The children of the 1990s, the entitled millennials, were quite a privileged generation, and among their many privileges, from being raised with the internet, the Disney Renaissance, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Pogs and Pokémon cards, the most fortunate was that they came of age in perfect synchronisation to a certain fictional boy wizard, his friends, and the series of books through which they adventured, under a name that now immediately incites a romantic nostalgia, or a saturated sigh; Harry Potter (1997) by author J.K Rowling.
As the audience grew from infants learning to read and acquiring a taste for books, into teenagers seeking escapism and purpose in life, the characters of Harry Potter matured alongside in symbiotic parallel, experiencing the same adolescent adventures of puppy love triangles and pubescent, existential angst, but in an alternate dimension of prestidigitation and convoluted plot twists. As audience and character physically and metaphysically blossomed into adulthood, the stories too made the same evolution, taking on increasingly mature thematic concerns, and exhibiting darker storytelling paradigms.
From The Philosopher’s Stone, a story already shrouded in death, to The Deathly Hallows, a story about mastering Death, both titles alone indicative of this theme, we see the progressive character arc our protagonist Harry must follow; from an orphaned boy whose life has been defined by the death of his parents, confronting the shadow of death itself personified by the iconic villain, the Dark Lord Voldemort, to the young adult who finally breaks the grim shackles that bind him, and conquers the shadow of Death in all his incarnations, including the one within himself. But it is not entirely Harry this analysis pertains to, but more so his relationship with the aforementioned arch-nemesis, Tom Riddle, and what he represents. His role in the tale is more than just the embodied Grim Reaper whom Harry must overcome, greater than a soothsaying mirror to Harry’s potential future should he succumb to his own mortal fear of the grave as Riddle did, and deeper than the Hitleresque tyrannical fascist determined to enslave Muggles and exterminate Mudbloods. This is where Rowling gets all Freudian, Shakespearean and Greek Tragedy on us, for he suffers from a raw, profoundly human psychological complex that seems to crop up every so often in villainous characters who share similar goals and attributes, that seems to have its roots in an ancient archetype, a Titan of characterisation, literally and figuratively. I shall refer to the complex as The Cronos Syndrome.
What was Voldemort’s motivation for targeting the baby of James and Lily Potter? What did he have against this child, besides his parents being two formidable members of the Order of the Phoenix, an organisation formed specifically to destroy him? We may identify his motivation, if we take a leap into the past, in a much, much older story, a certain tragedy of Greek Mythology. Cronos, or Saturn by the Ancient Romans, the Titan of Time and Harvest, bore an envious hatred for his father, Uranus, jealous both of his power as ruler of the universe, and Oedipal frustration (referring to Oedipus, another tragic Greek hero who murdered his father, married his mother, then proceeded to stab out his own eyes). Conspiring with his mother Gaia, he castrated Uranus, and usurped his great throne, becoming leader of the Titans, fathering the Gods of Olympus. However, Uranus assured Cronos that history would repeat itself, and prophesised that one of his divine children would rise up and overthrow him. Fearful of the same fate he inflicted upon his father, Cronos took desperate measures to prevent the prophecy, so as his wife Rhea gave birth to his children, he proceeded to eat them, imprisoning them within his stomach. But bearing the last child Zeus, or Jupiter, Rhea deceived Cronos into eating an Omphalos Stone by wrapping it in a blanket, hiding Zeus away and sparing him. Raised by Gaia, Zeus grew to hate his father for devouring his brothers and sisters, and reaching manhood, he conspired to set them free and take revenge, poisoning Cronos into vomiting out his siblings. United, the Gods then rose up against Cronos and the Titans in a cataclysmic war known as the Titanomachy. Zeus was victorious over Cronos, usurping his throne as King of the Gods, and cast him into Tartarus.
