In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Merope Gaunt
Content/trigger warning: Mentions of abuse and rape
The sorceress archetype has many varying aspects that contribute to the different faces of what, exactly, the sorceress is, but generally speaking, the sorceress is one who chooses to live on the outskirts of society so as to freely practice her craft and seek the truths of the world that craft gives to her. Oftentimes the sorceress’ seclusion is voluntary, as otherwise she would likely be ostracized by the society which doubts, fears, or mocks her. We see this in practice with two of the most well-known sorceresses in literature: Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, and the Greek seer Cassandra (who is also linked to Harry Potter’s Sybil Trelawney).
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In the case of Merope Gaunt, her seclusion is forced upon her by her overbearing and abusive father, Marvolo, and her brother Morfin only exacerbated and delighted in her suffering. Despite the Gaunt line’s dwindling social status, and the squandering and consequent loss of the family fortune, Marvolo still boasted a superiority complex influenced by his family history and blood purity, and he detested all non-magical people as vehemently as his grandson (Voldemort) would come to.
Marvolo’s bigotry went so far as to include his daughter, whose magical abilities suffered from lack of education and Merope’s fear of her father and brother, who by extension were wont to call her a Squib in efforts to further punish and humiliate her. (While there is nothing actually shameful about being a Squib, wizardkind looks unfavorably upon them. As far as blood purists like the Gaunts are concerned, Squibs are no better than Muggles and Muggle-borns, and are at best a disappointment to their magical families.)
It takes us only a short walk down Voldemort’s immediate family history to see that his mother’s situation was pitiable, to say the least—her father and brother were heinous, violent, and abusive, and, as Dumbledore surmises, her fear of her own family prevented her from reaching her magical potential. But a tragic past does not excuse imparting tragedy onto others. It does not excuse abusive behavior, and for all of Merope’s good intentions, that’s exactly how she treated Tom Riddle.
Despite her father’s expectations of her, Merope had a great streak of magical talent, as she successfully concocted a love potion to entice the handsome, wealthy Muggle, Tom Riddle, for whom she had harbored a long and ardent infatuation. Merope’s isolation led her to daydream about her freedom, about her knight in shining armor who would take her away from her squalid home and shower her with the affection she’s so starved for. She projected those fantasies onto Tom, an understandable coping mechanism until she took those fantasies and made them reality, forcing Tom into a life he never asked for nor wanted.
It’s made clear enough that the Riddles were classist, haughty, and unlikeable (traits that Voldemort would inherit, despite his rejection of his Muggle heritage), and Merope was too ugly and poor to attract Tom Riddle without first drugging him into submission. Dumbledore tells Harry that he imagines Merope used a love potion instead of the Imperius Curse because it seemed “more romantic,” but forcing someone into what you want isn’t romance at all. Merope’s concept of love was likely skewed from her experience with her family, but her abuse does not justify her abusing someone else in turn. Although Merope surely didn’t consider her relationship with Tom to be an abusive one, he was never in his own state of mind when he was with her, he never freely consented to any part of their relationship, and as such Merope took advantage of and raped him.
Eventually tiring of the love potion and having deluded herself into thinking that Tom would love her without it, that he would stay with her for the sake of the child she was pregnant with, Merope restored Tom to his free will, and he used it to turn tail and run as fast and as far as he could. Voldemort claimed that his father was a “filthy Muggle” who “abandoned” his mother, and therein lies the suggestion that Tom left Merope because he hated her for being a witch. Now, perhaps Tom did balk at the prospect of magic, maybe he felt superior to it or feared it—or perhaps it wasn’t magic that made him run away from Merope, but rather what that magic had done to him. While not explored in the text, the fact remains that Tom is a victim of kidnapping and rape, and he had every right to escape when he had the opportunity.
Merope proves herself an example of the sorceress archetype in her advanced magical practices (as brewing a successful love potion is no small feat), as well as in her eventual abandonment of the potion in her desire for the truth—which she hoped would be Tom’s willing love for her, although that did not come to pass. Dumbledore goes on to explain that he thinks after Tom Riddle left her, Merope gave up magic because she simply didn’t want it anymore—she didn’t want to be a witch any longer.
It’s a sad end to Merope’s sad story, but we are left to wonder if Merope’s depression was caused only because her true love left her, or if she realized that he wasn’t her true love at all because she forced him into that position. We can only speculate there, but regardless of the end result, Merope’s means are not justifiable. While her situation was one she absolutely had to escape if she wanted to thrive, if she wanted to live a life that was worth it, Merope’s method of doing so showed that she could be just as hard-hearted as her family, regardless of her romantic notions.
Although the sorceress is meant to use her craft to find the truth she seeks, Merope’s magic ultimately shattered the fantasies that had once helped her to get through the day. She never found the truth she wanted, what she needed, because what she wanted completely stripped someone else of their freedom and agency. At the end of it all, Merope did to Tom Riddle what her father and brother did to her. And as much as she might have loved him, whether that love was from afar or when it was forced upon him, it was never real.
All artwork belongs to writer of the post, Katie Majka.
Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.