I think Lucas never really developed his chops as a storyteller. Too bad.

          • Dianne

            I take “canon” to be whatever the author says it is, because the author has “authority.”

            Eh, kind of. Authors have been known to lie about their creations, especially if they think the question is a silly one. Authors have also been known to fail to understand the implications of their work. Four years of high school English and two years of humanities classes in college have left me with little reluctance to say that an author got it wrong and/or is lying to us.

            Also, if you’re worried about whether my definition is consistent or not, you’re probably taking it too seriously. My definition of “canon” (in this context) is to be used for entertainment purposes only, as they say. I’m not terribly worried about whether or not my understanding of popular entertainment is exactly right. I just find it fun to play with.

            Ultimately, I think Lucas never really developed his chops as a storyteller. Too bad.

            Sigh. Yeah.

          • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

            Ah, yes. I’ve been known to take play too seriously. But don’t worry: I wasn’t worried.

          • Hibernia86

            As a scientifically minded person, I never liked when people said what Dianne argues above. Whenever an English teacher wanted us to debate what a particular part of a story meant, I wanted to say “well, why don’t we ask the author what he meant?” This idea of trying to find meaning in a story outside of the author’s intent never made sense to me. It would be like reading someone’s letter to you about their visit to a zoo and trying to turn it into a critique of foreign policy. You can’t ignore the intent of the author.

            You might be able to ask how the story means to you, but that says more about you than it does about the story. It would be arrogant to assume that your personal view of the story is the true meaning. You might ask how do people interpret this story but that is a study of culture. I feel that if the audience has a different interpretation of the story than the author does, then either the audience made a mistake in reading the story or the author miscommunicated the story.

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            @Hibernia86
            So would you apply the same reasoning to constitutions?

          • Hibernia86

            Gilbert, the difference is that constitutions are a system of laws, not a story. So in that case, it doesn’t matter what the author meant to write. It only matters what they did write. If they made a mistake in the writing then you’d need to use a constitutional amendment to fix it.

          • Dianne

            Whenever an English teacher wanted us to debate what a particular part of a story meant, I wanted to say “well, why don’t we ask the author what he meant?”

            There are a couple of problems with that method:

            1. The authors of many, probably most, books we read in English are dead. Holding a seance to ask Shakespeare whether he meant Hamlet to be insane or faking it is unlikely to be successful.
            2. Authors can lie. Wallace Stevens, when asked why he named a poem of his “The Emperor of Ice Cream” said “Because my daughter likes ice cream.” The person asking wrote down his answer and published it as part of his interview with Stevens and it was briefly considered the canonical answer to the question. The problem is that the poem was written before Stevens’ daughter was born.
            3. Authors are influenced by their culture and prejudices just like everyone else. But a really good author can transcend his/her culture and reveal truths that are still relevant hundreds of years later. Shakespeare probably thought differently about Kate and Shylock than we do now, but that doesn’t make an interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew or Merchant of Venice as a tragedy wrong. Shakespeare wrote well enough that his work is still interesting to read and relevant, even though his original intent would almost certainly be laughable today.
            4. Sometimes the author is being intentionally ambiguous. Someone once asked Ibsen what he meant with (IIRC) the ending of Ghosts. He replied that he could never give an answer that would be as satisfying as speculation and refused to comment further. It’s likely that he meant it to be interpretable in multiple ways and demanding that he declare one of those ways correct would actually make the work less rich.
            5. Sometimes authors take inspiration from fans. Moving from Shakespeare to Calvin and Hobbes, I think the author said that the noodle incident was originally going to be a particular incident-but fan feedback convinced him that nothing he could write would be as funny as a vaguely phrased event that was never revealed.

            So, author intent. Meh. A useful starting point, but not everything when it comes to literary criticism.

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            OK Hibernia86, that gives you a grammatical or textual restraint. But any kind of “living” interpretation is still right out, no?

          • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

            To add to what Dianne says, often the author doesn’t completely understand all the nuances and implications of his/her own work. The author is sometimes ignorant, or forgetful, especially after the work has been published.

            However, what we do have is the text. The text is the basis for all meaning and interpretation. That is, the text is canon. (This gets tricky with older texts like Shakespeare, where we have to cobble together an authoritative text from variant manuscripts. It is becoming tricky again in the mash-up recut world we live in, where Lucas goes back and re-edits all his films. But we can’t talk about variant versions if we don’t have a text that varies among versions.)

            So I figure, if the author authorizes it to be published, then that’s canon. With Star Wars, we have a dual (duel?) canon, at least with regard to Han shooting Greedo. I stand firmly in the camp that “Han shot first!” is the better story element, and that Lucas was an idiot to create the second version; but it stands as an authorized and published version of the text, so my starting point is to point out the discrepancy between versions. Indeed, it was for me a minor moment in defining Han’s character until Lucas changed it, thus casting a much more intense light on the incident.

            Hm, now I think I want to start dueling cannons.

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        I agree that Sauron would not be deceived by Voldemort, nor by Sith mind tricks. I’m not sure how Vader would react to Voldemort’s magic; the metaphysics of both HP-magic and The Force are muddy enough that it’s impossible to determine with certainty. We need an experiment!

