The man behind the monster: How Tom Riddle became Lord Voldemort

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

How and when did Tom Marvolo Riddle go from being an ordinary boy to one of literature and cinema’s most notorious villains? Was Lord Voldemort’s rise to dark power a case of nature vs. nurture, or was it something else entirely?

Borne of a love potion cleverly crafted by his witch mother to seduce his Muggle father into loving her, from the get-go Tom Riddle was absent the main ingredient that so heavily defined the distinction between himself and Harry Potter. But could something as simple as a love potion be at play in explaining why He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named went on such a reign of terror?

Even at a young age, Tom Riddle’s sense of self-importance was strong, explaining his incessant desire to terrorize the Muggles he’d grown up with at Wool’s Orphanage. But on his first day at Hogwarts, after Dumbledore swept him away from the Muggle world forever, after the Sorting Hat barely grazed the top of his head and pronounced him a Slytherin, Riddle went from an outcast young boy forced to live amongst Muggles to a wizard at the very finest wizarding school in all of England. Shortly thereafter, perhaps even on that very night, he learned of Salazar Slytherin’s ability to talk to snakes, just as he himself was able to do, and it was this that fueled his desire to uncover the truth about his parentage, sending him on a quest of self-discovery using the only two pieces of information he had: his father’s first and last name and his grandfather’s middle name. 

Eventually forced to accept that his father was not a wizard ⏤ for he had searched the history books and the trophy rooms for a sign of his name ⏤ Riddle went on to learn of his blood relation to Salazar Slytherin, and more importantly learned that his mother, whom he’d previously assumed to be a Muggle because she had, as Dumbledore put it to Harry years later, “succumbed to the shameful human weakness of death,” had actually been a witch.

This here is our gateway to the first signs of Lord Voldemort emerging, for it is here that Tom Riddle’s fear of death was born and here that he forever dropped his Muggle name, substituting it with a far more unique one: Lord Voldemort.

During his final years at Hogwarts, Voldemort began using his persuasive and charismatic personality to uncover the depths of magic, to learn the ins and outs of Hogwarts, and to recruit so-called friends to be his eyes and ears around the castle, friends who would eventually become his subservient Death Eaters. He poured over magical textbooks and slaved over perfecting wand techniques, and then eventually, in his final year at school, stumbled upon a book in the restricted section of the library that would give him the one thing he wanted more than anything else: immortality.

But his findings were limited. He needed more information. He needed to know how to create a Horcrux. He sought out Professor Slughorn, the Potions Master at the time, and used his charismatic charm to weasel the information out of him. A Horcrux, Professor Slughorn explained, was a magical object used to conceal a part of someone’s soul, and the only way to conceal a part of your soul in an object was to go against nature and commit murder. Only then could your soul be ripped from itself and latched onto an outside object. But one Horcrux wouldn’t do it for Voldemort. He needed the ultimate protection from death and he needed it to be concealed within the strongest magical number. Seven Horcruxes. Seven murders. Only then could he become who he believed he was always destined to be.

Time passed, and the man once known as Tom Marvolo Riddle went from charismatic, tall, and handsome to chalk-white with red snake-like eyes and a flat, slitted nose. The boy who was once highly sufficient, secretive, and friendless turned into a monster who would kill countless Muggles, wizards, witches, elves, and every other member of the magical community.

Was it because he was abandoned as a child, left behind by everyone meant to love him, or because the blood of Salazar Slytherin ran through his veins, impregnating him with knowledge and power? Or, as J.K. Rowling stated from the very beginning, did it all come down to something as simple as love, an ingredient Voldemort’s mother’s love potion prevented him from ever having?