The first we know of Voldemort is that he was apparently defeated by the baby Harry Potter. Not quite dead – in Hagrid’s prophetic words, ‘Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die’ – Voldemort is driven into hiding, his followers scattered and his power broken.
But that, of course, is neither the beginning of Voldemort’s story nor the end. The journey to Godric’s Hollow was a long, twisted one. Voldemort had opportunities to make different choices, yet his snake-like eyes were fixed on one goal: a world where magic is might and pure-bloods reign supreme. It’s a world that glories in cruelty, sees death as failure yet values life lightly, and denies love, kindness and tolerance.
This is a world that Voldemort, born Tom Riddle, chose years before he knew he was a wizard, when he practised magic against his fellow orphans and enjoyed causing upset and pain. His attitude disturbs Dumbledore, who notes three things following their first meeting: Riddle’s self-sufficiency, his disdain for anything that ties him to others and the magpie-like tendency to take trophies from his victims.
At Hogwarts, Riddle has the chance to begin again, but he chooses to focus on his own unique abilities and begins gathering followers instead of friends. Riddle doesn’t want to belong – he wants to dominate.
What he does learn is the need to keep this hidden. It is a long time before he will publicly delight in other people’s pain again. Instead, he perfects the charm that enables him to manipulate such varied subjects as Professor Slughorn, Hepzibah Smith and Ginny Weasley.
This charm, combined with his growing skill, means Riddle is fêted by teachers who – Dumbledore aside – apparently suspect nothing of his intentions; even when he asks Slughorn about Horcruxes, receptacles for the magical imprisonment of a soul. Riddle is confident enough to accuse Hagrid of opening the Chamber of Secrets, despite having opened it himself.
Hogwarts’ potential closure during the Chamber of Secrets years is significant because it is the only place Riddle feels at home. His affinity with the place is such that he asks both Professor Dippet and Dumbledore if he can become a teacher.
This is unusual for a wizard without an affinity for anything or anyone else, but Dumbledore suggests two other reasons for Riddle’s request: a desire to know all the castle’s secrets and a belief that Hogwarts could help him build his support base. He had already had success as a student, so how much more thrilling would it be to gain followers from a position of influence? By the time of his second request there was also a new incentive: to hide one of his Horcruxes.
Riddle never thought much of Muggles – he was convinced his mother could not be a witch because, even at 11, Riddle saw death as Muggle weakness; presumably he thought magic meant immortality. Later, he would seek to make this true, but not before he learned that his magical abilities came from his mother. She also gave him Slytherin blood and Parselmouth status and it is quite possible she left him with a strain of violence and instability, given that her family were known for those things.
Discovering his Muggle father disowned his mother seems to have been a catalyst for Riddle. Within moments of learning the truth he killed his father and grandparents. He even brags to Harry of it, while Harry is standing on the grave of Tom Riddle Sr.
There is some unacknowledged self-disgust in Riddle’s Muggle-hatred. He does not deny his half-blood status, but he is clear that Muggles are inferior, including his own father. His viciousness to Muggle-borns is connected: Riddle may be half-blood, but Muggle-borns can claim no wizarding heritage, therefore to him they are as low as Muggles themselves. Riddle also hates Muggles because they remind him of his childhood and the Muggle father who deserted him.
And yet, when Riddle hears the prophecy that will set the course for his journey with Harry, he makes a surprising choice.
We know the prophecy could have referred to Neville as much as to Harry, but Riddle does not seem to have considered Neville, who as a pure-blood embodies all the wizarding superiority Riddle otherwise holds as ideal. Instead, he chooses to mark Harry because of his own strange, internalised hierarchy. Riddle identifies Harry as the greater threat because, as Dumbledore says, he senses danger is more likely to come from the one with whom he has a stronger likeness.
This choice results in Harry becoming the Horcrux Riddle never intended to make, when his already unstable soul splits apart during his failure to kill Harry. By this point, Riddle had already created a number of Horcruxes: his journal, Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, Slytherin’s locket, Hufflepuff’s cup and Ravenclaw’s diadem. Later, he chooses his snake, Nagini, to hold what he believes is the sixth and final part of his soul outside his body. It is in fact the seventh.
All these artefacts are important to Riddle. The three associated with Hogwarts, and Gaunt’s ring, symbolise heritage. The diary displays his magical skill, and Nagini exemplifies his Slytherin ancestry. Each echoes qualities Riddle showed in childhood: a desire for power and a tendency to collect trophies.
But they also show how far he has come. Every choice he makes uses magic to display his might. It is not enough for Riddle to have escaped the Muggle world. He wants to subjugate it utterly. His central motivation is to show that he is special, powerful, immortal. In proving these things, he seems to say, his achievements cancel out his half-blood parentage.