Voldemort, Delphini, and Oedipus: Complex Folks and Cursed Children

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 07:  A general view of The Palace Theatre as previews start today for "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" on June 7, 2016 in London, United Kingdom. The play has a sold out run until May 2017 with fans expected to fly to London from all over the world to see it.  (Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images)

As we continue our thoughts on the recently released rehearsal script of The Cursed Child, one of the big questions early on was the identity of the titular child, but there is really more than one cursed child in the story. In fact, some of the most fascinating elements of the play tie in with one of the most unfortunate children (and adults) in all of literature, Sophocles’ Oedipus; Voldemort’s story already has powerful overtones from that of Oedipus, and this tale continues that trend, with subtle, and not-so-subtle, reminders that He-With-No-Nose and He-with-the-Swollen-Foot are both prophecy-haunted products of broken families whose harmful choices ripple outward to damage all those around them, right up to the blue-haired gal in the new play. (Fair warning, spoilers galore)

 

 

A Boy’s Best Friend is His Mother

Though Rowling’s excellent grounding in classical education shines through in many ways in the Hogwarts adventures, one of the nicest hat-tips to the greats of Western literature comes in the name of Voldemort’s mother, the love-starved Merope Gaunt Riddle. Her family name of Gaunt connects Voldemort beautifully to the literary and historical figure of John of Gaunt, father of Henry Bolingbroke, aka Henry IV, and one of the most central figures in the history of Britain, as well as a major Shakespearean character. Thus, old Marvolo’s claims to membership in a lofty family line are not just hogwash (more on the John of Gaunt/Voldemort connections in another post, perhaps).

 

 Her first and last names are the ones that really stoke the Oedipus flames. Her married name gives Voldemort the evocative “Riddle,” which is appropriate, as he is a puzzle. It also serves as a strong tie to the figure of Oedipus, who, before his ignominious fall from grace, was known for saving the city of Thebes with his amazing skill at solving riddles. The Sphinx, who tormented the city of Thebes, presented her would-be challengers with a riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening.” Only Oedipus could unravel the riddle’s answer: man, who crawls, walks, and then has a cane later in life. Ironically, Oedipus cannot see that this riddle not only refers to humanity in general, but to himself in particular, as his infancy, adulthood, and coming wanderings as a blinded and broken man, are all intricately linked. By comparison, the riddle Harry gets from the Sphinx in the Twiwizard maze seems less complex than a fortune cookie. But even though it is Harry who faces the Sphinx and solves her riddle (clearly, she is setting the bar low for the schoolkids in the tourney), it is Voldemort who reflects Oedipus and who also appears as the three incarnations of humanity in the original riddle: as an abandoned baby who later kills his father; as a powerful, complete person who survived apparent death; and as a broken, subhuman creature that reminds others of the dangers of styling oneself above the rest of the human race.Sphinx-plate

 

Her first name, Merope, is one of the best chosen names in the entire series (and that is quite impressive, considering the other names Rowling borrowed and concocted), as Merope is the name of the adoptive mother whom Oedipus always assumed to be his biological mother.  In Oedipus Rex, the doomed king reveals that he asked his parents, Merope and Polybus, rulers of Corinth, if he was really their son, after a drunken reveler made a crack equivalent to “Haha! You’re the mailman’s kid!” (a charge pretty familiar around the John of Gaunt milieu as well, as he was sometimes labeled illegitimate, and he was not always married while he was creating heirs and interesting folks for Shakespeare to immortalize and to provide stage parts for some of the same actors who star in the Harry Potter movies. It’s even more complicated than Shakespeare imagined). Instead of brushing it off, Oedipus obsesses over the jibe and confronts his parents, who, with the best of all possible intentions, assure him that he is their son. This lie, good-hearted as it is, may be the earliest known literary instance of the “no good deed goes unpunished” theme, as Oedipus, fearing he might hurt these dear people, leaves his supposed hometown of Corinth and promptly kills his actual father and marries his actual mother, putting into play a whole nasty series of events. Similarly, Merope Gaunt, a lonely, desperate girl, acts out of love, but sets in motion the terrible events that lead to the rise and depravations of Lord Voldemort.

