On rereading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality for the third time, I’m starting to figure out what really happened. Spoilers follow.
In particular, I’m pretty sure Voldemort did not cast Avada Kedavra on Harry as a baby. More likely, he deliberately made Harry a Horcrux. Count the Horcruxes: there are six, one for each of the four elements that Harry enumerates, the Pioneer Plaque, and Harry makes six matching the number of deliberate Horcruxes in canon. This probably has something to do with the changed prophecy though I can’t figure out quite what. Also possible: since causality can run backwards in time in this universe, a major point which is emphasized several times, perhaps Voldemort Horcruxing Harry caused the prophecy to change as it did?
Harry has probably forgotten (been obliviated of?) the details of his Horcruxing. Also, although Quirrell is Voldemort, it’s possible that Quirrell/Voldemort is not Tom Riddle. Dumbledore and others in the Order of the Phoenix certainly seem to think that Voldemort is Riddle, but this version of Voldemort is smart enough to have set that up as a deliberate misdirection to protect himself. Remember in both canon and HPMoR, “Voldemort” is different enough looking that he really could be anyone. And there’s always polyjuice.
And if this is so, what does Quirrell/Voldemort want? (Motivation is always the problem with cartoon supervillains: exactly why do they want to take over the world in the first place?) Best guess: Voldemort wants to protect the world from Muggle stupidity (nuclear weapons, etc.) and thinks the best way to do that is by taking over as a “benevolent” (in his mind) dictator.
And that opens up another possibility that explains a lot of things. Quirrell/Voldemort may not actually care whether he is personally that dictator as long as his ends are achieved. He may well be grooming Harry for that position. He certainly says as much, more than once: “plan iss for you to rule country, obvioussly” In fact, the more I think about this, the more this seems like the simplest hypothesis. This clearly explains why Quirrell/Voldemort spends so much effort making Harry a stronger wizard and general (which makes no sense if he intends to defeat Harry at a later date.) And it allows us to take almost everything he says at face value as his true beliefs, rather than inventing elaborate hypotheses to explain why he says and does what he does. Certainly Quirrell may lie, especially about matters of fact, but it’s a lot easier to argue convincingly for one’s true beliefs.
And now to take a rationalist step. To strengthen this hypothesis I need to look not for more evidence that confirms it; but evidence that denies it. In brief here’s the hypothesis:
- Quirrell wants a wizard dictator, not necessarily himself, to take over the world.
- Quirrell thinks he can make Harry that dictator.
There are other details (Quirrell is not Tom Riddle; Voldemort did not Avada Kedavra baby Harry) I could be wrong about without affecting this main point. And perhaps I’m jumping too far ahead in asserting that Quirrellmort is just as happy with a properly trained Harry as dictator as himself. Maybe he just wants Harry to be Vader to his Palpatine. Either way the basic thrust of the story is the same, and the ultimate conflict will come down to Quirrell’s magical fascism versus Harry’s expressed preference for enlightenment values.
So, is there any evidence in the text that falsifies this hypothesis? Maybe. The one thing that doesn’t seem to fit is why Quirrell breaks Bellatrix out of Azkaban. There’s no evidence that he personally cares about her, quite the opposite in fact. And she’s not useful to him, at least not immediately. The reason he gives Harry does not hold water, especially if we assume that Quirrell is Voldemort since he already knows what he claims he wants Harry to learn from Bellatrix. Plus the small chance that Bellatrix actually does know Slytherin’s secrets is hardly worth the huge risk of breaking her out. Just maybe he wants to use her in the ritual of resurrection as he used Pettigrew in canon and as Dumbledore expects. But IMHO the best fitting hypothesis is that he does it just to present a current threat to the wizarding world: i.e. to establish that they need to unify behind a single leader to meet the threat of a risen Voldemort (or perhaps Bellatrix herself). OTOH it does seem at least possible that he intended the breakout to go unnoticed, and Harry simply screwed up the plan.
It’s also possible that he has a reason for needing Bellatrix that hasn’t been revealed yet. He may just want a mindlessly loyal and evil lieutenant (or want Harry to have one–remember he convinces Bellatrix that Harry is Voldemort) and simply misjudged the risk of his breakout plan. I don’t think he would have done something this complicated just to have a blackmail threat to hold over Harry, but that may be an added advantage of the plan.
Update: On my third read-through I’m beginning to think the primary reason for going to Azkaban and for setting up Hermione (which I now think Quirrell did) is to break Harry’s faith in democratic government in general and the Ministry of Magic in particular. Quirrell is grooming Harry to overthrow the government. More on that later.
There is one other gaping hole in my hypothesis, not so much evidence against it as something it can’t explain. If I’m right that Voldemort did not Avada Kedavra baby Harry, and instead did something else deliberate, then why did he abandon the first Wizarding War at that point? He seemed to be winning. Why didn’t he just finish taking over magical Britain? I can guess that maybe he wasn’t happy with how the plan was going, or maybe he never intended to take over as Voldemort, but rather as the young man who “took up his family’s seat in the Wizengamot, becoming among the most steadfast voices against You-Know-Who”. But this is all a stretch. There is not a lot of textual evidence for it that I can find.
