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Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Potterverse People Essay: The Bad Seed
Potterverse People

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

This is another foray that turned out to not go where I thought it would. Although some of the vibes I was picking up at least seem to have actually been there.

This is another awkward issue which took a long time in the process of painfully surfacing. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. (Rowling, of course, made nothing of it.)

But, upon the whole, I think we’ve got another serious disconnect regarding Tom and Albus that took much longer than it should have to finally come into focus. And now that the questions are finally surfacing, the whole underlying set-up between them is looking odder and odder. And there really don’t seem to be any viable answers on offer. I suspect that either Rowling is an even less competent writer than I’d been giving her (dis)credit for, or something must have been going on in that interview between Albus and Tom at the orphanage that we as the readers were not a party to. There definitely seems to be some missing context here.

We were clearly shown that young Tom Riddle was already a nasty little predator at his orphanage. His theme song seems to be; “You can’t prove it was me.” He worked completely alone, by preference, and he clearly didn’t give a damn what anyone there’s opinion of him might be.

A couple of months later there he is at Hogwarts. And the next thing you hear is that he is charming everyone around him, students and staff alike. Before all that long he is gathering followers, becoming popular and cultivating everybody’s good opinion.

What the bloody hell happened here? Why, and more to the point, how did he know to suddenly change his entire mode of public behavior? And how did he know the exact way that it needed to be changed? This cannot be just from learning that there was magic in the world and that he was a wizard.

Let alone, how did he even know how to DO it? Even being a fledgling Legilimens doesn’t explain that. Not adequately. In our first meeting with him, he clearly hadn’t ever done this before. The closest he came to it was when he was boasting to impress Albus, and that was hardly the most polished of performances. Indeed, you got the impression that this kid had never tried to charm anyone in his life. He had never before tried to do anything but push people around and have done with it. And he wasn’t a bit pleased to discover that Albus couldn’t be pushed.

Did Tom — however briefly — legitimately try to turn over a new leaf? Did he somehow think that wizards must somehow be different and he wanted them to like him? I suppose it is possible, but we sure aren’t given that impression.

• • • •

But if so, how long did it take before he realized that they really weren’t different at all — but that by then he had found that he liked being able to trick people into doing what he wanted, rather than just forcing them?

And, upon consideration, suddenly not only do the images not match up between the vicious little loner-by-preference of the orphanage and the budding social leader of not that long afterwards, but Albus’s behavior at the orphanage is wildly variant from what we might have expected from him, too.

The kid, however nasty a little brat he might be, was only 11. He didn’t even know that what he could do was magic. He did what he did just because he could.

Even though he knew perfectly well that it wasn’t nice. No one could stop him, and imposing his will upon the universe is what every small child tries to do. Most of them would have learned to adapt to some other method by Tom’s age, simply because they find they can’t. Tom didn’t have the “advantage” of normal limits. This was a boy who had grown up entirely without limits upon his magic.

He also seemed to want to “get back” at the world in general over something. No one, least of all Albus, has ever bothered to ask what. The discovery that he was actually a wizard was also clearly a deeply moving experience for him, even if it didn’t move him into any position which made him likable. And Albus seemed to have despised him for it. What was that all about?

• • • •

After Albus had spoken with Mrs Cole, he may have expected to meet a typical little bully, perhaps more sly than usual, but I get the impression that what he did discover was something that he did not expect, and once Tom told him the sort of things that he could do, Albus stopped smiling. And by the time he left the building he had decided to keep an eye on the boy for other people’s sake (not that he actually bothered to warn anyone of any potential danger, mind you). But we cannot be sure of specifically what it was about Tom that disturbed him so greatly.

But I suppose we might try to make a guess.

Tom can’t have been the first nasty little bully to cross Albus’s path. Indeed given his record, Albus seems to have, if anything, far too great a tolerance for bullies — and for bullying — on his patch. But Albus made no concession for Tom’s ignorance and lack of any kind of previous guidance. He immediately distanced himself and proceeded to lay down the law with a clear message of; “I don’t like you. I don’t like what you are doing. But you’re a wizard and you have the right to attend my school. However; remember this, boy: if you put a foot out of line we’ll toss you out on your ear, wizard or not.”

Even finally being handed the Grindelwald backstory doesn’t explain this reaction. Gellert Grindelwald was handsome, dashing, gregarious, and charming. Tom was only handsome. That’s not that much of a similarly. And it is certainly not an echo. They didn’t even look like one another.

Frankly, if anyone we’ve met resembled a young Gellert Grindelwald, it was Sirius Black.

Given the sullenness and hostility, if Tom Riddle reminded Albus of anyone, it is as likely have been his brother Aberforth — with whom Albus is likely to have still been at odds at that point. I suspect it was only after he went off and defeated Gellert Grindelwald that Albus and Aberforth came to any sort of a reconciliation.