        On the other hand, Sauron did lose his ring in single combat against a mortal armed only with a sharpened bit of metal. He would definitely be vulnerable to a lightsaber (though Vader is not really the greatest swordsman, judging from any of his cinematic performances). Even if Vader had taken the Ring, I am sure he would eventually have become a slave when Sauron returned. So I’m still siding with Sauron in the long run.

        And since I think Voldemort is really just a petulant child with superpowers, I don’t see him having any chance at all against Sauron, even in head-to-head combat. He certainly wouldn’t have resisted the temptation of the Ring.

        Voldemort vs. Vader might be interesting, but adding Sauron to the mix is like adding Muhammed Ali to a fight between two grade-school kids.

        • Dianne

          I agree that Vader couldn’t resist the ring. Wouldn’t even be a contest. No “eventually”, he’d be doing Sauron’s bidding in about five minutes.

          But the best we ever see Sauron do (in LoTR anyway) is send an army of orcs with swords out to take a fortified city. I love the way the ring works and could start a serious derail on my theory of what it is and what it’s really doing to people, but at least without it Sauron is reduced to sending out notoriously incapable soldiers who can’t seem to win even a seriously stacked fight. And even with it, a mortal with a sword beat him. A sword. He may be the direct servant of a god, but he doesn’t seem able to do much of anything when left in charge himself.

          • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

            Oddly enough, this conversation has me thinking about all sorts of parallels: ringbearers/ring-seekers trying to supplant Sauron like Sith murdering their masters; Sauron pouring his power into the ring, Voldemort splitting his soul into horcruxes. Tolkien really did think of everything first.

  • Alex Godofsky

    Canon!Voldemort is, frankly, a mediocre villain. Umbridge was the only good villain JKR wrote; she was much better at writing heroes.

    The problem with HPMOR!Voldemort is that we don’t actually know his motivation for doing the whole “try to take over Britain” thing, and the motivations of his we do know imply he wouldn’t try it again. It just doesn’t appear to be in his self-interest at all. (I may be forgetting something.)

    HPMOR!Voldemort will get scarier once we find out he has a motivation to re-start the war.

    • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

      I haven’t read back through to check this, but I submit that Canon!Harry, if read as an egotistical, showboating jerk (with the Dursley’s as frightened parents just trying to keep Harry away from the magic that killed his parents (and Hagrid playing an awful person who put a curse on their son over cake)) would make a better, more devious, and more compelling villain than Canon!Voldie Britches.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    I’m not really sure Canon!Voldemort’s motivations are all that unclear; it seems to me that Rowling makes clear enough that he wants to be invulnerable. Orphan Tom wants to make it so that he needs no one and that nothing is genuinely a threat to him, even death. Thus his terror tactics aren’t in the service of any interesting further end, because making everyone fear him is simply part of how he convinces himself that he is invulnerable — how can anyone else be a real threat if their institutions and lives break down in terrified response to him? It’s also why Dumbledore and, later, Harry refuse to go along with the custom of not even speaking his name for fear that he might arrive, and why it’s so significant that Dumbledore is “the only one he ever feared”, and why it matters that Voldemort picked Harry as his nemesis rather than Neville, and why the books keep hammering the themes of friendship and love even when it seems a little much or a bit strained. The desire for invulnerability is certainly an incoherent motivation, which makes it unpredictable in the sense that it’s consistent with almost any action, but I don’t think it’s an unclear one.

  • deiseach

    I think Canon!Voldemort, because he will do literally and absolutely anything to preserve his life. Whatever his motivations were in starting down the path, by now he is clinging to mere existence with every scrap of his will, and he will do anything to keep from true death.

    So it doesn’t matter if you’re an ally or a servant, or how useful you are to him – if your death will give him five minutes’ more life, you are going to die. And if your death by horrible torture, screaming agony and utter damnation will do it, then you are going to die in screaming agony, even if you are his most loyal and devoted minion.

    A more rational Overlord who wants to preserve the world so that he can rule over it is probably going to make your life objectively more miserable, but it is more surviveable (once you figure out the clear rules and are willing to change your opinions in a heartbeat and sell out family and friends, you can live under that rule, as totalitarian regimes have shown).

    • Dianne

      Although I think you’re probably right, that was one of the problems I always had with Canon!Vold. He’s so incoherently evil and randomly violent against even his followers that I can’t figure out why anyone would follow him. What do his followers get out of it? Certainly not safety. Not power-they’ve always got to do every little thing Voldie wants. Maybe they genuinely believe in the racism (abilityism?) that he’s selling.
      Admittedly, writing “evil genius” type villains is hard. They’re best kept in the shadows. No one’s all that scary if you’ve seen too much of them.

      • deiseach

        When Voldemort starts out (before the dying and being cursed and having to drink unicorn blood and all the rest of it), he’s fairly charismatic and he does appeal, I think, to that element you mention – the racism/elitism to which the old, ‘pureblood’ wizarding families are susceptible.