Update: on a third read-through I have not yet found any evidence against this hypothesis, but I do find more evidence that “Voldemort” was a setup who may have been intended to “lose” the first wizarding war. Consider this conversation between Harry and Draco:
“Right! But later on we should have some sort of special mark that all our servants have, the Mark of Science, like a snake eating the Moon on their right arms -”
“It’s called a PhD and wouldn’t that make it too easy to identify our people?”
“I mean, what if someone is like ‘okay, now everyone pull up their robes over their right arms’ and our guy is like ‘whoops, sorry, looks like I’m a spy’ -”
“Forget I said anything,” said Draco, sweat suddenly springing out all over his body. He needed a distraction, fast – “And what do we call ourselves? The Science Eaters?”
“No,” said the shadowy figure slowly. “That doesn’t sound right…”
Draco wiped his robed arm across his forehead, wiping away beads of moisture. What had the Dark Lord been thinking? Father had said the Dark Lord was smart!
The first two times I read this, I took this section as a simple satire of plot points in canon. However given the extra-textual evidence of the author stating clearly that no one, Voldemort, included, is “holding the idiot ball“, then one really has to wonder what’s going on here. Maybe Voldemort actually meant to abandon the death eaters all along. He wanted them caught and sentenced to Azkaban once they no longer served his purpose. I still don’t know what his purpose is; but whatever it is, it seems likely that purpose was not advanced by simply winning the war.
And I just found another really, telling section. Apparently I’m not the only one who has trouble figuring out what Voldemort wants:
“I have another question for that young man,” said the Headmaster. “It is something I have long wondered to myself, yet been unable to comprehend. Why? ” There was a tinge of pain in his voice. “Why would anyone deliberately make himself a monster? Why do evil for the sake of evil? Why Voldemort?”
Whirr, bzzzt, tick; ding, puff, splat…
Harry stared at the Headmaster in surprise.
“How would I know?” said Harry. “Am I supposed to magically understand the Dark Lord because I’m the hero, or something?”
“Yes! ” said Dumbledore. “My own great foe was Grindelwald, and him I understood very well indeed. Grindelwald was my dark mirror, the man I could so easily have been, had I given in to the temptation to believe that I was a good person, and therefore always in the right. For the greater good, that was his slogan; and he truly believed it himself, even as he tore at all Europe like a wounded animal. And him, I defeated in the end. But then after him came Voldemort, to destroy everything I had protected in Britain.” The hurt was plain now in Dumbledore’s voice, exposed upon his face. “He committed acts worse by far than Grindelwald’s worst, horror for the sake of horror. I sacrificed everything only to hold him back, and I still don’t understand why! Why, Harry? Why did he do it? He was never my destined foe, but yours, so if you have any guesses at all, Harry, please tell me! Why? ”
Harry stared down at his hands. The truth was that Harry hadn’t read up on the Dark Lord yet, and right now he hadn’t the tiniest clue. And somehow that didn’t seem like an answer the Headmaster wanted to hear. “Too many Dark rituals, maybe? In the beginning he thought he’d do just one, but it sacrificed part of his good side, and that made him less reluctant to perform other Dark rituals, so he did more and more rituals in a positive feedback cycle until he ended up as a tremendously powerful monster -”
“No!” Now the Headmaster’s voice was agonized. “I can’t believe that, Harry! There has to be something more to it than just that!”
Why should there be? thought Harry, but he didn’t say it, because it was clear that the Headmaster thought the universe was a story and had a plot, and that huge tragedies weren’t allowed to happen except for equally huge, significant reasons.
Dumbledore is confused, but Dumbledore is very much not a rationalist. He does not notice that he is confused and consider that he might be looking at fiction rather than reality. But we, the readers, are supposed to be learning to be rationalists from this book. We are supposed to notice that we are confused and ask why. And the more and more obvious answer is that “Voldemort” is pure fiction created by someone–maybe Tom Riddle, maybe someone else–for some other purpose. And the simplest solution seems to be that Voldemort is specifically created for purposes of bringing about Quirrell’s magical fascism in reaction. In this regard also note Harry’s deliberate use of strategic autoimmune disorders in Chapter 33:
Unfortunately Draco had not heard of autoimmune disorders, and the thought did not readily occur to him that a clever virus would begin its attack by creating symptoms of an autoimmune disorder so as to get the body to distrust its own immune system…
And then and a little later in Chapter 34, we get an explicit warning from Harry about this tactic:
Harry Potter turned to look out at the audience, and his voice firmed as he spoke. “People fear traitors because of the damage the traitor does directly, the soldiers they shoot or the secrets they tell. But that’s only part of the danger. What people do because they’re afraid of traitors also costs them. I used that strategy today against Sunshine and Dragon. I didn’t tell my traitors to cause as much direct damage as possible. I told them to act in the way that would create the most distrust and confusion, and make the generals do the most costly things to try and stop them from doing it again. When there are just a few traitors and a whole country opposing them, it stands to reason that what a few traitors do might be less damaging than what a whole country does to stop them, that the cure might be worse than the disease -”
“Mr. Potter,” said the Defense Professor, his voice suddenly cutting, “the lesson of history is that you are simply wrong. Your parents’ generation did too little to unify themselves, not too much! This whole country almost fell, Mr. Potter, though you were not there to see it. I suggest that you ask your dorm-mates in Ravenclaw how many of them have lost family to the Dark Lord. Or if you are wiser, do not ask! Do you have a wish to make, Mr. Potter?”