 

In Cursed Child, these same Oedipus intersections highlight the story. Riddles play a prominent role in the quest to locate the hidden Time Turner in Hermione’s weaponized library, and questions of legitimacy and true parentage abound, with Scorpius dogged by rumors that he is a Riddle, not a Malfoy, when, in fact, the mystery around his birth is one born from love and Draco’s desire to protect his beloved and frail wife Astoria.  The entire plot is a chorus on the theme of no good deed going unpunished, as well, centered around trying to find a way to save Cedric Diggory.  With each attempt to protect one life, the play’s protagonists cause more and more devastation and death. And it is in the person of Delphini that we see both the riddle theme, with her graffitied hidden-ink message and the desperation to know one’s parent that brings tragedy to both her and Oedipus.

 

  

 Daddy’s Girl

 Like Voldemort and Oedipus, Delphini, shortened to Delphi, is driven, at least in part, by a perverted version of a positive urge: the desire to know who one is. All three of these doomed, dangerous individuals are misguided, thinking that somehow they are in control of what they are and thus, of what they will become, and they want to dictate what parts of their heritage they claim.

 

While Oedipus assumes his wife’s shocked reactions to the revelation that he was a foundling are based on her pride instead of her very real and horrifying realization of the truth, Tom Riddle thinks he can jettison his Muggle heritage, change his name, and re-make himself with a powerful new name. Delphi literally turns back time in the feeble belief that she can create a connection to, or even relationship with, her disinterested father. In the process, she tries to destroy intact families that, for all their flaws, are loving and supportive, everything her own biological parents are not.

 

 Oedipus does appear to be a less negative character than either Delphi or Voldemort. After all, he does take the punishment, exile, that he rashly dictated before realizing that he himself was the person upon whom it would fall. He seems to really love his wife and children, and he is so consumed by remorse that he mutilates himself and lives with his crimes, suffering interminably. However, he has deep, dangerous flaws that contribute to his fall, and they are flaws mirrored in both his parents and his children. Like Laius and Iokaste, he tries to circumvent destiny and both fears and relies upon prophecy. The same pride, rashness, and temper that lead to his father’s trying to run a stranger off the road cause that “stranger,” Oedipus, to kill the old man and his entourage, as well as serving as the impetus for a whole host of dangerous decisions. Likewise, Oedipus’s children, despite his efforts to distance himself from them, reflect these traits and are undone by them.

 

While Tom Riddle embodies both his grandfather Marvolo’s violence and scorn for Muggles, he also reflects the snobbery and disdain so intrinsic to his own Muggle father and grandparents.  He passes on this poisoned pride to his daughter Delphi, who displays both his casual disregard for human life and his obsession with prophecies, convinced they are powerful, and thus endowing them with power.

  

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You Really Don’t Want to Know

 

     Oedipus’ fear of prophecies that leads to his running smack into them is apparently an inherited trait, since this whole nasty mess started at his birth, when Iokaste and Laius received a prophecy that this child would grow up to murder his father. Lauis took matters into his own hands, and ordered the child to be killed. Though his feet were pierced, Oedipus was not left to die; instead, another member of the “no good deed goes unpunished” club gave him to a friend from a far-off town, a friend who eventually gave the baby to the childless king and queen who employed him, Polybus and Merope.  Thus, by trying to escape the prophecy, Laius put all the pieces in play for its eventual fulfillment, just as Voldemort, in trying to secure his immortality and destroy the child mentioned in Sibyl Trelawny’s first actual prophecy, throws into motion all the forces that will lead to his eventual downfall.  As Dumbledore points out, the prophecy is only powerful because Voldemort thinks it is. Like Oedipus, he cannot just let it go; he both believes and fears prophecies, and thus they both try to wrench events into the direction they think will circumvent the prophecy, when that is the surest route to its fulfillment.

