How Fantasy Tyrants Rise to Power – Part I: He Who Shall Not Be Named

Voldemort_angryWe all know the story of Voldemort’s rise to power. At Hogwarts, Tom Riddle’s charm, intelligence and good looks won him followers. Then, after securing at least some of his objects of power and secreting his hopes for immortality within them, Riddle re-branded himself “Lord Voldemort”, and began to openly promote his pure-blood agenda: an agenda driven by obsession with his own mixed heritage. But how exactly did this unstable ideologue manage to take over governance of the wizarding world in Great Britain? In this series, I’ll take a close look at what Voldemort did to gain control of the Ministry. Then I’ll turn to other well-known fantasy tyrants (even Grindelwald, who will feature in Fantastic Beasts) to examine exactly how these dark lords seized ultimate power.

One of my favorite aspects of the Harry Potter series is Rowling’s use of the limited third-person omniscient point of view from Harry’s perspective. This refers to the narrative perspective from which the story is told: Harry’s, consistently. Harry almost always has to be in the scene for us to know what is happening and the events, dialogue and reactions of other characters in the scene are filtered through Harry. We see, hear and feel what Harry sees, hears and feels.

Now there are important narrative functions for this point of view, and John Granger has deftly explored them, especially in chapter one of The Deathly Hallows Lectures (see the section entitled “Narrative Misdirection”). But what interests me right now about the narrative point of view in Harry Potter is not the rule but its exceptions: where and why Rowling breaks the narrative away from Harry’s point of view. These exceptions total five, and their function is to build suspense by showing the reader important steps in Voldemort’s rise to power.

  1. In chapter 11 of Philosopher’s Stone, instead of being in the air with Harry during the Quidditch hermione-firestartermatch, we’re suddenly in the stands with Ron and Hermione, who notice what appears to be Snape cursing Harry (it is really Quirrelmort trying to kill Harry, with Snape muttering a counter-curse to protect him). In this instance, Harry’s compromised position (hanging for dear life from his Nimbus 2000) proves an obstacle to the narrative point of view. He can’t reasonably see what else is happening, and this blocks the storyteller’s goal of providing us with key information (the illusion of Snape cursing Harry) to drive the plot. So Rowling simply goes around the rule, showing us things from Ron and Hermione’s viewpoint for five odd pages. It works to keep us believing the Snape-as-agent-of-Voldemort theory, and shows us there is more happening on the Quidditch pitch than Quidditch. The Dark Lord is, as they fear, attempting to kill Harry Potter.
  2. In the opening chapter of Goblet of Fire, the point of view shifts far away from Harry, to Little frankbryce2Hangleton where the Riddle house’s caretaker, Frank Bryce overhears snatches of Voldemort’s elaborate plan for regeneration, using Harry. Of course, at the end of the chapter, the perspectival shift is explained away as Harry having a scar-induced dream. (This seems to be a very Tolkienian use of dreams, by the way; Tolkien disdained the use of dreams to explain away fantastic elements (eg. “it was all just a dream”) but himself employed dreams as bridges to other times or places in the narrative.) Harry’s “dream” takes us away from his point of view in order to give the reader some suspense-building information about Voldemort’s current status and plans to take the next step in his bid for power: regaining his physical form.
  3. We depart from Harry’s point of view in two chapters of Half-Blood Prince. First, in chapter one, “The Other Minister,” we step inside the head of the long-suffering Muggle Prime Minister. This shift in perspective shows the reader a view of events they could not possibly get from Harry Potter, which lends urgency to Harry’s mission (soon to be revealed) of gaining essential knowledge under Dumbledore’s tutelage. Specifically we learn that Voldemort’s followers have “moved into the open” (12), threatening a Muggle mass killing if the Minister of Magic is unwilling to step aside; thus control of the Ministry must be part of Voldy’s plans. We meet Fudge’s successor, Rufus Scrimgeour, who expresses concern about the Prime Minister’s safety; control of the Muggle government by Death Eaters may also be in the works. We learn that some agent of Voldemort (not a very talented agent, apparently) has attempted to place an Imperius curse on junior Muggle minister Herbert Chorley. This is important foreshadowing; the next time an agent of Voldemort uses the Imperius curse to infiltrate government it will be at the Ministry of Magic, and it will succeed.
  4. Although the savvy reader may expect to be snapped back to Harry’s point of view in the second chapter of Half-Blood Prince, instead, we Apparate into Snape’s stomping ground, with the LeStrange sisters instead of Harry, visiting Snape’s dingy summer home at Spinner’s End. Here we spinners_endare given a stronger dose of foreshadowing and suspense-building by the author: stronger because it pertains not to the wider world but directly to life at Hogwarts. In addition, we receive many satisfying answers to questions about Snape’s double-agency, questions that deepen our doubts about his loyalty. The narrative point of view allows us to see how it could be both ways with Snape. If the information had been filtered through Harry’s point of view, Harry’s prejudice against Snape would eliminate this compelling sense of doubt. But here there is true ambiguity. And, following my thesis, in this chapter we gain even more insight into the Dark Lord’s plans to seize power, shrouded in mystery and innuendo though those plans may be. But the reader now knows for certain that the catalyst for those plans is Draco Malfoy, and ultimately Snape.
  5. Finally, in Deathly Hallows, we attend a meeting of the Death Eaters, presided over by the Dark Lord himself. In chapter one, “The Dark Lord Ascending,” readers get a chilling glimpse of a cautiously triumphant Voldemort, surrounded by his closest disciples. And we get an important darklordascendingupdate (outside Harry’s point of view) about the Dark Lord’s rise to ultimate power. We learn that Death Eater Yaxley has, “with difficulty, and after great effort” (5), placed an Imperius curse on Pius Thicknesse, who is close to the Minister of Magic. (Poor quacking Chorley in book six must have been his practice run.) It is enough information to keep the reader on the edge of her seat, knowing that the Ministry itself is on a precipice, and that, once it falls, Harry will no longer be able to operate in the open. One could even interpret the prophecy about Harry and Voldemort from book five to suggest that neither Harry nor the Dark Lord can live in the public sphere while the other occupies it. This knife-edge position of the Ministry of Magic sustains the reader’s expectation of its imminent fall through chapter eight, which ends with the chilling message of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s lynx patronus: “The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming.” (159) Voldemort has moved from the shadow in which he lurked through more than six books, and into the cold light of tyranny through his puppet Minister, Thicknesse.


In forthcoming installments of this series, I’ll take a look at a few other fantasy tyrants, including Sauron, the White Witch, Palpatine and Grindelwald, and examine the details of how they seized supremacy. Meanwhile, share your thoughts in the comments below, and connect with me on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).


  1. Emily Strand says

    Special thanks to Louise Freeman who reminded me of Spinner’s End’s POV break. As Hermione would say, “Oh, well-spotted…”

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