“If you don’t mind,” said the mild voice of Albus Dumbledore, “I should like to hear what the Boy-Who-Lived has to say. He has more experience than either of us at stopping wars.”
A few people laughed, but not many.
Harry Potter’s gaze moved to Dumbledore, and he looked considering for a moment. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, Professor Quirrell. In the last war, people didn’t act together, and a whole country almost fell to a few dozen attackers, and yes, that was pathetic. And if we make the same mistake next time, yes, that’ll be even more pathetic. But you never fight the same war twice. And the problem is, the enemy is also allowed to be smart. If you’re divided you’re vulnerable in one way; but when you try to unite, then you face other risks, and other costs, and the enemy will try to take advantage of those, too. You can’t stop thinking at just one level of the game.”
I’m sorely tempted to make some Al Qaeda references here, except that I don’t believe that Al Qaeda was deliberately created by the CIA for the purposes of expanding the national security state; but the effect has been much the same. Furthermore, 10 years early Harry has clearly learned that lesson. Quirrellmort may have learned this lesson too. It may be exactly what he was trying to do in his Voldemort persona. Side note: is there a name for setting up a false enemy in order to grab power? And how often has this happened in the real world? There are numerous examples of pretexts for wars: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, WMDs in Iraq, perhaps the U.S.S. Maine, but my history is failing me in remembering the example of a dummied up threat in order to take power rather than go to war. The closest examples I can come up with are Joe McCarthy’s 57 cases of individuals in the state department who are card carrying Communists and John F. Kennedy’s Missile Gap. However these were simple fictions. I’m looking for a case where party A creates a genuine threat and blames it on party B in order to propel party A into power.
And further on in Chapter 63, it’s driven home that Quirrell/Voldemort/whoever is really, really good at putting on false personalities, to the point that no one, perhaps even himself, can know who he really is:
He’d seen Professor Quirrell turn into a hardened criminal while facing the Auror, and the apparent change of personalities had been effortless, and complete.
Another woman had known the Defense Professor as ‘Jeremy Jaffe’.
How many different people are you, anyway?
I cannot say that I bothered keeping count.
You couldn’t help but wonder…
…whether ‘Professor Quirrell’ was just one more name on the list, just one more person that had been turned into, made up in the service of some unguessable goal.
Harry would always be wondering now, every time he talked to Professor Quirrell, if it was a mask, and what motive was behind that mask. With every dry smile, Harry would be trying to see what was pulling the levers on the lips.
And Quirrell himself says,
Identity does not mean, to such as us, what it means to other people. Anyone we can imagine, we can be; and the true difference about you, Mr. Potter, is that you have an unusually good imagination. A playwright must contain his characters, he must be larger than them in order to enact them within his mind. To an actor or spy or politician, the limit of his own diameter is the limit of who he can pretend to be, the limit of which face he may wear as a mask. But for such as you and I, anyone we can imagine, we can be, in reality and not pretense.
Most of the time we have to take anything Quirrell says with a twenty-pound bag of salt; but in this one case we have Harry’s own confirmation of Quirrell’s ability to be anyone he can imagine. In fact, that makes this section even more significant because it’s the first time I’ve noticed where we verifiably have Quirrell telling the truth about his internal life and abilities. (His motives are still up in the air of course.) This demonstrates that we cannot just discount everything Quirrell says as a mask or an act, especially about philosophy, psychology, and politics. He might be wrong about these things of course, and Harry may disagree with him–indeed we also see him making mistakes that Harry picks up on such as his assumption that Harry will side with wizards in the event of a wizard-Muggle war and his failure to recognize just how deeply revealing his theory of identity will shake Harry’s trust in him–but he seems to be speaking what he really believes.
This is someone who could easily pretend to be a psychotic supervillain.
I would really like to tie this all into Lily giving Petunia the potion of eagle’s splendour. In fact, you could tie it in either direction. The potion causes Voldemort to act differently from canon, or Voldemort being different causes Lily to give Petunia the potion. Alternatively, some fact yet to be revealed both causes Voldemort to act differently and causes Lily to help Petunia. However that may be asking too much. Yudkowsky has been explicit that he is not necessarily following the one single difference rule: “This is not a strict single-point-of-departure fic – there exists a primary point of departure, at some point in the past, but also other alterations.”