Cronos’ tragedy was thus: in a desperate attempt to prevent his prophesised undoing, he inadvertently set in motion the events that brought about his undoing – a self-fulfilling prophecy. “One’s demise, is always one’s own making.” Voldemort reflects the same motives as Cronos, and thus suffers the same tragedy. He learns of a prophecy, foretelling a child to be born with a power he cannot comprehend, and wield it to vanquish him. In mortal fear, Voldemort takes measures to circumvent the prophecy, by murdering Harry before he can rise up and overthrow him. But as the cunning Rhea schemed to protect baby Zeus from Cronos, Harry’s mother Lily also orchestrates a clever plan to shield her child from this desperate monster. By sacrificing her very life, she bestows upon Harry an impenetrable armour forged from her maternal love, and when Voldemort casts his Killing Curse, it backfires and obliterates his corporeal form. But the Dark Lord was not to be vanquished so easily.
As Cronos devoured his children, assimilating them, Voldemort sought to subvert the prophecy, and chose this boy, this potential heir to his dark legacy, as his earthly vessel, and when his own flesh was destroyed, he thrust part of his own soul into the flesh of the child, his life preserved and sheltered inside the boy. Harry becomes a living “Horcrux”, a host to the lingering, parasitic soul of his parents’ murderer, marked with an indelible lightning bolt on his forehead, a curse-mark and omen, to remind the world of what he is: The Chosen One. That is, not merely the chosen one of prophecy, but Voldemort’s Chosen One, his successor, the vessel protecting his soul, that when back to full strength, he would possess, and live again, paradoxically defying the prophecy by fusing with his nemesis. Throughout the series of novels, we see Voldemort attempt to make his comebacks externally of Harry, but this isn’t his true goal. Each time he rears his ugly head, on the back of Professor Quirrel’s, as a spectre from an old diary, and reborn out of a Black Cauldron, he isn’t simply trying to return – he is grooming Harry. With an almost paedophilic obsession, Voldemort is testing him, priming his extraordinary powers, nurturing the darkness within him, and preparing him for the day he is to become him.
However, for all of Voldemort’s wicked plans, and how close he comes to carrying them out, just like Cronos, he fails most miserably to prevent his inevitable demise. Like the Lightning Bolt wielding Zeus, the Lightning Bolt branded wizard Harry wields the very powers Voldemort bequeathed him to destroy him, from the Philosopher’s Stone, the Basilisk’s Fang, his Phoenix-core wand, and finally the omnipotent Elder Wand, a relic weaved by Death himself, completing the same self-fulfilled prophecy. This terrible tale, an intensified perversion of the Cronos Syndrome, the story of a withering old mortal doomed to die, infatuated by immortality and plagued by a crippling fear of death, so much so he would not merely kill his children, but carefully select a successor, a worthy vessel to possess, is increasingly common in modern storytelling. Such is the fatalistic poetry of this recurring narrative, that in a subverted Frankenstein fashion, these same God-like paternal monsters commit infanticide to stave off their downfall, coveting the youth and power of their sons, only to be destroyed by these scarred, vengeful creations, Kings circumcising their Princes, to be castrated in return. The relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker of the film franchise Star Wars, Orochimaru and Sasuke of the manga Naruto, Master Xehanort and Terra, and Ansem and Riku of the video game series Kingdom Hearts, and of course, Voldemort and Harry of the fantasy novel series Harry Potter, all reverberate this same narrative paradigm. There is a lust between these proverbial fathers and sons, each desiring to destroy the other, but also to assimilate the other unto themselves – for as the prophecy goes, “neither can live while the other survives.”
The relationship between Riddle and Potter epitomises the core philosophies of the narrative, not just in concerns with Death and Destiny, but Coming of Age. Why must every son destroy his father to be free to live? Voldemort is not just a paternal monster, the villain, the shadow, but also the Threshold Guardian, the gatekeeper, the mystagogue Harry must penetrate to achieve mastery of the world, and of his own soul. Campbell illustrates;
“When the child outgrows the popular idyll of the mother breast and turns to face the world of specialised adult action, it passes, spiritually, into the spirit of the father – who becomes, for his son, the sign of the future task, and for his daughter, of the future husband. Whether he knows it or not, and no matter what his position in society, the father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world. And just as, formerly, the mother represented the “good” and “evil”, so now does he, but with this complication – that there is a new element of rivalry in the picture: the son against the father for the mastery of the universe, and the daughter against the mother to be the mastered world.”