Can a character as evil as Lord Voldemort be redeemed?
The general consensus among most fans (at least, as far as I have seen) is that Voldemort is past all redemption. As Hagrid tells Harry during the first conversation they have about Voldemort, “Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human in him left to die” (PS Chapter 6). The first time I read Hagrid’s thoughts, I remembered an unkind saying I’ve heard uttered many times in my family: “He’s too mean to die.” Of course, we later learned that Hagrid had the measure of Voldemort, even if he wasn’t aware of the means — Voldemort is no longer quite human because he has destroyed his soul in the making of Horcruxes. Has he destroyed so much of his humanity that he is past the point of redemption?
Voldemort has many similar antecedents, but two strike me as especially similar to Voldemort — Darth Vader of Star Wars and Sauron of The Lord of the Rings. Both Darth Vader and Sauron nearly lost their lives and either created or were recreated by others into a new guise unrecognizable to those who knew them before. Darth Vader was the former Anakin Skywalker, a young Jedi whose midi-chlorian count was so high that Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn was sure he was destined to be the Chosen One who would bring balance to the Force; in fact, Qui-Gon learns from Anakin’s mother that Anakin has no father, leading Qui-Gon to speculate that Anakin was conceived by the Force itself. Later, Anakin shows himself to be impatient and impulsive — traits that worry others in the Jedi council and prevent him from being designated a Jedi Master. Anakin is seduced to the Dark Side of the Force by Palpatine, Darth Sidious. Anakin dreams that his beloved wife Padmé will die during childbirth, and he seeks to learn ways to conquer death, although unlike Voldemort, not for himself, but for one he loves. Anakin is nearly killed in a duel with his former friend and master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is rescued by Palpatine, who refits Anakin with prosthetics and an artificial respirator. His transformation into Darth Vader is complete.
Darth Vader is seemingly evil personified. He carried out Palpatine’s order to destroy the Jedi, killing even the younglings. He turns against those who practically raised him and allies himself with Palpatine, whom he grows to hate even as he enters into his service. He shows himself to be capable of extreme cruelty and commands the fear and respect of all who encounter him. He even attempts to seduce his own son to the Dark Side, knowing the pain that a lifetime of service to Palpatine has brought him. In the end, Luke convinces his father that good still exists inside him. At the end of his life, Darth Vader is redeemed when he saves Luke from the Emperor. Few who saw Star Wars: A New Hope could have guessed that Darth Vader was anything more than a shell of a human being, devoid of goodness, filled with evil. To borrow Ralph Fiennes’ description of Voldemort, Vader was the “distillation of evil.” Yet, in the end, he was saved and joined his former masters Obi-Wan and Yoda, whom Luke sees in spirit form during the celebration of the downfall of the Empire.
On the other hand, Sauron of The Lord of the Rings was one of the Maiar, an order of beings beneath the Valar, who created Middle Earth into being through song. Maiar have been compared to angels. Certainly the story of Melkor/Morgoth, and his descent have parallels to John Milton’s Lucifer/Satan of Paradise Lost. Like Satan, the evil Valar spirit Morgoth took a number of Maiar as his followers, namely Sauron and various other evil creatures such as the Balrogs. Sauron had been a follower of Aulë the Smith, one of the Valar and creator of dwarves. After Morgoth seduced Sauron into his service, Sauron’s path seemed clear — he was destined to be evil and could not be redeemed. Indeed, after Morgoth was defeated and chained, Sauron became the supreme representation of evil in Middle Earth. He forged a series of rings for each race of beings in Middle Earth:
Three rings for the elven kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
These rings granted their wearers great powers, but Sauron’s ring, created in order that he might hold dominion over the bearers of the other rings, eclipsed them all. Many were corrupted through the influence of the One Ring, even if their intentions were initially good. Isildur, who cut the ring from Sauron’s hand in battle, had the opportunity to destroy the Ring, but refused, claiming the Ring as weregild for the deaths of his family members. Isildur lost the Ring to the Anduin River when he was ambushed by Orcs. It was later found by Déagol, a Stoorish Hobbit who lived in the Gladden Fields. Sméagol, Déagol’s kinsman, was instantly corrupted by the Ring, murdering Déagol in order to obtain it. Through the Ring’s corrupting influence, Sméagol became unrecognizable, ultimately obtaining the form of Gollum. Gollum kept the Ring until it betrayed him, searching for a way to its Master, and left with Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo was convinced to leave the Ring to his kinsman, Frodo, who was charged with its ultimate destruction. Frodo nearly failed, as Isildur before him, when he refused to destroy the Ring, which was destroyed when Gollum bit Frodo’s finger off and fell into the Crack of Doom.
Sauron had the ability to change his appearance. While a Maia in the service of Aulë, he had a fair appearance. Once he became a follower of Morgoth, he appeared as a shadow and later took the form of a werewolf and a vampire. In order to deceive the elves, he once again took on a fair appearance in the form of Annatar. After this fair form was destroyed, Sauron was unable to become fair in form again. When Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, Sauron appeared in the form of a black, burning demon-like creature. By the time of the War of the Ring, he is described as a single eye, rimmed with fire. In the end, Sauron, unlike Darth Vader, was not redeemed. He was utterly destroyed when the One Ring was thrown into the Crack of Doom. Also unlike Vader, his spirit was also destroyed.
So is Voldemort more like Darth Vader or Sauron? He is a powerful wizard, but aside from that he is a man, much as Darth Vader is a powerful Jedi, but ultimately he is not, unlike Sauron, an ages-old higher-order being, steeped in evil. Unlike Vader and even Sauron, Voldemort showed his propensity for cruelty at an early age, bullying and stealing from other children in the orphanage where he grew up. By the time he was in his late teens, he had several murders under his belt and had created at least one Horcrux (the diary). He is not wooed to the Dark Side because he wants to save a loved one, though he has suffered terrible loss and has grown up without love. Voldemort does not have children who are concerned about the well-being of his spirit. JKR has said repeatedly that Voldemort doesn’t know or understand love, an emotion he cannot abide to the degree that when he possesses Harry he almost seems to be burned by the love inside of Harry.
Can ultimate evil be redeemed? As we learned in Star Wars, yes it can. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings seems to argue that no, it can’t. All three villains had their corporeal bodies altered through their alliance with evil — even up to the point that they seemed no longer “human.” All three seemed utterly alone; even though a cadre of followers owed them allegiance, they ultimately seemed truly to care for no one. Even when Darth Vader reveals to Luke that he is his father, he does so seemingly to corrupt his son rather than out of any paternal feelings. It is not until near the end of his life that we see he does indeed harbor latent feelings for his children.
Will we see any such latent feelings of goodness near the end of Voldemort’s life? Will Voldemort die, or will Harry Potter save him?
The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…
JKR has said many times that she worded this prophecy very carefully. Most readers interpret it to mean that either Harry or Voldemort must die because neither wizard can continue living if the other wizard survives. Many readers believe the power Harry has that Voldemort knows not is his capacity for love, bravery, and selflessness. What if, however, she is not referring to the beings themselves — Harry and Voldemort — but their powers? Either power must die at the hand of the other power. We know one power or force is probably love. What is other? It’s counterpart, hatred? That would seem to make sense. What if neither Harry nor Voldemort has to die, but their powers do? Can Harry vanquish Voldemort’s hatred with love? And if he can, what next? Is Voldemort destroyed by that power, or is he redeemed by it?