        He is able to play up his Gaunt heritage as “one of them” and tells them that he will restore them to their proper place as leaders and rulers, never mind all this new-fangled upward social mobility where little scrubby families such as the Weasleys are getting jobs in the Ministry and half-bloods are just as accepted as anyone and nobody cares that you can trace your genealogy back in an unbroken line for thirty generations, plus there are all kinds of deals being done with Muggles who think they’re the ones in charge of the world now.

        A lot of them probably didn’t care a straw for whatever he was pitching but it gave them the opportunity to seize back power and influence. Then, when it all went pear-shaped, there were few options – keep your head down and pretend that you weren’t part of the movement, grovel to those same little grubs you despised – and then Voldemort made his (first) comeback and you had a second chance!

        Not to mention that he probably cast a lot of comparable charms on his followers to the Deatheater’s mark to keep them loyal and in line – it’s hard to change your mind when you’ve got the equivalent of an implanted mind-control/punishment chip that he can turn on whenever he likes.

        • Dianne

          “Beware of charismatic leaders telling you things you want to hear” is something of a theme in the HP books. Consider Dumbledore’s infatuation with what’s-his-name. Even so, it never seemed to me that Tom Riddle ever showed any leader like qualities even when he appeared at his best (i.e. the diary, when he was trying to impress Dumbledore, etc). He lost it too quickly. A good (so to speak…I mean effective) evil leader should have some ability to at least appear to handle criticism and setbacks.

          I don’t think the dark mark is a mind control device per se though. Snape had no problem blowing his off and at least one character went into hiding rather than obey its summons. Possibly it’s more like a homing device that tells the person controlling it where they are.

          • Hibernia86

            I think the dark mark is just a signaling device. It might not tell Voldemort anything, but will tell his followers when he is back and allow them to come to him.

          • Dianne

            I think the dark mark is ostensibly just a signaling device, that is, that’s what Voldemort tells new recruits it is, but it also secretly has a GPS-like effect. That would explain his ability to always track errant followers down and it being secret would make him scarier to his followers. They wouldn’t realize that they could make him unable to find them by simply having the mark removed, for example.

      • Hibernia86

        It is common in stories to have the evil leader kill some of his followers when they make mistakes, big or small, or even when he is just angry in general and kills a follower just to have someone to take his anger out on. It would seem like the henchmen wouldn’t get much out of it. But I think that they do. They are promised great riches if the evil leader succeeds and are given great power over everyone else besides the evil leader (and perhaps they think they can take out the evil leader too and become one themselves). So I think there is much to be gained by being an evil henchmen even if they risk being killed by the evil leader.

  • Kristen inDallas

    The scariest voldemort was in books 1-3. We know he’s pure evil, we don’t know much else about him, we know he wants to come back to life and will probably need some sort of a host to make that happen. heebegeebees ensue. This book’s for kids?!?
    The most frightening thing about evil is the thought that it might consume you. That’s what makes sauran so frightening via his ring. Once you can pinpoint V down to a body, and later to the hoarcruxes, he becomes defeatable.

  • Ted Seeber

    I read all 7 books, but could never get past JK Rowling using the wrong term for transmorgification.

    • http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com sylvie d. rousseau

      I wondered why I thought this word ugly even when correctly typed, so I looked up the definition and discovered you just demonstrated with the funny typo that J.K. Rowling employed the right word. Transfiguratio is the exact Latin translation of the Greek Metamorphosis – the connotation to the Christian meaning is most likely intentional and Rowling is a Latinist – while transmogrification generally ends up with a grotesque or humorous effect. In fact, Rowling did allude to a “Transmogrifian Torture” in Chamber of Secrets, through none other than Gilderoy Lockhart.

      • leahlibresco
        • Hibernia86

          +10 points for citing Calvin and Hobbes, my pick for the best newspaper comic ever.

      • Ted Seeber

        Leah got the reference right- Calvin and Hobbes.

        I am a Latinist to some extent, being Catholic, but I do have a problem with the difference. Unfortunately, HPMOR also committed this offense in Chapter 2. Didn’t take them long, even if Professor McGonagal pointed out the wrong use of the word.

        • http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com Sylvie D. Rousseau

          Strange Latinist who does not have the reflex to check a word’s etymology and definition before pronouncing on its use by a talented writer.

  • HBanan

    I just read up to the present in HPMOR, and I agree that CanonVoldemort is much scarier. I actually started getting as frustrated with HPMOR as I did with the longer books in the canon series, for the same reasons: pacing issues and questionable character development. Most of the evil stuff is offstage with HPMOR — hearsay about past wrongs and conjecture about current plots — except a thwarted Killing curse; in the first HP book, we get to see a sinister figure drink the blood of a unicorn pretty early on!

    I actually don’t know that HPMOR!Voldemort could win in a fight. Certainly, he’s more intelligent and cautious, and I enjoy the digs at Canon!Voldemort’s convoluted plans. He seems almost too restrained to really succeed against a truly chaotic villain, though. The risk for him would be playing such a long con that Canon!Voldemort would just wipe him out with a quick curse.

  • Sebastian Czyszewski

    dafuq, you can’t read HP, it’s gonna open the gates of your eternal soul for satan! At least that’s what dem catholic exorcists says, lol!


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