But, for a man with such a much-touted reputation for believing in 2nd chances he sure didn’t seem to be offering all that much of one to Tom Riddle. (Nor, later, to Severus Snape.) Tom was lucky to get any kind of a chance from Albus at all. And if he could have done it without losing face, I think that Albus might even have reneged on the whole deal. The only concession he made was not to warn the rest of the staff against Riddle so as not to “poison the well” in case the boy did try to clean up his act. And by now we can be pretty sure that that particular decision was just Albus’s typical refusal to take any real responsibility for anyone else’s welfare, if he could possibly avoid it.

Albus had already made his promise to insure that Tom came to Hogwarts before he actually spoke to the boy. He had given his word to Mrs Cole that he would be taking Tom, “whatever” she had to say about him; that Tom definitely had a place in his school. Albus doesn’t usually go back on his stated word. Not unless he is forced to. He has a finely-developed sense of the sort of 3rd-grade morality which pervades this series. And he hadn’t yet met the boy when he gave her that assurance.

• • • •

I don’t get the impression that Tom’s refusal to allow Albus to accompany him to Diagon Alley came as any kind of a disappointment. Nor was it any kind of a surprise. Albus handed over the funds with an air of washing his hands of the matter.

But why? What went on under our noses here that we simply didn’t see? Either Tom tried something on Albus that Albus took extreme offense at, or something in that list of abilities that he told Albus to impress him, did. Highly UNfavorably, too. And it probably wasn’t just that young Tom was a Parselmouth. Albus doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about that.

But either this is the very shoddiest excuse for plotting by a lazy writer on the order of; “I need A to do X, and B to do Y, so they will, because I say so” and never mind establishing any kind of background which would explain the motivations, or the responses, or the sudden shifts in behavior — or else something that came up in that interview really jerked Albus’s chain. And even learning about Gellert doesn’t really help us figure out what it was.

Either Albus went into that interview forewarned in some manner, and Tom’s statements inadvertently identified him as a major potential threat (Albus having met a similar monster at some point before, and so recognized the caliber of threat Tom represented?), or some other exchange took place off our radar, because we just never got the proper context to interpret it.

We watched Tom use Legilimency on Harry all the way back in PS/SS. We did not have the proper context to interpret that until Book 5, but it is definitely there. It wasn’t until book 6 that we had the proper information and context to interpret our observations and know that the Diary revenant was a soul fragment, establishing the Diary as a Horcrux. It would not have been at all astonishing if Rowling turned out to have snuck something of importance into the orphanage interview that we missed — not having the proper context to know what to look for at the time. But if this is the case, she never took the trouble to point out just what it had been. And by that point in the series, there is a good chance of it being something that we already knew abou.

Or, as an outside possibility, we might conclude that Albus is much better at editing a copied memory than Slughorn is, and that whatever the real issue was, we never got to see it.

Because even now, downwind of DHs we still haven’t an overt clue. We cannot even postulate that Albus looked at Tom and saw a young Gellert Grindelwald. Tom’s manner was nothing like Gellert’s.

A few years later, Albus might have been forgiven for coming to that conclusion, once Tom had learned to lay on the charm. But certainly not in that first interview in the orphanage. Gellert Grindelwald was a nasty piece of work with a supremacist agenda, but he wasn’t an obviously raving sociopath. Or not one of the extreme variety that Tom was. And he wasn’t a loner.

So the whole issue is still, to all intents and purposes, a mystery to me.

• • • •

Unless, that is, the real issue is that Tom managed to goad Albus into loosing his temper and setting fire to the furniture. I suspect that someone who thinks as well of himself as our Albus might very well resent a child who had managed to draw him into a pissing contest with an 11-year-old.

• • • •

However. Although Rowling didn’t make all that much of a point of it, when you stop and take a closer look at just what kind of things young Tom was boasting of being able to do, chatting with snakes was probably the most wholesome and non-threatening thing in the entire catalogue.

My attention suddenly is particularly drawn to his claim of being able to make animals do what he wanted them to do, without training them..

I don’t know about you, but doesn’t that sound a bit like… possession?

Slughorn tells Tom that the subject of Horcruxes was already banned, and had been purged from the Hogwarts Library by the time Tom asked about it some five years after Albus delivered a Hogwarts letter to a child in a London orphanage. Slughorn attributes Albus as being the person responsible for this act of censorship. He comments that Albus had been particularly fierce on the subject. Slughorn doesn’t, however, tell us precisely when this campaign of Albus’s was conducted. Nor whether this purge was limited only to the subject of Horcruxes. Horcruxes was just the topic which Tom had asked about.

Perhaps I’m not giving Albus due credit. If he was aware that possession is an inherent component of various particularly unsavory magical practices — not necessarily just limited to Horcrux creation — and knowing that Hogwarts was soon to be hosting a student with an alleged talent for that particular skill, maybe he really *did* try do something in an attempt to limit the potential opportunity for damage.

When you stop and think about it; in retrospect, Albus must have already been suspecting the possibility of the Harrycrux as early as November, 1981. An association of Tom Riddle with Horcruxes was clearly already on the table.

In hindsight, perhaps it’s not that hard to understand Albus Dumbledore’s willingness to slap a label of “irredeemably evil” onto a child.