Magical Mondays: Conception by Love Potion

Trigger warning for discussion of rape throughout this post.

Since the publication of the final Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling has offered us many bits of trivia about the HP universe. Some of these are interesting and some are frustrating, but few are so problematic as what she shared about Voldemort’s inability to understand or feel love. In a Q and A hosted on The Leaky Cauldron, she said that it had its basis in his being conceived under the effects of a love potion. She said his conception was:

[A] symbolic way of showing that he came from a loveless union – but of course, everything would have changed if Merope had survived and raised him herself and loved him. The enchantment under which Tom Riddle fathered Voldemort is important because it shows coercion, and there can’t be many more prejudicial ways to enter the world than as the result of such a union.

Now, as we’ve discussed before, one of the polarizing aspects of the LovePotionBottleHarry Potter books is that they tend to use magical allegories as substitutes for real issues. Lupin’s lycanthropy is used as an allegory for AIDS, for example, and racism based on skin color was replaced by racism based on percentage of Wizarding blood. And as I have pointed out before, love potions are essentially magical date rape drugs.

Are you seeing why I’m uncomfortable yet?

Rowling’s statement is shitty on two levels. The first is this: maybe love potions do contain some deus ex machina ingredient that affects any children conceived under their purview. There are certainly non-magic substances that, if used during pregnancy, can affect a child for the rest of their life, so let’s briefly consider this possibility. Even if this were true, because love potions are a parallel for a date rape drug, the implication is that any child conceived via this magically engineered rape is going to be a sociopath. They’re marked for evil from the moment sperm meets egg. Because of Rowling’s dependence on magic as allegory in other situations, this suggests that, alongside messages like “don’t treat people differently because of their disease” and “celebrate the contributions of people from all backgrounds”, she wanted to deliver the message that children born of rape are doomed to be evil, or at least, unbalanced or sociopathic. This is clearly and definitively untrue.

LordvoldemortThe other problem is that it totally undermines the theme of choice that runs throughout the series. Harry might have been in Slytherin, but he chose Gryffindor, and that choice defined him. Neville chose to stand up to his friends when they went after the Sorcerer’s Stone. The whole fourth book centered around the burden of being forced to compete in a contest without having chosen to do so. Dumbledore chooses to trust Snape, and Pettigrew chooses to betray his friends. Marietta chooses to snitch on the D.A., and Draco chooses not to snitch on Harry in the Manor. Hell, Harry is the Chosen One because Voldemort chose to target his family rather than Neville’s. All these people, for better or for worse, are defined by the choices they made, rather than the circumstances of their birth. But Voldemort doesn’t get that luxury. Yes, he makes many terrible and cruel choices throughout his life, but according to JKR, he was doomed from the moment two sex cells became a zygote to be a terrible and unloving person.

Furthermore, given the legality and general availability of love potions, it seems unlikely that Voldemort is the only wizard or witch who’s ever been born out of a love-potion-assisted rape. We never see any other characters who were conceived under these circumstances, so we can’t know for sure if this was something that affected all such children or if it was just Voldemort.

Was Voldemort deeply evil? Yep. Did he seem incapable of understanding expressions of love such as Lily’s or Harry’s sacrifices? You betcha. Young-tom-riddle-voldemort-orphanageBut I’d point more to his upbringing: he was raised in a loveless orphanage; he was treated with suspicion even by the people who had come to welcome him into his heritage as a wizard. If Dumbledore had mentored him the way he did Harry or tried to help break him of his superiority complex or hadn’t pigeonholed him as evil based on his ability to speak Parseltongue, or if any combination of circumstances had been different, I don’t think it would have mattered that he was conceived under a love potion. Even Rowling herself, after saying this love potion crap, says that things might have been different if he’d been raised by and shown love by Merope. (I dunno, though, having an obsessive pureblood-supremacist rapist as a mother doesn’t sound like the greatest alternative.) So why couldn’t she just have said “I think things would have been different if Voldemort had experienced love as a child” without making weird blanket statements about love potion kids? The fact that Rowling decided to retcon this fact into Voldemort’s past makes him a more unbelievable and unrelatable character, and adds a shitty piece of canon into the HP universe that curses a child for the sins of their parent.

5 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Conception by Love Potion

  1. I hope this isn’t what JKR meant because that would be really hypocritical of her!
    …I think there’s room for alternative readings here (unless anyone knows of anything else JK’s said on the subject that makes it positive she meant something so terrible?)

    JKR was basically asked directly if the rape by means of potion that lead to LV’s birth made him unable to understand love or not: “How much does the fact that voldemort was conceived under a love potion have to do with his nonability [sic] to understand love [or?] is it more symbolic”.

    Her response is that that it was symbolic which I think (based on reading that ‘or’ into the text of the question) means it WASN’T like she thinks there should be a curse on an innocent baby because of having a rapist for as mother.

    …So then knowing if JKR was thinking something messed up depends on what you think she’s saying this rape backstory was symbolic for. She says it was symbolic of “a loveless union” and that Tom was born in a “prejudicial way” because of it was coercion. All together it sounds like, IMO, that maybe this is saying that Voldemort’s manner of birth carries the theme of prejudice towards muggles; Merope chose to rape Voldie’s father because she was a supremacist who didn’t give muggles personhood, and, it would follow that she would have not properly loved halfblood baby Tom if she’d lived because of this same prejudice. So Tom’s conception is symbolic of how prejudice can ruin peoples chances at love (or compassion, more generally): there wasn’t really any chance that Tom would be loved by his mother and instead a large chance his mother would have encouraged him to hate himself.
    And then there’s the prerequisite parallel with Harry: had a terrible childhood, but he learns his mother notably loved him and his parents (muggle born+pureblood) loved each other and so he is more able to be well adjusted.

    But basically in the end this is just ridiculous because both Tom and Harry really needed social services, not symbolic backstories so wtf wizarding world

  2. Yeah, this is one thing I’m really upset that JK did. Even her explanation doesn’t sound very sincere, like, “Oh…oh, no, of course I’m not saying people conceived in rape can’t love, no, no, it’s just a symbol.” Well, yeah, but…symbols have meaning, too? Like, if she said, “This character is black as a symbol of the darkness within him…but, of course, I’m not saying black people are evil, it’s just a symbol” – the very fact that she’s trying to say rape conception is a symbol for how Voldemort can’t love, that’s pretty darn offensive to people conceived in rape!

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