The first novel about Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published by Bloomsbury on 26 June 1997, already 25 years ago today. This post looks back to that date, to celebrate it, and forward to next November, when Barcelona’s Witch Market will finally return and all of us, local Potterheads, will have the chance to meet again after a two-year hiatus caused by Covid-19. I have chosen to lecture on Voldemort’s mother, Merope Gaunt, because she is an example of that type of secondary character who seems very minor but whose actions are indispensable for a story to start moving. If poor Merope had not fallen in love with the Muggle Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort would have never been born. The villain, not the hero, sets the events in motion and, so, without He Who Must not Be Named young Harry Potter would have enjoyed just a normal wizard’s adolescence.
Merope (pronounced ‘mɛrəpiː) is named after a star in the Pleiades which borrows its moniker from one of the seven daughters of the Oceanid nymph Pleione and the Titan Atlas. She only appears in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), published eight years after the first novel, which suggests that Rowling may have thought of Voldemort’s back story relatively late in the process of writing, not necessarily from the beginning. Merope’s sad story is narrated in Chapter 10, “The House of Gaunt” (184-204, Bloomsbury 2005 hardback edition), and in Chapter 13, “The Secret Riddle” (242-260), though neither of the two chapters focus on her. Her name is mentioned a total of 32 times, very few in the context of the sprawling narrative that the whole series is, and she is never in dialogue with any other character. We know about Merope because Professor Dumbledore proceeds to recall scenes from the past sharing his Pensieve with Harry, having decided, as he tells the boy, “that it is time, now that you know what prompted Lord Voldemort to try and kill you fifteen years ago, for you to be given certain information” (186).
Dumbledore has no direct memories of Merope, so he uses instead the memories of the late Bob Ogden, a Department of Magical Law Enforcement official. Harry witnesses Odgen’s visit to the village of Little Hangleton, where the Gaunts live: the middle-aged father Marvolo, the son Morfin (possible in his mid-twenties), and the daughter Merope, who is eighteen as we eventually learn. The Gaunts are presented as the English equivalent of the American hillbillies, and Morfin, indeed, gives a rather violent welcome to their unwelcome visitor, sent by Slughorn to investigate a breach of magical law committed by the young man.
When Merope first appears, in a corner of their very poor dwelling, Rowling describes her focalizing the narration through Harry as “a girl whose ragged gray dress was the exact color of the dirty stone wall behind her. She was standing beside a steaming pot on a grimy black stove, and was fiddling around with the shelf of squalid-looking pots and pans above it. Her hair was lank and dull and she had a plain, pale, rather heavy face. Her eyes, like her brother’s, stared in opposite directions. She looked a little cleaner than the two men, but Harry thought he had never seen a more defeated-looking person” (194, my italics). When the nervous, mousy Merope drops a pot, her father upbraids her as he has done many times before: “That’s it, grub on the floor like some filthy Muggle, what’s your wand for, you useless sack of muck?” (194). She, however, cannot manage to repair the pot, which Odgen does, wishing to end the scene as quickly as possible.
When the visitor declares that Morfin has been summoned to the Ministry because he has attacked a Muggle, Marvolo reacts by yelling that his family are direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin, one of Hogwarts’ founders, and owed more respect. As proof he pushes Merope violently, so that Odgen can see the locket she’s wearing. This family heirloom, which she later sells to avoid starvation, is the same one that her adult son Tom, then in his early thirties, finds in the hands of rich collector Hepzibah Smith. When he murders her in a fit of rage (his first murder after he wiped out his father and grandparents, aged sixteen), he needs to flee, hence starting his path towards becoming Lord Voldemort.
Back in Chapter 10, a group of fashionable Muggle passers-by who mock the Gaunts’ derelict home startles Merope. She grows deadly pale when handsome Tom Riddle mocks Morfin and both siblings hear him call her companion Cecilia “darling”. Brutally, Morfin tells Merope (who has not said a word yet), “So he wouldn’t have you anyway” (198) and discloses to their angry father that “She likes looking at that Muggle” (199, original italics). This appals the old man, and even though Merope, still speechless, denies Morfin’s accusation, only Ogden’s providential intervention saves her from being strangled by her father. Then she does utter the first sounds coming from her mouth, though these are screams. Handsome Tom Riddle, as it is easy to guess, is the very same Muggle Morfin has assaulted, mistakenly believing he corresponded her sister’s interest.
Dumbledore tells Harry that both Morfin and Marvolo were apprehended at once and sent to Azkaban, a time of freedom for Merope during which her so far repressed magic flourished. Using, as Harry guesses, a love potion which, Dumbledore speculates, “would have seemed more romantic to her” (202) than an Imperious Curse, Merope seduces Tom Riddle and both elope together, to their village’s great scandal. The father, returned from Azkaban after six months, eventually dies of shock. As Dumbledore further gossips, Merope had lied to Riddle pretending she was pregnant, which she only became three months after their wedding. Riddle, however, returned soon home without his wife, claiming he had been “hoodwinked” (202) and Dumbledore continues his “guesswork” (203) suggesting that Merope “who was deeply in love with her husband, could not bear to continue enslaving him by magical means. I believe that she made the choice to stop giving him the potion. Perhaps, besotted as she was, she had convinced herself that he would by now have fallen in love with her in return. Perhaps she thought he would stay for the baby’s sake. If so, she was wrong on both counts. He left her, never saw her again, and never troubled to discover what became of his son” (203). This marks the ends of Merope’s presence in Chapter 10 and explains why the boy Tom grew to hate his Muggle father so intensely, though he never truly loved his pure-blood mother.