 

Delphi, named for the oracle, is also a slave of prophecies, though she thinks herself the master of them.  By trying to “spare” the spare, Cedric, she hopes to bring back Voldemort, and yet, Albus is a spare as well, at least in her interpretation; though, to a degree, Voldemort does “return,” it is only in the past, and the ultimate resolution to the prophecy is to leave her an orphan again, herself the “unseen child who murders [her] father,” as her meddling ultimately reinforces the past instead of altering it. Though Scorpius tells her prophecies can be broken, she only sees that as a way to break the one that took her father to Godric’s Hollow in 1981, without seeing that the prophecy with which she is, herself, obsessed, can also be ignored, revoked, or interpreted differently.

 

Like the prophecies made at Delphi, the prophecy made to Delphi can be read more than one way, a trait shared with the sounds issuing from the Augurey, the bird whose identity she assumes.Delphi_tholos_cazzul

 

 

Snakes, and Birds, and Oracles, oh my!

Though her “spirit animal” is apparently the mournful and perhaps prophetic, Augurey bird, Delphi, as Voldemort’s child, embraces the snake of her ancestor Salzar Slyherin. Having never attended Hogwarts, she could not have been sorted into his house, but her ability to speak Parseltongue, as we well as her use of snakes like her lamp, closely ties her to him, and to the Python, a creature whose name is lent to the Pythia, priestess of the god Apollo, and proper name of the Delphic Oracle, she of the incendiary prophecies that ruin the lives of Oedipus and everyone around him. In most mythic treatments of the story, the monster, which guarded the oracle site, was slain by Apollo, who then set up his own oracle there. Thus, prophecies are strongly intertwined with serpents, and it is not surprising that the Voldemort family embraces both.

 

   In addition, that prophetic bird that Delphi includes in her tattoo and uses as her alter ego in the alternate timeline takes his name from “augury,” the practice of predicting the future or interpreting the plans and desires of the gods based on the flights of birds. For example, the number and type of birds, combined with their direction of flight and other behaviors, would be decoded to create a specific message from a particular deity. Oedipus, in fact, requests that Tiresias, the noted Theban seer, use any means necessary to help the city, including interpreting the flights of birds to see what the gods’ instructions are. While Voldemort also relies on prophecies, giving them credence by his belief, Delphi, in her adoption of both the serpent and the bird, also demonstrates her connection her father and to the tragic king of Thebes who so resembles them both.

 

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Certainly, the connections between these literary characters are complex and could take up much more of our conversation here. Hopefully, in our continued discussion of this new text, we will continue to see how this new story reflects (or even just re-tells)both the old one, and some, like Oedipus, that are downright ancient.

Comments

  1. Louise Freeman says

    Wow, great post! It’s good to know not all of Rowling’s allusions to great books were lost in this not-nearly-so-great and much more commercial endeavor.

    More on John of Gaunt, please!

    And a Chocolate Frog to anyone who can figure out the name significance of the “spare” of the play, Craig Bowker Jr.

  2. Steve Morrison says

    I always assumed Merope was named for the Lost Pleiad, who dimmed her light in shame after marrying a mortal.

  3. Brilliant as always, Professor Baird-Hardy! You’ve opened up ‘Cursed Child’ as a text worth another look, a serious look, to see if there are jewels in the story beneath the names.

    Whether there are or not, and I am embarrassed to admit I am still skeptical perhaps only because of critical inertia, this post is a reminder of the depths in Rowling’s stories’ names.

    See? You’ve got me thinking as if The Presence Herself did more than fact check the story (sort of)!

  4. Thanks, everyone! There is definitely room for more on this vein, so I look forward to mining it! Great point, Steve, and since there are multiple Meropes in mythology, I am sure Rowling knew this was another of her “multiple pay-off” names!

    “Riddle” with “Merope” adds up to Oedipus every time, but the name is a double pay-off with its elements of mortal/Muggle marriage and shame. One begins to wonder how Voldemort’s mother could have had ANY other name!

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