In Chapter 13 Dumbledore returns to the Pensieve to narrate Merope’s troubles once in London. Through the memories of one Caractacus Burke, Harry sees Merope selling the locket; she was “Covered in rags and pretty far along…”, meaning about to give birth (245). If this was not Dickensian enough, Rowling adds a date for the memories: before Christmas (supposedly of 1926). When Harry asks why the desperate Merope did not use magic, Dumbledore speculates 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” (246).
Mysteriously (and a bit like Star Wars’ Amidala), Merope lets herself die after her baby’s birth. Harry is aghast that Merope would not choose to “live for her son” (246) and Dumbledore replies that, unlike Lily Potter who died to save her son Harry from Voldemort, “Yes, Merope Riddle chose death in spite of a son who needed her, but do not judge her too harshly, Harry. She was greatly weakened by long suffering and she never had your mother’s courage” (246). When Dumbledore recalls his first memory of eleven-year-old Tom Riddle, Rowling writes focalizing through him that “There was no trace of the Gaunts in Tom Riddle’s face. Merope had got her dying wish: He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale” (249). He can only know this from Mrs. Cole, the orphanage’s director, who reports that Merope arrived on New Year’s Eve “staggering up the front steps” on a “nasty night” of cold and snow (249). She “had the baby within the hour. And she was dead in another hour” (249). Mrs. Cole confirms that Merope, who was “no beauty”, had just time to say “I hope he looks like his papa” (249), the only words she is reported to have pronounced, and to ask that the baby be named Tom Marvolo Riddle. Mrs Cole assumes that “she came from a circus” (249) because of the strange name; the surname Riddle, by the way, does exist.
Many commentators have expressed their surprise that Rowling uses Oliver Twist “not as the model for her hero but for the villain—creating, in essence, an Oliver twisted” in the Dark Lord (see James Washick, “Oliver Twisted: The Origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian Orphan”, Looking Glass 13.3 (2009), https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/165/164). In Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-38) baby Oliver is born to young Agnes Fleming, who dies in childbirth, at a workhouse, where he is raised as an orphan. Agnes, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Navy officer is made pregnant by Edwin Leeford, a man possibly twice her age on the run from the older, rich woman his father had forced him to marry. Leeford dies with no time to pass onto Agnes and their yet unborn baby the fortune inherited from his father, a death which is supposed to characterize him as a good guy trapped between his late father’s patriarchal power and sheer bad luck. Yet, I find his liaison with the innocent daughter of the man harbouring him short of criminal. When Agnes dies, she is wearing a wedding band, which has always made me suspect that Leeford tricked her into believing he was free to marry her. Whatever the case, though Merope and Agnes are connected, Dickens ends his novel vindicating Agnes, with Oliver visiting her no longer anonymous grave, whereas psychopathic Tom Riddle never cares for Merope.
Just as Oliver Twist depends on the sexual attraction that Leeford feels for Agnes, all of Harry Potter depends on ugly Merope’s passion for her handsome Muggle neighbour Tom Riddle. I do not discard that this passion may have been awakened by Merope’s sexual abuse by both her father and her brother (Morfin’s assault of Tom hints at some type of unbrotherly jealousy), though only Rowling knows whether there are grounds for this speculation. If Merope had been beautiful, Riddle might have fallen naturally in love with her and perhaps even staid by her side. This would not have necessarily resulted in a different personality for their baby boy, for who knows why some men grow up to be horrendous villains, but the fact is that the whole house of cards that the Harry Potter heptalogy is depends on Merope’s attraction for Riddle. I am not calling it love, because considering how Merope has lived her life so far, she cannot know the meaning of love. In the absence of a mother who could have loved her, she cannot understand, either, the meaning of motherhood, hence her inability to bond with her baby, and her death, which is a sort of suicide.
Rowling could have invented a very different back story for Voldemort, but she came up with the pathetic romance between Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle, using a curious type of indirect characterization and narrative for the couple, who are never seen (or heard) together. They are in many ways the counterpart of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s loving parents, though, above all, Merope is Lily’s opposite. Both James and Lily die protecting Harry from Voldemort, but Lily’s death gives the boy the extra magical protection that saves his life. In contrast, young Tom’s bitterest moment comes when he is sixteen and learns the truth about his origins from his uncle Morfin. This literally breaks his soul as he proceeds, as I have noted, to kill the father that abandoned him and his grandparents. Tellingly, he commits these crimes not because the Riddles scorned Merope, for whom he never cares, but because their Muggle blood taints his own blood.
Poor Merope, unloved daughter, sister, wife and mother. Let’s not forget, though, that the worst sons may come from the best mothers, and that if little Tom Riddle turns out to be evil this is not her fault. It seems to me that the fault lies, rather, with the callous father, but this is the topic for another post…
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